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Aisle Seat Memorial Day Edition!

WWII epics roll out on DVD, Soundtrack ramblings, and new theatrical reviews, too!

By Andy Dursin

With enough movies and DVDs to speak of, I hadn't been paying a whole lot of attention to the soundtrack medium of late -- though with the current crop of big summer movies starting to appear, it's hard to resist some of the new soundtracks that have been recently released (not to mention promising upcoming scores like John Williams' A.I. and Danny Elfman's PLANET OF THE APES).

I purchased Alan Silvestri's score from THE MUMMY RETURNS a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised with his effort. This is the kind of score Silvestri has never really had a chance to write -- a big, orchestral, romantic adventure work with chorus -- and his soundtrack is an inspired, energetic one with catchy motifs and some fine action writing. While I thought Jerry Goldsmith's score for the original "Mummy" was certainly acceptable, a lot of his frenetic action cues had a "been there, done that" feel to them, and in that regard, I find Silvestri's score to be an improvement by comparison. It is a shame that the film's final cue isn't on the album, along with several other pieces from the movie's last third, but you still get over 65 minutes of excellent underscore, along with an insanely bad rock ballad by Live that's completely dead.

The pop music side of me felt compelled to pick up MOULIN ROUGE (okay, I needed something to listen to while hacking away at another task at work), and I have to admit -- if you like this kind of thing, it's a great album. I'm sure Baz Luhrmann's film wallows in excess and hyper-editing the way his "Romeo + Juliet" did, but I want to see it just the same, especially after listening to the CD. This is a near-brilliant assemblage of pop tunes from the last 25+ years, assembled in the context of a musical and often beautifully arranged by Craig Armstrong and musical director Marius DeVries. Nicole Kidman and especially Ewan McGregor prove that they can sing quite well, and several tracks -- particularly McGregor's lyrical performance of Elton John's "Your Song" -- truly come alive in their recording on the CD. The way in which countless pop songs (from AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN's "Up Where We Belong" and even THE LAST DRAGON's "Rhythm of the Night"!) are incorporated into the arrangements are amazing, and the album offers everything from operatic passages to techno versions of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and total pop fluff (via Christina Aguilera and co.'s cover of disco fave "Lady Marmalade") -- all of it worth every penny if you're up for the trip.

Finally, we come to Hans Zimmer's PEARL HARBOR, which I just picked up and haven't had a real good chance to completely listen to. I'll withhold judgment until I see the finished film on Friday -- it seems to be fine if unmemorable, much like "Gladiator," with the addition of Morricone-esque vocals at the end -- but right off the bat, I found Faith Hill's "There You'll Be" to be an acceptable if not completely formulaic variation on past Diane Warren movie ballads for Jerry Bruckheimer epics (think "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" from "Crapageddon" or "How Do I Live" from "Con-Air").

But I enjoyed the album for the most part, and if these three albums are any indication of the summer ahead, it should be a great one for film music and (hopefully) the movies as well. Speaking of which...


New in Theaters

ANGEL EYES (***): If you can put aside the movie's deceptive advertising -- which tries to sell the film as another "Sixth Sense" -- you may well find yourself surprised by this well-acted and thoughtfully written romantic-drama.

Jennifer Lopez gives another strong performance as a Chicago cop whose life is saved by a strange man (Jim Caviezel) with a past shrouded in secrecy. As Lopez begins to sink deeper and deeper into losing contact with her own family, the two enter into an intimate relationship that threatens to unravel when, haunted by the past, Caviezel has trouble reconciling his history with their future.

Written by Gerard DiPego and directed by Luis Mandoki, ANGEL EYES is nothing but an unabashedly melodramatic, intimate romance masquerading in its publicity as a supernatural thriller (perhaps its producer, Franchise Pictures, was leery of another box-office disaster like "Battlefield Earth," "Driven," and "Get Carter").

Lopez is convincing as the strong-willed police officer drawn to the mysterious stranger, while Caviezel is acceptable as a good-natured guy trying to move on with his life in the wake of a personal tragedy. The movie is played out in predictable fashion (and even includes a montage set to a Leanne Rimes song), but DiPego has crafted two characters who you can't help but root for as the movie moves along.

Some creaky, saccharine speeches slow the movie down near the end, but for most of the way ANGEL EYES is a surprisingly effective drama with good performances, low-key direction, and solid dialogue. (R)


A KNIGHT'S TALE (***): Anyone who complains that this medieval adventure isn't historically accurate is like saying there wasn't enough romance in "Aliens."

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 about loose -- evocation of the middle ages (which will undoubtedly offend purists and renaissance fair attendees without a sense of humor).

Writer-producer-director Brian Helgeland has produced a highly entertaining movie 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. Chief among them is Paul Bettany's supporting turn as Geoffrey Chaucer, who chronicles Ledger's adventures and interprets the role as a stand- up comic with a gambling problem. Only the miscasting of Hawaiian model Shannon Sossamon as Ledger's love doesn't work -- it's hard to figure why Ledger doesn't choose plucky blacksmith Laura Fraser over this bratty girl of nobility.

A KNIGHT'S TALE is not trying to be "First Knight," "Excalibur," or "Robin Hood," but rather a smart AND silly youth picture that takes itself just seriously enough so that you care about the characters, but still don't have a problem rocking to AC/DC while watching a jousting competition framed like a modern sporting event. It's all a lark with a lot of good-natured humor that's perfect if you're in the mood. (PG-13)


Memorial Day DVDs

The everyone's-gotta-see-it movie of the summer -- "Pearl Harbor," of course -- opens tomorrow, but if small-screen viewing is more in line with your weekend BBQ-grilling, a handful of war movies have already been issued on DVD just in time for Memorial Day.

Two films in particular will be compared with the new "Pearl Harbor," those being Otto Preminger's 1965 epic IN HARM'S WAY (**1/2, $24.98), with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas leading an all-star cast, and TORA! TORA! TORA! (***, Fox, $29.98), the 1970 chronicle of the Pearl Harbor bombing from director Richard Fleischer, featuring a plethora of outstanding special effects that were every bit as cutting-edge in their day as ILM's sure-to-be-dazzling effects are now.

Both pictures are completely different in approach and technique, from their casts and storylines to even their Panavision cinematography ("In Harm's Way" never really comes alive in black-and-white the way "Tora" does in color) and respective Jerry Goldsmith scores. (FSM has released Goldsmith's Tora score -- a limited edition not available elsewhere.)

"In Harm's Way" is more of an glitzy soap opera, with Wayne and Douglas leading a fine cast that also includes Patricia Neal, Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss (also on-hand in "Catch-22"), and smaller, spot-the-star appearances from Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Carroll O'Connor, Slim Pickens, Larry Hagman, and others. Paramount's DVD features a new 2.35 transfer, featurette on the film's production, and three theatrical trailers as well.

While "In Harm's Way" is certainly viewable given that cast, its special effects work and historical relevancy pale in comparison to Fox's "Tora! Tora! Tora!," which presents a less emotional, more clinical reconstruction of what happened leading up to and during December 7th, 1941 and -- for that very reason -- is a far more interesting piece on the whole.

Produced in conjunction with Japan's Toei Studios, the movie features some tremendously effective miniature work -- some of the finest ever captured on-screen -- with efficient performances and a minimum of melodrama. Larry Forrester's script is all about the conflict and history; from its all-character actor cast (Jason Robards, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten) to the movie's meticulous reconstruction of the actual attack, "Tora!" takes a virtual docudrama approach that has held up quite well whereas other cinematic recreations (like "In Harm's Way") have dated in many respects.

While the movie bends over backwards perhaps too much to accommodate an even-handed treatment for both sides (historians criticized the picture since it never mentions the atrocities Japan committed during the war or their aggression in China, even though both were -- obviously -- fundamental reasons why the U.S. got involved in WWII), it's still a fine primer for viewers wanting to learn more about the history of the actual attack.

Fox had previously released "Tora! Tora! Tora!" a couple of years ago on DVD in a THX-approved 2.35 transfer with 4.1 Dolby Digital sound. This "Special Edition" release uses the exact same transfer, but also adds a 20-minute historical piece on the attack and a brand-new commentary with Richard Fleischer being interviewed by Japanese film historian Stewart Galbraith.

Their conversation is candid and filled with anecdotes, discussing the various conflicts inherent in coordinating a multi-national production and detailing the inside story on Akira Kurosawa, who signed onto direct the Japanese half of the film but was fired after countless problems during pre-production and inability to work with the studio once shooting began (Fleischer also surmises that Kurosawa cast Japanese businessmen in several key roles since he was looking for funding for his next picture). Highly recommended.

Among the other war titles newly available on DVD are both vintage classics and more recent epics. Paramount is single-handedly responsible for several of these releases, spotlighting generally excellent transfers on each (with 16:9 enhancement where applicable) and a few new supplements as well.

Film students, for example, may be most interested in the studio's new package of CATCH-22 (**1/2, $24.98), Mike Nichols' 1970 adaptation of Joseph Heller's black-comic novel, a chronicle of American WWII pilots and the surreal, alternately hilarious and tragic circumstances involved in battle. Nichols' film was one of the costliest productions of its day, but despite a phenomenal cast and high expectations, met with critical disappointment and below-expected box-office returns upon initial release

Paramount's DVD, however, may go a long way in finding a new audience for Nichols' film. While the movie is still bizarre and occasionally suffers from heavy-handed direction that comes off as an over-eager attempt to be different (like many '70s films that haven't dated well), CATCH-22 remains of interest for two principal reasons.

First, the cast is simply fascinating for its mix of established, then-current stars (Alan Arkin, Jon Voight, Anthony Perkins, Richard Benjamin), rising young talent (Martin Sheen, Charles Grodin), well-known veterans (Martin Balsam, Orson Welles, Jack Gilford), character actors (Austin Pendleton, Bob Balaban, Norman Fell), and even some effective stunt casting (including Bob Newhart and Art "Arthur" Garfunkel). With a mix of performers like that, it is hard to dismiss the picture, even if Buck Henry's screenplay veers from sporadically entertaining slapstick comedy with "pop" references (Nichols quotes 2001 when Arkin spies a sexy Italian woman) to convoluted imagery and symbolism.

The movie also benefits enormously from David Watkin's marvelously textured Panavision cinematography, which features a handful of supremely memorable sequences (the bombers taking off from a crowded runway, the opening shot of the sun rising over the main credits) that give the movie an evocative visual backdrop that the narrative seldom matches.

Aside from featuring a solid, if unspectacular, new 2.35 transfer and coarse Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (the original mono is also available), Paramount's DVD features a fascinating audio commentary with current Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh watching the movie along with Nichols. It's clear that Soderbergh is a major fan of the picture (and Nichols' body of work), and together, the two openly discuss the movie's pros and cons, its look, and how the most technically elaborate sequences in the picture were achieved. This is not a dry discussion by any measure, but instead a rare opportunity to hear a veteran filmmaker discuss his craft -- and one of his most ballyhooed pictures -- with one of the top directors from the new generation of Hollywood filmmakers.

Paramount's other war DVDs include the 1954 Mark Robson filming of James Michener's THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (***, $24.98) and Don Siegel's taut, violent 1962 WWII entry HELL IS FOR HEROES (***, $24.98), each offering their own perspective on combat.

"Bridges" is a glossy, Technicolor effort with William Holden as a WWII vet loved by wife Grace Kelly but thrust back into the arena of combat in Korea. Their relationship is played out against some Oscar- winning special effects work and taut action scenes, well-rendered in Paramount's full-frame DVD.

"Hell" is leaner, meaner, shorter and perhaps every bit as entertaining, with Clint Eastwood collaborator Siegel offering a far grittier expose of warfare. Steve McQueen leads an army squad trying to hold the line against a multitude of Nazis; Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, James Coburn, Nick Adams, and Bob Newhart -- improbably making his film debut -- co-star in this tough, stark action picture, presented in black-and-white in Paramount's new 1.85 transfer.

Finally, Paramount has also rolled out a solid presentation of UNCOMMON VALOR (***, $24.98), Ted Kotcheff's 1983 follow-up to "First Blood" that, in some ways, plays like his own sequel to the original Rambo adventure. Here, Gene Hackman plays an obsessed Colonel who goes back to Vietnam to find out what happened to his M.I.A. son, dragging a few of his son's Marine pals along for the ride.

This no-frills action flick, produced by John Milius and sporting an early score by James Horner, has a solid cast (Fred Ward, Patrick Swayze, Robert Stack) and some good action scenes, punctuated by the excellent cinematography of Stephen H. Burum. Paramount's DVD features a fine 1.85 transfer, active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, though there's no theatrical trailer to be found (unlike Paramount's other DVDs).


MAIL BAG

From Germany, a PEARL HARBOR Review!

From Roman Deppe <roman.deppe@planet-interkom.de>

Hi Andy,

I'm still so shocked that I saw PEARL HARBOR today, that I have to drop you some lines. Rarely I've seen a movie which was such a waste of money, celluloid and time of the moviegoers. It's almost unbelievable how bad, boring, stupid and insulting this movie is (plus an annoying, untalented Ben Affleck and a miscast Josh Harnett, but Kate Beckinsale was at least nice).

The only good thing is that Michael Bay didn't use his machine-gun-editing that much -- but that's almost the only good I can say about this crap. There are about 3 shots which were really impressive (one is seen in the trailer, where the bomb is falling down on the ship, the extension of this scene is breathtaking), but it takes you really 90 (!) minutes until it gets there. Until then you have to suffer through an endlessly silly, predictable and moreover boring and unemotional love story, which tries to capture you like TITANIC, but just pales like hell in comparison.

But even the action is lame, and moreover to make an action-fest out of an incident like this is quite insulting, but well, Bay and Bruckheimer know what Americans want to see, so finally the US-Army wins the battle (has there ever been one? I thought it was just an attack) over Pearl Harbor and finally shows the Japanese how to kick butt, when they do the same to Tokyo. It's incredible and so insulting how these two men interpret and show history. I wonder what Spielberg will say about this movie as it is everything SAVING PRIVATE RYAN wasn't.

But the love story also does not work. This movie really belongs to the stone age as it never questions anything, makes war a great adventure worth dying for and uses a massacre to show "really cool" action sequences. Technically the movie has its moments, but that it takes 90 minutes to get to see them is more than a moviegoer can take...but well what do you expect in the end from Bruckheimer and Bay?

But no doubt this movie will do great in America, it's pure Patriotism and shows that America is not a country you should messing with. But interesting, that, although comments are stated at the end of the movie, that America won the war over Japan, it wasn't mentioned how... why didn't they make a movie about that?"


It's funny, Roman, but nobody wants to offend ethnic, religious, or cultural groups anymore... especially not when, in Disney's own words, "20 percent of TITANIC's gross was [in Japan]." I'm surprised in PEARL HARBOR that we even know that the Japanese were who we were fighting against! Bottom line: Disney wants to make $$ overseas, and REAL history is not something that political correctness, or box- office receipts, goes hand-in-hand with.


NEXT WEEK: How does PEARL HARBOR really stack up? Email your comments to dursina@att.net and have a great weekend everyone!


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