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Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Detective-story / action-movie hybrid doesn't always work
This new "Sherlock Holmes" is an attempt to make the iconic Victorian sleuth cool for the blockbuster generation by punching up the story with fights, explosions, and steampunk style. And, while I'm not morally opposed to the idea of an action-hero Holmes, it makes the movie kind of a strange hybrid. Action movies work best when they are "dumb" (that is, when they have a relatively simple story), but Sherlock Holmes movies work best when they are "smart," with a twisty mystery that requires Holmes' intelligence to solve. Therefore, the plot of "Sherlock Holmes" is way too convoluted and contrived for what should be a simple action movie. But it's not really satisfying as a mystery story, either, because the constant onslaught of action scenes means that the audience never has time to stop and think about the clues.
Additionally, the story, about an evil lord and his secret mystical society plotting to take over the world, seems like the Victorian equivalent of a Dan Brown novel. It's a lot of hokum, in short, and I couldn't get myself to really care about it.
So this movie would really be terrible if it didn't star Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Their presence proves that even in a silly blockbuster, it's worthwhile to cast people who know how to act and entertain an audience. Because Downey always comes across as the smartest guy in the room, as well as a total eccentric, he was an inspired choice for the role of Holmes. The best scenes in the movie are the ones where he and Jude Law's Watson bicker like an old married couple; they make a great buddy-movie pairing.
Rachel McAdams doesn't have much to do in the role of Irene Adler, the designated love-interest, but she still seems miscast. Irene is supposed to be an international woman of mystery, but McAdams comes off as too young and too contemporary.
So the intelligence in this movie comes from Downey's performance as Holmes, which I guess is as it should be; I had just hoped for more intelligence in the writing and direction as well.
My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Where beauty becomes self-indulgence
Any time you put the lovely Norah Jones, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz in a film directed by Wong Kar-Wai, you're guaranteed to get a beautiful-looking movie. Unfortunately, visual beauty is just about the only thing that "My Blueberry Nights" has to recommend it.
The movie is set in kind of a fantasy version of the United States--a place depicted mostly at nighttime, with neon lights and rain-slicked streets. There are no fast-food restaurants, only homey cafes and juke joints seen near closing time. The citizens are either remarkably beautiful, or else they're crusty character actors like David Strathairn. Everybody enjoys making ponderous pronouncements about love. Nobody has a sense of humor.
The main character of "My Blueberry Nights," Elizabeth (Jones), is poorly conceived. A New Yorker who is suffering from a bad breakup, she decides to leave town and travel cross-country working as a waitress. (This is not how most women behave when broken-hearted. Especially not when a guy who looks like Jude Law is pining away for them back in NYC.) Because we don't sufficiently understand what compelled Elizabeth to go on her road trip, we also don't understand what specific lessons she is supposed to be learning from the people that we see her encounter along the way. And when a character is this hard to understand, it seems unfair to entrust her to an amateur actress like Jones.
Portman has an intriguing role as a young cardsharp that Elizabeth meets in Nevada; and Strathairn finds real pathos in his somewhat stereotypical role, an alcoholic cop in Memphis. Weisz plays Strathairn's unfaithful wife and gets to deliver a long, teary monologue in one take. But this is just another example of the self-indulgence of "My Blueberry Nights": it becomes more about Weisz's acting technique than about her character's predicament.
"My Blueberry Nights" is not a painful viewing experience, and at certain moments, it's even seductive. Still, it's appropriate that its title refers to a dessert, because it's a piece of art-house fluff.
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Bumbling detective in a bungled movie
"A Shot in the Dark" is the first Inspector Clouseau movie I've seen, and I'm rather confused as to why everyone has anointed it a classic. After seeing "Dr Strangelove" I was ready to declare Peter Sellers one of the greatest comic geniuses of all time, but this signature role of his left me very disappointed. Well, perhaps the bumbling French detective could be a truly great comic figure if he were the center of a really good movie--which "A Shot in the Dark" is not.
I think that a lot of problems with the movie lie with the direction. The opening scenes, especially, are taken at a ridiculously slow pace--I expected a fast and farcical comedy, but I got a lot of awkward pauses and stagy long takes. The whole movie would be much funnier if it were tightened up and edited with a snappier rhythm.
Other aspects of "A Shot in the Dark" are equally lazy. For most of the movie Sellers employs a light French accent, until in the final scene he suddenly acquires a much heavier and more ridiculous accent, saying "beump" instead of "bump" and other such Clouseau-isms. Did no one notice the inconsistency of this? Meanwhile, the jokes get predictable: by the halfway point of the movie, you just know that when Clouseau is asked to put a billiard cue away, he'll end up knocking over the whole cue rack, and when he tries to do a Cossack dance, he'll rip his trousers.
I did think that the sequence where Sellers and Elke Sommer go on a date and narrowly escape being murdered several times was rather well done--then again, ANYTHING would have to be better than the embarrassingly dated scene that takes place in a nudist colony. This is an example of the worst kind of 1960s wink-wink nudge-nudge sleaziness--the type of scene that "Austin Powers" mocked.
The plot of "A Shot in the Dark" is standard-issue Agatha Christie stuff, with Clouseau attempting to prove that a beautiful housemaid (Sommer) is innocent of a string of murders, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But though the early part of the movie is weighed down by a lot of tedious examination of the murders, the filmmakers forget the plot as the movie goes on. In the final scene, they basically throw up their hands, admit they're bored with the story and characters, and tack on an arbitrary conclusion. So in the absence of an interesting story, skillful direction, and a sense of good taste, what are we left with? Peter Sellers doing pratfalls and talking in spoonerisms. Which isn't enough for me, thank you.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Works better as an India travelogue than as inspiring drama
"Slumdog Millionaire" uses a clever narrative strategy to tell the life story of Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old former slum kid, and at first, that was one of the things I liked best about the movie. When Jamal wins ten million rupees on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", the police don't believe he could have done it without cheating, so he must explain how he came to know the answers. Cue a series of flashbacks of Jamal's life, each of them incorporating the answer to one of the game show questions. It's an innovative way to tell a story, and the flashbacks are all exciting and dramatic. Jamal has confronted murderous religious mobs, sinister orphanage-keepers, and tough modern gangsters in his young life.
But the suspense disappears somewhat when you realize that no matter how much filth and poverty Jamal encounters, no matter how many villains pursue him, he will survive to appear on the game show. Furthermore, it becomes increasingly clear that Jamal's story is a fairy tale, and that destiny is going to work in mysterious but positive ways to make sure that everything turns out all right.
Thus "Slumdog Millionaire" works better as a tour of modern India than as a story about Jamal Malik. There is a terrific montage sequence set on a train, an interlude at the Taj Mahal, and some thought-provoking scenes of the gentrification of Mumbai. Meanwhile, the movie also gives an un-sugarcoated look at some of India's major social ills: religious conflict, extreme poverty, and prostitution/exploitation. Danny Boyle manages to fit this all together by directing everything in an exuberant, colorful, quick-cutting style. Even the subtitles are playful and color-tinted! (Most of the film is in English, except for the scenes where Jamal is a very small child and speaks Hindi.)
Dev Patel, who plays Jamal at 18, has an open, innocent face and frequently seems a little out of his depth. This quality is useful during the game-show scenes, when Jamal is in the hot seat and dazed by his own success. But he otherwise seems like a nice suburban kid: someone who witnessed the horrors that the younger Jamal has seen should be both grittier and more soulful. The same goes for Freida Pinto, who plays Jamal's love interest Latika: she is a very pretty young woman but hard to believe as a former street waif. Additionally, Latika is not given much of a personality, which makes the love story hard to really cheer for.
Ultimately, "Slumdog Millionaire" failed to move me, despite how hard it tried to do so. The flashy cinematography and propulsive action made the movie fun to watch, but also made it difficult to connect emotionally with the characters. And although the movie is meant to be the inspiring story of an underdog who triumphs, it makes clear that Jamal succeeds because destiny has chosen to smile upon him. He's a good-hearted and sympathetic boy, but a passive character in his own life. "Slumdog Millionaire" wants us to think "It's OK that Jamal suffered all these hardships, because it enabled him to win millions of rupees and the girl of his dreams," but what about all the other Indian slum kids who suffer with no hope of relief, whom Fate has not chosen to favor?
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The New Charlie Kaufman: More Ambition and Less Joy
"Synecdoche, New York" feels like the work of a man gripped by fear, grief, and a sense that time is running out. The most ambitious of Charlie Kaufman's movies by a long shot, it is also the bleakest. Though Kaufman's work has always had a streak of comic miserablism running through it, his earlier movies are so creative and original that you feel invigorated by watching them. They're consistently delightful, and in the case of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," even profound.
"Synecdoche, New York" certainly aspires to profundity, but it's lost the sense of delight. It follows its protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard, for about forty years of "one bad thing after another." The only good thing that happens to him--he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant--turns out to be a curse in disguise, as he feels he must prove himself worthy of the grant, and spends the rest of his life conceiving and rehearsing a massive theater piece that never opens. Rather than engaging with life, he becomes lost in the world that he has created, building an exact replica of New York City inside a New York warehouse. The last part of the movie is a blur of deaths and funerals both real and re-enacted.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the best sad-sack actor working today, plays Caden. He gives a fearless performance, but he's maybe too passive in the role--not displaying enough of the mad-genius ambition that propels Caden to create such a huge work of art. Catherine Keener, who was so sparky and vibrant in "Being John Malkovich", plays Caden's first wife as a glum-faced shrew with awful hair.
Brightening things up a bit is Samantha Morton, giving a very charming performance as the guileless box-office girl Hazel. And in a brilliant bit of doubling, Emily Watson plays the actress who plays Hazel in the play-within-the-movie. Hope Davis, in a small role as Caden's therapist, seems to have wandered in from another, less dour Kaufman movie--she'd fit in with the mad scientists of "Eternal Sunshine."
For me, the scene that encapsulates "Synecdoche, New York" shows Caden working on his magnum opus late at night. He has hired thousands of actors and now needs to tell them what their roles are, so he writes short scenarios on pieces of paper and distributes them to his cast the next morning. As the camera pans over the slips of paper, which cover the floor of the warehouse as far as the eye can see, we note that every scenario is sad and depressing: "You were raped last night." "You just lost your job." Thousands of papers, and not a happy one in the bunch.
If the movie took a skeptical attitude toward Caden's belief that only unhappy situations can make for great art, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But because the movie, instead, reinforces the idea that depression = genius and genius = depression, my entire belief system rebels against it. People have called "Synecdoche, New York" a profound commentary on the life of artists--but if being an artist was always like that, who would ever choose to become one?
One could see parallels between Kaufman's life and his protagonist's: like Caden, Kaufman has won a coveted honor, and his first project after winning is deliberately big and ambitious. In my opinion, Kaufman richly deserved his Oscar for the "Eternal Sunshine" screenplay. But he won't deserve any more Oscars if he spends the rest of his life self-consciously trying to make Great Art, at the expense of the light and witty touch that is the reason we came to love him in the first place.
Kind of amazing and kind of a mess
Like many fans of "Moulin Rouge," I've spent the last seven years wondering how Baz Luhrmann would follow it up. The answer is that "Australia" is a mixed bag: rarely have I enjoyed so many moments of a movie while acknowledging that it doesn't work as a whole. There are patches of really astounding film-making in "Australia"--though to appreciate them it helps to have a high tolerance for stylization, corny jokes, old-fashioned movie moments, and the rest of Luhrmann's bag of tricks. All the same, there are just too many disparate elements crammed into the script, and it doesn't hold together.
Unsurprisingly, "Australia" is a great-looking movie, and because it's less frenetic than "Moulin Rouge," it's easier to appreciate the beauty of the images. The opening shot is an audacious homage to a famous image from "Gone with the Wind," and from there the movie is filled with memorable sights both natural (the soaring landscapes of Australia) and human (Hugh Jackman emerging clean-shaven in a white dinner jacket). Besides the "Gone With the Wind" allusions, there are frequent references to "The Wizard of Oz"--"Australia" begins in 1939 and thus pays tribute to the two most famous movies from that year. I found the allusions and the 1930s atmosphere delightful; any film that features movie stars in beautiful costumes dancing to "Begin the Beguine" gets extra points in my book.
As she did in "Moulin Rouge," Nicole Kidman throws herself into the frequent tonal shifts of Baz Luhrmann's world. First, she plays Lady Sarah's snooty repression for laughs, then she embraces the melodrama of the latter part of the film. (How can a woman who has so little vanity when it comes to her acting have so much vanity when it comes to the smoothness of her forehead?) Hugh Jackman performs a variant on the brawling, riding, strong-and-silent type, though he does get to deliver an affecting monologue and cry on cue to demonstrate his inner sensitivity.
The adults in "Australia" know that the movie requires them to play archetypes, not real human beings. Brandon Walters, however, the child actor who plays the half-Aborigine boy Nullah, is too young to realize that this is a stylized and schematic movie in which he is supposed to embody the archetypal Cute and Plucky Orphan. Therefore, he plays Nullah with absolute sincerity, and as a result, Nullah is the only character that you believe could have ever existed in the real world, not merely in silver-screen imagination.
So that's one reason why "Australia" is such a mess: Luhrmann's love of movie archetypes and over-the-top scenarios conflicts with his desire to treat the discrimination faced by Aboriginal Australians with the seriousness it deserves.
Furthermore, the story of "Australia" is all over the place. It switches between several narrative threads, introduces a new narrative more than halfway through, and the characters' motivations have to change in rather arbitrary ways in order to keep up. Thus, despite "Australia"'s nearly 3-hour length, parts of it still feel rushed or under-motivated. We never get a real sense of what Lady Sarah was like back in England, which leaves her under-characterized for the whole movie. And not enough sexual tension is allowed to build up before Sarah and the Drover first kiss--perhaps some of the scenes that developed their love story have been trimmed? At some points, it's like the script has been written in shorthand.
"Australia" has a really exciting first half, centered around a cattle drove and stampede in the Outback. I'm inclined to think that perhaps the movie should have limited itself to the drove and its immediate aftermath--but instead, "Australia" skips forward three years to the Japanese attack on the city of Darwin. That's when everything just becomes too much, excessively resorting to the old children-in-peril trick to manipulate the audience.
Still, if Luhrmann had told only the story of the drove, his movie would have been basically an "Australian Western"--very entertaining and beautifully shot, but probably not ambitious enough for him. He's trying to create a mythic, epic Australia, and nothing less than a switch to World War II drama halfway through will satisfy him.
The History Boys (2006)
So glad it was preserved with cast intact!
I saw "The History Boys" on Broadway and it is something worth cheering about that it was made into a movie with its original cast intact. As a theater fan, I wish this sort of thing happened more often--but it was especially necessary, I think, for "The History Boys." This story, of eight lads striving to get into Oxbridge and the teachers helping them along, wouldn't work if it was Hollywood-ized, if it had American actors in it, or if the witty conversations about poetry and grammar were cut out for being "too highbrow." And it's an ensemble piece, so the rapports between the characters and Alan Bennett's sophisticated dialogue feel natural because the actors are so familiar with their roles.
Occasionally, I thought some of the actors' gestures and reactions were a bit too big and "stagy," not quite right for a film. Still, I can't imagine this cast ever being bettered. Samuel Barnett (Posner, the shy gay boy) sings a painfully earnest rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Dominic Cooper (the cocky, over-confident Dakin), Jamie Parker (Scripps, the voice of reason), and Russell Tovey (Rudge, the jock who everyone underestimates) are all just right. Frances de la Tour's portrayal of Mrs. Lintott is wonderfully dry, and Stephen Campbell Moore shows the vulnerability beneath Mr. Irwin's glib exterior. And Richard Griffiths provides the movie's heart as Hector, a broken giant of a man.
As for the story, I thought "The History Boys" offered some interesting perspectives on old-fashioned single-sex education and the threat of sex between teachers and students; the characters' reactions are not always what you'd expect. Alan Bennett writes from a sympathetic perspective: except for the headmaster, who's just blustering and out-of-touch, no one in the film is perfect and no one is a villain. This results in a complex debate on whether we should love learning for its own sake (Hector's perspective), or for the practical advantages that it gives us (Irwin's). Most importantly, the characters don't just learn about great literature and art--they learn about their own flaws and those of others.
With its theatrical roots, "The History Boys" is a rather talky movie, and I know that I was predisposed to like it by having seen it onstage. Still, I believe it is well worth the slight intellectual effort to get to know these Boys and their teachers--and I am so glad that moviegoers as well as theatergoers have been allowed this opportunity.
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Yeah, Jane Austen is still relevant
There've been plenty of recent movies based on Jane Austen's novels and even her life story, but "The Jane Austen Book Club" might be the first movie to consider the phenomenon that Austen has become nearly 200 years after her death. It follows several middle-class Californians who (like this film's intended audience) love Austen's writing and insight into human relationships.
After Sylvia's (Amy Brenneman) marriage falls apart, her friends start a book club to distract her. Prudie (Emily Blunt), a neurotic young French teacher, also has marital problems--she thinks her husband is not sensitive enough. Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the only male in the club, joined in order to get to know Jocelyn (Maria Bello) better, but that's not an easy task. The youngest and oldest club members--impetuous lesbian Allegra (Maggie Grace) and warmhearted den mother Bernadette (Kathy Baker)--are there mostly to support the other characters.
The ensemble cast is a bit of a mixed bag. I felt like I knew Jocelyn and Sylvia more from what the other characters said about them than from Bello's and Brenneman's performances. Dancy is charmingly geeky but has trouble disguising his British accent. Blunt, however, does a good American accent and isn't afraid to show Prudie's needy and unlikable side.
Familiarity with Austen's six novels may not be an absolute necessity to enjoy this film, but it probably helps. For instance, Allegra's story is OK on its own but becomes more fun if you realize that she parallels the character of Marianne from "Sense and Sensibility." My favorite scenes involve all six club members ostensibly discussing Austen's books but really using them as code to talk about their own relationships. It reminds us of how relevant Austen's work still is.
Still, "The Jane Austen Book Club" often feels more like a competent but not ground-breaking TV series than a feature film. The episodic structure (each section of the film is devoted to a different Austen novel) and relatively large cast of characters seem to belong to television, and since the movie juggles so many story lines it can't develop them deeply. Also slightly disappointing is that the movie doesn't capture the wit and humor of Austen's novels nor make any new claims about love and relationships in the 21st century. It's smarter than the average chick flick, but not destined to become a classic.
Defiant, and still powerful
The credits of "Z" end with an anti-disclaimer: "Any resemblance to real persons or events is DELIBERATE." So, though the characters in the movie speak French and live in an unnamed Mediterranean country, it's only a slightly fictionalized account of something that really happened in 1963 Greece. Conservative generals orchestrate the assassination of a popular liberal politician (Yves Montand), then do everything they can to stop the truth of the conspiracy from coming to light.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the judge investigating the "incident." He's a youngish guy, maybe a little inexperienced, but steadily gaining in confidence and determination to uncover the conspiracy. Marcel Bozzuffi gives a memorably vicious performance as one of the hoodlums who assassinates the Deputy. "Z" isn't really about its characters as individual people, though--more about how they operate in the context of the political systems surrounding them.
Most of "Z" is filmed in engaging political-thriller style, with some tense action sequences and a driving, rhythmic score. But the ending is especially powerful because it reverses everything that happened so far, relating the worst possible outcome in a detached, journalistic tone. Yet a world of anger and defiance underlies these final moments.
Certainly, it was a brave act to make "Z" in the late 1960s, and several of the film's crew were exiled from Greece when they made it. In some ways, the movie is very much of its era: it must have resonated with Americans who had seen several assassinations in the 1960s and with French people who had lived through the riots of May 1968.
But what interests me is that a surprisingly high number, 10 percent, of IMDb users have given "Z" just one star. If a movie has a lot of 1-star ratings yet is generally considered well-made (like "Z"), this suggests that it is controversial, that it still frightens people, that its message is too hard to take. But despite all those 1-star ratings, "Z" won't just shut up and go away. As long as corrupt governments exist, this movie's message will remain alive. After all...that's what "Z" means.
Iron Man (2008)
A comic book movie that's more than a cartoon
The character of Tony Stark/Iron Man is like wish-fulfillment for comic-book nerds: an engineering genius, a mighty superhero, and a debonair ladies' man all at once. That combination might sound improbable on paper, but Robert Downey Jr. makes it believable, and very entertaining. He credibly shows Tony's transition from amoral opportunist to responsible hero, but fortunately never loses his sense of humor. His quick-witted, sarcastic line readings keep you aware at all times that there's a human being underneath that shiny metal suit.
Indeed, it sounds weird to say this about a superhero movie, but the best thing about "Iron Man" is that it's somehow realistic. For instance, Iron Man's nemesis isn't just some random guy who dresses up in a supervillain costume and plots to rule the world. Instead, he's Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Tony's business partner, who doesn't like the way Tony is running the company and crafts his own metal suit in retaliation. Also, it makes sense that if a superhero suddenly emerged on the scene, the U.S. military would want to monitor what was going on--which leads to the movie's best action sequence, as Iron Man is attacked by two American fighter planes. Tony Stark's Los Angeles feels like our world with somewhat cooler technology--not enhanced with extra bright colors as in the "Spider-Man" movies or extra gloom as in "Batman." The movie even has some contemporary relevance, questioning how to behave responsibly in a world threatened by terrorism.
The storytelling of "Iron Man" is generally solid, though the movie maybe spends a bit too long on sequences of Tony constructing and testing the Iron Man suit, first in Afghanistan then back in America. I mean, Downey does a good job of acting with only robots and gadgets to keep him company, but it's even more fun to watch him interact with his straitlaced pal Rhodey (Terrence Howard) or his concerned and capable assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
We'll certainly see more from all these performers (except Bridges) in the inevitable sequel, now that this movie has told the hero's origin story in such an enjoyable way. Marvel Studios has definitely grabbed the brass ring with "Iron Man," its first-ever release.
Sex and the City (2008)
Sentiment, not satire
In going from TV show to feature film, "Sex and the City" is more colorful, fashion-mad, and ambitious than ever, but it's lost much of its humor and its edge. The TV series had an irreverent tone and each 30-minute episode was based around a central concern. The movie goes for sentiment over satire, and never develops a unified theme. OK, it all has to do with romance and happiness, but so does every romantic comedy. I expected something more pointed.
Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) goes from "Heaven on Fifth Avenue"--Mr. Big's penthouse apartment with a huge closet--to relationship hell, when Big gets another attack of commitment-phobia. The on-and-off Carrie-Big stuff has gotten old, and Carrie's love for him makes her look desperate, naive, or immature. And after a lot of scenes of Carrie's post-breakup depression, the movie gets her back together with Big in a hasty and unconvincing way.
Miranda, like Carrie, gets a "heavy" storyline, but it's awkwardly handled. It's hard to believe that Steve would ever cheat on Miranda, and the script doesn't even try to explain his motivations. Still, Cynthia Nixon (probably the most talented of the four actresses) made me feel for Miranda, and I love her tossed-off quips.
Kim Cattrall made me laugh as Samantha, and it's refreshing to see a 50-year-old woman portrayed as such a sexual being. But it's awkward for Samantha to live in LA and constantly fly cross-country to see her friends--and that makes the ending of her story predictable, too.
Motherhood has done nothing to mature Charlotte (Kristin Davis)--she's more daffy and cartoonish than ever, with a cutesy happily-ever-after storyline. Again, I'd prefer something sharper, perhaps about how Charlotte juggles her identities as WASP daughter, Jewish wife, and mother to a Chinese-born little girl. (Charlotte's child, Lily, is also irritating--too docile.)
I appreciate the impulse to add a younger, non-white woman to the cast (Carrie's assistant Louise, played by Jennifer Hudson), but her character exists to support Carrie, not to illuminate what "sex and the city" means for the next generation of New York girls. Most of the male characters are underwritten as well, despite the nearly 2.5-hour running time.
Ultimately, the "Sex and the City" movie wants to have its Magnolia Bakery cupcakes and eat them too. It suggests that Carrie was wrong to get caught up planning a fancy wedding instead of focusing on what she and Big truly desired. But it also wants the audience to ooh and aah over the montage of designer wedding gowns. The movie says that guys may hurt you, but your gal pals will always come through--then says it's OK to mock a busy working mom for not having perfectly waxed her bikini line. And then suggests that if Miranda had "maintained" herself better, Steve might not have strayed. (To her credit, Miranda takes offense at this.) The annoying new song from the movie asks "Labels or Love?" and the movie responds that you cannot be a true woman unless you have BOTH. Perhaps that's just wish-fulfillment. But it's more materialistic, and much less sexy, than the TV series that I remember.
Sherman's March (1985)
Eccentric women in a pretty eccentric movie
Ross McElwee, a native Southerner, started off wanting to make a straightforward documentary film about General Sherman's march, but then his girlfriend broke up with him. The result is an idiosyncratic and personal documentary, as McElwee tries to film his Sherman movie but can only obsess about the various women he meets along the way, and his own personal failings.
"Sherman's March" is funny because of its many characters and lines of dialogue that are so crazy, you'd never believe them if they were in a fiction film. Best of all is Charleen, McElwee's former teacher, who is convinced that Ross just needs to sweep a girl off her feet--even if he's never met her before. And nearly all of the young women McElwee meets come across as kooky--two of them believe that the Apocalypse is imminent and another considers herself a "female prophet." Many of them are attached to men who also seem weird or distant. A feminist lawyer, whom McElwee considers the lost love of his life, wishes she could love him, but is instead obsessed with a guy who collects giant plastic animals. Like I said: you can't make this stuff up.
The Sherman theme crops up now and then, but McElwee could have done more with it. At one point he discusses the strength and courage displayed by the women of Atlanta when Sherman destroyed their city, then cuts to some footage of two self-absorbed actresses--you can't help thinking that Southern women have diminished in quality over the last 100 years. But he never picks up this thread again.
"Sherman's March" is a rambling movie, and at over 2.5 hours, way too long. And though McElwee's deadpan observations, delivered in voice-over, are frequently amusing, he is also a masochist, which diminishes our sympathy for him. He spends time on a near-deserted island, where he is tortured by mosquitoes, ticks, and the knowledge that the only two other people on the island are an attractive female linguist and her boyfriend. Later, he breaks things off with a hot musician (one of the few women who doesn't seem like a kook) in order to agonize over the aforementioned lawyer. Moments like these just make you frustrated with the filmmaker and his quest, not approving of it.
The Letter (1940)
Murder and blackmail in colonial Singapore
Six shots ring out through the humid night air of a Singapore rubber plantation. Leslie (Bette Davis), wife of plantation owner Robert (Herbert Marshall) claims that she shot Geoff Hammond in self-defense, but a letter exists that contains some hints to the contrary... Such is the premise of "The Letter," a rather innocuous title for this moody melodrama.
Davis does a fine job as the hypocritical Leslie: her famous eyes flash with scorn or widen in fear. Other good performances come from Marshall as the weak, good-hearted husband; James Stephenson as Leslie's morally conflicted lawyer; and Victor Sen Yung as the lawyer's clerk who hides sinister news beneath his subservient smile.
The murder-and-blackmail plot of "The Letter" is pretty basic (and with a bit of tinkering could easily be adapted to many time periods and cultures) but the movie gets much of its power from its colonial-era Singapore setting. Melodramatic music, often based on Asian-style melodies, plays throughout, and William Wyler's direction is wonderfully atmospheric, full of nighttime breezes and lurking shadows. Gale Sondergaard gets to make a terrific entrance through a beaded curtain, which helps compensate for the fact that her character doesn't speak a word of English and is rather an Orientalist stereotype.
Production Code rules forced the ending of "The Letter" to deviate from Maugham's original story, but the new conclusion works surprisingly well--it's sleek, elegant and foreboding, as is the rest of the movie.
French Cancan (1955)
Technicolor musical comedy with a French twist
As a longtime admirer of the 2001 film "Moulin Rouge" and a more recent admirer of Jean Renoir's film-making, I knew that I'd inevitably watch his "French Cancan" sooner or later. The movie tells a fictionalized story of the opening of the Moulin Rouge nightclub. The impresario Danglard (Jean Gabin) tries to turn Montmartre laundress Nini (Françoise Arnoul) into a cancan star, without arousing the wrath of his tempestuous mistress, the belly-dancing Lola (Maria Felix). This is just one of several love triangles in "French Cancan"--true to stereotype, these French showbiz folk are always falling in love.
Renoir directs with his typical gentle humor and attention to supporting characters, and also wrote the lyrics to a beautiful waltz song prominently featured in the movie. Gabin perfectly incarnates the aging French playboy hero. Arnoul is a cute redhead who holds her own in the dance numbers, except for a few trick shots where a double is obviously used.
"French Cancan" is billed as a musical comedy and while there are lots of musical numbers that take place on the nightclub stage, etc., only one character, Casimir, ever breaks into song in the middle of conversation. The actor who plays him, Philippe Clay, is fun to watch--a really tall, skinny young man who sings, dances, and does contortions.
The movie ends with a long cancan sequence, as all the characters learn to triumph over their problems and make art together. The dancing is much more brightly lit and coherently edited than in "Moulin Rouge"; in fact, if I have one complaint about "French Cancan," it's that the whole thing is a little too Technicolor. Even when Nini experiences heartbreak or someone sings a melancholy song, the lighting is bright and flat, no shadows intruding. Yes, the result is a cheerful and warmhearted musical comedy; it's just that I can't help thinking that things weren't ever this colorful and innocent in real life.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Dizzying dialogue and surprising cynicism
"His Girl Friday" is one of the most famous, fastest, and funniest of the "comedies of remarriage" popular in the 1930s and '40s. In it, newspaperman Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries any means necessary to get back his ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy (Rosalind Russell) before she marries a mild-mannered insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy) the next day.
I had seen the first scene of "His Girl Friday" in a film class as an example of screwball comedy dialogue: Hildy comes into Walter's office to announce her upcoming marriage, but it turns into nearly ten minutes of reminiscing, bickering, and talking circles around each other. And they speak as fast as they can spit the words out! Grant and Russell obviously have a lot of fun playing off of one another, and their scenes made me almost dizzy with delight--marveling at the writing, the acting, and the sheer speed of it all!
But, while I knew to expect a love-triangle plot and fast-paced dialogue from "His Girl Friday," I wasn't expecting it to be such a cynical and tough-minded look into the newspaper business. More than just a romantic comedy, it has an exciting subplot centered on serious issues like the death penalty and political corruption. An escaped prisoner points a gun at Hildy; Walter conspires with lowlifes to get Hildy's fiancé arrested. Both Hildy and Walter are pretty unscrupulous in pursuit of a good story, but this serves to humanize them--they're real people with big desires, not just machines spouting rat-a-tat dialogue. So above all, I loved how "His Girl Friday" maintains a balance between the down-and-dirty newspaper world and the ethereal giddiness of great comedy.
The Bard's story, but not his words
One of the wave of teen-Shakespeare adaptations of the late 1990s/early 2000s, "O" resets the story of "Othello" among basketball players at an elite South Carolina prep school. It follows the original story very closely, changing only a few incidents in order to fit with the idea that the characters are now teenagers. For instance, now Hugo (the Iago figure, played by Josh Hartnett) is jealous of Odin (the Othello figure, Mekhi Phifer) because Hugo's dad, the basketball coach (Martin Sheen) favors Odin and ignores his own son.
Unfortunately, making the characters teenagers just points up the implausibility of the story. While you could say that the amount of bloodshed and death at the end of Shakespeare's play is also hard to believe, at least those characters are military men living in a violent and patriarchal culture. It's much less credible that a modern-day prep school student could be coaxed into killing his supposedly unfaithful girlfriend.
Phifer has some good moments when he depicts Odin's anguish, but isn't able to convince us that his character would so quickly resort to murder. Julia Stiles, as girlfriend Desi, is mostly weak and whiny. Hartnett overuses his furrowed eyebrows and whisper-voice to signal Hugo's dark intentions--and while handsome, he lacks the diabolical charisma necessary for this role. Indeed, the movie makes him almost sympathetic, which is problematic because then Odin seems more like a villain, the stereotypical "angry black kid."
The worst things about "O" are its heavy-handed symbolism involving birds (hawks and doves) and its laughably bad dialogue. Its strings of clichés and swear words, supposedly representing teen-speak, would be irritating in any movie, but it feels even worse since we know that "O" was adapted from Shakespeare. When the movie tries to rewrite Shakespeare's memorable lines, it's even more painful. Iago's famous speech denouncing the idea of "reputation" becomes Hugo saying "Reputation, who gives a f***?"
So, while it was a worthy idea to try to adapt the Othello story to a contemporary setting, I doubt that the reputations of the actors, director and screenwriter have been enhanced by their participation in "O."
Ball of Fire (1941)
The cat's a killer-diller
Some people today are still fascinated by the vivid slang that Americans used in the 1930s and 1940s (exhibit A: the Coen Brothers), and "Ball of Fire" proves that even in 1941, people knew that the slang they were using was something special. The screenplay by Billy Wilder gets laughs when Professor Potts (Gary Cooper) tries to discover the difference between, say, "corny" and "baloney," for an encyclopedia entry on slang. Aiding him in this endeavor is Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer who helps Potts in order to hide from the police, who are seeking her gangster boyfriend. At first Potts sees only Sugarpuss' ability to say things like "Shove in your clutch," and not her other charms (displayed in a spirited performance of "Drum Boogie," with Gene Krupa), but he soon becomes aware of those, too.
Potts is the youngest of eight professors compiling an encyclopedia; the other seven are played by endearing, familiar character actors. Sugarpuss livens up all of their lives, and they, by treating her with kindness and respect, make her realize she deserves a better life. The seven professors contribute much of the movie's humor, but their roles could be a little sharper, too. They seem more like an undifferentiated mass of sweet and funny old men than seven distinct comic personalities.
Cooper does a fine job as the shy professor, and Stanwyck is absolutely delightful as the tough-talking but warmhearted Sugarpuss. And they play off each other so well that the movie loses something toward the end, when Sugarpuss is back with the gangsters in New Jersey while Potts is being held hostage in New York.
"Ball of Fire" is similar to some other, better-known films made by these same creators. The interaction of nerdy-cute professor and vivacious young woman recalls director Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby," and the insertion of threatening mobsters into a silly comedy anticipates Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot." Especially recommended for fans of those movies--or for anyone who likes clever classic comedies.
Oberst Redl (1985)
An empire, and a man, in decline
"Colonel Redl" is based on a famous scandal that took place in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and its greatest strength is in how it evokes the masculine militarism of the era. It follows the life of Alfred Redl (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who rose from humble origins to become a spymaster for Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, but struggled to repress his homosexuality and eventually betrayed his country.
The movie makes Redl less treasonous than he seems to have been in reality, and Brandauer's performance keeps him sympathetic, too. We see how Redl's extreme loyalty to the army destroys his humanity and fills him with self-loathing; thus, when he finally stops lying to himself, it comes as a relief (even though this now means that he is lying to everybody else).
"Colonel Redl" is probably too long (2 hours 20 minutes) for the story it wants to tell, and yet it still sometimes glosses over its characters' motivations. For instance, Redl claims he has no interest in marrying, then the very next scene depicts his wedding; and his wife never gets sufficiently characterized. Sometimes the scene transitions are subtly clever; other times they are abrupt and choppy.
"Colonel Redl" is thus neither accurate history nor fully engaging drama, but it is a good portrait of the declining Austro-Hungarian empire. It shows many of the factors that led to World War I: pervasive ethnic tensions, the belief that war was necessary and proper, and a military command more concerned with preserving archaic ideals than with investigating actual, pressing threats. In the end, they paid for this, when discontented Serbians assassinated Franz Ferdinand and started World War I--the war that caused the world of "Colonel Redl" to disappear for good.
Gets deeper and wiser as it goes, just like Juno herself
Movies named after their main character usually work best if that character has an outsize, iconic quality--and Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) certainly qualifies. A smart-mouthed 16-year-old who becomes pregnant by her friend-with-benefits Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), she is the star of one of the year's best comedy films.
The movie is divided into three sections to correspond with the three trimesters of Juno's pregnancy, as well as the conventional three-act screenplay structure. The first part gets off to a rough start because the dialogue is over-written, too clever by half. Some of this is necessary to characterize Juno as a snarky alterna-teen, but why should a random pharmacist talk this way as well? Also, the filmmakers don't convincingly explain why the self-confident Juno chickens out of getting an abortion.
Things get better with the introduction of Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), the yuppie couple who want to adopt Juno's baby. Their dialogue is "normal," not overly hip, and their arrival really sets the plot in motion. The relationships between Mark, Vanessa, and Juno become interestingly complex, and their characters deepen--we learn that our first impressions of them do not tell the whole story.
Indeed, although the first part of the movie seems to idealize everything about Juno (her wit, her taste in music, her hamburger phone), it eventually allows her to be unlikable at times. Her flippant jokes do not impress Mark and Vanessa, and she behaves thoughtlessly toward sweet Paulie. When she apologizes to him in front of his cross-country teammates, it's a nice reversal of all those teen movies where the guy publicly apologizes to the girl.
So by the end, what seemed like it was going to be 90 minutes of shallow pop-culture allusions becomes a warmhearted comedy about a teenage girl learning that she still has a lot to learn. Though Juno's dialogue is still sardonic and clever, it no longer feels artificial. At her lowest point, she quips "I've been out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level"--a funny line, but one that shows her vulnerability and fear of growing up too fast.
At least, that's what I got from Ellen Page's reading of that line, and it feels spot-on, like all of her work in this film. Michael Cera assists with his trademark awkward-but-trying-not-to-show-it attitude, and together Page and Cera provide an adorable final scene. Bateman and Garner handle their character development well, and J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney play Juno's sympathetic parents. And I am especially looking forward to writer Diablo Cody's next project--I hope she got her excesses out of her system with the first part of "Juno," because the rest of the movie proves that she can write a charming comedy.
Lost souls in Dublin
Descriptions of "Once" as a modern-day musical are all well and good, but to give a better sense of its mood and style, a comparison to "Lost in Translation" seems to fit. Both movies depict a wistful friendship-slash-romance between a rumpled, sad-eyed guy and a dewy younger girl. In "Lost in Translation," Bob and Charlotte's connection grew stronger when they sang karaoke together--"Once" takes this idea and runs with it, focusing entirely on how music unites the two nameless protagonists. A busking Irish guitarist (Glen Hansard) and a Czech pianist (Marketa Irglova) meet by accident, discover their shared love of music, and quickly become songwriting/recording partners.
The best scene in the movie is definitely their first song together, "Falling Slowly." Irglova gaining confidence and starting to harmonize with Hansard, and director John Carney finally giving us a close-up of their two faces singing, are both beautiful moments. Wisely, this same song closes the movie--and though the characters are now at a very different place, the lyrics take on new resonance. The other musical highlight is a long tracking shot of Irglova walking along a street late at night, wearing pajamas, singing some lyrics she has just written. Other songs are more generic "singer-songwriter" stuff, even though the lyrics match the characters' emotions and the music sounds like what they would write.
Rock musician Hansard's falsetto voice and twisted-up facial expressions when singing convey his character's sensitive side (he just broke up with his girlfriend). Irglova was just 17 when filming this movie, but she is an old soul (rather like Johansson in "Lost in Translation"). Her character is strong and forthright so much of the time, yet afraid to confront her own feelings.
Ultimately, I prefer "Lost in Translation" because the incidents it depicted were more varied and amusing; "Once"'s total focus on the music means that if you don't like the songs, you're out of luck. Also, scenes like the rather contrived meet-cute don't stand up to scrutiny. Still, both movies are fine examples of how sometimes our most memorable, life-changing relationships happen by accident and last only a short time--and certainly don't conform to Hollywood norms. As it should, the ending of "Once" has the right bittersweet effect.
I'm Not There. (2007)
Preaches to the choir of Dylan fans
"I'm Not There," Todd Haynes' meditation on Bob Dylan's many facets, never mentions Dylan by name, preferring allusion and metaphor instead. Judging by the amount of 10-star ratings this movie has received here on the IMDb, it seems to have found an admiring audience, but I'd bet that most of them are Dylan fans who understand what Haynes is trying to say. I'm a little different: though I very much respect Dylan as a songwriter and musician, I was born in the 1980s, and thus missed all of the cultural moments that Haynes alludes to. As a result, I think my appreciation of the movie was severely diminished.
Haynes does have a reputation for making intellectual or postmodern films, but I feel like that got the better of him here. I loved his "Far From Heaven" because it wasn't merely clever; it made me emotionally involved with the characters and story. "I'm Not There" has fewer emotional moments, and even when I started to feel connected to certain characters, I constantly wondered, "Why is he showing me this? What does this have to do with the rest of the movie, or with Dylan? Is there some hidden meaning I'm not getting?"
For instance, one of the movie's Dylan incarnations is an 11-year-old African-American hobo, played by Marcus Carl Franklin. Franklin has lots of personality and is fun to watch, but still is almost overshadowed by his character's metaphorical, cultural, and historical "significance." And the film's most thoroughly explored relationship is the troubled marriage of actor Robbie (Heath Ledger) and painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but that seemed like outtakes from a different story, that of the celebrity who abandons his wife when he gets famous. At least this segment had fewer obscure Dylan references.
I admired much of the acting and Haynes' ability to give each segment a different look and feel, but often I wondered whether I wouldn't have been better off buying a few more Dylan albums and reading something about the real Dylan instead. For example, I really enjoyed Cate Blanchett's performance as the jittery, sneering, gnomic "Jude Quinn"--she does a great job of being incredibly charismatic and incredibly off-putting at once. But if her mannerisms and some of her dialogue were copied from the Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back," as is apparently the case, should I have just watched that instead?
Then there are certain aspects that don't work at all. One Dylan incarnation, "Arthur Rimbaud" (Ben Whishaw) is just on hand to make enigmatic pronouncements. Another, "Billy the Kid" (Richard Gere), shows up in a segment full of if-Fellini-were-American images (à la Tim Burton's "Big Fish"). This is the kind of literal-minded recreation of Dylan's surreal lyrics that made the Broadway musical "The Times They Are A-Changin'" such a notorious flop, and it just feels like padding here.
"I'm Not There" is partially about Dylan's complex relationship with his fans--his desire to keep changing his image, upsetting people's preconceived notions and refusing to preach to the choir. It's too bad, then, that "I'm Not There" is the definition of a preaching-to-the-choir film: probably satisfying for Dylan obsessives, but too cryptic for us Dylan rookies.
La règle du jeu (1939)
There's a good reason it's on all those greatest-films lists
Some of the movies that appear frequently on lists of "the greatest films of all time" seem to be there more for their technical qualities, not for the appeal they have for a 21st-century audience. ("Battleship Potemkin," anyone?) But the wonderful "The Rules of the Game" is not one of those movies. It should appeal to anyone who likes stories where a group of upper-class people and their servants gather in a château for a week of countryside pleasures and amorous intrigue--and to anyone who hates country-château movies that idealize and sentimentalize the upper class. "The Rules of the Game" clearly identifies its characters' flaws, but tries to understand them, not condemn them. This remarkable attitude is key to the movie's success and is summed up in its famous quote "The awful thing is that everyone has his reasons."
These words are spoken by Octave, played by the movie's director, Jean Renoir. Octave is friends with most of the other characters, especially the aristocratic couple Robert and Christine de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio and Nora Gregor). Both of them are having affairs: Christine's still unconsummated with aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain); Robert's long-term with Genevieve (Mila Parely). These people and several others converge on Robert's château for a shooting party. There's a love triangle in the servants' quarters as well: Christine's maid (Paulette Dubost) is ignoring her husband (Gaston Modot) in favor of Marceau, a poacher who has just been hired as an extra servant (Julien Carette).
Thanks to the ensemble's performances, you truly feel like you know these people after watching "The Rules of the Game." I love Renoir's portly geniality (especially when he dresses up as a bear for a costume party), Dalio's performance as a weak man-child of a Marquis, Gregor's fluttery German-accented French, Carette's mischievous smile and tense-shouldered posture, Modot's transformation from a "big brute" into a defeated man. I also like how the movie draws parallels and connections between its many characters. There's a great scene at the end between Octave and Marceau where you realize that these men are very similar: likable, but always an outsider, never in the inner circle.
"The Rules of the Game" is, of course, also renowned for its technological innovations and cinematography. Indeed, the deep-focus shots are impressive, but they always help to tell the story--they are never merely showoffy. And the long costume-party sequence, during which all kinds of farcical chaos explodes, is pure cinematic delight. Perfectly staged, shot, and edited, the action and the characters' motivations are always clear, even at their most complex.
After this comic sequence, the movie ends on a quieter and sadder note, to leave you with a sort of mixed-up feeling, in a good way. Something happens that, in one sense, is pure bad luck, and in another sense, is inevitable. These characters, after all, live their lives by an arcane set of "rules"--like the mechanical dolls and music boxes that Robert collects. And yet "The Rules of the Game" is the opposite of mechanical, soulless film-making. It truly is one of the greats.
Barton Fink (1991)
"I'll show you the life of the mind!"
In 1941, New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro), author of a sensitive drama about "the common man," gets hired by a Hollywood studio to write a wrestling movie. He holes up in a decrepit hotel, where he comes down with a massive case of writer's block. The Coen Brothers use this story to explore the creative process, selling out, and probably a lot more besides--though, due to their fondness for symbol and metaphor, these other topics are buried a little deeper.
When I was halfway through the movie I felt like it was getting predictable. The notion of an idealistic, blocked writer struggling to survive in commercial Hollywood is nothing new. Nor is putting him in a love triangle, when he becomes attracted to the lover (Judy Davis) of the alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, parodying William Faulkner). And every night, Barton chats with Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), the self-described "big lug" in the room next door to him. This friendly neighbor who keeps dropping in seems like something out of a sitcom. Still, the movie is never less than entertaining, because of its distinctive Coen Brothers style. The dialogue delights in old American slang and speech patterns, the actors play their oddball roles with humor, and the visuals/cinematography are interesting.
And, just when I thought I could see how the movie was going, the plot takes a massive turn. The Coens return to one of their favorite motifs, an almost apocalyptic sense of violence, and Barton's life in Hollywood becomes increasingly surreal. This twist, however, has been carefully set up: just look at the eerie atmosphere of Barton's hotel, or the number of times the dialogue has used the words "head" or "mind."
"Barton Fink" obviously functions on several levels, and one that I find most rewarding is the exploration of Barton's character (played by Turturro with many hilarious facial expressions). He has high ideals and one successful play, but he is also strangely disconnected from the world. He prefers analyzing his own writing process to actually writing, and he shies away from interacting with other people--which is the kiss of death for a playwright.
In one scene, Barton denounces playwrights who "insulate themselves from the common man, so naturally their work regresses into empty formalism." He lacks the self-awareness to realize that he's doing the same thing; yet this also seems like a self-aware joke on the part of the Coen Brothers, whose work has also been accused of "empty formalism." The second half of "Barton Fink" is indeed strange and stylized, and maybe it wouldn't appeal to "the common man"--but there's depth there; it's far from empty.
Excellent stage-to-screen transfer
I'm a longtime Sondheim and "Sweeney Todd" fan, so it's hard for me to briefly sum up my thoughts about this movie version--but, if I had to, I'd just say, it's a success and I truly enjoyed it. Yes, I have some quibbles--but I'd probably have similar quibbles with any stage production; I nitpick because I like this show so much and know it so well.
The musical is based on the nineteenth-century urban legend of vengeful barber Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) who slits his customers' throats, and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who bakes the corpses into meat pies. Tim Burton was obviously attracted to the terrifying Gothic elements of this story (he favors the bloodletting over the cannibalism) but the characters have true passion behind them; they are not just Gothic cartoons.
Depp acts the role of Sweeney Todd very well, getting more intense, more aloof, more inhuman as the movie proceeds. But he sometimes sings in a crooning pop style that proves distracting--too modern. I prefer Mrs. Lovett portrayed as jollier, less haunted than Bonham Carter plays her, but she eventually eases into the role and finds the humor in it. The two have good duets in "My Friends" and "A Little Priest."
The distinctive supporting roles are all well cast and add texture to the movie. For a sadistic, villainous judge and his unctuous assistant, what current British actors are better than Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall? For the young lovers, I enjoyed seeing a Johanna (Jayne Wisener) who really looked just 16 years old and a teenage Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) to pair with her. It was also great to finally see Toby played by a young boy, the talented Ed Sanders. Usually onstage this role is filled by a grown man who has to act mentally retarded; a real child engages your sympathy more, like something out of a Dickens novel. And Sacha Baron Cohen provides a hilarious cameo as a vainglorious barber who employs Toby.
Tim Burton exercises his usual meticulous control over the look of the film, bleaching out almost all color from the production design so that the gushing red blood shows up better. His Victorian London is its own sooty, industrial, sordid world (though I think he borrows his initial winding-through-the-streets shot from Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge"). The few brightly colored flashback and fantasy sequences, especially Mrs. Lovett's song "By the Sea," are a nice contrast.
People like me may regret the loss of some clever Sondheim songs, but the cuts in the movie version make sense: when you're watching it, it feels like a complete work of art. More importantly, the stage show "Sweeney Todd" already had some cinematic aspects to it, and the movie allows them to be realized more fully. In a song like "Johanna," Sweeney sings tenderly of his lost daughter while slitting throats, Anthony wanders the streets searching for his lost love, Mrs. Lovett bakes pies, and a crazed Beggar Woman prophesies doom. The use of intercutting and montage, along with the beautiful and complex song, is the best that movies and musical theater can provide.
Streep's showcase--perhaps overly so
At over two hours, Mike Nichols' "Silkwood" is rather long and slowly paced, and not quite what I was expecting. The dramatic, mysterious circumstances surrounding the real Karen Silkwood's life and death led me to think that the movie would be suspenseful and closely plotted, focused mainly on the subject of unsafe working conditions at a plutonium-processing facility. Instead, it's more of a character-based movie, a chance for Meryl Streep to create a detailed portrait of a working-class Oklahoma woman.
Of course it's always a pleasure to watch Streep dig deeply into a character. She subverts our initial impression that Karen is just a rowdy good-time girl, playing her as a woman who throws herself into union and workplace-safety concerns because she is losing everything else in her life. She also has good scenes with Kurt Russell (as her boyfriend) and Cher (as her lesbian housemate).
But ultimately, I think that Nichols loves his leading lady a little too much. He lights and shoots Streep to look almost too movie-star pretty in many scenes (despite her awful shag haircut), and her voice is almost too good when she sings "Amazing Grace." Several scenes could be trimmed or cut entirely, and Karen's character arc would still be in place. For instance, the first 30 minutes of the movie spend way too long dealing with Karen's relationship with her three children, who are now in the custody of her ex-husband, but never appear in the movie after that.
Because Nichols is never sure whether to focus more attention on Karen's relationships or on her job, and is unwilling to even try to explain the confused circumstances behind Karen Silkwood's death, "Silkwood," while a good showcase for Streep, does not fully work as a film.