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 email@example.com
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll catch
you on the beach!