Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sweeney Todd - 2007

“Vengeance is mine,” says God, and rightly so.

We’re hardly equipped to handle it.

Sweeney Todd, the story of a man wronged by the cruel oppression of the powerful. Accused of a crime he didn’t commit so that a lustful judge (as only Alan Rickman can do it) might have Benjamin Barker’s wife, Barker is sent to Australia. Years later, he escapes and returns to London, under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd, to find his wife and regain his daughter.

But Lucy (his wife) is “dead,” and the daughter, now the ward of the evil judge.

And so begins a journey of revenge, growing darker as it unfolds.

Without giving it away, the story hinges on irony that can only end in a final tragedy. I suppose we might say, those who live by the razor die by the razor.

Technically, what we have come to expect from Tim Burton – visually a flawless film, typically gruesome, but stylishly so - and musically (Stephen Sondheim), very powerful. I’m a reluctant fan of musicals. When I was younger, I didn’t like them at all, but in recent years, I’ve come to appreciate the art, the science, of a good musical, I suppose some of this is related to my interest in opera – just another musical, if you will, telling a common story of love lost, love found, maybe, and all the attendant tricks of the trade, with plenty of sadness and vengeance.

I found myself entranced by Johnny Depp’s gifted portrayal of a man twisted by great sorrow. Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is equally flawless. Her character is just as skewed as Todd, though addled by love rather than revenge. She becomes Todd’s “partner” in crime because she has always loved him.

Their pancake makeup and darkened eyes corresponds to the smoke and smog of Victorian London – an eerie Tim Burton device.

The film ends with lots of twists and turns.

Clearly, an achievement in musical filmmaking.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Visitor

A remarkable story ... a college professor recently widowed, with a career no longer exciting, drifting through life, going through piano teachers in an effort to learn the piano, but to no avail, suddenly thrust into a drama of incredible proportions.

Played by Richard Jenkins, perfectly cast for the role, the story unfolds so unexpectedly, as does Professor Walter Vale's heart. A cool, detached man - not really heartless, but with terribly low blood pressure, if you will, teaching the same course for years in a Connecticut college, now in New York City for a conference to read a paper he didn't write. When he opens the door to his city apartment - where he's not been in months, it's apparent someone is living there, and that's the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

Even as I write these words, they might suggest some kind of a fairy tale, but no fairy tale here, just the reality of lives unexpectedly intertwined, with subtle political commentary: after 911, this country has become a cruel place for immigrants, illegal or otherwise. The mother of a young man in detention headed for deportation says, "This is just like Syria." What with our Guantanamo Bay and acceptance of torture, we have lost our bearings. I still believe that America has reservoirs of goodness and greatness, but like reservoirs in Georgia, without replenishment, the levels are dropping.

This is a tale of woe - a poignant reminder that everyone is a person, and many of the so-called "illegals" are caught up in economic and/or political currents from which they're seeking escape. On a Staten Island Ferry ride, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, the film reminds without being preachy that our greatness is to be found in acceptance and openness.

As I watched the story unfold, I kept asking myself, "How can this nation recover its balance?"

After 911, we responded, neither with dignity nor wisdom befitting a great nation but with the craven and fearful posturing of a nation without integrity, a feigned greatness created by millitary prowess rather than political wisdom. Bush and Gang played the fear card again and again, trumping every hand played by anyone else. And too many Americans bought into it, too many who love their "way of life," and will destroy anything and anyone who seemingly poses a threat, forgetting that we're all in this together, seduced by the bump and grind of war.

It's a powerful story, well acted for all.

Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, and Haaz Sleiman give stellar performances.

I loved the photography (Oliver Bokelberg), and hats off to the editor (Tom McArdle).

The film ends as it should - not happily, but folks making the best of a hard time. The professor and the boy's mother say farewell in the airport, she on her way back to Syria to be with her son, he goes to the subway with his drum (you'll have to see the film to learn how a staid professor becomes a drummer), and there in the subway, begins to drum, something the young man, now deported, always wanted to do.

Life goes on, both richer and poorer for love experienced, love given, and love lost.

Humorous without being comedic, poignant without being syrupy, political without being preachy, this is an extraordinary film.

For a fine review, see the June 3 Christian Century.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones

I loved it.

It was campy throughout … playing itself, if you will … with great music, photography, all the cliff-hanging (literally) suspense one has come to expect from Indiana Jones.

Paramount pulled off a difficult feat – playing to the older audience who loves Harrison Ford, playing him as it should be – an aging professor, still capable of heroic exploits, but a little older. As he’s looking at pictures on his desk of his father and a friend no longer with him, a fellow-faculty member says, “We’re at that point in time when life no longer gives us things, but takes them away.”

I wish I had said that.

But to play to a younger audience, Paramount teamed a young Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) – you will find out who he really is – who’s a promise for another film. It’s a nice balance, and throw in Karen Allen who plays Marion Ravenwood, an old love interest, adding an interesting twist.

The bad guy, uh, girl (Cate Blanchett), is deliciously and mystically bad … the Russian soldiers are all wonderfully malevolent – a little political commentary on the crazy McCarthy era and the so-called “Red Scare” – then greed, double-crossing friends, combined with Area 51 aliens who visited South America 5 millennia ago – and, of course, the fedora and the bull whip - all the ingredients of a rip-roaring plot and delightfully entertaining film.

Great music, terrific special effects – a finely-tuned script well balanced between thoughtful commentary on aging and family and the comedic.

Great effort – thankfully, Paramount didn’t try to duplicate previous efforts, but building on the theme and feel, created a stand-alone feature.

By the way, in a large warehouse, following a car crash, you catch a brief glimpse of something hidden away a long time ago. Enough said? Enough said.

Go see it – you’ll love it!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prince Caspian

Delightful story (not as intense as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"), great special effects, but I couldn't stop comparing it to the "Lord of the Rings," though C. S. Lewis and Tolkien would agree, since both were members of an informal pub group that met between the early 1930s and 1949 wherein they and others shared ideas, critiqued their work, and drank a lot of beer. All of the members were devoted to narrative in their fiction and the creation of fantasy - while most were Christian in perspective, there were also atheists in the group.

The film is a great youth story (written for children) - every young teen should see it - I think it reaches into the character of a young person to reveal their courage and faith. I think of all the froth to which American youth are subjected - momentarily exciting but with no lasting value, and likely leaving them emptier than ever.

But lets get to the film - I love the kids, Aslan and the badger ... and the Narnians, especially the semi-cynical/philospher played so well by Peter Dinklage - who reminded me of a diminutive Hulk Hogan.

The bad guys weren't quite as bad as I would have liked ... the brief appearance of the Ice Queen gave a genuinely "chilling" moment of pure evil ... yet perhaps the "bad guys" were more an example of the banality of evil - but it's the Ice Queen who represents the purity of evil - beautiful to behold, utterly seductive and promising.

Prince Caspian is the story ... part of an evil empire or sorts by birth, he escapes death at the last minute at the hands of his uncle who wants to be king. Fleeing to the woods, he's taken by the Narnians who were thought to be extinct. In the moment of his capture, when he's not at all clear about his fate, he blows his hunting horn, which calls the kings and queens of old: the four young people who are otherwise back in their London schools during WW 2.

Walking through a portal in the subway, they enter Narnia many centuries after their first sojourn there. And so the story goes.

Though the religious dimension of Lewis' work is carefully managed, it's there - it's Lucy (Georgie Henley) who consistently believes in Aslan, and in the end, Lucy saves the day with Aslan. By the way, the two young ladies, Henley and Anna Popplewell, are extraordinary actors - powerfully expressive faces - Henley is incredibly endearing - a young girl who looks like a little old British lady - commonsensical, get-down-to-business, yet winsomely faithful. She has a great career ahead of her.

Theologically, the story touches upon the dynamics of "waiting in faith" or "taking things into our own hands."

Biblically, "taking things into our own hands" - the efforts of Sarah to provide an heir, and the Israelites invading the Promised Land when God forbade them after a cowardly retreat the first time - all of these self-designed projects led to abject failure.

A delight to watch - but get young people to see it and then talk about it with them - should provoke some very good discussion - what's faith, loyalty and courage? Lots of good things to chat about.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Iron Man


Great music ... seamless special effects ... great acting ... and Robert Downey is perfect. As one commentator put it, a Johnny Depp irony ... although Downey has always had his own ironic style ... giving a stellar performance in this film.

Not to mention Jeff Bridges as the bad guy (surprise!) ... and Gwyneth Paltrow as the faithful assistant ... sort of a souped up Miss Moneypenny (James Bond).

A complicated story successfully told - the origin of Iron Man ... another Marvel comic character brought to the screen, with just the right touches of humor - watch for the robot extinguishing a fire ... and if you see it, stay through the credits ... stay all the way, until the screen goes dark ... sit tight and wait.

It was fun to see the crowds standing in line for this Paramount film ... the most exciting film of the year thus far, a year with too many disappointments, too many so-so films.

The film engages in some political commentary without being overbearing about the armament industry ... there are no easy answers, but a man of conscience can make a difference. Perhaps more to the point, there are those who will resist and seek to kill those who raise the hard questions of morality and legacy.

Enjoy the film, and remember ... stay past the credits.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Baby Mama

Okay, I'm a sucker for love stories, and this was a love story, or sorts, but with some decently clever twists.

Tina Fey does a fine job playing a sweet-hearted rich b ...., wanting desperately to have a baby ... with a great job for a green food store chain headed by aging hippie, Steve Martin, who captures the stupid arrogance of a pretend-to-be-humble jerk.

So she hires a "white trash" surrogate (Amy Poehler) from a company run by a smarmy Sigourney Weaver who can't stop having babies and letting her sad clients know it.

Greg Kinnear plays a familiar role of jilted loner waiting for the right woman to come along, a one-time high-powered attorney now running a juice bar in a struggling neighborhood. His eyes say it all.

The surrogate's common-law husband, a trailor-park inventor, big-mouth, demanding, dreamer played superbly by Dax Shepherd.

A movie with some unexpected twists - a good evening's entertainment.

But uneven ... moments of genuine humor, but as if bits and pieces are missing ... as Rob's (Kinnear) 12-year old daughter in the credits, but now on the cutting room floor. But over all, a lot of fun, a good story with the proverbial happy ending for all.

Worth seeing? I think so.