It's not a TV movie, but it kinda looks like one
"Captain America" (MGM Limited Edition Collection)
The new "Captain America," with Chris Evans as the gee-whiz superhero in the red, white and blue tights, is not the first screen version of Marvel's first Avenger. That was way back in 1944 and the character has been periodically revived ever since, though always in budget-minded productions.
The most recent pre-2011 version, starring Matt Salinger (son of the late, legendary J.D. Salinger) as the gee-whiz symbol of American World War II pluck, was actually made for the big screen, but thanks to some bad luck with rights issues, the 1990 film was delayed a couple of years and then (apart from a nominal release in Europe) pretty much dumped to home video. Not that a timely release would have made much difference. Produced by Menaham Golan (the former Cannon mogul) and directed by Albert Pyun, the relentlessly prolific genre hound director whose facility for low-budget action has resulted in a few nuggets of B-movie gold sprinkled through a career of dross, "Captain America" 1990 a real stiff, a corny piece of nostalgic pulp with cheap action, cheesy dialogue and a charismatically challenged leading man.
What makes it interesting (which is not the same thing as good) is its points of reference with the new film: the World War II origins, the battle against Nazi menace The Red Skull (played by Scott Paulin) and Cap's fateful rocket ride to the frozen north, to be revived decades in the future, all right out of the comic books. The major difference is that in the 1990 incarnation, the balance of the film takes place in the present, with Paulin's Red Skull carved into an approximation of a human face (thanks to the wonders of plastic surgery) and Captain America back on his case, this time with the daughter of his forties sweetheart as his sidekick and guide through the modern world. It's a real waste of a fun cast -- Ronny Cox as the American President, Ned Beatty as the world's oldest cub reporter, Francesca Neri as the Skull's top henchwoman -- a selection of cut-rate Eastern European locations doubling for Italy and a modest budget. Pyun has done much more with much less (see "Cyborg," "Nemesis," "Mean Guns" and even "The Sword and the Sorcerer"), and had more fun doing it.
And to make matters worse, the MGM Limited Edition Collection release, which is branded as the "Re-Released 1992 Edition," is presented in a pre-widescreen full frame (1.33:1) version, as if scaled for TV. It only makes it look more like an old made-for-TV movie, PG-13 rating notwithstanding. No supplements.
MOD stands for "Manufacture on Demand" and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and "burned" individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here.
Plus "If…," "United 93" and more
Say hello to my little Blu-ray! "Scarface: Limited Edition" (Universal) delivers the Blu-ray debut of Brian De Palma's urban gangster classic, with Al Pacino as the Cuban thug who shoots his way to the top of the Miami drug trade. Videodrone's review is here.
You can make it a De Palma double feature as "Dressed to Kill" (MGM), his signature thriller and one of his best films ever, also debuts on Blu-ray this week. The film has been called De Palma's take on Hitchcock's "Psycho" and the parallels are undeniable: a sexually independent heroine (Angie Dickinson) who murdered in the opening act, the amateur detectives (Keith Gordon and Nancy Allen) who team up to find the mysterious killer, a plays of doubles and doppelgangers and characters in reflection, even a psychiatrist who "explains" it all in end.
But to leave it there is a disservice to what De Palma does with these shared fascinations. No one has been as fascinated with the idea of looking in cinema, the play of voyeurism and sexuality and power, and the layers of anxiety and excitement in watching and being watched, since Hitchcock. And few have married the mechanics of suspense with such cinematic grace as De Palma, whose silky images and deliriously choreographed moving camera takes are both beautiful and unnerving, and not just in matters of tension and surprise. The anxiety and anticipation that De Palma reveals in his obsessive observation is as thrilling as the shocks and surprises and dramatic turns in the plot.
The Blu-ray features the unrated version of the film only and offers a short comparison of scenes from the unrated, R-rated and network TV cuts of the film among the supplements (all ported over from the previous DVD special edition). Laurent Bouzreau’s 42-minute "The Making of Dressed to Kill" cleverly uses DePalma’s own split screen style for effect, the nine-minute "Slashing Dressed to Kill" investigates the ratings battle over the film, and "Dressed to Kill: An Appreciation by Keith Gordon" is just that from co-star and now veteran director Gordon: “Brian has a chess player kind of mind.”
Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" (MGM), one of Sam Peckinpah's most uncompromising portraits of the human animal under pressure, arrives in advance of the new remake. It's hard to imagine that Rod Lurie, as hamfisted a director as he is glib, could make anything nearly as provocative or powerful as Peckinpah's film, which was even more controversial upon release than "The Wild Bunch" for its troubling ambivalence towards and fascination with violence as a primal force within the human animal. Dustin Hoffman, as the meek American mathematician who explodes in a mixture of territorialism, principle, and pent-up rage when a drunken gang storms his house, is hardly a simple hero defending his home from invaders. His perverse, bloodthirsty glee as he racks up a body count verges on savagery and Peckinpah’s double edged attitude manages to find the hero and horror tied up in one troubling package. No supplements.
Lindsay Anderson captured the fancy of a generation of British youth and the revolutionary spirit of the late sixties with "If…" (Criterion), his savage satire of the regimented British education system and its bullying social order. Malcolm McDowell is alternately cocky and brooding as the nonconformist student Mick, rebel in increasingly provocative acts, culminating in an armed revolt that plays like Jean Vigo's "Zero For Conduct" reinterpreted by Jean-Luc Godard. Anderson's mix of realistic detail and absurdist elements creates a surreal quality to the film, which is only heightened by the arbitrary jumps between B&W and color (reportedly due to a budget crisis but a surprisingly effective technique regardless). Criterion includes the supplements from its earlier DVD release: commentary by Malcolm McDowell with film critic and historian David Robinson, Anderson's Academy Award-winning 1954 documentary short "Thursday's Children" narrated by Richard Burton, the 2003 episode from BBC Scotland's TV series "Cast and Crew" about "If..." and a video interview with actor Graham Crowden (the History Master). The accompanying booklet features essays by critic David Ehrenstein and screenwriter David Sherwin, and an interview with director Lindsay Anderson conducted by… Lindsay Anderson.
"United 93" (Universal), the first theatrical feature to deal with the events of September 11, imagines the drama aboard United 93, the lone flight that never reached its objective. Paul Greengrass casts unknowns in the passenger roles (some of the real life tower crew even play themselves) and shoots the drama like a real-time documentary. The timing of the Blu-ray debut is all but obligatory with the anniversary coming upon us. With director commentary, featurettes and memorials.
The Coen Bros. made their feature debut with the 1984 "Blood Simple" (Fox), a modern film noir about an adulterous affair that leads to a complicated web of murder and betrayal in a small Texas town. If this trend setting neo-noir never transcends the genre it so beautifully defines, that’s fine. There’s a lot to be said for a smart, stylish, well turned genre picture. Features a self-mocking commentary track.
"40 Days and 40 Nights" (Lionsgate) stars Josh Hartnett as a young man who takes a vow of chastity after a series of unfulfilling sexual exploits, only to be tempted by a beautiful new girl in his life. Features commentary.
Plus more from The Rank Organization and Jean Vigo
John Gregson and Kenneth More are classic car owners and competitive buddies who make a bet on a race to London in the beloved 1953 British comedy "Genevieve" (VCI), but the real stars of the film are the vintage cars themselves: artifacts from the turn of the century that constantly quit and break down on the road. Dinah Sheridan and Kay Kendall are the women who barely tolerate their adolescent behavior when the bet escalates and they resort of dirty tricks and practical jokes to win the race. Director Henry Cornelius gives a light comic touch, the color photography is lovely and Larry Adler's bright harmonica score adds to the whimsical tone. The film won the BAFTA for Best British Film of 1953 and was nominated for two Oscars. The DVD and Blu-ray debut features 24-minute documentary (featuring interviews with actress Dinah Sheridan and members of the creative staff) and a gallery of posters and stills.
Also from The Rank Collection, via VCI, are the 1949 "Christopher Columbus" (VCI), a Technicolor production starring Fredric March, and the 1956 World War II adventure "The Black Tent" (VCI), set and partially shot in the deserts of Libya.
Jean Cocteau's 1949 "Orpheus" (Criterion) is a classic myth in motorcycle leather and blue jeans, a lovely and assured reinterpretation of the Orpheus story where angels of death are motorcycle riding boys in black leather, Death rides in a chauffeured car and the passage to the other world is through the looking glass. It gets a new DVD release and makes its Blu-ray debut with this new special edition, which includes commentary by French film scholar James Williams, the 1984 documentary "Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown," Cocteau's 16mm film "La villa Santo-Sospir" (a tour of his home), a video piece from 2008 featuring assistant director Claude Pinoteau on the special effects in the film, archival interviews with Cocteau, newsreel footage, stills and a booklet.
"The Complete Jean Vigo" (Criterion) presents newly remastered edition of all four films made by the great French director, including his sole feature (the sublime "L’Atalante") and revered extended short (the playfully surreal "Zéro de conduite"), made before he died at the age of 29. Videodrone's review is here.
And the rest:
Stephen Fung and Cherrie Ying star in "Virtual Recall" (Tai Seng), a romantic drama by way of a psycho-drama revolving around the ideas of past lives, time travel and worm holes.
"Scooby-Doo! Legend of the Phantosaur" (Warner) is the latest direct-to-DVD animated feature with America's favorite canine sleuth. "Disco Worms" (Phase 4) is the English language version of the Dutch animated comedy "Sunshine Barry and the Disco Worms," with Jane Lynch as part of the English voice cast.
Celebrate the Poet Laureate of French Cinema
"The Complete Jean Vigo" (Criterion) celebrates the legacy of France’s cinematic poet laureate of lyrical fantasy in everyday life with newly remastered editions of all four films made by the great French director who died in 1934 at the age of 29.
"Á Propos de Nice" (1930), the director's poetic contribution to the "city symphony" genre, and "Taris," an impressionistic portrait of the Olympic diver Jean Taris, are both shorts, lovely and inventive miniatures charged with his inventive approach to imagery and representation. And you could argue that technically his playfully surreal "Zéro de conduite" (aka "Zero for Conduct") (1933), at a swift 44 minutes, is also a short, but its density and richness gives it the scope of a feature film.
From the opening scene, as two boys compare their toys and treasures and newly-acquired tricks from the summer breaks while on the train to boarding school, Vigo captures the rebellious and creative spirit of adolescent boys. Set in a strict boy’s school run by creaky, cranky petty tyrants, it’s a strange and wonderful film full of unbridled imagination, flights of fantasy, and lovely images, such as a pillow fight that turns into a kind of snow globe scene. But it also has disturbing suggestions that one of the boys, an isolated lad thought to be a snitch, is in fact physically abused by someone on the staff. It give the final rebellion a punch of righteous revolution in addition to its surreal celebration as the boys pelt stiff authority figures (some of them literally mannequins) with schoolbooks and shoes before taking over the school like adolescent pirates.
Trying to rebuild a marriage under the glare of a media spotlight
Season Two opens with Alicia (Julianna Margulies) taking the side of her husband Peter (Chris Noth), fresh out of prison and back in the race for State's Attorney despite a history of cheating on his wife and the season proceeds with the election (run by Alan Cumming) always in the background as Alicia regains her footing as a second-year associate at a Chicago law firm.
As a legal show, with a new case and a courtroom drama with Alicia and the senior partners (Josh Charles and Christine Baranski) in a weekly battle of legalities and stratagems, it's a very entertaining series. The individual cases are solid, the roll call of judges cycling through the cases is reminiscent of "The Practice" and the realities of a partnership and the politics of deciding which cases to try (and why) adds a layer to the courtroom drama. But the private life of Alicia and Peter, working through a public affair that was churned through the tabloid media while the spotlight is on them during his run for office, gives the show its backbone. In the second season it earned nine Emmy nominations, including "Outstanding Drama Series" and six acting nods, among them Michael J. Fox for Outstanding Guest Actor in his recurring role as a rival attorney with a degenerative condition. Other memorable guest stars this season include America Ferrara, Mamie Gummer and Tim Guinee as an investigator for the State's Attorney office.
23 episodes on six discs plus featurettes (including “A Conversation With The Kings,” an interview with series creators -- and husband and wife team -- Robert and Michelle King, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the episode "Real Deal"), deleted scenes and music videos from the campaign (and boy, are they a classy bunch!).
Nothing exceeds like Brian De Palma's study in excess
"Scarface: Limited Edition" (Universal)
Brian De Palma's "Scarface," ostensibly a remake of the Howard Hawks gangster classic, moves the iconic rise and fall crime opera from the tommy-gun gangster wars of the prohibition era to the cocaine wars of Florida in the eighties. In the process, De Palma, screenwriter Oliver Stone and star Al Pacino carved out a film that redefined a generation of gangster cinema.
See below for details on the insanely deluxe edition ($1000 retail) and footage from the August 23 cast reunion.
Pacino's Tony Montana, a Cuban criminal fresh from Castro's prisons looking for his piece of the pie in Miami, is a predator from the moment he hits the shore and Pacino is pure drive for success: get the money, get the power, and then you get the girl, is his mantra, and he pulls along his loyal immigrant comrade Manny (Steven Bauer) for the ride to the top.
Oliver Stone's screenplay keeps the general shape of the original story -- Tony's friendship with Manny, his fierce over protectiveness of his kid sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who isn't a virginal as he imagines and his obsession with the boss's ice-queen mistress (Michelle Pfeiffer), the trophy for the winner -- while rethinking it in terms of the Miami cocaine boom of the early eighties. It's a whole new spin on the immigrant story and the American Dream as an underworld nightmare and a fitting bookend to the two "Godfather" films. The façade of family loyalty, underworld authority and the mob code is trampled in the feral battle to get to the top of the cocaine mountain as Tony robs and murders his way to riches and power, and then numbs himself into a fantasy of invulnerability with his own product.
Meanwhile, De Palma directs it as a blood-drenched thug opera, a mix of the graceful and the garish with Pacino's guttural thug-in-a-suit spitting out dialogue like broken glass in a harsh Cuban accent. He gets to the point, whether he's talking or shooting, and has neither the time not the inclination for niceties.
Joseph Wambaugh created the standout seventies series of life on the streets
Here's an almost forgotten classic. Created by Joseph Wambaugh, "Police Story" was a precursor to the type of stories we got in "Hill Street Blues," even though it featured no continuing stars or storylines. It was one of the last of the continuing anthology series on TV, an original story every week with a career cop or police detective tackling a case, but if the crime stories themselves offer a grittier version of the stories you saw elsewhere on TV, the stories brought home a different perspective on the life of policeman. Show after show is set against a backdrop of dedicated policemen sacrificing marriages and relationships to the job.
"Police Story: Season One" (Shout! Factory) was launched with a two-hour TV movie (just over 90 minutes without commercials), a solid piece of TV moviemaking with a superb cast: Vic Morrow as a divorced dad and cowboy cop, Ed Asner as his boss, Chuck Connors as a career criminal named Slow Boy and Diane Baker as a robbery hostage who survives shaken and angry and develops a relationship with a damaged but dedicated police detective. The pilot sets the tone and the style for the series to come, opening with a bittersweet montage of doting father Morrow on a beach trip with his daughter, but in place of music is the constant crackle of a police scanner, the defining soundtrack of this career cop's life.
And so the series goes. Divorce, failing relationships, alienation and anger are recurring themes and situations to the stories here which, meeting the censorship bar of American TV of the seventies aside, are almost as tough and gritty as the American cop dramas on the big screen. James Farentino, Tony Lo Bianco, Michael Ansara, Claude Akins, John Saxon, Howard Duff, Don Murray, Martin Balsam, Jan Michael-Vincent, Stuart Whitman, Darren McGavin, Kurt Russell, Cliff Gorman and John Forsythe are a few of the episode stars, and sometimes they even returned for another story, like Vic Morrow in the two-part "Countdown."
The final episode of the season is what they call a backdoor pilot for next season's "Police Woman." No, she's not named Pepper, but Angie Dickinson is a female cop who moves up to the all-male vice squad and proves she can think on her feet when she goes undercover to shut down a gambling ring run by Joseph Campanella. Bert Convy is the vice squad commander.
The six-disc set (in a standard case with hinged trays) features the pilot episode and all 21 episodes of the debut season, including the double-length "Big John Morrison" (aka "The Hunters") which was presented at the NBC Movie of the Week. Also features a new interview with LAPD Detective Sergeant turned author and series creator Joseph Wambaugh.
Plus Tyler Perry, Asian action and choice documentaries for the week
"X-Men: First Class" (Fox) is both reboot and prequel to the "X-Men" movie franchise. Call it a preboot, with James McAvoy as a flirtatious, precocious Professor X and Michael Fassbender as a dark, vengeful "Magneto" in the groovy atmosphere of the cold war 1960s. Videodrone's review is here.
Saoirse Ronan is "Hanna" (Universal), a girl raised to be a survivor and a warrior, the better to take on the agency that "created" her, in the adolescent assassin thriller from the otherwise literarily inclined director Joe Wright. It's a fantasy, to be sure, the pre-puberty "Bourne" flipping between innocence and killer reflex, but nicely constructed piece of action filmmaking and a fierce little genre piece with a muscular cast: Eric Bana as a father from the Spartan school of child rearing, Cate Blanchett as a bloodless American agent with a chewy accent and a hole in her soul and Tom Hollander as a doughy assassin on the cusp of satire. MSN film critic Glenn Kenny wrote that "director Wright continues to command the sort of formidable cinematic apparatus that certain people have been raving about since the Dunkirk scenes in "Atonement," and the cast operates commitedly in the spirit of the proceedings, although some will no doubt complain that Blanchett's been sent in to do Tilda Swinton's job."
Features an alternate ending, director commentary, an "Anatomy of a Scene" featurette on the escape sequence and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray edition features four exclusive featurettes plus the usual BDLive supplements and a bonus digital copy (for a limited time only).
Will Ferrell puts aside his buffoon persona for a more everyman role in the tragicomic "Everything Must Go" (Lionsgate), a small but lovely film about a career salesman who loses everything in one day and takes residence on his lawn (where all of his possessions have been dumped by his wife), adapted from a Raymond Carver short story. "Released just as superhero season launches, "Everything Must Go" – and Will Ferrell's perfectly modulated performance -- celebrates being helplessly, haplessly human," wrote MSN film critic Kat Murphy at the beginning of the summer season, who also praises Ferrell's performance: "Reaching for the funny as well as dramatic pathos, Ferrell is acting on a high wire. One misstep could turn this movie silly or irretrievably sour." Features commentary by director Dan Rush and co-star Michael Pena, two featurettes and deleted scenes.
"Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family" (Lionsgate), the latest feature from the one-man studio, actually debuted on DVD last week but arrived to late for last week's column. "The movie proved to be an exasperating, fitfully enjoyable jumble of Perryana, full of insult humor, a gospel choir and, not to give too much away, plot elements borrowed from "Chinatown," "Precious," "Imitation of Life" and "Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke" - all restitched and Tyler-made," wrote Time film critic Richard Corliss. Available on DVD and Blu-ray, with featurettes and other supplements. Also new from Perry is "Laugh to Keep From Crying (The Play)" (Lionsgate), a theater piece recorded in front a live audience.
Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung star in the Hong Kong gangster drama "Triad Underworld" (Palisades Tartan), also known "Blood Brothers," about a battle for control over the leadership of a Hong Kong crime family. The Malaysian historical spectacle "Clash of Empires" (Image) is set around the clash of armies from Rome, China, and Malaysia in the second century when a Chinese princess is kidnapped.
Amos Gitai directs "Carmel" (Kino Lorber), which combines contemporary scenes with a recreation of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the first century, and from Colombia comes "The Colors of the Mountains" (Film Movement), a drama about trying to survive in a country embroiled in war.
"Vidal Sassoon: The Movie" (Phase 4) profiles the legendary hairdresser. "Its best quality is that it made me like and admire Sassoon," confesses film critic Roger Ebert, "although if there is anything unlikable and not admirable about him I wouldn’t have discovered it here." The DVD features commentary, deleted scenes and a featurette among its supplements.
"The Arbor" (Strand) looks in on the children left behind by British playwright Andrea Dunbar when she died 1990 as they come to terms with their mother. "Rebirth" (Oscilloscope) is a ten-year remembrance of the September 11, 2001, attacks through the stories of five people whose lives were changed. The two-disc set features commentary, a featurette and the complete video of the time-lapse study of the space that the towers once inhabited.
And the rest:
Lucy Hale (of "Pretty Little Liadrs") stars as the proto pop star in "A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song" (Warner), the second made-for-cable sequel to the 2004 movie.
Jean-Claude Van Damme stars in the direct-to-DVD thriller "Assassination Games" (Sony) and Kevin Zegers and Ray Liotta are in the con artist thriller "The Entitled" (Anchor Bay). The horror film "A Horrible Way to Die" (Anchor Bay) rounds out the week.