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Aisle Seat Season Premiere

The Fifth Season Kicks Off With Random Thoughts, New DVD reviews, and More

By Andy Dursin

Greetings again, dear readers. This is my first column since the end of August, so I hope you will forgive my lengthy introduction this time out -- so much, obviously, has happened since then.

The fifth season of the Aisle Seat was supposed to kick off a few weeks ago, but somehow, after watching everything that happened on September 11, my enthusiasm for covering the world of home video and the cinema just dimmed a bit -- just as I am sure your interest in reading about this topic did as well.

Let's face it, we're not covering life-shattering events here, just a bit of leisure that can be taken for what it is. That, plus my regular job (updating the website for the NBC affiliate in Providence, RI) being so frantic during this time, delayed the beginning of another year for this column.

But, as we have seen, life goes on (almost miraculously), and while many things in this country may never be the same -- to say nothing of the almost 6,000 victims whose families have been shattered forever -- I have been struck by the heroism, courage, and boundless compassion that individuals have shown in coming together to remind everyone how precious life can be, and also how essentially "good" people are when given the opportunity to illustrate it.

I will never forget the moment when I heard of the first World Trade Center collapse (speeding as I tried to get to work early), nor the inspiring speeches by President Bush and Tony Blair delivered in the days after the attacks, nor the individual stories of men and women who gave their lives trying to save any survivors buried beneath the rubble.

And yet, in my mind, many freedoms in the United States have been taken for granted for a long while. As a culture, we've needed a "reality check" to get us focused on events that actually have an impact on us and our daily lives. Unsurprisingly, the top national stories in the days and weeks before the attacks -- like Anne Heche's new book -- became even more utter nonsense than they were when first reported. Some things will change, no doubt -- and not all of them for the worse.

From our own perspective at Film Score Monthly, you have to look at what the industry itself will be doing, and how people will be reacting to it. In a time of crisis, and a possible war to follow, it's no surprise that viewers will want to get lost in escapist fare even more than before -- making films like "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings," and the next Star Wars film perfectly suited for the world we're now living in.

Of course, we have already seen changes in the medium we cover -- both short-term changes and long-term ones that will alter the way in which certain topics are covered in the entertainment world.

For obvious reasons, it doesn't seem likely that terrorists will be the cinematic foe that Hollywood will be latching onto in the years to come. Certainly not, anyway, from the same perspective as the topic has been portrayed in the past (as in the comedic villains of James Cameron's "True Lies," for example). Images like the White House blowing up in "Independence Day," to cite another example, have become uncomfortably troubling instead of mindlessly amusing, now that the threat seems real.

Indeed, several films were predictably bumped off the schedule -- Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage" being the most obvious one. With its subject of a fireman who lost his family in a terrorist attack fighting back against the drug cartel that claimed their lives, it's highly unlikely we're going to see that movie anytime soon. Ditto for several other movies (the Tim Allen comedy "Big Trouble," the Chris Rock/Anthony Hopkins pairing "Bad Company,"), moved to a date "sometime in 2002" or perhaps beyond due to their subject matter. Other films, such as the John Woo WWII epic "Windtalkers," also decided (likely wisely) to move into 2002 due to dim box-office prospects ahead for a war picture (struggling MGM can ill-afford one of its few "tentpole" releases to tank at such an uncertain time).

What will not change, despite changing sensibilities, is that audiences will need to be entertained to get away from it all for a time -- entertained especially in movies that have as less a connection to reality as possible in most instances, or films with stars viewers are comfortable with (a perfect example being the popularity of the Michael Douglas suspense-thriller "Don't Say a Word," which opened at #1 last weekend).

It is perfectly understandable for anyone to want to do this -- there has to be a balance -- though perhaps the brainless blockbusters WITH a connection to reality will be a little more sensitive to the human condition in light of what happened, to say nothing of the media's prior preoccupation with what tanked at the box- office and what everyone was watching last Monday night.

Everyone has reacted differently to the attacks. One of the lasting accomplishments of our nation is that dissenting views and protesters, no matter how ill-advised some may be (as in Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" show, which in reality is the most politically correct program on television!), can be heard -- both to keep the status quo in check, and to reaffirm when the minority view itself is completely off the mark.

For me, the greatest single thing I have seen is a nation that has come together in a way that nobody of my generation has ever seen before. Cops and firefighters, politicians of all parties -- often treated as completely corrupt authority figures in the cinema -- have risen to the occasion and reminded all of us here why we should be proud to be Americans. I found it quite ironic that Spike Lee -- a filmmaker that has gone to great pains to portray virtually every authority figure as a racist thug in his past films -- was there supporting the authorities by shooting a documentary on a music video to raise money following September 11. Maybe Spike finally realized that a few bad apples aren't a relative comparison now to the hundreds of thousands of unsung heroes who actually do (and have done) their jobs to the best of their abilities despite being ignored by the greater culture at large.

We've also seen patriotism -- something looked at so cynically by the Gen-Xers (a demographic category I find myself unwillingly part of) -- come sweeping back. For the first time, younger people who have had no real reason to complain about their lives (but have anyway) have witnessed real terror, real horror, real tragedy. Now maybe some can see what others have lived through in the past: that bad men, bad people do exist in this world on a level that is so irrational, so illogical it defies description.

As incredible as it may seem for some, actions can be justified. We don't want a hasty resolution that will result in more of a mess than what we have, but just the same, using "hugs" and sentiments of idiotic actors as a means to clear up the situation is as senseless as the events that happened last month. Maybe in a world previously filled with touchy-feely, righteous emotions that were always more ideal thoughts and words than actual reality (so, Madonna, would you like to go negotiate in Afghanistan for us?), this generation needed a wake-up call to understand not everyone on our globe operates in the same mind-set as everyone else. And as "awful" as some think our society to be, compare that to Afghanistan, where women are still defiled and stoned for simply showing their face in public.

How do we continue on? There has to be a return to normalcy -- which means Aisle Seat columns, DVD and CD reviews, and other items that may seem so less significant than what happened a month ago, have to come back. Aside from treating each other with more dignity and respect (somehow I can't garner any angst even for the guy who fails to start moving at a green light these days), all we can do is have faith and move on, praying that everything will turn out right and our leaders will make the right decisions.

True, it did take an unspeakable historical event to wake many people up in the United States. But it happened. Things will change. Some liberties may be taken away -- but the wider implications for our culture, after watching what happened in how people of every color and age came together in support of each other, offer more hope than I even thought we were capable of generating as a nation.


Back to Basics: What's new, Peggy Sue?

So here we are again. It's been over a month, and it doesn't take much to figure that DVDs have been piling up since our last Aisle Seat column. So, with tons more reviews to follow next week, let's first start with the discs in order of their release.

Christopher Nolan's MEMENTO was one of the year's big sleepers: an indie thriller that captivated most critics and grossed over $25 million only in limited engagements around the country.

Nolan's film has a central hook that's fascinating, if not somewhat prone to problematic plot holes: the entire story is told in reverse, opening with short-term memory sufferer Guy Pearce's murder of Joe Pantoliano, then going back to establish the true identity of the characters and the context in which it took place. Pearce keeps track of his "case" by scribbling down notes on Polaroid photos of people he meets along the way.

It's an undeniably intriguing idea, and even though the structure itself becomes a bit confining (Pearce's repetitious rehash of clues feels like you're playing a PC game), Nolan keeps you hooked simply to find out what the fuss is all about.

The novelty of the film's premise aside, I was ultimately disappointed in the movie (**1/2, Columbia, $24.98), because the story itself -- once finally revealed -- isn't anywhere near as interesting as the central idea. You never engage in the characters or the "plot" in ordinary dramatic terms since the movie is a game where you're trying to piece together clues, people, and how they all fit together.

I wouldn't have minded this at all if the pay-off was worth the wait, but I found the resolution to be a muddled let-down -- making what came before it into a routine (and quite unbelievable) crime-thriller that leaves a fair degree of questions unanswered. It isn't entirely a cheat, but it's not worthy of the complex puzzle that lead up to it, either. After all that time, all I could think of at the end was, "THAT was it?"

Of course, Nolan's intent was to create a point-of-view unlike other film "noir" thrillers, on that level alone, he succeeded admirably. The movie is technically well-made and eerie, but I think it was a shame Nolan -- adapting his brother Jonathan's short story -- couldn't have found a more intriguing mystery to use as the basis for reverse-time storytelling.

Certainly the filmmaker, based on his efforts here, is a talent well worth watching, and Columbia's fine DVD of MEMENTO includes a 24-minute interview with the director, culled from the Independent Film Channel. Several text supplements will also prove to be interesting for fans: these include Jonathan Nolan's complete short story, as well as a handful of "clues" (i.e. newspaper headlines) presumably included to give you additional background on the events leading up to the story's time frame. A gallery of Pearce's "clue tattoos," full cast and crew bios, and a handful of trailers and TV spots round out the package, while the 2.35 transfer is solid, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.


Paramount New Releases

'80s comedies seem to be finding their way on DVD recently. When you see MGM planning on releasing a DVD of "Mannequin" in December, you know the vaults have been opened!

Paramount's September releases included no less than three '80s comedic favorites, along with a recent, belated sequel that failed to capture the spirit of its predecessors.

CROCODILE DUNDEE (***1/2, $24.98) was that unique sleeper hit that went on to achieve blockbuster status -- a rare feat for a little Australian comedy that didn't star anyone immediately recognizable to North American audiences, with a weird title and a bland trailer that didn't quite do justice to its charming source material.

Its simple but pleasant tale of an American writer (Linda Kozlowski) profiling a flamboyant Outback resident (Paul Hogan) -- the original "Crocodile Hunter" -- and then bringing him along to the Big Apple managed to combine an entertaining romance, fish-out-of-water comedy, and civilization-versus-nature plot all at once. The script, by Hogan, Ken Shadie and John Cornell, is well above average for the kind of formula the movie adheres to, but it's the performances of Hogan and Kozlowski that really sell the movie, giving the characters their undeniable chemistry which viewers found so engaging.

The first film, a huge success in 1986, gave way to the entertaining but slightly less amusing CROCODILE DUNDEE II (**1/2, $24.98), which reversed the formula -- opening in New York, then returning Down Under -- but got severely bogged down in its drug-dealing bad guy premise, which finds Mick Dundee being threatened by a group of thugs who kill off Kozlowski's ex-flame in the first few minutes.

With a bigger budget at his disposal, Hogan's 1988 sequel, which he co-wrote with Brett Hogan, managed to reprise enough of the original's charm so that it became a huge hit, but it's obviously not as fresh or fun as its predecessor. And, under the direction of one of the original's writers, John Cornell, the movie tends to run on past its welcome at just under two hours.

Both the original DUNDEE and its sequel receive solid 2.35 transfers on DVD (enhanced for 16:9 TVs), both in their original Panavision aspect ratios. With so much of the atmosphere provided by the widescreen lensing, it goes without saying that letterboxing is a must for both films. The first DUNDEE's audio is an unremarkable 2.0 Dolby Stereo track, while II includes a predictably more polished 5.1 Dolby Digital encoding. Trailers are included on both films.

It took Hogan over a decade before getting around to the inevitable third entry, CROCODILE DUNDEE IN LOS ANGELES (**, $29.98), which premiered to diminishing returns in theaters last spring. Still, I found it surprising the movie grossed as much as it did, considering it had been 13 years since the last sequel was released.

This slight, amusing movie is aimed more directly at a family audience than either of its predecessors, focusing on Dundee's son, Mikey, and mom Kozlowski's investigative reporting on why worthless sequels are continuously produced in Hollywood. Gee, can't you just SENSE the irony at play here?

That said, DUNDEE IN L.A. is still a breezy, inoffensive effort worth watching for die-hard fans of the series, or for younger, undemanding viewers who have been enjoying the myriad Dundee variations (like the Animal Planet's Croc Hunter) that have become popular in the years since the original's release.

Paramount's DVD of this sequel includes a 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, neither of which compare to the earlier films in their look or mood. Basil Poledouris replaced Peter Best as composer here, but like a lot of Basil's recent work, it feels as if the project dimmed some of the composer's enthusiasm. Interviews with the cast and trailers round out the package.

Finally, Paramount has also released a terrific, underrated gem from the late '80s: the Richard Dreyfuss horse racing comedy LET IT RIDE (***1/2, $29.98), which was initially released without the benefit of critic screenings despite later receiving a handful of positive reviews.

One of several movies adapted from a Jay Cronley book around the same time (including the very funny Chevy Chase vehicle "Funny Farm" and Bill Murray's hilarious, equally underrated caper flick "Quick Change"), this tale of a down-on-his-luck cab driver (Dreyfuss) having a great day at the track is filled with laughs, not to mention memorable supporting turns from a terrific supporting cast, including Teri Garr, Jennifer Tilly, and Robbie Coltrane.

Joe Pytka's direction is efficient and even Giorgio Moroder's score (arranged by the "Young Guns" team of Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli) is perfectly acceptable. For some odd reason, "Slap Shot" scribe Nancy Dowd had her name removed from the credits (the pseudonym "Ernest Morton" was used instead), which is strange since LET IT RIDE has built up a fairly strong critical rep over the years since its under- the-radar 1989 release.

Paramount's DVD includes a strong 1.85 transfer, enhanced for 16:9, both 5.1 and 2.0 stereo tracks, and a brief featurette (but no trailer).

Highly recommended, colorful entertainment that ranks as some of Dreyfuss' most engaging work.


THURSDAY: Crank out the "offer you can't refuse" jokes. A peak at new Special Edition releases of THE GODFATHER COLLECTION, THE TERMINATOR, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and more! Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. Take care everyone.


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