Monday, September 24, 2007

cinema obscura: Joey Lauren Adams' "Come Early Morning" (2007)

"Come Early Morning," the directorial debut of actress Joey Lauren Adams, will be televised on the Lifetime cable channel at 9 p.m. (est) on Saturday, October 6th.

The film, starring Ashley Judd in another fine performance, played a handful of film festivals, received a limited (very limited) theatrical release earlier this year and then went to DVD - all within the space of a few months.

That's gotta be a record. Another neglected film.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Actress-turned-director Joey Lauren Adams)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Chlesea Handler on Ugly Balls

In an item he posted September 16th on his winning blog, "Reports from the Lost continent of Cinephilia," the ever-witty and ever-astute Dave Kehr noted that balls are the new breasts in America.

Commenting on the rather grotesque poster art for Billy Bob Thornton's "Mr. Woodcock, Dave wrote, "Presumably, emergency seminars are already being scheduled at Brown. And to think this was once a proud country of breast fetishists."

Ever since Dave voiced his observation, I've been aware of references to testicles everywhere, particularly on TV sitcoms, where they have become the token punchline for every bad, pathetic joke.

Which brings me to Chlesea Handler, the vivacious host of E!'s nightly "Chlesea Lately," a hilarious show brought to my attention by the New York Times' TV critic, Virginia Heffernan.

Anyway, Handler begins every show with a five-minute panel discussion and, on a recent show, she swapped jokes with Ken Baker, correspondent for US, comic Loni Love and porn icon Ron Jeremy. The name Cisco Adler came up, and Handler complained that Adler got his show on VH1 only because he once dated Mischa Barton.

But Baker set the record straight. Apparently, Adler is now a star in his own right because, according to Baker, he has "gigantic testicles."

This set off Handler, hilariously so:

"Is that such a huge draw for women? 'Oh, God, I have to get me some ball tonight!' (To the audience) Don't you agree that balls are disgusing? Nobody ever warns you about balls when you're in the third grade. They don't even tell you they're happening. You hear about the shaft of the penis coming your way. They don't mention that he has two little angry friends along for the ride. I would have liked a warning."

That just about says it all. And let's hope that Handler's witty tirade marks the start of a moritorium on testicles in American entertainment and the return of big breasts to their rightful place.

(Artwork: The poster art for "Mr. Woodcock" and E!'s very funny Chelsea Handler)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

critical quackery: David Denby on "West Side Story"

Film critic David Denby has the following to say about "West Side Story" in the September 17th edition of The New Yorker magazine:

"It is ironic that 'West Side Story,' a plea for ethnic tolerance by four Jewish liberals - Leonard Bernstein (composer), Stephen Sondheim (lyricist), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robbins (choreographer) - has now become difficult to revive in New York. Latinos have complained that its view of Puerto Ricans is stereotyped; producers have worried that its 'Cool, Daddy-O' slang new seems quaint. Yet the show, which opened fifty years ago, is a masterpiece of American musical theatre - perhaps the masterpiece. If the material is unfamiliar to you, skip the dreadful Oscar-winning movie version of 1961, with its embarrassing cast and hashed score and choreography. The original cast album, starring Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, is ardent and heartbreaking, and Bernstein's own later recording makes a good case for the piece as an American opera. 'West Side Story' is now performed in prisons and gang-ridden neighborhoods, where it is used as therapy, and in summer-stock productions, where it leaps off the stage. It's time for a full-scale New York revival."

First, a question to Denby about this wildly gratuitous piece: Who asked you, anyway? (Can't the editors at The New Yorker simply say "no" when one of its writers comes up with a bad, pointless idea?)

Secondly, the stereotypes that litter this show/movie are the least of it.

Finally, I agree with him that the 1961 film version is pretty bad. It's been bad for years, hasn't aged well at all. But the problem is not the cast or the choreography (which, I hasten to remind Denby, is by Robbins himself).

No, the problem is that Ernest Lehman, who wrote the adaptation, was way to faithful to Laurents' arch stage script. The music and dancing are fine; everything in-between is an offense. The dialogue in WSS, whether on stage or on film, is really rough on the ears. Those producers who worry about all those dated "Daddy-Os" are correct. The only way to revive the show is to completely rewrite it.

An alternative, of course, would be to declare a moritorium on it. Put it in mothballs and let it rest in peace. Forget about it and move on.

P.S. That original cast album that Denby finds so "ardent and heartbreaking," actually sounds rather tinny compared to the film's soundtrack. Also, the original cast album doesn't "star" Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert. It features them (among others).

Feel free to disagree. And fee free to bark at me, Who asked you, anyway?

(Artwork: The poster from the original 1957 stage production of "West Side Story")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Monday, September 10, 2007

David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls" (2003)

Watching Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," I was struck by two things - (1) Dominik's apparent (and very serious) fascination with Terence Malick and (2) co-star Paul Schneider.

The nominal star of the film is, of course, Brad Pitt and its break-out star is Casey Affleck, but Schneider continually commands attention, taking our eyes away from the stars whenever he's on screen doing his provocative turn as the libidinous Dick Liddil. With a dangerous glint in his eyes and a ranginess reminiscent of the young Dennis Quaid, Schneider takes this decidedly politically incorrect role and runs with it.

It reminded me of how great he was in David Gordon Green's seriously flawed "All the Real Girls," a film which, had it been better, could have loomed as Schneider's break-out movie. Unfortunately, it didn't and Schneider took his considerable charms and talents and bided his time in such films as "The Family Stone" and "Elizabethtown."

In Green's movie, Schneider played a guy named Paul, who at age 22, is the uncontested Valentino of his home town, having slept with just about every available girl there. Paul meets his match in Noel (the irresistible Zooey Deschanel), his best friend's younger sister, and his inevitable relationship with her not only ends his friendship with Noel's brother but also gives Paul a dose of his own medicine.

In this bucolic, sex-reversed "Splendor in the Grass," it's the guy who falls hard for the girl and is practically destroyed emotionally when things don't quite work out as he planned. He is as much surprised by Noel's direct willfulness as we are because, at first glance, she looks like she'd be a pushover, too loyal for her own good. There are some interesting ideas in "All the Real Girls" - not the least of which is Schneider playing the Natalie Wood role - but the film doesn't add up to much in the long run.

Still, it's a joy to watch Schneider and Deschanel together and the good news is that Deschanel also pops up in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." But, alas, she and Schneider have no scenes together in it.

(Artwork: Zooey Dechanel and Paul Schneider in the flawed but fascinating "All the Real Girls")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Thursday, September 06, 2007

cinema obsura: Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" (1970)

"The Landlord," arguably the best film on race relations made in this country, will be given a long-overdue revival at New York's Film Forum, 208 West Houston Street (at Sixth Avenue), for one week, beginning September 19th.

The directorial debut of a former editor - the late, great Hal Ashby - the 1970 film was hastily denounced as "blaxploitation" by critics who simply didn't "get it." Judith Crist, then-critic for New York magazine, and Gene Shalit, the die-hard critic of The Today Show (and also Look magazine), both named it one of the year's "10 worst films." Hardly.

Based on a wonderful novel by African-American writer Kristen Hunter and adapted by the estimable Bill Gunn ("Ganja and Hess"), another African-American,"The Landlord" looms as a template for responsible socio-comic filmmaking.

Beau Bridges - in perhaps his first and last screen role of any relevance - is hugely appealing as Elgar Enders, a clueless rich kid who decides to liberate himself from his repressive family by setting up housekeeping in the Park Slope neighborhood of New York - and this was years before the idea of inner-city gentrification became a reality.

The film consists of one memorable moment after another, fueled by a major (and award-worthy) performance by Diana Sands as one of Bridges's tenants and entertaining supporting turns by Lee Grant (Oscar-nominated), Louis Gossett, Jr., Pearl Bailey, Walter Brooke, Robert Klein, Susan Anspach, Marki Bey, Mel Stewart, Douglas Grant, Will MacKenzie (now a TV director) and in a brief, hilarious bit, dancer Grover Dale.

On the technical side, there's Al Kooper's spot-on song score and the always-reliatable Gordon Willis' shimmering cinematography - so good that it makes even a ghetto setting seem inviting and comparionable.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Beau Bridges in his best role as Elgar Enders in "The Landlord"; Bridges with Louis Gossett, Jr. and the late Diana Sands in a musical dream sequence ultimately cut from the film)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, September 01, 2007

cinema obscura: Otto Preminger's "Porgy and Bess" (1959)

Otto Preminger's long-suppressed 1959 film version of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" will receive rare showings on September 26th and 27th at New York's Ziegfeld Theater, 141 West 54th Street.

It's not clear who's behind the screenings. It's most likely the Gershwin estate which controls the film and not Columbia Pictures, which originally released the Sam Goldwyn production. And so, by extention, the condition of the print that will be screened is also not clear. I've heard nothing about the film being restored. So will the film be projected in Todd-AO or traditional 'scope? Your guess is as good as mine.

Apparently, the screenings have something to do with Otto Preminger's centennial.

Preminger, whose work I adore, was not the original director of "Porgy and Bess." Goldwyn had initially enlisted the equally great Rouben Mamoulian, who staged the original 1935 production on Broadway. Mamoulian, who will forever be honored for his "Love Me Tonight" (1932), among many others, apparently wanted location shooting, but Goldwyn favored the soundstage arena. Reportedly, all that's left of Mamoulian's work is the "Good Morning, Sistuh" number at the beginning of the final scene.

According to Wikipedia, the film "was broadcast on network television only once, on the night of March 5th, 1967, on ABC-TV. It has not been seen in its entirety on network TV since, although clips have been shown on some of the American Film Institute specials. Ira Gershwin and the Gershwin estate were unhappy with the film, and rescinded the rights to it in the 1970s. As a result, the film has never been on video or DVD, and few public screenings have been permitted, albeit begrudgingly. It is believed that the original negative is in dire need of a restoration."

Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, who play the title roles, had voices dubbed in songs. Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison, respectively. Diahann Carroll, although an accomplished singer, had her voice dubbed for the role of Clara by Loulie Jean Norman.

Wikipedia adds: "The film cut much of the music, turning the musical recitatives into spoken dialogue, as was done in the 1942 Broadway revival of the show. Gershwin's original underscoring, which is heard constantly in the opera during the recitatives as well as the two fight scenes, was not used, having been replaced by Andre Previn's own. (Previn adapted and conducted the music for the film.)"

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Brock Peters, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier elevating Preminger's "Porgy and Bess"; Rouben Mamoulian, who directed the original stage production and almost directed the film)

turner this Month - bravo!

Note: This is a regular monthly feature, highlighting, well, the highlights on Turner Classics' schedule. Why? Simple. Because Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film.

Sept. 1 – What a way to start off the month: Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” with James Cagney spewing rapid-fire dialogue of the kind we haven’t heard since “His Girl Friday” – that is until Vince Vaughn came along in “Swingers,” “The Wedding Crashers” and “The Break-Up.”

Sept. 2 – “Queen Bee,” in which the inimitable, peerless Joan Crawford levels an entire family.

Sept. 3 - All in one day: Robert Aldrich’s war flick, “Too Late the Hero”; Laurel and Hardy’s funny-but-frustraing “The Music Box”; the precious but not-too-precious “The Umbrellas of Cherbough” and Chris Marker’s singular “La Jetee.”

Sept. 5 – Cukor directs that most civilized cinematic cat fight, “The Women.” Herb Ross’ underrated but sublime musical version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”

Sept. 6 – Hey, it’s the original “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” featuring the sublime Robert Donat! “The Explosive Generation.” Love that title.

Sept. 7 – Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland in playwright Frank D. Gilroy’s irresistible “From Noon ‘til Three.” Plus three with Judy Holliday - “The Marrying Kind,” “Phffft!” and “Full of Life,” a wonderful trilogy.

Sept. 8 – William Castle’s minor classic “Homicidal,” almost better than ”Psycho.” Almost.

Sept. 9 – Susan Hayward and Bette Davis in the ultimate gay-camp fete, “Where Love Has Gone.” Sinatra double-deader - “High Society” and “Pal Joey.” Plus Lemmon slumming amiably in “Under the Yum-Yum Tree.”

Sept. 10 – Robert Wise directed Joan Fontaine, Piper Laurie, Jean Simmons and Sandra Dee as sisters in the New Zealand-set “Until They Sail,” with Paul Newman on hand for a little testosterone. Also: Vincente Minnelli’s compulsively watchable “Some Came Running,” with Sinatra at his prime.

Sept. 11 – Henry Koster’s “Flower Drum Song.” Forget “The Sound of Music.” This Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical is much, much better – and much less annoying.

Sept. 12 – “Billie,” a charming but little-known film version of the popular Ron Alexander play, “Time Out for Ginger” (adapted by Alexander himself). Patty Duke has the title role as an incorrigible tomboy and Jim Backus plays her dad, the role that Melvyn Douglas played on stage. Plus, “The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer,” in which Cary Grant romances jailbait Shirley Temple, at the request of her older sister Myrna Loy. Let’s just say that it could never be made today.

Sept. 13 – “Bright Road,” an early Dorothy Dandridge-Harry Belafonte flick, Plus “I Thank a Fool,” another soap with the edgy Susan Hayward.

Sept. 14 – Norman Jewison’s “Gaily, Gaily,” an incredibly charming take on the Ben Hecht book with the appealing Beau Bridges in a role that should have made him a major star but didn’t. Plus, “Never Wave at a Wac,” in which Rosalind Russell does the “Private Benjamin”bit.

Sept. 15 – “Soylent Green,” Richard Fleischer’s succulent, shrewd scifi that is ultimately about cannibalism.

Sept. 16 – Disney’s nifty “Bednobs and Broomsticks,” Angela Lansbury’s door prize for not getting to recreate “Mame” on screen.

Sept. 17 – Yasujiro Ozu’s affecting “Tokyo Story,” about a pair of elderly parents who learn that they have worn out their welcome in their childrens’ lives. A must-see.

Sept. 18 – “Suspicion.” Say no more.

Sept. 19 – Ida Lupino’s “The Trouble with Angels,” in which Roz Russell and Gypsy Rose Lee enjoy a reunion of sorts.

Sept. 20 – Francois Truffaut’s seminal “The 400 Blows.” Again, a must-see.

Sept. 22 – Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” arguably the best courtroom film ever made.

Sept. 23 – Disney’s “Candleshoe,” with Jodie Foster when she was still an interesting actress. Plus, Hitchcock’s obscenely absorbing “North by Northwest.”

Sept. 25 – More Hitch”: “To Catch a Thief”

Sept. 26 – “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” Joe Sargent’s best film with great performances by Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw and Hector Elizondo. Plus, “Good News,” June Allyson’s signature film.

Sept. 27 – “The Young Lovers,” with Peter Fonda, Deborah Walley and Nick Adams. Couldn’t you just die? But don’t. Wait for Wilder’s acidic “Ace in a Hole.” Plus Kirk Douglas as a conflicted Jew in WWII in “The Juggler” and Ida Lupino’s juicy “The Bigamist.”

Sept. 28 – “Freaky Friday,” the original mother-daughter switcheroo with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris. Something the timid remake left out: John Astin as the dad turned on by his wife who is now really his teenage daughter.

Sept. 30 – Joseph Mankiewicz’s “Sleuth” with Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine and a painted portrait of Joanne Woodward. The unseen wife in the film (pictured in the portrait) is billed as Eve Channing, a play on Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve.” Plus Frank Perry’s early indie, “David and Lisa.”

Oct. 1 – “Diabolique,” in which Geeorges Clouzet directs the low-down Simone Signoret. Classic.

(Artwork: Poster art from Wilder's nimble "One, Two, Three"; the DVD dustjacket of "Homicidal"; the poster art from "Billie," plus a Playbill page for "Time Out for Ginger," the play on which "Billie" is based; Beau Bridges and Melina Mercouri in Norman Jewison's "Gaily, Gaily," plus poster art from "Gaily, Gaily," and poster art from Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Lupino's "The Bigamist")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

sondheim preserved

One of the more anticipated films of the fall-winter movie season is Tim Burton’s at-long-last adaptation of composer Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, the Tony award-winning Grand Guignol musical, “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” starring Johnny Depp in the title role and Helena Bonham Carter as his conspirator in crime, Mrs. Lovett.

This is just about a perfect mating of filmmaker with
material. And it’s been a long time coming. Although filmmakers have come and gone over the past couple decades (the most notable being Sam Mendes), the film was originally announced by Columbia in January of 1992 – 15 years ago! – with Burton attached as director.

At that time, Caroline Thompson, who collaborated with Burton on "Edward Scissorshands," was mentioned in the press as the potential adapter. The finished film, due out at the end of the year, is a Paramount/DreamWorks co-production, and John Logan, who wrote Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” did the writing duties.

"Sweeney Todd" opened on Broadway on March 1, 1979, and went on to win several Tony awards, including best musical, best book, best score, actor, best actress, best scenic design and best costume. The stage version cast Len Cariou as Benjamin Barker, a barber who, unjustly sentenced to prison, escapes after 15 years and returns to London to avenge his ruined life. He changes his name to Sweeney Todd and meets up with an unstable woman named Mrs. Lovett (the role created by Angela Lansbury), who bakes and sells meat pies. The two of them cook up a plan whereby Todd murders his customers, and Mrs. Lovett bakes their remains into meat pies.

The upcoming film version already has me reeling. While we wait, let’s entertain ourselves with the Stephen Sondheim already represented on film and video (which coincidentally includes a "Sweeney Todd" video of a stage performance). Here goes:

"West Side Story" (1961 film, 151 minutes): Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins co-directed this trailblazing, Oscar-winning update of the "Romeo and Juliet" legend for which a debuting Sondheim provided the exquisite lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's equally exquisite music.

"Gypsy" (1962 film, 149 minutes): The memoirs of strip queen Gypsy Rose Lee were the basis of this sure-fire musical for which Sondheim wrote the clever lyrics for Jule Styne's memorable music. Arthur Laurents' libretto was faithfully filmed by scripter Leonard Spigelgass and director Mervyn LeRoy; choreographer Robert Tucker re-created Jerome Robbins' stage dances, and Natalie Wood as Gypsy and Rosalind Russell as her mother were definitive. (Remade for TV in 1993.)

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966 film, 99 minutes): Sondheim's first solo show - a veritable burlesque with dirty old men and pretty young women - for which he wrote both the music and the lyrics, was filmed by Britisher Richard Lester in a distinctly European manner. Zero Mostel re-created his stage roles and room was found for Buster Keaton.

"Evening Primrose" (1966 TV special, 50 minutes): An original musical written for TV by Sondheim and James Goldman, casting Anthony Perkins as a shy, repressed guy who moves into a department store to escape the world, hiding during the daytime and coming out only at night. Charmaine Carr, in her only other role following her turn as Liesl in "The Sound of Music" (1965), sings the best song here - the ballad "I Remember Sky." Never rebroascast or put out on VHS or DVD, "Evening Primrose" can be seen only on kinescope at New York's Museum of Television & Radio.

"Original Cast Album: Company" (1970 film, 52 minutes): Sondheim's legendary "theme" musical - a first for Broadway - was never filmed, but documentary director D.A. Pennebaker (Bob Dylan's "Dont Look Back") filmed the recording session of the Broadway cast album. The movie played the 1970 New York Film Festival and then went out of circulation until 1990, when it popped up at Joe Papp's Public Theater.

"The Last of Sheila" (1973 film, 120 minutes): Sondheim collaborated with his buddy, the late Anthony Perkins, on the screenplay of this popular Herbert Ross film. Both scenarists were devotees of games and puzzles, and the entire film involves a series of charades and double and triple crosses.

"Stavisky" (1974 French film, 117 minutes): This voluptuously cool French film by Alain Resnais, about a swindler-charmer named Stavisky (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), who struggles to hide his Jewish origins, features '30s art deco elegance and a wonderful neo-Gershwin background score by Sondheim.

"A Little Night Music" (1977 film, 124 minutes): Harold Prince, who helmed the stage version, directed this movie of Sondheim's musicalization of the Ingmar Bergman film, "Smiles of a Summer Night," a roundelay about mismatched lovers, set in the country. Elizabeth Taylor, although seemingly perfectly cast as an aging,
girlish actress, is pretty bleak, but she does a nice job on "Send in the Clowns."

"Reds" (1981 film, 200 minutes): Sondheim's first screen collaboration with Warren Beatty. He scored the background music for this epic about the love between American Communists John Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), with Dave Grusin providing additional music.

"Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (1984 video, 139 minutes): Harold Prince directed this startingly good filmed-on-stage video version of the show, with Angela Lansbury encoring as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearne replacing Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd. Even the TV screen can't dwarf this show.

"'Follies' in Concert" (1985 video, 90 minutes): "Follies" was Sondheim's great stage musical of 1971. Its original cast album truncates the score. So director Herbert Ross recruited a stellar cast (Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Mandy Patinkin, Andre Gregory, Elaine Stritch) for a one-performance-only staging of the entire score at a special Lincoln Center performance. (Rumor has it that Fox once planned to film this with Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds int he lead role, a genuine missed opportunity.)

"Sunday in the Park With George" (1986 video, 120 minutes): Another stage-to-video transfer, this one directed by James Lapine ("Impromptu"), with Mandy Patinkin as the pointillist artist Georges Seurat and Bernadette Peters as his model Dot. The passion is palpable here.

"Dick Tracy" (1990 film, 104 minutes): Harry Connick Jr.'s original music for this comic-strip movie was rejected by filmmaker Warren Beatty. Danny Elfman was brought in to write the background score and Sondheim to compose the songs for Madonna's Breathless Mahoney and Mandy Patinkin's 88 Keys, one of which, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," won the Oscar.

"Into the Woods" (1991 video, 152 minutes): A video version of Sondheim's wicked take on popular fairy tales (one song is titled "Agony"), again filmed on stage. It should fill the bill for its aficionados and should also please those who were fans of Joanna Gleason's and Bernadette Peters' stage performances.

(Artwork: Depp and Bonham-Carter as Todd and Mrs. Lovett in Tim Burton's take on Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd"; Roz Russell streamrolling everyone as Madam Rose in "Gypsy")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com