John From Cincinnati, the series that so gripped David Milch during the making of Deadwood that HBO dumped the western for the new surf noir drama, never caught fire with audiences or critics, at least not like HBO buzz shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or Deadwood. The mix of family dysfunction and spiritual mystery never got the attention HBO wanted and it never made it past its first season. But what a season. Child-man John cuts to soul of everyone he meets, and he does it by parroting back the words that they speak to him. It’s the damnedest second coming story you’ve ever seen and the most metaphysical TV show since Twin Peaks, only there’s no black lodge here, only healing.
Milch does not give up the secrets of his surf noir family drama easily but the odyssey is elevating (so to speak). In the first episode, right after the appearance of holy innocent John Monad (Austin Nichols), surf legend Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) levitates off the ground and Mitch’s adolescent grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) brings a dead bird back to life, the first of many miracles large and small. Even Shaun’s wipe-out of a drug-addict father, Butchie (Brian Van Holt) gets a second chance to be a dad.
The one and only season comes out on DVD and it works as a largely self-contained story. David Milch provides commentary on two episodes and explains the dream sequence on the supplements:
David Milch talks about the mysteries and metaphysics of the show in his commentary tracks for the shows first and final episodes. He tends to drift in and out, remaining silent for large patches and then interrupting with observations sacred (“the miraculous walks among us every day”) and profane and downright unclassifiable (“I took acid once, 90 straight days. That helped my brain power.”), but it’s fascinating when he really digs into his intentions. The featurette “Decoding John: The Making of a Dream Sequence” plays like distilled commentary: shot on the set of episode six, it offers Milch explaining the show’s astounding dream sequence line by line, image by image.
It’s the featured title in the TV section this week on my MSN DVD column.
Bette Davis rules supreme in the six-disc box set The Bette Davis Collection Volume 3:
Dynamic Hollywood superstar Bette Davis was one of the most distinctive and intense actresses of her time,. She was a movie star who defied the studio system to take charge of her career and her own choice of projects and very often defined those films with her powerhouse performances, as this six-disc box set shows. Davis often overpowered her bland leading men, but in the 1940 melodrama All This, and Heaven Too (1940) she plays a prim but generous young governess to the three doting children of French aristocrat Charles Boyer…. The lavish production is one of Warner Bros.’s most handsome historical dramas and director Anatole Litvak turns this melodrama into one of the quintessential costume weepies.
The set also features the glorious bitch-fest The Great Lie (1941) (where Davis is almost upstaged by Mary Astor), The Old Maid (1939) with Miriam Hopkins, the John Huston-directed In This Our Life (1942) with Olivia de Havilland, Watch on the Rhine (1943) with Paul Lukas, and Deception (1946) with her Now, Voyager co-stars Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.
Read the entire review here.
Tim Burton brings Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical to the big screen with the most unlikely holiday movie musical of recent years: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sondheim’s music isn’t exactly hummable, more akin to opera than the chirpy melodies of modern stage musicals, but his songs have a refreshing musical complexity and narrative surprise. Neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter are singers – they lack the melodic power of trained vocalists – but they do know how to act a lyric and Depp brings darkly dramatic heft to his vocal performance.
Burton plays the black comedy as both threepenny opera and Grand Guignol, a revenge melodrama in the squalor of a 19th century London the color of bone and ash and stone. The rare flashes of color belong to the crimson gushes from the throats of his victims or the dream world of memory and fantasy. What’s missing is the playful vitality that Burton normally brings to his films.
The two-disc set comes with plenty of fixings. In addition to the usual (and at times unusual) making-of featurettes are my favorite extras:
“Sweeney Todd is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber,” a 20-minute study of the lively fictional life of the “Penny Dreadful” character who became so popular that some believed he was a real criminal (experts say there is no evidence of a real life inspiration), and the 19-minute “Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition,” which revisits the lurid subgenre of gory theatrical spectacle that informed the play that inspired Sondheim’s musical adaptation and illustrates with modern recreations.
Read the entire review here.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column.
They open their mouths and take turns delivering excruciatingly self-serving monologues that writer/director/co-star Mars Callahan imagines passes for insight on the modern male animal. There are no conversations to be had, merely colliding speeches that ultimately work over every tired cliché about men and women and sex and love.
TV: The first seasons of Father Knows Best with Robert Young as the happily-married father of three (“the quintessential sitcom of the American middle class family”) and Becker with Ted Danson as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold (“The laughtrack kicks in whenever Danson utters some misanthropic crack regardless, but I didn’t find myself laughing much”), and the early seventies British anthology series Country Matters:
The short stories of A.E. Coppard and H.E. Bates are the basis for this British anthology series. Produced between 1972 and 1973, in the mix of film and videotape that was the British television convention of the time, these marvelous programs, all set in the English countryside during the years after World War I, are smartly produced, with snappy and literate scripts and solid casts.
Gina Lollobrigida plays the scheming Queen of Sheba as an exotic seductress who tries to split the unity of Israel by seducing the poet King Solomon and bringing her pagan ceremonies into the holy city. Boy, does Solomon learn his lesson when God smites her wild hoochie koochie party.
More exciting is Koch Lorber’s collection of three films from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani: Kaos, Fiorile and The Night of the Shooting Stars:
Paolo and Vittorio Taviani won the Grand Prix at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival with their delicate and delirious story of war and survival as seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl. The Taviani brothers bring a unique sensibility to their films, a post-neo-realist style filled with a sense of wonder and absurdity amidst the acceptance of brutality and death. It comes alive in this odyssey of Italian villagers fleeing the vindictive actions of the Nazis and Italian fascist soldiers as the Americans advance toward their Tuscan village in 1944.
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