Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- close shaves, lust and revenge

Director: Tim Burton, 2007 (R)

 I recently saw Portland Center Stage’s production of this musical.  It was thoroughly entertaining in a dark way. But I wanted to compare it with the film version, since Burton is the master of dark cinema. And the two compare favorably: where the PCS stage version is campy and darkly comic, Burton’s movie is just dark. It’s Gothic grim, with gruesome violence.

 The story should be well-known, based on the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. Barber Benjamin Barker has been unjustly sent away from Victorian London to Australia by corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, Snape in the Harry Potter movies).  Now he returns 15 years later, fueled by anger and a thirst for revenge. No longer Barker, he now goes by the moniker Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp in his then 6th partnership with Burton).

The PCS version began with the ballad of Sweeney Todd, sung by the ensemble, by Burton chooses to excise this song. Instead, he goes straight to the London docks, where we meet Todd and young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) as they disembark the schooner that returns Todd to English shores.  And then as Burton sings about the London he knew in the days of his young marriage, Burton transports us there with flashback. Thus we get to see Judge Turpin look lustfully upon Barker’s beautiful wife and instruct Beadle (Timothy Spall, Wormtail in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) to arrest Barker.

Lust is a sin. The writer of Proverbs warns his readers, “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes” (Prov. 6:25). Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, goes further, declaring: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus even tells us the solution to lust: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29). To put it differently, to avoid lust don’t look. Turpin did not heed that advice. He looked, he lusted, he looted.

Despite showing a little of London, especially as Todd returns to Fleet Street to the shop he once used, Burton retains the feel of a stage-play with tight and claustrophobic sets. His use of the sewers underscores the moral darkness that is at the heart of this play. Todd’s repeated line further emphasizes this: “There's a hole in the world like a great black pit. And the vermin of the world inhabit it, And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit, And it goes by the name of London.” In Fleet Street, Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s real-world romantic partner). A buxom woman, she is like Todd morally dark. She recognizes him and eventually sees a business proposition in his work waste.

Filling out the cast of characters are Jayne Wisener as Johanna, Todd’s daughter trapped like a bird in a cage as Turpin’s ward; Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, the fake-Italian barber who becomes Todd’s first victim; Ed Sanders as Toby, Pirelli’s boy who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s apprentice; and Laura Michelle Kelly as the beggar woman whose eventual death turns this into a tragedy of epic proportions.

Surprisingly, the principal actors hold their own as singers. In particular Depp maintains a believable accent even while carrying the dark songs, despite the odd facial tics he adds to complement Todd’s weird hair. More than this, though, Depp communicates the depth of poison that his anger has created through his constant scowls and grimaces. Even in rare scenes where he smiles, his chilling eyes undercut the warmth. And undercut he does, literally using his razor “friends” to cut under his customers’ chins. The throat-cutting is especially gory, perhaps to be expected in a movie (it is downplayed in the PCS stageplay after the first murder).

Revenge drives Todd. It informs his every decision. And in the end, it destroys him.

The Bible has much to say about revenge. In the Old Testament, Moses wrote the following command: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) The answer given here to revenge is love, but that is not a message Todd wants to hear. The apostle Paul gives a similar command in his letter to the Romans: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Here we are told one reason for not resorting to revenge: God himself will avenge. But it will be in his time, not ours. Injustice dealt out on earth will eventually be addressed. But we cannot sit in God’s seat of justice, much as we would like to do so. Revenge creates its own forms of injustice as we take the law into our own hands to violate.

Burton has given us a terrific adaptation of the musical play.  And one that underscores the dangers of revenge. If we give in to this juicy temptation, it will ultimately destroy us, like it did Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen -- faith illustrated

Director: Lasse Hallström, 2011. (PG-13)

There are not too many films about sport fishing. A River Runs Through It springs to mind. But how about a romantic comedy about fishing in a desert? Never done. But that is exactly what this film is. Ridiculous, impossible, "fundamentally unfeasible" (as one character says in the film), but unlikely as it seems, Salmon Fishing is fresh and cute.

The film revolves around the desire of Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked) to bring his passion for salmon fishing to his native land of Yemen. In so doing, he hopes to bring the peace of fishing to the region. He hires a consulting firm to aid him and Harriet (Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria) is assigned to bring his vision to fruition. Can it be done? To answer this she turns to the Ministry of Fisheries and fish expert Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor, Beginners). He wants nothing to do with it, declaring it "fundamentally unfeasible".

Which is where it would land, another dead fish on the shores of preposterous ideas, if it weren't for the need for some positive PR from the middle East. When the PM's press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient) gets wind of this scheme she puts pressure on the Ministry to make it happen, and Jones finds himself blackmailed into working with Harriet on the project.

At first, Jones acts like he believes it impossible, asking for outlandish things to transport the millions of freshwater fish from England to Yemen. But after he meets the Sheikh and as time progresses, the project gets in his blood. And he begins to believe in the impossible.

One scene stands out. Jones is going to meet Harriet, who has barricaded herself in her apartment after news of her boyfriend's death. Grief-stricken, she has pulled back from the project. But as Jones walks the sidewalk, he is literally swimming upstream against the mass of humanity that is all walking in the other direction. This metaphorically depicts the project and relates it to the freshwater fish who swim upstream to spawn.

Like some of his earlier work (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, An Unfinished Life) , Swedish director Hallström brings a slow and relaxed pacing to the film. Indeed, it is like fishing itself. And he blends the comedy with the romance very well. Through most of the film, we don't know if Jones and Harriet will end up together. Harriet is in a relationship with a soldier sent to Afghanistan, while Jones is married, even if the marriage is stagnant. Yet there is easy chemistry between the two leads that makes us root for them as much as for the salmon. And Scott Thomas is delicious in a wonderfully self-centered role, delivering much of the humor.

Two themes emerge plainly. The first is faith. The Sheik himself brings this up in discussion with Jones. He declares that fishing requires faith, just as religion does. For a man of science, this is anathema. But the film explores this assertion. It takes faith to stand in a river and cast a fly. There is no guarantee that there are fish in the water, nor that they will see the fly, or take to the snare. But men do it regardless, believing that they will catch a fish.

Faith is like this. It is trust in the unseen. The writer of Hebrews put it this way: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." (Heb. 11:1) It is belief in the apparently unbelievable. But God is the god of the impossible. Through eyes of faith, we look to God and accept that “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Lk. 18:27)

A biblical example from early in Jesus' ministry comes to mind. After fishing all night, Simon Peter and his colleagues had pulled in no fish. Their work was for nothing. But Jesus said to him, “ 'Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.' Simon answered, 'Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.' When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break." (Lk. 5:4-6) Whether it is creating fishing possibilities in the desert or catching fish when none were to be found, faith is fundamental.

Which brings us to the second and obvious theme to engage with, namely fishing. Fishing is a key metaphor in the Bible. When Jesus calls his first disciples he chooses plain old fishermen: “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt. 4:19) Fishing for men, bringing them into the new kingdom that Jesus introduces, requires the same patience and faith as fishing for salmon. It takes more than simple human effort. We cannot convert a person on our own. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 3:6). And the Spirit works as he chooses (Jn. 3:8). Our work is to believe in the invisible God and labor in faith.

Whether you like fishing or not, if you enjoy fresh films trust me, you'll enjoy this one. Go out and hook this DVD and have the faith to believe in the impossible.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Anonymous -- the power and truth of words

Director: Roland Emmerich, 2011. (PG-13)  

The premise of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is that another, an anonymous writer, authored all of William Shakespeare’s works. Rather in this rewriting of history, Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, Hot Fuzz) is a drunkoon buffoon who cannot even write his own name.

The movie starts in present day New York. An actor (Derek Jacobi, himself a prominent thespian who has clothed himself in many Shakespearian roles) walks onto stage and states that what most hold as fact is going to be called into question: Shakespeare did not pen his works. The play then transforms into a period piece full of intrigue and betrayal. And with that, Emmerich moves the film back into the 1600s.

The theory is that Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans, Elizabeth: the Golden Age), Earl of Oxford actually wrote the plays but could not use his own name since the content was politically infused. So he contacts Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), a writer, and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: freedom from the Tower and cash to comply. But Johnson’s hesitation results in Shakespeare’s opportunity and the rest is history . . . at least in this film.

Emmerich has a super cast of British actors. Vanessa Redgrave (Letters to Juliet) as Queen Elizabeth and David Thewliss (HarryPotter and the Order of the Phoenix) as William Cecil stand out. But herein lies the main problem with the film: too many characters. There are so many to keep track of that the intrigue is confusing. It does not help that Emmerich throws in flashback time after time without really explaining who the younger characters are and how they relate to the main plotline. And then there are too many intrigues, involving nobility, claims to the throne, royal affairs, and blue-blooded bastards. It feels like a pre-modern version of last year’s remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. Like that film, the complexity simply asks too much of the viewer and interest starts to lag early into the second act.

Despite the tedium of the intrigue, a theme emerges: the power of words. Oxford realizes that his power is in not in his sword, but in his pen. By putting pen to paper, when the plays are performed in public the populace recognize the political references and opinion is swayed.

The power of words is a biblical truth, too. Jesus says, in his final sermon, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35). The words of Christ, red-lettered in many Bible versions, are viewed as of critical import to his followers world-wide. Moreover, the Bible tells us: “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) The power of the Bible is carried in the power of its words, since “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).

More than this, though, the power of the biblical words resides in the Word. The gospel of John opens with these words (Jn. 1:1-4): 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The Word refers to Christ pre-incarnate. Before he was born as the God-man Jesus, he was the second person of the Trinity. In Greek philosophy the Logos (i.e. word) was a divine intermediary. John carried that concept over and used it to describe the truth of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). As fully God, Jesus embodies all the power of the Godhead, the power that set the worlds in motion, that created the universe ex nihilo. He embodies the power that brought Lazarus back from the dead (Jn. 11:43-44). That same power transforms believers from death to life, and gives us the power (through the indwelling Holy Spirit) to live holy lives.

But back to Shakespeare’s words. Were they his, and we have been taught in high school and beyond? Yes they were. The ridiculous claims by Emmerich have been put down by numerous experts. In one article in the St.Louis Post-Dispatch, various Shaekspeare experts chimed in. Robert Henke, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University, says: 
The Oxford theory requires about half of London to have been in on a conspiracy to protect the Earl from being tainted with the disreputable profession of the theater. Oxfordians must also address the unfortunate fact that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, before eleven of Shakespeare's plays, including 'King Lear,' 'Macbeth,' 'Antony and Cleopatra,' and 'The Tempest' (the latter with very pointed references to events that took place in 1609) were written.
And in a review in the Harvard Political Review, John Pulics comments on one of the scenes in the move: “Shakespeare murders Christopher Marlowe because after he discovers the true author when, in reality, Marlowe died in a duel. The divergences from already established facts become more and more base, to the point that anyone versed in Shakespearian knowledge could not accept the film’s argument.”

Words are powerful. Jesus’ words are true. This movie’s words and premise plainly are not.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs