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Raunchy Summer Comedies Besiege

The Aisle Seat

By Andy Dursin

A pair of "controversial" summer comedies have made their mark on the summer box-office while Adam Sandler's BIG DADDY (which I have yet to see) continues to rake in the cash and THE WILD WILD WEST begins its financial nosedive into major studio disappointment status. This comes as a respite before we're besieged by creature features like LAKE PLACID (Friday), THE HAUNTING (July 23rd; check Turner Classic Movies for a letterboxed showing of Robert Wise's original this Tuesday night at 10:30pm EST), and DEEP BLUE SEA (July 30th), with Stanley Kubrick's awaited EYES WIDE SHUT (Friday) sprinkled into the mix.

In the meantime, there's plenty of activity on the DVD front and some tasty new videos out there to tide you over if the summer movies aren't living up to your expectations--we have a bit of DVD news (with one very notable isolated score announcement) and reviews to share following a pair of new release critiques.

As always, feel free to send in your comments to me at are you satisfied with the summer to date, or disappointed? And what of this summer's soundtracks--after a great start with STAR WARS and THE MUMMY, have you bothered to pick up any of the newer CD releases? Here's your chance to vent!

In Theaters

AMERICAN PIE (**1/2): The joys and horror of teenage sexuality are nicely exploited in this alternately crude and charming comedy that actually ends up being a bit tamer than its reputation would have you believe. (Is it me or is that every "envelope pushing" film we see these days ends up being nowhere near as controversial as the early of word of mouth claims it is?)

A group of four Michigan high schoolers make a pact to lose their virginity by the end of the senior year, sending each of the boys down separate, though (in cinematic terms) well-traveled paths: the well-meaning jock who tries to expand his horizons by becoming more sensitive; the quiet intellectual who tries to buy his way into popularity; the guy whose girlfriend wants more of a commitment than simply having sex; and the frustrated, well-intentioned hero who embarrassingly blows his chance with the girl of his dreams.

Adam Herz's script has its tasteless moments, as you would expect (along the lines of harmless gross-out gags made famous by the Farrelly Brothers), but a lot of AMERICAN PIE is, surprise surprise, comprised of warmed-over teen movie cliches: every twist and turn can be seen coming from quite a distance, as can most of the punchlines. Alyson Hannigan's goofy airhead, for example, is fun for a while until you realize the filmmakers are going to find a resolution with her character that's so obvious you almost forgot the cliche existed.

Still, the movie is entertaining and the performances amiable, with some of the best work coming from supporting turns by Natasha Lyonne (SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS) and Chris Owen (OCTOBER SKY), both of whom deserved more screen time. Lyonne in particular seems especially ill-utilized, as if some of her scenes were relegated to the cutting room floor. SCTV alum Eugene Levy, though, is quite amusing as a confused father, while ELECTION's Chris Klein acquits himself nicely as yet another earnest athlete with a sweet side.

AMERICAN PIE has been compared to some of the great '80s teen comedies, like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and SIXTEEN CANDLES, but the movie doesn't have any kind of real perspective or subtext beneath the humor to rank with those genre favorites. (It's like a more comedic version of THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN without the gut-wrenching downer of an ending.) What it is, for the most part, is a diverting youth comedy with a few genuinely funny scenes and an appealing cast, enough so that it's worth taking a piece out of this PIE if you happen to be so inclined. (R)

SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (***): Not being the biggest fan of the TV series, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this insanely over-the-top theatrical feature based on Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Comedy Central series. Subtle it's not, but who would have thought that this bombastic comedy would turn out to be nothing less than a full-fledged musical, complete with no fewer than 14 songs?

All of the staple characters from the program are here (Cartman, Kenny, Chef) in a touching tale of Kenny going to hell (again) and how a "little foreign film" provides the genesis for a war between the U.S. and Canada, but somehow the scope of the program and its comedic routines have been adeptly expanded by the filmmakers, mainly through the inclusion of one musical number after another. Fans of the show will find plenty of material to savor here, but even they may be surprised at the sheer amount of music in the film, which would have been more accurately titled SOUTH PARK: THE MUSICAL if it wouldn't have kept some of its core audience away.

As usual, there's plenty of grist onhand for the satirical mill, and Parker and Stone find plenty of targets to derail--not the least of which include Bill Gates and the Baldwin brothers (I enjoyed the Brian Dennehy reference even if nobody else laughed). By undercutting the MPAA, kids watching R-rated movies, censorship, Canadians, and misguided parents, Parker and Stone have certainly created a wacky, bright parody that first and foremost satirizes Disney musicals to a hysterical degree--you have full choruses and orchestra belting out tune after tune and most of them, surprisingly, are terrific. Satan's ballad, "Up There," brilliantly mimics Ariel's song from THE LITTLE MERMAID and is alone worth the price of admission (as are a couple of other tunes with familiar four-letter words). It's a rousing score, nicely arranged by Marc Shaiman (who also has an onscreen cameo playing piano for Big Gay Al), that's as good as any Disney musical output from the last few years.

The humor, of course, is low-brow--mainly consisting of kids spouting out four-letter words--and the messages (if there really are any) are jumbled, but that's not why you go to see a movie like SOUTH PARK in the first place. The film is uproariously funny in spots, fast-paced, the songs are great, and even if the show itself has already ran past its prime (as seemingly always happens with animated, fad-driven TV shows), it's a fitting final statement from a pair of filmmakers who show more promise in this movie than in any of their past work combined. (R, 90 mins)

Video: Spielberg on Laserdisc; Anchor Bay DVDs; and Isolated DARK CRYSTAL Score News

Now that all Jim Henson Productions are being distributed exclusively through Columbia, reported last week that THE DARK CRYSTAL and LABYRINTH are both scheduled for Special Edition DVD treatment in September. Both discs will include hour-long documentaries (previously released), with the DARK CRYSTAL containing the two deleted scenes from its old laserdisc release and--a first for Columbia if I'm not correct--Trevor Jones's isolated stereo score! We?ll have more updates as details develop.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (***, Image Entertainment laserdisc, $34.98): Steven Spielberg's box-office and critical success was deprived of the Best Picture Oscar last spring, but in retrospect it seems more and more as if this technically brilliant exercise in virtuoso filmmaking received the proper respect it was due: Spielberg's direction received the Oscar, but the film itself was shut out of screenplay, Picture, and acting kudos.

On second viewing, RYAN remains a film with an undernourished screenplay that essentially takes a standard hour-long episode of COMBAT! and bloats it into a three-hour essay in spellbinding editing and direction. Spielberg's action scenes plunge the viewer into the middle of warfare, and the Oscar winning sound effects provide one of the best home theater workouts your Surround system will ever receive.

Unfortunately, the film's problems become more apparent the second time around: the bookending scenes remain cornball and sentimentally at odds with the core of the film, while the lack of period atmosphere and detail is also regrettable. More over, the script simply doesn't give the audience much more than various set-pieces showing people being blown apart while the characters walk from one sequence to the next with a minimum of incisive dialogue and character development (surely one reason why the movie grossed over $200 million--with a gross like that it certainly lured in the crowd that STARSHIP TROOPERS missed). In many ways it seems as if Spielberg wanted to make a WWII movie about Omaha Beach, found Robert Rodat's script (which allegedly was once intended more as a comedy, before the filmmakers spotted a copy of Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE script and decided to "alter" the material), and then tried to shape the remaining narrative into an engrossing story. While Spielberg's skill as a filmmaker is apparent throughout (once again, he succeeds in the areas where he is most interested--not completely unlike the stunning FX and weak story of JURASSIC PARK), the script's lack of rounded characters and subtext becomes clearer and clearer as the movie goes on, with some jumbled '90s messages about the horror of war and following orders thrown into the pot, somewhat obscuring Spielberg's intention of honoring the veterans the movie intends to respect. War is hell--and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN tells you that over and over again for 180 minutes with little else to say.

Still, the opening set piece is indeed amazing from a sheer visceral standpoint, and for home theater addicts like myself, the soundtrack--layered with some of the most dazzling Surround effects I've ever heard--will alone provide enough incentive to purchase the disc. It's just too bad that the film lacks even the subtext and emotion of AMISTAD, or else SAVING PRIVATE RYAN truly would have been the masterpiece that it frustratingly promises to be.

Image's laserdisc is stunning, THX-certified, and looks and sounds every bit as smashing as you would expect it to. Janusz Kaminski's erratic cinematography is a turn-off at times (this is the second Spielberg movie he's shot in a row where blinding light coming through a window and obscures the action in an interior setting), but the disc looks great. The sound, in Dolby Digital (the standard Dolby Surround is also a powerhouse), is also fantastic, and again, it's one of the most all-encompassing soundtracks you?ll ever hear.

The two-disc set is an exclusive for Image, as there currently remains no DVD release of the film. For the time being, then, this is the definitive presentation of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN at home, and a splendid visual and aural accomplishment that preserves the movie's finest assets in the process.

LAST FLIGHT OF NOAH's ARK (**1/2), NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS (**1/2), and THE LITTLEST HORSE THEIVES [aka ESCAPE FROM THE DARK] (***; Anchor Bay DVDs, $24.98 each, Letterboxed): Anchor Bay continues to mine the Disney archives with a handful of releases culled from the studio's late '70s live-action output--generally not considered a prime time for the company, though these three productions offer solid entertainment for the smaller viewer.

LAST FLIGHT OF NOAH's ARK, a 1980 Disney effort, finds Elliott Gould and Genevieve Bujold crash-landing a WWII bomber filled with animals (plus then-juvenile stowaways Ricky Schroeder and Tammy Lauren) on a lost island in the South Pacific where a pair of Japanese soldiers still aren't aware that the war is over.

Before you can say "montage sequence," the kids and adults turn the plane into a floating Ark, Bujold and Gould tastefully fall in love, and all of it is accompanied by a lovely Maurice Jarre score, featuring an appropriately overwrought love theme sung by a large chorus of singers. It's all contrived and takes too long to get going (the opening pre-credits sequence runs nearly 20 minutes!), but once it does the movie proves to be strangely affecting; patient children, and suckers for unabashedly sentimental melodrama (not to mention Jarre aficionados), should enjoy it.

THE NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS is more of a traditional Disney comedy, but the cast is terrific--Edward Herrmann stars as a priest with a collection of crime-fighting church ladies (Barbara Harris, Karen Valentine, Susan Clark, and Cloris Leachman among them) in a New Rochelle parish. Filled with charismatic performances and a tendency to go overboard with car crashes, this is a fun film for older kids, providing inoffensive entertainment all the way.

THE LITTLEST HORSE THEIVES, a 1977 release (originally titled ESCAPE FROM THE DARK and released under that name in the UK), chronicles the tough working conditions of a turn-of-the- century English coal mine and how a pair of children attempt to save pit ponies from being slaughtered once machines begin to take their place. Sentimental but not all that sappy, this is a pleasant and well-made picture with a fine Ron Goodwin score and solid performances around the horn.

All three remastered DVDs feature both a matted widescreen presentation (at 1.85:1) and a full- frame version that typically adds information at the top and bottom of the frame without much loss to the sides. The monophonic sound is standard for the Disney recording methods of the day (meaning it's pinched and filled with looped dialogue), but this won't be much of an impact on the target audience who will be watching them.

NEXT WEEK: Kubrick, LAKE PLACID, V on laserdisc (Jane Badler strikes back!), and your comments. Until then, have a good one!

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