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Reviews: June 17

17 Jun, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan
Street 6/26
Paramount, Drama, B.O. $9.4 million, $29.99 DVD, $39.99 HD DVD or Blu-ray, ‘R' for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use.
Stars Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr.

Director Craig Brewer made Black Snake Moan as a tribute to blues music, but the public perception is that it's the movie in which Sam Jackson chains a half-naked Christina Ricci to his radiator. While it is that, it is so much more.

Ricci plays Rae, a nymphomaniac who is left for dead in the middle of the road after a drunken encounter. She is discovered by Laz (Jackson), who decides to nurse her back to health. He asks around and learns of her wicked ways, so he decides to lock her up until he can cure her affliction.

Laz is suffering his own heartbreak, after his wife ran off with his brother, and sees Rae as a measure of his own salvation in the eyes of God. Thrown into the mix is Rae's fianc?, Ronnie (Timberlake), a soldier who suffers anxiety attacks. He ships out and cannot keep an eye on her.

As bizarre as the setup is, Black Snake Moan is actually a very sweet movie about unconditional love overcoming fear. These are characters who separately would succumb to their weaknesses, but together find the strength to overcome them.

The various story lines are linked by the film's incredible use of music. Even those who don't usually listen to the blues will find themselves tapping their toes. Brewer says the idea was to basically create a living blues album. The end result is somewhat of a spiritual successor to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The DVD has several wonderful featurettes about the music. Jackson actually learned how to play the guitar to add realism to his performance, and all the actors do their own singing on screen.

Black Snake Moan is the second in a series of five films Brewer says will celebrate the rich musical diversity of his hometown of Memphis, Tenn. Brewer focused on rap in 2005's terrific Hustle & Flow, and his upcoming Maggie Lynn deals with honkeytonk country music. John Latchem

Gray Matters
Street 6/19
Fox, Comedy, B.O. $0.07 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘PG-13' for some mature thematic material, sexual content and language.
Stars Heather Graham, Bridget Moynahan, Tom Cavanagh, Sissy Spacek, Molly Shannon, Alan Cumming.

Gray Matters is a sophisticated, Nora Ephron-style romantic comedy that tackles complex and weighty issues, including sexual identity and relationships between siblings, with a charming and lighthearted touch.

A brother and sister each set out to find the other a mate. Gray (Graham) identifies the lovely Charlie (Moynahan) as a possibility for her brother (Cavanagh) and is delighted when the pair hit it off so well. But her delight heads south when the couple decides to elope in Las Vegas mere days after their first date, and she discovers that she has romantic feelings for Charlie as well.

Predictable complications ensue. Gray, who has never considered the possibility that she is gay, now has to confront not only the notion that she is a lesbian, but also the possibility that she is in love with her brother's new wife.

A truly delightful cast transforms Gray Matters into a frothy confection, despite the weighty issues that it raises. Especially good are Spacek as Gray's loony therapist, Cumming as a smitten taxi driver and Shannon in the Eve Arden/best friend role.

The disc is a little light on extras. They include a making-of documentary in which Sue Kramer, the writer and director, talks about the story's impetus and about the challenges of assembling a great cast to tell an unconventional story. — Anne Sherber

The Last Letter
Street 6/26
MTI, Thriller, $24.95 DVD, ‘R' for violence and nudity.
Stars William Forsythe, Yancy Butler, Grace Zabriskie, Leo Rossi.

The Last Letter takes the action to the jury room, always fertile ground to gather disparate characters who go off on each other.

Those gathered here are a moody collection of grumps, freaks and quasi-psychotics, though none quite match the alleged antics of the killer they have been asked to convict — a gruesome fiend who murdered 14 innocent people by injecting them with a paralysis drug before draining their blood.

It's obvious to most of the jurors that the man on trial is the killer and should receive a death sentence, but the jury foreman (Forsythe) asks the other 11 to consider the possibility that this man isn't the real killer.

The quiet, ponytailed leader goes through the crimes again and slowly brings doubt into the room. Through flashbacks, we see the horrible crimes performed, without seeing the face of the killer. New clues emerge from these re-creations until no one is sure who really committed the evil deeds.

The Last Letter employs a Twelve Angry Men style, and though the words and morality metaphors are not nearly as rich, certainly the characters are more eccentric, with each behaving oddly in his or her own way.

It's fun to watch quirky actors such as Zabriskie behaving so strangely.

The Last Letter lacks depth, suspense and style, but it's entertaining in its emotional bombast. Give it points for attempting this throwback genre and daring us to spend time in a small room with people whom we would never willingly choose to spend such time. — Dan Bennett

Inside Out
Street 6/19
Starz, Thriller, $26.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Eriq La Salle, Kate Walsh, Steven Weber, Russell Wong, Nia Peeples, Tim Maculan, Tyler Posey.

The suburbs are often spookier, with more hidden secrets, than dark cabins in the woods and other moody locations. That's because people who live in the suburbs, at least in movie dramas, are often caked in self-loathing and desperation.

Such human frailties are exposed in Inside Out, a psychological thriller that does a decent job of keeping you guessing until the end.

Weber and Peeples play an unhappily married couple on a nice street in an anywhere town experiencing problems associated with lethargy, apathy and other mid-life blues. Fellow neighbors aren't much better off, experiencing their own miscellaneous failings.

The quiet boil of despair begins to roil when a mysterious single man moves into one of the homes. Dr. Peoples, played by La Salle of “E.R.” fame, announces himself as a psychiatrist, then proceeds to antagonize just about everybody with such antics as mowing his lawn at 2 a.m.

Maybe that wouldn't be so bad, but at least two of the neighbors suspect the good doctor of murder when they see him carry what appears to be a body to his car. Meanwhile, the doctor appeals to the neighborhood women, causing even more hostility.

As tensions rise and accusations are made, it's apparent that something very strange is going on, but we are not certain who to trust, if anybody. After a series of escalating events, it becomes obvious again that nothing is ever obvious in suburbia.

Inside Out manages to sustain an entertaining creepiness without showing its hand too early. It benefits greatly from vaguely eccentric work from veteran character actors Weber and La Salle, and also by the occasional dose of dark humor. — Dan Bennett

The Powerpuff Girls: Season One
Street 6/19
Warner, Animation, $26.99 two-DVD set, NR.

“The Powerpuff Girls” hit the audience trifecta after debuting in 1998. Girls found the show empowering and the merchandise too adorable not to collect. Parents indulged the fandom because they weren't immune to the show's sly humor and irrepressible cuteness. And college kids added it to their list of stony cartoon faves, right after “Spongebob SquarePants.”

It's a wonder that the first season has taken this long to reach DVD. The extras could've been handled a little better, but the amount and breadth will still please most fans.

The primary fault with the extras is the lack of context. It's fun to watch “The Whoopass Girls: A Sticky Situation” in both full-color and pencil-test treatment, but the short's origin isn't revealed until the third extra, “Whoopass Stew Animatics,” which has “Powerpuff Girls” creator Craig McCracken explaining how the shorts originated from his college days, before the Whoopass Girls were renamed the more kid-friendly Powerpuff Girls.

Also included are two other shorts, “Meat Fuzzy Lumkins” and “Crime 101,” which were featured on Cartoon Network's “What a Cartoon! Show” before “The Powerpuff Girls” was picked up as a series.

Also included are a CNN interview of the folks at Hanna-Barbera, including a young McCracken, and 11 “Powerpuff Girls” promos from Cartoon Network.

By far, the highlight of the set is the “Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast World Premiere Toon-In,” which features interviews with McCracken and other young Hanna-Barbera animators. Space Ghost and his cronies are always a hoot, and for those interested in behind-the-scenes action, McCracken's raw interview footage is included.

For fans, this DVD's price is right, and the extras offer some history of the show. Younger viewers probably won't care about pencil tests and CNN interviews, and some sensitive-to-swearing parents may even want to shield their kids from the extras. But if parents are hip enough to purchase this DVD for their youngsters, they likely won't be offended. — Laura Tiffany

The Spaghetti West
Street 6/26
Docurama, Documentary, $26.95 DVD, NR.
Narrated by Robert Forster.

It is said that prior to 1960, nearly 40% of Hollywood films were Westerns. These movies were enormously popular overseas, even though they starred Americans.

Following World War II, Italy was flooded with American movies that the fascist government had blacked out. Italy's cyclical film industry specialized in imitating popular films, and when one genre ran its course, a new fad would replace it. Before 1963, however, Westerns had not cracked this trend.

This changed in 1964 when director Sergio Leone re-made Akira Kurosawa's Samurai epic Yojimbo into the iconic A Fistful of Dollars, which made Clint Eastwood a star. From 1964 to 1973, more than 500 Westerns were produced by Italians. Most were shot without sound, which was added later, to accommodate multinational casts.

Italy's brush with a totalitarian government robbed its citizens of their taste for seeing lawmen as the good guys, which had been an American film tradition. Instead, Leone presented Eastwood as an anti-hero audiences began to identify with. The result was bloody, harder-edged films that didn't fit into the traditional mold of Hollywood films shaped by rigid censorship codes.

Turns out infringing on copyrights also was easier in Italy. Django in 1966 proved so successful it spawned 30 unofficial sequels, and producers started including “Django” in the title of any film with star Franco Nero in it.

The Spaghetti West is an excellent examination of these so-called “Spaghetti Westerns,” featuring great narration by Forster, amusing anecdotes from film historians and the filmmakers themselves, and solid insights into a fascinating period of movie history and its influence. The IFC program uses clips from several well-known classic Westerns, such as Once Upon a Time in the West, making this DVD a great addition to any display of the genre.

MGM and 20th Century Fox recently released the boxed set The Sergio Leone Anthology, which includes Eastwood's “Man With No Name” trilogy. Additionally, composer Ennio Morricone received an honorary Academy Award, given to him by Eastwood, at the 2007 ceremony. John Latchem

Avenue Montaigne
Prebook 6/21; Street 7/17
ThinkFilm, Drama, B.O. $2 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘PG-13' for some strong language and sexuality.
Stars C?cile de France, Val?rie Lemercier, Albert Dupontel, Claude Brasseur, Christopher Thompson, Laura Morante, Sydney Pollack.

When twentysomething Jessica (de France) moves from the provinces to find herself in Paris, she is as guileless as they come. But a trait that might easily have been a liability quickly proves an asset when she lands a job in a chic bistro on the fabled Avenue Montaigne.

Completely unaware of her wealthy and famous customers, her simplicity and unaffected charm seduces them each in turn.

Lemercier plays a middle-aged TV actress who is desperate to land a plum role in the new film by director Sydney Pollack.

Brasseur plays a wealthy art collector about to liquidate a lifetime's worth of treasures at auction. And Dupontel plays a famous classical pianist who is at odds with his wife/manager over where his career is headed.

All of their lives intersect at Jessica's bistro, each one touching and touched by her own life.

Although de France's Jessica is at times too much the holy fool to be credible — all wide-eyed and cloying sweetness — Avenue Montaigne succeeds in its modest ambition to be charming. Its version of Paris is one drawn in broad crayon strokes, replete with bright colors and friendly stereotypes. If ever there were a cinematic equivalent of flan, this is it. — Eddie Mullins

A Tale of Two Pizzas

Street 6/26
New Video, Comedy, B.O. $0.01 million, $26.95 DVD, ‘PG' for language and some mild sexual content.
Stars Vincent Pastore, Frank Vincent, Louis Guss, Robin Paul, Conor Dubin.

In the tradition of such great recent films as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman and Dinner Rush, where food is inextricably married to culture, comes this modest labor of love.

With a title that refers to Dickens and a plot that recalls Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the producers of A Tale of Two Pizzas have concocted the perfect recipe for a cinematic delicacy.

The classic antagonists-as-two-sides-of-the-same-coin device is at the heart of the story, set in a classic New York City Italian neighborhood where life-long pizza-men Vito Rossi (“The Sopranos” veteran Pastore) and Frank Bianco (Vincent, also from “The Sopranos,” as well as Casino and Goodfellas) are bitter rivals and proud of their closely guarded secret recipes.

When Vito's daughter Angela (Paul of “Ed”) moves back to the neighborhood after college, she takes an active role to revamp the family business, combining 21st century marketing skills with old school street smarts. This rekindles the long-simmering feud between the two pizza shops.

Throw Frank's hunky son Tony (Dubin) into the mix, and before you can say “order up,” tensions mount, sparks fly and romance blossoms.

The production is clearly low-budget, but the film makes up for any technical shortcomings with casual charm and a good-natured, family-friendly spirit.

Writer-director Vincent Sassone clearly has a feel for the sounds and smells of this milieu. The plot moves along predictably and pleasantly with the comfort of an old shoe. There are no big surprises, just the enjoyable sense that all of these characters are appealing in their own way and that the audience will delight in watching the way all of the pieces fall into place.

This surprisingly happy, sweet natured low-budget indie film is a welcome treat. — David Greenberg

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