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DVD Pick of the week: AGENT 8¾

(VCI Entertainment)

The immediate popularity of the James Bond films inspired this genial, good-natured 1964 Cold War comedy (originally titled Hot Enough for June) that literally opens with a 007 joke.

Dirk Bogarde stars as Nicholas Whistler, a jobless writer who is hired on as a courier, unaware that his new employer is British Intelligence, which promptly sends him on a job behind the Iron Curtain. Whistler’s a decoy, but he doesn’t know it… yet.

Curvaceous Sylva Koscina plays Whistler’s driver Vlasta, herself a spy, but her mission is compromised when she falls for him. The film, directed by Ralph Thomas and adapted from a Lionel Davidson by Lukas Heller, is a smooth, breezy diversion, even working up some suspense when Whistler’s cover is blown.

The cast is compromised of old pros: Robert Morley as the head of British Intelligence and Leo McKern as the head of Prague’s secret police (and Vlasta’s father), Richard Pasco, Brook Williams, John LeMesurier, Richard Vernon, John Standing and Frank Finlay.

Agent 8¾ is available as part of the “Dirk Bogarde Collection” ($59.99 retail), which also includes Penny Princess (1952), Simba (1955) and Campbell’s Kingdom (1957). Individually, Agent 8¾, Simba and Campbell’s Kingdom each retail for $14.99 and Penny Princess for $19.99 on DVD. On Blu-ray, Agent 8¾ and Campbell’s Kingdom each retail for $24.99.

THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST (Flatiron Film Company): A shrill and abrasive farce starring Neil Patrick Harris and Bonnie Sommerville as a couple whose attempts to enroll their daughter (Amelia Talbot, in her screen debut) into a private school in New York City proves more turbulent than anticipated. Not without its assets, including Peter Serafinowicz as a wealthy wastrel, but a late shift into sentiment is unwanted and unwarranted. With Christopher McDonald, Amy Sedaris, Bridget Regan, Kate Mulgrew, John Hodgman and Jenna Stern. Rated R.

BRITISH WAR COLLECTION (VCI Entertainment): A self-explanatory selection of four World War II dramas: The Way to the Stars (1945) starring Michael Redgrave and John Mills; The Malta Story (1953) starring Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins; Above Us the Waves (1955) starring John Mills and John Gregson; and Sea of Sand (1958) starring Richard Attenborough and Michael Craig. The DVD boxed set retails for $39.98, each DVD retails separately for $14.99.

CONTAGION (Warner Home Video): Steven Soderbergh’s highly effective, high-tension thriller depicts a lethal virus and the efforts to combat it, while the future of civilization (literally) hangs in the balance. Credible and frightening, with a mounting sense of paranoia conveyed by an excellent all-star cast: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Winston-Salem’s own Jennifer Ehle, and Elliott Gould. One of 2011’s best films. Rated PG-13.

FRIGHT NIGHT (DreamWorks Studios/ Buena Vista Home Entertainment): Decent remake of the 1985 horror hit, with Anton Yelchin as a suburban teenager who suspects his new neighbor (an excellent Colin Farrell) is a bloodthirsty vampire. Also on hand: Toni Collette, David Tennant, Christopher Mintz- Plasse, Imogen Poots and original Fright Night bloodsucker Chris Sarandon in a cameo role. Available as a single DVD ($29.99 retail), a DVD/ Blu-ray combo ($30.99 retail), or a 3-D Blu-ray combo ($49.99 retail). Rated R.

HELLDRIVER (Well Go USA): A meteor crashes in Japan, giving rise to a race of zombies that soon overwhelm the country, in director Yoshihiro Nishimura’s apocalyptic shocker. Original title: Nihon bundan: Heru doraiba. In Japanese with English subtitles. Available as a single DVD ($24.98 retail) or a DVD/Blu-ray combo ($29.98 retail).

LIONSGATE BLU-RAYS (LionsGate Home Entertainment): A selection of Blu-ray debuts, each originally released by Miramax Films: Retailing for $14.99 are 1998’s She’s All That (rated PG-13) starring Rachael Leigh Cook and Freddie Prinze Jr.; and 2001’s Serendipity (rated PG-13) starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. Retailing for $19.99 are the uncut version of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), which marked the screen debuts of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay; 1998’s Velvet Goldmine (rated R), starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Toni Collette and a riotous Eddie Izzard, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design; and Fernando Mereilles’ 2002 epic adaptation of City of God (rated R), which earned Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay. Retailing for $39.99 is the “Spy Kids Triple Feature” (rated PG).

MARGIN CALL (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s knockout feature debut is a lightly fictionalized account of a prestigious Wall Street brokerage on the eve of the 2008 economic collapse. Despite knowing how it all turns out (badly, to say the least), this is high-powered drama all the way, put across by a superb ensemble cast including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, producer Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Demi Moore and an electrifying Stanley Tucci. One of 2011’s best films. Rated R.

RINGO STARR AND THE ROUNDHEADS: LIVE (Image Entertainment): This concert documentary ($14.98 retail) features the one-time Beatle and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer performing in concert in Waukegan, Ill., performing such hits as “Yellow Submarine,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” It Don’t Come Easy,” and more.

ROSWELL: THE ALIENS ATTACK (CBS DVD/ Paramount Home Entertainment): Aliens invade the Earth in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 in this flat, talky sci-fi thriller with Steven Flynn and Heather Hanson as the inter-stellar visitors who eventually declare war on each other. Rated PG.

“SABER RIDER AND THE STAR SHERIFFS” (VCI Entertainment): A collector’s-edition DVD ($14.99 retail) featuring 17 episodes from the animated ’80s science-fiction/Western series, based on the Japanese series “Star Musketeer Bismarck,” and set in a distant future where the ongoing battle between good and evil continues in hi-tech fashion.

“SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA” (Starz Entertainment/Anchor Bay Entertainment): A prequel to the popular Starz miniseries “Spartacus: Vengeance,” with John Hannah and Lucy Lawless reprising their roles as Batiatus and Lucretia, determined to wrest control of ancient Rome for themselves, and Dustin Clare as a young gladiator whose ascension to fame might just be their ticket. Emmy nomination for Outstanding Stunt Coordination. The two-DVD boxed set includes all six episodes from the 2011 season plus bonus features, and retails for $39.98 (DVD) or $49.99 (Blu-ray).

STRAW DOGS (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 classic stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth as a young couple who decide to move to her Mississippi hometown and learn to regret it, when her old flame (Alexander Sarsgard) and his buddies begin terrorizing them. Hardly a positive portrayal of the Deep South (and its natives), but well-made and effective on a knee-jerk level. The climactic siege is still a grabber, but Peckinpah’s original (based on the novel The Siege at Trencher’s Farm) is the one to beat. James Woods tears it up as an angry, alcoholic ex-high-school football coach. Rated R.

SURVIVE! (VCI Entertainment): Producer/ director Rene Cardona’s 1976 adaptation of Clay Blair Jr.’s best-seller, about the members of the Uruguayan rugby team who survived a plane crash in the Andes Mountains in 1972 and were forced to resort to cannibalism. Static and repellent at times, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the story. Producers Robert Stigwood and Allan Carr re-edited Cardona’s film, adding dubbed narration and Gerald Fried’s score, and the result was an unexpected box-office hit. This DVD ($14.99 retail) includes that version and the original Mexican version, Supervivientes de Los Andes. Rated R.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. © 2011, Mark Burger

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