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John Williams Strikes Back With MINORITY REPORT

Plus: THE SUM OF ALL FEARS And Vintage DVD Round-Up Part II

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

If you were one of the many disappointed with John Williams' score for "Attack of the Clones" (to say nothing of George Lucas' treatment of it in the film itself), then you can breathe a sigh of relief -- and get a rush of great film music -- after hearing Williams' richer, more involving and altogether satisfying score for MINORITY REPORT, the new Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise movie opening Friday.

With plenty of furious scherzos, driving action themes, and tense dramatic cues, Williams' MINORITY REPORT (Dreamworks Records, available Tuesday) is a 70- minute feast of the year's best film music. Think of the kind of action music Williams wrote for Indiana Jones, mix it up with a dash of A.I., and contrast the pounding suspense music with a lovely, redemptive theme heard sparingly throughout the score, and you have a good idea of what this latest Williams opus is like. The score reflects the movie in that tone ranges from '40s mystery thriller to "Total Recall"-like action blockbuster -- a mix of genres that Williams has fed off to great effect, displaying a vibrant energy that was mostly absent from his latest Star Wars work. The orchestrations are more dynamic, the action cues brassier and more exciting, and the musical pallet is here widened to include not only pounding percussion, thundering brass, and contemplative strings, but also interesting, otherworldly shadings (especially a wailing female voice) that create a brooding, uneasy sensation as the film's mystery unfolds.

Still, don't be misled into thinking that this is an unrelentingly dissonant work without any soaring, Williams-esque passages. On the contrary, the darker sections of the score are contrasted nicely by bombastic bursts of energy and shorter, lyrical passages that provide a diverse listening experience. Along the way, there are subtle references to the kind of "whodunit?" scores Bernard Herrmann and others wrote in the '40s and '50s (referenced by Spielberg in the liner notes), in addition to other Williams efforts (like "Presumed Innocent" and "Sleepers"), making this yet another unique entry in Williams' esteemed canon of work. If anyone thought Episode II was a sign that perhaps Williams had exhausted his musical ideas in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, MINORITY REPORT is a new, sterling entry in a long list of great genre scores that thankfully confirms otherwise.


Also Worth Spinning On CD

WINDTALKERS (James Horner, RCA Victor): John Woo abandoned Hans Zimmer for this strong new work by Horner for the disappointing new Nicolas Cage WWII flick, which was finally released last weekend (after being delayed from last November). Horner here mixes up emotional, ethnic Navajo instrumentation with his usual dramatic shadings -- including the latest use of the old "Wolfen"/"Star Trek II" motif that we all know and love (okay, that SOME of us know and love!). It's a solid score that provides Woo with (for him) a fresh new musical voice, and certainly more satisfying than what another synthesized Zimmer effort would have provided for this material. As an album, it's best recommended for Horner fans or those who have seen and appreciated the film.


New In Theaters

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (***): Aside from the fact that Ben Affleck's bland Jack Ryan is the least interesting figure in the film, Phil Alden Robinson's slick Tom Clancy adaptation provides solid entertainment. The Paul Attanasio-Daniel Pyne script finds a dormant nuclear weapon being sold to a shady individual in Damascus whose clients plan on using it to lead America and Russia into a war with one another. To save the day comes CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Affleck), here just starting out under the guidance of director Cobb (Morgan Freeman). Yes, this is the strange tact Paramount took in its relaunching of the Clancy franchise: a semi-prequel with a young Jack Ryan, yet set in the present day with its own set of characters. SUM OF ALL FEARS in some ways resembles past Clancy pictures, but its central story line ends up playing out like BLACK SUNDAY by way of WARGAMES, with both sides ultimately on the offensive until Ryan can convince them that war isn't a game worth playing.

The film boasts a multitude of characters and events that eventually intersect, with solid performances from Freeman, James Cromwell as the President, Alan Bates and Colm Feore as the film's antagonists (standard-issue European neo-nazis substituting for the book's Middle Eastern bad guys -- something that would have been more realistic yet not politically correct, apparently), and Liev Schrieber as a CIA operative. Schrieber's role and performance are so interesting, in fact, that they turn Affleck's cardboard hero into the film's weakest element. Just like in "Pearl Harbor," the actor seems totally out of his element here, lacking the conviction and believability this kind of material demands. While watching Affleck struggle to convey Ryan's contrasting inexperience and heroic qualities (not to mention the complete lack of chemistry between him and Bridget Moynahan in the Anne Archer role), I kept thinking that any moment he was going to lurch into a wisecrack like he was in a Kevin Smith film. Affleck's strength is clearly in lightweight, comedic kinds of parts, and trying to take him seriously in a role that Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin previously filled is an incredible stretch that the film never overcomes. In fact, I'd be leery of the Clancy franchise's long-term prognosis with him in it -- he comes off as a sarcastic kid playing dress-up in the middle of a big Hollywood movie.

That said, nearly everything else in SUM OF ALL FEARS reeks of class: the widescreen cinematography, solid performances by veteran character actors, and even Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score -- clearly one of the maestro's finest outings of late. This is a strong action score superior to his disappointing recent efforts (can you say "Last Castle"?), and more than substitutes for James Horner's uneven outings from its predecessors. (There is, however, one moment when Goldsmith's horns seem like they're trumpeting the arrival of Rambo, and when set to slow-motion photography of Affleck running through a flame-ravaged street, come off as a bit much).

Director Robinson sets us up with a first half so strong and relatively subdued that it's unfortunate that the second portion of SUM OF ALL FEARS becomes bogged down with standard movie cliches: the stuffy government bureaucrats who can't be convinced of the truth, the posturing by both sides and their reluctance to show weakness, and Ryan's one-man crusade to set everything right. The climax itself doesn't feel like one, either, finishing with an epilogue set to "Nossun Dorma" that's entirely predictable.

Robinson, though, does deserve credit for a making a thought-provoking thriller that at least exhibits some intelligence at a time when too many summer blockbusters have nothing on their minds at all. Despite its flaws and weak central performance, SUM OF ALL FEARS is worth viewing for that alone. (PG-13)


Vintage DVD Round-Up, Part II

As we wrap up our look at newly-released vintage DVDs, be aware that there will be even more back-catalog favorites coming our way this summer. Warner has a Special Edition of BIG WEDNESDAY lined up, in addition to a slew of genre titles on August 6th including EXORCIST II, THE SWARM, CLASH OF THE TITANS (which was recently announced as being re-made -- why, oh god, why?), GREMLINS and GREMLINS 2 Special Editions, and even WOLFEN with audio commentary! Indeed, now that the day has finally come when EXORCIST II is coming on DVD, one wonders if there will be ANY oft-requested title that won't see the light of day in this format.

This week we finish up the new-release vintage round-up with Fox classics, a couple of Disney live-action efforts, and assorted oddities from Anchor Bay among others.


New Oldies From Fox

THE HUSTLER (****, 135 mins., 1961; Fox, $19.98)
THE VERDICT (***1/2, 129 mins., 1982, R; Fox, $19.98)
 
Two of Paul Newman's greatest performances have been given exemplary treatment by Fox as a pair of widescreen, Special Edition DVDs.

THE HUSTLER needs little introduction to film buffs, with Newman starring in his acclaimed performance as Fast Eddie Felson, the pool hustler who ultimately takes on the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in a tense, brilliantly executed finale. Along the way, he falls in love with Piper Laurie and meets other hustlers like George C.Scott, who compliments a terrific supporting cast (including Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton, and Michael Constantine). Robert Rossen's 1961 film is highly regarded by critics and viewers alike, shot in Cinemascope and nicely brought to DVD here by Fox: the 2.35 black-and-white transfer is superb, capturing the nuances in Eugene Schufftan's Oscar-winning cinematography, while the mono soundtrack is also remixed for modest stereo on the audio side.

For supplements, the DVD includes a great commentary track including film editor Dede Allen (detailing clashes with the studio), Newman, and Time critic Richard Shickel. There's also an AMC-like documentary, "The Hustler: The Inside Story," plus a demonstration of how the filmmakers accomplished the numerous pool trick shots, along with the theatrical trailer. It's a splendid package for an all-time classic film.

Oscar eluded Newman on "The Hustler" and once again, decades later, on THE VERDICT, but Sidney Lumet's memorable 1982 courtroom drama remains another of Newman's finest performances. As an alcoholic attorney who gets one last chance at redemption, Newman brilliantly anchors this taut and compelling drama about a medical malpractice suit and his character's uncompromising pursuit of justice. Jack Warden, James Mason, and Charlotte Rampling co-starred in this Lumet film, scripted by David Mamet from Barry Reed's novel.

A featurette on the film's production is included along with a frank and engaging commentary discussion from Lumet, who divulges that the Zanuck/Brown production was once intended for another star and director who wanted to soften the lead character [The late James Bridges was originally signed to direct, and it was Robert Redford who wanted to tone down the character's flaws so severely that redemption would have been unnecessary--SB]. The 1.85 transfer is fine and as with "The Hustler," the soundtracks include the original mono mix and a slightly "re-channeled" stereo version.

While Paul Newman eventually received an Oscar with his reprisal of Fast Eddie in Martin Scorsese's "The Color Of Money" in 1986, surely part of that award was an overdue recognition of all the other great performances Newman wasn't rewarded for earlier in his career. Both THE HUSTLER and THE VERDICT are most definitely two of them, and Fox's excellent DVD presentations are a must for movie buffs.


THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER (***1/2, 104 mins., 1982, PG; Fox, $19.98): The "other" (i.e. non-"Mad Max") George Miller was responsible for this highly acclaimed 1982 Aussie western, which became a sleeper hit in the U.S. and launched an unlikely franchise in the process.

Kirk Douglas gets to chew the scenery in a dual role in this beautifully shot and highly entertaining adventure, playing a rancher whose daughter (Sigrid Thornton) falls for strong-willed cowboy Tom Burlinson. The John Dixon-Fred Cul Cullen script is a pastiche of old-time western cliches, dressed up with a heavy Down Under flavor, the accent being on atmosphere -- served up by expert widescreen cinematography from David Eggby and a lovely score by Bruce Rowland. MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER is a larger-than-life, romantic western in the grandest, old fashioned tradition, from its cover art to its sprawling Panavision dimensions.

The movie was a blockbuster in Australia and did well enough internationally to spin-off a 1988 sequel, RETURN TO SNOWY RIVER, with Brian Dennehy in the Douglas' role (!), and a TV series that faired pretty well just a few years ago. However, the magic is strongest with the original film, which has been released by Fox in a 2.35 (16:9) enhanced DVD with an acceptable Dolby Stereo soundtrack. The good news is that the transfer is superb, besting the letterbox laserdisc from a while back with heightened clarity and stronger colors. A theatrical trailer rounds out a basic package for this "Fox Family Feature" release, highly recommended for western fans and romantic adventure lovers of all ages.


Other Assorted Goodies

DICK TRACY (***, 105 mins., 1990, PG; Disney, $16.98): Warren Beatty's amiable though overhyped 1990 comic-book adaptation was one of the several '90s films to gross $100 million but fail to sustain long-term interest or fulfill the gargantuan expectations of their producers (can you say "The Flinstones"?). All that most people remember about this Disney release was that it had Madonna and Warren Beatty while in the midst of their off-screen affair, and a slew of great actors in deep, dark disguises as the movie's villains.

Years after all the hype, there isn't much of a following for DICK TRACY, but the movie still has enough memorable elements to make it worth another look: the presence of Al Pacino, James Caan, and Dustin Hoffman among others in the rogue's gallery of bad guys; the colorful cinematography of Vittorio Storaro and set design by Richard Sylbert; and the warm, comic book look of the entire movie. While the movie was heavily influenced in some regards by "Batman" (most obviously in Danny Elfman's by-the-numbers score), the film has its own artistic agenda, and DICK TRACY ranks as a visual achievement in the genre if nothing else.

Last year, Beatty was quoted as saying he'd like to revisit DICK TRACY and re- cut the movie since -- he claimed -- the studio held him to a 105 minute running time. Whatever plans Beatty had to revisit the film, Buena Vista's DICK TRACY DVD includes only the original theatrical version, presented in 1.85 widescreen with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound. While supplements are nowhere to be found, the good news is that Buena Vista has maximized the transfer and sound quality, resulting in a top-notch presentation that shows off all of the film's visual assets.

For $17, this is a certainly affordable DVD that should suffice until a Special Edition is released. For comic book fans and movie buffs, DICK TRACY warrants another view, and the DVD is easily the best way to go to savor the film's abundant eye candy.


THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN (*** film, * presentation, 101 mins., 1985, PG; Disney, $14.98): Meredith Salenger recently popped up as "the older woman" on "Dawson's Creek," which made me feel -- well -- old! Salenger's big debut came as a Depression-era orphan searching for her father in this highly entertaining 1985 Disney adventure, co-starring John Cusack as a nice guy she meets along the way, and a wolf who tends to steal the show from both of them.

Jeremy Paul Kagan directed this atmospheric and moving picture, which doesn't feel as saccharine as many Disney efforts due to its gritty look and mood. (In that regard, the film can be looked at as one of the more realistic Disney live-action dramas ever produced). Salenger is appealing as Natty Gann, and she and Cusack -- plus that wolf -- make a splendid team you root for even though we all know where the story is headed at every turn.

In addition to the film's scenic visual trappings, James Horner's score is quite effective, though Horner's work was actually a replacement for a superior, dynamite Elmer Bernstein score that never should have been dumped in the first place.

Disney's DVD features a decent stereo soundtrack, but unfortunately, the film's widescreen aspect ratio has been bastardized by the studio's decision to only release NATTY GANN in 1.33 full-screen. The transfer is cropped on the sides without adding any information on the top and bottom -- a crushing disappointment given the film's original anamorphic proportions. Consumers -- and the movie -- certainly deserved better, so if you're on the fence about upgrading from your old (and also cropped) tapes and laserdiscs, don't bother.
 


20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (***, 83 mins., 1957; Columbia, $24.98; Available June 25): Columbia's latest entry in the Ray Harryhausen Collection is one of the special effects master's first features: the 1953 sci-fi fantasy about a creature brought back from a U.S. mission to Venus that grows from a miniature dinosaur into a full-fledged monster, wrecking havoc on Italy and Rome along the way.

Nathan Juran's black-and-white programmer runs a scant 83 minutes, and lacks the more elaborate visual trappings of the later Harryhausen fantasies, but there's just something charming about the B-quality of this '50s monster-on-the-loose flick. William Hopper and Joan Taylor aren't the most talented leads (not even for this kind of film), but the stilted dialogue and dramatics only enhance the magic of Harryhausen's visual effects. Like the title creature in the THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, the "Ymir" is a classic Harryhausen creation, marvelously articulated and more "alive" than the human characters in the Bob Williams-Christopher Knopf script. Just when you grow tired of the non-effects sequences, Juran shifts the action back to the monster, and at 83 minutes, the film is just long enough to sustain repeat viewing.

Columbia's DVD offers solid 1.85 and full-screen transfers, along with an OK mono soundtrack. However, since the movie wasn't shot in a widescreen format, I found the 1.85 ratio a bit too confining. When compared to the full-screen transfer, there's pictorial information being clipped on the top and bottom that probably shouldn't be, and I found the full-screen version preferable for that reason (chances are that the movie was likely framed at 1.66 theatrically and over-matted here to 1.85 for the benefit of 16:9 televisions). The DVD is rounded out with bonus trailers and the very same "The Harryhausen Chronicles" and "This Is Dynamation" featurettes included on every other Harryhausen title from Columbia.


HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL COMICS WAY ($14.98, Anchor Bay): Now that SPIDER-MAN has become the #1 film of the year at the box-office, no doubt we'll be seeing re-issues of all kinds of Marvel Comics-related film and TV projects on video. While I'll be first in line for that box-set of the Nicholas Hammond '70s Spidey TV series (calling Rhino Home Video, stat!), for now we'll have to be satisfied with DVDs like this 1988 New World Video production, which features Marvel-meisters Stan Lee and John Buscema in a demonstration of how to draw '80s-styled comic-book art.

It's basically like that PBS show starring the guy with the afro (the one who would lovingly talk about his tree and forest-dwelling critter drawings like they were his best friends), but with Lee and Buscema drawing Captain America, Iron Man, and Spidey instead. It's pretty dry for casual viewers but actually very interesting if you're an aspiring artist or a comic book fan.

Anchor Bay's transfer is fine, making what likely was an out-of-print VHS collector's item available to all true believers on DVD.


New And In Brief

ROLLERBALL (*1/2, 100 mins., 2002, R; MGM, $29.98): What gives with director John McTiernan being forced out of the editing room on his own movies? First THE 13TH WARRIOR gets re-scored, re-cut, and re-shot by producer Michael Chrichton with McTiernan nowhere to be found, then MGM studio heads opted to re-cut his already- problematic remake of ROLLERBALL, releasing a "teen friendly" PG-13 version in theaters last January that saw few takers of ANY age at the box-office.

MGM's DVD of this needless updating of the James Caan '70s staple restores a few minutes of R-rated footage -- including Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' well-publicized nude scenes -- but it doesn't make the film any more interesting or coherent. Here, Chris Klein, LL Cool J, and Romijn-Stamos are some of the Rollerball warriors involved in the violent and popular futuristic sport (which more closely resembles an ESPN2 "X-Games" competition than the original film); Jean Reno is the suspicious league owner behind a conspiracy to drive up the drama. Aside from the fact that this Larry Ferguson-John Pogue scripted affair truly does resemble a brainless music video -- or an R-rated Mountain Dew commercial -- one gets the feeling McTiernan's original cut of the film likely ran much longer and had to have made SOME sense. Unfortunately for the director, we'll never get a chance to see it, as MGM's superb DVD presentation includes just the 100-minute R-rated version, along with an excellent featurette on the film's stunts, an okay commentary track featuring the stars, and a Rod Zombie music video. Visually, the 2.35 and full-frame transfers are both excellent, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix predictably filled with effects and a throbbing electronic score from Eric Serra.


HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (*1/2, 91 mins., 2001, R; Columbia, $26.98): The second entry in the "Creature Features" franchise of updated American-International '50s B-movies is a definite comedown from its predecessor, the low-key and engaging "She- Creature." HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER stars Clea Duvall as a software engineer on a video game project where the game's creature springs out of virtual reality and into the real world, wrecking havoc on any and all who stand in its way. The monster is able to do this by occupying a motion capture suit after a power surge improbably enables the deadly, gladiator-like creation to come to life.

There are cameos from the likes of Julie Strain (as herself) and Creature Features co-producer Colleen Camp, but this George Huang written-and-directed effort is awfully pedestrian, from its one-note, unappealing characters down to its predictable story structure. Huang was the filmmaker behind the acclaimed 1996 effort "Swimming With Sharks," and it's quite a comedown seeming him reduced to working with routine genre material like this. Perhaps because of this, the movie concludes with a sour epilogue (the now-hardened heroine tells an intern not to be nice in order to be successful) -- the result of Huang's own personal experience in Hollywood?

Columbia's DVD offers solid 1.85 and full-frame transfers, a solid 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, and a few, mostly-promotional extras (i.e. featurette).
 


CORKY ROMANO (**, 85 mins., 2001, PG-13; Touchstone, $26.98): A little of Chris Kattan's antics on Saturday Night Live tend to go a long way -- which is why just a few minutes of this hit-or-miss spoof should suffice for even the biggest fans of the SNL star. Kattan plays the title character, a dim-witted veterinarian's aide who has to infiltrate his mafia family's ranks to uncover an informant. It's a decent comedic premise, especially when you have ace supporting actors like Peter Falk, Fred Ward, and Richard Roundtree backing up Kattan, but most of CORKY ROMANO fails to amuse. It unsurprisingly plays like an over-extended SNL sketch that worked better as a trailer than a feature-length film. Touchstone's DVD features a strong 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, along with a promotional featurette and deleted scenes.


NEXT WEEK: Back to the present with SPY GAME, BLACK HAWK DOWN, and more on DVD! Plus your emails, sent direct to dursina@att.net. Have a better one!


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