Tuesday, January 22, 2008

PP Movie Review: Sweeney Todd

PP Rating: See it, by all means!

It’s been a few days since I “experienced” Sweeney Todd. Now THAT is one flick that stays with you. It’s been almost a week and I’m still thinking about it. And I’m not talking in a bad way either, like indigestion; but in a hauntingly good way, like when you’ve witnessed something special. In fact, if Sweeney Todd is not in the top three for best picture this year, and if Johnny Depp isn’t seriously considered for best actor, I’ll be disappointed.

Sweeney Todd is definitely a typical Tim Burton movie. So much so, that within five minutes, if I hadn’t been paying attention to the opening credits I would have said, “This thing has Tim Burton written all over it.” There’s something about the way he uses lighting, color and makeup that makes a movie uniquely his. Personally, whatever it is that he does, I’m a fan. Burton has made a lot of good movies over the years, but for me, this is his BEST yet, and it’s a musical no less.

I’m not normally a musical aficionado, but I loved this one. I looked it up and originally Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics and music for the play. That probably won't mean much to the folks who might read this, but I know what I like, and I LIKED all the vocals and tunes.

Casting did a great job finding folks who could handle the somewhat strange melodies of Sweeney Todd. The notes don’t always go in the direction I expected them to. I’m not a music expert, but it seems like there are lots of sharps and flats where you wouldn’t predict them. I loved that unpredictability, and it wasn’t just the musical score that was unconventional.

The story line itself, although it’s from an old English legend, takes some pretty unexpected twists as well. Now I REALLY loved that, since it’s not often I can be surprised anymore while watching a movie. And yes, it really happened—I was deliciously shocked by the ending.

Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.

Sweeney Todd is dark, and in every way—emotionally, literally, physically—its very humor is dark. It takes place more than 200 years ago in the tight twisting streets of London. I was last there in 1987 and that city can seem quite gloomy indeed; I remember well its overcast skies and lots of chilly rainy days.

This is a tale of bloody revenge. The opening scene introduces us to Sweeney Todd just off a ship on the London docks. Preoccupied with other thoughts, he is saying so long to Anthony, the sailor who spotted him adrift at sea. Depp as Todd looks like he did as Edward Scissor Hands, the part he played in his first Tim Burton movie. Only instead of playing the innocent sad eyed youth with too much eyeshadow, he takes up the mantle of a bitterly angry middle-aged man whose youth and happiness has been wrongly stolen from him, again with too much eyeshadow. Looking at his pinched pale face, I could feel Sweeney’s intense need to find and kill the men who had wronged him all those 15 years before.

The flashback device shows us what happened back then. He had been a happily practicing barber on Fleet Street with a pretty blond wife and baby girl named Johanna. A corrupt judge named Turpin spotted the barber's pretty wife and lusted after her. To get her, the judge uses his power to have Todd falsely accused and found guilty of murder for which he is sent half the world away to the Australian penal colonies. For 15 years Todd never knew what happened to his family.

Those years were not kind to Sweeney. No longer young and handsome, his simmering rage has soured him beyond recognition; but upon his return to Fleet Street, being unrecognizable is exactly what he desires. He wants payback; not just against the judge and his henchman, but against everyone on Fleet Street. For none of them had come to his aid when he needed them, not to mention the part they’d played in the ruination of his once innocent wife; but he has yet to find out about that.

Todd finds that his old barber shop and home on Fleet Street is now a meat pie shop owned and operated by the widow Lovett, played wonderfully by Helena Bonham Carter. Mrs. Lovett’s shop is wretchedly infested by huge skittering roaches. Todd hesitantly enters her shop and she happily assaults him, proclaiming that he’s her first customer in weeks. No wonder! She bids him sit and then sings happily while rolling dough, all while continuously mashing into it pesky juicy roaches with her rolling pin. Yuck! I hate roaches!

She soon figures out who he is and takes him upstairs to where he once happily lived with his little family. Under a floor board he retrieves his set of shaving razors. Breaking into song he lovingly admires his “old friends.” I knew it was only a matter of time before those razors would taste blood. By this time I could hardly wait myself.

The widow had some awful information for Sweeney. He’d been hoping that perhaps he could reunite with his wife and daughter, but Mrs. Lovett told him that his wife had committed suicide by taking poison. Lovett’s story: the judge had taken his naive young wife to drunken orgies where she was liquored up, drugged and subjected to unthinkable humiliations. Upon his wife’s death the judge had then taken his daughter in as his own; only now that she was coming of age the old lecher was pressuring her into accepting him as her husband.

Movies are all about the suspension of disbelief, that even the most unlikely coincidence is possible. In Sweeney Todd, this happens when the young sailor, Anthony, while looking for his friend on Fleet Street, hears Todd’s daughter singing while locked within her bedroom by the lecherous judge. Anthony asks an old beggar woman lurking nearby who the beautiful girl is and the crazy old crone gives him the low down before scurrying away. Then, after one look at the pretty girl three floors up, he falls head over heals for her. The protective suspicious judge spies the lovesick young fool, invites him in, beats him up, and threatens death and worse, before having his henchman toss him out on his ear. Anthony is undeterred. He goes right back to staring at her below her window.

Strangely enough, Sweeney takes his first life almost reluctantly and not until almost 50 minutes into the film. The unlucky first victim is a fiend of a man named Pirelli played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Pirelli is a sleazy snake oil selling conman with a thickly false Italian accent out to make some quick blackmail money. He’s recognized Sweeney and wants a cut of all his barber profits or he’ll expose his true identity. Pirelli is in self-satisfied mid-sentence when Todd suddenly erupts while seeming to calmly boil water for tea. With surprising ferocity he takes the whistling teapot and beats the conman down almost to death. In the nick of time, he hides the unconscious man in a steamer trunk.

The conman’s assistant, a young boy named Tobias, comes very near to being killed as well. Unaware that his master is now a bloody mess stuffed in a trunk, the boy returns and insists on waiting for his cruel master. Behind the boy we see Cohen’s hand sticking out from under the trunk lid, his fingers lightly fluttering. Sweeney manages to maneuver the boy back out the door with the promise of a meat pie from Mrs. Lovett. As soon as the boy excitedly goes to claim his pie, Sweeney crudely finishes off Cohen with a succession of bloody stabs and slices.

In the aftermath of this initial murder, Sweeney and the widow discuss what to do with the body and the boy. At first, Sweeney suggests they bury Pirelli in some hidden spot, but then they both decide that grinding him up into her meat pies made more sense, both financially and to reduce the odds of getting caught. And for Sweeney, it was another way to punish the hated denizens of Fleet Street by feeding them human flesh and making them like it. As far as Tobias, the boy becomes part of Lovett’s and Todd’s new bizarre “family.”

Two things happen next. First, the human meat pies turn out to be a big hit. The other is that Todd modifies his barber chair so that the push of a single foot lever simultaneously causes the chair to flip straight back while a trap door in the floor opens up behind it. In the blink of an eye a body in the chair slides headfirst through the trapdoor and down a chute to the deep basement far below. It’s ingenious.

For both Lovett’s meat pie shop, soon more upscale restaurant than shop, and Sweeney’s barber shop, business is booming. It’s not explained how he manages to get away with it, but Sweeney begins his sanguinary march of reprisal as we see him kill his Fleet Street victims one after another. Once settled in the barber chair—eyes comfortably closed, hands trustingly crossed under the sheet, and necks willingly exposed—that’s when “the demon barber” strikes.

Sometimes Todd cuts deep; for other victims he slices deftly, almost as a bored afterthought. My personal favorite is when he starts the razor high above his head where he holds it for a moment before sweeping it down in a lightening arc through the windpipe and jugular. Todd wields his razor like a conductor beginning a score; or as Death himself, wielding his lethal scythe.

Burton has fun showing the numerous ways blood can spurt and hiss from various slicing throat and neck wounds. I glanced around me to see the reactions of my fellow theater goers to the sight of bloody throat slittings. At first, most flinched and cringed, some moving their hands defensively while shifting uncomfortably in their seats. After the second or third throat cutting however, no one much reacted any longer. People quickly become inured to even the most sickening of violence, especially when it’s done with Burton’s cinematic elegance.

So that’s how it goes—one body after another falls far below with a final meaty thud to the dank basement floor stones. From there, butchery and baking ensues as the human “harvest” finds its way eventually to the meat pie shop and into satisfied customers’ bellies.

The story makes a point to show several times the crazy old crone that we first meet talking to the sailor, Anthony, outside the judge’s house. She acts deranged, always pointing accusingly at the Fleet Street Meat Pie and Barber Shop establishment with the shouted words, “Mischief!” The Widow Lovett seems obsessed with the crazy old bird, always sending Tobias out to shew her away.

There is a moment when the judge comes at last to see Sweeney for a shave. He does so after being told by his henchman that maybe Johanna will relent and accept him after he gets a close shave. And EVERYONE on Fleet Street knows the closest shaves are at Sweeney Todd’s shop. Just as Sweeney is about to kill the hated judge, Anthony bursts in, begging for help in rescuing Joanna from the judge. Turpin jumps from the chair. He’s outraged to find that Anthony and Sweeney are associates. Knowing he’s missed his chance, Todd screams at Anthony to go.

The judge gives Johanna one last chance to accept him. When she says no, he commits her to an insane asylum. Anthony cooks up a plan to spring her. He poses as a wig maker’s apprentice willing to pay top pound for a certain color blond hair. A greedy asylum keeper leads Anthony into a ward full of blond crazy women. Once he finds Johanna, Anthony grabs her and forces the keeper back and away from the door at the point of a gun. The two make their escape, but first, Anthony locks the door on the keeper. We see him disappear as the insane women go after him, presumably tearing him to pieces.

I knew the movie must be approaching the finale since the next showing was fast approaching. Things needed to happen fast to bring the story to a successful gory crescendo. This was accomplished by bringing all the characters together in quick succession at the Meat Pie and Barber Shop. Anthony drops Johanna off there while he arranges a getaway. The judge goes there looking for her. Even the old crone shows up.

By film’s end Sweeney has killed all his enemies and then some. The judge lies in a bloody heap on the basement floor. Lying next to him, even the crone ends up dead. Sweeney slit her throat almost reflexively after she surprises him just before he kills the judge. A strange twist, the importance of which we catch only later, is that Johanna witnesses her father slaying both the crazy crone and the judge from within the same trunk that had once contained Pirelli’s body. She had hidden in there when she heard the approach of Sweeney.

But later, down in the basement, with the old beggar crone’s face fully exposed in the light of the leaping flames from the massive cooking oven, Sweeney sees that she is none other than his beloved wife whom he was led to believe long dead by Mrs. Lovett. Stricken with grief all over again he confronts Mrs. Lovett. “Why did you lie?” He doesn’t even listen to her explanation and begins to dance an insane waltz with her, pretending that all is well. She is delighted until with one final swing across the floor he tosses her bodily into the searing flames of the huge oven. He slams the heavy iron door to drown out her dying screams.

Tobias sees her die, having just shown up from hiding deep within the maze of the London sewers. After doing away with the widow, Sweeney has already returned to his murdered wife. Mournfully, he holds her body in his arms and stares at her, his face inches from hers. The boy leisurely approaches, picks up the cast off razor and casually flicks it through Sweeney’s throat. Tobias has gone insane as well. He drops the instrument and wanders away back into the darkness of the sewers.

Sweeney Todd doesn’t even flinch as the razor bites. He no longer cares about anything, certainly not about living. The movie ends with him crouched on the floor in a pool of blood, still tenderly holding the only woman he’s ever loved, a woman he’s killed. The final scene is an extreme close-up of his bloody face hovering over his wife’s equally bloody face, red droplets slowly dripping from his face to hers as he waits to join her in death.

Now THAT’S entertainment!


KA said...

it was very different from the musical - cos in the end Toby goes insane. Actually the final scene of the musical is toby cranking the meat grinder going "got so much work to do... got so much work. Smooothly... smoothly... smoothly..." (refering to the smooth motion of cranking the lever, just as mrs lovett told him to)

Anyway, the feel of this movie was so different from the musical, and i was pleasantly surprised. I was slightly disappointed by Helena Bonham Carter. She doesnt have the voice for Mrs Lovett- there's too many parts that she squeeled by (off tempo too) when she should have been belting staccatos. Johanna, though, definitely pulled off making one of the most difficult songs - green finch and linnet bird is so easy to get wrong because it's so high, and if sung badly can sound like nails on a chalk board. She did fantastic.

PhilippinesPhil said...

You obviously like musicals a heck of a lot more than I do Kat.

I saw Miss Saigon on Broadway about ten years ago, but that was enough for me.

I'm obviously easier to please than you are for another thing, because I enjoyed Helena's singing efforts.

KA said...

I trained as a broadway/opera singer in my youth - I was a soprano.

Then I joined the army, it killed my voice and I never trained it back. Ah well, old dreams, eh?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Did you read the post where I met Kristin Chenowith at the LA Airport and BS'd with her for almost two hours?

KA said...

yes, and I freakin envy you for it so.dang.much.

Amadeo said...

This was an impressive narrative essay and now I realize, it is in this where your writing strengths lie.

But the gore in it almost guarantees my going to stay away from this movie. My almost fiendish uneasiness at the sight of razors dates back to my days at the barbershop when I was a kid. I would literally freeze when that barber brings that honed razor to the back of my neck, especially after seeing him slowly sharpen that razor on his leather trope in front of me. Then tries it on a piece of paper or something. Like preparing to butcher a pig or something.

Anyway, I have not forgiven Tim Burton for changing my boyhood hero Batman to a dark, foreboding, and eternally conflicted individual.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ah, you flatter me again Amadeo. Thanks.

You should try to see this movie if you have an aversion to razors and blood. Get up on the horse no matter how many times it takes. Face your fears buddy.

Actually, I LOVE that Burton RETURNED Batman to his serious roots. Bob Kane did not originally write him as the campy TV star of the 60s that you seem to like. I hated that old TV series. It ruined the character for me. But to each his own.