Monday, December 31, 2007

Sweeney Todd

Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) has a way of saving a movie. I would’ve found Talladega Nights insufferable without his presence. He didn’t really belong in that film, but he was so crazily out of place that he ended up crazily part of the NASCAR world. In Sweeney Todd, he similarly sticks out like a very tall and slender sore thumb, and he uses his eye-grabbing physicality and bottomless energy to elevate what was for the first half hour a lifelessly dreary flat tire.

It is telling though – both of the movie and of its director Tim Burton – that Cohen makes his biggest impact not by his entrance, not by his scene munching bravado, but by his exit – grisly as it is. Right from the get-go during the opening titles, Burton makes clear what he considers the most interesting element of Sweeney Todd by showing us a vivid red trail of spilled animated blood dripping and running its way through the machinery of Victorian England. It is Burton in vintage form. It connects to his roots as a Disney animator too dark and twisted to remain a Disney animator for long. Unfortunately, as soon as the titles end, so does Burton’s passion, his very interest in the story he is telling.

As we are shown a barber (Johnny Depp) reduced to an empty shell by having his wife and daughter ripped away by the lust of another man, I had that going through the motions feeling. As the barber sets up shop above the establishment of the worst baker to ever to slap together a pie on a filthy kitchen table (Helena Bonham-Carter), I had that zombie feeling of everyone including Burton walking about in a trance. (The characters I’ll allow – it’s actually kind of the point – but not the movie’s director.) I was ready to write Sweeney Todd off as one of Burton’s worst films and add it to my mound of evidence proving his weaknesses after the over-bloated catastrophes that were Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Then it happened. With the whip of a straight razor and the spurt of blood, Cohen’s character is dispatched from the story and everyone involved, especially Burton, is awakened like a school of sharks getting a sudden whiff of nearby lunch. Suddenly, my yawns turned to wicked laughs as the demon barber began dispatching victims and sending them tumbling through a trap door to the basement below, sometimes landing head-first with a bounce, a delightful bit of gruesome slapstick. Now, audience and director alike are having fun and everything about the movie turns from sleepy to giddy. Burton even pulls rabbits from his hat with a fantasy sequence reminiscent of his best work.

Somehow, all it took was a splash of red and the fun of the opening credits was back. This was the most I’ve enjoyed a Burton film since the good old days of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (another barber movie). Clearly, Burton was having a great time as well, something always infectious.

A quick comment or two about the music: I saw the movie with my sister-in-law, a classically trained operatic singer, and I commented that I didn’t like the music because I couldn’t recall a single tune. Her comeback was that Sondheim wasn’t going for a hit parade. He was going for an overall piece. And I can appreciate that. It is like my constant lament over the death of music albums in this age of iPods and mp3s. She them offered a comment more damning than mine. “Sweeney Todd is usually performed by classically trained singers who have the skill to bring the lyrics to vivid life. Here, giving the vocals to actors – Depp, Bonham-Carter, etc. – fails completely. Their singing was flat and lifeless.”

There they are again: “flat” and “lifeless.” It’s a good thing for the blood.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

But the Book Was Better ... A Simple Plan

Hello Readers and Film Buffs,

Mark your calendars! The Friends of the Morton Mandan Public Library, in conjunction with the Cinema 100 Film Society, will host its third annual “But the Book Was Better …” book/film discussion series in January 2008.

This year we are discussing A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. The film version has the same title and stars Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda. Erin Goodale, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Bismarck State College, will lead the discussions.

WHO: You! Discussions are free and open to all.
WHAT: A Simple Plan by Scott Smith

“Two brothers and a friend find $4 million in the cockpit of a downed plane. The pilot is dead. No one is looking for the money. To keep it, all they have to do is wait. It all sounded so simple …”

Stephen King called this book, “Simply the best suspense novel of the year!”

Sunday, January 6, 2008, 1:30 – 3:30 p.m. - Book discussion
Sunday, January 27, 2008, 1:30 – 3:30 p.m. - Film discussion

WHERE: Morton Mandan Public Library (609 West Main, Mandan), Starion Financial Community Room

WHY: It’s fun to talk about books and movies with others who also enjoy reading and watching films.

HOW: The book and the DVD (or video) may be borrowed from local libraries or rented/purchased from local merchants. Read the book, watch the movie, and join us for lively discussions!

NEED MORE INFORMATION? For more information about the discussion series or the Friends, call the Morton Mandan Public Library at 667-5365 or visit

Match Cut's Top 30 Film Scores

I spend a fair amount of time posting at the online film discussion forum Sometimes we get together as a group and create top lists -- top 50 directors, top 40 documentaries, that sort of thing. Recently, we put together our list of the top 30 film scores and I thought I'd share it since the guy in charge put a lot of time into presenting the results:




Enjoy! Unfortunately, my number one favorite score didn't make the final list -- Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2008 Spirit Award Nominees

The Independent Spirit awards are often more interesting than the Oscars for indie-minded moviegoers. The nominees were recently announced, providing all of us with more movies to add to our radar.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
I'm Not There
A Mighty Heart
Paranoid Park

Todd Haynes - I'm Not There
Tamara Jenkins - The Savages
Jason Reitman - Juno
Julian Schnabel - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Gus Van Sant - Paranoid Park

Ronald Harwood - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Tamara Jenkins - The Savages
Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner - Starting Out in the Evening
Adrienne Shelly - Waitress
Mike White - Year of the Dog

Angelina Jolie - A Mighty Heart
Sienna Miller - Interview
Ellen Page - Juno
Parker Posey - Broken English
Tang Wei - Lust, Caution

Pedro Castaneda - August Evening
Don Cheadle - Talk To Me
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Savages
Frank Langella - Starting Out in the Evening
Tony Leung - Lust, Caution

Monday, December 3, 2007


I always have a hard time remembering my dreams. And I often wish that I could hook up a VCR to my head while I sleep and later sit back with some popcorn and watch all of those fleeting images, hitting rewind whenever I feel like it. I have some idea what that would be like now after watching the Japanese animated film Paprika.

Featuring strikingly gorgeous artwork somewhere between, say, Spirited Away and a graphic novel; Paprika is a feast for the eyes. (If I say something stupid at this point, it is because I haven’t spent a lot of time with Japanese animation yet, I don’t have many points of reference or comparison. I just know that Paprika looks like Miyazaki with a harder, more grown up edge.)

The story revolves around a device known as a DC Mini, described as “a scientific invention that allows us to open the door to our dreams.” It is a headset-like device that captures the brainwaves of a sleeping individual and records them for later playback. This playback can be on a computer or can be fed back into the brain of the same or a different individual. Actually, Paprika reminded me of a mixture of Richard Linklater’s two “animated” films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.

It shares Waking Life’s sense of the viewer never being quite sure if what is happening is actually happening or simply a dream (or a dream within a dream…). It also shares Waking Life’s penchant for philosophical tidbits such as: “Don’t you think dreams and the Internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious mind vents.”

Along with A Scanner Darkly, it lives in the realm of paranoid science fiction where a scientific discovery showing much promise is stolen and turned to evil purposes. Essentially, Paprika is A Scanner Darkly with a DC Mini instead of Substance D.

One other paranoid concern raised by Paprika is how replaying a person’s dreams in another person’s mind, especially without their awareness, can have damaging effects. This is actually described as an act of terrorism by one of the characters. A dream is something very personal. It plays with material gathered during waking life and arranges it to try to answer some question or fulfill some wish (if Freud was on the right track anyway). If another person is exposed to this surreal move-like production, it can only lead him astray; it could possibly lead him to destructive or even self-destructive ends. It is like the films of David Lynch, for example Eraserhead. Lynch described it as a reconstruction of one of his own dreams, very meaningful to him but unlikely to hold the same meaning for anyone else. I consider Eraserhead an expression of the fear and dread of parenthood. My wife considers it a sickening experience that fills her with despair. God only knows what it all means to Lynch.

Paprika also becomes confused in the way Lynch’s films are confused. I was often as puzzled by Paprika as I recently was by Inland Empire. I wasn’t sure which end was up. But in both films, the close relationship between movies and dreams is clear. It is a beautiful confusion where impossible things happen that somehow make perfect sense. The flow seems perfectly natural – especially with animation – when a woman descends a ladder through a trapdoor in a closet and ends up first in a room full of a child’s artwork and then in an amusement park. It makes perfect sense when someone leans against a railing beside a merry-go-round and is suddenly tumbling over the balcony railing high up in an apartment building. These juxtapositions make no sense and make perfect sense at the same time, something cinema is good at.

What if your waking state and your dreaming state were blurred together? What would happen if all of the repressed aspects of your psyche decided to hang out with you? Paprika explores this. Doubles are everywhere. Characters are constantly reflected in various surfaces, but what reflects back is not their self but rather a repressed version. A character is seen reflected in multiple mirrors at one point and we see her reflection making a series of faces ranging from annoyance to amusement to disgust as two young men make a pass at her. On a moving sidewalk we she her reflection take on the likeness of a dark-haired other woman. Characters are seen as shadows and anima figures and alternate personas of each other.

Of course, none of this is new to movies. Take any movie and the villain is most likely the shadow of the hero, the love interest the hero’s anima, the femme fatale his negative anima, and so on. What is fun about Paprika though is how psychologically out in the open it is. Actual dream interpretation terminology is used throughout to make explicit how dreams interplay archetypes on a personal unconscious level while movies are the same only on a collective unconscious level. Movies are dreams shared by an audience.

Paprika evokes this relationship between dreams and movies quite openly and quite often. At one point, Paprika compares early REM sleep dreams to artsy short films and late REM sleep dreams to Hollywood blockbusters. There are many instances where transitions between a dream reality and a real reality (or is it another dream reality?) transpire through various cinematic tools. A dream is suddenly happening on a movie theater screen while another character watches. Characters pass through the lens of a video camera from one reality to another. Characters get absorbed by the video playing on a website. There is even a discussion about how a particular dream crosses the 180 degree axis line used by filmmakers to maintain a clear spatial relationship between characters on screen, a rule that Paprika often violates in pursuit of its beautiful confusion.

Paprika features a major character that functions as a surrogate for director Satoshi Kon. He has a recurring dream that relates to an unfinished 8 mm movie from his childhood, a movie and a dream that leaves on asking, “Where’s the rest?” Satoshi Kon seems to see his filmmaking as dream work, as a way to come to terms with his childhood. Paprika ends provocatively with a suggestion that Satoshi Kon has completed some unfinished childhood business, has reached some new maturity. In the final scene, his alter ego is told to go see the movie Dreaming Kids. As he walks up to the ticket window, he glances at posters for such past Satoshi Kon works as Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue. Then he says, “One adult, please.”