Aisle Seat October Harvest Edition
Reviews of New Flicks including JOY RIDE, SERENDIPITY
Plus: MASK OF ZORRO, BRIDGET JONES, and KNIGHT'S TALE on DVD
By Andy Dursin
The fall box-office is picking up steam with the Denzel Washington-Ethan
Hawke police drama "Training Day" remaining at #1 for the second week in
a row, while a pair of contenders will try and take over the top spot this
weekend: the Dreamworks military prison effort "The Last Castle" with Robert
Redford (which has a pair of contrasting trailers -- one touting Redford,
the other backed by hard-rock music that doesn't even mention his name!),
and the Jack the Ripper thriller "From Hell" with Johnny Depp.
In the meantime, some intriguing (and alternately surprising or disappointing)
efforts have been released to multiplexes everywhere. Here's my round-up,
along with a look at more recent DVD efforts recommended (or not) for viewing
JOY RIDE (***1/2 of four): A few years ago, the Kurt Russell
open-road thriller "Breakdown" netted a handful of excellent reviews and
rode positive word-of-mouth to box-office success.
This sturdy, well-directed teen variant from film noir specialist John
Dahl is, in many ways, even more entertaining -- a genuinely spooky, pre-Halloween
treat that's easily one of the best movies to come down the pike in the
last couple of barren movie-going months.
JOY RIDE finds college guy Paul Walker (last seen in the summer hit
"Fast and the Furious") bailing bad boy older brother Steve Zahn out of
prison. En route to pick up gal pal Leelee Sobieski, the two decide to
play a prank via their recently installed CB radio -- the "internet chat
room" of yesteryear, according to Zahn.
The victim of their joke is a trucker whom Walker and Zahn talk into
meeting what he thinks will be a girl (dubbed "Candy cane") in the motel
where the brothers are staying in overnight. In one of several suspenseful,
well-executed sequences, the trucker instead ends up meeting a jerk Zahn
runs into -- and promptly rips the guy's jaw straight off while the jokesters
sit and listen in the room next door.
What follows thereafter is a cat-and-mouse game with the mystery driver's
big rig running Zahn, Walker, and Sobieski on and off the major interstates,
taking a page out of Spielberg's "Duel" and breaking completely out of
the "teen horror" genre confines the movie resembles only in its advertising.
Director Dahl's credits range from the superb "Red Rock West" to the
underrated "Unforgettable," and he does an exemplary job building and sustaining
suspense from start to end. The script, by scribes J.J. Abrams ("Felicity")
and Clay Tarver, establishes believable characters and situations you can
immediately identify with, from the fairly innocent prank Zahn instigates
to the dire consequences the protagonists find themselves in after the
joke comes back to haunt them.
The climax builds to a fever-pitched frenzy that will keep you on the
edge of your seat, while Marco Beltrami's score and Jeff Jur's cinematography
give the film plenty of atmosphere to spare. The performances are all fine,
with Zahn turning in especially strong work as a relatively innocuous slacker
whose bombastic personality early on contrasts splendidly with his reaction
to the increasingly demented behavior of the evil trucker.
JOY RIDE is solid, taut, and exciting entertainment on every level.
SERENDIPITY (**): I'm not sure who coined the term
"there's no there, there," but I will give whoever it is full credit for
basically summing up this star-struck romantic comedy in four words. You
know you're in trouble when a Eugene Levy cameo is the only thing that
can bring a movie to life.
From the minute Peter Chelsom's would-be frothy fantasy begins, the
word contrivance -- and not serendipity -- is the word that came to mind
as John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale meet in the Big Apple during Christmas
time. They share loving glances, sarcastic humor, and a nice skate on the
ice. They're both dating other people, but he can sense a movie romance
at work. She, however, is bound by fate -- going so far as to scribble
down her name and number in a book and selling it to a used bookshop. If
Cusack can find it, then they're meant to be together. (Now, you can stop
right there and ask why a woman truly interested in a guy would do such
a thing, but it's one of the many suspensions of disbelief you must grant
the filmmakers here.)
Flash forward several years, and the two are ready to be hitched. She
to a pompous musician, he to someone nice but not "the one." In fact, Cusack
never gives us a really great reason as to why his fiancee isn't good enough,
aside from comparing his relationship with her to a ridiculous analogy
between GODFATHER I and II. But, this being the kind of movie it is, both
leave their homes and mates on the altar for one last chance at finding
one another -- and gee, can't you just guess what happens?
SERENDIPITY has all the makings of a "nice" date movie, but the big
surprise in how uneven it turns out to be. Cusack seems to be mostly going
through the motions (and is beginning to look a little long-in-the- tooth
for the kind of carefree single guy he's essaying here), and while Beckinsale
is far more likable than her cardboard part in "Pearl Harbor," she isn't
given enough to do. Actually, nobody here is given much to do.
Director Chelsom's penchant for offbeat humor pops up every now and
then in a handful of misfired gags (a bratty kid in an elevator, and a
needless reprisal of Levy's store clerk in a tacked-on coda that must have
been shot after test screenings), but aside from solid work by the always
game Jeremy Piven as Cusack's best friend, SERENDIPITY doesn't work. There's
no emotional pull, no dramatic urgency, ever in effect at any point in
Most of the movie is comprised of simple Point A-to-Point B plot sequences
with a bare minimum of exposition. Cusack's fiancee, her fiancee (a Yanni
take-off that never goes anywhere) and best friend (SNL's Molly Shannon,
seeming like she bit the cutting room floor) -- all of them come across
in the final cut as simple plot points and nothing more.
Granted, it's hard to create a memorable romantic comedy these days
when the formula has been so often rung dry. But it's also tough to make
a formula movie so meandering and disconnected as SERENDIPITY, which only
feels comfortable when it shows its stars running about, looking for each
other on the streets of New York, set to the strains of a generic rock
soundtrack that creates the feeling of an extended music video. Tellingly,
the movie has all the dramatic depth of one, too. (PG-13)
DON'T SAY A WORD (**1/2): By-the-numbers but quite
watchable thriller finds Michael Douglas as a New York City psychiatrist
whose daughter is kidnapped by a group of bank robbers looking for the
location of a lost jewel, and whose new patient -- a young girl played
by Brittany Murphy -- may have the answers the kidnappers are looking for.
Douglas' compelling performance is about the only thing that stands
out in director Gary Fleder's routine thriller, which manages to push most
of the right buttons but is severely constrained by too much plot and not
enough character development. The fine supporting cast includes "Goldeneye"
stars Sean Bean as the head bad guy and Famke Jenssen as Douglas' (Catherine
Zeta-like) younger wife, but the actors have little to do but play out
the script's scenario in an unremarkable but reasonably efficient fashion.
Still, DON'T SAY A WORD is good enough to sustain one's interest for
a single viewing, and the New York City locales give the film a gritty,
realistic backdrop. Mark Isham's score lends a strong assist, though Graeme
Revell nabs a prominent place in the end credits for his composition "The
New On DVD
BLOW (**1/2 movie, ***1/2 extras, $24.98, New Line): The studio's
line of "Infinifilm" special edition releases comes up aces again with
a supplemental-jammed edition of the intriguing though uneven real-life
tale of George Jung (pronounced "Young"), a seemingly ordinary guy who
improbably turns into American's leading trafficker of cocaine during the
'80s and '90s while being jetted in and out of prison.
Johnny Depp is solid as Jung and excellent supporting roles are turned
in by Ray Liotta and Paul Ruebens, but director Ted Demme can never quite
settle on a reason for us to truly care about the lead character. The film
tends to glorify its subject matter more than provide a realistic depiction
of it (as Stephen Soderbergh did with "Traffic"), but it's glossy and entertaining
for much of its duration just the same.
New Line's DVD offers plenty of supplemental features, including Demme's
actual interviews with the real George Jung, an informative featurette
on Colombia's struggle with cocaine (more informative than the movie, in
fact), a featurette on addiction, on-screen "Pop Up Video"-like text anecdotes,
plus commentary with Demme and Jung, a series of deleted scenes (some of
which deserved to stay in the final cut), Demme's production diary, teasers
and trailers, and a music video as well.
New Line has raised the bar with the "Infinifilm" series, ironically
so much so that the supplements are sometimes overshadowing the actual
movies -- and that's exactly the case here.
BRIDGET JONES' DIARY (***1/2 movie, *** extras,
$29.98, Miramax): 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, doesn't entirely grate
on the viewer. It's all glossy fluff, but given the kind of year we've
had at the movies, it's one of the year's more charming films to date.
Buena Vista's DVD features a solid 2.35 transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack,
along with a handful of fine bonus supplements. Director Sharon Maguire's
commentary is often quite revealing, while an assortment of deleted scenes
(most of which were apparently removed only from the U.S. version that
Miramax distributed), a promotional featurette, two music videos, and original
"Bridget Jones's Diary" columns written by Helen Fielding round out the
DRIVEN (**1/2 movie, *** extras, $24.98, Warner):
Sylvester Stallone and Renny Harlin's dip into the world of Formula One
racing predictably did not win over critics, but for a no-brain 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
DVD is a perfect way to enjoy the movie at home, and Warner's presentation
features a typically superb 2.35 transfer with an active Dolby Digital
soundtrack. The supplements are also top-notch, including some 50 minutes
of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Stallone. Most of these are
of the character development variety (most involving Sly's relationship
with a writer), and one can see why Sly was a bit disappointed that they
were cut. On the other hand, Harlin doesn't seem to mind their removal,
at least not judging from his own commentary that runs throughout the film
itself. Featurettes on the effects, an HBO documentary, the original trailer,
and a preview of the video game follow suit.
THE MASK OF ZORRO: SPECIAL EDITION (**** movie,
***1/2 extras, $27.98, Columbia TriStar): Despite having been available
in Europe for some time, this two-disc, deluxe edition of the tremendously
entertaining 1998 action-adventure has only now reached North American
The movie itself remains a blast of fun and entertainment: a first-class
production with stirring action, terrific performances (from Antonio Banderas,
Anthony Hopkins, and Catherine Zeta-Jones), lush cinematography, efficient
direction by Martin Campbell, and easily one of James Horner's best scores
of the last decade. MASK OF ZORRO has a timeless quality that will enable
it to date well in the years to come, certainly better than most of the
generic blockbusters produced of late.
Columbia's new supplements include a 45-minute documentary shot in 1998,
offering interviews with the cast and crew. Unlike a lot of studio-produced
Making Of specials, this one is relatively honest and features a fair assessment
of the film and some of the production problems. Especially revealing is
a look at the movie's original ending (rightly re-shot), plus an interview
with James Horner discussing his music. For some reason, the picture quality
is a bit on the soft side throughout the documentary, but it's passable.
Other extras include the entire omitted original ending in its entirety,
along with an additional comic aside that was presumably cut for pacing
(there are reports that the European DVD features another cut sequence
not included here). Director Martin Campbell contributes an audio commentary,
while a complement of trailers, advertising and costume designs, and a
music video round out the disc.
The 2.35 transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack look identical to the
earlier Columbia DVD, but there's the addition of a DTS track that home
theater aficionados will appreciate. Curiously, though, the extras are
all included on the first disc (along with the letterboxed version of the
film), leaving the second-disc to house a pan-and-scan transfer that should
be avoided at all costs.
A KNIGHT'S TALE (*** movie, ***1/2 extras, $27.98,
Columbia TriStar): Writer-producer-director Brian Helgeland's modest box-office
hit is a highly entertaining yarn filled with anachronistic rock music
(the kids dance to David Bowie's "Golden Years" and the jousting crowds
stomp their feet to Queen), lots of laughs, and a handful of fine performances
Aussie Heath Ledger -- who once again shows he's more charismatic than
any of America's bland young leading men -- is a peasant who fills in for
a recently deceased noble knight during a jousting competition. Along the
way he falls for a young lady of the wealthy class, jousts for money and
the name of his father, and ends up combating the villainous Rufus Sewell
(in a wonderfully conniving performance) in a spoofy, highly enjoyable
teenage adventure dressed up as a loose -- and we're talking loose -- evocation
of the middle ages (which will undoubtedly offend purists). It's all a
lark with a lot of good-natured humor that's perfect if you're in the mood.
Columbia's superb Special Edition DVD features a plethora of extras,
from chatty commentary by Helgeland and co-star Paul Bettany, to the HBO
Making Of special, no less than 11 brief featurettes, a handful of deleted
scenes with introductory comments from the filmmaker, trailers, a music
video, production notes, and DVD-Rom content (boasting a "3-D" screensaver).
SPY KIDS (*** movie, *1/2 extras, $29.98, Dimension/Miramax):
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.
Buena Vista's DVD gives you a colorful 1.85 transfer of the theatrical
cut and somewhat subdued Dolby Digital soundtrack (it seems the relatively
modest budget for the film resulted in an audio mix not as elaborate as
you might have thought), but unfortunately, nothing else for supplements
aside from the trailer.
Given that Rodriguez re-edited the film for a "Special Edition" re-release
last August (which found few takers at the box-office), you just know a
full-blown supplemental DVD of that SPY KIDS cut will be coming up sooner
than later. So, for most, a rental may suffice of this edition.
NEXT WEEK: It's Halloween
at the Aisle Seat with reviews of direct-to-video efforts like the long-awaited
TREMORS 3 and Van Damme in REPLICANT. Direct emails to firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!