Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger


CIMARRON (Warner Home Video): This 1931 epic based on Edna Ferber’s best-seller was the first Western to win the Academy Award for best picture – and the last, until Dances With Wolves nearly 60 years later.

Opening with the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, depicted in epic fashion – and this was before CGI, kids – the story covers the early history of the region as seen through the eyes of Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), the sort of crusading newspaper editor who carves notches into his six-gun and can double as both minister and lawyer if the need arises (which it will), and his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne), who dutifully follows Yancey into the territory but also finds an emotional foundation that lingers long after Yancey’s restless spirit has begun to manifest itself.

This being the early sound era, the acting isn’t always subtle and the ethnic stereotypes are frequently dated, but there’s also an old-fashioned – in a good way – sweep to the proceedings. Performance-wise, there’s nice work from Dix (Oscar nominee for best actor), Estelle Taylor, Edna May Oliver, George E. Stone and especially Dunne (Oscar nominee for best actress), whose second film this was, launching a top career that would include four more nominations and her earning the nickname the “First Lady of Hollywood.” (She never did win an Oscar, but somewhere I think I actually have her autograph.)

The film also won Academy Awards for art direction/set decoration and writing (adaptation), with additional nominations for best director (Wesley Ruggles) and cinematography – undoubtedly for the opening land-rush scene.

Cimarron also held a distinction in that it was the only Oscar-winning best picture to lose money during its original release, which was at the height of the Great Depression. A subsequent re-release pushed it into the black. ***1/2


AMERICAN GANGSTER (Universal Studios Home Entertainment): Ridley Scott’s sweeping, fact-based crime saga details the rise of New York crime boss Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) – who was erroneously described as being from Greensboro! – and his nemesis: hard-boiled detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who tried to bring him to justice. Ruby Dee (as Frank’s mother) earned an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress, and the film copped an additional nomination for best art direction/set decoration. The two-disc edition includes both the original theatrical version and an unrated, extended version. The limited-edition, three-disc set includes a collectible book and a downloadable, digital copy of the film. Rated R. ***

AMERICAN SOLDIERS (Velocity Home Entertainment): Producer/director Sidney J. Furie tries – and fails – to recapture the impact of his 1978 Vietnam drama The Boys in Company C with this generic action yarn subtitled “A Day in Iraq,” in which an American platoon contends with ambushes and suicide bombers at an escalating rate. This flag-waving, blood-and-guts melodrama was filmed in Ontario… which doesn’t remotely resemble Iraq. Rated R. *1/2

AWAY FROM HER (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Actress Sarah Polley makes an amazing debut as screenwriter and director with this sensitive, deeply moving drama starring Julie Christie (Academy Award nominee for best actress) and Gordon Pinsent as a couple whose autumn idyll is shattered when she develops symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease – and that’s just the beginning of the story. Christie may have scored the nomination, but Pinsent is equally superb, as are Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson and Michael Murphy (the latter two are married in real life). Polley’s screenplay, adapted from Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” also earned an Oscar nomination. Rated PG-13. ***1/2

BOOGEYMAN 2 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): An “unrated director’s cut” of an in-name-only sequel to the 2005 shocker. This time around, Danielle Savre plays a young girl obsessed with the notion that the title fiend is after her, especially after her friends start getting butchered. Renee O’Connor and Tobin Bell are also on hand for the gory goings-on. *1/2

THE BOOK OF LOVE (Sundance Channel Home Entertainment/Hart Sharp Video): Writer/director Alan Brown makes his feature debut with this drama starring Frances O’Connor and Simon Baker as a young couple whose friendship with a neighborhood teenager (Gregory Smith) turns sour when he begins an affair with the wife. Initially interesting drama takes a strange turn midway through, when the characters suddenly become unlikable – and rather irritating. Bryce Dallas Howard has an abrupt role as one of Baker’s students. Rated R. **

THE DARK HOURS (Freestyle Home Entertainment/Visual Entertainment): Kate Greenhouse plays a troubled psychiatrist whose weekend getaway with her husband (Gordon Currie) and sister (Iris Graham) at a remote cabin turns into a bloodbath when they are terrorized by one of her most dangerous patients (Aidan Devine), who has escaped from the facility where she works… or has he? This well-acted, intense and claustrophobic thriller (which won a number of awards at film festivals) is not for the squeamish but is very much a winner, as well as a noteworthy feature debut for both screenwriter Wil Zmak and director Paul Fox. Rated R. ***

FRAMED FOR MURDER (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Time-killing melodrama with Elisa Donovan as a woman released after eight years in prison for murdering her husband, unaware that her own sister (Susan Walters) set her up – and is scheming to do so again. Perry King and Lisa Langlois are also on hand, although not for the duration. **

FURNACE (Genius Products): Prisons would seem a great setting for horror films, but this one – like so many others – misses the mark, despite being filmed in the abandoned Tennessee State Prison and boasting a sturdy B-movie cast: Michael Pare, Tom Sizemore, Ja Rule, Danny Trejo and Jennifer McShane, all of whom give it their best shot. See if you can count how many words are misspelled in the captions of the cast interviews. **

“GENERAL HOSPITAL: NIGHT SHIFT” – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment): All 13 episodes from the 2007 season of the prime-time SoapNet series spun off from the long-running ABC daytime drama. Billy Dee Williams stars, with Kimberly McCullough, Jason Thompson, Steve Burton and Kirsten Storms reprising their daytime roles. This DVD retails for $29.99.

GONE BABY GONE (Miramax Home Entertainment): Ben Affleck makes his directorial debut with this well-acted adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, depicting the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a young girl on the mean streets of Boston. Some plot contrivances are smoothed over by Affleck’s keen feel for the location, the story’s penetrating examination of morality and a thoroughly polished cast including Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Titus Welliver, Harris’ real-life wife Amy Madigan, John Ashton and Amy Ryan, who earned an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress for her vivid performance as the missing girl’s mother. She had my vote. Rated R. ***

JUNIOR G-MEN OF THE AIR (VCI Entertainment): The Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys join forces against Japanese spies (including Lionel Atwill and Turhan Bey) during World War II in this 12-chapter 1942 serial. The cast also includes the immortal Huntz Hall, Billy Halop, Frank Albertson, Gabriel Dell and Gene Reynolds, who later became an award-winning TV producer and director. This DVD retails for $19.99.

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (Paramount Home Entertainment): Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s scabrous satire of dysfunctional families, with Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Noah’s wife in real life – lucky man) as estranged siblings who reunite for the latter’s wedding, with the expected emotional fireworks. The characters’ neuroses may be overwhelming to some mainstream audiences, but that’s a major part of the film’s impact. Fine performances all around, including Jack Black, Ciaran Hinds, John Turturro, Zane Pais, Halley Feiffer and Flora Cross. Rated R. ***

MICHAEL CLAYTON (Warner Home Video): Screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s powerhouse directorial debut stars George Clooney (also an executive producer) as a beleagured attorney who finds himself swept up in a moral and ethical dilemma that has devastating consequences. One of 2007’s best and most thought-provoking films, this earned seven Academy Award nominations: Best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best actor (Clooney), best supporting actor (Tom Wilkinson), best supporting actress (Tilda Swinton) and best original score. Rated R. ***1/2

ONLY THE BALL WAS WHITE (MPI Home Video): Paul Winfield narrates Ken Solarz’s competent documentary about the star players (Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Josh Gibson among them) of the Negro League, in the era when baseball was a segregated sport. A decent introduction to a subject that warrants more extensive coverage. **1/2

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): In this updated retelling of Mark Twain’s classic, Cole Sprouse plays an average kid who switches places with Dylan Sprouse, playing a teen TV star. An adaptation like this was hardly necessary, but it’s painless enough. Interesting supporting cast includes Vincent Spano, Dedee Pfeiffer, Sally Kellerman, Ed Lauter, Leo Rossi and Peter Onorati. **

REMEMBER ME (Genius Products): This 1995 adaptation of Mary Higgins Clark’s novel stars Kelly McGillis as a woman recovering from the loss of her child, and whose marriage (to Cotter Smith) is strained as a result, who makes the mistake of moving into a supposedly haunted house on Cape Cod. Good cast includes Shanna Reed, Michael T. Weiss and Stephen McHattie, but the build-up far outpaces the denouement. Nice twist at the fadeout, however. **

THE ROSE TATTOO (Paramount Home Entertainment): Director Daniel Mann’s 1955 adaptation of the Tennessee Williams classic (scripted by Williams himself) stars Anna Magnani as a grief-stricken widow who discovers that her beloved husband was unfaithful. Burt Lancaster plays an earthy truck driver who takes a shine to her. Magnani won the Academy Award as best actress, with additional Oscar wins for James Wong Howe’s cinematography and art direction/set decoration (black and white). Additional nominations for best picture, supporting actress (Marisa Pavan), editing, score and for Edith Head’s costume design. ***1/2

SLIPSTREAM (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Sean Astin (also a co-producer) plays a scientist who develops a device that turns back time, which causes problems when it falls in the hands of Vinnie Jones, as a vicious bank robber. Ivana Milicevic plays a dishy FBI agent who comes along for the ride. Some interesting ideas and some fancy camera moves, but it doesn’t quite add up. This bypassed theatrical release and went straight to cable, but it’s not that bad. Filmed in Cape Town, South Africa. Rated R. **

TRAGIC CEREMONY (Dark Sky Films): A group of hippies (including Camille Keaton) find themselves swept up in a surreal nightmare when they stumble across a Satanic ceremony in the remote country villa of an affluent, mysterious English lord (Luigi Pistilli) and lady (Luciana Paluzzi) who have given them shelter from a storm. This 1972 shocker, dubiously inspired in part by the Manson killings, was directed by Riccardo Freda, whose best horror films tended to be in black and white. This one’s in color (uh-oh…), in Italian (with English subtitles), and could best be described as “Eurotrash” with the emphasis on the third syllable. *

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