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The Aisle Seat in the New Year

By Andy Dursin

1998 roared in like a lion for the big guns in Hollywood, thanks to the sterling performances of TITANIC and TOMORROW NEVER DIES, with James Cameron's much-discussed epic finally proving itself as a titanic box-office draw, playing to sell-out crowds across North America since opening day. The other surprise financially was MOUSE HUNT, the Dreamworks comedy, which opened to little fanfare but has since gained momentum during kids' holiday vacation days. SCREAM 2 and AS GOOD AS IT GETS also faired well, though Warner Bros. saw its last-ditch attempt at releasing a solid 1997 fiscal performer go by the wayside with the dismal performance of THE POSTMAN, Kevin Costner's THE OMEGA MAN meets WATERWORLD by way of DANCES WITH WOLVES clone. (Check out the review below.) Other big box-office bombs--MR.MAGOO, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS (though it did better than THE POSTMAN, if that's any consolation), and HOME ALONE 3. The jury's still out on JACKIE BROWN, even though it's clear the Tarantino phenomenon seems to be over in the U.S. (as it has been for quite some time, ever since FOUR ROOMS and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN polluted theaters everywhere).

Since every January offers a casual release schedule dominated by movies shelved from the preceding year, it's no surprise that January of 1998 will do the same. Look for the premiere of several movies that were gathering dust on studio shelves for the better part of '97, including HARD RAIN with Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater, which at one point was called THE FLOOD and due out virtually an entire year ago. Other delayed efforts include the sci-fi actioner DEEP RISING with Treat Williams (the "mutated creature lives on a sunken cruise ship" flick), and the Denzel Washington serial killer entry FALLEN. Both of those films may have undergone additional shooting in the past few months to either augment special effects or fix low-scoring plot developments (FALLEN in particular was said to have one of the bleakest endings since SEVEN, if that's any surprise, so perhaps that has been remedied a bit).

Your best bet is to check out films which debuted in limited release during the month of December, and only now are opening nationwide. WAG THE DOG, the acclaimed Dustin Hoffman-Robert DeNiro political satire (directed by Barry Levinson and co-scripted by David Mamet), goes into nationwide release this Friday, while GOOD WILL HUNTING also opens on additional screens. Check out either of those, or catch one of this past month's superior efforts (TITANIC, AMISTAD), if you haven't already--and as always, beware of any NEW movie opening in January!


THE POSTMAN (*1/2):I admit it. I've already done my penace for the new year, and that was to sit through another bloated three-hour Kevin Costner epic. Oh brother, there hasn't been this much vanity on-screen since "Bruno" Willis mugged his way through HUDSON HAWK several years ago.

One of those films where your "suspension of disbelief" is raised every, oh, two minutes or so, THE POSTMAN stars Costner as--hey, what a shock--a drifter in a post apocalyptic world who brings together all the rag-tag "good people" of this shattered land by pretending to be a postal delivery worker for the Restored United States of America. Along the way, Costner meets up with vindictive Will Patton (who wants to train him for use in his army), former Mod Squad gal Peggy Lipton (who still finds the means to dye her hair in the wasteland), and gorgeous newcomer Olivia Williams, whose lovely smile and shapely bod provide the lone excitement in this deadly dull mess. Alas, she fails to generate any chemistry with Kevin, who turns in an at-times embarrasing, inconsistent performance ranking with some of his poorest work to date.

There isn't especially wrong with the plot of THE POSTMAN, aside from its poorly established "what happened to civilization?" introduction and continuously baffling plot holes (Namely, who has electricity? Why do people living in pleasant Oregon locations and waterfront homes have to wear Sherwood Forest-style clothing? Why do the villains have all the ammunition, and how does Costner come across the guns? Where is the new "mail" generating from, and how far does the Postman's scheme stretch? And, best of all, why does Costner take a ride on a cable-car lift during the waterfall sequence on a rope that stretches beyond any marginal credibility this movie ever establishes?). Despite those relatively small complaints, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't the plot itself that was so bad, it's the execution that was lacking. Costner's direction is so lethargic, so lifeless, that one particular sequence that should have been emotional and poignant--Costner and Williams spending a winter trapped in a mountain cabin--instead came across as something akin to a poor Junior High School presentation of "O Pioneers!" (Sample dialogue exchange from Costner to Williams: "Hey, you're weird!") Visually the movie is quite solid, but dramatically the movie has no emotional pull whatsoever, with nearly every scene feeling like it could have been relegated to the cutting room floor. On plus side, there are some big unintentional laughs generated here (most significantly the demise of a bad guy hunting Costner during the opening half-hour), though most of the picture is simply a confused, idiotic debachle in every department.

Indeed, so little happens in the three hours of this action-less "spectacle" that a handful of couples at the show I attended walked out at various points during the film's final third, never to return. Who could blame them, since Costner spends forever lingering on self-indulgent vanity shots of himself standing tall, talking about the American dream, all to the equally phony strains of James Newton Howard's score. If you do go to the film, however, I urge you to stay through to the end--the concluding sequence, featuring an unbilled Mary Stuart Masterson gushing about her old man, is so unbearably bad that all I could think of was how much it resembled a schmaltzy Campbell's Soup commercial, topped off by a closing shot as laughable as any recent moment in "so bad it's good" cinematic history. (R, 179 mins).

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