THE AGATHA CHRISTIE MISS MARPLE MOVIE COLLECTION (1961-1964). Considering that audiences have had to endure seven Police Academy movies and 11 Friday the 13th entries, it seems especially cruel that only four movies starring the inimitable Margaret Rutherford as Jane Marple were produced in the early '60s. Rutherford was the perfect embodiment of Agatha Christie's senior citizen sleuth, and these four titles show off Rutherford's charms in the process of spinning four entertaining murder-mysteries. Murder, She Said (1961) finds Miss Marple posing as a maid in order to investigate strange occurrences at a country estate; Murder at the Gallop (1963) moves the action to an inn that also doubles as a horse ranch; Murder Ahoy (1964) finds our feisty heroine checking out a naval ship tainted by unexplained killings; and Murder Most Foul (1964) wraps up the franchise by placing Miss Marple in an acting troupe that's unwittingly harboring a murderer. Ron Goodwin's delightful music score (employed in all four films) is so memorable that even though I hadn't seen these movies since my mid-teens, I retained the ability to whistle the theme these past 25 years.
Along with this boxed set, Warner has taken the opportunity to release another Christie property: the second screen version of Ten Little Indians (1965). Inferior to the classic 1945 film adaptation (titled And Then There Were None) but superior to later versions in 1975 and 1989, this stab at Christie's brilliantly constructed scenario preserves the basic premise -- someone is methodically bumping off 10 strangers gathered at an isolated locale -- but moves the action from its island setting to a snowbound castle in the Alps. Hugh O'Brian, Stanley Holloway, Fabian and Shirley Eaton (best known as the ill-fated, gold-plated Bond babe in Goldfinger) are among the suspects -- and potential victims.
The only extras on these DVDs are theatrical trailers.
Miss Marple movies: ***
Ten Little Indians: ***
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (2005). One of the best films of 2005 earned six Academy Award nominations (including one for Best Picture) and -- contradicting the usual lies dribbled out of the mouth of right-wing nutjob Bill O'Reilly -- turned out to be a financial hit for Warner Independent Pictures (costing $7 million, it grossed $31 million). In his second stint as director (following the so-so Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Clooney (who also co-wrote and co-stars) looks at an inspiring moment in US history, when legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) did the unthinkable by standing up to Joe McCarthy, the junior Senator who was destroying lives left and right in his maniacal pursuit of Communist infiltrators. Clooney has his sights set, and the targets are all big game. Like All the President's Men, the movie celebrates journalistic integrity in the face of political corruption, and like Quiz Show, it shows how television, this marvelous invention that has the ability to educate millions of Americans simultaneously, has instead been dumbed down to placate the lowest common denominator (in the grand scheme of things, it didn't take long for Edward R. Murrow to be replaced by Trading Spouses). Comparisons to the insidious Bush Administration abound, and Clooney decries the lack of modern-day media heroes who could compare with Murrow. Extras on the DVD include audio commentary by Clooney and writer-producer Grant Heslov, a short making-of piece and the theatrical trailer. Yet considering all the archival material available from this time in both television history and political history, the lack of further illuminating extras is extremely disappointing.
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (2005). American animated features, even the best of them, are invariably bound by tradition and convention, but the movies of Hayao Miyazaki remain free from the shackles of conformity. His films are a sight for soaring eyes, ocular treats for moviegoers constantly on the prowl for new experiences and new sensations. His Academy Award-nominated latest is nowhere in the same league as his masterpiece, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, but the visuals more than carry the film. This tale of a teenage girl who turns to a handsome wizard to help her break a spell incorporates Miyazaki's recurring themes of courage, sacrifice and environmental awareness, yet the results are too scattershot to make any lasting impression. Still, glitches in storytelling and stunt casting (Billy Crystal is jarring as the voice of a wisecracking fire demon) cannot overshadow the wondrous sights that Miyazaki doles out for our approval. Extras in the two-disc DVD set include a short making-of piece, the entire film told in storyboards, and an enjoyable presentation of Miyazaki's visit to the Pixar animation studio. Along with Howl, Disney has also released a two-disc set of an earlier Miyazaki title, 1988's utterly charming My Neighbor Totoro.
RENT (2005). For all its energy, this film version of the Broadway smash never quite busts free, a problem that may rest more with the modern film industry's inexperience with musicals than with anything director Chris Columbus brings to the party. There hasn't been a great movie musical since Milos Forman's Hair back in 1979, and outer space has long since replaced the songbook as the filmmakers' avenue of choice for fanciful flights of expression and imagination. Given the current climate in Hollywood, I'm inclined to give Columbus a break, since his movie is easy to like and even easier to hum. Updating Puccini's 1896 opera La Boheme, Rent's late creator Jonathan Larson focuses on a group of bohemians trying to get by while living in New York's East Village. If it all sounds like Melrose Place on welfare, the story's defining characteristic is that half of its leading players are HIV-positive, lending an air of poignancy to the proceedings as the players belt out catchy tunes. Still, Hollywood producers looking to make money might want to give Broadway musicals a rest: In a 13-month stretch, Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera all failed to make back their production costs. Extras on the two-disc DVD include audio commentary by Columbus and his cast, a two-hour making-of documentary, and 10 minutes of deleted scenes.