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Aisle Seat Goes Video

by Andy Dursin

I don't feel compelled enough to write a full review of WAG THE DOG, except to say that if you're a politics junkie and happen to be a big fan of Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, or writer David Mamet, I urge you to check it out. The movie is frequently funny and filled with biting satirical dialogue and situations. Director Barry Levinson does a superb, low-key job of filming this cautionary tale, allowing for the script and the terrific lead performances to do their job without hitting us over the head with its points. Not hysterically funny and somewhat redundant, WAG THE DOG isn't the best movie of 1997, but it is one of the most insightful satires to appear on the screen in quite some time, and the Hoffman-DeNiro pairing (both seem like they had a blast filming this one) is reason enough for interested viewers to give it a shot.

That said, TITANIC ruled theaters everywhere for the 4th straight weekend. This movie defies all of the typical Hollywood conventions for a film's lifespan at the box-office; it's the rare picture that actually went out and has been making consistent money each weekend without suffering from the massive fallout virtually every movie does in theaters. Why? Well, it's simple--people love this film. It appeals to all ages of movie-goers, and has perhaps the strongest word of mouth going for it of any film made this decade. The repeat business the movie has received (theaters were sold out again this weekend nationwide) is just staggering, but isn't this the way most movies should be? Good enough to see a second time, and recommend without hesitation to your friends and colleagues? TITANIC seems headed for a record box-office gross, which is certainly vindication for James Cameron, who suffered through months and months of obnoxious "look how much it costs!" negative writing from much of the mainstream press. Now that the movie has passed the $200 million mark and shows no signs of stopping, Cameron can rest knowing that his film already has its deserved place in cinematic history. It's an experience that few films have ever achieved before, and certainly the first movie in years to capture people's attention and the public's imagination to such a great degree.

If you've already gone back to see it and desire new viewing, FALLEN and THE FLOOD (oh sorry, HARD RAIN) both open this week---and I would pass on both, at least judging from the poor reviews and awful word-of-mouth both have generated over the last few months. If you're into renting some videos, there are a handful of new releases on store shelves, some of which may be worth a look...

*ON VIDEO

THE SAINT (***): After reading all the bad reviews, I decided to pass on seeing this Val Kilmer revamp of the old Roger Moore series in theaters, though I did get a lot of "the movie was great!" reactions from several of my usually reliable friends. After watching the movie on video, I can see why viewers did overlook the film's shortcomings and enjoy the picture--it has to be one of the most purely romantic spy pictures ever made, with strong chemistry between Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue (ok, so she's not entirely believable as a cold fusion scientist) overcoming those omnipresent gaps in logic and plot. Director Phillip Noyce (PATRIOT GAMES,CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, DEAD CALM) makes good use of the Russian locales and his cast, and spends enough time on the love story so that we actually care about the characters and what happens to them. The movie also boasts atmospheric cinematography by Phil Meheux (GOLDENEYE) and a terrific Graeme Revell score that deftly incorporates Edwin Astley's classic TV theme into its superb mix of synths and strings. THE SAINT makes for a great date movie all around, and even if you can't take a look at the widescreen laser (complete with scripted commentary from the director), it's definitely worth a rental. (118 mins, PG-13)

SPEED 2-CRUISE CONTROL (**): A decade ago, virtually every successful movie had a sequel--whether it needed one or not. These days, a movie really has to make back its buck and have some contract clauses attached before someone decides to produce a follow-up. Unfortunately for Jan DeBont, the director of that blockbuster TWISTER decided to use his newfound clout to make this totally unnecessary sequel to his first big hit, SPEED, a movie that never cried out for another installment to begin with. Keanu Reeves wisely decided to bypass this ridiculously overbudgeted and underwritten disaster flick, which places the "action" on a cruise ship taken over by madman Willem Dafoe, who attempts to steer this Love Boat literally into the lovely beaches and boardwalks of St.Martin. Just happening to be there for the ride is Sandra Bullock, totally out of her element, and Keanu fill-in Jason Patric, who tries valiantly to reach heroic stardom in one of his few leading man roles. Sadly for Jason, the film is so absurd that it can never once be taken seriously, and the dialogue is so thin that the first 80 minutes of the film feel permanently aground. Despte all of this, the last half-hour actually IS entertaining, thanks to some excellent ILM effects (a warm-up for their work on TITANIC) and plenty of mass destruction. When it's over, though, the movie still feels as pointless as its initial premise, compounded by a reprise of the film's unfunny comical prologue with Sandra and driving instructor Tim Conway wrecking havoc in Los Angeles. A sorry mess all around--with some good special effects. (125 mins, PG-13).

CONSPIRACY THEORY (***): Richard Donner's first satisfying movie of the '90s (following his disastrous RADIO FLYER and ASSASSINS, not to mention the mediocre LETHAL WEAPON 3 and MAVERICK), CONSPIRACY THEORY is an agreeable thriller featuring Mel Gibson as an Oliver Stone-type nut who believes that there's a dastardly motive behind every newspaper headline. Patrick Stewart is the suspicious mystery man who may or may not be the villain, and Julia Roberts's attorney is the object of Gibson's affection, though it's hard to imagine what she sees in him other than serving to propel the story forward. Somewhat contrived for the first hour, this slick suspenser does get more involving once its secondary plot kicks into gear (which the studio wisely decided to withhold from its trailers and pre-release publicity), with Donner's quick pacing making up for the standard gaps in logic and story construction which typically accompany films from this genre. It would have been more interesting to see the movie go completely over the edge into another direction with Gibson's character (it ultimately goes only halfway there), but it's still an enjoyable film that successfully maintains its level of uneasy paranoia from start to finish. (130 mins, R; this Panavision film is best viewed in widescreen on laserdisc and DVD).

TROJAN WAR (**1/2): If you sat through every John Hughes teen comedy in the '80s and have seen SECRET ADMIRER with C. Thomas Howell to the point where your VHS copy has worn thin, you just might want to check out this unreleased, intended-for-theaters flick about a lusty teen trying to score with the class babe, and how his inability to find a condom ruins his night. Sounds tasteless, but the execution in this frothy affair is as mainstream as you can possibly get, with virtually every scene originating either from MYSTERY DATE, the enjoyable 1990 Ethan Hawke comedy (itself a teen variation on AFTER HOURS), or the before-mentioned SECRET ADMIRER. The predicaments are predictable but there are some genuine laughs sprinkled throughout, in addition to amusing cameos by Lee Majors (as "Lt.Austin," no less) and Anthony Michael Hall. As the best friend of the teen protagonist who secretly loves her guy, PARTY OF FIVE's Jennifer Love Hewitt is perky and pretty, but also so much more appealing in every department than the hero's desired love that it's impossible to believe that nobody has ever noticed her obvious personal or physical attributes before. Not a great movie by any standards, it's clear that Warner Bros. could never have released this sure-to-have-generated-controversy title to theaters, but if you enjoy the occasional rerun of JUST ONE OF THE GUYS on the Superstation, don't let that deter you from taking this one for a spin in your VCR. (84 mins, PG-13)

SPAWN (*1/2): Todd McFarlane's celebrated, demonic comic-book hero got the shaft twice last year, first in a series of lame made-for-HBO cartoons, then later in this static big-screen adaptation, featuring Michael Jai White as the hellish protagonist, Martin Sheen as a government bigwig, Nicol Williamson reprising his Merlin role from EXCALIBUR, and John Leguiziamo as a fat midget clown. The ILM animated sequences of hell and the various servants of Lucifer are certainly impressive to behold, but surrounding these FX shots are totally uninteresting, blandly filmed live-action scenes that feel like a bad "USA Original Movie" premiere. Director Mark Dippe was once an ILM employee, so it's no wonder the film has visual snap in the action scenes, but someone else should have been brought into handle the actual story and characters, thinly drawn as they are. New Line is offering its theatrical PG-13 version on VHS as well as a R-rated "Director's Cut" on laser, featuring--get ready--one minute of excised gore. Not worth it in any format. (PG-13, 93 mins. on tape; R, 94 mins. on laser)

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