Movie Review – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Written by John Logan, Stephen Sondheim, and Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Tim Burton

Sweeney Todd is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s best work. It’s a transgressive, bleak Broadway musical that goes against everything the art form had built itself up to. Most audiences are familiar with Rodgers & Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Weber and other popular composers within the modern musical. As a result, there’s a certain expectation from these productions that they will have lavish sets, present memorable songs, and provide thought-provoking but ultimately cheerful endings. Oklahoma dips its toes in darkness via Judd Fry but makes sure it ends things on an upbeat note. Sweeney Todd embraces violence and a dark worldview to deliver a story that stays with you, like a haunting.

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Movie Review – The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Written by Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell
Directed by Henry Selick

While the idea and production design were initially conceived by Tim Burton, the actual execution of The Nightmare Before Christmas was done by a bevy of other talented creators. However, the film is associated with Burton, and many mistake him as the director. We love and remember the picture for Danny Elfman’s music, Henry Selick’s direction, and the fantastic script by Thompson and McDowell. Thompson co-wrote Edward Scissorhands, and McDowell also penned the screenplay for Beetlejuice, so they brought all those elements to the table. The result is a gorgeous macabre take on the Christmas spirit that endures because it stands out from the crowd but reminds us of childhood favorites.

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The Burton/Depp Collaborations – The 2000s

Director Tim Burton’s style of filmmaking began to change in a not so wonderful way in the new millennium. His work became much more adaptation and remake based, rather than producing original ideas and scripts. Stylistically he fell into a major rut, reusing the same aesthetics over and over again, which felt much more bland now that we had been consuming them for a decade already. However, he did have films that rose above the repetition of his tropes.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter

This remake had been in production limbo for around a decade. At one point, Marilyn Manson had been attached for the Wonka. Now that would have been an interesting pic. The studio decided on Burton, who brought along his old collaborator Depp and new wife Helena Bonham Carter. Despite earlier shakiness with the Planet of the Apes remake, I was still fairly confident in Burton. Big Fish had been a huge departure from his typical style of filmmaking. However, upon seeing this picture I found that the visual flourishes that had once captivated me caused me to literally fall asleep. The first time I saw this film, it was the middle of the day and I actually fell asleep in my chair, something that never happens to me when I am watching a film. Afterwards, I realized that Burton seemed to using his aesthetics as a crutch, providing us no real meat to the film. Oh yes, there was some half-assed attempt at giving Wonka an origin story (such a terrible idea), but if you had seen the first film there was nothing here that added to it except updated CG graphics.

The Corpse Bride (2005)
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee

The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the most beautiful and perfectly made stop-motion films in history. Its an art style of animation that is rarely attempted, compared to its CG brethern, but when done right it stands above all else (Also remember, Burton only produced and did design work for that film, not direct). I was very excited to see Burton returning to that method of filmmaking and interested to see the story he told this time. For the second time in a year I was utterly bored. The film’s look was basically Victorian Nightmare Before Xmas, the shape of characters and the way ghosts were designed. I don’t remember much of the plot of this film, because I found my mind wandering and uninterested. It’s definitely a beautiful film. Let it never be said Burton doesn’t know how to fill a frame. However, like with Charlie, it lacked substance underneath the surface. The humor and characters were both ultimately forgettable.

Sweeney Todd (2007)
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeremy Irons, Sacha Beren Cohen

This was a semi-return to form for Burton. The key this time wasn’t his aesthetics (they were as bland and repetitive as usual), but the writing of Stephen Sondheim that caused this picture to rise above the rut. Because this film was an operatic tragedy, the bleak landscapes of Burton felt perfectly at home. London came across the dirty, grime-covered hellhole Sondheim originally tried to get across on stage. The casting for the film was wonderful, though Depp wouldn’t have been my first choice for the lead. He does a good job, but its the supporters who really carry the film here. For me, this was the single true highlight of Burton’s in the 2000s. It kept my interesting throughout every frame and has a truly devastating and heartbreaking finale. It’s my hope that Burton is able to reproduce this sort of emotional resonance in his coming work.

The Burton/Depp Collaborations – The 1990s

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are a cinematic pair that will probably be working together, till both of them are in their old age. The duo have made seven pictures together of varying success. We’ll be looking at these films by decade and see of their collaborations are gaining value or zero-ing out.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)
It was quite a surprise to see teen heartthrob and star of 21 Jump Street working in a film by the director of Batman. Even though I was only eight at the time, I remember thinking it was weird that the Johnny Depp guy would be in this movie. I was also deeply obsessed with Burton at the time because of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and aforementioned Batman. Scissorhands didn’t appeal to me at that age though, its a deeper film, meant for an older audience. Yes, it has elements of a fairy tale, but its satiric take on Southern California suburbia, its bittersweet love story, and its affection for the wonderful Vincent Price is sort of lost of a 3rd grader. This is the film Depp broke out with, and I feel he’s always felt a strong closeness to Burton because of it. Deep delivers a wonderfully muted performance, I can’t say I’ve seen him deliver anything like this since. While Jack Sparrow has flowery dialogue and free reign to go over the top. That’s a style of acting that can be a sort of cakewalk. Edward doesn’t get to speak much, but has those wonderful props on his hands, that give a truly unique form of expression. Burton is also at the top of his game, delivering the gothic landscapes as well as a neon suburbia. I hope that with Burton’s upcoming Frankenweenie feature film we can see some more of this.

Ed Wood (1994)
A lot of Burton/Depp fans have missed this one, and I personally think it is the best film Burton has ever made. There are references to his deep love of classic horror films and a darkly wicked sense of humor. The performances here are spectacular as well. Depp, who is such an adept chameleon, takes on the wackiness of Ed Wood completely. In addition, Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi is one of the best pieces of acting there has ever been in a Burton picture. Lugosi comes across as sympathetic, yet constantly acerbic and unlikable. It’s the only film Burton has done which was based on real events, and makes me curious to see what other visual flair he could add to another famous figure. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a Burton directed film about Vincent Price? Or Edgar Allen Poe? Bill Murray also has a perfect performance as Wood’s homosexual producer and has one of the best scenes in the film during a mandatory baptism by financial backers from a church. Burton and Depp have come close only once to the level of perfection this film achieved.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Burton and Depp finished out the decade with the first of many adaptations. I am not a fan of the majority of Burton’s adapted works, the scripts are never written by him and bear a lot of the clich├ęd story beats of typical Hollywood work. Here we have Ichabod Crane turned from a schoolteacher to a pre-forensics crime investigator. That character tweak has always come off as insulting to me. The studio believed Crane had to be “sexier” and so he had to be a detective. It would have been simple to have Crane’s intellectual curiosity spurring him on to investigate the goings on in Sleepy Hollow. Depp felt very blank in this film as well, I never felt a true sense of personality in him. Yes, there are some wonderful visuals, but it is at about this point things begin to feel stale in Burton’s aesthetic. He draws on the classic Corman horror flicks of his youth but seems to recycle a lot of visuals from Nightmare Before Christmas. This staleness would continue into the next decade.

Next: The Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd.

Maybe Sundays – Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice in Wonderland (2010, dir. Tim Burton)

Starrin Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman
So visionary director Tim Burton takes on the classic surreal children’s tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Johnny Depp at his side as The Mad Hatter. Sounds like a formula for success, right. Well, if this had been 10 years ago, maybe. However, with Burton’s work output in the 21st Century being less than stellar and lot of the visual tricks used here being old hat from previous films, the picture comes off an a utter bore. And I really didn’t want it to be.
Alice Kingsley is a teenaged girl being married off to a disgusting noble. During the engagement party she runs off and comes across a White Rabbit, whom she follows down a mysterious hole. Alice finds herself in Wonderland and the creatures there recognizing her as a prophesied savior. The two monarchs, Red Queen and White Queen and Alice is needed to defeat the evil Jabberwocky and save the day. The film is a mishmash of elements from Lewis Carroll’s two Alice tales and the 1951 Disney animated feature. And it all adds up to an uninteresting mess.
None of the Wonderland characters feel interesting in the least. Yes, they are strange and meticulously designed, but beyond their quirks they lack anything remotely resembling personality. This shouldn’t be a problem in a film based on a novel that really has no character development in the first place, and is merely a series of absurdity philosophical encounters. But, Burton has chosen to make the film a semi-sequel…or is it a reimagining? I couldn’t figure that out how they fit in with the original story. There are hints that this Alice could be the little girl from the story, but then there is a mention of Alice merely being some sort of title.
This is such a huge disappointment, especially with the exceptional cast gathered by Burton. Instead of giving us some new and interesting look at Wonderland, we get it blandly Burton-ized, with the typical spiral patterns and zany color schemes. Its nice decoration, but a great film it does not make. What the film misses are the more interesting goings on of the real world. I found myself paying more attention during the moments where Alice navigates her engagement party and, when she returns from Wonderland, and sets things straight with the people around her. I want to see a movie about THAT Alice!