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Friday, June 5, 2009

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Tim Burton ‘s re-imagined take on Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical is a cheerless stylistic cousin to his stop-animation tales of grue, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS/’‘93 & CORPSE BRIDE/’05. It's a tremendous leap of artistic daring that pays off in his best live-action pic in years*, but it's hardly a complete success. The film opens beautifully as Todd and a sailor he’s met on ship return to a brooding, gloomy picture-book London. Unable to reunite with his wife & child, Todd settles for bloody revenge against his tormentors and, while he’s at it, as much humanity as he can get to sit in his barber’s chair. The horror grows exponentially, but not the black comedy which has been largely jettisoned along with more than a third of the score. And that legendary score is less consistent than theater-goers may recall. Unmemorable ariosi take care of the exposition and backstory while awkward melodic lurches in the concerted sequences are jarring; and then there's the customary Sondheim tic of climactic notes on closed vowel sounds. (At least, the cast isn't forced to strain away eight times a week.) Luckily, the men (and boy) all come off brilliantly (such characterful, accurate singing from Johnny Depp, Sascha Baron Cohen & Alan Rickman), but the three females all underperform. And though there’s more blood on display than you’ll find in a Samurai pic, there's surprisingly little suspense before we reach an ending that feels foreshortened; circumventing the cruelest cut of all and dribbling off to an unsatisfying final fade-out.

*I didn’t see CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY/’05; so sue me. (And please note that our poster is from a 1936 British 'Quota-Quickie' production.)

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