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Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger

THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): This 1968 comedy is chiefly remembered today as director William Friedkin’s first big film and Elliott Gould’s first big role, but this wistful ode to the bygone days of burlesque never found an audience.

Britt Ekland plays Rachel Schpitendavel, a wide-eyed Amish girl who comes to New York City to dance… and winds up at the burlesque club owned by Louis Minsky (Joseph Wiseman) and his son Billy (Gould). Rachel then finds herself torn romantically between the comedy duo of Raymond Paine (Jason Robards) and Chick Williams (Norman Wisdom), and eventually winds up inventing the striptease – by accident. All this, and vaudeville too.

The period detail, nicely captured by cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, perfectly befits the time and place, and there’s an edge to the proceedings (a Friedkin trademark) that tints the nostalgia with a dose of reality. This may not have endeared it to audiences, but it makes for a sharper movie. Robards is particularly strong as the cynical, self-loathing funnyman.

Noteworthy in support are Harry Andrews (as Rachel’s unbendingly religious father), Forrest Tucker, Denholm Elliott, Jack Burns, Lillian Hayman, Richard Libertini and Bert Lahr, in his final screen role as Prof. Spats. As conceived, the story was to have been seen through this character’s eyes, but when the actor died during production, considerable re-editing was required, which explains why he seems to show up at odd moments.

The film’s box-office failure steered producer/co-screenwriter Norman Lear toward television, where he found great success, and Friedkin would also later find great success with another film about a bygone era in New York. It was called The French Connection. Rated PG-13. ***

ALSO ON DVD

“THE BETTE DAVIS COLLECTION” (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Now, it’s Fox’s turn to (deservedly) commemorate the 100th birthday of one of America’s finest actresses with this collector’s set that includes five feature films: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1950 classic All About Eve is undoubtedly one of Davis’ finest hours, winning Academy Awards for best picture, direction and screenplay (Mankiewicz both), supporting actor (George Sanders as the quintessential critic, Addison deWitt), costume design (Edith Head) and sound, with additional nominations for actress (Davis, of course, and Anne Baxter), supporting actress (Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm), cinematography (black-and-white), editing, score (Alfred Newman) and art direction/set decoration (black-and-white); Jean Neguelsco’s Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) pairs Davis with real-life husband Gary Merrill (whom she met while making All About Eve); Henry Koster’s costume drama The Virgin Queen stars “Dame Bette” as Elizabeth I and Richard Todd as Sir Walter Raleigh, which earned an Oscar nomination for costume design (color); Robert Aldrich’s 1964 adaptation of Henry Farrell’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte – which was very much in the Baby Jane mold (especially before Olivia de Havilland replaced Joan Crawford) ­- earned a surprising seven Academy Award nominations including best supporting actress (Agnes Moorehead), editing, score, original song, cinematography (black-and-white), costume design (black-and-white) and art direction/set decoration (black-and-white); and, finally, in the title role of Seth Holt’s 1966 Hammer Studios psychological thriller The Nanny, adapted from Marryam Modell’s novel by producer Jimmy Sangster. This boxed set, which retails for $59.98, marks the DVD debuts of The Nanny, The Virgin Queen and Phone Call from a Stranger.

“THE BIG GAY SKETCH SHOW” (LOGO/Paramount Home Entertainment): All six episodes from the inaugural 2006-’07 season of the Logo cable comedy series featuring such up-and-comers as Erica Ash, Julie Goldman, Stephen Guarino and Jonny McGovern. “The Complete Uncensored First Season” retails for $26.98. “The Complete Uncensored Season Season” (covering 2007-’08) features such guest stars as Christine Ebersole, Elaine Stritch, Chastity Bono and executive producer Rosie O’Donnell, and also retails for $26.98. Each volume contains cast interviews, unaired sketches, behind-the-scenes footage and more.

CLEANER (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Samuel L. Jackson (also a producer) plays an ex-cop who now cleans crime scenes – and his latest job ensnares him in deception, betrayal and murder. It’s a pleasure to watch actors the caliber of Jackson and Ed Harris (as his ex-partner) play off one another, but this whodunit runs out of surprises before too long. Still, this is one of director Renny Harlin’s more tolerable pictures of late, with Eva Mendes, Luis Guzman and reliable Robert Forster also on hand. Set in New Jersey but filmed in Shreveport, La. Rated R. **

“DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT” – THE COMPLETE TELEVISION COLLECTION (Falcon Picture Group/Infinity Entertainment Group): Here’s a rarity from the early days of television: All 39 episodes of the 1952 espionage series, based on a popular radio show, starring Brian Donlevy as globe-trotting American agent Steve Mitchell, whose prime directive was simple yet twofold: “Get in and out of danger!” Herb Butterfield portrays Mitchell’s supervisor, “The Commissioner.” Guest stars included Michael Ansara, Harry Guardino, Adele Jergens, Jim Davis and a pre-“Leave It to Beaver” Hugh Beaumont. This boxed set retails for $39.98.

“EXES AND OH’S” – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (LOGO/Paramount Home Entertainment): All six episodes from the debut 2007 season of the cable-TV comedy/drama focusing on the lives and loves of a group of lesbian friends. Co-creator and show writer Michelle Paradise stars along with Angela Featherstone, Megan Cavanagh, Melanie Alton and Heather Matazarro. This DVD, which retails for $19.99, includes cast interviews and “extrasodes.”

“INDIANA JONES – THE ADVENTURE COLLECTION” (Paramount Home Entertainment): To commemorate the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this boxed set (which retails for $59.98) contains special editions of the three earlier films, all directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford as the fearless adventurer: 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (****), which was my favorite movie when I was 13 (… and then I discovered Robert Altman), earned Academy Awards for best editing, sound, art direction/set decoration and visual effects, with additional nominations for best picture, director, cinematography and John Williams’ smashing score; the 1984 sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (****), my favorite of the bunch (as well as the nastiest), won the Oscar for best visual effects and a nomination for Williams’ score; and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (***), which brought Sean Connery into the mix as Prof. Henry Jones and River Phoenix as the young Indy, won an Oscar for best sound effects editing and nominations for sound and, yep, Williams’ score again. The first two films were rated PG (the second one helped to establish the PG-13 rating), and the third is PG-13. If you don’t already have these, you should!

“JACKASS PRESENTS: MAT HOFFMAN’S TRIBUTE TO EVEL KNIEVEL” (MTV Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment): Somehow, it seems inevitable that the gang from MTV’s “Jackass” (led by Johnny Knoxville) would pay tribute to the deceased daredevil in this uncensored “salute” that includes appearances by such extreme sports stars as Mat Hoffman, Travis Pastrana, Davin “Psycho” Halford and others. This DVD retails for $24.99.

“LEGENDS OF HOLLYWOOD ­- COMEDY ALL-STARS” (BCI): A selection of feature films and shorts (many in the public domain), showcasing some of the screen’s most popular comedic actors: Buster Keaton teams with Jimmy Durante in the 1932 comedy Speak Easily; Durante then joins Lupe Velez in the 1934 adaptation of Ham Fisher’s comic strip palooka; Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy headline the 1939 comedy The Flying Deuces; Bud Abbott and Lou Costello – one of my favorite comedy teams – star in Africa Screams (1949) and Jack in the Beanstalk (1952); Mickey Rooney plays the title role in Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946), one of the last films in that series; writer/director Preston Sturges coaxed Harold Lloyd out of retirement for one last film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), for which Lloyd received a Golden Globe nomination; Bud Pollard narrates the 1947 Bing Crosby “biography” The Road to Hollywood (which features plenty of Crosby clips); Danny Kaye stars in the award-winning 1949 adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General; and there are shorts featuring Laurel & Hardy and WC Fields. This boxed set retails for $14.98.

MEETING RESISTANCE (First Run Features): Writer/producer/director Steve Connors and Molly Bingham’s feature documentary debut is a startling, inside look at the members of the Iraqi resistance. By telling the story from the point of view of the insurgents (“the enemy,” if you will) makes this an almost overwhelmingly voyeuristic experience. Actual footage of soldiers building bombs is enough to freeze anyone’s blood. There’s very good reason why this film was screened for American troops already stationed in, or bound for, Iraq. ***½

THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS (First Run Features): Martin Doblmeier’s feature documentary explores the concept of applying mercy and forgiveness to difficult situations, both on individual and larger levels (such as in the aftermath of 9/11 and the struggles in Northern Ireland, to name two). Moving and hopeful without ever being cloying. ***

RAMBO (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Sylvester Stallone co-wrote, directed, and of course stars in the fourth installment of the popular film franchise (and the first in 20 years), in which the taciturn but fearless Vietnam vet again returns to action to save a group of noble but misguided missionaries held captive in Burma (now called Myanmar). If it’s bloodshed you want, this delivers. LionsGate is also releasing Rambo: The Complete Collector’s Set (which retails for $54.98) that includes the special editions of all four films of the Rambo experience. And what an experience it is. Rated R. **

“SEX AND THE CITY” – THE COMPLETE SERIES (HBO Video): Just in time to commemorate the release of the feature film – one of the very last to bear a New Line Cinema imprint, by the way – here’s a mammoth 20-DVD boxed set containing all 94 episodes from the popular HBO series (created by Darren Star and based on Candice Bushnell’s book and newspaper column) that ran from 1998 to 2004, won eight Golden Globes, quite a few Emmys (including outstanding comedy series in 2001) and DGA awards, and more nominations than this column could hold. The cast includes Sarah Jessica Parker (also a producer) as Carrie Bradshaw, with Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and the ever-luscious Kim Cattrall. This limited collector’s edition retails for $299.95, and features a bevy of DVD extras for the series faithful, of which there were plenty. Hell, I dated enough of the female ones. You’ve heard of “Mr. Big”? I was usually “Mr. Wrong.”

TOBOR THE GREAT (LionsGate Home Entertainment): This low-budget, Cold War sci-fi melodrama from 1954 focuses on the creation of the title character, a robot developed by a brilliant scientist (Taylor Holmes) who is coveted by foreign spies attempting to sabotage the US space program. As a slab of nostalgia, this is enjoyably campy and clunky (not unlike Tobor himself), but the pacing’s slow even at 75 minutes. “Tobor” is robot spelled backwards, get it? **

“A TOUCH OF FROST” – SEASON 13 (MPI Home Video): Sir David Jason returns as the maverick police inspector Jack Frost in the latest installment of the popular British television series based on RD Wingfield’s series of crime novels and a ’70s radio show. The 13th season offering, “Endangered Species,” sees the good inspector trying to blow the lid of an international crime ring that deals in illegal animal goods. Might it also have something to do with his latest murder case? Indeed it might… This DVD retails for $24.98.

WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Producer/director Blake Edwards’ 1966 World War II comedy ­­- scripted by William Peter Blatty – is a thin but likable farce about a group of GIs who find themselves unexpectedly welcomed by the residents of the Italian village they’ve been ordered to capture. James Coburn and Dick Shawn head an enthusiastic cast including Carroll O’Connor, Aldo Ray, Harry Morgan, Sergio Fantoni, Jay Novello and Giovanna Ralli. ** ½

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2008, Mark Burger.

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