There is a cold and menacing presence lurking in the shadows of Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” but it has nothing to do with characters or their histories; rather, the feeling is one of unrelenting despair, obstructing our ability to see past the gothic production and find the humor (or indeed the purpose) of the material. Much of what we accept as value in stage musicals is dependent on a general sense of interior cognizance that can carry us through all of the absurd fantasy, but a lot of that has depended upon the precision of skilled modulators who know of the delicate balance between art and theme. But in nearly every incarnation I know of Hugh Wheeler’s infamous revenge story, I sense the agony of the scenario but far less about a specific reason. Is there a dramatic purpose that I am missing? An agenda far too intricate for me to comprehend, perhaps? So detached are the characters from their plight that when they sing, they aren’t convincing enough to create the impression that they are legitimately living in this hell; they play through the material more like silent aggressors who have lost all contact with sanity and seek only to make everyone else wallow in the pain they inflict.
Readers of Rudyard Kipling’s novels are apt to find some kind of profound statement running within the veins of fantastical adventures, but to encounter “The Jungle Book” is to sense disconnect between intention and result. The plague of the premise comes down to our inability to find logic in the context of the idea: what was the author driven by when he wrote the stories of Mowgli, a young and innocent face who was destined to be raised by wolves in the thick of a menacing jungle filled with carnivorous predators? As an observer of Disney’s animated 1967 film, I felt uneasy with the very idea of any child – even one with some level of awareness of his surroundings – placing his safety in the hands of talkative panthers and bears. What if they were hungry, I wondered? What if lackluster food sources forced their natural instincts to take over? Not one iota of the premise grasps reasoning beyond that of lurid fantasy, and the quests he is destined to partake in seem burdened by an unspoken expectation of doom, as if all those claiming to be his friends are only doing so for the sake of getting closer to his young and ripe flesh.
There have been an ample supply of movie premises involving maniacal tormentors rescuing and imprisoning helpless victims after some sort of accident or crisis, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” is the first I can recall that pairs the idea with an even bleaker reality — namely, that what may exist beyond the walls of confinement involves something more monstrous than what is isolated within. The movie doesn’t come right out to establish such certainties until a pivotal moment of the climax, but up to that point the ambiguity of the scenario pulls at us with profound duality. It begins when young Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is seen in the early scenes fleeing her apartment, apparently after becoming estranged from her boyfriend, who calls her repeatedly over a road journey to make amends (reasons are never clarified). When she is struck on the highway and her car is sent tumbling down a hill, invisible hands pull her from the wreckage and she comes to consciousness in a small empty room, where she is hooked up to an IV and chained to the wall by her leg. Who pulled her from the wreckage? His name is Howard (John Goodman), and he is a stone-faced and foreboding entity who intercuts his proclamations of caregiving with frightening demands of respect. She wants to leave, fearing abduction. He announces that the world beyond the doors has been destroyed by nuclear fallout, unconcerned with her impulsive fears. And for a good duration of the film that particular detail is left in doubt – perhaps as a way to amplify the suspense, or maybe even to underscore the notion that a world apocalypse can (and will) turns its survivors into monsters.
Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” is one of the great movie spectacles of this generation, an undertaking of vast scope made all the more fascinating by how it transforms commonplace undercurrents into rich sensations for every frame it possesses the screen. That is not an easy feats to achieve for an endeavor that uses fairly common ideas – of which there is an ample supply – but no one involved is content to regard what they participate in from eyes of relative acceptance, either. Artists, philosophers, lovers and ambitious thinkers all have a place in the decadent halls of the famed Parisian nightclub, but to watch them engage in the rituals of excess is to suspect similar minds standing behind the camera lens, orchestrating the foreground like conductors of an exciting visual symphony. I have visited those joyous corridors countless times over the years, and with each new outing I find myself cheerfully seduced by its values: the wonder of the images, seemingly created by magicians, and the richness in conviction of the story, which recounts the affair of two young lovers destined for tragedy.
Jesse Eisenberg has a kind of obstinate charm that is equal parts zany and startling, and in many of his roles there is a sense that he's driven by some facet of self-arrogance, as if overly cognizant of the fact that his characters are the smartest ones in the room. Usually that means his personas can also come across as unhinged beyond comprehension, especially when they face tremendous obstacles; to see him chew through the conflicts of a screenplay is to make rather unflattering assessments of the tactics he implores, which frequently involve vindictively untethering the routines of more modulated sorts. There is no doubt that his endeavors in “The Social Network” and “Now You See Me” were reason enough to see him as an apropos choice for the daunting role of Lex Luthor – they seemed destined to one another, like a man visiting the altar of his own creation. And yet so thorough are his capabilities that one finds them soiled when they are taking into the context of the movie that surrounds him with few interesting things to do, as is the case with his newest foray. Unfortunately, that also means poor Eisenberg has to overextend his creative pitch in order to sell the characterization; by the end, one gathers he has accepted the material as a humongous joke, with him being the only one in on the punchline.
Jeff Kohlver is one of the most thoroughly smarmy characters in recent years, and his oppressor Hayley Stark one of the most transparent. Their existence in David Slade’s “Hard Candy” – a movie as unpleasant as its own participants find it – serves to fuel an agenda that would be no more persuasive in the hands of a more skilled filmmaker, because dealing with this subject is a matter of nearly impossible resolution. Sure there are more certainties we can all arrive at when it comes to dealing with a scenario this stark, but what are we supposed to feel in terms of emotional involvement? Are we supposed to care about either person’s strange or tragic history when they convey themselves in a manner that bypasses the grey areas? Seeing them on screen creates just as much of a fascinating conundrum as it does a glaring aftertaste; they are toxic exemplifications of their ideals and yet thoroughly dislikable to the point of sickness. The fact that the characters are portrayed so convincingly by their respective actors only complicates the issue of our involvement.