Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

30 01 2008

The Demon Barber of Fleet StreetI was probably about four years old when my grandfather first told me the legend of Sweeney Todd, the crazed barber who slit his patrons’ throats before having their flesh baked into delicious meat pies. The tale, while more than likely apocryphal, touches on several fears close to most people’s hearts, not the least of which is unwittingly eating a fellow human being (and worse still, actually enjoying it).

Todd’s story was adapted countless times over the last couple of centuries, but the most notable in recent times was the 1979 Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, itself based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. The play and musical added greater depth to the story by transforming it into a macabre tale of tragedy and revenge, and now director Tim Burton has adapted the musical into a Hollywood film.

Sweeney Todd (Burton-favourite Johnny Depp) was once Benjamin Barker, a meek and mild barber living in London with a beautiful wife and child. But when the slimy Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) coverts Barker’s wife, he frames the barber and has him transported to Australia; now, 15 years later, Barker returns to London as Todd, a man devoured by thoughts of revenge.
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American Gangster

15 01 2008

American GangsterEarly in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, Russell Crowe’s character, a New Jersey detective, discovers almost $1 million in unmarked bills in the trunk of a car. Does he take the money? If he does, he’s entering into the murky world of corruption that the bulk of his colleagues seem to inhabit; if he doesn’t, he’s putting himself in immediate danger because, as his partner observes, “Cops kill cops they can’t trust.” He decides to turn in the money anyway.

On one level, American Gangster is the true story of the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a self-made man who became Harlem’s heroin kingpin in the 1970s by directly importing his product from Thailand and cutting out the middleman. Lucas was a true entrepreneur, applying a ruthlessly capitalistic philosophy to the drug trade — he undercut the competition (who just happened to be the Mafia) by offering twice the quality at half the price.

On a deeper level, however, the film is about police corruption. Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian seem to contend that dirty cops are even worse than the criminals they bully. Washington’s Lucas adheres to his own (albeit twisted) code of ethics — he will snap quickly and mercilessly at anyone who betrays his trust, but he only does what he thinks he needs to do in pursuit of his business goals. The sleazy Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), on the other hand, has no honour, instead abusing his power in order to extort as much money as possible from the men he should be arresting. Trupo, it seems, is the real bad guy here.
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P.S. I Love You

26 12 2007

P.S. I Love YouHilary Swank is a talented actress, winning an Oscar not only for her performance in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, but also as the transgendered Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. Why she’d choose to then star in such a tepid romance as P.S. I Love You is a mystery right up there with the meaning of Stonehenge and the reason why Travolta never made Battlefield Earth 2.

The film opens with a protracted intro featuring an argument between apparently-in-love couple Holly (Swank) and Gerry (Gerard Butler) over a comment Gerry made to Holly’s mother earlier that evening. Rather than establishing how right for each other this couple is, this scene merely sets up the characters as being rather unlikeable and one-dimensional. The whole thing comes off as rather cliched.

After the opening credits, we find out that Gerry has since died of a brain tumour, and by the end of the first act, it’s been revealed that he’d created a scheme whereby Holly will receive a series of letters from him “beyond the grave” over the coming months. These letters, of course, are designed to ease Holly out of her grief and into a new life.
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Beowulf

30 11 2007

BeowulfNote: Beowulf is being screened in select venues in 3D; this review is of the regular theatrical presentation.

Ever since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis has increasingly relied on CGI technology in making films such as Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and Contact. But it was his animated adaptation of The Polar Express in 2004 where he pushed so-called “motion-capture” technology to its limits, and now, three years later, he revisits it with Beowulf.

The film is, of course, based on the epic poem of the same name, but screenwriters Neil Gaiman (MirrorMask) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) have crafted a modernised, coherent narrative out of the ancient source text. Here they assume an unreliable narrator in the source, and so Beowulf, originally a singularly heroic character, becomes a flawed man instead. Whether this works for or against the film is open to debate, but it’s hard not to admire the attempt to craft a thematically-unified three-act screenplay out of a poem that was never designed for such.

What deserves greater discussion, however, is the motion-capture technology itself. In The Polar Express, we had a situation that seemed like the worst of both worlds: too artificial to be fully convincing yet too lifelike to think of it as pure animation — it was as if Tom Hanks’ zombie twin had started dancing in Toontown. In Beowulf, things are greatly improved, but it often looks like a videogame cutscene rather than a bona fide film. (This technique would be perfect for a Warcraft film, perhaps.)
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Transformers

16 11 2007

TransformersMichael Bay is not the most hated filmmaker amongst film geeks — that title goes to the hapless Uwe Boll — but it’s a close call. Bay is the man who brought us such cinematic gems as Bad Boys and The Rock, both of which are the sort of movies that are slick but empty, providing the focus group-driven ingredients for blockbusters without supplying any kind of soul or vision. In short, Bay’s style epitomises crass commercialism at its most artistically bereft.

So it’s an incredible irony that Bay seems to have redeemed himself with Transformers, a film based on a line of toys of all things. Bay’s film not only delivers on its promise of a fun popcorn movie, it revels in its frivolity; this is the film that the abysmal Independence Day wanted so desperately to be, all those years ago.

As the Transformers mythology goes, two warring factions of giant alien robots — the benevolent Autobots and the evil Decepticons — left their homeworld of Cybertron for Earth, where their eternal battle continues. Here they take the forms of ordinary vehicles and devices: leading the Autobots is Optimus Prime, a heroic figure who transforms into a truck and gets to pontificate about freedom and the virtues of humanity, while heading the Decepticons is Megatron, who used to transform into a gun but in the film appears as a jet.
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Michael Clayton

14 11 2007

Michael ClaytonThe partnership of George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh has been a fruitful one — for every Ocean’s Eleven, there’s a Good Night, and Good Luck. waiting around the corner. Now, once again serving as executive producers, Clooney and Soderbergh have given us Michael Clayton, the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy.

Michael Clayton (Clooney) is a “fixer” in a legal firm in New York, troubleshooting the unexpected and cleaning up other people’s messes. He doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, which seems closer to legal janitorial work than anything of great significance, and his personal life is spiralling out of control with a failed business venture, a gambling addiction and mounting debts. When Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), one of the firm’s top partners and an old friend of Clayton’s, has a spectacular manic episode during a filmed deposition, Clayton is once again relied upon to rectify the situation.

On the surface, this film concerns the kind of corporate greed that puts the bottom line ahead of ordinary people’s lives, but there’s something more fundamental going on here. Edens, through a series of rants brought about by his unmedicated bipolar disorder, talks about the filth and taint that he’s accumulated over the years in his role of defending the indefensible. On the other end of the spectrum is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the lead counsel for the company U/North (whom Edens was defending), who effectively sells her soul in order to please her masters, willing to sacrifice any moral code she may possess. Clayton seems somewhere in the middle, caught in an amoral malaise that seems both endless and futile.
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