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Aisle Seat June Mania:

Great Expectations, Small Payoffs

Plus: CLEOPATRA DVD recall help, Coen Bros.' O BROTHER on DVD, and more!

By Andy Dursin

We're already approaching the end of June and, to this point, the big new movie season that we hoped would completely exorcise memories of the terrible summer of 2000 has yet to live up to expectations.

Already we've seen a handful of movies fail to live up to commercial, to say nothing of critical, expectations: PEARL HARBOR has shown that three-hour epics not titled "Titanic" have a hard time generating big grosses (people seem to forget that even "Braveheart" failed to gross more than $80 million in the U.S.), Ivan Reitman's EVOLUTION premiered to lackluster results and bad critical notices (see review below), while a handful of releases have tailed off considerably, failing to attract an audience through word-of-mouth and suffering bigger-than-expected audience drops each week (movies like A KNIGHT'S TALE, MOULIN ROUGE, WHAT'S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?, and Rob Schneider's THE ANIMAL).

Even the success of the CGI-fairy tale spoof SHREK has to be somewhat tempered in that the movie is playing on more North American theater screens than any other film in history (during the weekend of June 8, the picture actually had a lower per-screen average than "Pearl Harbor").

Still, the most interesting films seem to be ahead of us: Spielberg's "Electronic Pinocchio," A.I., should be a must-view. The surprisingly good-looking JURASSIC PARK III looks like it will concentrate solely on dino-action. (I noticed Don Davis is now credited with composing "New Music" with John Williams still retaining credit for "Original Themes"). Tim Burton's PLANET OF THE APES still looks compelling, even though it nevertheless has some of the strangest trailers I can recall seeing in a long while (is it as bland as it looks, or are the ads suppressing macabre Burton-esque humor?), and a script by the guys who wrote "Castaway" (where the dialogue was the movie's biggest problem) and "Superman IV."

Next time we'll look at TOMB RAIDER, which opened with a strong showing this weekend (despite horrid reviews), but in the meantime, here's a round-up of two such "under-performing" new theatrical releases, reviews of recent DVDs, and a round-up of new release information, including the low-down on how you can replace your defective, Exit Music-less copy of CLEOPATRA....


New in Theaters

EVOLUTION (**1/2): Ivan Reitman's latest film would love to do for sci-fi thrillers what his classic "Ghostbusters" did for the horror genre. Unfortunately, this amiable but unfocused special effects comedy misses more of its comic possibilities than it touches upon, and ultimately comes across as a major missed opportunity.

David Duchovny here eschews his Mulder-esque heroics as a very Bill Murray-like teaching assistant at an Arizona Community College. Orlando Jones plays his sidekick, a professor who also doubles as the school's Division III women's volleyball coach (it sounds funnier than it plays).

After a meteorite crashes into the desert, Duchovny and Jones find that some extraterrestrial life has begun to develop around the artifact in its cavernous home -- first plants, worms, and vegetation, and later, a myriad of Phil Tippett-designed creatures that run the gamut from prehistoric, dinosaur-like winged monsters to critters that look like discarded designs from "The Flintstones."

The two are ready to announce their discovery to the world when, of course, the government decides to intervene, including scientist Julianne Moore (in a perfunctory role) and hard-nosed army man Ted Levine, and the monsters contained down below begin to make their presence known to the world above.

Don't get me wrong -- there are some laughs in EVOLUTION. Duchovny's laid back presence and Jones' energy bring some life to the often lethargic pacing, and their teaming with everyone's favorite idiotic teen star, Seann William Scott ("American Pie," "Dude, Where's My Car?"), makes for an unlikely trio of heroes that's hard to dislike.

Unfortunately, there are too many problems -- and not enough jokes -- in Reitman's film for the picture to work. Maybe it's because Don Jakoby's original script was written as a straight sci-fi thriller, changed through re-writes into a comic vehicle for Reitman by screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman (last year's inane "The Family Man"). The resulting film has some laughs, mainly due to the actors' good will, but after reading up on Jakoby's script, it seems that the rewrites didn't alter the material enough to suit the needs of a spoof.

Reitman's pacing is odd and the film seems quite disjointed, as if major plot points from the original story needed to be retained for the movie to make sense. But stripped of whatever fear and suspense the initial script might have had, the movie often plays like a comedy without enough jokes, with a regrettable over-reliance on cheap slapstick (i.e. Moore's bumbling behavior) and thinly-drawn supporting roles -- like Dan Aykroyd's governor and a pair of overweight, brainless college students -- that are not just unfunny but virtually embarrassing.

For the most part, the movie coasts along with sporadic gags and solid special effects (there should have been more scenes like Duchovny and Jones sneaking into the alien cavern once the army sets up their camp), but there's little character development and not nearly enough effective comic exploitation of the scenario to satisfy. And the "let's get this over with" ending seems as if it was hacked to pieces in the editing room. (The movie must have been a major disappointment to Jakoby, whose original idea -- if filmed as written -- could have made for an entertaining, interesting spin on the generic sci-fi thriller.)

There have been several memorable sci-fi spoofs over the years that managed to combine laughs with chills quite successfully -- the wonderful 1990 effort "Tremors" springs immediately to mind. EVOLUTION has an interesting concept, a solid cast, and all the special effects money can buy, but never manages a chill and misses the mark in the comedy department too many times to really score. (PG-13)


MOULIN ROUGE (**1/2): Many people are still waiting for the bona-fide resurrection of the movie musical, and Baz Luhrmann's maddeningly uneven new film will probably leave them waiting just a little while longer.

Lavishly designed and often superbly scored with mostly-contemporary rock songs arranged as Hollywood musical fare, this retelling of a tragic tale of love in the infamous Parisian nightspot will have you admiring its imagination one moment and being completely turned off by its excesses the next.

Nicole Kidman essays the Moulin Rouge's top diva, a courtesan whom penniless writer-composer Ewan McGregor falls for even as she fights consumption. Supporting turns include John Leguizamo as one of McGregor's fellow struggling artists and Jim Broadbent as the Rouge's producer, but the often overbearing star of the movie is Luhrmann's filmmaking, which veers from Busby Berkley-styled musical numbers to the most headache-inducing editing of an MTV video.

Kidman and McGregor turn in two of their finest respective performances here, both demonstrating their vocal abilities and creating solid chemistry on-screen. The much-discussed musical score includes snippets from seemingly dozens of popular songs from the last 25 years, from "Lady Marmalade" to "Up Where We Belong" (from "An Officer and a Gentleman"), in surprisingly workable arrangements courtesy of Marius deVries and Craig Armstrong. (There's even a "Be Our Guest"-like comical arrangement of Madonna's "Like a Virgin"!). The picture boasts one significant original song -- David Baerwald's "Come What May" -- and it's a gem of a ballad that's deftly interwoven throughout the picture.

Unfortunately, Luhrmann's direction carries negative baggage along with every positive aspect he brings to the picture. The film opens with an excessive, non-stop barrage of overdone theatrical sequences that will have some viewers debating on walking out, but then settles down considerably as it charts the tragic love story of its protagonists.

Still, despite some impressive moments (mainly when the songs take center stage), one constantly gets the feeling that "Moulin Rouge" wouldn't have been more palatable with -- believe it or not -- just a little LESS energy. Luhrmann too often seems to be aiming for over-the-top gaudiness, and despite using every filmmaking trick in the book (montage, CGI, black-and-white, constant use of widescreen), his approach wears thin as the movie crosses the two-hour mark.

Despite good intentions and a solid soundtrack, MOULIN ROUGE is simply too flamboyant for its own good, even though you can sense the movie living on as a cult favorite for years to come. (PG-13)


New on DVD

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (****, Buena Vista, $29.98): It didn't quite generate the critical buzz of "Fargo" or engage the art-house crowd the way "Barton Fink" did, but the Coen Brothers' unique adaptation of "The Odyssey" quietly managed to gross nearly $45 million in limited release over a span of several months, ultimately ranking as one of their biggest commercial hits in the process.

Certainly, the film is yet another gem in a long line of Coen originals. Here, the filmmakers play homage to '30s screwball comedies while mixing in a Southern twist on the chronicles of Ulysses, with George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson starring as a trio of chain-gang escapees trying to unearth a stolen fortune and ultimately return home in Depression-era rural Mississippi. Along the way they encounter a handful of memorable characters, from a group of sirens along riverbank shores to a "cyclops" (Coen regular John Goodman) whose bible salesman exterior is just a facade for more sinister doings underneath.

Then, of course, there's the fact that the trio improbably become a musical band dubbed the Soggy Bottom Boys, which establishes the narrative context for the substantial amount of country, bluegrass, and other "down home" songs performed on the movie's wonderful soundtrack -- many of them on-screen, at that.

Roger Deakins's vivid, beautiful cinematography -- which deserved an Oscar -- establishes an antique look that permeates the entire film, with each and every shot looking as if it came out of a photo album from over a half-century ago.

Joel and Ethan Coen's script is more or less amusing as opposed to riotously funny, although there are several dialogue exchanges of classic Coen quality (such as when Clooney and Nelson speak to Turturro in a movie theater). But, unlike "The Big Lebowski," O BROTHER... is more about establishing a unique mood and atmosphere, touching upon rural life in the South during the '30s and using the film's massively popular soundtrack (produced by T Bone Burnett) as a way of illustrating the communication between towns and people during that era.

More often than not, I felt like I was taking a genuine journey in this film -- an example of the very essence of going to the movies as a means of escaping "the real world" and watching filmmakers capture the time and place of another era.

All of these elements are marvelously captured in Buena Vista's DVD release. The disc includes a stunning 2.35 transfer, crisp 5.1 sound mixes in either DTS or Dolby Digital, the theatrical trailer, a featurette (including interviews with the Coens, Clooney, and Turturro), a storyboard comparison, and best of all, a rather lengthy look at Deakins' cinematography and the use of special effects, which stripped the location shoot's lush, green summer-time locales with a dusty, orange-tinted look entirely digital post-production work.

O BROTHER... ranks as one of the Coens' most gorgeous films cinematically and, for me, is the best movie of last year.


WHAT WOMEN WANT (***, Paramount, $29.98): The answer is Mel Gibson, who glides effortlessly through this romantic comedy, stretched out by director Nancy Meyers beyond the two-hour mark but helped immeasurably by a game cast, including Helen Hunt and Marisa Tomei, among others.

Gibson plays a harried ad executive who improbably gains the ability to hear the inner-most thoughts of women everywhere. What he finds, ultimately, is that his swinging bachelor persona rubs off the wrong way on almost everyone he meets, from his 15-year-daughter to Hunt, his new boss who wants Gibson's agency to tackle an account for Nike. After exploiting his powers for both gains in business AND pleasure, Mel finds out that he needs to work on his sensitive side, at least according to the Josh Goldsmith-Cathy Yuspa script.

A polished studio production all the way through, WHAT WOMEN WANT finds Gibson in one of his most good-natured, relaxed roles ever. The film has both affecting moments and big laughs, meaning that it appealed almost as much to guys as it did to the ladies (as proven by the picture's huge box-office gross last winter).

Paramount's DVD features audio commentary from Nancy Meyers and the production designer, featurettes and interviews, a pair of trailers, plus the standard, excellent 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound once comes to expect from the studio's releases.


DVD News

CLEOPATRA Recall Information, FLY AWAY HOME isolated score

Good news on the CLEOPATRA DVD recall front. As reported last week, Fox is now offering replacements for Disc #2 in that set, which mistakenly excluded Alex North's exit music. Call (888) 223- 2369 if you were stuck with one of the offending copies and Fox will send you off a replacement.

It's shaping up to be a great end-of-summer for Laserphiles, with the news of some potentially exciting releases for film score fans as well.

First, Columbia's Special Edition of FLY AWAY HOME (August 7) will feature not only a new widescreen transfer, audio commentaries and documentaries, but also a full ISOLATED SCORE TRACK with commentary by Mark Isham! This gorgeous score was, sadly, never released, aside from a very small Academy Award-promo run (which I somehow, improbably, stumbled upon while looking through a used CD rack at a record store in Syracuse, NY, when I was visiting my friend Paul MacLean a few years ago).

However, even that promo release was missing a key ingredient in the soundtrack -- namely, Isham's lovely arrangement of the song "10,000 Miles," performed by Mary Chapin Carpenter. The ballad ultimately found its way onto a Chapin Carpenter compilation album, but the DVD will mark the first time the entire score has been available from start to end, thereby putting the kibosh on the bootlegs that have been circulating ever since the movie's original release.

Fans of horror/sci-fi thrillers also have much to look forward to. Already, MGM, Fox, and Universal have put their autumnal release cycles in motion, and there are many noteworthy upcoming titles to be excited about.

Universal's next batch of Classic Monster Releases (August 28) will be comprised entirely of double-bills: WEREWOLF OF LONDON/ SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, THE MUMMY'S HAND/ THE MUMMY'S TOMB, THE MUMMY'S GHOST/ THE MUMMY'S CURSE, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN/ HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN/ GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN AND DRACULA'S DAUGHTER/ SON OF DRACULA. Only HOUSE OF DRACULA seems to be missing from this batch, which will all retail for $29.98 each.

Also coming out from Universal is a Special Deluxe Edition of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (September 18), which Live/Artisan originally issued on DVD. With the rights back in the hands of the studio that initially released it theatrically, the DVD promises a new transfer, plus a gaggle of new features including talks with John Landis and Rick Baker. Seeing that this is one of my favorite goofy horror films (along with a lot of other folks), I can't wait to check it out!

On the same day, the studio will also release a Special Edition of HALLOWEEN II (previously released as a movie-only package from Goodtimes), which is likely being prepped to coincide with the release of the next Michael Myers thriller (due out in October, of course). Rick Rosenthal, at the helm of part II (and this latest sequel), reportedly will be involved in some aspect of the release, even though nothing official has come out of Universal about the specific extra features.

Universal's slate also includes Special Editions of both the original CAPE FEAR and its remake, plus the long-overdue re-edit of the Coen Brothers' BLOOD SIMPLE, and Clint Eastwood's PLAY MISTY FOR ME (with a Laurent Bouzereau documentary) -- all due out as well on September 18.

The studio also debuts TREMORS 3: BACK TO PERFECTION on October 3, the latest sequel in the fan- favorite monster series. Reprising their roles from the original are Michael Gross and Ariana Richards. Brent Maddock, who co-wrote the original and directed the surprisingly good made-for-video "Tremors 2: Aftershocks," is back again to direct, from a script he co-wrote with longtime partner S.S. Wilson.

Fox, meanwhile, has widescreen editions of THE FURY, LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (the inferior movie version) and THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE all due out on September 4 at $19.98 each. Good news there as well!

The only bad news -- but what else is new? -- is that there's still no date on the table for LEGEND. While some had speculated that the DVD would be out before summer's end, there's been no official announcement from Universal and, seeing that their upcoming releases are set through mid- September/early-October, I would really doubt we'll be seeing it much before Autumn or even Christmas time.


NEXT TIME: TOMB RAIDER flies onto the big-screen, Paramount revives John Wayne on DVD, and more! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you later. Excelsior!


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