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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 types.

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 goes AWOL.

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 mins)


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 always is.

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 releases!

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 trailer.

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 acceptable.

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 to come.

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 <p5rogers@airmail.net>

    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 (roman.deppe@metronet.de):

    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 here.

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 dursina@att.net. Until then, excelsior!


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