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The Aisle Seat April Assault:

Williams "Star Wars" News & The Usual Reviews

By Andy Dursin

The arrival of yet another fantasy that questions reality (in lieu of DARK CITY and THE TRUMAN SHOW) spelled solid box-office for the Keanu Reeves sci-fier THE MATRIX, which debuted over the weekend to boffo results. If you enjoyed the movie but felt that the whole faux-reality scenario is getting a bit tired, be sure to miss the "Roland Emmerich presentation" THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, whose trailer has been shown all year and finally opens the week after THE PHANTOM MENACE. Looking like DARK CITY crossed with elements of Ralph Bakshi's hideous COOL WORLD, I'm getting a bad buzz from the rushes for this cyberthriller, but then again, it couldn't possibly be as inept as JOHNNY MNEMONIC, could it?

Speaking of STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, I'm sure many of you caught that excellent piece on "60 Minutes" last weekend. Boston's CBS affiliate, WBZ TV-4, also had a good, four-minute segment on their 11 o'clock news that same night spotlighting the recording sessions and an interview with John Williams himself. If you read the Boston Globe article on the music also from last week, don't worry, you didn't miss much, though it is readily apparent from the WBZ piece that the London Voices choir and that propulsive, thunderous cue seen in the "60 Minutes" segment are written for what appears to be the film's concluding lightsaber duel between Liam Neeson and Darth Maul. (I'm looking forward to hearing the soundtrack, due May 4th, as much as I am seeing the film!)

Also, I remember reading a while back that Williams would be performing his new STAR WARS music in some kind of concert setting with the Boston Symphony in April. Taking a look at the BSO's schedule for the month, there is indeed an unspecified "New Work" by Williams that appears on the BSO slate beginning in mid April -- however, that is reportedly a new concert work by the maestro. For those who live in the New England area, Boston's WCVB TV-5 will be showing their annual SALUTE TO SYMPHONY telecast on Friday, April 23rd at 7:30pm, and I'm sure that this Williams work -- whatever it is -- will be a part of that broadcast. (For more information, head on over to www.bostonsymphony.org, since there are a few tickets remaining for some of the April concerts.)

In Theaters

THE MATRIX (***): A dizzying array of special effects complement a better-than-average script in this solid cyber-sci-fi/futuristic actioner, written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers (they of the overrated lesbian thriller BOUND).

Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker who--for reasons that may have been left on the cutting room floor--seeks out a mysterious man called Morpheus (Laurence "The Fish" Fishburne) in a world that appears normal on the surface, except for the amazing gymnastics pulled off by Morpheus' female pal Carrie-Ann Moss and a group of special agents who talk like Australians trying to sound like Americans (the movie was shot Down Under), who tangle in the film's opening set piece.

In a movie of many surprises, it turns out that the "real world" in front of Reeves is a sham put on by a race of machines in a future where humans are used as energy for the mechanical beasts that have--by the mid point of the 22nd century--taken over the world. Kept in life-sustaining pods where their minds are jacked into a faux reality dubbed "The Matrix," Fish tells Keanu that the enslaved humans can be liberated if it turns out that Keanu really is "The One"--the savior prophesized to save mankind from the machines who dominate it. After learning kung fu, jiu jitsu, and every other form of martial arts (and special effects trickery) known to man, Keanu re-enters The Matrix in an attempt to beat the system with an arsenal of cool moves and weapons.

At 135 minutes, viewers who are turned off by elaborate effects and a complicated (though mostly intelligible) plot will get more than their fill of THE MATRIX, but for sci-fi fans this is a pleasing, entertaining trip into yet another dreary, post apocalyptic future. Reeves doesn't get to stretch his acting muscles a whole lot (for some folks, that will be a good thing), while Fishburne is excellent as Morpheus and Moss's tough-girl hacker is also well rendered, even if the love story between her and Reeves turns out to be half-baked.

Then again, that may have been a result of some cutting, since even at its current length THE MATRIX is chock full of plot twists and turns, not to mention plenty of effects, action sequences, and elaborately staged fights. The Wachowski Brothers pace the film extremely well and while certain "rules" about the Matrix aren't spelled out quite as clearly as they could have been (you keep thinking for a while, why can't they just "beam back" like a transporter on the Enterprise?), THE MATRIX offers some food for thought along with its techno-future babble, and all of it is deftly packaged in a product that ought to satisfy sci-fi fans of all persuasions. (R, 135 mins, rather ordinary ** score by Don Davis along with the requisite rock tracks by the likes of Rage Against the Machine and--my favorite, of course--Marilyn Manson)

10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (***): Pretty much as energetic and entertaining as any teen movie released in the wake of CLUELESS, this sometimes raunchy comedy presents a good-natured and often very funny variation on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew."

Set in Padua High, 10 THINGS finds the lovely though obnoxious Julia Stiles being courted by young Aussie lead Heath Ledger--he being a social outcast better known for his braun, not his brains. The catch is that Ledger is being paid to date Stiles by frustrated Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who wants to date Stiles's trendier younger sister (who can't date unless Stiles does), and obnoxious teen model Andrew Keegan, who wants to do the same. Naturally, shenanigans ensue once Ledger finds out that he really likes Stiles, while her sister (Larisa Oleynik) has to choose between the good hearted Gordon-Levitt and the shallow though more popular Keegan.

With a smart script by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, 10 THINGS is often hilarious and sports charming performances by its young ensemble cast. I liked the relationship between the two sisters and particularly enjoyed Larry Miller's performance as the girls' single father, while David Crumholtz deserves special mention for his comic support as Gordon-Levitt's pal. Ledger and Stiles are both good, generating solid chemistry, while Oleynik's performance as a more amiable Bianca is also cute and appealing. Credit veteran TV director Gil Junger for infusing in his film a real energy and sense of comic timing that was completely absent from the recent, vacuous teen hit SHE'S ALL THAT.

It is somewhat disappointing, however, that some of the jokes in 10 THINGS veer into the tasteless category, spoiling what ought to be an ideal film for kids. Even more irresponsibly, Stiles' revelation that she had intercourse in 9th grade is also thrown in without any kind of moral ramification or discussion--granted that values aren't seemingly "in" these days, but even that would have been greeted with shock on an episode of DAWSON'S CREEK. Not veering into the sort of icky preachiness usually found in most teen pictures is one thing, but entirely dismissing underage sex, drinking and partying is something else altogether. Call it the one thing I really didn't like about 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. (90 mins, PG-13, *1/2 score features too many loud rock tracks for people over the age of 16)

Soundtrack Corner

Marketed by Universal as the season's sleeper hit, Joe Johnston's OCTOBER SKY didn't make much noise in theaters but still stands as one of the more appealing family pictures in recent memory. One of the film's brightest attributes is Mark Isham's lovely score, which Sony Classical has released as a soundtrack containing just over 30 minutes of original music (SK 61696). Isham's music, conducted by associate Ken Kugler, uses a solo violin passage to establish its main melody--if you've heard Isham's score from the little-seen THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE, you'll have a firm grasp on how the composer's music sounds and functions in OCTOBER SKY. Director Johnston worked with James Horner on many consecutive pictures before turning to Isham here (which could have been the result of a scheduling conflict), but the switch doesn't make much of an impact on the film, since Isham's music is uplifting and atmospheric, albeit in more of a low-key vein than the sort of score Horner would have likely provided for the picture. The predictable '50s pop tracks appear in the form of standards by Fats Domino, The Platters, Buddy Holly, Tommy Edwards, The Cadillacs, and The Coasters.

One of the year's--if not the decade's--strangest releases from a major studio, RAVENOUS opened and closed from theaters in the better part of a week. Part cannibal comedy, part vampire-style horror film, part social commentary on Manifest Destiny, nobody went to see this movie (wonder why?), which does boast an eclectic and interesting score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (Virgin 47126). Released by Virgin as a 70-plus minute soundtrack, Nyman and Albarn's music encompasses a range of styles-from traditional Stephen Foster tunes to synths, percussion, and orchestral interludes-and does it in a stylish manner which may nevertheless turn off some listeners (particularly those seeking thematic unity and "accessible" motifs). Not surprisingly, I would expect that a viewing of the film would make one appreciate Nyman and Albarn's efforts more than listening to the album alone-something that may happen fairly soon given the movie's non-existent box-office returns.

Also out from Virgin is a song album from the recent hit CRUEL INTENTIONS (47174), sporting remix tracks from Placebo and Fatboy Slim, and a handful of new tracks by the likes of Blur, Day One, Counting Crows, Kristen Barry, Marcy Playground, and Skunk Anansie. None of Edward Shearmur's blah wallpaper underscore makes it to the soundtrack but for those who are so inclined, The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (which seems to be everywhere these days) rounds out a fairly good compilation all told.

DVD Corner

Quick news: James Horner's score from HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP will be isolated in Image's forthcoming DVD release ($24.95). John Williams's score from 1941 is indeed isolated in stereo with no effects in Universal's recently reissued DVD ($34.95) or the far more expensive Signature Collection laserdisc release.

Meanwhile, Dario Argento fans have been rejoicing with the release of several of the Italian auteur's works on DVD through Anchor Bay.

TENEBRAE (aka UNSANE) is generally regarded as one of Argento's best films--a mystery thriller with Anthony Francoisa as a horror writer stalked by a killer who seems to be a fan of his work. DEMONS and DEMONS 2, meanwhile, are a pair of pictures Argento produced for director Lamberto Bava (Mario's son), both of which are the kind of gory horror fare that you either have a fondness for or despise.

The best of the four titles, however, is easily Argento's dreamy PHENOMENA (***), which was released in the mid '80s by New Line in abbreviated form as "Creepers." Then 13-year old Jennifer Connelly plays a boarding school student with a special connection with insects, which serves her well as Doc Donald Pleasence sends Jen out to stop a killer murdering poor innocent girls in the nearby countryside. With solid cinematography and a plethora of memorable set-pieces, PHENOMENA makes for good fun and a fine introduction to Argento's work.

All four of the Anchor Bay DVDs retail for $24.95 and include a handful of supplements on each. PHENOMENA includes a pair of music videos, an interview with Argento on the "Joe Franklin Show" (courtesy of Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas), a behind-the-scenes featurette, plus commentary recorded in Italy with many of the principal filmmakers (TENEBRAE also includes a commentary track). For Italian horror fans, these obviously are must-haves.

BACK NEXT TIME... With more reviews and a look at the recent DVD release of THE BLACK HOLE! Until then, address all comments to dursina@att.net and Excelsior!


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