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Masterful MINORITY

Plus: PEARL HARBOR Director's Cut, BLACK HAWK DOWN on DVD

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Last year, Steven Spielberg polarized audiences with A.I., a dark futuristic vision that enthralled some movie-goers at the same time it put off the vast majority of others -- so much so that the film failed to become the critical or financial success it was intended to be.

A year after that disappointment, Spielberg is back with yet another futuristic vision -- MINORITY REPORT (****) -- and this time, the results are far more satisfying. True, this sci-fi picture is also gritty, dark, and cautionary, and does bear some resemblance to A.I. in its depiction of what mankind can do to benefit itself to the point of tampering with nature. However, it's clear from the opening frames that Spielberg is more at home with "Minority Report," with the director mixing different genres together while maintaining the strong characterizations and human emotions that have become staples of his work.

The result is a fully entertaining, intelligent, and human film that's equal parts mystery- thriller, chase picture, and sci-fi action flick all in one, boasting Tom Cruise's most modulated and effective performance to date.

In a future detailed by Philip K. Dick in his short story of the same name, murders are prevented by a "Pre-Crime" unit comprised of law enforcement officers and three psychic humanoids who provide details of precognitive crime scenes to them. Captain John Anderton (Cruise) is in charge of the localized D.C. unit, which is about to go national until a future murder targets Anderton himself, sending the divorced officer (still grieving over the loss of his young son) on the run from his team and authorities Colin Farrell and Max Von Sydow.

It would be a disservice to the Scott Frank-Jon Cohen script to give more away than that capsule plot description. Suffice to say, MINORITY REPORT has not only great special effects, amazing gadgets, and stunning visual sequences, but also a real, developed set of characters (superbly interpreted by a fine cast) and genuine human emotions that culminate in an unexpected climax. Spielberg has fun with a fantastic chase sequence through the busy futuristic streets of D.C. and a car manufacturing plant, but what's surprising about the film is how it ends not with a series of endless, overly elaborate special effects sequences (like "Episode II" or another adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, "Total Recall"), but rather on a subdued and fitting note that provides a conclusion to Cruise's crusade for justice -- not just for himself, but for a seemingly foolproof system that he finds prone to human error.

Farrell, Von Sydow, and Samantha Morton all lend excellent support to Cruise, whom Spielberg has dialed down to the point of delivering a fully believable and low-key performance from the actor. John Williams' excellent score flawlessly assists the picture as it moves from action to mystery and back again, offering a tip of the hat along the way to Hitchcock and other Dick adaptations like "Blade Runner," with Peter Stomare appearing as a crazy eye "surgeon" whose work Cruise needs to utilize in order to slide by his pursuers.

MINORITY REPORT does have some flaws (like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's often irritating use of diffused light), but it's a pleasure to see Spielberg back on his game again. This is a great summer-time movie, to be sure, but it's also an intelligent one with as much on its mind as the abundant thrills it serves up. Along the way, the morality of pre-crime itself is subtly underlined, offering a dilemma to the audience: is it worth risking our personal freedoms and -- possibly, the imprisonment of an innocent individual -- solely for the sake of preventing a crime that may or may not happen? It's something to think about after you've spent the better part of 145 minutes being entertained by a master most definitely back at the top of his form. (PG-13)


CD Corner

I've been meaning to give a few kudos to Robert Townson and Varese for re-activating the long-dormant CD Club and giving us recent treasures like JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO.

Georges Delerue's lovely score for that 1990 film has long been -- along with John Williams' wonderful score from HEARTBEEPS -- one of those titles I was hoping Varese would dust off whenever they decided to re-activate the CD Club.

Thanks to Townson, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO is now out there for all of us to hear, savor, and enjoy. It's one of Delerue's most lilting, romantic works, with a gorgeous main theme, one that sustains the light, fairy tale tone of the movie at every turn. In a few cases in the film, songs were substituted for score, but Townson has included the excised portions on the CD as well, resulting in a great-sounding, crisp album running just a mite over 50 minutes.

In many ways, it may be the strongest of the new Masters Film Music/CD Club releases. As much as I love Williams' HEARTBEEPS, the album is plagued by inferior, alternate takes (in comparison with its punchier film versions) and extremely inconsistent sound quality. THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is a highly recommended work to be sure, but as an album it doesn't hold together all that well due to the nature of the score itself -- namely, short cues and brief songs.

Not so with JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. Those of us who have been patiently waiting for this score have finally been rewarded by a presentation from someone who clearly loved this score as much as any of the film's ardent fans. Pick it up direct from Varese's site, or look for the mail-in form in the new FSM.

Before we shift into this week's new DVDs, here's one more recommendation for the next batch of CD Club releases: Bill Conti's VICTORY. A mix between "The Great Escape" and "Rocky," this is a tuneful, rousing work that's easily one of Conti's best scores, and it'd make a terrific addition alongside the CD Club's line of previously unreleased titles.


New On DVD

PEARL HARBOR: Director's Cut (***, 184 mins., 2001, R; Buena Vista, $29.98; Available July 2): We've reviewed both the original film and the initial DVD release), so I'll be holding commentary on PEARL HARBOR itself to a minimum since we've covered it twice previously at the Aisle Seat. Suffice to say, you're either one of those viewers who hates this film, or one of the (often silent) majority who helped make this critically lambasted yet profitable movie hit $200 million at the domestic box-office. Despite all of the film's flaws, 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.

Just in time for the Fourth of July, Disney is releasing an elaborate, four-disc Vista Series Special Edition of PEARL HARBOR, complete with a brand new, R-rated "Director's Cut" and hours of Special Features, touching upon every aspect of the production. Produced by the very same folks who gave us the phenomenal (and still reference- quality) Special Edition DVD of FIGHT CLUB, this is a superb package easily ranking among the best supplemental DVDs in recent memory.

First up is the new "Director's Cut" of the film itself. I would hesitate to call this a "re- imagining," or a major re-edit that changes the tone of the film, even to a slight degree. This is basically just the same cut as the theatrical version, with a handful of graphic shots of R-rated gore substituted during the film's battle and war hospital scenes. The running time is just a minute longer than the theatrical version, and as far as I could tell from scanning through the disc, there don't seem to be any major changes -- the lone scene addition being Alec Baldwin's Jimmy Doolittle talking to Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett prior to their raid on Japan.

Where the DVD truly stands out is in its exhaustive collection of Special Features, which starts out with a routine, 45-minute promotional documentary on disc two, and quickly moves into more interesting territory -- both from a historical and filmmaking standpoint -- on discs three and four. (There are misprints in the booklet about where some of these features are located. The promo documentary is on disc two, not three, while the supplement itself is divided into two portions, with Part Two on Disc Three, and Part One on Disc Four!).

Disc Three offers an elaborate look at the film's production. "Production Diary" includes vignettes chronicling the filming of the airfield attack, the use of the gimbal to simulate the U.S.S. Arizona's sinking; the battleship row aerial fly-over; Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s big scene as Dorrie Miller; the mechanics row sequences; the nurse strafing scene; and the dud bomb explosion. Another look is provided at the dive down to the real U.S.S. Arizona and the Doolittle raid. Each segment runs between 4-8 minutes and includes candid, behind-the-scenes footage of Bay at work, along with optional commentary by the director. As revealing as these featurettes are, however, "Boot Camp" is possibly the most fun you'll have on the disc. With this camcorder-produced featurette, you get to see stars Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett among others going through three days of modified basic training -- and getting chewed out in the process! A separate featurette chronicles Alec Baldwin's exploits in officer training camp, but sadly, it's not as much fun as seeing an actual drill sgt. whipping a bunch of actors into shape. There are also outtakes of the movie's Super 8 footage, along with the original teaser and trailer (featuring tracked music from the film and not the original "Thin Red Line" underscore).

Also on Disc Three are a pair of History Channel documentaries: "One Hour Over Toyko" and "Unsung Heroes Of Pearl Harbor," which will be of interest to history buffs, along with a brief, four-minute recollection of a nurse stationed at Pearl Harbor during the attack.

Disc Four gets into the nitty-gritty of the film's visual effects. An interactive look at the film's centerpiece -- the attack on Pearl Harbor itself -- is arguably the highlight of the entire disc, featuring four selectable angles displaying various stages of the scene's production. Commentary tracks by the storyboard artist, visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig, and separate music-only and sound effects tracks compliment the 27-minute sequence -- a great featurette that will prove to be the standout extra for many viewers.

Also on disc four, Bay and Brevig hook up for a closer inspection of the film's visual effects, which runs 21 minutes by itself but includes branching clips (on specific elements of the FX the two mention) that run an additional half-hour. The two are chatty and talk directly to the viewer, which should be of interest to casual viewers and FX buffs alike. A six-minute look at an animatic mock-up of the attack rounds out the visual effects featurettes.

A stills gallery and historical timeline round out the special features on disc four, featuring newsreel footage and plenty of background information on early relations between America and Japan, from 1853 through WWII. The presentation of the film itself is identical to the earlier DVD, with a flawless 2.35 transfer and matching, excellent 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. As before, there's also a "Dolby Headphone" mix for those watching the movie on their laptop PC.

New to this edition are three commentary tracks: one featuring Michael Bay and historian Jeanine Basinger; the other with cinematographer John Schwartzman, Nigel Phelps and Michael Kaplan; and the third with Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Josh Hartnett. Each one has its merits, though the Bay-Basinger commentary is the most interesting since it pertains specifically to the historical aspect and how closely Bay followed reality/deviated from it during filming.

Although I wasn't too impressed with Bay's R-rated re-cut of the film (I'd prefer the original version if I were seeing the film for the first time), the supplements are exemplary and well worth a look for die-hard movie buffs and fans of the film. And, if you own the first PEARL HARBOR DVD, Disney has sweetened the pot by including a $10 rebate form with the disc, making this a certainly affordable upgrade. Highly recommended!


BLACK HAWK DOWN (****, 144 mins., 2001; R; Columbia, $27.95): Ridley Scott's outstanding visualization of the harrowing, real-life 1993 U.S. mission in Somalia is a gut-wrenching, riveting film that puts most recent military cinematic pictures (including a certain, overrated Steven Spielberg Oscar-winner) to shame with its lack of speechifying, cliches, and sentimentality.

Screenwriter Ken Nolan adapted Scott Bowden's novel, and does something few recent pictures have accomplished in the military film genre: completely avoid the tendency to utilize one-note stereotypes in depicting the soldiers (i.e. the comical "crazy guy"), refrain from endless profanity, and simply concentrate on showing what happened when an American chopper went down in the midst of a mission to eliminate a tribal warlord. From then on, what began as a simple rescue mission becomes a nightmare for American soldiers, attempting to save their fellow men while trying to stay alive as militia and Somalian crowds seemingly lurk around every corner.

If BLACK HAWK DOWN feels more authentic than other recent military films, perhaps it's because the filmmakers dialed down their usual cinematic trademarks and concentrated solely on chronicling the tragic yet heroic real-life events.

Scott's visual style is remarkably restrained in terms of herky-jerky camera motion and blue-hued cinematography (a recent staple of the director), and for a Jerry Bruckheimer production, the movie is thankfully free of the typical slow-motion heroic shots that mark most of the producer's slick-looking output. About the only element of the film that feels overly familiar is Hans Zimmer's throbbing soundtrack, although it's certainly more effective here as musical wallpaper than in other recent efforts by the Media Ventures team.

The movie is straightforward and its effect undeniably powerful, filled with excellent performances by an ensemble cast, including Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Eric Bana, and Ewan McGregor.

BLACK HAWK DOWN has been criticized by some for lacking a "soul," but the movie achieves a stronger cumulative effect than a film like "Saving Private Ryan," for example, because it never succumbs to so many well-worn Hollywoodized pratfalls like heavy-handed messages, saccharine sentimentality, and an overwhelming need to explain itself. Actions speak louder than words in BLACK HAWK DOWN -- a movie that's not only one of Scott's best films but, for my money, last year's finest cinematic achievement. (Certainly, along with GOSFORD PARK, it's a far better movie than the film that ultimately won the Oscar, Ron Howard's saccharine and overrated A BEAUTIFUL MIND).

Columbia's DVD offers both a strong 2.40 transfer and excellent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack -- both on par with the studio's typically strong DVD efforts. The bad news: aside from a promotional featurette and the usual trailers/filmographies, the disc is light on supplemental material. The good news: a full-blown Special Edition has been confirmed by the studio for release this Fall. So, if you need to save some pennies, hold off for the deluxe disc, and give this one a rental spin.


BENEATH LOCH NESS (*, 2001, 96 mins., PG-13; Dimension, $29.98): A friend of mine over in England had been telling me about one of the worst bad movies in recent memory that had appeared on video in the UK: "Evil Beneath Loch Ness." This tale of a giant dinosaur-monster lurking about in the depths of the Loch sounded like a hoot, and now it has turned up in America with an abbreviated title but just as much hilarious fun for the seasoned bad movie buff out there.

From the opening moments of this disaster -- with the Loch looking suspiciously like a California lake as the unforgettable credit line "A Chuck Comisky Film" appears -- you know you're in for a good time. Brian Wimmer stars as a paleontologist who leads an expedition into the Loch; Lysette Anthony (with a very bad blonde dye job) is the girl who secures funding from her boss (an unbilled Robert Foxworth, who shot his one scene while working out and taking a shower); and Patrick Bergin chews the scenery in a hysterical role during the final 30 minutes, as a Quint-wannabe whose son was killed by the monster years before. So Bergin does exactly what you'd expect him to do: put on face paint and "Braveheart" garb and take on the beast eye-to-eye.

Even as direct-to-video movies go, BENEATH LOCH NESS is an utter disaster. The effects (you can't describe them as "special") include the same, cheap CGI shot of the monster replayed about a dozen or so times; the performances are all terrible and the script a mess. It's surprising that Dimension even opted to release this on video, but they'll manage to attract a few poor suckers just the same with their references to "Anaconda," "Lake Placid" and other, far, far superior underwater thrillers on the back cover.

Dimension's DVD offers a colorful 1.85 widescreen transfer and Digital Surround soundtrack. Alas, they left off the featurette from the British DVD, which my friend tells me divulged such facts like "the movie wasn't shot on the Loch, it was filmed in California!" Oh, wow -- we couldn't tell!


Aisle Seat Mail Bag: Star Wars Postscript

After seeing EPISODE II on opening day, I'm not at all surprised by the lack of interest in this disappointing second installment in the Star Wars saga. The film cooled off at the box-office both domestically and internationally, sustaining itself through the wallets of die-hard fans but failing to interest casual viewers the way the other films in George Lucas' series have. Along those same lines, here's another CLONES commentary from the Aisle Seat Mail Bag:

From Jeff Heise:

Andy, what did we do to deserve this?? All we have wanted since 1983 is some of the same fun, excitement and adventure that took us to a galaxy far, far away. What have we gotten? In the words of the immortal MAD magazine from the 50's: Feh!! Anakin becomes Darth Vader the supreme symbol of evil in the galaxy because of what happened to his mommy!? Talk about what Orson Welles once called "dollar book Freud!"

Hayden Christensen brings back fond memories of Klinton Spilsbury and Sam Jones (those of you who saw THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER & FLASH GORDON know of what I speak; if you haven't seen them, trust me, just talk to someone who has -- do not subject yourself to even more torture).

I haven't seen such bad spoiled brat acting since Jake Lloyd, and at least he had his character's age for an excuse.

Natalie Portman is a good actress, but even a good actress needs more than a cipher to play opposite her in a love scene. Ewan MacGregor tries to add a sense of weight to his performance, but there is no fire there. And where is the sense of fun-nowhere! In the earlier trilogy, the Han Solo character gave the stories a feeling of "it's only a movie," but here everything is an event. I just find it hard to believe that this flaccidly directed, sub-par written, high-school pageant-type acting bunch of films is what leads us to that other trilogy that enraptured us twenty-some years ago. If Lucas had started with PHANTOM MENACE, would anyone really be that interested in what happens next? If #3 is at this same quality or worse, it will make A NEW HOPE seem like a work by Shakespeare, which, unfortunately, it ain't.

I have a theory: Lucas is making these films deliberately godawful to prepare us for the "Stupendous, Colossal, Fantastic, Incredible, Absolutely Pretty Important Super-Special Editions" of #'s 4, 5 and 6 when they are reissued in 2006 to take the bad taste out of our mouths. Alternate theory: Lucas is making these films that should be tied to bombs and dropped on the Taliban as a way of saying to his loyal fan base: "You want where it all started!? Here it is-now leave me the f*** alone so I can count my money and plan the next reissue with footage that I never thought of until I realized my creative powers were totally gone!!"

Alternate-alternate theory: the George Lucas who is making these films is actually one of the geeks from BUFFY-THE VAMPIRE SLAYER come to life as a way of getting some really beautiful women to go out with them. I mean, we all know that none of them can write, direct and are only interested in surface appearances, so this could be true. In a way, if a final decision is made to green-light another Indiana Jones film, is there a way that Lucas could be disabled so as to only sign checks and leave everything else to Spielberg? At the rate these films are going, it's the only way to get me near a theater with his cachet on it.

Jeff, I couldn't agree with you more. I'll be there for INDIANA JONES AND THE LIBRARY OF ABANDONED PLOTS, but it's going to be because of Spielberg and the hopes that after all these years, they really HAVE found a worthwhile story. (Lucas and Spielberg have gone through every screenwriter from Jeb Stuart to Jeffrey Boam and back again over the years). But Harrison Ford's real-life girlfriend -- yes, Ally McBeal herself, Calista Flockhart -- playing the love interest? Paging Karen Allen, stat!


NEXT WEEK: An Independence Day special with GOSFORD PARK, SPY GAME, BUFFY SEASON 2, and more! Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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