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Aisle Seat January Movie Madness

Reviews of CROUCHING TIGER and the Coen Bros.' latest comedy

Plus: Mailbag and MUMMY DVD Isolated Score Heads-Up!

By Andy Dursin


Late News:
Congratulations 2000 Golden Globe music winners;
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, Gladiator
Best Original Song: Bob Dylan, "Things Have Changed," Wonder Boys



Congrats to the winners of our first-ever Aisle Seat DVD giveaway, which was made possible by Anchor Bay Entertainment and the fine folks at Radini Public Relations. (Winners will be contacted individually via email.) If you haven't ever seen A BETTER TOMORROW or A BETTER TOMORROW II, by all means pick up a copy of the two titles, which are newly available on DVD and provide the high caliber of action and story that director John Woo became famous for in Hong Kong. And thanks to all for sending in your emails, the response was fabulous!

With the Super Bowl (or, with the Giants involved, I should say Super BORE) coming up this week, chances are box-office grosses may be down a bit over the upcoming weekend. Hollywood released several acclaimed films on a wider canvas last week (I've yet to see 13 DAYS or FINDING FORRESTER), giving us audiences something we haven't had for quite a while: a choice of bona-fide, actually solid movies to watch.

Hollywood gets its "new release" act back in gear with junky, horror-themed releases in February (including HANNIBAL and the hilarious-sounding VALENTINE with David "Angel" Boneranz and Denise Richards), but in the meantime, there are some good flicks out there that actually make heading out to the cinemas this cold, chilly January a viable option.


New in Theaters

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (***): Ang Lee's highly acclaimed martial arts epic has been called one of the greatest cinematic adventures in recent years, and yet, despite some wonderful, ballet-like fight sequences, I found a great deal of the dramatic element of the film to be stilted and slow-moving.

While Michelle Yeoh (excellent) and Chow Yun Fat (surprisingly one-note) top-line the film, this tale of forbidden love, forgotten love, and personal freedom centers around a spoiled princess who -- without giving away the entire plot -- comes into conflict with a wanted female bandit named Jade Fox, a stolen sword, and a choices in her life that could lead to enlightenment, happiness, or personal self-destruction.

Working again with collaborator James Schamus (who scripted the film with Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung from a novel by Wang Du Lu), Lee's movie is a surprisingly uneven affair, veering from breathtaking fight sequences to creaky drawing-room character interplay that never really hits a strong emotional chord. Yun Fat's character receives a perfunctory amount of screen time and, subsequently, the character never comes across as the strong, individual figure Lee wants him to be. Yeoh, on the other hand, does a credible job conveying a strong female warrior in the middle of an unrequited relationship with Yun Fat.

The much-lauded fight sequences are breathtaking if not somewhat ridiculous, since the rules of combat and physics aren't ever explained (at least George Lucas discussed the rules of the Force). Ultimately, the Superman-like flying sequences make the supposedly tragic (?) ending open to interpretation since the last shot could point to several different resolutions to the story.

From a script perspective, the pacing in CROUCHING TIGER doesn't flow as cohesively as I expected it would. A lengthy desert flashback disrupts the main narrative and drags on without enhancing the emotional content of the drama -- action could have taken place off-screen in this sequence and been just as effective, if not more so, dramatically. Tellingly, the movie feels as if it runs almost a half-hour longer than it actually does. (For a Hong Kong comparison, check out the fantastical but also more dramatically potent "Bride With White Hair" by Ronny Yu, which mixes equally outlandish fight scenes with a tragic love story to a more effective end).

What does work in the movie is the look and feel of the picture. Peter Pau's cinematography and the Tan Dun music score are highly effective, and Yeoh's performance conveys the emotion that Lee's film tries valiantly to convey.

Even if the drama falls a bit short in relation to the film's lofty artistic goals, at least most of CROUCHING TIGER contains sights and sounds you've never seen before, and at a time when the cinema is severely lacking in originality or visual imagination, the movie fits the bill as a unique adventure and another intriguing entry into Lee's diverse filmography. (PG-13)


O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (****): Knowing that the Coen Brothers' work generally falls into a category of personal taste, I'd deduct another half-star from my rating here, since -- with the exception of "Baton Fink" -- I could be branded a fan of the filmmakers' work (I still feel that "The Big Lebowski" is one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long, long time).

Here, the Coens play homage to '30s screwball comedies while mixing in a Southern twist on Homer's "The Odyssey," with George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three 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 the riverbank shores to a "cyclops" (Coen regular John Goodman) whose bible salesman exterior is just a façade 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 often on-screen, at that.

Roger Deakins's vivid, beautiful cinematography 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 (check out the movie's final shot as well -- a moving, appropriate cap placed on top of the entire preceding).

Joel and Ethan Coens' 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 BROTHERÖ is more about establishing a unique mood and atmosphere, touching upon rural life in the South during the '30s and using the film's 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.

Despite some uneven pacing near the end and an engaging though not entirely assured performance from Clooney, O BROTHERÖ ranks as one of the Coens' most gorgeous films cinematically, and one of the best movies of the past year all told. (PG-13)


MISS CONGENALITY (*** for this kind of film): I've always liked Sandra Bullock, and have tried to stick with the actress through some of her poorer career choices ("Speed 2," the virtually-unreleased "Gun Shy") over the years.

Fortunately, Sandra is back on-track in this engaging piece of escapist fluff. As an FBI agent who improbably infiltrates a beauty pageant to diffuse a possible mad bomber, Bullock is appealing, cute, and perfect for this kind of material.

Making this particular comedy even more enjoyable is the great supporting cast, which includes Michael Caine as a pageant consultant, "Law & Order" alum Benjamin Bratt virtually reprising his tube role as one of Bullock's fellow agents, and Candace Bergen as a crazed former beauty queen. Only William Shatner, who has become less amusing ever since he's tried intentionally to be funny, disappoints in a wasted role as the pageant's Burt Parks-like M.C.

Under Daniel Petrie's direction, MISS CONGENALITY isn't thought-provoking, cinematically inventive, or fall-down funny. But it is, however, undeniably charming, and to Bullock's credit, rates as one of the more entertaining "date" movies to come down the pike in quite a while. (PG-13)


New on DVD

A movie neglected by audiences during its original theatrical run, William Richert's flawed but modestly entertaining 1988 autobiographical piece, A NIGHT IN THE LIFE OF JIMMY REARDON (**1/2, Image, $24.98), is -- like so many teen films from the '80s -- a bit more interesting now due to its cast.

River Phoenix stars as a young man in the early '60s who has to choose between school, love and family in one fateful day, navigating between girls Meredith Salenger (at the height of her fame in teendom), Ione Skye (pre-"Say Anything"), Louanne (who once starred in "Oh God, Book II"), and Ann Magnuson as the "older woman," while a very young Matthew Perry plays River's irrepressible best friend.

There are times when Phoenix seems to be trying a bit too hard, but there is a good message and some nice scenes that ultimately emerge at the end of writer-director Richert's uneven piece. Bill Conti's score, meanwhile, is one of his better late '80s efforts (and replaced an Elmer Bernstein score, if I'm not mistaken).

Image's DVD looks pretty decent, and is matted at 1.85. Both the movie's original 2.0 Surround track and a slightly louder Dolby Digital 5.1 track are included, though there aren't any special features to be found.

Also out from Image is a DVD of KON TIKI (***, $24.98), a re-edited 1996 edition of the Oscar-winning 1951 documentary detailing Thor Heyerdahl's journey across the Pacific ocean on a raft.

Heyerdahl's book was an international bestseller and this chronicle of the Norwegian biologist's journey with his crew still makes for compelling viewing, though perhaps best appreciated having read a copy of Heyerdahl's book (which was translated into 67 languages, selling more than 20 million copies according to the liner notes).

The original documentary ran over an hour, but this re-edited edition runs slightly under that length at 58 minutes. The source elements aren't in the best shape, but for viewers who love National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, this adventure that predates today's saturation of nature-documentaries is well worth seeking out.

Finally, Anchor Bay has rolled out a good-looking DVD of Pedro Almodovar's controversial 1990 comedy TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! (***, $29.98), which introduced Antonio Banderas to the world at large as a mental patient who abducts low-brow movie actress Victoria Abril and forces her to engage in some pretty sexy shenanigans in his apartment.

Not nearly as objectionable or gratuitous as handfuls of R-rated films I can think of, this NC-17 effort is an engaging comic love story, well performed by Abril and Banderas and filled with warm, primary colors that come across vividly in Anchor Bay's 1.85 DVD transfer. The mono sound sports an OK score by Ennio Morricone, and there's a single theatrical trailer on the supplemental side. The movie is presented in Spanish with English subtitles.

Almodovar's film was a follow-up to his acclaimed "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," and while TIE ME UP! was the target of substantial (and often unfounded) criticism at the time of its U.S. release, Anchor Bay's DVD should open up the movie to a wider audience that will be able to appreciate the movie far removed from all the original controversy.

While we're planning an entire column devoted to MGM's recent slate of DVD releases, now's a good time to rattle off a few of the westerns that have graced Leo the Lion's recent DVD slate.

THE ALAMO (*** movie, ** presentation, $19.98) has never been my favorite John Wayne film, and its DVD release from MGM does nothing to change my mind. Two strikes are against this release right from the outset: instead of presenting the full-length, 198-min. "roadshow" cut (which has been available on laserdisc as recently as a Dolby Digital edition a few years ago), the DVD contains only the "cut" 162- minute version. What's more, the 2.35 transfer included on DVD -- while enhanced for 16:9 -- has a shimmering around the edges that makes the movie difficult to fully appreciate. The 5.1 soundtrack is acceptable and there's an enjoyable, low-key documentary on the making of the movie included for extras, but fans of the movie are sure to be disappointed with this particular release of the film itself.

BREAKHEART PASS (***, $19.98) fares better on DVD. This 1975 Alistair MacLean adventure is a highly entertaining mix of western action, Charles Bronson star vehicle, and whoduneit mystery, with Bronson as a stranger on a train designated for a top-secret mission in the Rocky Mountains. Richard Crenna, Ben Johnson, Charles Durning and Jill Ireland co-star in this well-shot and scored United Artists picture, featuring one of Chuck's better performances as well. MGM's DVD is a bit soft in places but is generally quite crisp, featuring both 1.85 and non-matted transfers. The mono soundtrack is boisterous enough, containing a short but effective Jerry Goldsmith score.

Finally, we come to RANCHO DELUXE (***, $19.98), the 1974 "modern western comedy" with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as a pair of cattle rustlers lost in the new west. Novelist Tom McGaune's script is witty and entertaining, backed by an engaging supporting cast featuring Slim Pickens, Harry Dean Stanton, Clifton James, and Elizabeth Ashley. Jimmy Buffett's score fits the action appropriately (I wrote the notes for Rykodisc's CD release a couple of years back), and Frank Perry's direction moves along at a leisurely clip. The 1.85 and non-matted transfers, however, leave a bit to be desired -- there's a lot of grain and instability in the image at times, though it's not of "Alamo" proportions. The Dolby Digital mono sound is clear and crisp on the audio end of things.

All MGM DVDs feature theatrical trailers as extras; we'll write up the studio's "Soul Cinema" and "Contemporary Classics" releases in an upcoming Aisle Seat column.


Brief DVD News Item of Interest!

Universal is re-releasing THE MUMMY in a 2-DVD set to coincide with May's release of THE MUMMY RETURNS. According to online reports, Jerry Goldsmith's isolated score will be REMOVED from this new edition of the film (due 4/24), so if you're interested in obtaining a copy for the unheralded score-only track (the most problematic to find of all isolated score tracks!), pick up one of the currently-available DVD releases a.s.a.p. as Universal will withdraw its original, single-DVD "Collector's Edition."

Also, the director of PRINCESS MONONOKE is Hayao Miyazaki and the composer Joe Hisaishi to correct some spelling errors in last week's column. (Thanks to reader Greg Espinoza for pointing those out!)


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Michael Karoly:

I went and saw THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN in the theaters, and I have to cry "foul!". I thought the additional scenes really didn't make a difference- they were cumbersome and unwarranted, especially the doctor's office supplementals. We don't need, for example, the expaination scene about Regan's potty mouth- it was sufficiently addressed in the dialogue as the original film went on. I think Friedkin made the right decision in cutting them out in the first place- the movie is unsettling just the way it is. The spider-walk was nice, but only if the crucifix scene had not made the cut. That was probably one of the most shocking things I've ever seen- it makes the spider-walk look like cheap, second rate horror film making. The ending is not good either- perhaps I'm biased since I'm 30 and used to the original cut. When the special edition DVD came out, I watched the deleted scenes and felt that Friedkin made the right call in taking that junk out of the film. I agree that the soundtrack mix was extrordinary, and I enjoyed seeing it in the theaters remastered. So, I guess I'll take the good with the bad. In this case, I'll say that less is more, relatively speaking.


From Tommy McCain Jr.:

OK, since you seem so "mystified" as to why people are not lining up to throw down there 30 bucks on the expanded PHANTOM MENACE 2 cd set, here it is in a nutshell: a. I wasn't too crazy about the music to begin with. Of course I would have bought it if it represented John Williams concept of the music, instead of the movie's music editor. Which brings us to: b. This will more than likely be corrected on some future re-release of the score.

To put this in perspective, who would have bought the Original Trilogy box set if they new a more comprehensive release was just around the corner? By now we know Lucas' merchandising tactics well enough to know another release of the score is practically inevitable. But still, I probably would have bought this version if I liked the music more.



NEXT TIMEÖBig DVD titles from MGM, plus more of your comments! Send all emails to me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you back here again soon, folks. Excelsior!


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