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"Fast" Reaps "Furious" Rewards

A Review of the Weekend's Box-office surprise

Plus: TOMB RAIDER, DVDs and More!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

One of the great things about sports is that nobody can predict the outcome of every game. Sure, you might expect the Yankees to roll over the Devil Rays, but every once in a while, an upset is sprung that stuns and surprises everyone.

The weekly race to see what films were most popular at the box-office is sometimes even more unpredictable, and last weekend was no different. Most expected "Dr. Dolittle 2" or even "Tomb Raider" to snag the #1 box-office spot, but "most" were totally wrong -- a surprise to pre-release trackers and the bevy of cable-TV prognosticators who chime in each week with what to expect. I'm always happy when they're proven wrong, since their predictions -- like my own --carry no more weight than using your magic 8-Ball to predict the winner of the 2003 World Series.

Out of nowhere this past weekend came Universal's THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, with no huge marquee names but an ensemble of rising stars (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker), a director whose films have quietly made money, and a release date that the studio bumped from last spring to better gain a wider, summer-time audience.

Smart decision there, since the film sprung a box-office bonanza over the weekend, more than doubling expectations and opened at #1, grossing over $40-million. One web journalist in particular (the "Box Office Guru") who is quoted weekly in USA Today, thought the film would be prevented "from a huge opening" by TOMB RAIDER, which instead saw one of the year's biggest drop-offs from its opening weekend.

Happily, the Guru was off the mark, all pre-release projections were astonishingly incorrect, and there's proof yet that a movie that didn't cost $100-million, doesn't star Ben Affleck, and wasn't directed by Steven Spielberg can open with a bang in theaters, even in the media-saturated climate that tends to promote the glossier studio fare.

But is the movie any good? Read below for the answer, plus a look at TOMB RAIDER, a round-up of new DVD titles (including THIRTEEN DAYS), and other goodies...

In Theaters

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (***): A comic-book B-movie revved into a superior modern action- thriller, "The Fast and the Furious" is a refreshing break from a summer mired so far in mediocrity.

This is a slick, fast-moving and surprisingly well-crafted update of a typical '50s cars-cops-and-robbers effort (it even takes its title from a 1954 Roger Corman movie, though it has nothing to do with its plot), and features a throbbing soundtrack that matches the most sensational driving and stunt sequences to adorn a movie in recent memory.

The plot is simple: undercover cop Paul Walker is on the trail of highway bandits who have been stealing electronics and other home consumer items from helpless truckers. Walker infiltrates a group of California street racers including their imposing leader (Vin Diesel) who owns a seemingly benign convenience store, and whose sister (the literally hot Jordana Brewster) falls for our white-bread hero.

While trying to determine if Diesel is behind the high-speed crimes, Walker gets wrapped up in the pulse- pounding life of fast cars and seemingly faster women, resulting in a handful of breathtaking car-racing sequences. In fact, the climactic raid on a truck in the Arizona desert compares favorably on the modern scale with some of the better car chases in recent cinematic history. Certainly there's something to be said for genuine stunts and action sequences which don't feel as if they've been entirely assembled through the use of special effects; THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS has that "authentic" feel to many of its action scenes.

Walker is acceptable in the heroic cop role but Diesel -- as he did in "Pitch Black" -- once again steals the show as a vulnerable tough guy whose honor and trust in his friends appears to run deeper than his own ambition. Brewster, who had a role in the teen sci-fier "The Faculty," proves to be an alluring new face as the love interest, while Michelle Rodriguez appears in a somewhat under-developed role as Diesel's girl, and Rick Yune makes for an adequate nemesis of the group.

At the helm of the ship is Rob Cohen, whose audience-friendly credits range from "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" to the okay fantasy "Dragonheart" and last year's teen hit "The Skulls." In THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, Cohen displays a far more flamboyant visual style than any of his previous work, but he still concentrates on taking time to develop characters and never gets side-tracked by Michael Bay-like split- second editing rhythms.

Gary Scott Thompson's script doesn't incorporate much psycho-analytic discussion of the nature of honor among thieves (and pretty much avoids Walker's conflicting emotions altogether), but it knows the genre and makes the material leading up to the action sequences more palatable than you would expect. (Judging from several dubbed-over lines of dialogue, it also seems as if the film was re-cut for a PG-13 rating. It's possible some of the more "adult" themes in the movie might have been excised along with the profanity).

Coupled with a loud but appropriate soundtrack of original score by BT and assorted rock songs, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS proves satisfying, high-octane entertainment that should reward more audiences than most of this summer's higher-profile, but less engaging, cinematic offerings. (PG-13)

LARA CROFT, TOMB RAIDER (**): An unfortunately ho-hum adaptation of the popular video game franchise, basically coming across in live-action form as a watered-down version of "The Mummy" -- itself, of course, a watered-down version of Indiana Jones.

What saves the film from total disaster is Angelina Jolie's lively performance as Lara Croft, the shapely adventuress whose travels take her to the far reaches of the globe in search of fame, fortune, and saving the world.

The messy plot finds Lara embroiled in an astronomical convergence (don't ask me how or where this is happening) and a "cosmic clock" that holds the key to being able to control time. A ruthless bad guy (Iain Glen) responsible for the death of her father (Jolie's real dad, Jon Voight) is in hot pursuit of the gadget, which takes Lara to Venice, Cambodia, and points far south in the hopes of attaining the power to the device before it falls into the wrong hands.

There's nothing especially inventive about the plot, visual design, or direction of TOMB RAIDER -- it's all pretty much by the numbers. Simon West's direction relies upon many of the generic technical hallmarks of Ridley Scott (the disco-esque lighting) and assorted Jerry Bruckheimer productions (quick cutting that almost renders entire action scenes incomprehensible), which means it's slick and good-looking but will remind you in every sequence of something else.

The Patrick Massett-John Zinman script, meanwhile, clearly resembles the story architecture of a video game as well, rarely bothering to establish character development outside of the relationship between Lara and her late father. It also, predictably, leaves behind a raft of bland uninteresting supporting characters in its wake -- Lara's cohorts don't have much to do, Glen doesn't make much of an impression as the villain, and Daniel Craig is particularly miscast as a former American flame of Lara's.

As you would expect in a movie of this sort, the production design is lavish and the special effects of top quality, but aside from a statue that briefly comes to life, there's not much in the way of epic fantasy stuff in TOMB RAIDER, either.

Why the movie works at all is because of Jolie, whose athletic, physical prowess and sense of timing are perfect for the part. West concentrates on long, luxurious close-ups of his star, and Jolie proves to be up to the task of single-handedly carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders. (He doesn't do her any favors, though, by ending the movie with a hysterically bad, final freeze-frame shot that looks like something out of a mid '70s kung-fu opus).

TOMB RAIDER's initial financial success has already ensured a sequel, one that you would hope will surround Jolie with a more interesting story and supporting characters than this only moderately engaging first go-around. (PG-13)


MGM continues to splurge through the vaults of their various acquired libraries (Avco-Embassy, Orion, PolyGram) as they seemingly turn out more DVDs than any other studio in Hollywood. While review copies are not available for all of their films, the sampling that I have managed to see lately has shown a general improvement in terms of transfers and sound for these basic, lower-priced DVD packages from the studio.

The studio's Vintage Classics and Midnight Movies line have both enjoyed success, so it's not surprising MGM has gone back for another round of releases in both categories.

From the Midnight Movies brand come a pair of enjoyable, B-flicks from 1965: the bizarre Burt I. Gordon teen sci-fi epic VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS ($14.98) and the highly entertaining American-International production DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE ($14.98).

The latter -- best described as a cross between a "Beach Party" film and a James Bond spoof -- stars Vincent Price as the title character, trying to take over the world with his automated femme fatales. Saving the world -- and hey, this WAS 1965 -- are beach bum Frankie Avalon (as a government agent) and Dwayne Hickman. Cameos from Annette Funicello among others adorn this glossy, compulsively viewable effort, with a title song performed by the Supremes and a title sequence designed by Art "Gumby" Clokey!

Even better, MGM's DVD features the movie's first-ever 2.35 letterboxed release (essential for catching all of the Panavision frame) and a theatrical trailer. For no-brain, nostalgic '60s fun, you could do a lot worse than DR.GOLDFOOT.

AIP followed with another Dr. Goldfoot movie, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS, with Price returning in an Italian production directed by none other than horror-meister Mario Bava. Alas, the film was an outright disaster, with AIP mastermind Samuel Z. Arkoff lamenting in his autobiography that the filmmakers LOST the soundtrack while they were shooting, resulting in a film that Price called his all-time worst (and that's saying something!).

MGM wisely avoided releasing the sequel (though it would still be nice to see for curiosity's sake), and opted to include as a new Midnight Movies release VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, a nutty adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Food of the Gods" that chronicles what happens when a gooey formula transforms a series of idiotic teens (including Beau Bridges!) into towering titans. Ronny Howard is responsible for the mess, which former Disney kid star Tommy Kirk tries desperately to remedy in this whacked-out picture that eventually provided the fodder for one of Mystery Science Theater 3000's top episodes.

Gordon (who would later re-work the material into a straight '70s monster picture called "The Food of the Gods") combines sci-fi, '60s rock and roll, teenage shenanigans, and assorted "anti-establishment" themes into a goofy package, all wrapped up with a nutty score by Jack Nitzsche! MGM's DVD features an equally odd full-frame transfer (it seems like everyone is stretched out vertically more than they should be) and nothing else in the way of supplements.

Moving along to a far more noble work of cinema, Antony Harvey's 1968 film of James Goldman's THE LION IN WINTER (****, $19.98) won widespread critical acclaim and an Oscar for Katharine Hepburn's performance as Queen Eleanor, wife of King Henry II (Peter O'Toole in one of his best performances), who watches as her sons contend for the English crown. And, of course, what sons they are: Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry, and John Castle essay the brothers while Timothy Dalton appears in a superb early role as King Philip of France.

With John Barry's memorable, Oscar-winning score supporting the action, rarely have filmed adaptations of stage plays been so utterly alive as THE LION IN WINTER. Goldman's script -- another Oscar winner -- crackles with crisp dialogue, the performances sing, and Harvey adeptly utilizes the wide Panavision frame in crafting a classic film that MGM has rendered fairly well on DVD.

The 2.35 transfer appears to be in better shape than the Image/New Line 20th Anniversary laserdisc, which featured blemishes, scratches, and other problems in its source print (the LD transfer also seemed too "hot" in its contrast level). Unfortunately, the DVD's colors are also washed out and green-tinged when compared to the laserdisc, so much so that I'm not certain that I prefer this transfer on the whole over the LD.

The mono soundtrack also seems more pinched than the LD's (no surprise given the "pinched" quality of many non-5.1 DVD soundtracks), and there's also no isolated score here, something that the LD did feature. (The laserdisc also included a then-recent interview with Anthony Hopkins reminiscing on his work in the film.)

What the DVD does have is a new commentary track by Harvey, one that has some gaps but still features various points of interest for movie buffs. The original theatrical trailer is included as an extra.

Among MGM's latest releases from '80s cinema are EIGHT MEN OUT (***, $19.98), John Sayles' acclaimed cinematic chronicle of the infamous 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal, featuring a terrific cast (John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney) and ample atmosphere to spare in a leisurely-paced but compelling 1988 film that will be of top interest to baseball fans. The 1.85 transfer is solid, the mono soundtrack adequate, and a theatrical trailer is included as an extra.

For summer-time fun, 1989's SHAG: THE MOVIE (***, $14.98) rates an agreeable time-killer. Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish, and Page Hannah are the girls on a beach vacation in an amiable "coming of age" story co-written by Robin Swicord ("Little Women"). The non-anamorphic 1.85 transfer is decent and the trailer is included as an extra.

Finally, MGM has released an underrated gem from 1984, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE (***, $19.98), an adaptation of Vincent Patrick's novel (scripted by the author), with Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts as dreamers in NYC's Little Italy and Daryl Hannah as Rourke's main squeeze. Dave Grusin's score and John Bailey's cinematography help immeasurably in creating a memorable atmosphere for director Stuart Rosenberg's gritty drama, which gets a solid 1.85 transfer and the original trailer in MGM's non- anamorphic DVD.

Coming Soon

THIRTEEN DAYS (***, $24.98, New Line, available July 10): It didn't last long in theaters or cop the major Oscar nominations that many were anticipating, but this sturdy, if unremarkable, behind-the-scenes chronicle of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and special assistant Ken O'Donnell engaged in a war of wills against the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis makes for solid home video.

Kevin Costner's Bass-tahn accent veers all the over the place as O'Donnell, but the actor does a fairly good job in the role of advisor and confidant to JFK, played here by Bruce Greenwood in a nicely understated performance (with a much more stable Massachusetts accent, at that).

David Self's script doesn't do much other than clinically re-create each and every chess move of the American participants, and under Roger Donaldson's direction, the movie feels at times like a made-for- TV movie rather than a theatrical film. The performances are generally solid but none of them stand out from the film's confining structure, and few of Donaldson's visual tricks (use of archival footage, mediocre special effects, and frequent shifts to black-and-white) quite compensate for the obviously modest budget at his disposal.

Still, the event itself is so compelling that history buffs will find much to appreciate here (despite a few fictional elements thrown in at times), and New Line's DVD -- the first release in their new "Infinifilm" series -- rates as one of the better achievements in the medium of late.

The "Infinifilm" feature basically allows you to access a plethora of supplements during the film as an on-screen text appearing at the bottom of the picture. These selectable features -- which generally change and become accessible at each new chapter -- run anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, and cover the movie's production, background information on the actual historical figures, and incorporate some 10 minutes worth of deleted scenes. There's also multi-angle footage of CGI sequences, comments from the director and writer, and archival footage of actual JFK press conferences among other real features.

Two commentary tracks are included (one by the filmmakers, another incorporating archival audio bytes from JFK, O'Donnell, plus new comments from Pierre Salinger and Sergei Krushchev), along with a strong 48-minute historical documentary on the events that lead up to the crisis, plus an 11-minute look at the production of the film. An alternate on-screen text gives you MORE historical information as it runs throughout the movie, while additional biographies of the actual historical players, full cast and crew bios, and the trailer are also included.

The 1.85 transfer is top-notch and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack full-bodied, featuring an okay score by Trevor Jones that comes across as somewhat repetitive during the film itself.

THIRTEEN DAYS is not a great film but it is the kind of picture that invites full background exploration into one of the most crucial historical events of the last half-century. New Line's DVD is chock full of supplements and is certainly worth a viewing. (And if you've got time, pair this picture up with Joe Dante's memorable 1993 comedy MATINEE, which shows the public paranoia during the event from a teenager's perspective).

NEXT WEEK: The full Aisle Seat review of Spielberg's A.I. -- a new masterpiece or a pretentious mess? (or something inbetween?). Plus more reviews and your comments, which can be emailed to me at Excelsior!

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