Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Burton, 2007)

Burton’s deliciously violent adaptation of the Sondheim musical reiterates a lackluster sensibility concerning the director’s latest work. As with Big Fish, Sweeney Todd displays a haunting visual complexity, focusing on riveting color schemes and incredible mise-en-scene while showing little to no interest in character development or story structure. In that sense, Burton’s visual feasts come across as lifeless symphonies of visceral entities pining for your attention via showy montages and melodrama. But Sweeney Todd does reflect Burton’s genius for set and sound design, using splatter effects to lyrically evoke Sweeney’s disturbing disdain for human life. While Burton’s overdone carnage mixes well with Depp’s brutality, Bonham Carter’s pragmatism, and Rickman’s villainy, this incredible surface of blacks, reds, and blues still feels frightfully hollow and self-indulgent.

Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)

Billy Wilder’s strangely beautiful Noir about a delusional and eroding Silent Hollywood Icon remains one of those “all-time” classics that doesn’t completely live up to its prestigious billing. This might have to do with the fact Wilder has been more excellent elsewhere, exemplified in the steamy brutality of Double Indemnity, the witty trickery of Witness For the Prosecution, or the razor-sharp satire of Ace in the Hole. Still, Sunset Boulevard evokes a sense of biting nostalgia descending into madness, slowly breaking down Norma Desmond’s mental state until nothing remains but hollow head shots and dusty artifacts. But the joke of Norma’s unabashed psychosis and violent explosion has always been on Joe Gillis and in turn the audience. No one turns their back on a legend, so it isn’t surprising Norma fires away from the sanctity of fantasy-land, leaving her delusional image etched in blood for a world that no longer cares. Even though Norma’s an ego maniac, there’s a sadness to her fall from grace, a disavowal of reality that reminds of the old phrase “they don’t make em’ like they used to,” a true enough staple for the film lover in all of us.

Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)

In 2002, Adaptation seemed silly, ill-conceived, and over-the-top to me. But that was before I started writing screenplays. In viewing this wonderment through a different and more experienced lens, it’s clear my initial complaints address the very point Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are trying to make – that movies are inherently artificial and manipulative, and completely enthralling and personal nonetheless. Adaptation never squanders a moment of dialogue, space, or character even when its trying to convince you of the blatant absurdities at the film’s core. Cage’s dual performance addresses a competition and love deep within the soul of brothers at odds, a trait few movies contemplate with such care. During the great end sequence, when Donald’s death resonates so incredibly with his pessimistic twin Charlie, Adaptation builds emotion out of the dank swamp air and the fading sun light. It takes a character/writer who for nearly two hours has felt lifeless and hopeless, and turns him into something resembling a human being. Jonze might not be the most visually dynamic director of his generation, but he finds an artistic pulse in the strangest pockets of the mind, capturing something altogether uncomfortable and illuminating in the shadows of personal artistic expression.

Rambo (Stallone, 2008)

Who knew Sly Stallone could cloak a disturbing allegory for soldiers returning home during Post 9/11 Iraq under the guise of a blood-soaked franchise picture? Rambo, the fourth incarnation of Stallone’s iconic American super-weapon, sets its sights on third world genocide and the conflict in Burma.

The film opens with a brutal slaughtering of innocents by the corrupt Burmese Army, lambs being cut down by cowardly wolves. We get used to the gore fast because Rambo only speaks in such simple, cutting visuals. When naive Christian missionaries come to bordering Thailand and ask recluse Rambo for a ride up river to help the suffering natives who’ve found Jesus, the stage is set for the inevitable scenario: the creation of POW’s, then their bloody and chaotic rescue.

Stallone throws in a fascinating sequence on the boat ride up river, when missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) asks Rambo if he ever wonders about home.¬†Rambo, as is the case throughout the film, stands speechless, hounded by the near three decades of movie violence which has engulfed his world. “Home” has become such an alien aspect to the man a mere mention of it feels like a challenge, much more than the countless Burmese villains he obliterates throughout the film.

Atrocities are met with more atrocities, and even the surviving Christians get into the action, producing the unsettling paradox at the heart of this American exercise in violence: when well meaning righteousness fails, does extreme brutality mend the wounds with blood, or cause more irreparable damage? As in First Blood, the great origin story for Rambo, this latest film blurs the boundaries of such an ontology. It has always seemed Rambo carries the weight of a nation’s malpractice on his shoulders. Now, when faced with this haunting reminder once again, our human killing machine finally decides to go home and face the music. It begs the question, in Rambo 5, will we welcome him with open arms?

There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)

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There Will Be Blood, a taut, exhausting, and altogether fascinating Western from Paul Thomas Anderson, begins with prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) slamming a pick ax against the hard rock wall of a deep ditch as Jonny Greenwood’s piercing score echoes across the screen. From the very beginning, the film creates a sense of menace hovering over the story, unseen but felt with the certainty of death. Drenched in dirt, Daniel wields his tool with harrowing purpose, shooting sparks toward the ground (a brilliant foreshadowing to the fiery visuals to come).

Anderson’s haunting opening eclipses dialogue, showing Plainview as a grueling work horse full of ambition and presence, speechless at the wrenching progress of his business ventures, especially as he becomes immersed in the oil drilling industry. This momentum leads Daniel and his son H.W. to explore and expand their drilling company, propelling them to Little Boston, CA and an “ocean of oil” underneath the hard dirt surface. Here, Daniel finds an adversary in local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a boy prophet bent on using the oil boom to further his own religious cause. This conflict turns to betrayal, which evolves into blood, holding true to the promise of the film’s title.¬†Anchored by Robert Elswitt’s riveting steadicam and tracking shots, Anderson masterfully constructs these scenes with a sense of unmatched scope and authenticity, watching the town shift from quiet veranda, where silence overwhelms, to a pressurized industrial hub lined with motion. The vibrancy of a derrick consumed by fire, the coolness of the blue Pacific, and the darkness of oil itself all lead the film toward a sense of heightened instinct, a motif which both defines and engages Day-Lewis’ razor-sharp performance.

As an allegory for capitalist greed and phony evangelical discourse, There Will Be Blood reverberates with rage and guilt, ultimately reveling in obvious symbolism to compliment the brutal clash of both destructive ideologies. Big business and religion become fateful bedfellows, crushing each character with a combination of deception and failed compassion. But Anderson gets so caught up in this sensational dynamic he abuses the strongest theme in There Will Be Blood: the complex relationship between parent and child. Whether it be H.W., Eli, or the Sunday sisters, There Will Be Blood astutely contrasts their plights, but brilliantly ties them together with a sense of hatred for their kin. The most stunning bloodshed in Anderson’s near-masterpiece wallows unseen beneath the surface, with the children who have been abandoned, orphaned, and psychologically left behind.

Heath Ledger Gone at 28

This is just devastating news. Although he was never one of my personal favorites, Mr. Ledger had incredible talent, which was wonderfully on display in films like Brokeback Mountain and Monster’s Ball. He was already being highly touted for his role as The Joker in the upcoming The Dark Knight. Although a cause of death remains unknown, an overdose is suspected. R.I.P. Heath Ledger.

Joshua (Ratliff, 2007)

Add this titular character to the long list of cinematic child sociopaths. Joshua, a disturbed eight-year-old genius going on fifty, tears his family apart when a newborn sister intrudes on his dominance. Well meaning but idiotic New York parents Sam Rockwell and Vera Farminga remain unbelievably stupefied through the first two acts, flying blind to the fact their son is reeking havoc not only in their own apartment, but in school and at Central Park as well. The film squanders countless moments of tension through typical genre cliches, but surprisingly gets better as the demon kid comes out of his shell. Horror fans in particular might appreciate the final twenty minutes, where Joshua’s plotting, pandering, and punishing demeanor embark on a calculated final solution worthy of Hannibal Lector.