Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a dark incantation of the old Stephen Sondheim stageplay and musical. Having seen the play twice, one with the special barber chair and one scaled down without the chair, I can say that the movie is darker. I didn’t think that possible. But then again, we’re dealing with Tim Burton, the director who could out-dark knight Batman.

Sweeney Todd is an opera without operatic singers. The main players are Johnny Depp as Sweeney, Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, and Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin. None of those fine actors has any singing chops, but it really doesn’t matter. Their singing voices are edged with realism and tragedy, and it’s obvious Burton made the right decision to cast with actors, not singers.

Sweeney Todd returns from 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was sent there by Judge Turpin, who coveted Sweeney’s beautiful wife. When Sweeney returns, he has one thing on his mind, revenge, and is helped in that endeavor by piemaker Mrs. Lovett. Mrs. Lovett makes the “worst pies in London,” but Sweeney’s new passion helps her solve her marketing problem.

It’s London at its worst, at its most real, Victorian London where, if you’re not rich, you lead a hazardous existence, especially if you’re a penniless child or woman. The sets and cinematography are breathtaking. And so is the blood.

The blood was too much for me. Well, not really the blood, but how it was obtained. This is a very gruesome movie. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has nothing on Sweeney Todd.

However, if you can get past the realistic violence, I suggest you do: Sweeney Todd is the best that movies can do with staged theatre. The movie is the most vivid explanation of why revenge will consume you, and of the consequences for that one emotion.

Come for the music, those glorious Sondheim tunes. Stay for the pie. Thumb’s up.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Few directors do political comedy as well as Mike Nichols. Few writers do smart dialogue as well as Aaron Sorkin. Together they have given us one of the best films of 2007: Charlie Wilson's War.

Part of the beauty of this film is that it is a smart ensemble piece: it has huge stars in it (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts) but they play nicely with others here to create an intelligent account of one of the weirder bits of recent American history. They are joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is wonderful as always, Amy Adams, and a cast of lesser known names every one of which shines.

Yes, it is a political movie, but it didn't feel ponderous or preachy. It does explain, without going all pedantic on us, how Afghanistan became a refuge for Muslim religious fanatics. It reminds us that the Cold War may be over, but that it will haunt us for a long, long time. It also reminds us that there was once a time when liberals and conservatives didn't agree on much, but they could work together and get things done: imagine that.

It does all that and is still a darn good time, judging from the laughter tonight in the theater. Thumb's up!