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The Aisle Seat August Assault

by Andy Dursin

Summer is finally dwindling away. Not like I needed to tell any of you that, but still, whenever my good pal Andy Montlack shows up for his annual summer-time visit, you know that Autumn is literally just a few weeks off.

What my college pals visit also means is that I saw some movies this weekend--try, a veritable conucopia of them. Three theatrical flicks in three days to be exact (not to mention countless videos), which is a tough task considering that August release dates usually spell doom at least for a few unfortunate flicks each summer. Last year I vividly recall my college friend and I cracking jokes at Christopher Walken's expense in EXCESS BAGGAGE, the awful Alicia Silverstone "comedy." The night before we saw KULL THE CONQUEROR, and a few days later we experienced EVENT HORIZON. It's a good thing my friends enjoy bad movies as much as I do (and the free food), or else they'd never come back! (Sitting through bomb after bomb can often be a taxing experience for anyone, but fortunately I only do this whenever an old college friend is visiting from out-of-own. Eases the pain, so to speak.) This year we managed to squeeze one good movie in the mix, so it almost balanced off.

In any event, here's my usual potpourri comprised of the usual capsule reviews, and then scroll down further for a few Halloween corrections about last week's column.

In Theaters

THE AVENGERS (*): It had to have been the teddy bears.

In every movie that happens to be a complete disaster, there comes a moment where you can hear the audience literally groaning in their seats, as if to admit, "yes, this movie IS that bad, and I have a right to say something about it." In the much-delayed movie version of THE AVENGERS, that moment comes during the first half hour, where Sean Connery, playing Sir August deWinter--a maniacal scientist bent on controlling the world's weather--holds a board meeting to discuss alongside fellow villains his dastardly plans for conjuring up storms that will bring London to its knees. The problem is, all of them are dressed in gigantic, plush teddy bear outfits, and the script--and the movie--can't decide if this material should be played straight, with tongue-in-cheek, or as an outright spoof. It's too silly to be taken seriously, not clever enough to be enjoyed on a camp level, and not funny enough to be humorous.

That sequence epitomizes everything that is wrong with THE AVENGERS, the feature-length bastardization of the British '60s TV show, and boy, there are a lot of problems with this picture. The movie, from what I can tell, seems to have been made with a quirky, almost-camp tone in mind, yet none of it is funny or faintly amusing. It's like they made a spoof like AUSTIN POWERS and then rung all the jokes out of it.

Part of the problem can be pegged on the casting. Ralph Fiennes is uptight and consistently one-note in his performance as secret agent John Steed, a role that would have been far better off in the hands of a more charismatic actor like Hugh Grant, Pierce Brosnan, or a young Roger Moore. Someone with a twinkle in the eye and sense of comic timing that is completely absent in Fiennes's flat delivery and robotic mannerisms. That Fiennes and Uma Thurman, playing the Diana Rigg-Emma Peel role, have no chemistry together only augments the fact that Thurman's timing is also substantially off. Often it seems as if the gorgeous Thurman is relying too much on her performance as Poison Ivy in BATMAN & ROBIN to guide her through the movie, yet she seems equally unfocused as Fiennes and, as a result, is completely unconvincing.

Perhaps we can blame this, in part, on the direction by Jeremiah Chechik (BENNY & JOON, CHRISTMAS VACATION, DIABOLIQUE), which, like every other facet of the production, can't decide on how to play the material. The first half is as disjointed and downright unwatchable a major studio production as you'll see this year, marked by gaudy (but uninteresting) production design and ugly, metallic cinematography from Roger Pratt that continuously send mixed signals out to the audience. Is this a farce, or isn't it? Whatever the case may be, it ends up coming off as the worst movie that Joel Schumacher never made. Meanwhile, Don Mcpherson's screenplay sets up what should be witty repartee between Thurman and Fiennes but none of their scenes together work, nor do the special effects sequences of gigantic mechanical insects chasing after the couple's car, or the snow storm that besieges London with tornadoes looking like left-over inserts from TWISTER. The climax feels cobbled together from BATMAN FOREVER in its look and execution, and that sense of deja vu carries over to Joel McNeely's hard-working but overdone music score, which includes ample doses of Laurie Johnson's original theme and more than a few unintentional quotes from the old ballad "You Made Me Love You" (at one point during the "balloon sequence," I almost felt that Harry James's '40s big band was going to pop up performing the classic on-screen, a la Count Basie in Mel Brooks's BLAZING SADDLES. Unfortunately, there was no such inspiration to be found here).

THE AVENGERS's finale is overly familiar yet, because what comes before it is so wretched, at least it's watchable. Which is more than I can say for the embarrassing portrayal of "Mother" and "Father," the heads of the the government agency, or the subplot involving Uma's "evil twin," or the sequences in Connery's mansion hideout at the start which feel like a bizarre cross between James Bond, Schumacher's BATMAN movies, and an awful Roger Corman direct-to-video project (with an emphasis on the latter). Chalk this one up as a bomb, the first completely unwatchable comic-book mess since Chris Reeve took to the skies one final time in SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, which, perhaps not coincidentally, Warner Bros. opened eleven years ago this week also without critic screenings, to the same kind of mass apathy that will undoubtedly greet this turkey around the world. (PG-13, 90 mins., **1/2 score by McNeely)

EVER AFTER: A CINDERELLA STORY (***1/2): Like THE MASK OF ZORRO, EVER AFTER is a confident, glossy, essentially old-fashioned picture that's beautifully realized in both casting and execution.

Director Andy Tennant has made a lavishly produced and thoroughly entertaining period love story that strips the fairly tale of its fantastical elements, and adds plenty of warm, human characters and ample doses of genuine emotion and romance into the mix. Drew Barrymore is adorable and believable as the motherless girl whose father (Jeroen Krabbe) dies, leaving her in the hands of wicked stepmother Anjelica Huston and a pair of bratty step-sisters. Dougray Scott plays the Prince, heir apparent to the throne of France, who also wants to escape his present situation in life and not marry a member of Spanish nobility in an arranged marriage. Barrymore and Scott eventually meet up, the two ignite fireworks, but predicaments--predictably--get in the way of Cinderella getting her man, at least for a while.

Tennant and co-writers Susannah Grant and Rick Parks have fashioned a glorious production, beautifully shot in France and movingly scored by George Fenton. This is one of those movies that has its act in gear right from the start and consistently strikes the right chords--the performances are wonderful, particularly Huston and Barrymore, who brings a freshness and perfect appeal to the role, while Scott is far more interesting and accessible than the cardboard handsome leading men we usually get in fairy tale films. For once, the two leads have great chemistry together and waiting for the couple to finally hook up is one of the movie's many pleasures. Along the way, EVER AFTER throws in a lot of issues with relevant parallels to the present day, yet none drag the story down in heavy-handed political correctness--the film is more about personal empowerment and, ultimately, enlightenment than it is a feminist statement, as some critics have misinterpreted it.

One of those rare (but happy) instances where there is little to criticize, EVER AFTER is charming, very funny in places, and top-notch in every aspect. It's one of the best films of the summer and one of the year's most pleasant surprises so far. (PG-13, 120 mins., ***1/2 score by Fenton on London Records)

SNAKE EYES (*): I'd like to send out my condolences to the powers-at-be over at Paramount who replaced the original ending of Brian DePalma's SNAKE EYES with an anti-climax so horrid that it sinks what was an entertaining thriller into a complete waste of time. I would think whatever executives made the call to deepsix DePalma's finale will have rolled snake eyes in an attempt to keep their jobs by this point.

SNAKE EYES stars Nicolas Cage as a cop hired by army pal Gary Sinise to supervise security for an Atlantic City boxing match that soon turns into an assassination plot, and for nearly two-thirds of its running time, director DePalma and screenwriter David Koepp deftly juggle suspense and Hitchockian twists and turns into a potent brew of entertainment, filled with the director's trademark technical standbys (split-screens, flashbacks, foreground close-ups against widescreen backdrops, etc).

Unfortunately, just when the movie seems to be building towards the finish line, along comes a finale so utterly insipid and unexciting that you'll want to have a bag of vegetables on-hand to toss one-by-one at the screen when it's all over.

Reportedly, studio executives felt DePalma's original ending, which involved an elaborate array of Industrial Light & Magic visual effects (check out the roster of ILM names over the end credits!), was too over-the-top, so it was junked at the last minute against the director's wishes and refilmed...with something less than a fair amount of inspiration on the filmmaker's behalf (understandably so). Try, two men walking down a corridor really slowly while a police van crashes outside the casino wall. Cut to epilogue sequences. Roll credits.

Fragments of what-might-have-been remain in the finished film, from one brief glimpse of a wave crashing over the Jersey shoreline to several lines that Cage speaks in the now-incoherent final scene to co-star Carla Gugino about "surviving the wave and being trapped in the tunnel," all of which correspond to an ending we didn't see!

If anyone at Paramount has any guts left, they ought to restore DePalma's original ending to the video versions of the movie, so then we'll be able to see what SNAKE EYES was really all about. This "refilmed" version is not only compromised, it's one of the most inept major studio releases of this decade, seemingly incomplete and a sham to anyone who goes to see it. Hopefully one day there will be a reason to see this movie, which starts off like a bang only to finish without so much as a whimper. (97 mins, R, **1/2 score by Ryiuchi Sakamoto)

Halloween Errata

A handful of you were nice enough to correct me about last week's column, where I thought there may have been a "possible continuity error" in HALLOWEEN: H20 involving the sibling connection between Michael Myers and Jamie Lee Curtis's character, Laurie Strode, in the first two HALLOWEEN movies. I thought this plot device wasn't disclosed until the later sequels, but it was, in fact, part of HALLOWEEN II, which I haven't admittedly seen in many years. I was waiting to revisit this sequel, along with the intriguing misfire HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, in Goodtimes's September DVD reissues, which will mark the first-ever domestic widescreen presentations of both films (and at $16 a pop, you can't go wrong). My apologies for any confusion this may have caused (I'm sure not a whole lot), and thanks for pointing that out to all concerned. (By the way, for those who have asked, we're told there isn't a score album for H20 planned immediately, but our friend Dan Goldwasser tells us that John Ottman's primarily-excised original H20 score was recorded with a non-union orchestra, so with that in mind, I'm sure some sort of release will turn up eventually, if not an official release then in some sort of promo, a la "The Cable Guy").

One fun trivia side note before we banish H20 forever to the Phantom Zone--Michael and Laurie's sibling connection was indeed noted in HALLOWEEN II, but also was disclosed only in the TV airings of the original HALLOWEEN, which included new footage expressly shot for NBC's original airings (filmed at the time of the sequel's production), which you can check out in Criterion's awesome laserdisc release.

NEXT TIME... DVD/laserdisc news (finally!) and more reviews. Until then, Excelsior!

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