TERRY GROSS, host:
Our critic-at-large, John Powers, who often reviews new DVDs for us, has some recommendations of new releases on DVD and Blu-Ray that would make good holiday gifts or that you just might want to watch yourself over the holidays.
JOHN POWERS: You hear a lot of talk these days about how home video sales are being murdered by online streaming. Maybe so, but you wouldn't know it from all the people who ask me which new DVDs or Blu-rays they should give as holiday gifts. Although I try to tailor my replies to whoever I'm talking to - yes, I'm a boutique critic - my general rule is always the same: A good disc is one you can watch over and over, because it takes you into a whole new reality.
That's why I start by recommending "Sherlock Jr.," Buster Keaton's buoyant 1925 comedy in a gorgeous new version from Kino. Keaton plays a movie projectionist who steps into the film he's projecting and becomes the great detective Sherlock Jr. What follows is a triumph of visual imagination.
In the most amazing sequence, Keaton sits on the handlebars of a motorcycle and drives himself through Los Angeles as cars whiz around him and trains nearly flatten him. Each time I see it, I'm dazzled by how much more inventive comedy was back then, back when comedians had to be able to, you know, do funny things, rather than rely on digital effects or adolescent quips about sex.
Of course, you can't recommend Keaton without also recommending Charlie Chaplin, whose own 1936 classic "Modern Times" is just out from Criterion. Chaplin grew up poor and more than anyone in Hollywood history made movies on the side of those without money. Here his Little Tramp plays a factory worker who gets involved with the gamine Paulette Goddard. While the story is simple, "Modern Times" contains some of the great iconic sequences in film history -everything from the Tramp being literally sucked into the gears of a machine to the sublime poetry of Chaplin and Goddard roller-skating through a closed department store that's filled with the things they can't afford to buy.
There's far darker poetry at work in my next recommendation, "The Night of the Hunter," Charles Laughton's masterpiece, which in Criterion's new edition looks better than I've ever seen it. The story centers on two children, John and Pearl, whose mother marries a psychotic preacher, played with sinister charisma by Robert Mitchum. The preacher's true aim is getting his hands on the 10 grand their real father stole in a robbery.
And here he calls John a meddler for telling Pearl not to reveal where the money is hidden. By way of persuading her to talk, he pulls out his knife.
(Soundbite of movie, "Night of the Hunter")
Mr. ROBERT MITCHUM (Actor): (as Harry Powell) Want to see something cute? Now, lookee.
(Soundbite of knife opening)
Mr. MITCHUM: (as Harry Powell) How about that? This is what I use on meddlers. John might be a meddler. No, no. No, little lamb. Don't touch it. Don't touch my knife. That makes me mad. Makes me very, very mad. Now, just tell me, where is the money hidden?
Ms. SALLY JANE BRUCE (Actor): (as Pearl) But I swore, I promised John I wouldn't tell.
Mr. MITCHUM: (as Harry Powell) John doesn't matter. Can I get that through your head, you poor silly, disgusting little wretch?
POWERS: "Night of the Hunter" is about the battle between love and hate. Preacher famously has these words tattooed on his hands - and what makes this one of the greatest American movies is the way it uses talismanic imagery and haunting music to conjure up a child's-eye view of a world that's at once terrifying and magical. Certainly few screen characters are more wondrously benevolent than the kids' savior, a radiant old woman played by Lillian Gish. As loving as the preacher is hateful, she likes to quote the Bible's injunction: Beware of false prophets.
The cost of ignoring this warning is clear in A&E's remastered Blu-ray re-release of "The World at War," a 26-hour series that remains the best thing television has ever done on World War II. Made in the 1970s, this is documentary in the grand old style. You'll find no bogus re-creations, no flashy editing, no trendy Oxford historians walking around and preening for the camera. Instead, "The World at War" - with its well-written voice-over read by Laurence Olivier - actually tells you what happened in World War II.
And it does it with archival footage that takes your breath away. Cameramen were seemingly everywhere back then, and so we get to see how things happened -Nazi rallies more spookily surreal than anything in Harry Potter, Siberian soldiers skiing into battle, and radio announcers watching planes bombing ships and calling the action as if it were a prizefight. We also see a reality our government and media don't like us to see anymore - the actual cost of war, be it dead bodies or the boundless devastation of ordinary lives.
If any one man casts a shadow over "The World at War," it is, of course, Hitler, who used economic bad times to turn populist resentment into murderous dictatorship. Watching this great dictator in action reminds us to beware those who are eager to stoke political hatreds. You see, that's the thing about false prophets. There are always plenty to go around.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. There's a longer list of John's gift recommendations on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We have some good news to end our show with. Our producer John Myers and his wife Megan have a new baby boy. His name is Owen McClintock Myers. Congratulations. We're so happy for you.