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.
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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 email@example.com!
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
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'
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
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
firstname.lastname@example.org and have a Happy New