Friday, December 14, 2007

Murderous Musical Malady

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The long awaited film adaptation of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" has finally arrived, and just as film fanatics have anticipated, rarely has a marriage between project and director been so sinfully sweet.

Death, darkness, Dickensian London, and Depp; what more could Tim Burton fans have asked for?

Musical film adaptations haven't fared too well in recent years, with the energetic "Chicago" and "Dream Girls" exceptions to the deplorably commonplace "Phantom of the Opera" being the rule. With an emphasis on the cliche ridden musician bio pic that seems to appear annually during award season, long gone are the days when the musical was assessed on the same level as a drama.

Not that "Sweeney Todd" is the type of film Oscar blowhards will readily go for. No, Burton's newest film is an exercise in frightening hilarity, at times gruesome, yet almost always consistently engaging and hilarious. Harking back to the dark, over the top humor of "Ed Wood" and interminglingly it with all the best parts of "Sleepy Hollow," "Edward Scissorhands," and hell, even his remake of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Burton finds a striking balance between horror and humor, pushing the Broadway bravado with just the right dose of campiness.

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Burton's love and longtime collaborator Helena Bonham Carter once again perfectly plays the ying to Depp's yang, the perfect couple in every Goth kid's wet dream. Her "special pie" making business fits nicely in the world of Sweeney Todd, outrageous, yet realistic in a place of singing and slaughter. Carter's business proposal to Depp echoes the black comedy "Eating Raoul", and similarly hits all the right notes.

"Todd's" supporting players are as well cast as they are typecast, with Alan Rickman reprising his Snape sneer as the evil Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as his bumbling underling Beadle Bamford, and an over-the-top cameo of Sacha Baron Cohen as Todd's rival Signor Adolfo Pirelli. Rounding out the cast are the relative newcomers who carry the bulk of the best singing, Jayne Wisener as Todd's princess trapped in the tower, Jamie Bower as her sailor in shining armor, and young Ed Sanders as Tobias, an earnest Oliver Twist who almost steals the show with his vocal range.

The veteran cast does an admirable job singing, and while he won't be winning any karaoke competitions against Hugh Jackman anytime soon, Depp does just enough with his limited vocals to soften the visible violence of Todd's anti-hero gaze.

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Violence...ah yes, the violence. For those preteeners and tweeners expecting a cheerfully sweet darkness in this Burton/Depp collabo, please avert your eyes. "Sweeney Todd" loves his blood, and boy, Burton does too. Any hopes for a sweet, maybe even family friendly musical with smidgens of blood better go peddle their wares and hard earned twelve bucks elsewhere. Burton doesn't just show Todd's bloodlust, he drowns us in it.

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From comedic musical montages, to nail biting anticipation for that first hint of blood, Burton makes sure he earns that R rating with gratuitous head drops and spurting blood baths that would make even the most ardent Broadway "Todd" fan squeamish. The violence is pushed to its comedic limits to just the right extreme, and presented in the Burton's always beautifully dark universe bouyed by a backdrop of Stephen Sondheim's romantic score, it's hard not to be glued to the screen.

"The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" may not be for the faint of heart, nor even the most diehard musical fan, but it hits all the right beats that reminds jaded filmgoers once again of what cinematic grandeur really means.

Now for a taste of Depp's makeshift Keith Richards-pirate-homicidal-maniac-musiciality:

And for good measure, one of Depp's early forays into singing, John Waters's magnificently awful, "Cry Baby" (Depp's pipes appear at 2:10):

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