#073

Runaway Jury
20th Century Fox DVD

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The promise of two old Actor’s Studio roommates onscreen together doesn’t quite materialize by the time the credits roll on this thriller/courtroom drama. It’s a shame, because Runaway Jury could have used something – even something as literal as the spectacle of a twelve angry men and women making for the exits and bolting for the open road.

Seriously, you have to wonder if it was just scheduling problems that kept Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman in separate scenes, if not separate shots, until a brief shouting match in a men’s room. Perhaps they just bothered to read the whole script to the end, and figured out that there was something materially amiss with Runaway Jury.

The thriller – especially one built on a foundation of con jobs and baroque deceit – is predicated on the larcenous nature of your average biped. Kicking off as a major class action lawsuit against the gun industry begins in a New Orleans courtroom, the movie seems to pit Dustin Hoffman’s an idealistic trial lawyer against Gene Hackman’s highly-paid jury consultant, but the real action sets the two of them against John Cusack and Rachel Weisz as a pair of scam artists who steal the jury away from them and offer to sell it back at a price.

As long as the film is concerned with their intricate eight-legged dance of double-crosses and false identities, you might get the impression that you’re watching that rarest of things – a thriller that doesn’t telegraph every major twist an hour ahead. But it’s when, in the final reeling moments, that Runaway Jury tries to be noble, even moral, that the film collapses on its broken ankles.

Hoffman and Hackman, consummate actors if nothing else, don’t get to be much more than angel and devil, and that must have encouraged them to shrink into the film’s action. Comes with commentary tracks by director Gary Fleder and Hoffman and Hackman, as well as a handful of production documentaries and deleted scenes.

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Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star
Paramount DVD

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Once the makers of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star got Leif Garrett, Danny Bonaduce, Corey Haim, Barry “Greg Brady” Williams and Screech from Saved By The Bell around a poker table to riff on their gold-plated has-been status, the whole point of making a film about a washed-up 70s child star was spent.

David Spade plays the title role, a once-cute TV kid turned into a not-so-cute adult living on the fringes of L.A. celebrity, who hires an average family to give him the childhood he missed so he can land a role in a Rob Reiner film. There are crude boob and blow job jokes, and a heartwarming ending. You have been warned.

Comes with a raft of bonus features, including a Comedy Central special on the movie that co-star Craig Bierko steals from Spade.

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The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit
Apple/EMI DVD

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Two hours before the Beatles touched down at New York’s Idlewild Airport for their first whirlwind American tour, David and Albert Maysles, a young team of documentary makers, were called by a Granada Television and asked to follow the band around and shoot footage for a TV special.

The footage they captured has been seen a thousand times – the band under siege at their New York hotel, charming cynical reporters, and playing the fool to let off some steam. It was the basis for the “madcap lads from Liverpool” image that the band relied upon for films like A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, but it’s been years since anyone has seen it as the Maysles intended it to run.

The Maysles went on to become landmark documentary filmmakers, while their subjects – probably without intending to - managed to turn rock and roll into a social event, an academic subject, and a pitiful ghost of its former self. The First U.S. Visit is probably the last really innocent moment in rock and roll history, and worth seeing even for non-fans. Comes with an even more valuable “making of” documentary narrated by Albert Maysles, filled with outtakes that give the Beatles moment even richer context.

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Goodbye Mr. Chips
Warner Bros. DVD

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Mrs. Miniver
Warner Bros. DVD

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These two films probably did more to create an image of Britain worldwide than any dozen novels. Goodbye Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat as a schoolmaster at one of Britain’s famously harrowing public (read: private) boys’ schools from the height of Victoria’s reign to the aftermath of World War One, had the unforgivable effect of making these brutal yet venerated institutions seem like the kind of place a parent should send a boy.

Basically the template for Dead Poet’s Society, it’s a moist-handed spectacle wherein Donat’s Chips lives, loves, loses and learns, and co-stars Greer Garson as the most understanding Bloomsbury suffragette ever to die in childbirth. No bonus features.

Garson also stars in the title role of Mrs. Miniver, the story of a British family nobly surviving the tragic hardships of World War Two Britain, thanks to the radiant strength of Greer’s matriarch. It was a film many Brits hated when it got played endlessly during the years leading up to D-Day, while American troops turned the country into a floating supply and training base, but it’s undeniably watchable, thanks largely to Garson. Comes with newsreel Oscar footage (the film won Best Picture in 1942, and Best Actress for Garson) and two priceless wartime propaganda shorts.

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The Diary Of Anne Frank
20th Century Fox DVD

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Three hour films with overtures that play over blank screens tend to overstate their importance, and the film adaptation of the Broadway play based on the diary of a Dutch Jewish girl who died in Belsen was undeniably an important event in 1959.

The book, the play, and the movie helped the world come to grips with the fact of the Holocaust, which radiated from the history of World War Two like a lightless shadow for almost two decades. Today, Anne Frank’s story has become a Young Person’s Introduction to Genocide, a hopeful and humanistic story of a young girl who never lost hope.

In the meantime, the fact that the Holocaust was a near-fatal wound to humanism has become gradually apparent, and we’ve become able to stare down the horrible facts, though no one has ever made a film – no, not even Schindler’s List – that comes halfway close to getting it right.

Comes with a bonus documentary on Anne, her diary, and the film, an excerpt from a documentary on director George Stevens, newsreel footage and screen tests.

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The Pentagon Papers
Paramount DVD

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This TV movie about Daniel Ellsberg, a hawkish young Pentagon insider who lost his faith in his country and leaked controversial documents on the conduct of the Vietnam war, was obviously meant to play on current events. It would have been nice, then, if the makers of The Pentagon Papers gave Ellsberg’s story a bit more dignity, instead of “sexing it up” with a blunt and obtuse screenplay and Claire Forlani in a white slip.

James Spader plays Ellsberg with his customary blank intensity, while Alan Arkin does a good job – tellingly, almost too good – as Ellsberg’s mentor and boss, who regards his act of conscience as not only treason but personal betrayal. No bonus features.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.