SWEENEY TODD (2007) – Shave and a haircut, two slits!

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I came to Sweeney Todd with a clean slate, as it were. I’d never seen any of the previous stage or screen versions, and I’m generally adverse to the archly ironic style of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.

All of that said, I was thoroughly delighted by director Tim Burton’s version of the story. As with Burton’s best work, it’s moviemaking at its Grand Guignol finest.

For those even more ignorant of the story than I waws, Johnny Depp plays the title role, or should I say evolves into it. Initially, his character is named Benjamin Barker, and he’s a happily married father in Victorian London.

But an evil judge named Turpin (Alan Rickman at his oil-slick smoothest) lusts after Barker’s wife. So he wrongly sentences Barker to prison, seduces and poisoningly induces Barker’s wife, and takes Barker’s baby daughter as his “charge,” to await the day when she is old enough to marry him.

Fifteen years later, Barker escapes from prison, returns to London, and adopts the persona of barber Sweeney Todd. At first, he intends only upon avenging Turpin. But he soon discovers he has an other-barberly way with a razor. And as it happens, Todd’s landlady (Helena Bonham Carter), an unsuccessful baker, could use some fresh ingredients to sell her pies.

Oh, and this is a musical, too — albeit the bloodiest musical ever, with shot after shot of Todd severing the necks of bourgeois customers whom he feels have it coming.

So why do I heartily recommend such a gruesome offering? For one thing, the script (by John Logan, an avid Todd buff) and Burton’s elegant direction take the story its bare bones, with vivid characterization and crisp plotting and timing.

Of course, the actors contribute much as well. And every last one of them — including Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat business turned me off — sing and act wonderfully, taking some of the sting off the movie’s black-comedy ickiness.

Johnny Depp, again, takes major chances and scores. The feyness of Burton/Depp collaborations such as Ed Wood and Willie Wonka is gone. In its place is Todd’s grisly dark confidence and rationality of his murdering ways — the ultimate depiction of the maxim “Be careful what you wish for.”

Its dark themes aside, Sweeney Todd was 2007’s entry in an apparent renaissance of the movie musical — and justifiably so.

 

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE (2005) – A corpse is a corpse, of course, of course

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It’s a (typical) paradox in Gothic director Tim Burton’s career that it took a meticulously timed stop-motion animation film to loosen him up. But after many years in which it seemed that Burton got lost in the woods of his own lugubrious style, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride returned him to the black-comedy riches of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In fact, the many fans of Nightmare will find Corpse Bride a not-so-distant cousin. The story concerns Victor and Victoria (voiced by Johnny Depp and Emily Watson), their names an ominous reflection of the Victorian era in which they were raised. They’re to be married almost before they even meet each other; the couple’s parents arranged the marriage on their own as a convenient (for them) union of money and status.

A befuddled Victor is out in the woods, reciting his wedding vows, when a decedent from Down Below (Helena Bonham Carter) happily takes Victor at his word. Now Victor, who previously couldn’t get one woman to pay him attention, now has two vying for his affections; it just happens that one of them is inconveniently dead.

Once the movie visits the Corpse Bride’s, er, alternate society, it really goes to town and never looks back. It’s obvious where Burton’s allegiances lay; it’s actually the afterlife that’s richly colored and layered, while the “live” world labors in an almost completely black-and-white atmosphere, as though they’re practicing to be dead. And haven’t we all met a few people like that?

The movie is a finely tuned clockwork of non-stop invention, never letting the audience know where it’s going and asking us to just enjoy the ride. Danny Elfman, Burton’s long-time musical collaborator, provides a calliope of sounds and styles that only add flavor to this very exotic mix, as does the rich cast of voices (including veterans such as Albert Finney and Christopher Lee).

Dealing humorously with death requires a very fine skill; go too far over the top, as did Burton’s recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the discomfort starts to gnaw at you. Here, as in most of his best work, Burton finds just the right macabre tone, like respectful trick-or-treaters at Halloween. It’s a very liberating tonic that casts most of this year’s animated features into the shadows.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is rated PG for comic-book-style peril and macabre humor.