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View From The Couch

Brute Force, Dreamgirls

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BRUTE FORCE (1947). An apt title, as "brutal" and "forceful" are the first words that come to mind when describing this punishing prison picture. In his sophomore stint in front of the cameras -- his debut film, 1946's The Killers, instantly made him a star -- Burt Lancaster is sinewy and slow-burning as Joe Collins, a convict who's tired of the abuse doled out on a daily basis by Munsey, the sadistic captain of the guards (an excellent Hume Cronyn). Along with his cellmates (look for Howard Duff making his movie debut as "Soldier"), Joe plans a great escape, a go-for-broke gamble that looks even more risky considering that the fascistic Munsey seemingly has informants planted throughout the jailhouse. Directed by Jules Dassin from a hard-hitting script by Richard Brooks, Brute Force breaks out of the parameters established by the prison flick in order to borrow liberally from film noir, WWII tales, and socially progressive melodramas.

DVD extras include audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, an interview with Paul Mason, editor of the book Captured By the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture, and a booklet that includes correspondence between producer Mark Hellinger and Production Code head Joseph Breen regarding the film's violence.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

DREAMGIRLS (2006). A box office hit but an awards-season also-ran (Golden Globes excepted), Dreamgirls simply wasn't able to live up to the prerelease hype that was declaring it the year's best picture before anyone had even seen the darn thing. Its one constant, of course, turned out to be Jennifer Hudson, the American Idol loser whose newly minted stature as Academy Award winner made her the movie year's most irresistible Cinderella story. Delivering a knockout performance, Hudson was a revelation in the role of Effie, the lead singer for the R&B outfit the Dreamettes who's relegated to backup vocals once savvy yet sleazy manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) decides that the noticeably thinner Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) would better help the Supremes-like group hit it big. (The third member, well-played by Anika Noni Rose, is content to remain in backup mode.) On the narrative level, this adaptation of the Broadway smash is only too happy to wallow in its show biz clichés, content to let other ingredients (the music, the acting) carry it along. Yet Hudson is so powerful that the film suffers whenever we're left with just Beyoncé or Foxx. Luckily, Eddie Murphy is on hand providing some prickly tension as fading star James "Early" Thunder, while writer-director Bill Condon stages the musical numbers for maximum impact. But it's Hudson who owns Dreamgirls; her delivery of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is worth a standing ovation -- or at least a recount on American Idol -- all by itself. In addition to Hudson, the film also earned an Oscar for Best Sound Mixing; overlooked was Best Supporting Actor frontrunner Murphy, who lost to Little Miss Sunshine's sentimental favorite, Alan Arkin.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include a two-hour making-of special, additional pieces on the film's editing, costumes and lighting designs, 12 extended and alternate musical numbers, screen tests for Beyoncé and Rose, and the music video for Beyoncé's "Listen."

Movie: ***

Extras: ***1/2

NAKED... YOU DIE (1968). Dark Sky Films has done a bang-up job offering (as they put it) "classic horror, grindhouse, oddities and 'lost' films" on DVD, and this tradition continues with the release of this Italian chiller, an example of the "giallo" genre (highly theatrical and stylized movies usually heavy on the sex, gore and flamboyant camerawork). Renowned horror auteur Mario Bava had a hand in Naked... You Die, with the screenplay based on a story he had co-written. Like many horror imports in its day, this film found itself cut by several minutes for stateside release, and its various alternate titles along the way included The Miniskirt Murders, School Girl Killer and The Young, the Evil and the Savage. Dark Sky presents the unedited version, and if viewers can get past the chirpy and inappropriate opening credits song ("Nightmare," with a beat that sounds stolen from the Batman TV series), they should take to this fairly effective thriller about a series of murders taking place at an all-girls school. The title is misleading (most of the victims are clothed when they die), and director Antonio Margheretti (who frequently worked under the name Anthony Dawson) would make bloodier movies than this, so T&A and gore addicts might be disappointed. But the mystery (laced with traces of dark humor) is a decent one, red herrings abound, and the cast includes several familiar faces (including The Day the Earth Stood Still's Michael Rennie as the detective assigned to the case).

DVD extras include a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: *1/2

TRUE CONFESSIONS (1981). This was largely dismissed upon its original release and probably won't experience any sort of belated discovery as it's being tossed out in a bare-bones DVD edition. Yet this remains an underrated picture, and with Robert De Niro (before his late-career whoring) and Robert Duvall in the central roles, even viewers not bowled over by its script dynamics will appreciate it as an actor's showcase. Loosely based on the same unsolved murder that inspired Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, this casts the two Bobs as brothers in 1940 Los Angeles. Duvall stars as Tom Spellacy, a detective investigating the brutal slaying of a starlet, while De Niro plays Des, a monsignor whose business savvy and ambitious nature have made him a rising star in the Catholic church. Both have ties to sleazy developer Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), and when it turns out that Amsterdam knew the victim, it threatens to make matters even more sticky for a religious institution already swimming in corruption. The direction by Ulu Grosbard is understated, the script by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion is intelligent, and the production design is immaculate. With a little more focus, this had the potential to be a great film; as it stands, it's still an absorbing study of vice operating on all cylinders.

There are no extras on the DVD.

Movie: ***

Extras: *

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