Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger


THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Genius Products): Producer Samuel Bronston’s 1964 mega-epic has it all – spectacle, stars and some of the biggest sets ever constructed – but that didn’t prevent it from being a box-office disaster and derailing Bronston’s career.

Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying… but Empire falls with a thud.

The basic framework of the story is similar to that of Gladiator nearly 35 years later, with Stephen Boyd portraying Livius, a heroic warrior caught up in the political intrigue and moral decline that would eventually bring Rome to ruin.

At the heart of this grand-scale intrigue, directed by Anthony Mann, is a standard romance between Livius and Lucilla (Sophia Loren), the daughter of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness). Upon the death – murder, actually – of the ailing emperor, his son Commodus (a preening Christopher Plummer) assumes power, but his cynicism and avarice only hasten the empire’s downfall, and put both Livius and Lucilla in harm’s way.

Also on hand for this big-budget toga party are Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, John Ireland, Mel Ferrer and the great James Mason. Some of the actors disappear for long stretches at a time, only to suddenly reappear – and then usually get killed off before too long. It’s nice having them around, but the immensity of the film tends to dwarf the characters – and the story.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s bombastic score earned the film’s only Academy Award nomination. Given the sheer scope and pageantry, 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 available in both two- and three-DVD special editions, the latter also containing the educational films produced by Encyclopedia Britannica using the film’s sets. **½


ALIEN AGENT (Allumination FilmWorks): Mark Dacascos stars in this stunt-happy, sci-fi shoot-’em-up as an alien emissary trying to prevent – what else? – the decimation of the human race by less-benevolent members of his race. This feels like a potential TV pilot. Billy Zane is wasted as the principal bad guy, although he does utter the line “This can’t be happening” with a straight face. Amelia Cooke, Emma Lahana and Kim Coates are also on hand. Rated R. *½

THE APARTMENT (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Billy Wilder’s wise, witty (and very grown-up) 1960 comedy/drama stars Jack Lemmon as an ambitious young executive who loans his apartment out for co-workers’ romantic assignations – until he falls for the mistress (Shirley MacLaine) of his own boss (Fred MacMurray). This won Academy Awards for best picture, director, original screenplay (Wilder and IAL Diamond), 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) and sound. ***½

“BOSTON CELTICS 1985-’86 NBA CHAMPIONS” (Warner Home Video): With the NBA playoffs upon us, here’s a seven-disc collector’s set commemorating the Celtics’ championship run of two decades ago, in which Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton brought Boston’s 16th world title home. This boxed set retails for $49.98.

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (Universal Studios Home Entertainment): Tom Hanks plays the title role in director Mike Nichols’ fact-based political satire, that of the real-life Texas congressman (known as “Good Time Charlie”) who worked – often below the radar – to supply Afghanistan with American-made arms during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. A smart and relevant adaptation of George Crile’s best-seller, with good performances down the line: Julia Roberts, Ned Beatty, Amy Adams and especially Philip Seymour Hoffman, who scored an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor as a maverick CIA agent on Charlie’s team. Rated R. ***

CLOVERFIELD (Paramount Home Entertainment): New York City is laid waste by a giant monster, and the only people around to record it are a group of one-dimensional partygoers with a digital camera. This over-hyped sci-fi blow-out stretches its Blair Witch-type gimmick as far as it can go – and then some. The DVD includes alternate endings, director’s commentary, deleted scenes and the like. Rated PG-13. **

DON’T GO IN THE WOODS (… ALONE!) (Code Red DVD/BCI Eclipse): High in the mountains of Utah, unwary campers and hikers fall prey to a drooling, deranged, machete-wielding maniac (Tom Drury) in this cheap, cheesy, occasionally tongue-in-cheek 1981 slasher flick, here making its DVD debut as a 25th-anniversary special edition. (Obviously, it took its time getting here.) Leading lady Mary Gail Artz’s never acted in another film, but is now a leading casting director. H. Kingsley Thurber’s weird score (his last to date) is augmented by a hilarious theme song. This falls into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category. Rated R. *½

HELLO, MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): With the remake of Prom Night currently in theaters, here’s the first of the sequels – released in 1987 – in which Wendy Lyon plays a high-school student possessed by the murderous spirit of former prom queen Mary Lou (Lisa Schrage), killed in a tragic accident years before on prom night (when else?). The most amazing thing about this film is that it’s quite enjoyable, with a well-developed sense of humor. All around, this may be the best Prom Night movie of all. Reliable Michael Ironside plays the principal with a past. Back in college, I saw this in Philadelphia on opening weekend and the crowd went nuts. Rated R. ***

JUDGES (Anthem Pictures): With a definite nod to Robert Rodriguez’ “El Mariachi” series, writer/producer/director Stephen Patrick Walker’s feature debut is a comic-book spaghetti Western featuring DJ Perry (as a co-producer) as a grizzled hero battling bad guys. Slow pacing hurts, but its heart’s in the right place. According to the internet, a sequel’s on the way. **

“KEYSHIA COLE: THE WAY IT IS” – THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (BET Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment): All six episodes from BET’s reality series focusing on the professional and personal life of recording artist Keyshia Cole. This DVD, which retails for $19.99, also includes deleted scenes, interviews and a featurette.

“LEGENDS OF HOLLYWOOD – BOB HOPE” (BCI): A selection of 10 screen comedies showcasing the one and only Bob Hope (1903-2003): Teamed with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in 1947’s Road to Rio (which earned an Oscar nomination for best musical score) and 1952’s Road to Bali; reunited with Lamour for My Favorite Brunette (1947); opposite Rhonda Fleming in The Great Lover (1949); playing the title role in the Damon Runyon adaptation The Lemon Drop Kid (1951); opposite Jane Russell and Roy Rogers in Son of Paleface (1952), which earned an Oscar nomination for best song (“Am I in Love”); as the real-life vaudevillian Eddie Foy in The Seven Little Foys (1955), which earned an Oscar nomination for best story & screenplay; opposite the legendary French comedian Fernandel in Paris Holiday (1958), for which Hope penned the story; opposite Phyllis Diller and Gina Lollobrigida in Frank Tashlin’s World War II comedy The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell (1968); and teamed with Jackie Gleason in the 1969 generation-gap comedy How to Commit Marriage. Some of these films are in the public domain, but four films in this collection have been newly remastered. This boxed set retails for $14.98.

“MAXIMUM ACTION 10 MOVIE SET” (BCI): A boxed set of low-budget action films released by Crown International Pictures: Hell on Wheels (1967) starring John Ashley and Marty Robbins (as himself); Glenn Ford in the title role of director Gary Nelson’s 1973 Western Santee; the low-rent kung-fu farrago Death Machines (1976); Steve Kanaly, Karen Carlson and Sonny Landham in Fleshburn (1984), based on a Brian Garfield novel; Killpoint (1984) – which I saw in the theater and is pretty bad – starring Leo Fong, Stack Pierce, the great Richard Roundtree and a hilariously hammy Cameron Mitchell (yelling about his dog messing the carpet); Sho Kosugi, along with sons Shane and Kane, in writer/director Emmett Alston’s self-explanatory Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985); Fong, Mitchell and Pierce, along with by Troy Donahue and Akosua 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), with Chris Mulkey and Morton Downey Jr. Most of these films are rated R. This boxed set retails for $19.98.

ONE MISSED CALL (Warner Home Video): 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 Ray Wise’s cameo as a tabloid TV host is any fun. Better Shannyn had hung up, because this “call” is not worth taking. One of 2008’s worst films… and we’ve got a ways to go. Rated PG-13. ½*

“THE SUPER ROBOT RED BARON” – THE COMPLETE SERIES (BCI): Giant robots wage war in this Japanese TV series that aired in the 1970s. The actual title was “Supa robot Maha Baron,” and more often than not those “giant” robots were stuntmen in crazy suits. Still, there’s a genuine charm to stuff like this. This boxed set retails for $59.98.

“THREE SHEETS” – SEASON TWO (Infinity Entertainment Group): All 10 episodes from the 2006-’07 season of the MOJO HD Channel’s ongoing “documentary” series in which comedian Zane Lamprey travels around the world, drinking the various alcohols originating from different countries. This boxed set, which retails for $24.98, includes never-before-seen web clips and a New Year’s Eve pub crawl through New York City. (Sounds fun, doesn’t it?)

“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” (which retails for $19.98) features the TNA world championship (between Kurt Angle and “The Instant Classic” Christian Gage) and the TNA women’s championship (between Awesome Kong and ODB). More volumes are to follow.

THE UNKNOWN TRILOGY (Allumination FilmWorks): Co-director/co-writer Sal Mazzotta and Brian Cavallero’s three-part supernatural anthology is more reminiscent of “Tales from the Darkside” than “The Twilight Zone,” but it kills time easily enough. Robert Costanzo steps in for Rod Serling as the host, a psychologist who explores the metaphysical. The first installment, “Frankie the Squirrel” (played by Mazzotta), is pretty flat, but things improve with “Fear,” in which a young boy (Damian DiFlorio) encounters the creepiest mortician (Ed O’Ross) since Phantasm. Best of all is the concluding segment, “Gone,” with Mazzotta as a father consumed with grief over the accidental, Christmas-Day death of his young son the year before. Other familiar faces on hand include Angie Everhart, Abe Vigoda and David Proval. Rated PG-13. **½

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

Copyright 2007, Mark Burger