May 11 2010

DVDs for 05/11/09 – Mel in the Darkness, Daybreakers are Legion, and a quartet of Robin Hoods

Edge of Darkness (Warner) is the latest American feature film adapted from an acclaimed British TV miniseries, this one a 1985 production directed by a young director named Martin Campbell, who went on to helm a couple of James Bond movies and The Mask of Zorro before returning to the scene of the crime and bringing it to the big screen.

Mel Gibson as a cop with nothing to lose

Mel Gibson is a widowed Boston homicide detective turned vengeful father when his only child is murdered in front of eyes. At first driven by guilt, convinced she was mistakenly hit in a attempt on his own life, it morphs into rage when he finds that she was targeted to hush up a criminal conspiracy involving a major munitions contractor and the American government. The original story was set in the tensions of the cold war and the geopolitical reverberations of nuclear technology and materials had much greater resonance than this 21st century story of corporate intrigue, which feels more like a narrative contrivance than a meaningful story engine. But William Monahan’s script also brings a new sensibility that recalls contemporary American crime fiction as much as British conspiracy thriller, and at its best it’s a piece of blunt force drama driven by the fury of a father who has nothing left to lose. I review it for MSN here.

A pair of horror hybrids arrive on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Legion (Sony) is a twist on the Biblical Armageddon unleashed by an angry Old Testament God, with the rebellious Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) defying the Lord to defend the next messiah in a holy war turned supernatural siege thriller. It’s humorless and grim and is too timid to really explore this battle in heaven come to Earth, but it has its moments. I review it for MSN here. Daybreakers (Lionsgate), set in a future where vampirism has overrun the world and food (aka human bllod) is in alarmingly short supply, is part sci-fi dystopia, part high-concept horror and all tech-noir style, a better idea than it is in a movie, but with a couple of satisfying twists and a cast that includes Willem Dafoe. I review it for MSN here.

With the new Robin Hood hitting theaters, Sony reaches back into the Columbia vaults for some of the lesser-known films about the fabled outlaw and his band of Merry Men. Richard Greene, the star of the terrific British Robin Hood series, brought the dashing outlaw hero to the big screen in Sword of Sherwood Forest (Sony). The 1960 film was produced by Hammer Films but it essentially was an extension of the series in color and widescreen, even if Greene (who also co-produced) was the only member of the TV cast in this edition. The plot has something to do with a conspiracy to assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has arrived to stop the corrupt practices of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing, who knows how to underplay villainy) and the local gentry in on his thievery, and some sort of secret society identified by a medallion. Sarah Branch’s Maid Marion, who Robin meets while she bathes nude in a stream (there’s the Hammer films we know and love), has no spark with Greene and their smooching is so awkward and uncomfortable that one wonders if they even like each other. More fun is a young Oliver Reed as a brooding aristocrat villain with a falcon and a sneer that never leaves his face and a penchant for (literally) stabbing his enemies in the back. The outlaw that Robin saves from the Sheriff’s man in the opening scenes (and from his own men, who try to loot the unconscious man) is Desmond Llewellyn (Jame’s Bond’s Q), who spends most of the film unconscious.

Terence Fisher, Hammer’s top director and a veteran of the TV series, took the reigns here but seems at a loss to make sense of the confused story and weak script, and all thumbs when it comes to widescreen Technology and simple action direction (he improved greatly over the next couple of years). He brings that gloomy, oppressive gothic feel of Hammer films to the castle interiors, where every conversation feels like a conspiratorial meeting, but is lost in the forest scenes and turns every fight scene into a sloppy wrestling match. Cinematographer Ken Hodges shot the TV series but shows no understanding of the technical limitations and distortions of anamorphic lenses; too many shots are skewed and warped and huge portions of the screen out of focus, and he brings a drab palette to the film.

Robin Hood does indeed appear in the minor 1946 programmer The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (Sony), but the rebel bandit played by then rising young matinee idol Cornel Wilde is actually Robert of Huntington, the son of the renowned bandit hero. Russell Hicks is the old Hood, who reunites his band of aged Merry Men when the scheming Regent (Henry Daniell) revokes the Magna Carta and plots to murder the boy King and put himself on the throne. Wilde is only fourth billed here, behind forgotten starlet Anita Louise (as Robert’s inevitable love interest), Brit transplant Jill Esmond (as the Queen) and gravel-voiced character actor Edgar Buchanan (the rumbling Friar Tuck) but his dashing good looks and devil-may-care insolence carries the picture. Veteran Hollywood directors Henry Levin and George Sherman share director billing in this unambitious but buoyant adventure, a decidedly inessential big screen Robin Hood with a generic story and a low-watt cast. But it’s a fun lark all the same, elevated by gorgeous Technicolor photography by Tony Gaudio (beautifully mastered for this disc: sharp and vivid and near perfect) and old-school Hollywood gloss.

Also new to DVD are the 1948 Prince of Thieves (Sony) with Jon Hall as Robin Hood and the 1950 Rogues of Sherwood Forest (Sony) with John Derek as the son of Robin Hood and Alan Hale reprising the role of Little John. And though not actually a Robin Hood tale, At Sword’s Point (Warner Archive), a recent Warner Archive release, makes a good fit with this collection. After playing the son of Robin Hood, Cornel Wilde takes on the son of D’Artagnan in this 1952 adventure, an uncredited version of Dumas’ “Three Musketeers” sequel “20 Years Later.” In this take, Maureen O’Hara is the daughter of Athos, a spitfire of a swordswoman who holds her own in a fraternity of swordsmen that includes Dan O’Herlihy as Aramis Jr. and Alan Hale Jr. as Porthos Jr.. Lewis Allen directs the entertaining but unmemorable Technicolor programmer.

In the first act of the South Korean disaster picture Tidal Wave (Haeundae) (Magnet), a scientist warns a blasé government panel on the dangers of a (as of yet hypothetical) mega-tsunami. Sure enough, after a painful hour or so of screechy romantic melodrama and tone-deaf slapstick comedy (see a lifeguard bean a drowning beauty on the head with a flotation device then land a swift elbow to the face to stop her panicky struggle – hee-LARIOUS!), a piece of the continental shelf breaks off and creates the fabled wave. It hits not once but twice, laying waste to the vacation spot of the Korean coast and flooding the city with even more complications to the laboriously strained dramas. The spectacle of special effects destruction is entertaining enough as such things go, but if this South Korean blockbuster—one of the country’s biggest hits—has anything to teach us, it’s that the only thing cheesier than American disaster flicks is foreign disaster flicks. It actually played briefly in some American multiplexes (it was a couple of weeks in Seattle, without any advertising, at least not in the English language communities). Features the original Korean soundtrack with English subtitles plus an English dub soundtrack (with such broad, overplayed delivery it’s a chore to listen to) plus a generous collection of Korean language featurettes (with subtitles). Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Coleccion Cantinflas (Sony) – Branded the “Charlie Chaplin of Mexico” and called “the greatest comedian in the world” by Chaplin himself, Cantinflas (the comic persona of vaudeville comedian Mario Moreno) is comedy superstar of classic Mexican cinema. Sony releases 11 films from his career—seven stateside DVD debuts and four re-releases—in fine subtitled editions. I survey the collection for MSN here. For the record, here’s a list of the releases:

Debuts:
El Gendarme Desconocido (1941, aka The Undercover Policeman)
Los Tres Mosqueteros (1942, The Three Musketeers)
El Circo (1943, aka The Circus)
A Volar Joven (1947)
El Mago (1949, aka The Magician)
Si Yo Fuera Diputado (1952)
El Senor Fotografo (1953, aka Mr. Photographer)
Re-releases:
El Bolero de Raquel (1957)
El Analfabeto (1961, aka The Illiterate One)
El Padrecito (1964, aka The Little Priest)
Su Excelencia (1967, aka His Excellency)

Also new this week: Play the Game (Phase 4) with Andy Griffith, Malice In Wonderland (Magnet) with Maggie Grace, Legend Of The Tsunami Warrior (Magnet) from Thailand, and new DVD editions of Toy Story: Special Edition (Disney) and Toy Story 2: Special Edition (Disney).

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

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