Two new movies have been released for streaming, both coincidentally starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and both are highly political, one by design and the other through fortuitous circumstances of history regrettably repeating itself, and both are simultaneously everything you would expect from their creative forces and worth watching in our tumultuous times.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama depicting the injustices applied to a dispirit group of anti-war activists who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The various men of different backgrounds and affiliations had their reasons for being there to protest, whether it was building public support to end the Vietnam War, to gain personal publicity, or to get laid, and tensions mounted inside and out the group as the police plan to send a message, harassed protesters, and in one amazingly prescient moment, remove their badges and name tags to then inflict state-sanctioned violence. This is an Aaron Sorkin movie through and through, and his second offering as a director after 2017’s Molly’s Game, and the best thing about the Oscar-winning wordsmith is that watching one of his movies feels like you’ve just downloaded a complete syllabus. The sheer audacious density of information can be overwhelming, but when Sorkin is able to get into his well-established rhythms, the actors feel like wonderful pieces in an orchestra playing to its peak. The real-life story of the activists has plenty of juicy drama and intriguing characters and intra-group conflicts breaking open, mostly between the divided poles of political leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and counter-culture prankster Abbie Hoffman (Cohen). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen, HBO’s Watchmen) could have gotten his own movie and suffers many of the worst indignities as a member of the Black Panthers who was grafted onto the case in order to make the rest of the indicted men seem scarier by association. The consistent interference by the trial judge (Frank Langella) is shocking. It’s so transparently biased, racist, and unprofessional that I have to believe that many of these anecdotes actually happened because otherwise they seem so absurdly prejudicial that nobody would believe this happened. For a movie with such a sizeable cast of trial litigants, lawyers on both sides, friends and family, and maybe every police officer in Chicago, it’s impressive that Sorkin is able to provide so many with great Sorkin moments, meaning those grandstanding speeches, cutting one-liners, and intensive cross-examination. Not everyone is on the same level of importance. Several of the Chicago 7 are merely bodies on screen, two of the guys serve as little more than a quip-peddling Greek chorus. You sense there’s more being left out to fit into a crammed yet tidy narrative that plays to our demands for satisfying character arcs, reconciliation, and a morally stirring final stand. As a director, Sorkin doesn’t distinguish himself but he lets his meaty script and the performances of his actors get all the attention. The editing, like in Molly’s Game, can be a bit jumpy but it’s to serve the sheer size of information being downloaded during the 129 minutes. The political parallels for today are remarkable and a condemnation of our modern times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an invigorating and, at points, exhausting film going experience that can feel like a retro, overstuffed special episode of The West Wing. It’s everything you should expect and want in an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama, so if you’re already in that anxious camp then this Netflix original will be preaching to the overly verbose choir.
Secretly filmed over the past year, Sacha Baron Cohen reprises his outlandish Borat character to once again lampoon people’s not-so-hidden prejudices, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny, which seem to have only gotten worse since the first Borat movie in 2006. The flimsy story follows international journalist Borat returning to America to help improve the standing of his home nation Kazakhstan by offering his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to the Trump administration. It’s really just a platform for Cohen to adopt a series of disguises (his Borat is too recognizable) and dupe some rubes while exploiting their ignorance and patience. Much of the entertainment comes from the cringe-inducing interactions of how far Cohen and Bakalova will go, marveling at their improvisational skills and also dreading what lines they might cross next. I was laughing fairly consistently, though the schitck naturally won’t be as funny the second time around, even with a 14-year gap in movies. I was really impressed by Bakalova and her own commitment and quick-thinking, keeping pace with a pro like Cohen and really stealing the show because Borat can’t go out in public as before. There are some outrageous moments that work, like Cohen imitating a country singer leading an anti-masking crowd into a singalong with ridiculous verses, and some that simply don’t, like an ongoing stretch where Bakalova explains the appeal of masturbation to a gaggle of deadly silent Republican ladies. Sometimes the comedy seems so broadly caricatured that it’s questionable whether its helpful or harmful, especially the anti-Semitic tropes that Cohen embraces as means of satire. Saying something outrageous to an outraged or shocked party isn’t quite enough. When compiling these hidden camera comedies, they thrive on the oxygen given to them by the targets of the prank. If they don’t really engage, it can feel a bit tired and desperate. I’d say the ratio of hits-to-misses is about half and half but the movie has enough big moments to keep fans happy. The most notorious moment has already been widely disseminated through social media and serves as the climax of the movie, strangely both as the high-point of pranks with big names but also as the emotional catharsis. Tutar poses as a foreign journalist and interviews Trump surrogate Rudy “America’s mayor” Giuliani, who drinks, goes into a hotel bedroom alone with Bakalova, and then lays on the bed while slipping his hand down his pants (like a gentleman does). Borat realizes he doesn’t want to offer his daughter to this creepy, sleazy man and rescues her because he truly does care about her. Borat 2, or Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, takes a scattershot approach to satire and squarely aims at the science-denying MAGA crowd celebrating the excesses of their leader (who doesn’t sound that different from Borat, come to think of it). It might be more admirable in intent than execution but the new Borat can provide a few belly laughs and a more than a few groans as Cohen attempts to make American funny again.
Trial of the Chicago 7: B+
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: B-
I have no qualms with my heterosexual nature to make the following statement: I love a good musical. Why shouldn’t I? None other than Martin Scorsese said any true film lover is a fan of horror movies and musicals, two genres uniquely suited to the visual flourishes of cinema. My tastes tend to run toward the more offbeat, like Avenue Q and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd and Dancer in the Dark. My favorite movie musical of all time is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, but that’s probably because I’m a movie lover first and foremost. A well-done movie musical can sweep you off your feet. The polarizing Moulin Rouge! is still my favorite film of 2001; I love every messy, ambitious, transporting second of it. And that’s what the best musicals and, in general, best films achieve: they transport us to another realm. Since the success of 2002’s Chicago, there’s been a run of hit-or-miss movie musicals proliferating the big screen. It’s hard to think of any longstanding Broadway hits that have yet to make the leap (you’ll get your turn, Book of Mormon). Of course it also works the other way, with plenty of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, like Shrek, Elf, Ghost, Catch Me if You Can, Newsies, A Christmas Story, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and Tony-winner for Best Musical, Once. Then you get movies turned into musicals and back into movie musicals, like The Producers and Hairspray. It seems like Broadway and Hollywood are stuck in a loop, feeding off one another’s spoils.
In 2012, two high-profile musicals got the big screen treatment: Rock of Ages and Les Miserables. The former is from 2009 whereas the latter is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, beginning in 1980 and spanning continents. Rock of Ages was savaged by critics and bombed at the box-office, whereas Les Miz is soaring this holiday season and is seen as a major Oscar contender. Of course one of these films is about the outrage of the lower classes being exploited by an unfair system that benefits the rich, and the other has Tom Cruise and a monkey named “Hey Man.” Having seen both films recently, and Les Miserables more than once, I think they present an interesting discussion on the pitfalls of adapting a popular theatrical show to film. You won’t have to wait long to figure out which movie succeeds and which falters badly.
Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. Prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is nearing the end of his twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced Valjean will never reform and go back to a life of crime. After help from a kindly bishop, Valjean flees his parole and sets up a new life as a businessman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s workers, gets thrown out and tumbles down a chain of regrettable circumstances. She becomes a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean recognizes poor Fantine on the street and, horrified at his own neglect leading her to this path, takes it upon himself to care for her and her daughter. Years later, the teenaged Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen for the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius enlists his good friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help find out who Cosette is, all the while ignorant that Eponine is clearly in love with him. The young people of France are riled up about class abuses and exploitation, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. Javert is also becoming suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, so Valjean feels the need to flee once again. However, Cosette’s love and the bravery of the young revolutionaries makes Valjean decide to stop running from his past.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made the ballsy but ultimately brilliant decision to have his performers sing live. Every line, every note, every performance is captured in the moment; there is nary a second of lip-synching. I cannot overstate how blessed this decision was. It places the emphasis on the performances, and that’s exactly what something as big and deeply felt as Les Miserables required for the big screen. Look, Hollywood actors are never going to be able to outdo trained and professional theatrical singers. What I expect from movie stars is movie-star level performances, and Hooper understands this. These actors aren’t playing to the cheap seats, belting the tunes with power and over exaggerated dramatics (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style given the theatrical setting). In many ways, this is a more intimate Les Miserables, and it still maintains its charms and magic. There is no choreography, short of perhaps the more jovial “Master of the House” number, and Hooper puts us right in the muck of life in a 19th century impoverished slum. This is one dirty movie with lots of grimy period details, creating a reality that can only be implied on stage. The more visceral version of Les Miserables demands performances that are more naturalistic and less bombastic, to a degree. I am a cinephile first but I genuinely prefer my musicals with trained actors to trained singers. A great actor can add so much inflection and personality through the prism of song, whereas a great singer is concentrating on the notes first and foremost. I value performance over nailing the mechanics, and more movie musicals should follow Hooper’s path. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do the movie musical experience right.
I don’t know if Hooper was exactly the right man for the job but he certainly does the beloved stage show justice. Hooper’s visual tics are still present. The man loves to film in close-ups and at all sorts of tilted Dutch angles; he also loves filming a conversation between two people where neither one will be in the same shot. It’s a peculiarity that I never really warmed up to. However, Hooper generally has the best interests of his movie at stake, capitalizing on the large outpouring of feeling. This is a Big Musical with big emotions, and it’s easy to be swept up in its exuberant earnestness and humanism. It even has a famous concluding line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at under lesser circumstances. Now, thinking back, you’ll realize that many of these people were simply painfully naïve and that there was a slew of death for no good reason. Purists may chafe at some altered lyrics and truncated songs, but really this is pretty much the closest version of the famous stage show you’ll ever see adapted. Not one of the songs has been cut (in fact a new one was written for the film by the original composers), and at a lengthy 157 minutes, it’s practically as long as the stage show, and just about sung through every moment. There are probably ten total lines that are merely spoken. I predict hardcore Les Miz fans will lap up every second.
Les Miserables also boasts some fortuitous casting (Taylor Swift at one point was rumored to be up for a role… shudder), none more than Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises). She is nothing less than perfect as Fantine. There isn’t a false note during any of her acting. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful, so breathtaking, so intensely felt, that it ranks up there with some of the best moments in all of 2012 movies. And oh can this woman sing her ass off too. You feel every flicker of anger and devastation, the grain in her voice, on the verge of tears and fury. This woman deserves every accolade they can come up with this year. This woman is a total lock for Best Supporting Actress. She’s wonderful during every moment of her screen time and the lengths and emotional ferocity of her performance, and subsequent pitfalls the character endures, left me reaching for the tissues at several points.
The other standout amidst a pretty stellar cast is Barks. This is her first film work though she has plenty of experience with her character, portraying Eponine in the 25th anniversary run of Les Miserables. Her singing is terrific, as you’d imagine, but her acting is just as strong. Her rendition of “On My Own” is a showstopper of a number. Barks naturally transitions to the demands of film. I was completely on Team Eponine and found her to be an infinitely better catch than Cosette. After people get a glimpse of this woman, she is going to get plenty more acting offers, and a few concerned inquiries into the size of her waist, which at times looks like it might be the size of The Rock’s neck. Hooper also has the good sense to film both “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” in unbroken takes; focus tightly pinned on our outstanding actresses, letting the skill of their performances sell the big emotions.
Of course the crux of the tale rests on two men, Valjean and Javert, and the rest of the cast does kind of get saddled in underdeveloped roles made more apparent as a movie. It seems blasphemous to say I was a little disappointed with both lead actors. Crowe (Robin Hood) is easily the weakest singer of the cast but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He has a lower register and sings his parts like a rock musician rather than a Broadway player. Fans of the stage show will have to adjust their expectations for a more subdued Javert. Still, having an actor of Crowe’s talents is definitely a plus even if his singing is adequate. Jackman (Real Steel) is a Tony-winning thespian, so I held him to a higher standard. He’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jean Valjean, and Jackman does an admittedly fine job with the bigger emotional parts. I just expected more from his vocal abilities but it’s not a major detraction. As my mother noted, it’s not too difficult to spot the classically trained singers in the cast. Also, for eagle-eyed Les Miz fans, look for the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop in this movie.
There is the tricky nature of translating a Broadway production into some variance of period reality. There’s plenty of relevance with the class struggle illustrated in the second half of the movie (Bane would approve). It’s an obvious statement but film is a different medium than the theater and affords different opportunities. The depressing reality of lower class life and the vultures that preyed on others is striking, yes, but sort of conflicts with the comic relief characters represented by the scheming Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). When the seriousness of the period is inflated, they feel like they sort of belong in a different movie. Then there’s just the conflict between stage reality and film reality. On the stage we’ll accept Marius falling madly in love with Cosette at first sight. When it’s on film, the guy comes across as a callous chump, oblivious to Eponine’s pining. He ignores the friend he’s had for years for some blonde in a bonnet. And the final number, reuniting all the dead cast members, works better as a curtain call than a finale to a film. These are just the quirks of theater one must just accept. I wouldn’t say the songs and music is in the same category as Sondheim or Webber, but there are definitely some hummable tunes here made all the more swooning. You’ll have a fine pick of songs to get stuck in your head for days (mine: “Look Down”).
Earlier this year, Rock of Ages came and quickly left the box-office, failing to make a splash with the American public despite a healthy enough run on Broadway and touring the country. The stage show is a jukebox musical set to the head-banging tunes of 1980s hair metal. Adam Shankman, the director behind the bouncy and thoroughly entertaining 2007 Hairspray movie musical, was tasked with bringing Rock of Ages to the screen with the same finesse. Cherie (Julianne Hough) a hopeful singer just off the bus from Oklahoma, meets up with Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice kid who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a rock club running afoul with the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The club owners (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) are relying on fickle, burned-out, taciturn, and overall mysterious rock legend Stacy Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save their club from financial ruin. Along the way, Cherie and Drew look for their big breaks, fall in love, get pulled apart, and reunite in time for one final sendoff to leave the audience tapping their toes.
Allow me to elucidate on my main problem with the rise in jukebox musicals: I find them to be, with rare exception, exceedingly lazy. The musical number is meant to advance the narrative and give insights into character and situation, just like any other aspect of plot. You’ll find great original tunes that do this. When you’re dealing with pop songs that the public is well familiar with, then your job becomes even harder, and I find many are just not up to the task. Too often jukebox musicals are designed to merely string together a pre-packaged and time-tested number of hit songs, utilizing the faintest of narrative threads to get from one song to the next. The appeal of jukebox musicals lies not with the story or characters but waiting for the next recognizable song and wondering how it will, poorly, fit into this new context. You’ll notice that these jukebox musicals seem to have twice as many song numbers. They know their selling point, and more singing means less time spent developing characters and story. And so my impression of the jukebox musical is one of a cynical cash grab following the bare minimum of narratives to achieve the status of musical so it can be resold with low risk. I’m simplifying things in my ire, yes, but there’s a definite reason that jukebox musicals have sprouted like mad in the past few years. They don’t require as much work and the audience seems to hold them to a lesser standard. Much like the worst of Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans), it seems just recognizing the familiar has become the core draw of entertainment.
And this is one of the main problems with Rock of Ages. I’ve never seen the stage show, but my God for something that purports to live the rock and roll lifestyle, it’s certainly so tame and scrubbed clean of anything dangerous. This feels like your grandparents’ idea of what “modern” rock music is. After a cursory search online, I’ve found that the movie makes some significant changes to convert a story about rock and roll hedonism into sanitized family friendly fare (spoilers to follow, theatergoers): apparently in the stage version, Cherie and Jaxx had sex, Jaxx remains a creep and flees the country on statutory rape charges, though before that he and Cherie share a lap dance/duet to “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” the family values crusader characters were new inventions, the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, the best singer in the film) is considerably beefed up to provide Jaxx his happy ending, and they don’t even use the song “Oh Cherie.” I’m not a stickler for adaptation changes, but clearly it feels like Rock of Ages had every edge carefully sanded down to reach out to the widest array of mainstream filmgoers (Shankman says he cut Cherie’s lap dance number because it tested poorly with mothers). The funny part is that the movie lambastes a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) for playing to demo numbers, shooting for pandering mass appeal rather than the art, man. Feel the hypocrisy.
The first hour of Rock of Ages is mildly passable mostly because of the goofy supporting cast, but then the movie just keeps going, getting more and more tedious with every protracted minute. The second half involves Cherie and Drew apart and finding new lows; for him it’s selling his soul to join in a boy band, and for her it’s selling herself, working as a stripper. Let’s look back at that sentence. One of those life choices is not nearly as upsetting as the other. Nothing against the hard-working strippers in this country, but Cherie taking to the pole is definitely more of a moral compromise for the character than whatever the hell Drew endures. It’s this leaden second hour that made me lose faith that Rock of Ages would even provide a morsel of cheesy entertainment. It has the misfortune of two of the blandest leads I’ve ever seen in a musical. Hogue (Footloose) and Boneta (Mean Girls 2) are both physically blessed specimens of human genetics, but oh are these kids boring boring boring. Their love story is completely malnourished and you couldn’t scrape together one interesting thing about them combined. The fact that Rock of Ages further strips away any interesting personality from Cherie (see above) makes them even more disastrously boring. To be stuck with these two for another hour of vapid griping, only to magically get back together, is interminable. Thank God they pumped up the side characters because that is the only time when Rock of Ages even challenges for your attention. Cruise isn’t the best singer but he’s pretty good belting out 80s rock hits, and the man has his natural charisma and stage presence to spare.
So I guess where Rock of Ages goes wrong, and where Les Miserables succeeds, is thinking of how best to translate the experience of the stage to the medium of film. Shankman does a pitiful job staging his musical numbers, with lackluster choreography that rarely takes advantage of the sets and characters. Worse, Shankman feels like he strays from the tone and angle of the stage show, sanitizing the rock and roll lifestyle and looking for ways to squeeze in bland happy endings. In other words, he doesn’t capture enough of the essence of the original stage show to please neophytes and fans of the Broadway show. With Les Miserables, I think most fans of the stage show, and they are legion, will walk away feeling satisfied with the results, content that real artists treated the long-running musical with justice. Hooper opens up the world of the stage show, utilizing the parameters of film, and the emphasis on performance over singing mechanics maximizes the unique power of film. Les Miserables is a grand movie musical smartly adapted to the opportunities of film. Rock of Ages is a sloppy, neutered, criminally boring mess poorly developed and poorly translated to the silver screen. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Oh, and guys, if you see Les Miserables, it will get you super laid with your girlfriend (I have anecdotal evidence).
Les Miserables: B+
Rock of Ages: C-
Martin Scorsese tackling a children’s film feels like an odd fit for the man responsible for classic gangster epics and symphonies of violence. But if David Lynch, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Danny Boyle can all make family films that don’t make your brain rot, then why not the greatest living director? Maybe notorious sadist Lars von Trier will be next. Adapted from the award-winning children’s book, Hugo is, as my pal Eric Muller put it, a family film for film historians.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy living beneath the walls of the Paris train station. He’s secretly the one responsible for winding up all the clocks and keeping time. He has to stay one step ahead of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who snatches wayward boys and sends them off to an orphanage. Hugo has been swiping clock pieces from the booth of a mysterious toy collector, George (Ben Kingsley). He needs the tiny pieces to fix a metallic man that Hugo and his late father (Jude Law) had been working on together. Hugo is convinced that if he fixes the metal man the automaton will write out one last message from his father. Hugo befriends George’s niece, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two of them explore the various shops and shopkeepers of the station. As they uncover more clues, the kids realize that George is actually George Méliès, the filmmaking pioneer best known for the 1902 fantasy, A Trip to the Moon (the one where the moon gets a bullet in its eye).
Scorsese’s first foray into 3D filmmaking is a rousing sensation for the eyes. The images pop without superfluous objects flying at the camera. The depth of field is nicely and creatively toyed with by Scorsese. Best of all, the 3D enhances the story rather than distracting you. Hugo is a celebration of the advances in moviemaking, and 3D is the latest advancement meant to make the theatergoing experience special. Of course the theatergoing experience has always been special, as the movie indicates. Where else but a theater can we collectively bond with a group of strangers, laughing collectively, feeling the pangs of emotion in unison? There’s a thematic rationale for Scorsese’s use of the third dimension. He masterfully fills the screen with wonderful images, like the massive inner working of clock towers. Scorsese’s signature tracking shots zoom in through the wintry 1930s Paris landscape and train station. A visual highlight is when a trunk of sketches busts open, the papers scattered all over the screen, some moving like flip books, creating the illusion of animation. I can honestly advise people to seek out a 3D showing of Hugo if given the option. For once, it’s worth the extra dough. I only anticipate making this same recommendation for the upcoming Piranha 3DD.
It’s the second half where the movie shows its true intentions, becoming a love letter to the power of cinema and the early pioneers of the art form. Scrosese has long been a historian of the movies, and Hugo is his celebration of the early cinematic dream makers, notably Méliès and his surreal theatrical landscapes. Arthur C. Clark famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s what early cinema was to a populace that had never seen the likes of moving pictures (we see an early audience fearing for their lives watching a film of a train arriving). It was like a new magic. The turn-of-the century filmmakers like Méliès were charting new terrain as visual storytellers, opening the public to new wonders of the imagination. Simple tricks of editing substitution, dissolves, and visual arrangement could help foster the ongoing illusion. It may be low-rent, like hand painting individual film frames, but it was the special effects of their day. D.W. Griffith once said of Méliès, “I owe him everything.” Scorsese is sharing his passion for the history of the movies and it’s hard not to feel the power of the movies.
But when Hugo gets swallowed whole by Scorsese’s nostalgia, the rest of the plot becomes incidental. The characters, which were not strong to begin with, are given pat resolutions that make you realize how flimsy the characterization is. The movie takes a sub-Amelie route, letting Hugo bring together disparate couples, but you don’t really know anything about these people. Emily Mortimer’s female florist has maybe two lines in the movie, so why should I root for her to get with the Station Inspector? There’s an older couple whose romance is sabotaged by an aggressive pooch. You can imagine the scintillating resolution that awaits. The film history section is honestly the best part of the movie, but it means that everything leading up to that point was just in service to prop up the academic nostalgia. It means that the characters and their mysteries were really unimportant, and they feel that way by film’s end. The movie just grinds to a halt. The mystery of the metal man is that he’s a MacGuffin, a means to discover Méliès’ past. The whole clockwork symbolism can be clumsy, instructing us time and again that people are broken and Hugo feels the need to fix things. Too bad he couldn’t fix the disjointed story.
The actors manage to make favorable impressions when they can fight free of the movie’s educational pull. Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is a strong lead actor who rises above the sniveling preface of his character. He makes you root for the kid even when we don’t really know much about him beyond his Dickensian conditions. The kid has some pretty piercing Paul Newman-esque blue eyes too. Moretz (Let Me In, Kick-Ass) is showing the poise and grace to make it long term in this business. Kinglsey (Shutter Island) is effectively curt with his poorly veiled pain and regret. Cohen (Borat) expands his dramatic range noticeably, adding touches of empathy for a character that could mostly have been arch and cartoonish. He’s still the film’s best source for comedy. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) makes a welcomed appearance as an expert on early filmmaking, Méliès especially. He serves as the mouthpiece for Scorsese’s passion.
Hugo is a family film that ultimately gets swallowed whole by the filmmakers’ passion. It makes for an entertaining and informative essay on the skill and vision of turn-of-the-century filmmakers, but if people are anticipating a fun story about a scrappy kid and his mischievous adventures, then this is not that movie. Hugo benefits from terrific visuals, strong acting, and Scorsese’s blend of whimsy and innocence without stooping to anything crass or lowbrow. Hugo aspires for the rich, romantic experience of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) but comes up short. Hugo is at turns charming and magical but as a narrative it is too often flimsy, a wispy thing meant to lead to Scorsese’s love letter. It’s a fine and fitting tribute but even the best and most powerful love letter can only go so far, never mind the hassle of special 3D glasses.
Nate’s Grade: B
Sacha Baron Cohen struck comedy gold and financial riches with Borat, his popular anti-Semitic foreign character that skewered American ignorance and xenophobia. Now, he’s back at it as Bruno, an extremely gay Austrian TV host who travels across America in hopes of being famous. The problem this time is that the Borat formula just doesn’t work the same with this character. Borat at heart had an innocence to him that made his outrageous statements tolerable, but Bruno is mostly obnoxious and you feel pity for the dupes that he annoys. The Cohen-Larry Charles technique of crash interviews snares some high profile victims like Congressman Ron Raul and Paula Abdul, but the movie is also thinly staged with corporate compliance from NBC/Universal opening doors for Cohen. There are a small number of worthy targets, from gay brainwashing counselors to stage parents willing to submit their children to anything for a buck, but the best is saved for an Arkansas fighting ring. It’s depressing that a bunch of people foaming at the mouth to see violence would become so incensed and repulsed by men kissing. Regardless, this movie is a string of unfunny skits slapped together with the message of breaking down homophobia. My question to Cohen: how exactly are you going to rid people of homophobia by inundating them with over-the-top gay stereotypes? Doesn’t that reconfirm what they feel? Bruno doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable because he?s gay; he makes you feel uncomfortable because he’s a jerk.
Nate’s Grade: C
Famed musician/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s tale of murderous barbers, cannibalism, and poisoned hearts first debuted on Broadway in 1979. Sondheim has been very protective of his material when it comes to film rights, but it wasn’t until the combination of visionary director Tim Burton and acclaimed actor Johnny Depp that Sondheim allowed his revered musical to be made into a movie. The result is faithful production that expands the scope of the musical while maintaining an intimate, chamber-music feel. Sweeney Todd flirts with being a masterwork but settles for being incredibly damn entertaining.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after 15 years in prison on a flase charge. Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, suitably creepy) wanted Barker’s wife for his own and conspired to have the barber sent away. Now under the auspices of Sweeney Todd, Barker has come back to seek his wife and daughter. He sadly learns that his wife is dead and his teenaged daughter, Johanna (Laura Michelle Kelly), is the ward of the Judge. Sweeney reopens his barber business above a flagging pie shop run by the eccentric Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Sweeney plots his revenge against the Judge and his henchman, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall, suitable rat-like). Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who traveled with Sweeney back to London, has set his sights on Johanna and intends to run away with her as soon as she can escape the Judge. Meanwhile, a rival barber named Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) recognizes Sweeney from the old days and wants his silence paid for. It’s not too long before things get dicey, throats get cut, and people get turned into meat pies.
People unaware of the Sondheim musical are going to be in for a big shock. The film is about 80 percent sung, and the singing never rises to big, show-offery numbers of crescendo power vocals; the songs are more in the variety of speaking and vocals frequently overlap. The movie has greater clarity to the lyrics, and for the first time I as able to actually decipher Joanna’s words in the song “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Fans of traditional musicals, the kind that feature songs centered on female deer or large corn exporting states, may be aghast at how adult and violent the musical is. It’s just as much a grand horror movie as it is a musical. No doubt people are not generally accustomed to soaring medleys set to gashed throats and spurting blood. Sweeney Todd is captivating tale where almost all the characters are villains in some sense, and yet you do build sympathies even after innocents are killed and baked into flaky desserts.
Unlike other recent big screen versions of popular Broadway song-and-dance shows, Sweeney Todd is not simply the stage version transported to a bigger stage. This is a movie, through and through, and a perfect marriage. Burton is the perfect visionary to filter the twisted sensibilities of Sondheim’s masterpiece onto the silver screen. As a director, his work has been artistically backsliding since the start of this decade, but Sweeney Todd puts a firm stop to that. The technical aspects of Sweeney Todd are brought to life with great care and imagination. The Gothic sets are gorgeous and the costumes and cinematography are fitfully drab and dour, like everyone is living in a silent movie devoid of color; it takes a lot of hard work to create a near monochromatic playing field for the actors. And so when the blood does splash, and oh does it splash, the film pops with vivid color. Sondheim’s playful lyrics and rapturous music has never sounded better; it practically swoons.
The movie opens up the play in ways that a staged performance never could. Instead of keeping a distance from the bloodletting, usually something symbolic or as graphic as coloring a red line across a victim’s neck, Burton thrusts the audience right into Sweeney’s shop. The blood sprays in bright geysers and the violence is fully realized, fully felt, even if it’s never terribly realistic. The full weight of Sweeney’s vengeance and eventual destructive madness can be felt when the audience is witness to its wrath, and that includes the graphic murders. The medium of film ups the horror elements and transforms Sweeney Todd into a stronger work by amplifying the tension. The last scene with Mrs. Lovett is far more haunting than anything that could have been achieved on a stage. Burton also adds lots of dark humor thanks to his open visual palate, like during the song “By the Sea” where Mrs. Lovett fantasizes about her and Sweeney cozying up together in different scenarios. The film transports the viewer to the different pretend locales all the while Depp remains gruff and indifferent. He maintains the same curmudgeon from fantasy postcard after fantasy postcard. It’s the cheeriest segment in a grimly perverse musical that could rival Hamlet for dead bodies.
In an effort to slice a three-hour musical to a manageable two-hour movie, screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator) has pruned the story down to the essentials, namely everything that impacts Sweeney’s ultimate pursuit of vengeance. Johanna and Anthony, the hopeful lovers, have been pared down the most. Their only scenes now revolve around intruding upon Sweeney or helping him meet his venomous goals. The lecherous songs the Judge sings to himself about his lust for Johanna has also been cut (my wife was severely disappointed by this cut, saying, “You’ve got the Rick, come on!”). The most notable omission is the opening medley “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that serves as a Greek chorus-like overview of the sordid tale ahead. The song provides a lot of back-story and exposition that can be more easily covered by Burton fashioning visual flashbacks of Sweeney’s former life. The ballad and other absent songs are still used instrumentally throughout the film. Logan has also turned Toby (Ed Sanders), Pirelli’s assistant, into a much younger character, turning him into an urchin boy with fresh memories of life in a workhouse. I’m not entirely sure Toby’s protective song to Mrs. Lovett “Not While I’m Around” becomes an ode to puppy love and loses some believability. Also, normally Toby is played as a man-child who isn’t entirely whole in his mental faculties; however, the movie version turns him into a plucky Oliver extra. It seems less devastating and tragic.
But what about the singing? Depp won’t be knocking down doors on Broadway anytime soon but he delivers a very satisfying baritone that, while lacking in power or refinement, delivers in spades with emotion. His singing is full of great texture. His song “My Friends,” an ode to being reunited with his razors, is full of brio and nuanced longing, but he really shows his talent when Sweeney loses it. He’s a man obsessed with vengeance and when it escapes his grasp he snarls with scary intensity. When he launches into “Epiphany,” where he determines the whole human race is fit to have their throats slit, he barks at strangers on the street and howls at the sky, smiling at his glistening razors in hand. What can be forgotten with musicals is that there is so much more to a performance than simply an adept ability to sing the right notes. With Sweeney, Depp spins an incredibly rich performance that plumbs the dark recesses of a man whose only purpose is vengeance. In the end, when he’s saturated in blood and the full reality of his actions is upon him, Depp goes from remorse to psychosis to horror to acceptance in, like, a minute flat. Seeing such a classic Broadway character done justice by an actor of Depp’s immense talent is thrilling and a bit of a relief to Sweeney fans.
Carter has the weakest, thinnest voice of the cast. Mrs. Lovett is a larger than life figure that has been played on Broadway by the likes of Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone. The role is usually played more boisterous, more comically broad. It’s a juicy part and full of brash bravado. Carter stumbles through “The Worst Pies in London” and she seems to step all over her lines, rushing through and losing the comedic flavor. But like I said before, a performance is so much more than singing, and it is here where Carter imbues great complexity to her role. Her unrequited love for Sweeney consumes her and her relationship with Toby places her in an awkward predicament. Carter flashes a wealth of emotions through the power of her eyes. It’s a battle between maternal and sexual urges. Stylistically she resembles a rag doll someone tossed in the trash but it all works.
It’s refreshing and exhilarating to see a perfect marriage of material and artistry. Burton has transported Sweeney Todd into a faithful and jubilantly dark movie that doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. It’s a stirring, wonderfully Gothic rendition of Sondheim’s masterpiece. Sweeney Todd is blissful, spirited entertainment that’s not exactly for the squeamish, but this is one musical that can simultaneously touch the heart while turning the stomach.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s niiiiiiice. It seems like Napoleon Dynamite impressions are being replaced by Borat impression, and this can only be for the better. I say this without a hint of sarcasm — Sacha Baron Cohen should have been nominated for Best Actor. He is simply brilliant as he stays in character through every second of a road trip through America, running across all sorts of people and turning them into unwitting co-writers. Cohen’s film succeeds both as a pee-your-pants funny outrageous crude comedy but also as a socio-political examination on bigotry and tolerance in America. What makes so Borat so loveable is how innocent Cohen makes him seem even when he’s spouting racist, sexist, inflammatory ignorance. It’s amazing that people will buy his whopping tales of life in Kazakhstan because we as a nation have a willful ignorance about world culture. The scripted bits stand out like a conclusion with Pamela Anderson, but it’s still amazing they worked out as cohesive a story as they did for this movie. Borat is the best comedy of the year, hairy naked man wrestling and all.
Nate?s Grade: B+
When it comes to clowning around, no one does stupid more smartly than Will Ferrell, a man perpetually in a state of arrested development. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby succeeds both as a satire on uplifting, redemptive sports movies and on the culture of NASCAR. The product placement is obscene in this movie, but then again, the same can be said with NASCAR racing. PowerAde had a contractual obligation to be cited at every family meal prayer, which itself turns into a competitive sport. Title buffoon Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) is so arrogant that he gets an ad for Fig Newtons on his windshield (“This ad is dangerous… but I do love Fig Newtons.”). Even the title is a perfect send-up. The redneck riffs are never very mean-spirited, but I like that the Southern bar keeps disco on the jukebox to “profile.” The sports clichés are picked apart, like the absentee father (Gary Cole) reappearing to learn the error of his ways. There’s a heavy reliance on slapstick and pretty much everyone in the movie is either a cad, a buffoon, or a jackass, so there are limits to that comedy.
True to 2004’s Anchorman, this movie hits its high points with the spontaneous moments of tangential weirdness, from sports announcers explaining how to put out invisible fire to Ricky Bobby learning to drive with a live cougar as a co-pilot. Talladega Nights doesn’t quite hit the absurdist highs of the infinitely quote-able Anchorman, and the movie spins its wheels all too often, but it’s got a greater number of solid belly laughs than most any movie out there today. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Jean Gerard, the gay, French Formula-One driver that upsets the stock car world. Cohen has great fun in an English language mangled performance Peter Sellers would have loved. When Ferrell and Cohen are face to face, you feel like anything can happen between these two quick-witted comedy titans. Ferrell has assembled another game cast of gifted improvisational artists and their blend of loony comedy feels like jazz. The downside with such a huge cast of very funny people is that not everyone gets the face-time they deserve (Oscar nominee Amy Adams comes to mind).
Talladega Nights is a big broad comedy with a great cast and some inspired chuckles. What other movie this summer could climax so perfectly with a man-on-man smooch and the observation, “You taste like… America”? Only one, baby, and it’s Ricky Bobby.
Nate’s Grade: B