video vault

by Mark Burger

DVD Pick of the week: Simon and Laura

(VCI Entertainment)

Decades before it became a phenomenon, reality TV is the topic of this breezy, little-seen 1955 comedy with Peter Finch and Kay Kendall in the title roles.

TV producer David Prentice (Ian Carmichael) has an idea for a series that will showcase the “real lives” of celebrity couple Simon and Laura Foster. Reasons Prentice: “They’re doing the same thing in America… and with great success.” (Little could he ever imagine.)

The series is an instant smash, with even Simon and Laura’s butler (Maurice Denham) and cook (Thora Hird) becoming celebrities in their own right. But unlike the bucolic domesticity they portray on TV, Simon and Laura’s marriage is collapsing amid mistrust and malice, culminating in a disastrous live Christmas broadcast in which everything goes riotously wrong.

A charming cast also includes Clive Parritt (as a bratty child actor “adopted” by Simon and Laura on the series), Muriel Pavlow, Richard Wattis and Hubert Gregg, as the sort of agent who could sell his client down the river with a smile. Best of all, sparring with true sparkle, is the delightful lead duo. Kendall would make only four more films before tragically dying of leukemia in 1959 at age 33. As for Finch, he would cap his career 20 years later with another, more vitriolic depiction of the power of television: Network, for which he would win the Oscar as Best Actor. Sadly, it would be his final feature film.

ALSO Available

“ACCORDING TO JIM”: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Jim Belushi is Dad, Courtney Thorne-Smith is Mom, and parenthood continues to be contended with, in all 27 episodes from the 2004-’05 season of the longrunning prime-time ABC sitcom. This four-DVD boxed set retails for $29.98.

“AMERICA: THE STORY OF US” (A&E Home Entertainment): The history of this nation is examined in this Emmy Award-winning 2010 History Channel mini-series, with each episode examining a specific time period: “Rebels,” “Westward,” “Civil War,” “Rise of a Superpower,” “Boom” and “Millennium.” Each DVD retails for $14.95.

“BOY MEETS WORLD”: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON (LionsGate Home Entertainment): College beckons Ben Savage and company (including Danielle Fishel, Rider Strong, Will Friedle and William Daniels), in all 24 episodes from the 1998-’99 season of the award-winning ABC sitcom. This three-DVD boxed set retails for $29.98.

A COLD DAY IN HELL (LionsGate Home Entertainment): A low-budget, slow-moving Western melodrama. Top-billed Michael Madsen has a minor role and looks bored throughout. With good reason. Rated PG-13.

“ENTOURAGE”: THE COMPLETE SEVENTH SEASON (HBO Home Entertainment): Adrian Grenier and his faithful posse continue to hold forth in Hollywood, in all 10 episodes from the 2010 season of the critically acclaimed, awardwinning HBO series, with Kevin Dillon, Kevin Connolly, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Carla Gugino and Jeremy Piven as super-agent Ari Gold. The DVD boxed set retails for $39.98, the Blu-ray boxed set for $49.99.

GNOMEO & JULIET (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment): William Shakespeare’s classic romance gets an animated makeover — replete with happy ending (!) — in this lighthearted romp set in neighboring English yards, featuring the voices of James McAvoy and Emily Blunt in the title roles, along with Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Ozzy Osbourne, Patrick Stewart and Michael Caine. Elton John was the executive producer and (not surprisingly) supplied the songs. Available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo ($39.99 retail) or a DVD/3-D Blu-ray combo ($49.99 retail). Rated G.

IMAX BLU-RAYS (Infinity Entertainment Group): A pair of nature documentaries originally produced in the IMAX format: Robert Foxworth narrates 1991’s Ring of Fire, an exploration of volcanoes; and Geoffrey Holder narrates the self-explanatory Tropical Rainforest (1992). Each Blu-ray retails for $19.98.

LEMONADE MOUTH (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment): A special extended edition ($26.99 retail) of the Disney Channel original movie about five teenagers striving to make it big in the music industry, based on the book by Mark Peter Hughes.

MANDRAKE (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Betsy Russell (wisely kidding the material) and Max Martini encounter restless natives and an inhuman, shape-shifting creature while seeking a fabled artifact in this fast-paced junk that fast runs out of steam.

MORE THAN A GAME (LionsGate Home Entertainment): The true-life saga of coach Dru Joyce II and the “Akron Fab Five” (including one LeBron James) is explored in co-writer/ producer/director Kristopher Belman’s sports documentary, which covers a lot of ground already familiar to basketball fans. James was also an executive producer. Rated PG.

“THE P.J’S”: SEASON 2 (LionsGate Home Entertainment): A two-DVD boxed set ($19.98 retail) containing all 18 episodes from the 2000 season of the animated, Emmy-winning Fox Network sitcom about a bickering family trying to thrive and survive in a Detroit housing project. The voiceover cast includes series cocreator Eddie Murphy, Loretta Devine and Ja’Net Dubois.

THE ROMANTIC ENGLISHWOMAN (Kino Lorber): Glenda Jackson plays the title role in Joseph Losey’s 1975 adaptation of Thomas Wiseman’s novel, adapted by the author and Tom Stoppard, in which British author Michael Caine begins to wonder if wife Glenda didn’t dally with a German gigolo/drug trafficker (Helmut Berger) during a vacation in Baden Baden. Reality and fantasy then begin to blur in a film that is occasionally perceptive, often pretentious and consistently vague (which was much the fashion back then). Still, the cast works hard and in retrospect is an interesting misfire, as well as a must for Losey admirers. Michael Lonsdale, Nathalie Delon and Kate Nelligan (in her screen debut) also appear. Incredibly, Roger Corman distributed this in the US! Rated R.

STEP OFF (LionsGate Home Entertainment):

An overly earnest, utterly routine hip-hop melodrama starring Conrad Clifton as up-andcoming rapper “Jack tha Rippa,” fighting to make his name. Bland in the extreme. Rated R.

THE WAY TO THE STARS (VCI Entertainment):

Director Anthony Asquith’s first-rate 1945 drama, scripted by Terrence Rattigan, details life (and death) in and around an RAF base during World War II. Well-observed, refreshingly adult and quietly powerful, with a sterling cast including Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Rosamund John, Renee Asherson, Basil Radford, Felix Aylmer, Douglass Montgomery, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, David Tomlinson and, in their respective screen debuts, Trevor Howard and Jean Simmons. Released just as the war was ending, this might be described as a British variation on The Best Years of Our Lives, and the comparison is very favorable. Released in the US as Johnny in the Clouds.

WOMEN-IN-PRISON TRIPLE FEATURE (Panik House Entertainment): What it says is what it is, a triple-threat DVD collection ($29.95 retail) of the “babes-behind-bars” exploitation genre: Chained Heat (1983) boasts an all-star cast including Linda Blair, Stella Stevens, Henry Silva, John Vernon, Sybil Danning, Tamara Dobson, Nita Talbot and Michael Callan; Jungle Warriors (1984) teams Vernon and Danning with Alex Cord, Woody Strode, Marjoe Gortner, Nina Van Pallandt and Paul L. Smith; and 1988’s Red Heat stars Blair and Sylvia Kristel. This collection is presented in association with Mr. Skin, for obvious reasons, and all three films are rated R, for reasons that are also obvious. The same reasons, actually!

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2011, Mark Burger