Director Gus Van Sant made two films in 2003, and while I liked Gerry, a film in which Matt Damon and Casey Affleck got lost in a very realistic, slow-paced fashion in the desert, most critics threw their Pepsis at the screen. The reception was a little warmer for Elephant, a film inspired by the Columbine shootings. Van Sant filmed at a real Portland high school using unknown actors and mostly improvised dialogue. This results in a realistic mosaic of your typical high school day--until the first shots are fired. Van Sant has done a terrific editing job on Elephant, telling the story in non-chronological order, yet making it flow effortlessly. The performances, especially by Alex Frost as a student whose life is spared, are raw and powerful. The film doesn't strain to explain the actions of two boys who chose to cause so much pain and sorrow. It shows the devastating effect of their actions, without being so presumptuous as to guess why they performed them.
Special Features: While the short, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film is intriguing, that's all for this disc, with the exception of a few trailers. No commentaries.
Fans of the Universal Studio monsters of yesteryear: Start planning some days off from work, because this is one gigantic collection. Something in the neighborhood of $60 not only gets you the original Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolfman movies, but many of their sequels as well--14 movies in all. While most of them are fun viewings, the first two Frankenstein films by director James Whale remain the superior efforts. It's actually hard to believe that Bela Lugosi's Dracula and the original Frankenstein were made in the same year (1931). While the filmed Dracula looks in many ways like a historical record of a decent stage play, Frankenstein is a remarkable piece of art, full of moving cameras and adventurous angles. Whale also demonstrated a macabre sense of humor and a willingness to go the distance with the scares (the little girl at the lake sequence is terrifying). Getting to see The Wolfman for the first time in something like 20 years was a big treat, and seeing his showdown with Frankenstein is a major bonus. It's fun to study how each monster franchise shared actors, especially the great Dwight Frye's insane performances as both the deranged Dracula disciple Renfield, and Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant Fritz. At press time, I wasn't able to watch all of the films, but here are some grades for the ones I've seen. Dracula (1931): B; Frankenstein (1931): A; Bride of Frankenstein (1935): A+; Son of Frankenstein (1939): B-; The Wolfman (1941): B+; Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943): B.
Special Features: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolfman each get two-disc packages. They can be purchased separately, but getting the entire Legacy Collection saves some dough and gets you some pretty cool busts of the monsters' heads. Each monster gets plenty of documentaries and commentaries (The Dracula disc features a Spanish version of the film, and a version of the movie with a newly produced score by Phillip Glass). This is, without a doubt, one of the best current buys for DVD fans.
With this and the previous review as proof, now is an incredible time for box sets. For less than $50, you can get this five-disc, seven-movie set that includes some of the best efforts from the brothers Marx. When it comes to classic comedies, these guys were unmatched, and A Night at the Opera is one of their best. Groucho Marx is one of the great all-time wiseasses, and he's full tilt in this blistering treatment of high society. Opera, A Day at the Races and A Night in Casablanca get their own discs, with an additional two discs containing double features of Room Service and At the Circus, and Go West and The Big Store. Some of the other great Marx Brothers classics, such as Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, are available in single-disc DVDs from Image Entertainment, but they have not yet received treatment this grand. Movie Grades: A Night at the Opera (1935): A; A Day at the Races (1937): A-; Room Service (1938): B; At the Circus (1939): B+; Go West (1940): B; The Big Store (1941): B-; A Night in Casablanca (1946): B
Special Features: Warner Home Video is doing great with the vintage movies. Just as they did with their excellent The Treasure of the Sierra Madre offering, they stocked these discs with vintage shorts, cartoons and documentaries. Opera, Races and Casablanca get the lion's share of features, but the other films get respectful treatment as well. Leonard Maltin and "Marx Brothers Authority" Glenn Mitchell offer fun commentaries.