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Aisle Seat Holiday Movie Round-Up

A look at UNBREAKABLE, CASTAWAY, VERTICAL LIMIT, and WHAT WOMEN WANT

Plus: Rhino's Awesome BRAIN IN A BOX and the Return of Andy's Soapbox!

By Andy Dursin

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas, folks. This week you'll find me pouring over the college bowl season, which gets underway in a few days and offers seemingly endless fun for all football fans. For video and movie lovers, it's time to get caught up with some theatrical releases and -- for those of you with some left-over holiday cash -- Rhino's truly awesome "Brain in a Box" CD box-set from the realm of sci-fi music.


In Theaters

CAST AWAY (***): It's not the best movie of director Robert Zemeckis or star Tom Hanks, but in spite of an often contrived screenplay (with deadening "civilization" sequences that open and close the picture), "Cast Away" manages to work just well enough to fit the bill as adequate seasonal entertainment.

Hanks plays a FedEx manager (blatant commercial tie-in #1) whose plane is ditched en route to Russia. Washed up on an isolated island, the sole survivor braves the elements in a tropical paradise where his only companion is a Wilson volleyball he names after the manufacturer (blatant commercial tie-in #2).

Thanks to fine cinematography by Don Burgess and solid work from Hanks, "Cast Away" works splendidly in its isolated-from-the-world sequences, even if glaring plot deficiencies abound (there's no wildlife, birds, or insects aside from conveniently placed fish that frolic near the shores). Of course, while this section of the movie pales in comparison to other "Robinson Crusoe"-like chronicles of survivors shipwrecked or lost in the wilderness (the original "Blue Lagoon," "Walkabout," and the first half of "The Black Stallion" come immediately to mind), the drama and Hanks' performance offset the lack of freshness in the story.

What ultimately sinks "Cast Away" from being a great movie are the bookending sequences involving Hanks and his fiance (Helen Hunt), which never work since neither character is developed enough to garner any kind of emotional resonance -- she's there as a plot device, and the movie never dives into what makes Hanks tick aside from his being a FedEx employee. The obvious message of our civilization being obsessed with deadlines and work is hammered home time and time again in the William Broyles, Jr. screenplay, but there's nothing else to pique our interest or emotions aside from the basic plot of a man being marooned on a desert isle.

In fact, once Alan Silvestri's modest score makes its first appearance right near the end, "Cast Away" turns into a Discovery Channel-like variation on "Forrest Gump," managing to be less heavy-handed but equally cliched in its own way.

If a different script could have improved the film's open and close, "Cast Away" could have been a classic. As it is, the picture is worth viewing for Hanks's performance and the cinematography, even if some shots that look "too good to be true" were almost certainly enhanced by CGI effects --- so much for stressing man's own ability to single-handedly triumph without the use of ever-present technology. (PG-13, 140 mins)


UNBREAKABLE (*1/2): Bruce Willis, looking like he needs a gallon of coffee, gives a sleep-inducing performance in this utterly inane paean to comic-books from M. Night Shyamalan, the "Sixth Sense" director who falls victim to the follow-up-to-a-smash-hit routine that's plagued many a filmmaker in the past.

Without elaborating too much on the movie's plot (which bites off far more than it can chew), Willis plays the last survivor of a train wreck who comic-book guru Samuel L. Jackson believes is really a super-hero. Willis's estranged wife, Robin Wright-Penn (in another ineffective role), tries to reconcile her relationship with Bruno while the security guard goes about finding out if he indeed is as strong as the Man of Steel.

Shyamalan has a bigger budget at his disposal here but retains many of the same cinematic techniques that he brought to his last picture: long, slow takes, frequently whispered dialogue, and an insistence on silence that will almost certainly make this picture more effective on the small-screen (provided you still see it in its original, widescreen framing).

The problem here is that UNBREAKABLE's characters are so stilted and one-dimensional that it's hard to care, ultimately, where this picture goes. The movie is slow, sterile, even ponderous at times, with a pretentious tone that's hard to comprehend since the story, in the end, has nothing to be pretentious about.

The performances are dependent on Shyamalan's script, but unlike "The Sixth Sense," the director gives none of the actors much to work with. Willis' sleepy performance is one of his weakest in quite some time, while Jackson and Wright-Penn struggle with thinly-drawn figures that are simply pawns in the writer- director's latest cinematic "puzzle."

And that, in the end, is where the movie fails the most. While the film's incredibly rushed, lame ending reminded me of the end of a made-for-TV feature (complete with tacked-on subtitles that threaten to fly up the screen a la "A Quinn Martin Production!"), it's the story that precedes it that fails to ignite the imagination of the viewer.

Several sequences are downright embarrassing, from an endless montage of our protagonist lifting weights to a reprehensible scene in which Willis's son threatens to shoot his father to see if he is a super-hero -- with the amount of violence in our society originating from handguns, it's incredible that someone didn't put the kibosh on this brainless, unintentionally funny sequence before it was shot. (The dialogue and dramatic conflict also play like an outtake from the worst of Woody Allen's domestic dramas).

The movie takes forever to get going, and without spoiling the ultimate climax of the picture, is directed by Shyamalan in a way that's almost completely at odds with its subject matter.

Despite the picture's strong box-office opening (an indication of the success of its predecessor more than this film's word-of-mouth), UNBREAKABLE comes across as a total misfire that Shyamalan was given carte blanche to make from studio honchos hoping for another "Sixth Sense." Hopefully they'll learn their lesson and spare us from the two sequels the director is threatening to make for this picture -- the next time it may not be just the director's clout that will be broken. (PG-13)


VERTICAL LIMIT (**1/2): Martin Campbell, the seasoned British director of "Goldeneye" and "The Mask of Zorro," had to have seen something in this mountain-climbing adventure that's not apparent from the finished product, since this is an entertaining but thoroughly by-the-numbers actioner with a sub-par script and mediocre performances.

Chris O'Donnell plays a mountain climber whose sister (Robin Tunney) ends up being trapped in an ice cave while attempting to climb Mt. Everest. Scott Glenn essays the veteran man-of-the-Earth who knows every step of the mountain, while Bill Paxton engagingly returns to his '80s form as an obnoxious jerk who ultimately meets with the same fate that two-thirds of every character Paxton has ever played also have.

Campbell's direction keeps things moving, but what starts off as a brisk rescue-attempt, race-against-time adventure turns into a Jr.league variation on "Cliffhanger" without the bank robbery element -- meaning there ain't much here aside from people climbing up the mountain and almost falling off. The end is particularly anti-climactic, while the special effects range from convincing CGI to inadequate blue screen work that feels more at home on "The Love Boat" than in a product of the year 2000.

O'Donnell brings his usual lack of charisma to the central role of the young protagonist, though other roles are cast with an international flavor, to better sell the product overseas (I especially enjoyed seeing Izabella Scorupco again, looking more ravishing than she did in Campbell's "Goldeneye"). James Newton Howard's score hits all the usual buttons and the movie looks nice, but ultimately is undone by a routine Robert King- Terry Hayes screenplay with some awful dialogue nixing whatever credibility Campbell hoped to instill in his drama (PG-13).


WHAT WOMEN WANT (***): The answer is Mel Gibson, who glides effortlessly through this romantic comedy, stretched out by director Nancy Meyers beyond the two-hour mark but helped immeasurably by a game cast, including Helen Hunt and Marisa Tomei, among others.

Gibson plays a harried ad executive who improbably gains the ability to hear the inner-most thoughts of women everywhere. What he finds, ultimately, is that his swinging bachelor persona rubs off the wrong way on almost everyone he meets, from his 15-year-daughter to Hunt, his new boss who wants Gibson's agency to tackle an account for Nike. After exploiting his powers for both gains in business AND pleasure, Mel finds out that he needs to work on his sensitive side, at least according to the Josh Goldsmith-Cathy Yuspa script.

A polished studio production all the way through, WHAT WOMEN WANT finds Gibson in one of his most good-natured, relaxed roles ever. The film has both affecting moments and big laughs, meaning that it's the one genuine date movie out there that will appeal almost as much to guys as it does to the ladies. (PG-13)


Andy's Soapbox

Universal's LEGEND has been delayed -- but don't worry, this latest postponement shouldn't be a long one, and is only being done to improve what supplements will be contained on it.

Speaking of Special Editions, several websites confirmed that Universal is producing a full-blown special edition for JAWS 2. Now, before some of you go ahead and start ranting off, I have to admit this sequel has always been one of my life-long favorites from the days of my misspent youth.

Even better is that Laurent Bouzereau will be producing the supplements for the disc, and there are actually some great tales to tell here like, most importantly, what happened to the production-plagued follow-up when director John Irvin was fired after an entire month of filming -- with all of his footage (except for one shot) being scrapped! Actors were replaced ("McGyver" star Dana Elcar being one of them), the tone of the movie shifted from a "haunted, dark" look to a more accessible one akin to its predecessor, and virtually the entire Martha's Vineyard location shoot had to be done over from scratch.

If Bouzereau has access to Irvin's footage (provided it wasn't junked in Universal's vaults years ago), this should make for a fascinating DVD. If not, the movie's TV version has several deleted scenes, and with the history of the picture's production, should boast some terrific tales on the supplemental side of things. Look for it likely next summer.

I've watched a few hours of the new TV season and have been impressed, as a lot of people have been, with DARK ANGEL. Yeah, Jessica Alba is sexy and this post-apocalyptic "Wonder Woman"/"Bionic Woman" hybrid is perfectly cast, but the production values of the show (good effects, fast-moving plots) are right on a par with what one would expect from James Cameron's first tube production. Joel McNeely did a good job scoring the initial episodes as well, with some orchestra mixed in at certain times. Fox seems to have a bona-fide hit on their hands with this Tuesday night show, which makes for a great double-bill with BUFFY on the WB at 8pm -- still the freshest and most consistently well-written show on the small- screen for my money (though suffering through its weakest season to date thus far).

Speaking of TV, no offense to CBS' revamp of THE FUGITIVE, but no matter how well-cast, well- directed, and expansive the production of this series revival may be, there's no compelling reason for us to tune into a plot that has already been done in weekly-form before, AND turned into a blockbuster film (and its own big-screen sequel). The ratings have been lukewarm, and perhaps that should come as no great surprise. Many of James Newton Howard's themes have been recycled in the music score.

Don Davis scoring JURASSIC PARK III? Alan Silvestri scoring THE MUMMY RETURNS? I have to admit I've been surprised with some of the scoring assignments I've been seeing of late. Goldsmith did a fine job on the original MUMMY, which makes his absence from this highly-anticipated sequel curious. As far as JP III goes, perhaps James Horner didn't want to waste his time merely rehashing John Williams's themes, which is reportedly what Davis will be doing with this score.

I enjoyed the Sci-Fi Channel's production of DUNE, even if the tone was almost as serious as David Lynch's icy cold (and incomprehensible) 1984 turkey. Still, with added running time, the filmmakers were able to concentrate on human sentiment where Lynch's overblown opus dwelled in strangeness (like a flying Paul Smith) and effects. The Sci-Fi Channel broadcast was cut for time constraints (often obviously at times, with unexplained plot holes), so look for Artisan's February DVD release to include the full- length, original international version. I enjoyed Graeme Revell's more ethnic score, but nevertheless missed Toto's bombastic rock-anthem/orchestral themes.

Speaking of which (and I know I'm months late), but does anyone have an extra CD copy of the "Dune" score album out there they'd like to part with? I did the notes for the "Clash of the Titans" release PEG did, but I guess it didn't entail me to a copy of "Dune"! (Actually, since PEG doesn't exist, I haven't even received a copy of the "Clash" re-issue which Super Collector just released, including those three extra cues PEG couldn't include the first time around). I offer only cash or perhaps some other goodies in return, so do let me know at dursina@att.net!


CD Review

I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much I enjoyed Rhino's mammoth 5-CD box set of BRAIN IN A BOX: THE SCIENCE FICTION COLLECTION (****, Rhino , $99.98), which chronicles with great affection some of the highlights of the greatest -- and most infamous -- hits to originate from the science fiction genre.

We're not just talking about movie and TV themes here (though there are two CDs for each of those genres, but more on that in a minute), but also rock/pop hits, novelty tunes, and even lounge/instrumental classics - - goodies by folks like Les Baxter, Ferrante & Teicher (yes!), Leonard Nimoy and many others.

Disc one starts us off with an assortment of the tried-and-true science fiction film themes: you get the requisite "Also Sprach Zarathurstra," "E.T.," "Alien," and "Close Encounters," but also more eclectic fare like Gil Melle's "Andromeda Strain," Richard O'Brien's opening "Science Fiction/Double Feature" from the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," and the Main Title from Leonard Rosenman's "Fantastic Voyage" (you can get the complete album right here at FSM, of course!). For rarities, the main title from Silvestri's "Predator" and tracks from creature-feature fare like "Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" are thrown into the mix, with most tracks originating from the actual soundtracks (only a few cues, such as "The Matrix," come off of Nic Raine and the Prague Philharmonic Silva re-recordings).

Tube themes comprise the second disc, running the gamut from "My Favorite Martian" to the Barry Gray- Gerry Anderson themes of the '60s, the usual "Star Trek" opening titles, "The Outer Limits," "Twilight Zone" and "V" among others. A brief suite from the "Simpsons" Treehouse of Terror by Alf Clausen is also present and accounted for.

Things get spacier and spicier in the following three CDs, each focusing on sci-fi related music from the realm of pop and novelty tunes. Disc three sports a full range of pop tunes, from eras including '50s orchestral efforts (Jimmie Haskell and His Orchestra's "Blast Off"), '60s pop tunes (The Ventures with "Fear [Main Title from "One Step Beyond"]), '70s rock (Jefferson Airplane's "Have You Seen the Saucers"), and more recent tracks (They Might Be Giants' "For Science").

If the pop tunes aren't your cup of tea, you'll find more intriguing fare on the fourth disc, devoted to Incidental/Lounge music. Comprised mainly of novelty tracks from the '60s (by the likes of Russ Garcia, Les Baxter, Frank Comstock among others), you are also treated to goofy hymns by Leonard Nimoy ("Alien"!) and Jerry Goldsmith, here represented by "She Likes Me" from "Explorers."

Disc five's novelty tunes once again run amok with bizarre, off-key entries, with the Dickies' punked-out version of the "Gigantor" theme mixed up with Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater," Jimmy Durante's non-classic "We're Going UFO'ing," The Rubinoos' "Star Trek" cover, and the Kirby Stone Four's "You Came From Outer Space," which puts an appropriate cap on the preceding.

Just as interesting as the music is Rhino's packaging, which wins the award for most lavishly executed album design of the year. The five discs are included in a literal silver box, with a holographic brain pasted onto three ends! The tone is complimented perfectly by a wonderful, 200-page full color hardback booklet, featuring nostalgic photos and full liner notes on the music, the genre, and retrospectives from Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman, Bill Mumy, Joe Dante, and many others.

If you know of any lovers of sci-fi out there (or are looking for a post-holiday present), Rhino's BRAIN IN A BOX is absolutely essential listening. Despite a few noticeable omissions (no "Star Wars" due to contractual problems) and errors (Franz Waxman's "Buck Rogers" music comes from "The Bride of Frankenstein," if I'm not correct), the set is truly out of this world.
 


NEXT WEEK... 2001 gets off to a great start on DVD with HOLLOW MAN (marking Jerry Goldsmith's first commentary track!), GODZILLA 2000, EXORCIST: "NEW" CUT, and others. Send off all comments to dursina@att.net and have a Happy New Year, everyone!


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