Black Dynamite (R, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Often, the best send-ups are the ones where the lines are too thin and blurry to confidently conclude whether it’s even a spoof at all. “Black Dynamite” doesn’t quite blur the line that thoroughly — nor, in its hilarious resurrection of blaxploitation cinema, does it try to. But a funny thing happens to “Dynamite” while it so thoroughly and gleefully riffs on its influences: The story, at face value, gets pretty legitimately good. The names, period-piece visuals and avalanche of nods and inside jokes are too overt (and too funny) to ever suggest “Dynamite’s” first priority isn’t to make people laugh. But the titular character (played by Michael Jai White) is too awesome a hero to dismiss simply as a means to an ironic end, and his cohorts and enemies (Arsenio Hall as Tasty Freeze, Tommy Davidson as Cream Corn, Mykelti Williamson as Chicago Wind) are similarly fantastic. Not so coincidentally, the joke never gets old, and “Dyamite” never wears out its welcome. Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Kevin Chapman also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, Comic-Con footage.
Bronson (R, 2008, Magnolia/Magnet)
The heavily stylized tale of Michael “Charles Bronson” Peterson — a petty thief who turned a lousy robbery and minor prison sentence into a three-decade career as one of the world’s most violent prisoners — is based on the true story. Whether “Bronson” itself is a story, though, will vary based on the respective tastes and patience levels of those who see it. It certainly isn’t for lack of talent: Tom Hardy is no less than awesome in his darkly funny portrayal of “Bronson’s” surprisingly engaging titular character, and his supporting cast (Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton and a large array of bit players) keeps up. “Bronson” similarly isn’t lacking in execution: To the contrary, between Bronson’s fourth wall-breaking monologues and makeup-encased sermons and the various degrees of pacing and artistic license taken with the film’s more traditional scenes, it’s a marvel of bold, imaginative storytelling. But one viewer’s idea of fearless originality is another’s self-indulgent pretense, and those looking for simple, point-to-point plot development about one of the world’s nastiest criminals are likely to leave frustrated by a story that’s more concerned with tearing down its main character than exploring the moments that made him famous. That in no way is a criticism, because there are a thousand biopics like that for every one like this, but it bears mentioning all the same.
Extras: 17 minutes’ worth of monologues from the real Bronson, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, 11 minutes of random behind-the-scenes footage.
Good Hair (PG-13, 2009, Lions Gate)
Hair very often is a misunderstood animal, and for most men — and Chris Rock, who mans the ship in this surprisingly insightful documentary, is no exception — that goes double for women’s hair. Now take that doubled misunderstanding and multiply it by seven, and you have the painful ordeal of many black women, who spend small fortunes and sometimes undergo maddenly painful treatments just to achieve an effect that the social order deems desirable (and more to the point, employable). Whoever wrote these unwritten rules is a fool, but there they are, and “Good Hair” explores them in a painfully honest, dryly funny and sometimes self-depreciating way that’s easy for anyone to understand and appreciate. Rock occasionally staggers in the role of documentary emcee, but he finds his footing as “Hair” gets down to business, and a number of spirited celebrity appearances — from Ice-T to Raven-Symoné to Nia Long to some extremely funny quips by Maya Angelou and Al Sharpton — combine to tear down a touchy subject and allow “Hair” to have a discussion that, in this medium, is ages overdue. A fantastic subplot following the Bronner Bros International Hair Show — and all the pageantry, personality and anxiety the world-famous show entails — provides some bonus drama to complement all the talk.
Extra: Producer/Rock commentary.
Women in Trouble (R, 2009, Screen Media Films)
The title does not lie, because whether it’s the newly-pregnant porn star (Carla Gugino) who’s stuck in an elevator, the flight attendant (Marley Shelton) who accidentally does something awful while purposely doing something terrible, the psychiatrist (Sarah Clarke) who discovers her husband is cheating with a patient’s mother (Caitlin Keats), or a call girl (Adrianne Palicki) whose getting hit by two cars is the least of her problems, there are a lot of women in trouble here. “Women in Trouble” does its best to connect these and other stories to each other, and it actually manages to do so better than most movies about multiple separate stories do. Like most movies of this sort, “Trouble” stumbles when trying to fit too much into too little time, and the harried pace often finds it wobbling between comedy and drama in ways that occasionally push the melodrama quotient past agreeable levels. But “Trouble’s” funniest moments are genuinely funny, and its most poignant moments are often carried by some brilliant writing that supercharges a character’s development in the space of a sentence or two. Moments like these outnumber “Trouble’s” stumbles by a nice margin, and even if the whole puzzle never comes together quite like it might’ve hoped, the entertaining and thoughtful picture it paints will certainly do. Connie Britton, Josh Brolin and Garcelle Beauvais, among others, also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.
Law Abiding Citizen (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Meet Clyde (Gerard Butler), an inventor and loving family man whose wife and child were savagely murdered during a home invasion. Just don’t meet him if you’re Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), who killed both, framed his partner for the killings and skated with three-year prison stint, because Clyde is looking for you. “Law Abiding Citizen” hits its first crescendo almost immediately with the invasion, and some very efficient storytelling ensures it isn’t very much longer before we’re 10 years into the future and bearing witness to what, precisely, Clyde has in mind for payback for the man who killed his family and the pieces of the justice system (Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Annie Corley) that ultimately let him off the hook. As exquisitely-crafted thrillers go, “Citizen” simply isn’t one: Clyde’s plan is too perfect and too ridiculous, and attempts to make a statement about justice are drowned out by how completely ludicrous things get. But as twisted good times that scratch the revenge itch go, this suffices: Even if Clyde goes entirely too far to make his point, it’s unsettlingly easy to take some dark enjoyment in watching him pull the trigger on 10 years’ worth of payback planning. Sometimes — and with all due respect to morality and messages — that’s all a movie needs.
Extras: Producers commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, trailer contest winner.
Maneater (NR, 2009, Sony Pictures)
You need to toe a pretty thin line to make a sympathetic hero out of Clarissa Alpert (Sarah Chalke), a never-employed thirtysomething who finally gets a clue that her days of leeching off her parents (Gregory Harrison and Maria Conchita Alonso) and rich and famous men has an expiration date. That’s doubly true when it becomes apparent Clarissa’s solution to this revelation is to prey on (and, with or without his help, plan a wedding with) a fresh-faced heir (Philip Winchester) who has barely touched down in Hollywood. Fortunately, few can simultaneously look like a Barbie doll and convincingly play the likable fool quite like Chalke can, and her gifts buy this miniseries the time it needs for us to give this whole vapid odyssey a chance. That patience isn’t always rewarded, because when “Maneater” isn’t being mostly predictable, it’s dissecting its subject matter with all the edginess of a handle end of a butter knife. But vapidity steadily gives way to humility, and while it never approaches the level of must-see in any dimension — you kind of know how this one’s ending roughly 170 minutes before it does — it’s a considerably more pleasant experience than it ever should have been. No extras.