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An Aisle Seat Thanksgiving

by Andy Dursin

This Thanksgiving, in the movie world, we have a lot to be thankful for. Thankful that somehow the mania over I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER has died down (as have its box-office receipts)...thankful that George Miller delivered a workable G-rated cut of BABE: PIG IN THE CITY for release on Wednesday, excising mild profanity and animal violence!...thankful that audiences will likely be stunned when they find out that the "cute Drew Barrymore romantic comedy" HOME FRIES (also opening on Wednesday) has a black comedy murder plot withheld from all trailers!...and thankful that the trailer for STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE looked every bit as eye-popping and imaginative, though also familiar, as we hoped it would be. Perhaps a little bit less would have been more (and unlike some internet sites, I'd prefer to show up and still be surprised next May 21st!), but the movie looks fabulous and that's all that really matters.

In the meantime, at least there are some surprising options for viewing out there this Thanksgiving, and we're not talking about I STILL KNOW... and I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS!

In Theaters

MEET JOE BLACK (***1/2): Between all the talk of Republican conspiracies, the JFK cover-up, Area 51 and Roswell, I guess I didn't notice before that there may well be a Brad Pitt conspiracy going on with critics. Granted, I didn't much care for LEGENDS OF THE FALL or SEVEN, but I was surprised by the ambivalent critical reception given last year's underrated SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET. Pitt gave a good performance in a movie that was thoughtful and engrossing, and certainly deserved better than a lot of the reviews it received.

That reaction, however, was nothing compared to the all-out condemnations given to MEET JOE BLACK, Martin Brest's new film, which is nothing but a poignant fantasy that dares to spend time developing characters with intelligent and insightful dialogue instead of the glitz and Tarantino-esque one-liners that too many scripts contain these days. Yet, its reviews have been almost unanimously bad, which almost makes me think that someone has it in for poor Brad somewhere.

Many of the reviews have come down hard on Pitt's performance as Death, who comes to assume the form of an ordinary guy drawn to attractive doctor Claire Forlani, whose millionaire father (Anthony Hopkins) is about to end his stay in this plain of existence. Before he does, Death decides it's as good as time as any to study the real world, indulge in its pleasures (including Forlani) and take a vacation, all the while Hopkins battles for his corporation from a take-over bid by associate Jake Weber, one of those oily prep-school snobs usually branded the villains in movies like this.

Fortunately, nothing in MEET JOE BLACK is handled too melodramatically by Brest, working from a multi-authored screenplay that includes moments of delicate whimsy, romantic drama, and plenty of insight into the human existence. The movie is gentle and also subtle, and one of the many things I enjoyed about the script was how it took its time showing us the relationships of people who, by the end, feel as "real" as any characters I've seen of late at the movies. The picture is three hours long (but a relatively quick sit considering it's all dialogue and character-driven), and yet there's nothing that feels inappropriate or not essential to the story's development, mainly because this is a film about people, not plot twists and moments of special effects wizardry.

Unsurprisingly, there are many performances worth savoring here. Anthony Hopkins gives another marvelous performance, this time as a good man who has lived a full life approaching his final days on Earth. There's Pitt and Forlani, who both share a strong physical presence on-screen and generate some pretty good sparks together. And there's also a terrific supporting cast, including Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor, all of whom are given enough time to memorably create three-dimensional people, which is essential to the success of the drama. They're backed by a sterling production, including production design by Dante Ferretti and a gorgeous score by Thomas Newman that ranks as one of his best.

Perhaps MEET JOE BLACK is too subdued for its own good (I think a lot of critics have mistaken this film's leisurely pacing as tedium), but for patient viewers, this is a film with many rewards and an obvious yet vital message of savoring every day that is rarely spoken but permeates through the entire film. Poignant and touching, and a first-class production undeserving of the bad press it has already received. (PG-13, 181 mins., ***1/2 score by Thomas Newman on Universal Records)

ENEMY OF THE STATE (***): You've got to give Tony Scott credit. At least when he directs a Jerry Bruckheimer production, there's a bit of substance brought to the stylish production sheen the producer's name carries with it. Not a whole lot, mind you, but just enough so that you know there's a workable plot to the empty cinematic calories you'll be consuming.

Will Smith makes for a perfect everyman as a Washington lawyer given the footage of a U.S. senator's murder by an old Georgetown pal (Jason Lee) before he's run over. Soon after, Smith is fired from his job, his credit cards are gone, his wife doesn't believe him, and a group of government meanies--led by senator Jon Voight--want Smith erased from the system, and keep tabs on the innocent man by means of an elaborate network of surveillance equipment, from simple bugs to satellite imagery. Before long, Smith hooks up with underground investigator Gene Hackman to try and turn the tables on his pursuers.

Smith and Hackman are both good in this entertaining thriller, and the supporting cast includes all sorts of familiar faces in engaging roles--Tom Sizemore, Jason Robards, Jake Busey, Gabriel Bryne, even Lisa Bonet from "The Cosby Show." David Marconi's script is pretty much standard-issue (I think we can now lay to rest the requisite "discovering the dead friend's body" sequence from all movies), but Scott's film moves along at a brisk clip and while it's never engaging on any other level than a pleasing holiday diversion, at least it provides that with a minimum of pretension.

It could be have been more suspenseful, scarier, and memorable (you're likely to forget all of it minutes after its over), but ENEMY OF THE STATE still delivers the goods more often than not. It's a notch below CONSPIRACY THEORY and THE PELICAN BRIEF, which were decent political thrillers, but not at all out of place in their company. (132 mins, R, ** score by Trevor Rabin and Harry Gregson-Williams)

Soundtrack Corner

We've been running a lot of comments about Varese's 2CD recording of SUPERMAN over the last few weeks ("no, really?" you say), but having just received my copy, I thought I'd pitch in my two cents.

I think, for the most part, that this release is a missed opportunity. Certainly I can understand the claims that we're so used to the London Symphony Orchestra's performance on the original soundtrack, we couldn't relate or accept "another interpretation," but I don't think that reasoning is valid in this case. A lot of the time, the orchestra doesn't seem to be so much giving a different, individual "interpretation" as they are simply missing the mark, either in wrongly accentuated notes or a ragged shift in tempo. As someone wrote in one of the FSM Reader Bags a few weeks ago, Ken Thorne might have been working with a smaller orchestra, but his arrangement of Williams's themes in SUPERMAN II is actually more faithful to Williams than the inconsistent tempos and performance inherent in this recording.

The fact that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra had, reportedly, just two days of rehearsal time is all too apparent throughout the recording. They sound generally good (as they have on all of Varese's "Film Classics" rerecordings), but there are sections in this CD where something is simply amiss. "Growing Up" isn't just too slow, the orchestra gives a downright disjointed performance--the brass, in particular, doesn't seem in synch with the rest of the orchestra (this also happens during the Main Title and the Love Theme, where it just sounds is if a few more days of rehearsal would have ironed out these correctable performance flaws). The synthesizers on "Fortress of Solitude" also sound way too much like synths--like something out of a soundtrack to one of the old Leonard Nimoy IN SEARCH OF... episodes.

The extra action music material--such as "The Helicopter Sequence" and "Pushing Boulders"--is good, and we knew that would pretty much be the main draw to this re-recording in the first place, but with 2CDs, there's also a lot of wasted space. Where's "Superfeats"? The additional music from the Krypton sequences? And why would you even bother re-recording the first four minutes of "The Flying Sequence," then cut it off before going into the actual theme? Without Margot Kidder, this would have been a terrific opportunity to record the music under her poetry-reading of Leslie Bricusse's lyrics minus vocals, but unfortunately the Orchestra stops playing and the track abruptly ends before even going into this section. How hard could it have been to give us a purely instrumental rendition of this track?

Is this a lot of petty complaining? I don't think so. Not when the 72-minute original soundtrack remains widely available and still sounds great, while somewhere in the land of studio red-tape, there's a chance we'll see an expanded version of the original one day. If that ever happens, the erratic performance under John Debney's baton will only be accentuated when discussing this CD.

So, the bottom line is that this is a good album, but not a great one, and considering the 2CD pricetag, I'd say it's recommended only for die-hard fans who can't wait to hear some additional tracks left off the original. If you're a regular listener just getting into film music, there's no reason to pass up purchasing the original in favor of this recording.

Briefly, onto some soundtracks for movies I haven't seen. Angel continues to crank out soundtracks for all sorts of movies, their biggest new effort being a score album for John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams's enjoyable ANTZ, which benefits from a quirky mix of styles. You have a little bit of Hans Zimmer-ish synths, a dash of Danny Elfman's "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," and quotes from pop songs (including a decidedly off-kilter arrangement of "Guantanamera"). This is the sort of score that really is best appreciated having seen the movie, which I have yet to take in--there isn't quite enough principal thematic material to take hold of on its own, yet the score is energetic and anyone who liked the music as it works in the film will most likely get a kick out of it.

Anne Dudley's score for the Edward Norton-Edward Furlong provocative drama AMERICAN HISTORY X holds up far better as an album, with its powerful orchestral themes and choir passages, which reportedly work quite well with the film's apparently obvious dramatic structure of racism and tragedy. Dudley won the Oscar for her score in "The Fully Monty" last year, which came as quite a shock, since there was little of her music even in the movie. Whether or not she deserved the Oscar, at least it grabbed Dudley some exposure in the film community, her score for this film most likely a product of that--and a solid work it is, often downbeat but with lyrical passages pointing towards a cautiously hopeful finale.

Miscellaneous Stuff

If you have the Game Show Network on your satellite or cable service, be sure to check out their 2-hour block of unaired, rejected game show pilots. Included in this batch of not-good-enough-for-daytime programming is a show called THE RIDDLERS, hosted by none other than David Letterman! Guest starring Robert Urich, this vintage program gets a rare airing at 3:30pm EST on Thanksgiving day; the block itself begins airing at 2pm EST.

MGM's TOMORROW NEVER DIES ($34.98) Special Edition DVD features, as I mentioned last week, the entire isolated score by David Arnold in stereo on an alternate audio track. There's also a brief, 4-minute interview with Arnold that appears to have been taken from a made-for-TV documentary on the making of the film, in addition to trailers, storyboards, and a better-than-average 45 minute "Secrets of 007" TV special that does include genuinely intriguing snippets of behind-the-scenes footage from various Bond films (including ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE), complete with new interviews with the cast and crew. The audio commentaries are fairly interesting, though once again, Eon producer Michael G.Wilson offers the most amount of self-congratulatory, pats-on-the-back words of praise from any commentary I've ever heard, going so far as to justify the "wonderful theme song" by Sheryl Crow! Wilson expressed the same sentiments on the GOLDENEYE commentary, where he praised Eric Serra for "directing the Bond sound into a new generation." Right, Michael, that's why you had John Altman rewrite several of Serra's most egregious passages! (By the way, can you believe that Sean Connery reportedly wants to play Bond again? Very, very hard to imagine. If he does, let's just make sure that Michel Legrand doesn't come along to score the movie with him!)

NEXT TIME: Perhaps more movie reviews, soundtrack reviews, and reader bag comments. Until then, have a Happy Thanksgiving, folks, and send your comments to (note the new, stylin' shorter email address!). Have a happy one!

Dateline 11/23/98: Five years ago today, the 4CD Star Wars Trilogy box set was released by Arista. How time flies!

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