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Aisle Seat Third Anniversary Column!

U-571 Doesn't Sink & Other New Spring Releases

Plus: Elfman's PEE-WEE and SLIPPER AND THE ROSE on DVD

By Andy Dursin

When I logged onto Film Score Daily for Lukas's news round-up last Friday, I couldn't believe that it was actually three years ago that The Aisle Seat started up here on Filmscoremonthly.com (and as the first original online column of this website, no less!).

At the time I was finishing up at Boston College and ready to get out into the real world (which I've just about joined not quite three years later, but that's another story), and the internet was sort of a risky gambit for some folks. "Sure, it's not going to pay, but what about the exposure?" I'd hear from different people. Reluctantly, I did that first column, and The Aisle Seat became a regular fixture here in October of '97 once I got a firm handle on the different kinds of (primarily non-soundtrack) material that would be included.

Since that time, we've seen hundreds of movies released, a switch in high-end video formats, and other changes along the media landscape, and I have been grateful to LK for the forum in which to provide a commentary on things I've watched, enjoyed, and received for free (one of the perks of the job, of course!).

Not to be too sentimental here, but it's been great to cover all of this and create a pretty decent body of online content writing in the process, especially as we enter our fourth year and this being Column #94 all- time!

And, of course, a big shout-out to all the readers who often write in with (mostly) constructive comments about films, DVDs, or whatever the topic happens to be. Whether we agree or not, it's always a great debate when you can have fun and discuss movies and video, two things tied directly into FSM and the readership since you generally can't enjoy film music without being a fan of the other (and if you don't appreciate movies, what the heck are you doing here?).

Anyhow, on with the show. We've been so into DVD of late that I haven't had a chance to recap some recent cinematic (and soundtrack) efforts of late, so below is a virtual five-flick rundown on movies that have turned up at the U.S. box-office over the last few weeks. (As usual, remember to send in your comments to me at dursina@att.net for the next edition of the Mail Bag!)

However, I would be remiss if I didn't quickly mention two DVD releases that FSM readers should be especially aware of since both hit stores this week.


PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (****, Warner Home Video, $24.98) is a personal favorite of mine, and no, I'm not a Pee-Wee fan of the first order. Tim Burton's 1984 directorial feature debut is such a fast- paced, colorful romp -- affectionately spoofing various genres along the way of its "road trip" plot -- that you needn't ever enjoyed Mr.Herman to get a big kick out of this one.

It's gleeful, giddy entertainment with several standalone sequences (the trip to the Alamo, the backlot chase on the Warner Bros. lot that ends the movie, and the now-classic moment when Pee-Wee hitchhikes and gets picked up by a truck-driver who knows how to scare people!) that remain hilarious and fresh, the product of screenwriters Phil Hartman (yes, that Phil Hartman), Paul Reubens and Michael Varhol, along with Burton, who certainly brought his trademark imagery and imagination along for the comic journey. When Pee-Wee tried to fly solo without Burton on 1988's drab "Big Top Pee-Wee," it just didn't work -- a testament to what Burton brought to this project.

Warner's DVD was announced some time ago but finally turns up this week, when they'll roll out a Special Edition release containing the usual assortment of goodies digital freaks have come to appreciate about the format. Paul "The Artist Formerly Known as Pee-Wee" Reubens and Tim Burton participate in a funny, generally amusing commentary track, with Burton addressing head-on the misframing of the movie overseas, where viewers could see the boom microphone in every other shot! (No, it wasn't done on purpose, as some French critics had thought!).

The 1.85:1 (enhanced) transfer is stunning and several deleted scenes, taken off a ragged-looking videotape, are also included, along with a theatrical trailer, production storyboards and some biographies (trivia: female lead Elizabeth Daily was the voice of Babe in BABE 2 and has performed on countless other animated projects as "E.G. Daily"; of course she also turned up in BETTER OFF DEAD for those of us in the know and has a singing career going on the side).

What FSM readers are going to be especially appreciative of is the isolated score track in full 5.0 Dolby Digital, with commentary from Danny Elfman about writing his first-ever orchestral score in-between moments where the soundtrack isn't running. Since the Varese CD contained only 15 minutes or so of music, this is one isolated score track that we can genuinely use. His commentary is likewise insightful, recalling with some nostalgia his work on the picture, educational background at Cal Arts, his idols (Korngold, Herrmann), working with Tim Burton, and the specific cues and scoring session stories. It's still one of Elfman's freshest, most energetic scores, and the isolated score track is gratifying to have, along with the composer's first-ever commentary. Great stuff, a great movie, and a great DVD.

Image, meanwhile, has rolled out a Special Edition of the highly enjoyable, lush 1976 David Frost production of THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE (***, $24.98), which also hits stores this week, and contains a number of special features.

An extravagant adaptation of the Cinderella story by director Bryan Forbes and song-miesters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, who wrote a handful of tuneful songs, THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE was one of the last big-budget musicals produced for the screen. Gemma Craven makes for an endearing Cinderella while Richard Chamberlain struts his stuff as the Prince (in a sympathetic performance Dougray Scott would draw upon to a degree in EVER AFTER years later), and many wonderful British vets appear in secondary roles, from Kenneth More to Edith Evans, Michael Hordern, Margaret Lockwood, and others.

While the movie has rarely been in circulation in the U.S. except over the last few years (through airings on Encore and the Disney Channel), Image's DVD presents a gorgeous transfer of Tony Imi's exceptional cinematography (2:35, enhanced for widescreen TVs) along with a splendid, 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed soundtrack. The American TV airings crop and squeeze the frame so much that the movie's visuals -- clearly one of its strongest suits -- are taken away and the film becomes a fairly bland effort to sit through.

With the presentation restored to its proper dimensions, SLIPPER AND THE ROSE comes across as an engaging musical with a glossy look, several infectious songs and highly enjoyable performances. While the movie is overlong and meanders too far off-track at times, Image's DVD presents a close approximation of the original British version (143 minutes, perhaps missing an opening overture?) in place of the abbreviated cut (128 minutes) previously seen in U.S. theaters and on cable airings here.

Audio commentary by director Bryan Forbes (particularly interesting as he discusses the film's production and bizarre financing), a 30-minute promotional documentary hosted by Frost (who executive-produced the film), and a 17-minute new on-camera interview with the Sherman Brothers rounds out a terrific package for a movie that has never received full justice in the U.S. and can now, finally, be appreciated the way it was intended to be seen. Musical fans should certainly savor the supplements, and the movie as well. Highly recommended.


In Theaters

U-571 (***1/2): Rousing, patriotic, old-fashioned submarine movie may have its gaps in logic and implausible physics, but the bottom line is the amount of entertainment the picture provides, and Jonathan Mostow's U-571 is one of the top recent adventure pictures in that category.

Matthew McConaughey, showing us that he can carry an action movie as well as any of his young Hollywood brethren, plays a U.S. sub lieutenant plunged into taking command of a banged-up German U- boat after a torpedo sinks his own ship. On a top-secret mission to obtain a secret Nazi decoder that the Allies have yet been unable to crack, McConaughey and crew (including captain Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, David Keith, and Jon Bon Jovi) end up struggling to survive on the ship while a German destroyer plants torpedo charges from up above. Like all movies of this type, survival ain't easy -- jammed torpedo heads, a ruptured hull, and an insistence on radio silence all make things hard for the crew, but what else would you expect from a WWII thriller?

Mostow's first feature -- the Kurt Russell thriller BREAKDOWN-- had plenty of thrills and prevented a close examination of its illogical plot holes by moving so quickly that viewers didn't think about the gaps in the script until they were driving home. This directorial trait serves him equally well in U-571, a fast-paced, energetic action picture that plunges the viewer deep into combat and never lets up. The modest special effects, atmospheric cinematography, and gritty performances all help create a visceral sense of realism, even if the disappearance of several characters will leave you wondering about their absence when the movie is over.

Nevertheless, McConaughey is excellent, Keitel lends able support, and the movie moves, moves, moves from one event to the next without stopping to take a breath. Richard Marvin's score is an all-orchestral pastiche of old-time soundtrack cliches and sounds more than a bit reminiscent of AIR FORCE ONE, but it's exactly the kind of score the picture needs.

Big-time producer Dino DeLaurentiis always gets a raw deal when he produces bloated, overbudget spectacles, since critics never mention the movies he finances that ARE genuinely good. DeLaurentiis funded Mostow's first film and came to the fore to give this picture a modest budget that the director proved he can handle even without a surplus of marquee stars above the title (Michael Douglas bowed out of the picture late in the game). He's a director on the rise and U-571 is top-flight entertainment all the way. (PG- 13)

GOSSIP (*1/2): One of the great pleasures of teen/youth movies is often their ability to churn out variations on well-worn formulas and be successful even though you know what's going to happen every step of the way. Part of the reason for their effectiveness is that fresh-faced young performers and energetic direction can infuse even the most tired of movie cliches with a vigor that makes one forget that we've all seen the plot a hundred times already.

GOSSIP is a rarity in that it's a teen pseudo-thriller that we haven't seen rehashed to death by now, but it also stars some rather ragged-looking performers who couldn't have gotten in the door for a WB series audition and a couple who look like they're closer suited to being extras in Peter Jackson's upcoming LORD OF THE RINGS than starring in a Noxema ad. Oh, and the fact that the film is badly directed and senseless also doesn't help.

Lena Headey (saddled with a horribly unsexy haircut and wardrobe) plays a "regular Plymouth girl" who enjoys boozing around in the (anonymous) "Big City" with her two male college roommates -- one an arrogant playboy blowing his dad's trust fund on a rooftop apartment that David Fincher would be envious of, the other a strange artisan/hermit who wouldn't be at all out of place sitting in the backdrop of that wretched hive of scum and villainy we call Mos Eisley.

Headey and roomie James Marsden (last spotted in the equally hideous DISTURBING BEHAVIOR) decide to play up a story around campus when Marsden spots virginal good-girl Kate Hudson drunk and fooling around with boyfriend Joshua Jackson (who obviously had time left over from last summer's hiatus of "Dawson's Creek" to cash a check here for five minutes of screen time and an equal amount of lines).

Soon enough, Hudson hears the rumors and becomes convinced she's been raped by Jackson, though that turns out to be the least of Marsden's problems once his old high school tomfoolery comes back to haunt him after Headly takes a drive down to the seedy Connecticut suburb of Danbury and unearths his past.

Once intended to be a higher-profile studio project from Joel Schumacher (whose name remains on the credits as an executive producer), GOSSIP is so erratically directed by first-timer Davis Guggenheim (Elisabeth Shue's husband) and garishly shot that, for once, you actually wish Schumacher was around to infuse some wacky colors and flamboyant artistic design in it. This is one of those "it's raining, we're all wearing black, life sucks" movies right in the same league with SEVEN, FIGHT CLUB, and any other picture that lacks primary colors, and contains more scenes of people running up and down staircases than any film I can recall seeing in my entire life.

At 88 minutes, the film's intriguing but unlikely-from-the-outset premise is completely undone by mind- numbingly large plot holes that had to have been partially the result of editing room butchery. GOSSIP moves from Point A to Point C and shifts the character perspective so much that we don't know who to root for, never mind care about. Since the characters are obnoxious bores and -- perhaps even more importantly for this type of film -- the leads curiously unattractive, GOSSIP doesn't even give us the kind of glamorous, trashy thrills that recent favorites like CRUEL INTENTIONS provided in spades. (It's like having the third- string understudies in the starring roles).

So, is there ANYTHING redeeming in it? Well, Graeme Revell's score has its moments, and the film's ending, improbable as it may seem, is a somewhat interesting twist that a better movie would have taken full advantage of. More character development and a more substantial place for the film's adult characters (particularly Eric Bogosian as a college professor) would have been an asset as well.

You can see where GOSSIP might have once had potential from reading the original script, but lousy execution in direction, casting, and cinematography make for a dreary evening at the movies. (R)

FINAL DESTINATION (***): Better than expected teen horror thriller with a cutting sense of humor, thanks to former X-FILES vets James Wong and Glen Morgan, who co-wrote, produced and directed this spring sleeper hit ($45 million and still going at the U.S. box-office).

Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, and Kerr Smith are the high-schoolers being pursued by the Grim Reaper after Sawa's premonition of a crash on their school's plane trip to Paris ultimately saves their lives -- at least until Death comes back, stalking the would-be crash victims one-by-one.

Wong and Morgan's mostly clever script, based on a story by Jeffrey Reddick, never becomes too maudlin or depressing, and instead adheres to a smart application of genre formulas with numerous doses of black humor spicing up the action (most notably a none-too-subtle use of John Denver songs on the soundtrack!). Larter and Sawa are amiable protagonists in a movie which you're mainly rooting for some of the more obnoxious teen characters to be knocked off, while Tony Todd has a great cameo role as a coroner.

True, the movie does get sillier as it goes along, and has a tacked-on finale that shows -- despite the intriguing plot scenario -- the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner they couldn't quite get out off. Still, FINAL DESTINATION is a surprisingly smart and effective chiller for much of its duration, and if we HAVE to receive an obligatory sequel to a teen horror film, at least I wouldn't mind seeing one produced on the heels of a worthy original. (R)

THE SKULLS (**1/2): Teen variant on THE FIRM was heavily scrutinized by critics for its juvenile plot and lack of believable characters -- but what were they expecting, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR? This silly and at times gleefully absurd youth thriller is at least as good as the bottom half of the John Grisham adaptations and presents solid, mindless entertainment for kids and other, undiscriminating viewers (who shall remain almost nameless).

Joshua Jackson (seen briefly above in GOSSIP) gets his first top-billed performance as a student at a "Ivy League college in Southern New England that's not Brown" who is indoctrinated into a hush-hush society so secretive that they place a big Skulls logo on the top of their fraternity house. Leslie Bibb, of the surprising hit series "Popular," makes for a cute, believable heroine to compliment Jackson's typical "happy-go-lucky" persona, while Craig T.Nelson and William Petersen appear as two of the most powerful "Skull" members.

It's all ridiculous, unbelievable, and predictable from the get-go, but director Rob Cohen (DRAGON, DRAGONHEART) has been to the brink of "A list" directors and back, and obviously was hungry enough to infuse sufficient energy in this trite material to make it work. He also dragged Randy Edelman along to do the score, resulting in a polished production that's a guilty pleasure from start to end. (PG-13)

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (***): William Friedkin's first downright watchable movie in many years benefits from solid performances by Tommy Lee Jones (finally not just reprising his FUGITIVE role again), Samuel L.Jackson, and Guy Pearce in an interesting military courtroom thriller that's entertaining even if it never dives beneath the surface of its characters' lives. Friedkin's direction is a bit uneven as it seemingly always is, and the movie seems to have been pared down from a much longer cut, but even at its current length, this is a workmanlike, entertaining picture that gets a out of mileage out of its lead performances. (R)


NEXT TIME: A cavalcade of MGM DVDs from SHOWGIRLS to BLUE VELVET and FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE! Until then, excelsior!


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