Monday, January 21, 2008

Timothy Spall double-header at the pictures

Went to see not one but two movies on Saturday, which may be more films than I saw in a cinema during all of 2007 [it was a busy year]. Started with a preview screening of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This was another Tim Burton and Johnny Depp big goth extravaganza, with the added bonus of being based on a Stephen Sondheim musical. Gore galore, stunning visuals and a style that could best be described as a chamber operetta. With a few exceptions, every scene set outdoors was tinted gunmetal blue while all the indoors sequences were give a tincture of sepia. Lush.

The preview audience was a bizarre cross-section: Sondheim fans in their 50s, young women come to swoon over Johnny Deep, Goths and alternative types there for some quality Burton action and cineastes savouring the gorgeous production design, costumes and ravishing visual palette. Me, I'd never heard a note of the Sondheim musical before but it was delivered with panache and seemed utterly natural. In most musicals character burst into song for no good reason. Here the singing and dialogue merged seamlessly, so you hardly noticed the characters were singing. Top stuff.

The highlight of the film for me had to be a dream sequence where the murderous barber's would-be paramour imagines them together living a normal and visiting Brighton Pier. It's worth seeing the film just to see Deep in a full length black and white striped bathing suit, sitting slumped on the beach like a Gothic puppet who's strings have been cut. That's how I felt growing up in New Zealand, forced to visit the beach and be in the sunshine when I'd rather stay at home indoors. If you liked Sleepy Hollow, you'll probably like this.

Left that screening, walked out to the ticket desk and bought a seat in a film I'd been failing to see for weeks: Disney's whimsical comedy with songs, Enchanted. Hard to think of a greater contrast in two movies, though both feature singing, dancing, people in elaborate costumes and flights of fancy. Enchanted being a project for Disney princess, thee's slightly less in the way of throat-slashing murder and human flesh cannibalism served as savoury pies [i.e. none], but there were some likenesses.

For a start, both Sweeney Todd and Enchanted feature the considerable acting talents of Timothy Spall. Long an admired character actor, Spall's had a busy year or two judging by his efforts in both films. He gets a juicy supporting role in both and even sings a little tune in Sweeney Todd, persuading Alan Rickman to visit the demon barber. In Enchanted Spall first appears in cartoon film, as the movie opens with an extended animated sequence before relocating to New York.

You'd need a heart of stone not to be charmed by Enchated, though I thought the finale featuring a gratuitous dragon felt over-extended. Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable fairy tale that read like an inverted Shrek. The juxtaposition of fable and reality offered plenty of laughs for adults and children, but without stopping to congratulate itself for cleverness. I suspect Enchanted will age better than the Shrek films, depending more on time archetypes than modern pop culture riffs for ammo.

If the Sweeney Todd audience was an unlikely cross-section of society, Enchanted's crowd was all about little girls and the people who brought them. The screening room was choked by the sugary sweet scent of bubblegum by the end, like being suspended in an oubliette full of pot pourri and strawberry syrup for two hours. Gag. There was certainly less over-excited giggling in Sweeney Todd and fewer people needed a pee in the middle of the action. Despite nearly suffering insulin shock from the air, I thoroughly enjoyed Enchanted and recommend it for anyone who liked Shrek.

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