Dark and Darker

There's a lot of evil in this world. Some people profit from it; others are destroyed by it.

So says the crooked jeweler at a pivotal moment in Sidney Lumet's thrilling and bleak Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It could as easily have been said by Alfred or Lucius Fox in Christopher Nolan's all together different, yet equally thrilling The Dark Knight.

Yes, I know I'm about a month late for a Dark Knight review. I was looking for a hook, waiting for a way to frame the movie and the post. When I saw Before the Devil... last weekend, I knew I had my frame.

What makes The Dark Knight such a thrilling and engaging film is not so much Heath Ledger's excellent turn, nor the visceral physicality of the action set pieces (done, so thankfully, without much obvious CG). It's the seriousness of purpose and the ambition of scale. It's a modern crime and punishment opera, really, pushing the limits of conventional (and it is, ultimately, conventional) comic book movie adaptations, as A.O. Scott so astutely pointed out in a New York Times commentary a few weeks back.

It's top-notch entertainment bursting with ideas and allusions to how we live, and how we seek justice and fear chaos in the world today. It's probably the best film about handling the nihilism of terrorists since the events of September 2001. It does a lot of talking — not necessarily a bad thing — but often times tells more than it shows. Film is a visual medium after all, and The Dark Knight often makes its points through words, and not action. One of the most effective sequences in the film is nearly wordless: the decision by the two groups on the two boats about who lives and who dies. That said, I'm really glad that Nolan, and his brother who wrote the screenplay with him, got to say and do what they wanted. It makes, ultimately, for a superior cinematic experience.

One major quibble, however: as I mentioned, the film has such a gritty verisimilitude, even in its biggest set pieces, that the clearly CG face of the destroyed Harvey Dent seemed out of place. The design of the two faces in the film was so over the top, so clearly unrealistic (though, perhaps, effective in a "comic book" sense with its exaggeration of features) that it looked truly out of place in this otherwise rough-and-bruised world. And one other quibble: wouldn't it have been more interesting to have one boat blow up rather than everyone escaping nicely and avoiding a common nightmare among those of us who take mass transit?

A film that's just as effective at showing the annihilation of the social order, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead lacks even the dim hopefulness of Nolan's Batman film. Nihilistic about familial relations in a way that would make Ledger's Joker proud, it's a film that shows so much more than it talks or tells. It's a modern Greek tragedy, set in motion when one of society's basic tenets — something along the lines of "Honor thy father and mother" — is broken. It's the tale of a robbery gone awry by people of questionable moral character, and how one corrupt act spreads like a cancer to claim all of those who come in to contact with it.

There are excellent performances all around (though I will ask Marissa Tomei to please put her top on (it's the gay in me)), though Philip Semour Hoffman and Albert Finney stand out. The banality of the evil they foist upon themselves is devastating, and the small touches in their performances that speak volumes about the family they represent make the whole thing believable, no matter how dark and deep they go. And heaven help me, they go dark and deep.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is easily one of 2007's best films, sadly overlooked by the Academy and audiences alike. It's not an easy journey, but a worthwhile one. It's a different take on threats to basic societal order, so much smaller in scale and scope than The Dark Knight, but an excellent companion piece and well worth your time.

Dr. Horrible and the Future of Professional Internet Content

The final act of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was posted today, and it's fantastic. In typical Whedon style, it combines humor, social commentary, and a surprising amount of pathos in to a 40-minute burst of creative freedom. The final Act is almost entirely sung-through, and is surprising and surprisingly moving.

This creative work is, perhaps, the future of professionally developed content for the Web. Whedon and his team made this film for "the low six-figures" during the writers' strike earlier this year. It was done without the funding or assistance of a studio system, and designed for Web-based delivery in mind. We all know that amateur content on the Web can and is wildly successful (hello YouTube!), but it's been difficult to find a financially successful outlet for professionally created content developed specifically for Web distribution. Yes, Radiohead did give away their excellent album "In Rainbows" for free, but there was always a physical CD + tour plan in mind. Nothing like this has really been done in film or television yet (the wildly successful distribution of porn and amateur porn, in particular, aside).

I'm fairly certain that when the film stops being freely available tomorrow and must then be purchased on iTunes for $1.99 an episode, it will easily stay at the top of the iTunes Movie charts for weeks. The investment will easily be made back. The DVD with extras that Whedon plans on releasing later this year will also do extremely well, perhaps even outside of his most rabid fan base.

Whedon is usually the exception, rather than the rule, and his production costs were lower than normal film or TV production because a) people were doing him favors and b) there was a writers' strike going on. If Dr. Horrible becomes financially successful, if it becomes _very_ successful, I think you're going to start seeing a lot more professional directors, writers, producers and actors developing original content for the Web and furthering the shift from traditional means of entertainment distribution to a true on-demand world. Bye-bye TV networks and movie theater chains!

At the Movies: WALL•E

I've always thought that the Hummer was the epitome of crass American consumerism — a triumph of want over need, an emasculation of the (usually male) drivers who are desperate to prove something, an excess of power and metal and waste, waste, waste at every corner. I've never really cared about cars (I'm usually more concerned about their drivers), except in this case. That vehicle has long stirred my passion and my ire, because it's just so unnecessary to me.

WALL•E is a work of near genius that does something almost never before seen in a G-rated family film: present a vision of our own destruction as a species. You may argue that the "Rite of Spring" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences in Disney's Fantasia portended just that, but they were never this explicit, this sweeping in its damnation of our want over need.

But WALL•E is so much more than that. It is a meditation on who we are and what we can become, how we lose ourselves and how we can redeem our kind. Yes, the main character is a robot, but through the classic model of anthropomorphization, we know that he is us. He is as human as any flesh and blood actor has ever been on screen. He is love and fear, hope and despair, inspiration and monotony.

In the first 20 minutes of the film, which pass without dialogue from our main characters, we see the world that we are now making: controlled by a single conglomerate, overrun with waste, bereft of anything human and populated only the detrius of our manufactured wants. The pinnacle of our decades long move towards cocooning (here in the First World, at least), there is no one left, save a robot who, each day, does his Sisyphean task of cleaning things up and finding small joys in the very routine life he leads. Some people have said this part of the film is wordless. It is not. There's lots of dialogue — just none of it from our hero.

But if WALL•E were just a cautionary tale of the ruined planet we are creating, it would be a fine film, a good film. But the film, like all great cinema, transcends its origins and literally takes flight to become a work of great vision and compassion about who we are as a species. In space we find ourselves again, but changed: children now, pampered and utterly cocooned by technology, we can barely walk, or act of our own volition. It's easy to see ourselves, myself, moving down this path as communication and entertainment converge across a mesh of IP-based traffic, bringing us closer together and offering us endless options for our amusement and enlightenment, but all the while carving out greater and greater physical spaces between us. It's an easy joke in the film, but a sadly true one: we don't see the person sitting right next to us as we're so absorbed in our wirelessly connected mobile entertainment devices. It's useful, sometimes, to actually reach out and touch someone.

I believe, that somewhere in Pixar's early days, John Lasseter and his team said "We will only make films that must be animated. If there's any other way to tell the story, we won't tell it." What I mean by this is: you couldn't make a live action version of "Finding Nemo" or "Toy Story" or "Ratatouille." Well, you could, but they'd look stupid and awful. These stories have to be animated, because there's no other way to tell them. Even "The Incredibles" (which remains Pixar's greatest achievement, in my book) had to be animated to achieve the goals of the story that they wanted to tell. "The Incredibles" could have been done as a live-action film, but it would have lost so much magic, so much of the storytelling detail, and you'd be left with a "Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" instead.

The animation in WALL•E is utterly spectacular. Dont' be fooled or a second: Although it doesn't look very tough, the sequences when the spaceship first lands on Earth on top of WALL•E are so technically demanding, I can't even imagine how long it took to perfect the textural algorithms nor render. The use of traditional camera focus techniques in the film is unprecedented for a feature-length computer animated film, and I again can only imagine the complexity underneath those subtle, but gorgeous moments.

And the fire extinguisher ballet — my God. It's full of stars.

WALL•E tips its hat, clearly and with great reverence, to so many of the great science fiction films of the last century, most specifically Kubrick's seminal "2001: A Space Odyssey." I firmly believe that this film will take its place alongside the greats of science fiction cinema. Unlike Kubrick's masterpiece, and so many other cinematic visions of our future dystopia, there is hope in WALL•E. The film believes, and made me believe, that we can save ourselves. Our future, as far gone as it seems, is not gone. If we can simply touch one another, learn that our collective humanity is greater than any technology, than any disaster of our own making, then we can survive, and thrive.

At the Movies: The Old and the New

Although I saw both Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull right after they came out, it's taken me a bit to get around to writing about them. Each represents something about summer blockbusters, how they're made, and how they're marketed. I enjoyed both films in different ways, though felt that one was clearly superior to the other.

Iron Man is perhaps the new blockbuster: an original story (except for the part about it being around for decades) with new characters and a new premise of sorts: root for the greedy, selfish corporate arms dealer as he mends his ways. He's not brooding and dark like the Dark Knight. He's just a morally corrupt person. And it's interesting that the film never asks him (or us) to fully redeem himself for what he's done. Yes, he has a change of heart. Yes, he helps the little people he was so inconsiderate of before his transformation from Tony Stark to Iron Man. Yes, he kills bad guys in the end. But he's still selfish — narcissistic, even. He's still more focused on himself and his technology and his machines and toys at the end of the film than at the beginning. He's not a fully reformed person. He's just better, though almost by accident.

It's an interesting approach and not one that's immediately evident. I doubt most people look at it this way, the film being trapped in the standard "making of a superhero" arc. The film gets many, many things right, even though it has to follow a pattern for its story. I liked the fact that it ebbed and flowed in pace, that it gave itself room to breathe, that it said "These are adults on the screen, not adults acting like 18 year olds, so let's let them act like adults, and be flawed."

I also liked the fact that the film was all about iteratively prototyping design. It's the only way to make technology work, and it's rare to see that on the big screen. Usually, in the name of time and moving on to the next big set piece, the technology just works. Too bad everyday life isn't so easy.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal skull is very much the old school blockbuster: established franchise, established stars, megatalent behind the lens, and a hugely orchestrated marketing campaign that cost almost as much as the film itself. I know a lot of people found it deeply flawed, and it's hardly perfect, but if you take it for what it is, it's fun. Nuclear weapons and alien spaceships and communists all in the same story? Of course. It's a film set in the 50's that pays loving homage (with a wickedly modern set of effects) to films of the 50's where all these elements were present. It may appear grossly illogical, but if this is a 50's film (and I really believe it is), then all of those elements make sense as they were all inextricably linked as part of the culture of the time.

That's not to say that was a very good movie. It was fun, enjoyable, but lacked the gravitas and smarts of Spielberg's best action and fantasy work. It's no "Lost Ark," believe you me, and half the time it felt as if Speilberg was saying "Sure, we can do that. Throw it in there." When Spielberg wants to work, he's amazing. The jeep chase through the jungle is awesome and blends action, storytelling and effects in a way that few other than Speilberg can. It's easily the highlight of the film and one of the best sequences in the Jones series (and there are quite a few excellent sequences in these films). But sometimes, amidst the jokes about Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones' age and the mystical mumbo-jumbo, it feels like work and a good, escapist action flick should never feel like work.

Iron Man doesn't feel like work. Iron Man didn't tell the world "Hey everybody! I'm here! I'm back! I'm gunna be awesome and have the biggest opening weekend ever!" It was marketed, of course, but not as the second coming and never bought in to its own hype. It asked to be watched by simply being good, defying convention when it could, and asking us to like someone who's still fairly unlikable even at the end. That's a very 21st century approach and why it will, ultimately, do better than the last hurrah of the 20th.

On DVD: A Big, Hot Mess

It's been a while since I've posted and DVD reviews. That doesn't mean we haven't been watching. It's just, as I posted earlier today, that I've been busy. So here are capsule reviews of some of the DVDs we've watched in the last couple months;

  • Michael Clayton: A solid, well-acted thriller. Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton were superb, and Swinton deserved her Best Actress Academy Award. Not Best Picture material, in my opinion, but it was probably propelled there on the solid work of Clooney and the filmmakers, and an enormously satisfying ending.
  • Shoot 'Em Up: You probably missed this one in theaters as it seemed to last about a week. The always watchable Clive Owen stars as a gun-wielding superman who, for the not most logical of reasons, gets caught up in a convoluted scheme to keep a political figure alive. He's hunted by Paul Giammatti, not so convincing as a bad guy. It's the high-concept action that keeps the film going: there's not a single scene without a gun, and shooting bad guys while jumping through windows with a baby in your arms has never looked sillier, or more fun.
  • The Darjeeling Limited: Although arch and too self-circumscribed, I do like Wes Anderson's work. His latest is the tale of three brothers who travel across India, on their way to find their long-lost mother. Although fitful and not as fanciful as Anderson would like to think the film is, it shows a maturity of insight into familial relationships that his earlier work has lacked. Owen Wilson is surprisingly good as the oldest, and most broken, of the three brothers.
  • The Namesake: As my friend Natalie described it, "a lovely movie in which not much happens, but it's really beautiful." A first generation American of Indian parents first rejects, then embraces his Indian hertiage, and the name given to him by his father. A bit padded at times, it's a lovely movie about coming to terms with your history and your self.
  • No Country for Old Men: A very solid, well put-together film that's ultimately about the uselessness of age. There is literally no country for old men in the film as they keep getting killed off. Javier Bardem is superb, and scary, and perfect. Not nearly as good as There Will Be Blood or a number of other films from last year, but I can see why the Academy picked it as Best Picture. A lot of people hated the ending, or the non-ending. For me, it's as if the Coen brothers were afraid that you didn't get the thematic point of the film, so tacked on another 20 minutes where they could drive their point home. That or they just had to bring in Cormac McCarthy's amazing writing and that amazing tale of the father riding past his son in to the darkness.
  • Becoming Jane: "Sense and Sensibilty" lite. Ann Hathaway is fine and the recreation of Edwardian England is fine and isn't it just terrible how these strong, independent-minded women didn't get to live out their lives like they wanted to? And so on and so on and so on.
  • I Am Legend: So Will Smith is trying to do something interesting with his action star status: he's trying to become a thinking person's action star and make movies that aren't just action rides but have a pretense to gravitas. I Am Legend is quite interesting, actually, as it tracks his descent in to near-madness as the last man in New York and alone for years on end. It's far less interesting when it becomes a zombie swarm movie. Still worth watching, if only until the last twenty minutes.
  • Beowulf: Seamus Heaney, you have nothing to worry about. I just don't get Zemeckis' endless fascination with motion capture. Sure, the avatars of the actors look more photorealistic (though Angelina Jolie needs no digital enhancement) and occasionally not dead-behind-the-eyes, but there's a lot about the animation in this movie that's just lacking (usually the physics). And he turned a movie about pure heroism into a tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Not exactly what Beowulf is about. Still, his Grendel was quite good: disturbed and disturbing. How the film got a PG-13 rating isn't clear, with all the gore. Then again, it's animated gore, so that's OK.
  • Atonement: Oh, look at all the beautiful people suffering beautifully! Marvel at their proper world and how quickly it gets turned upside down! Gasp at the lack of chemistry between anyone in the film. Read the book. It's vastly superior. It's devastating. Thank god for Vanessa Redgrave showing up for five minutes at the end to give the film a hint of the book's emotional devastation. Yeah, it's a tough book to adapt, but that still doesn't make it a good movie.

On DVD: A Whole Bevy of Films

Bob and I have been watching a lot of movies on DVD lately. With the writers strike, there's only about 2-3 hours of decent television on in a given week. That'll marginally change when shows get back on the air in April/May, but we still seem to tear through batches of DVDs in the Winter.

Anyway, here, in brief, is what we've watched:

  • 28 Weeks Later: A retread of a fairly good horror movie (28 Days Later) that, ultimately, couldn't decide what to do with itself, so it had a non-ending (or, more specifically, a pretty damn weak one).

  • 1408: John Cusak gets stuck in a hotel room that is Evil incarnate. Not really sure what to do with itself after 100 minutes of special effects, it has a non-ending as well.

  • Why Did I Get Married?: Ah, Tyler Perry. The man tells it like it is, my friend, he tells it like it is. Too bad it's not fresh, and it's all a wee bit heavy handed (kinda like church on Sunday), but he's a born entertainer, and it shows in his soap-like films.

  • Live Free or Die Hard: It starts refreshingly and entertainingly enough, and blowing up a helicopter with a flying cop car is cool, but then throws all logic out the window at the one hour mark. Did you know it takes the same amount of time to drive from New York to Woodlawn (in Baltimore), as it does to drive from Hampden to Woodlawn? I didn't, until I saw this movie!

  • Across the Universe: Yawn. That's surprising, and disappointing, as the film was directed by Julie Taymor. She's a master of the visual and yet this film was just plain dull, even when the kids singing Beatles songs go off on a Magical Mystery Tour with Bono.

  • 3:10 To Yuma: A good Western, with strong performances, particularly by Christian Bale. I didn't quite buy the ending, but Russell Crowe and Bale are interesting enough actors that they make it work anyway.

  • The King of Kong: A highly entertaining documentary about two men vying for the title of World's Best Donkey Kong player. It's very effective in dissecting the social structure and behavior of the gamers without saying a single direct thing about the issue (letting the subjects speak for themselves? Who woulda thunk?), but it's hand is strongly tipped in favor of the underdog. While reinforcing every bad stereotype about grown men who hang out at the arcade, it's honest and warm about them too.

At the Movies: There Will Be Blood

This one's been percolating in my head for a while now. I saw the movie just after the New Year, and haven't yet had the opportunity to post, but here it is, at last.

This film is a singular, unrelenting, superbly crafted piece of cinema driven by an auteur's voice and vision. It is the best film of the year and easily belongs in the canon of great American masterpieces. It is technically and thematically challenging, intentionally emotionally difficult, sprawling and intimate and fused with an energy that shimmers on every frame.

It is not always an easy film, or a film that makes easy choices. I, personally, did not agree with a lot of the major narrative shifts in the second half of the film, but I understand why they were made and why they were taken. Perhaps I wanted an easier way out. Either way, my personal disagreements with the narrative in no way diminish the accomplishment of Paul Thomas Anderson's work. In fact, I suspect that when I see it again, my objections to some of the narrative choices will fade.

The story is American to its core: a hybrid of the American Dream and Moby Dick, ostensibly about the pursuit of oil and riches and making it big on the expanses of the rugged and beautiful American West. The film is anchored by its Ahab: Daniel Day-Lewis in a colossal performance as Daniel Plainview, a man who builds an empire as he destroys everything and everyone around him. In his pursuit of success, his pursuit of oil, his pursuit of perfection, he transforms from a man with ingenuity, charisma and drive to simply a madman. His performance is so thorough, so utterly convincing and theatrical at the same time it's nearly impossible to see the actor in the role.

The direction is astonishing: utterly controlled and expansive, infusing every moment of the film with a restless energy, juxtaposing our understanding of the visual iconography on screen with the counterpoint of the narrative. The directorial choices work on multiple levels and, while seemingly at odds with each other sometimes (the images versus the words versus the music versus the iconography of the images), everything works towards the same goal, the same story, the same fantastically well-created world.

Johnny Greenwood's score is easily the best I've heard in a film in a very, very long time. Atonal yet beautiful, it too drives the film, creating tension throughout, unrelenting as Plainview is in his pursuit. It's a shame that the Academy barred it from consideration for Best Score as small pieces of it were used in a non-theatrically released short film last year.

The film contains easily the most intense sequence I've seen since the end of United 93: the striking of oil on a derrick and its subsequent, tragic, destruction. This sequence alone would make the film tower above all others this year. In the context of the film, it is the turning point, the crucible through which all actions have passed and will pass in the narrative, and it's astonishing.

As I mentioned, it's not always an easy or likable film. It is a major work from a major filmmaker. I can't quite equate it with Citizen Kane, as some leading critics have done. I can say that it's great and important art, that it must be seen, and that in 20 years it will be considered of the true achievements of American cinema.

On DVD: Three to End the Year

One of the nice things about the holidays is that I usually get a few extra days off from work, and with raiding in World of Warcraft mostly suspended due to people's schedules, I have more time to put my Netflix subscription to good use and watch more movies than usual. I watched three movies this weekend, in the following order:

  • Eastern Promises reteams the excellent and gifted David Cronenberg with Viggo Mortensen for a look inside the Russian mafia in London. It's a forceful, direct look at loyalty and people caught between themselves and what's expected of them. Naomi Watts offers us a way in as a midwife determined to find the family of a pregnant girl who died during childbirth and is led to the Russian underworld by way of the diary the girl left behind. Mortensen is excellent, as always, and Cronenberg is a master of violence when he needs to be. The film isn't quite the knockout that "A History of Violence" was for me (and there are those who have argued that this film is a retread of the other — and they're wrong), but it's still very good viewing.
  • Sicko is incendiary, reductive, illuminating and heartbreaking. It's Michael Moore so that means ridiculous stunts like taking boatloads of people to Guantanamo Bay to get medical treatment, but it's also Michael Moore so it means an impassioned plea for equality and justice in this country. As someone who's worked at a School of Public Health for more than a decade, it's pretty easy to see that our healthcare system is ridiculously broken, and a joke compared to the rest of the developed world, and Moore's film drives that point home. "But universal healthcare means higher taxes for everyone!," cry the fear mongerers. Well guess what? If you're already paying for health insurance, what's the difference if that gets turned in to taxes that result in equal healthcare for all and a country where people are terrified of losing or being denied health insurance?

    Moore's last few films have really pointed to, without his usual bludgeoning, how fearful our country is of, well, pretty much everything. There's a former British MP who is interviewed in the film who talks about how a true democracy cannot happen when the people live in fear. When you live in fear, you are hesitant, if not scared, to foment change, even if that change is crucial to your survival. So, instead, we wallow in fear of losing our health insurance, of going deep in to debt, of what few precious rights we have being further taken away by a corrupt congress made corrupt by the very powerful business interests who have everything to gain and everything to lose by keeping the people afraid.

    I've long said that there will be no real change in this country — no true universal healthcare or social services that make sense — until there is radical campaign finance reform. Until our elected officials don't have to take bribes from individuals or corporations and don't have to work 85% of their year fundraising for their campaigns will we see any kind of real change, any real representation of the people's needs and hopes. Real campaign finance won't happen because those in power, those currently elected officials, have nothing to gain by changing the system.

    I will now step off my soapbox.

  • Once is a slim, yet sometimes beautiful, little musical about two people who meet and fall in love and make music together. With music by the Frames, it's a musical in the sense that people sing the songs they write and perform and record. It's not really a musical in the classic sense in that the songs don't do much to advance the story. They're there for atmosphere and feeling, but they almost never tell the story. Still, the songs are often quite lovely, and the simple style of the movie and the performances is quite charming. Refreshing in it's anti-Hollywood approach to couples falling in love, it's a worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes.

    I really, really wanted to download a couple of the songs from the movie, so I went to the iTunes Store. You can only buy the album, and not individual songs. <.> C'mon folks, you aren't Radiohead! There's no need for the album-only attitude! Give us the songs we want!

At the Movies: Sweeney Todd

I'm the first to admit that I don't care for most musicals. I tend to find them inane, cloying, and pandering to simple emotional patterns for maximum effect. Good thing I wrote my college honors thesis on the American musical. There are, however, some musicals which I do like. There are musicals that I love. Then there are a few works of musical art were, for me, transformative. They changed the way I thought about music and performance. John Adam's Fearful Symmetries, Prince's Pop Life, and Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd did that for me.

So you can imagine the mixture of hope and dread with which I received the news that a film version of the musical was being made. On the one hand, it's bringing the musical to the masses. On the other hand, they'd probably butcher it. The good news is that they didn't butcher it. In fact, they made the music sound better than it ever has.

A tale of revenge furiously told, this Sweeney Todd is a visual feast and the most mature piece of film making Tim Burton, the director, has ever made. About 1/3 of the musical score has been stripped out, but without any great loss given the intense focus of the film on revenge, revenge, revenge. There are moments of visual mastery in the film which open up the musical in a way the stage probably never could or would. I won't forget the end of "Epiphany" when the world shifts from horizontal to vertical perspective with Sweeney on his knees, literally and psychologically going over the edge in to madness.

But what about the singing? Well, it's not particularly great, but that doesn't really matter much when the actors are acting the hell out of each and every moment in the show. Johnny Depp has a passable voice, but one that's not rich enough for Sweeney, but he brings interesting rock flourishes to his singing that make the musical strikingly modern, while visually sealed in its fantastical (and fantastically realized) Victorian world. His performance is very, very good, pure and focused, but he doesn't quite make you feel the full force of the tragedy of the end of the piece. Helena Bonham Carter fares worst with the singing, with her very thin, dispassionate voice, but paradoxically gives a moving, full-bodied performance, particularly as the tale progresses and she comes to know more and more that she will always be fundamentally alone.

The two trained singers in the movie, the actors playing Antony and Johanna, are pretty uninteresting and their signing was less than impressive to me. Perhaps that was a deliberate choice, as to not make the untrained voices of the other principals not sound worse. If that's the case, it was a bad choice. Given their wooden acting and their only-passable singing, they left a hole in the overall production.

Much has been made of the extensive use of blood in the film, and, yes, there are geysers. I thought the violence was handled extremely well, though, as it contrasted the highly stylized slashing of the throats and subsequent cascades of blood with a realistic and gruesome end for Sweeney's victims as they crashed, head first, in to the floor of the pie shop below the barber's chair. Those images were startlingly realistic, and truly gruesome in the case of the Beadle, and managed to anchor the violence in reality while maintaining the style and vision of Burton's film.

I had a other few minor quibbles (excluding the crowd lines from both "Pirelli's Famous Elixir" and "God That's Good" was really odd and left those sections emptier than they should have been), but overall I thought the filmmakers did a excellent job with the piece. I don't think that it could have ended up in better hands. It may not be my favorite film of the year, but it's certainly one of the best.

On DVD: No End in Sight

No End In Sight is about the squandering of a nation. It is about power and what happens when four men work outside of the spheres of power. It is about what it takes for a nation to rise up and strike against the military. It is about good people desperately trying to do the right thing, and being stymied or, worse, ignored at every turn. It is about the descent in to civil war called Iraq.

The film, while clearly born of outrage against the workings of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer and Bush, tries to be level-headed and focus on the people who were there at the start of the Iraq war and tries to examine, using their testimony as evidence, just what went terribly, terribly wrong and how we got to the state of the "surge" phase in early 2007. Nearly all of those interviewed from the U.S. government are Republican. It's a damning portrait of arrogance, naivety, and ineptitude, but the film states that the biggest tragedy is the destruction of the world of the Iraqi people, at their own hands, forced in to that situation by an ineptly planned invasion.

Much has been said about one of the film's major arguments: that the disbanding of the Iraqi army, putting half a million armed men out on the street with no way of making a living, ultimately powered the Iraqi insurgency, and there's great truth (and evidence) in that. Bereft of a way to feed their families (and, often, their extended families) these men went to work for those who would pay them: Sadr and the other radical militia leaders, Iranian insurgent leaders, and other Islamic insurgent groups, including al-Qaeda.

What was most illuminating for me, however, was where I think the insurgency and the squandering of Iraq truly began: the looting of Iraq shortly after the arrival of the American troops. While the American military was told to not interfere, the Iraqi people looted their capital, destroying the infrastructure, making it impossible for the few Americans brought over to rebuild the country from having anything at all to work with. It wasn't just TVs and clothing and paintings that were looted. It was rebar, power generator equipment, an entire national infrastructure. As one Iraqi said on camera "Our national heritage is gone. 7,000 years of history is gone." Imagine — and I know it's tough, but imagine — that looters broke in to the our nation's historical and artistic archives and destroyed the only copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the military stood outside the doors of the buildings and watched it all happen without interference. On those days, the Iraqi people saw that a) there weren't enough American soldiers to stop the looting, to maintain law and order and that b) the American plan did not include their protection or best interests in any way. In a handful of days the American presence in Iraq went from liberators to occupying oppressors, and the lawlessness of looting gave birth to the armed militias and the beginnings of the Sunni vs. Shiite civil war.

No End in Sight is an excellent and clear and demanding documentary. I think that in twenty or thirty years when people want to know how terribly wrong things went in Iraq and, more importantly now, why they went wrong, this film will be their first and best resource.

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