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Mirth and Merriment from the Aisle Seat

by Andy Dursin

As THE PRINCE OF EGYPT arrived last weekend prior to this week's deluge of Christmas Day releases--from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and STEPMOM to THE FACULTY and the long-awaited THE THIN RED LINE (albeit only in limited release)--it became apparent that children's films reigned this holiday season. And that's almost to be expected, because this is the time of year that most intrigues the small tyke more than anyone else. (And with more movies now aimed at eight year olds than any other target audience, who's surprised?). Still, I can't help but think that so many holiday releases this year have failed to ignite people's imaginations as much as that singular, two-minute trailer for the new STAR WARS did. The new STAR TREK is particularly proof of that pudding.

To all who celebrate Christmas, have a Merry old time on Friday, and for everyone else, have a good holiday and a superb weekend. I'll be back next week with Reader Comments to put the finishing touches on 1998! Until then, send all your comments to dursina@att.net and ho-ho-ho!

In Theaters

STAR TREK-INSURRECTION (**): Perfectly diverting but thoroughly unmemorable ninth cinematic "Star Trek" adventure just isn't compelling enough to make much of an impression.

This time out, Picard and company protect a race of peace-loving, non-technological types enriched by a fountain-of-youth generated by their native planet's outer rings, and under attack from both Federation fiend and alien foe. Think LOST HORIZON mixed with STAR TREK V and you pretty much get the idea. Naturally, it wouldn't be much of an adventure unless someone had to spoil the party, and here the villainy is supplied by F.Murray Abraham and his band of ugly nasties who must have gotten their flesh-expanding skin treatments from the same doctor who worked on Katharine Helmond in BRAZIL.Subplots this time out include Picard's romance with a lovely member of the planet's non-combative people (Donna Murphy), Riker's romance with Troi (though there isn't much of it), Federation admiral Anthony Zerbe's questionable relocating of indigenous cultures for his own good (the movie's political food for thought), and several other plot strands that will evaporate from memory right after you leave the theater.

Jonathan Frakes' direction is competent but the movie never grabs the viewer and gels. It takes too long to get going, and along the way there are an abundance of extraneous scenes and "cute" sequences that never pay off (from the Gilbert & Sullivan shuttle chase to a young native boy's fascination with Data and Worf's onsetting "puberty"). The film feels sluggish and the lack of a thoroughly reprehensible villain is felt right from the start; so much for a movie with a poster slogan proclaiming "On December 11, Meet the New Face of Evil!" Abraham is adequate but Michael Piller's script is more TV-like than cinematic, so don't be expecting any "Wrath of Khan" here.

In many ways, the despised STAR TREK V--a movie that had its share of special effects problems--covered the same ground with a similar, lighthearted feel, but, truth be told, was more dramatic (not to mention far more ambitious) than this film. Here, Patrick Stewart's heroic Captain Picard is reduced....to holding hands with a 300 year-old female inhabitant of this lost paradise? It's pretty weak material, and unimaginatively handled at that.

That said, INSURRECTION still makes for certainly passable entertainment, but this time it's mainly for fans only. Jerry Goldsmith's score is pleasant (and one of his better efforts of late), but even though the settings are well filmed by Matthew Leonetti, it's the story that's the problem. Too often you feel that you're watching what would have been a decent 60 minute TV episode being stretched into a movie. At 103 minutes, STAR TREK-INSURRECTION is officially the shortest "Star Trek" movie, but tellingly, it also feels like the longest. (PG, 103 mins., *** score by Jerry Goldsmith on GNP)

BABE - PIG IN THE CITY (***1/2): A box-office flop but acclaimed by critics, this decidedly unusual sequel to 1995's sleeper hit BABE is a movie blessed with imagination and wit--though perhaps a bit too much for most mainstream audiences' tastes.

The follow-up opens with Babe and Mrs. Hodgett (Magda Szubanski, given a lot more screen-time here) getting mixed up in the Big City when they miss their connecting flight to the State Fair. Poor Farmer Hodgett (James Cromwell, appearing only for a few minutes) is recovering from an accident and the farm is about to be foreclosed on by the bank unless Babe can bring home the proverbial bacon from a 1st prize showing at the Fair. Unfortunately, he never gets the chance after Mrs. Hodgett is arrested and Babe is almost killed by a pitbull terrier while staying in a metropolitan hotel that's animal-friendly and houses a curious collection of primates, cats, and other assorted furry creatures.

George Miller (MAD MAX) co-wrote and produced the original, but decided to take the full directorial reigns on this sequel from Chris Noonan. The result is a movie that is every bit as wild and inventive as you would expect from the filmmaker, filled with storybook cinematography, outstanding visual effects, and plenty of humor that adults will appreciate as much as--or more so--than children. The cityscape--a pastiche of New York, Rio, Sydney, and Paris among others--is grandly realized and the film offers all sorts of visual pleasures, from the sequences of Babe's barnyard pal Ferdinand the duck attempting to fly with a flock of Benny Goodman-singing cranes to the movie's highly satisfying comic conclusion, with Mrs.Hodgett in an inflated circus outfit, bounding from the rafters of a posh hospital charity dinner.

Along the way, Miller indulges in some material that's a bit too dark for the very young end of its target audience--Babe is attacked by the pitbull in a sequence shot in slow-motion with operatic underscore, while the pitbull subsequently almost drowns while hanging from a bridge. Just as bizarre is Mickey Rooney's mute performance as a once-successful circus ringleader, and some sleazy city types (a group of chimps, voiced by Steven Wright and Glenne Headly, among them) that give Babe a hard time.

Still, Roscoe Lee Browne's narration adds the perfect philosophizing to the proceeding, and the chorus of singing mice returns to comment on the action. Nigel Westlake's enchanting score also works splendidly, and its use of songs by Dean Martin and the Chieftans (whose "Protected by Angels" is used at several key points) is also effective.

Sequels are rarely ever attacked for trying to do something different, but BABE-PIG IN THE CITY may indeed have been too dreamy and formula-eschewing--and not enough like the original--to score with most viewers. However, the picture is so distinctive in its look and storytelling that it ranks with the original as one of the decade's best family-oriented films. It may not be appreciated as such now, but in the future, there's good chance that BABE 2 will be looked upon by the masses as the achievement it truly is. (G, 96 mins, *** score by Nigel Westlake on Geffen; Ed Sheramur conducted and arranged the orchestra for the film's songs, including Peter Gabriel's "That'll Do," written by Randy Newman)

On DVD

SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (*1/2) and LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (***; Anchor Bay DVD, $24.98 each): Hammer Films closed out their long-running Dracula series in the mid 70s with these two entries, which attempted to put a spin on their successful vamp formula with mixed results.

SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (released domestically as COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE) marked Christopher Lee's final Hammer performance as Dracula, in a 1973 outing set in the present day. Peter Cushing is also back as Van Helsing, but unfortunately this last battle between the two distinguished genre veterans is a dull affair without much Hammer atmosphere--the dated period score by John Cacavas and direction by Alan Gibson fail to evoke what made the original Draculas so inviting, and the setting itself feels more like an early Ô70s exploitation film than recalling its predecessors' production design and cinematography. Most of the movie is dominated by endless dialogue and the concluding battle between Van Helsing and the Count is sadly devoid of any dramatic significance--it just "happens" without much build-up.

LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, meanwhile, attempted to mix Hong Kong kung-fu action into the Hammer horror mix, and despite the seeming incompatibility of styles, the result is a highly entertaining film that's more closely aligned with the original Hammer thrillers than the modern-day Dracula efforts with Christopher Lee (especially the above). Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing, this time teaching a course in Chungking in the early 1900s when one of his students (David Chiang) claims that his village was taken over by a clan of "Golden Vampires" and is still haunted to this day by their dastardly deeds. Turns out Dracula is behind it all, albeit in the guise of one of the satanic leaders who sought his resurrection in Translyvania some 100 years before.

Confused? Don't be. Roy Baker's direction is efficient and the movie offers plenty of kung-fu action, as well as more in the way of the old Hammer standbys--like Van Helsing and Dracula's climactic confrontation, and James Bernard's bombastic themes supporting the action--than its immediate predecessor. A few unintentional laughs crop up at times (mainly involving John Forbes-Robertson's hideous carnival make-up as the stand-in Count, and a group of background zombie-warriors who like to dance more than fight!), but these only add to the overall fun of the movie.

Both movies were released by Warner Bros. everywhere but the U.S., where they ultimately appeared some time after the fact, and in severely cut versions to boot. Anchor Bay's DVDs go back to the original negatives and unexpurgated prints and look as good as to expected, with LEGEND letterboxed in its full Panavision aspect ratio. SATANIC RITES, meanwhile, looks even more colorful and is matted.

More over, the DVDs offer the entire contents of their pricier laserdisc counterparts at a fraction of the cost. This means that LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES includes not only the film but also its entire cut American version ("The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula," some 17 minutes shorter), several trailers, and--a fabulous extra for film music fans--the entire stereo soundtrack album (!), with Bernard's score and Cushing's narration, presented in a separate chapter. Bernard's themes are augmented by some additional compositions, and the rarity of the LP ought to make this a great purchase for fans. And all this for $25, whereas the laserdisc retails for $70!

ALSO FROM ANCHOR BAY: Moustapha Akkad's 1981 effort LION OF THE DESERT (***) features Anthony Quinn and Irene Pappas (alumnus of "Mohammed, Messenger of God") as well as Rod Steiger and Oliver Reed in a competent and often exciting historical drama set during the 1929 conflict in Libya. Reed plays an Italian general who holds off attacks from Arab nationalist Omar Mukhtar (Quinn) in a large-scale epic complimented by a fine Maurice Jarre score. Letterboxed in its Panavision ratio, this is a solid DVD that history buffs should particularly appreciate, its only drawback being a bloated running time...

George Romero's last installment in his "Dead" series, DAY OF THE DEAD (*1/2), hasn't aged well. This 1985 sequel lacks all of the humor and satire from its well-respected 1979 predecessor "Dawn of the Dead," and instead spends most of its running time on lengthy dialogue exchanges between the last surviving members of humanity, living in a bunker while the dead roam the world outside. Pretty dull stuff, though make-up fans will want to check out Tom Savini's gross-outs. On the plus side, AB's DVD looks terrific and includes supplementary behind-the-scenes footage...

Continuing on the buckets-o-blood track, the 1969 feature MARK OF THE DEVIL (*1/2) has a reputation among genre fans for being one of the sickest of all late '60s/early '70s horror films. A pair of witchfinders are out for blood in early 1700's Austria, and decide to blame the outbreak in "evil" on innocent women, who are branded heretics and are subsequently tortured. Plenty of explicit, sadistic sequences follow, though Michael Armstrong's film does have a certain rawness (not to mention appearances by Herbert Lom and Udo Kier) that makes it hard to totally dismiss. Still, recommended for fans who aren't the least bit squeamish only!

Soundtrack Corner

Some brief recommendations just in time for last-minute holiday shopping... if you want to hear a blueprint for an intelligently crafted "sentimental score," check out John Williams's music for the holiday soaper STEPMOM. Graced with delicate guitar solos by Christopher Parkening (at times reminiscent of Williams's Americana melodies from "The River"), this is a score that is emotional and poignant, allright, but refrains from indulging in the kind of creaky "break out the violin" string arrangements that usually plague movie scores of this sort. The result is a fine album that you don't need to see the film to enjoy, and transcendent of the sorts of cliches inherent in most every tearjerker score. Skip past the requisite Motown track (performed in a lip-synch sequence by the characters--of course) and enjoy. Also recommended is James Horner's more explicitly emotional score from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, which Hollywood has released as a full-blown, 70+ minute album. I could have done without one of the excessive action tracks (filled with percussion and wailing brass), but the main theme is a beauty, and the African chorale passages add the right ethnic touch and diversity to an enjoyable score that ought to fit perfectly with the film. For Horner fans, this is another must-have.

HO-HO-HO... Merry Christmas folks, and see you next week. My final wish for Christmas this year is that Alec "Let's Stone Henry Hyde to Death" Baldwin receives a bag of charcoal brickets in his stocking. Have a happy holiday! (And don't forget, all relevant comments, plus irrelevant ones, can be sent to dursina@att.net.)

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