Summer Comedies and New DVDs From The Aisle Seat
By Andy Dursin
The dumping ground of late August is right around the corner (meaning
THE 13TH WARRIOR, THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN and
likely even DUDLEY DOO- RIGHT will be polluting movie theaters in the near
future), but at least a couple of summer comedies have made their way into
theaters to mixed results. Meanwhile, THE SIXTH SENSE is still staking
its claim as the surprise hit of 1999, the very definition of a "sleeper."
Some reader comments follow a look at new theatrical and DVD releases below.
New In Theaters
BOWFINGER (**1/2): Writer-star Steve Martin's satirical jab at Hollywood
moviemaking is filled with scattershot laughs, but never dives underneath
its silly, glossy exterior to develop its leading characters beyond mere
Martin, as a down-on-his-luck filmmaker, tries to film a movie with
superstar Kit Ramsay (Eddie Murphy) without the action specialist's knowledge.
Shades of THE TRUMAN SHOW ensue, with Kit running around believing he's
being chased by aliens, consulting spiritual adviser Terence Stamp, while
Martin frantically tries to catch him on film with a patchwork cast and
crew of illegal immigrants and would-be thespian Christine Baranski (who,
as usual, steals most every scene she's in).
The other subplots feature bubble-headed blonde Heather Graham (supposedly
a thin cover for Anne Heche, who had a relationship with Martin before
"coming out") as an out-of-towner trying to sleep her way up
the ladder, and Murphy -- again -- as a nerdy look-a-like of Kit Ramsay
who takes over for Martin's "leading man" when the celebrity
Directed by Frank Oz (making his fourth film with Martin), BOWFINGER
plays like a long-winded rant about modern filmmaking peppered with a sketch-oriented
succession of jokes, some of which are funny, and some of which aren't.
The trouble is, when the movie isn't being amusing, there's nothing there
to sustain one's interest: almost all of the characters are paper-thin
stereotypes, not real people, which makes watching the film a completely
detached experience (a five-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live has as
much charactrer development as this film does). The material, subsequently,
is stretched out as far as it can go and the joke ultimately fizzles, though
there are a few big laughs along the way.
Martin is good but Murphy is better, flexing his comedic skills in both
a self-satirical part, and in the role of a likable nerd improbably thrust
into the role of a leading man. It's too bad that Martin doesn't develop
this comedic possibility beyond a few scenes glimpsed in the theatrical
trailers, however, which is why BOWFINGER comes across as a movie with
a few great ideas and little else holding the ship afloat. (PG- 13, 96
MYSTERY MEN (**1/2): If THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI
is regarded as a cult classic these days, then there's some hope for MYSTERY
MEN. This amiable comic-book spoof features several goofy comedic performances
and more laughs than the last AUSTIN POWERS movie, even if it never becomes
as truly wacky and over-the-top as you hope it would.
Greg Kinnear plays a goody-goody superhero who is kidnapped by the evil
Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, most of whose dialogue is incomprehensible
gibberish) in a city that looks an awful lot like Joel Schumacher's BATMAN
Gotham City. To the rescue come three loser-heroes, played by Ben Stiller
(who gets angry), FARGO's William H.Macy (who shovels well), and Hank Azaria
(who uses a Brit accent and throws his mother's kitchen utensils), who
all recruit another collection of similar underdog- types to save the day.
With a cast like that, and on-target supporting roles filled by the
likes of Janeane Garafolo and LAST OF THE MOHICANS' Wes Studi (hilarious
as a message-spouting hero who guides the group), you know MYSTERY MEN
will have its share of laughs. Fortunately, it does, with most of them
coming during the first half hour; Stiller in particular seems in tune
with the manic energy of the film and Macy's timing is perfect, as it seemingly
The reason why the film just misses the mark, though, is because the
filmmakers weren't confident enough to completely go for Mel Brooks or
Zucker Brothers-inspired laughs. Instead, in ultimately opting for a BATMAN
& ROBIN styled mix of comedic moments and big special effects, they
only make the movie blander and more a product of late '90s commercial
moviemaking than it should have been.
Still, there are some choice moments in the film, enough so that MYSTERY
MEN's stock may rise with viewers over the years, thanks to a winning collection
of motley characters who deserved a better movie (and box-office fate)
than they have received thus far. (120 mins, PG-13).
DVD Round-Up: Artisan, Trimark, and Anchor Bay new
Some new DVD releases have trickled into our offices so here's a quick
round-up (we'll have more detailed reviews of RETURN TO OZ and others as
soon as we get copies).
Artisan's August release schedule includes a widescreen presentation
for TOP DOG (yes, the Chuck Norris movie), and a solid video release of
Robert Halmi's Hallmark TV production of NOAH'S ARK, with Jon Voight and
an all-star cast. TOP DOG is a K9/TURNER & HOOCH kind of innocuous
entertainment that the small fry should enjoy, and the DVD presentation
looks solid, framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and contains a theatrical
NOAH'S ARK is more interesting -- a surprisingly comical (intentionally?)
rendering of the Biblical legend done through a bizarre production that
accentuates goofy humor (a la Monty Python) but still pauses for long-winded
speeches and special effects (a la Irwin Allen). Voight is positively over-the-top,
as he was in ANACONDA, and the supporting cast, which includes Mary Steenburgen,
F.Murray Abraham and Sidney Poitier's lovely daughter Sydney, looks either
lost or equally goofy. (Also, it is never quite explained how Voight and
Steenburgen's children all sport British accents!). Still, you have to
admire the movie's outrageousness, and the DVD looks and sounds superb,
and features the full 166 minute version (the box erroneously lists the
time as 156 minutes) minus commercial interruptions.
Trimark, meanwhile, has released a terrific DVD Special Edition for
THE STONED AGE ($24.98), a precursor to DAZED AND CONFUSED that didn't
receive as much publicity back when it was released right before Richard
Linklatter's highly regarded (and very funny) look at growing up in the
'70s. THE STONED AGE is a bit more ragged and uneven in its presentation,
but if you were a part of its drugged- out, rock & roll culture, you'll
probably find the movie of interest, and the DVD features a free-wheeling
audio commentary to compliment a nice widescreen presentation and a theatrical
trailer as well.
The other Trimark release, KING COBRA ($24.98), is a blatant made-for-video
ripoff of ANACONDA, and stars Pat Morita in a heart-tugging story of a
giant snake wrecking havoc on unsuspecting victims. You've seen this all
before, and handled better elsewhere at that, though at least Trimark went
all-out on the presentation here and included a trailer, commentary (!),
and other assorted extras for a movie that likely didn't deserve this kind
of treatment. Thumbs up for Trimark on the package, but thumbs down on
the film (but you knew that already, right?).
Anchor Bay's recent releases include a Special Edition of OUT OF THE
BLUE ($24.98), the 1981 Dennis Hopper study of a young girl (Linda Manz
of DAYS OF HEAVEN) neglected by deadbeat parents and left to flounder in
the "punk rock" era of the early '80s. Pronounced by Hopper pal
Jack Nicholson as a "masterpiece," this unrelentingly grim movie
is pretty tough to endure, despite containing admirable performances and
a gritty sense of realism that permeates through the picture. Hopper's
audio commentary features some interesting bits of behind-the-scenes info,
including that the original script was built around and for Raymond Burr's
rarely seen psychiatrist character?scenes that Hopper, in fact, shot but
never intended to use since he re-wrote the movie as he was making it!
Also fun is a radio spot with Nicholson pleading with audiences to go out
and see the movie, which was first distributed internationally before finding
a distributor domestically. The transfer on this Canadian-funded production
is crisp and detailed at 1.85:1 and the mono soundtrack includes a jarringly
repetitive soundtrack including a Neil Young song.
Also out from AB is the Original Roadshow Version of the 1967 Disney
musical THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE ($29.98), noted as the last production
Walt Disney personally oversaw before his death. Fred MacMurray plays the
eccentric head of a Philadelphia family in 1916 who has a collection of
bath tubs filled with alligators, in addition to a handful of motley teenagers
struggling with inevitable growing pains (including Lesley Ann Warren).
Tommy Steele is quite good as the Irish butler drawn into the clan, and
while a few of the many Robert M.-Richard B. Sherman songs are appealing,
the movie -- regarded as a flop in its day -- is grounded on claustrophobic
stage sets and goes on and on, particularly in this fully restored version,
which here expands the movie back to its original 164 minute trade-show
screening length. Still, for Disney fans, this a noteworthy new release,
and the stereo soundtrack also sounds vibrant. It's easy to see why the
movie never did become the beloved classic it was intended to be (it's
too slow and calculated for that), but aficionados should find it of interest.
The transfer is mildly matted at the 1.66:1 aspect ratio and looks perfectly
However, for no discernable reason (except Disney's possible unwillingness
to lend their corporate banner to films they license off to Anchor Bay),
Anchor Bay's production notes and packaging omit the words "Walt Disney"
anywhere from the text -- so any place where the Disney name should be
mentioned, the androgynous "The Studio" appears in its place!
AISLE SEAT Mail Bag
Readers have chimed in with an abundance of comments on recent films,
so here they are without further adue?
>From Michael Matessino:
No one was looking forward to THE SIXTH SENSE more than I, since
I was the only person I know who was singing the praises of WIDE AWAKE,
M. Night Shyamalan's wonderful 1998 film for Miramax. I was anxiously looking
forward to the next release from this Philadelphia-based filmmaker with
a gift for nurturing brilliant child performances. THE SIXTH SENSE does
not disappoint in that regard, although Haley Joel Osment is hardly a newcomer.
He has appeared in several major films, including Norman Jewison's BOGUS,
with Whoopi Goldberg and Gerared Depardieu, and he played the oldest son
on "The Jeff Foxworthy Show." I concur with your review, and
those of others, who are pleasantly surprised and pleased that THE SIXTH
SENSE is not another hokey, supernatural, effects-laden action flick, but
a deliberately-paced, realistic, character-driven drama. It wasn't what
I was expecting, and while it was thoroughly engaging while it was playing
(despite the fact that the surprise twist was quite obvious), I felt somewhat
unsatisfied when I left the theatre. It did have some great moments, some
of which demonstrated what THE SHINING could be like as a movie it were
done properly. There was great acting by all (including Bruce Willis),
and its premise was unsettling in a refreshingly genuine way, but the movie
just seemed too slow for its own good. This slowness of pace is what allowed
me time to figure the movie out long before the climax, and once it came,
I was disappointed that there was no closure for the Cole Sear character.
Still, it's been a long time since I've seen a film that I thought was
good with only a few minor points of contention. Usually of late, looking
at my watch is more fun than looking at the screen, which was the case
with THE HAUNTING. I hope that the success of THE SIXTH SENSE affords its
writer/director continued opportunity to explore the minds and imaginations
of children, a gift which this film positively affirms.
>From Kevin Field (UWgrad1996@aol.com):
Just wanted to let FSM readers know that there's a gem of a movie
out there that's a must-see: THE IRON GIANT. Ironically, this little animated
flick has more heart and soul than anything else that's hit the screen
in quite a while. The vocal performances are spot-on, and the artwork and
production design is absolutely perfect (yes, it rivals Disney in its own,
charming way). And lest I forget who I'm writing to, Michael Kamen's score
is sweet, melodic, and has a few brilliant moments at the climax -- this
is a CD I'll be getting soon. The movie, not to mention the score itself,
is sentimental without being syrupy; while at times overly reminiscent
of E.T., IRON GIANT stands on its own and will be remembered for years
The problem that Warner Bros. had in marketing this film is simple:
it's not Disney. I know, ANASTASIA did well, and so did THE RUGRATS MOVIE
(though that certainly had a built-in audience), but the reality is that
parents are generally hesitant to take their kids to non-Disney animated
films. They'd rather shell out $15 for the movie in those clamshell video
cases than bring the fam to the theater, and it looks like THE IRON GIANT
-- good reviews and all -- is going to be following suit. One other reason
for the movie's disappointing box office could well be the rating: it's
PG. And yes, kids see PG movies all the time, but since it's an animated
feature that typically would appeal to very young children, the PG tag
on a movie like this can't help. When even was the last successful PG rated
animated film? (And more over, when WAS the last PG rated animated feature
to begin with?).
Meanwhile, reaction on THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT continues to trickle
in, and as usual, it's still mixed?
>From Patrick Rogers <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Some of the complaints about The Blair Witch Project in Monday's
column were inane. This is one movie where many traditional critiques are
not applicable in a usual sense. That is what sets it apart most of all.
I cannot believe I am about to say what I am, because it is so obvious,
but The Blair Witch Project was going for a level of realism that negated
the possibility of good sound, good filmwork or even necessarily likable
characters. The characters suck? So what? The photography, dialogue and
pacing are weak? Again, so what. It was justified in all these choices.
Most of the gripes were simply complaints that the movie defies easy labeling.
Oh, and for its audacity to not star beautiful people. The documentary
Heather was working on was horrible. She was a terrible interviewer and
her appearances before the camera showed a complete lack of finesse. The
camera work and sound were also poor. In other words, it was exactly like
99% of the student films I have seen. The filmmakers exploited this idea
with a commendable level of focus and success, with little regard for how
unnerving this approach might be to mainstream audiences. Good for them.
It wasn't done halfway- they stuck to it and created something that never
betrayed its premise. The comment about the filmmakers failing by not lying
and pretending the events were real confused me. Just because it looks
like found footage does not mean it is lacking because it is not. I admire
my girlfriend's inability to pin down exactly why it fell flat for her
much more than reading someone say it was bad because it had poor sound
or a "fat-ass" character. Yes, I did love The Blair Witch Project.
Not since I saw Blue Velvet back when it first came out have I been so
scared by a film. Lost Highway had a few moments that were truly chilling,
but its ambiguity left me more bewildered than haunted. The ambiguity in
The Blair Witch project was terrifying. My only disappointment is the possibility
of a sequel and/or TV series. I do not want the events of the film cleared
up. Were they being manipulated, or could they just not follow a compass?
I never want to know.
>From Roman Deppe (email@example.com):
Yesterday there was the German Premier of Blair Witch Project. My
expectations were mixed, but I was looking forward to it. But I was highly
disappointed. I think it was one of the worst movies I've seen in a long
time. It's not scary at once. It had really great acting and the idea of
the makers to do a documentary was cool, too. But executed horribly. The
camcorder... god, the seemed to have never handled a camcorder. I guess,
so many people left the screening not because the couldn't stand the "tension",
but the camera anymore. More night terror would have helped, but the movie
is mainly walking by day, walking, walking, walking. It was just pathetic.
The things they found in the mornings in front of their tent reminded me
so much of scare-jokes you played to girls when you were going camping
with your school class. The girls believed for weeks that some ghost or
whatever was walking around their tent at night. I am sorry, but the much
promising idea doesn't pay off at all and I will warn everybody about this
movie. It's a waste of money. Besides, I don't think it will be successful
over here... this kind of indie-movie- making-looking doesn't sell over
NEXT WEEK: TEACHING MRS. TINGLE and THE 13TH WARRIOR (finally!)
as we end the summer movie season with a bang. Plus: your comments, which
should be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until then, excelsior!