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NEW RELEASES ON DVD

They don't make movie stars like they used to -- and for the most part that's a good thing. When the studios ruled, they could literally create box-office attractions, putting beautiful girls and handsome boys (or even weird birds, like Bela Lugosi) under contract and styling them into hot commodities with help from good directors, writers and costume designers and the cooperation of movie mags and gossip columnists.

Yet for every Victor Mature and Jayne Mansfield and Francis the Talking Mule, there seemed to be a Richard Powell and Veronica Lake and Lassie. Only occasionally was there an Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn, whose dashing star power makes "The Errol Flynn Signature Collection" (Warner, $59.92) one of the most desirable of the mountain of movie-star collections compiled since the DVD boom began.

The sculpted, almost-too-good-looking Flynn, born in Tasmania, was first spotted in a cheap 1932 film that spliced fictional footage featuring the 22-year-old into a documentary about Pitcairn Island. A few years later, he was starring in Warner Brothers' "The Case of the Curious Bride," directed by Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca"), with whom he would make a long string of swashbucklers, including 1935's "Captain Blood," in which he plays a doctor who is forced to become a pirate. After that, he was one of the biggest stars in the firmament.

The six-disc "Signature Collection" includes "Captain Blood," as well as 1939's "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," a historical costume drama in which he was all but eaten alive by a scenery-devouring Bette Davis, and the same year's "Dodge City." In it, Flynn tames both the West and Olivia de Havilland -- and provided a template for Mel Brooks' spoof "Blazing Saddles."

The rest of the set is made up of 1940's "The Sea Hawk," another pirate picture that is the equal of "Captain Blood" and was also directed (as were the two previously mentioned films) by Curtiz, and 1941's "They Died with Their Boots On," a Hollywood take on Little Big Horn directed by Raoul Walsh. In it, Flynn played Custer with such flamboyance that it was another 20 years before the historical Custer began to re-emerge.

All of the films get a gushing introduction by the overly familiar Leonard Maltin, but that's all you'll want to skip over in this excellent box, which includes short documentaries about the making of each film and a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of "Captain Blood" along with a fine feature-length documentary about Flynn that acknowledges his problems with the law. (He was cleared of charges of raping two girls, but there is little question to his voracious sexual appetites and escapades and various other bad behaviors.)

The titles are also available separately, for $19.97 each.

There was a pronounced critical divide over "Birth" (New Line, $27.95), a supernatural (or not) drama starring Nicole Kidman as a widow who comes to believe that a little boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead husband is the real deal; unfortunately, he shows up at her wealthy family's apartment (Lauren Bacall is the matriarch) right before Kidman is to be remarried to a mensch from her rarefied social circle, played by Danny Huston.

Director Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast") treats all this with a somber seriousness that makes "Rosemary's Baby" seem like satire, and there is an elegant, hushed beauty about it. I didn't buy into it, but I can respect the opinion of those who fell under its spell. Kidman's performance, for one thing, can hardly be faulted. No extras, save the trailer. (Does anyone care about those anymore?)

The best drama screened at 2004's Sundance Film Festival was Shane Carruth's "Primer" (New Line, $27.95), but when it was released theatrically, it died, primarily because to give the plot away in advance was to ruin the experience. So you'll just have to trust me when I tell you this: This story of young techie entrepreneurs who hit on something entirely too incredible to be easily marketed or even imagined is one of the most original films I've seen since "Requiem for a Dream." The director and (unknown) actors provide commentaries.

Also out this week is "Meet the Fockers" (Universal, $29.98). I didn't review the DVD, but, when it opened in theaters, I found this sequel not nearly as funny as "Meet the Parents." It was saved only by playful performances from Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman as Ben Stiller's post-hippie parents. The DVD purports to have a blooper reel, 20 deleted scenes and commentary by Hoffman, Streisand and Stiller.

-- Terry Lawson,
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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