R, 1987, 104 minutes, Vestron Video, $89.98.
More than any of the other films to come out about Vietnam, "Hamburger Hill" wants to be a memorial to our experience there -- a cinematic headstone. Written by John Carabatsos, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 and spent five years interviewing soldiers involved in combat there, it focuses on 14 members of a combat squad, who on May 10, 1969, began what has been characterized as one of the bloodiest battles of the war. But the movie isn't just about the taking of Hill 937, which came to be known as Hamburger Hill. The battle, as it was fought over 10 grueling days, is for Carabatsos and director John Irvin a microcosmic view of the war -- and of war itself. But the filmmakers don't attempt to enlarge on the details, or to view the action metaphorically, as "Platoon" did. Their film sticks to the specifics, with the soldiers clawing their way up that hill. And to the extent that it restricts its vision to that of the soldier, it presents (at least to someone who wasn't there) a powerful representation of the fighting. They can't leave it at that, though. Often, the movie lapses into hawkish, macho posturing. Carabatsos and his collaborators seem to feel compelled not only to show us his war, but also to tell us how we're to think about it as well. The movie gets the tensions and divisions and the black-white antipathy within the squad down very well. The cast, too, is first rate. And the war imagery rivals the battle sequences in "Paths of Glory" or Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron." Had the filmmakers resisted the temptation to politicize their material, they might have fashioned a fitting memorial. As it is, there's still a kind of greatness in it. It takes a real chunk out of you. -- Hal Hinson
CELEBRATING BIRD: THE TRIUMPH OF CHARLIE PARKER
1987, 58 minutes, Sony Video Software, $29.95.
Written and codirected by Gary Giddins, this is the best jazz video to date. Charlie Parker, also known as Yardbird, or most commonly Bird, was, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, one of the idiom's greatest innovators. But while countless hours of his playing are commited to tape, only a few minutes of film are available. That footage is revealingly included here, along with some deftly integrated photos and film of his peers and interviews with associates. What emerges is a sympathetic portrait of a magnetic presence who dedicated his life to music and developed a stunning new style that would change jazz entirely. Giddins traces Parker's development from the fertile Kansas City scene in the '30s to his stints in the bands of Jay McShann, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine and ultimately to New York, where he pioneered modern jazz in that city's bebop clubs. With a horrendous heroin addiction and subsequent alcoholism, Parker clumsily straddled the thin line between burning and burning out, his increasingly erratic behavior barely offset by his brilliant invention. Still, early on one senses the joy of a brave new music in Parker's eyes. This brilliant film burns his totality into the consciousness just like a classic Parker solo. -- Richard Harrington
SURF NAZIS MUST DIE R, 1987, Media Home Entertainment, $79.95.
While a failed bad movie may indeed be more fun than a failed good one, there have to be limits, and "Surf Nazis" is a couple of leagues below where the line should be drawn. Troma Inc., the scrappy trash-slingers who produced funny, microbudget, twilight-zoned gross-outs like "The Toxic Avenger" and "Class of Nuke 'Em High," unfortunately allowed director Peter George to go artsy on them. George made this tale of a latter-day Adolf and his rank Reich of postearthquake surf troopers both insufferable and incomprehensible. It is also that rarity of rarities in modern cinema, insufficiently violent. "You can't rush art," a sculptor says in the prologue; you can't fake camp, either. Not so bad it's good, just so bad it's ugh, "Surf Nazis Must Die" wastes an awfully good movie title. Also about 400 feet of videotape. -- Tom Shales
MATEWAN PG-13, 1987, 100 minutes, Lorimar Home Video, $79.98.
John Sayles, the indefatigable patron of good causes, writes, directs and plays a preacher in this mine workers drama, a coal-dusted tragedy riddled with labor union rhetoric. Based on a 1920 shoot-out between oppressed West Virginia miners and company goons, Sayles structures his story as an old-fashioned Western, depicting his characters in the simplest of terms: black and white hats. Shot in bleak, bituminous blues and set to the ballads of the hills, it captures the countryside and the ancient, echoing spell of the worn-down Appalachians. It serves as a portrait of the people, with their ruined faces and their odd, isolated English. But it doesn't (and it ought to) conjure the dark danger of digging for dirty ore, bent double and buried alive. Instead, it dramatizes a life-or-death strike, the making of a local union and the miners as incipient union men. Chris Cooper brings a sweet saintliness to his role as the union organizer who unites the black, immigrant Italian and Appalachian miners, and James Earl Jones is most eloquent as the ragged, immensely practical leader of the black miners. When they all strike as one, company goons evict them from company-owned houses and keep them from purchasing food at the company store. It is a tragic tale that unfortunately wavers between well-acted propaganda and historical burlesque. Like the well-meant "Silkwood," it will appeal mostly to those who've already paid their dues. -- Rita Kempley
SPACEBALLS PG, 1987, 97 minutes, MGM-UA, $89.85.
Off the cuff, Mel Brooks is one of the world's funniest talkers -- a spritz artist par excellence. Alone or paired with his favorite partner, Carl Reiner, he's a legendary improviser, dinner-party entertainer, talk-show guest. I'm guessing his lunches are masterpieces. And if he could talk his movies, they probably would be, too. Unfortunately, he has to shoot them like everybody else, and therein lies the rub. A pre'cis of the plot here isn't really going to help us much. Suffice it to say that there is a passel of jokes, bits, shticks, gags -- one coming roughly every 20 seconds -- made at the expense of "Alien," the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" movies, and whatever else might fall under the rubric of science fiction. What you wish after seeing this thing is that our Mr. Brooks would fall under a rubric himself. The jokes are all in pretty much the same vein -- we might call it borsch-belt postmodern -- and they're all on pretty much the same level, too. The movie isn't aggressively, raucously unfunny like, say, "Blind Date" or "Outrageous Fortune." Starring John Candy, Rick Moranis and, as a greenish, gnomish, yiddish-ish little sage named Yogurt, Brooks himself, it looks like a much less fussed-over, lower priority affair, like a production in some backwater dinner theater. Yogurt's catch phrase, and the movie's, is, "May the Schwartz be with you." And for this you hire writers? -- Hal Hinson