Planet Terror: Two-Disc Special Edition
(Alliance, 2007) D: Robert Rodriguez, w/ Rose McGowan, Freddie Rodríguez. Rating: NNNN ; DVD package: NNNN
Planet Terror is big fun in ways you'd never expect . In this quickie-cheapie designed to imitate the exploitation fare of decades gone by, zombies march, gore spills, cars crash, people fuck and fight, big guns go boom and everything blows up. With Rodriguez's unique humour and unrestrained imagination.
Genre jokes abound - check out all the totally unmotivated explosions. Rodriguez understands film as well as he understands genre, so even the fake scratches and jumps get used in creative ways.
The director's sense of play shows in his typically good commentary and extras, which offer useful insights for aspiring filmmakers. In particular, his approach to writing and casting says a lot about why the movie is so entertaining.
Rose McGowan and Freddie Rodríguez (no relation) have all the drive you could want as heroine and hero, but it's the other players who give the movie its flavour. Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn are perfect as brothers feuding over barbecue sauce.
Extras Disc one: director commentary, audience reaction track. Wide-screen. English, French audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: 10-minute film school; actresses, actors, casting his son, stunts, amateur actors docs. Wide-screen. English audio and subtitles.
The Jazz Singer: Three-Disc Deluxe Edition
(WB, 1927) D: Alan Crosland, w/ Al Jolson, Mary McAvoy. Rating: NNNN ; DVD package: NNNNN
The jazz singer wasn't really the first talking movie, but it was the first to be successful, convincing the industry to jump on the bandwagon. That gives it great historical importance, and Warner Brothers has done itself proud with a package full of historical extras.
Best among them is the disc of 10-minute excerpts of singers', instrumentalists' and comedians' vaudeville and club acts. This is the hot jazz the Roaring 20s bopped to, and it's high-energy, highly polished entertainment. Check out Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields for cool original arrangements, the frantic grooves of the Jazzmania Quintette and the bizarro humour of the Beau Brummels. George Burns and Gracie Allen are here, too.
Disc two has a solid documentary on the attempts to marry sound and film. It's a fascinating bit of movie history.
At the time, Al Jolson was the most popular entertainer in America. He's in almost every frame of the movie, and there's an accompanying short. It's easy to see why he was a star: he had the looks, the voice and the talent, and sold them for all he was worth.
Jolson worked in blackface. Whenever that comes up on screen, the commentators simply blow it off with, "That's the way things were". That's not really good enough. Check out Nick Tosches's book on Emmett Miller and minstrel music, Where Dead Voices Gather, or the booklet included in The Minstrel Man From Georgia, Columbia's fine set of Miller's records.
The movie itself is well shot and well acted. It's also so hugely sentimental that you may want to stock up on insulin. The restorations are good but far from perfect, so be prepared for scratches, fading and slightly tinny sound.
Extras Disc one: commentary, Jolson shorts, radio version with Jolson, 1938 parody cartoon. Full-frame, b&w. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: feature-length doc on movies' transition to sound, excerpts from 1929 Gold Diggers Of Broadway, studio shorts on early sound era. Full-frame, b&w and colour. No subtitles. Disc three: 24 sound shorts of vaudeville singers, musicians and comedians. Full-frame, b&w. No subtitles. Plus photo cards, 12- and 20-page program books, 16-page book of documents, Jolson telegram to Jack Warner.
A Mighty Heart
(Paramount, 2007) D: Michael Winterbottom, w/ Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman. Rating: NNNN ; DVD package: NNN
Even without Angelina Jolie's standout turn as a woman searching for her kidnapped husband in Karachi, this would be a terrific and highly unusual movie.
An Islamic militant group snatched Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl from the streets of Karachi in 2002 and subsequently murdered him. From their home, his wife, Mariane, ran her own investigation, cooperating with the Pakistani police and enlisting her husband's editor and U.S. government officials. The hunt was massive.
The movie delivers detailed information and involves us with 15 key characters, but most of the action takes place in the Karachi house. That Michael Winterbottom can make the story clear and suspenseful yet keep our focus on the characters is a remarkable feat of filmmaking.
In the detailed making-of doc, he, Jolie and the others talk about the value of letting scenes run and working as fluidly as possible. The quality of the performances and the overall tension bear them out.
But Winterbottom uses a few more conventional tricks to propel what might have become a dull homage to a remarkable woman. Everything is shot hand-held, and a throbbing score runs almost subliminally through most of the action. These devices, coupled with the terrifyingly chaotic scenes of Karachi, make this into a strong thriller as well as a good character study of a very determined woman.
Extras Making-of and Committee To Protect Journalists docs, Daniel Pearl Foundation public service announcement. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio and subtitles.
Transformers: Two-Disc Special Edition
(DreamWorks, 2007) D: Michael Bay, w/ Shia La Boeuf, Megan Fox. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NNN
The sole point here is big action sequences, so pay no attention to the shoddiness of plot, character and emotion, or to the fact that the movie wanders between hard action, teen comedy and kids' movie in a calculated bid to please everybody.
Shia La Boeuf and Megan Fox are likeable as the teens caught up in the giant robots' good-vs-evil battle, and Bay surrounds them with smart, funny character actors, notably John Turturro as the weaselly secret agent.
But the real stars are the robots, and they don't translate well to the small screen. In the extensive and detailed extras, director Michael Bay makes much of the CG work, but on the home screen it all seems a jumble of senselessly moving bits. Since the robots' personalities are what you'd expect from something designed to sell toys, their lack of definition will matter only to Transformers and CGI fans.
Extras Disc one: director commentary. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio and subtitles. Disc two: Four-part making-of, four part Transformers and desert attack sequence docs, concept art gallery. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, October 23
(Alliance Atlantis, 2007) Kevin Costner as a serial killer: proof positive that the serial killer is officially dead as a viable villain.
Home Of The Brave
(MGM, 2006) Irwin Winkler's Iraqi war actioner featuring Samuel L. Jackson.
O Lucky Man!
(WB, 1973) Two-disc edition of classic British deadpan satire from director Lindsay Anderson, starring Malcolm McDowell.
Mario Bava Box: Vol. 2
(Anchor Bay) Eight titles from Italy's horror master, including the original slasher flick, Bay Of Blood (1971), seldom-seen sexploitationer Four Times That Night (1972) and viking epic Erik The Conqueror (1961).
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb