video vault

by Mark Burger


(The Criterion Collection)

Filmmaker David Lean (1908-’91) and actor/playwright Noel Coward (1899- 1973) collaborated on four films, all included in this splendid special-edition boxed set.

Lean and Coward co-directed the 1942 World War II drama In Which We Serve, which Coward also produced, scripted and starred. Made with the complete cooperation of the Royal Navy, it was an international success, earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, with Coward receiving a special Oscar for “Outstanding Production Achievement.”

Two years later, Lean helmed the adaptation of Coward’s play This Happy Breed, depicting the day-to-day life of a blue-collar British family in the years between World Wars I and II, featuring John Mills, Robert Newton and Celia Johnson, with narration by Laurence Olivier. The initially underrated 1945 adaptation of Coward’s paranormal comedy Blithe Spirit (starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford) won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

Lean and Coward’s final collaboration is thought by many to be their best: The classic 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter (based on Coward’s one-act play Still Life), with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson as strangers on a train who embark on a futile romance, as both are already married. The film earned three Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (Johnson).

The DVD boxed set retails for $79.95, the Blu-ray boxed set for $99.95.

A BEAUTIFUL LIFE (China Lion/New Video): Writer/producer/cinematographer/ director Andrew Lau’s romantic drama pairs Shu Qi as an alcoholic real-estate broker and Liu Ye as a disillusioned police officer who unexpectedly find love. The DVD retails for $26.95, the Blu-ray for $29.95. In Mandarin with English subtitles.

BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL (China Lion/New Video): Jianxin Huang and Sanping Han co-directed this historical epic (also known as The Founding of a Party) that dramatizes the events of the Chinese Revolution from 1911 to 1921, now available on DVD ($26.95 retail) and Blu-ray ($29.95 retail). A starstudded cast includes Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau, Liu Ye (as Mao Zedong) and filmmaker John Woo. In Mandarin with English subtitles.

CLOSED FOR THE SEASON (MTI Home Video): Aimee Brooks and Damian Maffei play a young couple trapped inside an abandoned amusement park, taunted and terrorized by “the Carny” (Joe Unger) in this surreal low-budget chiller from writer/director/editor/composer Jay Woelfel, filmed on location at Chippewa Lake Park in Ohio. Not bad, but a bit repetitive.

COOK COUNTY (Hannover House): Writer/ producer/director David Pomes’ award-winning feature debut is set in a remote rural community in Texas where the prevalent pastime appears to be methamphetamine production — and ingestion. Excellent performances by Xander Berkeley as an ex-con trying to sort things out with his addicted, hard-dealing younger brother (Anson Mount) and wary son (Ryan Donowho). The three leads, also credited as producers, are so good that it’s a shame the rest of the slowmoving story doesn’t quite measure up. Still worth a look, and Pomes also coaxes good work from Polly Cole as Mount’s zonked-out girlfriend and newcomer Mackenna Fitzsimmons as his daughter. Rated R.

CRIME PATROL (Alpha Home Entertainment): Boxer-turned-cop Ray Walker battles the underworld in this watchable 1936 programmer.

ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN (Flatiron Film Company): Jose Padilha follows up his award-winning 2007 crime drama with this award-winning sequel (Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora E Outro), again starring Wagner Moura as a top-ranking police official battling both political corruption and street crime in Rio de Janeiro. In Portuguese with English subtitles. The DVD retails for $29.95, the DVD/Blu-ray combo for $34.95.

ESSENTIAL KILLING (Tribeca Film/New Video): Jerzy Skolimowski’s topical, well-made adventure stars Vincent Gallo as a Taliban warrior trying to elude capture in Afghanistan. Given the nature of his role and lack of dialogue, Gallo is remarkably empathetic, but the denouement has a certain air of inevitability.

FELIPE ESPARZA: THEY’RE NOT GONNA LAUGH AT YOU (Entertainment One): Maybe they will, as the winner of 2010’s “Last Comic Standing” competition hits the stage in this stand-up comedy special, now available on DVD ($14.98 retail).

FRAMED (Alpha Home Entertainment): Snappy 1930 programmer, with Evelyn Brent as a mobster’s daughter who bides her time to exact revenge upon the police inspector (William Holden — the silent-era star) she deems responsible for his death, only to fall for his son (Regis Toomey). Good supporting work by Ralf Harolde as a shady club owner and Robert Emmett O’Connor as a quintessential wisecracking cop.

GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE (Entertainment One): Executive producer Luke Perry stars as John Goodnight, a hard-drinking, rule-bending circuit judge who rights wrongs in the Old West. Perry looks right at home in the saddle in this easy-going horse opera, directed by his old “Beverly Hills 90210” co-star Jason Priestley. This premiered on cable and proved so popular with viewers that Perry will ride again as Goodnight.

“THE GUILD”: SEASON 5 (Flatiron Film Company/New Video): Gaming enthusiasts get a ribbing in this popular web comedy series created by producer/star Felicia Day and featuring such fantasy favorites as Erin Gray, Wil Wheaton, Doug Jones, Brent Spiner and Nathan Fillion (as himself). This special-edition DVD ($14.95 retail) includes all 12 episodes from the 2011 season.

HONOR OF THE PRESS (Alpha Home Entertainment): Cub reporter Edward J. Nugent’s investigation of a citywide crime spree gets him into hot water in this fastmoving 1932 mystery programmer directed by the aptly-named “Breezy” Eason. Rita LaRoy, Dorothy Gulliver, Russell Simpson and Wheeler Oakman (as a media mogul with a secret) round out a fun cast.

LAUGHOLOGY (The Disinformation Company): Director Albert Nerenberg explores what makes people laugh — and why — in this light but interesting documentary.

“LAVERNE & SHIRLEY”: THE FIFTH SEASON (CBS DVD/Paramount Home Entertainment): Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams are back in the title roles of Milwaukee’s funniest female roommates of the ’50s, in all 26 episodes from the 1979-’80 season of the long-running ABC sitcom, spun off from “Happy Days” and equally as popular. The DVD boxed set retails for $42.99.

RESURRECTION COUNTY (MTI Home Video): Suburban hikers take the wrong path in a backwoods Southern burg where the residents (most of them toting rifles) don’t take too kindly to strangers. Predictable but competent shocker with some directorial flair from Matt Zettell. Warning to suburban hikers: When the sign says “Keep Out,” best to heed.

ROADIE (Magnolia Home Entertainment): Ron Eldard plays the title role in director Michael Cuesta’s award-winning drama, as a roadie for Blue Oyster Cult who must reassess his life when he is fired after 20 years. The DVD retails for $26.98, the Blu-ray for $29.98. Rated R.

SEX HELL (Impulse Pictures/CAV Distributing Corp.): With a title like that, rest assured that this 1975 Japanese opus (subtitled True Story of Women in Jail) about a women’s prison doesn’t much strive for subtlety… or taste… or class. This was one of many erotic exploitation films produced by Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, which in 2012 is celebrating a century of cinema. In Japanese with English subtitles.

SON OF MORNING (Entertainment One): Religion takes a ribbing in this writer/ director Yaniv Raz’s scattershot black comedy, starring Joseph Cross (also a co-producer) as an average guy hailed as the next messiah. A talented cast is wasted: Heather Graham, Danny Glover, Lorraine Bracco, Stephen Root, Jon Polito, Jesse Bradford, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Steven Weber, Bob Odenkirk, Peter Jason, et al. The soundtrack’s not bad, but the movie is. Rated R.

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