Aisle Seat January Movie Madness
Reviews of CROUCHING TIGER and the Coen Bros.' latest
Plus: Mailbag and MUMMY DVD Isolated Score Heads-Up!
By Andy Dursin
Congratulations 2000 Golden Globe music winners;
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, Gladiator
Best Original Song: Bob Dylan, "Things Have Changed," Wonder
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll catch you back here again soon, folks. Excelsior!