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.
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.