Little screeners

WKRP In Cincinnati — The Complete First Season
Fox Home Entertainment

In the pilot of the much toasted '70s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, the underdog radio station draws protesters when they change format and become a rock 'n' roll station. Senior citizens picket the lobby and one old biddy even loses her cat, which — wouldn't cha know? — is eventually found under the station manager's ass. The irony of this handsome three-disc DVD release is that it faces the same problem that the misfit station did: that damn rock and roll music. Where the original season was sparked by Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) announcing the format change with a blast of old Ted Nugent, prohibitively expensive licensing has replaced Ted (and about 80 percent of the show's other music, including Pink Floyd, the Stones, and KISS) with generic soundalikes.

Even so, the music was only a peripheral element of the show's charm. In the era of Three's Company gags, WKRP's character-driven shows were its great strength. Deceptively brainy and fully stacked, Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) was the sexual ideal for a generation of adolescent boys who were torn between emulating spaced-out Johnny Fever or pimped-out Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid). Though the DVD is light on extras (commentary is an option too few times), the characters, especially in episodes "Turkeys Away" and "Goodbye, Johnny," set more than a campy nostalgia trip, even without the campy nostalgia trip of the Nuge. —Nate Cavalieri


China Doll

Many of director Frank Borzage's films are critically revered, a couple of them won him Best Director Oscars, but few have been seen outside revival houses and the occasional TCM showing. 1958's China Doll — his second-to-last film and his first after being blacklisted 10 years — probably isn't the best place to start. Just the fourth Borzage film to be released on DVD, China Doll is the sentimental tale of a womanizing Air Force captain (Victor Mature) who, while posted in China in World War II, drunkenly purchases a poverty-stricken girl to be his housekeeper. She doesn't speak a word of English, but the faithful servant warms the brutish officer's heart, making him see the error of his ways. But the marriage, baby and picket-fence life is soon upset by tragedy. The battle scenes, what few of them there are, have an elemental intensity, and the story is mildly enjoyable until it veers into the maudlin. It's an unexceptional studio film, and somehow, the casting director got away with casting people who appear to be younger than Mature to play his character's parents. —John Thomason


Curse of the Zodiac

Riding on the coattails of this year's critically acclaimed film about the infamous Zodiac serial killer starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. comes this cheap knockoff by serial bad movie director Ulli Lommel (see BTK Killer; Boogeyman II). Lommel already made a 2005 movie called Zodiac Killer, and now comes this "inspired by the true story" sequel, unhampered by actual facts even though it's basically telling that same story over and over, repetition any serial killers viewers will appreciate.

Like the Zodiac crime scenes, this film is a bloody mess. And here are some fun selling points not found in the big budget Zodiac: • A psychic hippie chick who visualizes the murders while they are happening so Lommel can whip out the split screen like it's Woodstock and Charles Manson goes on stage after Alvin Lee.

• Lots of scenes of hookers arguing with their pimps and boyfriends, and not the Jerry Springer he-she chair throwing disagreements that might move things along. No, this is the couple-counseling Dr. Phil kind.

• More narration than Glen or Glenda, the hallmark of a filmmaker trying to make sense of his own disorganization. The off-screen Zodiac narrator gives each murder his personal play-by-play, which leaves you with zzzzzzzzero suspense, especially when he spells out everything we already know. Sample recitation: "Zodiac. My name is Zodiac. Z-O-D-I-A..." ZZZZZZZzzzzz. —Serene Dominic


Panic in Needle Park
20th Century Fox

There are scenes of drug injection in 1971's Panic in Needle Park that rival Bad Lieutenant and Fearless Freaks in their raw explicitness, and needlephobes won't be the only people who choose to look away. It isn't a crime to do so, either, because you probably won't be missing much. Cataloging the downward plunge into smack addiction and hooker-dom of Al Pacino and Kitty Winn on the streets of New York, the movie is anchored by an uncomfortable verisimilitude, realistic almost to a fault.

The story is compelling for a while but follows a very predictable addict's spiral, only slightly less histrionic than the inferior Candy, released last year. Director Jerry Schatzberg keeps everything at a slow-burn torpor, directing as if on heroin himself. It's appropriately lethargic, making this last exit to Brooklyn even more unremittingly bleak. At least it's an effective "Just Say No" film. —John Thomason


Come Early Morning
Weinstein Company

Ashley Judd's been in a cinematic rut. Somewhere between Kiss The Girls and Twisted she let herself get typecast as the chick in danger, always hitched to bad men and seeking solace and advice from an older male mentor (insert name of Oscar-winning actor here). It's as if she'd traded her film cred from Ruby In Paradise and Normal Life for roles that saw her tied to the railroad tracks like some modern-day Perils of Pauline.

   With Come Early Morning, Judd quits squandering her skills to flesh out Lucille Fowler, a Southern working-class gal whose life is on the skids. Fowler's an emotionally broken contractor on the losing end of a string of drunken one- night stands who faces her demons. She tries to reconnect with her religious and reclusive dad. She has a real relationship with a guy who can see past her leg-spreading ways. She stakes claim to her own independence.

   Aided by Joey Lauren Adams' (Chasing Amy) intelligent script and direction, Luce's unsentimental journey doesn't contain a false note. There are no Southern gothic histrionics or soap opera revelations; even a scene in which Fowler visits her father's pastor for answers feels nuanced. Despite a great supporting cast and Judd's award-worthy showing, Come Early Morning never got a wider release than 22 theaters nationwide — proving again that great cinema rarely translates to killer box office. This may also explain the generic, romantic comedy-ready DVD cover. It's scary to think that audiences would rather watch Judd get abused repeatedly in a string of moneyed films or make nice in a brainless chick flick rather than dig her performance in this insightful low-key film. That just sucks! —Paul Knoll


Drive Thru

Fast food kills again but this time it's personal. The clown mascot of a popular hamburger food chain (Hella-burger) is literally busting the arteries of hottie Mackenzie's friends on their 18th birthdays. Leighton Meester is perfect as the whip-smart teen heroine who knows more than all the adults, especially the police who are dead-serious asking the parents questions like, "Why would someone dressed as Horny the Clown want to hurt your children?"

This is Grade A B-movie stuff, teeming with campy in-jokes. Besides the takeoff on Halliburton, the California suburbia where these murders are taking place is called Bianca Carne (white meat, get it?). As for Horny, he's a worthy screen successor to Jason and Freddy Kreuger, since his clown's cutup antics are always served with cheesy Schwarzeneggerisms for his victims, like "You've got a lotta guts, kid" "and "You want fries with that?" Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me makes a hilarious cameo as the geeky Hella-burger night manager. Unlike most night window indulgences, you won't regret this Drive Thru excursion a half-hour after consumption. And sometimes revenge is a dish best served fast. —Serene Dominic

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