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No Country for Old Men (2007)
Violence, Emptiness, and Flashes of Dark Humor
The Cormac McCarthy novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is an ideal vehicle for the Coen brothers, who have used violence and emptiness laced with dark humor as an artistic aesthetic since the beginning of their careers--and although the setting and story are quite different it is very, very like FARGO in mood, style, and themes.
The story concerns Texan Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, takes the money, and runs. He is pursued by hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem); both are pursued by sheriff Tom Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones.) Curiously, the film never allows any of the three men to meet; it instead follows their various paths toward and away from each other, paths that cross, diverge, and at times seem quite random.
Although the characters drive the story in the sense that they make the decisions they do because of who they are, the overall impression of the film is one of an initially calculated violence that becomes increasingly random as it progresses. There is no ultimate reason or deep meaning; just an open-ended emptiness of non-resolution and futility.
The cast is quite good, with Brolin, Bardem, and Jones perfectly cast and extremely believable in their roles; Kelly MacDonald, who plays the role of Llewelyn's wife, is particularly fine. The production values are also memorable. But like most Coen films, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN seems to skate on the surface of its story rather than offer it to us in depth--the idea, one presumes, to allow us to impose our own ideas upon its very carefully crafted blankness. In this instance it works more often than not, but it is extremely noticeable when it doesn't, and the film often reads as self-consciously quirky as a result.
The DVD contains three backstory documentaries including a "making of" piece; in truth, however, all three are of a piece. Recommended, but not to all tastes.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy Steal The Show
DREAMGIRLS opened on Broadway in 1981 and was in the running for a film version long, long before it closed in 1985. Very loosely based on the lives and career of The Supremes, it told the story of a black girl group whose cross-over from "race records" to the pop charts fuel the success of an increasingly cut-throat recording mogul--and find the price of fame and fortune in the recording industry too high for their liking. While it borrows a great deal from numerous music personalities and stories of the 1960s and 1970s, DREAMGIRLS is essentially a riff on the career of The Supremes and the group's relationship with Motown founder Berry Gordy.
The Supremes were originally created by Florence Ballard, a powerhouse vocalist who worked with Diana Ross and Mary Wilson as back up singers. Berry sought a group that could cross over into the pop charts and reformulated the line-up, moving the prettier Diana Ross to lead--and ultimately dismissing Ballard from the group entirely, replacing her with Cindy Birdsong. After the music industry turned its back on Ballard, she declined in alcoholism and poverty and died at age 32. She is widely regarded as one of the great tragic figures on the long list of American rock and roll casualties.
When DREAMGIRLS opened on Broadway in 1981 critics praised its powerhouse performances and its dazzling staging--but were somewhat less favorable toward its script and score, noting that the characters were one-note and with one or two exceptions that the score was neither memorable nor able to capture the sharply crafted pop hooks of the Motown style it tried to mimic. Even so, the play ran five years, and over the years numerous studios, producers, directors, and stars have took a crack at bringing it to the screen--something that didn't happen until 2006. And once more critics praised its powerhouse performances and dazzling staging--and were considerably less enthusiastic about its script and score.
The great flaw in DREAMGIRLS is that, while it centers on the story of Florence Ballard, neither the stage nor screen version actually has the nerve to play it out: it, the rivalry between Ballard and Ross, and the brutalities of the music business are actually somewhat underplayed in an effort to place every character in a softer light. As for the music, the score does include the stunning "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," but the original criticism stands: although pleasant enough, the songs are not particularly memorable and they do indeed lack the sharp, slick edges of the Motown sound that inspired them.
Like many another period film, the look is not really accurate: instead of accurately depicting the 1960s and 1970s it is that era as seen through a modern filter, the 1960s and 1970s as we tend to recall them rather than as they actually were. Even so, there is plenty of visual splash; the costumes, the concert stagings, and the overall art design is quite fine, and you never actually question accuracy while it unfolds before. And then there are the performances.
With the exception Jamie Foxx, who seems slightly miscast in the role of music manager and producer Curtis Taylor, DREAMGIRLS is filled with memorable performances. Although she does not imitate Diana Ross per se, Beyonce Knowles captures Ross' look and sense of style remarkably well; Danny Glover offers a memorable turn as agent Marty Madison; and overall the supporting cast is quite fine. But the big noises her are Eddie Murphy as James Early, a role based on several singers of the era but most particularly on James Brown, and Jennifer Hudson as Effy White, the role based on Florence Ballard.
Murphy's film career has been very up and down over the years, ranging from the popular 48 HOURS to the disastrous HARLEM NIGHTS, and he is at present best known for such mild comedies as DR. DOOLITTLE and NORBIT. He typically plays himself--but DREAMGIRLS puts him on the acting map in a serious way. Not only does he does he offer an extraordinary bit of work as the flamboyant but self-destructive R&B singer, he tears strips off his musical numbers. Prior to her appearance in DREAMGIRLS, Jennifer Hudson was best know as an also-ran on television's American Idol, which entirely failed to anticipate the depths of her vocal talents and acting skill. DREAMGIRLS, however, exploited what television missed--and while it is technically a supporting role, Hudson's Effie White is the glue that holds the whole thing together. It is easily the most remarkable screen debut since Barbra Striesand's 1968 FUNNY GIRL.
DREAMGIRLS is not a "perfect" film, much less a "great" musical. As previously noted, the script is a bit weak and the music slightly below expectations, and when all is said and done it's a bit too glossy for its own good. But it is easy on the eyes, the cast is solid, and you'll never be less than amazed by Murphy and Hudson. The one-disk DVD offers extended scenes but little else; if you are a hardcore fan you'll no doubt want to go with the double disk special edition. Recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Queen Live at Wembley '86 (1986)
Brilliant Live Performance; So-So Film
The rock band Queen formed in England in 1972. Although several critics admired their earliest releases, the public remained largely indifferent until the 1974 SHEER HEART ATTACK, which jolted the band to fame in both England and America--and throughout the 1970s Queen generated one major recording success after another with A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, A DAY AT THE RACES, and NEWS OF THE WORLD. Even so, the band often provoked a "love it or hate it" reaction; they offered an odd mixture of thundering hard rock, English musical hall, and progressive sound in a "glamrock" package, and as time passed American audiences found it less and less appealing--particularly when dogged by rumors about lead singer Freddie Mercury's sexuality and the sexually "ify" nature of the band's name itself.
By the early 1980s those controversies, shifts in musical tastes, and the band's extremely ill-advised gig at the segregated South African resort of Sun City effectively knocked Queen out of the lucrative American market. But something unexpected happened: Queen, which had long been a concert favorite in Asia and Europe, emerged as the world's premiere stadium concert act, and quite suddenly the American market was almost irrelevant. Who cares about New York and Los Angeles when you have out-charted every one from Elvis Presley to the Beatles and when you are the single biggest concert draw in world history? In 1986 Queen played England's Wembley Stadium, one of the largest venues in Europe, performing two concerts (one in a rainstorm) to sold out audiences. The concert was filmed, and it presents a great band that clearly had a great talent for playing to such incredibly large audiences.
When you listen to Queen's most popular releases you listen to a band that knows how to work a recording studio to the nth degree--and so it is very easy to forget exactly how athletic and musically muscular Queen was. WEMBLEY reminds you of the fundamental facts in no uncertain terms: four band members, a single back up musician to pick up occasional phrases here and there, and that was it. And they clearly do everything but tear Wembley Stadium down to the ground.
At this point in the band's history concerts focused tightly around lead singer Freddie Mercury, who had a unique talent for dominating the massive audiences to which he played: handsome, muscular, he is all over the stage--and then there is that voice. Mercury is said to have had a four-octave range, and while his upper registers were too delicate for the demands of the concert stage you don't doubt it for a minute. This is a voice as delicate as a trembling candle flame, as roaring as bonfire, and shifting between both extremes without the faintest sign of strain or effort. And the band is behind him every inch of the way: Brian May, lead guitar, is a legendary performer in his own right, and bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor are rock solid as well.
That said, however, the film itself is actually only so-so, and the reason is very obvious: the editing. The thing consists of one flash cut after another, bouncing from Mercury to May to Taylor and shortchanging Deacon in the process. We have plenty of close ups, and very often some remarkable shots of the crowd--"Radio Gaga" is particularly extraordinary in this--but we seldom actually get to see the band as a whole. The endless cuts become more than a little wearing after a while and they ultimately undercut the energy of the concert itself.
The producers make up for this a little bit on the bonus disk, which includes a feature that allows you to focus exclusively on one performer at a time over the course of a few songs. The bonus disk also includes several documentaries that range from the "fair enough" to the "very good." Queen was a great live band, no doubt about it; the film falls short of that, but even so it reminds you very clearly of what Freddie, Brian, John, and Roger could do when they put their minds to it. It also has a certain poignancy, particularly when Mercury remarks that the band will stay together until they die, particularly given that Mercury very likely knew at this point that he was HIV positive and would not be able to tour much longer. He would be dead five years later. Strongly recommended in spite of flaws.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
How About A Shave?
Although some have tried to argue that he was an actual person, it seems likely that the story of a throat-cutting barber Sweeney Todd arose first as an urban myth that was developed into an 1846 story titled THE STRING OF PEARLS by writer Thomas Prest. A year later the story was adapted to the stage as SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.
In the 1970s composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim adapted a version of the story to the musical stage. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET opened on Broadway on 1 March 1979 with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the leading roles. Although it swept every award available, box office fell short of expectation and the show ended with a run of 557 performances. Fortunately for us all, however, it has endured--first on the stage, then in concert, and now appearing as a film by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
The story, of course, is famous. Barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after having been falsely imprisoned many years ago. When he seeks his family he is told his wife is dead, his daughter Joanna (Jayne Wisener) a prisoner of the lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who sentenced him. Mad for revenge and criminally twisted, Barker takes the name Sweeney Todd and is soon slitting throats right and left--first by necessity but ultimately for the pleasure of it. He soon associates with Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who finds a handy way of disposing of the bodies: she bakes them into meat pies and soon has a thriving business.
Given his penchant for the Gothic, Burton would seem the perfect choice to helm a film version--and does so beautifully, especially in terms of design. This is the underbelly of Victorian, fog-shrouded London, rendered in dark tones with the occasional splash of red blood. The art design is nothing short of brilliant; the cinematography is all that you could wish. At the same time, however, there is something very slightly amiss: although it has its own fascination, the film simply isn't as funny as it should be. It is hard to say precisely why this is so, but it seems to me that the cause is two-fold: it lacks the satirical edge of the original and it has a slightly obvious quality. Instead of being innovative, SWEENEY TODD is simply Tim Burton as we already know him, and none of it comes as a surprise.
The DVD release is quite handsome, with a huge number of extras and bonuses that are sure to please. Recommended, and sure to find status as a cult classic.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Although some have tried to argue that he was an actual person, it seems likely that the story of a throat-cutting barber Sweeney Todd arose first as a bit of urban myth that was developed into an 1846 story titled THE STRING OF PEARLS by writer Thomas Prest. A year later the story was adapted to the stage as SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. The story has remained popular into the 21st Century and is today best known as a musical by Stephen Sondheim.
The 1936 English film came about due to English laws which required film studios to produce a certain number of films for every film imported. George King was among the producer-directors who specialized in "quota quickies" and Tod Slaughter was his "star." Born in 1885, Slaughter was never among the great actors of his day--but he was a stage favorite with provincial audiences, most especially when he played villains, and most especially when he played Sweeney Todd.
This particular version of the story differs a great deal from later versions, but the basic story remains the same. Todd is a London barber who occasionally cuts a throat; Mrs. Lovatt (Stella Rho) is his partner in crime, who bakes the victims up into pies. Now, make no mistake about it: this version of SWEENEY TODD is essentially one made by a pack of hacks, so you'll find no art here. It really is a "quota quickie," badly written, badly filmed, with a cast that goes from adequate to inept. Even so, Slaughter and Rho are quite entertaining, playing so broadly and with melodramatic glee that offers a window onto the playing styles of a by-gone era. The whole thing is so over-the-top, ultra-Victorian, English-Gothic that it really can be quite a bit of fun if approached in the right spirit.
It would, however, be quite a bit more fun if the DVD prints available today were good quality. They are not. Indeed they are so poor that the film is barely watchable, and it goes without saying that there are no bonuses of any kind. Recommended, but really only for those who are interested in tracing the history of Sweeney Tod in his various incarnations.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
One Nation Under God (1993)
Intriguing Issues and Unanswered Questions
Associated with right-wing Christian evangelicals, Exodus advocates conversion of homosexuals into heterosexuals through various programs--although precisely what these programs are, how effective they are, and whether such conversion should be attempted at all have been contentious issues since the organization formed in 1976. ONE NATION UNDER GOD seeks to describe Exodus and similar programs and compare their somewhat vague success stories against the realities of those who attempted this sexual conversion and crashed and burned.
The major focus of the film is on Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper. Bussee was among the five co-founding members of Exodus; Cooper was an Exodus volunteer who is sometimes described as a co-founder, depending on the exact source. Both were gay men determined to become heterosexual--but precipitated a mighty scandal in the Exodus ranks when they instead fell in love with each other. Other notables interviewed include Frank Worthen, founder of Love In Action, which pre-dated Exodus; and Martin Duberman, noted author, a gay man who sought to become heterosexual through psychotherapy and whose book CURES documents the process he underwent.
As these and other interview subjects speak out on camera they are occasionally interrupted by "scientific films" drawn from the 1950s and 1960s; religious leaders who condemn or support, as case may be; and some unintentionally hilarious moments, including one that can only be described as "beauty tips for lesbians." The result is a collage of questions to which no two people have exactly the same answer. Can one change one's sexuality? Or not? If so, how? And if so, is it actually a desirable sort of thing? Although ONE NATION UNDER GOD clearly comes down on the side of those who claim that "ministries" such as Exodus are little more than dangerous pseudo-science, the answers to the questions are not quite as clear cut as one could wish--which is, in fact, one of the points the film makes: to this date there has been no serious study of Exodus' success rates. The DVD offers a reasonable transfer, but there are no bonuses of any kind--a great pity in this instance, for it is a fascinating subject that bears considerably deeper investigation than this fairly short film allows.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Interesting But Excessively Slow Valentio Film
The 1925 COBRA was among Valentino's last films--and it tends to divide the star's fans, who either rejoice at his appearance in a realistic drama or yearn for something that rivals his earlier, often outrageous seductive melodramas.
The story concerns Count Rodrigo Torriani (Valentino), an impoverished Italian nobleman with a penchant for torrid affairs that lead to endless and often monetary difficulties. Largely in order to escape such difficulties, Rodrigo agrees to work for American antiques dealer Jack Dorning (Casson Ferguson)--only to find himself little better off in New York, where he wavers between office secretary Mary Drake (Gertrude Olmstead) and Jack's femme fatale wife Elise (Nita Naldi.) In a stylistic sense, COBRA shows what Valentino could do as an actor when he was not encumbered by the usual "great seducer" scripts pressed upon him--and he acquits himself very well. The supporting cast, most particularly Naldi, is also excellent. But there is no two ways about it: COBRA is so low-key that it feels excessively slow as it moves toward its none-too-surprising conclusion.
The film itself is beautiful to the eye. Valentino is very close to the height of his physical appeal and Naldi is stunningly beautiful in a series of Adrian-designed gowns; the art direction by William Cameron Menzies is excellent, and the cinematography by Fischbeck and Jennings has a velvety quality that is quite fine. Even so, and with a running time of just over an hour, COBRA feels excessively languid in tone. The DVD offers a handsome transfer and good music score, but little else. Recommended--but primarily for hardcore Valentino fans.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Do Not Disturb (1965)
Not Bad--But Not Memorable
Doris Day was among Hollywood's few truly bankable stars during the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly noted for her comic talents in such frothy farces as PILLOW TALK, PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES, and THAT TOUCH OF MINK. Unfortunately, as the 1960s progressed her films did not, and although her films remained popular they were seen as increasingly out of touch with the tone of the times. The situation was not helped by Day's husband-manager Martin Melcher, who developed the habit of signing Day to film projects Day herself found uninspired. Such was the case with the 1965 flyweight comedy DO NOT DISTURB.
The play seems to be a grab-bag of ideas from previous Day films, the story of a pretty but slightly klutzy wife (Day) and a neglectful husband (Rod Taylor) who find themselves at romantic cross purposes courtesy of their landlady Vanessa (Hermione Baddeley), a sexy secretary (Maura McGiveney), and a handsome antiques dealer(Sergio Fantoni.) The roles are one-dimensional, the plot turns are predictable, and the dialogue trivial. Both Day and Taylor respond by overplaying, sometimes to the point of shrillness. Even so, they do manage to inject enough life into the film to make it mildly amusing--and the supporting cast is quite charming. When all is said and done, the film is most memorable for the sight of Doris Day in a brilliantly orange evening gown as she struggles on the dance floor to shake away an olive dropped down her back.
The DVD includes several bonus features, including an account of Day's early life and career, a brief biography of Michael Romanoff (who plays a cameo in the film), and a brief biography of composer Mort Garson (who is perhaps best remembered for the song "Our Day Will Come.) It offers a nice transfer and is present in its original widescreen format. Most Doris Day fans will find it amusing, but even so most will admit that DO NOT DISTURB is hardly among the first tier of her films: not bad, but in no way memorable.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Grotesque, Macabre, and Influential Silent Classic
Like most artistic "isms," expressionism is somewhat difficult to define; in general, however, it refers to a style in which the artist is much less interested in capturing external realities than in portraying emotional and psychological states; consequently, expressionism is often fantastic in a visual sense--and when it combined with the darker edges of Germanic folklore it gave rise to a series of classic and near-classic silent films, including THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, THE GOLEM, and WAXWORKS.
Over time, the style began to creep into American film. This was most particularly true of films made at Universal Studios, which had major successes with such Gothic-inflected films as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, both of which starred Lon Chaney. Drawn from a minor work by Victor Hugo, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was first intended as a Chaney vehicle; by the time it began production, however, Chaney had decamped to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer--and Universal assigned Conrad Veidt to the starring role under director Paul Leni. Both men had been deeply involved in the German expressionist movement, and the resulting film was a melodrama so deeply steeped in the grotesque that it came to be regarded as a horror film.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS concerns a child named Gwynplaine who is caught up in royal intrigue and is deliberately disfigured, his mouth cut into a ghastly, inflexible grin. Abandoned, he rescues an blind infant girl; both are taken in by the kindly Ursus (Cesare Gravina.) Years later, and entirely unaware of his aristocratic origin, Gwynplaine (Veidt) and the beautiful blind maiden Dea (Mary Philbin) are popular carnival actors, appearing in a play written by Ursus--but although he loves Dea, Gwynplaine is deeply humiliated by his eternal grin and feels he can never marry. Ironically, it is not until he is once more caught up in a royal powerplay and recognized as a peer that he realizes the depth of Dea's love.
In some ways the plot is simplistic and occasionally too much so, but the look of the thing is relentlessly fascinating. Director Leni endows his world with grotesque faces, vulgar sexuality, and deliberately twisted visuals--particularly so in the first half of the film, which is greatly famous for the sequence in which the abandoned child stumbles through a snow storm beneath gallows bearing rotting corpses to find the infant Dea. Veidt's hideous grin, an early creation by make up genius Jack Pierce, is remarkably effective; the performances are memorable, and although the second half of the film is excessively predictable the whole thing goes off with a bang.
Although it was hardly a failure, in 1928 THE MAN WHO LAUGHS proved too gruesome for many audiences, and the rise of sound films drove it into a too-rapid obscurity. Even so, it would cast a very long shadow: it is an important link in the chain between German expressionism and the great Hollywood horror classics of the early 1930s. The Kino DVD presents a reasonable but far from flawless transfer of the film, along with several bonus features, most significantly a "making of" documentary that details the film's stylistic importance. Recommended for fans of classic horror.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
The Detective (1968)
Primarily of Interest as a Portrait of 1960s American Homophobia
Based on the 1966 novel by Roderick Thorp, THE DETECTIVE was among the highest grossing films of both 1968 and one of the most popular of Frank Sinatra's film career. At the time it was considered remarkably honest in its portrait of a no-nonsense cop who finds himself trapped between a series of compromises and his own sense of integrity. Today, however, it chiefly notable for its unintentional window onto 1960s homophobia.
Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is a third generation New York City police officer who begins the film with two victories: in his private life, he has wooed and won a remarkably beautiful wife, Karen (Lee Remick); in his professional life, he is assigned to a particularly notorious murder case that he quickly solves and which results in a major promotion. But both explode in his face in particularly unsavory ways. Although flawless on the surface, Karen is a distinctly disturbed woman who shatters their marriage through a series of compulsive affairs. And although it seems solved, the case on which Joe's promotion rests may not be nearly as simple as every one thought at the time.
The case involves the brutal murder of a gay man who is found with his head battered in and sexually mutilated--a circumstance that leads Joe and his co-workers to prowl 'known homosexual hangouts' such as gyms and the waterfront. In the process, the film creates a portrait of the gay community that says considerably less about the gay community than the way in which heterosexual America thought of it at the time. The gay men themselves are improbable, being pulled out of group gropes from the back of cargo trucks, flexing muscles in tawny-colored gyms, frequenting bars notable for satin and velvet, and lounging about in silk robes. They come in two basic varieties, victim and predator. They are weak and are routinely brutalized by both each other and the police, the latter of which positively delight in knocking them around.
This is not particularly unusual for films of the 1960s and the 1970s; it is much the same portrait presented by such diverse films as ADVISE AND CONSENT and CRUISING. What is unusual is Joe's attitude toward them: unlike his co-workers, he dislikes seeing them mistreated and prefers to see them (and indeed all other suspects) accorded a certain basic respect as human beings. It was a very, very bold stance for a film to take at the time. Even so, it does not counterbalance the portrait itself, which is intrinsically demeaning, or the story, which ultimately pivots on a version of "gay panic"--a heterosexual myth used here with a slight spin.
The chief grace of the film is the performances of Sinatra and Remick. Today Sinatra is best recalled as a singer, but he had some significant acting chops, and he proves more than able to over the shortcomings of the script. Lee Remick, a much-admired actress, is flawlessly cast as the perfidious wife Karen, a woman who superficial qualities conceal an unraveling personality. The supporting cast, which features Jacqueline Bissett, Jack Klugman, and Robert Duvall, is also quite fine. But the script is weak, the story choppy, the film is a shade too glossy for its subject--and its incredibly naive portrait of gay men tends to overpower everything.
All films must be considered in the context of their eras, but even so a good film can transcend its era. THE DETECTIVE doesn't manage to do that: sometimes ridiculous to the point of being amusing, sometimes so grotesque that it becomes a bit embarrassing. All the same, it remains interesting primarily because it offers a window on what mainstream Americans of the 1960s thought homosexuals were like. The DVD offers the film in original widescreen format; the transfer, however, is merely acceptable. Recommended primarily to Sinatra fans and film historians interested in Hollywood's frequently off-the-wall portray of gay men.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer