Archive for January, 2008
Because it’s good, even if it does not include a sung version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (from the original Broadway show, quoted above).
How pleased I was yesterday when Johnny Depp received a Best Leading Actor Oscar nomination yesterday for Sweeney Todd. He does extremely well in his first singing role, and if his voice isn’t exactly pleasant to listen to—well, that’s how it should be. Speaking of which, the classical music critic for the New York Times has written an article saying that opera singers could learn a lot from Depp’s portrayal of Todd—specifically, they could learn how to act and to invest the words they sing with meaning. I get his point, and I think Depp’s acting/singing here is indeed to be commended, but I’m surprised that the critic doesn’t seem to consider that Depp is singing Sondheim. Sondheim, who has been parodied in a number called “Into the Words.” His melodies exist for the cleverness of the words, while opera . . . well, let’s just say I’ve never run across a particularly thought-inspiring operatic line in any language.
Speaking of music, I had a hard time pinning down exactly what I liked so much about Tim Burton’s film until I heard an interview with Stephen Sondheim. Yeah, I know people like Tim Burton for his visual creations, but, as I mention from time to time, I’m woefully inadequate at noticing stuff like “Art Direction” (for which Sweeney received another Oscar nomination). But Sondheim hit the nail on the head when he said, “He’s very musical, and he’s filmed it to the music. . . . He is responding visually to what he hears aurally. You can see it in the rhythm, the way the camera glides, the way it moves, the choice of angles. It just goes—forgive me—straight for the jugular.”
Yes! That’s it! And that’s what someone like me, who’s much more tuned in to the aural than to the visual, can appreciate. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the cinematographer and how much is due to Burton, but it works. Now that I think about it, that sense of phrasing in the camera work may actually be what has been missing from so many recent film adaptations of stage musicals.
I know many people will probably be asking (as I was before going to see it), “So just how violent is it?” Well, it’s a classic revenge tragedy, so there’s lots of death and blood. You do see many throats slit on screen, but the way it’s filmed made us cringe and look away and then giggle, as opposed to, say, cringing and looking away and being traumatized for the rest of our lives. If you’re an optimist about human nature, you probably won’t want to see it. I think this is the sort of film that makes my latent Calvinist come out, though, like when Todd sings, “We all deserve to die. Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I.” Plus, as a vegetarian, I find the theme of cannibalism amusing.
My one problem with the movie is that we don’t get observers to the revenge-tableau at the end. You know, like in Hamlet, where Horatio, the one sort of normal person in the play, comes in and observes all the dead bodies on the ground and shakes his head and clucks but somehow lets the audience know that things will be a little more peaceful now? Well, we didn’t get that in Sweeney Todd, even though there were characters perfectly well suited to filling that role—and Wikipedia tells me that these characters do come in and observe the carnage at the end of the stage play. So why did Burton leave it out? It left me with a sense of incompleteness. I can understand wanting to disrupt the genre conventions a little bit, but why observe them faithfully throughout the movie and then chuck them out the window at the end?
Anyway, that’s a fairly minor gripe, but because it’s at the end, it did affect the movie’s aftertaste for me. Here’s the bottom line: if you too have an inner Calvinist that doesn’t get out much, then, by all means, treat it to a day at the movies with Sweeney Todd!
January 23rd, 2008
There was a lot of flack over the casting of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in the recent remake of Hairspray (well, “remake” in the sense that it’s the film version of a stage musical based on a 1988 movie) because the role has traditionally gone to a gay man, but I don’t understand why there hasn’t been any sort of large-scale complaint about the treatment of race issues in the movie. The 2007 Hairspray is, at best, naively ignorant and, at worst, racist—and, in all cases, something to be ashamed of.
(Note: I’ve never seen the 1988 movie or the stage musical, so my comments here are entirely based on the 2007 movie.)
Did you even know that Hairspray dealt with race? Chances are, you didn’t, because Queen Latifah is the only one, of the many African American actors in the film, to receive top billing. In a movie that, half an hour in, pompously proclaims to be about integration, that’s a problem. The movie subsequently forgets its announced subject matter to focus on John Travolta in a fatsuit, Michelle Pfeiffer as a rather boring villain, and, of course, Zac Efron singing and dancing as a teen heartthrob. In other words, though set in 1962, the movie is a pretty realistic portrayal of 2007—including our willed ignorance of the continuing reality of racism.
Hairspray centers around the character of Tracy Turnblad, a plump, white Baltimore teen who wants nothing more than to sing and dance on The Corny Collins Show (think The Mickey Mouse Club, only with more early rock music). When she meets that goal, she nobly decides that her next step is to “make every day Negro Day”—because, you see, the daily Corny Collins Show devotes one day of every week to music popular with African American teens. Tracy actually makes her first black friends when she is sent to detention—because where else would young black people be? (The movie could have made this acceptable by somehow indicating that the African American students are unfairly represented in detention because of the racism of white administrators, but, no—it seems they’re just the only people in detention because that’s where fun-lovin’ black people belong.)
After a long, long time and no content at all related to race relations, for some reason there’s suddenly a protest march to integrate The Corny Collins Show—which would indeed be a good goal, if the movie or its characters actually cared about it. Mostly, the protest march just gives Queen Latifah to sing a solo number. And then, when they reach the television station, Tracy, who has been marching along with the African American characters, accidentally taps a policeman on the back of the head with her protest sign. He promptly tries to arrest her for assaulting a police officer, and she RUNS AWAY. Hello? Isn’t getting arrested the whole point of a protest march?
It would be one thing if Tracy had to face the consequences of her cowardice, but the movie doesn’t even recognize her actions as cowardice. Nope, it’s necessary self-preservation so that she can compete in the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant. Meanwhile, all the black protestors get arrested. True, Tracy’s father does bail them all out (if that’s not white noblesse oblige, then what is?).
The most egregious moment in the film is when Tracy, still on the lam from the law, shows up at Motormouth Maybelle’s (Queen Latifah’s) house to hide, and Maybelle, all smiles, says, “Why wouldn’t we help her out, after all she’s done for us?” ALL SHE’S DONE FOR YOU? Excuse me? Thank you, white screenwriters. Whoever wrote that line, I hope you never get a raise and have to keep picketing for the rest of your life. Just you. Even if you’re John Waters.
And those are just the film’s moral problems. I haven’t even started in on its aesthetic failures, from the director’s apparent lack of knowledge of how to film a dance number, to John Travolta’s fat-costume, which renders his face immobile.
To return to the main issue, though, I think one of the film’s biggest problems is that it treats all forms of prejudice as equal. “Fat, black, gay—we ought to accept and celebrate all ‘different’ people!” proclaims the film cheerily. And I’m not here to say feeling prejudice against overweight people is any less bad than feeling prejudice against African Americans. As feelings, all prejudices may indeed be created equal—but in historical reality, there are significant differences between oppression of African Americans and oppression of fat people. I don’t recall reading about lynchings of overweight people anywhere in my American history textbook. To somehow equate the experience of the overweight and the experience of African Americans is offensive. And stupid.
So, in conclusion, I hereby dub Hairspray the second-worst film of 2007, after 300. (Of course, that’s just among the films I’ve seen, and I have no intention of seeing Norbit or Alvin and the Chipmunks.) No musical has ever made me this grumpy. If it wins any Golden Globes tomorrow, I’m expatriating. Oh, wait–the Golden Globes are given out by the Hollywood Foreign Press, so that won’t help. Rats.
January 12th, 2008
Drop everything and go see the film Porpoise is calling the “best movie of 2007”! (And your faithful Otter calls it “the second best movie of 2007,” after The Lives of Others, which really came out in 2006, but which I’m counting as a 2007 release because if Roger Ebert does, then why can’t I?)
Yes, Juno is one of this year’s unexpected-pregnancy movies—along with Knocked Up, Waitress, and Bella—but for some reason, it has drawn less criticism from the press for the main character’s decision not to have an abortion, even though Juno MacGuff’s reasons are as vague as any of the other protagonists’. This seems strange, considering that Juno is sixteen, whereas the other women (at least in Knocked Up and Waitress) are relatively responsible women in their twenties. Maybe—and I’m being optimistic here—it’s because people really recognize that Juno is a better movie—funnier, more complex, better constructed, and without the undercurrent of misogyny that runs through Knocked Up.
First of all, it’s got great acting. Ellen Page is entirely believable as a wordy, precocious teenager who finds herself pregnant after impulsive sex with her best friend. Some have criticized her lines as too smart, and there were a couple that did seem a little forced—but because these were near the beginning of the film, I think that effect may actually be intentional. The movie doesn’t coast on cuteness at the expense of Juno’s real character growth; the smart lines don’t drop off as she discovers that she’s not as mature as she thinks she is, but they gain nuances.
Michael Cera does his sweet-awkward routine from Arrested Development impeccably here as Paulie Bleeker, the baby’s unwitting father. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are fabulous as Juno’s working-class dad and stepmom. The biggest surprise for me, however, was how good Jennifer Garner was as the prospective adoptive mother to Juno’s incubating baby. A perfectionist yuppie who believes she was “born to be a mother,” her character Vanessa reminded me of several people I have known and disliked. But the movie doesn’t leave her the way we meet her, and it doesn’t leave us with the same attitude either. Someone please give Garner a Best Supporting Actress nomination: she deserves it for making me consider charity towards people who typically annoy me.
Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman of Ghostbusters fame) may become one of my favorite comedy directors. His last film, Thank You for Smoking, made the cynical me delighted, while Juno made friends with both my cynical and my sappy sides by being neither cynical nor sappy. The new It Screenwriter of the year, Diablo Cody, has succeeded in making a quirky indie script that isn’t preoccupied with its own quirkiness. It actually has a plot, and it goes somewhere, and characters change along the way.
The folky songs that play during much of the movie are more noticeable than most movie soundtracks, but not in a distracting way. Juno herself is very opinionated about music, and though these songs probably wouldn’t be in line with her taste, the unified style announces that they are someone’s idiosyncratic music preferences, and so it works tonally. Most of the songs are by Kimya Dawson, though there are a couple of contributions by Belle and Sebastian (the Scottish band named after the dearly departed Nickelodeon show of my youth). Make sure you stick around through the credits to hear the extremely odd “I am a vampire, I am a vampire, and I have lost my mouth again.” I promise you’ll be singing it for days. And then you’ll buy the soundtrack so you can learn all the words. At least that’s what Porpoise and I did.
January 4th, 2008