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Bombs Away: "Pearl Harbor" Strikes!


An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

The Memorial Day weekend means big summer movie openings -- and we saw it happen again to no one's surprise with the opening of PEARL HARBOR this past weekend (though its projected box-office take was nowhere near the record-breaker the studio was anticipating).

One thing struck me in particular while watching the film: in this day and age of longer "Director's Cuts," why not release on video a Special Edition/Director's Cut that's actually SHORTER than its original version? (I believe Blake Edwards was the last to attempt such a feat with a recutting of his ballyhooed "Darling Lili" from the early '70s). Whatever you happen to think of the new Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer epic, I don't think anyone will argue that the movie needed some cutting. Will we see it? Likely not, but it's a noble idea just the same when it seems like every film these days is extending itself on video and DVD.

As far as the movie goes, my review follows below, along with another round-up of recent and noteworthy new DVD releases, from "The Magnificent Seven" to "The Emperor's New Groove"÷

In Theaters

PEARL HARBOR (**1/2 of four): There were many conflicting emotions running through me while watching Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer's big-budget recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, supported by a romantic tale of two WWII pilots -- and childhood buddies -- both in love with the same nurse stationed in Hawaii.

And yet, despite all of the flaws -- and there are a multitude -- I still enjoyed PEARL HARBOR as an epic throwback to a '40s B-movie, complete with a stilted romance, laughable dialogue, but also some rousing action scenes that finally sharpen the movie's focus during the second half. TITANIC this movie isn't, but while James Cameron was attempting to make a serious drama in addition to a meticulous reconstruction of that actual event, director Michael Bay is more concerned with creating a summer-time, popcorn-munching blockbuster, and along those lines, he's succeeded in crafting a better epic than his previous work showed he was capable of doing.

Not that you would necessarily sense that, however, from the movie's monotonous, poorly-written first half.

Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett play two pals thrust first into conflict of a personal nature when pilot Affleck agrees to join the Royal Air Force in England, leaving behind his new girlfriend -- nurse Kate Beckinsale -- in Hawaii months prior to Pearl Harbor's attack. When the inaccurate word gets out that Affleck has been killed in combat, a distraught Beckinsale seeks to move on with her life, and improbably hooks up with her love's friend, Hartnett, in a sequence that brings to mind all the poetry of a perfume commercial.

It's safe to say that the love story in PEARL HARBOR is a total bomb. Affleck gives a believable-enough performance here, but he has no chemistry with the bland Beckinsale, who seems lost amongst the movie's dizzying cinematography and cross-cutting with secondary characters, ranging from her fellow nurses to brief interludes with historical figures (including Mako's Admiral Yamamoto and Jon Voight's saintly FDR).

The script, credited to Randall Wallace but reportedly rewritten by Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenias (read below for more information), is laughably simplistic through this entire section of the movie, and fails to illustrate why either Hartnett or Affleck would care about Beckinsale other than to fulfill the script's pre- requisite tragic love story. If anything, Harnett's scenes with her are even worse than the ones that preceded them, meaning the entire romantic element never once engages the emotions or carries any resonance at the pre-ordained conclusion.

But all, however, is not lost. If Bay seems ill at ease with the movie's preponderance of characters and development of the love story, he feels far more comfortable with PEARL HARBOR's formulaic but entertaining second half, benefiting from bombastic, scenery-chewing overacting from Alec Baldwin (as Jimmy Doolittle), flashes of rousing patriotism, and fantastic special effects. Here, Bay is able to take full advantage of the improvements in the medium since the days of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" -- instead of that picture's handful of Japanese planes which attack the American naval fleet, here we see the hundreds that truly did. ILM's effects look realistic, detailed, and together with John Schwartzman's cinematography, produce a truly spectacular set-piece that brings home the promised goods that the movie, up that point, had failed to deliver.

And using as its climax an actual 1942 attack on Japan that Doolittle spearheaded the following spring, Bay is able to craft a satisfying, action-oriented conclusion to his film -- one that still could have been improved simply with tighter editing and more attention to detail.

For starters, the movie is needlessly overlong, padded with superfluous supporting characters and a handful of scenes which feel as if they belong in a Deleted Scenes supplement on DVD. All of Beckinsale's friends could have hit the cutting room floor without any negative impact to the film; similar scenes which feature buddies of Affleck and Hartnett also could have bit the dust and helped to tighten the film's rambling opening act.

While I'm also aware that the movie is not a documentary, it wouldn't have been all that difficult to delineate more rationale behind the two nations' involvement in WWII (the film would have you think it's all about the U.S. cutting off Japan's oil supply), or simply get more of its facts straight. Voight's FDR and other American leaders (played by Colm Feore and even old friend Peter Firth from "Lifeforce") don't receive enough screen time to make an impact, much less explain to younger viewers why what happened did. Beckinsale's epilogue speech borders on insulting to one's intelligence, with its simple-minded interpretation of the war's resolution coming off as completely Hollywood in the most traditional definition of the word (that said, it's still no worse than the godawful ending Steven Spielberg tacked onto the end of "Saving Private Ryan").

Hans Zimmer's score proves also to be a mixed bag. There are times when his John Barry-esque love theme is poignantly utilized, and others when its wallpaper-like misuse prove overbearing. His propulsive war music, however, often comes off as maddeningly inappropriate -- somehow it doesn't seem right that driving drum machines are used when the Japanese take off on their fateful dawn raid. Other anthems sound more like Randy Edelman's work on "Gettysburg" than typical Zimmer, and I couldn't help but wonder what a more consistent, orchestral approach -- by the likes of John Williams or even Ennio Morricone (who Zimmer seems to be imitating with his wordless female vocals) -- wouldn't have brought to the entire film.

But all of that said, PEARL HARBOR is not trying to be "Titanic" or "Tora! Tora! Tora!" It is, for lack of a better term, what it is -- a summer-time entertainment, a throwback to an old WWII movie where the good guys were truly good and righteous and noble, much like many Americans who fought (and died) in "the last great war." The flaccid love story and pacing issues aside, it's well-mounted, technically proficient, and near-flawless in its depiction of the actual attack, and for many viewers, that alone will be satisfying enough. (PG-13, 183 mins)


As a side note to the movie's opening this past weekend, writer Randall Wallace ("Braveheart") came out and made sure that critics were aware -- despite his sole writing credit on PEARL HARBOR -- that his script was NOT completely used by Michael Bay.

Said Wallace in a New York Daily News column, "the script I wrote wasn't fully the script that Michael shot."

Wallace added, "if you look at 'Armageddon' or 'The Rock' and if you think there is any superficiality [in "Pearl Harbor"], where do you think it came from?"

Although he stopped short of saying he's disappointed in the finished film, Wallace concluded by saying "I'm proud of the script that I wrote. That's why I took the time to write the ["Pearl Harbor"] novel, which is not a novelization. But the reviewers won't read that."

Sounds like we might hear more on this topic as months go by÷

New On DVD

MGM WESTERNS: Elmer Bernstein's magnificent score remains a highlight of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (****, MGM, $24.98), a John Sturges film that turned Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" into an American western legacy spanning four feature films and a later, recent CBS television series.

The original, newly resurrected on DVD from MGM, stars Yul Brynner as a gunslinger who recruits a band of six others (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn among them) to help defend a small Mexican town against villain Eli Wallach and his gang of mercenaries. A bona-fide film classic, MGM's DVD is newly remastered though the 2.35 transfer often appears in ragged shape (particularly during reel changes) and offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 remixed soundtrack that offers more stereophonic music but not much in the way of high-quality home-theater fidelity.

That said, the DVD is nevertheless still worthwhile for its supplements: an audio commentary featuring Eli Wallach, James Coburn, producer Walter Mirisch, and others is included, along with a terrific new documentary featuring a thorough accounting of the production. Highly recommended!

Among the studio's other new western releases is RETURN OF THE SEVEN (the movie's actual on-screen title, though the film is commonly known as RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), the belated 1966 sequel with Brynner back as Chris, here defending yet another small town with a gaggle of new pals. Larry Cohen (!) scripted this follow-up, with western vet Burt Kennedy handling the action, shot on-location in Spain. Elmer's music once again graces the film (**1/2, $19.98), here featured in an okay 2.35 transfer with standard mono sound.

From the formulaic to the strangely surreal, Robert Altman's original cut of BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS (**, $19.98) has also turned up from MGM. This Dino DeLaurentiis production features Paul Newman as Bill, along with Burt Lancaster, Joel Grey, and Geraldine Chaplin, in a comedic western based loosely on Arthur Kopit's play. The script by Altman and Alan Rudolph, however, is a slow-moving mess, though at least MGM's DVD features the full restoration of the 2.35 frame, along with an original featurette and trailer.

Finally, from the surreal to the comedic comes CITY SLICKERS (***1/2, $19.98), Billy Crystal's more-than-agreeable 1991 box-office hit that mixes contemporary laughs in a standard western setting -- complete with Jack Palance's Oscar-winning performance as Curly, the cantankerous guide who teaches Crystal and pals Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby about life on AND off the trail. MGM's DVD features a good-looking, new 1.85 transfer and decent Dolby Surround soundtrack, spotlighting Marc Shaiman's marvelous score. Supplements are limited to a theatrical trailer, which is a bit surprising given the film's popularity and the studio's recent deluxe edition of another Crystal comedy hit ("When Harry Met Sally÷").

ANTI-TRUST (***, MGM, $24.98): Unfairly dismissed by critics as a brainless teen thriller, this slick and entertaining box-office underachiever from last January stars Ryan Phillippe as a computer whiz who uncovers shady dealings once he begins working for a very Bill Gates-like multimedia tycoon (Tim Robbins) in the Pacific Northwest.

With a surprisingly clever script by Howard Franklin ("Quick Change," "The Public Eye") and capable direction from Peter Howitt, ANTI-TRUST is a fast-moving teen vehicle featuring an attractive young cast (Rachael Leigh Cook, Claire Forlani), nice work by Robbins, and a fair degree of suspense as well. Combined with some fine use of widescreen cinematography by John Bailey, ANTI-TRUST is good fun and a terrific DVD, capped off by a handful of excellent supplements.

Among the goodies: commentary with the director, a promotional documentary, several deleted scenes, alternate opening/closing sequences, a music video, and the original trailer. The 2.35 transfer is, predictably, superb, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is crisp and well-defined, containing a nice score by Don Davis. Definitely worth a look.

THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE (***, Disney, $29.98, 2-DVD Edition): This Disney holiday entry from last Christmas was conceived initially as an elaborate animated musical called "Kingdom of the Sun" before being completely overhauled into a jokey, "Aladdin"-like comedy sans musical numbers.

The result is a goofy and amiable farce with a deposed king (voiced by David Spade) morphed into a llama by evil advisor Eartha Kitt, who takes over his kingdom while the king valiantly tries to regain control with the help of a family man (voiced by John Goodman).

EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE is even more of a madcap, Warner Bros.-inspired effort than "Aladdin," rarely pausing to develop any overtly melodramatic or saccharine passages. The directors keep the action moving (the film runs only 77 minutes, including credits) and the animation -- intentionally "old school" when compared to the glut of today's CGI-driven work -- should have buffs savoring each and every frame while both kids and adults laugh at the zany story.

Unsurprisingly, Disney's DVD is reference-quality when it comes to the transfer (1.66) and soundtracks (DTS and Dolby Digital, with another nod to the DTS track). Like past releases of "Dinosaur" and "Tarzan," Buena Vista has released two packages of the movie on DVD: a single-disc edition, and a more elaborate 2-DVD set with a handful of supplements.

Again, the extras run the gamut from storyboards to deleted scenes, animation, filmmaker commentary, and some supplements aimed at younger viewers. Unfortunately, while there are still many wonderfully revealing moments here, the development of the movie's turbulent production is never really divulged.

Aside from a few storyboards, little mention is made of "Kingdom of the Sun,", likely due to studio policy. It's a shame, too, since Sting and David Hartley had penned a handful of songs, only a pair of which were used in the final cut -- exactly the kind of material that would have made the DVD's extras so fascinating had they been included. Unfortunately, the supplementary chapter on the music here includes a brief, promotional interview with Sting while he recorded the video for "My Funny Friend and Me," but nothing more.

Sting himself reportedly shot a documentary on his work for "Kingdom of the Sun," in which the singer-songwriter is supposed to fully detail his frustration with the picture's shifting tone. I'm hopeful we'll see what "could have been" there since -- as entertaining as EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE is -- it's not one of the studio's "classic" films and likely won't be looked at as such as the years go by.

FINDING FORRESTER (***, Columbia TriStar, $24.98): Sean Connery's performance as a very J.D. Salinger-like reclusive author whose run-in with a young African-American high school student prompts him to regain his faith in life is the highlight of Gus Van Sant's little sleeper from last winter.

A low-key, predictable script sometimes limits Van Sant and the actors from crafting a more substantial piece here, but nevertheless, there's much to savor: a great performance from Connery, a new role for F. Murray Abraham (basically essaying his Salieri role from AMADEUS again to good effect), and a fine debut for young Rob Brown as the student, turn between his two talents: basketball and writing.

Van Sant's use of New York locations gives the movie a healthy dose of atmosphere (though most of the studio work was done in Toronto), though there are times when the Miles Davis-filled jazz soundtrack seems a bit too obscure for its own good. Nevertheless, the performances make FINDING FORRESTER work, even while the movie runs a bit too long past the two-hour mark.

Columbia's DVD is another winner from the studio: the 2.35 transfer is excellent, the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack efficient, and a handful of supplements (HBO First Look documentary, deleted choir scenes) round out the package.

FINDING FORRESTER was pegged as a possible Oscar contender late last year, but when the nominations failed to materialize, so did the movie's hopes of box-office success. Word of mouth kept the movie afloat more than another, similar hyped-up Oscar candidate ("13 Days"), and for the performances -- especially by Connery -- alone, FINDING FORRESTER is worth a view.

ICE CASTLES (**1/2, Columbia TriStar, $19.98): Look up the definition of "Tragic Sports Movie" and you are likely to find this weepy, over-the-top 1979 melodrama with Lynn-Holly Johnson ("For Your Eyes Only"'s blonde bombshell) as "Lexie," a figure skater whose quest for the Gold results in a tragic accident that leaves her virtually blind.

Nursed back to health by boyfriend Robby Benson (back when Rob was all the rage) and coach Colleen Dewhurst (in a great performance), Lynn-Holly tries valiantly to stage a comeback -- provided nobody becomes aware of her disability, of course.

Adequately performed across the board, the Donald Wrye-Gary Baim script seems like a blueprint for this kind of film: syrupy melodrama, maudlin speechifying, and an unbelievable climax are each on- hand in abundance. For all of those reasons, ICE CASTLES has been a favorite of viewers over the years, making Columbia's DVD (grainy 1.85 transfer, mono sound) an essential pick-up for the movie's loyal fans.

While there isn't much in the way of supplements here (trailers and talent files), the disc does its job effectively, just like the film and -- especially -- Marvin Hamlisch's moving score, which features Melissa Manchester's smash hit "Through the Eyes of Love," a ballad which found its way to further fame in Hallmark Card commercials years after the fact. Whether that song makes you or sick, or makes you well up with emotion, will determine your patience and tolerance for ICE CASTLES.

IN TWO WEEKS: Back with MOULIN ROUGE and your comments on PEARL HARBOR, which can be emailed to me anytime at Excelsior!

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