Taking the blood out of the barbershop

After last week’s instalment turned out quite a bit longer than expected (a bit like the wait for Max Payne 3, in fact), here is a shorter tidbit – which, apparently, should be spelled “titbit”, but that sounds too much like a snack or breakfast cereal for sex-obsessed psychopaths to me. I’ll be on holiday next week, so I’ve got a good excuse for the next post to be a couple of weeks away, but in the meantime…

I used to consider myself a Tim Burton fan. Around the time when the man made Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, his goth-romantic style clicked with me, so much so that I considered his second Batman instalment one of my favourite films. (I still have a great fondness for the movie, but I’m more aware of its flaws at this point.) Then came Mars Attacks!, a perfectly okay half-hour comedy stretched into a feature film, and Sleepy Hollow, which looked like the most gorgeous Tim Burton film ever but felt, well, hollow. Planet of the Apes didn’t have much going for it beyond the make-up and Big Fish angers me with its twee, needy sentimentalism that would give Steven Spielberg a toothache.

Fast-forward to Sweeney Todd. I am not all that much into musicals and had heard of Sondheim but didn’t know him at all. The trailer and stills for Sweeney Todd looked like Sleepy Hollow all over – more so, in fact, with the film’s production design being so Tim Burton, it felt like someone had taken his earlier films, boiled them into a thick, black ooze and used this to paint the sets. When I saw the film at the cinema, mostly for old time’s sake, I was surprised that despite the ultra-Burton look the direction felt… more adult, I’d have to call it. Less of the cartoon exaggeration that Burton had fallen to (and would return to in later films). Even Johnny Depp looked like he was acting rather than simply doing his Depp/Burton spiel.

I’ve just recently rewatched Sweeney Todd, after catching it on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I still consider it to be one of the better of Burton’s recent films, perhaps even the best – yet it is held back by the director’s visual style. Sondheim’s play, for want of a better word, has a certain meatiness. There is a charnelhouse vitality to it, yet in spite of the gallons of gore Burton’s visuals are bloodless. They are designed within an inch of their life. More than that, they make Todd and his accomplice-paramour Mrs. Lovett one of a kind, a sort of Goth His’n’Hers, which hurts especially the pie maker’s characterisation. It’s a shame, really: while I think that Sweeney Todd is proof that Burton still has talent and doesn’t just imitate himself, he also keeps the film from being as good as it could be. And, frankly, while I used to love the typical Burton look, by now it feels less like a style and more like a brand. Predictable, safe, and not a little boring.

P.S.: You know who’d make a very effective Sweeney Todd? Mark Strong. Unfortunately the poor man is typecast and only plays sweet, loveable good guys.

P.P.S.: YouTube is acting up, so instead I went to Vimeo, not expecting to find anything much… except it looks like someone uploaded the entirety of Tim Burton’s film, with Spanish subtitles. Weird, huh? And probably more than just a little legally iffy… Still, while it’s up it’s up, eh?

http://vimeo.com/26811104

The Grim Brothers Coen

There are many things in No Country for Old Men that recall the Coens’ earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Fargo; yet it feels notably different in many ways from those films. Intolerable Cruelty (and, from what I hear, Ladykillers) also felt unlike the earlier movies the brothers had made – in some ways, they felt more like someone was trying to imitate their style and succeeded in isolated scenes but, on the whole, failed… Failed, that is, to make a good Coen movie as well as a good film in general.

No Country for Old Men is a good movie. It may even be the best Coen film to date. Chances are I’ll never love it as much as Fargo, but that’s also for nostalgic reasons. Fargo is by no means anything less than a fantastic film, but it doesn’t have the sheer compactness and focus of No Country for Old Men.

And it doesn’t have Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem, is one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy novels, and for all I know he was already frightening in the book, but what Bardem and the Coens make of him is chilling.

However, the film has plenty more going for it than Bardem’s psychotic Prince Valiant and his pneumatic slaughterhouse device. It works so well because the three main characters – Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – complement each other so well. The story and the protagonists are balanced to perfection; you’ll rarely see a film that is as intricately structured. Bell and Chigurh are like two poles, balanced on the axle that is Moss: not a bad guy, but deeply flawed and too sure of himself, even after he’s seen the force of nature that is the killer following him. Moss commits several stupid acts in the film, as well as some brilliant on-his-feet thinking, but his greatest stupidity lies in thinking that he has a chance against his opponent. Bell, on the other hand, seems to understand (and accept, in the very end) that there is some evil that is beyond comprehension and that cannot be tricked or beaten.

No Country for Old Men

If you’re like me, and an Academy Award is more likely to put you off a film, do yourself a favour. If you enjoy great acting and don’t mind bleakness that makes Sweeney Todd look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (okay, that’s not quite fair – like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps), do go and see this film. And see it at a cinema rather than on TV. Roger Deakins’ work, which once again is quite magnificent, deserves the big screen. I just say The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and, once again, Fargo.

A hellish slice of throat for the gentleman?

It’s been a while since I really liked a Tim Burton movie. Sleepy Hollow looked great, but I felt that the romantic subplot between Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci was tacked on, and largely as a result the film felt mean-spirited to me. Mars Attacks! was half an hour of great over-the-top black comedy padded to an indecent extent with boring SFX bits and cameos. Planet of the Apes was, well, Planet of the Apes. Big Fish annoyed me more than most movies I’ve seen in the past few years; it was aggressively sentimental and the old guy simply angered me with his chronic need to be the centre of attention. (If I’d been the Billy Crudup character, I would have suffocated Daddy Dearest with a pillow ten minutes into the movie.) Corpse Bride was okay and nicely done, but it was no Nightmare before Christmas – the characters were flatter, the music less memorable, and the bits that were best felt like rehashed bits of Halloween Town.

 As I wrote recently, I enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory quite a bit, but it’s not the sort of film that I’d need to see more than once. All in all, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sweeney Todd, since I’d heard mixed things. I’m not the greatest fan of musicals (even though I keep finding myself wanting to rewatch “Once More, With Feelings”), and I wasn’t sure whether anything new or interesting would come out of Tim Burton working with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter yet again.

They’re my friends…!

We sat in the very front row at the cinema, since all the other seats were already taken. Not the best starting point for an enjoyable evening at the cinema (and I’d rather not tell you about the Mexican restaurant beforehand… I may very well have woken tonight, screaming the lyrics of that horrible Latin-y Happy Birthday song they played at top volume).

I think I was riveted about two minutes into the film. Like Sleepy Hollow, the atmosphere was great – the film was one of those that you should be able to frame and hang on the wall. But unlike that throat-wounding movie, this one had better writing and, accordingly, better, more believable characters. While the film was visibly artificial, it didn’t feel fake like many of Burton’s worlds tend to do. And the emotions on the screen felt more… well, more grown up, for want of a better term. There’s something very child-like (sometimes indeed childish) to many of Burton’s works, and in the case of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood it works quite well, but it was getting tired and stale. By comparison, this film felt like Jacobean revenge tragedy – bloody, passionate, alive and raw.

P.S.: It’s a shame that Anthony Head (yes, I squeaked “It’s Giles!” at the cinema) didn’t get to do more on screen. Apparently he recorded some songs, but they didn’t make it into the final version of the film.

P.P.S.: For the first time, in this movie I saw why some people think Neil Gaiman and Alan Rickman look alike. When the latter doesn’t do his patented “Where are ze fucking detonators?” sneer, he does look and even sound a bit like Mr. Sandman.