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Jurassic-Sized Aisle Seat!

Andy's Review of JURASSIC PARK III

Plus: FINAL FANTASY and more Mailbag

By Andy Dursin

It's big, it's opening today, but is it any good? I'm talking, of course, about the leaner, meaner JURASSIC PARK III, which opens today across the U.S. I managed to catch the movie at a press screening Monday night, so here's my take, along with a look at FINAL FANTASY, LEGALLY BLONDE, and more responses from the Mailbag...

New in Theaters

JURASSIC PARK III (***): In the days of the Saturday Matinee serial, audiences would flock to experience the latest adventures of heroes like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Tarzan. Viewers loved going back to see the newest developments in those respective series, even if the "new" story likely resembled something that came before it in more ways than one. But, as long as the production was handled effectively and pushed the right buttons, it would likely satisfy even those so familiar with the material that they knew exactly what they were getting before buying a ticket.

JURASSIC PARK III is like a B-movie entry in a long-running series, dressed up with top-grade special effects and set pieces offering some fresh twists on its predecessors. It's barely 95 minutes long, but in this instance, that's not an indication of a weak sequel: director Joe Johnston's movie rips right into the action from the opening frames, disposes of the pretentiousness of THE LOST WORLD and turns into an elaborate chase movie that gives you the meat -- all the action and effects of the first two films -- without the fat (i.e. Richard Attenborough's preachy, ecological speechifying from its immediate predecessor).

After sitting through Jeff Goldblum's uneasy turn as leading man in the tepid LOST WORLD, Sam Neill's reprisal here of Dr. Alan Grant seems like a breath of fresh air. Suckered into a rescue mission by would-be philanthropist William H. Macy (at times essaying his "Fargo" part without the Minnesota accent) and ex- wife Tea Leoni, Grant -- along with grad student Alessandro Nivola -- returns to Isla Sorna where the dinosaurs have not only continued to run amok, but also evolved with new species and forms of communication between them. Macy and Leoni's son (the surprisingly tolerable Trevor Morgan) has gone missing and it's up to the group to find him, AND their way out, before being consumed by the island's inhabitants.

PARK III had its share of problems during filming: the script, credited to Peter Buchman and "Election" scribes Alexander Payne and James Taylor, was reportedly re-written each day, while the picture's ending was scrapped and re-shot at the last minute. While the finished film boasts an abrupt conclusion that should have been more effectively staged, the rest of the picture is often quite well-directed, with a handful of exciting set-pieces highlighted by a dynamite escape from a nest of flying Pteranodons.

The ILM effects are as good as you would anticipate, while Johnston's film features a greenish, daylight look far removed from THE LOST WORLD's ugly, night-time trappings. Neill and Nivola make for perfectly acceptable leads, and even if Leoni's at-times abrasive performance boasts one unintentionally funny moment (her reaction after discovering a corpse), the movie moves so quickly that you tend to forget she's even in it. Don Davis' faux-John Williams replacement score, meanwhile, is too much at times, but at least reworks the original themes effectively enough that most audiences seemingly won't know the difference.

JURASSIC PARK III doesn't have the novelty value of the first film in the series, where the groundbreaking special effects alone wowed audiences around the world, but it does rank as a sequel far superior to the second film. Like the Saturday Matinee serials of yesteryear, it gives you more of the same, but that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. (PG-13, 95 mins)

FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN (**1/2): Alien "phantoms" are threatening to destroy a depleted futuristic Earth, and it's up to the military and a scientist with visions to save us all in this big- screen spin-off of the popular, long-running video game series.

One major thought ran through my mind while watching this film: as much as the cinema has changed with advances in technology, some things remain the same -- one of those being that all the special effects in the world cannot fully compensate for a weak script.

Such is the case with this gorgeously-rendered all-CGI feature, a reported $115-million production that's already become the latest genre casualty at the summer box-office (joining the ranks of A.I. and EVOLUTION).

While the design of the phantoms are reminiscent of other "anime" efforts (why do the Japanese have a fetish for bloated, red, tentacle-laden creatures?), the visuals ARE incredible, and the film's opening is spellbinding. There are even times when you really believe that you're watching is live action -- a tribute to the movie's expansive (and expensive) computer rendering.

Unfortunately, once the plot takes center stage, muddled storytelling and poor dialogue become all too evident. Characters -- like James Woods' evil general -- are poorly defined and major plot points either glossed over or never explained at all (like the origins of the "spirits" the scientists are searching for), while the movie's finale drags on, boasting a preachy message reminiscent of "Princess Mononoke." (Perhaps the narrative will make more sense in the supposedly longer Japanese version, or in an extended DVD cut).

Elliot Goldenthal's score swells with bombastic energy, but it's just another glossy trimming surrounding a story that ultimately fails to prove equal to producer-director Hironobu Sakaguchi's visual invention. (PG- 13)

LEGALLY BLONDE (**1/2): Reese Witherspoon tries valiantly to hold this bubbly but simplistic "Clueless" variant together, as a SoCal fraternity girl who improbably decides to follow her stuffed-shirt boyfriend to Harvard Law School to better prove her love for him.

And, of course, despite strict teachers (Victor Garber, Holland Taylor) and obnoxious classmates (Selma Blair), somehow, some way, Witherspoon's Elle Woods just manages to prove to everyone, and herself, that she's not quite the airhead she appears to be (something we've all known since the first ten minutes, of course).

This summer slice of escapism -- last weekend's surprise #1 film -- is agreeably breezy and light, but the script (by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who penned the superior "Ten Things I Hate About You") hammers you over the head with one-dimensional stereotypes that ultimately give the movie a somewhat sour taste. Witherspoon's romance with Luke Wilson -- one of Harvard's only nice guys -- is given noticeably short-shrift, while the last third turns into a warmed-over rehash of "My Cousin Vinny" and a seemingly dozen other, funnier courtroom comedies. It's all wrapped up with a "been there, done that" feeling further accentuated by Robert Luketic's bland direction.

What holds the movie together is Witherspoon, who isn't quite able to make a standout impression here like Alicia Silverstone did in "Clueless," but still keeps an under-developed ship afloat that ultimately doesn't produce as many laughs as its premise promises. (PG-13, 98 mins)

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Pat Mooney:

re: A.I.:

The only reasons to see this movie are the performances by Osment & Law, which were exceptional. But, though I appreciate Osment's performance, I cared more about Law and even more for Teddy the Supertoy. The parallels to Pinocchio and even Wizard of Oz were interesting, though, of course, as regards Pinocchio, "parallel" is far too light a word. But overall, I just wasn't impressed with the story and I quickly grew tired of Osment's insistence that he was a boy when even he knew better in the film's context. It's like one of the mecha's wires shorted to cause this delusion. I liked Bicentennial Man a lot better; it covered much the same ground.
So, I tell those who ask that they should see the movie for Osment and Law, but not to expect much else. As I said to my brother (in the seat next to me), imagine how much worse it would have been in Kubrick's hands. Many would expect me to be struck by lightning for that heresy, but it hasn't happened yet. I regard Kubrick as a talented auteur with several good movies under his belt (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and Strangelove) but nothing more.
Thanks for your reviews of DVDs and your various other assistance.

From Bill Williams:
Hi Andy!

I picked up the new "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" DVD today, and I have to admit, it's one of the most comprehensive packages of the film to date. Certainly far from the complete package altogether, but the most complete to date. Years ago when I was into laserdiscs, I bought the Criterion box set of CE3K, and at that time it was the biggest package of a movie I'd seen (until Pioneer's excellent T2 SE laserdisc box set).
One of the most surprising pluses I saw is the care and attention given to the supplements, particularly in the film trailers and the featurette "Watch the Skies". The biggest surprise is the 102-minute "Making of Close Encounters" documentary, in which we get to see a really comprehensive look at the making of the film, a far cry from the 15-minute edited version of this documentary that was on the VHS release of the film a few years back.

I have to start giving minuses, though, for the film's deleted scenes section. The DVD touts 11 deleted scenes, when from obvious memory of both the original 1977 film and the 1980 Special Edition version, as well as the Criterion laserdisc, there are other scenes that were omitted from the film. One such example is the original introduction to Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in the 1977 release. It's very short and clipped, as the focus is solely on him looking at the model train. The 1980 SE expands his introduction to include a longer interaction with his son and the homework assignment. Another deleted scene that is not present in the original release, the SE version, and Spielberg's new edit is a brief sequence in which Neary, Jillian Guiller (Melinda Dillon), and a third man fight their way out of the Army helicopter before running through the Army camp. The only home video source that contains this brief scene is the Criterion laserdisc. I mention these scenes as examples of scenes that were overlooked for this DVD assembly.

The plus side to this section are the ten brand new, never before seen sequences making their home video debut to the film, with Neary at the power plant, Neary standing atop his house, a scene with Lacombe at the airport, and Neary and Jillian stopping for gasoline before being spotted and photographed by the military. The 11th "deleted scene" is merely the 1980 SE scene of the interior of the Mothership. I've always been fascinated as to what the star sparkle at the end of the scene was meant to underscore thematically, and it is possible that this suggests Neary's evolution into an extra-terrestrial. It's mysterious to this day, nonetheless.

Bill, Spielberg and others have said over the years that the intention of the Special Edition ending was never to suggest that Dreyfuss was evolving into an extra-terrestrial. However, the way the scene was shot (not very well, at that) made some people think that was the case.

Like you, I commend Columbia for including the full-length CE3K documentary here. Basically, they just put the entire LD package from 1998 on DVD, omitting only a large stills gallery in the process.

Along similar lines, I'm still mad at Universal for cutting out over half of the JAWS documentary from the DVD -- and also leaving out a hilarious deleted scene with one of Quint's first mates saying he's quitting his services on the Orca!

Both that scene and the two-hour plus documentary were included on the MCA Signature Collection laserdisc -- something that's still a must-own out for any die-hard JAWS fan.

From Roger Hall
Hi Andy,

I've enjoyed reading your regular Aisle Seat columns on FSM. I was thrilled to hear about FLY AWAY HOME being released on DVD with an isolated score and commentary by Mark Isham. Wow, it's finally happening! I never thought the soundtrack would be available as isolated score. I awarded both the song AND the score my Sammy Award for best of that year. Beautifully made film too.

I also agree with you about O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? I loved the film. A very quirky story (typical for the Coen Bros.) with beautiful cinematography and wonderful music. I chose the songtrack as a Recording of Special Merit. I just bought the DVD but haven't watched it yet. I'll be reviewing it soon on FMR.

Keep up your good work on the Aisle Seat column. I'll be reading it every week.

New on DVD

If the Warren Beatty-Diane Keaton bomb "Town and Country" hadn't turned into the biggest Revenue Losing Turkey of All-Time just weeks after MONKEYBONE (*1/2, Fox, $24.98) was released, there's a good chance this expensive but ill-conceived dark comic-fantasy might have claimed that title instead.

Sam Hamm's script, adapted from Kaja Blackley's graphic novel "Dark Town," finds comic book artist Brendan Fraser plunging into a nightmarish world of his own creations -- including a meeting with the stop-motion title character -- after he falls into a coma.

In return, Monkeybone himself wants desperately to gain entry into the "real" world, which he does by inhabiting Fraser's body, much to the chagrin of love interest Bridget Fonda (in a thankless role). Fraser himself then plunges back into the world of the living by taking over the body of a dead gymnast (SNL's Chris Kattan, easily the funniest thing in the movie), and a battle ensues for control of Fraser's body.

"Nightmare Before Christmas" director Henry Selick's picture is not the worst movie ever made, but it nevertheless turned into a gigantic box-office turkey that Fox left on the shelf for months while hacking it down to 95 minutes -- without the director's consent -- in the editing room.

It certainly seems, though, that the movie's problems were not limited to post-production: Selick was hired, obviously, on the basis of his work on "Nightmare" and "James and the Giant Peach," and MONKEYBONE's original concept was to have an all stop-motion "fantasy" world paralleled with the live-action "real" world of Fraser's consciousness.

Unfortunately, producer Chris Columbus and the studio decided it would be more "real" to eliminate most of the stop-motion elements and use human actors like Whoopi Goldberg in the "Down Town" world instead -- a terrible decision that stripped the movie of its potential visual magic, making the potentially surreal look simply ridiculous. They did allow Selick to continue making the film, but that, too, may have been a poor choice since Selick's forte took more and more of a back seat as the production progressed.

That said, MONKEYBONE is still an admirable failure since it's trying so hard to be so many different things. You can see where the story could have made for a unique film experience, especially if it was in the hands of someone like Tim Burton, who would have allowed Selick to make the movie he wanted to. As handled here, though, the movie isn't strange enough to be disturbing, and isn't funny enough to sustain itself through the more comedic passages.

Fox's DVD features an abundance of extras, with 11 deleted/extended scenes totaling some 20 minutes. One cut scene, extending Fraser's arrival in "Down Town," shows exactly what's wrong with the film -- Selick had animated several characters which, he says, "were too phony" for the producers and studio honchos. It's exactly this kind of crazy animation and effects that the movie needed -- not the fake-looking make-up designs and human actors often utilized instead.

Selick also delivers a surprisingly honest commentary here, remaining somewhat impartial at times but obviously disheartened by what happened at others (he attributes most of the movie's cuts to Columbus and Fox executives). Still gallery, 16 minutes of FX featurettes (quite fascinating by themselves, with more deleted gags contained therein), the trailer and TV spots are also included on Fox's DVD, which features a strong 1.85 transfer and excellent DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks (featuring an effective, often Elfman-like score by Anne Dudley). Oddly, some creatures have been "digitally censored" (blurred-out) at various points in the deleted scenes sequences (perhaps some R-rated visual gag that Fox wanted excised from the DVD?).

MONKEYBONE is the most interesting kind of big studio flop, since you can second guess where the project went wrong at every turn. Fox should be given kudos for following through on releasing this Special Edition DVD, since it's clear a lot of effort went into the project, its scant box-office results notwithstanding.

NEXT TIME: It's Andy's Summer Soundtrack Cooler, with no-nonsense album reviews of JP 3, A.I., Final Fantasy, and more! Send all comments to and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!

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