Laserblast: Sweeney Todd, Appleseed, Alvin & Unbreakable

The pickin’s are a tad slim when it comes to horror, science-fiction, and fantasy titles released on home video this week, but quality more then compensates for quantity – and a little variety doesn’t hurt, either. There’s a musical-comedy-horror film, a computer-generated anime sci-fi adventure, some talking-singing chipmunks, an ersatz superhero movie based on an old television show, and some episodes of another old television show about a Time Lord who travels the galaxy in his Tardis. Of course, the grand (guignol) release of the week is SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. By now, readers have probably grown bored with my rhapsodic hymns of praise to this this film, so for the present time I will restrain myself to pointing out that the film arrives on DVD in two versions, single-disc and double-disc. Sounds simple, right? Guess again. Depending on the store where you make your purchase, the packaging and/or special offers will be quite different: Continue reading “Laserblast: Sweeney Todd, Appleseed, Alvin & Unbreakable”

Sweeney & Slaughter: A Tale of Two Tod(d)s – Retrospective

Most viewers no doubt realize that the recent Oscar-winning film, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, is based on a stage musical by Stephen Sondheim, but they might be surprised to learn that the Sweeney Todd story predates the musical by over a century. It has been adapted to stage and screen many times, and long before Johnny Depp, the actor who first laid claim to the role was the aptly named Tod Slaughter. The Tod Slaughter Triple Feature, released on DVD yesterday, packages the actor’s 1936 version of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET with two other tales of melodramatic villainy, offering an opportunity to reappraise both Tod(d)s – Slaughter and Sweeney. Although old-fashioned and even somewhat out-of-date, both of them are worth watching if your are a fan of classic horror. Continue reading “Sweeney & Slaughter: A Tale of Two Tod(d)s – Retrospective”

"Todd" slaughters overseas box office

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET made a faster-than-deserved exist from U.S. theatres, but the film is doing well in overseas markets.

Horror musical “Sweeney Todd” slaughtered the competition in its U.K. and Gallic openings, and the Coen brothers’ violent thriller “No Country for Old Men” also did solid Euro trade powered by its French debut.
[…] In the U.K., “Todd” carved its way to a boffo $9 million at 436 screens, according to Rentrak figs. The pic dominated weekend cinema biz with a screen average of $20,617.
No other pic cleared the $2 million bar. “Alien Vs. Predator — Requiem” (down 51% in its soph sesh) placed second.
Bookers attribute the bumper “Sweeney Todd” haul to a built-in fanbase for Burton and Depp, and excellent campaign by Warner Bros. and excellent reviews.
“January is an excellent trading period. It’s dark, cold and miserable and everyone is at work. No one is going to the beach or barbecues, so cinema benefits,” commented an exhib on the current sunny state of the marketplace.
Exhibs report “Todd” has performed exceptionally well in towns with well-established Goth groups such as Leeds.
But “Todd” is expected to fall away significantly in its second weekend. Pic was sold as a horror but word is not out at the regional plexes that it is a musical. “Todd” should hold better in London’s West End and key sites where auds were fully aware that pic is a musical prior to opening weekend.
In France, Depp’s adopted land, “Todd” notched a monster bow. The musical took in $4 million in its first five days on 365 for Warners.

Sweeney Todd grabs Globes

Due to the grace of God and the writers’ strike, the Golden Globe awards show was canceled this year, but that did not stop the Hollywood Foreign Press from handing out their little statues (which Jay Leon calls “Golden Globules”). Personally, I cannot take seriously an organization that awards the Best Motion Picture Drama Designation to ATONEMENT (as a general rule, any film starring Kiera Knightley should be automatically barred from award consideration); nevertheless, I was happy to see that SWEENEY TODD – easily the best film of 2007 – won in a couple categories.
The wonderful “horror-musical-comedy” (as I am wont to call it) took home the globule for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, and Johnny Depp was honored in the Best Actor, Comedy or Musical category. Unfortunately, Tim Burton was passed over in the Directing category, where the winner was Julian Schnable for THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY; likewise, Helena Bonham Carter lost out int he Best Actress, Comedy or Musical category to  Marion Cotillard of LA VIE EN ROSE.
There were few other genre nominations. The Hollywood Foreign Press made the mistake of nominating PUSHING DAISIES in a few of their television categories but somewhat redeemed themselves by not actually giving it a win. Also, James Nesbitt was nominated in the category for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries of a Motion Picture Made for Television – for his work in BBC’s JEKYLL.

Tim Burton on Sweeney Todd has a brief interview snippet with director Tim Burton discussing SWEENEY TODD, specifically whether a bloody horror musical is likely to be a box office hit:

Well you know it’s always a risk. I remember when I first saw the show in London back when I was still a student. I didn’t know anything about the music and I remember seeing the show and these two ladies, these very proper, British ladies were sitting in front of me and they were kind of chatting throughout the show…
…and then when Joanna came up and the blood started spurting across the stage they both stopped and paused for a minute and, one leaned over and said “Was that really necessary?”
But in fact it was necessary and I’ve seen other productions of it where you know they’ve tried to be a bit more politically correct and skimp on it and it really lost something, because I mean the show is based in those old, grand cinemas, horror theatre melodramas, where you know they had buckets pouring out over the stage.
So, it just felt like that was true to the spirit of what the show is, it was and is over-the-top It’s more of an emotional release than it is a reality thing in this movie. So the studio they were cool about it, they accepted it, they knew it because they knew what the show was so there wasn’t you know. But you know anything, any movie is a risk, but it’s nice to be able to do something like that where you know it doesn’t fit into either musical or slasher movie category; kind of its own category.

Sweeney Todd bait-and-switch?

In response to the SWEENEY TODD trailer, Lewis Lazar of the Chicago Sun-Times works himself up into a state of righteous indignation over the alleged “bait-and-switch” strategy of the marketing campaign:

From what we know about the movie from its marketing strategy to date and from a small body of critics and VIPs who have seen the film (we have not), this “Sweeney Todd” also might be remembered for being the subject of one of the biggest bait-and-switch marketing schemes in movie history — a bait-and-switch that became an imperative to ensure the film generates an opening weekend box office figure substantial enough to suggest “blockbuster” to the movie-going public.
Sondheim’s original Broadway score in almost its entirety is said to be included in the Burton movie. In fact, reports indicate that about 90 percent of the movie is comprised of sung scenes. But curiously, you’d never know that to be the case from watching the official 150-second trailer, which makes the movie seem like a fast-paced bloody period thriller/horror flick about a crazed murderer and his sidekick Mrs. Lovett, played by the lovely Bonham Carter.
Only a few fleeting seconds of the trailer show Depp singing at all, but even that quick bit of vocalizing includes none of the intricate lyrics for which Sondheim is famous and for which Sondheim’s fans love him. But that music, we suspect, could prove quite offputting for those in the general moviegoing audience expecting a fairly straightforward, bloody slasher pic with Depp at its center.

Frankly, I’m not quite sure what has Lazar all lathered up. Yes, the trailer de-emphasizes the musical nature of the film, but the so-called “fleeting seconds” of Depp singing are actually a memorable 20-second clip of a major song; watching it, you will have no doubt that SWEENEY TODD is indeed a movie in which characters belt out Broadway-style show tunes.
As for the contention that trailer makes the film look like a “fast-paced bloody period/thriller/horror flick,” I have one obvious observation to make: That’s exactly what the film is. The fact that there is singing doesn’t change the nature of the story or the visual style one bit.
I am mightily amused that Lazar thinks the marketing people are trying to turn the film into a blockbuster by selling it as a bloody horror film. When I attended an advanced screening in October, the marketing people were scared to death of the horror label, thinking it would scare away audiences who might enjoy the music.
One more thing: Lazar’s “bait-and-switch” metaphor seems a bit strained to me. Used properly, the term refers to using “bait” to lure in a customer, then selling a completely different item (i.e., the car you saw advertised in the newspaper is “already sold” when you reach the lot, but since you’re here, why not check out these other great models?). In the case of SWEENEY TODD, the trailer and the marketing campaign are clearly selling the movie that the audiences will pay to see; Lazar merely seems miffed that Sondheim’s songs are not particularly big selling points to movie-going audiences.

Supernal Dreams: BERNARD HERRMANN score inspires SWEENEY TODD

I recently watched John Brahm’s Hangover Square,  a film I have long wanted to see, mostly due to hearing it’s superb score and piano concerto by Bernard Herrmann.  Thanks to the beautiful new Fox DVD set of three John Brahm films, which also includes The Lodger (with music by Hugo Friedhofer) and The Undying Monster (with music by David Raksin), all of these terror classics are now available in beautifully restored prints.     

Laird Craigar as the mad musician, driven to murder by sudden, discordant noises
Laird Cregar as the mad musician, driven to murder by discordant sounds.
What I found a bit bizarre, though, was reading the press notes for Sweeney Todd only a few days after watching Hangover Square,  for the first time and finding that Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score was the actual inspiration for Steven Sondheim to write Sweeney Todd.    
It’s also interesting to note that Sondheim went back to see Hangover Square two times, while Burton went back to see Sondheim’s play of Sweeney Todd in London twice! 
So here are comments from Tim Burton, as quoted in the Paramount press notes, and from Steven Sondheim, as quoted from his 1993 appearance with Jeremy Sams at the Lyttelton Theatre in England:     
TIM BURTON:  I’m not a big musical fan, but I loved Sweeney Todd.  I didn’t know anything about Stephen Sondheim. The poster just looked kind of cool, kind of interesting. It’s like an old horror movie but the music is such an interesting juxtaposition, being very beautiful while the imagery is kind of old horror movie.  And it was interesting to see something bloody on stage, too.  I went to see it twice because I liked it so much.
Continue reading “Supernal Dreams: BERNARD HERRMANN score inspires SWEENEY TODD”

NBR names Burton best director for SWEENEY TODD

Variety reports that the National Board of Review has named Tim Burton “Best Director” for his film adaptation of the gothic musical SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. The NBR, comprised of film educators and other industry professionals not part of the studio system, puts out its annual Top Ten list each December. While the Western NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN received “Best Picture” honors, SWEENEY TODD did make the NBR’s Top Ten Films of 2007 list, too.

Meanwhile, just hours before the New York City premiere of SWEENEY TODD, star Johnny Depp announced he would go from “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” to ruthless gangster John Dillenger for director Michael Mann (MANHUNTER) in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Based on Bryan Burrough’s 2004 non-fiction account of the crime waves of 1933-34 carried out by such notorious figures as Dillenger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd, the film rolls March 10 on location in Chicago.

Sweeney Todd – Preview

Got a sneak peak at SWEENEY TODD on Tuesday, and it is absolutely fantastic – one of the best things Tim Burton has ever directed! The film was not finished (the closingcredits were missing, and the sound mix will be tweaked over the next five weeks), but barring ratings problems, this appears to be the final cut in all its gory glory. The movie is pretty much your dream of what it would be, when you first heard that Burton and Johnny Depp would be turning the Stephen Sondheim musical into a movie: it’s a dark, brooding horror-musical-comedy that hits all the right notes.
Depp casts aside the over-the-top antics of Jack Sparrow for a much more self-contained performance as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which the emotions (primarily a lust for revenge) ooze up to the surface in controlled bursts; without ever blunting the character’s razor-sharp edge, the actor demands that we sympathize and root for Sweeney as he slashes his way through half the throats in London. Alan Rickman is wonderful as the hypocritical Judge Turpin, whose machinations drove Sweeney to madness. Sacha Baron Cohen shines in a small role – you don’t have to be a  Borat fan to enjoy his work here. A special mention must go out for Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s right-hand man – a perfectly wrought performance of a  slimy character who mistakenly believes himself to be slick and smart. Hopefully, the Oscar academy will not overlook him next year even though his role is not of the showy, melodramatic kind that usually draws attention.

If there is a flaw in the movie, it is that the cinematic storytelling occasionally short circuits the musical nature of the source material. The acting performances, through close-up camera angles and cutting, convey the point of some scenes long before the songs wrap up, as when Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) first lays eyes on and falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), who is kept a virtual prisoner in Turpin’s mansion. Judging from the reaction and comments after the screening, fans of the musical will be pleased that the film is faithful to Sondheim, but SWEENEY TODD might have been even better if it had jettisoned more of the stage version, which on a few occasions feels like dead weight slowing the movie down.
The screening was followed by a session in which the marketing people asked for audience reactions. It was clear that the small audience (a bit over forty, mostly of fans of Burton and/or Johnny Depp) loved the film: over thirty called it great; eight called it very good; two said it was merely good; and no one admitted that he/she actively disliked it.
UPDATE: One of the two viewers who ranked the film as only “good” complained that the story offered “no closure,” but he did not get a chance to explain what he meant by that. (The film ties up all the plot threads; it may or may not show you exactly what happens to everybody, but it gives you enough information to figure it out satisfactorily.) This audience member also complained about Depp’s performance, saying that he had seen the actor in similar roles too often before; he called Sweeney “Edward Scissorhandspossessed by Jack Sparrow.” (“Scissorhands possessed by Jack the Ripper” would be more accurate; Sweeney has little if anything in common with the woozy pirate from CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, whose head seems soft from too much time in the sun.) Funnily enough, even though the “Scissorhands-Sparrow” remark had been intended as a criticism, the marketing people actually liked  it, saying they would like to put the comment in their promotional campaign.
UPDATE: One of the first questions that came up was regarding the singing voices, of the cast in general and of Johnny Depp in particular. According to a show of hands, a near unanimous majority of the audience thought Depp and his co-stars passed the test. Personally, I thought it was clear that neither Depp nor Rickman is a trained Broadway singer, but it doesn’t matter because they put so much acting into the songs that the lyrics become sung dialogue. I’m not saying their voices were off-key or flat, just that you could tell they were not going to throw back their heads and belt out notes that would shatter a champagne glass. The strength of their singing lay more in acting skill than in virtuoso vocal stylings, and the result is fully satisfying in the movie. 
Several viewers raised their hands when the moderator asked whether any of the women thought there was too much blood; interestingly, none of them said this ruined the movie for them or would prevent them from recommending it to friends. A few pointed out that the highly stylized nature of the film – most of the colors are muted and almost monochromatic, like Halloween Town in NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS – rendered the bright-red bloodshed in a highly artificial way that muted the impact, making it more palatable, even for non-gore hounds.
UPDATE: Some people in the screening compared the violence to KILL BILL. Personally, I found it closer to one of KILL BILL’s inspirations, the “Lone Wolf” samurai movies made in Japan in the 1970s. Like those ultra-violent extravaganzas, SWEENEY TODD features blood the flows in watery geysers – the effect is so over-the-top that it becomes almost cartoony. Still, the sight of razor slicing flesh does have an impact, especially during the montage of Sweeney carving his way through at least half a dozen victims during a song.
To be clear, the session was not about gathering audience reactions in order to re-cut the film to make it safer for a general audience; the goal was trying to gauge the film’s appeal. From the various questions and statements uttered over the course of half-an-hour, it appears that the marketing people believe the film will appeal to three or four non-intersecting groups:

  1. Teenage girls who like Depp
  2. Tim Burton fans
  3. Fans of the musical
  4. The “Adult Alternative” audience, who want to see something other than NATIONAL TREASURE 2

For some reason, there was some doubt that SWEENEY TODD would appeal to horror fans, even though it clearly is a horror movie, the songs notwithstanding. There seemed to be a misapprehension that “horror” equated with SAW, and that fans of that franchise and others of its ilk would not enjoy the Burton film.
Personally, I think nothing could be further from the truth. The blood explodes in only a few scenes of SWEENEY, but when it rains, it pours – in unbelievably graphic gouts of gushing red. I can’t remember when or if I ever saw this much red splashed across the screen in a mainstream studio movie. More important, the Sweeney character fits the classic movie monster mold: he does horrible things, but the audience identifies with and even roots for him to dispatch his victims, who more often than not deserve what they get.
It’s a mistake to think that torture-porn and/or high-octane violence are synonymous with horror. There are a few loud voices at horror movie blogs insisting that HOSTEL PART II, GRINDHOUSE, and 28 WEEKS LATER are what horror is all about, but these films can barely find an audience, if at all. Much bigger audiences will clearly turn out for scary movies – even ones with violence and blood-letting, like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS  – as long as they are done with some style and class. Certainly, SWEENEY TODD could draw in the same kind of viewers who turned SLEEPY HOLLOW into a blockbuster.
One other incident from the session deserves mention. One recurring question was whether the musical nature of SWEENEY TODD would turn off some young male viewers who might otherwise be interested in another Depp-Burton collaboration. In answer to this, an audience member recounted the following incident: after seeing a trailer for TODD before a screening of THE HEARTBREAK KID, two young men in the row in front of her turned to each other and enthusiastically cried out, ‘Fuck yeah!”
That’s not the kind of comment likely to find its way into the marketing report, so we preserve it here for historical purposes.
UPDATED AGAIN: I forgot to mention this previously, but one thought that went through my mind during the screening was that SWEENEY TODD reminds me of THE BLACK CAT, the classic 1934 horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The story has Lugosi as a man who returns for revenge after fifteen years in a Russian gulag (same amount of time Sweeney has been away). Meahwhile, Karloff’s character has married both Lugosi’s wife and – after the wife dies – Lugosi’s daughter (more or less what the Rickman character attempts to do in SWEENEY). In the end, Lugosi flays Karloff alive with a scalpel (sound familiar?). As in SWEENEY TODD, the audience is invited to identify with a demented character driven by revenge, even though his actions are almost as monstrous as those of the man he is targeting – perhaps even more so.
UPDATED AGAIN AGAIN: Some message boards linking to this report have complained that I neglected to mention Helana Bonham-Carter. I simply did not find her performance particularly remarkable. That does not mean it was bad or that I did not like her, only that I did not feel compelled to lavish suprlatives on her. For some reason, I was not concerned about her singing voice, so it was no surprise to hear her do well in that regard.  She certainly looked fantastic in the part: her lovely features covered in pale makeup that made her resemble the living dead, she was the perfect compliment to Depp’s Sweeney. Also, her name barely came up in the session after the screening, so it’s not as if I was reminded that this was a hot topic.
LATE UPDATE: Someone at the New York Post links to my article here. The brief post ends with this sentence:

Mr. Biodrowski doesn’t say if he signed the nondisclosure agreement that is standard before such screenings

No one asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nor was anyone else asked, apparently; long before I wrote my piece, the message boards at IMDB had lit up with responses from other people at the screening.
Also, I wanted to clarify a couple of points made in my original article:

  1. When I wrote the “teenage girls” were one of the target audiences for the film, I may have been over-interpreting what was being said. The actual age range mentioned was something like 17-30. “Teenage” stuck in my mind because some of the questions concerned whether parents would take their children- who dig Jack Sparrow – to see the bloody R-rated film. Women over 17 don’t need their parents to buy them a ticket, so the implication seemed to be that the film might lose the 13-16 year-old girls.
  2. Some of the message boards linking to this post have expressed disdain for the marketing people and their attempt to “sell” this movie. I think it was pretty clear that the people marketing this film believe they have something good, with built-in appeal to certain segments of the audience. I suspect the real concern is crafting a promotional campaign that will appeal to each of these groups while not alienating the others. I also suspect this is the reason why “horror fans” are not listed among the groups being targeted: the marketers probably fear they have much to lose and little to gain, that selling to the horror crowd will alienate other viewers and still not bring in the gore-hounds. I am just interpreting based on the questions asked last night; I could be wrong, of course.

DIGG this article.

Burton sneaks Sweeney

Sweeney ToddAt the Venice Film Festival, where he received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, director Tim Burton unveiled an eight-minute sneak of SWEENEY TODD. Variety’s Nick Vivarelli liked what he saw:

The clips, in sharp desaturated color, consisted largely of a key scene in the Stephen Sondheim musical in which Todd, played by Johnny Depp, is handed a razor case by Mrs. Lovett, played by Helena Bonham Carter.
Singing “My Friends” Depp proved he can carry a tune, dueting delightfully with Bonham Carter, herself debuting as a chantoosie.
A white streak in his hair, a mad twinkle in his eye, Depp — in his sixth Burton pic — seemed in fine form in the quick sneak, which, while entertainingly eerie, displayed no violence. Pic is reportedly headed for an “R” rating.
“I am just trying to make an old-fashioned horror movie with music in it,” Burton said at the presser.
He added that pics with “people like Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre” are among vintage scary works he drew on for inspiration.
“It’s quite uncharted territory. I don’t think there are that many horror movie musicals out there these days,” Burton noted. “It will be interesting to see what happens with it.”

Depp himself was on hand to deliver the Golden Lion to Burton. The event concluded with a screening of 3-D version of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which Disney is planning to re-release this October (no doubt in limited engagements, as has become an annual tradition with the film, even before its 3D airbrush job).