Video Vault – Mar 7, 2018
MARK BURGER’S VIDEO VAULT
PICK OF THE WEEK
BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (Olive Films): The 1962 screen adaptation of Thomas E. Gaddis’ 1955 non-fiction best-seller was a labor of love for producer/star Burt Lancaster, who even had original director Charles Crichton replaced by John Frankenheimer during production. The result is one of Lancaster’s most beloved performances, which earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Actor.
Robert Stroud is an angry, violent inmate at Leavenworth Prison, sentenced to life in solitary confinement for killing a guard. Once there, however, he tends an injured sparrow and immerses himself in the study of ornithology, so much so that he becomes a world-renowned expert in the field. Compelling and compassionate, the film never descends into maudlin melodrama, maintaining a thoughtful credibility anchored by Lancaster’s stellar turn.
The supporting cast is no less impressive: Karl Malden as the Leavenworth’s warden, whose initial antagonism toward Stroud mellows over the years; Betty Field as the bird-lover who marries the incarcerated Stroud; Thelma Ritter (Oscar nominee as Best Supporting Actress) as Stroud’s doting, sometimes domineering mother; Telly Savalas (Oscar nominee as Best Supporting Actor) as a fellow prisoner, Neville Brand as a hard-nosed but humane guard, and Edmond O’Brien, seen briefly as author Tom Gaddis.
The film, which also earned an Oscar nomination for Burnett Guffey’s cinematography (black-and-white), does play fast and loose with some of the facts, and despite the title much of the onscreen action takes place in Leavenworth instead of Alcatraz. Still, it’s unquestionably a classic.
Both the DVD ($24.95 retail) and Blu-ray ($29.95 retail) include audio commentary by Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life. ***½
ABOUT US (TLA Releasing): Mauro Carvalho and first-timer Thiago Cazado co-directed this semi-autobiographical drama in which a student filmmaker (Cazado) chronicles his first romantic relationship (with Rodrigo Bittes, in his feature debut). In Portuguese with English subtitles, available on DVD ($24.99 retail).
BLACK EAGLE (MVD Rewind/MVD Entertainment Group): Sho Kosugi squares off against Jean-Claude Van Damme in director Eric Karson’s 1988 espionage thriller in which the CIA and KGB race to retrieve top-secret military technology. Hardly a work of art, but the action scenes deliver. The special-edition DVD/Blu-ray combo ($39.95 retail) includes both theatrical version and extended cut, retrospective documentary and interviews, deleted scenes, and more. Rated R. **
CURSE OF THE MAYANS (VMI Worldwide): Scientist Steve Wilcox and curvaceous cave-diver Carla Ortiz (also a co-producer) embark on a perilous expedition to uncover Mayan mysteries in the Yucatan Peninsula. Even location filming can’t save this talky, tepid sci-fi farrago (originally titled Xibalba) that eventually morphs into a cheesy monster movie. ½
FIVE ON THE BLACK HAND SIDE (Olive Films): Director Oscar Williams’ buoyant 1973 adaptation of Charlie L. Russell’s play, starring Leonard Jackson (in his screen debut) as a Los Angeles barber and domineering patriarch of a dysfunctional family, whose children (D’Urville Martin, Glynn Turman in his screen debut, and Bonnie Banfield in her only feature) each rebel against him, much to his consternation and the concern of his meek wife (Clarice Taylor). This was presented as a response to the then-popular “blaxploitation” craze, and despite some hokey moments makes its points in warm-hearted fashion, as well as providing career boosts for Virginia Capers, Dick Anthony Williams, Ja’net DuBois, and future filmmaker Carl Franklin (in his screen debut), with Godfrey Cambridge in a cameo as himself. The DVD retails for $19.95, the Blu-ray for $29.95. Rated PG. **½
THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS (GKIDS/Shout! Factory): Sebastien Laudenbach’s award-winning debut feature, based on the story by the Brothers Grimm (and originally titled La Jeune Fille Sans Mains) offers an ethereal parable about the title character (voiced by Anais Demoustier), whose loses her hands – but not her spirit or resilience – when she is sold to the Devil (voiced by the filmmaker’s father, Philippe). Exquisitely detailed, but not for small children, and it takes some time to adapt to the film’s offbeat rhythm. In French with English subtitles, available on DVD ($16.97 retail) and DVD/Blu-ray combo ($22.97 retail), both boasting bonus features including an interview with Laudenbach, a selection of his short films, and more. ***
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (Olive Films): Dennis Quaid brings the requisite amount of rock ‘n’ roll energy to the role of Jerry Lee Lewis in director Jim McBride’s colorful but watered-down 1989 biographical drama based on the non-fiction best-seller by Myra Lewis (Jerry Lee’s cousin and former wife) and Murray Silver, with Winona Ryder (in an award-winning performance) as Myra and Alec Baldwin as another of Jerry Lee’s cousins, future televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Authors Myra Lewis and Murray Silver, to say nothing of Jerry Lee himself, were not pleased with the end result, which despite considerable hype was a box-office disappointment. Trey Wilson, Stephen Tobolowsky, John Doe, Lisa Blount, and Jimmie Vaughan round out the cast, available on DVD ($24.95 retail) and Blu-ray ($29.95 retail). Rated PG-13. **
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Producer/director Kenneth Branagh’s florid turn as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot dominates this sleek, stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, boasting a star-studded line-up of suspects including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman and Josh Gad, available on DVD ($29.98 retail), DVD/Blu-ray combo ($34.99 retail), and 4K Ultra HD ($39.99 retail) – each replete with bonus features including audio commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, and more. Rated PG-13. ***
“NEWTON’S LAW” (Acorn TV): Claudia Karvan stars as the title character, Australian attorney Josephine Newton, desperately attempting to balance career and family, in all eight episodes from the inaugural 2017 season of the legal series created by Deborah Cox and Fiona Eagger (creators of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), co-starring Toby Schmitz, Georgina Naidu, Sean Keenan, Miranda Tapsell and Brett Tucker, available on DVD ($49.99 retail).
THE ORCHARD END MURDER (Redemption Films/Kino Lorber): A special-edition Blu-ray ($29.95 retail) of writer/director Christian Marnham’s fact-based 1981 debut, a 49-minute shocker starring Mark Hardy as the grief-stricken boyfriend of murder victim Tracy Hyde, who embarks on a fateful investigation to ferret out her killer … or killers. Special features include retrospective interviews and Marnham’s 1970 short The Showman.
THE PARIS OPERA (Film Movement): Director Jean-Stephane Bron’s self-explanatory, award-winning documentary feature (originally titled L’Opera) goes behind the scenes of the legendary arts venue, as new director Stephane Lissner prepares to open the 2015 season with Schonberg’s opera Moses and Aaron. In French with English subtitles, the DVD ($24.95 retail) includes audio commentary, filmmaker interview, and more.
“PAW PATROL: SEA PATROL” (Nickelodeon/Paramount): Those fearless rescue canines hit the waves in this DVD collection ($10.99 retail) of six nautical-themed episodes from the award-winning, animated Nickelodeon children’s series created by Keith Chapman.
“REBECKA MARTINSSON” (Acorn TV): Ida Engvoll plays the title character, a Stockholm lawyer who returns to her home when a childhood friend is murdered and is forced to confront her past, in all eight episodes from the inaugural 2017 season of the Swedish-language mystery series based on Asa Larsson’s best-selling crime novels, available in a two-DVD collection ($49.99 retail).
SCALPEL (Arrow Video/MVD Entertainment Group): Writer/producer John Grissmer’s R-rated 1977 directorial debut (also released as False Face) stars Robert Lansing as a plastic surgeon who transforms accident victim Judith Chapman into an exact double of his estranged daughter (also played by Chapman) in order to claim her inheritance, available as a special-edition Blu-ray ($39.95 retail) including audio commentary, retrospective interviews, original trailer, and more.
THE SECT (Scorpion Releasing): Expatriate American schoolteacher Kelly Curtis (sister of Jamie Lee) is pursued by a Satanic cult led by Herbert Lom in writer/producer Dario Argento and writer/director Michele Soavi’s nightmarish 1991 shocker, originally titled La Setta and released in the US as The Devil’s Daughter. A bit on the long side, but loaded with atmosphere and seasoned with in-jokes. Both the DVD ($19.95 retail) and Blu-ray ($24.95 retail) include retrospective interviews with Soavi and co-star Tomas Arana. **½
THE STRANGERS (Scream Factory/Shout! Factory): Writer/director Brian Bertino’s award-winning 2008 feature debut stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a couple terrorized by a home invasion. Effective and visceral, this is a loose variation on the 2006 French shocker Them. The two-disc collector’s-edition Blu-ray ($34.93 retail) – being released to coincide with the long-awaited follow-up, The Strangers: Prey at Night – includes both the R-rated theatrical version and the unrated director’s cut, retrospective interviews, deleted scenes, and more. **½
UNDERGROUND (Kino Classics): Emir Kusturica’s award-winning 1995 epic (originally titled Podzemlje) stars Miki Manojlovic and Lazar Ristovski as black marketeers in Yugoslavia during World War II whose partnership is tested – in wildly unexpected ways – when both fall for the same woman (Mirjana Jokovic). In Serbo-Croat with English subtitles. Both the DVD ($39.95 retail) and Blu-ray ($44.95 retail) include the original six-part TV mini-series Once Upon a Time There Was a Country, 1996 documentary, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and more.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. (Copyright 2018, Mark Burger)