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Monday, 28 January 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Trailers are often as interesting for what they don't say as what they do: the big secret behind the Sweeney Todd trailer is that this is a musical - as in everyone sings pretty much all the time musical based on the Stephen Sondheim musical type musical. As for why they're keeping this fact under their hat when musicals have been doing pretty well of late... well, presumably a musical with a lot of bright colours and young people dancing around is a lot easier to sell than one that's pretty much all shades of 19th century London grey except when someone's getting their throat cut. As for why Sweeney's slashing necks with toe-tapping abandon, he's not exactly happy about having spent fifteen years overseas in a penal colony after a bent Judge (Alan Rickman) framed him to clear the way for a move on Sweeney's wife. Worse, he returns to London to be told by local pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) that his wife's dead and his daughter's been adopted by the Judge. Sweeney's scheme for revenge starts out simple, as he returns to his old trade of barber with the hope that once he gets the Judge in his chair his razors can give him a very close shave. But Sweeney just can't help killing, and once Mrs Lovett gets the idea of disposing of the bodies via her pies, pretty soon both of them are doing a roaring trade. It's a dour story told in melodramatic style, and director Tim Burton doesn't hold back on the spurting blood whenever a throat gets cut. As a musical it's impressive rather than toe-tapping, not to mention that it's fairly heavily edited down from the Sondheim original and the cast are good rather than great at singing. But if you're in the mood for some gothic grandeur, there's no denying that this vast, creaking edifice has a grim power to it that makes it, if not exactly enjoyable, at least a experience that's hard to forget.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #420)

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

American Gangster

The gangster genre is one of the most time-tested there is in movies, and while American Gangster might be based on a true story, it's sticks to the formula straight down the line: when Harlem mob boss Bumpy Johnson keels over in the mid 1960s, his driver Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) decides to follow in his bosses footsteps. After the usual combination of business smarts and murder takes him to the top, he figures out that the real money's in drugs. With the Vietnam war raging there's plenty of people going to and from the place where they grow the drugs, and soon the Mafia is coming to him to ask for a piece of his drug trade. Meanwhile Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe), AKA the most honest cop in New York, is put in charge of a anti-drugs taskforce designed to take down the Mr Bigs of the thriving trade. But with Lucas keeping a low profile and with his family making up his trusted lieutenants, Roberts’ has his work cut out just finding him, let alone taking him down. All the ingredients are here for a truly epic film: Washington is perfect as a businessman with a heart of steel, and Crowe's not far behind as a cop so driven everything else - common sense, self-preservation, even his family - gets left behind. Director Ridley Scott keeps a tight rein on his sprawling story, keeping the focus firmly on these two men and giving Washington and Crowe room to explore their characters (who don't actually meet until close to the film's end). But what's missing from this film is any kind of moral judgement - we might see people dying from Lucas' drugs but there's never any sense that he's a bad man for doing what he does. Other gangster movies were fuelled by this tension: whether it's Scarface or Goodfellas, the gangsters knew what they were doing was wrong and they didn't care. Without that sense of transgression this is just a movie about doing business.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #419)

Aliens vs Predator: Requiem

"People are dying! We need guns!" You can't just make up dialogue like that - you have to pay a Hollywood scriptwriter a six figure sum to get them to create such deathless prose. And AvP:R, as the marketing people would have you call this instead of something more accurate but less printable in a family publication, is full of great dialogue like that. But don't worry: the rest of the film works on that same lofty level, so you won't be distracted from the gaping plot holes, pathetic acting, insultingly dull fight scenes, and total disregard for logic that makes this film one of the bigger pieces of junk to float down the movie sewer in recent months. At this point you're probably shaking your head and thinking "well, what did he expect - all anyone could seriously ask from a film like this is some enjoyably stupid monster-on-monster action, not Shakespeare". And you're right: the standards for this kind of film are pretty low, and yet this fails to even come close to that. For starters, why is a third of the film taken up by a jocks versus geeks plotline that no-one cares about? Why does a tiny rural town have sewers you could drive a truck through? Why does the predator - sent on a mission to kill off an alien infestation and erase all traces of extra-terrestrial life on Earth - go around punching holes in the road and skinning human beings? How many aliens are supposed to be on the loose anyway? Why doe the Predator only fight aliens in dark, wet places where you can't tell who's fighting who? And most importantly of all, why would anyone in their right mind pay to see this?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #419)

P.S. I Love You

Depending on what kind of person you are, the idea of having your dead husband send you letters - and bossy letters ordering you around at that - from beyond the grave is either totally romantic or really, really creepy. If you fall into the second group (take a second to think about it), then stay as far away from this film as you can because you won't be able to stop shouting "he's dead! Get over it!" at the screen. To be fair, there's a few hints that the creators of this film knew how creepy the central idea was, and they try to explain why a seemingly normal young woman would consent to be stalked from beyond the grave. See, Holly (Hilary Swank) married her first love Gerry (Gerald Butler) young and before she could taste much of life, so now that he's dead his letters are a way to push her out into the world to experience life. Cue singing in bars, having new experiences, travelling to Ireland to sleep with a man who looks just like her dead husband... you get the idea. And meanwhile a somewhat retarded seeming Harry Connick Jr is lurking around as a potential love interest once she's ready to love again, and it's around this point that even if you do buy the central conceit of this film you'll probably be thinking that something isn't quite right. Swank gives a good performance and Butler (from 300) is as hunky as ever, but none of the characters are more than plot devices to sell the "love that will not die... until it has to, of course" idea. It looks nice and moves along well, but this is a badly tuned machine designed to tug at heartstrings, not a movie.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #419)

I Am Legend

To say that Will Smith can currently do no wrong with his performances isn't the same thing as saying he's making a lot of good movies. In fact, he's been the best thing in a lot of not-quite-there movies for so long now that it's hard not to think there might be a link between him looking so good and his movies falling so flat. Sadly, I Am Legend does nothing to buck this trend: considering how good it is for most of it's running time and how badly it drops the ball at the end, Mr Smith's desire to have his character turn out just how he likes it might be a good place to lay much of the blame. Make no mistake, this really is a good film for the first hour or so: Smith is the last man alive in New York (and presumably the world) after a cancer cure mutates and turns people into either a corpse or a vampire-like monster. Fortunately, Smith is playing your average super-competent solider / doctor / survivalist combo, and so the only real drawback to his lifestyle of driving around a deserted city hunting wildlife and grabbing mutants to drag back to his base to test cures out on is the loneliness. Which is handled really well, giving the film an eerie feel that's actually pretty haunting stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster. And when there's a few subtle hints that the mutants - who Smith considers to be mindless animals - are actually putting together a civilisation of their own, fans of the book might start to think this is actually going to follow through on the original's devastating ending. No such luck. Some other people turn up and the whole film basically falls apart into a bunch of incoherent action, leaving what was promising to be something special as yet another almost on Smith's resume.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #419)