Film Reviews for 01-02-08

Dec 28, 2007 at 6:26 pm

‘Sweeney Todd’ exacts revenge
(Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Alan Rickman. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated R; 1:57. LEO Report Card: B)

The brick buildings of London in “Sweeney Todd” appear to be infected with a terminal decay. Under director Tim Burton and production designer Dante Ferretti, it’s a beautiful type of rot, the kind where gothic shadows never recede.

It’s also the visual embodiment of the film’s namesake, who returns to his homeland after 15 years of exile to exact revenge on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who destroyed his family and wrongfully charged him with a crime.

As the murderous Todd, Johnny Depp wields an angry charisma, of a man who is both heartbroken and heartless. Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s accomplice who bakes the barber’s victims into meat pies and sells them. The two sing about murder, impossible love and cannibalism, backed by the ironic counterpoint of soaring strings offering a glimmer of hope that these lost souls just might resurface from the spiritual muck.

Burton, who specializes in moody outcasts and the stylized landscapes that reflect their ravaged souls, is a fitting director to adapt Stephen Sondheim’s comically morbid stage musical of the 1970s for the movies. The result is a film that magnifies both the strengths and weaknesses of the source material.

Todd remains essentially a one-note character, repetitively slicing helpless throats as the violence veers between tossed-off punch-lines and the quietly disturbing. The movie’s uncompromisingly grim ending feels every bit as much of a nihilistic kiss-off as the finale of “The Departed.” But cynicism doesn’t always signify boldness. —Jamie Peters

‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ excels at dialogue, debacle
(Starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Shiri Appleby. Directed by Mike Nichols. Rated R; 1:37. LEO Report Card: B+)

Charlie Wilson is my kind of legislator. He drinks at 10 a.m. before meeting with a Church-going constituent, frolics with coke-snorting strippers in Vegas and has an office of smoking-hot ingénues ready to spin any, um, indiscretion in his favor.

He’s also dead serious about fighting Communists. Moved by a trip to a repulsive refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wilson (Tom Hanks) loosens the Congressional purse strings so the CIA can help the Afghans wallop Mother Russia in the ’80s. The film is loosely based on real events and should leave audiences circumspect about the “War on Terra.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman practically outshines Hanks as the hard-boiled, take-no-shit intelligence agent Gust Avrakotos, while Julia Roberts, playing meddlesome socialite Joanne Herring, proves Texas accents can be sexy, even if hers is unpersuasive. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) shows he’s still got game in the dialogue department. His script teems with rapid-fire exchanges between characters that excite, invigorate and inform.

Watching “Charlie Wilson’s War” is difficult because we have already seen its painful effects (read: 9/11). But so what? Those of us here in the “free world” could use the occasional reminder that unintended consequences can be severe. —Mat Herron

New doc reveres ‘Joe Strummer’
(Starring Joe Strummer, Mick Jones (II), Nicky Headon, Terry Chimes and Iain Gillies. Directed by Julien Temple. UR; 2:05. LEO Report Card: B+)


Joe Strummer always seemed so passionate, intelligent, engaged. He always sounded like he had something important to say, even if he wasn’t sure yet what it was. Julien Temple, who directed the documentary “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten” (now showing at the Village 8), takes Strummer’s own words and those of his friends to paint a story of his life that was, until his death in 2002, marked by invention and reinvention.  

Truthfully, not all of those inventions were of equal value. As is the case for most of us, his youth was overrated: He’s lauded first for being a private school tough, then a hippie art student, then a punk firebrand.  He was famous by the time he was 25, but it wasn’t for another couple years that he and his band made something truly, momentously good: 1979’s London Calling. Before that, Strummer was a man with a medium but no message.

Only a few years later, The Clash is history and Strummer’s career is floundering. Ironically, this is when “Unwritten” gets really interesting. In the late ’80s, he becomes an elder statesman and thinker. He’s educated in the world beyond the West and is able to imbue anything with great political and personal importance, from Apartheid to techno. Sadly, he is at his intellectual peak even as his audience has all but left him.

This is the great strength of Temple’s film: not just that it resurfaces more early Clash footage, but that it shines a light on Strummer’s passions near the end of his life, when the world was silly enough to think it had passed him by. —Alan Abbott