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Reviews: July 8

8 Jul, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

The Astronaut Farmer

The Astronaut Farmer
Street 7/10
Warner, Drama, B.O. $11 million, $27.95 DVD, ‘PG' for thematic material, peril and language.
Stars Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, J.K. Simmons, Tim Blake Nelson.

The Astronaut Farmer opens with a beautiful wide shot of a cowboy in a spacesuit riding a horse against the backdrop of the rising sun. This film, directed by Michael Polish and written by Michael and Mark Polish, is filled with such surreal images.

Years ago, Charles Farmer (Thornton) dropped out of the NASA astronaut program to save his family farm. He now regrets that decision, and to make up for lost time has decided to build a Mercury rocket in his barn that will launch him into orbit. The FBI takes notice when he attempts to buy 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel.

The FAA doesn't want to deal with him and sends a real astronaut (played by Bruce Willis in an uncredited cameo) to talk Farmer out of his insane plan. However, Farmer is big on giving speeches about following your heart and pursuing your dreams.

The actual attempts at spaceflight take on a dreamlike state. This scenario is so bizarre it's hard to imagine that what we're seeing is actually happening within the context of the story. Then again, this is basically a fairy tale — a cross between The Right Stuff and Field of Dreams. It's entertaining, has a lot of heart and is ideal for family viewing.

The DVD includes an in-depth behind-the-scenes featurette, as well as an interview with former astronaut Dave Scott (Apollo 15).

My only quibble, on general principle alone, is the DVD is a flipper disc with the widescreen version on one side and full screen on the other. Anyone still looking for full screen versions of movies needs to be smacked in the head. John Latchem

Dr. Ravi & Mr. Hyde
Street 7/17
Inecom, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, ‘PG-13' for some rude humor.
Stars Dr. Ravi Godse, Dave Crawley, Myron Cope.

There's a lot to recommend about Dr. Ravi & Mr. Hyde, a charming indie comedy about a doctor having a mid-life crisis. It's amusing for about an hour, with moments of absolute hilarity. However, the film is almost too cute for its own good as it pushes toward the conclusion of its 87 minutes, throwing in bloopers during the credits for good measure.

It begins with an introduction by Dr. Ravi Godse, a Pittsburgh physician who directed the film and basically plays himself. He tells us of his mid-life crisis, and that he hoped to assuage his angst by fulfilling a dream and making a “timeless classic” film.

He decides to adapt a novel he wrote and had printed by a vanity press, and enrolls in film school to learn the trade. His publisher suggests he can earn free publicity by getting the film banned in a foreign country, by way of adding a homosexual or anti-Jewish theme.

He navigates through filmmaking clich?s and a series of quirky characters by using bad puns and one-liners. As he tries to find funding for his movie and not offend the mob, Ravi becomes obsessed with his project and oblivious to its effects on those around him.

In its earnestness, Dr. Ravi & Mr. Hyde brings to mind such notable efforts as Clerks and Things to Do, and its film-within-a-film structure should bring a smile to anyone with an appreciation of movie history. John Latchem

The Big Bad Swim
Street 7/24
Echo Bridge, Comedy, $19.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Paget Brewster, Jeff Branson, Ricky Ullman, Jess Weixler.

Now this is what independent filmmaking is all about. The Big Bad Swim is a small film about regular people in ordinary situations. It puts their stories under the microscope and gives the audience a perspective on the issues, challenges, accomplishments and defeats that nearly everyone experiences on a day-to-day basis. With great writing and directing, wonderful cinematography and acting, The Big Bad Swim is a particular joy and should not be missed.

Director Ishai Setton and writer Daniel Schechter have crafted an incredibly well-balanced mix of subtle humor and genuinely touching drama in this story that is set against the background of a group of adults learning to swim at a suburban Connecticut community center.

The film is really an ensemble piece about the students and their troubled swimming instructor (Branson). While some of the characters (Brewster as a teacher and Weixler as a stripper) get much more screen time than others, it is the dynamics of the group, and the comings and goings to and from class, that makes up the narrative fabric of the film.

Metaphorically, the swimming pool setting of much of the film works because many of these characters are in deep emotional water or about to take the plunge into unfamiliar territory. Plus, the idea of adults learning how to swim is somehow intriguing.

All of the characters are needy in one way or another, and the buddy system that is applied to pool safety also applies to some of the relationships that develop on dry land. This film is a sweet reminder of the days when it was much easier to see simple, solid independent films. — David Greenberg

The Dog Problem
Prebook 8/2; Street 8/28
ThinkFilm, Comedy, B.O. $0.001 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for language, some sexual content and nudity.
Stars Giovanni Ribisi, Lynn Collins, Scott Caan, Kevin Corrigan, Mena Suvari.

The Dog Problem kicks off a whole new generation of slacker romantic comedies. Scott Caan (son of James Caan) writes, directs and co-stars in this amusing piece about aimless twentysomethings who insist on snatching failure out of the jaws of success.

Ribisi is Solo, a young writer who's had early success getting a novel published. But a whole year has gone by during which he's had an almost lethal case of writer's block and he's blown his entire nestegg on five-times-a-week psychotherapy.

When he tells his therapist he can no longer afford their sessions, the shrink advises him to get a pet and call again when he's got work. With nothing to lose, Solo does what the doctor ordered and buys a dog.

At first the relationship between man and beast is a bit rocky. But the pair gets to know each other, along with a stripper whose big dog takes a bite out of the smaller pup at the dog park.

Although The Dog Problem is loosely plotted, that's not completely inappropriate, given the aimlessness of many of its characters. Ribisi is very sympathetic as a confused young man who is somewhat bewildered by what has happened to him and what has not. The lovely Collins delivers a skillful performance, avoiding the clich? of the stripper with a heart of gold. And although The Dog Problem is a bit of a vanity project for Caan, he is enormously likable as a grown-up frat boy. — Anne Sherber

Novel Romance
Prebook 7/9; Street 7/31
Monarch, Comedy, $26.95 DVD, ‘R' for sexual content and language.
Stars Traci Lords, Paul Johansson, Sherilyn Fenn, Mariette Hartley.

A high-powered and successful magazine editor decides she is tired of waiting for Mr. Right. When the ticking of her biological clock gets deafening, she starts looking around for a suitable sperm donor.

She thinks that she finds an appropriate candidate in an undiscovered writer who has submitted work to her magazine. She offers to publish him, virtually guaranteeing his artistic success, if he will father her child and then disappear from her life.

She becomes pregnant; he becomes a literary star. She raises her daughter; he moves to France and becomes an even bigger star. But neither can completely let the other go.

In its fairly predictable plotting, Novel Romance sticks closely to the standard playbook for romantic comedies. Where it veers off that well-worn path is in its casting. Lords, best known as the formerly notorious, underage porn star, demonstrates a surprising flair for this genre as Max, the editrix. And Johansson has a smoldering, matinee idol quality that serves him well in the role of the tortured novelist. Hartley is warm and wise and funny as an older writer and mentor to the young author.

Consumers will be curious about Lords. And she does appear topless in one scene, played for laughs. But Novel Romance is an appealing little romantic comedy with a surprisingly and unexpectedly adept cast and is worth a look. — Anne Sherber

The Russian Bride
Prebook 7/10; Street 8/14
BFS, Drama, $24.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Lia Williams, Sheila Hancock, Douglas Hodge, Jason Watkins.

In this moody, neo film noir, an overbearing mother (Hancock) finds a mail-order bride for her completely sheltered, middle-aged but completely child-like son, Christopher (Watkins). When Natasha (Williams) arrives from Russia, she is every bit as lovely as her picture on the Internet suggested. And every bit as damaged.

Mother and son immediately put her to work cooking and cleaning. And Hancock, doing her best Joan Crawford imitation as the monster mother who was once a burlesque performer, announces that although she and her son will provide Natasha with a happy and comfortable life, the newlyweds will never have a physical relationship.

A mysterious stranger (Hodge) begins visiting the family, ostensibly to share in Christopher's fascination with antique timepieces. But it soon becomes clear that he is obsessed with Natasha. Although she demurs, they soon begin a torrid affair that consumes them both.

In its plotting, The Russian Bride is an unlikely combination of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Terms of Endearment. The film features two very powerful performances by actresses inhabiting two very different characters.

Williams dons a credible Russian accent, but the film's real center is Hancock, whose clown makeup and blowsy demeanor mask an iron-willed woman who is determined to make sure that her simple-minded son is cared for after she is gone.

The Russian Bride is a dark and unsettling look at the nature of compromise and disappointment that raises as many questions as it resolves about the capriciousness of life. — Anne Sherber

Bickford Shmeckler's Cool Ideas
Prebook 7/10; Street 8/7
Universal/Screen Media, Comedy, $24.98 DVD, ‘R' for language, including sexual references, and drug use.
Stars Patrick Fugit, Olivia Wilde, Matthew Lillard, Cheryl Hines, John Cho.

Produced by the makers of American Pie, the less frantic Cool Ideas enjoys much of the same anything-goes humor. However, this is a comedic outing for artists who enjoy caffeine-buzz discussion on modern existentialism as much as for frat guys with lampshade hats.

The often funny and clever Cool Ideas follows the title character as he attempts to find his manuscript, a short book that seems to combine science and philosophy in a way that defines the very meaning of life. It's a sort of wandering essay merging the cosmos and human behavior, as well as how to make rocket fuel, or something like that.

Everything is in this book, and it is such an engaging read that those who spend time with its pages have orgasms while doing so.

When the book is stolen and passed among kooks and geeks, though, its message becomes somewhat lost, and it's up to Bickford, played by Fugit (Almost Famous), to reclaim it. His quest is hindered by a beautiful, and simultaneously ditzy and brilliant artist (Wilde), who insists the quiet Bickford become at least her new best friend, and maybe more.

As these two wrestle with the meaning of their relationship, news of the book spreads and Bickford gains unwanted fame. Whether he can translate that to happiness is another story.

Cool Ideas is razor-wit stuff not afraid of a few pratfalls and bad jokes, ultimately smarter and more engaging than its surface image.

Included as an extra is a short biography of writer-director Scott Lew, who is afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease but retains both his will to press on and his ample sense of humor. — Dan Bennett

The Long Weekend
Street 7/24
Lionsgate, Comedy, B.O. $0.001 million, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, gross-out humor, language and brief drug use.
Stars Chris Klein, Brendan Fehr, Chandra West, Cobie Smulders.

Coming from the 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up school and mixing it up with enough “American Pie” and National Lampoon style, The Long Weekend has something for everyone. But do not think that just because it has well-developed and sympathetic characters that it does not have far more than its fair share of poop jokes, genital humor and gratuitous boobs.

The Long Weekend is basically a male version of a chick flick. Instead of weeping emotionally about feelings, hopes and dreams while pining away for the cute guy, this film is about guys talking about sexy women, looking at sexy women and trying to hook up with sexy women. The film really does not aim for much more than being an end-to-end laughfest but, as if that weren't a good-enough goal, the producers of the film present characters who are so likable and well-crafted that it brings the overall story up a few notches.

Appropriately enough, American Pie alum Klein stars as Cooper, a wild, borderline sleazy playboy with a seemingly one track mind. Fehr (Final Destination) plays Cooper's brother, Ed, an uptight yuppie who appears to have thrown so much time and energy into his career that his personal life is on its last legs.

Throw the two mismatched brothers together on a quest for sex during the long weekend of the title and the result is an almost nonstop parade of sex jokes, fart jokes and “America's Funniest Home Videos” style footage of animals eating their own poop.

While the appeal of such a movie might only attract a certain audience, director Pat Holden and writer Tad Safran have actually created a nice little film that, deep down, is really about two brothers bonding with each other. —David Greenberg

The Ultimate Underdog Vol. 1-3
Street 7/24
Genius/Classic Media, Animated, $12.93 each DVD, NR.
Voice of Wally Cox.

“Speed of lightning, roar of thunder/fighting all who rob or plunder/Underdog. Underdog!” Those lyrics warm the heart of anyone who grew up in the 1960s or '70s, glued to the tube every Saturday morning, wearing footed pajamas. This is the audience for the latest Underdog DVD release, even if they try to insist they're buying it for their kids.

Original episodes were presented as serials — each show featured two parts of an “Underdog” story and a handful of other short subjects. The “Underdog” story was wrapped up the following week with two more sections. This makes for an incredibly confusing menu, as it looks like there are only three episodes when there are six. While the option to watch the “Underdog” episodes separate from the other shorts is helpful, it just adds to the confusion on the menu.

The extras are underwhelming at best. There's an eight-minute interview with co-creator Joe Harris, who provides interesting information about the vocal talent, the production process, the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float and Underdog's lasting fanbase, but it sounds as if he's reading a magazine essay from cue cards. It's so canned, it takes away from the effectivenes of the interview. The second extra is a reel of the opening credits for all the short subjects, like “Tennessee Tuxedo,” “Klondike Kat,” “Tooter Turtles” and “The Hunter.”

Luckily, Underdog is as dorky and funny as ever, with his rhyming catchphrases and the breathless, intrepid Sweet Polly Purebread at his side. The 1960s-era animation will delight retro graphics aficionados and it's easy to see the show's lasting influence on newer animation like “The Powerpuff Girls.”

What this DVD really has going for it is the upcoming release of a live-action movie. Boomers may want to educate their kids before Underdog is forever tainted by a live-action pup version, or perhaps they will just be reminded of an old cartoon pal they had previously forgotten. Either way, it's darn good timing for this little cartoon dog who could. — Laura Tiffany

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