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by Mark Burger

DVD PICK OF THE WEEKDOWNHILL RACER (TheCriterion Collection): This 1969 drama iswidely regarded as one of the best moviesever made about skiing. Indeed, the skiingfootage is excellent — and at the time,revolutionary — but there’s more to thismovie than the sport it dramatizes.The film marked director MichaelRitchie’s first feature and the first filmproduced by Robert Redford’s WildwoodEnterprises, with Redford in the lead roleof David Chappellet, a young skiier whojoins the US team on a European tour andquickly asserts himself as both a giftedathlete and a genuine cad. He doesn’t careabout the team, only himself. He skis towin, not to learn from any mistakes, andhe’s determined to do it his own way.Even at this early stage in his career,Redford gravitated toward unsympatheticroles that belied his good looks, and he’sperfect here as the narcissistic golden boy.Camilla Sparv lends appropriate glamourto the role of a ski groupie he brieflyromances, and providing the perfectcounter-balance to Redford’s callowcynicism is the great Gene Hackman asteam coach Eugene Claire, compelled tocompromise his principles when it comesto dealing with Chappellet.Although the film wasn’t a box-officehit, Downhill Racer remains a importantreflection of the cynicism of the time inwhich it was made. In retrospect and inmany regards, it’s just as timely now.Besides, then as now, Hackman rules.Rated PG. ***ALSO ON DVDBROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON(Paramount Home Entertainment): Thestory of St. Francis of Assisi, as directedand played (none too well, in either case)by Franco Zeffirelli and Graham Faulkner,respectively, in this picturesque but oftensilly1973 Biblical epic featuring originalsongs by Donovan (which don’t help). Byportraying the 12th century Francesco as anon-conformist “drop-out,” Zeffirelli (whoalso receives a screenplay credit, as doesLina Wertmuller) hoped to recapture theyouthful audience that made his Romeoand Juliet such a hit, but it didn’t workout that way. The supporting cast includesValentina Cortese, Judi Bowker, LeighLawson (in his screen debut), KennethCranham, Adolfo Celi and, all too briefly,Alec Guinness (as Pope Innocent III).Oscar nomination for art direction/setdecoration. Rated PG. **THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHINGUS (The Criterion Collection): A specialedition ($29.95 retail) of Vittorio DeSica’s adaptation Cesare Giulio Viola’snovel Prico, starring Luciano de Ambrosisas a young boy whose perception of theworld is shaped, none too well, but hisself-absorbed parents (Isa Pola and EmilioCigoli). Originally titled I Bambini ciGuardano, this was made in 1942 but notreleased 1944, and marked the first of manycollaborations between De Sica and coscreenwriterCesare Zavattini. In Italian withEnglish subtitles.EXPEDITION AFRICA (A&E HomeEntertainment): A group of adventuresembark on a contemporary journey throughAfrica by following the original routefollowed by 19th century explorer Dr. DavidLivingstone. This boxed set, which retailsfor $29.95 (DVD) or $39.95 (Blu-ray),includes all eight episodes from the 2009History Channel series, which earnedan Emmy nomination for OutstandingCinematography for Non-FictionProgramming.GAMBLING CITY (NoShame Films):Sergio Martino’s 1975 melodrama(originally titled La Citta’ Gioca d’Azzardo)stars Luc Merenda as a cocky cardsharpwho gets mixed up with the Milanese mob.Splashy and violent, as befits the genre, butthe downbeat conclusion doesn’t ring true.Rated R. **“KINGS”: THE COMPLETE SERIES(Universal Studios Home Entertainment):Ian McShane, Dylan Baker and ChristopherEgan star in this prime-time NBC-TVdrama, a modern-day military drama looselybased on the Biblical story of King David.This boxed set, which retails for $59.98,includes all 12 episodes from the 2009 (andonly) season.METROPOLITAN (The CriterionCollection): Whit Stillman’s award-winning1990 satire depicts the so-called “beautifulpeople” of New York City’s debutantesociety at the tail end of the Yuppie era.This marked the feature debut for writer/producer/director Stillman and much ofthe cast, including Christopher Eigeman,Taylor Nichols and Carolyn Farina, andscored Stillman an Oscar nomination forBest Original Screenplay. This specialeditionDVD, which includes director’scommentary and outtakes, retails for $39.95.Rated PG-13.QUARTET (The Merchant IvoryCollection): Producer Ismail Merchant,director James Ivory and screenwriterRuth Prawer Jhabvala collaborated on thisaward-winning 1981 adaptation of JeanRhys’ semi-autobiographical first novel,with a luminous Isabelle Adjani as a youngwoman in 1920s’ Paris who is taken in bya wealthy British couple (Alan Bates andMaggie Smith) when her husband (AnthonyHiggins) is imprisoned — with expectedlydevastating results. Despite the classy cast(which also includes Suzanne Flon andBernice Stegers) and customary MerchantIvory polish (including a Richard Robbinsscore), this is one of the team’s more arch,lugubrious and long-winded endeavors.Rated R. **THE RISE OF MONTY PYTHON: THEOTHER BRITISH INVASION (A&E HomeEntertainment): The title tells all in his twodiscdocumentary ($19.95 retail) chroniclingthe history of one of England’s mostbeloved comedy troupes, being released tocommemorate its 40th anniversary.“THE ROCKFORD FILES”: MOVIECOLLECTION, VOLUME 1 (UniversalStudios Home Entertainment): Years afterthe demise of his popular prime-timedetective series (and subsequent litigationinvolving royalties and residuals), JamesGarner returned to the role of privateinvestigator Jim Rockford and was theexecutive producer for a series of CBS-TVmovies, four of which are included in thiscollection: I Still Love LA (1994) co-starsJoanna Cassidy and Joseph Campanella; ABlessing in Disguise (1995) co-stars RichardRomanus and Renee O’Connor; If theFrame Fits… (1996) co-stars Dyan Cannonand series favorites Tom Atkins, GretchenCorbett and James Luisi; and GodfatherKnows Best (also ’96) scored an Emmynomination for Outstanding IndividualAchievement in Sound Editing for a Mini-Series or Special. Joe Santos (Capt. DennisBecker) and Stuart Margolin (Angel Martin)also reprise their series roles in all fourfilms. This boxed set retails for $26.98.SCREWBALLS (Severin Films): Aspecial edition (!) of the leering, lowbrow1983 high-school sex comedy, in whichstudents at Taft & Adams High School(“T & A,” get it?) team up to humiliatethe school’s high-minded homecomingqueen, Purity Busch (Linda Speciale). Othercharacters are named “Bootsie Goodhead,”“Melvin Jerkovski” and “Mr. Stuckoff.”There’s little shame to be found in theseproceedings, as penned by Jim Wynorskiand Linda Shayne (who plays Bootsie), butaficionados of cheesy ‘80s nostalgia willsavor a few raunchy laughs. This almostfalls into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category.Almost. Rated R. *’½SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (TheCriterion Collection): An early triumphfor Francois Truffaut, who directed andadapted David Goodis’ novel for thiscritically acclaimed 1960 black comedystarring Charles Aznavour in the title role,that of a downtrodden nightclub pianistwho gets mixed up with the mob. Thistwo-disc special edition ($39.95 retail)includes interviews with Aznavour and costarMarie Duboi, and audio commentaryby film scholars (including Peter Brunette,who teaches at Wake Forest University). InFrench with English subtitles.“TALL TALES & LEGENDS”: THECOMPLETE SERIES (E1 Entertainment):A three-DVD boxed set ($24.98 retail) thatincludes all nine episodes from executiveproducer Shelley Duvall’s family anthologyseries that run on cable 1985-’88 (earningan Emmy nomination its final season asOutstanding Children’s Program). Thestar-studded line-up includes Jamie LeeCurtis as “Annie Oakley,” Elliott Gould in“Casey at the Bat” (with Howard Coselland Bob Uecker!), Martin Short and MollyRingwald in “Johnny Appleseed” (directedby Christopher Guest), Ed Begley Jr. andBeverly D’Angelo in “The Legend ofSleepy Hollow,” and more.“TOP CHEF: NEW YORK”: THECOMPLETE SEASON FIVE (A&EHome Entertainment): The Foo Fighters,Jean-Georges, Rocco DiSpirito andMartha Stewart are among the contestantscompeting for culinary stardom in all 14episodes from the 2008-’09 season of theaward-winning Bravo reality series, whichearned six Emmy nominations includingOutstanding Reality-Competition Program.This four-DVD boxed set retails for $29.95.“WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE…AND 5 MORE STORIES BY MAURICESENDAK” (Scholastic StorybookTreasures): With the big-budget featurefilm now in theaters, this is a compilationof animated stories adapted from the worksof the award-winning children’s writer,including “In the Night Kitchen,” “Pierre,”“Alligators All Around,” “One WasJohnny” and the title tale. This DVD retailsfor $14.95.THE WIZ (Universal Studios HomeEntertainment): A special edition of theoverproduced, overblown 1978 screenadaptation of the Tony Award-winningBroadway musical smash, an updatedversion of The Wizard of Oz with an allblackcast, headed by an over-aged DianaRoss Dorothy, with Michael Jackson asScarecrow, Nipsey Russell as Tin Manand Ted Ross, reprising his Tony Awardwinningrole, as Lion. Also on hand: LenaHorne, Theresa Merritt, Mabel King,Thelma Carpenter and Richard Pryor asthe Wiz. The score is by Quincy Jones(who also has a cameo), the makeup is byStan Winston and the screenplay by JoelSchumacher. Sidney Lumet replaced JohnBadham as director, and it proved onething — that Sidney Lumet has no greatknack for musicals. A few show-stoppingmoments, but overall it’s hit-or-miss … andtoo much the latter. Four Academy Awardnominations: Best Original Score, BestCinematography, Best Costume Designand Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.Rated G. **Mark Burger can be heard Fridaymornings on the “Two Guys NamedChris” radio show on Rock-92.Copyright 2009, Mark Burger !

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