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He wants revenge: Depp in Sweeney Todd.

Bloody Salvation

By Ann Morrow

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Directed by Tim Burton

It takes blood-and-guts bravura to bring a musical as successful, and pathological, as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the big screen, and not just because of the story’s blood and guts—easy to sleight on stage, not so easy in Panavision. Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Tony-winning musical featured an iconic performance by Angela Lansbury, and famously difficult phrasing for the catchy lyrics and dissonant melodies. So, if audiences are privy to close-ups of Sweeney Todd’s butchery, will they still have sympathy for him? And if the actors are less than Metropolitan Opera-quality in their vocalizing, will the songs still sting? In director Tim Burton’s high-dudgeon adaptation, the answers are, remarkably, yes and yes.

Johnny Depp plays Sweeney Todd, a Victorian-era barber with a vengeful agenda that compels him to slash the throats of unsuspecting customers. Sent to a penal colony 15 years previous on a trumped-up charge by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who coveted his beautiful wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), Sweeney returns to London to find that Lucy committed suicide. Helena Bonham Carter is in the Lansbury role of Mrs. Lovett, the widowed owner of a meat-pie shop who becomes his partner in crime. The febrile chemistry between Depp and Bonham Carter is noticeable from the moment Sweeney steps foot in her roach-infested shop, and not just because of their matching ghouls’ promenade visages. Both of them act through the songs, turning their lack of range into an advantage; this is Burton’s Todd, not Broadway’s (though reportedly Sondheim’s stage vision would’ve been more horrific if not for the modulating influence of director Hal Prince), and the effect of the songs is more about words than “lyrics.” Depp’s pleasing singing gently conveys Todd’s passion for revenge—“My Friends,” sung to his precious silver straight razors, is as moving as any lover’s lament—while the lack of vocal pyrotechnics allows the character’s world-weariness to dominate. Bonham Carter’s voice has a piquantly morbid quality, especially for Mrs. Lovett’s dreamscape love song, “By the Sea,” which Burton visualizes as a postcard of steam-punk Victoriana, while her natural melancholy makes songs such as the blackly comic “A Little Priest” (describing Lovett’s inspiration to turn Sweeney’s victims into ingredients for her pies) more poignantly desperate than buffoonish.

The acting-singing, along with the desaturated cinematography and the Gorey-esque art direction, amplify the show’s themes of anti-industrialism. The strife between the upper- and under-classes (Todd and Lovett justify cannibalizing their fellow Londoners as a reversal of how the rich consume the poor); the oppression of women (there’s a skin-crawling incident in an insane asylum); and the sick privileges of people like Judge Turpin all receive their entertaining due. Besides giving the film a distinctively Burton-like dark cloud of pathos, the film’s blue-gray palette seems to be the result of the city’s omnipresent smokestacks. Along with the fetchingly gothic costuming, the art direction bristles with grisly little details, such as the reappearance of an old doll’s eyes in a woman street beggar.

The outstanding grotesquerie is Timothy Spall as the judge’s henchman, a repellent reversal of a fop in a too-short waistcoat that accentuates his ungainly gut. Even more memorable is Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirilli, a barber and hair-tonic mountebank who is Todd’s rival. Cohen, who has a flowery baritone, performs a high-wire vocal act, singing in an a showy Italian accent that he occasionally lets slip to Cockney and then back to a deliberately false accent. The soundtrack has its haunting side, as well, with the recurring motif of “Johanna,” inspired by Todd’s long-lost daughter.

As the melodramatic cogs of the plot grind up most of Fleet Street, Burton succeeds, amid geysers of jugular blood, to delineate Todd’s descent from vengeance to homicidal mania, and still deliver, almost movingly, too, on his manifesto song: “I will have salvation.”

Family Affair

The Savages

Directed by Tamara Jenkins

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins likes to dig deep into family dynamics, and sometimes she draws blood—most memorably in Slums of Beverly Hills, in which a daughter (Natasha Lyonne) defends her dad (Alan Arkin) from the verbal attack of his viciously condescending brother (Carl Reiner) by stabbing her uncle in the leg. With a fork. In an airport snack bar. And hard enough to start the blood flowing.

The Savages is an equally blunt black comedy about a middle-age brother and sister (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) forced to deal with the sudden, debilitating dementia of their elderly dad Lenny (Philip Bosco). Jenkins introduces us to the elder Savage with appropriate emotional—and visual—savagery, making it painfully clear that Lenny is losing it.

At first, the joke is that his kids aren’t doing very well either. Son Jon teaches theater in Buffalo and can’t commit to his soon-to-be-deported Polish girlfriend. Daughter Wendy is an aging Manhattan bohemian—an unproduced playwright—reduced to stealing office supplies at her temp jobs to submit her perpetually rejected fellowship applications. Jenkins plays this cannily, however, by introducing these two at their worst. As the film develops, we come to understand, and sympathize with, both of them.

A movie about such serious themes—one that pulls few punches—would be an unbearable experience if it weren’t so funny. Which it is. And it’s hard-earned humor, based on the blinkered self-involvement of each character. Lenny is a mean son of a bitch; Jon is incapable of intimacy; and Wendy gets through life by lying. The comedy comes when these personality traits clash; the pathos comes in the ocassional moments when the three decide, simply, to treat each other decently.

Bosco is the film’s angry heart, playing Lenny without a hint of self-pity. The film would not work if he did it any other way. Linney has the flashiest role, and pulls off the impressive feat of keeping Wendy’s deviousness from becoming pathetic. Hoffman’s character teaches the “theater of protest,” and is working on a book about Brecht; Jenkins knows this is self-evidently ridiculous to a good portion of the audience. She undermines possible smug reactions by taking it seriously; in Hoffman’s most revealing scene, he’s driving around Buffalo singing a Brecht-Weill song. It’s almost sweet.

Speaking of Buffalo, The Savages incorporates a lot of location footage of the metropolis on Lake Erie. It’s one of the details that adds both verisimilitude and credibility to a film that’s shockingly honest about aging and death.

—Shawn Stone

Baby Mama Drama


Directed by Jason Reitman

Like this summer’s Knocked Up, Ja son Reitman’s Juno has us contemplating, along with its sanguine heroine, the complexities of an unplanned pregnancy. In the latter case, the title mother in question (Ellen Page) isn’t an up and coming exec in the glamorous world of TV, but a high school junior, and her condition is not the result of a serious drunk, but of sheer after-school boredom. Another area where the two films diverge is that while the parents-to-be in Knocked Up have to get to know, even like (forget about love) each other en route to delivery, Juno MacGuff is good friends, with perhaps a dim yearning for more, with her baby’s father, the geeky Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera).

Written by newcomer Diablo Cody, Juno is a witty yet moving exploration of one young woman’s voyage, not so much to motherhood, but to adulthood. Precocious and sardonic, Juno greets the unwelcome news of her pregnancy with probity and an eye toward organization. Checking abortion off her list of options, after she finds out that the bun in her oven has fingernails, she decides to look for adoptive parents, something that turns out to be as easy as perusing The Pennysaver. Soon, she’s meeting with Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner)—a couple whose stereotypical perfection is eventually revealed to have a far more interesting, poignant reality. Having been burned before when a potential donor mother changed her mind, Vanessa is leery of getting too attached to the idea of impending motherhood, to the point that Juno wonders if she’s really more interested in maintaining her career-woman status. She has an easier time warming up to Mark, a composer of corporate jingles who works from home, and who enjoys sharing with Juno their mutual love of horror flicks and alt-rock. Just when you get the icky sense that something is going to happen between these two, the script, and the characters, surprise us in substantial ways, namely by showing us Juno’s growing maturity as it begins to dawn on her that maybe this guy isn’t the mature sophisticate she assumed.

Juno is packed with great performances, with Allison Janney, as stepmother Brenda, and J.K. Simmons, as dad Mac, obviously thrilled to have such meaty roles. While the MacGuffs’ relatively placid acceptance of Juno’s condition might seem unbelievable, their overall love and support of their daughter, not to mention their obvious respect for her intelligence, is decidedly refreshing. What elevates Juno from something like a better-than-average after-school special is Page, who lets us see the little moments of panic and doubt that befall our otherwise plucky heroine. These moments remind us, as do details like Juno’s hamburger phone and the way she takes the news that Paulie has asked another girl to the prom, of how young and inexperienced she really is, and give the movie its heart. And Garner’s nuanced turn in a significant role could, in lesser hands, have turned one-note. What at first seems like a glib, laugh-a-minute story gestates into one of the most unexpectedly poignant films you’ll ever see.

—Laura Leon

From small things: Etel and egg in The Water Horse.

It’s Magic

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

Directed by Jay Russell

Seeing as it’s based on a book by Dick King-Smith, the genius behind Babe, it should be no surprise that The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep carries with it the same delightful sense of awe and wonder. In this case, the magic is transposed to World War II-era Scotland, and instead of a cute pink piglet who has a way with sheepherding, the title creature goes on to become the misunderstood Loch Ness Monster. But first, he enters the life of Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel), a lad both drawn to and terrified of water. Desperately missing his sailor dad, Angus spends long days collecting shells and such from the shores of the majestic loch that borders the estate on which he, his sister, and housekeeper mother (Emily Watson) reside. One treasure so culled is a curiously luminous egg, which cracks open one night to reveal a rubbery little dinosaur-type critter, promptly dubbed Crusoe, who quickly develops a taste for potato slices and general mischief.

The other seminal event of Angus’ summer is the arrival of a troop of British soldiers, stationed at the end of the world as a deterrent to German subs attempting a back entrance to British waters, such as had been accomplished by the disastrous sinking in 1939 by a U-boat of the HMS Royal Oak. The head of this detachment, who has an eye for Mrs. MacMorrow and a thin skin when teased about how far he is from the front lines in Europe, tries to “man up” Angus, with disastrous results. A happier relationship is that which Angus shares with new handyman Lewis (Ben Chaplin), who keeps mum about Crusoe, but nevertheless advises Angus to release the creature to the sea, especially when the army sets its firepower upon the “monster.”

Cynical tweeners who prefer action-packed computer-generated flicks may find the movie slow; it’s their loss. The Water Horse features amazing special effects, courtesy of Weta Workshop, which made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so visually memorable. More important, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned, is that the movie maintains an exquisite sense of place and time, which add immeasurably to its coming-of-age story. A sense of loss, as well as childhood wonder, permeates this gentle movie, and has more than enough to recommend it to any moviegoer still enthralled with magic and imagination.

—Laura Leon

A Labyrinth of Stupid

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

“My family killed President Lincoln.” That’s the hyperactivated hypothesis behind National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the follow-up to 2004’s National Treasure, which combined zany, modern-day fortune hunter Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) with ramped-up borrowings from the Indiana Jones movies; the biggest surprise, though, was its smash success at the box office. In Book of Secrets, Ben and his band of treasure hunters, including his high-tech sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha), his erudite, exasperated dad (Jon Voight), and the girlfriend he acquired in the original, historical archivist Abigail (Diane Kruger), are again on the trail of the greatest treasure in the world; again, the trove is hidden by the most extensive network of treasure-clue hiders ever known. Only Abigail is now Ben’s ex-girlfriend, and since she’s kicked him out, he’s been living with his dad.

Father and son have recently discovered that a family ancestor had a connection to John Wilkes Booth, in a far-reaching conspiracy in which the assassination of President Lincoln was only a part. Another part is the existence of a city of gold known only to Native Americans.

A descendent (Ed Harris) of a Confederate general besmirches the Gates family lineage when he produces a missing page to Booth’s diary. The page is really a cipher—and the motivating piece of ephemera for a mind-bogglingly convoluted quest that takes Ben and company from the banks of the Seine to the bedchambers of the Queen of England to the ivory tower of Ben’s mother (a game Helen Mirren) who just happens to be an expert in precolonial Native American dialects, and eventually, to Mount Rushmore, which, as they learn, was part of the cover-up to keep the gold of the city of gold out of the hands of the Confederate Army. This summation gives the plot more linear rationale than it actually has, but Book of Secrets’ jumble of arcane facts, political science, genealogy, American history, dusty conspiracy theories, and antiques-sleuthing does give it an intermittent buzz of energy.

Intermittent, that is, because the slapdash filmmaking—most of the action is shot in crazily framed close-ups—and the implausibility of the treasure hunt, which exceeds the ludicrousness of the original over the boundary of utter nonsense—gets tiresome, even for the cast; both Cage and Kruger seem merely to be going through the motions, and most of their comic throwaway lines are literally thrown away by lousy editing. Not that there’s much comedy: The dialogue relies on interfamily squabbling instead of intrigue. Late in the game, the proceedings get a dollop of interest when Ben lures the American president (Bruce Greenwood) into the catacombs below Mount Vernon, gaining him access to the ultra-secret Secret Book of American Presidents, but Ben’s rather charming interaction with the commander-in-chief is just a stopover to the big finale, a massive archeological set-piece that is numbingly familiar in its water-filling antechambers, swaying stone bridges, and sentimentally resolved family dynamics.

—Ann Morrow

Almost Inspired

The Great Debaters

Directed by Denzel Washington

There’s so much right about The Great Debaters, the story of an undefeated debate team from an African-American college in Depression-era Texas, that it seems mean to dwell on what’s wrong. So we’ll get the gripes out of the way immediately.

One, there should be a Director’s Guild of America-mandated class in avoiding visual clichés for actors-turned-directors. If there was, then, perhaps, Denzel Washington might have not highlighted every emotional peak with a sledgehammer-subtle tracking shot close into the actors’ faces. Two, this is a movie about debating. The verbal content of the debates should be sharper than the film’s dialogue, and it isn’t. This isn’t screenwriter Robert Eisele’s worst sin, though; the script, (very) loosely based on a true story, piles simplifying plot twists one on top of another.

What should be crippling flaws, however, aren’t. It turns out that the screenwriter does one thing very well: The details of life and work on a traditionally black college campus are precise and compelling, and the complex Southern racial boundaries of the period are carefully drawn. And Denzel Washington, as director, also does one thing wonderfully well: He elicits rich, detailed performances from both the accomplished veteran actors and the youngsters. The families in this film act like real families.

Washington is Prof. Melvin Tolson, the stern taskmaster of the debate team at Wiley College. He’s a genius with words, using them to shock, inspire and, when necessary, destroy. He’s also a family man, and a labor-organizing Communist. (That they didn’t gloss over the latter deserves mention, and credit.) His debaters are live-wire Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), brainy-and-beautiful Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and 14-year-old prodigy James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). The shifting relationships among these three are nicely portrayed. If Tolson has an opposite, it’s James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), a conservative professor not pleased with the former’s activism and politics. What keeps the two men in harmony—they agree to disagree—is a mutual devotion to racial politics and rigorous scholarship.

One can’t help but feel elated by the debaters’ triumphs; if only the filmmakers had more faith that the audiences didn’t need a pile of clichés to do so.

—Shawn Stone

Lovely and Doomed


Directed by Joe Wright

1934. A beautiful young woman takes off her dress in front of an equally attractive young man, dives into a fountain, and emerges, her slip transparently plastered to her body, with a look of defiance that stuns the young man. Later in Atonement, this unexplained incident—as observed by the woman’s younger sister, who is watching from a window—will be revealed as a puzzle piece in a longer sequence of actions that begins with the woman’s selection of a flower vase for an expected visitor. The water motif expands to a bathtub, a lake, and eventually, to a bombed-out seaside amusement park. It’s a subtly bravura recurrence worthy of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel of the same name.

Christopher Hampton is an often-superlative literary screenwriter (Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American), and his atmospheric adaptation of Atonement is an admirable, occasionally remarkable attempt. The minimal use of dialogue recalls the poetic potency of Terrence Malick, and two very different settings—a baronial country estate in England and the evacuation of Dunkirk, France—are vividly evoked. And yet Atonement on film isn’t the emotive tour-de-force it might have been, despite its similarities to The English Patient. Told mostly from the perspective of the younger sister, 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an amateur playwright, the narrative lurches from a seductively languid build-up to a hallucinatory denouement and then on to a disconcertingly pragmatic coda.

Briony’s older sister is Cecilia (Keira Knightley), an arrogant, bored aristocrat with a requited passion for Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the handsome son of the family cook (Brenda Blethyn). The guest Cecilia is expecting is the jaunty, soon-to-be-powerful owner of a chocolate factory. Barely audible in the background of the Tallis’ privileged existence is the rumbling of war. Yet the tensions that erupt, that night, into criminality, are sexual, not social or political: Briony’s romantic notions of Robbie are shattered when she walks in on his steamy tryst with Cecilia in the library (one of the film’s more memorable visual compositions). Several reprehensible acts occur the same night, and tragically escalate four years later when Robbie is engulfed by the battles of Dunkirk (filmed with art-house fervor), and Cecilia and Briony (played as an 18-year-old by Romola Garai) contend separately with the carnage of war as volunteer nurses.

Even so, the forebodings of doomed love—the metallic plink of Briony’s typewriter is augmented by a stark piano score—is underwhelming, simply because we see so little of the lovers together onscreen. The rapturous cinematography emphasizes the physical allure of Knightley and McAvoy to the detriment of their characters’ emotional bond (Knightley’s emerald evening gown is more striking than anything she does in it), while contrapuntal views of the mutilated flesh of wounded soldiers, though harrowingly powerful, seem stagy because of it. And because director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) does a merely adequate job with the actors and the flow of events, the impact of McEwan’s story is left, too largely, in the exceptionally capable hands of Hampton, composer Dario Marianelli, and especially, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

—Ann Morrow

Channeling History

Charlie Wilson’s War

Directed by Mike Nichols

There’s a chilling yet hysterical moment in Charlie Wilson’s War, in which post-coital Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) declumps her recently reapplied mascara with what my mother would describe as a diaper pin—the big-ass implement once used to gather up waddles of cotton triangles—punctuating each threading with another fact about the crisis in 1980s Afghanistan, then under siege by a dominant Russian army. The ease and precision with which Joanne accomplishes both tasks seems in striking contrast to the current administration, which appears most times to have blueprinted its Iraq strategy more along the trajectory of a pinball than anything approaching reason and experience. That Joanne’s lesson in civics is being directed to her most recent prey, Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), who holds an influential position on a pair of defense appropriations committees, and that this conversation will be the impetus for American intervention, and subsequent Soviet defeat, is a decided grace note to the observation.

Based on the George Criles book detailing a chapter in history that too many of us have forgotten (or never knew about), Charlie Wilson’s War us is as much a piece of political theater as it is a hilariously funny movie. Director Mike Nichols teams up with TV’s Aaron Sorkin, with sharply satirical results, to furnish a trim (97-minute) film that pops, incongruously, with good humor and cynicism. The congressman from Texas, first glimpsed sharing a hot tub with a Playboy centerfold and two strippers, is a good-ole-boy who loves his country, his Scotch and his ladies, not always in that order. When educated about the Afghan situation, his inherent good will and desire to accomplish something take center stage, even while an ethics investigation threatens to derail his career. In what is probably the film’s funniest sequence, Wilson instructs his lovely assistants, including Amy Adams, on how to counter the investigations of one Rudolph Giuliani (“Never heard of him!” snorts Wilson) while trying to converse with covert operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) about what kinds of weapons might be useful to fight the Russians. To go into more detail would take away a priceless moment; suffice it to say that Hoffman and Hanks sharing the screen makes for a highly entertaining, very rewarding experience.

The constant jigging up of the amounts of potential military appropriations for the effort, as well as a series of meetings with disparate allies from Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, bring Charlie Wilson’s War into Preston Sturges territory—a very welcome, if altogether too rare, development in modern cinema. Happily, both Nichols and Sorkin are up to that challenge. In fact, the surreal nature of the political maneuverings and the philosophical posturings surrounding the issue would be hysterical, if the end game, which Wilson, in a coda, acknowledges as having been “fucked up,” weren’t so terribly sad. What it lacks in insight it more than makes up for in intelligence, humor and the good grace not to preach to the audience—as was done to disastrous effect in, say, Blood Diamond. The filmmakers are smart enough to know that their audience doesn’t need much more than Joanna’s lash-plucking monologue to put the pieces together. It’s what we do with them after the fact that will ultimately matter.

—Laura Leon

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