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What Lies Beneath the X-Men

Plus: The Soapbox looks at the JAWS Soundtrack & DVD, while KHAN and SHAFT rock on DVD!

An Aisle Seat Entry By Andy Dursin

Greetings, fearless readers! I've got a potpourri as usual for you this week, starting off with some comments on new movies, the JAWS Anniversary Collector's DVD and CD soundtrack issues, and various new DVDs -- in other words, it's time to catch up on some recent events of note! As usual, remember to send in all comments to me at dursina@att.net and we'll crank up the Mail Bag next time out. Now, on with the show...


New in Theaters

WHAT LIES BENEATH (***): Already shot down by many critics for its lack of originality and over- reliance on red herrings (a problem accentuated by the movie's spoiler-filled trailer), this agreeable homage to Alfred Hitchcock by director Robert Zemeckis makes for superior supernatural fare, filled with stylish sequences and a strong performance by Michelle Pfeiffer as a Vermont housewife tormented by visions of spirits.

As soon as her daughter heads off to college, Pfeiffer begins spying on a couple adjacent to her and scientist husband Harrison Ford's scenic lakeside home. After watching what she believes to be a murder next door (shades of REAR WINDOW), Pfeiffer begins seeing what she believes to be the presumed dead woman's ghost walking through her home -- and what follows thereafter, following a slow start, becomes increasingly spooky and entertaining thanks to Zemeckis's fine direction.

Not that it doesn't take a while for WHAT LIES BENEATH to get there, however. Given the kind of summer at the movies we've had, it's not too surprising that the screenplay -- credited to Clark Gregg and Sarah Kernochan -- offers up a slow pace and a collection of under-developed supporting players who prevent the movie's sluggish first half from becoming fully suspenseful. Zemeckis and company attempt to infuse the material with a few laughs and several references to Hitchcock (right down to a moody, Bernard Herrmann-like score from Alan Silvestri), but it's pretty much padding until the film comes to life in the second half.

At that point, WHAT LIES BENEATH does become an engaging, loopy supernatural thriller with a climax that fortunately doesn't degrade into a special effects show (a la POLTERGEIST), and instead attempts to keep things along an even, thriller-like keel -- albeit with a frantic finale that recalls many of Zemeckis's past efforts. Pfeiffer and Ford turn in some of their best recent work and the director has fun staging several set-pieces which rank as some of the most memorable in a film of this type recently.

It's not going to win any Oscars or be remembered as a classic ghost story, but there's enough style, class, and entertainment in WHAT LIES BENEATH to partially compensate for a summer that's been lacking in sophisticated cinematic fare. After being blasted by one cinematic A-bomb after another, I'll take it. (PG- 13, 126 mins)


X-MEN (**1/2): There is something about a comic-book movie that gets me going, whether it's "Supergirl," "Sheena," "Superman" or "Batman & Robin." No matter how silly, good or bad they may be, seeing a physical representation of your childhood fantasies on-screen is something that's intriguing to witness, even if your expectations far outweigh the finished celluloid product.

Bryan Singer, the director of "The Usual Suspects," was certainly an intriguing choice to bring X-MEN to the screen, but Singer doesn't do a half-bad job and the long-awaited, modestly budgeted big-screen movie of the famous comic-book will likely satisfy the legions of Marvel fans who grew up reading the exploits of Professor Xavier, Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, and the motley assortment of mutants battling the forces of evil in a future not too far removed from our own.

For everyone else, X-MEN is kind of a detached experience -- and it's never as fully immersing or fun as you'd like it to be. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are perfect as Professor X and Magneto, but while Hugh Jackman gives a strong performance as Wolverine and I enjoyed Anna Paquin's Rogue, too many of the other supporting turns are lifeless -- from Famke Jenssen's Jean Grey to an awful turn by Halle Berry as Storm (can you say "please recast for the sequel?").

The plot -- a mishmash of origin stories and the creation of a device built by Magneto that could wipe out our world leaders -- never engages the viewer, outside of providing an arena for the Marvel heroes to come to life in several well-choreographed fight sequences. Those individual moments are fine and entertaining for fans, but there's just something hollow about the rest of X-MEN that makes it tough to fully recommend (perhaps 45 minutes of cut footage would explain the languid pacing).

Singer's movie also isn't done any favors by some shoddy, rushed production tweaking, including a so-so array of special effects and a lousy soundtrack. If music scores could kill movies, perhaps Michael Kamen's atrocious noise which is credited with "original score" puts the final dagger into the X-MEN. I've enjoyed some of Kamen's work in the past, but few of his action soundtracks have ever worked for me.

This time, he's truly outdone himself with a flavorless, cliched, unthematic blast of bombast that accentuates the movie's flaws at every turn. In a movie that could have used some juice from areas like the soundtrack, Kamen's X-MEN is one of the worst scores ever written for a major summer-time blockbuster, and just one reason why the movie -- several excellent moments notwithstanding -- never quite lives up to its potential. (PG-13, 105 mins)


ANDY'S SOAPBOX: Thoughts on the Anniversary Video & CD Releases of JAWS

Seeing that JAWS is my all-time favorite movie, it was with a great deal of anticipation that I picked up both Decca's expanded, actual film soundtrack CD, as well as Universal's highly-touted DVD release of the film this past week. My initial reaction? As good as both of these long-awaited releases are, they're more of a compliment to the original soundtrack and -- in the case of the DVD release -- laserdisc box-set, instead of a definitive package that supercedes them.

Decca's CD is, more often than not, a revelation, offering listeners the actual film soundtrack in place of the re-recorded version John Williams produced for MCA's original soundtrack album (and CD release). There are many positive angles to take with this CD: the sound is excellent, crisper and the performance a bit more pungent than the album recording, while there's a wealth of unreleased material on-hand. More over, there's also a lot of music that didn't make it into the movie whatsoever. While soundtrack producer Laurent Bouzereau denotes several tracks that weren't used in the film, there are a great deal of other passages that didn't make it into the movie, either, on tracks both unfamiliar ("Shark Attack") and well-known for fans (including "Chrissie's Death").

For Williams fans, the CD is perfect -- but it's not quite definitive, since Williams deftly expanded several of the arrangements for the original soundtrack album (including the end titles, "Promenade [Tourists on the Menu]," and the great "Barrel Chase"), and those arrangements weren't included here. Likely, Williams wanted this recording to exist on its own merit, and work as a complement to the original soundtrack album version -- which still fulfills its own function, even with the release of the Decca CD.

As far as Universal's video release goes, the DVD is ideal for viewers who never had a chance to sneak a look at the pricey Signature Collection laserdisc box-set MCA released in 1995. For those who only had the chance to watch JAWS in terrible pan-and-scan transfers before, I have no doubt that the DVD is likely an unparalleled viewing experience -- the film makes constant use of the Panavision frame and not being able to see the full aspect ratio stunts the impact of Spielberg's visuals (once upon a time he was a master of widescreen cinematography).

The problem is, the DVD transfer is a bit darker and not as vibrant as the THX-approved version that was featured on the LD set, to the point where I generally prefer the LD's transfer to the DVD. After doing an A-B comparison, there's no doubt that the DVD's contrast and sharpness appear murky and smoothed-over in comparison to the LD.

What's worse, the supplements contained on the DVD fail to match the bounty of extras Universal packed on the LD, from trimming the fascinating, 130-minute "Making Of" documentary to an abbreviated cut that runs less than half the time, to neglecting to include all the deleted scenes the LD had! (There's a great bit with Quint's first-mate from the LD that didn't make it onto the DVD).

So, then, where does the DVD live up to its potential? Easy. The new digital surround mix is terrific, basically separating Williams's score and some background effects into a pleasant, 5.1-channel mix that bests the movie's super, original mono mix. (If you have the option at your disposal, the DTS version is the way to go, since the sound is warmer, louder, and more effective than the Dolby Digital release). The mix is the best part of a DVD package that's good but not quite as definitive as I would have liked it to be.


DVD Round-Up: KHAN, SHAFT, and other goodies on the small screen!

Certain people have been harping on Paramount for not releasing supplement-laden DVDs of the STAR TREK films, but as anyone who has spent time collecting lasers will tell you, things progress slowly for the series' films on video. I mean, I remember when you had to be happy that there was a pan-and-scan transfer out there of STAR TREK II, never mind a letterboxed one!

I'm sure someday we will see "Special Editions" of the original TREK movies, but in the meantime, fans should be happy with Paramount's long-awaited DVD of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (***1/2, $29.98), the 1982 Nicholas Meyer-directed entry that started a three-film cycle and is generally regarded by most viewers to be -- if not THE best Trek film -- at least the most satisfying, action-oriented installment.

The movie needs no introduction for most viewers, except to say that it was the film that really got the cinematic series going, providing a strong, character-oriented story with terrific special effects, a sweeping score by James Horner (that placed him on the map), a swift pace, and one phenomenal performance by Ricardo Montalban that remains a highlight of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, even 18 years after its release.

While not completely remastered, Paramount's DVD is exceptionally strong in terms of its new, 2.35 anamorphic transfer. Having owned the earlier letterboxed laserdisc release, the DVD provides a much stronger, balanced transfer, with darker hues and a more satisfying aspect ratio. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, however, doesn't fare nearly as well -- there are few directional effects and the soundtrack seems to be identical to the Dolby Surround track from the older LD.

Paramount's DVD only offers an interesting theatrical trailer for extras, opting not to include the handful of additional/alternate sequences ABC restored to their initial network TV airings of the picture (these included scenes with Scotty's nephew, Kirk and Bones in the sick bay, and different takes of various other scenes). While the studio is reportedly working on a genuine "special edition" of STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE for a fall release (see TREKWEB.COM for more details, specifically http://talk.trekweb.com/articles/2000/07/20/964147223.html), there hasn't been any official announcement in regards to a deluxe package of other Trek adventures. Hopefully that will happen eventually, but the remastered transfer on STAR TREK II should satisfy the movie's legion of fans in the interim.

The studio has also just issued a terrific package of ANGELA'S ASHES (***1/2, $29.98) on DVD. Alan Parker's poignant and eloquently-filmed adaptation of Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning book received mixed reviews and was neglected at the box-office last winter, thus making it a perfect candidate to find its audience on video.

A childhood memoir superbly, and ideally, crafted on-screen, ANGELA'S ASHES is technically blessed by top-notch work from director Parker, cinematographer Michael Seresin, production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, and especially John Williams, who creates a memorable, haunting soundtrack that stays with you long after the movie has ended. The performances are excellent across the board, particularly by the three young actors who play the young McCourt, while Parker's direction generates a surplus of emotion at the climax.

The 1.85 transfer is excellent and the Dolby Digital soundtrack particularly effective considering the kind of picture this is. The supplements are also excellent, with two superb audio commentaries with Parker and McCourt complimenting one another perfectly -- Parker's detailing the making of the film, while the author comments on his life and experiences bringing the novel to the screen.

I enjoyed the film thoroughly and hope the DVD will expose the film to viewers who missed it the first time around. Go here for my original review of the movie.

If the recent Samuel L. Jackson edition of SHAFT whetted your appetite for the original, smooth-talkin' black private dick, Warner Home Video has just the full-course meal on DVD for your enjoyment: good- looking DVD editions of all three of the ORIGINAL Richard Roundtree efforts -- SHAFT, SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!, and SHAFT IN AFRICA (*** each) -- each retailing for $20 a piece and with terrific letterboxed transfers to boot.

The original SHAFT, released by MGM in 1971, boasts -- unlike its slicker follow-ups -- a smaller budget, no widescreen scope cinematography, and a generally less polished visual sheen, but it nevertheless remains the best of the series. Roundtree's charismatic performance and Gordon Parks's tough, hard-edged direction make for a perfect combination, and this tale of a hood's kidnapped daughter remains potent today, even with its sometimes howlingly dated dialogue and questionable social mores. Still, even they remain part of the fun, and Isaac Hayes's groovy, infectious soundtrack still gets the job done, as David Arnold's superb musical updating for the new Jackson-John Singleton re-do attests.

Warner's DVD includes a 1.85 matted transfer, a solid mono soundtrack, the trailers for all three SHAFT films, and production notes and bios. There's also an interesting, 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette showing Hayes at work, improvising with his band of musicians and director Parks in creating the musical fabric for the film. It's a nice addition to the package -- and if you leave the opening menu on-screen, you can hear the entire "Theme from SHAFT" in glorious stereo.

Produced immediately on the heels of its predecessor's success, 1972's SHAFT'S BIG SCORE! is more polished fare, from its Panavision cinematography to more elaborately-staged action sequences. Somehow it seems to miss the energy of the original with a less-urgent storyline, but the movie is still a great deal of fun and reunites the principal cast and crew of the original, including Roundtree, co-star Moses Gunn, screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (who co-scritped the original from his novel), and director Gordon Parks, who this time took over the musical chores from Hayes (who contributes one original song). The 2.35 transfer is strong and adds immeasurably to the enjoyment, while there's a useless pan-and-scan effort on the flip side.

By the time you get to 1973's SHAFT IN AFRICA, the urban-thriller formula was starting to wear a bit thin, so producers Stirling Silliphant and Roger Lewis shifted the action to another continent and placed Shaft in a fish-out-of-water tale, as the detective is whisked away to uncover a slave trading ring from Europe-to-Africa.

Directed by John Guillermin (TOWERING INFERNO, KING KONG) and scripted by Silliphant, SHAFT IN AFRICA is entertainment of the highest guilty-pleasure variety, with the change in setting mixing up the familiar Shaft one-liners and putting an almost-fresh spin on the material. While nothing in the movie is as crisp, efficient, or satisfying as the preceding two efforts, this third and final entry of the original series is agreeable enough, and Guillermin's steady-directorial hand gives the film a professional-looking, if not somewhat generic, big-screen look and feel.

As with SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!, SHAFT IN AFRICA was shot in Panavision and Warner's 2.35 transfer is the only way to go (there's another terrible pan-and-scan job on Side B). The mono sound is OK and trailers for all three SHAFT films have been included.

The best black-exploitation entertainment of the early '70s (from a major studio if nothing else), these DVDs are packed with fun and Warner's widescreen transfers make these the best-looking Shafts you're ever likely to see.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't briefly mention MGM's Woody Allen collection DVDs, which repackage many of the filmmaker's most acclaimed works from his most fertile artistic period (the '70s), during which wacky comedies like BANANAS (***1/2, $24.98) and his Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL (***, $24.98) were released.

I received review copies of both titles, which come 16:9 enhanced, and if either title is any indication, the entire $150 box-set should be well worth the expense for Allen-philes: the transfers are solid, and are complimented in each instance by theatrical trailers and production notes. For me, I prefer Woody's less- pretentious, zanier comedies like BANANAS (still hysterical in every sense of the word) to his later, drawing-room "internal dramas," but either way you go, the box-set should provide hours of enjoyment for the director's fans and comes highly recommended in terms of presentation.


NEXT TIME: Your comments, plus more in the way of reviews on the cinematic and DVD end! Until then, direct all comments to dursina@att.net and I'll catch you on the beach!


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