Christmas at the Movies

The Christmas season is the time when the Oscar-worthy movies come out to play, and, to my credit, I studiously avoid them.

This year, there really wasn’t much out there that I wanted to see, but I did manage to make it to three films that I quite enjoyed, despite the fact that one of them wasn’t very good and another was, without question, the most gruesome movie I’ve ever seen.

The first flick, which I can recommend without qualification, was Enchanted, which I saw ‘round about Thanksgiving time. The previews made this movie look a little too precious for my taste, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the cartoon-meets-real-life premise was executed flawlessly, when the same screenplay could have been filmed as a smarmy parody in the hands of a lesser cast. This is one film where the star, the blithely charming Amy Adams, made the entire picture. She doesn’t have a single false moment on screen. If this role had been given to someone like Cameron Diaz, the whole thing would have reeked of self-parody. And Susan Sarandon as a bitter, aging dragon lady is exquisite typecasting of the first order.

Just before Christmas, the Utah League of Credit Unions sponsored a screening of National Treasure: Book of Secrets, a dumbed-down retread of the already-stupid first movie. I don’t say that by way of criticism – I loved the first movie, largely because it was so earnestly silly. The problem is that the sequel brought the silly and forgot the earnestness. It’s marred by lazy writing that allows our heroes to breeze through impossible situations with the greatest of ease. Witness their “kidnapping” of `the President of the United States, which happens about ten seconds after they come up with the idea. Fortunately for them, the President goes out of his way to allow himself to be kidnapped, wandering away from his own party and waving off his Secret Service agents so he can end up in a dank tunnel with a party crasher he barely knows. This movie is filled with sloppy moments like this. The writers lurch from one gigantic set piece to another for the flimsiest of reasons, following Bizarro logic.

If you doubt me, try and see if you can follow this:

It seems that Nick Cage’s ancestor is implicated as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, so he decides to find a treasure that the ancestor was looking for, because that will somehow mean said ancestor is innocent for reasons that only leprechauns can understand. Meanwhile, Ed Harris goes to great lengths to track Cage’s every move, risking life and limb to badger Cage into doing something he would have done more eagerly if Harris had simply asked him. Soon they discover the treasure is hidden beneath Mt. Rushmore, which was built by the government to hide the treasure, which means that plenty of people knew where the treasure was but couldn’t be bothered to actually do anything about it. All this inexplicably proves the innocence of Cage’s Civil War ancestor, and that news is proudly proclaimed on the front page of the Washington Post, presumably next to the headline “Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead.”

Stupid, stupid, stupid. And yet…

My kids were engrossed. They didn’t move a muscle throughout the whole thing. And, while this movie insulted my intelligence, it also managed to stay entertaining throughout while being respectful of American traditions and squeaky clean to boot. There’s something to be said for that, and I’ve just said it. That doesn’t make Book of Secrets a particularly good movie, but it does mean that I’ll probably be there to sit through the inevitable sequel.

I doubt they’ll make a sequel to Sweeney Todd, which is just as well, as I doubt there’s enough blood left in the universe to make another movie like this. Against my better judgment, I saw it last night with my youngest sister, a fellow theatre geek who, like me, felt a solemn duty to see the adaptation of what many black-turtlenecked elitists call the Last Great American Musical. Both of us were wary for a number of reasons. We love the original stage version, and we were afraid that Tim Burton would Tim Burtonize the whole thing rather than let the material stand on its own. Johnny Depp as Sweeney seemed like stunt casting, and the R rating promised blood galore, which isn’t something that either of us really enjoys seeing onscreen.

So what’s the verdict?

It’s better than I could have hoped for. And I never want to see it again.

Let’s start with the good stuff, which was plentiful indeed. Other than the absence of saturated color, Tim Burton’s usual visual tics were nowhere to be seen. This was a remarkably faithful adaptation, and, astonishingly, Depp was a magnificent Sweeney. Reviews seemed to imply that he “speak-sang” much of the role a la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, but that wasn’t true at all. He sang with a clear, simple baritone that was more than adequate, with the exception of a few moments that could have used more bombast than he could deliver. He would certainly have been lost on stage, but the intimacy of film inherently changes things, making Depp perfect for the role.

I wasn’t as fond of Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, even though she seemed a natural for the role of a dippy devil woman, something she plays in every film she’s ever made. Her voice was paper thin and airy throughout, which was regrettable in a show where she was required to do so much of the vocal heavy lifting. Still, while she’s no Angela Lansbury, she didn’t detract from the proceedings much.

The rest of the cast was wonderful, most notably Alan Rickman as an oily Judge Turpin and Sacha Baron Cohen as a delightfully foppy Pirelli. Toby seemed a bit young, but he won me over by the end of the film. And both Joanna and Antony were shining lights of purity in the midst of the unrelenting gloom that drenched this picture like a cinematic oil slick.

Or should I say blood slick. Son of a Dogcatcher’s Butt, there’s a lot of blood in this movie.

I wasn’t surprised. There’s a lot of blood in the play, too. The difference, of course, is that plays are a lot more artificial than movies are. When you’re watching something on stage, you can distance yourself from the whole thing. In contrast, the movie had no escape valve. You’re forced to watch as blood came gushing out of real-looking aortas, and you saw things that were only implied on stage, like each of Sweeney’s victims landing with a sickening crunch, head first, on Mrs. Lovett’s hard, stone floor. I covered my eyes when I could, and, since I knew the play, I was warned ahead of time when there was going to be trouble, but, even so, this was more than I could stomach. I congratulate everyone involved for a job well done, but, if it’s all right with you, I’ll stick to the stage version, thank you very much.

Bring on National Treasure III!

Post-Christmas Funk
Sing for the Lord a New Song

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