A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 497 – A Little Princess (1986)

A Little Princess (1986) – July 10th, 2011

I first saw this adaptation when I was a young girl. I saw it on television as part of the Wonderworks series on PBS and I instantly fell in love with it. This afternoon when we put it in (it’s quite long, so we started it early) and the Wonderworks music came on and there was a trailer for the BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then the music for this movie started. Suddenly I was transported right back to my childhood, watching this on my parents’ tv and re-enacting it with my Playmobiles on the bed. What? I had the Victorian Playmobiles. They were awesome and it was a lot more fun than just watching the movie.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that drew me into this version, specifically. I’ve also got a favorite version of The Secret Garden, though I didn’t see it on Wonderworks (it was a Hallmark special, oddly enough). There was just something about it that drew me in. And as an aside, I loved everything I ever saw on Wonderworks. This, the Narnia specials, The Box of Delights, How to Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days and the bizarre Konrad. Thinking about it now, those are all based on books. And from what I can remember of the ones I haven’t seen recently and what I know of the ones I have, they’re all fairly faithful adaptations of the books. So too with A Little Princess. The biggest change I can think of off the top of my head is that Sarah is a bit older in this than she is in the book. But since I love Amelia Shankley’s portrayal of her, I’m willing to let it slide.

I hadn’t read the book when I first saw this special, actually. I did read it later on and found it far more twee than the movie was and decided I preferred the movie a bit, though I did enjoy the book. It might have been seeing all the period costumes, or it might have been the performances. It might have been that the movie is just a touch less precious than the book is, and therefore a little easier to stomach. Because it’s a sad story for a good chunk of time and making the beginning too cutesy and precious and twee just takes away from the sadness and bittersweetness later on.

It’s really not a complicated story and it’s not terribly twisty either. It begins with young Sara Crewe and her father in India, where they live. Sara’s mother died when she was a baby and she and her father are extremely close. So you know right then and there that he’s doomed. Sara’s sent off for boarding school but not before Captain Crewe gives an old friend, Mr. Carrisford, all of his money to invest in a new diamond mine. You can probably guess where that goes too. So Sara ends up at boarding school, where her father has instructed the headmistress to provide his daughter with everything she could possibly want. And when the inevitable happens and it all comes crashing in, well, Sara is left with nothing and Miss Minchin, the headmistress, puts her to work to try and recoup some of the money she’d spent out of pocket on the assumption that Sara’s wealthy father would repay her. It’s all very tragic, obviously.

What follows is the sad tale of how horribly Sara is treated after her fall from grace. Despite her overall cheerful and thoughtful demeanor, the assumption that she was terrifically wealthy and all of the trappings her father lavished on her resulted in Miss Minchin, the servants (except the scullery maid, Becky) and some of the other students seeing Sara as a snob. Not that she ever truly was, but that doesn’t make a difference when you’re dealing with jealousy. So the cook and head maid treat her horribly and Miss Minchin never misses an opportunity to remind her that she controls Sara’s life now. The jealous students get their digs in and Sara finds herself isolated, tired, hungry and cold, with only her doll, a rat and Becky for company. And when things seem to be at their worst the unimaginable happens and Sara finds herself the beneficiary of some seemingly magical charity from a mysterious gentleman who’s moved in next door. Oh, wherever could that lead? Hint: It leads to diamond mines and Carrisford and Sara leaving Miss Minchin’s forever.

The twists and turns aren’t the reason for watching this. And they’re not the reason for reading the book either. They’re not so much twists as predictable but still emotional ups and downs. You know that Sara’s pampered time at the school can’t last forever or what’s the point of the story? And you know that her misery as a destitute orphan can’t last forever either because these sorts of books always have somewhat happy endings. The purpose for watching is to see how it all comes to pass. To see a bit of a Cinderella story, set in a Victorian London boarding school. And for me it’s to watch something so familiar and comfortable that I could recite it from memory, all three hours of it. I know precisely what is going to happen at each and every moment of this story. I know the intonation used by Miss Minchin to berate Sara and I know the nasty looks given to Sara by students Lavinia and Jessie. I could have described Sara’s early room and the attic she ends up in and I can recall every dress she wears. It’s that sort of movie for me.

The trick with a movie that’s a very faithful adaptation of a book is that it’s difficult to critique the movie without critiquing the book as well. After all, I don’t want to just nitpick the differences between the two – not that there’s much to nitpick aside from character ages and spans of time – but I also don’t want this to be a critique of the book. After all, it’s the movie I’ve just watched (and loved again). But it’s difficult, because as with The Merchant of Venice, many of the issues I have with this movie are rooted in the source material. I love the performances here, with the pinched and sour Miss Minchin and the thoughtful and imaginative Sara. And I hold a special place in my heart for Carrisford, who is played by Nigel Havers and is likely the source of my thing for men with prominent and handsome noses. The cast is excellent, and peppered with people that I recognize from other television shows and BBC serials. I was amused to realize that Jessie – the lackey of school bully Lavinia – is played by Joanna Dukes, who is the fantastic Maria in The Box of Delights. Amelia Minchin is played by Miriam Margolyes, who’s had probably the most visible role from this cast as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films. Lavinia herself is in another movie we own, The Worst Witch, again playing a bully. Poor girl was typecast in only two roles. But they’re all spot on perfect in my opinion. I believe every emotion on display here, even with the noticeable ADR work done on some of the girls during the classroom scenes. I suspect that Amelia Shankley was a large part of why Sara’s age was changed here, because she is perfect for Sara but clearly older than seven.

My problems here are problems with the time period the book was written and takes place in. It’s Victorian England and so the class structures are of course going to be an issue and oh yes, it’s all very magical that Sara gets to leave the school and be an heiress, and then she invites Becky to join her! As her maid. Oh boy! Becky is, of course, thrilled! There’s a lot inherent to the story that depends upon Sara always being well-bred and well-mannered in a way that of course no “true” servant could be. That being said, there’s a good lesson here that the people who are in service positions are still people, no matter what their parentage. Sara herself says at the end that she thinks she learned more to appreciate money and what it does. It won’t buy happiness but it will keep you fed and she’s learned not to take that for granted. She wasn’t spoiled, but she was certainly privileged and ignorant of what that meant. It’s just that the time period of the story – and the movie’s faithfulness to it – mean that she’s always going to be upper class and no matter how much she helps those poor unfortunates like Becky, they will assuredly be thrilled to be allowed to wait on her.

None of the class issues really penetrated for me when I was a child and watching this over and over and over. But I think it did impress upon me that everything I had could well disappear if disaster struck, and that I should appreciate what I had. Which is a nice little lesson to teach children, even if it is explicitly spelled out by the heroine. Sledgehammer or no, it’s still a nicely performed and nicely presented film and it definitely sparked my imagination when I was young. I would gladly put it in again to keep me company on a rainy afternoon and since we own it and now know it’s in good shape I just might.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Little Princess (1986)

July 10, 2011

A Little Princess (1986)

I know that there have been many adaptations of this story through the years, and likewise I know that for Amanda there is only one in her heart. This is the three hour Wonderworks version produce originally as a British television miniseries. I have only seen it once before (at Amanda’s insistence) and my recollection of it is vague. Before we put it in tonight I went over the plot in my head, and I couldn’t figure out how it worked out to three hours. It’s a pretty simple plot, really, and it seemed to me that there was no way it could be that long without feeling padded.

This is the story of Sara, a young girl sent by her father to a boarding school in London. He is a captain in the army living in India who seems to be doing pretty well for himself. I don’t know if it’s ever established where it came from but he has a small fortune at the start of the movie. In addition to being able to send his daughter to an exclusive school with her own room, her own French maid, and her own personal coach and pony, he is able to invest heavily in a good friend’s diamond mine.

Sara is not your typical British school girl. Her father is very clearly well off, and she has plenty of pretty dresses and silk stockings and such but it’s a relatively recent happening. She was raised by her father in India amongst exotic animals and people. She is his “little soldier.” As such she is not given to airs. She is a level headed young woman for her age of eleven years old. Some of her peers resent her for “flaunting” her wealth but she does’t really. She is quick to make unlikely friends. She befriends the unpopular girl in school, and a scullery maid, and becomes surrogate mother to a younger girl who like her has no mother.

Then disaster strikes. The diamond mine her father invested in apparently has no diamonds and he is destitute. He is so devastated that he will be unable to keep his daughter in the fine manner that he seems to think she deserves that he dies of a broken heart – or so it is implied. Miss Minchin, the pinched and bitter head of the seminary Sara is attending, feels betrayed that her most profitable student is abruptly penniless and unable to settle her accounts. Miss Minchin wants initially to turn Sara out into the streets to fend for herself, but she is convinced by Sara’s solicitor to keep her on as a servant. Sara is forced to work off her debt in the kitchens, living in an unheated attic room with often nothing to eat.

The key to this story is, of course that Sara is the most kindly, decent, caring and giving person who ever lived. Even when she’s destitute, hungry, tired and cold she still finds it in her heart to help her friends. She takes refuge in books and stories, and in her own imagination. She befriends a mouse, and a monkey and the mysterious Sikh who has moved into the vacant building next door with his reclusive invalid master. Of course this kindness does not go unrewarded in the end and she does eventually find herself able to help all of her friends.

Now, I’m clearly not the target audience for this. Amanda is. It is intended for smart, bookish girls. It’s a moral tale about how if you treat people right and behave properly miracles can happen. It’s a simple little story about good things happening to good people in spite of the horrid nature of the world. I appreciate that message, and I wish it were more prevalent.

Really this is a charming, uplifting tale. It’s beautifully put together and although this is one of the longest movies in our collection I never felt that it was padded or drawn out. Three hours went by in no time at all because it’s just so much fun to watch Sara and her adventures. Of course you could not manufacture anything better designed to appeal to my wife as a young girl, and I appreciate that as well. It’s a perfect gem of a movie and I see why Amanda takes such delight in it.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 429 – The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire – May 3rd, 2011

I feel I must explain this movie and our purchase of it. A coworker of mine told me recently that her husband had purchased a large lot of DVDs from someone on ebay and had gone through them to weed out the ones he wanted from the ones he didn’t. She told me she’d get me the list of ones he was getting rid of. So our list has expanded by 25 titles tonight and this is one of them. I couldn’t pass it up. We got some classics we didn’t have yet and some cheese we thought would be fun. But we also got this. I mean, a non-canonical Sherlock Holmes story starring Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer as Holmes? How could I not grab it? So here we are.

This was, as might be expected, made for television. And as an aside, the previews on the disc were so fantastic we immediately added two thoroughly cheesetastic looking movies to our to-buy list. But I was saying this was made for television, and it shows. There are obvious commercial breaks peppered in at regular intervals and we’re definitely not looking at a theatrical feature. If the recent Robert Downey Jr. movie is Sherlock Holmes action and Young Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes junior, then this is definitely Sherlock Holmes lite. And well, so long as one expects that then there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. I’m not about to condemn non-canonical Holmes adventures, seeing as we own the two mentioned above and I quite like them both. But one has to go into something like this expecting that it’s just not going to be up to the standard of Doyle’s original stories.

I grew up watching the Jeremy Brett Holmes series and I admit, Brett will always be my Holmes, but I’m willing to entertain the idea of Matt Frewer in the role. He’s one of the key reasons I picked this out and added it to our collection. Because I’m far more familiar with Frewer as Max Headroom or that time traveling dude on Star Trek: TNG. But it turns out that he’s done four different Sherlock Holmes television movies. From what I can tell, the writing and directing team are the same and all for have Kenneth Walsh playing Watson, but the other three are all at least based on actual Holmes stories. This one? Apparently they decided to just go it alone. Very strange, and now I’m curious about the others because to be honest, I rather liked Frewer in the role.

Okay, so the accent dips towards the foppish every so often, but the mannerisms and attitude are nicely done for the most part. And he seems to have had some fun with the part, enjoying playing Holmes, who might not have figured it all out from the outset but certainly knows more than anyone else and revels in it. I also enjoyed Walsh as Watson, who is not only a staunch supporter of Holmes but who is given a bit to do here, questioning people and keeping watch. He’s not a baffled fool rushing to keep up with Holmes. He’s cheering him on the whole way. That’s my preferred dynamic between the two.

So I liked the lead performances, but I have to say I wasn’t terrifically thrilled with the plot. It revolves around a series of murders taking place at the abbey in Whitechapel. Monks have been found dead with two puncture marks in their necks, messages in written in blood found nearby. The monks and nuns at the abbey believe it’s the work of a vampire that’s followed some of them back from a mission in Guiana (British Guiana, I assume, now just Guyana). There are reports of bats in the abbey and a strange cloaked figure with the face of a demon. The residents of the abbey are divided amongst themselves, some believing it’s due to a curse Brother Marstoke has brought down upon the abbey. Others believe the source doesn’t matter and the residents need to stand together against it. Of course everyone but Holmes seems to believe there’s a supernatural source.

There are several suspects: Brother Marstoke himself; Dr. Chagas, a naturalist who studies vampire bats and who has quarrelled with Brother Marstoke; Brother Caulder, who wants Marstoke to leave; and Hector, the son of the abbey caretaker. And really, Holmes makes it clear he thinks it could be anyone in the abbey. There’s a lot of bickering and in-fighting going on amongst the abbey residents. The people of Whitechapel are nervous about the killings, wondering if they’ll start to target regular people, not just the monks and nuns. And okay, I’m fine with it all from there. Of course Holmes is skeptical. That’s his thing. Though I was interested to note just how vehemently the writer here had Holmes state his agnosticism, which I’d always assumed but never really bothered to dig enough to confirm. Skepticism is one thing. Proclaimed agnosticism in the Victorian era is another.

My problem here is that while the ending makes sense, the movie doesn’t give us much of a chance to follow its logic to the conclusion. Sure, when the villain dies and we pull his mask off it’s someone we know, but we knew it would be. And the reasoning isn’t really foreshadowed quite well enough for me. I said at the beginning “Oh hey, it could be him. Huh, or him. I guess it depends on the misdirection, but do I trust this movie to bother with misdirection?” And I guess it did. Unfortunately, it misdirected right past its own plot. The villain was both too obvious and not obvious enough. Ah well.

Overall, I’d have to say I had fun watching this. If it had been Frewer’s only attempt at Holmes I’d have felt bad, since he clearly had fun with it and I would have wanted him to have a better chance with a tighter plot. But then he’s done The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four and an adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia. And now I’d very much like to get those and watch them, because while this wasn’t a big budget attempt, or as detailed as the Jeremy Brett series, it was fun.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

May 3, 2011

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

Through a contact at Amanda’s work we have acquired a number of new movies for our collection and thereby delayed the end of our movie a day project. One of these new acquisitions is this made-for TV Sherlock Holmes movie from Hallmark Entertainment. Now when I think of Hallmark made-for-TV movies I think of sappy programs aimed at bored housewives, but apparently (if the fantastically cheesy movies previewed before the feature on this DVD are any indication) they also have a penchant for making the kind of inexpensive cinematic drivel that never fails to amuse me. I mean, look at these previews! Patrick Stewart and Kyle McLaughlin in Mysterious Island (with the most fake looking CGI mantis I have ever seen) and Peter Fonda, Luke Perry and Tia Carrere in Supernova. These are my kind of cheese!

This movie doesn’t actually fit quite into that mold. It is a non-canonical Holmes story with a fun title card at the start of the film explaining that Holmes is in the public domain and nobody with any connection to Arthur Conan Doyle had anything to do with this movie. Indeed the Holmes of this movie is less based on the books and short stories and more based on the pop culture representation of Holmes through the years. He has the iconic cap and pipe (a less preposterous pipe than the large bowled one often depicted in such films.) But it’s clearly not meant to be satirical. Holmes doesn’t use a magnifying glass or say “The game is afoot!” There has been an attempt made here to create a period-accurate representation of Sherlock Holmes, albeit within the restrictions of a made-for-TV movie with a clearly limited budget.

The story being told here is about Holmes and Watson being summoned to Whitechapel to uncover the truth behind a string of grisly murders that appear to have been perpetrated by a vampire. The victims (as we discover in a lengthy and somewhat clumsy expository narration with pantomime enactments of the crimes) have all been found with puncture marks on their necks. We are told a rambling story about how a group of monks while on mission in South America eradicated a number of vampire bats that they feared were causing a sickness in the locals. This is when they started to get picked off one by one – even after they had returned to England. There are a number of suspects of course. There’s the disgruntled scientist who was studying the bats when the monks came along and started killing them off. There are several monks who all seems to have some friction between them. There’s Spanish accented housekeeper and her son who came back from South America with the monks. Or, of course, it could be an actual vampire (a notion that Holmes scoffs at.)

There’s a definite formulaic paint-by-numbers feel to this movie. It has the supernatural premise. It has the variety of suspects. It has various bits of misdirection and further murders. It has a very Scooby-Doo bit at the end when Holmes literally unmasks the killer. And it has a denouement where Holmes explains to everybody how he solved the case. Everything about the movie has a very comfortable and familiar feeling of familiarity. Even so there are a couple things that I was startled by which raised the movie up a couple notches from being a wholly derivative and unnecessary work.

One aspect I quite liked was Matt Frewer’s depiction of Holmes. I’ve always liked Frewer (I was a huge fan of Max Hedroom back in the day – both the movie and the short lived series) and his angular, gaunt face is perfect for Holmes. He’s actually quite entertaining to watch in the role with his hauty airs and his clear mental superiority. A person’s favorite Holmes is like their favorite Bond – influenced by what era they grew up in and their first exposure to the character. Jeremy Brett will always be Holmes in my heart of hearts, but I have to admit that I really liked Frewer’s take on the character too. So, too, did the producers of this movie apparently, since this is the second of four Holmes movies he did with this writing and directing team. (The other three movies are all based on Doyle’s works much mroe directly – which makes this particular movie somewhat odd.)

Another odd thing about the way Holmes is portrayed here is that he’s very much a politically correct Holmes for the nineties. There’s an entire side plot about the doctor who was studying the bats that the monks destroyed. He’s Scotland Yard’s prime suspect, and, oh, yeah, he’s black. There’s a kind of undertone of racism to the whole film, and Holmes is depicted as the right-thinking man who doesn’t let the color of Dr. Chagas’ skin influence his logic. I appreciate that in a nineties made-for-TV movie this was a popular attitude for a character to have, and it sort of makes sense that a man dedicated to pure logic and deduction would react in just this way, but it feels strange in a Sherlock Holmes movie. My memories of Doyle’s original works are that the foreigners and outsiders were usually actually quite sinister. The natives from Africa or from Watson’s time in Afganistan, and not to forget the sinister Mormons from America. Doyle’s work was firmly rooted in the penny dreadfuls of the time and has a sensationalist and nationalist feel to it. It’s just odd to see his most iconic character behaving with such clearly modern sensibilities.

Not that I mind. This is Holmes as he should be – at his most noble and clever. He’s a distillation of the idea of Holmes and not necessarily a strictly accurate representation of the character from the stories. This movie was pleasantly innocuous. Not bad, but not particularly ambitious. It’s the sort of movie you could safely tune in to as you surf between channels and not feel you’ve missed anything crucial. I did appreciate that a couple of the clues Holmes used to unravel the case were actually evident for viewers to pick up on, which is not always the case with Sherlock Holmes – either in movie or written form. This is a comfortable and simple movie – not necessarily one O would have sought out to buy, but not one that irritated me either. I do think that after watching this I will seek out Matt Frewer’s other Holmes movies though because I think I would enjoy seeing him in the role some more.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 406 – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – April 10th, 2011

I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I feel like I need to mention my antipathy towards musicals whenever we review one. Though I admit that through this whole project I’ve discovered I’m not entirely antipathetic to them, just extremely picky. And I’ll watch a musical and enjoy it, but not in the same way that musical theater fans do, where they’ll go on and on at great length about the merits of the music itself. The music isn’t what I’m picky about.

There are people I know from high school and college to whom musical theater is almost a religion. They can identify not only composer but performers and performance dates from the first bar or two of a song. They have their favorites and woe to any who criticize said favorites without an encyclopedic listing of the technical issues they might have. And that’s where they lose me. I certainly don’t want to listen to badly composed music or badly performed songs, but if something doesn’t strike my fancy I don’t go looking into whether the key was poorly chosen or the bridge less complex than some other piece’s. I don’t care. What I care about is whether I’m enjoying listening to it. I don’t care what musical theater people argue about. It’s the story I’m into. I tend to like musicals that twist things a little. And while I like the songs, to be honest I’d probably enjoy the stories told even without the music.

After watching this tonight I did a little poking into the history of the story, because I knew that the movie was based on a Sondheim stage production but also that the story that was based on was much older. What I hadn’t realized was just how much older. From what I read, it seems this is a very early example of an urban legend. I’ve always found urban legends fascinating and bizarre, so I love that the story has its roots there. And what an urban legend! A butchering barber who uses his straight razor to slice his victims’ throats? Fantastic. Selling their bodies to a meat pie baker down the road? Genius. It takes the idea that gruesome things are happening under your nose and then brings in the concept that you yourself might well have unwittingly participated! Truly the mark of a great horrific legend. Now, in my opinion what elevates it from pure horror and urban legend and its penny dreadful origins is the shift in Todd’s motives. Originally he was just an evil and greedy murderer who operated in an imaginative way. With the introduction of a more sympathetic background the story becomes drama. With the darkly humorous writing and lyrics it becomes a dark comedy. And I’ve got to say, I love that literary evolution. Makes me wish I was back in college so I could have the leisure to do academic work on it. Not that I’d be the first, I’m sure. Or the last.

I didn’t see this movie in the theaters when it came out. I didn’t know the stage production at all and I was never quite in the mood for Tim Burton at the time. I find Tim Burton to be someone whose tastes I have to be in the right mindset for. When I am, he’s fun and fantastic. When I’m not, he’s predictable and tiresome. And I suspect that to some people he’s all of those all combined or only one set or the other. For me, it depends on my mood. Tonight I was in the mood for something dark and sarcastic and a little twisted, so in this went, and I think I was right to wait for the mood, because I enjoyed it. I seem to recall some very mixed opinions from my friends when it came out in theaters, with some loving it and others decrying it as a poor substitute for the stage production. Honestly, I’m not in love with it, but I think it did a fine job with the story and the songs.

I already gave the basis for the story above, but the sympathetic motives this version (and its predecessors) give Todd make him more of a tragic figure, undone by the treatment he and his family suffered at the hands of an evil figure in power. He’s an odd hero for a story, being a murderer who kills indiscriminately after a while, but given his original intention was to take revenge on the judge who wrongly sentenced him in order to gain access to his wife and child? Well, how can you argue with a man who wants to do that? The judge destroyed his family, supposedly drove his wife to suicide and locked his daughter up in his house for years. So he’s got good reasons and I like Depp’s portrayal of him slowly losing touch with those reasons as the movie goes on. I also greatly enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter as Todd’s partner in crime, the baker of the “worst pies in London”, Mrs. Lovett. Of course I enjoyed Alan Rickman as the judge as well, but then, that’s Alan Rickman and the man could read tax instructions and I’d listen. Granted, I’m not a musical expert, but I enjoyed their performances in the songs as well as the acting. Weirdly, though IMDB claims that Depp used Iggy Pop as some of his musical inspiration, I noted a distinctly Bowie-ish feel to a few of his deliveries.

Stylistically, it’s a very obvious Tim Burton film. The color palettes of the scenes tend towards the blue and gray, which I can only assume are intentional in order to make the very red blood pop against them. And oh, there is blood. A lot of blood. That is, after all, half the point. But it really is very much a Burton production, down to Mrs. Lovett’s daydreams of life at the seaside with the incongruously cheerful colors and costumes on the still grey-toned characters. But I think that all suits the story very nicely. It’s an urban legend, after all, so it should feel a little unreal and imaginary. Having the color schemes be so stark works towards that. Really, it’s a fantastic marriage of skills and tastes to put this story and these songs and these actors and this director in the same place. It had just enough fun to keep it a comedy but quite enough darkness to keep it from being silly. An excellent mix and just right for my mood tonight.

April 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

April 10, 2011

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I’d like to dedicate my review tonight to my good friend Rachel, who introduced me to the bizarro world of Stephen Sondheim. I very distinctly remember sitting in her living room listening to the original cast recording of this musical (with Angela Lansbury!) It’s not my favorite Sondheim (that would be Assassins, which we listened to ceaselessly in the AV at that time) but it is an interesting revelation to anybody who assumes that musicals are light-hearted feel-good trifles. Most of what I knew about musicals at the time was from Disney or Andrew Lloyd Webber. I had seen Les Miserables on stage and Phantom of the Opera (with Robert Guillaume in the title role) and, well, I had HEARD of opera but had never actually seen any. This twisted story of murder and vengeance was nothing I had been exposed to before. I recall being shocked that something so bleak and upsetting could be rendered in song. Over time I came to appreciate that Sondheim was the perfect artist to give life to this kind of strangeness. He, with Hugh Wheeler in this particular case, creates intricate and convoluted works that fit the baroque feel of this material.

Tim Burton also is perfect for this subject matter. Indeed as I watched this tonight I kept wondering just why it took so long for this particular combination of people to come together to make this film. Burton concentrates on the strange gallows humor of the musical, but also plays up the bombastic and operatic qualities of it. He is no stranger to Gothic tales involving death and long-ago injustices. Indeed the somewhat disappointing Corpse Bride, which has to same two leads and some of the same themes, came only two years before this movie. In this particular case, in contrast to the Corpse Bride, pretty much everything works.

The story seems tailor made for Burton’s sensibilities. It involves the return to London of an exiled barber who is coming back after years abroad. He was banished after being framed for a crime he did not commit by a corrupt judge who coveted his beautiful young wife. In his absence his wife was raped and left for dead by the judge’s cronies and his daughter is now the imprisoned ward of the judge. Naturally the barber, using the pseudonym Sweeny Todd, swears bloody vengeance. His landlady and downstairs neighbour Mrs. Lovett produces the worst pies in London, mostly due to the scarcity of inexpensive meat. Thus comes about an unholy alliance whereby Todd’s victims become the meat for Lovett’s pies.

The original musical is pure melodrama, and Burton builds on it wonderfully. His vision of Victorian London as depicted here is a bleak, empty place. We are whipped through it a number of times in complicated digital shots that render the inhabitants almost statues. It is also blue. “Bluer than I remember” was how Amanda described it. It seems always to be night-time and just about to rain besides (which makes it all the more hilarious when we see Mrs. Lovett’s domestic daydream sequence.)

Johnny Depp is, unsurprisingly, fantastic as Todd himself. He has brooding down to an art form, and it’s fun to see him add a touch of bloodthirsty butcher to the mix. Helena Bonham Carter is no Angela Lansbury, but she makes the character of Mrs. Lovett something new. Rather than the clearly hopeless and desperate unrequited love of Lansbury’s Lovett Carter makes her plotting and attempts to capture the affection of Todd seem more plausible. Her Lovett is an eminently practical character who seems in complete control right up until the bloody end.

Bloody it is, too. I had a customer at Blockbuster, a regular and a horror movie fan, return this movie in disgust and request his money back after watching the first few minutes because he had not realized that it involved people singing. If he had stuck it out a little longer he might have found that Tim Burton has chosen to make this movie one of the most gratuitously gory of his career. Admittedly it is far from realistic and seems almost played for humor in a sort of Pythonesque way, but the great gouts of thick, syrupy, gushing blood are undeniably a big part of what makes this movie the beast it is.

This was exactly the movie that I thought it was going to be. When you hear that Tim Burton is going to direct Johnny Depp in a Stephen Sondheim musical, well, this is exactly the movie you’re going to picture in your head. If that’s the kind of thing that you find you enjoy (which it is in my case) then this movie cannot fail to entertain. I only wish that we had the three hours free tomorrow that would be necessary to follow this up with Into the Woods.

April 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 387 – Young Sherlock Holmes

Young Sherlock Holmes – March 22nd, 2011

When we bought this movie and put it on our list I was quite sure I’d seen it, so I marked it down as one I’d seen before and went on my merry way. We keep track of these things, you see, along with running time, subtitles and whether a movie is part of a series or theme (like Christmas or sharks – and now I want a Christmas shark movie). It helps to space things out so we don’t end up with only new things towards the end of the project when we might want or need something familiar and easy to watch and review. And really, I was certain I’d seen this. I could remember seeing it when I was young and having a bit of a crush on the actor who played Holmes. And then we started watching it and I was baffled. I could barely remember it at all.

Obviously, it’s been years since I last saw it. Or first saw it. I suspect it’s one and the same and I further suspect it was something I saw on television when the choice of channel was not mine to control, hence my patchy recollections. I remember Holmes’ mentor’s flying machine. I remember the fencing. And I remember the end quite clearly. But I think I was wrong in marking this as one I’d seen. It was mostly unfamiliar, even if I did figure out the end quite early on.

Not that this is a difficult story to follow, after all. I mean, yes, it is, from a certain perspective. If you’re looking for actual logic and realistic stories, this is the wrong movie. There’s a certain type of story that I expect from most Sherlock Holmes mysteries and it’s usually not quite so overblown as this one is. A hidden pyramid temple with an ancient Egyptian cult entombing live girls? It’s more than a bit larger than life, which means if you’re looking for a more down to earth explanation for the mysterious deaths then you’ll be disappointed. But if you can accept that it’s going to be ridiculous, then it’s not tricky. It’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an outrageous mystery full of danger and peril and swordfighting that will pull in the audience and keep them entertained. And it is entertaining, ridiculous as it may be.

As I mentioned, the plot involves an ancient Egyptian cult and entombing live girls. And it’s all a vengeance thing, of course, with the villain vowing to replace the mummies of five Egyptian princesses that were taken from their tombs in an underground pyramid. Why does he do this by pre-wrapping live young women and then pouring boiling paraffin over them? Because he’s evil and bent on revenge, obviously, and his revenge doesn’t need to make sense! Now, were I the one exacting revenge (or writing the movie), I wouldn’t go killing the men I wanted to get revenge on and entombing random young women. I’d hunt down the daughters/nieces/wives of the men and go after them. But this movie doesn’t go into that sort of detail. It just has Holmes happen upon this mystery due to the involvement of his mentor, a retired schoolmaster who lives in the attic at his boarding school.

The biggest problem I have with the movie (leaving aside the love interest, jokes about Watson’s eating habits and the method of mummification) is that it’s uneven and paced oddly. The movie spends a good fifteen minutes or so having Holmes solve a minor mystery at the school, where his school rival hides a trophy and Holmes has to find it. And I get that it was an attempt to showcase the sort of deductions Holmes is so famous for. I get that as a movie about Holmes as a young man at school it makes sense to have him start small. But it has nothing at all to do with the main plot and only holds up the eventual big mystery (which ends up requiring very little in the way of the sort of deductions Holmes does in the little mystery). Holmes ends up expelled from school due to a trick played by his school rival and I’m honestly not sure what purpose that served other than giving him an excuse to spend more time up in his mentor’s attic. The drama at the school isn’t balanced at all with the larger story and just feels tossed in for no reason. Why not build up the eventual villains? Why not find a way to tie the school rival or his hidden trophy challenge into the larger plot? Oh well.

All that aside, the only other issue I’ve got is the narration. It’s performed well enough, with an adult Watson recounting the tale of how he met and befriended Sherlock Holmes, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument when it comes to plot exposition. I don’t actually mind the love interest, especially given the ending. And I really do like this movie. It’s got flaws, yes. I just don’t care so much about them that they ruin my enjoyment of the movie. It’s fun. It’s got some nice little references to the canon material. It’s a romp. An uneven romp with some hilariously bad history on display, but a fun romp anyhow. And what more would you expect from a movie like this?

March 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Young Sherlock Holmes

March 22, 2011

Young Sherlock Holmes

I first watched this absurdly silly movie during a sleep-over at my friend Liz’s house. I don’t recall what the occasion was but there were a whole bunch of us there watching movies and cartoons and as I remember things none of us slept that night and I was dreadfully tired the next day. As such I have only the vaguest and most confused memories of this film. Still, after we watched and enjoyed the Guy Ritchie Holmes movie I felt there was room in our collection for another less traditional take on the Holmes mythos. Besides which I think we got this movie pretty inexpensively.

The action in this movie is bookended by blocks of text that stress that this movie is in no way directly adapted from any of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is simply inspired by his most famous characters (or at least their pop culture representations.) This movie purports to be good natured speculation about what would have happened if Watson and Homes had met in childhood. In other words it’s fan-fic. Not especially great fan-fic at that.

There is a lot of strangely lazy writing involved in this project. It’s not just the transparent attempts to get Holmes his iconic Basil Rathbone deerstalker cap and pipe or wedge in him saying “the game is afoot” or using a magnifying glass. It’s that Chris Columbus is simply a crappy screenwriter. Several times during this movie I had to laugh because there is voice over narration that tells us what Holmes is actively at that moment telling Watson. I realize that it’s an attempt to put the story in the first person and use the familiar voice of Watson as chronicler of all Holmes’ exploits, but it fails on so many levels. It takes you out of the action and breaks the flow of the movie. It also reminds me an awful lot of the narrator in my favorite MST3K episode – The Creeping Terror – who tells us what people are saying because the film makers were too cheap to add a voice track. So, yeah, this movie is laughable.

At the same time though it’s kind of fun. Like the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (also produced by Spielberg of course) it puts familiar characters together and gives them high spirited adventures. I almost wonder if this movie, like *Batteries Not Included, was originally intended to be an episode of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories TV anthology program and was expanded to feature length late in the project’s life. It has that sort of feel to it.

The plot of this movie is silly and cartoonish in an a very Amazing Stories way. Holmes and Watson, along with Holmes’ love interest Elizabeth (yes I found it disorienting that she was not Irene,) become embroiled in a plot by some Thugee cultists (um, I mean Egyption Ramotep cultists) to murder a few English businessmen and embalm some kidnapped girls alive. Oh, the notion of an exotic foreigner killing off British men who once adventured abroad feels entirely consistent with the Holmes cannon. It’s pretty much the exact plot of The Sign of the Four. It’s the gaudy extremes the plot goes to that make it seem over the top in this movie. Mostly I am amused by the giant wooden pyramid the Egyptian cultists have constructed inside an abandoned warehouse for the purposes of their ceremonies.

Much of this movie feels familiar to me and not, I think, in the way that the film makers intended it to be. Of course there are comparisons to be made to Harry Potter and Hogwarts – but that’s just because much of the action takes place in an English boarding school, and the familiar tropes of such an institution clearly inspired J.K. Rowling. It’s just an odd coincidence that the screenwriter from this movie would go on to adapt the first two Potter books for the big screen. I also felt at several points that I was watching Young Doctor Who because Nicholas Rowe had a very Fourth Doctor look to him with his lanky limbs, curly hair, large overcoat and lengthy scarf.

Even so I still enjoy this movie. It’s a swashbuckling tale of adventure set in Victorian England with a little detective work thrown in for good measure. It’s ludicrous and laughable and only vaguely related to the Holmes cannon, but it’s still fun. It has some interesting mid-eighties special effects including stop motion, CGI (produced by Pixar when they were a division of ILM no less) and puppetry. It has swordplay and general mayhem. It’s not great cinema, but it’s also not a complete waste of $7.99. Which is about what I think I paid for it.

March 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 321 – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – January 15th, 2011

Tonight, while looking through our list, Andy and I decided that tomorrow we would embark upon a rather long series. We toyed with the idea of starting it tonight, then looked at the movies’ lengths and mapped them to which days they’d fall and realized it wouldn’t work. And so we have the next two weeks planned, but we did not have tonight planned and so I said “How about Dracula?” and Andy said “Huh, sure. Why didn’t we watch this during our Keanu Reeves weekend?” I have no answer aside from forgetting he was in this, because, you see, I had not seen this movie prior to tonight. Indeed, this is probably another admission that might get my English degree revoked, but I’ve never read the book either.

I’ve always meant to read the book. It’s one of those things I have no good excuse for aside from simply never getting around to it. My college English lit classes were mostly modern literature, with only a few small ventures into earlier centuries (Shakespeare and Chaucer, most notably – my Victorian lit class was focused on material culture) and since then I tend to keep myself busy with work reading. But I like the idea of Dracula, told through articles and letters and transcribed interviews and the like. Epistolary writing can be really fantastic when done well, and I like the concept of tracking a story through multiple formats, as opposed to a single character’s diary. The trouble with a story told in this way is that it makes for a challenge when it comes to adaptation to a new medium. The format is so integral to the telling of the story that transferring it to a visual format such as film means losing much of its flavor and tone(s). A graphic novel might be better suited to the job. Just look at the original graphic novel for Watchmen. Now there’s some fantastic epistolary work, and the film adaptation had to do some fancy footwork to deal with the content from the novel chapters and psychiatric files and old photos. I think this is the source of Dracula’s major failings for me.

And yes, that means its major failings for me are not Dracula’s hair or Keanu Reeves’ performance. Yes, the hair is easy to poke fun at, and no, this isn’t Reeves’ best work, but the major issue I have is that the plot seems to meander and the transitions aren’t terribly smooth. Oh sure, the movie is fantastically over-dramatic and all, but I kind of would expect that. It’s Victorian. I expect swooning here and I expect shocking revelations and I expect everyone to be exaggerated. I expect melodrama and big dresses and big hats and this movie delivers on those counts. Unfortunately, while doing all that it also wanders in and out of various episodes in the plot, sometimes giving background, sometimes not, sometimes having things connect, sometimes not. And I can only assume that it comes from the content cleaving too closely to the written work, which, being composed of letters and other bits and pieces, would force you to skip from one piece of the story to the next. It’s a difficult thing, I would think, and I don’t think it was handled terribly well, which is frustrating.

The thing is, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. Visually it’s a lovely piece of work, with lots of details and gorgeous costumes and fun camera tricks instead of the usual post-production special effects I’m used to. It was great to see so many in-camera effects used. I liked the cast (yes, even Keanu), especially Lucy’s three suitors and of course Gary Oldman as Dracula. I can’t honestly say how I feel about Winona Ryder as Mina, but I understand she’s the one who brought the script to Coppola, so it’s not like they were going to ditch her. She does a fine job, but every so often I felt a little thrown out of her scenes and I can’t put my finger on why. But really, I like the visuals, I like a lot of the acting, I like that the movie kept in a lot of characters who are, according to what I’ve read, often omitted or combined into one stand-in. As I said, I enjoyed watching it. But I freely acknowledge that it has flaws.

I’m not sure what I would do to fix my problems with the movie, to be honest. Were I taking a book done in this format and adapting it for the screen, I might end up doing the same things, and so I understand where it’s coming from. But it makes it feel a little sloppy, which is a shame. I like the portrayal of Dracula as a semi-sympathetic villain, and I liked the teamwork of Lucy’s three suitors. I liked a lot of the choices that were made. I just wish the narrative had either been thoroughly consistent or it had been more obvious in how it was drawing from its source, because other than that, this movie was a lot of fun.

January 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

January 15, 2011

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I was working at Waldenbooks in downtown Boston when this movie came out. I remember being amused that we had on the shelves a book entitled “Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Book of the Film” or something like that. There’s a strange kind of recursion in marketing a classic novel as a byproduct of the theatrical movie adapted from it. All the more pathetic because the movie is so overblown and pretentious… and cheesy.

I’m not sure I agree with the direction that Francis Ford Coppola chose to go with this movie. I think he was trying too hard to do to much with it. He wants the movie to be a horror film of some kind. He wants it to be an epic love story. He wants it to be a lavish and spectacular production. He wants it to feel authentic to the book. And on top of all that he wants to infuse the movie with a complex directorial flare full of clever camera tricks and intricate set-ups. The end result feels… crowded. Like four or five movies are vying for attention on the screen at the same time. I can’t argue with any one of Coppola’s choices but taken all together they end up feeling like too much.

There’s not much point in summarising the plot of the movie. The tale of Dracula has been filmed so many times that it’s a genre to itself. The central conceit of this film, and its biggest departure from the book, is that Mina is somehow the resurrection of Dracula’s long lost bride. To this end there’s a prologue showing Dracula as Vlad the Impaler before he chose to become immortal, and explaining that the reason he turned his back on God is that when his beloved wife killed herself (thinking that he had been slain in battle) she doomed herself to hell. So he chose to turn his back on God and become an undead destroyer of all that is good and pure out of spite.

From there on the movie very closely follows what I know of the book. Jonathan Harker is sent to the castle of the mysterious Count Dracula in Transylvania. Eventually he becomes trapped in the Count’s castle while the Count travels to London to wreak havoc. Jonathan’s fiance Mina is staying with her childhood friend Lucy when Dracula turns up to turn Lucy into an undead vampire herself then seduce Mina. Lucy’s three suitors (an American cowboy, a psychiatrist and an English Lord) band together with the enigmatic Abraham Van Helsing to become reluctant vampire slayers. When Jonathan eventually escapes Dracula’s castle he rushes back to London and joins the others in a desperate bid to destroy Dracula before he can claim Mina as his own.

It’s a very Victorian adventure story, full of the sort of things I expect from British adventures of the time. The exotic American stereotype, the proper British gentlemen, the train rides to distant and savage lands at the edge of the reach of the British empire… it all feels very familiar, and Coppola captures that aspect of it quite well. That’s where the movie is most faithful to the book, is in recreating a world on the edge of the industrial age when there were still wonders to be found on distant continents while at home the age of science was just beginning.

Something I had not known about the film before researching it for this review was that Coppola had chosen to do the movie with almost no computer effects of post production trickery. Almost every visual trick was done in camera using things like rear projection, forced perspective, backwards filming, turning the camera on angles, double exposures and such. It means that aside from a very few special effect shots here and there this movie could have been made the same way fifty years earlier – and what an amazing thing it would have been then! It just shows how jaded we have become in the modern age of digital special effects that we take for granted that anything is possible on film, so we’re not particularly wowed when seemingly impossible things are presented to us.

The cast that Coppola has collected for this movie is astonishing. I enjoy seeing Cary Elwes getting work of course, and Anthony Hopkins is as always great as Van Helsing. I won’t say that Keanu Reeves’ performance is anything particularly grand, but the stuffy hero of the story isn’t really what the tale is about. Indeed it might work FOR the movie in some way that Jonathan Harker is so wooden and forgettable, because after all this is a movie about Dracula. That’s the title of the film of course. What a Dracula they got too! I can’t imagine anybody else besides Gary Oldman in this particular role. he has the deeply unsettling madness to portray Count Dracula in every stage of his descent. We see him as the elderly and eccentric Count in his castle, surrounded by a strange supernatural air. We see him as the suave lover in London wooing Mina. We see him as a gruesome monster. He is a jilted lover, a cold-blooded rapist and killer, a soulless undead monster – and all the time he has a slightly tragic and sympathetic air. It’s an absolutely stellar performance, especially considering the mountains of prosthetics and pounds of make-up that Oldman had to perform through.

Given all the thing I actually do like about the movie, it’s a little puzzling to me that as a whole I can’t really say it’s all that good. Maybe it’s because it’s too artsy for a star-laden action monster flick. Maybe it’s that the story itself is too firmly lodged in an outdated and almost archaic view of the world. The movie is too over-produced to be enjoyable as pure cheese and too bizarre to work as summer movie pap. In that regard it reminds me somewhat of the David Lynch Dune. I can’t really enjoy it as much as I’d like because I feel as if it’s hammering me over the head at every turn saying “Look! See how clever I am?” I enjoyed watching it again, but if I want a good vampire movie I’m much more likely to put in Lost Boys any day of the week.

January 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 3 Comments