Friday, December 28, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Singing Barber of Fleet Street

There's only one two words that can really describe Tim Burton's film adaptation of Sweeney Todd (a musical by Stephen Sondheim): relentlessly intense.

Bloody good would be appropriate as well, but only if you are in a punning mood.

I've been a fan of Sondheim since I first discovered Into the Woods my sophomore year of high school. I was introduced to Sweeney Todd four years later at a university performance, and while it was staged well with unexpected twists, the musical failed to really work its way into my subconscious. It wasn't until two years later when I saw Burton's adaptation that I really got hooked.

Sondheim is not know for his toe-tapping sing-a-longs, rather he is revered for his brilliant, tongue-twisting lyrics that mix comedy with tragedy and (often quirky) life lessons. I suppose you could say that Sondheim is the Tim Burton of the theatre world. His compositions work for you, or they don't, but it's hard to deny that they have their own unique sort of charm.

From the opening frame of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it is clear that we are in classic Burton-land once again. The production design is gothic, the colors muted, the style dark and outlandish, yet still strangely beautiful. As the opening credits roll and an animated rich, slurpy blood runs down from the barber shop, through a series of mechanics to the basement where Sweeney's victims are turned into pies, it is reminiscent of the chocolate factory opening credits of Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ... only less delicious.

The film follows barber Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker) who has returned to London with a vengeance, fifteen years after being wrongly transported by a corrupt judge. In his sixth collaboration with Burton, Johnny Depp once again plays a pale, crazy-haired man with an attachment to sharp, pointy objects, although unlike Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd's attachment to his razor blades is emotional, rather than physical. They are, as he states in one song, his only friends.

Depp can sing, yes he can, and he growls his passionate lyrics with a deep, unsettling hatred. While Sweeney is a monstrously unsympathetic man, very different from the innocent Edward or the swashbuckling, morally grey Jack Sparrow, by the startling climax, you may find yourself sympathizing for the barber, despite the fact that he has brutally murdered countless people, and most of them for no good reason at all. Depp is just that kind of brilliant.

In a performance equally as riveting is Helena Bonham Carter, crazy haired, and oozing with sensuality. On the stage, Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who ingeniously schemes a way of getting rid of the bodies of Sweeney's victims, has traditionally been played by an older, enthusiastic woman, who serves as the comic relief of the musical (Angela Lansbury in the original cast, if that tells you anything).

While the film adaptation is not completely devoid of comedy, it is considerably darker than the stage version, and most of that has to do with Burton's decision to make Sweeney Todd as gritty and gory as possible. When blood splurts in gushing waves from slashed throats on the big screen (15 feet high?), we are not afforded the buffer of distance from the stage and the limitations of special effects to make the throat slashings less traumatic. Burton exploits this, making each murder as bloody and gruesome and immediate as possible. The cherry red blood may be unrealistic, but the violence is undeniably disturbing.

Carter was the right choice for a darker Mrs. Lovett, whose affection for Sweeney Todd borders on obsession. Despite the horrors that she commits in her own kitchen, Mrs. Lovett is sympathetic, yearning for affection, and beautiful in a Burton-esq way (with a lovely singing voice to match). There's excellent chemistry between Depp and Carter, and it's not hard to imagine that, were Sweeney Todd a different kind of film, the two might really have ended up happily ever after, by the seaside (oh oh), by the beautiful sea.

Warning: this is not that kind of film.

Lyrics for life:
There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
And it's filled with people who are filled with shit

And the vermin of the world inhabit it

And it goes by the name of (insert your city here)

Don't Forget to admire Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood's (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) colorful costume designs in the dreamy "By the Sea" sequence. The costumes are some of the only bright colors in the entire film, other than the blood.

Worth Seeing Again?: The film is even more entertaining (and funnier) the second time around.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How To Keep a Kitten Happy

Back in July, when I adopted my first ever kitten, I made one huge mistake. Actually, I made two mistakes. The first mistake was assuming that the kitten would love being picked up and cuddled and kissed all the time. Or ever. The second mistake was assuming that the kitten would actually want to play with "cat" toys purchased from Target and Petco.

I was naive, but I have since learned the error of my ways. Assuming makes an ass out of me, wastes my money, and ultimately leaves me craving for what little attention my kitten does give me, usually when her litter box needs cleaning.

You don't need to spend any money to keep your kitten happy, just have some of these items lying around your house:

Keep an eye on easily-accessible shiny or poufy objects on your coffee table or desk. She won't be able to resist. When something goes missing, it's safe to assume the cat has dragged it into the nook by the fridge or hid it in her favorite spot under the bed. Just don't assume that the cat will want to play with any of the following store-bought items:

A kitten sleeping in a cat bed or playing in a cat tube? Pah! Ridiculous notions! At least she enjoys her scratching post, collapsible cubes, and the infallible feather-on-a-stick.

Without the feather-on-a-stick, I just don't know what I would have done ... Left the loose change on the floor, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Golden Compass (Well, I Still Liked It)

*I won't be going into the controversy surrounding this film and the very excellent trilogy that inspired it, as that would make this a very, very long post, and I am just too tired to write that much now. Maybe later.*

** Side note: I read the His Dark Materials trilogy for the first time in 2001. I loved the first two books so much that I rushed to buy the third book shortly after publication, although I was unable to find the series cover that matched the first two books. A year later, I found the cover I was looking for and bought The Amber Spyglass - for the second time - so it would match my first two books. Yes, I do that sometimes. **

Ever since moving to New York, and ever since a single ticket to the movies soared past the $11.50 mark, I have become more discerning when it comes to the movies I see in the theater. $24 for two people? *dies* If it's not a must-see, I might as well just wait till it comes out on DVD and buy it for the same price. has become my go-to site for determining whether or not a movie is worth my time. If the "freshness" rating is high enough, I'll browse around the critic quotes and then decide if I want to spend the money, or if I want to wait a few months and Netflix it. I had been looking forward to The Golden Compass all year, and I was disappointed to see that the film was only averaging a 44% approval rating, although that was not enough to sway me from seeing it opening night - just enough to keep me from re-reading the books before hand. I wanted to approach the film as a stand-alone story, without comparing every frame and every line of dialogue to a superior book that is still fresh in my mind.

The Golden Compass is not, by any means, a cinematic masterpiece, but it is a VERY beautiful film to watch, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, I went in with fairly low expectations, which was great, because I wasn't disappointed. Nothing is more upsetting than being super excited about a film, and then being let down by what you ultimately end up watching, especially if there's a lot of hype about it being the best movie of the year (or the best movie ever made ever, depending on how outrageous the marketing scheme). This post is already getting too long, so I'll sum up my opinion with some handy bullet points (and pictures!)
  • The film is not flawless by any means, but it could be worse. As far as epic fantasy films go, His Dark Materials is a tough series to tackle, especially when compared to the fairly straight-forward Lord of the Rings - sure there's a race of little people, Elves, and Dwarfs, and then there's the whole super-powerful ring, but all of this can be summed up very easily in the opening prologue. His Dark Materials, on the other hand, has people with souls in the forms of animal companions, a race of armored polar bears, sentient particles of Dust, and parallel universes on top of parallel universes. Try summing that up in a paragraph! Never mind that I just did.

  • The heaviness of the material (hello, religious controversy) was toned down to court the masses, as a $180 million Hollywood blockbuster always will, but the central message was retained, if in a somewhat diluted form. There is still hope if the film is successful enough to warrant the production of the sequels as the director, Chris Weitz, has every intention of getting as much out of the next two books as he can. If The Golden Compass is enough of a success, he may be given free reign to explore the ultimately much darker and much more controversial sequels. And then there's always the director's cut, extended DVD to look forward to.
  • Which brings me to my next point: The theatrical release of the film is too short. It could have done well with a full three-hours (or at least two and a half), so that there would have been time for actual character development. Instead, all we get is a name and a vague reference to race and/or place in society being thrown around whenever someone new pops up on screen. It doesn't help that most of the names are complex and foreign (and technically two names per character, if you count their daemons). I'll give the film a break here for a couple of reasons. 1. Nothing really happened in the first movie that was hinging on emotional attachment to the characters, unless you count the much-hyped polar bear wrestling match. 2. The (theoretical) sequels offer much, much more room for character development. Don't let Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliot, and even Kathy Bates (yeah, she was in the movie too) go to waste!
  • Although most of the film is well-paced, there are several bits thrown in at random and scenes that were so rushed they required lots and lots of exposition to explain what was going on, as there was (apparently) no time to actually ACT IT OUT. The filmmakers, fortunately, discovered the perfect way of doing this. In the film's world, daemons exist so that they can be confused and question the characters, who then have the opportunity to explain what is going on, for the audience's benefit. This makes the daemons seem redundant. Apparently souls are not terribly bright independent thinkers, and the filmmakers don't think we are either.
  • This film is not a stand-alone story and most likely couldn't have been, regardless of how it was adapted. A twist-ending (and a major cliff hanger) were pushed to the (theoretical) second film, and to compensate for this, a lengthy monologue by the heroine was added to the end of the film, for the sole purpose of getting us excited about the next chapter of this epic fantasy saga. Lyra literally announces everything that she plans on doing in the next movie - from seeking out her uncle (ah, so Bond will be back) to discovering what Dust is (yes, what IS Dust?), to her desire to explore the parallel universes she now knows exist.

Wow, that sounds like lots of fun! Wouldn't it be great if we could all go along for the ride? Of course, all of this speculation is dependent on there actually BEING a second movie. The intent of the "let's sum up what happens next" final monologue was so transparent it was an unintentionally funny and annoying way to wrap it all up. In case it wasn't clear that there needs to be a sequel ... now the audience knows for sure.

But you know, I still liked it.

And I'll be re-reading the series now.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Enchanted ... Could've Been Even More So

If Enchanted hadn't gotten such unanimously rave reviews from critics, I probably wouldn't have dropped $12 to see it last weekend. From the previews, the premise definitely seemed to have potential (animated princess becomes REAL princess, lost in NYC), although the story looked pretty standard, likely to fall within the "mediocre" range of a lot of Disney animated/family films post-The Lion King.

But see it I did, and the critics were definitely right on one point - Amy Adams truly is enchanting as Princess Giselle, a moderate update on the classic Disney Princess. It's really impossible not to like her, with her wide eyes, her innocent curiosity, and her classic Disney demureness and spunk. She's not the first "princess" to step up as a stronger, less-damsel in distress stereotype (Mulan and Fiona from Dreamwork's Shrek being two prominent examples), and she won't be the last. James Marsden as Prince Edward is the other standout in the cast, showing his comedic chops as the dim, but heroic Edward. Marsden manages to be extremely likable, even when it's obvious early on that he's not the right one for Giselle, 'cause he's not nearly as McDreamy as Patrick Dempsey's Robert.

Despite the enjoyable performances, it's the "obvious" that ends up being Enchanted's greatest flaw. Aside from the hilariously irreverent musical sequences which parodied how easily Disney princes and "princesses" fall in love ("True Love's Kiss") and the importance of singing a happy song while rodents help you clean up ("Happy Working Song"), the story played out very traditionally, with fewer surprises and less satire than I was hoping for.

The filmmakers missed the opportunity to create a memorable new villain, as Susan Sarandon's Queen Narissa looks like the evil queen from Sleeping Beauty and acts like the evil queen from Snow White, without an original scheme to her name, other than tossing wannabe princesses down wells. The ending climax when Narissa makes her ultimate appearance in NYC, determined to keep Giselle from her stepson Edward at any cost, should have been the most thrilling part of the film. Instead it plays out like an old fairy tale we've seen a hundred times, with no real twists and nothing new added to the genre. As a parody, Enchanted is just not up to par with the first Shrek film.

Enchanted was also lacking in character development, with Giselle's transformation to real woman feeling somewhat abrupt, even as she has the majority of the film to develop and grow. The side characters, Robert's fiancé Nancy, Robert's fairy tale-loving daughter Morgan, and the vermin-hating, evil-queen loving Nathanial, are sacrificed to the central story. Although the side plots ultimately play out as they should, another half-an-hour of character development could have made this film, and those characters, a much more memorable experience.

Final consensus: Enjoyable, good-spirited fluff for the romantics at heart, but ultimately failing to bring anything new to the genre.

Don't forget to: Download the songs to your music player and sing your own happy working song while cleaning house. If it worked for Giselle, it just might work for you.

Just one question: Why isn't the fantastically Wicked Idina Menzel singing in THIS Disney musical?


Friday, December 7, 2007

50,074 - Life After NaNo

In November 2007, I participated in a little writing challenge called NaNoWriMo (an awkward acronym for National Novel Writing Month), in which participants are challenged to write a novel ... in a month. Granted, the challenge is really just to write 50,000 words in 30 days - a rather short novel - which you don't even have to finish. And it doesn't have to be any good.

You just have to write it.

And write I did. At first I did my best to stick with the recommended 1,667 words a day, but by, oh, November 3rd, I was already losing it. Some days I'd come home exhausted from work and find contentment watching prepackaged plot twists and quirky characters on TV (Heroes and Pushing Daisies), rather than trying to write my own. Other days I'd be at a loss, so agonized over what to write next, that I just avoided sitting down in front of the computer at all. Ultimately it was the thrill of knowing that at that very moment, 100,000 other people felt a similar sense of overwhelming despair - and the desire to kick their asses - that kept me going.

Still, when November 30th rolled around, I had a mere 36,000 words written - 14,000 words short of my goal. For eight hours that evening, I sat in front of my computer and I typed, and I typed. And I typed. My hands shook from the effort. My body tensed, shoulders rounded, legs twitching. My eyes lost the ability to focus on the LCD monitor. Blindly, I continued to punch keys at random. My characters didn't know what the hell they were doing, but I kept writing, with every 1,000 word mark a mini victory. And with 5 minutes to validate the word count and 10 minutes to spare, I won NaNo.

The point of NaNo is not to write a Pulitzer winning novel in record time, nor is it likely that the printed manuscript will be worthy of anything more than leveling a lopsided desk. The point is just to write, even if it's crap. The point is to get in the habit of writing daily, something even great authors seem to have trouble with - or something that they claim to have trouble with - really, who can trust a fiction writer?.

Along with being able to smugly announce on December 1st that you have written a novel (never mind that it sucks), you get bonus points if the act of writing becomes a liberating experience and the drive to write a lot - fast - overpowers your obsession with editing as you go. The true serial novel killer is that damn OCD obsession we all seem to have as we struggle to find the perfect words and the perfect plot twists and the perfect character revelations, resulting in the closest thing we could get to the perfect novel, which looks suspiciously like a blank Word document.

You are a real winner when you hit the 50,000 word mark, Zen-ing out while writing those last 14,000 words, freeing your mind and your fingers to feel out the story together, to hell with perfect anythings.

So what is Life After NaNo? I'm not sure, as it's only a week later and my hands are still shaking, although the doctors are saying my hunched shoulders and new-found nearsightedness should clear up eventually. Will I ever finish writing my novel? Are my writing habits fundamentally changed, the OCD beast slain at last? Who knows?

Will I be participating in NaNo 2008? Hell, yeah!