Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Gorgeous, gothic Grand Guignol based on the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street just might be director Tim Burton´s masterpiece. A blood-soaked tale of revenge undercut by soulful song and dance, this twisted film may be too subversive for general audiences but should delight fans of the director; rarely has his vision been presented so uncompromised. Todd is rare among recent musicals in that it manages to escape the genre trappings and work on its own level; rather than the musical numbers taking us out of the story, they seem to serve as a welcome relief from the oppressive nature of the narrative and visuals.
A restrained but menacing Johnny Depp stars as the titular character, once known as Benjamin Barker; there´s some hints of Edward Scissorhands in his pale-faced, wild-haired appearance. Barker was once happily married with daughter before the jealous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) sent him to Australia and stole his family; years later, Barker, now Sweeney Todd, returns to a fog-drenched London and sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett´s (Helena Bonham Carter) Meat Pie store while plotting his bloody revenge. Soon Mrs. Lovett is offering the meatiest pies in London despite a supposed lack of resources. Cast is perfect, including a surprising Sacha Baron Cohen as a stereotypical but never quite over-the-top Italian barber. Content is a perfect match for Burton´s visual style, as is, surprisingly, the musical genre; the director´s perceived weaknesses as a storyteller fit perfectly in a film where plot is one of the less important elements. Victorian London has always had something special on the screen, but never before has it been more vividly unappealing; production design by Dante Ferretti is flawless. Film must be seen theatrically for the full effect.
We Own the Night, director James Gray´s first film in 7 years, details a compelling if conventional cops and dealers story that hits enough high points to make it shine, if not soar. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Bobby Green, manager of the popular NYC nightclub El Caribe, who keeps his family life secret from his friends and colleagues. The reason: his father Bert Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) brother Joe (Mark Wahlberg) are police officers working to bring down the drug dealer nephew of El Caribe´s Russian Mafioso owner. When the dealers strike out against the cops and leave Joe in a hospital, Bobby finds himself in an interesting situation; he has the ability to help his family, and the police, at the potential cost of his safety the life he has been accustomed to. As something of a procedural, the film works, and is highlighted by a number of tension-packed scenes. Dramatically, however, there is something missing. Part of the problem is that we never care for the people that Bobby has chosen to surround himself with, including girlfriend Eva Mendes, and this his internal struggle is means little to us; there´s never any doubt about what decisions he should or will make. Still, this is Phoenix´s film, and he adds a lot of weight to the role; a less empathetic performance could´ve sunk the movie. Duvall and Wahlberg are solid but underused. Pic shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of Gray´s previous two films, The Yards (which also starred Phoenix and Wahlberg) and Little Odessa; all three provide an interesting take on crime in the Big Apple.
A moving adaptation of the novel by Khaled Hosseini, Marc Forster´s The Kite Runner succeeds in accurately retelling the book´s compelling story even though it occasionally falters along the way. The film begins with Amir and Hassan, two young boys growing up in Afghanistan; Amir´s father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi, who´s excellent) is a wealthy secularist, and Hassan´s father is his servant. Hassan´s place in society leads a group of older boys to attack him, causing Amir to feel such guilt that he pushes Hassan away. Later in life, Amir and his father are living in San Francisco among a group of Afghan expatriates, having fled Afghanistan when the country was invaded by Soviet forces. One day, he gets a call from an old friend, and travels back to the now-Taliban-ruled country to aid Hassan´s young son. The scenes of the boys´ childhood are touching, poetic, tragic – everything they should be; the San Francisco scenes are also compelling. Towards the end however, during Amir´s return to Afghanistan, the film nearly derails. Taliban villains are presented in a borderline cartoonish fashion, and the terror they hold over the country is never fully conveyed. Politics – particularly, the role of the US in bringing the Taliban to power in Afghanistan – are also ignored here, though they were carefully sidestepped in the novel as well. While the film succeeds as a pure story, the powerful themes in Hosseini´s novel deserved a more accurate representation here. Still, the strengths of the film outweigh its weaknesses; some of early scenes here are unforgettable.
Note: languages spoken in the film equate to about 25% English and 75% languages relevant to Afghanistan (mainly Dari and Pashto). These languages will be subtitled only in Czech on Prague screens.
Also opening: the Czech comedy O život (showtimes), from director Milan Šteindler, starring Vojta Kotek, Dorota Nvotová, Bob Klepl, Robert Nebřenský, Pavla Tomicová, and Ivana Chýlková. An English-subtitled print can be found at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům, though the film has not been well-received by local critics.