While I was going to school in another state, I met a man who I’m still sure was in the federal Witness Protection Program. He had relocated from the East Coast by way of North Dakota, and literally got misty-eyed when talking about New York street food. He talked and dressed like an extra from “The Sopranos.” Ostensibly studying for his masters degree in American literature, he laughed off the B’s and C’s he received in his classes, and never really seemed to suffer either the poverty or the anxiety of the rest of the grad students I knew. Though everything about him was as Italian as marinara, his name — the name he gave — was something bland as butter; a single, dull syllable, followed by another.
Though I hadn’t thought about him in years, a recent film brought that incognito Guido back to me in Technicolor: David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence.” Full of intrigue, emotion and the all-too-human fear that our dark deeds are finally going to catch up to us, it’s more a story about personal identity and the inescapable past than the shoot-’em-up action flick being advertised on television.
Viggo Mortensen shows his range here as Tom Stall, a small-town Ohio coffee-shop owner. Running the kind of business that has mostly been McDonaldized out of existence in this day and age, Stall seems content with his life, married to a beautiful wife (Maria Bello) and the father of two kids. One night just before closing, however, two roaming murderers come into the cafe, and by the time it’s all over, Stall has killed them both in spectacular fashion. Before he knows it, low-key Stall has been taken up as the high-profile flavor of the moment — that’d be: “Small Town American Hero!” — by the national news.
The problem is, Stall’s exposure brings some unwanted guests to town — three killers, led by a disfigured gangster named Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris, in full-on creep mode), who insist that Stall is really an on-the-run Philadelphia mobster named Joey Cusack. From there, Stall’s Norman Rockwell life turns decidedly Edvard Munch, and he and his perfect family tumble down a black hole of deceit, lies and murder (not to mention a little of Cronenberg’s trademark, freaky-deaky sex).
Mortensen and Bello are good here as a husband and wife weathering what might be the tactical nuke of relationships. Bello, in particular, helps sell the central conceit of the film: that what you don’t know won’t hurt you (and that even if you know, you can forget anything if you stand to lose enough). More importantly, Cronenberg uses what might have been a boring revenge tale to talk about bigger issues, namely: Can you change your heart as easily as your name? And what happens if the new you is ever forced to collide with your old?
The result is a satisfying and deep-thinking twist on the action/suspense genre, one that’s sure to please.
— By David Koon
No cold feet for ‘Bride’
Over the years, we’ve come to expect a lot from that master of the morbid, Tim Burton. One of the few directors willing and able to fully realize “gallows humor,” Burton has long since proven himself and his darkly comic vision of the world by way of films like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” and his cult classic short “Frankenweenie.”
Once again, Burton goes the eerie extra mile with “Corpse Bride.” Working in the tedious medium of stop-motion animation — rendered an anachronistic lark by the rise of computer-generated imagery — he has created a film sure to enter the ranks of his best work. Laugh-out-loud funny, but with enough of the touch of death to keep things interesting, “Corpse Bride” is a heck of a film from the first scene to the last.
Johnny Depp voices the lead character, Victor Van Dort, an Edgar Allan Poe look-alike with a serious case of cold feet. The son of a newly wealthy fish merchant, Victor is on his way to be wed when the story opens, hitched by way of arranged marriage to Victoria Everglot (voice of Emily Watson), the daughter of blooded but dead-broke royals. After blowing the rigorous wedding vows several times, Victor retreats to sulk in the forest. Coming upon a graveyard, he practices his lines perfectly before shoving the ring onto what he thinks is a gnarled tree branch. Unfortunately for him, the branch turns out to be the hand of the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), a perfectly charming but indubitably dead young woman — killed on her wedding night by a devious gold digger — who now insists that she and Victor are married. Before long, she has spirited him off to meet the folks in a topsy-turvy land of the dead.
Cartoonish and fun, full of some amazingly beautiful images — many of them so remarkable that you’ll wonder just how Burton and his crew pulled it off — “Corpse Bride” turns out to be more than a one-liner about a timid boy who accidentally crosses the River Styx. Thanks in part to some top-notch screenwriting and careful animation that brings the characters and their emotions to life, there is real tension and suspense here, not to mention a truly bittersweet story of a young man torn between two equally caring women (albeit one of them a little worse for wear).
More thrilling in places than outright scary (“Corpse Bride” is much more Edward Gorey than plain old gory), with undead characters who are more compassionate than the living in most scenes, parents probably have nothing to worry about from even the darkest of the film’s dark corners. With a slate of foot-tapping-good songs by Danny Elfman and a storyline that can more than keep the attention of both adults and children, it’s sure to result in many a smile for both.
— By David Koon