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High Fives: The Aisle Seat Year-in-Review Special

Plus: The Mailbag readers respond to recent articles!

By Andy Dursin

Leonard Maltin called 2000 the worst year for movies since the dawn of talkies, and after studying numerous end-of-year critical ten-best lists, I have to say I agree with him. Compiling my own thoughts on the year's best and worst has been a particularly difficult task, especially since I haven't been exposed to the glut of end-of-the-year releases that have been receiving critical praise (such as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and 13 DAYS, both of which I'm looking forward to seeing). So with that in mind, here's the totally partisan Aisle Seat Picks & Pans for 2000 on the cinematic, DVD, and soundtrack end of things -- five of each in no particular order...


AISLE SEAT CINEMATIC AWARDS

FIVE MOVIES THAT I DIDN'T MIND WATCHING (OF WHAT I'VE SEEN THUS FAR)

ALMOST FAMOUS: Cameron Crowe's lyrical growing-up tale never caught on with audiences in the same manner that his more flamboyant "Jerry Maguire" did, but this critical darling was still one of the year's few bona-fide, across-the-board reviewer successes. Marvelous performances and smart writing made for a cinematic gem that should find its audience on DVD in the next few months.

THE CELL: The plot has been worn out to no end, but Tarsem Singh's sense of visuals made this Silence of the Lambs-meets-Dreamscape hybrid a memorable trip, one that wasn't for the squeamish but offered Jen Lopez in handfuls of elaborate outfits co-designed by the woman who drew up the garb for "Bram Stoker's Dracula." At least it stayed with you long after the movie was over...

ERIN BROCKOVICH: You may not like Julia Roberts, but you had to admire her performance in this excellent woman-against-the-system tale from director Steven Soderbergh, who has followed his outstanding work on "Out of Sight" with this box-office and critical fave and the newly-released "Traffic." Julia is a shoo-in for Best Actress, and the movie may be the one to beat for Best Picture as well.

THE PATRIOT: Also the year's most underrated movie, this is a beautifully shot (by Caleb Deschanel), scored (by John Williams) and acted (one of Mel Gibson's best performance) Revolutionary War drama with vivid action scenes and fine character interplay provided by the Robert "Saving Private Ryan" Rodat script. It's unfortunate that the movie was branded a commercial flop (despite running three hours and grossing over $100 million), since the film outperformed "Braveheart" by a substantial sum at the box- office. Worth discovering, and savoring, on video.

WHAT LIES BENEATH: Not a great movie, but one that wore well in the wake of every other major studio star-pairing that followed this past year. Robert Zemeckis' classy ghost story featured excellent performances by Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, as well as a handful of skillfully-executed set pieces and a doozy of an ending that was one of the only plot threads NOT tipped off in the trailer. A surprisingly big box-office hit, this low-key thriller was one of the only genuine "high concept" surprises at the movies this year.


FIVE BIGGEST CINEMATIC LETDOWNS

UNBREAKABLE: Unbelievably ponderous and pretentious follow-up to "The Sixth Sense" from M. Night Shymalan received its only positive word-of-mouth from people who'd use the argument, "well, did you ever actually read comic books?" As a matter of fact, I used to, and if this was a Marvel comic it would have been cancelled after the premiere issue. Someone get Bruce Willis some java!

BLAIR WITCH 2: Another piece of overdone studio hype and marketing, but this time for a product completely undeserving of anyone's attention. With a cast of terribly miscast performers and not one scary moment in it, this sequel managed to make its predecessor look like a Welles-like masterpiece.

THE GRINCH WHOLE STOLE CHRISTMAS: All the box-office green in the world can't convince me that this wasn't an overhyped, overproduced flop, one that isn't going to wear well on the perennial Christmas viewing front in the seasons to come. James Horner's score deserved a better film, while Ron Howard's direction came off like a second-rate imitation of Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas," without an ounce of originality or imagination of its own -- unless you count Jim Carrey eating soda bottles as a stroke of genius.

BATTLEFIELD EARTH: John Travolta, dreadlocks, an inane script and laugh-out-loud dialogue combined to produce one of the year's happiest failures (sure to live on for years to come as a cult classic). Hopefully Travolta WILL act on his threats to make a sequel, since we all know this movie won't be considered the next "2001" or "Blade Runner" a few years down the road.

ME MYSELF & IRENE: The Farrelly Brothers began this year's unfortunate renaissance of bottom-of-the- barrel humor with this gross-out collection of gags that was every bit as technically deficient as their past work, but with an especially low-brow tone that made me feel like talking a shower as soon as it was over. The Farrellys' spirit lived on in an even sicker spoof from the Wayans Brothers, the ridiculous box-office hit "Scary Movie."


MOST OVERRATED MOVIE: GLADIATOR. OK, OK, I liked this movie -- but to call it one of the year's BEST movies, even in this year, is a stretch. Even after having seen it three times, it's still flawed, from a one-dimensional script that needed more depth to hand-to-hand combat sequences which seemed closer to MTV-styled cutting than Ridley Scott's earlier success, "The Duelists."

Runner-Up: CHICKEN RUN, which was entertaining but more amusing than actually funny.


MOST UNDERRATED MOVIE: THE SIXTH DAY should have reinvigorated Arnold's career but instead made half as much as "End of Days" did. A decent script, solid direction and action combined to make Schwarzenegger's most satisfying movie since "True Lies" one to watch for on DVD.


AISLE SEAT DVD CERTIFICATES OF ACHIEVEMENT

FIVE TOP TITLES ON DVD THIS PAST YEAR

GLADIATOR (Dreamworks): Tons of extras in an affordable two-disc package, this Dreamworks release brought home all the visual splendor of the movie with a dynamic DTS and Dolby Digital surround field and more behind-the-scenes information (including a 20-minute conversation with Hans Zimmer!) than you could have possibly wanted. Here's hoping Scott Free's 2-disc set of LEGEND shows itself on DVD in the next few months with all the kinds of goodies that "Gladiator" contains. Only complaint: some of the cut scenes should have been restored back into the movie.

WALKING WITH DINOSAURS (Fox): Outstanding visual effects and a flawless transfer made this 2-disc set of the BBC/Discovery Channel six-part documentary "Walking With Dinosaurs" one of the most replayable DVDs. Kids of all ages should enjoy the production, which on DVD features its original, full-length version and Kenneth Branagh narration (which was replaced on U.S. TV airings by Avery Brooks commentary and trims for commercial time).

FIGHT CLUB (Fox): At the time, this second-quarter release from Fox was hands down the format's most elaborate, extras-packed DVD release -- at least until other studios ran with the ball and produced supplemental packages almost as extensive as the one backing up David Fincher's "Fight Club." Hours of material, alternate angles, and commentary tracks make this release one that even viewers who didn't actually like the movie can appreciate (such as this writer).

FANTASIA ANTHOLOGY (Disney): Superb animation on "Fantasia 2000" and immaculate transfers adorn this 3-disc DVD edition from the Mouse, which features a surplus of extras in the third disc ("Fantasia Legacy") and hours of fun for both kids and animation buffs of all ages. Disney's three-disc "Toy Story: The Ultimate Toy Box" is also essential.

SUPERGIRL (Anchor Bay): Sure, the 2.35 transfer on the European 125-minute cut is misframed (hacking a bit of the picture off the bottom of the screen), but everything else in this 2-disc limited edition was worth the wait: a beautiful transfer remastered in THX, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, commentary plus a 50- minute making of special and a 138-minute extended version that seemed to have been intended for network TV airing. Great packaging, too, and Helen Slater has never looked better flying through the air.


BEST RESTORED DVD SOUNDTRACKS: THE EXORCIST -- THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN features an elaborately remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 take on the movie's soundtrack, one that packs a potent punch on the new Warner DVD (which we'll review next week). Meanwhile, the DTS version of JAWS (Universal) has everything that the 5.1 Dolby Digital version lacked: namely, a genuine stereophonic presence. John Williams's music is far more prominent here than in the original mono mixes, which is something to give a hoot about as well.


WORST DVD SOUNDTRACK: Warner's Morgan Creek DVDs, with the "Remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1" tags, in actuality lack most of the surround activity that was so significant to their original Dolby Surround mixes! Titles like EXORCIST III, IMAGINARY CRIMES, MAJOR LEAGUE 2, and THE CRUSH all suffer from the same compressed-audio fate.


MOST JUMBLED DVD TRANSFER: MGM's DVD of THE ALAMO features a grainy transfer of the movie's abbreviated 162-minute cut. Never mind that the 198-minute version has been released on laserdisc (in a 5.1 mix as well) several times already!


AISLE SEAT SOUNDTRACK CERTIFICATES OF ACHIEVEMENT

FIVE BEST NEW SCORES

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (Sony Classical): I haven't seen the movie but Tan Dun's vivid score from Ang Lee's acclaimed new film is a winner, with Yo-Yo Ma's cello solos setting an alternately ethnic, sweeping mood with introspective moments and bombastic action cues as well. A fine album that doesn't necessitate a viewing of the film to enjoy.

HOLLOW MAN (Varese): Jerry Goldsmith's score for the overproduced Paul Verhoeven Invisible Man thriller is one of the maestro's best in several years, featuring pounding action cues and memorable motifs complimenting the action. Varese's album is a long listen but works well on the whole; check Columbia's DVD this week for isolated score with Jerry commentary (where he describes one transitional cue as "f*king around music"!).

MISSION TO MARS (Hollywood): Ennio Moricone's overdue take on "Close Encounters" is a great score for a bad movie, but at least it afforded the composer the opportunity to write one of his finest works in many years.

THE PATRIOT (Hollywood): John Williams returns to Americana with a melodic, sweeping score not all that far removed from "Far and Away," "The Cowboys" and so many other classic works from the Williams canon. Rousing and patriotic, the most moving moments come in the gorgeous love theme performed by violin soloist Joshua Bell. A great album as well from Hollywood.

SHAFT (Unreleased): A wonderful homage to its predecessors' '70s styled blend of pop and orchestral scores by David Arnold, it's a shame this terrific score didn't see an album release. As it stands, "Shaft" is one of Arnold's best works to date, and one that supports the movie in scene after scene.

*RIDE WITH THE DEVIL: I didn't hear Michael Danna's score for Ang Lee's little-seen Civil War western-drama until this past summer, but immediately fell in love with an emotional work illustrating that Danna can compose rousing, large-scale orchestral scores while retaining the intimate, character-driven aspect so prevalent in his earlier works. Worth seeing and listening to.


MOST DISAPPOINTING SCORE: I have enjoyed many of Michael Kamen's past works, but few in the action genre, where his lack of thematic material makes listening to the music on its own a tough chore. Rarely, though, has Kamen failed so utterly to enhance a movie as with X-MEN, which is a case of a film that could have used a rousing, memorable score to back up the drama. Instead, Kamen's music is a hodgepodge of ideas and fragments with weak connecting material. If this is the kind of score Kamen was trying to write with THE AVENGERS, one can see easily why the work was replaced -- and why, reportedly, the filmmakers wanted X-MEN to be rescored but couldn't due to the budget. A genuine disappointment on every level.


FIVE ESSENTIAL NEW CD RELEASES

SUPERMAN (Rhino): Rhino's 2-CD release was everything you could have asked for, with superior sound, packaging, and alternate cues from one of John Williams' masterpieces.

JAWS (Decca): Not quite definitive (the concert arrangements from MCA's original soundtrack are still available only on that album), but the first release of the actual "Jaws" film score on CD is a must-have for any soundtrack fan. The recording is superior to the soundtrack album and the addition of many unreleased cues makes this essential listening.

TESS (Universal, France): Philippe Sarde's beautiful, lyrical score for one of Roman Polanski's finest films has been issued on CD for the first time, newly sequenced and with some extra music from Universal's label in France. Coupled on CD with the score for "The Tenant," this is a fantastic album spotlighting some of the best film music written in the '70s, and includes an interview with Sarde, reflecting on his collaboration with Polanski -- one that obviously ended on bad terms, but did result in one classic film score.

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and UNDER FIRE (Warner Bros., Germany): Two of Jerry Goldsmith's all-time best works have been released on CD by WEA in Europe, with "TZ" making its first-ever release in the digital format. The sound on both releases is crisp and vibrant, and both works belong in everyone's soundtrack library.

STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (Sony Classical): Unfairly maligned by "Star Wars" fans, this 2-CD set features John Williams's rich, evocative score from Episode I in its film-sequenced entirety, with nearly an hour of additional, unreleased music. I'm not sure why some soundtrack consumers were so adamantly against about the production of this release, since most of them enjoy brief cues that run under a few minutes. At least the album is more listenable than the single-disc issue and sets the music in sequence with the movie. For any SW or Williams fan, you can't pass this up.


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

>From Mark Bagby:

[In regards to Jerry Goldsmith not scoring THE MUMMY RETURNS], considering the way Goldsmith lambasted the film afterwards...I believe in a series of concerts in England, he talked about how bad and how stupid the movie was...that the producers probably thought, hmmm, do we really want to force him to endure this again? Goldsmith has scored his share of turkeys, but I don't recall him publicly stating how lame he thought any movie was, ever before. Perhaps he just feels he has the freedom to say what he thinks nowadays.

And with only a couple of exceptions (The Omen Trilogy and Poltergeist I and II), Goldsmith hasn't done a lot of sequels. Planet of the Apes? Leonard Rosenman did the next. Alien? Call James Horner. Just my two centavos worth, senor...

Mark, you make a good point about how he felt about THE MUMMY, although Jerry certainly HAS scored his share of sequels (the Star Trek movies, the Rambo films, the Flint pictures, both installments of Gremlins, plus other people's sequels like Supergirl). It is rather amusing that he disliked THE MUMMY so much, especially since it stands as one of the most financially successful films Goldsmith has ever been involved with! (not to mention that he worked with the director before on DEEP RISING).

>From Randy Derchan:

Leave it to Dursin to give "Gladiator" two and half stars. But a masterpeice like "Shaft" three.
>From Jeffswim@aol.com:
I know for a fact you didn't attend MY screening of "The Grinch," because everyone there was in stitches! I doubt many kids will get it, but Jim Carrey fans will definitely enjoy his "shtick," as you call it. It's a good characterization of the Grinch. Would you expect a green and hairy man to speak normally and not have over-the-top physicality? Doubtful, especially if you live in a mountain where all you have is a dog and a large monkey with cymbals.

Every joke played well, even though Carrey resorted back to talking out of his butt for one scene (though it fit the storyline, it may have been too much). It didn't get too cutesy, and I thought the supporting characters were fantastic. How can you go wrong with Christine Baranski? I had hoped, however, to see Molly Shannon do her joyologist routine from SNL. Making her play straight was the only grinchy thing about the movie.

>From Bryan Erdy:
I totally disagree with you about Unbreakable. I thought it was great. Rich, moody and a movie that takes itself totally seriously. It creates its own mythology. But, I understand why you feel the way you do...my wife hated the movie.
>From Erik Chapin:
I am in total disagreement with your review of the film Unbreakable. I found Shyamalan's neo- Hitchcockian style to be refreshing compared to all of the standard fare crap that has been released this year. Shyamalan superbly uses unconventional cinematic techniques to tell an unconventional tale. The characters have a lot of depth to them which, you didn't to seem to notice, and are quite interesting. The only downfall of the film is Samuel Jackson who is just the same in every movie he is in; even in a Teletubbies level Star Wars flick. Shyamalan is one of the very few newcomers in the film industry who hasn't wasted celluloid with Recycled ideas. So, please take a second look at Unbreakable before giving it a lower rating than the other schlock flicks you reviewed. You just might see how much better it was over his standard Hollywood style film, The Sixth Sense. -James N. Howard's score is one of the best of this year!

NEXT TIME: Jerry Goldsmith goes DVD for HOLLOW MAN, and THE EXORCIST hits DVD stores everywhere! Have a great week folks and Happy 2001! (All emails can be directed to dursina@att.net)
 


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