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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>

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.

Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols). The good: The best Hollywood movie of the year to address the War on Terror, directly or indirectly. The bad: It’s no great shakes. The graphic match between an alleyway in an Afghan village and a hallway in the Senate may be the ballsiest directorial move of Nichols’s career, a sly illustration of how chaos and order in the world is inextricably tied to the legislative arm of our government. And yet, it all feels awfully glib—a tacky, live-action political cartoon, not unlike Primary Colors, that ends on an easy, finger-wagging note. But is Nichols telling us that we could have prevented 9/11 or that we deserved it? It seems to me that the film will be reviewed according to how critics chose to interpret that final scene.

The Namesake (Mira Nair). To Mira Nair’s credit, she makes better movies about her people’s cross-cultural issues than she did about mine (The Perez Family), but they’re still bad. Nair piles through events in a Bengali beauty’s life until one of the woman’s children grows up to become Kal Penn, whose issues with his given name, Gogol,commands the director’s bathetic attention for the rest of the film’s running time. Penn acts his heart out, but his character’s identity crisis has too much to do with his problems with his name (it seems unlikely that his father would wait so long to tell him where “Gogol” came from, only to then let the post-mortem box-in-the-attic do the rest). Just as easy are the broadly conceived cross-cultural skirmishes, though it was something of a relief that Gogol’s relationship to a foxy Indian girl isn’t presented as a preferable alternative to the one he had with a blonde from, you know, a different caste system. As usual, points for heart, but none for presentation.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton). Due to Paramount’s review embargo, I must speak “in general terms.” After seeing the film, I can’t imagine a better marriage than Sondheim and Burton, nor can I imagine anyone thinking it isn’t superior to tripe like Dreamgirls. Is Sacha Baron Cohen acting in a completely different movie? Should Timothy Spall’s face heretofore appear in the dictionary next to the word “slimy”? Does Depp successfully convey Sweeney Todd’s moral decay, or is the makeup around his eyes doing most of the heavy lifting? If pleased with it, Simon Cowell might say, “Not a single oversung note or cruise-ship performance.” The bloodletting, like Helena Bonham Carter’s breasts, is relentless and voluptuous, and Burton knows how to frame the hell out of a shot.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.