Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Desk Set Movie Review

Directed by Walter Lang, starts Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, written by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron from the play by William Marchant

Old maid librarian lands old bachelor computer geek. That wasn’t the tag line for Desk Set (1957), but perhaps it should have been. Many critics at the time thought that Spencer Tracy at 57 and Katherine Hepburn at 50 were too old for these rolls. But really, are you ever too old for love?

Shot in CinemaScope, so be sure to see this in wide-screen format, as the pan-and-scan is really annoying. Plus you miss out on some great acting outside the frame.

The story begins as a television station reference/research/library department is studied by “efficiency expert” Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). The department is run by Bunny Wilson (Katherine Hepburn). Wilson has been strung along romantically for seven years by her boss, Mike Cutler (Gig Young), but she seems OK with that as no other man seems interested. Sumner has designed a computer (you won’t believe the size of this thing) that the librarians fear will take their jobs. The fact that Sumner was sworn to silence doesn’t help. However, gradually, grudging mutual respect grows between Sumner and Wilson, and, as Cutler pussyfoots around, respect grows into something more.

The relationship between Wilson and Sumner develops naturally and both actors are completely believable in their respective roles. Tracy is particularly good as the half absent-minded brilliant engineer. Joan Blondell is fantastic and believable as a New York kinda gal. The ending is a little contrived: “What is the weight of the earth?” “Why that’s the kind of thing that could take months to research!” Of course, now we have the World Wide Web and the answer can be found in .3 seconds, but I bet someone had the answer in a physics or astronomy reference book in 1957. But that’s not what you care about anyway, you care about the connection between Sumner and Wilson. The chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is great, the scenes they have together are magic, like the rooftop lunch and after they get caught in the rain. Desk Set is a great show, especially for librarians and computer geeks.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

No Country for Old Men: DVD Movie Review

I am not going to echo the line on the cover of the No Country for Old Men DVD: “Instant Classic!” If you liked Fargo, you will probably like No Country. I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, but these two critics’ favorite movies have been my least favorites. I liked parts of both movies, and I prefer No Country, but it’s not the best work the Coens have done. The acting is top notch, the cinematography is outstanding -- as usual – and the mood is perfect. But something was missing and didn’t close the deal for me.

A bleak movie with a high body count. That’s the long and the short of it. Two people are graphically killed in the first 5 minutes, and that doesn’t count the eight or so bodies from the drug-deal-gone-bad. Thankfully, we don’t see every person killed who gets killed, though the Coen Brothers are not squeamish about on-screen blood. I didn’t keep track of the number of deaths, but No Country for Old Men probably rivals Scarface: Shame of a Nation or even Rambo : First Blood Part II.

It’s nice to see a movie with Men in it. Granted, none of them are hero-types, but they are all tough, tough-minded, and good at tracking and surviving (for the most part). They know what they want and they work hard to get it. Each one is very competent. Josh Brolin as Lewellen Moss is outstanding. Javier Bardem plays the sociopath as a person, not as a zombie, as so many other actors would have (see Fargo). The one disappointment here is Woody Harrelson as Wells, a bounty hunter. I’m afraid I don’t buy him being that kind of guy. But it was the best performance he’s given since Cheers. It’s a great scene when he tells Moss that he’s in over his head and I love the discussion on welding.

Some reviewers have said something about “quirky” Coen Brothers are back, but this film isn’t quirky, it’s just dark. It is anti-climatic and there is no lead character, so I suppose some people would call that “quirky.” I suppose they were trying to say something about the pointlessness of violence, or how things have changed, or something.

Tommy Lee Jones plays sheriff Ed Tom Bell. He is always just one step behind Chigurh when he even comes close. Sheriff Bell is depressed at how violent things have become in his sleepy corner of Texas. The drug trade and the careless violence of Chigurh are more than he can take. He marvels that there were sheriffs in the past who didn’t carry guns. Mr. Jones carries the burden in his eyes like few actors can.

There is a very little of the trademark "quirky" Coen humor, though some of it is buried. The darkness overwhelms the lightness. There aren’t any scenes like Fargo’s Japanese man with the Minnesota accent. This is probably the most serious film from the brothers since their debut, Blood Simple. Miller's Crossing was also pretty serious, but it had some outrageousness to it that kept it from being straight-ahead serious.

Perhaps it would help if I read the novel, but I didn’t quite understand everything that was going on.


Some Mexicans show up a couple of times, but we don’t know anything about them, or how they tracked Moss down to his first motel room, or tracked down his wife, or even how they know that Moss is the one they are looking for.

Why does Chigurh kill the two guys who show him the drug-deal-gone-bad? Aren’t they his “partners” or fellow employees or something? So who is he working for? Or is it that he is working for the guy that hired Wells, and is upset that anyone else was brought in? What happened to the drugs?

Carla Jean Moss had it right when she refused to call the coin toss. She had a chance to save herself, but with nothing to live for the principle was worth standing up for. Chigurh had the choice. He really didn’t have to do it. But, being a sociopath, he just killed her. I’m glad we didn’t see that one. It was actually more powerful showing him checking the bottom of his boots as he left the house.


I didn’t get much out of the discussion between Sheriff Bell and his cousin. Or maybe it was his uncle. Either way it was the always-great Barry Corbin, and he does a fantastic job here. Not as stereotyped as he can sometimes be. Anyway, that scene seemed to be one designed to send the “message” of the film, but I think the Coens generally do a better job of showing, rather than telling.

I guess I am saying that there are too many questions and loose ends for this to be an “Instant Classic!” I doubt I’ll watch it again as my wife hates these kinds of movies and I rarely have a chance to watch them. So I have to use my time wisely, and a second viewing of No Country for Old Men doesn’t strike me as a wise choice. I enjoyed the one viewing, especially watching the actors work their craft, but I believe something vital is missing from the story.

Update: Someone agrees with me.

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