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Reviews: May 27

27 May, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

The Derby Stallion

The Derby Stallion
Street 6/5
Echo Bridge, Family, $26.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Zac Efron, Bill Cobbs, Sarah Blackman, K.C. Clyde, William R. Moses, Crystal Hunt, Tonja Walker.

Zac Efron — now a certified tween idol because of his role in the wildly popular High School Musical — is the cute but confused boy whose parents don't understand him in The Derby Stallion.

Patrick (Efron) is a typically tortured teenager who makes friends with an elderly man who has a reputation as a drunk. No one but Patrick sees that Houston Jones (Cobbs) is a man with enormous stores of vision, wisdom and humanity. And what Houston sees in Patrick is a boy with a gift for riding horses.

He offers to train Patrick, going so far as to buy the boy a horse so that he can compete in the annual steeplechase derby. In the process he teaches the boy about discipline, patience and trust. And Patrick teaches him a thing or two as well.

Although Efron may be the actor who draws viewers in, Cobbs is the heart and soul of The Derby Stallion.

The wise but damaged, curmudgeonly older mentor who is healed by a younger version of himself could have been permanently located in the land of shop-worn movie clich?s, but Cobb gives an authentic and moving performance as a man who has been hurt by life and is still willing to risk being hurt again.

Efron is appealing as a boy poised on the brink of adulthood who must learn where his parents' dreams for him end and his dreams for himself begin. Efron's presence, along with a horse-heavy story line, is sure to make this a popular title among girls of all ages. — Anne Sherber

Last Stand of the 300
Prebook 5/29; Street 6/26
A&E, Documentary, $24.95 DVD, NR.

It is often called the Alamo of ancient times, as well as a cornerstone battle in the history of Western civilization. The recent theatrical hit 300 sparked audience interest in the Battle of Thermopylae, but it does not tell the whole story.

This History Channel documentary is a great companion for the upcoming DVD of 300, filling in all the relevant details of the epic battle that took place in 480 B.C., as a small band of Greek soldiers defended their homeland against a superior Persian force.

There were actually 7,000 Greeks, from various city-states, defending the pass at Thermopylae, led by Leonidas and his 300 Spartans.

What many fans of the film might not realize was the battle also involved a significant naval engagement to hold off Persian ships attempting to land troops behind the Greek defenders. The Greek navy was led by an Athenian named Themistocles, who outmaneuvered a larger Persian force to give his countrymen at Thermopylae more of a fighting chance.

The Persian Empire had been seeking revenge against Athens for decades, especially following a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Marathon. Athens had raised the Persian's ire for helping its Asian colonies resist Imperial advances.

At the time, the individual Greek cities had little concept of a national culture, and were slow to accept the idea that a Persian attack on one could threaten them all.

As a result of the Persian invasion, the Greek states turned away from spending summers fighting each other, and toward a more unified culture, which served as the basis of our sense of Western civilization.

The documentary also devotes significant time to explaining the Persian perspective, training and tactics. John Latchem

Maxed Out
Street 6/5
Magnolia, Documentary, B.O. $0.06 million, $26.98 DVD, NR.

This nation is crippling itself with debt, and filmmakers are taking notice. Last month, In Debt We Trust hit DVD, guiding viewers on a bewildering romp through the world of consumer credit.

Maxed Out, based on a book by James Scurlock, who also directed the film, is more heavy-handed about the subject matter than In Debt We Trust, but is effective in its own right.

Scurlock uses no narration, telling the story through historical footage and interviews with those affected by credit, and those who act behind-the-scenes at credit card companies.

Creditors have no qualms about calling friends and relatives as a way to embarrass their customers into paying. Some companies even allegedly lose payment checks just to charge insane late fees to otherwise decent people.

Sometimes debt can be too much for some to handle, and debtors see suicide as the only way out. The interviews with the family members of these people are truly heartbreaking, including two parents whose children's lives were ruined by those ubiquitous credit card sign-up offers at college.

Maxed Out makes the case that the debt culture begins at the top, with a government willing to build up trillions of dollars in debt for programs it can't keep track of.

The film also has a nice section about “surfing,” which is the act of paying off some debt with new debt, a practice for which our government has learned a particular expertise.

The result, some analysts claim, is another fracturing of our society, between those in debt and those who are not.

Don't we already have enough to worry about? John Latchem

Four Last Songs
Prebook 5/29; Street 6/26
Starz/Union Station, Comedy, $26.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Stanley Tucci, Jessica Stevenson, Rhys Ifans, Jena Malone, Marisa Paredes, Emmanuelle Seigner, Hugh Bonneville.

Great composer Richard Strauss wrote the “Four Last Songs” when he was 84, facing death and reflecting upon his life with wonder and acceptance. You won't find much in the way of such weightiness in Four Last Songs, a film that's more madcap than meaningful.

Larry (Tucci) lives in a resort island town in the Mediterranean, making ends meet by playing piano at a bar with his singer girlfriend (Stevenson), while dreaming of staging a tribute concert to the great composer Valentin Lucinsky, who was from the remote town and whose ghost seems to hang over everything.

Before he can do that, Larry has to convince Lucinsky's widow (Paredes) to let him do it, but she turns down everyone who asks. Once he gets the old lady on board, his cavalcade of challenges includes a puffed-up pianist who travels to the small town with a Hollywood entourage, Lucinsky's haunted mistress, and — surprise — a teenage daughter (Malone) Larry never knew he had.

If the setup feels contrived, the shenanigans that follow Larry at least could have been played for old-fashioned situational laughs. They're not, mostly, though not for want of trying. And, unfortunately, the plot doesn't go anywhere spectacular either, leaving the viewer forced to only appreciate the work of some veteran character actors, such as Tucci and Ifans as the town drunk, as well as the sweet Spanish vistas.

There's also a major tonal shift near the end of the film, in which writer-director Francesca Joseph tries to tie up loose ends and offer each character their own tragic backstories, complete with droning soliloquies.

Four Last Songs wants to be either a snooty yukfest for wine-and-classical-music-loving baby boomers, or a foreign-style comedy-drama that doesn't need to overly explain itself the way American films generally do. It has trouble being either. Billy Gil

The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams
Prebook 5/31; Street 6/26
ThinkFilm, Drama, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for some violence.
Stars Julian Adams, Gwendolyn Edwards.

Most actors never enjoy the opportunity to play their own ancestor in a film, but it helps when you are also the producer, writer and director.

Julian Adams wears the Confederate uniform of his great-great-grandfather Robert Adams with pride in The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams. It helps that he has quite a story to tell.

Robert was a captain and a war hero, an honorable man who fought with passion for the things he believed in, and who comes across as a fair-minded man forced by circumstance and loyalty to take a stand.

What makes his story even more interesting is that Robert was deeply in love with a woman from the north, the beautiful and intelligent Evilyn McCord (Edwards).

Despite some philosophical differences and the inevitable disapproval of those surrounding them, the couple carries on a relationship — mostly long-distance — even as war ravages the country and threatens to overwhelm both of them.

The Last Confederate is not only awash in blood, guts and glory, but also the scenic south. Many of the scenes were filmed on location, sometimes on the property of other Adams ancestors.

The Last Confederate is a uniquely American war-and-romance story, with stunning landscapes and the built-in drama of the Civil War as a backdrop, not unlike Cold Mountain. The style is old-school Hollywood in some ways, and there are even appearances by acting veterans such as Mickey Rooney and Tippi Hedren to help that feeling along.

The DVD enjoys plenty of special features, including interviews with the director, producers and actors; deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes footage; and a trailer gallery. — Dan Bennett

Dancing In Twilight
Prebook 6/12; Street 7/10
BFS, Drama, $24.98 DVD, ‘PG-13' for disturbing images, thematic elements and sexual content.
Stars Mimi Rogers, Erick Avari, Kal Penn.

Clumsy but essentially heartfelt, Dancing in Twilight is a film about the irrevocability of loss and its far-reaching consequences.

Matt (Avari) was a sublimely content empty nester before his wife died. Since then, he has buried himself in work and grown apart from his son Sam (Penn) and erstwhile best friend (Rogers).

But when Sam comes home one weekend to show off his new girlfriend, Matt finds that her striking resemblance to his wife stirs up turbulent memories he is ill-equipped to manage.

For all of its sincerity, Dancing in Twilight is opaquely clunky from the word go. The direction is stiff, the performances stilted. There is, in Matt's ongoing anguished torment, an abiding sense of expectancy that might generously be called suspense, but its conclusion is so blunt and disappointing it hardly seems worth the ride.

At best, ,I>Dancing in Twilight will likely be remembered as a transitional film for rising star Kal Pen, a stepping stone along the way from lowbrow comedies such as Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Epic Movie, to the refined drama of Mira Nair's recent The Namesake. — Eddie Mullins

Something to Cheer About
Prebook 5/29; Street 6/26
Universal/Screen Media, Sports, B.O. $0.01 million, $24.98 DVD, NR.

The state of Indiana has a long and storied basketball history. Some of it is distinguished, some of it is not.

The story of the 1950s Crispus Attucks High School basketball program falls under both categories. In 1955, it became the first black high-school team in the nation to win a state championship.

Despite their accomplishment, the Tigers didn't even warrant a toast in their hometown of Indianapolis — just another footnote in the history of the conflicts colored in black and white.

This intriguing documentary, produced and directed by Betty Blankenbaker, details the Tigers' historic pursuit in interviews with the players whose vivid recollections take us back 50 years. The stories alone are worth the price of the DVD. And the manner in which they're told — dripping with sarcasm in some cases and with comedy in others — by these diverse personalities is indeed priceless.

Something to Cheer About features interviews with Hall of Famer and NBA great Oscar Robertson, considered by many hoop experts as the best all-around player ever, and his former teammates and Tigers coach Ray Crowe. Though Robertson is the school's best-known alumnus, his star doesn't outshine his lesser-known former teammates and other graduates. They include such former players as Stan Patton, Hallie Bryant, Willie Merriweather, Willie Gardner and William Smatts.

The obstacles and slights these men overcame are significant, though they were considered a way of life in the 1950s. Racism was a major roadblock, but the Tigers hurdled it and other barriers with flying colors. As much as the Crispus Attucks players were celebrated in the black community, they were ostracized and considered freaks of nature by many whites.

The bonus features add a nice touch. One segment features a team reunion and celebration during the 50th anniversary of its first state-title victory (the Tigers repeated as champs in 1956).

This DVD is definitely recommended for sports fans, particularly basketball purists who appreciate the history of the game. — Benny Lopez

Young Cesar
Prebook 5/29; Street 6/26
Vivendi Visual/CodeBlack, Drama, $14.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Clifton Powell, Richard Gant, Dominic Daniel, Sam Sarpong, Art Evans.

Like father, like sons. Street life. It's the only life some people know, to paraphrase the 1979 Crusaders tune by Randy Crawford.

In <>I>Young Cesar, we come to know a family whose father believes his criminal activity is the only means to an end. His behavior sends him to a long stint in the joint after he's convicted of murder. His sons seem to be headed down a similar road. Throw in a small-time hustler and other characters intent on setting up others for money, and you have a story line that's been repeated ad nauseum.

Powell (Ray) stars as Ali Dean, the father whose gangster ways land him in prison. Lesser known performers such as Gant (Rocky V), Daniel, Sarpong, Evans and Latino rapper Chino XL also play central figures in the film, and should help attract the target audience of 18- to 40-year-old black men.

With the exception of Powell, who provides an adequate performance despite a weak story line, the rest of the cast are limited in their roles.

The movie continues a long and unfortunate habit by some filmmakers of engaging in black stereotypes. “Keep your mind right … and don't ever let them break you,” are the so-called words of wisdom offered by Powell's character as he talks to one of his sons during his incarceration. — Benny Lopez

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
Street 6/5
HBO Video, Documentary, $24.98 DVD, NR.

From its title, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib sounds like it would be about the prisoners at the notorious Iraqi gulag. Instead, Rory Kennedy's documentary looks more at how American standards of prisoner treatment were allowed to deteriorate to tactics barely distinguishable from Saddam Hussein's.

Interviews with soldiers of varying ranks, government officials and some former prisoners are interspersed with U.S. government memos and orders authorizing soldiers to treat prisoners without regard for the Geneva Conventions.

The film puts the blame squarely on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose signature is on many of the orders, and others in command of U.S. forces.

Soldiers describe a paranoid command structure that snatched people off the streets and from their homes, then sent them in droves to Abu Ghraib in a quest for information the Iraqis often did not have.

It's an exploration of mob psychology in which the more common outrageous behavior is, the more it becomes the norm.

There is an old saying that hemlock poisons twice: the one who takes it, and the one who gives it. Some of the ghosts in this film are the memories that will never leave the soldiers pressed into service at Abu Ghraib, who learned that torture dehumanizes the torturer as well as the victim.

Regardless of how one feels about the war, it's important to see a film such as this to understand how the Iraqis must feel about Americans now. Americans by and large view ourselves as standard-bearers for liberty. We need to understand why people in other countries might question that.

This film should do well with anyone interested in the progress of the war and the mechanisms that have led us to where we are. — Holly J. Wagner

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