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Aisle Seat ID4 Round-Up!

From THE PATRIOT to THE PERFECT STORM, reviews of five new movies

Plus: The Return of the REAL John Williams?

By Andy Dursin

Although there has been much to appreciate in John Williams's recent works, I can understand the feelings of many listeners that the "old John Williams"-- the one who some of us grew up with, listening to heroic symphonic scores like "Star Wars" and "Superman" -- hasn't been heard from recently at the movies.

While I have enjoyed scores like "Sleepers" and "Seven Years in Tibet," I agree that the old-style Williams -- the lyrical, melodic, straightforward approach he once utilized on countless scores in the late '70s and '80s -- has been absent from most of his dense scores for primarily dramatic, as opposed to escapist, entertainments.

While this has not been a great year for film music (Morricone's "Mission to Mars," Angelo Badalamenti's fine score for "The Beach" and David Arnold's "Shaft" are my favorites so far), the good news is that THE PATRIOT marks, in many ways, a return of the "old" John Williams. This is a score steeped in Americana, with a beautiful violin theme representing the familial relationships in this revolutionary war picture, and a buoyant, upbeat march -- a variant on "Far & Away" and Williams's "Liberty Fanfare" -- sustaining the film's patriotic, climactic sequences.

The score is rousing and upbeat -- two elements missing from a lot of Williams's work in a general sense of late, and while there are powerful, string-driven passages that recall "Born on the Fourth of July," this is, musically, a far more interesting and listenable score than many of Williams's works from the last few years, and may be my favorite work of the composer's since the original "Jurassic Park."

It may not win the Oscar, but THE PATRIOT is a superior score than "Saving Private Ryan" and, at last, a soundtrack that's worth the purchase in a year that hasn't done many favors for film music fans. And for John Williams, it's a reminder that the master hasn't lost his touch.


New in Theaters

THE PATRIOT (***1/2): Neither as blatantly flag-waving, "Braveheart"-inspired, or corny as you might have expected, this Revolutionary War action-drama from Roland Emmerich is inspired entertainment, beautifully shot by the great Caleb Deschanel ("The Black Stallion," "The Right Stuff") and splendidly scored by John Williams, in what ranks as one of the maestro's most satisfying works in several years.

Mel Gibson delivers a terrific performance (no, he doesn't go around shouting "freedom!") as a family man thrust into the conflict between American colonists and the British army, overseen by the stuffy but far from cartoonish General Cornwallis (the terrific Tom Wilkinson), whose one particular general (the truly dastardly Jason Isaacs) does enough damage to Gibson's clan to lure the former solider back into the military fray.

With equal parts intensity and sympathy, Gibson reminds us how effective and wide-ranging his performances can be, and anchors THE PATRIOT with a personal touch amongst the epic backdrop. In that category, director Emmerich succeeds in telling a historical drama with just enough actual people and events that will lure curious viewers to seek out more information on the subject matter ("read more about it", as they used to say on Saturday morning TV).

The real heroes of the movie, in addition to Gibson, are Deschanel, whose vivid photography paints a picture in nearly every scene, and Williams, who contributes a winning, rousing score perfectly complimenting the emotion and expansiveness of the drama. With so many of Williams's recent works being created for dense, personal dramas, it's refreshing to hear the composer harken back to a fresh, lyrical approach, equal parts sweeping Americana, uplifting "Liberty Fanfare," and "Born on the Fourth of July" all at once.

One could argue that Robert Rodat's screenplay never quite dives into the intricate reasons as to why anyone other than Mel was fighting this war, but at 160 minutes, it's unlikely that the movie's pacing wouldn't have been slowed down further by drawing-room histrionics.

With sterling support turned in by Heath Ledger (as Gibson's eldest son), Chris Cooper (as an American revolutionary war general) and Tcheky Karyo as a French soldier, THE PATRIOT provides rousing entertainment with a marvelous visual gloss that makes for ideal summer-time movie going, and a perfect Independence Day film that doesn't completely insult your intelligence for a change. (R, 164 minutes)

THE PERFECT STORM (***): Great visual effects are the main attraction of this sea-faring adventure, based on a true story and bestselling book that chronicled an ill-fated October, 1991 voyage of a Glocester, Ma. fishing boat that lost its way in the middle of a multi-tiered storm that besieged the waters way, way off New England.

Wolfgang Petersen's film offers George Clooney as the gruff captain, Mark Wahlberg as a rookie fisherman, and John C.Reilly and William Fichtner as other members of the Andrea Gail, whose story here forms what ultimately becomes a sheer visual extravaganza, with the boat being pounded by 100 ft. waves and gail force winds in an effort to return to port with a payload of fish.

Petersen's direction, John Seales' cinematography and James Horner's polished score bring home the goods, and the ILM special effects are riveting and, generally, quite realistic (some animation of the divers in the ocean still look a little jumpy, not unlike the CGI Jawas in the "Star Wars" Special Edition release). The performances are basically compelling, with nice character turns from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Ironside assisting Clooney and Wahlberg's solid, mostly restrained work as the leads.

What ultimately doesn't work in the film is the script, credited to "Lonesome Dove" scribe Bill Wittliff. The film's melodrama and Hollywoodized portrayal of the working-class is rather patronizing, filled with cliches (the overweight woman who runs the bar, the bearded "old salt" who knows the sea) and insipid dialogue that provoked a few chuckles from the audience I watched the movie with ("I know where to find the fish!"). Too-pretty Diane Lane never seems convincing as Wahlberg's girlfriend, while most of the cast struggles with the accents, which veer from down east Maine to Massachusetts' "bah" and "cah" (that's bar and car to you and me). I also would have liked more information on the storm itself, and some maps to explain the location of the events (at one point, Petersen's constant use of subtitles will confuse even the most seasoned of Atlantic navigators).

THE PERFECT STORM works on a level of "wow, look at that!" visual spectacle, but because the dramatic element to the film never comes together, there's hardly any resonance to the pre-ordained conclusion, which seems inordinately gushy when it arrives. Still, in a summer that's been water-logged with under-performing wannabes, Petersen's picture offers sufficient entertainment for thrill-seekers. (PG- 13, 127 minutes)

ME, MYSELF & IRENE (**): The Farrelly Brothers reunion with Jim Carrey and their first directorial outing since "There's Something About Mary" is a disappointing, labored farce that has a been-there-done- that feeling straight from the get-go. Carrey -- as a schizophrenic Rhode Island state trooper hiding a golf course designer (Rene Zellwegger) on the lam from crooks -- has performed most of this picture's physical comedy work already in LIAR, LIAR, while the Farrellys' patented raunchy humor never becomes as inspired or funny as their earlier gross-out outings.

With those elements failing to come together, you're left with a sorry excuse for a comedy, accentuated by the typically inadequate technical elements that mark every Farrelly outing, including a terribly unfunny, stiff supporting cast, interminable non-comic sequences establishing the plot, an annoying hard-rock soundtrack, and a cut-and-paste script that -- guess what? -- once again takes the form of a road trip movie, struggling to hold water from gag to gag and running on well past its welcome at 117 minutes.

Here, however, the Farrellys's script (written along with Mike Cerrone, part of a family of slimy RI car dealers who all, tellingly, appear throughout the film) just doesn't work. The big gags in the movie seem to be all too obviously patented after their previous vulgar punchlines (an encounter with a cow, and an albino, simply don't get the job done), while Carrey phones in a routine performance with a story and script that lets him -- and his considerable comedic and dramatic talents -- down at every turn. Zellwegger, meanwhile, can do little to make her character endearing or even slightly appealing. The only genuine laughs come from Carrey's three street-talking black sons, a plot device that would have been less insulting had there been any other minorities in the film.

Given the script and Carrey's adroit comic skills, ME, MYSELF & IRENE seemed to have the makings of a hilarious no-brainer summer comedy, but this year, perhaps it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the end product comes across as a total waste of your movie-going dollars. (R, 117 mins).

CHICKEN RUN (***): Nick Park and Peter Lord, the "Wallace and Grommit" creators, strike gold with their first feature film, a daffy Dreamworks claymation effort that's more amusing than funny, but also sophisticated enough to work for adults as well as children.

Set on a farm that might as well be a "chicken concentration camp" -- through the story's allusions to "Stalag 17," "The Great Escape" and countless other pictures that buffs will appreciate -- this fine-feathered tale focuses on how a group of determined hens decide to literally fly the coop with the help of an American Rhode Island Red rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson) before the farm owners open their automated system that'll turn the protagonists into chicken pies.

The design is charming, the musical score by John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams fortunately doesn't overstay its welcome, and kids should enjoy the shenanigans as much as their parents. CHICKEN RUN might run a bit long and could have used some songs (it feels like a decent concept for a musical), but overall, it's the top choice for family fun this summer. (85 mins, G)

SHAFT (**1/2): The plot doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, and even though John Singleton will never be mistaken for a big-time action director, the long-awaited return of SHAFT to the big-screen makes for agreeable enough entertainment.

Samuel L. Jackson is firmly entrenched in cool as the nephew of the great private dick (Richard Roundtree, who shows up in a cameo), here embroiled in a murder case involving a piece of yuppie slime (Christian Bale, fresh off his grimy title role in "American Psycho") who kills a black man in a fit of rage while a waitress (Toni Collette) looks on but refuses to talk.

Style rules over substance here, unless you count Jackson's one-liners as examples of insightful, character- driven dialogue. Singleton's fast-paced direction and the supporting performances are across-the-board excellent, and are consistently enhanced by a great score by David Arnold that doesn't try to reinvent the early '70s Isaac Hayes sound, but rather pay an accurate and loving homage to it. (Where's the score album??). SHAFT still rules, even some 30 years after the fact, but hopefully a stronger script will help matters the next time around. (R)


NEXT WEEK... More DVDs, plus SCARY MOVIE spooks theaters. Until then, send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. Excelsior!


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