CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Poltergeist (Grade: B+)
U.S.; Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg (unc.), 1982, Warner Home Video
Horror and haunted houses in the television age: This Steven Spielberg-Tobe Hooper suburban blood-freezer is about an all-American white-bread family bedeviled by the demons in their TV set. It's like The Exorcist reimagined in a Father Knows Best>-The Brady Bunch sitcom world; Dad and Mom (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) watch terror-stricken as darling youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) is whisked away by evil, evil channel-surfing meanies. ("They're heeeere!")
Blood and gore specialist Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Spielberg (who wrote, produced and, some say, directed Hooper as well) bring such daffy intensity and bone-chilling conviction to this modern ghost story that, familiar as the twists may be, it grabs you. Despite two dreadful sequels, it's still one of the most effective pop-horror movies of the '80s. (Interestingly, the release of Poltergeist almost coincided with that of another, more benign 1982 Spielberg look at children and otherworldly creatures, the mega-hit E.T.)
Mala Noche (B+)
U.S.; Gus Van Sant, 1995-97, Criterion Collection
Director-writer Gus Van Sant's feature debut and a key work of the American film underground, Mala Noche is a love story about a gay Portland, Ore. convenience store clerk, Walt Curtis (Tim Streeter) who falls for a sexy but unreceptive illegal Mexican alien, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). It's a classic saga of burning, unrequited love, here set in a seedy, realistic, modern urban word, rendered in poetic black-and-white images that recall Stan Brakhage's shorts and the best '60s-'70s road movies. The source is a semi-autobiographical novel by co-scenarist Walt Curtis himself; the author's treatment of his own obsessive, self-abasing passion for the oblivious Johnny is pitiless.
As for Van Sant -- whose later work ranged from near-mainstream Damon-and-Affleck Hollywood (Good Will Hunting) to Bela Tarr-ish long-take art filmery (Elephant) --- he's never been more heart-on-sleeve either. Mala Noche is among his best.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The War (A)
U.S.; Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, HBO/Paramount
I promised to let this film stand alone in this category last week, and I'm glad to revisit it. This flawlessly humane portrayal of World War II and its impact on four American towns -- Waterbury, Conn.; Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala., and Sacramento, Calif. -- is done with the whole-hearted compassionate grace that also marked the series that made Burns famous, The Civil War.
Burns brings us warmingly close to the soldiers and the people they left behind, shows us how war is not just a matter of world leaders, generals and grand strategies, but of single men (and women) standing beside each other, suffering, struggling, persevering.
You would think that the appearance of a clear-eyed celebration of the national and personal sacrifices it took to defeat international fascism might become easy tools for cheerleaders for the Iraq war. But Burns and Novick prove how different the two wars were. The fact that the Iraq conflict has now lasted longer than America's involvement in World War II seems more and more absurd.
The editing of The War (headed by Paul Barnes) is classic and fine. So is Burns' haunting use of background music: the original score by Wynton Marsalis and the plaintive song "American Anthem" by Gene Scheer, sung by Norah Jones, but most of all, the bouncy, tuneful period big band jazz and vocals supplied by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and a host of others. Burns has become a master at this kind of storytelling, and there's no doubt that The War tells one of the great stories of the year -- and of the last century.
Extras: Commentary by Burns and Novick, Featurette, deleted scenes, additional interviews, biographies, photo gallery.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Reign Over Me (B-)
U.S.; Mike Binder, 2007, Sony
Adam Sandler in a surprising heavy dramatic role as New York eccentric Charlie Fineman, who cracks up after losing his family on 9/11. Don Cheadle is his ex-college roomie who gets drawn into Charlie's curious, loony, disengaged world. Moving but sometimes dramatically dubious. How come two ex-college roomies living in the same city haven't seen each other in ages? Yet writer-director (and supporting actor) Binder (The Upside of Anger) at least tries to give us a human contemporary story, which gets him some points.
28 Weeks Later (C+)
U.K./U.S.; Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007, 20th Century Fox
The sequel to Danny Boyle's hip zombie movie 28 Days Later has a different director and co-writer (Rowan Joffe), and less frenzied power, but some of the same chaos and dread. Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormack play a couple caught up in the ravages of the Rage virus, which decimated London, but now seems contained. But is it? Not as long as movie sequels exist.
Extras: Commentary by Fresnadillo and producer Enrique Lopez Levigne; deleted scenes with optional commentary; featurettes, animated storyboards, trailer.
28 Days Later (B)
U.K./U.S.; Danny Boyle, 2002, 20th Century Fox
The original modern zombie shocker from Boyle (Trainspotting) and writer Alex Garland (The Beach) looks better than when first reviewed it. Boyle can create a sense of wild unease as well as anyone, and this movie is soaked in it; loner Jim (prettyboy Cillian Murphy) wanders through a world of virus-stricken zombies and anxiety-drenched survivors. The notion: The apocalypse might be triggered not by nuclear weapons but disease and anger. The execution: hectic and riveting.
Extras: Commentary by Boyle and Garland; alternate endings, deleted scenes with commentary, featurette, music video, animated storyboard, trailer.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (B)
U.K./U.S.; Danny Boyle, 2002, Warner Home Video
Rod Serling's old Twilight Zone series, an imperishable dark gem of '60s TV, specialized in often-grim, sometimes jocular morality tales dressed up with horror and sci-fi genre tricks. It was a great show, one of the best written and directed of its era, and this movie offers four of the old show's best episodes, done with bigger budgets and classy directors.
The best episodes are George Miller's retake on the one about the monster on the passenger plane wing (with John Lithgow freaking out in his seat) and Joe Dante's version of that fantastic tale "It's a Good Life" (where a little child leads us into hell). Weaker, but okay are the other two: Landis' anti-bigotry episode has a bad back-story (star Vic Morrow and the kids died in an accident before the cameras) and Spielberg's anti-ageism "Kick the Can" is a little treacly. The opening intro scene with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, directed by Landis, has some wicked laughs.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (B-)
U.S.; Wallace Worsley, 1923, Image
This silent-movie adaptation of the ultra-romantic Victor Hugo novel -- about twisted, misshapen Notre Dame bell-ringer Quasimodo and his consuming love for the persecuted gypsy beauty Esmeralda -- is a little overrated. But Chaney's Quasimodo is a triumph of makeup and performance; he turns himself into a living, breathing, hopping, anguished gargoyle. (Silent with music track.)
NEWLY RELEASED BOX SETS
Fox Horror Classics (Overall rating: B)
U.S.; John Brahm, 1942-45, 20th Century Fox
Three genre horror movies, two of them full-blown film noirs, all directed by the solid, stylish German émigré John (nee Hans) Brahm -- who later directed some of the better TV episodes for Twilight Zone, as well as The Outer Limits, The Defenders and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Brahm is the kind of dependable studio movie specialist that late-night TV addicts love; they know he'll get the most possible out of any project, even when descending to the level of Hot Rods to Hell (his worst). The Lodger and Hangover Square, the two noirs, both star that immortal, eloquent, shining-eyed heavy Laird Cregar, and both show both director, and actor, at their peaks.
The Undying Monster (B)
U.S.; Brahm, 1942
Werewolves roam again, in this snazzy shocker with James Ellison and Heather Angel.
The Lodger (B+)
U.S.; Brahm, 1944
Cregar as a possible Jack the Ripper; a memorable, mood-drenched remake of the Alfred Hitchcock silent, from Marie Belloc Lowndes' novel. With George Sanders and Merle Oberon.
Hangover Square (B+)
U.S.; Brahm, 1945
Terrific noir, with Cregar as an insane composer who goes bonkers at bad notes. With Sanders and Linda Darnell, and music by the nonpareil Bernard Herrmann. (No bad notes for him either.)
Extras: Commentaries by the ineffable Richard Schickel, noir guys Alain Silver and James Ursini, and others; vintage radio version of Hangover Square with Vincent Price, Featurettes, trailers.<./p>
Marple, Volume Three (Overall rating: B)
U.K., various directors, 2006, Acorn Home Media
Agatha Christie's wondrous spinster Miss Marple was her secondary sleuth ("little grey cells" master Hercule Poirot was first), but perhaps her more personal creation: a motherly, beaming English village biddy who could unravel any mystery, unmask any killer, spot any dark heart. Here, in these British TV versions of four Christie novels, Marple is played by that great stage-screen actress Geraldine McEwan (The Magdalene Sisters), who brings the right sweet surface and sharp mind to the role.
Two of these original novels (Towards Zero and Ordeal by Innocence, which was one of Christie's personal favorites) were not Marple vehicles, but she fits in well. The excellent supporting casts include Juliet Stevenson, Francesca Annis, Eileen Atkins, Greg Wise and Richard E. Grant. All of them are classic British country manor murder mysteries from the lady writer (and lady detective) who did them best.
U.K.; David Grindley, 2006
U.K.; Nicholas Winding Refn, 2007
At Bertram's Hotel
U.K.; Dan Zeff, 2007
Ordeal by Innocence
U.K.; Moira Armstrong, 2007
Extras: Christie bio, photo galleries, filmographies.
Discovering Cinema (Overall rating: B)
France; Eric Lange & Serge Bromberg, 2003-4, Flicker Alley
Two valuable documentaries on the birth and development of sound and color in motion pictures, accompanied by lots of informative talking heads, archive footage and scads of old, precious clips. Movie-lovers label Flicker Alley has also added an excellent cargo of vintage extras, making the package a mini-cinematheque. (In English, French and Italian, with English subtitles.)
Learning to Talk (A Le Recherche du Son)
France; Lange & Bromberg, 2003
Movies Dream in Color (Un Reve en Couleur)
France; Lange & Bromberg, 2004
Extras: Vintage films and excerpts, including hand-painted Lumiere films, opera shorts with Enrico Caruso's voice, an 1927 interview with Arthur Conan Doyle, the first three-color Technicolor short La Cucaracha (U.S.; Robert Edmond Jones, 1934) and many others.