LEONARD MALTIN'S MOVIE MEMORIES: SOUNDIES, VOL. 1-4
1990, average 55 minutes, BMG Video, $16.98 each.
Imagine: hot hits of the day performed (lip-synced) by popular artists, sometimes in storybook fashion, but usually in straight-ahead nightclub or concert settings! Well, back in the '40s, long before there was MTV, before there was even TV, there were Soundies, three-minute black-and-white films that played in visual jukeboxes at restaurants, nightclubs and hotel lobbies -- at a dime apiece! "Entertainment Tonight" movie authority Leonard Maltin has collected dozens of these Soundies on four volumes that are a cornucopia of memories -- of the big band era, movie musicals and a time when you actually could hum a melody. Just like MTV, Soundies ranged from novelty items to dramatic settings; usually shot on low budgets and tight schedules, they too resorted to choreography, pretty girls and silly plots.
Each volume has its own delights: Vol. 1, "The 1940s Music Machine" includes a very young Alan Ladd crooning "I Look at You" to Rita Rio and her All-Girl Orchestra, Frances Faye's weepy "I Ain't Got Nobody," the Mills Brothers' "Paper Doll" (with Dorothy Dandridge as the real live doll) and big band classics like Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" and Duke Ellington's "Hot Chocolate" (with some hot Lindy Hoppers), plus film debuts (some brief) by Doris Day, Ken Curtis, Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban and hilarious novelties like the Three Murtah Sisters' "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry." Vol. 2, "Singing Stars of the Swing Era," has plenty of great singers -- Anita O'Day (a lively "Thanks for the Boogie Ride" with Roy Eldridge and Gene Krupa's band), the Delta Rhythm Boys (a luxurious "A Train" ride), June Christy (beautiful and happy), Marilyn Maxwell (when she was still Marvel Maxwell) and a pre-Mickey Mouse Club Jimmy Dodd, along with more novelties like Nick Lucas's hilariously literal "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy Bones" is a lovely song, but reflects the casual racism and sexism of the era, as do a number of other Soundies.
Vol. 3, "Big Band Swing," has its period parodies -- Will Bradley's rural rubes in "Barnyard Bounce," Charlie Spivack's kilted band "Comin' Through the Rye," Tony Pastor's hayseed "Paradiddle Joe" and a south of some border "Pan Americonga" from Rio -- along with Ozzie Nelson explaining what a bandleader does on the giddy "Wave a Stick Blues," Cab Calloway swinging through "Foo, a Little Ballyhoo" and Count Basie inspiring some serious jitterbugging on "Air Mail Special."
Vol. 4, "Harlem Highlights," may be the best set, only because its cast is so stellar: Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong, Calloway, Nat King Cole, Maxine Sullivan (in an awful video), the Mills Brothers and Delta Rhythm Boys, among others. Bill Robinson does a tap number, "Let's Scuffle," while Katherine Dunham is seen in the Cuban-inspired choreography of "Cuban Episode." A teenage Dandridge is electrifying in "Cow Cow Boogie," and the vocal comedy team Day Dawn and Dusk offers a hilarious send-up of "Rigoletto" that concludes in Cab Calloway Land. Many of the melodies on these tapes have probably haunted your reveries, and both the sound and film quality are excellent. This is a classy era remembered in a classy way. -- Richard Harrington
ROBOCOP 2END NOTES
R, 1990, 117 minutes, closed-captioned, Orion Home Video, $94.98.
Set in the Detroit of the very near future, "RoboCop 2" is a brutal, cynically violent movie about a brutal, cynically violent civilization in decay. As savagely graphic as its predecessor but less skillful by half, the picture is about a time when all of our problems as a culture have ratcheted up a notch, when the city is bankrupt, its police force on strike, its streets a battleground ruled by a Messianic terrorist named Cain, who controls the production of a potent new designer drug called Nuke. Directed by Irvin Kershner, from a script by Walon Green and comic book revisionist Frank Miller, "RoboCop 2" shows signs that it might have been a heartlessly funny modern commentary, a witty satire that gave the conventional inner-city police-movie cliches a wicked spin. The original "RoboCop" was a savagely stylish comic book, but what made it so resonant was the primal plight of a man whose memories, whose humanity, was lost somewhere in the wiring. He was a kind of modern Frankenstein's monster, and a couple of early scenes in the sequel, again starring Peter Weller, indicate that the filmmakers are interested in exploring these themes. But the notion of the ghost of a man struggling to find himself inside the machine is little more than a ghost inside this mechanistic dumpster of a movie. For the most part, the filmmakers treat us to endless noisy shootouts, mutilation (there are even a couple of nifty surgery scenes) and runaway psychopathology. -- Hal Hinson
NUTCRACKER, THE MOTION PICTURE
G, 1986, 82 minutes, Kartes, $14.99.
With animal epics like "The Black Stallion" and "Never Cry Wolf" behind him, Carroll Ballard is more attuned to paws than pas de deux. Proof is "Nutcracker, the Motion Picture," in which the director gallops wildly through the classic as performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Here "The Waltz of the Flowers" looks less like dance than a stampede of tutus, the over-fancy camera work obscuring the choreography of Kent Stowell and wife Francia Russell. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I like to see a dancer's feet. And in a pas de deux, I like to see both of the dancers all the time, every bit of them -- the sculptural shapes their bodies make, the muscular nuance, the startling grace. Ballard and photographer Stephen Burum, however, crop off arms and legs to close in on the dancers' sternums and clavicles. They miss the pointe. And that's a shame because Maurice Sendak and Stowell have created a marvelously Freudian version of this often tritely told tale. Sendak, who both wrote the book and designed the marvelous sets, bases the story on E.T.A. Hoffman's original fairy tale, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." The music, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, is still Tchaikovsky, but look elsewhere for sugarplum fairies. This is the stuff of Bettelheim, the darker dreams of childhood explored: Clara's sexual awakening, the rivalry with her horrid little brother and the ambiguity of her relationship with her godfather, Herr Drosselmeier. Hugh Bigney has the dual role of the leering toymaker Drosselmeier and the exotic Pasha, master of Clara's fantasies. Thirteen-year-old Vanessa Sharp plays the adolescent Clara, while the elegant Patricia Barker dances the role, squired by swarthy Wade Walthall as the swashbuckling prince. Other versions on video include "The Nutcracker: A Fantasy on Ice," skated by Dorothy Hamill and Robin Cousins; "The Nutcracker Ballet," performed by the Royal Ballet of Covent Garden; "The Nutcracker," performed live at the Bolshoi Theater; and "The Nutcracker," choreographed and danced by Mikhail Baryshnikov. -- Rita Kempley