Between Christmas 2007 and Oscar night 2008, the entire critical discussion seemed centered on arguing out which side you stood on: No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood. Which was the most authentic, the most provocative, the most profound, the most elemental, and which was the best American film of the year. It was almost like you had to denigrate one to support the other. Now that the debate has calmed, I think we can let these two distinct portraits of the hard, unforgiving American frontier co-exist as different perspectives from the same wellspring.
This week, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood tops the list of DVD releases.
Loosely adapted from Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Oil!,” it reworks the American entrepreneurial success story as an elemental frontier myth, roughly hewn out of the landscape that is remade in its wake. The magnificent opening pits lone prospector Daniel Plainview against the very earth itself, wordlessly digging his way to the American dream until his mine strikes a gusher. When he finally speaks some 15 minutes into the film, he has reinvented himself as a self-made oil man, and he finds his nemesis in a self-aggrandizing young preacher (Paul Dano) who set out to humble Plainview as he builds his church on Plainview’s money.
It’s reviewed here.
Not quite as ambitious or serious is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the latest from the Judd Apatow comedy factory, and it’s being released in both the original theatrical version and an extended cut the filmmakers call Walk Hard – American Cox: The Unbearable Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut, which I have to admit makes me smile.
John C. Reilly plays Cox with wide-eyed harmlessness from age 14 (towering over his high-school bandmates) to somewhere around 70. In between he gets hooked on every substance known to show-biz, drops acid with The Beatles (played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman), turns into Brian Wilson for an endless summer, abandons a few dozen children, and meets his soulmate in country-twanged singer Darlene (Jenna Fischer in June Carter mode). Directed by Jake Kasdan (who co-wrote the script with producer Apatow), it’s more silly than clever, quoting “Ray” and “Walk the Line” (among other biopics) as Dewey morphs through country, R&B, rock, folk and other musical genres
My review is here.
The Warner Bros. collection Classic Musicals From the Dream Factory Volume 3 uses a looser definition of the term “classic” (meaning old, for all intents and purposes) and lacks any real unifying theme or personality, but this set does gather some interesting and entertaining MGM musicals from the thirties to the fifties. Even more importantly, it pulls together four features by MGM’s Queen of Tap, Eleanor Powell. I pay tribute to her musical force here, and review the entire set in my DVD column.
The greatest MGM musicals are, by and large, already out on DVD. This box set collects three single Technicolor features from the fifties and three double features of Eleanor Powell and Jane Powell star vehicles (all also available individually). Of the former, Vincent Minnelli’s Kismet (1955) is the standout, a pure studio fantasy of Arabian exotica starring Howard Keel, who carries the slim tale with his outsized presence and rich baritone. Ann Blyth and Vic Damone are admittedly weak, but the score is marvelous, including ” Stranger in Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles, Bright Shiny Beads,” and the glorious production design never allows reality to intrude upon the make believe.
As for the rest of the set, Eleanor Powell stars in four films (collected as two double features): Broadway Melody of 1936 and Broadway Melody of 1938 with Robert Taylor, Born to Dance with James Stewart and Lady Be Good with Robert Young and Ann Southern; Jane Powell stars in the double feature Nancy Goes to Rio and Two Weeks With Love (both from 1950) and the single features Hit The Deck (with Debbie Reynolds); and Deep in My Heart with Jose Ferrer as composer Sig Romberg. Read the complete review here.
I feature Eleanor Powell above cinema’s grand dame, Bette Davis, because Powell needs the boost. She’s too often remembered only by musical buffs and old Hollywood aficionados. Davis still reigns as a Hollywood great on the occasion of her hundredth birthday. Warners released a box set last week. This week it’s Fox’s turn for a rather odd collection with little in common besides the appearance of Ms. Davis. The spotlight feature in The Bette Davis Collection is a a new two-disc special edition of the acerbic 1950 great All About Eve.
The barbed dialogue is witty and wonderful, delivered with tart insolence by Bette Davis as an aging Broadway lioness who watches ruthless cub Anne Baxter pull out her claws as she charms and insinuates herself into stardom. Even more seductively sinister is George Sanders, marvelously acerbic as a cultured but conniving critic whose every word oozes arsenic.
I review the film and the set (which also includes a new edition of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte) here.
New on TV this week is the new British mini-series version of Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Andrew Davies, who scripted the definitive screen version of Pride and Prejudice with his 1995 mini-series.
Once again, Davies creates vivid heroines and fills their world with marvelous characters that come on as caricatures until he shades them with measure of warmth and integrity of a lived person. Hattie Morahan is Elinor Dashwood, the elder sister, careful and restrained in her precarious social position, and Charity Wakefield is Elinor’s teenage sister Marianne, romantic and trusting and unrestrained in her search for an ideal love. Where Pride and Prejudice had a country lushness to it, this North England seaside setting is stormier and wilder, and the Dashwood cottage where the girls are all but segregated from proper society (thanks to inheritance laws and an ungenerous brother) is windswept and chilly. It sets the drama in a more unforgiving world, but also sets the women in an elemental landscape that reminds us of their resilience.
Janet McTeer, David Morrissey, Dominic Cooper and Dan Stevens co-star in the production, which just ran on the PBS Masterpiece showcase (formerly Masterpiece Theatre).
There’s also a new Perry Mason: 50th Anniversary Edition four-disc collection of episodes and supplements.
Raymond Burr is Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, the lawyer who never defended a guilty client and never lost a case, in this celebration of the long-running TV series. The stocky actor with the dark glare, famed for a film career largely composed of menacing heavies, redefined himself as the dedicated champion of the unjustly accused, defending his clients with a perseverance bordering on obstruction of justice and firmly taking control of the courtroom in the last act of every episode.
The set also features the 1985 TV movie revival Perry Mason Returns, screen tests and other extras.
You can find the DVD releases featured on my MSN column in the sections for Movies, TV, and Special Releases, the later with a new edition of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: 20th Anniversary Edition:
Terry Gilliam’s opulent labor-of-love, starring John Neville as the storytelling fabulist who spins wild fantasies he passes off as biography, may be his most personal picture. As indulgent as a Fellini film (and shot by Fellini’s cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno), the delightfully outrageous imagery becomes increasingly preposterous as the adventure continues. The celebration of storytelling and the magic of fantasy is not really a kids film (Gilliam can’t resist the dark side, even if he does toss in a wink and nudge), but the whimsical treat does capture the spirit of innocent wonder, even with the nightmare ripples.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.