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.
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)
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.