Movie News & Reviews

Demon darkness

I've seen "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Tim Burton's visceral (in every sense of the word) re-creation of Stephen Sondheim's beloved, macabre stage musical, twice now -- and I'm still a little ambivalent about it.

Of course, when you make a movie where Johnny Depp slits people's throats and breaks out into song while doing it, and the corpses end up as filling for meat pies (and you release the film during that holiest of holidays), it'll no doubt leave many audience members polarized. That is, if moviegoers take the plunge and go see it. Yet, for a movie where the blood pours out of necks like Alize flows at an open bar during a Roc-A-Fella record release party, I found it to be a bit bloodless.

Burton has mostly truncated (pardon the pun) "Todd," cutting (pardon me again) songs and sequences to get to the meat of the story: Depp's tortured barber looking to exact revenge on the depraved judge (Alan Rickman) who wrongly sent him up the river for 15 years, used and abused his wife -- who later poisoned herself -- and made his teenage daughter a ward. Todd hopes to lure the judge to his chair for a once-in-a-lifetime shave. Until then, he'll test his murderous methods on other unsuspecting customers, sending the remains down to his fledgling pie-making landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter).

Before I go further, I must say you probably won't see a whiter couple at the movies this season than Depp and Bonham Carter. (And yes, I know there is a movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts coming out today.) Both actors are visualized -- fetishized is more like it -- by Burton as blindingly pale peas in a pod. It's as if their characters from "Corpse Bride," Burton's last stop-motion animation movie, have materialized into flesh.

With "Todd," Burton has basically made a vampire movie without the fangs or the romanticism. (It's no coincidence that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" watcher Anthony Head shows up as a face in the crowd.) Every time Depp's barber slides his razor around another throat, it becomes less about filling a vengeful, homicidal and eventually financial void, and more about draining people of the life and spirit that's been taken away from him.

Unfortunately, Burton goes about draining audiences of life and spirit as well. By the time I caught the film a second time, the combination of Dariusz Wolski's effectively drab and murky cinematography, Sondheim's sweeping, lulling score and John Logan's sullen, ill-tempered script left me feeling a bit drowsy while watching it. (This isn't to say "Todd" doesn't have its moments. A fantasy sequence where a smitten Carter imagines a life "by the sea" with a consistently deadpan Depp is certainly a keeper.)

With the exception of Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat), who briefly shows up as a garish Italian rival of Todd's, the cast keeps things gloomy. Depp spends so much time sulking and scowling that the only time he -- and the movie -- sparks with energy is when he sings, or shall we say, tries to sing.

I have to admit, Depp's limited vocal range (he's so obviously aping Bowie, why Burton didn't hire Bowie to dub his vocals is beyond me) began to grow on me. The lush numbers "My Friends" and "Pretty Women" are the movie's musical high points.

Bonham Carter (aka Burton's boo) is another matter. Her chirpy, tinny vocals are passable once, but you may not want to deal with them a second time. Even the dozen or so shots Burton captures of Bonham Carter's corset-enhanced bosom can't distract you from that.

When you reach the abrupt, bleak, eventually gory finale, you may have already realized that "Todd" was never about bringing the musical to life on the big screen. It's actually about a director visually yelling from the rafters that he is still one dark dude.

Burton seems so intent on letting people know he is back in morose mode -- back in the "Beetlejuice"/"Batman"/"Edward Scissorhands" mode that so many have wanted him to revisit instead of helming big-budget remakes like "Planet of the Apes" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" -- that "Sweeney Todd," ambitious and admirable as it is, nearly blackens itself into oblivion.

Yeah, I love Tim Burton when he's dark too. But, if you remember, "Batman" was dark -- and it still kept us awake.