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Russian history film surprises

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By G. Michael Dobbs Managing Editor One of the pleasures I miss with the general decline in the brick and mortar video rental business is the walk around the new release walls spotting films that I knew nothing about, but looked interesting. The three new releases in this week s column would have caught my eye. 1612 I know next to nothing about the history of Imperial Russia except what I've read about the fall of the Romanov dynasty. So this film interested me as just what it would be as the critical quotes on the back of the box compared it to "The Lord of the Rings." Not knowing what to expect, I had no expectations and I happy to report this adventure war epic was actually pretty enjoyable on the level of an American summer action film. There is a lot of action and a lot of improbability that creates some throw-away eye and mind candy. A quick trip to several Web sites indicated that the historical accuracy of the film, which relates the pivotal "Times of Troubles" in Russian history when the nation was torn between an invasion by Polish forces and the lack of a tsar, is shaky at best. I sort of understood that the success of the Russian efforts to repel the invaders is led by a serf who poses as a Spanish mercenary, who just happens to be in love with the captured Princess Ksenia, who the Poles want to install as Tsarina. That plot element seems to be a bit of a stretch. The repeated appearance of a unicorn is also a giveaway to the fantasy of the film. Beautifully shot and staged, "1612" is in Russian with English subtitles, a potential turn-off to many American viewers. Some viewers are also going to surprised at the level of violence and gore. I found the combination of a prancing unicorn and some graphic make-up effects to be pretty trippy. Unrated, this film would definitely receive an "R." For those cinematic adventurers who are curious to see a movie from a country whose films we seldom get to try, "1612" is not a bad choice. What Makes Sammy Run? Author Budd Schulberg wrote some hard-hitting books and movies -- he wrote the incredible "Face in the Crowd," for instance -- but his novel What Makes Sammy Run? was one of his best-known works. A scathing look at Hollywood, the book chronicled the rise of Sammy Glick from being a copyboy at a newspaper to being the head of a major movie studio. Glick does this not through talent, but through sheer willpower. He can turn on the charm or stab someone in the back and understands the only thing truly important to him is himself. The movies couldn't figure out how to bring the book to the screen, but television did so twice. The production on this DVD is the second version made in 1959 and was broadcast by NBC over two nights. Long thought lost, the kinescopes of the production were discovered several years ago. Although the picture quality isn't perfect and the production is in black and white, although it was produced in color, it is a powerful drama that shows what television networks used to do. The production stars John Forsythe -- then known for his work on sitcoms -- Barbara Rush, Dina Merrill and Broadway actor Larry Blyden as Glick. The cast shines and Blyden is a revelation as a guy who is so angry about his poor upbringing and so determined to overcome his past that he is willing to do literally anything to get ahead. I loved the fact this work is about the characters and the actors dig in deep in their roles. I'm not sure why Rush never became a major star, as she is great in her role in this play. The show is accompanied by an interview with Schulberg and an audio commentary with actresses Merrill and Rush. There is also a 16-page booklet on the history of the book and the show. This DVD is well worth your time if you appreciate good drama. Da Booty Shop Well, any one of my trips to a video store years ago would have also included a rental of some low budget films and when this DVD came to me in the mail, I thought, "Why not?" I can now list a number of answers to that question. The plot is ideal for an exploitation film: a man who owns a beauty salon goes to jail and asks his stripper sister to keep it in business. There s a story premise that could have a number of elements that would appeal to audiences -- strippers, low comedy, romance, redemption and success of the underdog. Unfortunately, producer, writer, director and co-star Marcello Thedford made a lot of mistakes in this film. Thedford is a busy television actor who probably needs to take some courses on film production. The film's sound recording is poor and the lighting is not very good either. The performances are generally awful and the script makes little sense. The cardinal rule of low budget filmmaking is to tailor your script to your budget and do something on screen that doesn t look like your stretching every penny. This DVD would make a great coaster.

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