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An Aisle Seat September Potpourri

by Andy Dursin

A lot of business to take care of this week, with a handful of long-promised DVD reviews and soundtrack capsules following a look at RONIN, the John Frankenheimer thriller with Robert DeNiro that opened this past Friday. This week comes the Robin Williams fantasy WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, which certainly will attract viewers seeking gorgeous artistic design and visual effects, but also may be too "far out" and melancholy for most mainstream viewer tastes. Tinkering with the music and various editing choices have been made, and we'll dive into the specific changes next time.

In Theaters

RONIN (***1/2): On the one hand, filmmaker John Frankenheimer hasn't turned out a fully satisfying film in some twenty years. On the other, at least his career does include such achievements as "Seven Days in May" and "The Manchurian Candidate," so the fact that United Artists allowed him--and not some flash-in-the-pan director of "Mortal Kombat"--to direct this smart and stylish action-thriller isn't difficult to understand after all. May more veteran directors get the opportunity to relive past glories the way Frankenheimer has with this picture.

Frankenheimer's realistically filmed and impressively staged action sequences, which marked his best films over the years, are brought into the '90s with RONIN, a low-key, taut, and decidedly old-fashioned thriller that enables the director to concentrate on what he does best--provide excitement without padded exposition or a reliance on trickery or visual effects. You can't quite call Frankenheimer's style documentary in approach, but as much as Steven Spielberg's grittier films immerse the viewer in the middle of the action (as in the battle sequences of "Saving Private Ryan"), Frankenheimer gives the viewer "just the facts," but does so in such a way that his no-nonsense approach is often spellbinding in its effectiveness. These days, it's almost refreshing to see a film that is fully satisfied to create an "old school" thriller that wouldn't have been made any different twenty years ago than it was here.

Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno are the principal leads in the simple, straightforward and uncluttered plot, co-written by David Mamet under a pseudonym, which could be best described as a more realistic rendition of the James Bond movies some years after the fact, in that the characters are perhaps former mercenaries and government employees, but seeking work in a world where the employers and secret package contents are more suspect and deadlier than ever. In the post-cold war world of RONIN, trust and loyalty are further apart than ever before, yet the stakes are just as high as they were long ago, back when the bad guys were easier to spot and individual reliance wasn't quite as necessary as it is now.

The performances of DeNiro, Reno, Natascha McElhone ("The Truman Show"), and Jonathan Pryce give the material the required nuance, double-crossing and deceit that it needs, but it's really Frankenheimer's show all the way. Elia Cmiral's music is a more coherent, pensive sort of modern electronic score than what Eric Serra has provided of late, and its use is limited but effective. The French locales add immeasurably to the atmosphere and mood of the picture, while the car chase sequences, much discussed and lauded by critics, deliver the goods in such a manner that you wonder why many prerequisite auto pursuits are so bland in today's films; with crisp editing and a pounding pace, Frankenheimer illustrates that pure filmmaking beats CGI, blue-screen, and other modern forms of filmmaking trickery any day of the week. From Nice to the tunnels of Paris, Frankenheimer evokes favorable comparisons to the equally dizzying set-pieces of his more memorable films ("French Connection II," "Black Sunday") with RONIN's two extended, masterfully executed car chases, which certainly rank as some of the finest action filmmaking of the '90s.

So, too, does RONIN in the end. Although the character development could have been further explored and the interplay between the various people who comprise the band of mercenaries also elaborated upon, RONIN's uncompromised filmmaking delivers throughout, showing that for every young auteur who turns out one script or makes one film and is instantly entitled to direct a $70 million spectacle, there's still more than enough room for a director who has been there before years ago to return to his roots. Hopefully John Frankenheimer won't be the last to successfully add to his long list of credits, even in today's turbulent movie climate. (R, 121 mins., *** score by Cmiral on Varese)

DVD Reviews

THE MESSAGE [aka MOHAMMED, MESSENGER OF GOD] (Anchor Bay, $29.95, ** for content, ***1/2 presentation): Most viewers are familiar with Moustapha Akkad's name through his association with the original "Halloween" and its later sequels, yet Akkad was not only the producer but also the director of THE MESSAGE, the 1978 biblical epic about Mohammed and the origins of the Moslem religion starring Anthony Quinn. The movie, said to have been in production for six years, promised to be reverential and indeed, reverential it is--right down to never showing Mohammed due to the guidelines of the religion itself. Unfortunately, this also poses a major dramatic problem, as the movie instead focuses on Anthony Quinn spreading the message, with many extras milling about in what looks like a lesser-grade Cecil B.DeMille effort. While Akkad's movie is certainly competent, it drags on forever--180 minutes, in fact--and often feels like the kind of bloated educational film your social studies teachers would force you to sit through in History class.

Anchor Bay's transfer of the film is easily their best looking DVD yet, framing the widescreen movie at a sumptuous 2.2:1 aspect ratio and including a lush, stereophonic, and Oscar-nominated Maurice Jarre score that sounds, at times, like "Lawrence of Islam." The movie's look is certainly its biggest selling point, and a 50-minute promotional documentary is included on the DVD's second side. In all, this DVD is a solid package that will be best appreciated by those interested in the subject matter.

RAW DEAL (Anchor Bay, $24.95, **1/2 for movie, ** presentation): One of Arnold's lesser-known vehicles, this 1986 Schwarzenegger actionfest was one of the few movies released by Dino DeLaurentiis's late DEG Studio--which accounts in part for the film's relative obscurity. Produced after "Commando" but prior to his success on "Predator," RAW DEAL casts Arnold in the unlikely role of a former FBI man now a small-time local sheriff who gets recruited by his former boss to take out a major crime ring responsible for the deaths of several bureau agents.

Directed by John Irvin (Ghost Story, Dogs of War) and photographed by Alex Thomson (Excalibur, Cliffhanger), RAW DEAL is an unremarkable but surprisingly entertaining B-movie thriller, made palatable by a crisp pace and a strong supporting cast, including Darren McGavin, Kathryn Harrold, and a host of character actors--Robert Davi, Sam Wanamaker, Joe Regalbuto, Ed Lauter, and Steven Hill among them. The movie purports to have a tightly constructed plot, though it has just as many ridiculous genre touches as Schwarzenegger's last guilty pleasure, ERASER, including Arnold ramming a fire truck into a small-town gambling establishment! Still, for a film that a lot of viewers aren't familiar with, RAW DEAL is more than adequate entertainment if you're in the mood for mindless action.

Anchor Bay's DVD was mastered from the same elements used for Lumivision's laserdisc release, which marked the first available domestic widescreen release of the film (an earlier Japanese import was partially letterboxed but retitled the movie GORILLA!). The framing is properly conveyed at 2.35:1 and the colors look strong, but the problem is that the flaws inherent on the laserdisc release--including a rather "soft," grainy transfer--become magnified when viewed on the higher resolution of the DVD. The image appears unstable and some background pixiliation is apparent, which does balance off with the bolder colors that the DVD offers. In short, don't throw away your laserdisc for this DVD, though if you're an Arnold die-hard and haven't seen RAW DEAL before, it's still the best way to see the picture on video.

PRIME SUSPECT and PRIME SUSPECT 2 (Anchor Bay, $29.95 each, ***1/2 for content, **1/2 presentation): Helen Mirren's performance as inspector Jane Tennison brought her critical acclaim from both sides of the Atlantic for the BBC mini-series "Prime Suspect," which debuted here on PBS's "Mystery!" series, and is contained in its original, 200-minute form on Anchor Bay's new DVD release.

A well-written and compulsively watchable production from beginning to end (though best viewed in several installments, as the show was televised), "Prime Suspect" was the English answer to the "serial killer" thrillers of the early '90s, and it's no surprise that the dialogue and character relationships are certainly superior to anything we've seen in its American cinema counterparts of late. The story unfolds at a deliberate yet thoroughly involving pace, layering the various elements of the drama--from the murder itself to Mirren's dogged determination to head the investigation in a male-dominated police hierarchy--ontop of each other splendidly. A follow-up effort, "Prime Suspect 2," immediately followed, as have a number of additional limited series thereafter. The sequel is just as entertaining and well-written as its predecessor, and is also contained on a two-sided, single DVD with over 200 minutes of riveting drama.

Anchor Bay's DVDs look adequate given that the transfers look equivalent to how the programs aired on television. The cinematography is rather murky and doesn't appear as if it was shot on a high quality film stock, so it has that grainy, low-light sort of look that many BBC programs do when aired on American television. Still, the DVD doesn't pixilate or look as grainy as the RAW DEAL transfer, so both discs come recommended for anyone who didn't catch the original programs, and can now enjoy the series at their leisure on DVD.

Soundtrack Corner

A few titles to run through this week, starting off with a lovely score by Mike Batt for a film most audiences aren't even aware of. An adaptation of George Orwell's novel "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," A MERRY WAR stars Richard E.Grant and Helena Bonham Carter and played the festival circuit last year to good notices from critics. I'm not sure if this is available yet on video, but Angel has just released Batt's original score as a generous 68-minute album that never overstays its welcome. Batt's music is a soothing, calm, poignant work that functions splendidly as an album, even for viewers who haven't had the benefit of seeing the film. Tailored around a central love theme with a catchy motif, Batt has included both his film score and the "Aspidistra Suite," a three-movement concert work composed specifically for the album, utilizing many of his themes in a more cohesive, developed concert setting. The score's tone ranges from classical and baroque in style to a modern arrangement of the love motif (namely, a vocal performance by Colin Blunstone), but all of it goes down smoothly and is backed by a solid performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. For listeners looking for a low-key, character-driven work with a moving love theme, A MERRY WAR is one of the year's more refreshing surprises.

Angel has also released Richard Robbins's score for the new Merchant-Ivory film A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES. As this is set in the '60s and isn't one of the filmmaking tandem's usual "period" pieces, the soundtrack also incorporates a handful of pop tracks from the likes of David Bowie, Tito Puente, and Deep Purple. To be blunt, I've never really cared for Robbins's music in most Merchant-Ivory films, finding it too redundant and modernistic for the settings of most of M-I's pictures; I recall calling Robbins's music to be the weakest element of "The Remains of the Day" in particular, and wanting to throw something at the screen when the end credits rolled. His score for this new movie is very much of that caliber, with a recurring motif trying valiantly to set the tone for a sensitive score that--like a lot of Robbins's work--comes off as emotionally detached and not very appealing to the ears. Obviously, if you're a fan of the composer's work, I'm sure that you'll appreciate it far more than I did.

Meanwhile, MCA has been busy re-releasing several older scores on CD, improving the sound quality while not incorporating any additional music.

XANADU was the 1981 Olivia Newton-John musical turkey, a movie that was arguably even more inept than her subsequent teaming with John Travolta, 1983's deadly "Two of a Kind" (which, perhaps not coincidentally, MCA also re-issued several months ago). Fortunately, XANADU boasts a good collection of original songs, many of which became Top 10 hits and still pop up on Lite FM stations to this day. Newton-John's "Magic" and her duet with Cliff Richard, "Suddenly," are two of these tracks, both listenable and predictably mellow, and thankfully not all that dated in terms of their early '80s production. The film's big band numbers, however, come off as contrived and easily forgettable, while a handful of Electric Light Orchestra efforts sound very much of the period, in contrast with the five tracks by Newton-John that open the album, and are--for the sort of fluffy pop music genre they originate from--pretty decent. Again, if you're into the revival in '80s pop music currently on-going, by all means give this a shot. (My favorite all-rock '80s soundtrack, however, remains FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH...67 minutes of classic '80s pop, and a bargain for $10 on CD as well).

Also reissued by MCA--sans extra tracks--are a handful of older releases, remastered digitally and repackaged. These include THE STING, featuring Marvin Hamlisch's acclaimed adaptation of Scott Joplin ragtime; NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, with its brief Elmer Bernstein cues and various rock tracks; and AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which has been stripped down to a single remastered disc (the original, though pricier, 2-LP version is still available on a double CD set). The latter two titles were most likely reissued to coincide with Universal's "Collector's Edition" video releases, with ANIMAL HOUSE containing supplemental CD-ROM clips from the documentary produced especially for the video.

NEXT WEEK... URBAN LEGEND and others. Until then, all regrets can be sent to 'Nuff said!

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