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Sunday, December 23, 2007

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Posted By on Sun, Dec 23, 2007 at 1:48 PM

MOVIEGOER REVIEW:  SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

Christmas seems an odd time for a Tim Buton-Johnny Depp-Helena Bonham Carter dark, horror-filled bloodfest.  This is a movie that should have debuted on Halloween to theaters packed with screaming kids and people in constumes.  But instead, thinking they had a real Oscar contender on their hands, the producers thought that December 22 would be an ideal time to roll out the film nationwide.  Bah-humbug, I say.

"Sweeney Todd," adapted from the London musical Steven Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler is an excersize in why certain theater productions need to stay at the theater, especially when it involved a high octane director like Tim Burton.  Sitting through the film, which was an odd and comedic experience of egregious blood spurting, I was reminded of every bad movie musical that I've seen recently:  "Hairspray," "Dreamgirls," "Phantom of the Opera," to name a few.  Each one of these productions fell flat for reasons I predicted: their grandness could not be replicated on a moviehouse screen.

This is a lesson Mr. Burton and Mr. Sondheim (who had to re-work much of the production's music) should have learned before venturing off into moviemaking hell.   "The original Broadway "Sweeney," directed by Harold Prince, was a big-picture masterpiece that placed the show's luridness in a distancing Dickensian social framework," wrote Ben Brantley of The New York Times.  That's enough to explain why a film venture was doomed to failed expectations.

Tim Burton's film's all feel the same to me.  They're dark and mopey and weird.  But not the kind of weird that stretches the imagination to new and exciting places (his remakes of "Planet of the Apes" and "Batman" make you want to stop going to the movies all together).  His films are the equivalent of a lazy painter who alters the same canvas just enough to trick the untrained, unsophisticated eye.

And perhaps that helps explain why Mr. Burton chose Johnny Depp (a magnificent actor miscast here) for this role.  I won't chide Mr. Depp for his singing (it sounded fine to me), but at what point is he (Mr. Depp, I mean) going to decide that play time is over.  An actor of Mr. Depp's talent shouldn't be slumming this way any longer.  The same could also be said Helena Bonham Carter, who also in this film playing the same character she played in Mr. Burton's 2003 film "Big Fish."  But she happens to be Mr. Burton's wife, so her situation is a bit more complicated. Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall round out a cast that just doesn't fit, not anywhere, not at any time. 

The biggest mistake the movie musical makes is that it assumes that movie actors must play all the key roles.  It's a stupid premise, based more on box office mojo than on making a quality film.  Yes, Jennifer Hudson and Nikki Blonsky are obvious exceptions, but if you take a look at every movie musical over the past five years, it's hard to find many people who truly fit with the spirit of the production (and no, Catherine Zeta Jones, despite receiving a statue of her own, is not a good answer).

Admittedly, I was prepared to be swept away by "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Instead, I found myself sitting there, giggling, as people around me gave up and walked out on the movie.

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