Three, then one: Sweeney Todd, Margot at the Wedding, Youth Without Youth, and Romance & Cigarettes

Helena Bonham-Carter, slumming (again), in Sweeney Todd (Paramount)

There may be fierce competition for such an honor, but I believe Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd proceeds to the top of the class—for the most numbingly inert movie musical ever made. Bloody and bloody awful, Burton’s direction and John Logan’s rancid screenplay have nothing whatsoever to do with Stephen Sondheim. True, Sondheim’s songs are sung (albeit not very well) but the spirit that infuses the composer-lyricist’s work can’t be found anywhere inside this dead air bubble, a 50-million-dollar piece of rubbish.

We may as well face it: Burton never could direct. Even in his so-called halcyon days of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, his chief accomplishment was to establish an atmosphere of pure lead. But he was consistent, and so his leaden-gray piffles accumulated into a “style,” or were taken as representative of such by low-minded reviewers from the dumb and dumber assembly lines of movie criticism.

Burton’s muted palette and preference for striped clothing as a means to denote whimsy remain intact, as is the director’s literal approach to material that calls for a genuinely skewed vision. And when you have throat slashing as the primary topic of your story, Burton’s unimaginative fraternity boy concept of straight-forwardness is the last thing any sane person would want. The barber-chair murders presented in this Sweeney Todd leave nothing to suggestion—Burton shows it all, every splattering of red in obscene close-up. Burton and his defenders are unlikely to know this: there are other ways to film death, other camera angles that might be used to get the same point across (whatever that point may be) instead of wallowing in identical, hyper-realistic yet desensitized depictions again and again. Burton serves up the demon barber’s throat cuttings as if they were consumer goods being ladled out to us; how an audience is supposed to take this, I’ve no idea. If it’s meant to be black comedy, it fails. Kevin Smith, whose elementary school parody of Sweeney Todd livened up the last section of Jersey Girl, could have done better than this. At least Smith would have understood that adapting Sondheim from stage to screen requires a lighter touch, a satirical, even if cartoonish, sense of playfulness. For all the graphic violence, though, Burton doesn’t make the film a thriller, either. You’d think that with all those straight-edged razors in close proximity to tender flesh, he’d pull a De Palma, but no, in Burton’s hands, Todd is just another mentally ill guy doing his job, rather like the studio executives who allowed this inhuman debacle to flourish. (Glancing at the production notes just now, I see that Burton and company argue that their Sweeney is a horror movie. Well, horror movies require some degree of emotion, too. This picture has none, and without emotion, how can we be scared? Burton has directed as if for a super-race of implacable nihilists.)

As for Johnny Depp in the title role, he’s terrible. He can’t sing; he spits out lyrics with staccato over-enunciation. Worse still, Depp’s performance is so locked-in that his Todd inspires neither terror nor pity. I didn’t care about him, his insanity, his injustice, or about whether Todd reunited with his daughter or not, because what kind of a father is he? Helena Bonham-Carter does reasonably well as Todd’s accomplice Mrs. Lovett, maker of “The Worst Pies in London,” although Burton defeats her opening solo with his predictable gross-out juvenilia—the usual slime, rodents and insects on parade. His staging has all the funhouse-minus-the-fun gusto of a rolling pin thwacking a cockroach, which is exactly how the number ends.

There are two compelling vocal performances in the movie, not enough for a musical to skirt by on. First, Jamie Campbell Bower, despite being a kind of generic British lad that the movies love (all sensitivity and flowing blond locks), does a nice, earnest interpretation of the catchy tune “Johanna.” Bower lacks the strength of Victor Garber, who sang it in the original Broadway production, yet he brings with him a charm, an innocence, a grace—all qualities in short supply here. Second, the child actor Edward Sanders, as the gin-sotted helper Toby, carries his half of the duet “Not While I’m Around” with such aplomb that Bonham-Carter momentarily shakes off the movie’s thick torpor, and she comes to life, a life that exists somewhere outside the movie’s bombastic “values.”

A final observation: Alan Rickman’s crotch-accentuating gold lamé breeches are an embarrassment to the art of costume design. Colleen Atwood, of all people, should have known better.

noahbAlthough either the Australian Jindabyne or the re-cut Southland Tales appeared prime contenders for the worst film of 2007, they have, shock of shocks, been surpassed: by Noah Baumbach’s worthless Margot at the Wedding. I couldn’t abide Baumbach’s previous directorial outing, The Squid and the Whale, either (see my 10-worst write-up for 2005), but it was well acted, I give it that, by Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, and Laura Linney. Margot doesn’t even have good acting in its favor; it is the worst acted, worst photographed, worst edited, most smugly condescending trash on an American screen since, well, what? Margot at the Wedding may, in fact, be without precedent.

Only The Life Aquatic, which Baumbach wrote with his insipid cohort Wes Anderson, comes close, as far as the school of film that invites (nay, demands) viewers to snicker at the shallow idiocies of the caricatures on-screen, while those very same shallow idiocies are held up as proof of the filmmaker’s superiority to all that—evidence that he can see further past any set of neuroses ever plopped in front of him. If Baumbach’s satire had any bite, his emptiness might matter less, and he could then settle for being a mere entertainer as opposed to a failed provocateur.

The movie begins with a tanned and dimpled adolescent boy having a screaming fit in between cars on a train. We never learn why. (Perhaps he suffers spiritually.) There’s an abundance of supposedly witty dialogue, such as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s claim that her ne’er-do-well fat punk of a fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black) will “spend up to a week writing a response to a music review.” There are two warring sisters, Margot and Pauline, who are finally able to laugh together—at the memory of a third, absent sister being raped as a child by the family’s horse trainer. Why is this hilarious?

The corpulent Black bares his flabby ass to the camera in a bedroom scene that, needless to add, is a disgusting sight, though it did remind me of a friend’s recent comment to the effect that, “What God didn’t learn from Philip Seymour Hoffman, he learned from Jack Black.”

Whenever the movie, by accident, comes anywhere near having a serviceable moment, as when Nicole Kidman’s Margot climbs a tree in the backyard of her old family home, Baumbach stands at the ready to dumb it down; he counters Margot’s exuberant expression of physical pleasure by making her into a ninny who’s unnerved over the presence of a small bug.

The film goes along, on its deliberate drab path, occasionally dragging in horror elements, although almost everything here is treated in freak show terms. Twice, Baumbach resorts to child endangerment. In the more pernicious example, Margot’s pretty-faced son Claude walks out into the country fields with a cousin. He asks her: “Wanna see me dance?” She nods, and he goes into his free-style moves, which are sweetly impressive in that long-maned tween-age sort of way. As he dances, one of the island’s feral in-breds comes sauntering up behind Claude, and the cousin doesn’t warn him. We then get a miniature Deliverance, with Claude held down on the ground by the carrot-topped bumpkin who bites into one of his cheekbones. Claude emits a blood-curdling scream of anguish—end of scene. Back at the house, Margot, who’s supposed to be a great literary, intellectual monster, slaps Claude for no particular reason—on the same side of his face that was just bitten into. Then it’s off to an independent bookstore where mum/monster/Margot reads from her latest tome; there’s a shot of Claude sitting in the audience, and there isn’t a mark on him. Not a bruise, not a blemish, not a gash, nothing. Twice also, in the final half-hour, in two different settings, one a hotel room, the other outdoors, the boom mic lowers into the shot. It’s hard to imagine anyone, other than witless hipsters of the David Hudson variety, continuing to laud Baumbach after this.

Near the end, Claude, whose voice has yet to deepen and darken into a man’s timbre, confides to Margot, “I masturbated last night. I went into the bathroom when everyone was asleep and did it.” Oh, yes, Noah-surrogate! Anything else?

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The night before I saw Youth Without Youth, Francis Coppola’s return to filmmaking after a 10-year hiatus, a friend who enjoyed and appreciated the picture, while acknowledging that it’s no masterpiece, told me, “It’s an old man’s movie.” The next night, as I emerged stupefied and bored senseless from the screening, I thought, sure enough, but one made by a little kid who aged into an old man without actually having matured at any point.

Coppola has made worthwhile films: The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Peggy Sue Got Married. There have been entertaining trifles (You’re a Big Boy Now, Finian’s Rainbow), fine moments in bad films (The Rain People), great songs in worse films (One From the Heart), out-and-out fiascos (The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone), and an exhausting supply of overrated dreck (anything with the word Godfather in the title). None of Coppola’s previous missteps, however, provides adequate preparation for Youth Without Youth, wherein nearly each action the director takes feels wildly, pitifully miscalculated.

It begins promisingly, with swank, intentionally retro opening credits in which a single red rose shimmers against a backdrop of pure black. Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov has written a bewitching score that calls for several skittering solo passages by an instrument I love, yet seldom hear, the cimbalom, here played to crystalline, tangy perfection by Kalman Balogh.

Coppola penned the script, based on a novella by the Romanian writer Mircea Eliade, although I couldn’t say which of the two takes credit for piling one ludicrous plot development on top of another. For a while, it’s a Nazi espionage thriller, not a very good one, and when Coppola exhausts possibilities there, he catapults the narrative forward to 1955. The movie’s anti-hero, an elderly linguistics professor miraculously restored to physical prime by a bolt of lightning, takes advantage of his new, young body by having zipless fucks with an ugly Nazi girl, the kind of gal who shows her loyalty by embroidering a swastika on her garter strap (black, of course, with matching bra). Their romps in bed together are the unsexiest couplings this side of Lust, Caution, though one gathers that Coppola, unlike Ang Lee, intends his fascinatin’ fascism to be a fairly light-hearted affair.

The professor, played by Tim Roth, has a double, so much of the movie pans out as a series of Roth holding conversations with himself, always in pseudo-philosophic chatter about “objective reality,” often staged with blue shadows and light washing over his purple face(s) and white linens. The director even drags in a mad Nazi scientist who conducts bizarre electrocution experiments on animals. We only see his laboratory for one scene, and Coppola places his camera so far away from the main event (just as well) that the subject appears either to be an enormous dog or one picayune horse. No matter—nothing comes of it anyhow. Coppola cuts this around bits of the squeaky-voiced Bruno Ganz, as the good Romanian doctor whose hospital has been overrun by SS officers, beseeching Roth to do something, to stop being so passive, because, “We are running out of time!”

But the best is yet to come: on a hiking excursion in a remote countryside (we are still somewhere in Europe, though God knows where) Roth spots a young Englishwoman who’s a dead ringer for a lost love from his student days. He predicts that she and her traveling companion will meet with misfortune in an upcoming storm. They do. He leads a search party and finds her alone in a cave, babbling Sanskrit to herself. He entreats her with a few incantations of “Om” and “Shanti,” then before you know it, it’s “Namaste!” The lass’s tears turn to smiles, and they’re off—for at least an hour’s worth of past life regressions, of waking in the night looking bloated and suddenly realizing one can chant in Egyptian and Babylonian.

What does any of this mean to Coppola? There’s never the shadow of a suggestion that so much as an iota of it holds any significance. A movie can’t get by entirely on visual allusions to other films, on handsomely photographed shoots of stunning locales. Why even try?

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And now for something completely different: a movie that is sheer joy. Or close enough. In truth, the initial ten minutes of John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes feel static. Then the first song-and-dance, set to Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Lonely is a Man Without Love,” revs up, and the film lifts into a giddy, smashing new stratosphere. Turturro, whose previous directorial turn Illuminata I likewise adored sans a reservation or two, cites Buñuel and Michael Powell as influences. I was thinking more of a John Waters-John Cassavetes hybrid—the sensibility is definitely the 70s. The movie exudes such exuberance for pop kitsch, and has such an infectious, endearingly odd style of humor, that another superimposition zoomed to mind: Aretha Franklin’s “You Better Think” number from The Blues Brothers tagged with Rivette’s Celine and Julie as back-up singers/spastically leggy chorus girls. Romance & Cigarettes has a kind of decided zaniness, not unlike some of Elaine May’s deadpan jests, that’s also off-centeredly emotional.

In that opening set piece, Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) steps out on the front porch of his eyesore of a suburban home in Queens. He’s just had an argument with his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) who informs him she must have been an idiot to marry him. (She’s discovered the affair he’s carried on with a much younger woman.) Nick speaks a few lines from the song, then Humperdinck bursts on the soundtrack and Nick sings along. Turturro expands Nick’s personal, unarticulated sorrow as an anthem for working-class, blue collar guys who have dirty jobs—garbagemen and welders start lip-synching, too; Bobby Cannavale, terrific here as a suitor to one of Nick and Kitty’s three adult daughters, preens about in an orange tank top and paisley pants—the first of several colorful outfits for him. And the whole thing culminates, of course, in an all-too-brief street ballet set to a swooning solo saxophone. When Nick fantasizes about his earliest meeting with Kitty, in their rose-colored courtship, that saxophone returns, and I had the most intense case of, “I know that song! God, what is it?” (It turned out to be the great tenor Gene Ammons, blowing on “Answer Me, My Love.”)

The scene isn’t beautiful merely because Turturro chooses a wistfully evocative recording, but because the writer-director-actor understands something that bad moviemakers never grasp—that unglamorous, ordinary people have their dignity, even in a farce.

Sarandon, who has faxed-in disgraceful performances in recent years, in everything from Elizabethtown to the unnecessary remakes of Alfie and Shall We Dance, does her most incisive work since Igby Goes Down. It’s her best leading role, certainly, since I can’t remember when. In Igby Goes Down, Sarandon dug into the rich bitch archetype as far as it could possibly go. Playing Kitty, whose existence has been mainly a compromise, liberates the actress to tear things up a bit, to reach not only for that gleam of insanity you see in her eyes when Nick has been chained to the backyard swing-set, but to plumb the depths of what Kitty has lost and gained in her years with him. Turturro gives her a magnificent “solo” when she walks into a cathedral, and she pauses for a while to take in the choir. We watch the choristers, a rainbow coalition of women (mostly), black, white, old, middle-aged, through her eyes. After a friend in the choir (a memorably and wittily off the deep end Barbara Sukowa) notices Kitty and calls out to her, Sarandon launches into lip-synching “Piece of My Heart.” This is without peer the most rousing screen musical moment yet in the twenty-first century. When Sarandon pours Kitty’s feelings of betrayal into this pantomimed five-minute sequence, it’s more authentic passion and high art than you’ll see in Marion Cotillard’s impoverished, undeservedly praised non-performance as Edith Piaf in the dreadful La Vie en Rose. (There’s also an intriguing hint of past history between Kitty and the cathedral’s organist—an insinuation left deliciously in mid-air.) Turturro’s marvelous mise-en-scene (marvelously raunchy, one might say) broadens Kitty’s awakening by intercutting her sequence in the church with shots of Nick and his mistress having a round of phone sex, and Turturro adds to that a make-out session between Cannavale and Baby Murder (Mandy Moore), a session that ends with a gesture as outrageous as it is incredibly selfless of Cannavale—in close-up, he thrusts his bikini-brief adorned erection directly at Baby, and by extension at us, in the center of the frame.

The movie serves up all sorts of ravishing, often wholly inexplicable treats, such as an affectionately kooky bit of Nick complaining that someone ate all the pork chops before he could have dinner. His daughters, who are stay-at-home musicians (they’ve built a band platform right next to that rusting, outgrown swing-set), begin to taunt their hungry, defenseless-in-the-kitchen daddy with rhythmic, finger-snapping riffs on, “Pork chops, pork chops!” It’s unabashedly funny, the kind of humor rarely seen in cinema anymore (but something like it was on view in the recent re-issue of Hal Ashby’s sublimely edited 1970 gem, The Landlord, another movie where abrupt cuts double as bemused commentary).

The choreography, mainly by Tricia Brouk, lends an irresistible, maniacal dimension to Turturro’s vision, especially in a salsa number complete with firemen in a conga line, clamoring after Kate Winslet’s vampish shopgirl Tula, who entices and eludes them all in her form-fitting engine-red vinyl dress. Donna Zakowska’s costumes are consistently inspired, perhaps never more so in the garb she designs for Cannavale’s Fryburg, a man seemingly born to gyrate to James Brown’s “Hot Pants,” while clad in a white turtleneck, yellow chemise, black leather coat, and a pair of red plaids. The moment of Cannavale lip-synching to Brown, like the “pork chops” improvisation, isn’t germane to anything in the film’s story—it’s just out there on its own, and all the more wonderful for that reason.

Turturro’s dialogue may be racy, yet he’s never gross. It’s a clean filthy movie. When Christopher Walken, strutting his stuff to the strains of “Delilah,” reenacts stabbing his unfaithful wife, there’s no blood, which the routine works perfectly well without. And I love what the director achieves with chiaroscuro in a scene where Nick goes to church to confess his sins to a priest; the only light seeps in through the club-shaped slats of the confession booth.

Romance & Cigarettes has a perfect ending. I won’t give it away, suffice to mention that most movies don’t know how or when to stop, but Turturro, after the rambunctious slapstick and bawdiness, ends the film on such a powerful note of quiet, it’s almost an homage to Terrence Malick. Kitty listens to a tape recording of her and Nick singing Irving Berlin’s “The Girl That I Marry,” from Annie Get Your Gun. And as she listens, seated in an armchair in their bedroom, the camera pans slowly outside, to the backyard at twilight. There’s the swing-set, decrepit with age, again. Behind it, over a fence, tall willows and weeds blow in the wind, the soundtrack continuing with the couple’s unaccompanied duet. It’s a lovely and loving statement on a marriage.

What’s clear to me, what should be clear to anyone, is that Turturro is an original. Although the film has sluggish spots early on, the direction gains confidence and radiance as the movie builds, reaching a splendid plateau that’s more astutely conceived than anything currently drawing unearned accolades. So why isn’t he championed as a maverick filmmaker? Why did this movie have to sit on the shelf for more than two years? It’s likely because Turturro’s generosity of spirit and off-kilter wit sail right past the irony-addicted idiots who overpopulate the film industry. And when you have “critics” who take it as their task to play tiddlywinks with the likes of Tim Burton and Noah Baumbach, critics who are in fact afraid to step from the safety of the herd to bash the trendy “boutique” crud from Paramount Vantage or Sony Pictures Classics, the loss is incalculable. – NPT

December 19, 2007

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