DVDs for 4/7/09 – Pre-code Paramount and Paper Chase

Universal Home Video is plunging into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is from the “Universal Backlot Series” but is actually a collection of Paramount films (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a more elegant and opulent touch (it was the studio of Lubitsch, Sternberg, DeMille and Leisen, after all).

Backstage at the Vanities
Backstage at the Vanities

I didn’t have a chance to explore all of the films in the set, but I absolutely loved Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanities, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen did his apprenticeship as costume designer and art director, working on Douglas Fairbanks spectacles and mentoring under Cecil B. DeMille as transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen is much more fun to watch than his mentor and Murder at the Vanities is a fast-moving, fast-talking, sexy little entertainment. Also features Dorothy Arzner’s 1932 Merrily We Go to Hell. Arzner was the rare career woman director in the Hollywood’s early sound era and the film is smart and sharp and clever, and daring in its open acknowledgment of extramarital affairs and New York society decadence.

Cleopatra – 75th Anniversary Edition is a companion release, but it’s really something of a stiff compared to the snappy entertainments of the box set, where the longest film runs under 90 minutes.

Cecil B. DeMille is the epitome of the Hollywood director as spectacle showman and Cleopatra is his follow-up to Sign of the Cross: all production value and no style. Cleopatra’s Egyptian entertainments become the forerunner to the Goldwyn Follies, with showgirls in revealing costumes prancing through absurd set pieces, battles scenes are spiced up with lavish miniatures and grotesque death scenes.


Continue reading “DVDs for 4/7/09 – Pre-code Paramount and Paper Chase”

DVD of the Week – ‘No Country For Old Men’ – March 11, 2008

Weeks after taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay, No Country For Old Men arrives on DVD.

(T)he Coen Bros.’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is their masterpiece, a perfect match of story and storyteller. Josh Brolin stars as an easy-going Vietnam Vet poaching in the Texas desert who stumbles into the wreckage of a drug deal gone ballistic and ambles off with a fortune in drug money. Javier Bardem won an Oscar playing methodical mercenary Chigurh, a relentless killer with an indeterminate accent and the creepiest haircut ever allowed in a movie out to recover the money. But the story is really about Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic Sheriff Bell, a dedicated lawman following the trail of the corpses left in Chigurh’s wake and becoming more disillusioned with the world with every death he’s unable to prevent. The Coens don’t explain, they show in meticulous detail with evocative and creative flair, slowly unraveling a story that seems to be spinning out the control of everyone but the filmmakers. Their methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t yet know, and that’s far more dangerous. Cinematographer (and Oscar nominee) Roger Deakins gives it the feel of a primeval frontier with his simple, stark images, a world neither compassionate nor cruel, simply harsh and indifferent and unforgiving of stupid mistakes and overweening arrogance.

The film is accompanied by three featurettes. The 24-minute “The Making of No Country For Old Men” is the most interesting, thanks to interviews with (among others) Tommy Lee Jones and the Coen Bros., who sum up their cinematic approach with classic understatment:

“A lot of it is very procedural, people doing things to cover their tracks…,” begins Ethan in a thought completed by Joel with, “It’s about physical activity in order to achieve a purpose, which honestly we’ve always been fascinated by.”

Read the complete DVD review here.

I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.

 

My other pick of the week spotlights racy films from Hollywood’s pre-code sound era, when the studios fought to attract audiences in the depths of the depression with cost-effective spectacles of sex, violence and other forbidden activities. TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 2: Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘No Country For Old Men’ – March 11, 2008”

Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List

I’ve contributed Top Ten lists to four different organizations already: MSN, IndieWire, the Village Voice/LA Weekly 2007 Film Poll, and Senses of Cinema (not yet published as of this writing). The process has remained fluid throughout, and not just due to differing rules for the different groups. I’ve allowed myself to challenge my own evaluations, and the reasons behind them, for each list, shifting films up and down the list, swapping out different titles in the final spots, rethinking what it is that makes a “best film,” and understanding what I want to represent as “cinema” with such a list.

That ends with this, my final list, the one that I prepare for my annual “Top Ten” event, a small party/debate that I have been hosting for a few film critic friends of mine for ten years now. It’s by design a small gathering of people I enjoy talking to and arguing with, who take movies seriously and are articulate enough to make a discussion not just lively, but invigorating and challenging. The results of that event will follow in a later posting. Here is the list I presented at the event, supplemented with notes, comments, runners-up, and links to reviews and other writings (where available).

1. No Country For Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen)
A model of simple, strong, evocative storytelling pared down to the bone and character and meaning radiating from every image, every movement, and every moment, “No Country” is cinema in every sense of the word. Part of the thrill is the feeling that it’s all spinning out of your grasp, it’s rushing out of control, in a film that refuses to rush anything. You never feel it’s out of the control of the Coens, whose methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story, and Roger Deakins delivers simple and stark images, a desert that sometimes feels like it’s lawless frontier. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss may seem smart, but is just smart enough to outrun the trouble dogging his trail, a minor league talent in a major league showdown. The Coens don’t offer that comforting sense of cosmic justice or thematic completeness that most crime movies provide, even those films about chaotic situations where the violence spills out of the confines of the protagonists. And that’s the point. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t know, and that’s far more dangerous. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, retires because, he says, no longer understands the kind of violence and characters that he faces with the explosion of the drug trade through the borders. The Coens (and McCarthy’s story) remind us that it’s not the violence that’s changed, only the players.

My Seattle P-I review of No Country For Old Men is here.

2. Into the Wild (Sean Penn) Continue reading “Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List”