This week we begin with a pair of icons:
Perfect Understanding (**1/2)
Not rated, 86 minutes.
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray.
With the release of Perfect Understanding, a 1933 British import, the Cohen Film Collection is continuing its valuable and admirable rescue of forgotten notable films. In its Blu-ray and DVD debut, the star vehicle deserves analysis because of its history and its distinguished pedigree.
As Nicholas, ascendant star Laurence Olivier — 26 years old here — plays lover and eventual husband to Judy (Gloria Swanson). Swanson, a 34-year-old silent screen star, had seen her career in descent with the advent of sound, and this marked a chance for her to regain her footing, if not her status.
She and Olivier make a plausible couple, a pair who swear to marry only if they will remain independent and never be jealous of each other.
The film presents a variety of obstacles for the free-thinkers to surmount, all daring situations for their day. The theoretical open marriage concept would not be filmable in a few years in Britain’s soon-to-be-censored cinema, much like this country’s restrictive Production Code, which went into greater effect shortly thereafter.
Swanson demonstrates her always expressive face, but her extravagant gestures did not translate beyond silent films and soon her revival sputtered. Today, the film serves as a career oddity not only for both Olivier and Swanson, but also for future director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), one of the uncredited screenwriters.
The polished remastered disc also contains two Mack Sennett shorts of the era: “Husbands’ Reunion” and “Dream Stuff.”
The Numbers Station (**1/2) This murky mystery-thriller stars a near-comatose John Cusack as burnt-out CIA agent Emerson Kent. He quickly shows his deadly prowess for dispatching unwanted enemies before being shuffled off to a remote base in rural England. There, he guards station operator Katherine (Malin Akerman), while she decodes and/or translates a barrage of top-secret information, including troop movements in Afghanistan.
About the time that Kent receives orders to kill Katherine for reasons that remain vague, a group of heavily armed bad guys storm the compound and try to wipe out everyone. Only Kent, now turned protector, stands in their way.
Danish director Kasper Barfoed competently delivers some action-filled sequences — that is, when Cusack isn’t moping around like someone just killed his dog. With Liam Cunningham and Lucy Griffiths.
Rated R, 89 minutes. The DVD also includes a 14-minute “making of” featurette.
The Mask of Dimitrios (***) The Warner Archive Collection releases an excellent new manufactured-on-demand version of this dark 1944 thriller, directed by Jean Negulesco from an Eric Ambler novel. The constantly scene-shifting drama contains elements of Casablanca and The Third Man and features two of the stars of The Maltese Falcon.
Austin native and University of Texas dropout Zachary Scott plays Dimitrios, a slippery, amoral man of vague nationality who begins his career of stealing and conning in early 1920s Eastern Europe. As World War II approaches, he turns his abilities to spying, but for money not idealism.
Sydney Greenstreet plays Peters, hot on Dimitrios’ trail, a quest that also engulfs mystery novelist Cornelius (Peter Lorre). Throughout the odyssey, which takes Cornelius and Peters across Europe, they hear variously incriminating stories of the now presumed dead Dimitrios.
The ending is less than a surprise, but the colorful characterization and crepuscular atmospherics supersede everything else. Not rated, 95 minutes.
Dorfman in Love (**1/2) Sara Rue stars as the titular Deb Dorfman, a Valley girl from San Fernando, Calif., who, among many other activities, takes care of her abrasive father (Elliott Gould). She also works for her tight-fisted yet inconsistently profligate brother (Jonathan Chase).
In the interim, she confides and bonds with her friend Jay (Johann Urb), a handsome nerdy guy Deb secretly adores. When asked to take care of Jay’s cat for a week, she makes her move. Sort of.
Brad Leong directs from Leonard Hill’s script but fails to inspire much interest in the formulaic, predictable story. Rated PG-13, 92 minutes.
Escape From Planet Earth (***) In this Earth-in-peril animated feature, Brendan Fraser voices Scorch Supernova, worldwide hero and brother to the deeply intellectual Gary (Rob Corddry).
When Scorch’s boss (Jessica Alba) hears a distress call from another planet, he takes off, only to be fooled and then captured by evil General Shanker (William Shatner). Only Scorch’s brother can save him.
With additional voice contributions from Sarah Jessica Parker, George Lopez, Craig Robinson and Sofia Vergara. Rated PG, 89 minutes.
The DVD, in all combo packs and formats, including 3-D, offers commentary, a 21-minute “making of” featurette, a four-minute segment on “How to Make an Animated Feature with Director Cal Brunker,” four minutes of alternate takes and deleted scenes, and 11 minutes of music videos from Delta Rae, Owl City and Cody Simpson.
And, finally, our week’s TV arrivals:
The Twilight Zone: Second 2 One of TV’s most venerable series returns in an episode-only collection of 29 episodes on five discs.
The sophomore season of writer and creator Rod Serling’s great science-fiction stories appeared from 1960 to 1961. By that time, the series’ popularity had grown, giving it enough import to draw some immense talent.
This season alone saw guest stars Don Rickles, William Shatner, Bob Cummings, Agnes Moorehead, Bill Mumy, Burgess Meredith, Dick York and future Oscar winners Art Carney and Sydney Pollack. Serling wrote most of the episodes, often sharing credits with frequent collaborator Charles Beaumont as well as future sci-fi icon Richard Matheson (I Am Legend).
The season also includes some of the best-known episodes from the series, such as “A Thing About Machines,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “The Invaders,” “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” “Static” (directed by Buzz Kulik), “Prime Mover” (with Buddy Ebsen) and the sterling “Nick of Time,” co-written by Matheson and starring Shatner and Patricia Breslin.
The season also gave impetuses to the careers of director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), Richard Donner (Superman) and others. The Twilight Zone holds up today and remains one of television’s most engaging series.
Also available Tuesday on DVD: Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season, A Good Day to Die Hard, Identity Thief, Warm Bodies.