Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Written at the time of the film's release...

"Tim Burton turns everything into 'Sweeney Todd,' so this should be a natural"
Ken Levine, Nov. 18 2007
Truer words were never spoken. Tim Burton DOES turn everything into "Sweeney Todd" so there couldn't be a better pairing of director to subject matter. Burton has supervised two of the darkest animated musicals ever made (The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Corpse Bride) and turned them both into charming, imaginative films without once sugar-coating or denying the nightmarish imagery that unearthed those ideas. His favored composer, Danny Elfman (MIA from this film), is a disciple of Bernard Herrmann, whose work was the inspiration for the music lines of Stephen Sondheim's shock-opera. Burton's "usual suspects," Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter , star and, though the major worry was whether they could carry their tunes, they both do exemplary jobs. Depp, especially, only achieves heights of performance in song, so interior is his Todd. And though Carter may not be quite as brassy so much as tremulous, she does more than hold her own with some of Sondheim's trickier tongue-twisters.
Where Burton's Sweeney Todd excels, though, is the design of the thing--from the Edward Gorey-ish 2-D titles to the Pieta-like coda, the film is a masterpiece of muted design and cinematography with a palette restricted to various shades of gray--the visual equivalent of music in minor chords.
With one exception, of course. The appearance of blood is always startling. Every murder produces a blood so red that it nearly jumps out of the screen. And Burton can't resist taking the Hammer Films one better. When
Sweeney Todd takes his razors to give his customers a once-over, there is no fanciful, theatrical whip-saw and it's over. Depp goes in and saws at the neck like he's cutting a thick roast, at which point the special-effects boys take over, producing arterial geysers of blood that spray--once, hitting the camera lens--in patterns that rival the fountains at the Bellagio
It's over-done, and in coagulating close-up as well, but given the interior-ness of
Sweeney Todd, it's about the only cathartic action in town. And the bodies really start piling up. I'm sure Sondheim was attracted to the subject matter of a swinish London so mired in nastiness, it more than figuratively begins to feed on its own, and the themes of a transformed man and his insatiable and destructive quest for vengeance was what drove Burton, but the gleefully torrential blood-shedding exposes the adolescent in Burton's tendencies--it's his darkest, grisliest film since Sleepy Hollow--and one wishes to see more of the Burton who could turn out a film like Big Fish

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Benny and Joon

So...I guess there's some trial going on?

Since so many people on the inter-webs are trying to make bank on it by "regurginging" it, I thought I'd do the same thing...but in a nice way. I'm transferring a couple of Johnny Depp movies from my old site to this site (where they'll seem like new content). I have no axe to grind. The reviews are rather complimentary to Mr. Depp, even if they do contrast his light and dark sides. I'd have done the same for Amber Heard, but...I don't have any old reviews of her stuff. Lest I be accused of bias or anything (although I don't think any uber-fans can sign a petition to kick me off my own blog...I think).
Benny and Joon (Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1993) When examining the career of Johnny Depp, one looks to the blockbusters: the Pirates movies, the many Tim Burton collaborations. But then there are the films that fall through the cracks—not unlike the characters in this film. For anyone doubting Depp's ability to not depend on his looks and create a compelling character, Benny and Joon is a revelation.
Filmed in Spokane, Washinton, it tells the story of of an auto mechanic, the 1/3 eponymous Benny (Aidan Quinn) taking care of his 1/3 eponymous but schizophrenic sister, Juniper (Mary Stuart Masterson). He's torn between his commitment to Joon and his desire to live a life, free of her responsibility. But, his sense of duty and brotherly protectiveness trap him into doing nothing else, even though he might be inadequate at the care-taking task.
By luck of the draw, Sam (Depp) drops into their lives...literally; Joon wins him in a poker game. That plot development prat-falls Benny and Joon directly into "twee-ville," but Sam's addition to the cast arrives just in time to avoid it. Sam is a movie-freak, who knows every movie—the weirder the better—and models himself as the love-child of Buster Keaton and The Little Tramp. Eccentric, scruffy, but in a non-threatening way, Depp's head-tilting performance is just the right fizz to put in this Shirley Temple of a movie. You wonder what he's going to do next, and Depp is given enough ground to deliver a number of mute routines that are laugh-out-loud charming.
But, there are more joys to be had with guest-turns by
Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, CCH Pounder, Oliver Platt, and Dan Hedaya—the kind of movie where your attention is slapped every few minutes with a "They're in this?" It might get a little heavy for kids in the third act—"everybody's MAD at each other!"—but there's a satisfying resolve. And if you have a sister or daughter not in love with Johnny Depp yet, this one will do it.
Benny and Joon
is a Chick-Flick that guys can enjoy.
2022 Update: I still think Benny and Joon is an enjoyable film—it's enough to make you want to forget his film of The Avengers (almost—he's been doing a LOT of TV since then). I still have the creepy feeling that it's a dumbed-down, sugar-sprinkled look at mental illness, The Child's Guide to Schizophrenia. That's something that will help NO ONE. It does have a couple of good lessons about being a caretaker, though—don't be so regimented and go with the flow because it's easier on the caretaker and caretakee. It's a marathon, a long game, and minor things are spilled milk in the long run. That's something that needs to be said. And Benny and Joon says it very specifically, especially if you think the movie is less about Mary Stuart Masterson (please come back, we miss you) and more about Aidan Quinn.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Don't Make a Scene: Notorious

The Story: I love spy movies. But, most of them frustrate me. Why? Because they cast stars as spies. Stars who have that special glow the camera loves and that your eye follows whenever they're on the screen, so strong is their magnetism.

And that's exactly why they'd be lousy as "secret agents"—you want someone who doesn't make an entrance and is instantly noticeable. You WANT someone who fades into the wall-paper as a nobody—nobody special, anyway, certainly not someone you'd think as a "special agent."

Which is why one of my favorite secret agents is Cary Grant's Devlin in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Cary Grant? One of the biggest stars ever? (He's number 0000026* on the IMDb list!) He's certainly noticeable! What's up with that?

Well, it's because of the way Grant plays it. We know him as charming, witty, self-effacing and expressive. But, Grant tamps all that down in Notorious, playing Devlin on an eternally even keel. The voice measured, the tone conversational but never expressive, wit becomes irony (lest it provoke a noticeable response), the face blank, a cypher. A man who never calls attention to himself. Even the direction of "Devlin slaps the table with his hand" is light at best, it's hardly a tap—that it exists at all is the only evidence that Devlin is upset, more than that...livid at the task that has been put to him by his "betters."
No, Devlin is a master spy. He turns his back lest he betray his feelings. But, they're the infinitesimal flash of an eye, a quick fire that is quickly doused. It's a great performance of subtlety and discipline from an actor who threw away his usual "bag of tricks" that could be counted on to win an audience to play this most enigmatic of figures.
And talk about discipline. Look at Hecht's dialogue. There's a game going on here. Devlin's lines are all negative—"I don't think" "I don't know" "she has no..." "she's never..." until the morally questionable "Beardsley" turns the tactic back on him with "I don't see why we're arguing about petty things like this..." ripping Devlin's negatives out from under him. Petty things like using a woman as a sexual pawn. Dismissing her because of reputation (which Devlin assumes at the beginning, until he's told of the connection between Huberman and Sebastian). Devlin is left with no replies, other than a lack of objections. "Nothing, sir" is all he can say. Nothing. The ultimate negative.
It's funny, but David O. Selznick, wanting to make a mark on the picture, hired Clifford Odets to re-write Hecht's script over Hitchcock's objections. When it was read, Odets' efforts were tossed (Hecht said of Odets' script "This is really loose crap") and they returned to Hecht's original, more disciplined draft.
The Set-Up: T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) has been recruited to recruit a fellow traveler, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a socialite drinking to drown her disappointment with her fascist father who is aiding the Nazi's. Her connections might prove useful in information-gathering, but Devlin and Alicia begin a clandestine relationship in more ways than one. So, it's...unnerving to Devlin when he finds out what the "mission" is.

Devlin arrives at the EMBASSY, carrying a champagne bottle. 
The champagne BOTTLE sits on a table in the office, a few minutes later.
Devlin slaps the table with his hand and rises from his chair, 
...much to the confusion of Prescott and another American official, BEARDSLEY. 
What is it, Devlin? What's the matter? 
I don't know if she'll do it.
What do you mean you don't think she'd -- You haven't discussed it with her, have you? 
DEVLIN: No, I didn't know what the job was until this moment.
Well, what do you mean she wouldn't do it? 
DEVLIN: Well, I don't think she's that type of woman. She strikes me as being rather-- 
PRESCOTT: I don't understand your attitude. 
PRESCOTT: Why do you think she won't do it? 
Well, she's had no experience. 
Oh, come now. 
What experience does she lack, do you think? 
She's never been trained for that kind of work, 
...they'll see through her. 
Miss Huberman was chosen not only because her father gives her an ideal background but because Sebastian knows her. 
This is news to Devlin. 
PRESCOTT: Oh, yes. He was once in love with her. 
DEVLIN: (ironic) Oh, I didn't know that. 
I don't see why we're arguing about petty things like this. 
We've got important work to do. Sebastian's house is a cover-up for whatever this Farben group's up to here in Rio. 
We've got to get Miss Huberman inside that house and find out what's going on there.
Yes, that's right. 
(to Devlin) So I think you'd better go back to Miss Huberman and explain to her what she has to do. 
I, er... 
PRESCOTT: Well, what is it? 
Nothing, sir. 
I thought you were going to say something. 
How is the meeting to be arranged? 
Oh, well, we've discussed that. 
I think the riding club would be the best place. 
PRESCOTT: Sebastian usually rides there in the mornings. So the rest is up to you and Miss Huberman. 
(after an awkward pause) Okay, Devlin, that's all. 

All right. 
Devlin walks out of the room 
...while a mildly confused Prescott eyes the CHAMPAGNE BOTTLE that Devlin leaves behind.
Words by Ben Hecht and Alfred Hitchcock

Notorious is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.

 Today's scene begins at 25:55

* Quintuple-0 26? Think double-0 7 would be jealous?