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by Mark Burger

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: “I, CLAUDIUS”

(Acorn Media)

A rich and robust example of historical fiction, this 1976 BBC miniseries adaptation of Robert Graves’ best-seller dramatizes the internal intrigue of ancient Rome in highly theatrical fashion, with wit, style and dollops of black comedy and sly camp.

Derek Jacobi plays the title role, that of the stammering, self-effacing Roman scholar who maintains an humble, unassuming demeanor while betrayal, corruption and treachery rage around him. Yet, almost inadvertently, he will outlast (and outlive) his enemies and become emperor himself.

Director Herbert Wise has a stellar cast on hand: John Hurt as the depraved Caligula, Brian Blessed as Augustus, George Baker as Tiberius, Ian Ogilvy as Drusus, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus and Sian Phillips, sheer wickedness as Livia, the most monstrous, manipulative mother of them all.

“I, Claudius” proved a smashing success on both sides of the Atlantic (PBS’“Masterpiece Theatre” aired it stateside in 1977), and earned Emmy nominations for Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series, with a win for Outstanding Art Direction for a Drama Series. The DVD boxed set (replete with special features) retails for $59.99.

BATTLE ROYALE (Anchor Bay Entertainment): Based on Koushun Takami’s international best-seller, Kinju Fukasaku’s controversial 2000 sci-fi action thriller is set in an economically devastated future where teenagers are pitted against each other in duels to the death. Sound familiar? Now available for the first time in North America, the DVD retails for $24.98 and the Blu-ray for $29.99. In addition, Anchor Bay is releasing Battle Royale: The Complete Collection, which also includes Fukasaku’s 2003 sequel Battle Royale II. The DVD boxed set retails for $44.98, the Blu-ray boxed set for $49.99. In Japanese with English subtitles.

BROADWAY TO CHEYENNE (Alpha Home Entertainment): Vintage 1932 “high-concept” B-movie combining gangster melodrama with Western, starring Rex Bell as a crime-busting investigator who survives a shooting, returns home to Cheyenne, and encounters the same gangsters he pursued in New York… and it all plays out in an hour’s time! That’s George Hayes (pre-”Gabby”) as one of Bell’s old buddies.

CAMELOT (Warner Home Video): The Blu-ray debut ($35.99 retail) of Joshua Logan’s epic 1967 adaptation of the Lerner & Loewe musical starring Richard Harris as King Arthur, Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere, and Franco Nero as Lancelot. Oscar winner for Best Musical Score, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration and Best Costume Design, with nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. Rated G.

CAMEL SPIDERS (Anchor Bay Entertainment): Big, mean CGI arachnids wreak havoc in a small Arizona town after making the journey from their native Middle Eastern desert, in this unabashed B-movie shocker from executive producer Roger Corman (who else?) and director Jay Andrews (AKA Jim Wynorski).

THE HISTORY OF MR. POLLY (VCI Entertainment): John Mills produces and stars in the title role of this 1949 adaptation of HG Wells’ novel, a winsome and bittersweet fable about an average, aimless English Everyman and his travels — and travails –—through life. Also on hand: Betty Ann Davies, Sally Ann Howes, Megs Jenkins, Finlay Currie, Dandy Nichols, Irene Handl, Miles Malleson and young Juliet Mills.

*** I’D GIVE MY LIFE (Alpha Home Entertainment): Surprisingly engrossing 1936 melodrama in the Madame X mold, with Sir Guy Standing as a state governor asked to pardon a convicted murderer (Tom Brown) who is actually the illegitimate son of his wife (Janet Beecher)! Based on a play called The Noose, with scenestealer Robert Gleckner as an ill-fated crime boss.

THE IRON LADY (The Weinstein Company/ Anchor Bay Entertainment): Meryl Streep’s superb, Oscar-winning performance notwithstanding, this biographical drama of Britain’s first prime minister Margaret Thatcher is undone by Abi Morgan’s scattered screenplay, which bounces back and forth in time without ever solidifying its foundation. Reliable Jim Broadbent holds his own as Thatcher’s husband Denys, and the film also earned an Academy Award for Best Makeup. Rated PG-13.

JACK & JILL (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Adam Sandler produced, cowrote and plays the title twins in this comedy directed by Sandler regular Dennis Dugan, with Katie Holmes and Al Pacino (playing himself) on hand. Available as a DVD ($30.99 retail), a Blu-ray ($35.99 retail) or a DVD/Blu-ray combo ($40.99 retail). Rated PG.

‘MASTER HAROLD’… AND THE BOYS (Image Entertainment): Respectful screen adaptation of Athol Fugard’s Tony Award-winning play, about the relationship between a troubled teenager (Freddie Highmore) and two black servants (Ving Rhames and Patrick Mofokeng) in apartheid-era South Africa. Filmed in location, directed by Lonny Price (who starred in the 1982 Broadway production) and acted with conviction, but this was one play that really didn’t need opening up. Rated PG-13.

MIRACLE OF MARCELINO (VCI Entertainment): A restored version of director Ladislao Vajda’s award-winning 1955 adaptation of Jose Maria Sanchez Silva’s best-seller Marcelino Pan y Vino, in which a young orphan (Pablito Calvo, in his screen debut) raised in a monastery who experiences a life-changing religious vision. In Spanish with English subtitles. The DVD retails for $14.99, the Blu-ray for $19.99.

MIRANDA (VCI Entertainment): Glynis Johns plays a modern-day mermaid in director Ken Annakin’s 1948 comedy, which gets a big boost from its cast: Margaret Rutherford, David Tomlinson, Googie Withers and Griffith Jones. Silly, fluffy fun that became a surprise hit.

THE MYSTERIOUS RIDER (Alpha Home Entertainment): Perennial screen heavy Douglass Dumbrille enjoys a heroic change of pace in the title role of this 1938 Zane Grey Western yarn, as an outlaw who returns to settle a 20-year-old score in the town from which he was run out for murder. Sidney Toler, soon to assume the role of Charlie Chan at Fox, plays Dumbrille’s sidekick. Other familiar faces include Western veterans Russell Hayden and Glenn Strange.

POLICE PATROL (Alpha Home Entertainment): New York cops Pat O’Malley and James Flavin parry for the affections of femme fatale Madge Bellamy in this 1933 programmer, also known as Riot Squad. Creaky but not bad, with Addison Richards a standout as the city’s crime boss.

REQUIEM OF THE DAMNED (Hannover House): Five filmmakers offer their take on Edgar Allan Poe in this interesting, often inspired, low-budget horror anthology — the best being Johnny Bones’ rendition of The Black Cat, reminiscent of Tim Burton’s work. A cut above the usual horror schlock (pun intended), worth a look for devotees.

“TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY” (Acorn Media): Before Gary Oldman, the great Alec Guinness portrayed master spy George Smiley in this 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of John le Carre’s best-seller, now available on Blu-ray ($59.99 retail). Emmy nomination for Outstanding Limited Series.

TITANOBOA: MONSTER SNAKE (Smithsonian Channel/Inception Media Group): A full-length documentary about a gigantic prehistoric snake that not only puts today’s biggest snakes to shame, but actually existed — 60 million years ago. The DVD retails for $14.98, the Blu-ray for $19.98.

A TOWN LIKE ALICE (VCI Entertainment): Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch shine in this award-winning 1956 adaptation of Nevil Shute’s best-seller, inspired by a true incident in British Malaya when women and children civilians captured by the Japanese during World War II were forced to embark on a grueling journey on foot. Occasionally melodramatic but mostly on-target. Filmed on location in Malaya and Australia, and shot by the great Geoffrey Unsworth.

“UFC: BEST OF 2011” (UFC/Anchor Bay Entertainment): A compilation of the hardesthitting Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts held in 2011 (including 13 title matches), featuring such favorites as Brock Lesnar, Junior dos Santos, Dan Henderson, Shogun Rua and many more. The DVD retails for $19.98, the Bluray for $29.99.

UNDERCOVER AGENT (Alpha Home Entertainment): Rookie postal inspector Russell Gleason suspects something fishy about the Monte Carlo Derby sweepstakes — and he’s not mistaken — in this low-budget 1939 Monogram programmer.

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

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