The early months of a year are generally a dry stretch, cinematically speaking. Hollywood rushes its major productions into theaters before Dec. 31 so they'll qualify for the Oscar race and other awards, leaving few movies of note for January and February.
On the downside, this means a flurry of third-rate releases like "Deep Rising" and "Desperate Measures," which have little merit but allow exhibitors to keep their screens occupied until spring.
On the upside, it means there's increased opportunity for lower-profile releases. Several have recently arrived, and the ones that click with audiences will make their way from one venue to another.
The one family movie in the group is the aptly named Slappy and the Stinkers, about mischievous school kids who rescue a flatulent sea lion from an amusement-park aquarium. Barnett Kellmann directed this crazily crass comedy, which appears to be aimed at very young children with very bad taste.
Turning to fare aimed at older crowds, American independent pictures are still in the news. Ratchet, written and directed by John S. Johnson, tells the tensed-up tale of a young writer who leaves the big city in search of inspiration and gets involved with every unpleasantness from plagiarism to murder. The movie builds a reasonably suspenseful mood, and Nantucket makes a fetching backdrop.
The Next Step takes dancing as its theme, focusing on a Broadway hoofer who's not quite ready to accept the notion that his legs aren't as young as they used to be and maybe it's time to change careers. Christian Faber's drama has some corny touches, but the acting and dancing are fine.
The same can't be said of Doug Witkins's drama No Ordinary Love, about a group of suburban housemates, including a shifty bank clerk and a gay man who adopts a baby so an unmarried mother can resume her rock 'n' roll career. The characters might have been interesting if every other aspect of the picture, from its dreary dialogue to its unimaginative acting, didn't hopelessly weigh it down.
People looking for a top-grade "indie" should check the revival circuit for Don't Look Back, a superb documentary newly excavated from the vault. Bob Dylan was still in the early stages of his career when D.A. Pennebaker made this rough-and-ready account of his first British tour. The picture captures Dylan's wired-up talent along with vivid views of Joan Baez and other luminaries of the '60s pop-culture scene. It was an instant classic in 1967, and it's still one today.
* 'Slappy and the Stinkers' is rated PG and contains scatological humor. 'Ratchet,' 'The Next Step,' and 'No Ordinary Love,' not rated, contain varying degrees of sex and violence. 'Don't Look Back' is not rated and contains vulgar language.