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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 evil.

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 the check.

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 first time.

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 is gone.

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 contained.

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 maybe not).

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 and Menken.

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 Edition.

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 Edition.

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 explanation whatsoever!).

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 disc.

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.


DVD Capsules

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 than later.


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 the U.S.A.

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 dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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