guppy's film reviews

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Year: 2007
Director: Tim Burton
Notable Actors: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
Score: A-
Summary: Top-notch execution of perhaps the most morbid musical ever made.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a film adaptation of a famous Stephen Sondheim musical. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have never seen the production, though of course I'm familiar with the basics, so this review will necessarily be focused on the execution of the film and not its faithfulness to the original production. I am told that a few songs have been excised from this version, but I have no firsthand knowledge of it.

It would be wise to familiarize oneself with the premise before going to decide if Todd is up your alley or not, because it won't be to everyone's taste. It's extremely morbid and fairly gruesome. As with the musical, the film follows Sweeney Todd's return to London and his quest for revenge on Judge Turpin (Rickman), the man who exiled him and stole his wife. Todd (Depp), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, is a barber and plans to murder him. While he's at it he begins murdering other customers as well, and Mrs. Lovett (Carter) -- the lady who runs the meat pie shop below -- turns them into meat pies and sells them. I told you it was morbid. You'd never expect something like this from the guy responsible for Into The Woods. It is, however, prime Burton fodder. (Another disclosure: I'm a longtime Burton fan.)

The first thing to note is the visuals. Burton made a highly effective choice with his palettes; the occasional flashbacks to Todd's idyllic past are vivid and brightly colored, but the scenes taking place in the present are cast in muted blues and yellows and reflect the darkness of the scenes unfolding in them. The set design is effective as well; the locales pictured do an excellent job of evoking the desired moods, particularly Todd's barbershop and Mrs. Lovett's hellish bakehouse.

The second, of course, is the singing -- this is a musical, after all. The major cast is fairly famous, which means they were cast as actors first and singers second; fortunately, they're all at least serviceable singers. The weakest link musically is probably Helena Bonham Carter, whose voice is a bit thin for the job, but she carries it reasonably well, and truth be told I can't see anyone else in the role. She pulls off exactly the right sort of unhealthy look for meat pie shop proprietress Mrs. Lovett. Depp and Rickman are both adequate as well. All three shine during the parts with vocal harmonies, which are probably the best moments musically. Depp and Rickman are also good fits for the acting roles; Rickman showed his talent at turning on the sleaze as Snape in the Harry Potter films, and Depp's intensity is very much appropriate for the off-the-hinges Todd. It's worth noting that this is the first role for Todd's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), and they appear to have taken the opportunity to cast an excellent singer for the part -- she's unquestionably the strongest voice in the cast.

As I said, Sweeney Todd isn't for everyone. There's a lot of gore, although it doesn't look particularly real, and even without that the story is pretty macabre. But if you've got the stomach for it, it's a terrifically well-made production that's very much worth your time.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend

We're back after a long time in which there wasn't much worth seeing!

Director: Francis Lawrence
Notable Actors: Will Smith, Alice Braga
Score: A-
Summary: Very well-made post-apocalyptic survival story with top-notch acting.

When I first saw the trailers for I Am Legend, I didn't know what to think. There have been a lot of post-apocalyptic stories told before, but I was intrigued enough to go check it out, and I'm very glad I did.

While the opening scene is strong, Legend's basic setup is unremarkable for its type: following a huge viral catastrophe, we follow what may be the only survivor of the human race. It departs from that blueprint immediately, though, as the survivor is actually fairly well-equipped and well-trained, and rather than simply trying to survive, he is trying to rectify the original disaster. He's also not completely alone, as his dog Sam is with him. In most films of this type, the survivor is alone, has few supplies and is trying to survive each day in the face of isolation. In Legend, the protagonist has a solid enough base to survive day-to-day, but lives in fear of the night and the darkness.

I should mention that Legend is based on a 1954 science fiction novel by Richard Matheson. I am given to understand that it is a very solid take on the book, but some details are notably different. It is also the third attempt to adapt the book, following 1964's The Last Man On Earth and 1971's The Omega Man, but differs significantly from both.

The primary element worth addressing is Will Smith's performance as survivor Robert Neville, which is note-perfect and very nuanced. There's very little other acting to address, as he is the sole human on screen for most of the film, but Smith does a slam-dunk job -- you really get a feel for what his character has gone through in the three years or so after the disaster.

The strong script is well-paced and moving. It is, however, a pretty heavy film, whose primary theme is isolation -- don't go in expecting something lighthearted. The film clocks in at an agreeable 101 minutes; I was never bored and I did not wish it were longer.

It's been a few months since I've been to the theater for lack of anything I wanted to see. Legend was a superb choice for my return and I recommend it highly.