Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Bloody Good Show

** out of ****

Premiering on Broadway in 1979, Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (adapted from Christopher Bond's play of the same name), makes it to the big screen 28 years later -- just in time for Christmas.

Directed by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp plays the title role in his sixth collaboration with the director and fifth collaboration with female lead Helena Bonham Carter.

Revolving around the themes of revenge, murder, poverty and cannibalism, this sure isn't "Mamma Mia!"

Set in a dreary 18th century London, "Sweeney Todd" tells the infamous story of Benjamin Barker (Depp), a barber, wrongfully accused and sent away by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) with the help of his sailor friend, Beadle Barnford (Timothy Spall). Turpin's motive is to get to Barker's wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) for whom he longingly covets.

Returning 15 years later to London with the alias Sweeney Todd, Barker hopes to be reunited with his wife and daughter and to seek out revenge on Turpin and Barnford.

Sweeney Todd opens his barber shop above Mrs. Lovett's (Bonham Carter) Meat Pie Shop, which she sings about in "The Worst Pies in London." Lovett and Todd partner in a heinous relationship. Upstairs, Todd slits the throats of his customers, while downstairs she'll fillet their meat into her pies. Sweeney lures his customers with a guarantee of "the closest shave you'll ever know."

Being sidetracked from his main goal and with the body count piling up, Todd is driven to exact revenge with nothing to stop him in this dark musical.

While with most films you wish the second half could have been as good as the first, the opposite holds true for "Sweeney Todd."

Finally gaining momentum after a sleepy first act, the film maintains a high energy until the satisfying end.

Burton orchestrates the stylized, large-scale production, having the camera zoom up and down the streets of the gloomy London landscape to establish much of the film's mood in a way that is eye candy for the viewer. Many kudos go out to the cinematographer, set designers and costume and make-up departments. Most of the film looks black-and-white. Until, of course, the blood gushes out in Tarantino-like quantities, looking almost cartoonish, to create an outstanding visual effect.

Johnny Depp, looking similar to his "Edward Scissorhands" character (his first film with Burton), is magnificent as Sweeney Todd in an award-worthy performance. He displays a strong singing voice.

The big surprise is Bonham Carter with some of the best lines in the movie. Her voice is soft, elegant and tuneful, but can't overcome the comparisons to Angela Lansbury's performance on Broadway.

The supporting cast keeps the film afloat. One surprise is a small role played by Sacha Baron Cohen as a faux Italian shyster.

Barely a word not spoken in song, Sondheim's lyrics are clever and witty for the most part, but the lines played just for laughs fall flat.

While "Sweeney Todd" is a musical, it isn't one for the whole family.

Like Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, "Sweeney Todd" is an acquired taste.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Almost 'Legend'ary

*** out of ****

Is it me or does every film set in the future have some sort of apocalyptic theme to it?

In "I Am Legend," the desolation is set in not-so-far-off 2012. From the first few scenes of the movie it is not hard to tell that something huge has happened to New York City.

Will Smith stars as Robert Neville, the last man alive in a deserted Manhattan. Weeds are growing out of the streets, the Brooklyn Bridge is dilapidated, lions and other zoo animals are prowling about, but everything else lies still. Come nighttime, however, the streets are alive -- or to be more precise, undead.

How did this come about? We cut to one of many appropriately placed flashbacks. It is 2009. While things look normal, there are some alarming changes taking place -- gas hitting a bit south of $7 per gallon and a cure for cancer has been found. The miracle cure's side effects, however, are more than just a headache.

The people given the revolutionary cure develop a virus, eventually turning into creatures that look like zombies with hairless pasty-gray skin and dilated pupils. Their vampire-like characteristics include feeding on blood and burning in the light. These primitive and aggressive people are called "dark seekers." The virus is transmitted through the air and during attacks from the monsters.

Neville, a scientist who helped with the cure, leads the chaotic evacuation/quarantine for New York City, aka ground zero. Events go terribly awry when his wife and daughter die along with others as the unstoppable virus wipes out humanity.

Immune to the virus, Robert's only companion is his dog Samantha. Living in a barricaded safe house, Robert works hard to find a cure for the virus using his immune blood when he's not out searching for survivors. He also broadcasts signals on the radio alerting possible survivors about where to meet up with him.

Racing against the clock to find a cure, with the dark seekers waiting for him to make a fatal error, the supposed "last man on earth" may not be alone after all.

Based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, "I Am Legend" is the third film incarnation. The first was 1964's "The Last Man on Earth," starring Vincent Price, followed in 1971 by "The Omega Man," starring Charlton Heston.

The opening special effects are impressive. Seeing a deserted, rundown New York City with wild animals racing between abandoned cars is a spectacle. Later scenes are dicey at best. The dark seekers are effective but look as if they belong in a video game rather than a big-budget sci-fi horror film.

As far as acting goes, the one person that gets the credit (and there really only is one person to give it to other than a loveable dog), is superstar Will Smith. Smith is brilliant and makes "Legend" captivating. Showing paranoia, fear, loneliness and the willingness to survive and strive for a cure, Smith captures the audience's hearts as the hero, but also as a villain for having taken part in the virus' creation.

This is the second feature film for music-video-directing star Francis Lawrence. His first film was the passable comic book adaptation of "Constantine." While "Legend" is an improvement (Lawrence shows that he can create effective atmosphere full of many heart-racing, seat-jumping scary moments that leave shivers), Lawrence still needs to work on covering plot holes.
Most of the questionable consequences of a disaster you can shrug off, but you can't help wondering how there's electricity with no generators.

Not quite legendary, "I Am Legend" does make a name for itself.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

'Golden Compass' dazzles with its cast and effects

**1/2 out of ****

The holiday season is upon us, and to the fray of fantasy book adaptations comes "The Golden Compass."

The film is New Line's latest attempt at making another lucrative franchise like "Lord of the Rings," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter."

"The Golden Compass" tells the first part of the popular "His Dark Materials" trilogy written by Phillip Pullman.

"Compass" is set in a 20th-century-ish England, one of many worlds in a parallel universe. In this mystical world, every human has an animal companion called a daemon that bears it's owners soul. As children grow up their daemons can change to different animals, while adults stay the same.

Twelve-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is the center of the story. With a strong-headed personality, she lives among scholars in Jordan College under her distinguished uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig).

The main events ensue when Asriel shocks the Magisterium, a big-brother-like hierarchy that rules the country, by finding a golden dust in the Arctic Circle that is believed to connect the universes together.

Before heading back to the Arctic, Asriel secretly gives Lyra an alethiometer, better known as a golden compass. The last one remaining, the alethiometer is a device that can tell the truth to any question.

After Asriel leaves, Lyra's friend Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped by a group called Gobblers who take children to the north for experiments to control their souls under the Magisterium.
Wanting to go after Roger, Lyra jumps at the opportunity to go north to the Arctic with the elegant and mystifying Miss Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a member of the Magisterium who has a knack of getting what she wants. While Miss Coulter is friendly to Lyra, she does have hidden agenda.

Flying to the north in a ship that resembles a blimp-submarine hybrid, Lyra quickly learns of the Magisterium's plans that Miss Coulter will carry out -- the power of the alethiometer, the fate of the children kidnapped and the war that is brewing.

Sound like enough? We are barely an hour in!

While Lyra seems to be nearing her doom, she learns of her secret allies -- a group called the Gyptians. The Gyptians are a group of freedom fighters looking for the location of the kidnapped kids.

On their journey, a cowboy-like character, Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) joins Lyra's campaign, which also included a giant armored polar bear, Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) and a flying witch, Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) along with her fellow witches.

With both sides' forces rising, the unlikely heroes, Lyra and her friends, prepare for an epic battle.

While "The Golden Compass" has its flaws, it isn't without its high points -- such as the talented cast and spellbinding special effects.

Pulled out of 10,000 girls in an open casting call, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards is the highlight of the movie. Perfect for the role, Richards has a surprisingly commanding presence and understanding of the character's emotions.

Last seen together in the thriller "The Invasion," Kidman and Craig add to the all-star cast. Talented Kidman shines again, giving an icy, villainous performance that is memorable. Craig is suave as Asriel, but his fans will be disappointed for his minor part. However, he is expected to have a much bigger one in the upcoming sequels.

With talking animals, flying witches, innovative worlds and attention-grabbing aircraft, the computer-generated effects are flawless, along with the CGI backdrop for most of the scenes. What will amaze audiences are an exhilarating fight scene between two giant polar bears and the final battle sequence that is sure to keep eyes glued to the screen.

Director and writer Chris Weitz ("American Pie," "About a Boy") gives an great attempt at his first big-budget action film.

While it is fairly well-executed, it isn't too inviting for ones who haven't read the book, with a confusing first half and too much story crammed in just under the two-hour running time. These problems will likely have some audiences not wanting to return for the sequel, "The Subtle Knife," expected in 2009.

Overall, "The Golden Compass" points in the right direction, but it is still far from "golden."

Friday, December 7, 2007

'Juno' finds comedy in serious subject

**** out of ****

Winning major acclaim at this year's Toronto Film Festival, "Juno" serves up a comedic look at the rather unfunny topic of unplanned teen pregnancy.

The film opens with Juno MacGruff (Ellen Page), a 16-year-old high school junior, finding out she's pregnant. Over the course of several days and taking many pregnancy tests that keep turning up positive, the store clerk (Rainn Wilson) gives Juno these foreboding words as she shakes her pregnancy test: "That ain't no Etch-A-Sketch. That's one doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet."

Her geeky boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), becomes the father after their first sexual encounter. When Juno breaks the news to her best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), she is offered the options of abortion or adoption. She picks the former, but at the clinic decides she can't go through with it and plans to have the baby and give it to a loving family.

Juno's vacuum-salesman father, Mac (J.K. Simmons), and stepmother, Bren (Allison Janney), a dog-obsessed nail salon owner, aren't quite thrilled with the prospect, but are supportive nonetheless.

With Leah's help they find a married couple seeking a child in the local paper. Living in a gated community, the wealthy couple turns out to be the immaculate Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) and her husband, Mark (Jason Bateman).

Vanessa is thrilled at the prospect of being a mother, but Mark, a composer for commercial jingles with dreams of being a rock star, isn't as ecstatic. However, Mark finds a connection with Juno, who shares the same interests in music and guitar.

"Juno" is quite the ride through a high schooler's ordeal of dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of being pregnant and the tribulations of carrying a child. Twenty-year-old Canadian actor Ellen Page is phenomenal as Juno, delivering her lines with great comedic timing and the ability to display emotion with ease. Breaking out in 2005's acclaimed thriller "Hard Candy" and then in "X-Men: The Last Stand," Page certainly has made a name for herself.

"Superbad" star Cera is charmingly funny as Paulie, but is slightly underused, not having much of a role during Juno's pregnancy, until the movie's end. Simmons and Janney deliver some of the funniest lines while supporting Juno throughout the film.

Bateman adds lighthearted comedy to his supportive role and Garner gives some of her best work as a mother-to-be.

Sophomore slump isn't a phrase you would use to describe Jason Reitman's second outing at a feature film. His first was the highly regarded comedy "Thank You for Smoking."

"Juno" is the first screenplay written by Diablo Cody (her real name is Brook Busey), a 29-year-old whose previous occupation was, oddly enough, as a stripper. Diablo certainly has proven she can write and her name will come up again soon with Showtime's "The United States of Tara," created by Steven Spielberg and starring Toni Collette, and an adaptation of her book "Candy Girl: A Year in the Unlikely Life of a Stripper."

With laugh-out-loud scenes every moment, a writer, director and actress who you can't wait to see what they'll do next, and a heartfelt ending, "Juno" is a film you need to see.

Monday, December 3, 2007

An "Enchanting" Tale

***1/2 out of ****

"Enchanted" is a classic Disney fairytale from the moment Julie Andrews begins narrating with the line "Once upon a time" to the closing "happily ever after."

A sugary-sweet family treat, "Enchanted" begins as a cartoon in the land of Andalasia, where people break out in song, animals do daily chores, and an evil queen rules the land.

The story starts with Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), who's in fear of losing her royal throne if her stepson, Prince Edward (James Marsden), marries. Edward's "friend," Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) is in on the Queen's plan of thwarting Edward's attempts at love.

While hunting for ogres in the woods, Edward hears a woman singing. The woman is Giselle (Amy Adams), a mash-up of every classic Disney princess. She is so jovial that she can't stop dreaming, smiling or singing to her animal friends. When they meet, it is love at first sight and quickly they are off to marry.

Determined to foil the wedding, Narissa, similar to the queen in "Snow White," transforms herself into an old hag, luring Giselle to a wishing well. But before Giselle has a chance to make a wish, Narissa pushes her down the well, only for Giselle to find herself in a new world. Ours.
Narissa's plan isn't without flaw, though, as Giselle's smart-alecky chipmunk friend, Pip (Jeff Bennett/Kevin Lima) sees it all take place.

Turning now into a live-action film, we see Giselle crawl out of a manhole in New York City.
Frazzled, confused, yet still extremely optimistic, Giselle hustles and bustles her way through the city in her full-flowing princess gown to find her way home with amusing outcomes.

It isn't until she is mugged and wandering through the rain that she meets Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a divorce lawyer who's, ironically, a divorcee himself on the verge of engagement to another woman, Nancy (Idina Menzel). Robert's young daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) convinces her reluctant father into taking Giselle in for the night.

While Morgan believes Giselle is a real princess, Robert doesn't believe in this fairy tale until he sees his home being cleaned by rats, pigeons and fleas -- the New York version of woodland creatures.

Back in the cartoon world Andalasia, Pip the chipmunk tells Edward and Nathaniel of Giselle's fate, and they too go down the well and through the manhole arriving in New York City.

The dashing but dimwitted Prince Edward wanders around the city to rescue Giselle. This is where the adventures begin with many laugh-out-loud sequences. Nathaniel adds to the comedy while in cahoots with the Queen to thwart the Prince along the way.

Harkening back to classic Disney cartoons, director Kevin Lima ("Tarzan"), keeps a whimisically brisk pace during the 107 minute running time.

Set to Bill Kelly's ("Premonition," "Blast from the Past") clever screenplay, "Enchanted" pokes fun at fairytales, which is a comedic pleasure for both kids and adults. The script loses steam during the finale, opting for a semi-entertaining CGI extravaganza.

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in "Junebug," Amy Adams could get her second nomination here, playing the role with bubbly charisma. Adams elevates her role, and the movie, as a few great actresses can.

With a heart-warming message, hilarious songs, and something for everyone, "Enchanted" is nothing short of enchanting.