AVATAR (2009). It appears as if only James Cameron can vanquish James Cameron, as the filmmaker's 1997 Titanic gave up its box office crown to this sci-fi spectacle that satisfied critics, Academy members, fanboys and general audiences alike. On the other hand, the notion that it represented the next revolution in cinema was nothing more than studio-driven hyperbole, because while the 3-D visuals in its theatrical release rated four stars, Cameron's steady but unexceptional screenplay guaranteed that this placed well below more compatible marriages of substance and style found in such celluloid groundbreakers as the original King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Toy Story and Cameron's own Terminator films. Here, the story meshes Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas with, amusingly enough, last year's animated flop Battle for Terra – it's the year 2154, and the Americans have decided to destroy the indigenous people on a distant planet in order to plunder the land and make off with its riches (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose). Employing technology that allows humans to look like the blue-skinned locals, the Earthlings send in a Marine (Sam Worthington) to gain their trust, but as the jarhead gets to know these aliens better, he finds himself conflicted. For all its swagger, Avatar is rarely deeper than an average Garfield strip, but Cameron's creation of a new world demands to be seen at least once. Of course, that once should be on a theater screen: Stripped of its 3-D glamour for DVD, the film still looks exceptional but doesn't exercise quite the same grip.
There are no extras on the DVD.
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965). A box office behemoth back in its day, Doctor Zhivago is one of those films, like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and The Sound of Music, that has delighted generations of moviegoers and continues to loom large in the hearts of its most ardent admirers. Unfortunately for me, it's also that rare classic that leaves me cold, no matter how many times I've watched it over the years. David Lean's first picture after winning back-to-back Best Director Oscars for The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, this adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel follows the life of Russian doctor-poet Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) as he marries his childhood sweetheart (Geraldine Chaplin), gets swept up in the Bolshevik Revolution, and embarks on an affair with the beautiful but damaged Lara (Julie Christie). As expected, the film is visually stimulating, but Zhivago is a passive and dull protagonist, and neither Robert Bolt's screenplay nor Sharif's one-note performance are able to bring the character to life; consequently, his great romance with Lara feels like much ado about nothing. The cast includes such luminaries as Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson, although top acting honors go to the two men portraying Lara's previous lovers: Rod Steiger as the cagy, corrupt Komarovsky and Oscar-nominated Tom Courtenay as the political activist Pasha. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, this earned five, including one for Maurice Jarre's music score (which contains the classic "Lara's Theme"). For an infinitely superior film about the Russian Revolution, rent Warren Beatty's 1981 masterpiece Reds.
The only new extra in the two-disc DVD set is a 40-minute featurette titled Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration. Features carried over from past versions include audio commentary by Sharif, Steiger and David Lean's wife, Sandra Lean; the hour-long documentary Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic; vintage interviews with Sharif and Christie; and Chaplin's screen test.
ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979) / SUBURBIA (1983). In the same year that the legendary Roger Corman finally won an honorary Academy Award ("for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers"), Shout! Factory (the same folks who bring us MST3K on DVD) has elected to kick off its new line, Roger Corman's Cult Classics. And considering that Corman has produced nearly 400 motion pictures during his career (as well as directing a chunk of them), it doesn't seem that the outfit will ever run out of available product. The series debuts with two musically inclined titles, with several fantasy faves (including Death Race 2000, Galaxy of Terror and the original Piranha) scheduled for release throughout the summer.
A true cult classic, Rock 'n' Roll High School also had the distinction of landing in the #7 slot on Creative Loafing's list of the 20 greatest rock films ever made (see our March 21, 2007 issue) – how's that for street cred? P.J. Soles delivers a disarming performance as Riff Randell, a rock fan whose grudge match against her school's dictatorial principal (Mary Woronov) receives a boost from the arrival of the Ramones. Thanks to a superb soundtrack, a quip-packed screenplay (my favorite: "Do your parents know you're Ramones?") and Soles' boundless energy, it's near-impossible to resist this film's goofy charms. The less charitable might want to knock a half-star off the rating, but even curmudgeons should be won over when the band performs such gems as "I Just Wanna Have Something to Do," "Pinhead" and the title track.
Suburbia, meanwhile, finds writer-director Penelope Spheeris throwing focus on a gang of teen runaways who live in an abandoned house on the outskirts of L.A.; as we get to know these kids, we realize that their own societal inadequacies are no worse than those of the repellent adults who perpetually make their lives miserable. Also making the theatrical rounds under the monikers The Wild Side and Rebel Streets, Suburbia is for the most part wretchedly acted and broadly scripted, but it has a raw vibe that can't be denied. The punk rock scene frequently takes center stage, and look for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea (billed here as Mike B. The Flea) as one of the aimless teens.
Extras on Rock 'n' Roll High School include four separate audio commentaries, including one featuring Corman and another featuring Soles; the 24-minute featurette Back to School: A Retrospective; new interviews with director Allan Arkush and cast members; Leonard Maltin's interview with Corman; audio outtakes from the Ramones concert sequence at the Roxy; and much more. Extras on Suburbia include audio commentary by Spheeris; separate audio commentary by Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and co-star Jennifer Clay; and a photo gallery.
Rock 'n' Roll High School: ***1/2
THE FUGITIVE KIND (1959). An early misfire from the great Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon), this stuffy adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play Orpheus Descending finds Marlon Brando essaying the part of Val Xavier, a drifter whose arrival in a small Southern town causes consternation among the bigoted locals. Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward co-star as the two women who get involved with Val (Brando has no chemistry with either actress), but the best performances come from Victor Jory as Magnani's cruel husband and Maureen Stapleton as a sympathetic resident.
Extras include a 28-minute interview with Lumet; a 28-minute featurette on the various Williams screen adaptations; and Lumet's 1958 Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, an hour-long special created for the Kraft Television Theatre series.
NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS (1958). A Broadway smash that in turn became a box office smash, this uproarious comedy casts Andy Griffith (reprising his Tony-nominated stage role) as Will Stockdale, a country bumpkin who gets drafted into the military. Naive beyond compare and with nary a mean bone in his body, Will ends up inadvertently causing problems for those around him, including his sergeant (hilarious Myron McCormick), his insecure new friend (Nick Adams) and a bullying recruit (Murray Hamilton). Don Knotts appears in a small role; he and Griffith would of course go on to make television history together as the stars of The Andy Griffith Show.
There are no extras on the DVD.