DOWNHILL RACER (The Criterion Collection): This 1969 drama is widely regarded as one of the best movies ever made about skiing. Indeed, the skiing footage is excellent — and at the time, revolutionary — but there’s more to this movie than the sport it dramatizes. The film marked director Michael Ritchie’s first feature and the first film produced by Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises, with Redford in the lead role of David Chappellet, a young skiier who joins the US team on a European tour and quickly asserts himself as both a gifted athlete and a genuine cad. He doesn’t care about the team, only himself. He skis to win, not to learn from any mistakes, and he’s determined to do it his own way. Even at this early stage in his career, Redford gravitated toward unsympathetic roles that belied his good looks, and he’s perfect here as the narcissistic golden boy. Camilla Sparv lends appropriate glamour to the role of a ski groupie he briefly romances, and providing the perfect counter-balance to Redford’s callow cynicism is the great Gene Hackman as team coach Eugene Claire, compelled to compromise his principles when it comes to dealing with Chappellet. Although the film wasn’t a box-office hit, Downhill Racer remains a important reflection of the cynicism of the time in which it was made. In retrospect and in many regards, it’s just as timely now. Besides, then as now, Hackman rules. Rated PG. ***
ALSO ON DVD
BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON (Paramount Home Entertainment): The story of St. Francis of Assisi, as directed and played (none too well, in either case) by Franco Zeffirelli and Graham Faulkner, respectively, in this picturesque but oftensilly 1973 Biblical epic featuring original songs by Donovan (which don’t help). By portraying the 12th century Francesco as a non-conformist “drop-out,” Zeffirelli (who also receives a screenplay credit, as does Lina Wertmuller) hoped to recapture the youthful audience that made his Romeo and Juliet such a hit, but it didn’t work out that way. The supporting cast includes Valentina Cortese, Judi Bowker, Leigh Lawson (in his screen debut), Kenneth Cranham, Adolfo Celi and, all too briefly, Alec Guinness (as Pope Innocent III). Oscar nomination for art direction/set decoration. Rated PG. **
THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (The Criterion Collection): A special edition ($29.95 retail) of Vittorio De Sica’s adaptation Cesare Giulio Viola’s novel Prico, starring Luciano de Ambrosis as a young boy whose perception of the world is shaped, none too well, but his self-absorbed parents (Isa Pola and Emilio Cigoli). Originally titled I Bambini ci Guardano, this was made in 1942 but not released 1944, and marked the first of many collaborations between De Sica and coscreenwriter Cesare Zavattini. In Italian with English subtitles.
EXPEDITION AFRICA (A&E Home Entertainment): A group of adventures embark on a contemporary journey through Africa by following the original route followed by 19th century explorer Dr. David Livingstone. This boxed set, which retails for $29.95 (DVD) or $39.95 (Blu-ray), includes all eight episodes from the 2009 History Channel series, which earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for Non-Fiction Programming.
GAMBLING CITY (NoShame Films): Sergio Martino’s 1975 melodrama (originally titled La Citta’ Gioca d’Azzardo) stars Luc Merenda as a cocky cardsharp who gets mixed up with the Milanese mob. Splashy and violent, as befits the genre, but the downbeat conclusion doesn’t ring true. Rated R. **
“KINGS”: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Universal Studios Home Entertainment): Ian McShane, Dylan Baker and Christopher Egan star in this prime-time NBC-TV drama, a modern-day military drama loosely based on the Biblical story of King David. This boxed set, which retails for $59.98, includes all 12 episodes from the 2009 (and only) season.
METROPOLITAN (The Criterion Collection): Whit Stillman’s award-winning 1990 satire depicts the so-called “beautiful people” of New York City’s debutante society at the tail end of the Yuppie era. This marked the feature debut for writer/ producer/director Stillman and much of the cast, including Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols and Carolyn Farina, and scored Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. This specialedition DVD, which includes director’s commentary and outtakes, retails for $39.95. Rated PG-13.
QUARTET (The Merchant Ivory Collection): Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collaborated on this award-winning 1981 adaptation of Jean Rhys’ semi-autobiographical first novel, with a luminous Isabelle Adjani as a young woman in 1920s’ Paris who is taken in by a wealthy British couple (Alan Bates and Maggie Smith) when her husband (Anthony Higgins) is imprisoned — with expectedly devastating results. Despite the classy cast (which also includes Suzanne Flon and Bernice Stegers) and customary Merchant Ivory polish (including a Richard Robbins score), this is one of the team’s more arch, lugubrious and long-winded endeavors. Rated R. **
THE RISE OF MONTY PYTHON: THE OTHER BRITISH INVASION (A&E Home Entertainment): The title tells all in his twodisc documentary ($19.95 retail) chronicling the history of one of England’s most beloved comedy troupes, being released to commemorate its 40th anniversary.
“THE ROCKFORD FILES”: MOVIE COLLECTION, VOLUME 1 (Universal Studios Home Entertainment): Years after the demise of his popular prime-time detective series (and subsequent litigation involving royalties and residuals), James Garner returned to the role of private investigator Jim Rockford and was the executive producer for a series of CBS-TV movies, four of which are included in this collection: I Still Love LA (1994) co-stars Joanna Cassidy and Joseph Campanella; A Blessing in Disguise (1995) co-stars Richard Romanus and Renee O’Connor; If the Frame Fits… (1996) co-stars Dyan Cannon and series favorites Tom Atkins, Gretchen Corbett and James Luisi; and Godfather Knows Best (also ’96) scored an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Sound Editing for a Mini- Series or Special. Joe Santos (Capt. Dennis Becker) and Stuart Margolin (Angel Martin) also reprise their series roles in all four films. This boxed set retails for $26.98. SCREWBALLS (Severin Films): A special edition (!) of the leering, lowbrow 1983 high-school sex comedy, in which students at Taft & Adams High School (“T & A,” get it?) team up to humiliate the school’s high-minded homecoming queen, Purity Busch (Linda Speciale). Other characters are named “Bootsie Goodhead,” “Melvin Jerkovski” and “Mr. Stuckoff.” There’s little shame to be found in these proceedings, as penned by Jim Wynorski and Linda Shayne (who plays Bootsie), but aficionados of cheesy ‘80s nostalgia will savor a few raunchy laughs. This almost falls into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category. Almost. Rated R. *½
SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (The Criterion Collection): An early triumph for Francois Truffaut, who directed and adapted David Goodis’ novel for this critically acclaimed 1960 black comedy starring Charles Aznavour in the title role, that of a downtrodden nightclub pianist who gets mixed up with the mob. This two-disc special edition ($39.95 retail) includes interviews with Aznavour and costar Marie Duboi, and audio commentary by film scholars (including Peter Brunette, who teaches at Wake Forest University). In French with English subtitles.
“TALL TALES & LEGENDS”: THE COMPLETE SERIES (E1 Entertainment): A three-DVD boxed set ($24.98 retail) that includes all nine episodes from executive producer Shelley Duvall’s family anthology series that run on cable 1985-’88 (earning an Emmy nomination its final season as Outstanding Children’s Program). The star-studded line-up includes Jamie Lee Curtis as “Annie Oakley,” Elliott Gould in “Casey at the Bat” (with Howard Cosell and Bob Uecker!), Martin Short and Molly Ringwald in “Johnny Appleseed” (directed by Christopher Guest), Ed Begley Jr. and Beverly D’Angelo in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and more.
“TOP CHEF: NEW YORK”: THE COMPLETE SEASON FIVE (A&E Home Entertainment): The Foo Fighters, Jean-Georges, Rocco DiSpirito and Martha Stewart are among the contestants competing for culinary stardom in all 14 episodes from the 2008-’09 season of the award-winning Bravo reality series, which earned six Emmy nominations including Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. This four-DVD boxed set retails for $29.95.
“WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE… AND 5 MORE STORIES BY MAURICE SENDAK” (Scholastic Storybook Treasures): With the big-budget feature film now in theaters, this is a compilation of animated stories adapted from the works of the award-winning children’s writer, including “In the Night Kitchen,” “Pierre,” “Alligators All Around,” “One Was Johnny” and the title tale. This DVD retails for $14.95.
THE WIZ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment): A special edition of the overproduced, overblown 1978 screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical smash, an updated version of The Wizard of Oz with an allblack cast, headed by an over-aged Diana Ross Dorothy, with Michael Jackson as Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as Tin Man and Ted Ross, reprising his Tony Awardwinning role, as Lion. Also on hand: Lena Horne, Theresa Merritt, Mabel King, Thelma Carpenter and Richard Pryor as the Wiz. The score is by Quincy Jones (who also has a cameo), the makeup is by Stan Winston and the screenplay by Joel Schumacher. Sidney Lumet replaced John Badham as director, and it proved one thing -- that Sidney Lumet has no great knack for musicals. A few show-stopping moments, but overall it’s hit-or-miss ... and too much the latter. Four Academy Award nominations: Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. Rated G. **
Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2009, Mark Burger !