As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Sweeney Todd

Posted by Hedwig on February 9, 2008

I hate giving star ratings. I have to do it for my ‘official’ job, and every time it’s a struggle. How can you put movies in just 11 categories (half-stars are also allowed), and even more crucially, how can you say all 3.5 star movies, for example, are ‘worth’ the same? Oddly enough, I don’t have a problem with the more reductive “see it”, “skip it”, “wait for DVD” grading method employed by MaryAnn Johanson, the FlickFilosopher, because it gives judgment on one clearly defined point, namely the watchability/enjoyability of a movie. Star ratings, on the other hand, are an attempt to summarize all your feelings about quality, fun, suspense, the absence of presence of a deeper meaning, the enjoyability/watchability AND your personal reaction into just one number. And I just don’t think it can be done.

Case in point: Sweeney Todd. The Burton/Depp combination ensures that my ass will be in that seat. It also makes for relatively high expectations: I might not love all their collaborations, but I haven’t disliked one yet. And in a way, Sweeney Todd delivers what I expected: it looks fabulous, full of baroque decay with blood spurting out on desaturated images. Johnny Depp is a perfect fit as Sweeney, and although you can tell his voice has limits, he knows them. The same goes for Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who compensates for her rather weak voice with pitch-perfect characterization and comic timing, and Alan Rickman can of course do no wrong. The music is great, elegant and unpredictable (if not very suited for sing-alongs), “A little priest” being a highlight for me.

There were even a few surprises. I didn’t expect Sasha Baron Cohen to be such a perfect fit or to singso well, for instance. Still, despite all these great things, despite my loving many elements, the movie felt a little… bloodless? I know it’s a bit unfair to complain about being kept at a distance in a Burton film, but isn’t there something wrong when you don’t feel for the main character? My friend Evan remarked that the film is amoral (though not immoral), and he has a point: what Todd does is not condemned in the movie but neither is it seen as justified. Whether his actions are moral or not is simply presented as irrelevant.

See here my trouble with assigning star ratings? When it comes to production value and general quality, 4.5 stars doesn’t seem exaggerated. But when it comes to my personal response (basically amused and entertained, but kept at a remove) I don’t think it earns more than 3. And if you judge every movie by averaging between the factors, 4 out of 5 movies would end up with a 3.5 star rating, which makes the whole system basically useless.
So I’d say: see it, if you haven’t. See it in a cinema with a bigger screen and less annoying light than the cinema I saw it in.  See it in its full, baroque glory, and you won’t regret it. But I doubt I’ll ever watch it a second time.

6 Responses to “Sweeney Todd”

  1. I struggle with the cheezy star ratings too, but I employ them happily and I hope that readers are smart enough not to take them too literally or seriously. I enjoy trying to sum up the overall impression in some way and put it on a scale to be measured. It’s not scientific, but it can be useful.

    The system breaks down when you start comparing one movie to another. Did I really like the 3.5 star Persepolis better than the 3 star The Simpsons? Well not necessarily.

    But I’m sticking with them and they kind of reflect ‘degrees of enthusiasm’ a 2.5 star movie is dead in the water. I neither liked it nor especially disliked it. In some ways this is the worst rating of all…no passion one way or the other. Anything below that is bad and anything above that is good. Anything 3 stars and above I suppose I technically recommend, though I hope people still read the review to find out why a movie is rated a certain way.

    It’s funny though, I’ve had a few people tell me they just want to hear what it’s about, who’s in it and whether or not it was any good. These people are definitely star rating fans. Fair enough.

  2. I age about the ratings. I don’t even know why I use them, I don’t have a “job”, so I really have no excuse. I look at some peoples ratings, and I usually grade certain films much higher than the general consensus, and I used to think I was to open to seeing the good in film and less of a “critic”, but now I really don’t care. I do find it hard to stick to the star ratings, I have given so many 4 and a half ratings this year, you would think it was a joke, but again, I don’t care. I give the stars purely on my over all response to the films, and I see the good in film way before I see the bad, and my ratings are usually higher. A film with a 3 or 3.5 rating is mediocre for me, but quite high for others, for example I gave Evening 3.5 even though I admit it was a flawed film. When I give a film a 5 star rating, it doesn’t mean it is a bona fide masterpiece, but a masterpiece where I am concerned, not following any rules of what a masterpiece should be like. I gave Juno a 5 star rating, but that was just me, I think it was so great, but many people did not. When I see a poor star rating for Juno, I read the review associated with it, and if the reviewer has some good points – whether I agree or not – I can live with it, something I did with Craig’s review. I also understand you didn’t like Juno much, but your reasons as to why are very clear and I respect them.

    I cannot wait to see Sweeney Todd, it opens in SA on Feb 22, so I am definitely going. Johnny Depp is great in almost everything, and Burton is kind of a legend, so seeing what they can come up with is going to be very interesting.

  3. and by “age” I mean “agree” – sorry for any typos 😦

  4. sarcastig said

    @Craig: don’t you think that’s another problem with star ratings? I mean, in my mind, there’s a pretty big distinction between a 3 and a 3.5 star movie, but little to none between a 1 and a 1.5 star rating, or even between 1 and 2. Anything under 2.5 is just bad, and that end of the scare is therefore pretty useless. The letter system, in that regard, might be more useful.

    @Nick: I have the opposite, I never give a 5 star rating, because in my eyes no movie is entirely perfect. I changed my mind about that though. I mean, if I hadn’t given No Country For Old Men 5 stars, I probably never would have. And then, of course, once that first barrier is breached, it becomes easier, and I gave I’m Not There 5 stars too.

  5. Kaj said

    Well, that’s the problem with a 5 star rating with halves, it’s too similar too the whole school grading system, and then people start thinking that 5 star ratings mean perfect movies because they equate it to a ‘perfect ten’. But the one has got nothing to do with the other, in my opinion. I remember the negative comments I got for my first 5 star review at Filmtotaal. And I probably will get some for my upcoming review of [REC], that gets a 5 star rating purely based instinct and feeling. And that’s how I always rate movies. The hard thing then becomes making sure that the tone of your review matches your rating. The other way around is only possible, to me, if you’re not sure what you’re gonna give it when you start writing.

    Sure, in a way, that’s kind of silly, but even if you don’t, a lot of people care about the exact rating you give a film, and a lot of them will only see that, or see that first before they read your actual review. But I’m digressing. The point that I wanted to work towards is this: I never put too much reason behind the rating itself initially, because if I think about the rating itself too much, I start comparing it to other ratings and movies, and that way ultimately lies madness. For instance, for months I’ve been giving There Will Be Blood 4.5 stars. Well, in my head anyway. Now that I’m actually writing the review for it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it might just be a slightly better movie than No Country or I’m Not There, which I’ve both already given 5 stars. Logic would dictate that Blood should now receive 5 stars as well, but my gut feeling still says 4.5…

    Oh, ratings can be so frustrating. There’s more I want to say about ratings and related stuff, but right now I’m really tired of the subject…

  6. As I said, ratings are something I’ve struggled with, but if I can please the people who want a shortcut and the people who prefer to read and decide for themselves, then it’s a win-win-win.

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