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!
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
(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!