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Back to the October Country

Thoughts on the new EXORCIST, news on the LEGEND release, and the Mailbag on THE FANTASTICKS as October arrives again

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

As the latest classic movie undergoes a big-screen revision (though this EXORCIST -- reviewed below -- works better than other recent "Special Editions"), I guess we shouldn't be too surprised that it has taken not just variations on older films but older films themselves to ignite a stale box-office still reeling from a lost summer filled with underperforming bombs.

The good news is that, while theaters remain somewhat cool, the action is heating up on DVD, with lots of new releases arriving each week. Check the DVD round-up for the latest goodies, plus the Soapbox for news on LEGEND, as we celebrate the first week of October in New England with all the time-honored traditions: fall foliage, chilly morning air, apple picking, and rooting against the Yankees winning another World Series! As always, feel free to email me at dursina@att.net if you feel so inclined.


In Theaters

THE EXORCIST (****): Not knowing how a packed audience of college students would react to the new re-edit of William Friedkin's groundbreaking 1973 horror classic, I sat pretty much in stunned silence last weekend as kids used to gore but little genuine scares from today's genre flicks sat quietly, patiently and spellbound by a movie that remains as fresh and potent today as it did decades ago.

This tale of possession, shot in a documentary style by Friedkin and filled with tremendous performances (including Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max Von Sydow, and Lee J.Cobb), is obviously best remembered for cute little Linda Blair becoming inhabited by a demon that enjoys spewing buckets of pea soup and spouting endless profanities, but the other elements of the film have been just as intriguing and mysterious for me: the opening sequence of Von Sydow in Iraq, the strange coincidences and unexplained appearance of the "demon," and the religious themes which resonate throughout the movie.

It helps that the new version of the picture -- which adds a fantastic new Dolby Digital soundtrack and some 10 minutes of footage author/screenwriter/ producer William Peter Blatty never wanted excised but director Friedkin did -- actually has more narrative shape and moves more coherently than Friedkin's original version. True, the first cut of THE EXORCIST was a classic, but some theological dialogue between priests Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller was cut against Blatty's wishes, as were scenes involving Linda Blair being examined by doctors that were referred to in the finished cut but never previously shown.

These sequences have been restored to the picture, along with the infamous "spider walk" sequence (the film's significant digitally-enhanced scene) -- a great new shock-scare moment further enhanced by additional "subliminal image" shots (one of which is neatly added to the film's climax). However, it's not just effects that make the scene's addition noteworthy: coming at the height of Burstyn's increasing paranoia, the spider-walk works perfectly as a progression of horror following the discovery of filmmaker Burke Jennings' death.

The best addition, however, is an expanded finale with Cobb and priest William S. O' Malley that poignantly closes the film on a note that Friedkin's rather uneasy, original final shot was unable to do. The sound editing for the conclusion -- which intriguingly includes a note of the film's opening Iraq music -- is also effectively different in this version, and it seems that additional music has been added here and there to other, various moments as well.

Now, I've already read die-hard fans of the film complaining about the alterations, but there certainly seems to be more point to the mostly-narrative enhancements found in this new, expanded EXORCIST than in the purely-cosmetic changes George Lucas made to "Star Wars." In some ways, this "Author's Cut" is the movie Blatty all the while, and obviously Friedkin -- who just a few years ago vehemently objected to the changes in a documentary produced for DVD -- must have realized how well the new cut works in allowing it to go forward, something validated by the wide public acceptance the movie is finding in theaters.

Still scary, still thought-provoking, and a must-see for many of us who never had the chance to be freaked out by THE EXORCIST the first time around. (R)

REMEMBER THE TITANS (***): The unlikely collaboration between the Walt Disney Pictures brand name and producer Jerry Bruckheimer results in a feel-good football drama, the true story of a Virginia high school football team in the early '70s fighting racial prejudice as well as their on-field opponents.

Denzel Washington is terrific as a black coach designated to take over the racially polarized Alexandria school district's football squad, while Will Patton -- as the white coach relegated to a backup role with Washington's arrival -- ends up helping bring races together in a movie that is every bit as corny, syrupy, and saccharine as you might anticipate from a Disney release, but also highly entertaining nevertheless.

The performances of the youthful cast go a long way to making this a perfect family film, as does Boaz Yakin's crisp filmmaking and Trevor Rabin's score. I could have done without the one-too-many Motown sing-alongs (didn't we put the cinematic kibosh on such cliched sequences years ago?), and the movie could have used a bit more action on the field, but at a movie-going time where good movies are a precious few, REMEMBER THE TITANS is solid entertainment and a moving true story that deserves to be seen. (PG)


Andy's Soapbox: The Official word on LEGEND and other musings

It is official! On November 21st, Universal will finally unveil the long-awaited, much-requested DVD presentation of Ridley Scott's uneven but cinematically lush LEGEND in the studio's first double-disc set: disc one WILL include a longer version of the movie with Jerry Goldsmith's score (Yes, Virginia, there is a DVD Santa Claus!), plus commentary, a documentary feature, the entire script on DVD-ROM, and plenty of other goodies, including a presentation of the still-excised "fairy dance" sequence with Goldsmith's score running under still-photos. For sadists (or comparison's sake), the terrible 90-minute U.S. cut with Tangerine Dream's hideous score will be included on the second disc. Retail is $34.98 but look for pre-order deals. Should be worth the long, long wait!

I don't know what Disney was smoking when they concocted THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE, but this December animated release looks like a pile of trash ready to try parents' patience everywhere. A troubled production that has undergone more story changes than you can count on two hands, the trailer looks completely unfunny (the voice of David Spade!), unmusical (most of Sting's songs bit the cutting room floor), and with curiously barren animation -- leading one to think the studio might have been better off making this a small-screen release.

Speaking of Disney animation, the DVD of THE BLACK CAULDRON hits stores this week in its first-ever, official widescreen video release, but while the transfer is good, the print used is inexplicably filled with speckles and other blemishes. I take it the studio really did treat this 1985 semi-disappointment as a second class citizen among their animated features.


DVD

The evolution of life can mean a lot of things, but two sure signs that times are changing come when movie stars decide that it's time to land a role in a sitcom, and when former cult-comedians opt to make a children's film for the heck of it.

Last spring's surprising box-office hit SNOW DAY (***, $29.98) may end up being the "Snowball Express" for today's generation of pre-teens and under, but for a lot of elder viewers, it sure looked strange that Chris Elliott and Chevy Chase were headlining a goofy, bubblegum kid-pic from Nickelodeon Movies.

As it turns out, this inoffensive and ridiculous comedic fantasy about what can transpire during one of those coveted off-days from school (set in Syracuse but shot in Alberta, Canada) is a bright and energetic picture, filled with laughs for kids and fans of the former, respective stars of "Saturday Night Live" and the early (and best) years of "Late Night With David Letterman."

Elliott, as a sadistic snow plow driver, seems more at ease in his character than he did in his first (and so far only other) top-billed comedy -- the wildly uneven "Cabin Boy" -- and has a great time essaying the kind of numskull who he once portrayed to convincing effect back on Letterman's show. Chase, meanwhile, gets some decent mileage out of an easy-going weatherman role whose kids (Mark Webber, Zena Grey) form the basic thrust of the film's plot. There's a teen romance and lots of kids hyjinks, but the script by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi boasts a fair amount of laughs, including a great sight gag involving a skating rink owner whose owner is enamored with Al Martino.

Paramount's DVD features a solid 1.85 transfer and lively Dolby Digital track highlighting a frothy score by Steve Bartek. Perhaps unexpected due to the movie's highly profitable theatrical run, there are a handful of supplements that kids will enjoy, including featurettes and brief interview clips that ran on Nick, along with a sort-of-lazy commentary from director Chris Koch and the screenwriters. Pretty fun -- and no, I don't think I'm losing my mind!

Also newly out from Paramount this week is the Tommy Lee Jones-Samuel L. Jackson military courtroom drama RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (***, $29.98), director William Friedkin's box-office hit that --along with the re-issue of "The Exorcist" -- has helped make this year the director's most successful one since the first release of his 1973 horror classic.

A workman-like but highly involving suspenser, the movie's at-times claustrophobic settings work to its advantage, highlighting the superb performance of Tommy Lee Jones as a military lawyer called for one last case involving pal Samuel L.Jackson, accused of killing civilians during a tough peacekeeping mission in the Middle East. Jackson is likewise terrific, as is Guy Pearce as the prosecutor and Ben Kingsley as the American ambassador Jackson's squadron is sent to rescue.

Friedkin, shooting his first movie in widescreen since "Sorcerer," does make decent use of the 2.35 Panavision frame (the film was photographed by William A.Fraker with additional scenes shot by Nicola Perocini in Italy, where the bulk of the action was filmed), and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is crisp and efficient, featuring a solid score by Mark Isham. Paramount's DVD also features a featurette and interviews, along with commentary from Friedkin, who's as engaging and argumentative than ever in his discussion here.

While the movie was profitable enough in theaters, look for RULES OF ENGAGEMENT to be a solid performer on video, where the intimate nature of the film's story may work better than it did on the big screen.

Anchor Bay has been keeping busy releasing a steady collection of diverse fare, including a deluxe digital remaster of EVIL DEAD II (***, $29.98) in a crisp new THX transfer, Dolby Digital 5.1 remixed sound, with audio commentary from Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi and other crew members, a featurette, trailer, and other goodies. One of everyone's favorite horror flicks, this is the best-looking and sounding presentation of the genre staple to date, released perfectly to coincide with Halloween.

Meanwhile, the '80s have not been forgotten by the label, with excellent widescreen presentations newly issued for the 1986 Steve Guttenberg-Elizabeth McGovern thriller THE BEDROOM WINDOW (***, $29.98) and the underrated Michael Pare-Nancy Allen sci-fi fantasy THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT (***, $29.98) leading the way.

WINDOW, executive-produced by Robert Towne and directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential"), is an enjoyable Hitchcock-like thriller whose entertainment is enhanced by Anchor Bay's 2.35 transfer of the movie's anamorphic Panavision cinematography. The score, credited to Michael Shrieve and Patrick Gleeson, is a product of the time, but the movie remains effective, even if the ugly box-art tries desperately to avoid telling us that Guttenberg is the top-billed star!

Originally a John Carpenter project (his name remains on the movie as executive producer), the 1984 New World release THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT is solid, B-grade sci-fi, a time-travel fantasy with the same kind of WWII-into-the-future premise as the Kirk Douglas epic "The Final Countdown." The 1.85 transfer is solid, the 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed sound works fine, and there's a needlessly overlong trailer included for good measure. Fun stuff!


Mail Bag

>From Robert Reneau <adamhart@earthlink.net>

    Given its five year stay on the shelf (the end credit copyright reads 1995-2000) and Michael Ritchie's previous oeuvre, ranging from smart, cynical and ragged films of the 70s to visually incompetent hackwork of the 80s and 90s, I assumed that the movie of The Fantasticks would be an unreleasable, unwatchable, visually nightmarish disaster.

    But it isn't. Far from it. The Fantasticks is beautiful looking, its widescreen landscapes fondly bringing back memories of the Smallville scene sfrom Superman. The small cast is populated with actors who can sing, a rarity in recent movie musicals. The film is sweet, confident, simple, and genuinely heartwarming.

    It is a seeming impossibility, a movie musical the way they used to make them, or at least the way they used to try to make them, but rarely succeeded. Not an overproduced cacaphonous mess, like Annie or most of the films that tried to ape the success of The Sound of Music, it was produced at exactly the right scale. It's hard to believe it's from the same Michael Ritchie. I mean, my God, did you see The Island? The Golden Child? Cops and Robbersons? And if so, why?

    The question is not why the studio kept it on the shelf for so long, but why they bothered to make it in the first place if all they were going to do was shelve it. The Fantasticks isn't for everyone, but those very few people who actually want to see an old-fashioned movie version of a stage musical should absolutely love this movie.

    The problem is, most people hate musicals. Watching people burst into song on a movie screen makes them physically uncomfortable. They want to laugh, or look away in embarrassment.

    I can only assume that the movie was made at MGM/UA during John Calley's brief tenure, which brought us Goldeneye, Get Shorty and The Birdcage. Pretty much everything before Calley (Hackers, Tank Girl) and after him (The Rage: Carrie 2, Supernova, Autumn in New York, At First Sight, Molly) has been, well, shit, and the current regime was probably embarrassed by Fantasticks, since it doesn't have that cutting edge hipness of their smash hit youth films like Tank Girl or Carrie 2 (pardon my heavy-handed irony).

    And as to Coppola's recutting, the released version (which I just saw at the AMC Century City in Los Angeles) doesn't have the ragged feel of most re-edited films. The movie is surprisingly calm, quiet, and perfectly controlled. If you actually like musicals (and I know I'm one of the few people who love both stage musicals and movie scores) I highly recommend it.

    But I don't blame you for assuming the movie is a disaster. I did, for the last five years.

Bob, I do like musicals and am looking forward to seeing the finished film, whatever version it happens to be in. Andy Seiler had a good article in USA Today last week about the picture, and it indicated that the movie would be released on DVD in the current, released version (basically Coppola's re-edit), and would also include ALL footage and songs Ritchie had shot, at least as a supplement if not an alternate version altogether. There's a January release listed for the tape release, so it would make sense that the DVD would arrive at the same time.

>From Christopher Field <Christopher.Field@AllianceAtlantis.com>

    I had to laugh at your comments about the new DVD of The Final Conflict. Even funnier was the disc itself. I just rented it for a night to hear the director's commentary. I was curious if he would admit he'd made a pretty lame movie, and also wanted to hear his comments about Goldsmith's awesome score. While he does mention the score a few times, more often we're treated to insightful comments like: "Boy it was cold that day..." or "It was very dark that night...", punctuated by long periods of silence! I think that says something about the movie! And proves that not every film needs a blow by blow commentary.

    GREAT score though! I hope FSM someday do the score justice by releasing an extended and better Sounding new CD of this and the first two Omens. Damien--Omen II especially Suffers in its re-recorded LP & CD versions. Too bad Fox didn't see fit to include isolated scores, but I guess we can't have everything can we?

Chris, Graham Baker's commentary makes John Carpenter's previous low-benchmarks-for-audio-commentaries seem like great college lectures by comparison. I got the feeling Fox tried hard to include supplements on the OMEN DVDs but that the commentaries didn't need to happen. Fortunately, producer Harvey Bernhard's comments on DAMIEN OMEN II are a bit more interesting, and he does get into the firing of director Mike Hodges early on, elaborating on it to some degree (admitting that the domestic sequences with William Holden's clan were a subplot that didn't work).

As far as isolated scores go, if you can find the OMEN 20TH ANNIVERSARY laserdisc, there's a great isolated score there (in stereo sans effects!) that even includes Goldsmith music excised from the final cut.

NEXT WEEK...The usual shenanigans. Enjoy your candy-corn, fearless readers -- Excelsior!


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