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Aisle Seat Pre-Summer Movie Mania

A Round-Up of Late Spring Movies, the usual DVD capsules, and other ramblings!

By Andy Dursin

Every year the unofficial "Summer Movie Season" seems to start earlier and earlier. It used to be the Wednesday of Memorial Day weekend when we'd be greeted with the first big blockbuster of the summer film season. Now, it's the first weekend of May -- which is all fine and good, but does anyone think Hollywood has enough GOOD movies to sustain itself through to Labor Day?

THE MUMMY RETURNS launches the summer's slate of new films this Friday. It promises to offer more of the same thrills that audiences loved a couple of years ago, with the addition of wrestler "The Rock" (don't you think he could have used his real name on the credits, at least?), more special effects, an increased role for sexy Mummy-lady Patricia Velasquez, and Alan Silvestri handling the scoring chores. I'm not expecting much here, but if it offers as much entertainment as the original, I'll be satisfied.

We'll preview the rest of the summer season in the next few weeks. However, I will say that this summer's slate seems infinitely more intriguing than the one we were faced with a year ago. On paper, there seems to be some promise here:

PEARL HARBOR (May 25) might be tremendous if director Michael Bay can hold a shot longer than five seconds without making a cut. PLANET OF THE APES (July 27) promises to be a must-view, with Tim Burton and Danny Elfman offering their take on a series we all know and (some) love. A.I. (June 29), Steven Spielberg's highly-shrouded-in-secrecy sci-fi adventure, may just be the most amazing of the lot. JURASSIC PARK III (July 18) could be terrific if director Joe Johnston focuses on action and special effects. If nothing else, at least it benefits from not being saddled with the inane dialogue of David Koepp from its predecessors (though it does have a script that was being written after filming began!).

Angelina Jolie might be completely nuts, but that doesn't mean I'm not willing to pay to see her play shapely heroine Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER. Ivan Reitman's sci-fi spoof EVOLUTION looks like it might do for "The X-Files" what "Ghostbusters" did for the horror genre. Even the thought of another goofy John Travolta performance doesn't deter me from SWORD FISH, which looks like it might be a step up from the typical summer action-thriller. Heck, even comedy sequels AMERICAN PIE 2 (who knows?) and SCARY MOVIE 2 (it couldn't be much worse) seem somewhat appealing after a year ago.

Even a .250 batting average on these films would be more than satisfying after 2000's slate of bombs. And that said, this spring wasn't a total wash at the cinema, either. Here's a run-down on what's been entertaining the masses over the last few weeks at the multiplex, along with some quick DVD reviews of recent releases.


In Theaters

BRIDGET JONES' DIARY (***1/2): I haven't always warmed to the glut of British romantic comedies that have been imported over since "Four Weddings and a Funeral," but this fast-paced and funny adaptation of the Helen Fielding best-seller won me over -- mainly due, surprisingly, to Renee Zellweger's performance as a harried London working girl who finds herself torn between obnoxious boss Hugh Grant and quiet lawyer Colin Firth. The performances are on-target and the movie comfortably alternates between riotous comedy and subdued romance, with a song soundtrack (punctuated by Patrick Doyle's original score) that, for once, didn't annoy the heck out of me. It's fluff, but given the kind of year we've had at the movies to date, it's one of the few titles I can heartily recommend out there. (R)

DRIVEN (**1/2): Sylvester Stallone and Renny Harlin's dip into the world of Formula One racing has predictably not won over critics, but for a no-brain spring slice of ridiculous escapist fare, DRIVEN works surprisingly well. Several of Harlin's action set pieces are adeptly edited and the entire movie is briskly paced, allowing you to enjoy the sometimes hilarious dialogue of Sly's script without growing weary of it (particularly those scenes involving Sly's ex, Gina Gershon), as well as the varied performances by the cast. Sly is relaxed as the elder racer brought into train the hot rookie (bland Kip Pardue of "Remember the Titans"), while Burt Reynolds, in his latest "comeback," goes over-the-top as his former mentor. You also get supermodel Estella Warren faring OK as the sexy young dish who finds herself in the middle of a love triangle; former rising teen star Robert Sean Leonard as Pardue's brother; and a bevy of mediocre special effects (indeed, some uneasy CGI work nearly puts a fatal damper on an otherwise effectively-edited wet racetrack sequence). Still, Harlin keeps it moving, steering a formulaic script through to its super-happy ending in his typically colorful style. (PG-13)

ALONG CAME A SPIDER (**1/2): Morgan Freeman reprises his Alex Cross role from "Kiss the Girls" in a moderately enjoyable thriller that was, according to numerous reports, heavily doctored in post- production. (That may explain why the ending comes across as incredibly basic; according to a friend of mine, the scenes without Freeman were entirely re-filmed, with only his shots remaining from the original finale!) Up until the end, director Lee Tamahouri spins an intriguing kidnapping tale with nutcase Michael Wincott abducting the daughter of a U.S. senator (a wasted Michael Moriarty). Jerry Goldsmith's by-the- numbers but effective score and the widescreen lensing give the movie a glossy sheen, but the big problem is bland co-star Monica Potter, whose distinct lack of charisma on-screen and Julia Roberts imitation wear thin -- fast. Together with Freeman's already-stoic character, there's no emotional pull to the movie, even though it consistently keeps you watching. (R)

SPY KIDS (***): How can you not like a movie with Alan Cumming playing a Willy Wonka for the multimedia generation, Teri Hatcher as a bald villainess, a mix of music by the varied likes of Danny Elfman and Los Lobos, and director Robert Rodriguez perfecting his always-flamboyant visual style in a clean, PG-rated James Bond movie for kids? This charming, goofy, off-the-wall adventure -- a major box- office hit in the U.S. -- is both familiar and fresh, thanks to colorful cinematography and a dash of imagination on Rodriguez's part, two things commonly NOT found in most children's pictures these days. Even the special effects work looks like a glossy comic-book come to life, with the teen kids of two spies (Banderas, Carla Gugino) improbably rescuing their folks from a mad genius off the coast of South America. Kids will love the shenanigans, while adults, after watching this production, will wonder why Rodriguez had been wasting his time on lame Quentin Tarantino projects. (PG)

THE TAILOR OF PANAMA (**): Following on the footsteps of the convoluted (and boring) Sean Connery-Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle "The Russia House," it wouldn't have taken much for this John Boorman adaptation of John LeCarre's offbeat spy novel to improve on previous cinematic offerings of the author's work. Unfortunately, Pierce Brosnan's abrasive "anti-Bond" performance and Geoffrey Rush's at-times over-the-top characterization of a would-be expert in espionage make it hard to care about what happens in this overlong spy drama-edy, which manages a few smiles (along with some heavy-handed jabs at both the American government and military) but rambles on forever without really getting its act together. Jamie Lee Curtis and Brendan Gleeson turn in solid supporting work, and the locations provide ample atmosphere, but Boorman struggles to find a balance between the drama and humor, and the script is almost as messy as the "Russia House" turkey that languished in theaters over a decade ago. (R)


New Releases on DVD

MEN OF HONOR (***, Fox, $29.98): There's something to be said for old-fashioned movie biographies. They may be simple, they may be melodramatic, they may produce completely fictional characters and situations in order to enhance the real-life dramas they intend to re-create, but often times, they work. It's a formula, to be sure, but "Men of Honor" is additional proof that, sometimes, the tried-and-true standard approach yields effective results.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays real-life African-American sailor Carl Brashear, who ultimately became the first black U.S. navy diver. His story is filled with underdog elements, disgusting examples of being discriminated against, tragic circumstances (such as losing his leg in an accident at-sea during the late '60s), and countless obstacles he needed to overcome which is why his life, despite being doctored cinematically with the addition of a fictional training officer with a drinking problem (Robert DeNiro, in a solid performance nevertheless), makes for a corny but highly entertaining movie.

Director George Tillman, Jr. ("Soul Food") takes time developing the characters, allowing Gooding and DeNiro the opportunity to create solid roles that rank as some of the finest, recent work for both actors. Scott Marshall Smith's script relies on many of the standard Hollywood bio-pic trappings, including the unnecessary addition of a female element (i.e. Charlize Theron's role as DeNiro's frustrated wife) and a climactic "show down" with snide Naval bureaucrats that's completely melodramatic, but most of the dialogue is genuine and the film is graced with solid support on both the casting and technical side. Anthony B. Richmond's widescreen lensing is excellent, Mark Isham's music swells appropriately with emotion, and the supporting cast (including Hal Holbrook, David Keith, Michael Rapaport, Powers Booth, and Aunjanue Ellis) is top-notch.
 
Fox's DVD looks great (2.35:1) and sounds even better, with a powerful Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The DVD also offers ample supplements, including a wealth of deleted scenes (with a ridiculous alternate ending that was wisely excised), a terrific commentary track with the director and Gooding among others, a fascinating featurette on the real-life Brashear, an additional look into the production, the usual compliment of trailers, TV spots, and even a Brian McKnight music video.

It's a first-class disc for a solid, decidedly "old school" and fully entertaining film.

BEDAZZLED (**1/2, Fox, $29.98): Harold Ramis' updating of the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore late '60s comedy plugs Elizabeth Hurley in as Old Scratch and Brendan Fraser as a goofy nerd who sells his soul for the right to be with co-worker Frances O'Connor.

There's chemistry between the stars but the laughs are only scattershot in the Larry Gelbart-Peter Tolan-Ramis script, which gets sidetracked by Richard Edlund's effects and an uneven pace. Still, it's not bad for a rental, or for Hurley or Fraser fans.

Shot in widescreen, Fox's DVD is a must for its letterboxed transfer (2.35:1) and potent Dolby Digital soundtrack. Separate commentary tracks are selectable from either director Ramis or Hurley and producer Trevor Albert, while featurettes on the production, costume design, and a still gallery are also on- hand. There's also a deleted scene for the movie's over-the-top basketball sequence, which was seen in the trailers but deleted from the finished film.

SHRIEK IF YOU KNOW WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER (**1/2, Trimark, $19.98): Relegated to USA cable after "Scary Movie" proved to be last year's big horror spoof, this low-budget satire is actually funnier, less raunchy, and far more movie-parody savvy than the Wayans brothers' tiresome farce.

What this agreeably lightweight and sometimes hysterical comedy lacks in star power (Tiffani- Amber Thiessen, Tom Arnold, and Coolio topline the ensemble) it makes up for in sheer laughs, the best of which lampoon the obvious targets ("Scream," "I Know What You Did*") and numerous pop culture references (Mentos commercials in particular). Writers Sue Bailey and Joe Nelms provide numerous spoofs and director John Blanchard keeps the action moving -- enough so that it's surprising no studios opted to pick up this little sleeper for the big screen.

Trimark's DVD offers a 1.85 transfer and standard 2.0 stereo soundtrack, plus a trailer. Certainly worth catching if you're in the mood.

LITTLE NICKY (**, New Line, $19.98): Adam Sandler goes to hell, and most of his comedy travels with him in this completely over-produced comedy spectacle that gets its biggest laughs from having Henry "The Fonz" Winkler attacked by a swarm of bees in Central Park. The rest of the "plot" has Sandler, as the Son of Satan, venturing to Earth to stop his brothers from taking over the planet.

Some of Sandler's past vehicles have worked just fine, but this completely uneven outing makes "Billy Madison" and "Happy Gilmore" seem like AFI all-time comedy classics by comparison. The pacing and story seem to have been assembled in the editing room (as evidenced by the bounty of deleted scenes on New Line's DVD), leaving viewers with only a very high patience for Sandler's obnoxious accent to sit through the rest of this mess. If you must see it (and I'm sorry you lost the bet), look for cameos by Rob Schneider, Reese Witherspoon, and Quentin Tarantino, plus another unholy satanic-genre performance from Patricia Arquette.

New Line's DVD looks good and sounds fine (1.85, 5.1) and offers commentary tracks, deleted scenes, featurettes, and other special features for the die-hard fan of the comedian.

LUCKY NUMBERS (*1/2, Paramount, $24.98): John Travolta had a rough 2000, as proved by the gross of "Battlefield: Earth" and "Lucky Numbers," a title (which had been changed several times prior to release) that certainly didn't reflect its box-office figures.

Nora Ephron's disappointment assembles a talented cast (Travolta, Tim Roth, Ed O'Neill, Bill Pullman, plus Lisa Kudrow) and a promising premise -- a TV weatherman and his lottery-worker girlfriend conspire to fix the lottery -- but strikes out due to an erratic Adam Resnick script that yields dismal results. The pacing is leaden for a farce and the dark tone of the movie seems quite at odds with the comic potential of its plot.

Nevertheless, Paramount's DVD looks solid in its 1.85 transfer, offers a capable 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, along with cast interviews and a commentary track from the director.

THE CREW (**, Touchstone, $29.98): Filmmaker Michael Dinner had a run of offbeat comedies in the '80s, including the underrated gem "Heaven Help Us," a 1985 parochial school comedy with Donald Sutherland, John Heard, and future teen stars Andrew McCarthy and Mary Stuart Masterson.

After a lengthy lay-off, Dinner returned to the screen with this hit-or-miss spoof of "GoodFellas," with Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds, Dan Hedaya and Seymour Cassel as four retired gangsters who decide to make one last big score while living in a south Florida retirement community. The movie starts off well (with numerous, dead-on parodies of Scorsese's film), but the joke wears thin after a while, and pretty much falls apart totally in the final twenty minutes. Still, Dreyfuss is amiable and the cast generates an enormous amount of goodwill that will sustain the 90-minute running time for most fans of the actors.

Touchstone's DVD features a 1.85 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, some behind-the-scenes material, and a theatrical trailer.

INVENTING THE ABBOTTS (***, Fox, $24.98): As glossy teen soap operas go, this overlooked 1997 Ron Howard production -- set in the '50s and based on a novel by Sue Miller -- fits the bill for its heated melodrama and attractive young cast.

Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Crudup play brothers drawn to a trio of wealthy sisters (Liv Tyler, Jennifer Connelly, and Joanna Going) in a small Midwestern town. The typical "wrong side of the tracks" cliches, scandalous sexual activity, and parental concerns you typically find in any movie of this type abound here (not surprising with adults Will Patton and Kathy Baker around), but director Pat O'Connor knows how to craft an involving drama, and screenwriter Ken Hixon does a more effective job creating well-developed characters than you might expect. Phoenix, Crudup, and Tyler also do a nice job in their roles.

Fox's DVD boasts a crisp 1.85 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack (easily besting the laser-rot prone LD release), featuring one of Michael Kamen's most agreeable recent scores. A theatrical trailer and featurette round out a nice package for a most entertaining guilty pleasure.


NEXT WEEK... THE MUMMY RETURNS! Plus, your comments, which can be easily emailed to me at dursina@att.net. Have a great week and we'll catch you then!


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