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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Quota Quckie
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

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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.

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Queen Live at Wembley '86

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.

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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

No Country for Old Men

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.

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One Nation Under God

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.

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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.

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Small Town Gay Bar

Extremely Disingenuous
After spending half an hour examining Rumors, a gay bar located outside Tupelo, Mississippi, SMALL TOWN GAY BAR shifts focus to the murder of Scotty Weaver in Bay Minette in order to demonstrate the risks run by the interview subjects. But there is a problem here. Bay Minette isn't near Tupelo, as the film implies. It isn't even in the same state. It is actually about three hundred miles away in coastal Alabama.

Director Malcom Ingram doesn't exactly rush to point out this fact, nor does he bother to mention that while Bay Minette itself is little more than a wide spot in the road, it is actually about two deep breaths away from the major metro area of Mobile, Alabama--which has a noticeable gay community, quite a few gay bars, and even a congregation of Metropolitan Community Church. If Ingram is disingenuous on these points, one has to ask if he is on others as well.

Speaking as someone who was born, raised, and continues to live in Mississippi, I have to say that I find most of SMALL TOWN GAY BAR a lot of hooey. Neither Meridian nor Tupelo, the communities upon which Ingram focuses, are as rural, small, or as isolated as he would have you imagine, and gay bars are indeed more common in the state than the film implies. That said, Ingram rather blithely ignores the fact that the absence of a gay bar does not mean an absence of a gay community, and in doing so he demonstrates a rather profound ignorance of southern culture, which tends to hold those who frequent bars--be they gay or straight--in low esteem.

SMALL TOWN GAY BAR is, in my opinion, an instance in which a film maker came to his subject with a personal agenda in hand and then proceeded to film the agenda. Do gays and lesbians living in rural Mississippi face major, sometimes frightening challenges? You bet they do--but that's no excuse for fiddling with reality to such a degree. The DVD includes a commentary track and a number of deleted scenes, but I found the feature film itself so ridiculous that I didn't waste any time on them.

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Do Not Disturb

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.

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The Man Who Laughs

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.

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The Detective

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.

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One of the Most Unsettling Films of the 1960s
Released in 1965, REPULSION was Polish-born Roman Polanski's second major film and his first English-language film. At the time of its release it was incredibly controversial for inclusion of the sound of a woman having an orgasm, frankly sexual themes, and what was then considered graphic violence; seen today, the film no longer has the same "shock" factor, but it nonetheless remains one of the single most unsettling films of its era.

The film is essentially a single-character study of a beautiful but oddly disengaged young woman, Carole, who works as a salon beautician while living in London with her sister. As the film begins, Carole is upset that her sister is having an affair with a married man and indeed plans to vacation with him in Italy; as it progresses, we quickly come to see her as distinctly resentful of her sister's lover, indifferent to her own would-be boyfriend, and increasingly suspicious of men in general. When her sister does indeed go on vacation, Carole is left alone in their apartment--and soon drifts into a maelstrom of sexually psychotic dreams and hallucinations that suddenly turn violent.

Polanski is a master of mood, and his portrait of the apartment is both noir-ish and disquieting--and becomes more so when he allows the camera to see the apartment from Carole's increasingly disturbed point of view: the entire apartment becomes a harrowing maze of light and dark, the walls exploding with cracks and then suddenly moist in a womb-like manner, the plaster exploding with grabbing hands, the decorative ceiling lowering like an odd nipple over Carole's bed. Even as he presents us with Carole's internal world, however, Polanski also presents us with the tangible results of her disordered thinking: the food in the apartment rots, the bath tub overflows, the rooms become chaotic.

Catherine Deneuve was a rising star at the time she played Carole, and the film put her well over the top. Her performance is extraordinary: a strange sort of blankness onto which Polanski projects Carole's rapid decay. The cinematography and art direction is also quite remarkable, and although there have been several rationalizations of why Carole so suddenly declines into madness Polanski leaves the questions open: in the end there is no concrete explanation and no actual resolution.

All of this is fascinating stuff, but this is not to say that the film is flawless. At times Polanski's art-house nature seems to overpower the film, and he has a marked tendency to allow the action to go still for long periods of time--presumably to make the jolts feel more extreme, but this is a ploy which does not always have the impact one expects. And while the open-ended nature of the film is one of its great powers, it is not executed in an entirely satisfactory sort of way. Even so, REPULSION is a landmark in its own way, and strongly recommended. Sadly, the DVD quality is merely so-so and there are no bonuses of any kind.

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Darkly Beautiful--But Sterile and Uninvolving
Although it received generally positive reviews and proved a world-wide box office success, public reaction to the 1992 BRAM STOKER'S Dracula was significantly mixed. To a certain extent, this reaction was based on the film's slightly abstract, extremely operatic visual style--a style which seemed to overpower not only the actors but the actual story itself.

Dracula has a spectacular visual design that mixes ideas about Victorian style with flamboyant color and ornate, border-line baroque detail that seems more suited to an Asian stage play than a film presumably set in 1890s England. The cinematography follows suit, using double and triple exposures, shared screen photography, and intense washes of color. The result is tremendously moody, both beautiful and ominous. It is also extremely distracting, and it tends to bury the actors, script, and story to such an extent that the film becomes less about these elements than about the mood and look inflicted upon them.

At the time it was released, Dracula was touted as the first film version that was faithful to the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker--but this is not true, as any one who has read the novel can attest. The film has been deeply influenced by the Bela Lugosi film, the Boris Karloff THE MUMMY, and the "Hammer Horror" vampire films of the 1960s; it explains how Dracula became a vampire, incorporates dollops of reincarnation, includes a very romantic subplot, and presents us with an ultimately sexy vampire--none of which exist in Stoker's novel. There is also considerable sex, and while this is a part of the original novel its power there arises from its subtextual nature; here it is rendered explicit and consequently seems less powerful than merely commonplace. Even so, the core story of Dracula's transition from Transylvannia to England, his attacks on Lucy and Mina, and his ultimate destruction remains much the same.

The casting of Gary Oldman as Dracula and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing was a stroke of genius, but sad to say the production-heavy nature of the film doesn't allow them the necessary wiggle-room necessary to create the memorable performances you would expect. Winona Ryder seems very aptly cast as Mina, as does Sadie Frost as Lucy--but the script undercuts both, leaving Mina slightly chilly and Lucy excessively overheated. As for the eternally wooden Keanu Reeves, he lives up to his reputation as one of the least interesting actors of the era, delivering a memorably wooden performance.

When the film delivers, it does so memorably, with the scene in which Lucy is laid to rest for once and all a case in point. But overall, BRAM STOKER'S Dracula is not Bram Stoker, nor is it actually a cohesive variation: it simply a particularly exotic vision forced upon a story that doesn't support it. The result is often darkly beautiful, but it is also somewhat sterile and surprisingly uninvolving. The recent "special edition" DVD actually undercuts the visual interest of the film; the transfer is dreadful. If you are a fan who wants the bonus material--and there is a goodly amount of it--you would do best to hang onto your original DVD copy as well, for it will be superior to the version offered here.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer


Clunky But Appealing In A Cult-Film Sort of Way
By her own admission Doris Day greatly disliked the script--but found to her horror that husband Marty Melcher had signed her to the project without her knowledge. Director Frank Tashlin and writer Jay Jason re-sculpted the script, altering plot lines and characters in an effort to win Day's confidence in the project--but she still didn't like it and is on record as considering CAPRICE the worst of her films.

It isn't difficult to see why. Released at the height of the "spy movie" craze of the 1960s, CAPRICE seeks to emulate such films as CHARADE with a mixture of wit and suspense, only to arrive at lackluster farce and a series of absurdly obvious plot-twists. The story concerns Patricia Foster (Day), who becomes an industrial spy for a cosmetics company in order to uncover her father's killer. Unfortunately, the elements never hang together in any consistent way: the movie is too eager to throw away plot points for the sake of a laugh. This might be forgiven if CAPRICE was actually funny, but the laughs involved are few, far between, and very slight indeed.

Script and plot aside, the film's other great failure is the mismatch of Day with leading man Richard Harris. Although she was a beautiful woman, she is obviously quite a bit older than Harris, who plays a womanizing counter-agent surrounded by nubile, sultry models; the romance between the two consequently has an awkward quality. More than this, Day and Harris come from two extremely different acting styles and traditions. Try as they might they never quite succeed in making them mesh. And the direction certainly doesn't help: although directed such memorable bits of fluff as THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT, Frank Tashlin is best remembered as the creator of numerous Jerry Lewis vehicles. To say it shows would be a significant understatement.

CAPRICE was alternately ignored and savaged by both critics and audiences in 1967. But a funny thing happened as time went by: it began to acquire cult status. The film is oddly appealing in a clunky sort of way. Doris Day bounces along in a series of Harlow-white wigs and pop-art dresses; Richard Harris' bed really swings (literally); models squirm, Ray Waltson snarls, women scream, popcorn is spilled, flowers are thrown. It has the same sort of "What on EARTH were they thinking?" appeal that graces such films as THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Consequently, CAPRICE isn't really as unentertaining as many would have you believe--it just isn't entertaining in the way its creators hoped it would be.

The DVD edition is surprisingly fine. The film has received a nice clean up; the colors are sharp and clear and the sound is generally good. And there are a surprising number of bonuses, ranging from an interview with costume designer Ray Aghayan to a profile of the Day-Melcher relationship to radio interviews Day and Harris gave to promote the film. There is also an audio commentary track by Pierre Patrick and John Cork. This is occasionally as unintentionally amusing as the film itself, for both are extremely, extremely uncritical of the film, but they do offer occasional bits of interesting insight along the way.

When all is said and done, CAPRICE will never challenge the likes of PILLOW TALK, but hardcore Doris Day fans will enjoy it--and every one else will enjoy looking at the eye-popping visuals and making fun of the rest.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

The Matchmaker

Charming Version of the Stage Classic
The history of THE MATCHMAKER is quite interesting from an academic point of view. In 1835 English playwright and drama critic created a one-act play titled A DAY WELL SPENT, a lightweight comedy of mismatched lovers, mistaken identities, and foolish misbehavior. In 1842 Austrian playwright and actor Johann Nestroy developed Oxenford's work into a full-length comedy titled EINEN JUX WILL ER SICH MACHEN, which was (and remains) very popular in German-language theatre. American writer and scholar Thornton Wilder came to the material in the 1930s--and in 1938 returned the story to the English language under the title THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS. It was an instant disaster, receiving incredibly dire reviews and running all of 39 performances in its New York debut.

It was quite a setback for Wilder, who had previously won Pulitzers for the novel THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY and the play OUR TOWN. Even so, actress Ruth Gordon and Tyrone Guthrie strongly felt the play was sound, and in the 1950s both began to pressure Wilder to rework his script. With Gordon starring and Guthrie directing, and with the title changed to THE MATCHMAKER, it opened on Broadway in 1955--and was a smash hit. It attracted the attention of Hollywood, and in 1958 it became a vehicle for Tony and Academy Award-winning actress Shirley Booth.

The film version alters Wilder's script quite a bit, and not always for the better, occasionally over-reaching itself in a grab for broad farce; all the same, it does manage to capture the innate charm of the original. Much of this is due to Shirley Booth. Although she is not well recalled today, she was easily among the finest actresses of her era, and her performance here is a warm and glowing jewel, clever, witty, and very gently sly. The remaining cast follows suit--and what a cast it is! Memorable character actors Paul Ford, Perry Wilson, and Wallace Ford; rising stars Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine; and even a very young Robert Morse. Few films can lay claim to an equally gifted line up. The production values are also quite fine, capturing the charm of the 1880s without recourse to the gaudy edge one so often sees in films set in that period.

The story itself is equally beguiling. Miserly businessman Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford) is eager to marry and employs professional busy-body Dolly Levi (Shirley Booth) to fix him up--but when he takes the day off to visit prospective bride Irene Malloy (MacLaine) his two clerks (Perkins and Morse) follow suit. A series of chance encounters bring all concerned together--and with a little not-so-gentle nudging from Dolly, Vandergelder makes the discovery that the matchmaker herself is his own perfect match. If all this sounds a bit familiar, it should, for THE MATCHMAKER had yet another, slightly later incarnation: with music by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, it became HELLO, DOLLY!, one of Broadway's most celebrated musicals, which itself reached the screen in 1969.

There is nothing in the way of bonus materials--a tremendous pity given the astonishing cast--but the DVD does offer the film in near-pristine transfer, and while THE MATCHMAKER doesn't quite rise to the level of the stage play's spark, it is nonetheless a gentle, amusing, and extremely well performed film, an overlooked gem from late-1950s Hollywood.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Live On Stage: Hearn and Lansbury
Stephen Sondheim's 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 virtually every award imaginable, the box office fell short of expectations and the original production ended its run at 557 performances. Fortunately, however, the play then went on tour--and along the way was captured on film. The result is a remarkable capture of the play featuring George Hern, who replaced Cariou, and Lansbury in a close approximation of the original Broadway staging.

There is, however, a flaw. Simply stated: stage plays do not film very well, for a performance that works well on the stage must fill the theatre and is therefore very, very large--and when placed on film such performances often seem slightly static, oppressively aggressive, or both. SWEENEY TODD is no exception. Seen on film, it has a "stand and sing" quality, and while both Hern and Lansbury seem to have modulated their performances for the sake of the camera such is not the case with Betsy Joslyn as Joanna; her larger-than-life performance reads on film as unpleasantly frantic and her extremely operatic voice feels out of place when contrasted with the voices of the overall cast.

Taking this stage-play-on-film effect into consideration, however, this really is an exceptional performance of a unique and macabrely comic musical in the operetta style. Lansbury is astonishing, a mixture of silliness, stupidity, and cunning malice, while Hern truly owns the role of the psychotic barber whose clients "go to their graves impeccably shaved." The overall cast is quite fine and although the film does not let us see quite enough of the set, there is enough on display for it to be impressive. And the music! Who can argue with what most consider Sondheim's finest work? The story itself is extremely well-known, particularly in England. In 1846 Thomas Peckett Prest cobbled together several urban myths for a short story he titled A STRING OF PEARLS; within a year or so it was adapted to the stage as SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET--and, in an era that knew little of copyright law, variations of the play were soon playing all over England. Each one, however, was more or less the same: Sweeney Todd, a barber, kills the men who come to him for a shave; Mrs. Lovett, his associate, bakes them up into pies and feeds them to an unsuspecting public. The Sondheim version is specifically based on a 1973 version by Christopher Bond.

The story is very Grand Guignol, with a lot of blood, bodies dropping down chutes, and grotesque humor; at the same time, however, the music, lyrics, and subplot of an innocent in the clutches of evil open out the subject to numerous lyric charms one would not expect. Sondheim's lyrics are often ironic, but never more so than here; he intertwines a great deal of wicked satire re industry and capitalism along the way, and certainly one cannot fault the strange yet Victorian-elegant of his complex music.

Like the "concert version" starring Hern and Patti LuPone, this particular film also provides us with several selections that were cut from the 2007 Tim Burton film version, most particularly the opening "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd," which runs like a thread throughout the play. It is also, in my opinion, considerably more comic than the film, which tends to underplay comedy in favor of a still greater show of blood. Whatever the case, if you are a fan of the story, this is the legendary Broadway show on tour, and it is a knock-out. Recommended.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry

I Could Use Some Toilet Tissue In Here
I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY concerns two aggressively heterosexual fire fighters, Chuck (Sandler) and Larry (Kevin James) who get legally married for insurance purposes and then find themselves forced to play out the roles of husband and husband. It's hardly original, but in the hands of a master of bad-taste comedy it might have been very funny. Unfortunately, director Dennis Dugan ain't no Mel Brooks--and Adam Sandler sure ain't no Cleavon Little.

Throughout the film Sandler is presented as a mighty stud and a chick super magnet--but given that Sandler is about as sexy as Wally Cox this is even more improbable than the plot itself. We are also very obviously supposed to like him--but given that he spends the film finding ways to be obnoxious to every one who crosses his path it isn't possible to do so. I could overlook this if the film was actually funny, but it isn't: there's no wit, no cleverness, no originality, and most damning of all no heart. We feel nothing for these people except, perhaps, a sense of gratitude that we aren't like them.

When all is said and done, I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY is simply a parade of unoriginal insults with a few minutes of "aw, shucks, folks! We didn't really mean to offend anybody" tacked on at the end. Nothing is more excruciating than an unfunny comedy except a dull unfunny comedy, and this is all of that with a Hallmark card thrown in for good measure.

The DVD includes several bonuses, including a couple of audio tracks with Sandler, the director, and so on--but I can't comment on them because I couldn't be bothered to learn more about a movie that was so tiresome in the first place. If you're in the mood for bad-taste comedy, pick up a copy of PORKY'S, American PIE, or better yet the classic BLAZING SADDLES instead. Not only are they actually funny, they also have heart.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

The Road to Wellville

"With Friends Like You, Who Needs Enemas?"
Based on the novel by T.C. Boyle, THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE is a delightful lark of a film that wickedly spoofs the health fads of the early 1900s--and in particular those set forth by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, co-inventor of the famous Kellogg cornflake and proponent of numerous "healthful" ideas that seem calculated to make moderns squirm.

The film presents a triple story line. William and Eleanor Lightbody (Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda) are a young married couple in trouble: Eleanor has accidentally poisoned William and hopes a trip to Dr. Kellogg's sanatorium can set him right. Charles Ossining (John Cusack) has come to Battle Creek in the hope of striking it rich by creating a breakfast cereal to cash in on America's fitness craze--only to find himself involved with various thieves and scoundrels. These include George Kellogg (Dana Carvey), who seems to live to make the life of his adoptive father Dr. Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins) unmitigated hell.

The various stories are extremely entertaining as they intertwine--but most of the laughs come at Dr. Kellogg's expense as he advocates yogurt enemas, electric baths, and other bizarre treatments that seem to arise primarily from his idea that sex "is the sewer drain of a healthy body." Patients are humiliated, harassed, and harangued about their sex lives even as they remain largely ignorant of their own sexual natures, which was typical of many Americans in this era. Much of it is crude, bad taste, bathroom humor--but it is expertly, hilariously handled. Any one who can sit through THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE without hooting out loud doesn't simply lack a sense of humor: they're probably dead.

The performances are sharp, clever, and make the most of the various outlandish situations into the characters are forced. Broderick carries the film with tremendous charm and Fonda follows suit, but the real acting awards go to Anthony Hopkins, Dana Carvey, and a supporting cast that includes outrageously funny performances by the likes of Camryn Manheim, Traci Lind, Colm Meaney, and John Neville. The DVD has nothing in the way of bonus features and is, alas, only available in pan-and-scan, but don't let that stop you. Laugh your way to health the Kellogg way! GFT, Amazon Reviewer


The Passion of the Maya
As more than one commentator has noted, in terms of plot APOCALYPTO seems to draw from the 1966 THE NAKED PREY, the 1932 THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and the numerous films both have influenced over the years. In this particular instance the story focuses on Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose presumably peaceful village is destroyed by Mayans intent upon obtaining human sacrifice to appease their bloodthirsty gods. After a harrowing march to the Mayan city, Jaguar Paw escapes death--and the city, with a furious party of Myan warriors in hot pursuit.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable bleed-over from Mel Gibson's 2004 THE PASSION OF THE Christ into the 2006 APOCALYPTO. The two have often been compared in terms of violence, but the connection goes quite a bit deeper this; it is embedded in the subtext of the film itself. A forced march while tied to long poles; a prayer uttered by a woman that sounds suspiciously like a Mayan-language Hail Mary; a prophesy that warns about a man "reborn from mud and earth" who will "end your world;" and enough arrow and javelin wounds to slay Saint Sebastian himself several times over. The ending is a bit of a quandary, certainly more open to interpretation than that of THE PASSION--but striking the same tone and tying all the subtextual imagery directly to the Roman Catholic Church. And we need hardly mention the title of the film itself, a reference to the vision of St. John the Divine.

It is also worth noting that, like THE PASSION, APOCALYPTO has a none too subtle point: the Mayans, at least as Gibson presents them (the film is riddled with historical inaccuracy, but I'll leave that argument to the scholars), are a corrupt society en route to self-destruction: they have stripped the land of its resources and their civilization has become unsustainable. Given Gibson's own well-known religious sentiments, there is a certain irony in that the Mayans are driven into this by blindly-followed religious motives. In any case, we are clearly intended to read the overall film as commentary of sorts on contemporary society's rape of the planet.

Although I would give the dubious prize of "most violent" to THE PASSION, there is plenty to go around in APOCALYPTO--and, as in THE PASSION, it is not always of a viable nature. I find it hard to believe that Jaguar Paw's tribe hunted with the horrifically lethal trap shown here; the Mayans were not as blood-thirsty as portrayed here (Gibson seems to have confused them with the Aztecs), and lot many of the rituals, weapons, and the game of "run for your life" itself, are highly speculative at best. Even so, I cannot actually say that the violence or its graphic nature are implausible within the context of the film.

What IS completely implausible is the amount of physical damage Jaguar Paw sustains without being mortally wounded. He is dragged along in bondage, half hung by accident, escapes sacrifice by a fraction of a second, is shot through with an arrow, and all the rest--but like the old Timex Watch slogan, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking, seeming to run without pause for forty-eight hours, vaulting down a waterfall, and even getting clipped a time or two more, most often with scarcely a pause to wince. But Gibson is fair about it: he endows Jaguar Paw's pursuers with the same absurdly improbable endurance and strength.

Although it has its flaws--and what film doesn't?--the truly great thing about APOCALYPTO is the technical brilliance and artistic eye that Gibson and his team bring to the project. It's visually dazzling, and Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler have knack for selecting one knock-out camera set up after another. Everything from cast to costumes is truly amazing, and the film moves with tremendous speed. One thing it isn't is dull.

But it is extremely troubling. In addition to THE PASSION, one might also compare it to the notorious 1979 CALIGULA, a film which so mingled sex and violence that both could be considered equally pornographic. Although there's no visual sex at all--it is a subject Gibson tends to shy away from--APOCALYPTO has much the same effect. The violence is essentially pornographic in nature, teasing us, leading us on to increasingly intense climaxes of blood and gore. One has to wonder at the motives here, particularly when the producer-director-writer is so clearly trying to make a "save the world" statement; it seems to me that Gibson's visions are less a solution than part of the problem itself--and doesn't mind, as many scholars have noted, twisting historical fact in the process. It would seem that Gibson is determined to have a personal martyrdom by cinematic proxy. It's all very problematic.

The DVD quality is very fine and offers a commentary track by Gibson, et al and a making-of featurette. Three stars for technical brilliance.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

Sordid Lives

You Have Got To Get Over This Tammy Wynette Fixation!
SORDID LIVES opens with a singer at a microphone, a woman with bleached hair that shows black roots, several tattoos, and strategically placed chewing gum as she rehearses a profanity-laced juke joint song. She looked familiar--and when she sang her voice was even more so. Who on earth was she? My jaw dropped with a clatter. Oh My God. It can't be! But yes, it is. That really is Olivia Newton-John! Written by Del Shores, SORDID LIVES was a popular ticket and award-winning comedy on the Los Angeles stage, but when Shores sought a movie deal every studio turned him down flat. Shores persevered nonetheless, and the result was an awkwardly self-directed, extremely low budget movie filmed in high definition that had the look of a cheap 1960s soap opera. Surprisingly, though, these qualities actually suited the material: a torrid, vulgar, trashy, and unexpectedly spiritual tale of a small-town Texas funeral gone to pot in the most disastrous ways imaginable.

The plot is difficult to describe, but it revolves around a "good Christian" grandmother who has died under unsavory circumstances: shacked up with a neighbor's husband in a cheap motel, she tripped over her lover's wooden legs and cracked her head on the bathroom sink! Now her lover G.W. (Beau Bridges) is getting drunk down at the bar while her daughters Latrelle and Lavonda (Bonnie Bedelia and Ann Walker) bicker with each other over the funeral arrangements--and whether or not Brother-Boy (Leslie Jordan) should be allowed to come to the funeral from the mental hospital where he has been locked up for twenty-three years because he thinks he's Tammy Wynette.

The film is a hair slow to get underway, but once it does it goes off like a rocket. There's G.W.'s humiliated wife Noleta (Delta Burke), an aging barfly named Juanita (Sarah Hunley), the psychiatrist from hell (Rosemay Alexander), angst-ridden gay grandson Ty (Kurt Geiger), bar owner Wardell (Newell Alexander) and his half-wit brother Odell (Earl H. Bullock)--and the aforementioned ex-con and juke-joint singer Bitsy Mae (Newton-John.) And it is clear that each and every one of them are having a wonderful time tearing strips off the wickedly funny script, which offers one outrageous line and scene after another.

For all the talent on display--Delta Burke, Kirk Geiger, and Bonnie Bedelia are particularly memorable--the big noise is actress Beth Grant, who is probably best known for her turn in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Cast here as Sissy, sister to the dead woman, she is everything that is appallingly funny: snapping a rubber band on her wrist because she's trying to quit smoking, fanning herself up the legs of her shorts, and trying to make peace in the family before everybody meets up at the church for funereal hysteria. Her performance is one-of-a-kind and knock-you-flat at the same time.

The DVD comes with several extras, including cut scenes and an enjoyable audio commentary. I'm not all that fond of contemporary comedy--I usually find it both sterile and saccharine--but I tell you here and now: SORDID LIVES, for all its flaws, made me laugh until I cried.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer


An Inglorious End To Crawford's Feature Film Career
TROG is famous for one reason and one reason only: it was Joan Crawford's last starring role in a feature film.

Joan Crawford (1905-1977) was among Hollywood's greatest "golden age" stars. She began her career in silent films, became an overnight sensation in OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS in 1928, and went on to a career starring as leading lady in numerous classic and near-classic films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. By the 1960s, however, good roles were hard to find--until, in 1962 Crawford and long-time rival Bette Davis teamed for WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? The success of the film touched off a cycle of inexpensive shockers starring fading leading ladies, and with such films as STRAIT JACKET, I SAW WHAT YOU DID, and Berserk! Crawford was easily the leader of the pack.

Filmed in England, TROG sought to capitalize on Crawford's new-found fame as a "scream queen" by casting her in the role of Dr. Brockton, a famous anthropologist who captures a prehistoric troglodyte--and who, much to the annoyance of real estate developer Sam Murdock (Michael Gough), seeks to test, explore, and in general renovate him to gain knowledge of the prehistoric era. Needless to say, things go awry and Trog eventually runs amok--but not before we are treated to endless images of Crawford with blonde hair and expensive, if extremely dated and very matronly, clothes.

Say what you like about Crawford, but she never, ever gave any project less than one hundred and ten percent. When the script calls for her to be sweet, she's very sweet; when it calls for her to be emphatic, you feel it to the marrow of your bones; and when it calls for her to be angry, you suspect she could gouge your eyes out without turning a hair. Even so, Crawford herself was vocally displeased about the production. According to film lore, the budget for TROG was so low that her costumes came straight out of her own closet, and there was no dressing room in which she could change when shooting on location. In later interviews, Crawford said that she decided TROG would be her last film long before shooting wrapped: when you've reached a point where you have to change costumes in the back of your own car, it's time to go.

As for the film itself--The story is silly, the script is horrendous, and Trog himself is about as frightening as left over cafeteria banana pudding. When the film at last debuted, it was so savaged by critics and public alike that Crawford jokingly said she'd have been tempted to kill herself from embarrassment had she not recently become a Christian Scientist.

Now, in actual truth, TROG isn't any worse than a lot of other cheapie British horror films of the time. But the dividing line between enjoyably bad films and unenjoyable ones seems to be pace--and even though it clocks in at around ninety minutes, TROG seems to go on forever, an endless collage of bad dialogue, aggressive performances, and uninspired everything else. It's not simply bad: it's dull. Crawford did not fade immediately into the dark following the film, doing a handful of television shows before a complete and reclusive retirement about 1972, so one can't say that TROG was so awful it ended her career; all the same, it a rather inglorious conclusion to her feature film career, to say the least.

I can't really recommend TROG, not even to die hard Crawford fans or cult movie enthusiasts. More than silly, it is just plain dull. The DVD offers the film trailer, which is actually more entertaining than the film, and a so-so widescreen edition of the film itself--but in truth, this is one you're really better off catching on the late-late show.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

The Bishop's Wife

Christmas Charm
For a Christmas classic long on charm, the 1947 THE BISHOP'S WIFE had a remarkably troubled history. When the film originally went before the cameras it starred noted actress and Academy award winner Teresa Wright in the title role with co-stars Cary Grant as the Bishop and David Niven as a slightly wayward angel--but somewhere along the way Wright ran afoul of director William Seiter, who, for reasons that have never been clearly explained, fired her. This in turn brought down the wrath of producer Samuel Goldwyn, who looked at the film, didn't like what he saw, and fired Seiter.

Goldwyn brought in director Henry Koster, who looked at the film and very strongly felt that Grant and Niven were in the wrong roles--and it took some time and effort to convince the two to make the change. Then, by the time shooting was set to resume, Wright was visibly pregnant and was replaced by Loretta Young. In consequence of these changes, there wasn't a scrap of film that could be salvaged from the original footage, so the film restarted from scratch at enormous cost. As a result, and although it was well received and did good box office, THE BISHOP'S WIFE was never the great financial hit Goldwyn had hoped: it was so deeply in the red before it opened that even the best attendance couldn't do more than recoup its cost.

The story is simple but charming. Episcopal Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) has become so consumed by the worldly demands of building a new and very expensive church that he has effectively lost touch with his faith--and, not incidentally, his wife Julia (Loretta Young), who is increasingly unhappy in the marriage and therefore presumably open to temptation. Their difficulties come to a head as Christmas approaches, but to their good fortune they are visited by an angel with the improbable name of Dudley (Cary Grant.) Handsome, suave, and able to show Julia a good time, Dudley soon incurs Henry's jealousy, and through this Henry comes to appreciate Julia and rediscovers his own spirituality.

Like most Christmas-oriented films of its era, THE BISHOP'S WIFE is less about serious theological issues than it is about whimsy, and while some may consider the result shallow it is nonetheless a truly charming bit of Christmas cheer. The three leads are memorable, with Grant a standout as the slightly devilish angel, and they are strongly supported by the very entertaining performances of Monty Wooley, Gladys Cooper, and Elsa Lanchester. The script is witty, the direction even if not greatly inspired, and the whole thing adds up to a highly entertaining two hours.

THE BISHOP'S WIFE was remade in 1996 as THE PREACHER'S WIFE, but the result was lackluster; gentle charm is not among the strengths of modern Hollywood. As for the DVD release of the original, it is at best so-so; the transfer is on the dark side, a fact that tends to take the edge off the film's emotional brightness. Even so, recommended just for the fun you'll have watching three of Hollywood's classic players execute a lightweight script with considerable grace and, yes, Christmas charm.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

Stage Fright

Interesting But Uneven
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Alfred Hichcock went through what his supporters refer to as "a transitional stage" and what his critics call "a few years when he turned out one stinker after another." 1950 he released the film STAGE FRIGHT--and both audiences and critics of the day were greatly ticked off about it.

STAGE FRIGHT is often described as "significant" because it was the first mainstream film to break the screen convention that neither director nor camera could actively lie to the audience--mislead, certainly, but not flatly lie, and not only does this occur in STAGE FRIGHT, the lie in question is the pivot on which the entire film rests. Over the years this convention has been thrown out the window by a number of notable films; as such, modern audiences are unlikely to think twice about the thing but instead simply kick themselves for being so silly.

They might also want to kick themselves for bothering with the film in the first place, for STAGE FRIGHT tends to divide Hitchcock fans. You either like it a lot or not at all, and while I see much to admire in isolation, I fall among those who don't.

The story concerns London drama student Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), a young woman who is hopelessly in love with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd)--who is too preoccupied with stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) to care much about Eve one way or another. At least, not until Inwood's husband is murdered and the police focus their attention on Jonathan, who knows who the killer is Charlotte herself but can't prove it and can't get the police to believe him. Eve agrees to exercise her acting talent: she will pretend to be a maid and will go to work for Charlotte in order to get the proof to clear Jonathan's name.

This all sounds very good in theory, but there are some big problems in actual fact. The cast is somewhat less than one could wish: Dietrich comes off very well playing what is essentially a riff on her own screen image, but both Jane Wyman and Richard Todd seem fundamentally miscast. But the real stumbling block is the film's uneven pace. Hitchcock was a master at building tension through a juxtaposition of long takes and flash cuts, but something has gone astray in his work on this film, and STAGE FRIGHT seems slightly clunky and unduly slow; I kept wanting to tell the actors to "get on with it!" The DVD transfer is what you might call very good instead of excellent, and the DVD comes with a number of bells and whistles, mostly focusing on the "the director and camera lie to you!" issue--which is, as I've said, largely a non-issue from a modern point of view. If you are a Hitchcock fan, you'll want to see STAGE FRIGHT, but bear in mind that you'll probably fall hard on one side of the fence or the other in response.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer


Extra Mayo, Please
As originally created by John Waters in 1988, HAIRSPRAY was the tale of an overweight 1960s teenager who successfully crashes a small time T.V. dance program--only to find herself in the midst of a battle between segregationists and integrationists. In 2002 it was transformed into a Broadway musical which in turn became this big screen musical in 2007. But where the 1988 film was hilariously subversive, the 2007 film is akin to watching re-runs of The Lawrence Welk Show while snacking on white bread and mayonnaise.

A big part of the problem here is the screenplay by Leslie Dixon, best known for such "goody-goody gumdrops" films as PAY IT FORWARD, and who seems to have been hired primarily to remove absolutely everything from the original that made the story interesting in the first place. If there was anything anywhere that had an edge, Dixon blunted it and producer-director-choreographer Adam Shankman, a mediocre talent if ever there was one, did the rest.

The absolute best thing that can be said about the 2007 HAIRSPRAY is that has a fairly consistent energy level, largely thanks to Nikki Blonsky as the teenage Tracy Turblad. The rest of the cast, however, is really more miss than hit. Both Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah manage to find a few moments, but the rest of the players range from dire to horrendous. Michelle Pfeiffer once more goes out of her way to demonstrate why she should never be cast in a musical and John Travolta resembles nothing so much as a giant 'possum in a big wig and an unattractive dress. Given that the producer, director, and writer have worked so hard to remove the original film's "camp" factor, one has to wonder why they bothered to continued the tradition of casting the role of Mrs. Turnblad with a male actor anyway! All of this might be overlooked and even forgiven if the musical numbers were knock-outs. Unfortunately, the songs and dances are merely adequate and nothing more. You aren't going to ohhhh and ahhhhh over the dance numbers and you aren't going to walk away from the film humming the melodies. It's not that they are bad--they just aren't memorable or impressive in any way. When all is said and done, the musical version of HAIRSPRAY is a movie for people who thought somebody should have toned down HIGHSCHOOL MUSICAL.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

What's New Pussycat

Paula Prentiss Steals The Show
WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT? was a popular ticket in 1965--but when seen outside the context of its era it emerges as a slightly choppy, slightly slapdash film long on froth and short on actual amusement.

Originally written by Woody Allen as a vehicle for Warren Beatty, both script and cast underwent a mighty change before it reached the screen, so much so that the experience prompted Allen to swear he'd never allow any one but himself to direct one of his scripts in the future. The story revolves around Michael James (Peter O'Toole), a handsome man who wants to marry Carol (Romy Schneider) but can't stop sleeping around long enough to make a commitment. He accordingly goes to psychiatrist Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers)--who is a sex-crazed nut in pursuit of patient Renee (Capucine.) Before the dust settles Woody Allen, Paula Prentiss, Ursla Andress, and Edra Gale are added to the mix.

O'Toole and Sellers are hardly challenged by the material and Allen introduces his "I'm a New York neurotic" screen persona for the first time--but it is really the abundance of supporting actresses that give the film what little zing it still retains. Romy Schnieder was among Europe's greatest stars and finest actresses of her era; although the script offers her little, she is charming indeed. Much the same can be said of the legendary Capucine in the role of a world-weary nymphomaniac; Ursula Andress, who arrives in the film via parachute, and bovine Edra Gale, who runs riot in Wagnerian attire. But the real scene stealer is Paula Prentiss.

Although extremely attractive, Prentiss was originally typed as a "second lead" of the Eve Arden type--but she quickly graduated to neurotic comedy roles for which she had a truly unique flair. WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT? finds her at the top of her form as the interestingly-named Liz Bien, who writes bad poetry, has a tendency to overdose on pills every time she goes to the bathroom, and who attaches herself to the much-harassed Peter O'Toole. It really is a performance that transcends the material and which lingers in the mind long after the credits roll.

The DVD release is third rate, with mediocre visual elements and sound so uneven that I constantly adjusted the volume as I watched. When all is said and done, this is really a film for hardcore fans of its various stars--and especially for Paula Prentiss. If for no other reason, the film is worth watching for her alone.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer

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