Saturday, December 15, 2012

Buckets and Blood

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2008)

I’ve been lucky enough to see Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street twice on stage, most recently just a couple of months ago. At the risk of over-reacting to recent experiences, I think that second production will stand in my memory as one of the most overwhelming live experiences I’ve witnessed. Director John Doyle comprehensively reimagined the material so that the actors also play all the instruments, generating a unique theatrical rush. I would need to see it several times more to fully appreciate how the production’s incredible technical sophistication nevertheless managed (against the starkest of sets) to create such a darkly vivid evocation of the fictional space; sadly, it’s long gone now, so I can only hope my memory is a good custodian of it.

Sweeney Todd

The new film version, directed by Tim Burton, obviously doesn’t take the same approach at all, and I admit I had some trepidation about the choice of director. But it turns out better than we could likely have expected: not in the John Doyle class, but a more than honorable recording for posterity. If you don’t know, Sondheim’s musical (so grim that it spooked many of the audience members around us when we saw it on stage) is the story of that murderous barber Todd, returning to 19th century London from a prison sentence imposed by a corrupt judge, and hell-bent on revenge. His collaborator, Mrs. Lovett, is the self-proclaimed baker of “the worst pies in London,” who sees an opportunity to spice up her ingredients as Sweeney starts to rack up the body count (what would one do with fresh meat otherwise?)

The film is about half an hour shorter than the stage version, but it’s the most careful and well-judged pruning job imaginable, leaving Sondheim’s work substantially intact. Burton matches this with an extraordinarily restrained approach that brings out all the material’s morose intensity – there are only a few moments when the camera slips its tight leash. The lead roles are played by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, risky in that neither is a trained singer, and they’re both younger (or at least seem like it) than normal for these roles. This too ultimately works out terrifically. Made up to look almost like brother and sister, both with one foot in Addams Family territory, they bring to it an undertone of blinded vulnerability. One misses the relish that some of the songs had on stage, but even when you don’t completely like Burton’s choices here, you can respect the scrupulousness behind them.

I’d say this is the best filmed stage musical of the last few years. Rent and The Producers were emptily headed literal transcriptions, whereas Chicago and Dreamgirls were fussy and overdone. None of the four was slightly interesting as a piece of cinema. Burton’s on the other hand is diverting right down to the texture of the (copious) blood, which reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard’s remark about the blood in Pierrot le Fou being “not blood, but red.” There are few movies where you more clearly register the rare appearances of yellow, or bright blue; and when they do appear, they represent dreams just waiting to be quashed.

Sweeney Todd has some of the most beautiful songs I know – Pretty Women and Not While I’m Around, for example – and gains much of its unique tension from the extreme thematic pressure that’s placed on these sentiments (if you’ve only heard Pretty Women out of context, on Barbra Streisand’s Broadway Album for example, it’s impossible to imagine the circumstances under which it’s sung). I never thought Burton would stick so close to the playbook on all these; if you love the material, you can’t help but feel considerable gratitude. 

The Bucket List

And now we travel over to the other side of the quality spectrum, not quite all the way over, but far enough into the gloom that the sophistication of a Tim Burton seems like something yet to be invented. In this zone that time forgot, we find Rob Reiner’s new film The Bucket List, appropriately named in that Reiner directs pretty much as if loading up a bucket. Yeah, I imagine him saying, just put the camera over there somewhere; light it any way you like guys; Jack, that was great; Morgan, that was great; time for lunch yet?

The movie’s selling point is the bringing together of two screen icons (not that I imagine anyone felt deprived by it not having happened earlier): Nicholson and Freeman, playing two terminal cancer patients, one an unfulfilled multi-millionaire (is there any other kind in such movies?), the other a family man who let his dreams get away. Fusing Nicholson’s cash and Freeman’s positive attitude, they construct a list of things to do before they die (or kick the bucket, as the title has it), ranging from skydiving to visiting the Pyramids, to some simpler but less easily attained loose ends.

It’s a crazily old-fashioned thing, not least of all in the assumption on how little it takes to entertain an audience; it’s been a while since I came across such slack, under-developed material. Early on, their sorry circumstances are moderately affecting in a Hollywood kind of way, but once they start driving around racetracks and climbing the Himalayas (and in this regard at least the technicians did all they could to sell the illusion, although it was a hopeless task), it quickly becomes a silly bore. The closing scenes in particular play as if Reiner had given up and gone home, and it’s debatable how fully the two stars ever showed up in the first place. As Godard might have said, it is not blood in the bucket, but brown.


The new kings of comedy are of course the ubiquitous (and to my mind overrated) Judd Apatow and now the makers of Juno, which has been conquering every critic and box office in its path. The biggest beneficiaries are screenwriter Diablo Cody and lead actress Ellen Page. Cody’s dialogue is so consistently strange and sparky that it’s like watching a dramatized guidebook to a whole new subculture. Page handles it with a fast-talking ease evoking a modern Jean Arthur or Irene Dunne. It makes for an extremely diverting movie.

There’s some subtle and rather moving plotting in there too, revolving around a feisty teenager, pregnant from her one sexual encounter with her boyfriend (Michael Cera) who decides to give the baby up for adoption to a yuppie couple (Jennifer Garner is also very fine, in a more traditional vein, as the wife). Unlike many, I don’t see Juno as one of the year’s best – it doesn’t achieve the artistic alchemy of amounting to more than the sum of its parts. But they’re very astute and classy parts, and the movie never postures in the vein of (say) Wes Anderson’s horrible The Darjeeling Limited. I will say though that “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet” is just about my least favourite line of the year, and should have been given the razor.

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