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Aisle Seat Groundhog Day Edition

by Andy Dursin

After a pleasant January hiatus, we're back just in time for the month of February. Not that there is going to be much in the way of cinematic excitement this month, but at least what is generally regarded as the weakest time of the movie-going year has passed.

This week, for instance, come a pair of star-driven films; the Bill Murray black comedy RUSHMORE, which has been garnering excellent reviews and word of mouth ever since festival screenings in '98, and the somewhat troubled Mel Gibson crime drama PAYBACK, which has been languishing on the shelf for the better part of the last year. Thankfully, at least its release will mean that we won't have to sit through those damn trailers anymore--I think I have seen the PAYBACK ad more than any other movie trailer in the last few years (with that voice-over that gleefully boasts, "Get ready to root for the bad guy!" It also should say, "we've had problems figuring out what this movie is about and that's why it didn't come out six months ago!").

Let's get '99 in full swing with some brief reviews and comments on the last few weeks in theaters and the soundtrack aisle...

In Theaters

THE THIN RED LINE (***): Like a lot of viewers, I wasn't quite sure what to make of this beautifully filmed but eclectic WWII Guadacanal recounting by filmmaker Terrence Malick, his first movie since DAYS OF HEAVEN over twenty years ago.

There's a semblance of a plot, but it isn't fleshed out. There are characters who come and go, and disappear into the twilight, after making a brief but memorable impression. There is also magnificent cinematography from BRAVEHEART's John Toll, and a fine score by Hans Zimmer that's fortunately as relatively subdued (especially by Media Ventures standards) and dramatically effective as you would hope it would be. And there's also the ultimate feeling that what you are watching is a film that is trying to convey something far more than a linear, cohesive storyline--something about the nature of warfare and how our emotions are suppressed and/or heightened by the inevitability of death. Or something like that.

THE THIN RED LINE is not a great film, but at least its ambitions are higher than most. Even if you find its poetry to be more aggravating than insightful, and the cameo bit parts by various stars distracting (though Sean Penn turns in an excellent performance), the visuals are spellbinding and spectacular, and enough to recommend a viewing by themselves. (R, *** score by Hans Zimmer on RCA; see Soundtrack Corner below)

A SIMPLE PLAN (***): An adaptation of Scott B.Smith's book that is distinguished by sheer, straightforward storytelling.

Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are excellent as a pair of small-town Minnesotan brothers who stumble upon a crashed airplane with some $4.4 million in a bag in the backseat. What happens thereafter, as the brothers struggle with keeping the money and trying to do the right thing, is a rich character study about not judging individuals from their initial appearances -- a point hammered home eloquently in this haunting thriller, superbly directed by none other than THE EVIL DEAD's Sam Raimi himself.

The actors are uniformly good and the evocative cinematography captures the essence of snow-covered Midwestern landscapes just as well as FARGO did. Danny Elfman's score adds immeasurably to the drama, and while the final act comes off as a bit contrived (it's like watching FARGO without the quirky humor), A SIMPLE PLAN is still potent filmmaking with some of the past year's best performances.. (R, 115 mins, ***1/2 score by Elfman)

VARSITY BLUES (**1/2): The current box-office champ in North America for over two weeks running, this addle-brained MTV Films production is one of those movies aimed strictly at girls infatuated with DAWSON'S CREEK and 16 year old guys--though anyone who wants to see this film after watching the trailers will probably not be disappointed with the final product.

DAWSON'S CREEK star James Van Der Beek is surprisingly good as the back-up quarterback on a Texas high school team whose coach (Jon Voight) is a stubborn S.O.B. who routinely embarrasses his players and drives them over the brink with his desire to win. As if the player-coach adversarial relationship--and the usual underdog sports movie formula--wasn't enough, VARSITY BLUES also throws in Van Der Beek's relationship with the injured starting QB's sister, his passion for the fine arts (and desire to go to Brown University!), the black running back's claim of Voight being a racist, the fat kid's obsession with not being good enough, a small-town girl needing to be a sex kitten for the star quarterback (or else she won't leave the damned town), and last but not least, the Sex Ed. teacher who moonlights as a stripper at a local hotspot!

This latter element shows what audience VARSITY BLUES is aiming for, since a good film could have been made from just one or two of those subplots--especially the Voight character. Of course, that isn't what this movie has on its mind; the topless strippers seem to be going right for the teenage male market, even though that entire sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the movie! (Except provide gratuitous T&A, of course).

On the other hand, at least VARSITY BLUES has solid football sequences and a competent soundtrack, featuring a nice score from Mark Isham. Its desire to be a stupid kids' film prevents it from being a good picture, but as brainless teen movies go, at least it's an entertaining one. (R)

Soundtrack Corner

A couple of new releases to spotlight this week, the principal highlight being the Columbia/Legacy expanded edition of Jerry Goldsmith's classic STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (C2K66134), which has been one of the most awaited restored soundtracks in recent memory (and had been a promised release almost as long as the duration of this decade alone!).

The quality of the music aside, I must say that I found this release--after all the anticipation--to be something of a disappointment. I write this coming from the perspective of a consumer who has to go out and plunk down $24 on this package, and determine if it's worth upgrading for 22 minutes of extra music. From that perspective, I don't think this 2-CD set quite delivers what it could have.

First of all, there are some problems with the additional music and sound mastering. There is a tendency for people to pick up any restored, remastered soundtrack and say, "well, it's newly remastered, so it has to be perfect!" when in fact sometimes there are flaws that listeners tend to overlook. For one example, the version of "The Force Field" used here is different from the one in the movie (listen to the beginning); for another, there's noticeable tape hiss on "A Good Start."

It's also distressing that while the additional 22 minutes or so contained are terrific, there exists additional music (alternate cues, etc.) that could have further lengthened the 2-CD set into a genuine 2-album soundtrack. Instead, a 1976 LP called "INSIDE STAR TREK with GENE RODDENBERRY" has been reissued, and while die-hard Trekkies will find it of trivial interest, it does not in any way compensate for what could have been an entire additional CD of soundtrack music.

So, despite the improved packaging and liner notes, I expected more from this release. ST-TMP is a masterpiece of a score, one of Goldsmith's very best, but the presentation here leaves a bit to be desired.

Also newly released is Hans Zimmer's score from THE THIN RED LINE, which RCA has issued as a 58 minute soundtrack album (63382-2). This work is easily one of Zimmer's most effective film scores, with its ethereal soundscape and hesitant lyricism, often interspersed with evocative cues containing dissonant textures. There are no specific themes as such to be found in the score, just a kind of musical backing that the often meandering nature of Malick's film needs as a cohesive glue between the various characters and conflicts in the film.

Curiously, Lukas reviewed this CD earlier and noted that the song performed by the native tribe in the picture wasn't contained on the album--but it is, indeed, found on the final release CD as track 10, "God Yu Teken Laef Nlong Mi." Francesco Lupica and John Powell also contributed a pair of original compositions for Zimmer's score, which is best appreciated having taken in a viewing of Terrence Malick's film.

Aisle Seat Reader Bag

DAWSON'S CREEK and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER continue to be a hot topic of discussion around here. Often used as punching bags by viewers who haven't seen them, both of these WB network programs boast intelligent dialogue and a savvy self-awareness that places them well ahead of their similarly themed juvenile brethren (either on the tube or the big screen). Here are some more thoughts from one of our readers...

From Andrew Doughty (

    I just wanted to echo a few of the things you said about Buffy and Dawson's Creek in your last article. I can't understand what's fueling the movement of prejudgment which seems to be dogging those shows lately, despite their cult followings. Something about the way they're pitched, maybe, sounds a warning bell for the image conscious, making these series seem tragically unhip for anyone outside the target demographic. But just what the hell is the "target demographic" for a show like Buffy, which has the power to make old ladies titter, grown men hoot--for Sarah Michelle Gellar's tank tops--and teenaged girls giggle with delight? Not to mention, of course, the show's wit and fine, darkly dramatic sensibility, which has as strong an impact as the best of what's been on television lately. For the record, Entertainment Weekly just christened it show of the year; their "second opinion critic" placed it in the 3rd best slot, with Dawson's Creek coming in 10th. [And, while I'm at it, they continued their hep, on the money selections by placing 'Starship Troopers' in their 2nd best video position, dubbing it "...the Hollywood art film of the year". Right on, brother...] While I don't think Buffy's flawless--sometimes Joss Whedon's own writing and directing borders on maudlin for my tastes--it's almost always excellent. Really, though, of all the shows the guy who wrote in could have written off as teen fodder, Buffy is least deserving of that title; it has a knack for "age gap erasure," featuring characters of wildly divergent ages still finding a common ground to meet on. And the writing itself, as you mentioned, is sharp enough to go over the heads of most of the "kids" in Buffy's core audience...which brings us to Dawson's Creek, the current whipping boy of the literal minded.

    Have we really gotten to the point where audiences can't appreciate the rationale of sometimes pushing art--yeah, I said art--toward fantasy and surrealism? Do they always want their stories served up staid, dry, and in a pedestrian fashion? What the hell is this prevailing nutball sensibility--even among some critics--which endeavors to lash writers' and directors' arms to their sides, robbing them of some of the most powerful tools of heightening drama? Because newness and novelty--especially of the sexed-up Creek variety--is sometimes a nettlesome thing to audiences, many of the complaints leveled at Dawson's seem to be about making it just like everything else. But Kevin Williamson, bless 'im, is resisting the push valiantly. Perhaps building on the adage that youth is wasted on the young, he's equipped his teens with a supercharged intellectual apparatus and self-awareness, endowed them with Hollywood good looks and released them into his sentimentalized arena of raging, powerhouse hormones and adversity to see what happens. It's a hell of an interesting experiment, and a lot more fun than watching a rat navigate a maze; which is to say livelier, at any rate, than Beverly Hills 90210. In terms of the conventional elements in Creek--as with the shameless, soap- styled storylines you mentioned--it's probably wise the series embraces them to some extent; to be "too inventive"--as was the case with David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks,' probably the most innovative thing I've ever seen on network television--is to actively court audience alienation and cancellation. Unfortunately, artistry aside, it's not "good business" to be too smart these days. At any rate, with all that said, I guess I'm still a little surprised at what recent acclaim has surfaced for the likes of Buffy, which is--for some reason--far ahead of Creek on the praise train; these are some pretty unconventional choices for the critical establishment. Hopefully, these good notices will help to chip away at bogus, hipster obstinacy and earn these series more viewers.

Amen, Andrew! We'll be back next time with more reviews, and remember to send all comments off to me at Until next time, 'Nuff Said!

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