Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Bloody Good Show

** out of ****

Premiering on Broadway in 1979, Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (adapted from Christopher Bond's play of the same name), makes it to the big screen 28 years later -- just in time for Christmas.

Directed by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp plays the title role in his sixth collaboration with the director and fifth collaboration with female lead Helena Bonham Carter.

Revolving around the themes of revenge, murder, poverty and cannibalism, this sure isn't "Mamma Mia!"

Set in a dreary 18th century London, "Sweeney Todd" tells the infamous story of Benjamin Barker (Depp), a barber, wrongfully accused and sent away by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) with the help of his sailor friend, Beadle Barnford (Timothy Spall). Turpin's motive is to get to Barker's wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) for whom he longingly covets.

Returning 15 years later to London with the alias Sweeney Todd, Barker hopes to be reunited with his wife and daughter and to seek out revenge on Turpin and Barnford.

Sweeney Todd opens his barber shop above Mrs. Lovett's (Bonham Carter) Meat Pie Shop, which she sings about in "The Worst Pies in London." Lovett and Todd partner in a heinous relationship. Upstairs, Todd slits the throats of his customers, while downstairs she'll fillet their meat into her pies. Sweeney lures his customers with a guarantee of "the closest shave you'll ever know."

Being sidetracked from his main goal and with the body count piling up, Todd is driven to exact revenge with nothing to stop him in this dark musical.

While with most films you wish the second half could have been as good as the first, the opposite holds true for "Sweeney Todd."

Finally gaining momentum after a sleepy first act, the film maintains a high energy until the satisfying end.

Burton orchestrates the stylized, large-scale production, having the camera zoom up and down the streets of the gloomy London landscape to establish much of the film's mood in a way that is eye candy for the viewer. Many kudos go out to the cinematographer, set designers and costume and make-up departments. Most of the film looks black-and-white. Until, of course, the blood gushes out in Tarantino-like quantities, looking almost cartoonish, to create an outstanding visual effect.

Johnny Depp, looking similar to his "Edward Scissorhands" character (his first film with Burton), is magnificent as Sweeney Todd in an award-worthy performance. He displays a strong singing voice.

The big surprise is Bonham Carter with some of the best lines in the movie. Her voice is soft, elegant and tuneful, but can't overcome the comparisons to Angela Lansbury's performance on Broadway.

The supporting cast keeps the film afloat. One surprise is a small role played by Sacha Baron Cohen as a faux Italian shyster.

Barely a word not spoken in song, Sondheim's lyrics are clever and witty for the most part, but the lines played just for laughs fall flat.

While "Sweeney Todd" is a musical, it isn't one for the whole family.

Like Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, "Sweeney Todd" is an acquired taste.

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