All the Pretty Horses (2000)

[This review was first published at the original Looking Closer website in December 2000.]

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What a shame.

All the Pretty Horses, director Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of the great Cormac McCarthy novel, must have been a marvelous film.

But this is not that film.

This feature-length montage of scenes from Thornton's as-yet-unreleased movie has breathtaking cinematography, reminiscent of the wild and beautiful natural world captured in Terrence Malick's films. Its performances, especially the crucial roles played by Matt Damon and Henry Thomas, are engaging, tough, and convincing. The music, when Daniel Lanois is playing guitar, is enchanting. The story is compelling, full of challenging ethical dilemmas and soul-searching dialogues.

But everything else is a problem.

When Billy Bob Thornton put together his final cut of All the Pretty Horses, it ran more than three hours long, reportedly. And rightly so. The novel is a strong, sweeping epic. But here, in the movie that resulted from the studio's demand for cuts, it is barely two hours long, and it rushes frantically to pack in the important events of the first two acts so that Acts Three and Four have some resonance. What we have is are big-screen Cliff's Notes for the novel.

The credits claim that the movie stars Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, Henry Thomas, Ruben Blades, Bruce Dern, and more. I saw Damon and Thomas, and there were brief appearances by Cruz. Blades showed his face a few times, but rarely spoke. And Dern... well, he gets a few choice moments at the end, and that's all.

The opening act is a choppy ride across the border into Mexico. John Grady Cole (Damon) and his pal Rawlins (Thomas) are headed out to find ranch work, when they are joined by a suspicious youngster named Blevins (Lucas Black, who starred in Thornton's Sling Blade.) Blevins is a tough-talking kid on the run from something, who knows what. He also claims to be a human lightning rod. Grady is patient with the youngster, but Rawlins is worried. Before long, Rawlins' worries will prove to be frighteningly well-founded, and Cole will find that he is kindness has led the two of into deep trouble.

During this chapter, the music by Marty Stuart seemed to me all wrong... a bombastic, stereotypically American anthem, announcing that something quite exciting was going on, when it wasn't. The occasional flourishes of the musical score by Daniel Lanois sound much more fitting to the tone of the story: tentative, spooky, spiritual. I suspect that the Stuart soundtrack was inflicted on the picture by the studio, to give it a more commercial and traditional flavor. Thornton had worked with Lanois just fine on Sling Blade, and I can't imagine why he'd toss away such evocative work.

Grady and Rawlins, as the story goes, gets a good job on a ranch and falls for the ranch owner's daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), just in time for old ghosts to come back and haunt him. The romance at the heart of the film happens so rapidly, with so little development of dialogue or relationship between Grady and Alejandra, we don't understand Grady's compulsion, his willingness to risk all that is important to him in order to be her man.

Later, when he suffers horrible injustice in a Mexican penitentiary, we begin to truly fear for what will become of him. Damon's performance here is especially strong, looking at first like he expects to wake up from this nightmare, then slowly accepting its agonizing reality. Then, the prison chapter of the story ends so abruptly you might swear that somebody has loaded the wrong reel of film!

The concluding episodes feature a violent adventure, which seems to be intact (because, of course, audiences love adventure), but then wraps up with a fleeting courtroom scenario that seems implausible due to its brevity.

I have not seen this film yet. Instead I have seen broken pieces that promise a wonderful whole. It taunts us with glimmers of greatness, but then tells us what the studio thinks audiences want, not what the director wanted us to see. Watching this film is like being told you'll have a scenic tour of the country on horseback, and then you're strapped to a bucking bronco. I walked away saddle-sore and disillusioned, having only glimpsed the greatness of what I'd come to see.

Miramax Films. Director - Billy Bob Thornton; writer - Ted Tally; based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Starring - Matt Damon (John Grady Cole), Henry Thomas (Lacey Rawlins), Lucas Black (Jimmy Blevins), Ruben Blades (Don Hector), Penelope Cruz (Alejandra), Bruce Dern (Judge). 112 Minutes. Rated PG-13.

The Ladykillers (2004)

[Jeffrey's review of The Ladykillers was originally published at Christianity Today on March 26, 2004.]

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This is not the first time moviegoers have seen Tom Hanks secretly tunnel through the earth beneath a stranger's house.

In 1989'sThe 'Burbs, a subversive comedy  by Joe Dante about eccentric criminals in a friendly suburban neighborhood, Hanks dug his way right into an explosion that rocked the neighborhood. It happens again here, in The Ladykillers — which happens to be a subversive comedy about eccentric criminals in a friendly Bible Belt neighborhood.

But that's where the resemblances between The Ladykillers and other Tom Hanks comedies stop.Read more


Overstreet's Favorite Recordings: 2003

1. Over the Rhine.....Ohio

Over the Rhine celebrate their tenth album by making it a double. What we get is one of the most powerful discs they've ever recorded, the soulful gospel/folk/rock that they do best. That disc is followed by another, more adventurous and experimental effort. Karin Bergquist sings like her life depends on it. She and her husband, songwriter/ keyboardist/ guitarist Linford Detweiler, have penned some of their most poetic and inspiring lyrics, taking us on a tour of heartbreak and struggling faith. Call it a heart attack in the heartland.

Essential tracks: Changes Come, Lifelong Fling, B.P.D., Ohio, Jesus in New Orleans

2. Joe Henry.....Tiny Voices

On the map of contemporary music, it is located at the crossroads between Tom Waits' Bone Machine, Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, and Leonard Cohen's Ten New Songs. Henry tells abstract stories of life in a fractured world, where we live with suspicions of the sublime, but often settle for far less. The jazzy rock combo he has assembled for this record is brilliantly improvisational, making each song like a small miracle of spontaneity. "Loves You Madly" is as a punch-drunk pop number that's as memorably sing-able as anything you're likely to hear this year. A giant leap forward from his last release, the memorable Scar, Tiny Voices is a must-listen for any adventurous musical explorer.

Essential tracks: Loves You Madly, Tiny Voices, Your Side of My World, Animal Skin

3. Emmylou Harris.....Stumble Into Grace

A breathtakingly gorgeous piece of work, and the finest record Malcolm Burn has ever produced. Emmylou really pushes herself as a vocalist here, finding new textures, lighter touches, and a newfound enthusiasm for her ethereal falsetto. Her backing musicians couldn't be a more talented bunch: Buddy Miller, Daniel Lanois, Malcolm Burn, Darryl Johnson, Brady Blade, with Julie Miller, Jane Siberry, Colin Linden, Kate McGarrigle. The songs include laments from the Almighty for the loss of his beloved creation and the creation's laments for the loss of Eden and God. And smack in the middle of it all is a hymn-like tribute to Johnny and June Carter Cash. The album feels like the sequel to Wrecking Ball, but the true marvel is that she wrote all of these songs, where Wrecking Ball was a collection of great songs by other songwriters.

4. Daniel Lanois.....Shine

Another gorgeous, meditative work from a contemporary psalmist. Lanois has matured most of all as a vocalist. His sound remains familiar, sonorous, haunting and hushed. And his lyrics remain focused on a rather monastic call to freedom from the problems of possessions and temptations. This album, like Acadie, sounds one part travel journal, one part prayer journal: the diary of a pilgrim making progress.

5. Radiohead.....Hail to the Thief

On Hail to the Thief, Radiohead brings along a lot of the new sounds they invented and assembled on the journeys of their last few albums and returns to the land of verse/ chorus/ guitar-solo rock-and-roll. Thief is an angrier, edgier, darker cousin to OK Computer. And, unfortunately, it finds Thom Yorke still seeing gloom and doom everywhere he looks.

6. People You Meet.....People You Meet

Imagine if Pavement or Pedro the Lion went into a Sgt. Pepper mode... add touches of Beach Boys, U2, and Elliott Smith. Nathan Partain's lyrics reflect heavy spiritual questions, and he voices them through intriguing, cryptic lyrics and storytelling that is striking and raw. His voice reminds me at times of Elliott Smith and Joseph Arthur, but he's got more guts as a vocalist than either of them. (The second track "110" features some truly freaked-out "singing".) It is hard to describe this experimental, energetic, reckless record. The music is the brainchild... more like brainstorm ... of Partain and his guitarist/engineer Joel Garies. With help from Rick Jensen, they have mixed an album full of surprises. The mastering was done by Richard Dodd, who has mixed, mastered, produced, and played alongside such artists as Johnny Cash, Ashley Cleveland, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Maria McKee, Wilco, and many others. Put simply, the record rocks. It's one of the strongest things I've heard all year.

The band is just getting their operation up and running, but you can order the album via their website: http://www.peopleyoumeet.net. (The album's only $13.50, and that includes shipping.) You can be one of the first "in the know" on these guys.

7. Lucinda Williams.....World Without Tears

Combining the in-studio immediacy of Essence with a stronger focus and some of her most bold and poetic lyrics, Williams has here forged what sounds to me like the sharpest and strongest album of her career.

8. The Innocence Mission....Befriended

Befriended is a fleeting beauty, like a beautiful long poem. Don Peris’s pristine production here achieves the finest mix the band has ever enjoyed, giving Karen’s voice unprecedented clarity, sparsely arranging creatively choreographed guitars.

9. Joseph Arthur.....Redemption's Son
(technically a 2002 album, but wasn't available here until this year)

An album full of ambitious, inventive, ponderous songs that range from Nine Inch Nails-style rage rock to U2 anthems of the power of love. Joseph Arthur is a one-man show par excellence, with heavy spiritual questions on his mind that sometimes threaten to swamp the songs in angst. While he could use an editor, his big ideas are truly impressive. Here's hoping we hear a lot more from this guy.

10. Various Artists.....Crossing Jordan

Lousy t.v. show. GREAT collection.

I doubt there has been a better Various Artists album since O Brother, Where Art Thou. This one also happens to be produced by T-Bone Burnett as well, and features Sam Phillips, Richard Thompson, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams.

Others that never strayed far from my stereo this year:

Damien Jurado.....Where Shall You Take Me?
Sinead O'Connor.....She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High
Maria McKee.....High Dive
Gillian Welch.....Soul Journey
Elvis Costello.....North
Ryan Adams.....lloRnkcoR
Cat Power.....You are Free
Edie Brickell.....Volcano
Sting.....Sacred Love (except for that annoying single "Send Your Love")
Eels.....Shootenanny!
Bonnie "Prince" Billy.....Master and Everyone
Nathan Ryan.....Vincible
The Postal Service.....Give Up
Lost Dogs.....Nazarene Crying Towel
Steve Malkmus and the Jicks.....Pig Lib
Minus 5.....Down with Wilco


Overstreet's Favorite Recordings: 2002

yhf1. Wilco.....Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Its like the sound of experienced explorers setting foot on a new musical continent. Wilco's restlessness has found them territory all their own. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the bravest and most creative record of the year. (You can learn all about how it came about by seeking out the new documentary titled I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.) Working back through their catalog, you'll hear new ideas rattling around in their reckless mix of country, grunge, folk, and blues. This is the sound that was taking root, and now it has burst into bloom. Here, Wilco peppers their carefully developed homemade folk-rock sound with electronics, creating a dissonant and emotional language of depression, confusion, and longing. It's a story told over a cycle of songs: the singer looks back, nostalgic for innocence; it looks around at the heartbreaking present and the singer admits responsibility; and then it looks forward, with renewed conviction and hope. Jeff Tweedy creates an engaging lead character who breaks a heart, regrets it, wishes he could take it back, and learns to admit his mistakes. The more familiar you become with Tweedy's whiskey-sour-and-cigarettes voice, the more beautiful it seems.

zzz-bsc2. Beck.....Sea Change

Sea Change is a gorgeous, sprawling album of heavy-hearted introspection. I think it's Beck's finest album and, as is so often the case, it comes out of a time of heartbreak and trouble. This recording may as well be dubbed the first album of a daring duo: Beck and Radiohead's producer Nigel Godrich. Godrich seems liberated by the slow, sparse arrangements of these heartbreak narratives, so that Beck's lyrics creak and groan like a battered ship at sea. And the sea... the sea is an ocean of strings more overpowering than on any rock record I can remember. Beck doesn't suggest anything beyond the merest hope of healing for his broken heart. But art is not required to give us the whole picture. If it gives us part of the picture as fully and honestly as possible, we should be able to fill in the rest. The music, while sad, is beautiful, and proof enough that all things work together for good.

zzz-tomwaits3. Tom Waits.....Alice

Alice is a surreal journey through a wonderland full of freaks and frights. The songs come from a play for which Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan composed music in 1994. The play follows the strange relationship between Lewis Carroll and the "Alice" of Through the Looking Glass, and thus there are references to obsession, madness, dreams, and the reflective surfaces of glass and ice throughout.

The singer's surreal and suicidal groans are painful because they are so beautiful: "But I must be insane/To go on skating on your name/And by tracing it twice I feel through the ice/Of Alice..."

4. Elvis Costello....When I Was Cruel

Costello's many styles and explorations seem to fuse here into a fascinating hybrid. He's calling it his return to rock, but straightforward rock only occurs in occasional bursts on this release. "45", "Dissolve", and "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" certainly recall the rowdy noise of early Elvis C., but others like "15 Petals" and "Spooky Girlfriend" demonstrate he can dip into other genres and sound like a seasoned professional. (Would you believe "Spooky Girlfriend" doesn't just sound like a Destiny's Child single? Yet, it lyrically lampoons the superficiality of the songs those girl-pop groups usually.sing.) Lyrically, these songs emphasize the sad burden of wisdom that comes with age. It's interesting to hear a middle-aged rock star singing with more passion and energy than the youngsters.

5. Sixpence None the Richer.....Divine Discontent

While it fails to show the band moving into new areas, this is another solidly built, shiny pop album, heavy with spiritual questions, disillusionment, struggle, and determined hope. Matt Slocum writes heavy lyrics. Few songwriters use pop and rock as a vehicle for prayer the way he does; he stands under the banner of contemporary psalmists alongside Bono, Bruce Cockburn, Julie Miller, and Linford Detweiler, to name a few. His somber psalms sting because they are delivered by the light, airy voice of Leigh Nash. Nash sounds like the kind of singer whose agents would advise her to spend her short career on frivolous pop ditties; instead, she brings qualities of vulnerability and humility to her expressions of grandiose spiritual themes. To borrow a phrase: It’s a voice “like a bloom that pushes up through stony ground.”

6. David Bowie.....Heathen

Another old-timer. Hey, these guys were at their peak of popularity before I was teenager. While their popularity may have declined, their material has not necessarily peaked. Here, Bowie revisits old sounds, mixes them with new ones, and fuses it all into an expression of spiritual discontent. It's fun, funny, sad, soul-searching, whimsical, angry, and even hopeful. He may not have made his peace with God, but he still believes enough to argue, and that makes for a compelling listen.

7. Lauryn Hill.....MTV 2.0 Unplugged

This isn't so much a great album of music as it is a great recording of one person's spiritual epiphany. When the Grammy-winning Lauryn Hill disappeared for two years, there were rumors of some kind of breakdown. The opposite was true. From her testimonies between songs on the MTV Unplugged stage, Hill recounts her awakening to Scripture and to God's love. When you see the truth as fully as she has encountered it, lies are shown up as repulsive, and she shakes off the trappings of celebrity here with a passion. Then the songs, rough, raw outpourings of emotion, anger, prophecy, and ecstasy, reveal a woman in intimate dialogue with her Lord. While they may not be carefully crafted art just yet, they are the sounds of a new voice and a new beginning. Like the sounds from rusted pipes after a long winter, they are the vibrations and quakes signifying clear water is soon on the way. An astonishing record.

8. Linda Thompson.....Fashionably Late

Linda Thompson returns to the spotlight after a near 20-year absence. Having worked through her vocal difficulties, she now sings with a cold, clear beauty, like a traveler who has suffered many storms and learned the difference between lies and the truth. Many of these songs speak of disillusionment with various love affairs, but she writes these characters as humble enough to see the error of their own ways as well as the ways of those who did them wrong. This brings a quality of honesty and experience to the writing. The harmonies with her son Teddy and with folk singer Kate Rusby are thrilling, and the instrumentation as precise, spare, and lush as last year's masterful Fan Dance from Sam Phillips.

9. Tanya Donelly.....Beautysleep

Another triumphant comeback. Tanya rediscovers some of the creative genius she displayed in her early days with Belly. She brings wit, world-weary wisdom, and passion to her vocals and her lyrics in an album more focused on the joys and mysteries of motherhood than even Sinead O'Connor's Universal Mother. (You won't find many rock records that will even raise the issue.) These songs are testaments of survival, perhaps a little too enamored of the singer's own self-reliance. But it's great to hear her sounding hopeful and excited again. Best of all, the creative potentail Donnelly teased us with in Belly's brillian debut Star is bursting out all over this stormy album.

10. (tie) U2: The Best of 1990-2000 /
Coldplay.....A Rush of Blood to the Head

The reigning kings of rock-and-roll released something more than a "best-of" this year. This stands as a chronicle of the band's reinvention, their self-effacing parody of rock stardom, and their triumphant return to hopeful anthemic rock just when the world needed them the most. But it also works as a standalone album, featuring new and improved versions of some of their best works. The biggest highlights are a glorious new version of "Gone", an edgier and more amusing take on "Numb", and two new songs that hold their own among these tried-and-true hits: "Electrical Storm" and "The Hands that Built America." Complaints? How could a "best-of" fail to include "Elevation", "Please", "The Fly", and "Love is Blindness"? Oh well, that's just quibbling. This is a great addition, and it comes with a collection of rarities and B-sides. This supplemental disc is a hit-and-miss affair, but it boasts some real gems, especially "Your Blue Room" from the Passengers album and the underrated "North and South of the River."

As if applying to be a U2 for the Next Decade, Coldplay released an unapologetically hook-heavy album of carefully crafted arena rock. While their songs are sometimes annoyingly simplistic and rendundant, the vocals soar and the lyrics, while a bit sophomoric, are full of hope and gospel inspiration. They're still looking for their own unique sound; there are too many echoes of U2 and Oasis here, but it's exciting to watch them grow.

11. Bruce Springsteen.....The Rising / Peter Gabriel.....Up

Two albums that deal with loss and grieving. One is musically richer and more rewarding than almost any other album this year, but the lyrics are mired in near-despair, and what few gestures of hope are offered are rather empty and vague. The other is musically forumulaic and familiar, but lyrically it stands as a collection of soul-searching poems in which the writer gives voices to those who suffered personal loss in the recent terrorist attacks. Peter Gabriel's Up is at once a thrilling musical journey and a severe disappointment -- lyrically -- for this longtime Peter Gabriel fan. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, has never done much that excited or interested me, but this year his lyrics were like psalms during a dark time, and the familiar Springsteen rock-and-roll felt rather reassuring.

Others that never strayed far from my stereo this year:

Buddy Miller.....Midnight and Lonesome
The Flaming Lips.....Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Tom Waits.....Blood Money
Spiritualized.....Let It Come Down
Pedro the Lion.....Control
Michelle Shocked.....Deep Natural
Steve Earle.....Sidetracks
Neil Young.....Are You Passionate?
Ed Harcourt.....Here Be Monsters
The Eels.....Souljacker
Beth Orton.....Daybreaker
Peter Gabriel.....The Long Walk Home (Soundtrack to Rabbit-Proof Fence)