Ladies In Lavender
(Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: Charles Dance, w/ Judi Dench, Maggie Smith. Rating: NNN
A young man washes out of the sea and awakens long-dormant passions in two 70ish spinsters in a remote Cornwall village. Actor-turned-director Charles Dance says it's a fairy tale, and if you look closely enough at the story structure, it is. But he's kept the action and the mood firmly grounded in plausiblity and the focus purely on emotion.
Judi Dench and Maggie Smith give that emotion all the poignancy and complexity you could wish for, despite playing characters who express themselves in simple, terse dialogue and whose instinctive response is to keep a firm check on their feelings. As the sister who discovers love for the first time, Dench gets the bigger moments. But Smith knows how to reveal worlds of thought and feeling with a glance. Spanish actor Daniel Brühl is charming as the young man, and the rest of the cast is filled with solid actors, including David Warner and Freddie Jones.
We might wish for more in terms of grand speeches or startling plot turns, but this film is moving and memorable in its own right.
Extras - Making-of interviews. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(Fox, 2005) D: Tim Story, w/ Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis. Rating: NN
Fantastic Four is more feeble than fantastic, and pretty much fun-free despite a couple of spectacular set pieces whose creation is detailed in the otherwise lacklustre extras.
There are two main problems. First, we've seen this story before: ordinary people develop superpowers, feel conflicted and finally get with the program just in time to punch out evil. What is it with Hollywood that all they can do with comics is tell the original story?
The answer may lie in the second problem: the characters are so thin and their powers so ridiculous that only a diehard fan of the comics could work up much enthusiasm for any of it. The filmmakers know this. They keep the silliest and least convincing power - Reed Richards's (Ioan Gruffudd) stretchiness - off-camera as much as possible and focus on Chiklis's strongman, Ben Grimm. Chiklis turns in the movie's best performance by far, despite the encumbrance of a 60-pound latex suit.
Chiklis is amusing, but skip the commentary if you don't want to listen to 106 minutes of actors complaining about the tedium of shooting effects sequences.
Extras - Alba, Chiklis, Gruffudd commentary; promotional tour video diary; making-of docs; casting session; deleted scenes. Wide-screen, full-screen, UMD Mini for PSP. English, Spanish soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
Red Green: Stuffed And Mounted Six-Pack
(Acorn, 1991-2005) creator: Steve Smith, w/ Smith, Rick Green. Rating: NNN
Six discs with eight episodes apiece may be more Red Green than you actually want, but this is a comedy of moments rather than standout episodes. Red reciting his homegrown poem that begins "Now is the winter of our discount tent" has me on the floor. So does Old Man Sedgewick with two badgers up his pants. Other bits, mostly those featuring Red's nerdboy nephew Harold, leave me cold. You'll probably have your own favourites, but there's at least one laugh-out-loud moment per episode, and much quiet smiling. That's a fairly major accomplishment given the show's seeming lack of sophistication.
The format is a half-hour magazine geared to outdoors enthusiasts, ostensibly broadcast from Possum Lodge, 486 beer stores north of Toronto. Each week, Red bungles another ill-conceived and worse-executed handyman project and swaps idiocies with his guests. He's calm, confident and utterly oblivious to the shambles.
That's us all the way, and there's not a woman in sight. Smith has nailed guy nature to a T and sustained it for a remarkable 15 years.
Extras - Character bios. Full-frame.
Fox In A Box:
(MGM, 1973) D: Jack Hill, w/ Pam Grier;
(MGM, 1974) D: Hill, w/ Grier;
(MGM, 1975) D: William Girdler w/ Grier. Rating: NNN
Matt Helm Lounge:
(Sony, 1966) D: Phil Karlson, w/ Dean Martin, Stella Stevens;
(Sony, 1966) D: Henry Levin, w/ Martin, Ann-Margret;
(Sony, 1967) D: Levin, w/ Martin, Janice Rule;
The Wrecking Crew
(Sony, 1969) D: Karlson, w/ Martin, Elke Sommer. Rating: NN
Historically minded viewers can check out both these sets and catch the wretched death of one piece of pop culture and the high-energy rise of what took its place.
The Matt Helm movies give us pure plastic swinging 60s by people who just don't get it: no thrills, bad pop music, worse jokes, wall-to-wall bland babes à go-go and an attitude of condescending titillation. These are the movies Mike Myers is really parodying with Austin Powers, but he never came close to the ridiculousness of the clothing and the astoundingly bad wigs.
Dean Martin clearly isn't into it. He ambles through his secret agent duties with his usual drunken swinger persona. By the end, he's a stumbling, nagged at old man in a lot of pain, muttering incoherent dialogue.
Two years later, Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song created blaxploitation. And two years after that, Pam Grier turned the genre on its head in Coffy. For the first time, viewers were given a hardcore violent heroine willing to do all kinds of brutal things in the name of revenge.
With Coffy, stories began to come down to earth, reflecting real black American life. Director Jack Hill points out in his frank commentary that his black cast was responsible for a lot of key details, like the razor blades in the afro. Nudity became a staple, and sex got raunchy. Fancy karate strikes disappeared, violence turned messy and painful, and scripts stopped featuring crude double entendres and started including words like "motherfucker."
Music goes from near Europorn awful to Isaac Hayes-inspired great. Outstandingly bad fashion remains, but now its 70s style. Much of it came from the actors' own wardrobes. (Me, I wouldn't admit that.)
Initially, Pam Grier was no better an actor than Dean Martin, but she was into it all the way. So was everyone else, including Hill, an exploitation specialist also known for Spider Baby. Hill is a white man whose experiences as a musician gave him an in to black culture and who was eager to tell its stories. The result is exploitation at its finest.
Extras - Fox In A Box: Hill commentary (Coffy, Foxy Brown); wide-screen; French, Spanish subtitles; bonus disc - hiphop artists discuss the influence of Grier and blaxploitation. Matt Helm Lounge: wide-screen; English, French (The Silencers only), Japanese, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, December 13
Sin City, Extended, Recut
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) High-style neo-noir thriller with ample action.
Godzilla: Final Wars
(Sony, 2004) The last hurrah for the Big G pulls out all the stops.
Popeye Original Classics
(Mackinac, 1933-50) Spinach sales will soar.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
(Universal, 2005) Unrated version of the popular comedy.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb