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The Aisle Seat Autumn Arrival

New Movies, DVDs, and a trip to Andy's Soapbox for the first full week of Fall

By Andy Dursin

Yes, fearless readers: the lackluster summer is gone -- long live fall! OK, so maybe my enthusiasm for this season's new movies has been dimmed just a slight bit by a terrible summer, but on the other hand, few movie-going periods could have been quite as disappointing as the last three months we have been through.

One notable film has been released so far this September, and that's Cameron Crowe's ALMOST FAMOUS (***1/2 of four), which despite being a tad too episodic (the movie was cut down from three hours and feels a bit disjointed at times), has the benefit of smart writing, fine performances, and a handful of memorable scenes, making it -- almost by default -- one of the best movies of the year.

Based on Crowe's own experiences as a teenage journalist covering the Allman Brothers Band (here dubbed a group named "Stillwater"), this is a wonderful coming-of-age picture and backstage pop music chronicle as youthful "William Miller" watches the drinking, drug-using, and woman-swapping hard- rockers from the '70s go at it at a time when folks were genuinely enthusiastic about the music on the airwaves. Frances McDormand is, as always, superb as Miller's mom, with excellent turns from Billy Crudup (as Stillwater's lead guitarist), Kate Hudson (as a groupie), and Patrick Fugit as Crowe's youthful alter-ego making ALMOST FAMOUS a kaleidoscope of memories and moments that you needn't have lived through to enjoy.

Also newly released is the bizarrely-titled URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT (**), which actually opens on-screen as URBAN LEGEND 2 and boasts only one murder even remotely related to urban legends (so what gives with the plural?).

This is a run-of-the-mill horror outing barely related to its wilder and woollier 1998 predecessor, distinguished only in that John Ottman -- film composer and editor -- makes his feature debut as a director here (he also handles the composing chores). The movie is almost totally devoid of scares and boasts an insipid script even dumber than expected, but at least the picture is stylishly handled by Ottman under the circumstances, and heroine Jennifer Morrison is pretty cute.

Ottman might need another movie or two under his belt before we proclaim him the next John Carpenter, but this inoffensive sequel is no worse than you might have thought, and with some more likeable characters and a healthier dose of humor, might have topped its guilty-pleasure predecessor. As it stands, it's built perfectly for video.


Andy's Soapbox: Legend, limited theatrical releases, and DVD Odds & Ends

John Williams's music was supposed to be isolated on Columbia's upcoming DVD of THE PATRIOT, but word has it that it's not going to happen...

Speaking of DVD omissions, Universal has scrubbed the documentary on the "reworked" TOUCH OF EVIL release, due out on Halloween....

LEGEND is now officially confirmed for November 12th, the same day that GLADIATOR hits stores in a two-disc special edition DVD package. There has yet to be an official announcement about LEGEND's specifics, but a two-disc edition (one with the longer Goldsmith version, the other with the cut US release sporting Tangerine Dream's sub-Tesh electronic score) seems likely, along with a documentary and other goodies...

It's funny how Fox has gone to great lengths to retitle the third "Omen" movie OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT, when producer Harvey Bernhard went to great lengths to give the picture a proper title and not simply slap a roman numeral over it. Then again, I find it even funnier that the back jacket claims that the original OMEN is "the first of a four-part" series of terror. Sorry, folks, but the series ends at number three for me -- hack TV-movie rip-offs simply don't count!

I was all geared up to see the Special Edition (err, sorry, "The Version You've Never Seen!") of THE EXORCIST last Friday, when I found out that Warner Bros. opted to release the movie "nationwide" in 600 theaters last weekend. Now, maybe it's me, but somehow 600 theaters doesn't sound "nationwide" to me. For those of you who would rather not have to drive an hour or later to see this one, the studio claims that they'll roll out the movie everywhere it ISN'T playing October 13th....

Speaking of limited edition releases, MGM has finally dispatched the shelf-dwelling musical adaptation of THE FANTASTICKS to various cities before a VHS release in January. This Michael Ritchie adaptation of the acclaimed '60s musical was shot in 1995 but sat dormant until Francis Ford Coppola decided to re-cut the movie at the same time he tried fixing "Supernova" last winter. The result, from what I've gathered from reading various sources, is that the film is a disjointed mess, and that the pic went unreleased for many good reasons.


Video Highlights

Since DVD has come on the scene, it seems the amount of films headed right-to-video is increasing like never before. Some movies studios didn't want to take a big chance on have seized the opportunity to find their audience on the small screen, taking advantage of the benefits and exposure DVD has to offer.

One movie that deserved a better fate was A MAP OF THE WORLD (***, USA Home Entertainment, $29.98), a poignant, emotional drama adapted from Jane Hamilton's bestseller with an outstanding performance by Sigourney Weaver as a school nurse who falls from grace in a small Midwestern town during several fateful weeks.

Unlike farm movies of the past where Mother Nature usually provided the problems for homesteaders, this is the late '90s, and it's the human element that falls apart at the seams. First, Weaver's friend's daughter drowns while under Weaver's care, and then the townspeople decide to concoct a handful of false charges against her to bring her down. Whoever said country living was easy?

Atmospherically shot by Seamus McGarvey and poignantly scored by Pat Metheny, the film isn't quite as depressing as it sounds, held together by Weaver's strong, emotional performance which anchors the piece together. Scott Elliott's sometimes by-the-numbers direction isn't terribly cinematic (and makes the film at times feel like a made-for-Lifetime project), but the supporting performances of Julianne Moore, David Strathairn and Arliss Howard as Weaver's attorney help make this a compelling drama that deserved better than the limited release USA gave the picture last year.

The DVD transfer is colorful, framed at 1.85, though there are some digital artifacts that pop up now and then, while the Dolby Stereo sound stresses the ambiance of Metheny's score.

Another film that received scant theatrical distribution despite some big-names attached to it was PASSION OF MIND (**1/2, $29.98), starring Demi Moore as a woman leading double lives: one as a New York literary agent, the other as a single mom living in the scenic Italian countryside. In both worlds she is courted by men that ask her to Take a Chance on Love (William Fichtner in the Big Apple, Stellan Skarsgard overseas), while she continuously questions which world is real and which is a fabrication of her mind.

A soap opera fantasy through and through, there isn't anything especially lackluster about the picture that would make one understand why Paramount released the movie only in a handful of cities before sending it straight to video (except Moore's recent box-office track record). Randy Edelman's generic but effective score and the fine widescreen lensing by photographer Eduardo Serra nicely capture the moment, even if the Ron Bass-David Field screenplay comes across as muddled and never makes us really care which world turns out to be the real one.

Still, I admired Moore's performance and the intent of the filmmakers, even if the final results leave a bit to be desired. Paramount's DVD doesn't leave anything to be desired on the visual level, thanks to a crisp 2.35 transfer and 5.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack that help sell the movie's brightest assets. If you're in the mood for a lush romantic drama, PASSION OF MIND is worth a view, regardless of its small distribution in theaters.

Keeping along the lines of human-interest dramas (as opposed to large-scale effects pictures), Fox has also released a handful of movies that should appeal particularly to the significant-female (i.e. mom, girlfriend, etc.) in your life -- especially if your personal viewing audience has grown tried of flicks that exhaust the unlimited audio potential of pounding Dolby Digital sound!

First, Fox rolls out a nice-looking presentation of WHERE THE HEART IS (**1/2, $34.98) this week, with Natalie Portman in the second of two small-scale dramas that were released last year with the young star (the other was the forgettable "Anywhere But Here" with Susan Sarandon). As a Southern teen who improbably gives birth in a Wal-Mart (how 'bout that for product placement?), this is a kitchen-sink comedy-drama from TV producer (and first-time feature filmmaker) Matt Williams, with one dramatic predicament after another thrown in, in an at-times shameless attempt to tug on the heartstrings.

Still, the Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel script (from the novel by Billie Letts) enables the performances to render some of this material at least watchable, with Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, and Joan Cusack doing what they can with the touchy-feely story. But, then again, this is a movie best appreciated by the female demographic, so who am I to criticize, right?

The DVD is up to Fox's usual standards (solid 1.85 transfer, 5.1 surround track), with trailers, TV spots, and a music video rounding out the package.

Due out in early October from Fox are a trio of Ed Burns's romantic drama-dies, including his debut feature -- the overpraised 1995 indie effort THE BROTHERS McMULLEN (**1/2, $29.98), and its disappointing 1996 follow-up, SHE'S THE ONE (**, $29.98).

McMULLEN was heavily acclaimed but the movie's uneven performances and glaring technical inadequacies left me with the impression of a home-movie blown up for the big screen. Burns's script is at- times insightful, sometimes funny, but awfully erratic from a dramatic standpoint, a feeling exaggerated in SHE'S THE ONE, which boasted a bigger budget and a better cast (including Jennifer Aniston, John Mahoney and Cameron Diaz), but the movie failed to capture its predecessor's audience and soon forced its filmmaker/star to seek out acting roles.

Both DVDs contain commentary tracks from Burns, along with trailers and other extras. McMULLEN boasts a newly created stereo mix, while SHE'S THE ONE features its 4.0 Dolby Surround track. In terms of aspect ratios, both a matted 1.85 transfer and a full-frame version are included on both titles. Unsurprisingly, both films look more balanced in their full-frame presentations, since both pictures were shot open-matted and without a theatrical appearance in mind.

Lastly from Fox is the remastered DVD presentation of the hit comedy MY COUSIN VINNY (***, $29.98), which remains a viewer favorite thanks to its enduring, terrific performances by Joe Pesci and Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei in a courtroom comedy (with a fish-out-of-water twist) from director Jonathan Lynn. The comedic situations in Dale Launer's screenplay are perfectly exploited, and the supporting cast -- from Fred Gwynne's judge to Austin Pendelton's lawyer -- make perfect foils for the lead stars.

Fox's DVD features a new, enhanced 1.85 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix, along with trailers, TV spots, and a commentary track from the droll Lynn, who used this picture's success to make a handful of quite uneven comedies thereafter (including the terrible "Greedy," "Sgt. Bilko," and the recent "Whole Nine Yards"). Lynn does have a particular fondness for the courtroom comedy, however, since the highly underrated "Trial & Error" almost produces as many laughs as this one, which is now over eight years old and still imminently quotable.


Aisle Seat Mail Bag: Thoughts From Recordman and disgruntled Canadian readers!

>From Recordman! (Mike Murray):

    [In regards to the opening murder in NURSE BETTY], I couldn't agree more. I almost walked out at this sequence, and Iwould have then missed a rather charming and funny film as a result.I think current directors put garbage like this, i.e. the scalping in merely because they can. It served NO purpose - murder, hey fine, part of plot. But scalping for #%$@'s sake! What did that add? Oh, Iguess they were BAD murderers. I wanted to take my wife to see this, but now know she couldn't take this opening on a physical level.

Mike, like you said (and I wrote) -- that sequence absolutely had no place being in that picture, since it plays so completely at odds with the rest of the movie. I'm not sure what it tells us, either, other than that director Neil LaBute might have some psychological problems, based on this scene's inclusion and the bizarre storylines of his past work. Too bad, too, since a lot of NURSE BETTY would appeal to the very audience that would be turned off by the opening murder.

>From Simon St.Laurent (simon.st.laurent@sympatico.ca>

    Dear Mr. Dursin,

    After reading Film Score Daily now for a couple of month's I have an honest question: Why are there DVD reviews? Isn't it about film music? Now, I have to be honest with you. Film music fans are just not doing a very good job at shaking their predominantly geeky image when they have a magazine which is written by people who don't even know what publication they are writing for. FSM is all over the place. Complete with a terrible article about some Goldsmith/Bond dynamic. This piece was nothing short of petty and demonstrated complete childishness.

    FSM needs focus! Big time! Unfortunately FSM is not a magazine about film scoring; it is about fans who write articles about what scores end up on CD. Those CD reviews are downright embarrassing. They are written by people who don't appear to have a clue about what filmmusic is. It is music written to complement a motion picture. Which reminds me of a letter I wrote to Mailbag about a year ago. I tried to make a point (yes, its my opinion) about what film music really is. The letter was diffused by taking out certain key words. How many other letters are treated this way? With the ten anniversary now reached I sense alot of self-congratulatory praise.

    I apologize for dumping this on you Mr. Dursin, but facts are facts. A friend of mine picked up a one of my (2) copies of FSM and started reading it. After about five or ten minutes of silence (and some visable head shaking) he turned tome, held the closed magazine in the air and said, "You know, this is an example of why film music fans are made fun of". Hey, I like film music! But, you know, he's right.

I don't think Simon has been the same since the day that VOYAGERS! was cancelled. In all seriousness, FSM knows that film music was written to compliment a motion picture -- and thatâs one of the reasons why I concentrate on film and DVD, since unless you review the source where the music is coming from, you're missing an integral part of the criticism.

And, it's pretty clear that film music fans ARE movie fans, since you can't enjoy one without the other. While I don't mean to be self-congratulatory, I do receive lots of positive emails about The Aisle Seat (and my print column, "The Laserphile"), especially since DVD has taken off and found acceptance in the mainstream. I think our readership is perfect for DVD reviews and the reaction to my reviews has been evidence of that.

Of course, we're a free country down here, so you are entitled to your opinion, and I certainly did not re- edit your letter to eliminate any "key points" that you are speaking of. Keeping along the lines of annoyed Canadian readers...

>From L. Troschukl <troschuk@mb.sympatico.ca>

    Just thought I would comment on this movie [THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR] that you were so harsh on. I am a typical Canadian and I loved it and the music in this movie. I loved the romance and the story line. Obviously, so did many others.

I have to admit that, yes, there ARE people out there that love this film, and that those fans are especially vocal about it. I do receive an email once in a while from readers as well, saying they thought the movie was fantastic and that I had no clue what I was talking about. Then again, lots of people loved ARMAGEDDON, too, so what does that tell us? (Though I freely admit THOMAS CROWN was much better than that one, despite the presence -- clothes on and off -- of Rene Russo).


NEXT TIME...Anchor Bay's Halloween Goodies extend from HELLRAISER to EVIL DEAD II, plus more comments, news and opinions! Send all emails to me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!


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