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Carter's Back!

A look at the Michael Caine classic and the new remake; plus U-571, THE SKULLS on DVD and "The Exorcist" visits the Mailbox!

An Aisle Seat Entry By Andy Dursin

Michael Caine's sleek, edgy performance as Jack Carter was the defining element of Mike Hodges's highly-regarded -- if not altogether classic -- 1971 British gangster thriller GET CARTER, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary with an excellent DVD release courtesy of Warner Home Video, and which less successfully was transported to the U.S. for its slick but superficial remake, which opened last weekend starring Sylvester Stallone.

Caine's Carter is a tough, mean dude, a professional thug who returns home after his brother's suspicious death. Inquisitive yet unrelenting in his pursuit of vengeance, Carter uncovers a tangled web of corruption and cover-up, with local gangs and his own pursuers trailing after him at every turn.

If there's a definition for the word "cool" in terms of gangster pictures, GET CARTER is pretty much it. Caine's performance is justifiably considered one of his best, while Hodges's script (adapted from Ted Lewis's novel "Jack's Return Home") and direction slowly lure you into its lurid world of crime, one with as much internal violence as there is on-screen in the brutal, R-rated picture (which originally received an X at the time). Roy Budd's music is only present in the film for a handful of minutes, but his motif and opening theme are supremely memorable -- a perfect example of economic underscoring in early '70s cinema.

Capturing a mood and tone that few films of its kind have been able to live up to, the original GET CARTER is a supremely memorable and haunting work offering solid performances, tough action, and vivid settings.

The original (***1/2) gets a sparkling new transfer on DVD from Warner Home Video ($19.98), enabling the viewer to see the original 1.85 aspect ratio for the first time on video. The audio commentary by director Hodges (who has struggled ever since in making consistently good films), Caine, and the cinematographer will be of much interest for fans of the film, diving into the picture's enduring significance in the genre and accentuating the characteristics of Caine's anti-hero. A lengthy international trailer has been included, along with a "music trailer" -- a four-minute sequence that intercuts the film's opening credits with Budd himself at the electronic keyboards, playing his theme while the movie is projected in the background.

It's a fascinating extra for film music buffs, who will also appreciate the mono music-only track (which can be accessed during the film), though again, there isn't a whole lot of underscore in the picture to begin with.

Surprisingly, the opening notes in the new, decidedly American GET CARTER (**1/2) happen to be exactly the same: Budd's music has been incorporated throughout Tyler Bates's techno-oriented music score, and if you think that's the biggest surprise the movie has in store, you would be correct.

However, to give the movie some credit, this Morgan Creek/Franchise production (which carries no less than four opening studio logos on-screen!) is nowhere near as bad as its reputation would have you believe. The script by David McKenna is surprisingly faithful to the source material, incorporating some dialogue from the original and, more or less, adhering to the plot of its predecessor.

Sylvester Stallone is obviously no Michael Caine, but Sly is adequate in the Carter role, which has naturally been softened a bit in the remake. The biggest shift in the story is the expansion of the relationship between Carter and his niece (the cute Rachael Leigh Cook), which in the original was limited to five minutes at the beginning of the film and a later, significant plot development. Here, that story element has been altered to make Carter, and the situation, more sympathetic, which naturally causes this picture to lose the grit and unrelenting air of death that permeated throughout the original.

Still, it terms of Americanizing the plot, GET CARTER works fairly well. The overcast Seattle locations give the movie a healthy dose of atmosphere, and while director Stephen Kay seems to be straining at times to craft action scenes a la Michael Bay or David Fincher, the movie works because the story still hooks the viewer. The supporting cast is excellent, with Alan Cumming and Mickey Rourke as the men with the answers Carter wants, Miranda Richardson in a somewhat limited role as Carter's sister-in-law, and Michael Caine himself in a couple of sequences as a local shady businessman who employed Jack's late sibling.

And, of course, there's Sly, who doles out the punishment in a traditional American way, as opposed to Caine's calculated and determined mode of revenge. It's a study in contrasts all the way, and naturally there is far less nuance in the new version, but as remakes go, the new GET CARTER isn't all that bad -- a compliment considering the glut of re-dos we've been seeing of late.


New On DVD

One of last spring's box-office hits, U-571 (***1/2, $29.98) hits DVD on October 24th in a highly enjoyable DVD presentation from Universal that boasts, unsurprisingly, one of the finest transfers and potent digital soundtracks you're ever going to hear on the small screen.

A movie that quietly made $80 million (and possibly more if the studio had supported the picture's advertising more during its theatrical run), director Jonathan Mostow's second feature is an improbable but highly entertaining WWII submarine thriller -- not a true story (as Europeans told everyone in a public outcry last April), but a composite of several different incidents used to create a rousing, old-fashioned patriotic programmer.

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 adequate 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.

Universal's DVD is an absolute winner when it comes to its sound design. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is incredible, but the DTS track (also available on the DVD) is even more astonishing: the discreet rear channels are employed right from the get-go and the movie's intricate layering of sound will make this, hands down, one of the top demo discs to show off your home theater system. The 2.35 transfer is likewise superb, capturing the movie's gritty cinematography without an abundance of grain or haze.

The supplements are fascinating, detailing the meticulous production of the submarine replicas and diving into the tough shoot the cast and crew endured in Malta and Rome. A commentary track with Mostow is included along with a bounty of extras centering on the production and real-life history of WWII sub combat, encouraging further reading and enhancing the presentation of this terrific DVD.

Also out on October 24th from Universal is a Collector's Edition of another spring box-office success, THE SKULLS (**1/2, $29.98), the teen variant on "The Firm" that 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 of "Dawson's Creek" (and the "Mighty Ducks" trilogy) 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 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 watchable on a purely "so bad it's good" level. He also dragged Randy Edelman along to do the score, resulting in a polished production that's a guilty pleasure from start to end.

Universal's DVD is filled with some amusing extras, included a handful of deleted scenes, a promotional featurette, and a commentary with Cohen ("Dragon," "Daylight," "Dragonheart") that's quite entertaining since the filmmaker seems to be convinced he's making a strong statement about inequality in Ivy League schools. Come back to us, Rob!

Finally, Universal has rolled out a supplement-free DVD of the indie house favorite BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER (*1/2, $24.98), a colorful but empty-headed comedy with cute Natasha Lyonne sent off to a "sexual deprogramming" camp run by Cathy Moriarty and RuPaul after her parents suspect that their daughter has lesbian tendencies. Ouch!

Director Jamie Babbit has an eye for outlandish visuals and primary colors, but this simplistic farce is tough to take, right down to a score by Pat Irwin that tries desperately to mimic quirky, Elfman-ish motifs. Lyonne is appealing but this "it's good to be gay" comedy makes BRING IT ON, another recent cheerleader epic, look like "Citizen Kane" by comparison. Pretty much for fans of Lyonne or RuPaul (who appears out of drag as one of the camp counselors) only.

Universal's DVD features a strong 1.85 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Surround mix. A theatrical trailer is also included.


Mailbag

>From Mark Hasan (markh29@sympatico.ca):

    I think you may be one of the few who enjoyed the revised Exorcist, particularly the more upbeat ending. I saw the film for the first time on the SE DVD a few years ago, and was amazed at the film's power.

    The new version is for me a mixed bag, perhaps more so because Friedkin seems to have stepped back and allowed Blatty to reinstate the footage which was originally shorn for good reasons. For a lengthy set, the two irritable filmmakers were shown arguing the changes in the DVD's documentary section, and the points of view were quite clear: the writer who felt the dialogue, his favorite scenes, and characters were left short-changed; and the director, who felt the extra material harmed the film's pacing and added unnecessary information.

    In that respect, I wouldn't say this new version is the Director's Cut, but the Producer's Cut, with Friedkin staying quiet because a) in the last 10 years, he's made some dreadful films and needs some credibility, b) and it's a chance for a new generation to see one of the films that established him as a filmmaker worthy of respect. Warner Bros. also sensed a great way to make some extra money from an old movie, and rather than release the original, decided the 'new and improved' version was a better choice - with more DVD sales to come.

    (There's also the film's rather weird DVD history. First as a DVD title containing the widescreen and p&s versions, though with the 5.1 track only present on the latter. Then as a widescreen SE with an incredible array of extras, documentary and restored 5.1 track, and now the inevitable ersatz Director's Cut, which in itself implies 'version integrale'. Warners also mucked around with the vhs tape's marketing, offering the film alone or in a boxed set, with the latter being the only way to acquire - at that time - the ltd edition cd.)

    Having seen both versions, I did enjoy the subliminal flashes and the philosophical exchanges. The extra hospital footage, however, really slowed down the film, and harmed the first hour's pacing.The material, while interesting, merely served to add more information, designed to maintain a general level of unease. Friedkin's filmmaking style is disjointed, yet there's a structure to the final product, replete with carefully placed emotional and informational shocks. The medical scenes just prolong the next horrors.

    As presented in its full length on the SE DVD, the spider walk sequence never really worked, and the reduced version in the new film works well and is utterly terrifying. The sequence, however, is so shocking (enhanced by a very loud musical stab) that it doesn't give us time to absorb the mother's latest devastation. The walk is so intense and so weird that it somewhat mutes the subsequent bedroom episodes, which were clearly constructed to form a gradual flow into terror.

    I understand Blatty's preference for the new ending, but it's just awful - The Exorcist is not a nice movie, and it was designed to scare the hell out of people using two clever formulas: establish the characters in all their recognizable, identifiable lives, and then subject them to unreal horrors; and to inflict these horrors in frank, graphic fashion that not only brutalize the characters, but raises the level of violence, language and imagery for an audience used to formula studio pictures.

    (What's rather interesting, however, is that Blatty himself would also find difficulty with his own directorial ventures. Exorcist 3 was tampered by Morgan Creek, unhappy with Blatty's dialogue-heavy cut, and Blatty himself seemed to have made 3 versions of The Ninth Configuration - a movie that also pushes the limits of characters & dialogue, and explodes in violence without a happy ending.)

    The revised Exorcist can certainly be credited with exposing new audiences to a brilliant horror film and a style of filmmaking that clearly illustrates why the movies from the seventies were so groundbreaking. Its continuing performance at the box office (#3 in Canada this weekend) shows the power of a well-made movie. There's just a number of issues the new version raises, and the reviewers should take into account both the filmmakers statements on record, and the economical realities of studios always looking for a new way to exploit an aging back catalogue. Warners' publicity makes it seem the film has Friedkin's full blessing, but I'm willing to bet there's a few things he wishes weren't in the 'director's cut.'

Mark, your points are well-taken. However, having known a good friend who worked with Friedkin on that 1998 Warner video release, I can tell you with confidence that this version DID go ahead with his approval, and despite some of his stated objections to the excised footage in that special edition DVD, he also has contradicted himself over those same sequences at various points. One day he says the ending is better in its original form -- then Blatty says Friedkin admits the movie would have worked better in its restored form. Years ago, Friedkin vehemently objected to the possible restoration of the cut scenes; but even in the DVD documentary, you can tell his comments had been somewhat tempered over the years. There have been other times when he changes his mind so radically you wonder just who the quote is coming from!

The bottom line is that, if the movie can keep making money, I don't doubt that Friedkin was just happy to go along for the ride. I sincerely doubt that this project went ahead without not just his blessing, but virtual full-blown approval.

Not only that, but I think Friedkin played a major role in re-editing the footage. The last line of the movie (a quote from "Casablanca") remains excised, and something tells me that wasn't Blatty doing the cutting there. Ditto for a sequence in which Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn tour Washington, D.C. -- another scene Blatty reportedly wanted restored but remains cut from the new version. The new hospital footage does slow down the film, but the first sequence where Blair is examined is a vital addition, and I appreciated the other changes as I had mentioned in my review last week.

As far as the movie itself goes, I don't think anyone is referring to this as a "Director's Cut," which it isn't. The new version's subtitle ("The Version You've Never Seen!") gets that point across, and like you said (and I wrote in my review last week), it's closer to being a "Producer's Cut." However, saying that Friedkin was simply a helpless passenger watching his movie being re-edited by the studio is likely far from the case.

One thing's for certain: I'd love to see Blatty's original cut of EXORCIST III, particularly since Warner botched the current DVD release of the compromised but still compelling theatrical cut ("remastering" the movie's potent Dolby Surround mix into a muddled Dolby Digital 5.1 track minus the surround information!). The way the studio continuously tries to mine further funds from their library, you just know another version of this one (with the original cut) will hopefully be around the corner.


NEXT WEEK... Halloween is coming up, and we dive into a plethora of new genre DVDs including FINAL DESTINATION (with Shirley Walker commentary), BAD MOON, PITCH BLACK and other treats. Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you later. Excelsior!


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