December 30, 2007

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is, point blank, one of the best musical adaptations I have ever seen. There is a lot that is cut out or trimmed down, but unlike most adaptations this one doesn't feel the slightest bit incomplete. The marriage of Tim Burton's nightmarish visuals with a soundscape much closer to the material's theatrical source proves inspired and both the humor and suffering make it to the screen intact.

Benjamin Barker was among the best barbers in London with a beautiful wife and child that meant the world to him. Unfortunately, they also meant the world to one Judge Turpin. The judge in question managed to conjure up charges that resulted in a life sentence to Australia. Now undeniably changed by fifteen bruising years abroad, the man has returned to soot-covered 19th London under a new alias to have his revenge.

The cinematography, very similar to the kind I hated in the fifth Harry Potter movie, works splendidly here. Both bringing to mind a Dickensian industrial-era London and London as filtered through newly-named Sweeney Todd's crazed and obsessive perspective. The lighting and set design force us to see Sweeney's world through Sweeney's eyes. Telling flashbacks reveal the same places and people through Barker's eyes and it is a very different London that is impossibly if subtly dissimilar. It's the blackest of comedies, with a suitably tragic ending, so the look fit it like a glove.

Also inspired was the decision to bring in the stage show's original orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, to map out the score for the screen. Most film adaptations take an orchestra score that was broad and powerful and minimize it into something more intimate — if they use the original score at all. Tunick took the theater orchestration and nearly tripled the number of performers. From the front row of the multiplex, I felt like I was just behind the orchestra pit. The traditional score counterbalanced Burton's twisted and out-there visuals and helped anchor the film.

In terms of performances, the secondary characters are by far the most accomplished vocally. Laura Michelle Kelly has had an extensive and acclaimed career in West End musicals, including a standout performance in the title role for "Mary Poppins." As the street beggar with surprising secrets, she finds a balance between the craziness of a woman driven mad and the vocal clarity expected of a musical performance. I'm not a big fan of sopranos, but Jayne Wisener as is classically trained and nailed what she was given as Johanna. Jamie Campbell Bower and Ed Sanders came into this production unknowns as far as I can tell, but their performances of "Johanna" and "Not While I'm Around" respectively are the standouts of the film.

Alan Rickman doesn't bring anything special vocally, but he doesn't have to. His character is supposed to grate, after all. His Judge Turpin, oozing perverse desire at the expense of virtually all other thought, is a revelation. He is sufficiently menacing and cunning in his early scene with to establish him as a credible threat, but from that point on it is to witness a pedophile coveting poor Benjamin Barker's daughter. Both he and Timothy Spall as the judge's heartless henchman are utterly at home with the theatrical vibe required. Their performances found a perfect equilibrium between the broad strokes necessary in the theater and the more subtle performance enabled by the screen.

The casting of Sacha Baron Cohen was the most troubling going into the picture, but it proved inspired. Signor Adolfo Pirelli, the showy scam artist, is essentially a reflection of Cohen himself. Thanks to the character's final scene, here he gets to play both the caricature and the reality behind the caricature. To his credit, he is as capable performing the latter as he is performing the former. Despite his theatrical instincts, he could be a real actor if he wanted to. And yes, the rumors about him rapping his songs were wrong: he sings and sings more than adequately.

Helena Bonham Carter proves hit or miss vocally, but she has infused Mrs. Lovett with such character and life that I found myself not minding in the slightest. It's the first time one of her performances has really had me sit up and take notice. I'm told that she doesn't play the character nearly as broadly as Angela Lansbury' take, but the humor and quiet longing come through intact. Sweeney is so focused, so single-minded that Mrs. Lovett is the only truly human character for long stretches at a time. Carter brings vivacity and life to the role as well as, at times, a real sense of self-reflection and regret.

Which leaves Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. He is vocally unexceptional, there's no doubt about that. But he indisputably carries the film, and carries it effortlessly. The younger than customary casting of Mrs. Lovett meant that she could have been a viable match for Sweeney, but Depp's performance utterly eliminates that as a possibility. From the moment he learns the fate of his wife and child, or seems to, he is uncompromising in his obsession. Where some predecessors in the role have played Sweeney with crazed abandon, Depp takes the opposite tact. His Sweeney Todd shuts out the world and himself from it. The intensity of his passion rushes forth only in moments of shocking violence. This is a Sweeney Todd that doesn't like to speak, doesn't like to make eye contact, doesn't like to connect. This take on the character adds greater legitimacy to the way events transpire in the final act, because a character would have to be closed off to miss the things that Sweeney misses. But it does place a greater burden on the supporting characters to keep the picture alive.

Despite extensive cuts and reconstruction, Stephen Sondheim's tale of the great British anti-hero is well represented here. The comedy is captured perfectly as is the tragedy. The narrative plays out so logically and completely that any poor soul that enters fresh will have no trouble following the story, right to the gruesome end. Burton doesn't waste time trying to make the characters overly sympathetic, but succeeds wildly at making them compelling. These people are what they are for better and especially for worse, but that's plenty thanks to Sondheim's distillation of the myth and John Logan's expert distillation of Sondheim.(***½)

December 29, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

The National Treasure franchise can be boiled down to this: Likable characters spouting punch lines unravel ridiculous but spectacular pulp fiction mysteries. It's an exceptionally sturdy concept based on well-worn elements that should be able to continue on successfully indefinitely. Neither film thus far is what could be called high entertainment, but it's hard to deny that both are extraordinarily entertaining. Book of Secrets fell short of its predecessor only because I didn't go into the theater expecting trash.

Benjamin Franklin Gates and his crew should be living the good life after their enormous haul from the first film. But as the expression goes, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." Riley is peddling his spectacularly unsuccessful new book on the previous movie's caper when his car is seized by the IRS. Abigail has had enough of living under Ben's obnoxious brilliance, which has in turn left him sleeping on the sofa in his father's living room.

Fortunately, Ed Harris's ultimately sympathetic if thinly-drawn antagonist sweeps in to accuse the Gates' ancestor of collaboration in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He has a missing page of John Wilkes Booth's in his possession, it seems, with the name of Benjamin's great grandfather inscribed on it. The implications and authenticity of the written name are never adequately explained, but the plot point will take our protagonists to Paris so I'm not going to stress about it.

From here the film follows the usual pattern of snapshot history lessons, action set pieces and globetrotting hijinks. An intriguing piece of Olmec-carved driftwood hidden in the Queen's desk drags Ben's mother into the proceedings. Played by Helen Mirren, she's a delightful counter-point to Jon Voight's patriarch. An academic as respected in her field as he is ridiculed, she carries on with a biting, imperial manner that brooks no argument or contradiction. Naturally, she is dragged along with almost no influence on events, her dignity compromised at every turn. The relationship between Ben's parents ultimately resolves itself into an upper crust take on "The Honeymooners."

One of the joys of the first National Treasure was its abundant use of a cross-section of iconic historical imagery. Its follow-up preposterously and spectacularly continues the tradition. This time we get Ford's Theatre, a Statue of Liberty, Buckingham Palace, Mount Vernon plantation, the White House, the Library of Congress and Mount Rushmore. It was once again terrific fun seeing each landmark experienced from unconventional perspective for unbelievable reasons. I wasn't alive for the Saturday serials, but I imagine they must have provided an experience something like this.

Like its predecessor, Book of Secrets fills a void that Hollywood can't seem to understand exists. After the spectacular success of Indiana Jones, we should have been barraged by an onslaught of adventure films driven by ideas instead of depleted ammo. Instead we got endless variations on Lethal Weapon. It took the success of The DaVinci Code in print (which would also be adapted into an enormously successful idea-driven blockbuster) and "The Amazing Race" to green-light the first National Treasure. The fourth Indiana Jones film looks set for spectacular success next summer. Has the end come for blockbusters that celebrate violence for its own sake? Or are we merely enjoying a rare moment while studio executives' heads are out of the sand? Either way, I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.(***)

On a side note, I have to ponder whether all future pictures released under the Walt Disney banner will run cartoons before the feature. The Goofy Home Theater short brought the house down and reminded me of when a Walt Disney picture really was something special.