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Universal Studios
Movie D+
Special Features B-
DVD Geek Factor 3 (out of 10)

As a huge fan of his short-lived TV show, I attended the very first screening of Ben Stiller's directorial debut when it opened in 1994, expecting hilarity to ensue. I was crestfallen. This coming-of-age story was supposed to capture the plight of young adults in the '90s, but I didn't know anybody like the people in this movie. Helen Childress' script is far too cute, full of pop references and trivia to make it timely and hip. The love triangle--featuring characters played by Winona Ryder, Stiller and the then-dreadful Ethan Hawke--is a loser, because Hawke is so completely unlikable. Janeane Garofolo's performance would've been more appreciated if it weren't for that lousy, distracting Betty Paige haircut. Ryder, a huge star at the time, has pretty much frightened the world into ignoring her. As for Hawke, he's actually turned into a fine actor with an eye for a good script, something that wasn't working for him when he picked this project. This is a film that thinks it's a lot smarter than it actually is, which makes it pretty damn annoying. Stiller can be a great director, and his underappreciated The Cable Guy stands as his best cinematic work. This is easily his worst.

Special Features: A deleted scene featuring Hawke, had it not been cut, would've assisted in making his character a little more tolerable. A retrospective on the film, featuring interviews with all of the stars and Stiller, is actually a little more fun to watch than the movie. And Stiller offers his usual self-deprecating analysis of the movie on a fun commentary.


Ned Kelly

Focus Features
Movie C+
Special Features D
DVD Geek Factor 2 (out of 10)

This Heath Ledger vehicle sat on the shelves for a couple of years and barely got released into theaters earlier this year. It's easy to see why. The story of Ned Kelly, an Irishman who became an outlaw in Australia, has been told many times before on screen, but this treatment of the interesting story is perhaps its most leaden. Ledger blows it in the title role, disguising his voice in a deep growl that is too affected to be taken seriously. Naomi Watts has a small role as Kelly's love interest, too used to the good life to run off with the man she obviously adores. Director Gregor Jordan manages a few rousing moments, including the finale in which Kelly infamously donned body armor that made him look like the Black Night from Monty Python and the Holy Grail for a gunfight. For the most part, it's a pretty flat affair.

Special Features: A short documentary about Ned Kelly in popular culture includes coverage of the 1970 film that starred Mick Jagger. A feature called The Real Kelly Gang is nothing more than a couple of old pictures. Nothing that demands purchasing the disc.


Pennies From Heaven

Warner Brothers
Movie A-
Special Features C
DVD Geek Factor 6 (out of 10)

When Steve Martin embarked on his film career after a string of successful comedy albums and TV specials, his first starring vehicle was The Jerk (1979), a film that gloriously celebrated the obscene-slapstick side of his comic persona. It was a hit, and fans anxiously awaited his next move. He disappeared from movie screens for two years (considered a long hiatus at the time) and returned with this dark oddity in which he traded arrows through the head for dancing shoes. Audiences and critics didn't get it, resulting in a huge flop. Twenty-three years later, the film stands as Martin's most remarkable, ambitious performance. As Arthur Parker, a depression-era sheet music salesman who survives life through musical fantasies, Martin pulled out all the stops, defied expectations and promptly alienated his audience. He allegedly knew nothing about dancing, took six months to train and wound up dancing in a way that would have one think he'd been tap dancing in the womb. Bernadette Peters is equally fascinating as the schoolteacher Arthur has an affair with--an affair that drastically changes the course of her life. The film's bleak tone was too much for people who just wanted to see Martin goofing around, but perhaps a couple of decades past will give this one new life on DVD. The musical numbers, in which the actors lip-synched old standards, are highly ambitious and entertaining. Christopher Walken also took this film as an opportunity to put on his dancing shoes, in a small role that is remarkably staged.

Special Features: Film critic Peter Rainer drools over the film on some scene-specific commentary, calling the "Pennies From Heaven" dance number one of the finest ever put to screen. (He's right.) A 20th anniversary auditorium gathering of the film's stars and crew (Martin is present, but Peters is not) is mildly interesting, but a little amateurish in its presentation. The features don't live up to the film.

More by Bob Grimm

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