Kurt Russell is the King in Elvis (1979) (Shout! Factory), John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie, which charts the rise of Elvis Presley from Memphis rockabilly phenomenon to rock and roll superstar to his phoenix-like comeback as a Vegas showman, but keeps the focus on the man behind the iconic image. Russell’s effortless impression captures the voice and cadence and physicality of Elvis without tipping into impersonation. He delivers the unbridled energy and musical passion that the young Elvis unleashed in every performance while allowing us to see then man in the bubble offstage, trapped by the very success that has made his fame and fortune. Carpenter, meanwhile, puts the dramatic focus on the relationships and tricky social dynamic with the male friends who became Elvis support group and entourage. It’s the first collaboration between Carpenter and Russell and it remains the most perceptive of Elvis biopics.
Elvis impersonator Ronnie McDowell provides the singing voice and Shelley Winters, Pat Hingle and Joe Mantegna co-star. Trivia note: the film is written and produced by Anthony Lawrence, who earlier wrote three of the silliest of Elvis musicals back in the sixties. This is the DVD debut of this superb made-for TV production and the first time that the complete 170-minute production that has been available in any form for decades. Includes the featurette “Bringing A Legend To Life” featuring archival interviews with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, commentary by vocalist Ronnie McDowell and author Edie Hand (who co-authored a handful of Elvis recipe books) and rare performance clips from “American Bandstand” among the supplements.
Alice (Lionsgate), the 2009 production made for the SyFy Channel, reworks the fantasy world of Lewis Carroll’s novels “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” into a kind of warped mirror version in the cyberpunk fantasy mold, courtesy of writer/director Nick Willing, who previously reworked “The Wizard of Oz” as the “Tin Man” mini-series. In this version, Alice (Caterina Scorsone) is a twentysomething women with a black belt in judo and a fear of heights who chases a man known as The White Rabbit through a looking glass passageway between dimensions and lands in an alternate universe Wonderland where despotic forces have enslaved the population and our heroine becomes a hero to the rough, desperate underground resistance. It’s a cliché in its own right, but it does offer lots of opportunities to mutate the fantasy imagery, have fun with the playing card and chess piece motifs and rewrite the whimsy of the surreal children’s tale as an adult adventure in a strange land. Thus the Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts) is a scruffy rogue working in the margins, the White Rabbit is a mercenary, the March Hare an assassin and the Red Queen (Kathy Bates) a cruel dictator who is stealing human emotions to turning them into wonderland drugs. It’s not so much smart as clever and colorful, with art deco designs and splashy Vegas settings and lots a offbeat humor. Matt Frewer is the doddering White Knight (the last of his race), Tim Curry is a very dangerous Dodo and Harry Dean Stanton plays the Caterpiller, the eccentric head of the resistance who puffs on a pipe and has a habit of disappearing. The complete three hour production is on a single disc and features commentary by director Nick Willing and actress Caterina Scorsone.
The creators of the BBC made-for-TV thriller The 39 Steps (2008) (BBC) borrow a little from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film but otherwise return to the source: John Buchan’s 1915 novel. Where the original novel was a spy thriller set in the days leading up to World War I, and Hitchcock’s film was completely apolitical with a fictional international crime syndicate the villain, this version is all pre-war intrigue featuring German spies and Nazi sympathizers. Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones of “MI-5”) is a disillusioned soldier who is suddenly plunged into a conspiracy involving a British secret agent, enemy spies and top secret information hidden in a code book. He’s an amateur adventurer in the Cary Grant-light mold, a chauvinist and playboy on the run from both Nazi spies and British police with a headstrong suffragette (Lydia Leonard) in tow, a character borrowed from Hitchcock but given an entirely new twist for this take. In another nod to Hitchcock, Hannay is even chased by a biplane (a scene that recalls “North by Northwest”). The rest is sprightly and fun and romantic with a few surprises and a strong pre-war political tension that Hitch wouldn’t touch in 1935. For the record, this is actually the fourth screen version of the novel, and that doesn’t even take into account the 2005 stage play. Broadcast in Britain in 2008, it played in the United States on “Masterpiece Classic” in early 2010. No supplements.
Chris Kattan struggling comedian and Hollywood actor Chris Kattan in Bollywood Hero (Anchor Bay), a made-for-cable mini-series that sends the former “Saturday Night Live” star to Mumbai to take the lead in a Bollywood musical called “Peculiar Dancing Boy” (“It’s a poor translation,” the director assures him) and for once play a dashing hero. Or so he hopes. The comedy is built largely on Kattan’s mugging through the usual culture collision gags of the oblivious American in a foreign land, not to mention his blatant miscasting in a big budget musical drama (“You spend months in Hollywood looking for a star and THAT’S what you bring back?” screeches the producer, who just happens to be the sister of the director) and a production constantly on the verge of collapse because of financing problems (they have no money), casting disasters and star egos. Meanwhile he falls in love with his no-nonsense producer (Pooja Kumar), which gives him the opportunity to play a romantic lead (of sorts) off the set. Running 168 minutes, it’s a bit short for an American mini-series but the right length for your average Bollywood musical feature, and it’s filled out with a handful of Bollywood-style musical production numbers (staged by Slumdog Millionaire choreographer Longinus Fernandes), which gives Kattan the opportunity to show off the suave, sophisticated moves of a diminutive Jerry Lewis. It’s enjoyable and predictable and even a little sweet, but its insight to Indian culture as about as credible as Kattan’s dancing skills. Maya Rudolph, Jennifer Coolidge, Keanu Reeves, David Alan Grier and Andy Samberg all make cameos as themselves. Features about 8 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes.
Poldark: Series 1 (Acorn), the 1975 British costume drama based on the novels of Winston Graham, arrived on American shores via “Masterpiece Theatre” in 1977 and immediately became one of the most popular British TV imports of its era. Robin Ellis is the dashing Ross Poldark, returned to Cornwall from the war in the colonies to find his betrothed engaged to another, his family estate in ruins, the copper mines targeted by a rival and his fortunes challenged. Though it’s produced largely on videotape (a British drama convention of the era that is only distracting for a few minutes), this production has a little more fire and grit to it than the usual British costume drama, thanks to the windswept Cornwall locations, a lively narrative of duels and deceit and betrayal, and to Ellis himself, who is alternately chivalrous, brooding, and fiercely driven as the worldly Poldark making his way in a provincial 18th century world. The show’s first series of 16 episodes debuts on stateside DVD in a box set of four thinpak case.
Also new this week: Jonathan Miller’s surreal version 1966 version of Alice in Wonderland (BBC) with Peter Sellers, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Michael Redgrave and Peter Cook, the BBC drama The Road From Coorain (Acorn) and Have Gun-Will Travel: The Fourth Season, Volume 1 (Paramount).