Jessica Simpson/2Pac/Rourke/Houdini icon edition

Jessica Simpson/2Pac/Rourke/Houdini icon edition

 

 Whenever he damn well feels like it Nathan Rabin emerges from his crypt of doom, drinks the blood of virgins to regain his waning potency and writes about three DVD premieres for Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory.
 
Private Valentine: Just a few films into her acting career, Jessica Simpson has found a sad little niche pumping out lobotomized direct-to-DVD quasi-remakes of lightweight eighties comedies. First came Blonde Ambition, Simpson’s sluggish homage to Working Girl. Now Simpson and pervy producer papa Joe have a go at Private Benjamin in Private Valentine: Blonde and Dangerous, the buxom songstress’ latest gift to cinema.
 
As documented in these here cyber-pages, the film was the number-one movie in Russia, though that might be because audiences mistook it for an infomercial for Simpson’s services as a mail-order bride. The film’s Russian title—Foxy Blonde Big Boob American Lady For Sale, Good At Plowing, Possesses Sturdy Child-Bearing Hips—did little to dispel that impression.
 
In God’s United States however, (USA! USA! USA!) the film became a punchline before it even stumbled into the video stores and the Netflix queues of the horny and undiscriminating despite its strong, controversial pro-USA message.
 
Private Valentine initially taps into a culture-wide wave of Schadenfreude regarding Simpson’s nose-diving career with some agreeably mean-spirited cracks at Simpson’s Marilyn Monroe-after-brain-damage persona and an amusingly bitchy turn by Christopher Guest regular Michael Hitchcock as Simpson’s back-stabbing manager.
 
Simpson here plays “America’s Sweetheart”, a hugely popular movie star whose perfect pink life begins to unravel when she catches her manager in bed with her fiancé and discovers that her accountant has absconded with fifteen million dollars of her money. A despondent Simpson drunkenly blacks out in front of an Army recruiting station, where she impulsively decides to enlist under the delusion that the military is mainly about Girl Power, slumber parties in fatigues and washboard abs.
 
Simpson is disabused of those illusions during boot camp where she faces the fury of hardass sergeant Vivica A. Fox and the derision of a fellow soldier played by Saturday Night Live cut-up Cheri Oteri. Playing second fiddle to Simpson is clearly the nadir of Fox’s career. Or not.
 
As a comic actress Simpson has exactly one move, a doe-eyed look of wacky befuddlement that makes most silent-screen acting look restrained by comparison. Simpson flashes that look throughout the boot camp sequences but it’s soon replaced by a plastic smile as Simpson learns valuable life lessons and becomes not just strong but Army strong.
 
For underneath Simpson’s ditsy exterior lies all manner of folksy wisdom. She’s soon mentoring her fellow soldiers and establishing herself as a proud, strong, girl-powered leader. At this point Private becomes an Army recruiting film crossed with an infomercial for the Jessica Simpson brand, a synergistic dynamo that includes hair extensions, a country album and fevered international debate about her recent weight gain.
 
Speaking of said weight gain, there’s a deliciously ironic moment in the film where Simpson tells a fellow soldier that she doesn’t need to exercise because she has such a splendid metabolism that it’s more or less impossible for her to pork out. Valentine is a cotton candy fantasy for ten-year-old girls who don’t know any better but its schmaltzy deification of the military—a maudlin subplot involves a bookish soldier intent on following in the footsteps of a brother who died in Afghanistan—make it something a little more sinister. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it’s secretly the brainchild of one L.T Smash and the good folks over at Star Blitz
 
Just How Bad Is It? Pretty fucking awful
 
Death-Defying Acts: Houdini’s Secret: The man the world came to know as the Great Houdini was an international man of mystery, a real-life super-hero and a Jewish guy from Appleton, Wisconsin. Houdini’s religion wasn’t exactly a secret but it’s still a little jarring to hear Yiddish phrases emanating from his mouth in Death Defying Acts: Houdini’s Secret, a Gillian Armstrong-directed period drama about the legendary escape artist/movie star’s fictional romance with a sham medium/con artist played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
 
Zeta-Jones enters the glamorous orbit of Guy Pearce’s Houdini when she takes him up on his offer to pay ten thousand dollars to any medium, psychic or practitioner in supernatural oogie-boogie who could tell him his beloved mother’s last words to him. Despite his lifelong quest to expose sham psychics, the married Pearce falls hopelessly in love with Zeta-Jones. Will Zeta-Jones choose love or money? Will she fleece Pearce’s extraordinary gentleman or run away with him?
 
There’s nothing egregiously wrong with Death-Defying Acts. It’s beautifully filmed, capably acted and utterly undistinguished. Pearce’s Houdini lacks charisma and the contrast between his Midwestern mama’s boy banality and dynamic popular persona is never as compelling as it should be. The film is handsomely mounted. Then again, so are dead animals. As a con artist tamed by love, Zeta Jones is pretty and vacant, just the film she’s anchoring.
 
Just How Bad Is It? It’s mediocre and forgettable yet purty, like a girl.
 
Bullet: The 1996 Tarantino-derived crime drama Bullet is so staggeringly, almost indescribably odd that the presence of Tupac Shakur as a one-eyed, perpetually shouting gangster with a look modeled on the unique sartorial stylings of Slick Rick qualifies as only its fifth or sixth weirdest element. A hallucinatory hardboiled pulp freakout/mindfuck, the film casts Mickey Rouke—who co-wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Sir Eddie Cook—as a philosophical, smack-addled Jewish hood and all-around no-goodnik who is released from prison and quickly returns to his bad old ways, robbing fools, running amok and shooting fools and smack with Bohemian graffiti-artist brother Adrien Brody en route to a climactic showdown with arch-nemesis Shakur. I can’t say too much about Bullet since I’ll be covering it in these here cyber-pages in the near future but I was thoroughly won over by its scuzzy weirdness and the day-glo pop-art brashness of Julien (Filth And The Fury, Earth Girls Are Easy) Temple’s campy direction. There are lots of self-consciously debased Tarantino knockoffs out there but only one Bullet.
Just How Bad Is It? It’s actually kind of awesome in a good/bad, does this really exist or did I dream it up kind of way 
 
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