Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger

Pick of the Week:

THE WALKER (THINKFilm): The latest film from writer/director Paul Schrader affords leading man Woody Harrelson a distinct (and distinctive) change of pace, and the actor makes the most of it, giving one of his best performances to date.

Harrelson’s Carter Page II is a silky, smooth-talking dandy and Washington DC gadfly who hobnobs with the rich and powerful, but also lives in the shadow of his late father, a legendary senator who made his name during the Watergate hearings.

When one of his closest friends, Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), discovers her lover murdered, Carter steps forward to shield Lynn and her politician husband (Willem Dafoe) from scandal by telling the police that he discovered the body.

This decision, predicated on friendship and trust, proves to have serious consequences for Carter and those around him. Not only does he become a murder suspect (and a pariah within social circles as a result), but subsequent circumstances indicate to him that he may have been set up… but by whom, and why? Carter’s sense of moral outrage is triggered, not just in the interest of self-preservation, but also as personal redemption. Schrader smoothly simmers the elements of the story into a heady mix that often plays out like a juicy novel, one that is rife with sex, scandal and skeletons in the closet.

With his honeyed Southern drawl, perfectly coiffed looks (which yield one of the film’s best sight gags) and blasé attitude, Carter is a marvelous creation – and Harrelson plays the role to the hilt, but he’s never a caricature. His relationships with Lynn, with his former lover (Mortiz Bleibtreu) and with various friends and confidantes (including Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty and Schrader’s wife, Mary Beth Hurt) are rendered in complex, adult terms. Rated R. ***


10TH & WOLF (THINKFilm): Oscar-winning screenwriter Bobby Moresco makes his feature directorial debut with this latter-day mob melodrama inspired by a true story, with James Marsden going undercover for the FBI to get the goods on his own family. Nothing new, but not bad. Set in south Philly but filmed in Pittsburgh. Also on hand: Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Dennehy, Dennis Hopper, Lesley Ann Warren, Piper Perabo, Leo Rossi, Tommy Lee, an unrecognizable Val Kilmer and the late Brad Renfro. Rated R. **½

“AMERICAN GANGSTER” – THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (BET Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment): All 10 episodes from the 2007 season of the BET documentary series profiling the lives and crimes of such real-life gangsters as Frank Lucas (the inspiration for the film American Gangster), Chaz Williams (now an entertainment mogul), Felix Mitchell, Jeff Fort, the Philly Black Mafia and others. Narrated by Ving Rhames. This boxed set, which retails for $36.99, also includes extended interviews.

“THE ANIMATION SHOW” – VOLUME 3 (MTV Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment): An anthology of animated shorts selected by Mike Judge (of “Beavis and Butthead” Fame), as originally shown on “The Animation Show”‘s theatrical tour. Among the award-winning filmmakers whose work is showcased are Bill Plympton, Joanna Quinn, Don Hertzfeldt and Judge himself. This special-edition DVD retails for $19.99.

“THE BEST OF “WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE'” (New Line Home Entertainment/BCI): Nine episodes from the prime-time CBS-TV Western series, which ran from 1958-“61 and starred the young Steve McQueen as the laconic but relentless bounty hunter Josh Randall. This special collection, which retails for $9.98, includes such guest stars as James Coburn (later to co-star with McQueen in The Magnificent Seven), Mary Tyler Moore, Warren Oates, Michael Landon, Martin Landau, DeForest Kelley, Wayne Rogers, Lon Chaney and Lee Van Cleef.

BOPHA! (Paramount Home Entertainment): Morgan Freeman helmed this 1993 adaptation of Percy Mtwa’s play, with Danny Glover as a policeman whose son (Maynard Eziashi) becomes politically active in early-’80s South Africa, when the anti-apartheid movement was taking hold. Serious-minded and well-intentioned, but also obvious and slow-moving. Malcolm McDowell, Alfre Woodard and Marius Weyers also star. To date, the only feature film directed by Freeman and the only film produced by Arsenio Hall Communications. Rated PG-13. **

“THE CELEBRITY SERIES – CATHERINE DENEUVE 5-FILM COLLECTION” (LionsGate Home Entertainment): A limited-edition boxed set of five feature films starring the actress hailed by many (myself included) as among the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen… and, better than that, she’s proven to be a great actress, too. This collection, which retails for $39.98, includes director Jean Aural’s updated 1968 Abbe Prevost adaptation Manon 70, with Sami Frey, Jean-Claude Brialy, Elsa Martinelli and reliable Robert Webber; opposite Yves Montand and Tony Roberts in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1975 comedy Le Sauvage; opposite Patrick Dewaere in Andre Techine’s 1981 romantic drama Hotel des Ameriques; teamed with Alain Delon in the 1982 thriller Le Choc; and opposite Gerard Depardieu, Philippe Noiret and Sophie Marceau in Alain Courneau’s epic adaptation of Fort Saganne (1984).

THE DEADLY BEES (Legend Films): The title tells all in this low-budget 1967 shocker directed by Freddie Francis, co-scripted by Robert Bloch and loosely based on HF Heard’s novel A Taste for Honey, in which an exhausted pop singer (Suzanna Leigh) takes a sabbatical on a remote English island where attacks by bees are becoming both commonplace and fatal. This seemed a lot scarier when I was a kid, and the special effects aren’t so hot, but this whodunit’s still got a little sting to it. (Get it? Of course you do …) A remarkably straight-faced supporting cast includes Guy Doleman, Michael Ripper and the always-welcome Frank Finlay as the tweedy beekeeper Mr. Manfred. Look fast for Ron Wood in the recording-studio scene. **

THE FOREST (Code Red DVD/BCI): A “special edition” of producer/director Don Jones’ laughable, low-rent 1981 schlock shocker, in which unwary campers are stalked by a cannibalistic killer (Gary Kent), who is himself haunted by the ghosts of his victims. Rated R. *

HURRICANE (Legend Films): Over $20 million went gone with the wind in producer Dino De Laurentiis’ turgid 1979 remake of the 1937 John Ford classic, depicting the forbidden romance between a hunky young Samoan king (Hawaiian-born surfer Dayton Ka’ne, in his screen debut) and the willowy daughter (Mia Farrow) of the territorial governor (Jason Robards) in 1920s Pago Pago, just before a catastrophic hurricane lays waste to the region. As an onscreen romantic duo, Farrow and Ka’ne are mismatched, to say the least. Filmed in Bora Bora, with cinematography by Sven Nykvist, score by Nino Rota, disjointed editing by Sam O’Steen, and a supporting cast including Trevor Howard (typecast as a boozy Irish priest), Timothy Bottoms, James Keach and Max Von Sydow (dignity intact) as a kind-hearted doctor who utters the immortal line “Hell’s bells – the sea is rising!” It sure is, even when interest is waning. Roman Polanski was originally slated to direct, but had to leave the project and the country (rather quickly, ahem) and was replaced by Jan Troell, who hasn’t made an English-language film since. (I think I know why.) The real disaster occurred when they tallied the box-office takings. Rated PG. *

“KAMIKAZE PRIDE 34” (Pride FC Worldwide, LLC/BCI): Kazuyuki Fujita, Jeff Monson, Ricardo Arona, Sokoudjou and Zeig Galesic are among those martial artists whose matches are showcased in this international tournament held in Japan and broadcast on pay-per-view earlier this year. This DVD, which includes bonus matches and a photo montage, retails for $19.98.

KINGS OF THE SUN (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Director J. Lee Thompson’s brawny but talky 1963 epic stars George Chakiris as a Mayan king who leads his people to Mexico, where they encounter Indians led by bald, buff Yul Brynner. The grand-scale battle sequences are fun, but much of the cast (excepting Brynner, who doesn’t even show up until nearly 30 minutes in) looks rather silly in their costumes: Richard Basehart (whose fright wig is truly a sight – and a fright), Brad Dexter, Leo Gordon, Barry Morse, Ford Rainey and Shirley Anne Field, who’s totally miscast in the female lead. **

MEET THE SPARTANS (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Yet another lowbrow spoof of a popular movie – in this case, 300. Sean Maguire plays the heroic Leonidas, who leads his 13 Spartans into battle… usually against a cut-rate script and an endless repetition of jokes. A few gags hit, but not nearly enough of them. Also on hand: Kevin Sorbo (pretty funny, actually), Carmen Electra (easy on the eyes), NCSA alumnus Diedrich Bader, Method Man, Phil Morris and Ken Davitian. This runs only 67 minutes before the (lengthy) end titles, and still feels too long. Writer/directors Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg also did Epic Movie and Date Movie. Enough’s enough, guys. Rated PG-13 (also available in an unrated, “Pit-of-Death” edition) *½

“TNA LOCKDOWN 2008” (TNA Wrestling/BCI Navarre): The big “Total Nonstop Wrestling” event broadcast on Pat-Per-View in April, which featured the TNA World Heavyweight Championship between Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe (AKA “The Samoa Submission Machine”), as well as other matches featuring such popular TNA wrestlers and teams as “Cowboy” James Storm, the Latin American Xchange, Awesome Kong, Angelina Love, Consequences Creed, the Rock N’ Rave Infection and others. This DVD retails for $19.98.

“TRANSFORMERS ANIMATED ­- TRANSFORM & ROLL OUT” (Paramount Home Entertainment): More futuristic follies from the mechanized marvels “immortalized” (they sure were) in the Hasbro toy collection and in subsequent animated series’ and feature films. The new animated series airs on the Cartoon Network and this DVD retails for $16.99.

VILLA RIDES (Legend Films): Yul Brynner (with a full head of hair!) plays the legendary revolutionary Pancho Villa, joined by Robert Mitchum as a gun-running American pilot in this brawny but middling 1968 Western. Sam Peckinpah wrote the original script, intending to direct, but then Robert Towne was brought in to rewrite it and Peckinpah was out. This is one of those movies that ends just as it’s getting started. Also on hand: Charles Bronson, Herbert Lom (as Huerta), Fernando Rey, Alexander Knox, Jill Ireland (Bronson’s wife) and an unbilled John Ireland (no relation to Jill). The opening dedication to Villa seems especially trite given how heavily fictionalized this story is. A missed opportunity. Rated R. **

“WEEDS” – SEASON THREE (LionsGate Home Entertainment): The ever-lovely Mary-Louise Parker (an NCSA alumus) stars in all 15 episodes from the 2007 season of the award-winning Showtime comedy series about a young widow who deals marijuana in order to make ends meet. Five Emmy nominations including outstanding lead actress (Parker) and supporting actress (Elizabeth Perkins) in a comedy series. This boxed set retails for $39.98.

ZPG – ZERO POPULATION GROWTH (Legend Films): In Michael Campus’ dreary 1972 directorial debut, Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin play a couple who defy the edict of an oppressive, Orwellian future by conceiving a child. A potentially provocative concept is rendered impotent (no pun intended) by draggy pacing and flat performances, even from the normally intense Reed, who is subdued to the point of catatonia. Rated PG. *½

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

Copyright 2008, Mark Burger