Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger

PICK OF THE WEEK THEFALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Genius Products): Producer Samuel Bronston’s1964 mega-epic has it all – spectacle, stars and some of the biggestsets ever constructed – but that didn’t prevent it from being abox-office disaster and derailing Bronston’s career. Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying… but Empire falls with a thud. Thebasic framework of the story is similar to that of Gladiator nearly 35years later, with Stephen Boyd portraying Livius, a heroic warriorcaught up in the political intrigue and moral decline that wouldeventually bring Rome to ruin. At the heart of thisgrand-scale intrigue, directed by Anthony Mann, is a standard romancebetween Livius and Lucilla (Sophia Loren), the daughter of the emperorMarcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness). Upon the death – murder, actually – ofthe ailing emperor, his son Commodus (a preening Christopher Plummer)assumes power, but his cynicism and avarice only hasten the empire’sdownfall, and put both Livius and Lucilla in harm’s way. Also onhand for this big-budget toga party are Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle,John Ireland, Mel Ferrer and the great James Mason. Some of the actorsdisappear for long stretches at a time, only to suddenly reappear – andthen usually get killed off before too long. It’s nice having themaround, but the immensity of the film tends to dwarf the characters -and the story. Dimitri Tiomkin’s bombastic score earned thefilm’s only Academy Award nomination. Given the sheer scope andpageantry, The Fall of the Roman Empire is an easy film to marvel at,but engaging the emotions is not so easy a task. The film is availablein both two- and three-DVD special editions, the latter also containingthe educational films produced by Encyclopedia Britannica using thefilm’s sets. **’ ALSO ON DVD ALIEN AGENT (AlluminationFilmWorks): Mark Dacascos stars in this stunt-happy, sci-fishoot-’em-up as an alien emissary trying to prevent – what else? – thedecimation of the human race by less-benevolent members of his race.This feels like a potential TV pilot. Billy Zane is wasted as theprincipal bad guy, although he does utter the line “This can’t behappening” with a straight face. Amelia Cooke, Emma Lahana and KimCoates are also on hand. Rated R. *’ THE APARTMENT (MGM HomeEntertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Billy Wilder’swise, witty (and very grown-up) 1960 comedy/drama stars Jack Lemmon asan ambitious young executive who loans his apartment out forco-workers’ romantic assignations – until he falls for the mistress(Shirley MacLaine) of his own boss (Fred MacMurray). This won AcademyAwards for best picture, director, original screenplay (Wilder and IALDiamond), art direction/set decoration (black and white) and editing,with additional nominations for actor (Lemmon), actress (MacLaine),supporting actor (Jack Kruschen), cinematography (black and white) andsound. ***’ “BOSTON CELTICS 1985-’86 NBA CHAMPIONS” (WarnerHome Video): With the NBA playoffs upon us, here’s a seven-disccollector’s set commemorating the Celtics’ championship run of twodecades ago, in which Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and BillWalton brought Boston’s 16th world title home. This boxed set retailsfor $49.98. CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (Universal Studios HomeEntertainment): Tom Hanks plays the title role in director MikeNichols’ fact-based political satire, that of the real-life Texascongressman (known as “Good Time Charlie”) who worked – often below theradar – to supply Afghanistan with American-made arms during the Sovietinvasion of the 1980s. A smart and relevant adaptation of GeorgeCrile’s best-seller, with good performances down the line: JuliaRoberts, Ned Beatty, Amy Adams and especially Philip Seymour Hoffman,who scored an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor as a maverickCIA agent on Charlie’s team. Rated R. *** CLOVERFIELD (ParamountHome Entertainment): New York City is laid waste by a giant monster,and the only people around to record it are a group of one-dimensionalpartygoers with a digital camera. This over-hyped sci-fi blow-outstretches its Blair Witch-type gimmick as far as it can go – and thensome. The DVD includes alternate endings, director’s commentary,deleted scenes and the like. Rated PG-13. ** DON’T GO IN THEWOODS (… ALONE!) (Code Red DVD/BCI Eclipse): High in the mountains ofUtah, unwary campers and hikers fall prey to a drooling, deranged,machete-wielding maniac (Tom Drury) in this cheap, cheesy, occasionallytongue-in-cheek 1981 slasher flick, here making its DVD debut as a25th-anniversary special edition. (Obviously, it took its time gettinghere.) Leading lady Mary Gail Artz’s never acted in another film, butis now a leading casting director. H. Kingsley Thurber’s weird score(his last to date) is augmented by a hilarious theme song. This fallsinto the “so-bad-it’s-good” category. Rated R. *’ HELLO, MARYLOU: PROM NIGHT II (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox HomeEntertainment): With the remake of Prom Night currently in theaters,here’s the first of the sequels – released in 1987 – in which WendyLyon plays a high-school student possessed by the murderous spirit offormer prom queen Mary Lou (Lisa Schrage), killed in a tragic accidentyears before on prom night (when else?). The most amazing thing aboutthis film is that it’s quite enjoyable, with a well-developed sense ofhumor. All around, this may be the best Prom Night movie of all.Reliable Michael Ironside plays the principal with a past. Back incollege, I saw this in Philadelphia on opening weekend and the crowdwent nuts. Rated R. *** JUDGES (Anthem Pictures): With adefinite nod to Robert Rodriguez’ “El Mariachi” series,writer/producer/director Stephen Patrick Walker’s feature debut is acomic-book spaghetti Western featuring DJ Perry (as a co-producer) as agrizzled hero battling bad guys. Slow pacing hurts, but its heart’s inthe right place. According to the internet, a sequel’s on the way. ** “KEYSHIACOLE: THE WAY IT IS” – THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (BET HomeEntertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment): All six episodes fromBET’s reality series focusing on the professional and personal life ofrecording artist Keyshia Cole. This DVD, which retails for $19.99, alsoincludes deleted scenes, interviews and a featurette. “LEGENDSOF HOLLYWOOD – BOB HOPE” (BCI): A selection of 10 screen comediesshowcasing the one and only Bob Hope (1903-2003): Teamed with BingCrosby and Dorothy Lamour in 1947’s Road to Rio (which earned an Oscarnomination for best musical score) and 1952’s Road to Bali; reunitedwith Lamour for My Favorite Brunette (1947); opposite Rhonda Fleming inThe Great Lover (1949); playing the title role in the Damon Runyonadaptation The Lemon Drop Kid (1951); opposite Jane Russell and RoyRogers in Son of Paleface (1952), which earned an Oscar nomination forbest song (“Am I in Love”); as the real-life vaudevillian Eddie Foy inThe Seven Little Foys (1955), which earned an Oscar nomination for beststory & screenplay; opposite the legendary French comedianFernandel in Paris Holiday (1958), for which Hope penned the story;opposite Phyllis Diller and Gina Lollobrigida in Frank Tashlin’s WorldWar II comedy The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell (1968); and teamedwith Jackie Gleason in the 1969 generation-gap comedy How to CommitMarriage. Some of these films are in the public domain, but four filmsin this collection have been newly remastered. This boxed set retailsfor $14.98. “MAXIMUM ACTION 10 MOVIE SET” (BCI): A boxed set oflow-budget action films released by Crown International Pictures: Hellon Wheels (1967) starring John Ashley and Marty Robbins (as himself);Glenn Ford in the title role of director Gary Nelson’s 1973 WesternSantee; the low-rent kung-fu farrago Death Machines (1976); SteveKanaly, Karen Carlson and Sonny Landham in Fleshburn (1984), based on aBrian Garfield novel; Killpoint (1984) – which I saw in the theater andis pretty bad – starring Leo Fong, Stack Pierce, the great RichardRoundtree and a hilariously hammy Cameron Mitchell (yelling about hisdog messing the carpet); Sho Kosugi, along with sons Shane and Kane, inwriter/director Emmett Alston’s self-explanatory Nine Deaths of theNinja (1985); Fong, Mitchell and Pierce, along with by Troy Donahue andAkosua Busia, in the dreadful Low Blow (1986) the low-impact,low-interest 1986 spy thriller The Patriot, starring Gregg Henry,Michael J. Pollard, Simone Griffeth, Jeff Conaway and Leslie Nielsen;writer/director William Riead’s 1986 martial-arts melodrama Scorpion,featuring Don Murray and John Anderson; and The Silencer (1992), withChris Mulkey and Morton Downey Jr. Most of these films are rated R.This boxed set retails for $19.98. ONE MISSED CALL (Warner HomeVideo): Shannyn Sossamon starts getting fatal phone calls in this dull,dim-witted, “Americanized” remake of the Asian shocker Chakushin Ari.Ed Burns plays the cop on the case (none too comfortably), and only RayWise’s cameo as a tabloid TV host is any fun. Better Shannyn had hungup, because this “call” is not worth taking. One of 2008’s worstfilms… and we’ve got a ways to go. Rated PG-13. ‘* “THE SUPERROBOT RED BARON” – THE COMPLETE SERIES (BCI): Giant robots wage war inthis Japanese TV series that aired in the 1970s. The actual title was”Supa robot Maha Baron,” and more often than not those “giant” robotswere stuntmen in crazy suits. Still, there’s a genuine charm to stufflike this. This boxed set retails for $59.98. “THREE SHEETS” -SEASON TWO (Infinity Entertainment Group): All 10 episodes from the2006-’07 season of the MOJO HD Channel’s ongoing “documentary” seriesin which comedian Zane Lamprey travels around the world, drinking thevarious alcohols originating from different countries. This boxed set,which retails for $24.98, includes never-before-seen web clips and aNew Year’s Eve pub crawl through New York City. (Sounds fun, doesn’tit?) “TNA WRESTLING” (TNA Home Video/Navarre): “TNA” stands for”Total Nonstop Action,” and “The Best of 2007″ (which retails for$24.98) features such heavy-hitters as the Latin American Xchange,”Wildcat” Chris Harris and Samoa Joe, while “Against All Odds” (whichretails for $19.98) features the TNA world championship (between KurtAngle and “The Instant Classic” Christian Gage) and the TNA women’schampionship (between Awesome Kong and ODB). More volumes are to follow. THEUNKNOWN TRILOGY (Allumination FilmWorks): Co-director/co-writer SalMazzotta and Brian Cavallero’s three-part supernatural anthology ismore reminiscent of “Tales from the Darkside” than “The Twilight Zone,”but it kills time easily enough. Robert Costanzo steps in for RodSerling as the host, a psychologist who explores the metaphysical. Thefirst installment, “Frankie the Squirrel” (played by Mazzotta), ispretty flat, but things improve with “Fear,” in which a young boy(Damian DiFlorio) encounters the creepiest mortician (Ed O’Ross) sincePhantasm. Best of all is the concluding segment, “Gone,” with Mazzottaas a father consumed with grief over the accidental, Christmas-Daydeath of his young son the year before. Other familiar faces on handinclude Angie Everhart, Abe Vigoda and David Proval. Rated PG-13. **’ Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92.