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Sunday, Dec 23, 2007


Many fans forget that Jackie Chan’s reputation is built on not one but two solid cinematic foundations. Sure, there’s the undeniable martial artistry and death wish stunt work, his crackerjack ability to defy gravity, physics, and human endurance to deliver some of the most mesmerizing set pieces in the history of Hong Kong action. But there is also Jackie Chan the comedian, the sensational throwback to the days when slapstick and physical humor ruled the motion picture landscape. Yet many fail to embrace that side of his performance persona. Thanks to his treatment by Tinsel Town, a myopic view that sees him as a trademark first, an actor second, he hasn’t had much opportunity to let his genial side show. Now, thanks to a return to his home turf, 2006’s Robin B Hood gives us the best of both Chans.


Thongs and Octopus are two of the most accomplished thieves in all of Asia. They are also two of the most troubled. One is a compulsive gambler, the kind that spends his money even before he’s earned it. The other is a craven womanizer, married and miserable while dating several other available ladies. Under the tutelage of their leader, Landlord, the trio makes a fine living. Too bad the cash disappears before they can really enjoy it. When a job comes along to kidnap an infant, the threesome initially balks. The $3 million payday has them quickly shifting into abduction mode. But when Landlord lands in jail, Thongs and Octopus must watch the baby for a week - and with the insane tycoon who hired them desperate for the child, they’ll have to battle the standard toddler growing pains, as well as attacks from some thugs and raids by the police, in order to survive.


Leaping from genre to genre like a freaked out frog and offering up every cinematic element in the book, Robin B Hood (also known as Rob-B-Hood) is a wonderfully overstuffed treat. Pursuing both comedy and tragedy, heartfelt redemption and cartoon like chaos, this is the kind of film that Asian audiences crave. Very much like the Bollywood productions from India that won’t settle for one type of entertainment within a single storyline, this fast paced farce is part Three Men and a Baby, part Police Story era thriller, utilizing everything from musical inserts to high speed car crashes to wow the viewer. Thanks to Genius Products, their Dragon Dynasty Collection, and its ongoing desire to provide Western audiences with the best in Eastern cinema, this new two disc DVD offers supplements and insights into why these sorts of films are so popular. It also illustrates how hard it is to pull one off.


The main element that requires getting used to is the massive shifts in tone. One minute, Chan’s Thongs and his pal Octopus, played brilliantly by Louis Koo, will be trading witty repartee and repelling off the sides of skyscrapers ala Hudson Hawk. The next, Chan will be facing a disgraced family while his partner tells his devastated wife to take a bus to have an abortion. You can have real melodrama one moment, fights with infant feces the next. These frequent filmic slaps in the face are definitely unusual to audiences used to consistent tone and narrative equilibrium. But in the fast paced production designs of Hong Kong, it is complete crowd pleasing on the grandest of scales. If you require a confrontation between father and son, or a moment of misogyny between husband and spouse, so be it. As long as it puts butts in the seats, everything is celluloid copacetic.


And there’s no denying how effective it can be. Chan is amazing here, running the gamut of emotions from good natured cut up to torn apart guardian. His last act pleading for the life of the child is almost too painful to watch. Many make little of this actor’s abilities outside of stuntwork, but Chan is a natural, adept at both acrobatics and emoting. Koo is equally good, giving a shamed sense of purpose to his outsized appetites. Even when his expensive cars are eventually towed, and his high living persona is punctured, he comes across as calculated and cocksure. It’s only when he connects with his tiny co-star that his real humanity begins to bleed through.


Director Benny Chan, working from a script co-written by his same name superstar, keeps the pace brisk and the action lively. There’s a first act hospital chase that’s filled with surprises, and a second act city street free for all that moves at the speed of a sports car. Of course, once we reach the amusement park and the strange estate of our lead villain, it’s one over the top fight scene after another. Oddly enough, the most memorable bits are the small, hand to hand moments - Chan moving about a doorway to subdue an attacker, his air conditioner to air conditioner descent down the side of a building. Even when the story gets squirrely (the whole reason for the kidnapping is telegraphed early and rather illogical), the man behind the lens keeps us connected, both visually and psychologically.


As part of the DVD, we get to hear from the filmmaker as he talks to film scholar Bey Logan. On the enclosed commentary track, they discuss the frequent forays into tearjerker mode, and explain the problems facing any film where a baby is endangered. On the second disc, Chan himself defends the need for drama and agrees with that age old adage about working with kids. We also get the standard making-of material that shows how incredibly complicated the stunt choreography is. One slip - and they happen too often for comfort - and an actor is bleeding from the head, or on their way to the hospital. It’s one of the subconscious thrills of a martial arts/Asian action film. There’s a real sense of danger as human beings, not CGI replications of same, shimmy off rooftops and flip through the air.


As he’s aged it’s clear that Chan is no longer the light footed, foolhardy risk taker he once was. You’re not going to see him vault between trains, or fall through panes of breakaway glass. Instead, his recent output has concentrated on bringing a balance between the daring-do that brought him fame (and undeniable fortune), and the clear limits placed on his 50-plus year body. Projects like The Myth and The Twin Effects films have shown that said equilibrium remains elusive. But by going back to the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton influence of his earliest persona, and exploring every possible entertainment option, he’s stumbled upon a winner. There will be those who lament the lack of nonstop hardcore histrionics, wondering what’s happened to the real Jackie Chan. Obviously, they don’t know this multifaceted talent at all. If they did, they’d see Robin B Hood for what it is - pure Chan magic.


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Saturday, Dec 22, 2007


In a year which saw more cinematic wind and whining wasted on the War in Iraq than any other issue facing our fading nation, The Kingdom can claim all the joyful jingoistic mantle. It’s an amazing movie, a rock solid thriller as brutal as it is blind. It’s randy ra-ra Americanism is so undeniably entertaining that you don’t even mind the Red State revisionism. Peter Berg, an actor whose ability behind the lens has been uneven at best, really delivers in big, broad action movie strokes - and when compared to the self-pitying pandering that passed itself off as “War is Hell” handwringing in 2007, its cheerful chest pounding is in the right place. It may not win us any friends across the sea, and definitely paints Muslims as indoctrinating villains, but we’re so blinded by the strategic stars and stripes placed before our sense of justice that we too call for blood.


When a suicide bombing destroys a US compound inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the FBI wants to investigate. Unfortunately, the government of the oil rich country doesn’t allow outsiders into their internal police affairs. This doesn’t stop Special Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) from bringing together specialists Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). With a little blackmail persuasion, the Feds are given five days, and the help of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom), to observe and then leave. Naturally, the Americans’ presence, along with the evidence they uncover, puts their own lives in mortal danger. And as foreigners on unfriendly soil, there is no guarantee of protection.


On the commentary track accompanying the new DVD release from Universal, director Berg acknowledges that there will be some who take this movie the wrong way. While prostylitizing writer Matthew Michael Carnahan may have the best intentions ever for all this anti-Arab race-baiting, (he’s as insanely ideological here as he was in his overwrought scripting of Lions for Lambs), what we wind up with more times than not is mustache twirling scoundrels decked out in Middle Eastern garb. Berg apologizes for any offense to sensibility, and wants to make it clear that this is as much a tribute to Saudi Arabia as it is a critique. Constantly referencing the cooperation he received, and the concern voiced by many Muslims on set, we are to infer that the resulting film is a formidable meeting of the minds. Sadly, that’s some specious conjecture at best.

Indeed, this film is brazen in its “all Arabs are evil” philosophy and unrepentant in showing the carnage that results from such a simplified stance, The Kingdom is like a James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration where neither party is participating. It’s manipulative, manic, and just a tad manufactured. It raises more issues than it ever wants to address, and boils all Muslim culture down to a series of backwards belief systems. Granted, as in all stereotyping, there are snippets of truth here and there, and when dealing with a crime that is merely mimicking actual events that have played out before, truth is a defense to such defamatory stances. But what’s most fascinating about The Kingdom is how readily we buy into the xenophobia, and how satisfying it is to see our brave men and women kick some true believer butt.


One does have to get over the hurdle of the opening atrocities, however. Without giving too much away, this pre-planned attack will shoot at single mothers, run over children, blow-up ball players and, eventually, elevate all three to something almost impossible to comprehend. The scale of this event is massive, and its impact on an audience is truly disturbing. Add to this the ineffectual CSI skills of the Saudi police (their main detecting device – beating confessions out of possible co-conspirators) and the basic mentality that what happens in the Arab world stays within the tightly wound region, and you’ve got a perfect storm of storytelling subterfuge.


Viewed as liberators – at least when it comes to the facts – Jamie Foxx and his group of high profile performers are actually quite believable as crime scene experts. Each gets their own important moment of detecting denouement, with the Oscar winner for Ray running ramshackle over the double talk speaking soldiers. It’s one of Foxx’s best performances, since it’s grounded in a reality that keeps him from being a total swaggering ass. Equally good are Jennifer Garner as a kind of forensics pathologist (she scans corpses for clues) and Chris Cooper, who’s the grizzled yet game old timer who really knows his way around a bomb crater. In combination with Bateman, whose nothing more than a computer nerd novice and a potential last act plot device, we have a no nonsense bunch who’ll get to the bottom of this case. And since the narrative is structured in such a way as to demand retribution, we can’t wait for these champions to divide and conquer.


And they do so in spectacular fashion. Over the course of his career behind the camera, actor Berg has become an accomplished filmmaker. Previous efforts like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights won’t quite prepare you for the motion picture professionalism he shows here. There are several spectacular stunt sequences that rate right up there with the best the genre has to offer, and his ability to mix in shards of humanity speaks to his growing artist acumen. In the commentary, he gives credit to his editors for making his many shots seamlessly merge together. And as part of the DVD packaging, a pair of onset documentaries goes into exquisite detail about the free for all finale, from brutal car crash to full blown bullet ballet.


Yet The Kingdom is such a strong entertainment, such a substantial us vs. them example of wish fulfillment that it’s easy to ignore the many mixed messages. Basically, the film is a brutal Wild West shoot ‘em up ported over to the Middle East and given a glossy, post-9/11 reading. It will invigorate the most dormant sense of citizenship, and have you cheering in places that should give you pause. Even the ending stacks the deck in favor of the fallen. It involves a single whispered sentiment, and how its meaning can be manipulated depending on the nature of the individual offering it. After all the cheering and jeering within the audience, it’s a weird way of providing closure. Clearly Berg and Carnahan think it’s clever. They may be the only ones to understand its true meaning. Viewers may misinterpret it as a call to arms.


 


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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007


For the weekend beginning 21 December, here are the films in focus:


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [rating: 10]


As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007.

The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece.    read full review…


Charlie Wilson’s War [rating: 8]


Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort.


Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story [rating: 8]


The celebrity biopic has become the disaster film of cinematic spoof material. So forced and formulaic that it comes across like a politician’s debate answers, it’s a genre that practically parodies itself - as long as one’s working in clichés. Like the chum on any side of a format that’s jumped the shark, comedy genius Judd Apatow, and his current collaborator Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence), are ready to pick the category’s carcass clean. The result is Walk Hard, a stunningly stupid and wildly hilarious farce that finds solid supporting player John C. Reilly playing the title character, a nimrod rube who uses the tragic death of his brother (and the resulting olfactory malfunction he suffers from) as his ticket to the top. Included along the way are spot on riffs regarding Elvis, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles, along with the typical familial farce that accompanies such rags to riches ridiculousness. While not as tight as Knocked Up or as scatological as Superbad, Walk Hard is one of the year’s biggest surprises. Yet when you consider the creative minds behind it, such a triumph is more or less a given.


National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets [rating: 4]


There was a time when action movies were big, dumb, loud, and mindless - and those were all positive attributes. Buffed up actors spouting crass one liners were the standard hero du jour, and everything had a Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok tendency to blow up…blow up real good. So it’s easy to forgive the latest installment in the burgeoning National Treasure franchise, Book of Secrets, for being so unconscionably stupid. What it can’t gain absolution from is how dull it all is. Dealing with the assassination of Lincoln, the discovery of the fabled lost City of Gold, and the role played by a member of the Gates ancestry in both (potentially), we have Nicholas Cage back as our sleepwalking savior, a treasure hunter in possession of all the possibilities and very little panache. He is joined by fellow Oscar winners Jon Voight and Helen Mirren as blindly bickering parents. Add in the nonstop, non-comic chatter of computer geek sidekick Justin Bartha and vacant love interest Diane Kruger and you’ve got a cast going nowhere fast. Even the mandatory action is lame and uninvolving. As by the book spectacles go, this is barely a pulp paperback. It’s more like an incomplete pamphlet.


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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War [dir. Mike Nichols]


Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen.


While on a ‘fact finding mission’ in a Las Vegas hot tub loaded with strippers and cocaine, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson learns of the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wondering why the US hasn’t responded to such a blatant act of invasion, he soon discovers that no one considers the situation a threat. But when Houston socialite Joanne Herring asks him to look into some covert funding for the freedom fighters, their longstanding relationship fuels Wilson’s interest. Before long, the Congressman is visiting refugee camps and bringing his fight to the floor of his House Subcommittee. With the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos and many insider connections, Wilson discovers what the Afghanis need - surface to air missiles that can take down the plague of Russian helicopters decimating the landscape. Getting the money won’t be easy, but with his reputation both in and outside of the Rotunda, if anyone can do it, Charlie Wilson can.


At this point in his illustrious career, Mike Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would blame him for such passivity. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the emerging ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant proto-slacker statement, The Graduate), but has also helmed other symbols of cinematic significance like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, Nichols is less than nimble. His tendency is to beat people over the head with his stances, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). It’s not a terrible habit - many of the movies he’s made have the same entertainment spark as his commercial successes (Working Girl, The Birdcage). But those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.


Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Nichols can be accused of pandering or taking sides. The script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular in that regard. And Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.


It’s not that obvious at first. Tom Hanks, handling the lead roll like he’s just been cast in The Rat Pack Swing Washington, is all beaming smiles and smacked female backsides. He’s James Bond without the continental charms and license to kill. At first, Wilson seems to be formed out of swaggers and excess appetites. Even when he takes up the cause in Afghanistan, it’s more of a show of personal power (he’s the key vote that many of his fellow politicians count on) than a real concern or cause. During these sequences of backdoor wheeling and debauchery fueled dealing, Nichols lulls us into a sense of satiric complacency. We wonder how a movie so mired in moxie is going to turn around and deliver the proper policy denouement.


And then we move to the battlefield. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, Wilson views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves. These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2007 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change.


As the baffles which this character careens off of, Nichols provides two stellar stalwarts. Looking a lot less glamorous than her rich witch Texas money baroness would bear out, Julie Roberts is excellent as Joanne Herring. With untold wealth to waste and Wilson as her power pawn, she’s more than just a bank account. There’s a brilliant scene where a post-coital Herring reapplies her face, and the diligence and dedication she shows in putting on this powder and pancake façade is just fabulous. Besides, Roberts has great chemistry with Hanks. One could easily see the two helming a series of retro-romantic comedies. They’re so winning, so endearingly effervescent that you can’t help but love them.


But the real maverick here is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the gruff, gritty Greek CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos, the kind of man whose done it all and seen it all. His no nonsense, world weary wisdom is a breath of protocol breaching candor in rooms full of stagnant Washington air. He’s the cutting edge to Wilson’s wide-eyed optimism, the calculated con to the Congressman’s cheerleading pro. If he wasn’t already an established star, it’s the kind of performance that would elevate an actor’s game. As the fulcrum between Hanks and Roberts, the realistic against their pert smile optimism, Hoffman is sensational.


And so is the rest of the film. Nichols does a good job of balancing moments of meaning against just plain partying. Wilson is viewed as a hard drinking womanizer, but there are times when the director let’s Hanks get reflective and hurt. They work to keep the film from falling over into parody. Similarly, the last act revitalization of the Afghan forces has a wonderful Fox News fakeness to it. It makes it easy to forget that this is the same rebellion that will eventually revert to Islamic fundamentalism and provide a proving ground for future terrorists in training. Nichols doesn’t let us off the hook either. During a balcony scene between Hanks and Hoffman, a sound is heard that reminds us of why Wilson’s fervor eventually became his folly.


Of course, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be. Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or films like All the President’s Men. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. 


 



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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [dir. Tim Burton]


The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece. 


So fans of Stephen Sondheim had ever reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.


Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.


When we first meet Sweeney Todd, he is returning to London after a long stint in prison. Jailed by a jealous Judge named Turpin for crimes he did not commit, the former Benjamin Barker learns that his beautiful wife was raped, and later committed suicide. Even worse, his equally attractive daughter Johanna has been taken in as the Magistrate’s ward. Desperate for retribution, Todd decides to take up his old profession - barbering - only this time, his clients won’t be leaving his shop through the front door. Upon meeting and conspiring with the impoverished pie merchant Mrs. Lovett, Todd attempts to reestablish his trade.


He challenges Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli to a shaving competition, and with the win, must face the dandy’s considerable wrath. In the meantime, a young sailor has fallen for Todd’s teenage daughter, and warns the barber of the terrible news - Turpin is in love with her, and is planning on taking her as his bride. Through murder, the anguished father will work his way to the man he feels is responsible for his miserable fate. It will also help Mrs. Lovett’s failing shop, as meat for her pies is hard to come by…


There are two ways to look at Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd - both of them successful. Fans of the original may wince at a few of the obvious edits (no “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, a truncated “City on Fire”) yet should embrace the stark and quite stunning way in which the film illustrates Sondheim’s main symbol - the shedding of blood as a balm for the troubled soul. While the truth of this legend’s actual existence may never be fully known (people still swear Todd was a real person, without any proof of same), the notion of his mark as a frightening figure of unhinged justice is fully realized. Both tragic and terrifying, without pity and full of passion, Sweeney Todd is a crushed spirit working out his anguish in rivers of the red stuff, one slit throat at a time.


Anyone unfamiliar with the show, or simply showing up to see Johnny Depp deliver another remarkable acting turn will also come away more than satisfied. In a career arc that’s seen its fair share of experimentation and excess, the now marketable mainstream superstar is absolutely brilliant here. It’s a risky role - the music lacks a standard pop song structure, and for all his glorified depression, Todd remains a wicked, wicked man - but thanks to his undeniable talent, Depp turns a figure of immense evil into something somber and quite sad. He is not the bombastic vocal presence of a Len Cariou (the original Great White Way Todd) or George Hearn, but his performance of the musical material is heartbreaking. He syncs up flawlessly with Sondheim’s sentiments, resulting in the most menacing, mercurial Todd ever.


His is matched equally well by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Unlike the stage versions of the character, which hinge on a broad based sense of surrealistic bawdy cockney slapstick to sell the cannibalism, this version of the pie merchant is all grime and desperation. Lovett is not comic relief or audience friendly joviality. She’s a shattered soul, just like Todd, and her ready kinship and scheming with the barber is never forced or implausible. Carter may possess the smallest of voices, but like Depp, she delivers in the mandatory emotional ranges. During their brilliant bits of byplay (the clever ” A Little Priest”) or her shattering solo spots (the hilarious “By the Sea”), Lovett is the levelheaded version of Todd’s evil. She wants the same results that he does - and by some accounts, a whole lot more.


The remainder of the cast is just outstanding. Timothy Spall is like a vile Victorian woodcarving come to life as the disgusting, devilish Beadle Bamford. Alan Rickman is also marvelously malevolent as the vile Judge Turpin. The movie’s brief bits of comedy are handled with amazing adeptness by Borat‘s Sacha Baron Cohen, and little Ed Sanders is a sensational Tobias Raggs. He handles the seminal song “Not While I’m Around” with a beautiful bravery. Since their roles are reduced here, the actors playing Johanna and Anthony don’t get much screen time. But both Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower offer powerful voices and memorable moments.


But it’s Burton who ends up the true hero, his eye for the unusual and the downtrodden in full, flowering effect. Aside from the gallons of grue, he works in a very muted palette, the almost black and whiteness of his color scheme leaving room for lots and lots of blood. This is Grand Guignol glorification, a movie that celebrates arterial spray in ways genre efforts can’t embrace. Every spurting throat, every gaping wound, is an extension of Todd’s pent up anguish. He needs release, and the only way it can be found is via the blade. But Burton’s not just a slave to the slice and dice. He stages the many songs in a smaller, more minor note, keeping the multifaceted emotions inside Sondheim’s occasionally obtuse lyrics front and center.


The result is the year’s finest cinematic experience, a movie completely awash in its own outsized elements and internalized treats. Like all great artists, the talent involved here didn’t dishonor Sondheim, but instead, they make the material their own. That’s the true test of any adaptation. Perhaps the reason other recent musicals have failed is because of a disingenuous desire to stay true to the original while modernizing (or in other cases, pointlessly modifying) the source to satisfy unclear demographical concerns. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is proof that, when left to their own devices, the gifted will give over to something quite special. The undeniable greatness exhibited here certainly supports such a conclusion.


 



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