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Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger

PICK OF THE WEEK:

PERSONAL BEST (Warner Home Video): Acclaimed screenwriter Robert Towne made his producing and directing debut with this 1982 drama about athletic ambition, emotional manipulation and sexual identity.

Mariel Hemingway plays Chris Cahill, an Olympic hopeful who falls in love with fellow athlete Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly, herself a one-time Olympic athlete). Their relationship compromises their competitiveness, an observation evident to hard-driving coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn), who is compelled to manipulate Chris and Tory against each other if each is to achieve her athletic aspiration – her “personal best.”

As a result, Chris and Tory begin to drift apart, and Chris begins a relationship with a male athlete (Kenny Moore, a former Olympic marathon runner in his screen debut), but the emotional ties between the two women still linger.

Towne coaxes exquisite performances from Hemingway, Glenn and particularly Donnelly in difficult and nuanced roles. The film is provocative, sensual and sometimes self-indulgent, but the characters are rendered with compassion and insight.

By portraying the lesbian relationship within the context of the story, the film was hailed in some quarters as a breakthrough in the depiction of homosexuality on the screen. In some ways, Personal Best was the Brokeback Mountain of its day, but controversy didn’t translate into box-office success. Rated R. ***1/2

ALSO ON DVD

“ARMAGEDDON” (Genius Products): No, it’s not Michael Bay’s giant-asteroid movie – one of those was enough, thank you very much – but rather a star-studded World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view event featuring the likes of Batista, the Undertaker, Rey Mysterio, Kane, Mr. Kennedy and many others. This DVD retails for $24.95.

THE ATTIC (Allumination Filmworks): Mary Lambert, still coasting on the success of Pet Sematery nearly 20 years ago, directed this familiar chiller starring Elisabeth Banks as a troubled teen who becomes convinced that something isn’t right about her family’s new house. Catherine Mary Stewart and John Savage play her concerned parents, and the cast as a whole tries to give a lift to these pedestrian proceedings. Only toward the end does it generate interest, and by then it’s too late. Still, it’s better than Lambert’s Pet Sematery 2. Rated R. *1/2

CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT (VCI Entertainment): The popular radio serial made the leap to the big screen in 1942 with this 15-chapter serial starring Dave O’Brien in the title role, here battling the forces of evil and making the world safe for democracy. Whew – thank heavens someone was! This DVD retails for $19.99.

CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (Warner Home Video): Victor Fleming’s robust 1937 adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling classic stars Freddie Bartholomew as a wealthy brat who learns the virtues of humility and hard work when he falls overboard during an ocean cruise and finds himself working alongside the crew of a fishing boat. The rear-projection visual effects are a little creaky, but the performances are first-rate – including that of Spencer Tracy, who won his first Oscar for best actor as the kind-hearted Portuguese (!) fisherman Manuel. The distinguished cast also includes Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney, Charley Grapewin and John Carradine. Additional Oscar nominations for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best editing. ***1/2

CHRISTMAS DO-OVER (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Every day is Christmas Eve for divorced dad Jay Mohr, stuck over the holidays at the home of his ex-wife (Daphne Zuniga) and ex-in-laws (Adrienne Barbeau and Tim Thomerson). The cast is game, but this made-for-TV, yuletide knock-off of Groundhog Day grows tired – and tiresome – all too quickly. *1/2

CONTROL (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Ray Liotta plays a Death Row inmate given a second chance thanks to behavioral modification at the hands of scientist Willem Dafoe – but his criminal past has a way of catching up with him. This watchable, if overstuffed potboiler also stars Michelle Rodriguez, Stephen Rea, Polly Walker and Kathleen Robertson, and was filmed in beautiful Bulgaria. Rated R. **

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (KOCH Lorber Films): Gerard Depardieu portrays the wronged – and righteously vengeful – Edmond Dantes in this award-winning 1998 French mini-series based on the Alexandre Dumas classic. Depardieu’s children (Guillaume and Julie) also appear in this production, which was directed by Josee Dayan. This DVD retails for $29.98.

FORGET ABOUT IT (Allumination FilmWorks): This generic comedy stars Burt Reynolds, Charles Durning and Robert Loggia as retired military veterans who stumble across a suitcase filled with cash – unaware that it’s mob money stolen by a one-time wiseguy (Michael Paloma) who’s gone Witness Protection and is hiding out in their Arizona neighborhood. This mild Mafia send-up belongs on the small screen but gets a boost from a high-profile cast that also includes Raquel Welch, Tim Thomerson, Richard Grieco, Joanna Pacula and Phyllis Diller – plus Wayne Crawford (faculty member at NCSA’s School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem) as an exasperated US marshal. Rated PG-13. **

THE GAY DECEIVERS (Dark Sky Films): Kevin Coughlin and Larry Casey play friends who pose as a gay couple in order to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War. Director Bruce Kessler’s (admittedly dated) 1969 farce is atypical drive-in fare for the era, and in retrospect plays like a slightly more risqué episode of “Love, American Style,” with broad but not unappealing performances by all – including Michael Greer, Brooke Bundy, Jack Starrett, Richard Webb and scrumptious Jo Ann Harris. Rated R. **

THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (Warner Home Video): Alan Arkin received an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his tremendous performance as John Singer, a deaf-mute who moves to a small Southern town, in this 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers’ first novel. In her screen debut, Sondra Locke scored an Oscar nomination of her own (best supporting actress) as the insecure teenager who befriends Singer, and a fine supporting cast includes Stacy Keach (in his screen debut), Cicely Tyson, Chuck McCann and Percy Rodrigues. The second half of the film tends to fragment, but the performances hold it together. Lovely cinematography by James Wong Howe, too. Incredibly, the next Oscar nomination Arkin would receive would be in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine – in which he won best supporting actor. Rated G. ***

THE INVASION (Warner Home Video): Nicole Kidman headlines the latest remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the fourth to date), in which aliens take over humans while they sleep, turning them into emotionless automatons. There are isolated moments of effectiveness, but fundamental changes to the story – such as replacing the tried-and-true pods with a viral infection, and dubious attempts to graft contemporary irony onto an already-ironic story – work against the overall impact of the film. The cast includes Daniel Craig, Jeffrey Wright, Jeremy Northam, Josef Sommer, Roger Rees, Celia Weston (an alumna of Winston-Salem’s own Salem Academy) and, in a nod to the 1978 version, Veronica Cartwright – but all of them are pretty much wasted. The film went over schedule and overbudget, and underwent reshoots prior to its release… and it shows. Rated PG-13. *1/2

MR. WOODCOCK (New Line Home Entertainment): Seann William Scott plays a self-help author whose trip home turns into a disaster when he discovers that his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon) is dating the gym teacher (Billy Bob Thornton) who made his childhood a living hell. The novelty of seeing Thornton humiliate and browbeat his co-stars (Bad Santa, School for Scoundrels, Bad News Bears) has, with this film, officially grown stale. Rated PG-13. *1/2

RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE (Dark Sky Films): A routine mob melodrama from 1973, with Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert) as a laconic ex-con who teams with a sexy con artist (Barbara Bouchet) to avenge himself on the man who killed his father and stole his girl (Malisa Longo) – the drug kingpin “Don Vito” (Arthur Kennedy with a great dye job). A gory castration scene earned this some notoriety. The title onscreen is merely Ricco, and the film saw release in the US in 1979 as The Cauldron of Death and promoted (inaccurately) as a horror film. **

THE RITZ (Warner Home Video): Richard Lester’s misfired 1976 adaptation of the hit Terrence McNally play sees Jack Weston hiding out from his Mafiosi brother-in-law (Jerry Stiller) in a gay men’s bath house. Needless to say, many double-entendres and screwball hi-jinks ensue. Despite having Weston, Stiller, Rita Moreno (who won a Tony), F. Murray Abraham and Paul C. Price reprise their stage roles, there’s an air of desperation to the proceedings. Some shows don’t translate to the screen, and this is one of them. The players, also including Kaye Ballard, John Ratzenberger and Treat Williams (in an early role), give it their best shot. Set in New York City but filmed in England. Rated R. **

SHATTERED (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Pierce Brosnan (also a producer) plays an extortionist who plays a diabolical game of cat-and-mouse with a hotshot executive (Gerard Butler) and his wife (Maria Bello) in this twisty, well-acted thriller that is nevertheless too convoluted for its own good. Despite the high-profile cast, this film (originally titled Butterfly on a Wheel) bypassed theatrical release. Rated R. **

TWENTIETH CENTURY (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s adapted the play Napoleon of Broadway for Howard Hawks’ 1934 comedy starring John Barrymore as a Broadway director who makes Carole Lombard a star – only to become consumed with jealousy when her career skyrockets and Hollywood beckons. Barrymore’s character, Oscar Jaffe, is called “OJ” by most of the other characters – so you can insert your own joke here. Barrymore and Lombard are great fun, and there’s great support from Walter Connolly as Jaffe’s producer (whom he’s always firing) and Roscoe Karns as his booze-soaked right-hand man. Aside from some dated (read: politically incorrect) bits, time has been kind to this screwball comedy, which Barrymore reportedly considered a personal favorite. The title, by the way, refers to a cross-country passenger train aboard which the characters are gathered in the second half of the film. ***

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2007, Mark Burger.

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