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"SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET"
(2007) (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Musical: A barber sets out to get revenge on the judge who stole his wife and kills many people along the way, thus providing his landlady with a new source for her meat pies.
PLOT:
It's the 19th century and Sweeney Todd (JOHNNY DEPP) -- a.k.a. Benjamin Barker -- has arrived in London along with others, including optimistic young sailor Anthony Hope (JAMIE CAMPBELL BOWER). Fifteen years ago, Barker was a barber, happily married to Lucy (LAURA MICHELLE KELLY), when corrupt Judge Turpin (ALAN RICKMAN) set his sights on the lovely lady and thus had Benjamin arrested and sent off to prison.

Now seeking revenge, Sweeney sets up shop above the restaurant where his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (HELENA BONHAM CARTER), sells the worst meat pies in town. Learning that Turpin has his now grown-up daughter, Johanna (JAYNE WISENER), locked away in his manor, Sweeney's goal is to lure the judge into his barbershop and slit his throat with one of his trusty straight razors.

He gets the chance when Turpin's henchman, Beadle Bamford (TIMOTHY SPALL), observes Sweeney defeat flamboyant barber Adolfo Pirelli (SACHA BARON COHEN) in a shaving contest, and thus refers his boss to the talented man with a sharp blade. The barber misses his chance, however, when Turpin realizes that Sweeney knows Anthony who's recently been wooing Johanna, unbeknownst to her father.

The judge gets away, and thus Sweeney takes out his anger on others, slitting their throats. With the price of quality meat prohibitively high, Mrs. Lovett comes up with the idea of using his victims as her new ingredient, and it's not long before Pirelli's former assistant, the young Tobias Ragg (ED SANDERS), is helping her serve her newly delicious pies to the unsuspecting masses.

With Turpin determined to marry the horrified Johanna, Sweeney waits for his next chance to get the judge in his barber's chair to get his revenge on him.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In a bit of "coincidence or not," upon the morning of writing this artistic review, the Washington Post ran a lifestyle story on the comeback of barbershop shaving services for men. For those too young to remember, that's where a barber would use a hot towel, shaving cream, a sharpening strop and, most importantly, a straight razor to shear off those facial whiskers.

Having only had it done once -- when jettisoning a several-year-old beard many moons ago -- I can say it's something of an intimidating experience, what with an incredibly sharp and fairly large blade being moved around your neck, just centimeters away from some rather important plumbing.

Of course, my reaction could have been that I had recently seen the stage musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" where the title character uses that very barbershop implement to dispatch his victims. Granted, the same has been used for years in various movies (most recently, "Eastern Promises"), but there was something about the way it was done on stage (not to mention what was then done with the resultant bodies) as well as the somewhat hypnotic, operatic music that made quite an impression.

Not surprisingly, the Post article didn't mention the 19th century legend upon which it was based, the resultant movies, plays, the aforementioned musical, or now the grandiose and fairly entertaining, if macabre, latest film adaptation of the tale.

Granted, a movie musical about a murderous barber and his landlady who puts a new spin on the old promotional motto of "the new white meat" would seem to be a hard sale. Yet, just as it proved popular on Broadway and then on tour, the same should hold true here, as the story, characters and music fit comfortably on the big screen.

And much of that is obviously due to director Tim Burton and his merrily grim cast and crew who do the musical apt justice and then some. No stranger to macabre material, Burton is the perfect choice to helm the project, which can also be said about his long-time collaborator Johnny Depp and off-screen love Helena Bonham Carter as the two leads.

With wild hair and blackened eyes, Depp -- who marks his sixth time working with the filmmaker -- looks somewhat like Edward Scissorhands' dear old dad, with the delicious connection being that the younger character would be a chip off the old block, what with his proficiency with sharp blades. Equally decked out with morose makeup, Carter is a terrific match for her costar, and while neither has the pipes to land the same part in a Broadway caliber version of the same, they more than adequately deliver the goods.

Speaking of the singing and music, this is a different beast than most movie musicals, as Stephen Sondheim's arrangements are more akin to opera than usual fare found of recent in pics such as "Chicago," "Dreamgirls" or even "Rent." While some view the material as the next best thing since sliced bread, everyday viewers probably won't walk away humming many, if any, of the songs, and it did take me a while to warm up to the arrangements (just as occurred long ago when watching the stage version). That said, once it connects, it works quite well, and it grew on me with each passing moment and number.

Alan Rickman is deliciously malevolent as ever playing the villain, Timothy Spall is fun as his henchman, Ed Sanders is good as the young boy who doesn't initially realize what's really in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, and Sacha Baron Cohen nearly steals the show as a rival barber in an extended cameo.

Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower, however, are less successful in the parts of the barber's long-lost daughter and the young sailor who's in love with her, mainly because those parts have been truncated from the stage version (if memory serves me correctly) and their budding romance doesn't have time to build into anything over which most viewers will care. Tech credits, however, are superb across the board -- even if this one will resemble some of highly detailed if mostly monochromatic set and costume designs found in some of Burton's other films -- and should reap various award nominations.

While certainly not for all viewers, and even if it takes a bit to gain viewer engagement and traction, the film turns out to be, pardon the obligatory pun, fairly bloody fun for those looking for an unusual, but surprisingly engaging and entertaining movie musical. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed December 6, 2007 / Posted December 21, 2007


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