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(Very) Late April Musings from the Aisle Seat

by Andy Dursin

It seems obvious that there are several times during the year when studios dump their unwanted trash into cinemas everywhere, often with little or no fanfare, so as not to get anyone's attention. January is usually a good time to do it, with the carry-over from the Christmas season still making it a reasonably healthy time for studios and theater owners. Early September is often a fair time to release shelf-ridden productions, since it comes during that transition period from the summer to the fall, as is April, since the "summer" movie season--with its big budget blockbusters and high profile films--is just a few weeks away.

This April has been no different, and indeed, we've seen a rash of movies released that have not been screened for critics--the sign, mostly, of a film so bad the studios simply don't want anyone to trash it until it opens. SPECIES 2, MAJOR LEAGUE 3, and the new TARZAN AND THE LOST CITY all were held back from critic screenings, though in one of those cases the movie actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Add a few complete misfires into the mix (can you say THE ODD COUPLE II? MY GIANT? MERCURY RISING? The forever-delayed NIGHTWATCH?) and it has been a weak month, helped out only by one awful special effects extravaganza (LOST IN SPACE) and the typical generic date-movie fodder that appeals to loyal "Friends" viewers (THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION) and romantics in general (CITY OF ANGELS). What can we learn from all this? Basically, that summer can't start soon enough.

However, there's hope in the next few weeks that something surprising could open before we get hit over the head by the likes of GODZILLA. Spike Lee's HE GOT GAME opens Friday, and has already received the standard "Two Thumbs Up" from Siskel & Ebert, so perhaps the worst is behind us now. We can only hope, after all.

*IN THEATERS

MAJOR LEAGUE: BACK TO THE MINORS (***): Maybe it's because the Red Sox are off to their best start in 52 years, my expectations were low, and I was in the mood for a baseball comedy, but I'm fairly certain that this critic is not going off the deep end by saying this is a surprisingly good-natured third installment in the MAJOR LEAGUE movie franchise.

Taking over from series creator David S.Ward, writer-director John Warren (NAKED IN NEW YORK) has crafted a modestly entertaining yarn about an aging minor leaguer (Scott Bakula) who turns the Triple AAA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins into a winning organization, despite having a roster consisting of the requisite also-rans and a cocky rising young star. Twins owner Corbin Bernsen (reprising his role from the predecessing pictures) watches Bakula's managerial skills with a close eye, since his own Twins are a godawful group of losers, headed by no-good slickster manager Ted McGinley. Naturally, Bakula's "Buzz" and McGinley's major league ball club meet up to settle who really has the biggest group of losers.

It was a wise idea to take a different route for this sequel, particularly since the second MAJOR LEAGUE, despite having most of the original cast and crew back, was a tired affair. Here, Warren does resurrect Bob Eucker's hilarious announcer Harry Doyle (who is actually given more screen-time than in either of the earlier films) and a pair of wacky supporting players from parts I and II (primarily in cameos that must have been shot in a couple of days), but for the most part, BACK TO THE MINORS ably works on its own terms. The minor league setting suits this laid-back picture well, and the use of South Carolina small-town ballparks gives the picture a more intimate, distinctive feeling. Bakula is solid in the lead and McGinley is a riot as the Twins manager, and while the comedic shenanigans of the disparate players are under-developed this time around (Warren throws in a couple of montages seemingly just for the sake of the series), the big surprise here is just how watchable, and fun, most of BACK TO THE MINORS actually is. Baseball fans will appreciate this more than the average viewer, but if your team is in first place and you aren't expecting a whole lot, you'll probably get a kick out of it. (PG-13)

SPECIES II (**): Totally gross, empty-headed, slimy, and stupid, SPECIES II is a sequel that you would have expected in find back in the Ô80s, when follow-ups were made for any film that turned even the slightest profit, and stars were under contract to come back to reprise their roles even if they didn't want to.

Directed by Peter Medak, who helmed the fairly good George C.Scott supernatural thriller THE CHANGELING almost twenty years ago, SPECIES II looks, sounds, and plays like an after-thought. In this second installment (most likely the last), a NASA expedition to Mars brings back one of H.R. Giger's slimy creatures in the form of would-be playboy and future Presidential candidate Justin Lazard, who starts making out with any female he can find in order to procreate his newfound lizard-like brood. Meanwhile, back in a Washington lab, hitman Michael Madsen (giving one of the most obvious "just for the money" performances in recent memory) reunites with scientist Marg Helgenberger to track down Lazard before he finds lab experiment Natasha Henstridge, she having been resurrected from the DNA of Natasha's "Sil" creature from the original.

An early three-way sex scene--followed by exploding stomachs and decapitations--in SPECIES II suggests that this affair will be an even sleazier one than its predecessor, and, fortunately, it ultimately lives up to that billing. Unfortunately, the exploding stomachs also turn out to be the only special effect the make-up people came up with, and the gratuitous (though welcome) topless nudity turns out to be one big tease before Henstridge herself takes it all off in the ludicrous finale.

Writer Chris Brancato's initial premise is sound enough for this sort of thing, but it's so slackly handled by Medak that you know the only person in the cast trying is Marg Helgenberger, and that's only because her enthusiasm bubbles over to the point where one of her lines ("this is awful! this is awful!") meant to be illicit pain and anguish turns into unintentional comedy instead. As does the house on his family property where Lazard stashes the offspring of his various sexual escapades, a scenario that pays off with the cardboard leading man turning into a giant lizard-cow to combat Henstridge while cocoons of his kids start mutating in the attic.

Yes, it's all incredibly stupid, and the boring cinematography and ordinary FX make you feel like this was made for Showtime. Still, you've got a handful of nude women, stupid dialogue, and some prime bad performances. Wait for video, and SPECIES II could possibly be the perfect antidote to a long, ordinary day at work. (R)

*ON VIDEO

A roster of upcoming releases for the month of May with brief comments for one and all...

THE JACKAL (*1/2): Horrendous bomb, one of last year's worst movies, with Bruce Willis as the title antagonist and Richard Gere as his former IRA-member nemesis. Tedious, badly directed, with few action set pieces and an obviously reshot climax. (Now available; DVD and laserdisc both feature commentary and outtakes).

GATTACA (***1/2): In contrast, this is one of last year's most underrated films, a superb, thought-provoking sci-fi drama that got mauled at the box-office last fall (in hindsight, a name change could have done this movie some good). Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman are both excellent, though the film's widescreen cinematography may suffer on the tube. (May 5th on tape and laser; DVD release delayed with no new date announced)

TOMORROW NEVER DIES (**1/2): Pierce Brosnan is more relaxed as 007 in his second go-around, and the movie is a step up from GOLDENEYE as well. Jonathan Pryce's villain serves up a handful of memorable lines, and while director Roger Spottiswoode's action sequences lack style and spark, and Michelle Yeoh's female kung-fu kicking sidekick serves little dramatic purpose (other than to kiss our hero at the end), the movie should fare well on video. Not vintage, but passable Bond. (May 12th on tape; May 19th on DVD and laser)

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND-THE COLLECTOR'S EDITION (****): Yet another re-edit of Steven Spielberg's 1977 classic, this time restoring two sequences from the original theatrical version and eliminating the unnecessary "mothership interior" scene added for the 1980 "Special Edition." The laserdisc features what will surely be a tremendous 140-minute documentary, plus a THX/Dolby Digital remastering of the film, while the tape contains only a condensed 15-minute featurette and pan-and-scan formatting of the movie itself. (May 12th on tape and laser; no DVD release scheduled)

STARSHIP TROOPERS (****): Outrageously entertaining sci-fi spectacle didn't make any noise in theaters (an R rating didn't help) but has already attracted a sizable cult following, and it hasn't even hit video stores yet! Plenty of self-satire and great special effects make this one of Paul Verhoeven's best films, with Dina Meyer and Denise Richards some of the prettiest space cuties you'll ever see. Several additional scenes and other assorted goodies will be present on the DVD release, a few of which could carry over to the higher-priced laserdisc as well (including Verhoeven's commentary). (May 19th on tape, laser and DVD)

OTHER VIDEO DATES TO REMEMBER IN MAY...

May 5th: MOUSEHUNT, FOR RICHER OR POORER.

May 12th: WASHINGTON SQUARE, PLAYING GOD.

May 19th: AS GOOD AS IT GETS, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, ENTER THE DRAGON (Collector's Edition), LIFEFORCE (DVD).

May 26TH: THE SWEET HEREAFTER, DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, THE RAINMAKER, THE NIGHT FLIER (made-for-cable Stephen King short story adaptation), DESPERATE MEASURES.

Email here for reaction, comments, & other assorted reasons: dursina@worldnet.att.net

PS I lost everyone's emails who wrote me after the last "Aisle Seat," so please accept my apologies for not getting back to you, and do write again! (That means you, Kirk Henderson). Thanks!


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