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
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
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
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
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
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
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),
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!