video vault

by Mark Burger


(The Criterion Collection)

A quintessential courtroom drama, Otto Preminger’s still-potent, thencontroversial 1959 adaptation of the best-selling novel ranks as an all-time classic, with every level of talent in peak form.

Topping the list is James Stewart as attorney Paul Biegler. The actor’s familiar, easygoing persona is certainly on display, but Biegler’s no pushover; he’s relentless, manipulative and ruthless — and he needs to be, if he’s to successfully defend young Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), on trail for killing the man who raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick).

While Biegler and his associates (Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell) sift through the clues and disparate personalities in the case, he simultaneously wages war in the court against an ineffectual district attorney (Brooks West, Arden’s real-life husband) and a sharp special prosecutor (George C. Scott). Murray Hamilton, Kathryn Grant, Orson Bean, Duke Ellington (who composed the score) and real-life judge Joseph N. Welch round out a peerless cast.

Remarkably, the film was edited and in theaters a mere six weeks after principal photography was completed, and was a big hit with audiences and critics alike, earning seven Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Stewart), Best Supporting Actor (both O’Connell and Scott), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (black and white) and Best Editing. The special-edition DVD retails for $29.95, the special-edition Blu-ray for $39.95.

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Home Entertainment): Prohibition-era Atlantic City is the setting for the critically acclaimed HBO drama series starring Steve Buscemi as the town treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, brokering business above and below legal boundaries. The regular cast includes Michael Shannon, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gretchen Mol, Shea Whigham, Aleksa Palladino and Dabney Coleman. Winner of eight Emmy Awards including Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (executive producer Martin Scorsese), with an additional 10 nominations including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Buscemi) and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Macdonald). The DVD boxed set retails for $59.99, the Blu-ray boxed set for $79.98.

“BORGIA FAITH AND FEAR”: SEASON ONE (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Executive producer Tom Fontana created this historical drama series (distributed by NetFlix) with John Doman as the ruthless and ambitious Rodrigo Borgia, who uses his status at the Vatican to extend his power throughout Rome and beyond. This three-DVD boxed set retails for $39.98.

CARVE HER NAME WITH PRIDE (VCI Entertainment): Virginia McKenna gives an excellent performance as real-life World War II heroine Violette Szabo, famed for her bravery fighting alongside the French Resistance on behalf of the British war effort, in this fact-based 1958 drama adapted from RJ Minny’s best-seller by Vernon Harris and director Lewis Gilbert. Quintessential “stiff-upper-lip” heroics, bolstered by a strong cast: Paul Scofield, Jack Warner, Maurice Ronet, Sydney Tafler, Bill Owen, Noel Willman, Billie Whitelaw and Andre Maranne — and look fast for a young (and unbilled) Michael Caine.

THE DESCENDANTS (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Alexander Payne earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Director for his near-perfect adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, starring George Clooney (who scored a much-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Actor) as a Hawaiian businessman juggling a potentially lucrative land deal, two rebellious daughters (Shailene Woodley and newcomer Amara Miller) and an adulterous wife in a coma (Patricia Hastie). Payne has yet to make a bad movie, and this is one of his best — and one of 2011’s best. Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash took home Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, with additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Editing. Rated R.

IMMORTALS (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Garish, unconscionable muddle of mysticism and mayhem, with a laughably miscast Mickey Rourke chewing the scenery as the maniacal King Hyperion, bent on world domination lest heroic Theseus (Henry Cavill) can stop him — with a little help from the gods, of course. A Greek tragedy of the first and worst order, and among the worst films of 2011, but it was a box-office hit (!) and, actually, one of the more unintentionally hilarious bad movies in recent memory. Rated R. No stars

“IWA WRESTLING”: VOL. 1, BEST OF THE ‘70S (VCI Entertainment): A commemorative DVD ($19.99 retail) celebrating the International Wrestling Association and its hard-hitting, body-slamming competitors, including Dominic Denucci, Ox Baker, Gary Fargo, Dick the Bruiser, Ivan Koloff, Ernie Ladd, Bulldog Brower, Jerry Lawler and others.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: DOOM (DC Entertainment/ Warner Premiere): The latest in an ongoing series of original animated feature-length films is inspired by Mark Waid’s JLA: Tower of Bable, boasting an all-star lineup of DC Comics superheroes and lineup of voice talent: Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern, Tim Daly as Superman, Kevin Conroy as Batman, Michael Rosenbaum as Flash and three veterans of the “Justice League” series: Olivia d’Abo, Phil Morris and Alexis Denisof. The DVD retails for $19.98, the Blu-ray for $24.98. Rated PG-13.

KING OF TRIADS (LionsGate Home Entertainment): The DVD debut ($26.95 retail) of writer/director Dennis Law’s crime drama about an internal war that rocks the Hong Kong underworld. Originally titled Mit Moon. In Cantonese with English subtitles. Rated R.

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (Alpha Home Entertainment): Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur co-directed this 1920 silent version of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic, set during the French and Indian War of the 1750s. Impressive outdoor photography and sets, especially given the era in which it was made, and many Native American characters are presented in respectful fashion — with the notable exception of Wallace Beery’s mugging portrayal of the villainous Magua. Oddly, the character of Hawkeye (Harry Lorraine) remains in the background much of the time.

LIONSGATE BLU-RAYS (LionsGate Home Entertainment): A pair of feature films make their Blu-ray debut: Ryan Phillippe and Mike Myers star in 1998’s 54 (rated R), which retails for $19.99; and the director’s cut of the 2000 action thriller Reindeer Games (rated R), starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron and Gary Sinise, the final feature for director John Frankenheimer (who ranks at the top of this critic’s favorite directors), which retails for $14.99.

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): The Bluray bow ($19.99 retail) of the 1975 comedy which marked the second feature for Britain’s title troupe: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin (all in multiple roles). Rated PG.

NAUGHTY TEEN (One 7 Movies/CAV Distributing Corp.): Leering 1977 Italian softcore sex comedy (original title: Cara Dolce Nipote) about a bumbling widower (Femi Benussi) whose niece (Ursula Heinle) is an exact lookalike for his dead wife. A few sexy moments but many boring ones. In Italian with English subtitles.

NAVY BLUES (Alpha Home Entertainment): Fast-paced, featherweight 1937 comedy with Dick Purcell as a sailor on leave who woos a pretty librarian (Mary Brian) and tangles with an enemy spy ring.

NAVY SPY (Alpha Home Entertainment): That would be Conrad Nagel, disguises at the ready and reporter Eleanor Hunt as his back-up, on the trail of enemy agents who have abducted a young Naval officer possessing a top-secret formula, in this zippy 1937 programmer directed by noted B-movie veterans Joseph H. Lewis and screenwriter Crane Wilbur.

SPRINGTIME IN THE SIERRAS (Alpha Home Entertainment): Roy Rogers battles poachers in this 1947 Republic Pictures’ Western, filmed in “Tru-color” and marking one of Roy’s more expansive (and longer) screen outings. Andy Devine supplies comedy and Roy a few songs (backed by Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers), while Stephanie Bachelor supplies menace as a surprisingly wicked female villain.

TOOTH FAIRY 2 (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Larry the Cable Guy picks up where Dwayne Johnson left off in this direct-to-video follow-up to the 2010 comedy, available on DVD ($22.98 retail) or Blu-ray ($29.99 retail). Yes, it’s true: They’ll make a sequel to anything. Rated PG.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. © 2012, Mark Burger