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 firstname.lastname@example.org:
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!
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, DVDFile.com 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
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
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