Saturday, December 29, 2007

A close shave: Sweeney Todd

Drops of blood intermingle with soot-coloured rain falling over a cozily computerized Victorian London in the opening moments of the latest product from director Tim Burton’s well-oiled brand of overly art directed middlebrow Goth. 

Soon the camera will fly through narrow streets of cartoon grime, an homage to Dickensian squalour minus any details that convey genuine disease or discomfort. Little critters will crawl in and out of cute-looking meat pies made by a fetching, boobilicious widow with beguiling wide eyes and carefully arranged rat’s nest hair. All of this is photographed in a manner characterized by odd contradictions, the images at once garish and drab, fussed over and neglected-looking. I guess this is what happens when Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is plucked from the shadowy magic of the theatre and juiced with a multi-million dollar movie budget: though shifted into an ostensibly more realistic, less artificial format, this morbid tale has become strangely bloodless.

Which isn’t to say that the movie isn’t ever any fun. Sondheim’s acclaimed musical concerns the a vengeful barber who assumes a habit of slitting the stubbled throats of Londoners while his pie baking companion feeds the ground-up remains to an unwittingly cannibalistic public. With such a grisly premise to usher through the adaptation process, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the story has lost much of its truly chilling resonance on its way to the big screen. Robbed of their darker attributes, a number of key scenes feel flat and overlong even though the story’s been compressed and many songs eliminated or trimmed down. Yet there are however a number of smaller pleasures to be found here that will likely delight holiday audiences.

The emphasis on creaking gears, springs, trap doors and other machinery in the barber’s busy little slaughterhouse makes for an enjoyably sly commentary on the tandem progress of efficiency and dehumanization in the post-industrial world. Once they get into the swing of things, Sweeney (Johnny Depp, once again with scissors in hand, sporting Burton’s obligatory pallor and a flamboyant grey streak to rival Susan Sontag) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, fashioned as a corseted Souixsie Souix) enjoy the fluidity of a well-maintained assembly line, with fresh victims sliding directly from the barber’s chair and down a hole into the dank basement where they are swiftly churned into hamburger and baked in the ever-roaring furnace. The whimsical flopping of corpses upon contact with the earthen floor is among the movie’s most striking visual gags.

Despite the general lack of strong voices to deliver Sondheim’s wildly intricate melodies –Depp in particular has trouble getting across Sweeney’s fiendish glee with his sour face and limited singing abilities, though his Bowie-esque quaver is kind of endearing– several members of the talented cast give amusing performances. As always, Bonham Carter, Burton’s all-too-devoted spouse, provides many of the highlights. She comes closest to balancing the necessary abstract or theatrical quality of the source material with the more intimate emotional nuances one can conjure for the movie cameras, and it helps that Lovett’s longing for Sweeney gives her some strong subtext to play with. Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a deliciously foppish counterfeit Italian and rival for Sweeney’s business, mustachioed and marvelously pretentious, also provides some nice moments, going for broke in his brief comic cameo and his blue satin pants.

Anyway, I can keep combing through my memories of Sweeney Todd for more nice things to say about it, but the bottom line is that the whole thing is just surprisingly forgettable, even as you’re watching it. There seems to be no desire to implicate the viewer in the building violence, no drive to forge a deeper investment in the deliciously grotesque underpinnings in Sondheim’s tale, only a superficial interest in its nifty vestiges. Burton, who if you ask me has yet to better Ed Wood, has apparently been dreaming of this project for the last 20 years or so. That’s an awfully long time to go without ever asking yourself what the thing is really all about.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

So long as Juno and I know...

Getting unexpectedly pregnant after having sex for the first time with a buddy at the age of 16 is generally sort of a drag, but for the titular hipster heroine of Juno, played with spunky verve by Haligonian wunderkind Ellen Page, it’s not quite the bad deal you might expect. Perhaps its because something about her world just seems a little more fun and cozy than the one the rest of us live in.

No one seems to mind when Juno re-creates a rumpus room on somebody’s front lawn. Her local druggist speaks in alliteration-heavy aphorisms. Her ex-army dad and doggie-crazed step-mom (the appealing pairing of JK Simmons and Alison Janney) don’t even get pissed off when Juno tells them she’s got a bun in the oven. There’s a girl from school protesting against abortion outside the clinic Juno visits, but even she just seems kinda huggable, even informative. Plus, cute little indie rock songs seems to be playing everywhere Juno goes. The film almost makes you want to run out and get pregnant.

Juno was directed by Montreal-born Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), who has a nice feeling for pace and humour, a catchy way of framing the Vancouver-as-generic-US-city locations, and, it would seem, an easy way with actors. The film has a winsome attitude that’s only slightly soured by Reitman’s excess of eagerness to tear pages from Wes Anderson or even Jared Hess’s baroque scrapbooks, flooding each scene with kitschy costumes and paraphernalia and offbeat pop culture references. There’s even a Kinks song. The approach works well enough for the material, but Reitman’s not going to win any awards for originality.

More curiously, Juno was written by one Diablo Cody. If that name sounds like it belongs to an ex-stripper, you’d be on the right track. If it sounds like it belongs to a pretty clever ex-stripper, you’d be batting a 1000. If anything, Juno values cleverness above all else, giving the verbally able Page a steady stream of one-liners only rarely punctuated by something not deep-fried in irony. With this, her first produced screenplay, Cody seems to trust her cheek more than her heart, but there is ultimately a significant amount of subtext here that helps raise the film up above your average teen movie flotsam.

After deciding, in a commendably non-didactic scene, that abortion just isn’t for her, Juno lands upon an ad in the local Pennysaver posted by Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a youngish, upper middle-class couple looking for a kid. Juno and her dad pay a visit to the couple’s expansive suburban home and quickly surmises that while her unborn child will probably have to battle against suffocating décor, love and safety are almost ensured. It’s equally clear however that trouble is brewing in this beige carpeted paradise: Mark is stifling an undying love for horror flicks and punk rock, winning points with Juno but displeasing the studiously adult (i.e.: emasculating) Vanessa.

With this crucial element of Mark and Vanessa, Juno begins to reveal the real smarts that underline its sass. The film conveys a decidedly inclusive inclination toward families of all types and in all states. Juno isn’t sure yet quite how she feels about the soft-spoken father of her baby-in-the-making (Superbad’s Michael Cera –yet another Canuck!), but she’s beginning to ask serious questions about the elusive nature of love and the deeper value of trust and support. As the plot thickens, she, and we, can see that love, trust and support can be lost and found in expected places, and one of the real pleasures of Cody’s story lies in the way it doesn’t let any single major character remain a mere type when called upon to make important decisions.

How well anything in the film comes across ultimately comes down to Page’s performance, and, like the film as a whole, it’s a piece of work that, at its best, is characterized by its distinctive way of catching you off guard. Though still only 20 and elfin, Page has been slated as the next big thing for a little while now. The web-dating sicko thriller Hard Candy was meant to be her breakthrough, but she’s far better served by Juno. She has a terrifically breezy way with the dialogue and never forces emotion, even when the script seems to demand it of her. The performance of the year? Not quite. The first major stop on a road to a brilliant career? Very likely.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poetry has to make its way between: Robert Bringhurst's Everywhere Being is Dancing

“I like thick socks and heavy shirts because I live in a cold country, but all my theories are threadbare.” So states poet, linguist, essayist and typographer Robert Bringhurst in his foreword to
Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Gaspereau Press, $31.95), clarifying from the outset that a theory must above all be useful, like a compass in the wilderness, a way to navigate your path through some thorny terrain. Bringhurst distinguishes between theory and meaning: meaning was already there; theory simply allows us to consider it, or renovate our comfortable ways of considering it.

Everywhere Being is a companion piece to Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning. Everything is the previous book was meant to be spoken. Everything in this new book was meant to be read. The unifying theme is interconnectivity, and Bringhurst approaches the theme by examining the work of such varied figures as Aristotle, Don McKay and Joan Miró. It’s a titanic, unruly theme, and I’m trying to avoid telling you to just read the damn book. At the risk of making excuses for my own critical deficiencies, I feel it necessary to note that it’s a strength of Bringhurst’s essays that they don’t easily lend themselves to neat summation. As with poetry, as with music, a certain basic meaning can be located only in the linkage of one idea to the next.

In the titular essay, Bringhurst tries to explain how poetry is a form of knowing. So far, so obvious –but the beauty lies precisely in the way Bringhurst illuminates what we already know so that we know it better. Bringhurst’s talent with etymological dissection is on par with that of Fred Wah, and he examines root words in Chinese, early Greek and Navajo to call attention to the differences between poetry as knowing, as a reflection of “what-is,” and poetry as artifice, or “what-is-made.”

Particularly interesting is Bringhurst’s realization, new to me at least, that industrialization and the development of verse styles –not to mention, somewhat more abstractly, the development of nostalgia for nature– have emerged in tandem historically. The Navajo for example, while having had different terms for separate genres of poetry, never had a term for verse before colonization. Poetry and verse are not, in Bringhurst’s estimation, at all one and the same.

“At worst,” Bringhurst writes, verse “is merely a grate through which language is pushed.” He suggests that verse, ideally, which is to say, verse as genuine, “knowing:” poetry, has less to do with the limits of any given language, and should rather be most closely tied to human physiology, specifically to breathing. When compressed into a taut conclusion these ideas might sound almost banal, but Bringhurst’s method of approaching these ideas is sophisticated and compelling.

I’ve already used up well over half of my allotted column addressing only the first of 20 or so essays in this book, but it’s the first for a reason. It holds a sort of key for regarding the rest of these consistently stimulating, insightful and humble pieces, for understanding just what Bringhurst is getting at when he calls Glenn Gould “the most colossally improbable of all Canadian poets” or why Bringhurst urges us to read a work of Haida oral literature, in an essay about storytelling and translation that itself is written with an unmistakable flair for storytelling and translation.

In ‘Licking the Lips with a Forked Tongue’ Bringhurst describes how a simple desire to spark a poem from a comment made by someone else, as well as a growing interest in polyphonic music, led him to create texts in which different voices can speak at once through the layering of colour-coded lines. He found that musicians were more able to perform the poem than trained actors (something I discovered myself some years ago when I wrote a play that climaxes with three simultaneous monologues), that harmonization is a concept as jarring to orators as it is natural to musicians. Along the way to explaining this Bringhurst also articulates for me why I’ve always been drawn more to chamber music than symphonic: “In a group of four or five, there is room for both complexity and simplicity to breathe.”

I close with my response to this particular essay on polyphony because it struck me as being particularly, well, poetic, in the way it zeroed in on the conflict between language and meaning, between artifice and a purity so pure as to nearly evaporate when regarded by the likes of mere humans. Since he puts it best, I’ll let Bringhurst have the last word:

“I’m quite convinced that poetry is part of the larger world and not a specifically human possession or creation. When poetry gets utterly absorbed in human affairs or narrowly enmeshed in human language, it is apt to lose its vigor. Yet, as humans, we are trapped in some degree in human language and have to make of it what we can. To the enterprise of thinking, talk is every bit as dangerous as song. Poetry has to make its way between.”

(This column originally appeared in Vue Weekly, 20/12/2007)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Drinking, fighting and redemption round the toxic sump: Drunken Angel on DVD

I can think of few filmmakers whose very name holds the same promise of a great time like Akira Kurosawa’s. I can sit down to watch virtually any of Kurosawa’s films, whatever niggling individual flaws each might possess, and feel confident that I’m about to be treated to all the fundamental things that make movie-watching rewarding, to be entertained in the highest yet broadest sense of that troublesome term.

Yet with every Kurosawa film, no matter how ingeniously crafted, there’s always at least one moment that seems to have wriggled away from the dictates of sheer craft, something that breathes, that betrays ostensible perfection, that has funk. These more spontaneous moments make the films better, setting the obvious gems of technical precision and good taste in striking relief, pushing them up from the ranks of the very good to the singularly great. In
Rashomon (1950), there’s the inordinate amount of time spent hiking through the woods with the woodcutter, as though the sheer pleasure of those woods deserves its own little movie. In Yojimbo (61) there’s that image of the dramatic mountain offset by Toshiro Mifune’s ronin protagonist ambling into frame not to strike a heroic pose but to yawn and scratch the back of his head –and that’s the opening of the movie!

Newly released on DVD by Criterion, Drunken Angel (48) was the first film Kurosawa felt he could truly call his own. It also happened to be his first collaboration with Mifune, the actor that will forever be associated with Kurosawa’s cinema. Though Drunken Angel is keenly focused on the uneasy friendship between a tippling doctor and a dying gangster, the sort of narrative detours mentioned above are already finding their home in the eager-to-impress young director’s palate. The film trades in brawling, in crime, in seedy ghettos, mafia-rule, drinking and prostitution, and pays off with every one of these elements. But many of the things that makes this more than just a taut, well-made populist film are its playful insertions of incidental moments most other directors would likely cut out, such as when the doctor makes repeated attempts to do nothing more than prop open a door, or when the restless gangster ostentatiously wiggles his ass to a rousing song (with lyrics by Kurosawa!) performed in a dance hall.

Central to Drunken Angel is a sprawling sump into which locals toss their refuse, a toxic bog crawling with disease and clearly representing the morass of post-war Tokyo, a city in search of some new sense of self but mired in chaos and cynicism. The titular doctor –played with caustic appeal the other actor most associated with Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura– lives and works around this sump, battling all the filth rising from it. Though his drinking and bitter mood convey his unhappiness with the state of things, his deep-seated optimism can be located in his desire to cure even the most resistant patients, such as the arrogant young yakuza, played by Mifune, who the doctor discovers has tuberculosis. Their relationship is fraught with conflict –and the guys literally fist fight all the time– yet perhaps because of these conflicts, their attempts to understand each other is that much more profound, and fun.

Though Kurosawa had yet to distinguish all the elements of his formal style, the film features numerous inspired set-pieces, such as that dance hall scene and a tremendous climatic fight involving white paint, a device that imbues the action with layers of meaning even as it thrills us, finally resolving in a traveling shot that moves elegantly from Mifune’s collapsed figure and back out into the neighbourhood swamp. These scenes are further enriched when you later listen to Donald Richie’s enormously interesting audio commentary, which benefits not only from Richie’s position as the West’s foremost representative of Japanese cinema but from the fact that he was actually on set during the film’s making.

The book accompanying Drunken Angel, handsomely illustrated with inky impressions of the film’s imagery by somebody called Jock, features a short essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma that helps flesh out the dramatic polarities of post-war Japanese life, placing special emphasis on the idea of the nation’s inability to find an individual or institution upon which to place blame for its defeat, shame and humiliation, and, especially intriguingly, on the lineage between soldiers and yakuza.

Buruma’s essay is followed by two superb excerpts from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, in which he describes the varied elements that fed into the development of the film and more generally on the phenomena of Mifune. But anyone even slightly interested in Kurosawa should do themselves a huge favour and just go out and get the whole book, which, with its breezy, humble, anecdotal tone, is among the best memoirs on life in the film industry ever written.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Queasy, Cruel, Comic: Margot at the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding is a movie that, above all else, turns on the delicious discomforts of recognition. Recognition of self in family, family in self, and, just as importantly, the lack of any recognition altogether. Discomfort is of course rarely all that delicious in real life, but when sculpted into taut, tense, witty scenarios by writer/director Noah Baumbach, and embodied by the superlative casts he and Douglas Aibel assemble, it can frequently reach queasy, effervescent heights of comic wonder.

The movie begins with successful novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) wiggling through a corridor on a train leaving her comfort zone of New York City for some island near Long Island. That our titular heroine starts her story in a state of disequilibrium is made complete by the rather ingenious way in which she’s introduced to us: mistaking him for her own teenage son Claude (Zane Pais), she sits beside a complete stranger. Her failure to recognize the hapless, approval-seeking Claude speaks volumes about Margot’s difficulties with and resistance to motherhood, as it does about the sort of humour that Margot at the Wedding runs on. As with Baumbach’s break-out hit The Squid & the Whale, laughs escape from our recognizing the dynamics of dysfunctional families, if not, crucially for the sake of comic surprise, the particularities of the family in question, confirming Tolstoy’s famous line about how all unhappy families are different.

A defining factor in Baumbach’s dissection of family is his emphatic interest in giving his adults very adult stories and his kids stories focused around their eager ambition to penetrate the banal mysteries of adult life. Adults and kids intermingle without having to compromise the overall tone of the movie, which hums along, fuelled by need, injury and the distribution of emotional collateral. With child in tow, though conspicuously sans husband, Margot ostensibly arrives on the quiet island to attend and support the marriage of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to tubby, nervy ex-rocker Malcolm (Jack Black), who she met only recently. Once enveloped by the affluent, small community Margot and Claude are confronted with scenes of sexual and fraternal manipulation and expectation, and in these scenes their disparate age groups become irrelevant. Insecurity becomes an equal opportunity threat to all involved.

Squaring off against sea, shrubs, childhood mementos and a lonely, bare tree, under overcast east coast light rendered with muted beauty by ace cinematographer Harris Savides, Margot and Pauline’s interaction forms a consistent centre to this movie that handles story in the loosest terms it can get away with. Things don’t progress a whole lot in Margot at the Wedding, but the static nature of the drama is engagingly offset by how terrifically funny it all is –and its funny because we keep discovering more and more about how these wildly antagonistic sisters operate. And its hard to imagine this relationship playing as well as it does without one of the most inspired strokes of casting in recent memory.

Kidman and Leigh as sisters still strikes me as an utterly bizarre, unlikely choice, the former actor distinguished by her elegance, taste and understatement, the latter by her ballsy, go-for-broke, sometimes deeply mannered performances. My first thought was: this movie’s not big enough for the two of them. My second was: that’s goddamned brilliant! They’re both so good, so mutually attuned to Baumbach’s style while coming to it from very different sensibilities, that they dangle side by side from this family tree with inspired incongruity: Margot the privately grotesque star of the family, Pauline the more sympathetic, if hopelessly lost black sheep. And when you throw the added wild card of Black into the mix, playing a character that no one, his fiancée included, seems entirely comfortable with, you’ve pretty much sealed the deal as far as comic tension is concerned.

The cruelty that constitutes the stock in trade of Margot never really gets shaken off. Thankfully. But that Margot is such a compulsive bitch most of the time makes her role in the family all the more compelling to work through. Its not just this movie that needs Margot to function, her family needs her too, as a way to reflect back their own weaknesses and conflicted feelings with success as defined by the outside world. And, as jarring as the final gesture made in Margot at the Wedding is, it displays a remarkable flicker of optimism in this mostly nasty, mostly pleasingly shapeless world Baumbach’s created. Out of nowhere, the movie seems to be telling us that we never know when our deeper moral impulses might just leap out, yank us by the lapels, and force us to live up to something better than our conditions promise.