A list of the best DVDs that will be released over the next month.
April 1: SWEENEY TODD - THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
Winner of two Golden Globes, including Best Picture and Best Actor and winner of the Oscar for Art Direction, this is the first and also the best DVD choice. No April Fool's joke, for any Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, or Stephen Sondheim fan, this is the movie for you. Even if you're neither and just love good cinema, this makes for the perfect way to spend two hours.
Not since the filmed stories of Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer have I been more excited about a movie's playful use of cannibalism. Yet, this story is not horror, nor is it a melodrama.
No, while you're watching a woman take the bodies of murdered victims, turn them into hamburger with a meat grinder, bake them in an oven that you'd likely find in a crematorium perhaps in Auschwitz and then plop them on a plate for hungry British customers, you're not completely grossed out because you're also singing along to this very delightful musical comedy.
Johnny Depp stars as Sweeney Todd, the super barber whose skills at shaving are apparently unmatched in all of London. He's referred to as "a proper artist with a knife." He can swipe a man's face and neck to its utmost smoothness in seconds flat. Yet, sadly, he uses his skills not just to groom respectable British chaps but also to give merry men of England the closest and the last shave they'll ever see. Sweeney is simply a serial killer, a serial slasher, making the necks of many men smile a blood red.
Yet, Depp is very captivating as he delivers not just the lyrics, but also the facial expressions to really sell this lurid tale. Depp, who has appeared in over 30 films and used to front a few garage bands, has never had to sing in a movie before. This is perhaps his first.
Depp's Sweeney steps into frame, his face filling the scene. His skin is powdered white. His eyes are blood shot. There are dark circles underneath and on his head a slightly sloppier "Bride of Frankenstein" hairstyle. He's standing on the deck of a ship and you think it is a brilliant transition from Depp's previous role in Pirates of the Caribbean. You hear him belt out this tune, this Sondheim composition, and it doesn't distract. Within moments you're absorbed and not for a moment does his singing misstep.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for graphic bloody violence
Running Time: 1hr. and 56 mins.
April 15: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
This is the new film by Sidney Lumet, and absolutely no question this was one of the best films of 2007. Lumet, at the age of 83, lays down proof positive that he can still make great movies today as he did 50 years ago when he directed "12 Angry Men" with Henry Fonda. He shines just as brightly now as he did way back then with an intense crime drama today boasting Oscar-worthy performances.
This film is what I describe as a cinematic onion, not because it makes you cry, because it doesn't. No, this film is a cinematic onion because, as you watch it, its layers are peeled back to reveal great characters in a powerful story that literally unravel right before your eyes.
The movie's structure is like that of "Rashomon" or 1962's "The Longest Day" where we keep reliving the same moment or rather the same period of time over and over but each time from a different perspective and a different point of view. And, each perspective, each point of view reveals more information that you didn't see before, more story, more character insight, again like layers of an onion being pulled back. In fact, this film is this year's and possibly this generation's "Rashomon."
The focal or pivot point is the robbery of a jewelry store in Westchester County, New York, just north of the city. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers Andy and Hank Hanson who plot the robbery. There's only one catch. The jewelry store they're planning to heist is Hanson Jewelry, the store owned by their parents.
Here, Ethan Hawke gives a performance that is nothing short of oozing with nervousness and anxiety. In contrast, Philip Seymour Hoffman comes off as cool, calm and collected, a fancy, expensive suit wearing, slick, ponytail-haired, devil-eyed man who has everything under control. He's a puppet master with a penthouse-like home and penthouse-like office atop Manhattan who seduces his brother into this crime.
However, as the layers of the onion are peeled, like a ball of yarn Hoffman's Andy Hanson starts to unravel, and you start to see him under different lights. In fact, the seduction scene where Andy tempts Ethan Hawke's Hank Hanson into helping him with the robbery is shown twice. It is re-edited the second time from different camera angles and a different procession of scenes leading up to it. As a result your feeling of it is totally altered but your understanding of it is so much more complete.
Lumet, though, in his brilliance and the brilliance of first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson, takes us beyond the single moment treated in "Rashomon" fashion. Yes, we are constantly seeing flashbacks, layers unpeeling, but there are also flash-forwards where we see the aftermath of this one moment, of their fateful decision, and of the harrowing consequences.
Lumet is a master with camera placement and movement, and like most filmmakers of his generation, doesn't allow for all that rapid editing of today's youthful stock. He positions the camera, locks it down and lets an audience absorb one frame for a long time yet in that one frame Lumet tells you so much than most young modern moviemakers tell you in ten frames cut together.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for nudity, graphic sexuality, drug use and violence
Running Time: 1hr. and 57 mins.
April 22: CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR
Tom Hanks plays politician Charlie Wilson, a Texas Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, who, through some serious finessing, manages to arm hoards of Afghan men with stinger missiles during the 1980s. Wilson is credited with helping to end the Soviet-Afghan war, which caused millions of casualties and deaths, but the filmmakers here make it all a comedy.
Hanks brings his usual Jimmy Stewart-type charm to portray Wilson, a Congressman captivated with the plight of the Afghan people. To help them, Wilson wants to give the Afghans the weapons they need to fight the Soviets who are killing and kicking them out of their own homes. However, it becomes clear to Wilson that he can't help in a way that's obvious to the Soviet Union.
Therefore, Wilson decides to conduct a covert war against them, a war that jumps in cost to a tune of a billion dollars. It wasn't easy, but Wilson did it by also wrangling together enemies who would never have come together on their own, but money talks.
To help him raise that money, a wealthy and ultra right-wing, Houston socialite named Joanne Herring wields her almost regal and movie-star-like influence to finagle the funds. How appropriate that Hollywood royalty Julia Roberts should be the one cast to capture this character so completely. Roberts as Herring is glamour and gumption personified. She struts her way through scenes with an air of confidence and intelligence that is unmatched.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a frustrated CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos, who like a gust of wind can come with fierceness and toughness that can break glass quite easily. He's probably the only one who matches Herring's confidence and intelligence every time he steps into a room. In fact, he breezes into Charlie Wilson's office with a bottle of scotch and in a tone that talks down to Wilson.
Aaron Sorkin, who you won't see but from whom you'll definitely hear constantly, crafts this very clever adaptation of late CBS News reporter George Crile's book.
Sorkin's script couples snappy one-liners with scenes of perfectly peculiar juxtapositions, pulled from Wilson's real life. For example, there's a scene where Wilson learns of the Soviet invasion during a report by Dan Rather, as Wilson sits in a hot tub with Playboy models, strippers, and wannabe actresses who are doing blow. The contrast is so hilarious.
Sorkin has been honored before for writing "A Few Good Men" and the TV series "The West Wing" and he certainly proves his ability to navigate around DC politics, infusing his characters with all the insufferable things about men on the hill that most Americans hate along with great substance and depth, interest and humor that makes a man like Wilson a complete person. With great dialogue, Sorkin doesn't bore his viewers for a single second.
Director Mike Nichols has a gift of mixing sex and politics and bringing them to life on the screen. While his leading character Wilson scrambles for an influx of money, Nichols heaps an influx of cleavage onto the screen. Plenty of half-naked women parade in and out of Nichols' frame. He flirts with his audience, as Wilson and Herring flirt with each other and are free to grab each other's derriere, as well as various other titillations.
But, that's what this film does. Somehow it makes all this Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee jargon sexy and intriguing, setting up the perfect political satire that dismisses arguments that Congress can't accomplish anything. With winks at the screen, like literally having a fat cat sitting on a Congressman's table to an aide of Wilson's coming and asking him if he's ever heard of Rudolph Guilani, this movie delivers.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for strong language, nudity and some drug use
Running Time: 1 hr. 37 mins.
April 29: THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
Nominated for an impressive four Oscars, including Best Cinematography, Editing, Writing and Directing, this film absolutely deserved all four of those acknowledgments and so much more.
The absolutely moving story of this film focuses on the real life incidents of a French man who suffered a stroke that paralyzed his entire body, except for his left eye, which meant the only movement he could control was the blinking of that eye.
What's absolutely incredible is that this man named Jean-Dominique Bauby was even able to write the memoir, from which this movie is based. He couldn't speak. He couldn't write it himself. With the help of a female assistant who would point out letters to him, he blinked an entire 140-page book.
Can you imagine the dedication or the strength of spirit required to do something like that? Within the film, the paralyzed man uses his mind to relive or re-envision fantastic memories or adventures traveled by his own spirit. The images are beautiful and glorious.
And, director Julian Schnabel captures it perfectly. He captures beautifully the spirit of this man in this very artistic piece. And if you make the effort to go see it, that man's spirit will haunt you forever. But it's certainly the kind of ghost by which you want to be possessed.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for nudity and languageRunning Time: 1 hr. and 52 mins.