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Star-Studded Dramas: 8 Engaging Films [DVD]
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Overview

Synopsis

Off the Map
Campbell Scott directed this offbeat comedy drama about a free-thinking family who find themselves confronted by the more regimented outside world. Bo Groden (Valentina d'Angelis) is an 11-year-old girl growing up as part of a decidedly eccentric family in a small town in New Mexico. Bo's father, Charley (Sam Elliott), has fallen into a deep depression for reasons no one can understand, while her mother, Arlene (Joan Allen), holds the household together, raising most of their food in her vegetable garden, which she prefers to tend in the nude. Bo, meanwhile, satisfies her sweet tooth by writing candy companies claiming to have had problems with their products, which usually results in a box of fresh goodies. While the Grodens get by through living within simple means, one day an Internal Revenue Agent appears at their door, wanting to know why the family hasn't paid income tax for several years -- and not believing there has been no appreciable income for so many years. Off the Map was screened in competition at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

Running With Scissors
Screen newcomer Joseph Cross portrays Augusten Burroughs in director Ryan Murphy's film adaptation of author Burroughs' best-selling personal memoir of the same name. A child of the 1970s whose alcoholic father, Norman (Alec Baldwin), and delusional, unpublished poet mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), serve as the dictionary definition of the word "dysfunctional," Augusten is sent by his mother to live with her eccentric psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), when his disagreeable parents ultimately decide to terminate their turbulent marriage. Suddenly thrust into an environment that is as unfamiliar as it is unpredictable, young Augusten forms a curious relationship with the doctor's two whimsical daughters while learning to adapt and survive under even the most unusual of circumstances. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi

The Squid and the Whale
Two boys learn the hard way about how a marriage falls apart in this independent comedy drama. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a novelist whose career has gone into a slow decline as he spends more time teaching and less time writing. His wife, Joan (Laura Linney), meanwhile, has recently begun publishing her own work to widespread acclaim, which only increases the growing tension between them. One day, Bernard and Joan's two sons -- 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) -- are told that their parents are separating, with Bernard renting a house on the other side of their Park Slope, Brooklyn, neighborhood. As the parents set up a schedule for spending time with their children, Walt and Jesse can hardly imagine that things could get more combative between their folks, but they do, as Joan begins dating Ivan (William Baldwin), Frank's tennis instructor, and Bernard starts sharing the house with Lili (Anna Paquin), one of his students. Meanwhile, the two boys begin taking sides in the battle between their parents, with Walt taking after his father and Frank siding with his mom. Based on writer/director Noah Baumbach's own childhood experiences with his parents' divorce, The Squid and the Whale won prizes for writing and direction at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

All the Pretty Horses
Director Billy Bob Thornton explores coming of age in this Western based on Cormac McCarthy's prize-winning novel of the same name. John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) are young Texan men who seek a more fulfilling life as cowboys in the slowly fading Old West, circa 1949. One night, the duo head for Mexico in hope of finding some adventure and employment, and along the way run into Blevins (Lucas Black), an even younger drifter who has supposedly stolen a horse from private property. Begrudgingly, Cole and Rawlins take him under their wing before they eventually find themselves in Mexico, working for a wealthy landowner (Ruben Blades). His stalwart and beautiful daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz) develops a romantic interest in Cole, which threatens the friendship between him and Rawlins, not to mention their living quarters, where Alejandra's watchful aunt (Miriam Colon) warns Cole that she has professed allegiance to her. Cole and Rawlins' thrill-seeking adventures with Blevins and the stolen horse catch up to them, however, and they are held prisoners in a brutal penitentiary, where their cowboy instincts are put to the ultimate test. Cole, meanwhile, wants nothing more than to get back to Alejandra and resume their love affair. The film also features Bruce Dern in a small role as a judge who eventually gives much-desired guidance to Cole. ~ Jason Clark, Rovi

Motorama
This allegorical comedy from scriptwriter Joe Minion (After Hours, Vampire's Kiss) offers a unique twist on the standard road movie formula. It tells the story of a young boy named Gus who grows sick and tired of parental squabbles and decides to steal his dad's red Mustang and hit the highway on a cross-country journey. The country presented in this film, however, is not the U.S., but a fictional land with states such as Bergen and Essex - a land with parallels to a giant board game. While on the road, Gus spots a billboard inviting him to play the "Motorama" game, a promotional effort by a major gas station that promises winners $500 million dollars. In order to win, one simply has to collect enough game cards from Chimera gas stations all over the country to spell out the word "Motorama." As Gus approaches his goal of collecting all eight letters, he has assorted adventures, many of them strange and a few that are distinctly unpleasant. The film features cameos from several notable cult favorites, including character players Jack Nance and Dick Miller, actress Drew Barrymore, and even the pop singer Meat Loaf. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi

A Love Song For Bobby Long
Bobby Long (John Travolta) is a washed up former literature professor with a voracious drinking habit. He lives in a rundown house in New Orleans with Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht of The Recruit), his former star pupil, also an alcoholic. Lawson is allegedly writing a novel about Bobby. Their depressive little corner of the world is disrupted when Lorraine, the beloved eccentric singer who owns their house, dies. Her teenage daughter, Pursy (Scarlett Johansson), who hasn't seen her mother in years, arrives in town too late for the funeral, and crashes at the house. Afraid of being thrown out on the street, Bobby convinces Lawson to tell Pursy that the house has been left to all three of them. Pursy, having little else to do, decides to move in, and starts cleaning up the place, making it her own. Lawson is involved with Georgianna (Deborah Kara Unger), who works at the local bar, but he quickly develops a crush on the comely Pursy. The cantankerous Bobby seems determined to drive the girl away. As Pursy settles into the diverse little community, all of Lorraine's old friends tell her how much she looks like her mother, and she begins to uncover some startling truths about her family history. A Love Song for Bobby Long is based on the novel Off Magazine Street, by Ronald Everett Capps. It was adapted for the screen and directed by Shainee Gabel, who co-directed the documentary Anthem. ~ Josh Ralske, Rovi

Lords of Dogtown
The true story of the kids who created modern skateboard culture is recreated in this drama. In the early '70s, skateboards were seen as a fad of the 1960s that had all but died out, but in a rough-and-tumble Venice, CA community known as "Dogtown," that was about to change. Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) were three guys who liked to surf the rugged beaches around Venice and hung out at the Zephyr Surf Shop, a store run by Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger) that stocked gear for adventurous surfers and skateboarders. With the advent of new urethane wheels that connected with concrete in a way old metal and rubber wheels could not, Tony, Stacy, and Jay began exploring ways to translate radical surf style to skateboarding, and the guys invented a new way to skate inside the smooth, round surfaces of empty pools, employing vertical moves and edge flips that added a new and dramatic spin to skating. It didn't take long for word to spread about the wild new style of the Z-Boys, and they quickly became local celebrities, and later nationwide skating stars, though sudden fame took its toll on these young men. The true story of Lords of Dogtown was previously the basis of the acclaimed documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, directed by former Z-Boy Stacy Peralta, who like Tony Alva served as a consultant on this project. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

Excess Baggage
In this combination caper comedy and offbeat romance, Emily (Alicia Silverstone) is a wealthy but petulant young woman desperate to get the attention of her millionaire father, Alexander Hope (Jack Thompson). In fact, she's so desperate that she decides to stage her own kidnapping; she sends a ransom note, ties herself up, and locks herself in the trunk of her BMW, waiting for daddy to come to the rescue; however, Emily's timing is a bit off, because ten minutes later, hunky car thief Vincent (Benicio del Toro) steals the BMW with Emily still in it. Vincent and his partner in crime, Greg (Harry Connick Jr.), eventually discover the car's trunk has an unexpected surprise. When Emily is unable to convince them to help her with her scheme, she becomes a problem the carjackers can't get rid of, especially after Alexander refuses to pay her ransom, and his creepy right-hand man, Raymond (Christopher Walken), heads out to find her. Of course, losing 200,000 dollars in mob money is not making Vincent's life any easier, nor is having the emotionally problematic Emily fall in love with him. Excess Baggage was the first feature from Alicia Silverstone's production company First Kiss. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

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