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Aisle Seat's August Assault

Reviews of new flicks including THE OTHERS

Plus: Paramount's New DVD Slate of Vintage Fare!

By Andy Dursin

We're coming to the time of summer when studios start releasing the has-beens and holdovers that were once viewed as viable contenders -- movies like the oft-delayed RAT RACE, where Elmer Bernstein's score was just one casualty of post-production woes, and John Carpenter's reportedly less-than-stellar GHOSTS OF MARS, which has an always plum (sarcasm inserted) late-August release date.

Still, not every August release is completely devoid of interest: a spooky ghost story, THE OTHERS, performed fairly well last weekend at the box-office, which was predictably dominated by AMERICAN PIE 2 and RUSH HOUR 2 (which held up especially well since teenagers bought tickets for it, then sneaked into the R-rated PIE).

We'll be back with an end-of-August DVD blow-out, plus a slew of LIFEFORCE reactions, next time. (My thanks to all those who wrote in about my column last week). In the meantime, here's a rundown on the latest releases and Paramount's recent DVD slateÖ


In Theaters

THE OTHERS (**1/2): One of the big problems we're seeing now with supernatural films (and thrillers in general) is that filmmakers are beginning to believe that a big twist can compensate for any deficiencies that the rest of their movies may have.

Writer-director-composer Alejandro Amenabar's impressively shot THE OTHERS is competently executed in several areas that it's truly disappointing he makes a fatal mistake in his storytelling: if you can figure out what's happening early on (as I did before the first 15 minutes were finished), there's nothing else here that will frighten or surprise. Add on a cop-out of a climax -- plus an ending that doesn't answer half of the questions the film raises -- and you have a frustrating genre experience that could have been so much more.

Amenabar's story basically takes the "big shock" of THE SIXTH SENSE and applies it to Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," which formed the basis for Jack Clayton's outstanding film THE INNOCENTS -- a superior movie that Amenabar rips off here in mood, look, and premise (i.e. a headstrong woman in charge of a young boy and girl in a spooky British mansion possibly infiltrated by ghosts with a female maid who seems to know more than she's letting on. Aside from that, there aren't any similarities).

Nicole Kidman gives a serviceable performance here as a single mother in the 1940s whose husband died in WWII and whose children both suffer from a debilitating disease that makes them sensitive to light. A trio of new servants arrive unannounced to Kidman's isolated, foggy English manor (as if that alone doesn't clue you in to what's really going on) to assist her and the two children: a young boy and an older girl who provides some antagonistic behavior towards her mother (a regrettably underdeveloped angle to the story). Both of the pale-skinned children hear all sorts of eerie noises around the house -- the girl believes that the ghost of a boy named Victor lurks around shadowy corridors, while Kidman herself hears voices and doors that mysteriously slam shut.

It's hard to say THE OTHERS is a complete misfire, because most of it works, at least on a surface level: the performances are solid, the cinematography appropriately misty, and Amenabar gives the entire movie a classy feel that separates it from much of today's bland, over-the-top genre filmmaking. (He also provides an effective orchestral soundtrack).

Still, it's easy to give too much credit to the film for bringing back memories of other, better chillers, and in addition to an often languid pace and notable lack of shocks, the movie misses the mark one too many times to recommend.

Amenabar's telegraphed direction makes every plot point in the story visible from miles away, while his script misses all sorts of opportunities to develop more dramatic turns the story could have taken (it's impossible to divulge these angles without giving it all away; suffice to say that you'll be thinking of obvious ways the film could have been more interesting on the ride home).

The filmmaker does come up with one plot point that isn't so obvious near the end, but even this twist is completely fumbled by the filmmaker. Without divulging the ending, all I'll say is that the entire consequence of one character's decision-making is completely glossed over as if it's an everyday occurrence, and instead of filling the viewer with a sense of empathy or understanding for the person (as Amenabar, I believe, wants us to feel at the end), it only makes you feel contempt for the character and the screenplay for failing to elaborate upon it.

Amenabar's fatal flaw in THE OTHERS is his obvious belief that the entire "twist" of the story would be enough to sustain the narrative, a direct contrast to other thrillers (like "The Sixth Sense" and "The Innocents") that establish characters who you truly care about before reaching into their bag of tricks. THE OTHERS, on the other hand, never engages such involvement in its story -- you care only about what the setting, the narrative "trick" is all about. Ultimately, it's a game whose solution is readily apparent from the start, with a pat ending that makes one wonder what the point was in playing along. (PG-13)


THE PRINCESS DIARIES (**): There have been plenty of great live-action Disney films over the years, but this disappointing, cookie-cutter "Cinderella" spin from veteran filmmaker Garry Marshall isn't one of them.

An adaptation by Gina Wendkos of Meg Cabot's novel, THE PRINCESS DIARIES wastes a charming lead performance by Anne Hathaway as a gawky teen who learns that she's really the Princess of Genovia, a small European country nestled near France and Spain. Grandmother Julie Andrews announces the news to her San Fransisco-raised nerdy heir to the throne, who promptly receives a make-over (which of course turns her from uncomfortable high schooler to self-confident leader in a matter of minutes), etiquette lessons from Granny, and sage advice from the country's security chief (Marshall regular Hector Elizondo), all the while coping with being a typical 16-year-old.

This fairy-tale saga could have been turned into a smart comedy for kids IF handled properly -- "Clueless" meets "Ever After" would have worked just fine -- but alas, everything in the film feels completely arbitrary: you have the push-button scenes of teen angst, the obnoxious best-friend (a grating Heather Mattarazzo) and rotten classmates, and a slew of politically correct messages about families and leadership. Even at the overlong 116-minute running time, there isn't enough development of Hathaway's character, whose transformation into a girl who can cope with being a crusader AND a media figure isn't convincing at all.

Andrews feels at home as the knowing member of royalty not too snobby to recognize Hathaway's potential, but their scenes together are played out in a thoroughly routine, by-the-numbers fashion, and all of the high school sequences (toned down for the G rating) feel as if they've been made by people who are completely out of touch with today's kids. Heck, even a wacky Disney comedy from the '70s (like the Jodie Foster classic FREAKY FRIDAY) seems more "real" than anything in THE PRINCESS DIARIES.

Marshall throws in plenty of unfunny gags and undernourished supporting players in an attempt to brighten up the action (the editing is also borderline embarrassing), but just like John Debney's temp-tracked soundtrack (which features "variations" on themes from Dave Grusin's "The Cure" to Danny Elfman's "Back to School"), he completely misses the charm and heart that the material necessitated to work. (G)


AMERICAN PIE 2 (***): Amiable, breezy sequel features more of the same from the 1999 original film, though there's fewer gross-out gags and a slightly more developed story.

The focus this time is again on Jason Biggs' hapless Jim, who spends a summer with the boys on a "lake" front house (except that it overlooks the Pacific Ocean) and conditions his sexual prowess with Michele, the band camp girl (a larger role here for Alyson Hannigan), in order to prepare for the return of the legendary Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) from Europe.

Everyone is back from the original, though most of the female parts are token reprisals -- even Chris Klein has little to do here but converse on the phone with Mena Suvari (in a cameo appearance). J.B. Rogers takes over from Paul Weitz in the director's chair, though Adam Herz is back handling the writing chores, something that's evident from the regulation gross-out gags and encouraging words of sexual advice the characters exchange with one another.

But the somewhat sloppy pace aside, I enjoyed this movie more than the original, which tried TOO hard to be PORKY'S for today's youthful movie-goers. AMERICAN PIE 2 isn't a great comedy by any means, but it's more relaxed and technically polished than its predecessor, and seems just as content spending time with its characters as it does reaching for another slice of goofy adolescent humor. (R)


Paramount DVD Round-Up

Paramount has quickly become a friend of movie buffs when it comes to DVD: unlike other labels, the studio now regularly dips into their back catalog, bringing with them their commitment to 16:9 enhanced transfers. Here's a round-up of the studio's recent new releases, offering a wide variety of vintage fare for viewers hungry for anything OTHER than recent cinematic blunders.

FUNERAL IN BERLIN (***, 1966, $29.98): Michael Caine reprised his "Ipcress Role" of Harry Palmer in this 1966 sequel, another Len Deighton spy thriller that features a different supporting cast but many of the same creative talents behind the screen. Here, Palmer is sent to Berlin to investigate a Russian military general who wants to defect -- though not everything is quite what it seems.

Produced by Bond veteran Harry Saltzman, FUNERAL IN BERLIN also features contributions from a handful of 007 veterans, including production designer Ken Adam and director Guy Hamilton. Regrettably, John Barry didn't return to follow up his terrific score for the original film, instead handing off the assignment to Konrad Elfers (Harry Rabinowitz conducted the score). While the music isn't as atmospheric, the movie is still highly entertaining, offering an ample dose of Cold War-styled spy twists and turns that you would anticipate from a Deighton story. It's a virtual "anti- Bond" thriller, with a deliberate pace, sexy girls (Eva Renzi in this instance), and gloomy atmosphere to spare.

Even better, Paramount's DVD features the movie's first-ever letterboxed release on home video, in a surprisingly clean, vibrant 2.35 transfer. English and French mono soundtracks are provided on the audio end, while an amusing theatrical trailer rounds out the package. (If you're wondering, MGM holds the rights to "Billion Dollar Brain," the third and final Palmer entry from 1967).


THE HUNTER (**1/2, 1980, $29.98): An elaborate car chase that takes up virtually a third of the movie is the main reason to see THE HUNTER, an otherwise routine 1980 thriller that marked Steve McQueen's final film performance.

McQueen plays Ralph "Papa" Thorson, a modern-day bounty hunter on the trail of a group of fugitives who have skipped bail. Kathryn Harrold plays the girl, Eli Wallach and Ben Johnson offer veteran support, and LeVar Burton nabs a plum supporting part that McQueen added to the script expressly for the actor.

Although a seemingly ordinary film on the surface, THE HUNTER was beset by production problems. Peter Hyams was the first director on the film, and was replaced after a few weeks by Buzz Kulik. Hyams, who retains co-screenplay credit, allegedly was too much for McQueen to handle, and had the veteran star jumping, running, and scrambling to breathe between all of the movie's action sequences. Kulik replaced Hyams, while Michel Legrand scored the film -- but with Charles Bernstein receiving a notable designation during the end credits for the Chicago car chase music.

Paramount's DVD features a decent 1.85 transfer that veers from perfect to washed out, and the 2.0 mono soundtrack is unremarkable. A theatrical trailer, attempting to sell the movie as a lightweight McQueen thriller with the star playing off his aging image, is included as well.

McQueen fans may want to check out the DVD for the star's swan song, though most viewers may be satisfied by simply skipping through to the principal chase scene and enjoying the action.



PAINT YOUR WAGON (***, 1969, $29.98): While not regarded as one of the screen's top musicals, there's always been something appealing about the widescreen textures in this Joshua Logan-Paddy Chayefsky "re-thinking" of the classic Lerner-Lowe musical.

That, plus you get Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin both warbling songs as a pair of Gold Rush miners who engage in the film's fairly adult wife-swapping premise, kinky enough that the movie received an "M" rating back in its day (it's a PG-13 now). Despite the somewhat uneasy vocalizing of the leads (plus Jean Seberg, who plays the object of both men's affection), excellent supporting turns are served up by Broadway vets Harve Presnell and Ray Walston. Presnell croons "They Call the Wind Maria" in a superb arrangement courtesy of Andre Previn that stops the show before the first 30 minutes are over. The rest of the 164-minute epic gets by due to the sweeping Panavision cinematography and the strength of its source material, even if Marvin has to mumble his way through "Wandrin' Star." Paramount's DVD features a gorgeous 2.35 transfer and both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Surround encoding of the soundtrack. A theatrical trailer is it for extras, and the chapter selections -- for no apparent reason -- fail to designate where the songs are. Still, it's an overall solid package for a certainly unique entry in the realm of stage-to-screen musical adaptations.


THE SHOOTIST (***1/2, 1976, $29.98) and HATARI (***, 1962, $29.98): Paramount's last batch of John Wayne titles included "In Harm's Way," "Donovan's Reef," and "The Sons of Katie Elder." Their latest pair of releases starring the legendary star spotlight one of the Duke's handful of performances for director Howard Hawks, along with Wayne's final film.

The latter, the Dino DeLaurentiis-produced THE SHOOTIST, is the more interesting of the two films: a poignant, moving tale of an aging gunslinger attempting to set things right before his impending death. Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, and John Carradine are among the veteran performers who appeared with Wayne in this adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's novel, well-directed by Clint Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel and scored by Elmer Bernstein.

The movie certainly provided a fitting end to Wayne's career, and Paramount's DVD features a competent 1.85 transfer with a lively mono soundtrack.

Paramount has also included the original trailer and a new, 18-minute documentary feature on the making of the film, featuring interviews with the producers (who divulge that George C. Scott was once intended to star) and cast member Hugh O'Brian, who says he did a small part for nothing -- like many of the cast members, he just wanted to be in the picture any way possible.

HATARI! was meant to pair Wayne with Clark Gable. That teaming, of course, didn't happen, but the resulting 1962 African adventure is an agreeable enough, rough-and-tumble action-comedy in the traditional Hawks manner. Location cinematography by Russell Harlan, a classic score by Henry Mancini (including the staple "Baby Elephant Walk"), and a Leigh Brackett script filled with crisp dialogue make for an overlong (157 minute) epic that's still worth a look for Wayne fans.

Paramount's DVD isn't as crisp as some of the other Wayne films (none too surprising given the amount of bluescreen work in the film), but it's more than passable and the mono soundtrack is serviceable. Another enthusiastic theatrical trailer is included.


MOMMIE DEAREST (**1/2, 1981, $29.98): Aahh, yes, one of the quintessential camp classics of all-time has found its way to DVD. In addition to being somewhat horrifying, Faye Dunaway's over-the-top performance as Joan Crawford remains an indelible image of '80s cinema.

Director Frank Perry's chronicle of Crawford's terrifying descent into alcoholism and abuse of her adopted child Christina makes for uneasy viewing at times, no doubt, but Hollywood voyeurs and fans of so-bad-it's-good cinema will savor Dunaway's melodramatic role from start to end.

Certainly the movie is well-shot, capably scored by Henry Mancini, and compulsively watchable for its portrayal of the era, its stars, and the studio system that was to blame for many problems of the people who worked in it.

Paramount's 1.85 transfer is a bit on the grainy side but is generally acceptable, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed sound is better than anticipated. The trailer ("Joan Crawford: the most dramatic role of her life WAS her life!") is included along with a brief stills gallery.


ORDINARY PEOPLE (***1/2, 1980, $29.98): Outstanding performances from Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton are the main reasons to revisit Robert Redford's 1980 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Script, Supporting Actor (Hutton, in a role he's never equaled), and Director.

Alvin Sargent's incisive, smart script was adapted from Judith Guest's novel, following what happens to a wealthy suburban family after Hutton's older brother dies in a tragic accident. Redford's film is smart, well-performed, and moving, representing the best work of many folks involved in its production.

Paramount's DVD is a bit of a disappointment in terms of its supplements: the studio had originally announced a more elaborate edition with commentary and other extras, yet the finished disc -- delayed from earlier this year -- includes only the original theatrical trailer.

Still, the 1.85 transfer is OK and the mono sound, featuring a Marvin Hamlisch score that adapts Pachelbel's "Canon in D," is perfectly acceptable for a movie of this sort.


NEXT WEEK: LIFEFORCE Reactions and Part One of our End-of-Summer DVD Buyer's Guide. Remember to drop all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!


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