There’s something more than a little screwy, and yet oddly comforting, about the holiday movie rush. In the last few weeks of December, countless numbers of flicks are cramming themselves into theaters, most of them out for awards or critical glory while a few are just out to take advantage of everyone being off work and out of school for a week and a half. There’s something almost suicidal about it from a business standpoint, but the movie lover in me adores the fact that literally dozens of quality, near-quality, and non-quality movies are all vying for my attention. Multiple releases in a single week are starting to become less and less of a rarity (especially if you live in NYC or L.A. ), but it's part of the Christmas tradition for me and it’s one of many reason why I adore the holidays so. Hell, it’s better than eggnog and fruitcake and almost better than White Fudge Oreos. Almost.
Two of this year’s holiday logjammers are CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR and SWEENEY TODD, both films made by top talents working off of excellent material and, thankfully, both of them very good movies. I guess I was more pleasantly surprised by the quality of CHARLIE WILSON because the film’s creative team, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, have both had their ups and downs (If you ask me, A FEW GOOD MEN is still one of the worst films to ever be nominated for Best Picture), though this one is a definite up. I suspect that out of all of the recent Hollywood features about the Middle East this one will probably be the only hit, in part because it really is more of an entertainment (and a pretty smart one, too) but also because even though it’s set in the 80s, it does acknowledge how the events in the film do eventually play out and come back to haunt us. This subject matter is perfect for both Nichols and Sorkin and while CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR isn’t exactly a classic, it’s still these guys in their element and they’re doing a very good job. Everyone else involved is likewise on their game, with the exception of Julia Roberts, who simply isn’t quite that convincing as the Texas millionaire who helps drive Hanks’ Charlie Wilson into caring about the cause of the Afghans. But Hanks does the lovable scam thing extremely well (and kudos the Nichols and Sorkin for not whitewashing Wilson’s character too much) and Philip Seymour Hoffman is just terrific as his CIA contact; Hoffman gets all the best lines and plays his “smartest guy in the room” character on full-tilt mode so that if it wasn’t for him the movie might not work as well. But for as good as the film is, why isn’t it better? Why isn’t it a classic? It does feel a bit like the punches were pulled, that the opportunity to make something truly biting and a bit more savage was tempered by either commercial demands or legal ramifications, though that’s all speculation on my part. I suppose that expectations are one thing and reality is another, and the resulting film is still an extremely entertaining one, so the point is probably moot. I probably should just shut the fuck up and let everyone else enjoy the movie.
Anyway, there’s no mild disappointment connected with SWEENEY TODD, which is quite the winner in the same way that… I have no idea what I mean by that. Anyway, it’s really good. Once again, you’ve got an excellent match for material, Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical, two great taste that taste great together, a Reese’s peanut butter cup of a movie (have I used that line before?) It’s said that SWEENEY TODD has long been a passion project for Burton (he was once slated to direct it back in the early 90s) and it feels like it; more so, it brings a bit more of a personal feel to Burton’s work, which has seemingly been missing for a while (with the exception of BIG FISH, which I rather liked). A little odd that it’s taken a musical about a murderous barber to bring the heart back to Burton ’s work, but then again that’s Burton for you, isn’t it?
In thinking over this piece I realized it was probably going to come across as an exercise in ass-kissing and quote-whoring (“A masterpiece! Johnny Depp is brilliant! Helena Bonham Carter has never been better!”), so let me focus on a few things that others might not. First, I think Alan Rickman is terrific here; he’s done the villainous bit many times before (and there are few who do it better), but this time out there’s a lovelorn aspect to all this and that he accomplishes beautifully. When he and Depp sing “Pretty Women” together late in the film, you’re not just seeing a bad guy but a bad guy in love and Rickman (who sings rather well) is really god damn good. Second, I admire and respect how Burton doesn’t hold back here. There have been numerous complaints already about the amount of blood in the film, but I wasn’t phased by it, and not because I’ve seen plenty of horror films. Sure, there’s a lot of blood, but I think it’s just enough and not overdone in the least. Besides, this is a movie about a murderous barber, so there should be blood here, shouldn’t there? But beyond this, Burton wholeheartedly embraces the story’s dark side (and I don’t mind saying that it gets pretty dark) and tragedy in a way that most would probably shy away from, and it's completely admirable of him to do so. That’s one more reason why SWEENEY TODD is one of Burton ’s best films and damn well worth seeing.