“What a noble subject. If he had only a noble king.”
El Cid, Anthony Mann’s exceedingly handsome historical epic starring Charlton Heston as Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, aka The Cid, debuts on DVD this week. You might think that El Cid means The Stud, as Heston is truly macho and unwaveringly chivalrous throughout, but it’s a term of respect bestowed by a Moorish prince on the Catholic Spaniard for his humanity and his respect of the Muslim citizens of Spain, a people who are under assault by Rodrigo’s intolerant Catholic king. There’s a theme more timely now than ever. I review it in my DVD column on MSN
You can argue over what is the greatest historical movie epic, but “El Cid” is surely the brawniest. Not in the gladiator sense of muscled bodies and mano-a-mano combat (like “Ben-Hur”) but in the strength of its storytelling and its visual display of force and pageantry.
The story is pure melodrama centered on a larger-than-life romance between Rodrigo and Sophia Loren’s Chimene, his lady love turned mortal enemy (the two performers did not get along, which may explain the rather formal quality of their love scenes). But director Anthony Mann uses his stunning locations and choreographs his armies and crowds magnificently, not just showing off the budget but corralling it into the frame like an old master and creating a dynamic, powerful, living landscape.
Read the complete review here. It’s available in both 2-Disc set and in a deluxe Limited Collector’s Edition.
Also new on DVD this week: special editions of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Groundhog Day and the home video debut of the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which was originally made for Turner Classic Movies.
Martin Scorsese narrates this well-made documentary about the cult film producer who left the class productions of the David Selznick organization (where he did uncredited work on such scripts as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Gone With the Wind”) to head a unit making low-budget horror films for RKO Studios. He was saddled with bad scripts (which, we’re told, he often rewrote without credit) and crude, exploitative titles (which he could not rewrite), and through evocative imagery, inspired lighting, a creative use of sound, and suggestive set pieces he overcame low budgets and minimal resources to make such classics as “Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” and “The Seventh Victim.” In the words of Lewton himself (voiced by actor Elias Koteas): “We make horror films because we have to make them, and we make them for little money, and we fight every minute to make them right.”
Among the New Releases this week are the new “Body Snathers” remake The Invasion, the Michael Douglas treasure hunt film King of California, and the fascinating and entertaining documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters:
Seth Gordon’s portrait of the culture of obsessive classic arcade game players finds high drama and murky intrigue in the competition to claim the Donkey Kong world record. Former engineer turned high school science teacher Steve Wiebe is the easygoing underdog here, a sincere if somewhat obsessive suburban family man whose claims to the record land him in the midst of a petty squabble and the scheming designs of longtime champion Billy Mitchell. In the vernacular of the group’s own beloved “Star Wars” metaphors, charismatic gaming ambassador Mitchell turns to the dark side and sets his minions against this upstart Jedi master. Their drama is more compelling than any underdog sports fiction.
The highlight of DVD TV this week is the inaugural season of Damages with Glenn Close and Rose Byrne:
Easily the most savage legal series on TV, “Damages” stars Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, the alpha wolf of New York’s high-priced attorneys, and Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, the smart and savvy law school graduate hired by Hewes for reasons not readily apparent on the surface. The series opens memorably, with Ellen fleeing an expensive high-rise and running into the early morning streets, covered in blood and on the verge of shock. Rewind to six months ago, as Patty hires Ellen while preparing a major class-action lawsuit against an arrogant millionaire CEO (Ted Danson) whose (alleged) financial improprieties have ransacked the employee retirement plan. The story bounces between past and present, slowly pulling the threads together until they meet in the final episodes. For all her talk of justice, Patty likes to play and she plays to win. She doesn’t seem to care who gets chewed up in the process — an aspect that Close delivers with a cold cunning and unapologetic ego — and a lot of people get hurt in this clash of the titans. “Damages” is the rare legal drama that doesn’t step into a courtroom. Forget courtroom theatrics and dramatic summation speeches to the jury, this series is all about behind-the-scenes machinations and hardball tactics on a scale reminiscent of a mob thriller or an international espionage drama.
Also new this week is the PBS documentary series Pioneers of Television, the British Chancer: Series 2 with Clive Owen, and the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Season Six.
The complete DVD column, which goes live with new reviews every Tuesday, can be found here.
[Note: click on DVD cover to find it on Amazon]