Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger


DARKON (PorchLight Home Entertainment): A documentary of heroically entertaining proportions, this marvelous, award-winning debut feature from writer/directors Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel is a total treat from beginning to end.

The film follows a group of everyday people who, rather than play golf or softball on weekends, act out a role-playing game not unlike a live version of Dungeons & Dragons. There are battles to be fought, territories to be seized and foes to be vanquished – all within the mythical kingdom of Darkon, located somewhere in the immediate vicinity of Baltimore.

The players take it seriously, and so do the filmmakers – to an extent. By approaching the proceedings with an affectionate, mock gravitas, the film is all the more amusing, and it’s also oddly touching as it focuses on the participants’ personalities. The excellent cinematography (by Karl Schroder and Hillary Spera) and rousing score (by Jonah Rapino) add the perfect seasoning to a highly enjoyable endeavor. This is that rare documentary that could well end up a cult classic. Hail, Darkon! ***½


“THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANA JONES: VOLUME THREE – THE YEARS OF CHANGE” (Paramount Home Entertainment): The third and final volume of executive producer George Lucas’ Emmy-winning, prime-time ABC-TV series (which ran from 1992 to 1993), consists of seven feature-length episodes starring Sean Patrick Flanery as the young adventurer Indiana Jones as he encounters various historical figures and participates in various historical events – often saving the day, of course. This 10-disc collector’s set, which includes such special features as documentaries and interactive games, is being released to coincide with the latest feature film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and retails for $129.99.

COVER (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Aunjanue Ellis plays a woman suspected of murder in this leaden morality play about sexual secrets and personal redemption, unaccountably and wrong-headedly structured as a whodunit. Also on hand: Louis Gossett Jr., Patti LaBelle, Raz Adoti, Mya, Leon, Clifton Davis, Richard Gant, Obba Babatunde and Paula Jai Parker – but no one can save it. Easily director Bill Duke’s worst film to date. Rated PG-13. ½*

CRASH AND BURN (Genius Products): Generic title, generic movie. Erik Palladino plays an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates a stolen-car ring lorded over by a typecast Michael Madsen. This obvious clone of The Fast and the Furious also features Peter Jason, David Moscow, Tony Denison, Heather Marie Marsden (very cute), and David Groh (who died in February) in one of his last roles. *½

DESERT BAYOU (Cinema Libre Studio): Art Hoyle’s sonorous narration anchors Alex LeMay’s documentary feature, which follows a group of 600 (predominantly black) displaced citizens of New Orleans airlifted to Utah following the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The film points out the bureaucratic screw-ups that followed the disaster – not hard to do – but works best when it focuses on evacuees Clifford Anderson and Curtis Pleasant and their efforts to adjust to their new home. Rap star Master P produced the film, and even gives a laudatory quote on the DVD sleeve! **½

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Miramax Home Entertainment): Director Julian Schnabel’s uplifting, award-winning drama focuses on real-life magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric) who suffered a catastrophic stroke at age 43 but managed to write a best-selling memoir about the experience. A warm supporting cast includes Max Von Sydow (as Bauby’s ailing father), Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze and Jean-Pierre Cassel. Winner of the 2007 Golden Globe Awards for best director and best foreign-language film, with subsequent Academy Award nominations for best director, adapted screenplay (Ronald Harwood), editing and Janusz Kaminski’s exquisite cinematography. Rated PG-13. ***

“THE FIRST KINGS OF COMEDY COLLECTION” (Genius Products): An irresistible double feature of writer/producer/director Robert Youngson’s compilation of classic segments from screen comedies dating back to the silent era. The Golden Age of Comedy (1957) includes scenes with Laurel & Hardy, Will Rogers, Carole Lombard, Charley Chase and the Keystone Kops. When Comedy Was King (1960) has Laurel & Hardy, Chase and the Keystone Kops again, as well as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson. These were surprise box-office hits and subsequently played endlessly on television, helping to introduce a new generation (like mine) to these early classics. ***½

THE GREY ZONE (LionsGate Home Entertainment): The only armed revolt at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II is depicted in this engrossing but grimly oppressive drama which producer/director Tim Blake Nelson adapted from his own play (based on actual events). A fine cast includes Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, David Arquette, Mira Sorvino, Daniel Benzali, Natasha Lyonne, David Chandler and Allan Corduner (excellent as the camp’s physician). Filmed in Bulgaria. Rated R. **½

THE HEART OF ME (Sundance Channel Home Entertainment): Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams form a complex love triangle in this award-winning period piece based on Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 best-seller, The Echoing Grove. This is the sort of high-minded soap opera that the British do so well, with fine performances all around. Rated R. ***

I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH (Genius Products): Jeff Garlin makes his feature writing/producing/directorial debut with this bittersweet comedy about a struggling actor trying to balance a floundering love life with a floundering career. A good cast includes Bonnie Hunt, Sarah Silverman, Dan Castellaneta, Elle Fanning, Roger Bart, Paul Mazursky, Tim Kazurinsky, cameos by Gina Gershon and Aaron Carter, and a number of Second City actors in support – but, in the end, this is rather slight. Rated R. **

JUNO (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): In this suburban satire written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, Ellen Page plays Juno MacGuff, an acerbic, all-American teenager who finds herself in a family way – leading to all sorts of amusing interludes and complications. This witty (but somewhat smug) sleeper became one of the Hollywood success stories of 2007, earning an Academy Award for Cody’s original screenplay and nominations for Page (best actress), Reitman (best director) and, yep, best picture. It also outgrossed every other best-picture nominee at the box-office while costing far less than any of them. The cast makes it: Allison Janney, JK Simmons, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera (as the befuddled father-to-be). In the film, Juno’s a fan of director Dario Argento – so, by and large, this one’s okay with me. Rated PG-13. ***

LOVE IN THE TIME OF MONEY (Miramax Home Entertainment): Inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen, this talky ensemble drama focuses on the love lives of a disparate group of New Yorkers. An able cast includes Steve Buscemi, Jill Hennessy, Adrian Grenier, Rosario Dawson, Vera Farmiga, Michael Imperioli and Carol Kane (who’s terrific as a lonely telephone psychic), but this falls flat. Look fast for Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) as a gallery owner. Robert Redford was one of the executive producers. Rated R. *½

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY (Legend Films): Between Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) came this oft-forgotten 1972 adaptation of Ramona Stewart’s novel, with Shirley MacLaine as a Manhattan socialite and divorcee whose younger brother (Perry King, excellent in his screen debut) begins to adopt the volatile personality of a mysterious friend named Tonio Perez, the prime suspect in a past series of grisly murders that suddenly begin recurring around town. Well-directed by Waris Hussein, with a great score by Joe Raposo, this was a box-office flop. Some reports persist that MacLaine was offered The Exorcist but did this instead. Although prominently billed, Michael Hordern has precious little screentime as a trendy psychiatrist. The ending, by now a cliché, still packs a punch. Rated R. ***

SEEING OTHER PEOPLE (Sundance Channel Home Entertainment): Julianne Nicholson and Jay Mohr topline this award-winning comedy as an engaged couple who decide to see other people before tying the knot, which causes all sorts of complications. A snappy and sweet comedy reminiscent of Neil Simon, with a zippy supporting cast including Andy Richter, Helen Slater, Matthew Davis, Mimi Rogers, Bryan Cranston, Shanna Moakler, Liz Phair and Josh Charles, who delivers the film’s ultimate line: “God created us to want to fuck around; I say, go with God.” Rated R. ***

THE SKULL (Legend Films): Director Freddie Francis’ 1965 chiller, based on a Robert Bloch story, stars Peter Cushing (terrific, as always) as a collector of oddities who adds something quite unique to his collection: The actual skull of the Marquis de Sade. Now that’s odd! Legend has it that the skull can drive its owner to madness and murder. Guess what happens next? A great cast includes Nigel Green, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, Patrick Magee, George Coulouris, the perennially underappreciated Patrick Wymark and “guest star” Christopher Lee, but despite the talent involved and some inventive camerawork by cinematographer John Wilcox, the concept is stretched a little thin over 85 minutes. Believe it or not, descendants of the actual Marquis de Sade (who always got a bad rap, as far as I was concerned) were ticked off about the film and threatened a lawsuit. In any event, this DVD is eagerly awaited by many horror fans. **½

SOME KIND OF HERO (Legend Films): Richard Pryor, starring in his first film since his drug-related, near-death free-basing experience in 1980, gives a fine performance in this otherwise uneven 1982 comedy/drama adapted from James Kirkwood’s novel, about an ex-POW who finds it difficult to re-adjust to civilian life after six years in Vietnam. A solid cast includes Ray Sharkey, Ronny Cox, Lynne Moody, Olivia Cole and a scorchingly sexy Margot Kidder (as the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold), but director Michael Pressman struggles when combining the comedic aspects with the dramatic. This still did well at the box-office, maintaining Pryor’s popularity. Rated R. **

STUDENT BODIES (Legend Films): Undoubtedly inspired by the success of Airplane! (1980), comedy writer Mickey Rose’s 1981 feature directorial debut (and his last to date) is a bawdy, ramshackle spoof of slasher films – released at the height of the slasher era. Kristen Riter (in her only film to date) plays the high-school virgin stalked by a deranged killer known as “The Breather” (voiced by Richard Belzer under the pseudonym “Richard Brando”). Everyone who has sex gets killed, naturally. Michael Ritchie, who reportedly had a hand in directing, produced under the ubiquitous Hollywood pseudonym “Allen Smithee.” The once-in-a-lifetime (literally) cast includes Joe Talrowski (in his only film) as the dowdy principal, Joe Flood (in his screen debut) as the shop teacher Mr. Dumpkin (you’ll never think of horse-head bookends the same way again), and one-time stand-up comedian “The Stick” as Malvert the janitor (“Sometimes Malvert pee red.”). Paramount Pictures made a fortune on the Friday the 13th series but botched the promotion of this intermittently amusing comedy, releasing it on a double-bill with the (straightforward) slasher film Night School. This did find a cult following on cable TV, and was clearly an inspiration for the Scary Movie series. Rated R. **

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Writer/producer/director Francis Ford Coppola’s first film in a decade stars Tim Roth as an everyman professor who is struck by lightning and begins to age in reverse. Based on Mircea Eliade’s novella, this ultimately stacks up as an interesting failure – they key word being “interesting.” The DVD includes a commentary by Coppola, which may explain things. Look fast for Matt Damon. Rated R. **

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

Copyright 2007, Mark Burger