Manuel Betancourt

Sweeney, Daniel and Nikolai, or How Oscar’s Men are not to be messed with

January 27, 2008 · in Uncategorized

January and February are usually the months where I catch up on my ‘Oscar’ movies (why must all distributors decide to overflow the Fall market with great movies and leave us with threequels for the rest of the year, I don’t know)

I recently caught Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, There Will Be Blood and Eastern Promises (3/5 Best Actor nommed films if you want stats) and came to the conclusion that Oscar likes his men rough this year (think also of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in the Supporting Actor category). Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Planview and Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai are three men I would not like to have a midnight alley run-in with, I mean unless I want to be shaven, have my wallet stolen, my fingers chopped, my oil-rich land taken away from me, be hit with a bowling pin, stabbed in the eye by a naked russian, made into a pie and served with a milkshake that’s been sucked dry…

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Dir. Tim Burton)
This Broadway show of a vengeful barber fits like a glove with Burton’s flair and style. Along with Colleen Atwood’s costuming, Dante Ferreti’s art direction, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography and Francesca’s Lo Schiavo’s sets Burton takes Stephen Sondheim’s classic story and turns it into a cinematic Burtonian work: the monochromatic palette contrasted with the gushing red blood; the groaning ‘singing/talking’ voice of Depp and the entire pathos of the story make Sweeney Todd one of the most visually stunning and emotionally stirring works of 2007. True, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp are no Broadway singers but what they lack in voice they more than make up for in their performance: who can’t help but feel for Bonham-Carter’s Mrs Lovett when she daydreams of living by the sea, or see the look of perpetual pain in Depp’s Todd as he slashes and sings his way to his tragic denouement? That Burton doesn’t shy away from the gushing blood of Todd’s victims might turn off some people, but it only makes the final scene in the bakehouse all the more disturbing, when the monstrous life of Todd collapses with the long-lost past of Benjamin Barker and Burton delicately creates the bloodiest tableau vivant (or mort?) I have seen put on screen. A

Eastern Promises (Dir. David Croenberg)
The highlight of the movie is – as you may have heard – Viggo Mortensen’s role (and yes, the daring of that naked knife fighting scene). The movie itself for me didn’t quite click. True, the premise sets up a conventional thriller-like film (can you imagine the same premise with someone like Michael Bay behind it, starring Bruce Willis?) and Croenberg delivers something much more substantial – he gives us character study (a closeted russian mob man! a love-torn woman who finds in a child that which she had lost in relationships with men! a sensitive russian spy who’s ruthless and yet caring!) but ultimately the screenplay seemed a bit too contrived for my taste (especially with the perfectly fitted diary entry readings that seemed to at once pose as a ‘surprise’ and yet were incorporated so organically into the film their ‘revelation’ lost its impact) and didn’t work as a whole for me as it attempted to sway from formulaic to innovative, from thriller to thoughtful, from action to actorly. B

There Will Be Blood (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
If Depp’s Todd lives in the magically macabre world of Sondheim & Burton, and Mortensen’s Nikolai lives in the crude (albeit slightly utopic/heroic) world of Croenberg’s London, Day-Lewis’s Plainview is all the scarier because he lives and breathes in the bloodstream of globalization: the land of oil, at once dated in Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and also disturbingly contemporary if studied as both a parable and a cautionary tale of American values lensed through that scurrying viscous liquid. PT Anderson’s film is as cruel and unforgiving as Plainview himself, offering us a dialogue-free initial sequence punctuated by Jonny Greenwood’s intentionally (and altogether breathtakingly) jarring and jagged score, and an uncompromising ending as blunt and disturbing as Plainview’s entrepreneurial transactions in the beginning of the twentieth century. But aside from inducing analogical thinking, There Will Be Blood shook me to the core and just as the Coens Bros No Country for Old Men (and it’s no surprise they are contstantly uttered in the same sentence, especially after each earned 8 Academy Award noms last Tuesday) Anderson’s film left me asking questions, intentionally bewildered but altogether fascinated by the film as a whole – by its message, its craft, its look and most of all by its performances. A