Saturday, 27 December 2008

WALL-E (Vic's Review)

As you may know, I also write reviews for periodicals and websites, which generally do not appear on this blog. Over the next week, I intend to post the reviews I have written in the past year (and maybe older ones, if there is a demand). These reviews were not written for the blog, but are the original (pre-edited) versions of what appeared elsewhere.

The animated science fiction film WALL-E (one of the year’s biggest hits, directed by Andrew Stanton) opens with a tremendously evocative scene of a strip mall on 28th-century earth. It’s a polluted wasteland covered with trash, but we can still see all the ads for Buy N Large, the Wal-Mart-like chain of superstores that must have taken over the planet (or at least the U.S.) in the 21st century, offering every conceivable item and service, including the space ships which were used to evacuate the earth when the toxicity levels rendered the planet uninhabitable.

The ship was only supposed to be gone for five years while Buy N Large cleaned up the planet, but the clean-up proved too difficult. 700 years later, the cruise ship is still sailing through space and the only “life” on earth is WALL-E, a small clean-up robot who creates skyscrapers with his squares of compacted garbage.

With almost no dialogue, the first half-hour of this gorgeous intelligent film shows us how WALL-E’s daily routine (which includes watching old musicals) is disturbed by the arrival of a female robot. This is followed by a delightful romance and a journey to the space ship Axiom.

On the Axiom, people have been taking an endless cruise, with every need met and every super-sized food and beverage available for purchase and consumption. As a result, people have become so large they can no longer even stand. “Buy more, eat more and be happy” say the ads on the Axiom. It’s an obvious exposé of our 21st century consumerist lifestyle, a lifestyle that will make the earth’s inhabitants fat and lazy and eventually destroy the planet.

When WALL-E arrives on the Axiom, he disturbs the routine of its passengers, waking them up from their dreamlike stupor. “I didn’t know we had a pool” says a woman, seeing her surroundings with open eyes for the first time. But my favourite line comes from the captain, who, after “waking up”, tells the autopilot (patterned after HAL, the malfunctioning computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey): “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” To me, the message is clear: Those of us living as slaves to 21st century consumerism are in a dreamlike state of survival; we have forgotten how to live.

Besides opening the eyes of the blind, WALL-E brings good news to the poor and oppressed, hangs out with those who have been marginalized by our corporate culture (after freeing them from captivity) and sacrifices his life to save humanity before being raised from the dead. Sound familiar? Like WALL-E, Jesus’ mission was to open our eyes to what is happening in the world around us and free us from enslavement to the Domination System which has created a world headed toward self-destruction. 2000 years after Jesus, his message and mission are as vital as ever. It’s up to those of us who want to follow Jesus in the 21st century to be like WALL-E, waking people up from their consumerist nightmare, protecting the environment and, of course, watching lots of old musicals.

That this film was made by Disney, one of the world’s great consumer-promoting corporations (which has no doubt sold millions of WALL-E robots to children), is astonishing. It is either a sign of hope or of the crassest cynicism.

Not that WALL-E is perfect. I hope those of you who have read my reviews of other children’s films will have picked up on the seemingly inevitable redemptive violence in the film. In particular, I was disturbed by the way the little red-topped robot “villain” was thrown off the captain’s bridge to fall to his “death” on the floor below, just like countless Disney villains before him. This time, because it’s a robot, children even get to see the body crash and die. But WALL-E and Eve are also robots. They, and many other robots, have been wonderfully humanized while the villains have been dehumanized so that we don’t care if they are destroyed. But what exactly are children to make of the way the security/police robots are destroyed by WALL-E’s new friends?

Still, the messages in WALL-E are so overwhelmingly positive and radical (for Disney), the film so beautiful and delightful (with grand sci-fi visions and scenes) and the allusions to 2001 (e.g. Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube) so timely, that I am willing to overlook a few flawed minutes and give WALL-E my blessing as a marvellous film for all ages to watch again and again (but don’t forget to take the opportunity to talk to your kids about it; and pastors: there’s a whole 20-minute sermon in WALL-E).

When I walked out of the theatre after watching WALL-E, I found myself staring at a strip mall identical to the one in the film’s opening scene. Shivers ran up my spine. I could already see the barren wasteland, the empty world of “buy more, more and more”; all that ugly concrete surrounded by polluting SUVs reminding me that I am living in a nightmare and it’s time to wake up.

Quantum of Solace

A sequel to one of the best Bond films ever (Casino Royale), Quantum of Solace had a lot to live up to. That it failed to do so comes as no surprise, which is why I don’t understand all the critics who panned this Bond outing for not only not living up to its predecessor, but for not being a stereotypical Bond film. Sure, I agree that Quantum of Solace takes itself too seriously and is missing some of the old Bond “fun” (Q, the countless one-liners, etc.). But it’s also missing some of the bad traits of previous Bond films (like horrible acting) and must be viewed as part of the ongoing attempt to bring Bond into the 21st century (which is probably why they brought in Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner) to direct).

Daniel Craig continues to make an excellent, if rather icy, Bond, and while Quantum does not give him a lot of dialogue, it nevertheless allows him to develop his character and makes him a more psychologically complex Bond than his predecessors. The other actors are also very good, with a strong female lead (Olga Kurylenko), Judi Dench as M, Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis and Mathieu Amalric as the villain. The locations are a highlight (stereotypically Bond!) and allow the film to venture into social commentary in a way that Bond films rarely do. There is a repeated emphasis on the plight of the poor in Latin America, attacks against certain powerful governments (the British foreign secretary says: “Right and wrong play no part; it’s all about necessity”) and comments related to the environment. And while there is, as usual, far too much violence, there is a consistent attempt (not always successful) to take the violence seriously.

Of course, you all know how much I dislike Bourne-like action, so its presence in Quantum is a major problem for me. Still, there are enough quiet and dramatic moments to partly offset this. The plot is rather thin, but that’s hardly unusual for Bond.

So, yes, Quantum of Solace is a flawed film in many ways. While Casino Royale ranked among my favourite Bond films, Quantum will rank somewhere in the middle. But that means I thought it was a very solid Bond outing, deserving *** and a mug still held in an upright position.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

December Films

Not a single review since August? My apologies, film fans! I was doing my itineration in North America in October and November and I was only able to watch one film during that time (Quantum of Solace – see separate review tomorrow). However, I have tried to make up for it in December. So here are some mini-reviews of the films I watched in the past two weeks:

The Duchess
Passable period drama about a famous duchess in eighteenth-century England. Keira Knightley is quite good as the daring duchess, while Ralph Fiennes is typically excellent as her husband, the duke, who is portrayed as pathetic while not eliciting either disgust or sympathy. The direction, cinematography and screenplay are all competent but generally uninspired. While I give the film ***, I recommend it only to those who enjoy this kind of film (or are Ralph Fiennes fans, like me).

I’m not a big lover of westerns, but it was fun to watch Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons do some excellent acting in what is otherwise a fairly standard (as in old-fashioned, though somewhat revisionist) story. The relationship and witty dialogue between the two “buddies”, played by Harris (who also wrote and directed) and Mortensen, is the heart of this adventure and worth the price of admission. A solid ***, but again recommended mostly for those who enjoy westerns.

Burn After Reading
The latest offering by the Coen Brothers is a typical Coen film: quirky and funny, but also rather cold, very dark and violent. While there was a debate about whether No Country for Old Men was nihilistic, Burn After Reading leaves little doubt. This film does not really approach the quality of No Country for Old Men, but the acting is good and I’m a major fan of Coen quirkiness, so I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway. Another solid *** film, but it’s not for everyone.

Sean Penn is absolutely terrific as Harvey Milk, a gay activist in 1970s San Francisco. This is my favourite performance of the year so far and it drives an incredibly well-made and inspiring political drama based on real-life events. Directed by Gus Van Sant, this film gets **** and is almost certain to make my top ten of 2008.

In Bruges
I missed this one at the cinema (unfortunately!), but just watched it on video. In Bruges is a beautiful and unusual gangster film taking place entirely in the gorgeous city of Bruges in Belgium. Colin Farrell has never been better and Brendan Gleeson is fantastic, with Ralph Fiennes once again adding his brilliance in a lesser role. This is another “buddy” film, but far more subtle and memorable than most. I love films that constantly surprise me the way this one did. It’s violent and will not appeal to everyone, but I give it a very solid ***+.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


Quite right, Vic. It is Wall-E that I wanted to say a few words about, though now I have only a few minutes. In spite of this film also doing surprisingly well on imdb, I hadn't expected to like it as much as I'd expected to like Dark Knight. I thought the good reviews would be all about the typical animation strengths (of the better pixar type) of lots of wit and creatively depicted story.

In a few quick words, here is why I liked it significantly more than I expected. The first fifteen minutes or so worked amazingly well. Who could have thought your attention could be held that well for that long without words - a great job of creating an atmosphere while providing hints that make sense of the rest of the movie.

The other main thing was how well it provided some memorable symbols of social commentary: regressively evolved blobs on floating chairs constantly in front of their screens controlled by the corporate, consumerist powers. Perfect. I sit here in front of my screen appropriately feeling limited in how much time I should spend here by the image of the woman turning her screen off and exclaiming, "I didn't know we had a pool!" I think this should be a phrase that makes it into everyday usage implying the shorthand, "Get away from your screens and get a life."

[Mild spoiler here] My phrase, "regressively evolved" was of course inspired by the brilliantly applied use of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" from 2oo1 A Space Odyssey. One of my favourite moments in the film.

There were some weak moments. I thought more could have been done with the assortment of not quite repaired robots - could have been a more powerful symbol of the marginalized and wounded community created by our corporate culture. But overall I'll give my second **** in a row. Mugs up to Wall-E.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Dark Knight

Well, we've been silent on this one long enough. It would probably be good to write out a quick review on this movie without the background of it sitting sweet as the number one movie of all time on imdb. But how can one ignore such a thing?

First of all, after Batman Begins made me believe there could be such a thing as a good Batman movie (no predecessors had ever convinced me of this), I had looked forward to this movie as much as many others. I actually went to see it during its opening week - almost unheard of movie promptness for me. And it was not at all disappointing. It was a good, solid follow-up to the previous movie.

I was even as impressed as others by Heath Ledger's Joker (I felt the character lacked a bit in consistency partway through, but then inconsistency is exactly his trademark so I didn't feel I could hold this against him.) It was a brilliant new version that was all the more brilliant by reminding me enough of the original TV version in spite of its new interpretation.

And while I wasn't particularly critical of Katie Holmes as many others were, Maggie Gyllenhaal was a clear improvement. She has an amazing ability to combine toughness with vulnerability.

Philosophically or thematically, I saw no improvements over the last one - a little more diverse in its deep thoughts, but at a price of being a little scattered. I think the final choice lost me, but I guess one shouldn't fault a movie for having a different point of view.

This is where a simple review of good movie should end, but something has to said about its #1 status. And that is: please no. This is simply not #1 of all time movie quality. Yes, it is very good for what it is, but it did not have the universal quality or even internal consistency of quality required for such status.

I don't want to provide a list to bash a good movie, but here are two deal-breakers that stop me from seeing it as #1:
- the whole sonar glasses thing: one big distraction from start to finish, very disappointing and pointless
- the whole Harvey Dent storyline just didn't quite work for me. It didn't win me over. I don't think I can say more without getting into spoiler territory (which I'm very proud at avoiding so far) so I'll stop there.

Nevertheless, when judged as a comic book action movie it's worth **** with mug held high.

Soon, I'll add another review for the other big summer movie which actually impressed me more (partly because I expected it less).

Monday, 14 July 2008

Mamma Mia!

Music, memories, mayhem, mediocrity, magical and messy movie moments, and Mad Madam Meryl – Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! has actually been released in London before the U.S. so I get to be an early reviewer of this strange film. It’s a film that will be appreciated or hated by people in different ways, depending on their age and tolerance of musicals.

Let me say from the start that I think the 70’s was the very best decade for music (sorry, I just can’t help it) and I was an open fan of ABBA from their first day on the world stage to their last (and of the later music of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in the musicals Chess and Kristina fran Duvemala). I also love musicals in general as well as many of the filmed versions of stage musicals. Given these facts, one might wonder why I have never seen Mamma Mia! on stage (after all, living in London, I could have done so at any time in the past six years). The answer is that I prefer my musicals to have original songs, not stories using (or, even worse, built around) existing songs (Moulin Rouge is a magnificent exception). I had a feeling that I would enjoy the staged version of Mamma Mia!, but that it would not particularly thrill me (not $50 worth anyway), so I kept putting it off. But I could not resist going to the filmed version (for only $9), which, unfortunately, confirmed my feeling (the feeling that I would be disappointed).

Besides some great ABBA songs, the best thing about the film was the gorgeous setting – a Greek island. That this was the best thing is probably not a promising start for a review. The next best thing was the performance of Meryl Streep, who sang better than anyone else in the film and whose exuberance made me feel young again (because I am considerably younger than she is). In fact, the film seemed designed to appeal to my age group and to help us feel young again – in that, at least, it succeeded, at least for me. The problem with Meryl’s performance being the highlight is that I have never been a fan of Meryl Streep (I think she is an excellent actor; I just don’t like her very much). I do like Pierce, Colin, and Stellan, but was not impressed by any of their performances in Mamma Mia! And while Pierce deserves some credit for effort and bravery, he should not be considering a singing career.

The film (and some of this probably applies to the stage musical) had far too many flaws: 1) The plot, if it can even be called that, was just silly; 2) The acting was not strong enough to help; 3) Neither was the chemistry between the characters; 4) Aside from Streep’s Donna, there was almost no character development; 5) There were inconsistencies involving time periods; and 6) The first half-hour was almost painful to watch and I would not blame those who might decide to walk out at that point. The pain came primarily from the over-the-top madness of the three women who are at the center of the film. These three women are responsible for most of the mayhem and the messy movie moments. I rarely enjoyed what they did, including their performance of “Waterloo” during the credits.

Nevertheless, I DID enjoy Mamma Mia! Yes, hard as it is to believe after what I hope was a suitably scathing critique, I did get caught up in the magic of the music, especially when they started to sing some of my favourite ABBA songs, like “Our Last Summer”, “SOS”, “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It All”. Meryl Streep’s performance of the latter was the highlight of the film for me (even if I am not a fan). I happened to visit the Greek islands twice in the late seventies, during the days of ABBA, so the film succeeded in taking me back to that time in a unique way. And, after all, this musical is surely not trying to be anything but a lot of fun. For the last half of the film, I resigned myself to getting into the spirit of the fun and just enjoyed the beautiful scenery and the music. What’s wrong with having a good time watching actors make fools of themselves?

So, yeah, I actually have my mug up for this mess. If you like the music of ABBA, chances are you will enjoy it too. ***

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Thiessen Bros. return to (Maddin's) Winnipeg

On Canada Day, Walter and I went to see the critically-acclaimed My Winnipeg on London's south bank. It was a special screening, with the director (Guy Maddin) there to do the narration of the film in person. Having grown up in Winnipeg, we had a particular appreciation for the film and could more readily separate fact from fantasy in Maddin’s documentary/mockumentary (docu-fantasia, to use Maddin’s term).

We both enjoyed the experience, and the film, though neither of us was sure it deserved the level of critical acclaim it has been getting. I don’t want to be too hard on one of Winnipeg’s few famous film people, but I found the film a little uneven. There were parts which were plain hilarious (and hilariously Canadian/Manitoban) and parts which were particularly funny or moving for me as a Winnipegger. But there were a number of scenes which didn’t work for me and I could not quite understand how his obsession with hockey helped the film.

Many critics liked the innovative style, the mix of bizarre fantasy and insightful (though personal) documentary, and the way My Winnipeg conveyed Maddin’s family life and his struggle to leave his home town. All of these were fascinating to watch, and I appreciated the old-fashioned European feel of the film and the marvellously evocative black and white cinematography, but I am not one who applauds innovation for its own sake. Still, whether or not it was because I grew up in Winnipeg, I did enjoy the film very much and it was a precious experience to see Guy Maddin standing in front of us for the whole film (and to watch a film with Walter). If you are in the mood for something completely different, this is for you.

***+ My mug is definitely up. For Walter’s response, see the comments (?).

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The Visitor

The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, is a wonderful humanizing film about a lonely man’s encounter with three people who, in just a couple of weeks, will completely change his life. Richard Jenkins delivers an absolutely magnificent (and seemingly effortless) performance as Walter, the protagonist, a widower who hates his life as an economics professor in Connecticut. He goes to New York for a conference and finds illegal immigrants staying in the apartment he owns there. Trouble follows, but the story unfolds in an incredibly quiet, understated and natural way. After watching the film, I saw a poster in the London subway quoting a critic who called The Visitor a “master class in subtlety”. That is a perfect description of the film. Like The Edge of Heaven, The Visitor is profoundly moving without being at all sentimental. The performances are all completely natural and every moment of the film feels authentic, proving once again (see review of The Edge of Heaven) that films do not need washed-out hand-held cinematography to feel real. The Visitor is, in fact, a gorgeous film to watch.

Simple yet elegant, this film about the power of unexpected friendships is an honest and heartbreaking look at life in New York after 9/11 and it will almost certainly make my top ten films of 2008.

**** My mug is up and full of the good stuff. Jackie, you might not want to wait for Netflix to see this one.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


Our hero blows a hole through the head of a colleague and then shoots other colleagues through the hole while using the man as a human shield – what’s not to love about this ode to stylised action and graphic violence, which is destined to become one of the big hits of the summer. Like 300, which was also such an ode, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels, which makes the over-the-top action and ultraviolence somewhat forgivable. But, if anything, Wanted is actually colder and darker than 300, as the first line of my review suggests. Nevertheless, I thought it was a better film than 300.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (from Russia), Wanted tells the story of a rather wimpy young man whose life is tedious and meaningless until the day he learns that his unknown father has been murdered and he is to be trained to join a secret society of assassins in order to kill the murderer. Like most action flicks, the plot is quite simplistic, though it tries to be clever in its various twists and turns. Cleverness does not, however, equal intelligence, and I found myself constantly wondering whether Wanted was an intelligent film or not. If only I could figure out the meaning behind the rather bizarre ending. Since only a few people have seen the film, I can’t go online to find a discussion of this. I keep thinking there must be a thoughtful point hidden in there somewhere, but every attempt my grey cells make to decipher it comes to a dead end.

In the meantime, Wanted has other things going for it. James McAvoy is excellent as our hero, Wesley, and Angelina Jolie is quite tolerable as his teacher, Fox. The action sequences, which bored me in Indiana Jones, were actually quite diverting - it’s a bit of a “Wow” movie (and I like to be wowed). Still, the only thing that made this film more than a guilty pleasure (for me) was viewing it as an allegory instead of a tale of violence. Shouldn’t people living mindless meaningless lives in cubicles be encouraged to take control of those lives and do something meaningful with them (like fighting to make the world a better place)? Making the change may require a kind of death and rebirth and may involve a lot of pain, as well as a paradigm shift about what’s really going on in the world, but in the end it’s worth it. Or is it? Does Wesley make the world a better place? On the surface, I saw little to support that claim. But if I could figure out that weird ending, then maybe it would lift Wanted from a meaningless violent diversion to a thoughtful bloody thriller. Or not.

*** for effort. My mug is barely holding the coffee inside.

Thursday, 22 May 2008


“Are you happy in your life?” the protagonist in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, asks her new friend. The response: “That’s a big question!”

Indeed it is. And it’s a question that films have been asking for a long time. In recent years, arthouse films and realistic dramas have treated the question as if a positive answer is virtually impossible in our society. Most of them (e.g. Happiness) are depressing films which suggest that happiness is at best elusive and at worst the product of deluded dreams, for misery is always just around the corner waiting to pounce on us.

Leigh, my favourite active British director, is known for making exactly such dark and dismal realistic dramas, in which people are either utterly cynical about life or are struggling to catch just a glimpse of happiness (e.g. Secrets and Lies, All or Nothing, Naked, Vera Drake, to name some of my favourites). And yet, one of the reasons I love Leigh’s films, which are so truthful about life in the UK, is that they always contain elements of hope, happiness and goodness.

But Happy-Go-Lucky contains much more than element of happiness. Unlike, for example, Happiness, the title of this film is not meant to be sarcastic or ironic. Happy-Go-Lucky really is much lighter than most of Leigh’s previous work. And yet I disagree with those who think this film contradicts that work. Darker elements intrude into the plot (such as it is) from almost the beginning, and the protagonist (Poppy, played perfectly by Sally Hawkins) is forced to deal with one challenge (to her happiness) after another throughout the film. Yes, some of these challenges are much more serious than others and require Poppy to pause for a while in her otherwise high spirits, but I don’t agree that the ending is particularly bleak or that Poppy is suddenly forced to see the light. To me, the film was consistent throughout and, aside from being lighter, it is a typical (and typically excellent) Leigh film.

As a typical Leigh film, Happy-Go-Lucky uses Leigh’s typical improvisational style, with most of the dialogue coming from the actors. Not everyone enjoys this style, but for me it imbues Leigh’s films with a reality found in few others. So even though Happy-Go-Lucky is a much lighter film, its characters and situations feel just as real as they do in Leigh’s darker films.

Happy-Go-Lucky is centred on the character of Poppy, a single 30-year-old primary school teacher in north London. We become intimately acquainted with her happy-go-lucky personality and how it affects the people in her life, most especially her driving instructor (played magnificently by Eddie Marsan), whose personality is the opposite of Poppy’s. Like many European films, Happy-Go-Lucky is more a slice of life film than a plot-based one, and I didn’t find every part of the film engaging (especially in the first half), but the film works brilliantly as a whole.

Like all of Leigh’s films, Happy-Go-Lucky is ultimately life-affirming, making us think about how we live our lives and how what we do affects those around us. It shows us people who are waiting for happiness, people who are convinced they will never be happy, people who see the meaning of their lives as preparing for happiness in some distant future, and Poppy, who just lives happiness moment by moment, as if it’s a state of mind that can face (and provide strength for) all challenges and just make the world a brighter place.

It’s not easy being happy in a world full of so much suffering, even in a wealthy society like ours (where computers keep breaking down and where people steal your credit card account - both happened to me today). But there was much suffering in the time of Jesus, and yet, do we not believe that he was frequently happy? Are we, as followers of Jesus, not called to share the joy of the reign of God even in the midst of suffering? I know people like Poppy personally, people who possess a quiet strength, resilience and equanimity that can be shaken but never shattered. I frequently wish I was more like them.

At a time when so many of the best independent films are full of gloom and dysfunction, I am thrilled that recent releases like Juno and Happy-Go-Lucky can use upbeat films to give us both real characters and some positive inspiring role models.

So, are you happy in your life? I think it’s a question that Leigh is directing at all of us.

A very solid ***+ - my mug is way up.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

Finally, I'm inspired enough to write something. Lars and the Real Girl is a real gem, with a lot of the qualities that I love in a movie: characters I can relate to, real humour, good story, strong sense of community and a therapist. There are enough little surprises to keep it from being too predictable. The movie could be a Garrison Keillor story.

Delusional disorder, which the movie explores, is not as commonly seen as other disorders that have had movies made of them - certainly not cases with such a striking delusion as this. So it's hard to vouch for the realism of the story, but it seems plausible. It's hard to say too much as it's best seen without hearing too much in advance.

What I will say, is that it serves as a great example - in some ways a metaphor - of an integrated community/professional therapy experience. I read a review where someone said he would like to go to a place where people treated you that way. I would say that I would like to be a part of a community (and I think I am) where people treat each other that way.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

The Edge of Heaven

Living in Germany in the early 90’s, I heard countless complaints about the growing Turkish population in that country. Invited to help rebuild Germany after the war, Turks have now been living in Germany for generations, in the midst of a people who have a very set way of doing things. This has resulted in a lot of tension and even violence. People have not treated each other as they should. With Turkey on the verge of joining the European Union, which is uniting a continent that feels completely different than it did twenty years ago, will people learn to live with each other in a new way in the 21st century?

This is the background to Fatih Akin’s new film, The Edge of Heaven, the story of six people (three sets of parents/children) whose intersecting lives are caught between two cultures and two countries (Turkey and Germany). It is a profoundly moving (though by no means sentimental) tale of how these people learn to see things differently by encountering those “on the other side” (the original German title).

We begin with a Turkish father and son living in Germany. The son is a professor of German, the father a man who invites a prostitute to live with him. The prostitute has a daughter in Turkey who is involved with a militant protest group. The daughter flees to Germany to avoid arrest and gets into a relationship with a female German student, whose mother is not impressed. The lives of these six people will take many unexpected turns, full of coincidences and near misses. This makes the film feel rather contrived, but the film is so original in how it handles these points of intersection and the tragedies which ensue, that one can overlook this potential flaw. This is, after all, most definitely not a Hollywood film, defying both Hollywood plot conventions and a Hollywood ending.

Akin, a Turkish-German filmmaker who won a number of awards for one of his previous films (Head-On), does an excellent job of writing and direction here, combining an original human story of love and friendship with political satire. Akin is helped by some gorgeous cinematography. As you know, I am no fan of the recent trend towards handheld camera work and desaturated colors which are supposed to make a film feel more real. Maybe they do, but most of the time (Once is an exception) it’s too high a price to pay and I long for the kind of beautiful old-fashioned cinematography we find in The Edge of Heaven.

But what makes the film great is the acting. The six key actors were perfectly cast and the acting so natural it is easy to feel sympathy for each of them as their lives are thrown into turmoil and they are forced (or given the opportunity?) to see the world a little differently. Watching these six people struggle with the challenges of international politics, the challenges of their family relationships and the challenges presented by each new person who enters their lives is riveting. There are few things in film I enjoy more than the impact of a unique encounter with another human being. It can give us a new perspective on the people we encounter every day and help us all catch a needed glimpse of life on the other side. ****

Friday, 28 March 2008

Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen has always been one of the world’s most unique filmmakers. While his best work may be behind him, Allen continues to make films that inspire us to think deeply about what drives us and our society. In two of my favourite Allen films, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, Allen explores the theme of violence and why it is so easy for some people to kill others. His view seems to be that this can only happen in a world without a God. Allen continues this theme in his new film, Cassandra’s Dream, but I detected something new in his pessimistic view.

Actually, the question which sprang immediately to mind after watching Cassandra’s Dream, was: What did Allen have in mind when he made this film? Was it supposed to be a serious suspense drama or a black comedy? Was it meant to be a believable tale about lower middle-class Londoners trying to rise above their class or a moral fable about the consequences of selling one’s soul to the devil? Was Allen trying to say something new (for him) about violence in our society? How one answers these questions will impact one’s opinion of the film in general.

On the surface, Cassandra’s Dream doesn’t seem to work. It’s the story of two brothers (played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) living in London who simultaneously find themselves in need of large sums of cash (in part, at least, because of a desire to impress the women in their lives, who are played well by Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins). Along comes Howard (played by Tom Wilkinson), the rich uncle who lives in California and makes the brothers an absurd offer that is difficult to refuse, resulting in plans for a murder and the journey of the brothers into ever darker and darker places. This story might have worked in a different setting and with different actors, but it doesn’t seem to work here (though at a certain level I did find it absorbing). Primarily because of the dialogue, which is occasionally quite strong but often rather weak, the film feels completely unnatural in its London setting. Having lived in London for the past six years and having watched many films located in London, I felt Cassandra’s Dream lacked credibility. I applaud Allen’s attempt to make a film about the poorer classes in Britain, but maybe that’s just not his area of expertise (as, for example, it is for Mike Leigh and Ken Loach).

One of the things that didn’t work in this film was the acting. The three male leads are all capable of excellent work but only Farrell (whom I would consider the weakest of the three) delivers a praiseworthy performance in this film. And even Farrell played a character (Terry) who was not really believable in the context. The acting of McGregor (miscast as Ian?) and Wilkinson was uneven and their characters even less believable, though this assessment needs to be qualified by noting that believable characters did lurk somewhere just below the surface. The film felt rushed and perhaps this accounts for some of the acting problems. The score by Philip Glass wasn’t bad but didn’t really work here either. The cinematography was okay, though it might have been better. So far, my review would suggest Cassandra’s Dream is a rather mediocre film. And perhaps it is exactly that. But, as I said earlier, I couldn’t help asking myself what Allen had in mind when he made the film.

To be specific, if the film was meant to be a black comedy or a simple moral fable, the above critique would be much gentler. In particular, McGregor, whose character had the lines which leaned towards black comedy, suddenly becomes the correct casting choice. This is especially evident when Ian is talking about violence. At one point, while talking to Terry, he compares their plans of murdering a man (to protect their uncle) to the way soldiers kill the enemy to protect their corrupt leaders and business interests (I’ll come back to this). Ian also tells Terry that killing is not unnatural; human life is naturally violent. These lines work in a black comedy, but not in a serious drama. Ian’s assertion that life is ironic likewise comes back to haunt him in a blackly comic way.

As mentioned at the beginning, the plot of Cassandra’s Dream reminds us of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. All three films present a pessimistic view of life and violence which suggest that our world no longer has a God or moral code which might prevent people from killing each other. But while all three films show us a man who can kill without experiencing a traumatic blow to his conscience, Cassandra’s Dream also shows us the opposite – someone who can’t excuse or live with what he’s done. And when Ian says they had no choice, Terry replies: “We always have a choice.” Does Terry give us hope that Allen is mellowing with age? The cynical pessimism is still there but so is the sense that we do have a choice and the wrong choice can rob us of our humanity and/or lead to tragic consequences.

At one point in Cassandra’s Dream, someone says: “Nobody wants to be selfish, but everybody is.” This is the kind of line which deserves much reflection. Cassandra’s Dream may be a flawed film, but we can still find some juicy Allen morsels to chew on. ***

Friday, 15 February 2008

A Great Start to 2008

Having recently discovered that there are in fact people out there who regularly read this blog, I felt compelled to write mini-reviews of the last four films I have seen, all of which were excellent. But if you are looking to find out what the first three of these films are about, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This is for Miriam.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a unique and beautiful emotionally-powerful film with a brilliant screenplay, great acting and great directing (Julian Schnabel). It is also one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen. To say more would require me to tell you the plot of the film. Perhaps most people who go to see it will already know the plot, but for those who don’t, there is a special experience waiting for you as you enter the film along with the protagonist and experience the film through him. That special experience is worth keeping the few of you who know nothing about the film in the dark. I think the film is longer than it needs to be, but that’s my only complaint. A very solid ***+

Juno (directed by Jason Reitman) has had the critics raving for months, making it one of my most eagerly-anticipated films. I was therefore slightly disappointed in the ordinariness of the film, though my expectations were so high that a slight disappointment was almost inevitable. Ellen Page is truly magnificent in the title role and her performance alone makes the film well above average. There is a realness (ordinariness) to the film and to the family life depicted in the film that is incredibly rare in critically-acclaimed films, which is another reason to cheer. It does beg the question of why the critics like the film so much, since critics frequently pan family films with similar values. Is it just because this film is so smart (great screenplay) and well-acted? If that’s all it takes, then I hope we can see more films like it, films that can provide positive role models instead of the usual dark and dirty drug-filled dysfunction of critically-acclaimed films. This is an excellent film but not as great (in my opinion) as some critics would suggest (Walter, it sounds like you and I are on the same wavelength here). Another very solid ***+

In the Valley of Elah (directed by Paul Haggis), on the other hand, verges on greatness. This is a subtle quiet thriller (by now you know that I am a big fan of subtle quiet thrillers and have little use for fast and flashy noisy ones) with an outstanding performance by Tommy Lee Jones and wonderful understated performances by Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. The film could have gone for the big drama, the big action, or the big romance, and it could have beat us over the head with its message about what it’s like to be an American soldier in Iraq (and, indeed, what it’s like to be an American in 2007). Instead, it went for soft and slow intelligence and tension, along with its moving natural performances. I loved it. ****

But my favourite film of the year, so far, is a very different kind of film. U23D is a pure concert film, combining footage from various stops along a U2 South American tour in 2006. I have been a big U2 fan since the mid-eighties and this brilliantly-made (the use of 3D is terrific – I frequently felt that I was standing in the crowd, right there in Buenos Aires) concert film contains most of my favourite U2 songs, as if they had made the film for me. It also has important things to say about the great religions of the world needing to learn to coexist and help create a peaceful world. Watching this film on what is said to be the largest screen in the world (London IMAX) was an awesome and mind-blowing experience that I will never forget. If you like U2 at all, do not (DO NOT!) miss the chance to see this at your local digital cinema. ****

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Walter's Top Ten (12?) list for 2007

I thought I’d break my silence by responding with a top 10 (12) list of my own. I should be clear that my thinking in such a list is more about favourites than a list about quality. I hope there is overlap, but I couldn’t care less if a movie is a quality movie if I don’t like it.

I should also point out that there are a lot of great contenders (incl. The Kite Runner, Atonement, and several others on your list) that would probably beat some of these out if I’d seen them, which I haven’t. So many movies, so little time.

So here are my top ten plus two honourable mentions:

12. The Kingdom. Didn’t expect this would make it and most of it doesn’t deserve to see such a list, but I was very impressed with the ending and felt that this ending needed to be pointed out. Vic, you can use this ending to point out both the potential and the hypocrisy of film when it comes to violence.

11. Paris Je’taime. Quite a different type of film – a collage of 18 short films set in Paris. I enjoyed it more than I’d expected. Some were unimpressively quirky, but others were quite moving and memorable. There was an unfortunate attempt to draw them together for a conclusion which was decidedly unsuccessful, but otherwise an enjoyably different experience.

10. Juno. I expected this to be higher on my list, and probably would have been if I hadn’t had my expectations built up too high. This is exactly my kind of comedy, but it just didn’t impress me the way I’d hoped. Something about it didn’t seem to hang together the way Little Miss Sunshine did. Still a very fun watch.

9. Ratatouille. In spite of such an untenable premise (mouse controlling a man’s movements by pulling his hair), that even though it was a cartoon still offended me a little, this was very enjoyable. It gets hard to force oneself to watch a cartoon without kids at home, but this was well worth the effort.

8. The Bucket List. I don’t know if this made many people’s top lists, but it seemed to end up striking the right chord with me. I tend to like Reiner’s balance of comedy and serious and it almost always stopped short of being cheesy. Nicholson and Freeman were fun to watch together.

7. Michael Clayton. Just like you said. Solid all around. Could have sold me a bit better on the opening scene with the horses (not a clear enough reason to stop and a little coincidental), but forgivable.

6. Gone Baby Gone. Just saw this and was quite impressed. Different balance of characters than you normally see and good ambiguous ending. Somehow its view of seedy Boston seemed simultaneously sympathetic and disgusted, and somehow that seemed right.

5. Waitress. It’s a little foggy now, but I recall liking it and finding it fresh and intelligent. I was a little annoyed at how the doctor was portrayed, but I suppose it’s possible that people can be that nice and that jerky at the same time.

4. Fracture. One of the best thrillers I’ve seen for a long time, and definitely the best at creating that old time mystery novel feeling. Very fun evening of entertainment.

3. The Lives of Others. Again ditto to what you’ve said on this one. I’ve just seen it again and it’s rich on so many levels - like a classic novel. One of the impressive themes is seeing both the potential of the artist and the danger of the artist being seduced.

2. Once. How many movies leave you liking the characters this much? The passionate music draws you in in a way that shuts off any logical reservations you might have, and the ending is perfect.

1. Reign Over Me. Probably it is unfair. I saw this movie at the theatre after one of the hardest and fullest therapy days of the year. Liv Tyler gives a tired and disappointed look after an impassioned reaching out for her troubled and stuck client (Sandler) that just about undid me (not a normal response of mine). Amazing the power a second-long gesture can have when played perfectly, though I doubt it affected many others. When I wrote about it at the time I complained about his trauma symptoms being overplayed, but I think I retracted that on second viewing. Still wished they’d given the plot about Cheadle’s marriage a bit more depth, but it still tops my list.

Finally, I thought I’d hand out a booby prize to the two biggest duds of the year that I wasted time on. One was Premonition for which I had no excuse - I’d been warned off but thought it should be alright. I was wrong. Silly plot. More disappointingly, A Mighty Heart was less viewable than most documentaries. Didn’t seem to go anywhere worth following - a tribute for tribute's sake, but not a movie. What do you think, Vic? I want to hear your booby prizes for the year.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Vic's Top Ten (12?) Films of 2007

2007 was another good year for films, though only my favourite film of the year qualifies (for me) as a great film. I can remember few years when I thought so many films were an example of brilliant and near-perfect filmmaking (over half of those listed below), even if the subject matter prevented some of them from achieving greatness for me.

This year, I will be counting down my top ten and I will start with number twelve because numbers two and three have not yet been released in North America and I may put them into next year’s top ten instead. Since I saw these two films in 2007, I will also include them here for now. My number one film of the year was actually released in 2006, but since it was not released in the UK or North America until 2007, I can include it on this year’s list.

This was the year for natural films. Four of the films on my list starred non-actors or unknown actors and three of these were filmed in an almost documentary style, with a lot of hand-held camera work and natural sound effects. This does not usually impress me, but in these films it obviously worked very well. Another common theme this year was the protagonist struggling to come to terms with something that happened during their childhood that forever changed their lives.

Here are my top ten (12) films of 2007 (most of these films are reviewed elsewhere on the blog):

12. 4 Months, Three Weeks and 2 Days – A film that feels much too real, this haunting tale presents us with one traumatic day in the life of Otilia (brilliantly played by Anamaria Marinca) in the oppressive context of 1987 Romania.

11. Zodiac – An example of almost (the film could have been shorter) perfect filmmaking, this is a great character drama with flawless acting (it stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr.). The film is about the search for a serial killer and how this impacts the lives of the protagonists. Another haunting story.

10. Into the Wild – This film is more of an experience than an entertainment. A great road movie, it tells the true story of a disillusioned young man’s search for meaning. His search takes him on a journey through the American west all the way up to Alaska, where he takes up residence in an abandoned school bus in the middle of the wilderness. He finds his answers along the way and at the end, but they are not what he was expecting. Incredibly powerful film.

9. No Country for Old Men – Another brilliant piece of filmmaking from the Coen Brothers, this violent story concerns a cold and vicious killer in America’s southwest and the various attempts to outwit him. An example of almost perfect filmmaking, it would have been much higher on my top ten if it hadn’t been so violent. True, the violence could have been even more graphic than it was and the violence felt very uncomfortable (which is good) but for some reason (sarcasm) the sight of so much violence distracts me and detracts from my enjoyment of the film. Of course, if my friend Gareth Higgins is correct about his redemptive interpretation of the film’s ending (I will need to see it again before I decide), then this film moves up to number four.

8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – (See comments on previous film, which also apply here). My favourite Sondheim musical has been brilliantly filmed by Tim Burton and brilliantly acted (and sung) by Johnny Depp, with top-notch support from Helena Bonham Carter. But this is a very dark and violent tale which will not appeal to everyone.

7. Michael Clayton - It's rare these days to see a thriller that doesn't rely on action, let alone an intelligent complex thriller with great dialogue and real drama. Throw in an Oscar-worthy performance by George Clooney and you've got one of the best films of the year.

6. The Kite Runner - A perfectly-paced and perfectly told story, again feeling very real and natural (due to some great acting), about a boy in Afghanistan who betrays his closest friend in 1978 but is offered a chance at redemption 22 years later. This beautiful inspiring film gives us a glimpse into the lives of people in one of the most troubled nations in the world.

5. Atonement - This story of the horrific results of a teenager’s spiteful action (in 1930's England) is magnificently filmed by Joe Wright. In fact, the first 50 minutes of this film are another example of perfect filmmaking. It drags a bit after that but ends strong, and the acting, cinematography and score are outstanding throughout.

4. Once – As I said, I'm not generally a fan of low budget hand-held camera work, but it works perfectly in this film about two lonely souls, inhabiting the poorer parts of Dublin, who meet and make beautiful music together. It feels almost like a documentary, as if we are voyeurs watching a true story unfold live before us. It shouldn't work, but it does - brilliantly.

3. And When Did You Last See Your Father? (not yet released in North America) – The death of my father (from cancer) only three weeks before watching this film (about a son watching his father die of cancer) no doubt accounts for part of the impact it had on me, but I thought the film was a gem, with a wonderful performance by Jim Broadbent (and excellent performances by the rest of the cast). Sure, some of the character development was superficial and should have gone deeper, but the film has many clever moments and is just good story-telling.

2. Silent Light (not yet released in North America) - This award-winning film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas is in Low German and has only Mennonite actors (or non-actors). The story of the spiritual crisis of a Mennonite farmer in Mexico who is having an affair, this is a gorgeous and thoughtful film that reminds one of the best works of former European masters like Carl Dreyer and Andrei Tarkovsky. Again, it felt so real, I thought I was there, participating in the life of this Mexican Mennonite community as it dealt with the grand themes of love, death and forgiveness.

1. The Lives of Others - a perfectly-made film in every respect, this is a wonderfully humanizing tale of the struggle to be a good person, specifically in the repressive world of East Berlin in 1984. This is what life is all about, and this is what great filmmaking is all about.

Friday, 18 January 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

An intense and powerful film from Romania that works so well because of the magnificent performance by Anamaria Marinca in the lead role. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days actually takes place in just one day – a very long and traumatic day for Otilia, though she’s not the one getting the abortion. Helping her friend get an illegal abortion turns out to be more difficult and sacrificial than she could ever have imagined and, through the bare filmmaking style, we experience the day with her, hearing what she hears, feeling what she feels. This is life in Ceausescu’s Romania in 1987 and it's not pretty.

This is a difficult and disturbing film to watch because it feels so real, but it is easily one of the best films of 2007. ****

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

An entertaining but disturbing film about a U.S. congressman’s role in helping the people of Afghanistan defeat the invading Soviet army during the 1980’s. Well-acted by all concerned (especially Philip Seymour Hoffman, who steals the film as Gust, the quirky CIA agent), with a good screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and solid direction by Mike Nichols, this is an enjoyable film about a very dark and dangerous subject. I don’t object to the light tone of the film or to the comedy along the way (and there were some serious moments, attempting to show the suffering of the Afghan people). I just wish it didn’t come across as supporting Charlie Wilson quite so much. Played by Tom Hanks, Wilson is portrayed very sympathetically (for all his faults) and is almost single-handedly credited with driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan and paving the way for the end of the Cold War. Ever since those dark days of the 80’s, Afghanistan has been living in peace and harmony, as has the world as a whole since the end of the Cold War.

Oh, wait, there is the little matter of what happened to the Wilson-armed Afghan freedom fighters after they drove out the Soviets, their role in 9/11, and their ongoing role in yet another war that has gone on for six years now. But let’s not get picky. After all, Wilson’s heart was in the right place. It’s not his fault he only got the billion dollars to supply weapons to the Afghans because it was helping to defeat Soviet communism, and that once the Soviets were out, the U.S. refused to contribute even a tiny fraction of that money to help Afghanistan recover. Charlie Wilson’s War makes this point very clear, though one wonders how such an intelligent man as Wilson could be so naïve. But the role of that billion dollars worth of weapons in the future misery of Afghanistan, and, indeed, in the misery of the world as a whole, is barely hinted at. Were Sorkin and Nichols worried about making the point too strongly, or were they not really trying to make that point at all. This isn’t clear, but knowing Sorkin’s work quite well, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and choose the former.

Good stuff, but I think it could have been better, given the quality of all those involved. ***+

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The Kite Runner

Since 1978, when communists took control of its government, Afghanistan has been among the poorest and most troubled nations in the world. While the media now provide regular reports on the war in Afghanistan, few people in the western world know much about its tortured history or about its people and cultures. One of the vital roles of filmmaking is to help put a human face on such people and cultures and tell us a bit of such histories. While this is usually achieved through documentaries or independent foreign films, a lavishly-produced Hollywood film will obviously reach a far-wider audience. If such a film is truly well-made, then much can be forgiven it (even a contrived, manipulative plot).

The Kite Runner is precisely this kind of film. Based on the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner begins with the friendship of two boys from different cultures and social classes in pre-communist Afghanistan (1978). The friendship ends dramatically when one of the boys (Amir) witnesses a brutal attack on the other (Hassan) and makes no attempt to intervene. Unable to handle the shame of his cowardice, Amir drives Hassan away. The story then follows the life of Amir, jumping ahead to 1988 in California and eventually to 2000 back in Afghanistan (a very different Afghanistan, as brilliantly depicted in the film), where Amir attempts to redeem the betrayal of his childhood.

In the wrong Hollywood hands, such a story, with recurring themes like death and child-rape, could have been either a very dark and violent tale or something overly sentimental. But under the sure direction of Marc Forster (who has made some excellent films, including Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and the under-appreciated Stranger Than Fiction), The Kite Runner becomes a perfectly-paced and perfectly-told story which elicits just the right level of emotion throughout. It also balances the darkness with just the right amount of light, partly achieved through the fascinating and beautifully-shot sport of kite-flying.

Sure, in some ways The Kite Runner is a superficial easy-to-watch Hollywood film with an implausible ending, but in most ways it rises well above the average Hollywood yarn. For one thing, its use of unknown actors and a foreign language give it an air of authenticity which is rare among Hollywood films. The acting is strong and natural, with particularly outstanding performances by the two boys playing Amir and Hassan (Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) and by Homayoun Ershadi as Amir’s father, Baba, and Shaun Toub as Baba’s friend. The natural acting makes it easier to achieve well-developed characters, another strength of this film.

We all do things as children that we regret, often for the rest of our lives. Too frequently, this results in self-hatred and in branding ourselves as cowards, liars, or just plain evil. This is unfair and untrue; after all, we were only children! The Kite Runner explores this subject with uncommon sympathy and softness. Parts of the ending might have been implausible, but at least the characters stayed true.

Intended or not, the film made me think that we in the west are all guilty of betraying Afghanistan and its people, of hiding while bullies did their work. Like Amir, we also need to find a path to redemption, but the violent path currently being followed in Afghanistan will never, in my opinion, lead to such redemption. I also saw no evidence of the film promoting such a violent course of action.

For all the reasons above, and aided, of course, by the breathtaking cinematography (China stands in for Afghanistan), The Kite Runner was quite simply the most beautiful film I saw in 2007 and ranks high among my favourite films of the year. It gets a full mug up of the finest brew. ****

Monday, 7 January 2008

Sweeney Todd

A dark, disturbing, incredibly graphic and extremely violent tale of revenge, mass murder and cannibalism: what’s not to like? Sarcasm aside, this film will likely be in my top ten films of 2007. What is wrong with me, you ask. Am I just a sucker for films in which the protagonist is a mass murderer who actually elicits sympathy from us (as also found in my favourite film of 2006: Perfume)? I don’t think so. So perhaps I’m just a sucker for gorgeously-filmed brilliantly-directed perfectly-acted musicals? You bet I am, especially if it’s a musical I have long admired.

This twisted gem of a film from twisted director Tim Burton is based on my favourite Stephen Sondheim musical, the blackest of comedies and the darkest of musicals. It concerns a barber who returns to London after fifteen years of wrongful imprisonment to find that his wife has committed suicide and his daughter is the ward of the judge who was responsible for his imprisonment. To put it mildly, the barber goes mad with thoughts of revenge. Joining Burton again (from The Corpse Bride) are Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, whose performances are magnificent. They even sing (who knew Depp could sing that well?)! It is partly because of Depp’s great acting that we are drawn to his character (Sweeney Todd) despite Todd’s murderous insanity. In fact, we are even ready to believe that the most evil character in the film is not the murdering demon barber of Fleet Street but the judge, played (well) by Alan Rickman (and yes, he sings too!).

With everything done so well (acting, directing, writing, music, cinematography), Sweeney Todd might have occupied a higher position among my top ten films of 2007 had it not been for all the blood. I appreciate that the graphic nature of the violence made it more difficult to take pleasure in the killing, which I tend to view as a positive thing (missing from Perfume), and I know this graphic violence was deliberately over-the-top (as was the violence in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow; also starring Depp) and not really redemptive, but it still overwhelmed and distracted me enough to limit my enjoyment of the film. If you want to be desensitized to graphic film violence, Sweeney Todd is a good place to start. But if the sight of blood spurting from a slashed neck is not your idea of a good time, you might want to skip this one.

Still, I can’t help but give Sweeny Todd ****. My mug is up, with the blackest brew imaginable.