Our weekly roundup of film reviews returns, courtesy of James Bryan…
As we wallow in the truly miserable news that Aliens Vs Predator made more money at the box office last week than No Country for Old Men, we sigh and turn our attentions to this week’s offerings. The three biggest releases this week are all stamped with Oscar. We’ve got Johnny Depp singing in Cockney and slicing throats in Sweeney Todd, Tommy Lee Jones revealing his soul with the barest flicker of a muscle in In The Valley Of Elah and the acting masterclass that is The Savages featuring an Oscar-nominated Laura Linney.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been wowing the critics in the US, the NY Times thought it was a masterpiece and closer to home Jonathan Ross agreed. The picture isn’t so clear-cut among our selection of critics. Most impressed is James Christopher in the Times who gives it 4-stars. He calls Tim Burton’s film:
a wonderful adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s musical. The black magic begins when Johnny Depp’s white-faced Sweeney steals up the Thames in the dead of night. As the boat slips under a spooky London Bridge it becomes quite clear that Burton was born to film this strange and spooky chamber piece.
Anthony Quinn in the Independent is a fan of the original musical, but not so much of this adaptation (2-stars):
Sondheim's droll lyrics and lush harmonies finesse all this into a compellingly macabre comedy. Even when the singing is no more than passable (Depp does a cockney croon that nods to David Bowie), the tunes come up trumps – "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir", "Worst Pies in London" and "Pretty Women" are terrific.
Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian (3-stars) doesn’t find the film menacing or scary enough despite the copious blood-letting:
The one genuinely unpleasant image comes when we are looking down Todd's death chute at one of his bodies, which lies broken and spreadeagled below, eyes staring, and arranged asymmetrically in the frame. For the rest: well, it's an entertaining, unscary digital ride through the London Dungeon, accompanied by classy music. Likable: but no masterpiece.
Having actually seen the film, I’m on The Times’s side with this one. As James Christopher says:
The pace is a surprise. Burton has pruned Sondheim’s arias to fit the tempo of a thriller – brilliant editing – and the villains are far less stocky. Sacha Baron Cohen delivers a priceless cameo as a jealous unisex rival with plans to blackmail Sweeney. Alan Rickman is a sinister pleasure as Judge Turpin. And Timothy Spall is equally effective as his ultra-violent enforcer, Beadle Bamford
Overall, the film is uniquely Burton featuring a glorious Hammer Horror inspired London and a unique medley of singing, violence and humour. The main reason to watch is definitely for the Johnny and Helena Show, coming across like twisted goth siblings they devour their parts with glee. A familiarity with the original musical definitely helps but you can’t dispute the films originality, it’s the best blood-soaked all singing gothic musical you’re going to see all year.
Next up: In the Valley of Elah.
Tommy Lee Jones is, as The Independent so accurately states, “ironically craggy” and his latest film, In The Valley Of Elah marks his second critically acclaimed performance in as many weeks (after No Country For Old Men). The critics are rather fond of this bestowing a universal 4-stars upon its shoulders. Over to The Times for the synopsis:
Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a by-the-book former military man whose soldier son Mike has gone Awol on his first weekend home from Iraq. Hank hopes that his army connections will help to lessen the mess that his son seems to have got into. But those army connections have long since retired and the military itself is not the noble beast that Hank once knew.
The film is written and directed by Paul Haggis, who made Crash, a film that split audience opinion as being either highly engaging or infuriatingly simplistic. This time he's getting some fantastic praise. The Times:
Haggis's superb script is multi-layered, a study of one man's personal odyssey, but also a snapshot of a nation at a time of conflict that creates as many monsters as it crushes.
Everyone is also in agreement at Tommy Lee Jones exceptional performance. The Independent:
At times it seems that Jones is hardly acting at all; his military bearing and economy of words carry the story of his career service, but it's in the fleeting twitch of a facial muscle and the sorrowful flicker of his eyes that we read what's happened to his soul.
Its anti-war stance didn’t generate much box-office in the US. As Peter Bradshaw notes:
Thus far, almost every single mainstream Hollywood movie about politics or the war on terror, however notionally critical or satirical, has been defanged and auto-castrated at the outset by its own terror of being thought unpatriotic. Whatever its faults, that certainly doesn't apply to Haggis's film, which finishes with a boldly challenging and even blasphemous shot of the star-spangled banner
He concludes that the film, “is a powerful, muscular film, and there is real anger and fear at its heart.” So if you’re in the mood for something more political and challenging, it seems this is your choice for the week.
Also this week we have The Savages, described in a 3-star review in the Times as “highly praised but utterly dour”. It’s the story of a pair of siblings having to decide what to do about their father who is beginning to suffer from dementia. The leads are played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, who as Anthony Quinn notes in his 4-star review, are “two of the most compelling screen actors of the current decade.” It’s obviously not traditional ground for comedy as the Times says:
Jenkins’s solemn comedy may be 389 jokes short of a Woody Allen classic, but there is a tenderness about these flawed heroes that is profoundly touching.
Peter Bradshaw gives the film 3-stars calling it a “well-acted and involving drama.” The performances are clearly sensational and as Anthony Quinn says, despite the films themes of old age, sickness and death that you should:
Give it a chance, though, because it's a rare movie that can land a punch in the gut one minute and rouse a belly-laugh the next.
So overall a high-quality week of releases. Next Friday, Cloverfield opens, J J Abrams's crack at creating a Godzilla for the US. And if you haven’t seen the trailer, where have you been?
By James Bryan