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"Sweeney" or "Charlie?" "Blood" or "Lust?" The PJM Holiday Movie Guide

Christmas and New Year is the time the studios release their big pictures, the ones that they count on the critics liking and that audiences will then want to see. It’s holiday time and that still means going to the movies for millions of Americans. Here’s a look at a few.

No Country for Old Men (from Cormac McCarthy’s Texas novel) has been, deservedly, a critic’s delight. It’s well made and well acted – the story of a demented bad guy (Javier Bardem) determined to get his hands on a few million in cash from a drug deal gone bad. He kills without seeming thought or remorse and there’s no stopping him. There’s a good old boy (Josh Brolin) who happens upon the money while out hunting and is determined to keep it. Presiding over it all is Tommy Lee Jones as a taciturn and philosophical sheriff. The movie generates tension and fear in a viewer. Its themes and inherent ideas put me in mind of the 1950s they-came-from-space movies. Those creatures were usually metaphors for what was then called the Communist menace. In No Country for Old Men, the villain, who has an unidentifiable accent and a name that sounds vaguely Balkan, seems to me a stand in for Islamic terrorism. Very much a post 9/11 movie.

There Will Be Blood, which has already won a few critics prizes is based on the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil! It’s the story of a monstrous man, a wildcatter who isn’t burdened with a conscience. He’s meant to represent capitalism at its most raw. The other strand of the plot deals with fierce religiosity – god and mammon, the two threads that made America. It makes for about half of a good movie. What works is very ambitious. The star is Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the English speaking world’s finest actors. He’s in good form here, but he’s been in this form before. He seems to be playing another version of the rascal he played in Gangs of New York. As others have pointed out, he sounds like John Huston in Chinatown. And he looks like Tom Selleck. But he’s a superb actor and you can see him think and watch him outsmart everyone else. The picture was written and directed by the redoubtable Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). The script feels incomplete – devolving into a series of incidents strung together. It may win the Nobel Peace Prize and a row of Oscars, but it seems half-baked to me. Still, even minor Day-Lewis is an event worth seeking out.

The best of the current crop is Lust, Caution – Ang Lee’s story of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. A group of University drama students determine to assassinate a countryman who is collaborating with the Japanese. The task falls to an attractive but naive young woman in their little group. She sets out to seduce the traitor with consequences no one foresaw. The movie contains a section of explicit sexual activity that got it censored in China. It’s not for the kiddies. Ang Lee, a native of Taiwan, has a breathtaking range and this ambitious and realized film is the best in a still unfolding career. Lust, Caution may be out of the theatres in some cities but find it on the big screen if you can or when it appears in DVD.

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is one of the finest American musicals. The story is set in 19th century London and based on an English legend of the 18th. Tim Burton’s version with Johnny Depp as Sweeney is a triumph. In case you’re one of the few people who haven’t heard, Sweeney, with the assistance of a Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) slits the throat of the gentlemen who come in for a shave. Mrs L. then bakes their remains into quite tasty meat pies. Sweeney wants revenge for terrible wrongs done to him long ago. There’s lots of spurting blood. The singing isn’t quite up to Broadway standards, but feels true to the characters. Depp manages to be minimal with his fury internal — in the midst of all the Grand Guignol carryings-on. No small trick. The adaptation, by John Logan, is a model of the craft. The story is always clear and keeps the characters front and center.

Charlie Wilson’s War, from Mike Nichols with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, is a political comedy built around the U.S. government’s arming the Afghan Mujahadin in their successful fight with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It’s bright and funny and yet a sad cloud hangs over it all. The Mujahadin used all those rocket launchers and rifles effectively. The trouble as this movie well knows is the weapons hung around after the victory. They’re still being used – by the Taliban among other charmers. Tom Hanks plays a breezy, hard drinking Texas Congressman who gets out of the hot tub long enough to find something like religion when he visits an Afghan refugee camp. Nichols is a master at skimming dangerous surfaces and strip mining for laughs tinged with seriousness. The script is by Aaron Sorkin and the whole thing comes off better than I ever would have expected

As a long-time voter in our annual Oscar hootenanny, I’m often asked to make predictions. I usually duck the task but there are standouts for the nominations in these few pictures under review. Among my guesses: Sweeney Todd and No Country for Old Men will be on the best picture list and Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis, among the best actors.