Monday, January 07, 2008

Sweeney Todd

Movie-blogging resolution #4 for the new year: When I find myself sitting down, trying to squeeze the next paragraph out, cut my losses and just write it as a capsule review. I would have done it with this one, but it seems like everyone else liked it and... Well, I didn't. I didn't actively hate it, but I was bored. I kind of wanted my two-star review on HBS/EFC to balance out the raves.

I think Fantasia '07 ruined Sweeney Todd for me. I saw four musicals there, three in Korean and one in Japanese. Putting aside Dasepo Naughty Girls, which treated its songs as karaoke and basically used them as one more item in its "everything and the kitchen sink" way of trying to get a reaction, each of them had something that made me a little less impressed with Tim Burton's film.

For one, I've already seen something very much like a Tim Burton musical in Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater. I had a sort of middling reaction to it, but I'm remembering it a bit more fondly now. It was a midnight showing at the end of a five-movie day, and I was having trouble keeping awake. But director Jeon Gye-su appropriates a lot of Tim Burton-esque trappings, making them feel fresh and beautiful. Maybe that's because he's not actually Tim Burton and I don't know what to expect, but the swoop over the miniature city and the elaborate decrepitude don't feel nearly as obligatory as they do in Todd.

Then there was The Fox Family, which was as mad and occasionally gruesome as Sweeney Todd, with a storyline involving fox spirits planning to eat human livers in order to stay human. It's got beauty in its strangeness.

And, of course, Memories of Matsuko, probably the best film I saw all year. It manages to milk more tragedy out of its single lost life than Burton ges from his bloody massacres, it's got great songs, and it knows how to use those songs to twist the knife a little more, to wrest more raw emotion out of a perhaps unbelievable story. I've often said that a musical has no room for error, that there are great musicals and terrible musicals but very few mediocre ones. Memories of Matsuko is a great musical (won't somebody pick this up for US distribution?), but Sweeney Todd winds up being just short of terrible, even if no individual bit is off by very much.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2008 at the AMC Harvard Square #5 (first-run)

It's an odd thing to say in reference to a musical about a serial killer featuring cannabilism, but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street seems to make the safe, predictable choice at almost every junction, and the movie winds up somehow feeling bland as a result. Which I'm pretty sure is the one thing this movie shouldn't be.

Tim Burton directs; it's tough to think of a director who would fit the material better, but maybe he winds up being a little too on the nose. Once you've got Burton on board, the visuals suddenly seem predictable - stark blacks and whites during some sequences, clashing but muted stripes during the more colorful bits, overhead views of a city that proudly looks like exaggeratedly pointy dollhouses. Oh, and he's given Johnny Depp a goofy haircut, and bucked no trends by casting Helena Bonham Carter as a walking, talking Living Dead Doll. There's bugs and grime and silliness disguised as nastiness. It's all exactly what you'd expect from Tim Burton making this movie and thus none of it is shocking at all.

And shouldn't a story like this feel at least a little transgressive? Even if you know the play by heart and have seen every film the director has made, shouldn't there be at least a little thrill of inappropriate excitement as Sweeney (Depp) takes his first victim, or Mrs. Lovett (Carter) proposes disposing of the bodies by baking them into pies? That's strangely absent, though; too much of the story just seems to be going through the motions. The film never bothers to explain what crime Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) framed Benjamin Barker for in hopes of stealing his wife, leading to Barker's return as Sweeney Todd. That the sailor who rescued Sweeney, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) should fall in love with Barker's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), whom Turpin has been raising as his own, turns out to be a flat coincidence, not an ironic twist of fate. It's nothing more than convenient.

Frankly, I wasn't much impressed with it as a musical. I understand that several songs were removed from the play and sung dialog has been replaced with spoken lines. What's left is overwhelmingly somber, with the livelier songs almost incomprehensible by their overlapping lines. The singing is serviceable, although none of the performances are especially memorable in and of themselves. Though nobody in the cast is especially known for their singing ability, they all do fairly well.

Story-wise, the script is a bit of a mess, too. The young lovers seem terribly bland compared to the monsters their meant to compliment, and the end is frustrating. A situation that's been the source of immediate tension basically gets shoved to the side and forgotten, and the big revelation in the end has no real build-up, happening just because London is apparently a very, very small town where everybody knows and is connected to each other in ironic ways.

They do just about what you'd expect for the rest of their performances, although none keeps their character interesting throughout the entire movie. Depp does a nice job in his first song of showing the rage hiding just beneath the surface, but for much of the rest of the movie Sweeney seems more eccentric than mad. The moments toward the end when Carter's Lovett finds herself torn between her group's amorality and her desire for some sort of family life are well-done, but she hasn't been interesting enough to earn our sympathy. Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen play smaller roles, but exactly the ones you'd want them playing. Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower do fine, although they tend to get outshone by the grander, more familiar co-stars. Alan Rickman is perhaps the most disappointing; he's one of the greatest screen villains of all time, but between not being able to establish Judge Turpin's bona fides as a baddie early on and the flat performance, what could be a grand, deservedly operatic enmity between Turpin and Todd is just not nearly as vital as it needs to be.

It's a funny thing. Here's a film and a concept that casts aside subtlety and yet still seems to be playing it safe when that's the last thing it should be.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with eight other reviews

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