Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: Sweeney Todd

A deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives dredges up an unpleasant encounter with my cinematic bête noire, Tim Burton.

Sweeney Todd showcases a match truly made in hell. No, I’m not referring to the serial killer combo of demon barber Todd and cannibal baker Mrs Lovett, but to the pairing of composer Stephen Sondheim and director Tim Burton.

Stephen Sondheim cannot write music, he is a lyricist. Tim Burton cannot direct films, he is a production designer. Both men have deluded themselves into thinking they can do something they really can’t. Burton can make a film look great but he can’t tell a story or make it look real to save his life while West Side Story lyricist Sondheim won’t admit that his work is better when paired with a melodic composer like Leonard Bernstein. Vaughan Williams said the sure sign that a composer had no confidence in their basic material was that it would be over-orchestrated. The deafening organ chords that play over the truly disgusting opening titles betray that very insecurity as well as establishing the queasy universe of gore that Burton wishes us to live in for the next 2 hours.

The real shock is that what follows these credits is a CGI London created with special effects infinitely worse than 2001’s Moulin Rouge! How’s that for progress. The acting is uniformly awful, Alan Rickman deserves special mention as he is practically enacting his Dead Ringers parody. Johnny Depp, needless to say, cannot sing. But then of course Sondheim is the one musicals composer for whom that really doesn’t matter that much. Even his best song ‘Send in the Clowns’ can be croaked by anyone with a feel for phrasing as Judi Dench wonderfully proved on the West End.

Tim Burton has long confused darkness both visual and thematic with quality. Here there is a startling moment, as Burton and Bonham Carter turn a corner into a particularly sepulchral open street, when you realise that this film might as well be in black and white. Tim Burton has, and always had had, a positive fascination with evil. He delights in a story that pits villain against villain and the few heroic characters in this film (Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener) are shoved off the stage quickly whenever they appear and, characteristically, the finale leaves their storyline hanging as Burton quite simply does not care.

1/5

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September 24, 2014

Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg features his Cosmopolis star Robert Pattinson in another tale of the rich and shameless, this time skewering Hollywood.

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Wide-eyed teenager Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives off the bus in LA, and hires limo driver Jerome (Pattinson) to show her the former Weiss residence. Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help guru, has been supplanted in the fame game by his monstrous son Benjie (Evan Bird), star of Bad Babysitter, who is managed by his mother Cristina (Olivia Williams), who takes her teenager’s drug use in stride. Stafford is treating faded actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), whose comeback rests not only on auditioning for director Damian (Gord Rand), agreeing to threesomes with producer Sterl (Jonathan Watton), and taking her mother Clarice’s part in a remake of mom’s cult classic, but also on ignoring ghostly Clarice (Sarah Gadon) denigrating her acting abilities. When Havana’s friend Carrie Fisher (Carrie Fisher!) recommends her Twitter pal Agatha as a PA, things get really weird…

Amazingly this is the first movie Cronenberg has ever shot in America, and he’s brought his regular crew with him south of the 49th parallel: cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, editor Ron Sanders, and composer Howard Shore. Everything is set for success, except the script. You feel Cronenberg might have been attracted to Maps to the Stars because it combined very dark Hollywood comedy with three sets of deranged sibling or parent relationships, and he did deranged siblings very well in Dead Ringers. But neither element really works. The disorienting boardroom grilling of Benji by nervous execs gives a hint why with its lack of establishing shots. Cronenberg, despite an eye-wateringly explicit threesome, is too icy a director to pull off lurid black comedy, and when he tackles incest here that iciness produces neither drama nor creeping horror.

Maps to the Stars features a lot of good actors, but not a lot of good parts, and feels unfocused despite such compensatory flourishes as the repeated reciting of Paul Eluard’s poem ‘Liberty’. Bird wrings some laughs from his foul-mouthed child star, while Moore tries to with a too obvious ‘shockingly callous’ reaction. Cronenberg, incidentally, is noticeably merciless in showing age has withered Moore and Cusack. Ultimately Hollywood satirises Cronenberg. Pattison’s glorified cameo has been misleadingly played up in trailers, for obvious reasons. A major character’s fiery death is head-explodingly inept, featuring CGI fire worse than The Blacklist’s shoddy standard, almost Asylum Studios bad; simply because it’ll do…  And then there’s the bit with the dog. A person is brutally bludgeoned to death, but David (Scanners’ exploding head y’all) Cronenberg is too squeamish to show the Dulux dog get whacked.

Screenwriter Bruce Wagner intended this as a satire with deep dramatic elements; but it doesn’t really work as either, and poor Cronenberg ends up becoming as ridiculous as what he’s satirising in the process.

1.5/5

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