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Death Race 2000, A Star Is Born among new DVD reviews 

 

DEATH RACE 2000 (1975). The third release in Shout! Factory's new "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" line (following May's Rock 'n' Roll High School and Suburbia) remains one of the producer's biggest hits. Impossible to defend but easy to enjoy, this drive-in exploitation fodder imagines a Y2K in which the national pastime is a cross-country racing event where the object (in addition to crossing the finishing line, of course) is to rack up points by wiping out as many pedestrians as possible (female casualties are worth more than male ones, although senior citizens rank the highest). The masked Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the sports' most beloved player, but the ruthless Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone, a mere year away from Rocky stardom) schemes to steal his thunder. The usual quotas of gore and nudity make their expected appearances, but since this is a Corman production, pointed satirical jabs regarding the dangers of a fascistic government and the American people's obsession with violence are also prominently displayed. Incidentally, this was remade (badly) in 2008 as the Jason Statham actioner Death Race.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Corman and co-star Mary Woronov; separate audio commentary by assistant director Lewis Teague and editor Tina Hirsh; an 11-minute making-of retrospective; a 6-minute piece in which critic Leonard Maltin interviews Corman; a 4-minute outtake from a 2008 interview with the late Carradine; featurettes on the movie's race cars, set designs, costumes and music score; and a photo gallery.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***1/2

A STAR IS BORN (1954). At the time, it was business as usual; today, it's largely considered one of the biggest gyps in Academy Award history. In 1955, Grace Kelly won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in The Country Girl (it didn't hurt that the wildly popular star appeared in four other films in '54, including Hitchcock's twofer Rear Window and Dial M for Murder). Kelly gave an excellent performance, but no one deserved the Oscar more than Judy Garland for her spellbinding, career-topping turn in A Star Is Born. In his book Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary writes that "It was somewhat tragic that Garland didn't win her deserved Oscar," while TIME's blurb on the DVD case states that the picture represents "just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history." None of this is mere hyperbole: Garland is sensational as Esther Blodgett, a struggling singer who's spotted by established Hollywood actor Norman Maine (James Mason) and given a chance to make a name for herself. But first, she has to change her real name into something more marquee-friendly – thus, Vicki Lester is born. Yet while her career takes off like a rocket, the alcoholic Norman finds his own standing slipping rapidly. Judy gets to perform several numbers throughout this three-hour extravaganza, most memorably the Oscar-nominated "The Man That Got Away," yet she's equally compelling in the dramatic sequences. For his part, fellow Oscar nominee Mason is also superb, as effective at portraying the deleterious effects of alcoholism as Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.

Extras in the two-disc deluxe edition include alternate versions of various musical numbers, including "The Man That Got Away"; an outtake of the musical number "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street"; three vintage pieces on the film's Hollywood premiere; the 1942 radio adaptation starring Garland and Walter Pidgeon; an audio interview with Garland; and the Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck cartoon A Star Is Bored.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

WARNER ARCHIVES (1931-1982). Selected titles from the recent batch of films available only through the Warner Archives label include vehicles featuring Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis and a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff.

An Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Five Star Final (1931) finds Edward G. Robinson (excellent as always) cast as Joe Randall, the morally torn editor of a sensationalist newspaper called the New York Gazette. Randall hopes to steer the paper toward respectability, but pressured by the publisher (Oscar Apfel) and other managers into boosting circulation by running sleazy stories, he agrees to print a serial focusing on a 20-year-old murder case – with dire results for the innocent people involved. The still-topical subject matter helps overcome the creaky staging and some overripe performances, but the real selling point is Boris Karloff: In one of his final performances before the same year's Frankenstein turned him into a superstar, he's terrific as T. Vernon Isopod, a former divinity student (expelled for sexual misconduct, no less) who has found his calling as a sharp yet seedy reporter.

Which Way to the Front? (1970) was Jerry Lewis' final picture as director-producer-star (though not as director-writer-star), which means that at this point in his career, his narcissism was at its zenith. That would be acceptable if this World War II comedy earned its laughs, but instead, it's a limp affair that finds the filmmaker playing Brendan Byers III, "the richest man in the world." Bored with life, Byers is thrilled to be drafted into the army, but after he's declared 4-F and unfit for duty, he takes it upon himself to create his own army along with other 4-Fs. As with most Lewis vehicles, there are a few inspired set-pieces, but the supporting cast (including some tired old-school comics like Jan Murray and Kaye Ballard) is spectacularly unfunny, Jerry's direction is flat-footed (the habit of ending scenes with a freeze is especially annoying), and his incessant mugging goes a looong way.

A forgotten though fine war flick, Zeppelin (1971) casts dependable 1970s mainstay Michael York (Logan's Run, The Three Musketeers) as Geoffrey Richter-Douglas, a Scots-German officer working a desk job for the British military during World War I. But Geoffrey's German roots prove to be an asset to the Brits once they determine that they can use him as an undercover agent, pretending to defect to the Germans so he can gather firsthand knowledge about their latest and most powerful airship model. The action-packed finale is hopelessly rushed, but everything leading up to it is satisfying, enhanced by fine special effects and some tense scenarios.

Henry Fonda was able to bow out with dignity, passing away after his Oscar-winning performance in 1981's On Golden Pond. Not so Peter Sellers, who should have ended his career with his Oscar-nominated turn in 1979's lovely Being There but instead had the misfortune to headline The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) before his untimely death by heart attack at the age of 54. One of the first notorious bombs of its burgeoning decade, this casts Sellers in more than one role, yet comparisons to the brilliant Dr. Strangelove end here. The versatile comedian portrays the nefarious Fu Manchu ("Call me Fred"), seeking the ingredients for a magic elixir that will keep him alive (as the movie opens, he's celebrating his 168th birthday), as well as his old nemesis from Scotland Yard, Nayland Smith. A disaster from start to finish, it is worth noting that this marked an interesting point in Helen Mirren's career: She appeared in this dud (playing a constable who falls for Fu Manchu) a year after co-starring in the highly controversial Caligula.

One of director Alan Rudolph's occasional if ill-fated attempts to make a mainstream movie, Endangered Species (1982) comes across like a mix between a holdover from the "paranoia thriller" subgenre of the 1970s and a muckraking made-for-TV movie of the 1980s. Inspired by a real-life incident, it centers around a series of unexplained cattle mutilations in Colorado. The local yokels think the animals are being killed either by extraterrestrials or Satanists, but the sheriff (Jobeth Williams) comes up short on tangible clues. Enter an alcoholic ex-cop (Robert Urich) from New York, who's come to the area with his resentful teenage daughter (Marin Kanter) in tow; with his help, the sheriff is able to stumble onto the right path. The sequences involving the mystery are far more convincing than the scenes focusing on the adult leads' testy romance.

There are no extras except for the original theatrical trailers on Five Star Final and Endangered Species.

Five Star Final: ***

Which Way to the Front?: *1/2

Zeppelin: ***

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu: *

Endangered Species: **1/2

Extras: *

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