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Aisle Seat Baseball Opener Edition Y2K

DVD Round-Up and a Plethora of Reader Mail!

By Andy Dursin

Even though we say this seemingly every year, and despite another game performance from host Billy Crystal, last week's Oscars (and I'm beginning to groan just thinking of them) really had to set a new low in the history of this program. True enough, the show didn't offer us the miracle of Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White, although watching brother Chad weep when wife Hilary Swank received her Oscar wasn't much of an alternative.

That was the problem this year: the program tried to be so "serious," not even attempt to do something that would provoke unintended laughs, that it was merely boring. And endless. The video monitors and "techno" soundtrack tried to create the impression that this truly was a different, all-new, better Oscars for 2000, but sadly, it was just as inept and duller than it ever had been before. Add Peter Coyote in a headset and you had the recipe for disaster.

One of the celebrated films honored with a primary Oscar was BOYS DON'T CRY (***, $34.98, Fox), which brought Swank -- best known for starring as THE NEXT KARATE KID and a half-season's worth of 90210 as Steve Sanders's girlfriend -- the Academy Award for Best Actress. Truth be told, I thought there was something slightly off-putting about her acceptance speech (she seemed more annoyed than overjoyed to receive it; perhaps it's not in her range to weep the way past Oscar recipients Gwenyth Paltrow and Mira Sorvino did), but to give credit where it's due, Swank is surprisingly convincing in this chronicle of a girl that decides to dress and live as a boy in a sleepy Nebraska down during the 1980s.

Based on the true story of Teena Brandon (or Brandon Teena), I figured from having seen her past work that Swank would be too feminine for the part, but solid directorial work by Kimberly Pierce and a strong performance by the actress put the movie over. It's a difficult, tough movie to sit through (with a script containing several inaccuracies in contrast to what actually happened), but you have to credit all involved with handling a controversial subject matter sensitively and smartly. The film is slow at times but if you're not turned off by the subject matter, BOYS DON'T CRY makes for a rewarding view.

Fox's DVD, due out April 18th, features Peirce's interesting audio commentary, a featurette, trailer, and a few TV spots. The 1.85:1, 16:9 enhanced transfer is good and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is effectively rendered.

From a real-life horror story to the genre of the macabre itself, Image has released a thrilling presentation of one of the most enjoyable early '70s "Creature Features," HORROR EXPRESS (***, $24.98).

One of the latter teamings of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, this Spanish-British international co-production has a terrific plot that blends a plot scenario worthy of Irwin Allen with Hammer-esque thrills: a creature is discovered by anthropologist Lee in Asia, and its subsequent transportation on the Trans- Siberian railroad results in a series of murders and bizarre occurrences that Lee and rival scientist Cushing attempt to solve. Telly Savalas, pre-KOJAK, co-stars in this wild, woolly thriller, shot on a modest budget but effectively handled by director Eugenio Martin.

The film is briskly paced, offers an entertaining ride and a twist-filled script, punctuated by dependable performances by the leads and an effective score by John Cacavas. It's silly but great fun, delivered by Image on DVD in a presentation that's the best the movie has ever looked on video before: the 1.66:1 transfer is crisp and colorful, with only some flaws in the source material evident at times (speckles, dirt, etc.). However, for anyone who sat through the movie on video or on UHF television years ago, the transfer is as good as HORROR EXPRESS can get. The mono soundtrack is perfectly acceptable and a music/effects track is also included as a bonus.

As Marc Walkow's insightful liner notes point out, HORROR EXPRESS was the best of the '70s collaborations between the two stars that shot Hammer to fame and fortune years before, and it remains a favorite for many fans of the genre. Recommended!

Also from Image comes another B-movie staple that I vividly recall watching on Channel 56 (WLVI Boston)'s "Creature Double Feature" during the early '80s: THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON (**, $24.98), a cautionary 1959 tale of scientific exploration with Robert Clarke as a physicist, exposed to radiation, who turns into a ghoulish looking monster when triggered by the sun!

A perfect example of the kind of wacky monster movie made famous during the 1950s, HIDEOUS SUN DEMON was an "indie" film for its day, directed by the star on a budget Ed Wood would have been familiar with. Still, the laughs are certainly in place for first-time viewers, while those old enough to remember the era (or having seen it as a child) will look upon the movie with an appropriately glowing sense of nostalgia.

Image's DVD is full-frame and contains liner notes culled from a Clarke biography, and while the print appears a bit banged-up, it likely never looked clearer than it does here.

Shifting from the silly to Spielberg, more signs that the auteur is gradually lifting his previous ban on DVD can be seen from Columbia TriStar's recent DVD of his overproduced though entertaining 1991 fantasy HOOK (***, $24.98), with Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan, Dustin Hoffman as the title villain, Bob Hoskins as Smee, Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, and Gwenyth Paltrow as a young Maggie Smith.

Noted for what may be Spielberg's last film shot in Panavision, HOOK boasts colorful cinematography by Dean Cundey, who collaborated with Spielberg for a time on this production and JURASSIC PARK (and even though he might have won Oscars, I still prefer the look of Cundey's pictures to the obscure filtering used at times by subsequent Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski).

Portions of the movie are great fun, but there are a lot of questionable plot elements (the skateboarding kids feel alarmingly reminiscent of THE GOONIES) that tend to get in the way of the entertainment. Spielberg's early films had an atmospheric, shot-on-location feel, but HOOK, despite its lavish sets and expansive artistic design, is too set-bound for its own good. Perhaps this was the movie that stirred Spielberg to get back to cinematic realism visually if not from a narrative standpoint (turns out SCHINDLER'S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN did both), since while there are magical passages in HOOK, this is the kind of film that might have had more bite if it was produced earlier in the filmmaker's career.

Despite the excessiveness of the production, HOOK does boast splendid visuals courtesy of Cundey and a wonderful score by John Williams that's the best thing in the movie. The sequence recounting Pan's childhood is a marvelous set-piece and Williams's score truly soars, something that HOOK as a movie only does intermittently.

Columbia's DVD, fortunately, accentuates the positive with a beautiful, new 2.35:1 transfer (enhanced for 16:9 televisions) that improves substantially on the earlier letterboxed laserdisc release. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack boasts plenty of dimensionality and enhances Williams's score along the way. While not a full-fledged Special Edition, Columbia has included the movie's original trailer (not the teaser with the original Williams "Prologue" cue but rather temp-music cobbled together from THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK) and cast biographies to round out the package.

Unlike some of Universal's Spielberg DVDs (notably ALWAYS), Columbia's HOOK gives you a remastered soundtrack and picture transfer, and for aficionados of the filmmaker like myself, it's a must- purchase despite the unevenness of the source.


Mail Bag:

Readers on the Current State of Film Music, MISSION TO MARS and THE SIXTH SENSE (Spoilers Way Below!)

From Cprokofiev@aol.com:

    I'd just like to let you know that I agree with you about the the current state of soundtracks. I thought your Aisle Seat article on Mission to Mars was right on the money about where film music has gone in the last few years. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by your incisive piece as I generally do not see eye to eye with you on films.

    I haven't seen Mission to Mars, but I'm quite interested in Morricone's score after reading what you had to say about it. I have wondered in the past why you haven't made more mention of music in your reviews (after all, you are a writer for Film SCORE monthly), but after your lengthy explanation, I understood why. It gives me such joy to hear praise from a soundtrack enthusiast about music that was written for a contemporary film rather than a re-issue (I don't want to bitch too much about these wonderful companies resurrecting gems like SUPERMAN, but I am concerned when there is more excitement over 20 year old scores because the music was a helluva lot better).

    One point I must add to why most new film scores are inferior to the '70's scores is the over abundant use of percussion. Just look at any action score these days- every scene has got pounding drums to hammer home the drama. Sheesh. Then look at something like Superman, where Williams used tons of ostinatos to generate tension and excitement. I don't want to single out Hans Zimmer's school of film composition, but really, most of those fellows should go easy on the drums.

    If we pin-point what made most of us get into listening to soundtracks, it was based on great melodies (Star Wars, Papillon, The Sea Hawk), intriguing harmonies (Pelman 1,2,3, anything by Alex North), and some funky textural things (Planet of the Apes, Alien3). Sure, rhythm has been an inegral part of these scores too, but not necessarily performed on percussion instruments. Look at all of Goldmsith's great cues which involved cross-rhythms, or Williams' 70's output. The best example is the "Growing Up" cue from SUPERMAN. A great piece of music with NO DRUMS. The horns and strings do all the work and it kicks ass! Or listen to "Reno Ho" from COBB where, again, the orchestra creates as much tension as anything I can think of, AND there's a fleshed out theme to boot!

    All of this gets back to what you said about how Morricone's score seems out of place by today's standards because it has a more lyrical sound to it. I hope that directors and/or composers get back to the predominance of melody and harmony over this pounding drum school of film scoring. A few years back, John Tesh declared in Keyboard Magazine: "it's not music if there are no drums". I certainly hope film composers rail against this moron's ideology. Otherwise we've got some dark days ahead of us.

Thanks CP, I totally agree with your sentiments.

Meanwhile, we had plenty of reaction to my column about MISSION TO MARS and Morricone's score (which I felt was one of his best, and you can check out by clicking HERE. Here's a sampling...

From Jeffswim@aol.com:

    I think I am the only person who really enjoyed "Mission to Mars." Yes, some of the dialogue is hokey, and the interstellar romance between Tim Robbins and his wife were a little too contrived. But the action never reached the possible levels of "Armageddon" or even "Apollo 13." It stayed with a human touch, especially with Ennio Morricone's score. I personally loved the organ during the race to patch the hole in the station. It never reached tense levels (it reminded me of "Waiting at the Border" from his "The Untouchables" score). I'm not a fan of Morricone's so I can't judge this score, but I think it should rank as one of his best. Had Jerry Goldsmith or even Alan Silvestri done this score you can bet the music would have been too intrusive. The alien at the end was unoriginal, but other than that a great movie with action, instead of a poor action movie, in the hands of producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

From Brian Donohue <bjdonohue@erols.com>

    It isn't that I didn't like the score to Mission To Mars. It just seemed to me that it was in the wrong film. Morricone has a distinctive sound, to be sure. Unfortunately it is not one I feel is well suited to the film. It's just that, for me anyway, Morricone's music sounds too "European." I think the movie would have been better served by something more "Coplandesque." It kind of reminded me of another recent film, scored by Andrea Morricone (Ennio's son?), Liberty Heights. Not a bad movie and an ok score but as I watched it, I kept thinking "what happened Barry (Levinson, the director)?, couldn't you get Randy Newman?" It seems to me that it is often the case where a score is better than the film it was written for. Take last year's Angela's Ashes, for example. The difference in this case is William's score did fit the film. Morricone's, however good it may be apart from it, just doesn't. From Jeremy Moniz (deviantman@aol.com):

    I was wondering myself when I listened to Morricone's score for MTM why it had this unique serine sound unlike most of his work. And maybe his constant use of the PASACAGLIA as the compositional form not applied to this score could be it. This could be Morricone's new "breakthrough" in scoring that might bring back originality to the music once again..... well only if were lucky. Because in listening to this music I didn't recognize past Morricone works and it isn't cliche. Resulting in a fresh work that only score listeners would pick up on. I'm glad you also saw something special in this score.

Thanks Jeremy. Other folks were kind enough to send in their comments but due to space we'll have to run them next week, so look for more talk about this score then.

In regards to our final letter of the week, there are SPOILERS about THE SIXTH SENSE below, so again, do NOT READ if you haven't seen the film!

From Dan Hobgood <dhobgood@richmond.edu>

    I wanted to reply to the reply about THE SIXTH SENSE. First of all, this is the best picture of the year, and it is a discredit to the Academy that James Newton Howard was not nominated. Frankly among the current nominees, Howard's work is better. It just goes to show that even the composers nowadays don't even recognize a good score when they hear one (And folks wonder why scores aren't good nowadays....) The film will acheive Hitchockian immortality in years to come, long after everyone has forgotten other Best Picture nominees. I'll bank on it. And this film will pass the test of time because of the film's humanity that this reply touched on. The film is about a beautiful relationship between someone who needs help and someone who can help. The surprise ending is not that Malcolm is a ghost himself, but that it is Malcolm who most needed the help and that Cole was the one who could provide him the service. Like the respondant said himself, I could go on forever about this.... But one point--did Cole know Malcolm was dead all along?...I don't think he did. There certainly was a point where he seemed to (that last conversation for instance), but I think that Cole had to figure it out much like we did. That was the purpose of the Winter Coat. If Cole saw Malcolm at the beginning (did he?) on the way to church, I think that Cole may just have been intimidated...or afraid that he might see a ghost on the way to the church (if that is where he was headed intentionally, or wherever else he was going). I just felt like Cole was fooled as we were fooled. Gosh, I sure hope that no one who has not seen the film read this. I do wish that each of us who has seen it could have done so without knowing anything in advance. Then we would all have felt fully the power of the finale's events. I'm going to listen to the album now; it's been a while, and I love being reminded of just how great a film THE SIXTH SENSE is.

Having just watched the DVD last night, I completely agree with all of Dan's comments. So much was made of the movie's "twist ending" that I think a few viewers neglected to pick up on the subtly uplifting, lyrical message of the picture. The ending is not so much of a dark twist as it is a celebration, a release for the Willis character, allowing him to move on and his wife as well. The relationship between Cole and Malcolm is eloquently handled, and I think the reason why so many people re-viewed the picture, and why THE SIXTH SENSE will endure as a classic film, is because the messages of the picture totally come clear on repeat viewing. The first time around you are jarred by the ghosts and trying to figure out the narrative puzzle. The second time, you see how touching the picture is and the positive messages that the film imparts.

I also agree completely about Newton Howard's score, which is restrained and exactly what the picture needed. It should have been nominated for an Oscar at the very least, and I was even more impressed with it the second time around. Buena Vista's DVD, by the way, includes a featurette with Newton Howard and director M.Night Shymalan discussing the score and the sound design, along with deleted scenes (including a wisely unused extension of the ending) and other goodies.


NEXT WEEK: THE LIMEY on DVD, and more of your comments. Direct all emails to me at dursina@att.net and we'll see you next time!


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