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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (#110 of 7)

Red Velvet Interview with Adrian Lester

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Red Velvet Interview with Adrian Lester
Red Velvet Interview with Adrian Lester

In Red Velvet, a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti now at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, Adrian Lester plays Ira Aldridge, a famed African-American actor who made history playing Othello at the London Covent Garden in 1833. Aldridge, who’d left New York as a teenager, was in his late 20s when he stepped in for the ailing Edmund Kean, the reigning English Shakespearean thespian of the day. He went on to build an illustrious career in Europe, touring with the classics until his death in 1867.

Since his affecting performance in the early 1990s as the cross-dressing Rosalind in the all-male Cheek by Jowl production of As You Like It, Lester has moved easily between Sondheim musicals, Shakespeare, a long-running British television series (Hustle), and playing the idealistic campaign manager in Mike Nichols’s Primary Colors. The English actor, who’s married to playwright Chakrabarti, talked to us about bringing Aldridge’s story, their labor of love, to the stage.

How did Red Velvet come about?

I was asked to do a reading at the Garrick Club about Ira’s experiences in London and in the provinces. I had never heard of the guy before. So after I finished the reading I took those six sheets of paper about him back home and I asked my wife Lolita if she’d heard of him. She said no. She read the pages and said, “I think there’s a story here.” She started doing some research and she realized that Ira’s connection to European history was quite strong. A lot of the significant moments in his life coincided with a lot that was happening in Europe—the people he influenced and the people he met. Lolita found it fascinating that the manager of the company at Covent Garden, which was a major theater in London, said he wanted Ira to step in and play the part. You can believe that from a manager who’s from France, who’s perhaps the son or the grandson of people who pushed through the Revolution—people who wanted change and fought for it. At that time, we know that the actresses Fanny Kemble and Ellen Tree played Romeo and Juliet opposite each other, and we know that the bill to abolish slavery on all British soil was also going through. So it was quite a turbulent period.

Lolita began collecting this research all together thinking she’d write a film. She told Indhu Rubasingham, who was directing her in a play, about this story and Indhu said, “Write it as a play, it’s much quicker, I’d love to direct it.” From that point, Lolita was writing draft after draft and she was handing it to me and to Indhu, and we were feeding notes back until we got to the point that it was ready.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Production Design

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Production Design
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Production Design

In 2010, we asked, “How do you solve a problem like Avatar? How do you hold a fluorescent, floating anemone in your hand? Well, you can’t. Because it exists in hexadecimal code on a hard drive somewhere in Silicon (or is it Uncanny?) Valley.” So we threw our vote to Sherlock Holmes and shook our heads on Oscar night when James Cameron’s Epcot Center diorama was awarded. The lesson? That Gravity, even though it’s the Mission: SPACE to Avatar’s more elaborately designed Universe of Energy: Ellen’s Energy Adventure, shouldn’t be too quickly discounted. Two years earlier, we thought the category would break toward Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood’s Wild West City attraction only to see it (rightfully) lose to Tim Burton’s Broadway-ed Dickens funhouse Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Meaning that the benefits of being a Best Picture frontrunner in this category are negligible. And so we put our money on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina last year only to see it toppled by the Lincoln Logs of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Meaning that being a politely revered or disliked Best Picture nominee is also negligible.

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions Art Direction

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Art Direction
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Art Direction

Here’s one of those categories where the spoils usually go to whoever shows us the “most” of whatever it is they’re nominated for. So we thought this was going to be a slam dunk for Alice in Wonderland, whose maker, Tim Burton, has seen three of his films previously take this award: Batman, Sleepy Hollow, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It seemed so easy, especially since we didn’t need to have the conversation about whether voters care if an art director’s vision is realized via nails or keystrokes, what with Avatar having won this award last year. But then Alice in Wonderland lost to Inception with the Art Directors Guild, at which point we had to ask ourselves: Does AMPAS even like Burton’s latest? Yes, we know the putrid Memoirs of a Geisha was a winner here in 2005, but that film’s six nominations suggested wider AMPAS support. Also, the Rob Marshall film didn’t have to compete with a Best Picture nominee, let alone three, including one that stands a reasonable chance of sweeping on Oscar night in a more spectacular than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did in 2004.

Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions Art Direction

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Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Art Direction
Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Art Direction

That famous, wonky long take from Atonement, during which misty-eyed James McAvoy traverses the war-torn beaches of Dunkirk, is frequently brandied about as proof of the film’s superlative cinematography and art direction, but to us the shot comes across as a triumph of unfeeling special effects, and assuming enough voters feel the same way, Atonement is likely to come up short in both categories. Speaking of unfeeling F/X: The Golden Compass recently won the Art Directors Guild award in the fantasy genre, but we’ll go out on a limb and declare voters would rather roll around in CGI bear shit than throw their weight behind this movie abomination. Elsewhere, George W. Bush probably stands a better chance of stealing winning a third term in office than American Gangster has of snagging this prize: Assuming any of them have actually traipsed through Harlem, the New Yawk sect of the Academy will no doubt shrug at this stupid but undeniably beautiful film’s production design, which feels more contemporary than period(if truth be told, a nomination in the Costume Design category would have been more fitting). That leaves the spoils to go to either Jack Fisk and Jim Erickson for There Will Be Blood or Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I know at least a few people who thought There Will Be Blood’s production design wasn’t dusty enough, but I also know quite a few who thought Sweeney Todd’s sets were too outlandish. Of course, the Academy loves to reward the wild and extravagant here, and Ferretti and Lo Schiavo are giants in their field, but this dynamic duo, after cruelly losing in this category seven times since 1990, recently won for The Aviator. We’ll give Fisk and Erickson an edge here, not only for having won the ADG award in the period category but for representing one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners.

Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions Costume Design

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Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Costume Design
Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

“The Oscars show is still watched by millions, but less as a suspenseful competition than as spectacle of public humiliation starring the most pampered, preening people in the world—Hollywood celebrities—in a cherished ritual of comeuppance.” Words of great insight by Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times, though I would have squeezed “misogyny” and “short-attention span” in there somewhere. Because on February 24th, after the ladies of Hollywood have traipsed into the Kodak Theatre, their couture gowns raked through the coals by tabloid ogres with a chilling, razor-sharp exactitude that would make Nina Garcia blush, AMPAS will raise its glasses in honor of a glorified perfume commercial that prominently features an outfit that has already been deemed the greatest of all time. The ambiguously gay Israeli dude from this season’s Project Runway whips up more exciting pieces every week, but Keira Knightley’s nightie-cum-gown is admittedly a lovely few feet of green fabric—virtually an epitome of restraint compared to the pompish miles of lace and patterned cloth Cate Blanchett has to shoulder like a pack mule throughout Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a grossly detailed nightmare that shouldn’t be discounted here just because it’s not so easily forgotten. But the Oscar is king—or is it queen?—of the knee-jerk reaction, so expect voters to follow In Style’s lead and screw, yet again, Colleen Atwood’s exquisite contributions to Tim Burton’s latest gothic reverie.

Deflecting Epiphanies: Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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Deflecting Epiphanies: Tim Burton’s <em>Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street</em>
Deflecting Epiphanies: Tim Burton’s <em>Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street</em>

Tim Burton’s film version of Stephen Sondheim’s magnum opus, Sweeney Todd, is so terrific in so many small details that it might lead some people to believe that it is a great movie of the show, even dedicated fans of the original. The first song, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” with its goose-pimply, shrieking sopranos, is cut, and that’s fine, since no one needs to see a grimy London chorus singing to the camera, especially as the opener. The casting improves on the show in many ways; the long sequence with Signor Pirelli always felt like filler, but Burton makes it a crowd-pleasing turn for Sacha Baron Cohen, who extracts any laughs he can from his role. The semi-parodic singing lovers of the original are played sensitively by the very young, exquisite Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower, and the simpleton Toby is cast as a small boy (Edward Sanders), which makes his actions much more disturbing. Best of all is Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin, a villain from old melodramas in the show who Rickman makes into a rather flabbergasting combination of vicious libertine and love-struck swain.

Broken English, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Namesake, and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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<em>Broken English</em>, <em>Charlie Wilson’s War</em>, <em>The Namesake</em>, and <em>Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street</em>
<em>Broken English</em>, <em>Charlie Wilson’s War</em>, <em>The Namesake</em>, and <em>Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street</em>

Broken English (Zoe R. Cassavetes). Warts and all, this is the best American independent film I’ve seen all year. After Juno, it’s refreshing to see something so intelligently keyed to the way people in the real world dress, talk, and feel. Parker Posey is prone to all sorts of bad habits: Her quirkiness often seems to be fighting against the films she’s in, an approach that almost never works (her avant-garde disconnect in Blade: Trinity being a notable exception). Here, though, that uniquely Poseyian energy very much belongs to her character Nora: a thirtysomething woman sadly content with her dead-end job, burned by men who have made mincemeat of her confidence, thus resistant to the affections others seem to promise. Unpretentiously filmed, Broken English is decorous only in the attention it pays to its main character’s needs and fears, and the anxiety Nora suffers when trying to figure out whether or not an adorable Frenchie is just using her feels very real. Their alternately indignant and rapturous romantic tango is sweet, painful, and dangerous—as if one misstep could change their lives forever. This may be spoilerish for those who haven’t seen it, but I love how the movie accommodates a happy romantic ending while still getting to the point that Nora can feel fulfilled without a man in her life. Finally, a Cassavetes offspring daring to carry their father’s torch.