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'Sweeney Todd' is the best pic of 2007, but can it win best pic?

November 29, 2007 |  9:55 pm

You know that a movie wows an audience when nobody stirs during the closing credits. That's what happened at the end of "Sweeney Todd" tonight at the first critics' screening in Manhattan. Finally, three-fourths of the way through the credits, I stood to exit, but my neighbors in the dark did not and I had to climb over them.

Viewers were either utterly spellbound by this film or else struck dumb and numb in shock. A movie that begins with small riverlets of blood flowing during the opening shots ends with red showers so intense that New York Times Carpetbagger David Carr said to me afterward, "I felt like I should've watched that movie wearing a raincoat."

An embargo surrounding this film prohibits us journos from reviewing it, but we're permitted to discuss it in general terms, so let's try to tread that fine line so I can inform you about the most important movie of 2007. Certainly, it's the best I've seen all year, although, of course, I'm a bit biased as a diehard fan of the Broadway show.

Sweeney_screening_2

Everybody whose opinion I pooled after the screening tonight said they thought the movie and Johnny Depp were brilliant. And everybody thought it was outrageously bloody and grisly. Many said they didn't think it could win best picture because of that. Yes, there was widespread belief that it'll be nommed for best pic, director and actor — maybe even best actress (Helena Bonham Carter), too — and that MAYBE Johnny could win, but not the film. Not because it doesn't deserve it. But because of all the blood, they say.

But is that true? Hold your derby horses, naysayers! Didn't lots of Oscarologists say "The Departed" was too violent to win last year? Didn't "Silence of the Lambs" break the taboo against horror flicks winning? Hey, are we all such a nation of wimps that we'll let a little blood — OK, a lot of it — get in the way of the year's best picture winning best picture?

After tonight's screening, I asked a number of journos the same questions: Do you think "Sweeney Todd" is going to have huge megabuzz and a high Cool Factor when it comes out? Yes, they all agreed. Is it going to be one of those Gotta-See Pix? Unanimous answer: yes.

If that's true — and it clearly is — then those factors may be enough to help it float the blood biz. And, frankly, the red stuff is handled in such an outlandish, cartoonish way that it often doesn't feel real.

But the movie does. In fact, it makes viewers feel so deeply in profound emotional and psychological ways, that it will haunt you, on many levels, long afterward. Director Tim Burton has created a masterpiece for the ages. If namby-pamby Oscar voters are too squeamish to give it the best picture award it deserves, Sweeney Todd would be entirely justified to give them all a close shave.

But many of them are definitely going to be squeamish and this question of whether or not it's too violent is going to be — get ready right now — discussed over and over and over again all Oscar season.

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If "Sweeney" becomes a box-office hit — which I think is inevitable — all could be forgiven, of course. If it just succeeds modestly, its Oscar hopes may drown in the red stuff.

I think it'll be nominated for best picture and it's going to have a large percentage of the largest voting bloc behind it: those chaps who Harvey Weinstein calls "the steak eaters." As Harvey sees it, they really decide who wins Oscars — the cinematographers, sound mixers, visual effects guys — not the actors' branch. The tech guys far outnumber everyone else and they're a testosterone-driven gang who, I suspect, might really delight in Burton's gorefest because he so artfully adapts a revered classic. And because Johnny Depp is so damn cool.

Now let's look around at the other movies that might be able to beat it for best picture. "Atonement"? Maybe. People do love it, but, to get catty for a sec, it's really just "The English Patient" with a trick ending. "No Country for Old Men"? Talk about bloody violence! Yikes! And its depiction is not cartoonish at all. Furthermore, to get catty here, too, it's really just an art-house twist on Freddy Krueger.

"The Kite Runner"? Great, yeah, but it has no Hollywood celebs, so forget it. "Juno"? It might be nommed for best pic, but it skews too female for the dude-heavy academy.

"Diving Bell and the Butterfly"? Too foreign. "Charlie Wilson's War"? Forget it. Now that we've seen it, "Charlie" just fell off most pundits' top five. "There Will Be Blood"? People admire it, especially Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, but they're not passionate about it. "American Gangster"? Might get nominated, but it doesn't seem like a winner. "Into the Wild"? Excitement seems to have ebbed a bit.

Hmmmm. So what can beat "Sweeney"?

There's one movie in this year's derby that I should probably take more seriously. Frankly, I didn't buy the initial hype behind "Michael Clayton" in the best-pic race — but it keeps popping up in conversations while early frontrunners like "Charlie Wilson's War" stumble. I promise to stop pooh-poohing it because it's so ridiculously over-rated. But, oh, come on -- do you think it could actually beat that masterwork "Sweeney"? Hmmmmm again . . .

Basically, I see all of the obstacles facing "Sweeney," but I don't see what can beat it. Being a fan, am I just blinded?


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