A Safer, Blander DRAGON
Plus: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Special Edition, Halloween
titles, and TV on DVD!
An Aisle Seat October Chiller
By Andy Dursin
I'm really not trying to drum up any controversy here, but ever since
seeing RED DRAGON last week, I can't get this out of my mind: just what
the heck has happened to Danny Elfman?
I needn't go down the list of great Elfman scores we've heard in the
past. I've been a huge fan of the composer from his early days with Tim
Burton, all the way to his masterful score for the director's "Sleepy Hollow"
and poignant underscore for "Good Will Hunting."
But putting all of that aside, I was totally disappointed with Elfman's
score for RED DRAGON, the latest Thomas Harris screen adaptation that manages
to be watchable and yet relentlessly mediocre at the same time.
Elfman's one-dimensional, incessant score does everything that Howard
Shore's dramatically sound "Silence of the Lambs" DIDN'T do: overstate
its case in nearly every scene in such a heavy-handed, obvious manner that
you'd think we were watching the Creature From the Black Lagoon rise from
the depths one more time.
Like the film, Elfman's score has no distinct character: it tends to
be brooding and dark, all right, as if we're watching a Universal horror
film from the '50s, but it's never any more complex or interesting. More
over, its presence in nearly every scene (surely as much of a fault of
director Brett Ratner as it is Elfman's) became mind-numbing, lowering
the film's tension as it spoon-feeds the viewer an unrelenting sense of
Never does Elfman's score become anything more than musical wallpaper.
It completely and noticeably lacks the ominous and substantially more powerful
touch Shore brought to "Silence of the Lambs," as well as Hans Zimmer's
subtle and interesting approach that he applied to "Hannibal."
As far as the movie itself goes, I'd say this about RED DRAGON (**1/2):
urgency is something you need from a thriller -- a sense of impending doom,
mounting suspense, and white-knuckle fear that films like "Silence of the
Lambs" provided in spades.
It's an element that's missing for far too much of "Dragon," which was
previously filmed by Michael Mann in 1986's "Manhunter." If you've never
seen that film, chances are you may be wrapped up in "Red Dragon" and fascinated
by its story.
If, however, you've seen Mann's subtler film, chances are better that
you won't be able to get out of your mind how much more suspenseful and
exciting that film is than "Red Dragon" -- despite the remake's bigger
budget and higher-profile cast.
The only part of "Red Dragon" that really worked for me was the Ralph
Fiennes-Emily Watson plot, which kicks in during the second half and shakes
the film out of its lethargy, at least for a while. Both actors give strong
performances and inject the film with the kind of energy and urgency that
the rest of the picture lacks.
More often than not, I felt "Red Dragon" was like watching "Manhunter"
produced by Irwin Allen: you have big stars across the board, some of whom
looked like they cared, with others that obviously were just along for
In the latter camp there's Harvey Kietel, whose lifeless performance
resembles what the actor looked like hosting Saturday Night Live a few
years ago. His dead line readings and complete lack of energy almost looked
like he was reading off a cue card, or was seeing the lines for the very
Edward Norton seems to be playing Edward Norton, and I never bought
him in the role of Will Graham. William Peterson ("CSI") may never be the
actor that Norton is, yet I found his performance of Graham in "Manhunter"
to be far more believable and -- again - - urgent. As far as Hopkins goes,
he's back to the Hannibal shenanigans we saw in "Lambs," but this time
the act grows old. We've been there, done that, and the element of surprise
The movie has a slick yet bland feel to it, as if there was really no
reason for the film to exist but for DeLaurentiis and his pals to rake
in another fortune at the box-office. Artistically, the film is more or
less bankrupt, failing in every level to match the suspense Mann's version
Ratner's direction is functional but rarely anything more. Just look
at the nondescript climax of the film, which virtually has a "point and
shoot" quality one would expect from a "Friday the 13th" picture.
Hannibal addicts desiring gory black comedy following the misguided
and disgusting mess that was "Hannibal" will likely be disappointed by
this comparatively restrained movie, which manages to function as a passable
box-office product but not as a noteworthy film. For the latter, one has
to only take a trip to the video store and pick up "Manhunter," which managed
to film this story far more vibrantly over 15 years ago.
New On DVD
Greetings again everyone, I'm back from a quick trip out to the West
Coast which involved, in no particular order: a (disappointing) trip to
Ken Crane's, a drive up to Santa Barbara, a complete tour of San Diego,
and a sinus infection. Alas, I had to cut short my time in the Los Angeles
area, so the long-planned first meeting with the fine staffers at FSM will
have to take place sometime in 2003 -- no doubt an event that will garner
major media attention from every major West Coast media outlet (okay, so
So, after traveling from Coast to Coast, I came back to find a slew
of new discs awaiting my arrival. As I had written a couple of weeks ago,
we're clearly entering that time of year when each week brings about a
new DVD with lots of tantalizing supplements.
Top of the list is Disney's Limited Edition of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
(****, 90 mins., G, 1991), which arrived last week as the second "Platinum"
DVD edition of a Disney classic.
While Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's tuneful score for 1989's "The
Little Mermaid" laid the groundwork for a full-blown revitalization of
Disney feature animation, it was "Beauty" that truly marked the resurrection
of the studio's artistic legacy.
An enchanting retelling of the fairy tale, "Beauty" was initially shown
at the New York Film Festival in a rough "Work in Progress," some two months
prior to its national release. Critical kudos -- even for the unfinished
version -- started the word-of-mouth vibe rolling, and once the film itself
was released in time for the holidays, BEAUTY had established a widespread
base of positive reviews that would be matched by an equally enthusiastic
response from viewers of all ages.
In the end, the film was nominated for a handful of Oscars (including
Best Picture, back when there wasn't any separate category for an animated
feature), rightly sweeping the Original Score and Song awards for Ashman
To date, there has never been a proper Special Edition of the film.
Even laserdisc fans for years had to settle for the "Work In Progress"
version, which was the only print available until a widescreen laserdisc
(sans extras) was released and withdrawn after a short period of time.
All that has made this Special Edition release a long-awaited title,
and Disney has done a superb job on this two-disc, THX-approved Special
Clearly the most satisfying feature of the DVD is that it contains no
less than three separate versions of the film: the original theatrical
cut, last year's Special Edition that was released in IMAX theaters, and
even the complete "Work In Progress" version. All three contain 1.85 widescreen
transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks; the Special Edition also contains
an audio commentary with the filmmakers (including producer Don Hahn),
as well as the fully animated song "Human Again," which was cut from the
original version and added to last year's re-release (it was also included
in the Broadway musical adaptation).
The picture quality is excellent throughout the first disc though I
noticed that the Dolby Digital sound seemed a bit coarse on the "Work In
Progress" and theatrical cuts.
For supplements, Disney has put together a nice assortment of extras,
though I don't think they're quite as interesting as those included on
the lavish "Snow White" deluxe set that the studio used to launch the "Platinum
Series" last year.
A 30-minute documentary, featuring interviews with all the principal
filmmakers, is included and serves as the springboard for the special features
housed in disc two. Each two-minute segment in the documentary is broken
up into its own separate chapter with accompanying supplementary material
covering the entire production.
As with every Disney Special Edition, there are copious amounts of animation
stills, a look at each stage of production, editing, music (with new interviews
with Menken), advertising and promotion, and more. The original "Human
Again" pre-recording and storyboarding is available, which serves as an
intriguing contrast to the fully animated version produced for the Special
A handful of special features are also included for kids, which are
highlighted by better- than-average interactive games (at least they're
more forgiving than the "Harry Potter" extras!) and virtual galleries,
making for a solid Special Edition of an all-time Disney classic.
While not a full-blown Special Edition, MGM's CASINO
ROYALE (**1/2, 137 mins., 1967) is newly available this week and fills
a serious gap in the James Bond DVD library.
One of two 007 properties that Albert R. Broccoli and Eon Productions
didn't control (Kevin McClory's "Thunderball" being the other), "Casino
Royale" was a mammoth spy spoof engineered by producer Charles K. Feldman
and released right around the same time that "You Only Lived Twice" was
continuing the "official" Bond series.
Feldman assembled a huge collection of stars (Peter Sellers, David Niven,
Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Daliah Lavi, William Holden,
and Deborah Kerr among them) and nearly as many directors (Val Guest, John
Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish, and Joe McGrath) in an attempt to capitalize
on the world's fervent Bond-mania and skewer the suddenly red-hot spy genre
at the same time.
Alas, with so many cooks in the kitchen, CASINO ROYALE turned out to
be a complete mess of a film, with an almost completely incoherent plot
sprinkled with only sporadic laughs. Each director set out on his own and
there are times, even after repeated viewings of this gargantuan epic,
when it seems as if each filmmaker shot seemingly random footage, all of
which was assembled as coherently as it could have been in the editing
room. If you've never seen the film before, you may want to have some kind
of plot summary on-hand, since there are major plot developments that are
either briefly referred to or missing altogether (particularly when Sellers
is driving away from the casino, only to be abruptly imprisoned with no
It's a rambling wreck, no doubt about it, but despite that, CASINO ROYALE
remains a favorite of many viewers for a couple of reasons: it's got that
cast, it has a very, very loose connection with Ian Fleming's legacy (did
I say it was a loose connection?), but most of all, it has one of the most
memorable soundtracks arguably ever recorded in the history of modern cinema.
Burt Bacharach's tuneful, infectious score -- featuring Dusty Springfield's
"The Look Of Love" and the title track with Herb Alpert's playful brass
-- carries this lumbering picture to the point of being watchable, and
since it's one of my all-time favorites, I knocked the film rating up an
entire star simply because of its presence.
CASINO ROYALE may be the very definition of a "curiosity item," with
its dated fashions, look and mood, but make no mistake: there are people
who love the film for that very reason (and it certainly was as much of
an influence on the Austin Powers series than the actual 007 films).
MGM acquired CASINO ROYALE from its original distributor (Columbia Pictures)
within the last couple of years but reportedly searched all over for pristine
source elements before releasing it on DVD. Even recent screenings on Turner
Classic Movies showed that the original elements couldn't have been in
the greatest shape, something that's confirmed by MGM's 2.35 DVD transfer.
The transfer itself seems to be fine, but the print is relatively dirty
and quite worn by the standards that we use to judge most DVDs (even of
a 1967 vintage).
The original mono soundtrack is included, as is a 5.1 Dolby Digital
"enhanced" track. This does not appear to be a full-blown remix (the score
doesn't have that crisp stereophonic sheen the music does on the soundtrack
CD), but rather a modest enhancement for 5.1, and while it's nothing extraordinary,
it nevertheless boosts the bass and works fairly well.
MGM has also done a terrific job by including two excellent supplements,
along with the original trailer, on the DVD.
Co-director Val Guest is interviewed in a fascinating conversation where
he admits how Feldman lost control of the ship, hiring him to try and make
the film more coherent by adding additional scenes (between Niven's "real"
Bond and Ursula Andress) in an attempt to make the movie work (well, he
tried, anyway!). Guest is unusually candid and sheds a great deal of light
on the film's checkered legacy.
The other Special Feature is a huge treat for Bond fans: the long-lost
"Casino Royale" made-for-TV movie from the '50s is included, starring a
very American "Jimmy Bond" (played by Barry Newman) taking on Peter Lorre!
This first-ever filming of Fleming's character has long been a part of
Bond lore, and MGM is to be commended for making it available to ALL Bondphiles
to check out at long last.
Those special features make this DVD an invaluable release for James
Bond fans, even if you happen to loathe everything about "Casino Royale"
except Bacharach's classic score.
TV On DVD
The notion of releasing TV programs on DVD was a phenomenon that was
exclusive to Europe for a while, save the occasional domestic exception
(like the original "Star Trek").
All of that has seriously changed in recent months. Suddenly, TV on
DVD is a red-hot commodity, and viewers are snapping up season-sized box-sets
of their favorite shows ("Buffy," "The X-Files," "24," etc.) as well as
those they might have missed (like "The Sopranos") so they can be caught
up on all the fuss.
It's good to see that it's not only recent programs getting the attention.
Fox has just released a complete 1st season box-set of the classic sitcom
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (****, 1970-71, 612 minutes), a program
that was honored with some 29 Emmy awards (still the record for a comedy)
during its memorable seven- year run.
Memorable actually may not be the right word to describe it: this James
L. Brooks-Allan Burns developed sitcom set a contemporary standard for
TV situation comedies to follow. Its crisp writing, unforgettable characters,
and depth both on comedic and dramatic fronts made the program an enduring
favorite of fans over the years, and despite a few wacky fashions, the
show has lost none of its appeal or become dated. It's classic TV comedy
at its best.
The first season set up the interplay between the terrific cast: Moore
as a newly hired producer at WJM-TV Minneapolis, Ed Asner as her irascible
boss Lou Grant, Gavin MacLeod as the affable Murray, Ted Knight as the
riotously clueless anchorman Ted Baxter, Valerie Harper as Moore's pal
Rhoda, and Cloris Leachman as landlady Phyllis. There are some creaky episodes
at the beginning (always the case with any new show), but once the situations
and players were set up, MTM quickly fell into a comfortable groove that
the program never lost during its tenure at the top of the network ratings.
Box Set #1 features every first season episode spread across four discs,
plus several great extras: a full 90-minute documentary features cast and
crew interviews, while there are episode-long commentaries on three shows
(from director Jay Sandrich, the writers, and assorted co-stars including
Ed Asner), original CBS network promos (you can't beat that!), Emmy award
clips, and more. Transfers are colorful and look terrific, while the original
English mono is in good shape.
Hopefully future box-sets will follow (the second season is due in the
spring), as they will for other classic shows that deserve the DVD treatment.
Another favorite program beloved by viewers of all ages,
THE MUPPET SHOW, has been released by Time-Life on DVD in pricey box-sets
that do, at least, contain every episode of the wonderful Jim Henson series.
If, however, you don't have the cash to splurge for that set, you can
pick up Columbia TriStar's two volumes of THE BEST OF THE MUPPET SHOW
(80 mins. each), each featuring three episodes of the series.
One volume features the singing and dancing talents of Julie Andrews,
Gene Kelly, and Elton John, while the other will prove to be of major interest
for Star Wars fans.
The second disc features Mark Hamill playing both himself AND Luke Skywalker,
while R2D2, C3PO, and Chewbacca lend an able assist as the Star Wars crew
improbably crashes into the Muppets' stage venue. Needless to say, the
"When You Wish Upon A Star" finale is a gem, with Hamill displaying some
deft dancing moves, as well as a spot- on impression of Fozzie Bear (I
think some of Mark's singing vocals are dubbed, however).
Both discs include good-looking transfers and mono sound (the show was
shot on videotape, not film, so whatever blurry aspect there is to the
picture is inherent in the way it was shot), along with introductory comments
from Brian Henson and assorted extras (including Muppet commercials, promo
ads, and other goodies).
Finally, on another Muppet-related note, KERMIT''S SWAMP YEARS
(82 mins., 2002, G; Columbia) has also been recently released on tape and
This is a made-for-the-tube flick focusing on our fave frog's early
days in the Swamp, with Kermit palling around with fellow lizard buddies
Goggles and Croaker, and a cute shaggy dog named Pilgrim. The Jim Lewis-Joseph
Mazzarino script -- directed by David Gumpel -- is pretty much for the
young ones, who should enjoy the colorful adventures and songs by Joe Carroll
and Peter Thom, though adults will appreciate the few jokes aimed a little
over their heads.
SWAMP YEARS isn't on the same level as the more sophisticated, big-screen
Muppet features, but it's still superior than "Muppets From Space" and
should enchant its intended young audience.
Columbia's DVD looks great with 1.78 and full-screen transfers, plus
an active 5.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras include a sporadic audio
commentary with Kermit and friends, outtakes, an on-the-set featurette
hosted by Kermit, a behind-the-scenes segment, and bonus trailers.
ENIGMA (***, 119 mins., 2001, R; Columbia TriStar): Classy, elegant
WWII thriller recent scant distribution in the U.S. and met with only mixed
reviews -- half of which seemed to come from viewers anticipating the next
James Bond movie. In actuality, this is a leisurely-paced but haunting
thriller, starring an appropriately disheveled-looking Dougray Scott as
a code-breaker in London attempting to shatter the Nazis' Engima code;
Kate Winslet is excellent as the roommate of Scott's missing girlfriend
(Saffron Burrows), while director Michael Apted and screenwriter Tom Stoppard
(adapting Robert Harris' novel) do a wonderful job capturing time and place,
all of it complimented by a moody and effective John Barry score. Columbia's
DVD offers a fine 2.35 scope transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, though
there's nothing in the way of extras aside from trailers. This comes in
spite of the fact that Apted recorded a commentary track and ENIGMA was
originally announced as being a Special Edition title. Hopefully a deluxe
DVD edition of the movie will happen down the road, and preferably sooner
WINDTALKERS (**, 134 mins., 2002, R; MGM): The
Nicolas Cage-John Woo reunion turned out to be a box-office disappointment
for MGM, in part due to its long delay from its initial 2001 release date.
During that time, a handful of other war films were released, saturating
the market place and paving the way for WINDTALKERS to underachieve in
It doesn't help that the movie itself was a real disappointment as well.
The potentially fascinating real-life tale of Navajo Indians involved in
WWII -- most importantly for their impenetrable wartime code -- is squandered
in a mismash of blood battles, stylized Woo violence, and a predictable
story involving Cage's battered soldier. The John Rice-Joe Batteer script
is more cliché than credible, and despite a solid score by James
Horner and scope cinematography by Jeffrey Kimball, the result is a loud,
violent collection of images that never scratches the surface of its potential.
MGM's DVD offers a tremendous 2.35 transfer and overpowering 5.1 Dolby
Digital soundtrack, though extras are kept to a minimum here except for
a pair of trailers. European viewers will reportedly receive a handful
of mini-documentaries on their DVD release, though perhaps that's no surprise
as the movie performed better overseas than it did here.
NEXT WEEK: It's Halloween time at the Aisle Seat,
as we look at EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, the widescreen premiere of
STEPHEN KING'S CAT'S EYE, the disappointment over the DVD debut of "IT,"
and much more! Send all emails to email@example.com
and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!