Diary of an old cheeser

Hi there! Like other blogs, this is my chance to wax lyrical (some might say talk utter cr*p) about a) what's happening in my life b) all of my pet obsessions in particular music, tv, movies, books and other generally connected things, quite often of the retro, old and "cheesy" variety. Hence the title of my blog. Feel free to leave a comment if the mood takes you. There's nothing like a good chinwag about one's favourite topics and besides I love to meet new people! Cheers, Simon

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

BLOODY good...or should that be RAZOR sharp?

Went to see the new film adaptation of Sweeney Todd last weekend. I had a few reservations but I'm pleased to say it was very good indeed!

After his disappointingly hollow reworking of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", director Tim Burton has come up trumps this time. This might be down to the fact the film is based on the existing Stephen Sondheim musical, with a made-to-fit storyline and score. Mind you, "Charlie" was already a proper story too wasn't it? But for me, in spite of the amazing CGI visuals and effects, it didn't quite work, one of the main reasons being Johnny Depp's portrayal of Willy Wonka, which was something of a misjudged interpretation I felt - fey and introverted and just toooo weird, nowhere near as strong or charismatic as Jean Wilder's Willy (!) in the first 1970s film version.

However in "Sweeney" Johnny excels as the central protagonist of the title, as do the rest of the cast.

And for any of you not living on the planet who don't know who Sweeney Todd is ... He was a famous 19th Century barber, villain and serial killer who appeared in several
English language works of the time (rumour has it that he was based on a real life person although this has never been proved) whose method of dispatch was a straight razor (the kind that old-fashioned barbers use to shave their customers) with which he cuts his victims' throats. Hence his moniker "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street". Nice! Sweeney also has an accomplice in crime, Mrs Lovett, who hides the crimes by butchering the corpses of Todd's victims, baking their flesh into meat pies, and selling them to unknowing customers. Even nicer. Anyone contemplating turning vegetarian yet? Todd is also assisted by an unwitting apprentice lad named Tobias (Toby) Ragg (good name and a kind of Artful Dodger type) who later aids in unmasking his crimes.

And if you're wondering what led to all of these goings on, there is a back story. Years ago, Sweeney (real name Benjamin Barker) was exiled from England for a crime he didn't commit. On return he finds his wife apparently dead and daughter held captive by the evil Judge Turpin. This leads to Sweeney going on a murderous rampage of revenge on all London - hence the barbershop killings. I have to say this is where the plot falls down a little. Granted we would all feel hard done by if we were in Sweeney's shoes, but isn't he going just a little too far?? But I guess without all the gruesomeness - which does make for horribly fascinating viewing as well as adding to the mythology of the whole thing - the story wouldn't have anywhere near as much impact.

As said, Johnny D is pretty magnificent as the skunk-haired Sweeney; a very tortured and twisted soul with lashings of anger and anxst thrown into the mix. The one thing the character would have benefitted from though was an injection of humour (although this is rendered funny in one scene where Mrs Lovett imagines her and Sweeney getting married in church, with him staring ahead, unmoving and impassive as usual. Does nothing move him?) JD's English accent is spot-on (well he's done UK roles a few times now so has had enough practise) and he's also a damn good singer (which surprised me I have to say) emoting to the max!

He's well supported by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett, who is a delight in the role. I admit I've found her a tad irritating in the stuff she's done in the past, often tending toward English Rose type parts, although she has started to exhibit a tendency to go for less conventional roles recently which is good ... One could of course accuse her director husband Tim Burton of nepotism, as he's cast her in all of his films over the past few years, and in the case of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" I thought she was miscast as Mrs Buckett, Charlie's Mum - she seemed too young and attractive to play the part. However in "Sweeney" she is a genuine revelation - scheming, sleazy and sexy - yet with a core of sadness about her too. She might be a murderess, but really she just craves a normal life (the "By The Sea" bit exemplified this and brought a tear to my eye - dreaming of a better existence! I can relate to anyone who wants to get away from the stress, squalor and strife of the Big Smoke too, even if it is only a day by the sea!) Posh though Ms B-C is in real life, her cockney accent and singing are convincing and her naturally gothic looks add to the darkness of the character - as do Johnny Depp's, come to that. The make-up artist obviously helped out with the bags-under-eyes look though.

The remainder of the cast are also excellent - Alan Rickman as the corrupt Judge is a snide, nasty piece of work and I loved Timothy Spall's turn as his henchman. Even more of a surprise is Sacha "Ali G" Baron Cohen's cameo as Sinor Pirelli, who is not quite what he seems. His camp, tight blue outfit, not to say camp mannerisms, are a hoot.

Of course the central premise of the film - Sweeney's killings and Mrs Lovett's baking of the victims - is a truly revolting one and not for the faint-hearted. As I said it holds a kind of horrible fascination in its sick cleverness - the "trick" barbershop chair that slides backwards and the trap door that opens up to send Sweeney's latest victim down to the baking ovens below - but it's definitely unsettling to watch. The bit when Toby bites into a human finger in the pie he's eating, then finds other bits of body in the dungeon, is completely stomach-churning. And every time Sweeney picked up a razor I was totally on edge! The actual slaughtering of his gentleman victims was done quite "cartoonishly" though - a quick slit, a spraying of bright red blood and they were a goner. Nice n' easy and probably nowt like killing someone in real life (not that I'd know, but...) However as gruesome as the story/film is, there isn't TOO much dwelling on the violence, although by the end of the film the body count has mounted up considerably and you feel that you've had more than your proverbial fill.

Indeed, perhaps "Sweeney Todd" could be viewed as a bit of an anti-meat eating diatribe ... it's certainly makes one think, if we take such exception to eating human flesh why are we all such eager consumers of animal meat? Heard those stories that we're all meant to taste like chicken? And remember all those tales of survivors of plane crashes living off the flesh of other passengers? Yeuuuch!!

As this is a Tim Burton movie, in keeping with his previous offerings, "Sweeney T" employs a very GOTHIC style. The London landscapes are probably CGIed in many places (this is over 100 years ago so it would be hard to recreate a genuine 19th century City) but looked good, reminding me a lot of "Moulin Rouge". In fact stylistically I've never seen a film that is so, SO ... GREY. There is a washed-out look to the whole thing - grey London streets, buildings, skylines and even the clothes the characters wear - see the photos I've posted up here if you want proof! - and this does get rather depressing and relentless after a while. The scene when we jump to the park, with Sweeney and Mrs Lovett sitting on bright green grass under a bright blue sky, actually comes as a shock to the eyesight - I was practically wincing. And when the first ultra-scarlet drops of blood appear, you're almost relieved to see a bit more colour, even if it does involve some poor soul getting this throat cut. As said, the constantly dingy, dark visuals do get very wearing for the viewer - but thankfully the powerful performances from the cast and the general drama keep things driving along.

And the score? Many of the Stephen Sondheim songs are brilliant and powerfully performed with lush orchestral effects. I thought having actors like Depp and Bonham-Carter suddenly break into song would be silly and out of place, but it DOES work, adding to the drama. I love some of Sondheim's stuff but have never seen any of his musicals on stage ... The style reminded me of "Into The Woods" which was broadcast on TV years back and which I have on DVD - an ironic reworking of several fairytales with the fabulous Bernadette Peters as the Witch - to be recommended!

So, if you're prepared to gird your loins (not to mention stomach) I'd say that "Sweeney Todd" is definitely worth seeing, darlings!

But keep that razor at home, please.

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  • At 6:12 pm , Blogger matty said...

    I really enjoyed this film adaptation. Burton made Sondheim his own. It worked beautifully. ...but, I don't think Big Ben should have been raised yet. ??? lol!

    Anyway, you should check out the DVD of the original B'way show to get a feel for the show from which the movie is based.

    Hard to beat Angela Landsbury. She so totally rock'd.

    I think the big difference with the film vs. the play is that Burton somehow allowed the audience to feel more empathy for the two leads than in the play.

    But, I do think this was one of the best of the year!

  • At 7:24 am , Blogger Steve said...

    So jealous! Karen and I are both big Tim Burton fans (acquired The Corpse Bride and A Nightmare Before Christmas over the Christmas break) - apart from Planet of the Apes - and are dying to see Sweeney Todd... however, as a babysitter is not likely to be forthcoming (and Tom is really still a bit too young to be left with someone else) we've resigned ourselves to getting it on DVD. However, your review is the next best thing until then - so thank you!

  • At 7:57 am , Blogger TimeWarden said...

    I like Helena Bonham Carter but, must admit, it's a while since I've watched her in anything. She was at her most stunning in a film adaptation of "Twelfth Night" along with Imogen Stubbs and Mel Smith, of all people!

    I sometimes find that actors and actresses I admire aren't in productions I want to see while those I don't really care for are usually in things I'm interested in! I'm not that keen on Harrison Ford or Sigourney Weaver, for example, and yet they're the stars of two of my favourite movies!!

  • At 6:58 am , Blogger The Sagittarian said...

    Johnny Depp. Say no more.


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