video vault

by Mark Burger

DVD Pick of the week: THE CONVERSATION

(LionsGate Home Entertainment)

Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful 1974 thriller headlines Gene Hackman in a masterful performance. The result is one of the best films of its time, a densely structured study of paranoia, perception and technology.

Hackman’s Harry Caul is the best surveillance expert in the business. For the right price, he’ll eavesdrop on anyone, yet he’s fiercely and obsessively protective of his own privacy. When he thinks he’s listened in on a murder being plotted, his whole world falls apart. By getting involved, he becomes vulnerable — far more than he ever could have feared.

A terrific cast includes John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Teri Garr, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford and an unbilled Robert Duvall, but Hackman’s transcendent turn is the whole show. He doesn’t so much play Harry Caul as become him. It’s a fascinating performance in a fascinating film.

The film’s timing was eerily prescient, as it was released at the height of the Watergate scandal, yet The Conversation found more favor with critics than audiences. The film earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Sound and Coppola’s original screenplay, yet Hackman was unaccountably overlooked. To this day, the actor considers it among his best performances and Coppola has repeatedly cited it as his personal favorite among all his films. They’re both right. The newly released Blu-ray of The Conversation retails for $24.99, the DVD for $14.98. Rated PG.

AFRICAN CATS (Disneynature): Samuel L.

Jackson narrates this Disney documentary feature about the lives of lions and cheetahs in their natural habitat of the African wilderness. Available as a DVD/Blu-ray combo ($39.99 retail). Rated G.

“BABAR: THE CLASSIC SERIES” (Entertainment One): Jean de Brunhoff’s classic character comes to life in this award-winning animated children’s series, which originally ran 1989-’91 and focused on the friendly elephant’s adventures: “Best Friends Forever,” “School Days” and, in the spirit of the season, “Babar and Father Christmas.” Each DVD retails for $14.98.

“DETROIT 1-8-7”: SEASON ONE (LionsGate Home Entertainment): A four-DVD boxed set ($29.98 retail) containing all 18 episodes from the 2010-’11 (and only) season of the primetime ABC crime drama focusing on the day-today activities of the Detroit police’s homicide division, as covered by a documentary film crew. The cast includes Michael Imperioli and NYPD Blue veteran James McDaniel.

“GUNSMOKE”: THE FIFTH SEASON, VOLUME ONE (CBS DVD/Paramount Home Entertainment): James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon continues to lay down the law in Dodge City, in the first 20 episodes from the 1959-’60 season of the long-running, award-winning CBS Western series. This DVD boxed set retails for $36.99.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 2 (Warner Home Video): The eighth (and apparently final) installment of the blockbuster big-screen franchise based on JK Rowling’s equally blockbuster book series, with Daniel Radcliffe’s heroic wizard Harry confronting his life-long nemesis Valdemort (Ralph Fiennes) once and for all. Like most of its predecessors, a bit on the long side but filled with eye-popping special effects and bolstered by its cast of familiars: Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Jason Isaacs, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Julie Walters and Kelly Macdonald. Rated PG-13.

“THE LEAGUE”: THE COMPLETE SEASON TWO (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Fantasy football forms the backdrop for this FX Network situation comedy about a group of friends who take the fantasy too far. All 13 episodes from the 2010 season are included in this boxed set, available on DVD ($29.98 retail) or Blu-ray ($39.99 retail).

THE LEGACY COLLECTION: KIRK DOUGLAS (Inception Media Group): A five-film, three-DVD boxed set ($24.98 retail) saluting the work of Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas (still going strong at age 95!): The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story and marked Douglas’ screen debut opposite Barbara Stanwyck, under the direction of Lewis Milestone; My Dear Secretary (1948); The Big Trees (1952); Catch Me a Spy (1971); and the 1972 caper The Master Touch.

LIONSGATE BLU-RAYS (LionsGate Home Entertainment): A selection of films, originally released by Miramax, debuting on DVD. Retailing for $14.99 each are: Robert Rodriguez’ 2005 family adventure The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (rated PG); George Clooney’s 2002 directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (rated R); the “Collector’s Series” edition of 1997’s all-star crime drama Cop Land (rated R); the unrated, 25th anniversary special edition of Sam Raimi’s 1986 cult hit Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn; and a pair of Oscarwinning Italian films, 1988’s Cinema Paradiso

(rated PG) and 1997’s Life is Beautiful (rated PG-13). Retailing for $19.99 each are: Brandon Lee in 1994’s The Crow (rated R); the awardwinning 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (rated R); and a pair of Quentin Tarantino favorites, 1994’s Pulp Fiction (rated R), which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay; and the 1997 adaptation of Jackie Brown (rated R), starring Pam Grier in the title role.

LOVE, WEDDING, MARRIAGE (IFC Films/ MPI Media Group): Actor Dermot Mulroney makes his directorial debut with this romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore and Kellan Lutz as a young couple whose relationship comes undone when her parents (James Brolin and Jane Seymour) decide to divorce. Real-life couple Alyson Hannigan and Alexis Denisof co-star along with Christopher Lloyd. The DVD retails for $24.98, the Blu-ray for $29.98. Rated PG-13.

“MR. MAGOO: THE TELEVISION COLLECTION (1961-1977)” (Shout! Factory): This 11-DVD boxed set ($79.97 retail) boasts 26 episodes from “The Mr. Magoo Show” (1960-’61); 26 episodes of the follow-up cartoon series, “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo” (1964); 16 episodes from the 1977 revival “What’s New, Mr. Magoo,” and the animated TV movie “Uncle Sam Magoo” (1970). The inimitable Jim Backus provides the voice of the title character.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Image Entertainment): The Blu-ray debut ($39.98 retail) of the first — and probably still the best — adaptation of the classic Gaston Leroux story, the 1925 silent version starring the unforgettable Lon Chaney in the title role. Essential viewing for horror and cinema historians alike.


Entertainment): Clint Eastwood and Eric Fleming are back in the saddle again, in the first 15 episodes from the 1961-’62 season of the longrunning, prime-time CBS Western series. This DVD boxed set retails for $42.99.

SCROOGE (CBS DVD/Paramount Home Entertainment): Albert Finney delightfully embodies the title role in Ronald Neame’s musical rendition of the Charles Dickens classic, released in 1970 and now available on Blu-ray ($24.99 retail). Four Academy Award nominations: Best Original Song Score, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design and Best Song (“Thank You Very Much”). Rated G.

SIMBA (VCI Entertainment): Dirk Bogarde toplines this suspenseful 1955 thriller, based on Anthony Perry’s novel and based on true events, dramatizing the native uprisings in Kenya. In retrospect, a bit one-sided but still worthwhile, bolstered by Francis Chagrin’s score and a cast including Virginia McKenna, Donald Sinden, Basil Sydney and Earl Cameron. Released in the US as Simba: Mark of the Mau Mau.

THIS TIME (Village Arts Pictures): This musical documentary traces the fortunes of back-up singers The Sweet Inspirations (Estelle Brown, Portia Griffin and Myrna Smith) on the comeback trail, as well as the career aspirations of cabaret performer Bobby Belfry, soul singer Pat Hodges and producer/composer Pietor Angell. Some good moments and good music, but this overly ambitious effort (and obvious labor of love) from editor/cinematographer/ producer/director Victor Mignatti never finds cohesion. Focusing on one subject might have worked better.

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