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Wilmington on DVD: The Man in Black
The Threepenny Opera, Johnny Cash, and the Beeb's Prime Suspect

Credit:Sony Columbia Legacy

The Threepenny Opera (Grade: A)
Germany; G. W. Pabst, 1931, Criterion Collectoin

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear/ and he shows them pearly white./ Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear./ But he keeps it out of sight....

G. W. Pabst's 1931 version of the legendary Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill play The Threepenny Opera -- the darkly comic show about the London underworld whose English-language version gave us "Mack the Knife" (later sung by Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, et al.), is one of the most underrated of the great movie musicals. Perhaps that's because it's been relatively hard to see -- or perhaps it's because historians and critics know that Brecht sued (and lost) due to numerous changes Pabst made in the script. But, in this case, the director, at the peak of his powers, wasn't compromising the material. He makes it come alive as few moviemakers could.

The production is superbly cast (Rudolf Forster as Mackie Messer, Lotte Lenya as Jenny, Carola Neher as Polly Peachum, Fritz Rasp as Peachum and Reinhold Schunzel as Tiger Brown. The film's major London set was the largest ever built on a German soundstage up to then, bigger than the ones for Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen and Metropolis.

The Threepenny Opera was Brecht's most popular play, a jazzy, streetwise musical comedy-crime drama about the corruption and hypocrisy of bourgeois society and its outlaw counterpart; its source is John Gay's English classic The Beggar's Opera, a lower-depths romp that Gay called a "Newgate pastoral" (and that made a fine 1953 British film for director Peter Brook and star Laurence Olivier). Pabst, who made this film shortly after his two Louise Brooks erotic classics (Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl) imbues the story -- about gangster lady-killer Mackie Messer wooing Polly, alienating her beggar king and finally triumphing over law, outlawry and death -- with both poisonous realism and antic theatricality. It's as much his vision as Brecht and Weill's, and the movie doesn't suffer from it.

This excellent Criterion two-disc set also has a fantastic bonus: It contains the suaver (and less seen) French-language version of Threepenny shot simultaneously by Pabst with a cast that includes Albert Prejean (Mackie), Florelle (Polly) and Gaston Modot. Vive la difference, Mackie!.

Extras: Commentary.

Deliverance (Deluxe Collector's Edition) (Grade: A)
U.S.; John Boorman, 1972, Warner Home Video

Four Southern businessmen, grabbing at adolescent joys, join together for a canoe trip on the Cahulawassee River. Soon, however, after a violent confrontation with two evil backwoodsmen, they find themselves heading into a Conradian Heart of Darkness. Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox are the white-rapids-daring quartet, and they're all aces. (Reynolds has never been better.) Billy McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward play the hillbillies/your worst nightmares -- and Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography of the river runs and deep, dark forests drenches the screen in lyricism and thrills.

John Boorman's 1972 film, from poet James Dickey's celebrated novel, is one of the great American adventure movies and the model of a '70s movie classic. Dickey wrote the screenplay and appears as a burly sheriff, and every scene has a terrific mix of spontaneity and elegiac beauty. Hypnotic -- and essential.

Extras: Commentary by Boorman, featurettes, trailer.

The Johnny Cash Show: Best of Johnny Cash (Grade: A)
U.S.; Various directors, 1969-71, Sony Columbia Legacy

Johnny Cash, celebrated in this wonderful 2-disc set from his 1969-71 TV variety show, was a great pop and country singer who could exude both danger and humane warmth. Few singers can generate the kind of casual menace Cash poured into the line "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die" (in "Folsom Prison Blues") or the desperate yearning of "On a Sunday mornin' sidewalk, Lord, I'm wishing I was stoned (in Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down"), or get the breezy quality of "My name is Sue, How do you do?" (in "A Boy Named Sue").

Cash also had a lot more personal charm and boyish likeability than Joaquin Phoenix captured in Walk the Line. You see it here, in this 2-disc set of highlights from Cash's show, one of the best popular music programs ever to play TV. The songs include much of his basic repertoire and fantastic duets with the likes of Kristofferson, Ray Charles, June Carter Cash and many others. I still treasure the moment shown here when he and Dylan sing "Girl from the North Country" and then silently, respectfully shake hands.

Extras: Interviews with June Carter Cash, others.

Grindhouse: Death Proof (Grade: B)
U.S.; Quentin Tarantino, 2007, Weinstein Company

The longer version of Tarantino's half of his Grindhouse pastiche double-feature stunt with Robert Rodriguez, Death Proof is a feminist car-chase sadistic romp with a Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! ensemble of tough-girl drivers (Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson and others) battling it out with the evil Stunt Man Jack (Kurt Russell). Nasty fun, but Weinstein Company would have been better advised to put out a multi-disc package that included the whole double feature and both extended versions, than sending it out in bloody pieces.

Extras: Extended and unrated footage, featurettes, trailer.

Lucky You (Grade: B-)
U.S.; Curtis Hanson, 2007, Warner

Hanson's comic-romantic look at an under-the-gun pro poker player (Eric Bana), his good-hearted chantoozie gal (Drew Barrymore) and his hard-nosed poker champ dad (Robert Duvall) is too light for noir, too dark for light-hearted romance. It's smart enough, and it moves well, but somehow it fades too fast.

Extras: Deleted scenes, featurette.

The Flying Scotsman (Grade: C)
U.K.-Germany; Douglas Mackinnon, 2007, MGM

Interesting, sometimes moving film of a fascinating real-life sports drama: amateur bike builder/biker Graeme Obree (Jonny Lee Miller) and his quest to break the world bicycle speed record. A fact-based outsider-vs.-establishment tale (Seven Berkoff is the hatable official) that should have gripped us more. With Brian Cox.

The Condemned (Grade: D)
U.S.; Scott Wiper, 2007, Lionsgate

Crazed reality TV show producer puts a batch of condemned convicts on a deserted isle, and lets them blast it out before his hidden cameras. A ridiculous vehicle for pro wrestler/actor Stone Cold Steve Austin (he's condemned, and so are we), in a movie that tries hard to be a Commando (see below) and fails.

Extras: Commentaries with Austin and Wiper; featurettes, storyboards, trailer.

Elizabeth (Grade: B-)
U.S.-U.K.; Shekhar Kapur, 1998, Universal

Cate Blanchett as Britain's Elizabeth I holds the screen regally in Bette Davis' old role (she's better than Bette) in this drama of Liz's early career, released to coincide with the sequel, Elizabeth: the Golden Age. Director Kapur (also of Golden Age) has an acrobatic camera, an often frenzied pace and a taste for lush décor, With Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant and Daniel Craig.

Extras: Commentary by Kapur, featurettes, preview of Golden Age.

Wall Street ( 20th Anniversary Edition) (Grade: A-)
U.S.; Oliver Stone, 1987, 20th Century Fox

Oliver Stone takes on the citadel of capitalism during the height of the Reagan era -- and the 1986 "insider trading" scandals. No wonder he was a cinematic hero back then. Charlie Sheen was too glib and soft this time as the everyman hero, the young trader who hits the heights, then takes a plunge. But Michael Douglas is terrific in his Oscar-winning signature role of high-energy, high-fashion corporate raider Gordon Gekko, who believes "Greed is good" and the U.S. government is a malfunctioning corporation. (Bush and Cheney probably believed that too -- and almost made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Strong stuff, engrossingly done.

Extras: Commentary by Stone, featurette, deleted scenes with Stone commentary.

Commando (Director's Cut) (Grade: C-)
U.S.; Mark L. Lester, 1985, 20th Century Fox

Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his heyday, plays a two-fisted killing machine special agent battling the mob who kidnapped his daughter. Dopey stuff, despite a big budget, lots of firepower and cast that included Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Bill Duke and Bill Paxton.

Extras: Two versions (original and director's cut), commentary by Lester, deleted scenes, featurettes.

Cruising (Grade: C+)
U.S.; William Friedkin, 1980, Universal

Al Pacino plays an undercover cop who enters the world of gay S&M leather bars to find a serial killer. Huge controversy and gay pickets greeted this movie in 1980, though it's less polemic and more pretty good standard neo-noir set in a nightmarish outlaw world of crooks and cops, no more a deliberate reflection of the overall gay milieu than The Choirboys was of heterosexual norms. Friedkin's earlier direction of The Boys in the Band may have set him up for a fall here. The squeamish beware, but the movie deserves a closer look.

Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act (Grade: A)
U.K. Philip Martin, 2006, Acorn Media

Deservedly ranked with the best cop shows ever on TV, this edition of the show's last episode boasts a better Helen Mirren performance than her Oscar-winning turn as Elizabeth II in The Queen. (If you've seen the show, you won't argue.) As Jane Tennison -- the role she brought to life and deepened in the landmark series, Mirren creates a thoroughly plausible and deeply moving human being: a functional alcoholic working as a London detective superintendent. Her last case before retirement: the murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl. Mirren never takes a false step, or utters an unbelievable word. Especially stirring: her scenes with Frank Finlay (who was Iago to Laurence Olivier's '60s Othello) as Tennison's dying dad, and with Laura Greenwood as Penny Phillips, the victim's pal.

If you're a fan of realistic TV police shows (from Hill Street Blues to Law and Order), this is one of the best. And Mirren is in a category all her own. "Don't call me ma'am," Mirren's Tennison snaps to a colleague at one point. "I'm not the bloody Queen." But she is.

Extras: Featurette, cast biographies, photo gallery.

We are Marshall
U.S.; McG, 2006, Warner
Stirring true-life college football saga.

Smallville (The Complete Sixth Season)
U.S.; various directors, 2006, Warner Home Video
A modern look at the "Superboy" comic book legend.

U.K.; Douglas MacKinnon, 2006, BBC Warner
Robert Louis Stevenson's schizoid anti-hero reexamined.

Anne of the Thousand Days and Mary Queen of Scots (Two pack)
U.K.; Charles Jarrott, 1969 and U.K.; Jarrott, 1971, Universal
Two dramas about kings and queens, played by Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold, Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
U.S.; Byron Haskin, 1964, Criterion Collection
Auteurist cult item: Daniel Defoe's castaway classic retold as sci-fi.

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