Saturday, December 29, 2007

Death Proof = Masterpiece

Death Proof is Tarantino's best film. It is everything I look for in a work of cinema. It's cruel and matter-of-fact about certain realities, yet it is full of sensitivity and grace. Its camera is vibrant and alive but slower moments of striking gravity and beauty stagger the film with startling control. It's spontaneous and rebellious but always attentive to its thematic milieu. It functions on both naturalism and expressionism, each giving way for the other as the instance calls for it. It's crude yet refined. It addresses and encompasses human insecurities in its fine-combed detailing of clashing sensibilities, gender roles, and thrill-seeking. Its thematic exploration is insidious, obscured by genre deviltry and subversion. It's part horror film. It's fun. It's sexy. It's unbelievably tender. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but nothing about it is a joke. Nothing, as counterintuitive as it is, is camp. If I make a film, I would want it to be like Death Proof: lean, mean, yet rich with humanity.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007) **Major Spoilers**

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Bizarro World, London

There are many problems when bringing a musical like this to the screen. Such as, so much exposition is sung that I wouldn't blame a person for being lost from not quite following the lyrics. The film is quite predominantly song, and I imagine this aspect can become particularly irksome, especially when you have non-singers squeaking and non-enunciating their way through lyrics -- something Burton too readily gambles with his casting of very, very amateur singers. Secondly, with a quasi-operatic and almost musically through-written work like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, already lacking is the luxuriant breathing room provided by careful dialogue scenes, as entire dramatic lynchpins are already contained and communicated within the film's expertly (or not so expertly...) staged musical sequences. [The film will be sure to pass just like that if you're one of those people who nods off whenever a song begins (as surely it signals a dance number of the extended Rogers and Hammerstein variety).] To begin with the movie's great con, early and not dramatically eventful introductory numbers such as No Place Like London and The Worst Pies in London cannot help but fall a bit flat because of the weak singing performances and the dependence of the narrative expulsion on the singers' less-than-enthralling sung "story-performing." Yet, once the film really kicks in with its grave drama, and counter to the previous conception of musical numbers as counteractive to dramatic nuance, it is the Sweeney Todd movie's great attention to dramatic detail, even through its constant song numbers, that really makes it excel - it is found in the film's fervent close-ups on its characters, Burton's camera at its most dynamic and intimate, and how economically it succeeds in communicating its characters feelings. Whereas Atonement's attempt at economy neutered nuance, Sweeney Todd's attempt is part and parcel to its nuance, to its vision: that of a portrait of people caught up in the whirlwind of delusions conceived of their desires. As Tim Burton said in a Making Of video, the film is about messed up, destitute (physically, emotionally, morally, etc.) people, each with "their own agendas."

It is true what Burton and co. are saying - this is a reinvented Sweeney Todd. A number of character interpretations are completely different from the stage play. Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd, younger-looking and slimmer-framed, and so going without the broad-shouldered, aged gravitas of past portrayals, takes on alternative dimensions: before incarceration, he is a consummate namby pamby, newly inculcated in the thoroughly pacified life of the young Daddy; after imprisonment, the namby pamby has tasted the brute's life and realized he has a taste for it. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is a practical but lovelorn doe, so desperate for "a life" she is twisted into amorality - not at all the daffy evil crone of the original play (an alteration more than a bit heartbreaking). The omission of 'Kiss Me' relegates the character of Johanna to a lifeless, near-disturbed porcelain girl, which fits her perfectly into the film's undercurrent of misogyny. The sailor Anthony's love-at-first-sight comes off as egregious objectification instead of the love of mutual purity seen in the stage play. The sacrifices made from the original musical may at first seem like a thorough defanging of the twisted humor, but the newfound sobriety Burton and co. seem to want to infuse into the material, luckily, takes on a living and breathing pulse of its own.

All these changes do take a good helping away from what I so love about the original stage incarnation. That eccentric, baroque evil that permeated throughout the original stage play is almost completely gone. Todd and Lovett are not creepy and evil old people, and their making people into meat pies is no longer a product of unadultered demonic ideology and gleeful abandon. Instead, the film's Todd and Lovett are handsome young people, trying to fulfill the wants of their sex, their desire, and their gratification. They make people into meat pies because it is a good idea and a natural extension of their emotional needs (his need to kill/conquer, her need to make herself a romantic living). The Sweeney Todd movie gives its characters too much mundane (and aesthetically attractive) humanity for the story to really give you goosebumps in this way that the play does - but, in exchange, this humanity it does give them is altogether adult and uncompromising, grim and unromantic, and thus, on its own right, absolutely surprising, refreshing, and dramatically compelling. So it is absolutely commendable, no matter how much the parabolic nastiness of the Broadway play is missed. The film exceeds expectations because, in its scaling the play down to a small human drama, it becomes an actual film of true cinematic intent, utilizing subtle glances in shot-reverse shot patterns, the dramatic detail of careful mise en scene, the active staging of actors moving in and out of frame, a camera unceasingly dynamic, etc. - technique and applications, of course, unavailable in stage theater.

New themes pop up, for better or worse. The original 1979 production goes to great lengths to set its story against a backdrop of Industrial Age London, the set design populated with steel platforms and factory facades. This is largely dropped in the film adaptation. The theme of Sweeney Todd as socially-wrought machine of class abuses gives way to Sweeney as romantically revenge-obsessed meathead, or the "worthless thing" that the pragmatist Lovett calls him while lugging his useless self around after his overwrought 'Epiphany.' An explicit misogynistic streak is beautifully integrated into the film's flaunting of "pretty women" and "caged birds," especially with its two additional dialogue scenes: the first regarding "Whores From Around the World" and the other presenting a rather nasty variation on Fogg, the asylum owner, categorizing his lovelies by hair color. The alarmingly sincere happiness seen in the Judge's face when Sweeney bluffs him about Johanna turning around to him in the final sequence communicates how this film's iron-fisted male brutes are actually really clueless and knuckle-headed when it comes to them getting what they desire. Notice Anthony's daring rescue of Johanna being of little comfort to the girl's mind, her words, when we finally hear Johanna speak near the end of the movie, stunted in the cadences of a girl far left behind and needing much more than a lovestruck boy sailor to help her catch up.

Lovett's 'Wait' is an excellent example of this film's trafficking in subdued passions, her motions to him simultaneously seduction and a plea. Bonham Carter's eyes widen in demented lust as she tells Todd to "plan the plan" - but all Depp's Todd does is bask in the machismo he inhabits in his razors, his "tools," twirling them in his hand with the pride of a highschooler with new rims on his Cadillac. Not long after the disastrous first run-in with the judge, Todd both circumvents his grief and vents his bruised, frustrated pride by constructing his mechanical chair in preparation for his murdering spree. He fixes the old chair up with the same investment (and mechanical know-how) of, again, a teenage boy fixing up and pimping out his sports car. Mrs. Lovett watches from a distance, afraid but unaccountably attracted to this "bad boy." She throws him winks and kisses to delude herself against his non-investment in their physical relationship and still giggles at the slyness with which he goes about his diabolical pastime. Even at her most sorrowful, after having trapped Tobias in the bakehouse, she still cannot suppress the glee and arousal she feels watching him slyly bait the Beadle and comically offer him the sexually-tinged prospect of a "pampering."

Recall that Benjamin Barker, when he was happy and harmless as opposed to brutish and abusive, seems to always be referred to as "foolish" - but as an untethered beast of a man, he gains the power-rush of indiscriminate murder and the servile affection of Mrs. Lovett (gratifyingly non-matrimonial, too; notice how he removes his hand from her lap when she mentions marriage during 'By the Sea'). Finally, Todd's shockingly spontaneous, swift bludgeoning of Pirelli with the kettle is so effective not only because it is the first moment when we realize the film means brutal business, but because Burton, with such operatic and uncompromising care, makes sure it's clear that what we are seeing is Todd reacting in the dumb desperation of a captured lion, in realization of his own foolishness having allowed this blackmail to happen, and over the less-than-vaunting fact, for a titular hero, that he may be way over his head in getting his hands on the judge and now might not even get his chance. Our anti-hero's satisfaction (akin to the satisfaction demanded in that obsolete male pastime called the duel) is threatened, his pride bruised, and we see it result in petty violence. The glee of pride seen in him later, when he all by himself comes up with the wig-maker plan, strikes one as equally simple, and this communicates a lot about how Depp is playing this character.

Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp give brilliant and daring performances, daring because they forgo the overt theatricality they could have easily played the roles with and imbue their character instead with a rich palette of subdued expressions and internal emotionality. Watching the film, there are so many nuanced and varied displays of what flesh-and-blood neurotics these two people are, it is astounding, aided by Burton's unceasingly inspired use of the camera (notice how the camera shakes during Pirelli's murder, or how often Burton uses foreground-background contrast to emphasize the separation between characters). Daniel Day-Lewis was great in There Will Be Blood, but hands down Depp's Todd is the superior and scarier misanthrope of 2007. We see the film's uncompromising darkness most staggeringly in the way Todd is made to hiss demands at Mrs. Lovett like an abusive husband; in all his small tantrums, or in the crazed but genuine nervousness he breaks into when the judge first arrives at his shop, or the brutal grimaces on his face as he slits throats during his 'Johanna.' Bonham Carter's performance strikes me as at its most astounding during 'A Little Priest,' where she gives us a shockingly subdued Lovett, joking not because she thinks she's so clever, as in the stage play, but in order to charm and win over Todd. The way she leans towards him in order to whisper the punchline "It's green," or the sly look she gives him as they sing "Those above serving those down below" are very risky, very mature takes on a performance that could have easily showboated. It is so unique, willfully controlled, and so authentic to essential human libidinousness, you cannot help but admire it even as you resent the fact she didn't go the Angela Lansbury route.

It is what makes this movie adaptation so special. It is a movie and it is nuanced like a movie. Its vision is so tight and the emotional points subtly calibrated. It takes risks one familiar with the source material would not expect, and it succeeds in them. Todd almost seems to become a background character because he is so dark, impenetrable, and single-minded. In a move practically opposite of the stage musical, the film is adamant in portraying him always as opaquely as possible. In that way, one begins to see him in the same bracket as the Judge - brutish and block-headed. Never in the stage play is Todd made to be perceived as so ignoble as to be grouped with the man who raped his wife and covets his daughter, but this film does just that. I was certain we'd be fed a tragically dashing anti-hero in Sweeney, especially with Depp in the role, but the film instead gave us a scheming, manipulative cad.

The film is enriched by its devotion to the mood of a horror film, particularly the kitsch of modest Gothic dramas. The dank alleyways of London in the opening sequence, the menacing, sped-up CGI roam through the London streets, the grand guignol luridness of Fogg's asylum, and the rank griminess of the sewers (where we are finally forced to come to terms with Lovett and Todd as true and despicable villains, trying to lure out a hiding Toby for murder), become ad hoc bulwarks to the film's grim convictions of never leavening the ugliness that this work exudes from every pore.

Of course the film has its flaws. First, the film, despite its changes in tone and character, is nevertheless a clear-cut transplantation of the book and libretto to the screen, so it is true the film is not doing too much to create its own liberated cinematic vision. It accepts its place as an adaptation (understandably so...), so does not transgress its source. Burton's not Robert Altman, after all (imagine his Sweeney Todd!). Second, yes, Burton's aesthetic is probably what anyone would expect. I really wish he would drop his penchant for heavy make-up and flattering costuming. The film threatens stooping down into Burton's brand of Gothic geekiness, especially with the period setting not letting Burton's shrewd knack for modernist lampooning (the kind seen in Pee-Wee's and Edward Scissorhands, those probably still his better works) leaven the all-too-expected Merchant Ivory gone Hot Topic look.

Fourthly, and most damagingly perhaps: considering how the film reinvents what themes stand at the forefront of the story (moral parable ==> tempestuous drama), the film falters when it finds itself obligated to impose on itself songs talking about "Man devouring man" (and other such political sentiments found in Sondheim's libretto) when social injustice is made here merely a thematic sprinkling instead of the dominant thematic subtext, as it is in the Broadway production. The meat pies take a major back seat here in the film, I hate to say. One can just feel the minimized importance of A Little Priest within the film. Thus, the film just feels like it is intellectually posing whenever Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler's social commentary sneaks its way back into Burton's standard drama.

Some of the best scenes:

1. The Johanna (Trio). Macabre, cackling nihilism shines through this scene, as Burton dryly cuts between Sweeney slicing away at victims and Anthony wandering aimlessly through less and less proper areas of London. I noticed that throughout the film, that Burton refuses to use any sort of soft-edged transition, like fade to blacks or cross-fades. Everything - from transitions to fantasy sequences, transitions to flashbacks, to the Johanna trio intercutting - all use very sharp and abrupt cuts, which fit perfectly the film's wryly unconvinced feelings toward the romances and mournful memories of these characters.

2. The Judge's final scene. It never occurred to me whenever thinking about the musical that some brutal, mutilating slashing and lots and lots of blood is just what the Judge's death scene needed. It apparently occurred to Burton, and it is pretty damn sweet and pretty damn shrewd of a moment, an emotional climax more than fully realized from stage to screen.

3. The opening credits. Before the film's release, when they released a clip of the opening credits and I read they were CGI a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was not happy. To my astonishment, sitting in the theater and watching the film for my first time, I realized these opening credits were fucking perfect! Although clearly animated, the visuals of the opening credits (as well as Mrs. Lovett's big finish) are perfectly at place in the film's demented aesthetic. The title card - "SWEENEY TODD" - unfurling itself on rotating wheels, menacingly mechanized and furious in their spin, awash in a dim blue, is an abso-fucking-lutely brilliant image, and brought to a slow simmer in my heart fond notions of The Mangler. Yes, I just said that, welcome to the Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society.

To conclude, the film does the unthinkable. One, it made the unforgivable notion of a more benign Mrs. Lovett a forgivable alteration. More, it achieved the possibility of making even the most die-hard purist embrace its whole new vision of the play. I cannot say I was with the film step by step, but it gave me what I look for in film - a disciplined cinematic vision, a cohesive thematic texture, a rhyme and reason to its scenes and their coexistence, and dramatic character nuance that is not afraid to make ambiguous the virtues and emotions of its characters. I will have to watch the film again to see if its surprises (which will no longer be surprises) are diminished or not by the rigidness of the film's strict adherence to the play, its resultantly hurried nature, and the occasional stiltedness of a Burton geek show slipping through the cracks of a new-found Burton maturity, but right now I think the man has outdone himself and his reputation with this film's emphasized subversive streak, forgoing the play's sad, demented, fantastical morality tale for something less demented, but a little meaner and a little realer.

'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' - 8/10

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Don't Look Now (1973), dir. Nicholas Roeg **Minor Spoilers**

A profound disclosure on grief and belief. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie turn in deeply charismatic performances as a married couple we catch currently attempting soldiering on after the accidental, painfully meaningless death of their young daughter (which is depicted in a short prologue). Julie Christie creates a troublingly flesh-and-blood character: an attractive, light-hearted woman who unfortunately has this curse of an altogether gentle, childlike personality, and thus gets buried in all the neurotics and psychologies which we intuit afflict just such easily receptive persons with little capacity for deep, angry, self-aware thoughts. She indulges in a blissful ignorance of the harsh realities of death, taking up with the Psychic Sisters and throwing herself fully into their lead-ons. She is shown to be taking pills to "level her out," her fragility in that respect taken under the guarded, competent wing of men in white coats, although she is inclined to disregard their role - that is, chemicals as God, her feelings and emotions as mere neuro-chemical dictates - in lieu for the belief of the supernatural and the deep comfort of her persisting agony, and also ecstasies (those ranging from lovemaking to the brilliance of the Blind Sister's visions of her dead daughter). The film's famous sex scene manifests a brilliant summation of the sublime of living, from the intercourse (with the subliminal concession to cynics that we are ruled by the release of our hormones), to the re-awakenings (and dress up) of vanity, to Sutherland lubricating himself with some gin.

Sutherland, as her husband, her lover, plays the opposite - a person with the capacity for deeply burdening thoughts, cynicism, and resignations. Sex and ceremony, science and religion, bureaucratic procedure and pure intuition interweave in the film, as pragmatic opiates for the suppression or propagation of deluded sentiments - coping mechanisms in both minds of blissed naivete and hard-edged realism. But when Sutherland finally indulges in sentiments, the chillingly grim message is: "Look where it gets him!"

I have read Daphne du Maurier's short story as well, and it's a nasty little one. Movies tend to be the indelicate ones, between them and the source literature being adapted, but surprisingly, du Maurier's story strikes the amped-up power chord, playing up the ending (which is exceedingly similar between story and film) with a practically flicking sardonic tongue, embittered 1st person prose, and acknowledgment of the brazen crassness of the non-sequitur. The flippancy with which du Maurier describes her final, shockingly random reveal and "Fuck me" realization is contrasted to the more elegiac, operatic treatment in the film.

Don't Look Now - 9/10
Fabulous tie-in book cover; expression is perfect for conveying Christie's character as the addled and innocent, her bruised, junkie-like complexion suggesting a withdrawal from the drug that is her not fathoming existence's most deeply burdening realities.