sweeney scissorhands

I enjoyed Tim Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd a lot. The music was a lot more appealing this time around, maybe because I was familiar with it this time, and maybe because it wasn’t so aggressively oversung in places, just allowed to flow like the language it stood in for. It helped, too, that the “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” songs were left out, which had really reduced the whole thing for me in that Angela Lansbury version.

Nothing against Lansbury herself, mind you, who was of course perfect in the role she originated — totally believable and frightening in her own right, and a fully expressive singer. Helena Bonham Carter was just as terrific, but while gaining a lot more personal appeal she did lose some of the scare factor. This is most evident in the number where she tries to warm Todd up to brighter dreams, “By the Sea.” When Lansbury does it, she’s so perfectly cloying and disgusting about it that you can well imagine Todd slitting his own throat rather than live out her dream with her. Burton and Bonham Carter turn the song into a really quite adorable fantasy sequence with bright sun and cute little bathing outfits and happy scenes in all of which Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd has the same depressed thousand-yard stare. So we trade some sympathy with Todd (whose only solace is this scary parody of his former wife) for a deeper sense of tragedy (because Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett actually seems like she might make pleasant company, but Todd has eyes only for blood). It’s a fair trade, I think.

About that thousand-yard stare: unfortunately it’s pretty much all Depp was asked to do. In scene after scene, we mainly see him staring into the distance looking depressed or sinister. We know Depp’s capable of more as an actor, so it’s a little disappointing that he doesn’t really articulate Todd’s more complex, conflicted emotions. He’s not quite a robot, a “Sweeney Scissorhands” as my girlfriend wittily put it, but the comparison is apt. Imagine Edward, somehow able to grow up, to grow bitter, angry at a world that exiled him and took away the girl he loved, still showing emotion mostly with his eyes and carrying razors in his hands (“at last my arm is complete again!”). The hair’s still huge and wild, but now with a streak of gray. The pallor’s still there, and so is the virtuosic skill, but now they both mean death.

The singing’s fine. You want operatic talent, see another production. The Johanna/Anthony exchanges are still tedious but not torturous. The look of the whole thing is classic Burton, by which I mean monochrome Nightmare Before the Corpse Bride Visited Sleepy Hollow, and it’s perfect. Sacha Borat Cohen is great fun, though his accent is slippery and there’s too little of him, and he has the second best death scene in the film. In keeping with the story, the ending is intensely depressing. So maybe not everyone’s idea of the best way to start Christmas Eve, but we loved it.

It’s Burton’s best film in at least 10 years. If his cartoon gothics appeal to you at all, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

spook country

William Gibson started out way ahead of everyone, both in terms of the time period he was writing about — a fictional future in which cybernetics and space travel are commonplace, and artificial intelligences are sentient and nearly omnipotent — and in terms of style — a mashup of hard-boiled picaresque crime fiction and ultrasleek sci-fi that had been done before (Blade Runner predated Neuromancer by two years) but seldom as well. Gibson famously invented the term “cyberspace” and the genre of “cyberpunk.”

Since that moment his novels have been slowly traveling back through time. After Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive finished off the trilogy begun with Neuromancer, his next three novels (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties) seemed to move to a nearer future, a grungier world of crumbling architecture, the old giving way to the new. Wealth still seemed consumer-derived, goods weren’t entirely disposable, jobs and profit schemes seemed more desperate and difficult. To be honest, I found those books duller; they seemed less urgent and more interested in the scenery than the road. It wasn’t a change in nature so much as degree, and while I enjoyed the scenery I didn’t find it nearly as spectacular, just well-observed and clever.

Then came Pattern Recognition, which was set (like the quintessentially Gibsonian TV series Max Headroom) 20 minutes into the future. Despite the plot turning on a particularly silly MacGuffin — in this case, a set of short video clips released randomly on the internet, leading to an underground craze for piecing them together and analyzing them — I really enjoyed that one. My favorite element was the protagonist’s hypersensitivity to branding, which left her unable to wear anything but the most generic, monochromatic clothing and then only after cutting out the tags and logos.

I expected his latest novel, Spook Country, to be just as appealing. It’s set in the same universe, ours, but in the portion of it run by the very rich and cosmopolitan and culturally au courant. It’s got the same structure, in which a skilled freelancer (in this case, a rock star turned journalist) is employed to seek a MacGuffin so MacGuffiny it’s cited as an example in the Wikipedia article on MacGuffins.

This time Gibson seems less interested in internet memes and more interested in geocoding and post-9/11 sociopolitics, so really a lateral move in terms of lameness (just typing the phrase “post-9/11” makes me want to throw up). Luckily this is William Gibson, so if anybody can make these topics seem freshly interesting, he can.

Apparently nobody can. An overt political statement would have been gauche and out of character, but apart from a character’s casual, astute thought that another character seemed to have stepped out of a past era when the world was “run by grownups,” any direct observations are too subtle to register. We have a DEA agent dragging an addict around with him to do translation work and help him steal firearms from drug dealers when necessary, but if this plotline went somewhere I missed it when I looked away for a second. The geocoding/”locative art” stuff is cute for a second or two (example: with the headset on, you can stand outside the Viper Room and see River Phoenix’s body in virtual reality) but mostly serves as a bridge to the MacGuffin for the rather dull rockstar protagonist. Then there’s a family of Cuban-Chinese urban guerillas smuggling iPods loaded with secret information and doing Russian martial arts and channeling some sort of voodoo loa as they dance ever closer to the MacGuffin. It’s colorful, but what does it all mean?

No one really changes over the course of the story, except perhaps the addict, who finds some clarity and a new life. The rocker/journalist is basically just a camera (the way I suspected a certain object she kept carrying around with her would turn out to be, but it was never clearly explained) and people improbably take her along on missions they have little reason to trust her with. There’s no real payoff even with the MacGuffin. It’s a finely written novel, but if it goes anywhere at all, it does so with way too much subtlety for me to detect. It’s frustrating and a bit of a letdown.

Gibson has always combined a sense of razor-sharp cultural observation with an elegant understatement, and when he was writing about the future it always seemed sufficient for us to ride along with him, face pressed to the windows, marveling at the sights without caring where the train took us in the end. Now that he’s concerned with the present, and is largely showing us what we know or know of, I find myself yearning for a destination or even just a more informative tour guide.

30 days of night (graphic novel)

Disappointing.

The art is impressionistic, indistinct, rendered in gray, black, and red…strong visual choices, but often confusing to the point where it’s difficult to tell what’s just happened and to whom.

The story has a clever premise — since the town of Barrow, Alaska is so far north that it annually experiences a month without sunlight, it’s the perfect place for vampires to throw a festival of murder and blood-quaffing. Unfortunately, the slaughter makes almost no impression because we only know three of the town’s inhabitants by name (one of whom dies as soon as we meet him). Also, there’s almost no indication of the passage of time, no sense (other than a single “I’m hungry”) of the agony and fear that comes with holing up and hiding from the prowling vampires waiting out the month; the clever premise is useless, since the action could have occurred over the course of a single night. And the townspeople’s final solution to the problem is the sort of thing only a moron would try, and yet the solution is effective, though we are given almost no reason to believe it should be. Meanwhile, a secondary plot thread involving what I assume is an occult enthusiast from New Orleans seems to have no purpose whatsoever aside from setting up a sequel.

What is it with comics and bad vampire stories? I remember a rash of them in the mid-90s, many unashamed ripoffs of Anne Rice or Salem’s Lot or both; at least this one has a smidgen of originality. I’ll rent the movie when I get a chance; it disappeared quickly, so I’m not optimistic, but it’s hard to imagine it being more moribund than this.

achewood and peanuts

Achewood is one of my favorite comic strips ever. I don’t think about Peanuts often, perhaps because it was such a basic part of my childhood, but yeah, if I made a top ten list, which I can’t bring myself to do anymore after High Fidelity made such lists seem the province of tools, they’d both be there.

So this morning, listening to an interview with a Charles Schulz biographer, something which in hindsight is obvious struck me like a lightning bolt.

Roast Beef Kazenzakis = Charlie Brown

Ray Smuckles = Snoopy

Roast Beef is an intelligent, sensitive cat who suffers from depression and low self-esteem. Ray Smuckles is a happy-go-lucky cat with infinite resources, a spacious and luxurious home (remember how that doghouse is bigger on the inside?), and an unflagging zest for life.

I’m not saying it’s an accidental bite or even a deliberate homage, but it’s a very similar dynamic and it works, helping explain why these two characters are the heart of both strips. Awesome.

sweeney todd: the demon barber of fleet street

No, not the new Tim Burton movie. We just watched the Emmy-award-winning film of the stage musical, the one with Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.

Like many people, I’m not a huge musical fan. I’ve been in five of them and had great times, but watching them really tries my patience these days unless it’s something with a sense of style and perspective and genuine humor like Avenue Q.

Sweeney Todd is a real drag. The story’s great: terrific melodrama, plenty of blood and murder, and a wonderfully ambivalent antihero in Sweeney Todd, a serial killer with a sympathetic backstory. You’re rooting for him to get his revenge but along the way he’s turning innocent victims into meat pies. Still, it’s pretty depressing, and ends in a pile of corpses like Hamlet.

But the real problem is the music! Oh my god. I admire Sondheim’s use of weird, aimless, dissonant, meandering melodies to create an atmosphere of off-kilter menace and despair. But it’s such a cacophony, so chaotic on the ears — there’s zero pleasure in it. The most enjoyable song has Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett cracking a series of bad puns about cannibalism. Again, so clever, but so hard to hum. Then there are the songs where the supposedly dashing young man falls in love with the supposedly beautiful young woman, which happens just because they’re young and supposedly hot and the story says that they fall in love, but still we have to sit through a full stupid duet stating the obvious and shallow. For me, that’s just not entertainment.

Even so, I’m looking forward to the Tim Burton movie. I used to be a big Tim Burton fan, but after Sleepy Hollow turned really hollow in the second half he’s been firing blanks as far as I’m concerned: the pointless Planet of the Apes, the execrable Big Fish, and the autocannibalistic Corpse Bride were all movies I wish I could unsee. Only his lightly perverse Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made me smile at all, with a hint of the misanthropy I liked so much in Mars Attacks!. Since Sweeney Todd looks to be cast from the same mold, I’m optimistic. I just hope he cut some of the music.

i am legend

My girlfriend got me into zombie movies. The appeal, at least for me, is complex and multidimensional. On the one hand, there’s a thrilling sense of doom: the world has, if only temporarily, come to an end. There’s almost no one left and survival depends on being able and prepared to kill things that aren’t human but obviously used to be. On the other hand, survival is pretty much your only job, and the world is your shopping mall. There are no late fees for DVDs, there’s free ice cream as long as the electricity keeps the freezers running, and if you can figure out how to get those security tags off you can dress like a runway model. You don’t have a boss, you don’t need money, and no one really cares if you never live up to your potential.

I Am Legend‘s source material had a lot of potential as I recall. I read the novel by Richard Matheson and saw the movie version (The Omega Man) starring Charlton Heston quite some time ago, so I don’t remember a whole lot about them, but I do remember that the bad guys were more like vampires than zombies. They talked, they taunted, they roamed the night in gangs. In Will Smith’s remake, the bad guys have a severe allergy to sunlight but are otherwise basically fast, acrobatic zombies.

This closes down a lot of possibilities, and since (as we discover at the beginning of the film) the zombies were created from a flawed cancer cure, it stretches credibility a bit. The creatures seem less human than in most zombie movies, and unfortunately look much less human as well because as far as I could tell they were all rather obvious CGI. This robs them of a lot of the impact they could have had if played by humans in the closeups, at least.

The good news is that a great deal of the film is extremely well made. Will Smith is terrific in the Heston role as the last man on Earth, Robert Neville, and his backstory very neatly explains why he is not only excellent at survival (despite some inconsistent marksmanship) and a whiz at experimental medicine but also uniquely compelled to do something about humanity’s apocalyptic situation. The details are great, my favorite being that Neville wears two digital watches with redundant alarms to make sure he gets back to his house before sunset, and he gets himself into some truly heart-pounding situations with a minimum of stupid horror-film mistakes. A good horror film requires that its hero get into danger for good reasons and not because he temporarily forgets that he’s not an imbecile. For at least the first two-thirds of the film we’re riveted by Neville’s solitude, his dedication, and his persistent humanity in the face of hopelessness. The mix of humor and heartbreak is most evident in the scenes where Neville goes to the video store (he’s working through the Gs) and converses with the mannequins he’s set up to look like customers and clerks.

The usual zombie-movie tropes follow in mostly non-bullshit ways. There’s Enjoying the Solitude, Foraging For Food and Supplies, the increasingly popular Attacked By Zombie Dogs, Losing a Loved One to the Plague, and Sanctuary Compromised. Then finally we get to I’m Not the Only Survivor After All, and that’s when it starts to ring a little false. By that point Neville has begun to give up hope, and meeting another apparently normal human freaks him out. At first he doesn’t want to believe it, and then he doesn’t want to believe it means anything. But the significance of this encounter finally becomes clear and it leads up to a climax ripped off from Signs, which was an enormous letdown after such a well-crafted plot. It’s not that there are plot holes, at least none that I noticed at the time. It’s just that the takeaway is: science is extremely dangerous and likely to go wrong, and when it goes right it’s through divine intervention. Also: when bad things happen, it’s our fault, and when good things happen, it’s God’s will.

It’s a good film. There were some incredible scenes, like the one where we first see the zombies and the one where we last see the Loved One Lost to the Plague (I almost cried, and that’s saying something). It’s an intelligent movie, elegant and tasteful, except for the Inexplicably (and unremarked-upon) Smart Zombie Leader who tends to screech at the camera for no good reason. And perhaps we should forgive it for ending with spiritual platitudes instead of something deeply significant and human, since the characters’ interpretations of events don’t affect the events themselves. But science fiction is pointless if it ends in fantasy, and a zombie movie is pointless if it’s not about humanity. So it’s a good film, but not a great one.

I must say, though, that even though I didn’t see I, Robot (I gotta get around to reading it first) I’m excited to see Will Smith making more mid-20th-century classic science fiction. I can’t wait to see what he takes on next.

Also, I’m sorry to say the trailer for The Dark Knight was a letdown. Heath Ledger’s Joker does have some Jack Nicholson in the voice, and the makeup is a different choice but I don’t think it quite works. Of course I’m going to see it, no fear. But hopefully it’s going to be better than it looks.

the golden compass

I went into The Golden Compass  with lowered expectations, having heard in advance that it showed all the usual flaws of novel adaptations:

  1. Frenzied leaping from place to place and plot point to plot point, since contemporary novels are almost invariably too long to squeeze comfortably into a 2-hour film.
  2. Undue emphasis on the gee-whiz visual elements (in this case, armored bears) at the expense of dramatic tension and other elements you’d think would justify it as a story performed by actors.
  3. Dilution of the novel’s spirit and themes; a defanged story crumpled and twisted into the shape of a Hollywood movie.

Any one of these alone would have been easy enough to overlook, but the combination of all three made the film kind of a drag.  But the book itself wasn’t perfect; I really had trouble warming to it, and after I finished reading it years ago I didn’t really want to pick up the next two books.  And then I read more about Pullman’s story and what he was trying to do, and got interested enough to give the second book a try, which fortunately is so different from the first and third as to seem like part of a different trilogy.  So even though the third book is a bit of a mess, overcrowded and rushed, I still feel grateful for a fantasy epic that pits feisty, intelligent children and their allies against the church.

Because, yeah, you’ve heard correctly: the books are, in a superficial sense, about killing God.  Milton is the name that usually comes up in connection with the books, but here’s where I admit that I earned a degree in English without reading word one of Paradise Lost. I’ve read Blake, though, and while I never got through much of his longer work I know enough about his theology to see what Pullman’s done. Blake believed, as do the characters in this trilogy, that the being worshipped as God is an impostor, a false and foolish and lesser spirit whose authoritarian pronouncements Blake saw as evil and anathema to life. Those who wish to see God will still find it in His Dark Materials, but most explicitly not in the form of an old white-bearded man who wants us to be born into debt for a sin we did not commit.

None of this is more than hinted at in the film, partly because it’s still the first installment, but also most certainly because in America we are terrified of offending religious groups. That’s why it’s unfortunate that an American studio is making these films; I have to figure a British company would leave the themes explicit and intact. But then they might not have as much money for animating the armored bears and the daemons, which I have to admit look pretty good, even if Pantalaimon does resemble Puss ‘n Boots from Shrek from time to time.

Visually the film is pretty great, and for me that still counts for a lot. The college, the Magisterium (that’s the church, son), Mrs. Coulter’s apartments and zeppelin, and the intercision facility at Bolvangar all had distinctive, gorgeous looks. The gold and brown color schemes and the ornate brass reminded me of another flawed movie adaptation I happen to love deeply, David Lynch’s disowned Dune. There were plenty of places where a little more visual imagination would have helped fill in the background while we rushed through the story, but I was satisfied with what we got.

The acting was pretty solid, including the kids, and the casting is terrific. Dakota Blue Richards does a terrific, knowing job as Lyra; you can see her acting, and not just emoting like most kids her age. Daniel Craig’s a fine Lord Asriel, if he seemed a bit distracted in this first installment. And Nicole Kidman, who’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite actresses, is a fantastic Mrs. Coulter. The best scenes in the movie involve her and Lyra; you can see their shared traits, feel their conflicts with each other and themselves, and you yourself are torn as Kidman shows you Coulter’s cruelty and compassion in equal measures.

I have to say, though, that the armored bear stuff still bored me to tears. I don’t mind them in theory; I just wish they were in a different movie.

So: not a great movie, really, and arguably not even a good one, but an encouraging one, since all of its major flaws are problems you could have predicted before you knew anything about the production, and its virtues are likely to carry over to the next two installments. The shocker with Pullman’s novels is how straightforward they are; having to read between the lines of a story like this, as you still can in the movie, is much more the norm in children’s fantasy. So if this movie draws kids to the books, as in this post-Potter age it just has to, then all will be well.