(Alliance, 2007) D: Adam Shankman, w/ Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
Don't be put off by John Travolta in a fat suit. This isn't stunt casting; it's a Hairspray tradition. Transvestite actor Divine originated the role in the 1988 John Waters movie, and Harvey Fierstein played the part on Broadway.
Travolta turns in a high-spirited comic performance that's perfectly in tune with the rest of the movie, which in turn is fully in tune with both Broadway and Waters.
Casting a newcomer as Tracy Turnblad, the teen who wins a spot on the local dance show and launches an integration campaign in 1962 Baltimore, is another Hairspray tradition: Rikki Lake in the original movie, Marissa Winokur on Broadway. Nikki Blonsky, in her first appearance anywhere, makes the role her own. She sings and dances like a veteran and pumps out enough energy to light a small city.
The rest of the cast keeps up with her through 24 song-and-dance numbers in just under two hours. Michelle Pfeiffer, the racist station manager, has a couple of standout numbers, one with Christopher Walken (Tracy's dad), who in turn has a wonderful romantic duet with Travolta.
Director/choreographer Adam Shankman thoroughly liberates the show from the stage, and he keeps it pitched to the energy of his star. Everything, even the camera, bops to the beat of witty music and lyrics that nicely catch the flavour of early 60s pop, advance the story and deliver the patented Waters sleaze.
The same energy and enthusiasm is all over the extensive extras, from Shankman and Blonsky's giddy commentary through the extensive history of Hairspray and its real-life roots to the feature-length making-of doc. The dance lessons rock. Pick up on the Camel Walk and you'll be the hit of the sock hop.
EXTRAS Disc one: Shankman and Blonsky commentary, producer commentary, select scene rehearsal footage, dance lessons. Wide-screen. English, French subtitles. Disc two: history of Hairspray, making-of docs, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, Spanish subtitles.
Live Free Or Die Hard
(Fox, 2007) D: Len Wiseman, w/ Bruce Willis, Justin Long. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNN
Bruce Willis's John Mcclane is older, tireder, crankier and more overtly homicidal than the last time we saw him (1995, Die Hard With A Vengeance). In short, he's more himself. That's a good thing. It keeps us rooting for Willis's everyman hero, and it provides an illusion of reality that anchors some of the finest, most unbelievable stunt work and studied destruction to come along in ages.
Director Len Wiseman, stepping up from his Underworld movies, retains the old Die Hard feel by shooting most of his action in cramped, confined spaces. At the same time, he brings something new to the party: this Die Hard is a road movie, and Wiseman whipsaws his camera wildly as McClane races from city to city trying to stop the last stage of a computer attack that's already paralyzed the eastern seaboard. The result is a delerious epic that keeps the focus nicely on the perils of McClane.
A thriller is only as good as its villain. Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) brings a smug superiority to his super-hacker and lets it crumble quietly from inside as McClane keeps getting closer. Much fun. As McClane's hacker sidekick, Justin Long could have been an annoyance, but his self-deprecating humour and low-key approach make him more than a mere plot functionary.
The unrated version beats the PG-13 one hands down: more blood, more swearing, more impact shots, more and louder bullet hits. Willis and Wiseman cover the reason for the cuts on their entertaining commentary, and Wiseman is eloquent on the subject of old-school effects versus CGI.
Disc two offers a decent 97-minute making-of doc that could have benefited from more detail in places. Die Hard may be the gold standard for action, but the James Bond people are miles ahead in explaining how it's done.
EXTRAS Disc one: Theatrical and unrated versions; Wiseman, Willis and editor Nicolas De Toth commentary. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio. English, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: 10-part making-of doc, Kevin Smith interviews Bruce Willis, Fox Legacy segment, music video. Wide-screen.
Sawdust And Tinsel
(Criterion, 1953) D: Ingmar Bergman, w/ Ake Grönberg, Harriet Andersson. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNN
As noted critic John Simon points out in his accompanying essay, Sawdust And Tinsel is Bergman's 13th movie but "the first that no other director could have made a masterpiece that encapsulates much that was to come."
No argument from me. The elements that Bergman worked with so successfully through his 57-year career are all present (except one - nobody worries about God) and fully functional.
The humiliation and betrayal of a broke circus owner (a brutish yet sympathetic Ake Grönberg) by the world at large, especially his young mistress (Harriet Andersson, alternately vulnerable and commanding) gives Bergman ample material with which to explore his ongoing interest in the horror of the human condition, the war of the sexes, the importance of close-ups and silence.
Bergman scholar Peter Cowie lays all this out in a hugely enthusiastic and detailed commentary that probes the film's relation to playwright August Strindberg, Bergman's ongoing themes, his private life, his career in film and theatre, German Expressionism, Russian silent film and much more.
Sawdust And Tinsel marked the first of Bergman's many collaborations with cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Criterion's fully restored print does full justice to Nykvist's play of light and shadow, which with Karl-Birger Blomdahl's stinging score does so much to give the film a timeless feel.
EXTRAS Bergman introduction, Bergman scholar Cowie commentary. Full-frame, b&w. Swedish audio. English subtitles. Simon essay, filmmaker Catherine Breillat outstanding personal essay.
Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse and Coda: Thirty Years Later
(Paramount, 1991, 2007) D: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola; Eleanor Coppola, w/ Francis Ford Coppola. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Francis Ford Coppola has directed some of the most important American movies of the past 30 years. The Godfather saga, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now are acknowledged classics. So it's a brilliant idea to examine his artistic development by double-billing Eleanor Coppola's account of the disastrous Apocalypse Now shoot, Hearts Of Darkness, with Coda, her making-of doc about her husband's latest feature, Youth Without Youth.
On Apocalypse Now, the artist is lost in the chaos, improvising more from desperation than creativity. By Youth Without Youth, improvisation and a commitment to personal film have become the way to go. Coppola and his actors, Tim Roth and Alexandra Maria Lara, have interesting things to say both about his method and his philosophical questions.
Eleanor and Francis's separate commentaries on Hearts Of Darkness reveal something of that film's own troubled production history: Coppola confesses to an immense fear of public embarrassment.
EXTRAS Hearts Of Darkness: Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola commentary. Full-frame. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Coda: Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, November 27
Jackie Chan's best movie since 1994's Legend Of Drunken Master mixes contemporary action comedy with tragic wire work fantasy.
Mr. Bean's Holiday
Rowan Atkinson's twitchy child-man wreaks havoc in France.
Surrealist master Luis Buñuel's tale of a reformatory escapee who destroys the pious family that shelters her.
(Anchor Bay, 1979)
Classic 70s paranoia, with Jeff Bridges riffing on the Kennedy assassination. From the novel by Richard (Manchurian Candidate) Condon.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb