CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
No Country for Old Men (A)
U.S.; Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007, Miramax/Paramount Vantage
Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel about a busted drug deal in the West Texas desert and the relentless three-cornered chase that follows is a fine, brutal, spare, melancholy crime thriller, a great noir in the style of Hemingway, Mailer (The Executioner's Song), Jim Thompson and James M. Cain. And it gets as faithful and powerful a film translation as any first-class American book could get from those modern masters of noir, the Coen brothers. They make this material their own, while simultaneously preserving as much as possible of McCarthy's dark, bleak, hard-case vision. This movie richly deserved its 2007 Oscars (including best film and best writers and directors for the Coens); it's as good as Hollywood can do these days.
The cast is dead on all the way. Josh Brolin, maybe as good as he'll ever be, is Llewellyn Moss, a seemingly lucky welder who stumbles on the death and wreckage left behind a big drug deal. There he finds a heroin cache and two million in a suitcase, then steals the loot, and gets spotted. He suddenly has on his trail the baddest of all hired-killer, clean-up man bad-asses, Anton Chigurh (played by the great Javier Bardem, the king of bad hair), a sullen, murderously efficient man whose only flicker of compassion comes when he occasionally flips a quarter to see if he'll kill or cut free a fresh victim.
Bringing up the good-guy tail-end of the pursuit is the magnificent Texan Tommy Lee Jones -- born and raised in the San Saba oil field region where the movie is set -- who plays a kindly sheriff named Bell, a World War II vet and solid citizen who just can't understand how the world got so kill-crazy and mean, and speaks his disillusionment in melancholy monologues. (Fewer of them in the movie than the book, which is one reason to buy it.)
The rest of the cast, which includes Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (great on accents) as Moss' sweet, tough Texan wife, Woody Harrelson, letter-perfect as a gabby colleague of Chigurh's, and Barry Corbin as the old man with the cats, are so damned good they tear your heart and freeze your blood at will.
This is a spare, tough, ruthlessly sad movie that unwinds its Peckinpah-style story slowly and calmly, knocking on Heaven's door with barely a note of background music. (This has to have been the easiest assignment Carter Burwell will ever have.) It's also the movie The Getaway should have been, the peak of Coen and one of the all-time great film noirs or neo-noirs. A hell of a show. (Extras: documentaries.)
Daisy Kenyon (A-)
U.S.; Otto Preminger, 1947 (20th Century Fox)
On the other hand, here's an excellent Otto Preminger romantic melodrama, starring Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews as a beleaguered '40s Manhattan triangle, that's somewhat misleadingly described as a film noir, apparently so it can fit into the Fox Film Noir series and be graced with salability and all their terrific extras. There are no crimes in Daisy, though, except for crimes of the heart. And though people talk about murder, and one nearly dies, there's no big sleep on screen. (Foster Hirsch straightens it all out in the commentary.)
The visual-dramatic style is noir, though, through and through. Preminger, coming off the lurid period spectacle of Forever Amber, makes this one even more shadowy, fluid and quietly menacing than his inarguable crime classic Laura. The source is an Elizabeth Janeway bestseller. Crawford (the queen of noir) is an independent-minded commercial artist suffering through a longtime going-nowhere liaison with married lawyer Andrews and tempted by the sterling goodness, stout heart and sexy vulnerability of returning World War II vet Hank Fonda. (If he came from San Saba, he might age into Tommy Lee Jones.) Urbane as can be, sophisticated to a fault, this movie is ultimately closer to Dougas Sirk than Robert Siodmak or John Huston.
But that's not bad. (Extras: Documentary, featurettes, trailer.)
BOX SET CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Georges Melies, First Wizard of Cinema (A+)
France; Georges Melies, 1896-1913, Flicker Alley/Blackhawk Films
It'll sound like hyperbole. But this jewel-box of a five-disc set, containing 173 movies by the astonishing French cinematic pioneer/master Georges Melies, as well as Georges Franju's brilliant 1953 documentary Le Grand Melies, is definitely one of the most important DVD releases ever, as well as an unfailing source of cinematic joy and pleasure.
Melies' career began in '96, shortly after the Lumiere brothers' invention of motion pictures (or so the French have it; sorry, Tom Edison). Quickly, he became world-famous. A magician and creator of theatrical spectacles at his Robert Houdin Theatre, Melies instantly took to cinema, creating little mini-spectacles that would rivet the nickelodeon audiences, as well as the ones that packed the Robert Houdin (where he played piano and narrated his films).
He made several types of movies -- predominantly fantasies (romps full of imps, devils and playful monsters), journey and adventure films, including his most famous 1902 masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon; comedies (full of explosive slapstick), magic and trick films (based on his own magic acts) but also dramas and "actualities" (faked documentaries). He was almost outlandishly prolific.
This set includes 173 films and excerpts. But, in his life, in less than two decades, he made over 500. True, they weren't features -- they ranged in length from a minute to a half hour -- but they're as satisfying as many a feature. Watch these 13 hours' worth over several evenings, and don't let the antique style (no close-ups, painted backdrops) throw you, and you'll be infallibly, wildly entertained.
Melies was a true genius, a cinematic artist of the first rank, and this collection proves it. No only did he write and direct his little gems, but he designed and executed the gorgeous sets and fantastic creatures, and he's also the bald, slender, bearded lead actor or comedian in many of them.
All his better-known masterpieces are here (with the original tinting and sometimes with Melies' own narration re-created): A Trip to the Moon, The Kingdom of Fairies (1903), The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Palace of the Arabian Nights (1905), The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), The Eclipse (1907) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912), as well as some gems you've probably missed, like The Christmas Dream (1900), The Devil in the Convent (1899), Blue Beard (1901), The Infernal Cakewalk (1903), The Inn Where No Man Rests (1903), A Moonlight Serenade (1904), The Chimney Sweep (1906), and Baron Munchausen's Dream (1911).
But there are also some films and genres you wouldn't expect: an 1899 serial on the Dreyfus Affair; some Lumiere-like "actualities"; outdoor and real-life train films; a 1900 historical epic on Jeanne d'Arc; adaptations of Rip van Winkle; Faust and (twice) Cinderella. And continuing the dark theme of this week's column, there is what I suspect is the first-ever film noir, the 1906 true crime thriller A Desperate Crime -- a mini-shocker that includes robbery, murder, a chase, a police battle, a death row expressionist nightmare and a chillingly realistic beheading at the guillotine all in only seven breathless minutes.
It's customary to juxtapose Melies and Lumiere as the poles of early cinema: fiction fantasy and documentary. True enough. But Melies was the greater inventor and genius. Sadly, he went bankrupt in 1913 and, desperate now himself, rashly burned all his priceless negatives in 1923 to get more living space for his family. It's a sad tale (poetically told by Franju). But the films themselves, assembled from around the world, are unfailingly merry and brilliant. They make you almost drunk with delight. Melies was a cinematic Vivaldi; so masterly, one never cares if he repeats himself. Discover him again. You'll be bewitched.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Bee Movie (B-)
U.S.; Simon J. Smith/Steve Hickner, 2007, DreamWorks
Jerry Seinfeld is back, as the writer-producer voice-star Bee of this predictable but sometimes charming concoction about a bee that sues humankind for stealing honey and then has to re-right imbalanced nature. Clever, but not as seamlessly imaginative as the Pixar stuff, which it tries to resemble; the other actors include Renee Zellweger as the human love interest. She'd be a better honey-bee. (Extras: Commentary by Seinfeld, alternate endings, deleted scenes, featurettes, music video, trailers, games.)
Death at a Funeral (B)
U.S.-U.K.; Frank Oz, 2007 (MGM/20th Century Fox)
A dark British comedy, directed with a Muppet-light touch by Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), about an upper-class funeral that goes absolutely haywire, thanks to Valium, mescaline and a little blackmail. Oz is no Alexander Mackendrick, but he has a top cast (Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Tudyk, Andy Nyman, Peter Dinklage, Kris Marshall and Jane Asher, and they're funny enough. (Extras: Commentaries by Oz, Craig, Tudyk and Nyman.)
Dan in Real Life (B-)
U.S.; Peter Hedges, 2007, Buena Vista Home Entertainment/Touchstone
Steve Carell, out of his stick-up-the-ass Office mode, woos Juliette Binoche in a very familiar but neatly done family reunion comedy. It's better than that critical hit Margot at the Wedding. (Extras: Commentary by Hedges, deleted scenes, outtakes, featurettes.)
U.K.; Kenneth Branagh, 2007 (Sony Classics)
An interesting stunt that almost works. A remake of the classic murder mystery play by Anthony Shaffer about a battle of wits between cuckolded rich husband/novelist Andrew Wyke and his wife's lover, actor/hairdresser Milo Tindle, which was pretty flawlessly filmed in 1972 by Joseph Mankiewicz, with Laurence Olivier as Wyke and Michael Caine as Tindle. Here, Caine pops up again as Wyke with that modern Alfie, Jude Law, as Milo. Both actors are fine, though Law doesn't execute the basic trick as well as Caine did in 1972, and the mood, turned into chilling mechanical bleakness by director Branagh and the surprising adaptor Harold Pinter, is almost too strikingly different. (Extras: Commentaries with Branagh, Caine and Law, featurettes.)
Visions of Ireland (B-)
U.S.; Director TK, 2007 (Acorn)
For travel buffs only, but they'll love it. Spectacular helicopter shots of Ireland, blended with close-up footage. The narration is a little Chamber of Commerce musha-musha honey-blarney. But the music is pleasant and no sham rock; by God, they even have Bing Crosby singing "Galway Bay." (Extras: Bonus footage.)
U.S.; Andrew Niccol, 1997 (Sony)
Niccol's slick dystopian fable about a sterile futuristic world where all genetic deficiencies are being bred out, but where those grand-looking misfits Ethan Hawke and Uma (the Puma) Thurman won't roll over. Gore Vidal is also in the cast.
And Justice For All (B-)
U.S.; Norman Jewison, 1979 (Sony),br> Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin wrote this '70s legal comedy-drama about the sleazier side of justice with unbuttoned Al Pacino as a high-powered defense attorney defending a bad judge he doesn't like (John Forsythe) on a rape charge he knows is true. Also in the cast: the great Jack Warden, Christine Lahti, Sam Levene, Joe Morton and Lee Strasberg. Back in the '70s, I thought this movie was superficial. But it seems deeper today. So does justice.
Black Widow (C-)
U.S.; Nunnally Johnson, 1954 (20th Century Fox)
Screenwriter Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath) was no director -- and that's what this plodding movie from the Patrick Quentin Broadway mystery seems to have: no director at all. But it does have a neat plot and a cast that includes Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin and George Raft (some of whom flounder). "Quentin" was the pseudonym for a sharp writing team that included playwright/screenwriter Hugh Wheeler. (Extras: Commentary, featurettes, trailer.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Rough Diamond (B)
U.K.; Paul Harrison/Simon Langton, 2005-2007 (Acorn)
One of the better, slyer British TV comedy series, this offers (Sir) David Jason as stellar heist expert and master of disguise Des, whom we see pull one heist from prison (the Rough Diamond pilot) and outwit the Russian embassy, with the help of Jenny Agutter, in another episode (Old Gold). There are four episodes in this box, and they're all wittily written (by series creator Caleb Ranson, Guy Burt and Nick Fisher) and more efficiently directed than the average theatrical heist fest. (Extras: text cast interviews and filmographies.)