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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 at home.


In Theaters

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. (R)


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 the film.

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 Heist." (R)


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 disc.


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 colorful style.

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 shores.

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). Highly recommended!


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 dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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