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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August 21, 2013

The Mortal Instruments

Love/Hate star Robert Sheehan gets his chance to shine in the new Twilight, which wastes no time in skipping to that franchise’s most farcical elements.

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Absurdly named heroine Clary Fray (Lily Collins) turns 18 in a Brooklyn apparently inhabited entirely by British and Irish immigrants. Trading an awful poetry reading for a nightclub jaunt with best friend (who wishes he was more) Simon (Robert Sheehan), Clary finds herself the witness to a seemingly mystical murder by Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Isabelle (Jemima West). The next day her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) is kidnapped by Pangborn (Kevin Durand), who then tortures Clary’s father figure Luke (Aidan Turner) for Jocelyn’s secret; exposing Luke as a werewolf. Jace saves Clary’s life, initiating her into the Shadowhunters – an ancient society of warriors against demons led in Brooklyn by recluse Hodge (Jared Harris). The society is fading away because renegade member Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) stole their creation matrix, before Jocelyn stole it from him; only Clary knows how but her memories are magically blocked…

The Mortal Instruments is great fun for its first act. It almost feels like Kaboom director Gregg Araki at his most playful let loose on a Stephenie Meyer story treatment adding very tart jokes and acidic gay characters like Shadowhunter Alec (Kevin Zegers) and warlock Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao) to shake up the Mormon moralising. And then suddenly the movie loses its knowing outrageousness and becomes instead a case study of Damon Lindelof’s concept of ‘story gravity’. The stakes have to be raised so high that the film burns thru plot points in an hour that took it the original Star Wars three movies to deliver, and even has characters chiding each other for not recognising that story gravity requires a terrible ‘secret’ to be revealed. This film doesn’t earn Star Wars’ surprises, or an outrageous appropriation of The Matrix.

After rendering JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier a demon-hunting weapon everything descends into a ludicrousness that left the target audience of teenage girls in fits of hysterics during ‘emotional’ scenes, groaning at a ‘revelation’ involving a family insignia, and cringing at a closing insistence on criminally unsuitable romantic tropes. This is not the fault of the actors mind. Collins is an adequate sub-Nina Dobrev, and Jamie Campbell Bower delivers his zingers without distracting us from how really really good-looking he is. The great Durand is underused, but, despite a cockney accent, smuggles in some Donald Sutherland touches, and acts opposite Robert Maillet; who’s even taller! Headey meanwhile shows Rhys-Meyers how to have the presence to appear for just 10 minutes but make an impact. Director Harald Zwart includes pleasingly visceral horror, but he’s ultimately defeated by the wildly uneven screenplay.

I don’t really want to see more instalments of The Mortal Instruments but it’s frankly impossible to guess what Cassandra Clare fans will forgive.

2.5/5

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