Saturday, February 02, 2008

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


The wit, tension and soaring tragedy of Stephen Sondheim's musical can withstand even Tim Burton's rigid efforts to turn it into a cartoon. The irritating technical quirks, like a silly whirlwind tour of 19th-century CGI-London, are easy to overlook, but it takes concentrated goodwill to get past the miscasting.

When Johnny Depp - looking Botoxed throughout - drones "I will have venn-geance", you want to punch him and his ego that insisted singing lessons would reduce the performance (of a character defined by operatic bloodlust). Helena Bonham Carter fares a little better if only because she pitches her performance according to her (thin) vocals and reinvents Mrs. Lovett as a desiccated, fragile ghoul with a stunted passion (in contrast to Depp's stunting passionlessness).

All the same, enough of Sondheim's melancholy and savagery survives the transition to make even this muted adaptation intensely compelling. Although in butchered form, the morbid yearning and warped genius of the songs comes through.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Purple Noon (René Clément, 1960)


An inimitably sleazy take on Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, with tanned, toned Alain Delon playing the famed psychopath. To a cheeky Nino Rota tune, he goes about his pathological crimes in expensive suits and lush resorts. The direction is wobbly and the psychology cursory, but you get a shirtless Delon in his prime, sun-drenched Mediterranean scenery, and on a couple of magical occasions, both at the same time. Also, there is something morbidly seductive about the tension between the ghastly subject matter and the relaxed, chic presentation.

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Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)


Telephone operator Ayako begs her bosses to take pity on her impoverished and soon to be incarcerated father, argues her suitor ought to be ready to go to jail instead, then scolds her father at home for cowering and complaining without searching for a solution. She becomes her boss' mistress to settle the family's debt and is inevitably ostracised for it.

Melodramas this mature and switched-on are rare and Kenji Mizoguchi is decades ahead of its time in the topics he tackles, the acuteness with which he tackles them as well as his sophisticated visual style (every composition is a lesson in elegance). The heroine is essentially a victim of social mores but Mizoguchi refuses to exploit her victimhood and Isuzu Yamada - who, decades later, made a memorable Lady Macbeth for Kurosawa - plays her with suitable pluck.

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The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, 1936)


A creaky stage adaptation based around a metaphorical showdown between impotent intellectualism and brute, virile force. As a suicidal writer, Leslie Howard is swallowed up by his florid monologues, while Bette Davis - who very possibly hasn't experienced humility, naivety or selflessness in her life - is cast as a humble, naive truckstop barmaid sacrificing her dreams for the sake of others. Only Humphrey Bogart, in his breakout role as the gangster who holds them hostage, seems to be breathing.

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Bordertown (Archie Mayo, 1935)


There's something cathartic about the notion of Paul Muni and Bette Davis sharing scenes. You can only guess at the kind of fanatic scramble that would ensue between them to outdo each other's scenery chewing. But this hypothesis doesn't take into account the fact that two such ferocious egos could only subsist in their own individual, bloated bubbles. Even in a single, constricted set they will inevitably fail to take note of - much less play off of - each other. Muni plays a reformed hoodlum forever thwarted by his ethnic background. Davis is a dissatisfied trophy bride who develops an attraction to him. It's one of the more crudely contrived Warners message pictures.

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