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A Visit to METROPOLIS

Plus: TEXAS RANGERS, DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE, and more new DVD
releases!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

The one good thing about movie projectors breaking down is that you end up receiving some free passes because of it. That's what happened to me last week when I caught a screening of the current #1 film at the box-office -- the Ben Affleck/Samuel L. Jackson "urban thriller" CHANGING LANES. With about 20 minutes to go in the movie, the screen went dark, the house lights came on, along with a blaring '70s hit from Chicago over the sound system.

Since there are few things more jarring than that when watching a movie at the local multiplex (aside from endlessly talking fellow movie-goers), I am going to refrain from posting a formal viewing of the movie. However, I will say that the film's one-note plot -- sort of an update of the mediocre Michael Douglas movie "Falling Down" to a certain degree -- and dramatic situations became tiresome after the first half-hour, despite solid work from both leads. The movie also seemed to reach a satisfying ending as well, only to ramble on to a seemingly tacked-on coda that I could have lived without. At any rate, maybe it'll work better within the confines of home video -- WITHOUT the film shutting down with just a few minutes to go.

On the video front, some very interesting new releases are coming on DVD both this and next week, so here's the Aisle Seat mid-April breakdown of picks-and-pans for your viewing pleasure.


Aisle Seat DVD Pick Of The Week

METROPOLIS (***1/2, 109 mins., 2001, PG-13; Columbia TriStar, $27.95): Regular Aisle Seat visitors know full well that this critic isn't an anime aficionado, though so many readers had written to me with positive comments about last year's epic METROPOLIS -- and, in particular, Toshiyuki Honda's music -- that I was excited to receive Columbia's gorgeous double-disc DVD set, which is due in stores April 23.

The movie is based on Osamu Tezuka's highly-regarded classic comic book from the late '40s, portraying a sprawling futuristic city not unlike the one Fritz Lang envisioned in his own "Metropolis," the silent classic from 1926. Buildings scale high into the sky, cars scuttle through the air and on the roads, and millions of residents move about like tiny ants.

It's a quintessential science-fiction vision, and the movie -- directed by anime vet Rintaro and written by Katsuhiro Otomo of "Akira" fame -- is an outstanding piece of animation, filled with a spectrum of colors, evocative visual design, and fascinating characters. METROPOLIS combines traditional anime, American sci-fi films, and even retro elements -- particularly in Honda's jazz-influenced score -- in creating a movie that offers a feast for the eyes and ears.

Story wise, the movie offers a somewhat convoluted plot that viewers unfamiliar with the material may find difficult to follow: a Japanese detective and his nephew venture into the "Ziggurat" (Metropolis' largest structure), where the suspicious Duke Red and an insane scientist have created a machine that could control the destiny of the entire city, one in which robots and less fortunate humans currently live in the levels below, and shady political figures conspire to overthrow the current government regime (by using robots) on the levels above.

In order to power the device and ensnare control, Red needs an android replicant of his deceased daughter: the childlike Timo, whom improbably ends up on the run with Ken-ichi, the detective's nephew, from Duke Red's maniacal, adopted son. For non-Japanese audiences, METROPOLIS may be the most accessible anime produced, since it seems to have been heavily influenced by great genre films from the West (from Lang's "Metropolis" to Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner"). Its tale of technology run amok can be looked at as a futuristic updating of the "Frankenstein" story, while its depiction of humanity and morality in a technological society are more developed and interesting than similar themes Steven Spielberg posed (but failed to elaborate upon) in A.I. last year.

Still, the visuals are the key in METROPOLIS, with Rintaro's artwork and design complimented by a marvelous soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda, rightly acclaimed as one of last year's best scores. Incorporating a lyrical main theme for the female robot, as well as a handful of cues meant to evoke jazz standards from the 1920's and '30s, Honda's expressive score is one of the film's chief assets, and its striking use of popular, vintage American songs in several scenes (especially Ray Charles' "I Can't Stop Loving You" over its apocalyptic finale) is also noteworthy.

Columbia's double-disc DVD package of METROPOLIS is an outstanding achievement that I would easily rank as one of the finest of 2002 so far. The 1.85 transfer is excellent and razor-sharp, capturing all of the project's detail and color, while a full range of soundtracks are present.

While some viewers many choose the dubbed American 5.1 soundtrack so they can concentrate on the visuals instead of reading the optional English subtitles, they'll be missing out on the disc's most potent mix: the Japanese 5.1 DTS soundtrack, which includes the most impressive presentation of the film's bountiful sound effects and rich soundtrack. In fact, the English dubbed track is so muted in comparison with the original Japanese DTS mix that they almost sound as if they've been produced for two entirely different films. (For those without DTS, there's a 5.1 Japanese Dolby Digital mix on-hand as well).

The supplements are contained on a separate, "mini-DVD" that's the same size as a Nintendo Gamecube disc. There you'll find a 30-minute Japanese documentary on the making of the film (subtitled in English), with interviews with Rintaro and writer Katsuhiro Otomo (separate, shorter interviews with the two individuals are included in an additional chapter). Storyboard-to-film comparisons are also present, along with a much- appreciated history of Tezuka's original comic. The discs are housed in a gorgeous fold-out booklet that should prove to be a must-purchase for animation fans of any international persuasion. Highly, highly recommended!


New Releases on DVD

TEXAS RANGERS (*1/2, 89 mins., 2001, PG-13; Dimension, $29.98): You have to feel bad for the people who made TEXAS RANGERS.

The film was on the shelf so long that half of its teen cast were no longer teenagers by the time the movie was unceremoniously dumped into a few hundred screens (presumably to fulfill contractual obligations) last Thanksgiving. By that same time, the picture -- which reportedly once ran well over two hours -- was edited down to 80 minutes minus credits, and both of its screenwriters (John Milius and Ehren Kruger) opted to have their names removed from the final print.

Adding insult to injury is that TEXAS RANGERS spent eons in development hell as one of Milius' pet projects, intended to be one of the last, great cinematic stabs at a sprawling western saga -- things that you would be hard-pressed to tell from watching the final product, which plays like a Cliff Notes version of a two-minute movie trailer!

James Van Der Beek (TV's Dawson) stars as a young man whose family is wiped out by a group of bandits (lead by Alfred Molina and Vincent Spano) in 1875, post-Civil War Texas. Van Der Beek decides to saddle up with the Texas Rangers -- lead by real- life figure Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott) -- in an effort to track down the murdering, cattle-stealing thieves across the Mexican border, with a motley assortment of new recruits (including Ashton Kutcher and Usher Raymond) in tow.

TEXAS RANGERS is filled with talented performers in blink-and-you'll-miss- them supporting parts (Robert Patrick, Randy Travis, Tom Skerritt, and even Oded Fehr from "The Mummy" in an especially worthless bit), but then again, EVERY bit of character development here seems like it was sliced away in the editing room. Looking for some interesting historical anecdotes about the Rangers' mysterious Mexican liaison? Read the press notes, since the character pops up in a couple of shots for a grand total of one minute. How about some good, old-fashioned movie romance? Watch the trailer, because it's the only place you'll see Rachael Leigh Cook pick between Van Der Beek and his goofy pal Ashton Kutcher. (Cook's final scene has been laughably cut to the point where it seems like it's been assembled by a five-year-old).

There are times when you watch a three-hour movie that feels like it's 90 minutes. On the other hand, you can often run into 90 minute movies that feel like they're OVER three hours. TEXAS RANGERS is one of those occasions where hack-and-slash editing stripped away not only the running time, but also the motivations and backgrounds of characters who -- at least in its current 89-minute form -- we never get to know. In doing so, it only made what's left -- a tedious assortment of montages, cliches, and brief dialogue exchanges -- completely pointless and frustrating to watch, since there's nothing there to care about.

Regrettably, Dimension's DVD offers neither a longer cut of the movie, nor any deleted scenes to speak of. You do get the original trailer, an eight-minute promotional featurette, and some ten minutes worth of storyboards, but it's nevertheless a letdown. The 2.35 transfer varies between exemplary to downright murky, with some grainy moments popping up at times (no doubt the result of the film having been re-edited over and over again). It also seems as if some sequences weren't even finished in post- production, judging from some strange night-time mattes and stock footage of coyotes. On the audio side, the 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is also a disappointment, with hardly any surround activity to speak of -- something especially surprising given the subject matter at hand. (Trevor Rabin's mostly-orchestral score, however, is surprisingly adequate given the circumstances).

If there's any good that can come from your rental or purchase of TEXAS RANGERS on DVD, it's that any success the troubled production may have on the small- screen could possibly result in a full-blown restoration of the original version at some point down the road. Until that time, the movie will be forever regarded as just another failed attempt to revive the western genre -- and another example of how overzealous cutting in the editing room can only make a movie even worse than it might have been.


DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE (**, 89 mins., 2001, PG-13; Paramount, $29.98): If they gave an award for most dysfunctional movie set, chances are good that DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE would have been the odds-on favorite last year.

At some point during the movie's shoot in Wilmington, N.C., stars Vince Vaughn and Steve Buscemi -- along with the film's (uncredited) screenwriter Scott Rosenberg -- tangled with some locals in a barroom brawl that sent Buscemi to the hospital with stab wounds and Vaughn to court after being arrested. Vaughn was ultimately cleared of any wrong-doing, insisting that he wasn't hitting on the girlfriend of a local resident, and the incident went down as just another tawdry celebs-in-trouble tale that the media ran with for a few days.

If you're wondering why I'm bringing it up in the context of this film review, I think it might have something to do with how by-the-numbers the film DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE is. Despite being directed by thriller specialist Harold Becker ("Malice," "Sea Of Love," "The Onion Field"), this is a mundane effort that barely runs 80 minutes sans credits, showing obvious signs that each scene was shot without any nuance -- just a "get this over with" attitude on the part of most involved.

John Travolta stars as a single dad whose ex-wife (Teri Polo) is about to be hitched to slick, recent area transplant Vince Vaughn. This naturally causes trouble for Travolta's teen son (Matt O'Leary), who lives with his mother and is subject to Vaughn's erratic behavior -- particularly when Vaughn stabs a suspicious former "business" partner (Steve Buscemi) in the back. Hiding out in the backseat of Vaughn's SUV during the murder, the kid soon turns into the thriller genre's version of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," with all the authority figures -- even Travolta -- failing to believe the troubled adolescent's tale of terror.

Lewis Colick ("Unlawful Entry") was the credited screenwriter on the film, with Scott Rosenberg apparently involved with rewrites -- though of what is unclear, since the movie offers a bare minimum of character development. Each scene is played out in a completely arbitrary manner, atypical of Becker's past work, and while it's always watchable, DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE is never compelling or truly suspenseful. (Buscemi's "death scene," however, is actually pretty funny). Chalk it up as another routine movie whose behind-the-scenes history is more interesting than the film itself.

Paramount's DVD offers an excellent 2.35 transfer, highlighting the Wilmington locales subbing for a southeastern New England setting. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is layered with a few surround effects, along with an OK score by Mark Mancina. Supplements are highlighted by a decent commentary discussion by the director, the trailer, storyboards, along with a handful of deleted scenes -- though there must have been even more excised material at some point that was either edited out of the film or the screenplay itself.


SERENDIPITY (**, 90 mins., 2001, PG-13; Miramax, $29.98): You know you're in trouble when a Eugene Levy cameo is the only thing that can bring a movie to life. From the minute Peter Chelsom's would-be frothy fantasy begins, the word contrivance -- and not serendipity -- is the word that comes to mind as John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale meet in the Big Apple during Christmas time. They share loving glances, sarcastic humor, and a nice skate on the ice. They're both dating other people, but he can sense a movie romance at work. She, however, is bound by fate -- going so far as to scribble down her name and number in a book and selling it to a used bookshop. If Cusack can find it, then they're meant to be together. He can't. Flash forward several years, and the two are ready to be hitched -- and guess what happened from here? SERENDIPITY had all the makings of a "nice" date movie (performing well during its first few weekends at the box-office), but the big surprise is how uneven it turned out to be. Cusack seems to be mostly going through the motions (and is beginning to look a little long-in-the-tooth for the kind of carefree single guy he's essaying here), and while Beckinsale is far more likable than her cardboard part in "Pearl Harbor," she isn't given enough to do. Actually, nobody here is given much to do. Director Chelsom -- who once directed the great sleeper hit HEAR MY SONG -- has a penchant for offbeat humor that crops up every now and then in a handful of misfired gags, but aside from solid work by the always game Jeremy Piven as Cusack's best friend, SERENDIPITY doesn't work. There's no emotional pull, no dramatic urgency, in effect at any point in the film.

Miramax's DVD contains a nice 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, plus audio commentary from the director, who didn't initially think the movie was funny enough, and added the oddly-placed gags while shooting progressed. Several deleted scenes are included, along with a promotional featurette, the original trailer, and a "Director's Diary," constituting some interesting anecdotes by Chelsom that he wrote down during filming. Unfortunately, the on-screen text is so small that most viewers will opt to stop reading instead of developing a headache trying to flip through them.


ORIGINAL SIN (*1/2, 118 mins., 2000, Unrated; MGM, $26.98): After sitting on the shelf for nearly 18 months, last August MGM finally released Michael Cristofer's adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's novel "Waltz Into Darkness" -- a book which had been previously filmed by Francois Truffaut as "Mississippi Mermaid" in the late '60s.

Antonio Banderas stars as a Cuban merchant who decides to order out for love. In this case, it's mail order bride Angelina Jolie, who arrives at Banderas' estate with some shady questions surrounding her, like why she doesn't look anything like the picture Antonio received in the mail. Turns out that Jolie is involved in a scam to steal his riches, which prompts the formerly mild-mannered Banderas to seek out the sultry, conniving seductress before all his cash is gone.

Cristofer wrote and directed ORIGINAL SIN, the kind of movie best described as unsatisfying. The story itself is intriguing, but the movie is so claustrophobic -- and Banderas and Jolie's performances often inconsistent given the parameters of their roles - - that I grew tired of the film after the first hour. There's no real chemistry between the two stars, and the film's cramped sets create the impression that you're stuck watching a stage play with miscast actors. Cristofer's script also lacks a sense of humor, a disappointment since it's clear this kind of material could have made for a biting black comedy. Instead, ORIGINAL SIN is an overheated melodrama that takes itself too seriously for its own good.

MGM has released two great-looking DVD presentations of ORIGINAL SIN: the film's original R-rated cut, plus an Unrated Version featuring a couple of extra minutes of sex and nudity. Only this version features an audio commentary from the director, plus an animated photo gallery, the original trailer, and Gloria Estefan's music video for the forgettable end-credit ballad "You Can't Walk Away From Love."

Despite the movie's bland trappings, the 2.35 transfer is superb, and Rodrigo Prieto's widescreen compositions are well-framed. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is pretty good, featuring a somewhat erratic Terence Blanchard score which can't seem to make up its mind whether to succumb to its Latin influences or remain more closely associated with the composer's familiar jazz repertoire.


FLESH AND BONE (**, 126 mins., 1993, R; Paramount, $24.98): Dennis Quaid plays a small-town Texas vending machine operator who falls in love with free-spirited Meg Ryan -- only to find out that Ryan's family was murdered in cold blood when she was a baby, and that Quaid's con artist father (James Caan) was the perpetrator.

Gwyenth Paltrow made her first starring appearance (as Caan's latest partner-in- crime) in FLESH AND BONE, a well-acted but slow-moving and terminally depressing 1993 psychological thriller from writer-director Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Wonder Boys").

The rural landscapes are well shot by Philippe Rousselot -- and are easily the film's strongest asset -- but the movie comes across as one of those commercially unappealing vehicles that gets made because of the clout of its stars. Quaid and Ryan were a hot item together back in the early '90s, though (predictably) neither could wrestle any kind of audience for the film.

Kloves' character shadings are interesting and the film is certainly watchable because of the performances, but FLESH AND BONE is too sluggishly paced and ultimately too predictable for its own good. The pre-ordained conclusion doesn't offer any surprises, and Thomas Newman's score -- which often consists of electronic plinks and plunks -- isn't one of his more interesting efforts.

Still, if you're looking for a seedy tale of murder amongst family, FLESH AND BONE is sufficiently performed and shot. Paramount's no-frills DVD presentation does offer a superlative 1.85 transfer and an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which features a surprising range of audio textures and is one of the disc's most potent features.


NEXT WEEK: One more stab at HIGHLANDER on DVD (courtesy of Anchor Bay), the cult favorite JOE VS. THE VOLCANO, plus the usual ramblings. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then! Excelsior!


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