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Aisle Seat March Madness '99 Edition

By Andy Dursin

Now that the least interesting Academy Awards of this entire decade has concluded, and March is beginning to wind down, the dumping ground period of the movie-going year has finally passed. February and even early March, as most of us know, is one of those times when movie-goers can hibernate without missing anything significant-studios typically use this time to dust off the shelves with long-delayed projects and bloated star vehicles that were intended to be released at any other time of the year.

With our annual February hiatus over, here's a round-up of recent cinematic releases that were worth a look, plus some DVD picks & pans as well.

IN THEATERS

CRUEL INTENTIONS (**): Roger Kumble's trashy teen variation on DANGEROUS LIAISONS is certainly a product of junk moviemaking, but hey, there are worse ways to kill off 100 minutes than to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar play a scheming vixen out to ruin an innocent girl's virtue through the advances of her playboy stepbrother.

Ryan Phillippe (by the way, who died and made him the latest Tiger Beat god?) is the bait for the trap, which is set for Iowa schoolgirl Reese Witherspoon as soon as she moves into Gellar's circle of rich New York City teen socialites. Naturally, Phillippe starts exhibiting feelings for the attractive and innocent young girl, which causes major turmoil in his vicious little world and the possibility that he'll lose his bet to bed Gellar too. Oh, the problems of teen life in the late '90s!

With his cunning and profane dialogue, Kumble is a better screenwriter than he is a director, since CRUEL INTENTIONS is a murky looking film whose central dramatic focus-that of Phillippe and Witherspoon's relationship-is given surprisingly minimal screen time. That central flaw will force most audiences into enjoying the simple pleasures of teens fooling around and spouting out better-than-average R-rated dialogue, which this picture provides in spades.

Aside from filling the roles of the good-looking leads with the requisite physical attributes, neither Witherspoon nor Phillippe makes much of an impression, leaving Gellar to steal the show as an Anti-Buffy villain controlling her own little universe. Selma Blair also acquits herself nicely as a gawky, idiotic girl who comes under Gellar's influence, although Ed Shearmur's score will be as dated in a few years as any Harold Faltermayer or Giorgio Moroder soundtrack from fifteen years ago is today.

If you were looking for a thoughtful or even mildly serious retelling of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," this isn't it, but for anyone seeking an entertaining guilty pleasure with attractive young performers, CRUEL INTENTIONS provides enough of one to warrant a viewing if you are so inclined. (R, ** score by Sheramur)


THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 (**1/2): Movies like this aren't supposed to have good performances or even believable characters, but as improbable as it may seem, this belated sequel to the 1976 genre classic boasts a terrific performance by newcomer Emily Bergl and a sensitively drawn relationship between Bergl and co-star Jason London. While both deserve better than to hone their talents in a generally pedestrian picture like this, they do go a long way to make THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 a superior piece of teen horror fodder.

Resembling Brian DePalma's original film only by name, several flashbacks and the presence of co-star Amy Irving (given nothing to do here except whine), THE RAGE features Carrie's half-sister (Bergl) in that same small town where her kin tore up the high school with telekenetic powers after being humilated on prom night. Following a friend's suicide, loner Bergl soon hits it off with good guy Jason London, one of the "in crowd," which doesn't sit well with his brainless football pals, who in turn decide to take their revenge upon the poor guy's new girlfriend-without knowing, of course, her rich family heritage.

The movie has a perfunctory, predictable finale, but for two-thirds of the way THE RAGE surprises with its amiable and satisfyingly developed relationship between the leads. Bergl is very good as the confused and yet headstrong young girl, and her scenes with London are quite believable and pleasant. So much so that it's unfortunate that their characters couldn't have been removed from the film's standard horror framework and placed in a traditional high school picture-in fact, even with its blood-drenching climax, THE RAGE is a far better teen "date movie" than the tedious recent hit SHE'S ALL THAT.

Nobody is going to be shocked that THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 isn't a great movie even by genre standards, but it's surprisingly entertaining and competent for most of its running time, and Bergl's performance makes the cliched ending worth overlooking when it's all said and done. (R, 100 mins, *1/2 synth score on Edel Records features Todd Murphy score and plenty of lame rock acts)


RUSHMORE (**1/2): One of those eclectic movies that's hard to warm to, Owen Wilson's RUSHMORE is a film that's consistently amusing but somehow falls short as a cumulative whole.

Jason Schwartzman, son of Talia Shire, plays a nerdy private school student who improbably becomes infatuated with grammar school teacher Olivia Williams (forgetting that THE POSTMAN ever happened) and involved with town tycoon Bill Murray, himself attracted to Williams despite being saddled with a pair of teenage jocks for sons and a wife having an affair.

Directed and edited like a Richard Lester production and backed with an engaging soundtrack comprised of '60s tracks and a quirky score by Mark Mothersbaugh, RUSHMORE starts off as an exercise in offbeat filmmaking and ends up becoming a standard coming-of-age tale-though not before it takes a handful of detours along the way into GRADUATE-esque territory with rebellious teen motifs not all that far removed from a John Hughes film thrown in for good measure.

Schwartzman, Williams, and Murray each give good performances, but RUSHMORE never gets its act together. The film's widescreen cinematography is stunning and there are a few clever ideas, but most of them end up being buried beneath director Wilson's highly stylized direction. The main problem with the film is that it's neither laugh-out-loud funny nor heart-rendering, even though there are numerous moments when RUSHMORE is clearly aiming for these emotions-first in the time devoted to Schwartzman's crazy schemes (which never culminate in anything that's particularly humorous), and later in the boy's relationship with father Seymour Cassel, which doesn't quite gel either.

RUSHMORE is so strange and the direction so wrapped up within its own quirkiness that the manner in which scenes are played never changes-even though the tone shifts gears at more than one instance. Curiously static but always interesting to watch, RUSHMORE didn't do it for me but is different enough to warrant a viewing for adventurous movie-goers. (R, *** score by Mothersbaugh with songs on Hollywood Records)

ANALYZE THIS (***): Robert DeNiro's hysterical performance is the centerpiece of this amiable comedy from director Harold Ramis, which wisely utilizes DeNiro's mocking of his tough wise-guy persona in the same way that THE FRESHMAN deftly took advantage of Marlon Brando's comedic mafia don several years ago.

Billy Crystal, restrained and subsequently far more effective here than in any of his last few cinematic outings, plays a New York psychiatrist who is forced into taking care of mafia boss DeNiro's personal and-later-professional problems. Naturally, shenanigans ensue, not the least of which involve Crystal pretending to be a representative of "the family" and the usual FBI wire-tapping investigation of DeNiro's clan.

While Crystal is fine, ANALYZE THIS is DeNiro's film to shine, and he takes advantage of the ideal comedic circumstance at-hand and comes up with one of his most winning performances to date. His last stab at comedy, the offbeat MAD DOG AND GLORY, wasn't a straight farce like this picture is, and DeNiro acquits himself perfectly here thanks to flawless timing and chemistry between he and Crystal. Surely director Ramis deserves credit for the brisk pacing of the various gags and establishing the right comic pitch for the movie to play out its scenario. Even if a few elements don't quite work (like Lisa Kudrow's worthless performance as Crystal's fiancée), there's more than enough guffaws and good humor to make up for the lulls.

In fact, fans of DeNiro and his films (especially GOODFELLAS) will find countless belly laughs in ANALYZE THIS, the first "high concept" comedy in quite a while that actually scores. (R, 103 mins, **1/2 big band score by Howard Shore).


OCTOBER SKY (***): Joe Johnston's coming-of-age tale is a pleasant true story that makes for perfect family fare. In fact, this is one of those inspiring, "feel-good" movies that doesn't require a whole lot of comment.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper both give fine performances in a film that recounts how the son of a coal-mining father in a rural West Virginia town during the '50s won his way to a national science scholarship, back when Sputnik flew into outer space and America was all agog with rockets.

Mark Isham's score is emotional yet subdued, while the cinematography of Fred Murphy (HOOSIERS) paints a nostalgic portrait of small-town America with sensitive performances given by all. Despite a few dips into maudlin sentimentality, OCTOBER SKY is still a thoughtful and entertaining sleeper that ought to give director Johnston-best known for genre fare like THE ROCKETEER and JUMANJI-more opportunities at helming effects-free live-action features in the future. (PG, 115 mins, *** score by Isham on Sony Classical)

DVD ROUND-UP

Plenty of new releases have finally found their way to stores everywhere in the last few weeks, and many more have just been announced (including new DVDs of ALIEN and ALIENS, slated for release in June from Fox, with the former including a new commentary track by Ridley Scott and other, as-of-yet undisclosed supplements).

For isolated scores, RUSH HOUR (New Line, $24.95) does boast an isolated score track by Lalo Schifrin-along with a commentary track that features his participation-and Warner's upcoming DVD of YOU'VE GOT MAIL is slated to include isolated score by George Fenton.

Meanwhile, Anchor Bay's latest roster of DVD releases does not include any isolated music features, although these genre films will still be of interest to aficionados of fantasy films and the generally obscure.

Werner Herzog's beautifully filmed 1979 version of NOSFERATU (*** for content, ***1/2 for presentation) remains a favorite of horror fans, both for Isabelle Adjani's alluring on-screen presence and Klaus Kinski's memorable Count, adorned in the original regalia of F.W. Murnau's silent villain. Certainly the cinematography is the big draw to Herzog's tale, which was filmed in both German and English language versions-both of which are included in this superb DVD from Anchor Bay, which also sports a feature-length interview with Herzog touching upon his work and the production of this film. Picture and sound are both excellent, with the original German soundtrack remixed in Dolby Digital as well.

If you were a teen back in the late '70s, chances are that you'll get a nostalgic feeling from Anchor Bay's Double Feature DVD pairing of Uli Lommel's THE BOOGEY MAN/THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR (** for content, *** presentation), two independently made horror efforts that star Lommel's then-wife, the attractive Suzanna Love. THE BOOGEY MAN was obviously made to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, though it also throws in some supernatural, EXORCIST-like elements in a horrific brew that's more silly than scary, but certainly is a product of its time (a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it). 1983's THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR features Love again, this time as a woman thought to be the reincarnation of a witch in a town mired in guilt and secrets. Donald Pleasance, meanwhile, appears in scenes which look as if they were shot in an Elk's Lodge during one afternoon of filming. Still, the movies are entertaining in their own way, and there are several over-the-top TV spots for THE BOOGEY MAN featuring the distinctive voice of the guy who did all of Universal's trailers during the '70s and '80s.

Even more dated but still curious are Anchor Bay's recent releases of the '70s French animated production FANTASTIC PLANET (** content, ***1/2 presentation) and the late '60s surrealistic drama GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE (*1/2 content, **1/2 presentation), which are best left for die-hard admirers of those respective films. Rene Laloux's PLANET is a sometimes interesting but emotionally detached piece that often resembles one of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons, except that it goes on for a seemingly unending 75 minutes. To AB's credit, the animated menus on this DVD are their best yet, and the film features both the French and English langauge tracks with English subtitles. On the other end of the viewing spectrum comes the controversial GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE, featuring Marianne Faithfull in a strange tale of a bored housewife who straps on some leather and drives around with her former lover. Hard to believe that the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff directed this tedious drama, which is more of a bore than a tease, but the film has a cult following anyhow. The transfer on the DVD is also a bit grainy, most likely the result of the company working with less than pristine source materials, though it's still acceptable.

And that's it (finally!) for this week. Back with Post-Oscar reactions next time, and until then, be sure to send all comments to dursina@att.net. Excelsior!


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