Monday, January 28, 2008

Sweeney Razorhands

Long before Robert Rodriguez cobbled up his comic-book look for Sin City and Kerry Conran set Law, Paltrow and Jolie against the green-screen to make Sky Captain and the World of tomorrow, this funky little arty guy achieved a much similar total-immersion effect using only sets, lighting and design. Really, really expensive sets, lighting and a really distinctive design.

And, of course, in Mars Attacks he beat them to the total immersion punch, too.

Nonetheless, Tim Burton's track record is uneven, and in pictures where the story permits latitude, he'll often inject himself in unfortunate ways, or ways that show how little he understands the milieu. For example, his Batman entries--especially Batman Returns--emphasize victimization, contrary to the spirit of comic book traditions. In a similar misstep, Willy Wonka becomes a vessel of Burton's own self-proclaimed daddy issues, utterly perverting Roald Dahl's hero.

Two of his best films (Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood) do a sort-of perverse judo on the theme of victimization, perhaps because Burton himself can identify more strongly with an artistic reaction than a violent/heroic action.

Sweeney Todd, then, could have gone either way, I think. Although the source material is great (my favorite opera of the past 30-odd years), hash has been made from masterpieces in the past. It's almost as if Burton was reminding us he doesn't have to make movies about his father.

On to the particulars: The set design is, naturally, wonderful, both evocative of a stage play and of an almost real era, and Burton forgoes his palette of grays mixed with red for one that is almost entirely shades of gray. Of course, the red comes, and in copious shocking quantities. Color is used for flashbacks to happier times and imagined future happy times, but even that color is (of course) odd and unreal looking.

I think there's more talking in the movie but I don't remember any in the play. The story is moved along briskly with a few numbers missed, but overall it was probably a wise choice to keep the length down.

The principles are all marvelous. Depp and Bonham Carter while clearly not stage-trained, have a pure tone to their voices which I actually prefer to the heavy vibrato used in opera, and when they sing together, the blending is positively beautiful. Alan Rickman's stuff is a little less melodic, but he doesn't sing much, and what he does sing doesn't require lyrical beauty, so it works. Plus, he embodies a sort of banal evil.

Timothy Spall (as Rickman's chief toadie) is both evil and trained for the stage, it seems by his voice. Spall is probably best known as the ratty Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter series. Sacha Baron Cohen plays the traveling snake oil salesmen with aplomb. Cohen, of course, is best known as Ali G and Borat.

Of course, none of them are George Hearn or Angela Lansbury, or whoever it is the Broadway freaks known as "bleeders" will prefer, so this will doubtless be the subject of considerable consternation amongst them.

Of course, Johnny Depp is actually too good looking to play Todd, made ugly and old by 15 years in Australia (waves to the Bit Maelstrom's one Down Under reader, "Hellooooo, Melbourne!"), but he pulls it off, emanating pure, unrelenting hate from start to finish. That must be exhausting.

Helena Bonham Carter used to complain that producers typecast her as a genteel English lady after her breakthrough performance in Room with a View, but I think we can safely say that with this role and her psycho turn in the latest Harry Potter movie, she's not only away from that type, she may have ended up typing herself in an entirely different way.

So, what else is there to say? Well, the foleys seem to have gotten a little enthusiastic, shall we say, when it came to adding sound-effects for the arterial spray and the two-story fall from Todd's barber chair into the basement. Really, guys, less is more in movie musicals: The music and the words are what we're here for.

It's hard to tell, of course, what's the mix and what is the theater's sound set-up, but it seemed to me that the score gave too much prominence to the instruments. It does sort of feel more like you're watching a live performance, but it definitely makes it harder to parse the lyrics. And Sondheim lyrics are half the fun at least.

There isn't really any gore or viscera in the film but there is a lot of blood. Of course, the movie is rife with black humor, so I didn't really process any of it as realistic. One of the show's loveliest songs has Todd singing while slashing throats with abandon. We laughed, but we were about the only ones.

We also laughed during the cannibalism, as the bodies are made into pies and then served. So, you know, it's that kind of show.

This is definitely one of Burton's better works, and of all the cast and crew. It's going to get re-watched a lot around here, I'm sure.

Oddly, the movie is only playing in two theaters this week, and only two shows for each theater. Well, odd, because the theater we saw it in was pretty packed. I Am Legend is still playing in more houses.

But I wouldn't be surprised to see this one win all three Oscars it's nominated for.


  1. Don't blow my cover dude. Keep it under you hat. Mums the word. Cheeze it.

  2. Sure thing. On the QT and very hush hush.

  3. You are the only one to figure it out so far. Not that it's a big deal. You just got to let one of the other voices in your head talk for a while. Capisce.

  4. I got busted man. I can't get away with anything.


Grab an umbrella. Unleash hell. Your mileage may vary. Results not typical. If swelling continues past four hours, consult a physician.