Friday, December 28, 2007

Blades, Blood, and Pies

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Tim Burton's best film since Ed Wood, without question, and it might be his best film ever. I know, I know, what about The Nightmare Before Christmas? Even though he didn't technically direct it, no one doubts it isn't wholly his own creation. I think The Nightmare Before Christmas is perfect...cue ominous music...for what it is. I just can't think of it in the same league as something like Ed Wood or Sweeney Todd, his more sophisticated efforts. And I don't think Sweeney Todd is perfect. It's been almost a week since I saw it, and it just hasn't stayed with me like I thought it would. But I didn't think it was perfect then, either. It was damn close, though.

There is no other director like Tim Burton. He is one of the most visionary auteurs working today. Even if he makes a dud, it's still interesting, at least visually. That's how it is with the best directors - you can still take something away from the weakest films. I know it's going to be blasphemous, but I don't like his Batman movies. There, I said it. I loved them at the time, when I was young, and before I had developed distinguishing tastes. But Christopher Nolan has captured Batman, at long last, perfectly. Going back and watching Burton's Batman movies - they just look juvenile. I particularly dislike the first one. The second is much more interesting, visually and mainly because of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito. But I'm sorry, I digress.

Sweeney Todd, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical, is rough material. It's gritty and violent and terrifying, and I'm so happy Burton didn't downplay any of it. He could have easily cut some of the violence to make it a PG-13, but he didn't. It's a very unsettling story. I have never seen the play; in fact, I really didn't know anything about Sondheim before this. I hear a lot has been cut from the play, which might explain the plot flaws. When we meet Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), he's already back from prison and back for revenge. His past is really glossed over. The evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) falsely accuses Benjamin Barker (his real name) of a crime in order to get his pretty wife, but we never find out what the crime was or get to know really anything about Todd before his Bride of Frankenstein hair and seething anger. It might have been nice to see a bit more backstory, as well as some of his time spent in prison that shaped who we see on screen today.

So, Sondheim is an odd duck. He's a genius, that's very clear, but I've never heard any musical like this one. His lyrics are more stream of consciousness than melodic. The songs aren't even really catchy. They're off-putting and bizarre. Yet they're also brilliant, even though it took me some time to warm up to the style. Actually, some parts were kind of grating, like an assault on my eardrums, with the chaos of the music and lyrics and the constant shift in moods within one song. Ultimately, it grew on me. And Tim Burton and Sondheim are a match made in heaven.

The world he creates for 1800s London is staggering. It's a Gothic/German Expressionist thing of bleak beauty. Maybe that's why I love Burton so much - he reminds me of one of my favorite filmmakers, F.W. Murnau. I even heard that Burton was drawing on Murnau for this film and wanted to make it like a silent. It could very easily work as a silent film. I guess Murnau isn't technically considered a German Expressionist, but I have no idea why. To me, he's an Expressionist through and through. And so is Burton.

The music doesn't require the best singing voices, and these aren't the best singers in the world, but they're perfect for what the songs and roles require. Playing Mrs. Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's wife - what a pair), hair all frizzed out and crazy, has a very sweet voice, and her first song about her horrible pies is brilliantly delivered and choreographed. Alan Rickman just rocks my world. I love him so much. He's like Snape in this film, but so much more sinister. And shockingly, he's kind of sexy. Sacha Baron Cohen plays a rival barber, and he's a riot. Honestly, no actor does accents better than he does.

But I was most impressed with Johnny Depp. His voice is really, really good. And while I still think Ed Wood is his best performance, this comes awfully close. He deserves an Oscar nomination for this. His rage as Todd is so fierce and palpable, and no one's ever made brooding so intense. And there are even some funny moments, especially involving a fantasy sequence of Mrs. Lovett and her plans for their future. It's priceless. I would see it again just for that part.

The film totally shocked me. I was in suspense until the ending credits rolled. The final image still haunts me. What a beautiful, wonderful nightmare of a film.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

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