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Talking Mice, Toys and Robots

An Aisle Seat Holiday Special

By Andy Dursin

In hindsight, it's not hard to believe with the amount of movies out there that STUART LITTLE was the #1 flick at the box-office last weekend, even though it appeared on paper as if it'd be lucky to achieve MOUSE HUNT-like returns this holiday season: first, talking animals looked like they were out of vogue after PAULIE and the superb but audience-unfriendly BABE: PIG IN THE CITY. Secondly, Geena Davis hasn't had a hit since A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, and she produced the movie as well. Put both of those disparate elements together and a lot of folks thought the Stuart Little racing car would be languishing on the store shelves at Radio Shack this Christmas. Not so.

STUART overcame all those pitfalls and proved to be a big draw for kids this weekend, beating the heck out of BICENTENNIAL MAN (didn't see it but you'd have to pay me to sit through another touchy-feely Robin Williams "I'm acting!" performance) and ANNA AND THE KING (reviewed below), both of which were also bested by the second weekend of DEUCE BIGALOW.

Maybe it says something about the movies this holiday season, but man, I can't recall as dead a December at the cinema as this year. I've heard good things about THE GREEN MILE but I read the book and am not in a rush to see it (three hours on death row, despite the quality of the material, isn't so appealing at this time of year; ask me in January), while this week brings less-than-interesting fare like ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (Oliver Stone's recent streak of box-office bombs + chronicle of NFL Football minus a league license + Cameron Diaz as a pro football owner = the possibility for another EVERYBODY'S ALL- AMERICAN) and GALAXY QUEST, a Tim Allen comedy with a funny concept and a completely unfunny trailer (but Sigourney Weaver hasn't looked so good since she slinked out of her astronaut suit in ALIEN).

However, with MAN IN THE MOON also opening on Wednesday (having been reviewed as one of the year's best), it looks like there MAY be something of an alternative out there for holiday-going audiences. As always, feel free to drop a line over the next few weeks and send in your comments to me at dursina@att.net; the inbox WILL be open, even if the recipient will be in Troy, New York for a college hockey tournament right before New Years.

As always, have a happy and safe Christmas & New Year's, and we'll be back with reader comments next week. Ho Ho Ho everyone!


In Theaters

ANNA AND THE KING (*** of four): Premiering to less-than-enthusiastic reviews and tepid box-office last weekend, this old-fashioned romantic epic suffers from sub-par screenwriting but offers more than enough in the way of visual splendor (lush cinematography and settings) to make it worth a look this holiday season.

This de-musicalization of THE KING AND I (previously filmed minus songs as "Anna and the King of Siam" in 1946 with Rex Harrison) finds Jodie Foster -- prim and proper in a way that barely rises above cliched British stereotype -- as Anna, sent to the faraway kingdom of Siam during the 1860s to tutor the young son of the King (Chow Yun-Fat), who, with his twenty-plus wives and warring neighbors, has enough on his mind than to worry about a culture clash. Yet, ultimately, clash they do, with Anna trying to reform the inherent slavery of his kingdom and a justice system that comes into play when one of the king's young concubines (Bai Ling) has an affair outside the court.

Directed by Andy Tennant (who made last year's wonderful EVER AFTER), ANNA AND THE KING returns a number of behind-the-scenes talent that worked on his last picture, including composer George Fenton, who has written another lyrical, highly effective music score (with his consistent, dependable romantic scores, Fenton is quickly turning into the new John Barry).

The movie's cinematography and settings achieve a rare sense of grandeur at the movies these days, while Chow Yun-Fat is finally able to strut his acting stuff in an American film without pulling out a gun and leaping through the air (though we do get a climax that reminds you of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and an ending, more digestible for modern audiences, that's not quite how the preceding takes on this material concluded).

With so much going for it, it's disappointing that ANNA AND THE KING falters in two unfortunate places: first, in Foster's competent but somewhat uncertain performance as Anna, and secondly in a script that has its share of P.C., feel-good "Hollywoodized" dialogue that often reads like material rejected from a batch of Hallmark cards.

The script, credited to Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes (STAR TREK IV) but reportedly worked on by a handful of other scribes, is episodic and heart-wrenching to be sure, though it also has a tendency to use heavy-handed comic relief and resolve dramatic situations and develop relationships through a throwaway line of dialogue. Maybe in the world of TV sitcoms it works that way, but not in a period drama that was supposed to be an Academy Award contender.

Foster, meanwhile, looks like she's doing an imitation of Deborah Kerr but she's seldom able to interject anything under the surface of her repressed British mannerisms. Yun-Fat gives a charismatic performance as the King but it takes an awfully long time for him and Foster to develop any kind of believable bond, and by that point a lot of viewers will have stopped caring.

Despite its flaws, ANNA AND THE KING is still a highly entertaining movie that's worth a look for the cinematic trappings and Chow's performance. For viewers seeking an alternative to the glut of kid-pics in theaters this December, and particularly for those predisposed to an old-fashioned romantic epic in the first place, I'd recommend it. (PG-13, 135 mins., *** score by Fenton on LaFace Records in stores Dec.21st)


DVD Round-Up

Our DVD Holiday Buyer's Guide went too long last week, so there are -- believe it or not -- a few leftover titles to check out before we enter into the Christmas-New Year's Break.

OK, so call me a sap, but there's nothing better than a sentimental holiday film. Some, naturally, are superior to others, and while the Jonathan Taylor Thomas vehicle (I feel ashamed just writing this) I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS (**1/2, Disney DVD, $29.98) will never be a movie that you'll camp around the den watching with your family years from now, it's still perfect fodder if you need something on while wrapping presents this week.

Taylor Thomas plays a collegiate con-man who has to hitch-hike across the U.S. to get home for Christmas. Naturally, this being a kids' variant on PLANES TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES (and why isn't THAT movie on DVD?), the one-time "Home Improvement" juvenile star learns many a lesson along the way, most particularly that starring in your own vehicle doesn't mean you'll necessarily get the same box-office results as your TV cohort Tim Allen's THE SANTA CLAUSE.

Still, the movie is colorful and family-friendly, and cute Jessica Biel (of the immortal TV tearjerking fave "7th Heaven") adds appropriate female presence to the preceding, capably directed by Arlene Sanford (A VERY BRADY SEQUEL). The 1.85:1 transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack are almost vibrant enough to tear you away from vacuuming the needles 'round the tree.

Image, meanwhile, has mined the back catalog of made-for-TV flicks and unearthed the 1979 production AN AMERICAN CHRISMTAS CAROL (**1/2, $24.98), which takes Dickens's classic, shifts the setting from Victorian England to '30s New England, and stars Henry "The Fonz" Winkler as a local curmudgeon who collects right around Christmas from the poor and unfortunate.

I've been on a HAPPY DAYS kick for the last few months (yes, I'm a sorry, sorry man), and it's obvious that this well-made TV movie was produced mainly to capitalize on Winkler's "aaaayy!" persona and success at the time. Winkler, however, does a competent job staying in character and true to the spirit of the material, though anyone who ever saw his "dramatic readings" as Fonzie on HAPPY DAYS (when the Fonz was temporary blinded, for example) are aware that the star's strong suit wasn't always rendering poetic monologues.

The full-frame transfer is so-so but that's mainly due to the film stock the movie was shot with; Hagood Hardy's music isn't bad, either, which makes this DVD a pleasing alternative to the usual Scrooges you may watch every year (for perennial favorites, my votes go to THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, with Michael Caine's restrained performance as Ebenezer and Paul Williams's great songs; SCROOGE with Albert Finney, which features marvelous period detail and cinematography; and the Alastair Sim A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which most feel is still the finest cinematic adaptation of Dickens to date).

Away from holiday-oriented fare and onto new releases, we now shift gears to New Line's dismal summer "comedy" DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (*, $24.98), which stars Denise Richards and Kirsten Dunst as contestants in a small-town Minnesota beauty pageant run by Kirstie Alley.

I am now totally sick of movies which come pre-packaged with all sorts of buzz planted by studios on various "movie news" websites (you know which ones I'm referring to), which attempt to say how well- received certain movies are by test audiences and how well they're certain to do in theaters.

DROP DEAD GORGEOUS was being billed as this riotous summer sleeper, and not only did it tank (a $10 million box-office gross!), it also ranks as a completely unwatchable, unfunny mess, the work of filmmakers who saw FARGO and SPINAL TAP and thought to make an ersatz documentary about beauty pageants without knowing that the material had already been sufficiently covered in Michael Ritchie's hilarious 1975 film SMILE.

It takes a real bomb to waste the amount of female eye candy on-hand here, but somehow DROP DEAD GORGEOUS manages to be even worse than you heard it was. Gee, aren't Midwestern accents hilarious? Isn't making fun of anorexia hysterical? Aren't fat retards so amusing when they crash into store windows? If the answers to any of these questions is "yes," then by all means rent and enjoy.

New Line's DVD offers an exceptionally clear transfer, Dolby Digital soundtrack, and a theatrical trailer, which actually manages to be fairly amusing. Rest assured that the movie certainly isn't.

More fun is to be had in Artisan's release of BLACK MASK (***, $24.98), the 1996 Jet Li Hong Kong kung-fu thriller that was redubbed and released to theaters last August in the U.S.

Many of Jackie Chan's films were cut-up and destroyed by U.S. distributors, and while I cannot say how altered BLACK MASK is in its American translation, the U.S. version packs plenty of entertainment, with its unpretentious comic-book action (great fight scenes!) and hilarious, intentionally over-the-top dubbing by American editors enhancing the TERMINATOR-meets-BATMAN convoluted plot (the dubbing makes the picture feel like a Godzilla movie without Godzilla). While Chan's movies were victimized by having much of their comedy removed, it could be that BLACK MASK had its humor accentuated by the presentation here -- in any case, I'm not going to complain.

Li's athletic assets are on full display and while little in this version is taken seriously (it wouldn't be so much fun if it was), BLACK MASK makes for ideal brainless entertainment, with Artisan's DVD framed at 1.85:1 and containing an Americanized soundtrack filled with techno and rap tracks which sounds somehow simplistic even in its Dolby Digital 5.1 mix -- but that, too, only adds to the appeal.

Fans of Hammer horror, meanwhile, will want to nab copies of the latest "Hammer Collection" DVD releases from Anchor Bay to stuff in their stockings this Christmas, for this new batch of titles from England's horror factory contains some of the studio's most beloved productions.

THE REPTILE (***, $24.98) and THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (***, $24.98) were shot back-to- back in 1966 and were originally intended to be released on the same bill for theatrical release. While that plan didn't happen, you can now view these two chillers together, which is appropriate not only because of their similar setting and shared cast members, but also because director John Gilling does an excellent job in both pictures establishing character and atmosphere. THE REPTILE focuses on how confused young lass Jacqueline Pearce turns into a bug-eyed snake woman in a small Cornwall village, while THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES centers on a zombie plague that overtakes the same region. Excellent period detail, mood and atmosphere are all splendidly conveyed in the two films, with even the usually stereotyped supporting parts receiving more screen time than usual. Trailers and separate "World of Hammer" episodes are included on both discs, which have to come as two of the most highly recommended Hammer titles for fans and non-fans alike.

AB has also released the Christopher Lee fictionalized biography of RASPUTIN- THE MAD MONK (**, $24.98) from 1965, as well as the goofy and outlandish 1968 fantasy THE LOST CONTINENT (***, $24.98).RASPUTIN does boast one of Lee's more flamboyant performances, but aside from that and good use of anamorphic widescreen (unlike a lot of Hammer films, the movie was shot in CinemaScope), there isn't a whole lot to recommend it.

THE LOST CONTINENT, on the other hand, is great, giddy fun, marked by a trippy plot involving a group of assorted passengers on a tramp steamer who become lost in the Sargasso Sea and uncover -- among many strange phenomena -- disgusting creatures, Spanish scalawags, evil seaweed, and as usual with Hammer, plenty of busty women. From the moment you hear Gerald Schurmann's insanely '60s score, you know you're in for a demented ride, and Hammer's decision to wait to film the material until the production codes allowed them to (one can only imagine how nutty the movie would be nowadays) resulted in a dated but terrific piece of escapist fun. (Also notice how Schurmann re-uses one of the cues he reportedly ghost- wrote for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA at one point!).

Transfer on both movies are fine, and they come complete with trailers, TV spots, and respective "World of Hammer" episodes as well. LOST CONTINENT, by the way, is the same version the Roan Group released on laserdisc, with 8 minutes of footage reinstated that had been previously excised in U.S. prints.

Moving from Hammer horror to AB's usual assortment of eclectic releases that movie buffs crave on DVD, we come to James Clavell's neglected 1970 adventure epic THE LAST VALLEY (***, $24.98). Intended to be a philosophical kind of action pic, Clavell's film is a sumptuous visual epic, with Michael Caine and Omar Sharif starring in a tale of the Thirty Years War, set in a Swiss village in 1641 unaffected by the brutality of warfare. Norman Warwick's Todd-AO lensed cinematography (letterboxed here for the first time) and, especially, John Barry's outstanding score make this a flawed but generally fascinating picture, culled from the ABC Pictures vault and in circulation for the first time in many years.

Licensed from Disney, meanwhile, and making its DVD debut is TEX (***1/2, $24.98), the 1982 adaptation of S.E. Hinton's teen novel directed by Tim Hunter. This beautifully crafted little film was acclaimed by critics for its realistic, honest depiction of teenage life in the Southwest, wonderfully acted by Matt Dillon, Jim Metzler, Emilio Estevez, and Meg Tilly among others. While not as visible today or remembered as well as Francis Ford Coppola's flashier adaptations of Hinton's novels made at the same time (the lyrical OUTSIDERS and diffuse RUMBLE FISH, which also starred Dillon), TEX is actually a superior movie that holds up well against today's current stream of teen pictures with its fresh, believable writing that resembles -- of all things -- real teens and real life. AB's DVD looks better than Disney's old laserdisc and comes matted and non-letterboxed, with a mono soundtrack featuring an emotional score by Pino Donaggio.

Finally, from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to the full-fledged Special Edition release of the insane 1987 teen comedy THE ALLNIGHTER (*1/2, *** presentation, $24.98), which marked the lone starring performance by cute Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs. As un-P.C. a teen comedy as you'll find from the period (all the girls want to do in this movie is "score"), this piece of dated fluff is light years away from John Hughes territory, but will still provide sufficient amusement for teen movie fans, both for its supporting cast (including Joan Cusack) and AB's assortment of DVD supplements (!), which feature a commentary track by director Tamar Simon Hoffs (Susanna's Mom, joined by a larengitis-ridden Susanna on the track), a theatrical trailer, Price-Sulton's "No TV No Phone" music video (did it even run on MTV?), and Hoffs's 17-minute short film "The Haircut" with John Cassavetes. I'm not sure what compelled AB to bother giving the red-carpet treatment to a movie of this nature, but as a semi-Bangles fan, I'm thankful, even if it means the closest I may ever come to watching this movie again will be pulling out the DVD from the rack so I can glance at the provocative poster art, featuring Susana in a bikini with balloons in the backdrop. Could it get any better? (I ask rhetorically).

NEXT WEEK: Reader comments as 1999 concludes! Have a Merry One and we'll see you in 7.

Dursina@att.net


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