Two-disc Special Edition (WB, 2005) D: Christopher Nolan, w/ Christian Bale, Liam Neeson. Rating: NNN
This is the best Batman movie ever. It's also the one that features the least Batman ever. Funny how that works. The caped crusader doesn't show up until nearly an hour in, and when he does, he's treated like the design element he is. That is, he looks iconic as hell, but when it's time for some action he disappears into director Christopher Nolan's (Memento) clever cutting style, so we get the impression of furious action without actually getting the action itself. This is partly because the suit makes movement nearly impossible, but more because Batman is basically a silly figure. He's not heroic not when you can't see the man for the suit. And he's not scary; no one who wears his underpants outside his pants can be.
I think Nolan knows this perfectly well. He's specific in the excellent making-of docs about wanting a more "realistic" Batman, and he devotes almost the first hour to the Bruce Wayne story, explaining everything the obsession, the bats, the gear in detail. He also, apparently, stole liberally from Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces for a surefire hero-building story structure.
It works reasonably well, but it's basically the Tim Burton version recycled through a different style and narrative details. The good guy and bad guy are mirror images of one another, which means we're only five movies away from the Burton version and the writers have already run out of material. Maybe Batman only has that one story in him. Maybe he's so thin and lifeless that he makes James Bond look like Hamlet.
The extensive extras on the two-disc edition add a lot, but they're hard to find. The menu is on the last page of the comics story. Highlight it with your down arrow.
Extras -- Disc one: DVD-ROM features. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: 10 making-of docs on script, production design, fights, stunts, car, costume, CGI, Batman history. English, French soundtracks.
Dawn Of The Dead
European Cut (Anchor Bay, 1978) D: George Romero, w/ David Emge, Gaylen Ross. Rating: NNN
George Romero is not a great director. At times he's barely competent. But he did have one great idea - the walking dead - and gave it his all. Animate corpses had shown up a few times before in movies, but they always had a motive, usually revenge, and they were few in number. In Romero, all the dead arise to eat the living for no apparent reason. Sheer nihilist terror. Under the gore, Romero is a satirist, targeting American consumer culture. Italian horror master Dario Argento, who was instrumental in the financing and is a much better director than Romero, figured the satire wouldn't play in Europe, so he did a recut. He chopped some humour and character bits and added a pounding new score by Italian goth metallists Goblin, who'd scored his international hit, Suspiria. The result, released as Zombi, is a tight thriller with lots of action and graphic gore.
In a lot of ways, the 2004 remake of Dawn is a better movie, more fluid, with better acting and effects. But the original carries a sense of danger and urgency the remake lacks. Maybe it's the difference between art and product, or maybe it's that Romero's weaknesses as a director dovetail with the uncertainty essential to a good horror movie the sense that anybody can die at any time.
There are at least six different versions of Dawn Of The Dead, and Anchor Bay has put out most of them, including this one. But till now it's only been available as part of a box set. A cast commentary has been added, but, like most actor commentaries, it's high on giggliness and low on information.
Extras -- Cast commentary, Argento bio, stills and posters galleries. Widescreen.
(Columbia, 2005) D: Nora Ephron, w/ Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell. Rating: NN
You can tell how desperate director Nora Ephron is on her commentary track. Not only does she drag in high-art names like Pirandello and Hockney, but she also explains three times, in nearly identical words, that this isn't Bewitched, it's an "homage" to Bewitched. Then she talks about the food. It doesn't help. The film's a desperate mess, determined to be as much like the original series as possible without actually being the series. So there's lots of series footage, and when that fails Ephron drags in series characters to move the plot along. It's only one of several ways they trash the film's reality to no discernible end.
Nicole Kidman flings herself about as though she were held together by slinky toys, exuding her considerable charm from every pore. You wish she had a better movie to do it in. She plays the real witch who gets a job playing a witch in a remake of the 60s sitcom about a witch. She falls for her co-star, played with inane insincerity by the always obnoxious Will Ferrell (Anchorman), which creates an eerie resonance with the original series. Everybody loved Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha; nobody cared about the clod who played Darren.
The extras are nothing to speak of, but Ephron's commentary offers interesting insights into a mind so lost in La-La Land that she thinks we'll recognize, and be amused by, her accurate representation of an actors' agent's wardrobe.
Extras -- Director commentary, electronic press kit disguised as a making-of doc, deleted scenes, pop-up trivia track, trivia game. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
Mad Hot Ballroom
(Paramount, 2005) D: Marilyn Agrelo. Rating: NN
The title's misleading. This is neither mad nor hot. Rather, it's a lightweight documentary that follows three ballroom dancing teams from New York public schools as they practise and compete for the city championship. Some win, some lose. There are tears and cheers. It's meant to be feel-good all the way, with some heavy-handed messages from voice-over adults, but something slightly different emerges. Superficially, it resembles a sports documentary. But sports docs feature aggression, pain and high emotion. Here, 10- and 11-year-olds are learning restraint, grace and cooperation, highly valuable social skills that seldom take centre stage in movies, perhaps because they're not very dramatic.
They're also training in the social aspects of sexuality, though everyone concerned seems to be oblivious to this aspect. This adds to the film's faint air of self-censorship and its propagandist feel. It's not enough to ruin it, but the film could have been so much more.
Extras -- Wide-screen. English captions.
Coming Tuesday, November 1
War Of The Worlds
(Paramount, 1953) Not the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise job. This one is by director Byron Haskin, with star Gene Barry, but big fun in its own way.
Star Wars III: Revenge Of The Sith
(Fox, 2005) The once bright fun factory flickers to its feeble finale.
The Perfect Man
(Universal, 2005) Hilary Duff, Heather Locklear and Chris Noth in a romantic comedy.
(Fox, 2004) Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting) comedy about a small boy and big money.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb