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MOTHMAN Spooks, BLACK HAWK Soars

Andy reviews new flicks at the multiplex

Plus: PROPHECY Bears Down on DVD, and LEGEND News!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

While who knows what's going on with Universal's long-awaited Special Edition of Ridley Scott's LEGEND, Twentieth Century Fox will be releasing their own DVD over in Japan this March.

Details are sketchy, but according to CD Japan's website, Fox's DVD will feature the 94-minute cut of the movie, letterboxed with Dolby Digital sound. If you're wondering, this apparently will not be the "restored cut" of the film Scott reportedly completed for the American DVD (running 113 minutes), but rather the strangely-edited International cut that was released on laserdisc overseas, featuring a bastardized version of Jerry Goldsmih's score, augmented with temp-tracked material from "Psycho II." This edition also features alternate footage from the U.S. print and is quite intriguing on its own terms, even if it's far from the "definitive" presentation of the movie we're waiting for.

LEGEND has had a strange history in terms of its distribution. While Universal handled the release in the U.S. and various other territories, Fox was responsible for the movie and its distribution elsewhere. In no country, however, was there a truly "long cut" of the picture released -- it seems as if the movie was hacked down not just by Universal in North America but by Scott himself. The difference, however, is that some territories received the Tangerine Dream-scored version, while others received an alternate (though only slighter longer) version with Goldsmith's music.

In any event, the DVD is also supposed to be available in other European countries (including the Netherlands) in early March, and it may prove to be a worthwhile import if you've got a multi-region DVD player and can't wait for the long-delayed Universal Special Edition.

Speaking of mutli-region madness, I'll have a special "DVD Internationale" Aisle Seat in a few weeks with a primer on finding a multi-region DVD player (it's not hard; and if you have a DVD-ROM drive in your PC, it may take less than a minute to configure it for international settings!), plus the kind of DVDs out there that can you enjoy from around the rest of the world.

In the meantime, more titles have been trickling in, so here's a rundown of the latest and a look at new cinematic offerings. Remember to email any comments or questions and direct them to dursina@att.net


New in Theaters

THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (***1/2): Genre fans should run, not walk, to their local multiplex to check out this unnerving tale of the supernatural, based on actual events that occurred in West Virginia back in the '60s (as detailed in a bestselling non-fiction book by John A. Keel).

Richard Gere gives a strong performance as a reporter for the Washington Post whose wife (Debra Messing) is critically injured in a car crash. Before dying, she tells him that she saw a winged creature pass in front of the vehicle, causing her to lose control. Flash forward two years, and Gere improbably ends up in the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant, where most of the population are witnessing equally strange occurrences: strange figures standing in the yard, prank phone calls, and voices that inform some of the residents of tragedies that are about to befall.

What follows from there makes Gere question his sanity, as he searches for the truth about the "beings", while trying to end his grieving for the loss of his wife by entering into a relationship with town policewoman Laura Linney (in a subplot that must have been cut for pacing). Alan Bates appears briefly as a former Cornell professor who also heard whispers from the beyond and offers sage advice to Gere.

Director Mark Pellington showed some promise in his handling of the visually snazzy but overwrought thriller "Arlington Road" a couple of years ago, and here matches his considerable directorial skill with a compelling story that genre addicts are going to be talking about for some time. This isn't a movie about in-your-face shocks so much as it is a creepy picture with a sustained tone and atmosphere that will stay with you long after the final credits have rolled, with Richard Hatem's script raising possible explanations for the events but also creating vivid characterizations to compliment the spookiness.

With its pulsating soundtrack by Tomandandy, vivid cinematography by Fred Murphy, and a supremely memorable final sequence, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES is a suspenseful, nerve-wracking mystery that confirms Pellington as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. Those who find this kind of material ridiculous to begin with aren't likely to be entertained, but for anyone with a slight interest in a spine-tingling good time at the movies, this is one of the better January releases to come down the pike in a long, long while. (PG-13)


BLACK HAWK DOWN (****): 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 MacGregor.

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. (R)



Sci-Fi/Horror Thrills New on DVD

PROPHECY (1979, Paramount, $24.98): I sort-of recall watching "Prophecy" on network TV circa 1981 or so, and getting quite upset that Talia Shire's unborn baby could be a mutated, one-eyed monster -- the kind of thing you might expect from a tired six- year-old who probably shouldn't have been staying up to watch this movie to begin with!

Now that I'm old enough to fully appreciate this John Frankenheimer genre fiasco, I can honestly say that a) giant mutated bear movies are cool, and b) even though PROPHECY is far from a good movie, they really don't make silly horror films the way they used to back in the late '70s and early '80s.

Written by "Omen" scribe David Seltzer, PROPHECY attempts to seriously preach about the environment at the same time it serves up a monster-on-the-rampage epic a la "Jaws," except with a giant, bloody mutated bear wrecking havoc in the Maine woods instead of Bruce the Mechanical Shark.

Robert Foxworth stars as a righteous EPA employee who ventures up north to attempt to settle a land dispute between the local Native Americans (lead, inappropriately enough, by Armand Assante, of Irish-Italian descent) and the giant paper mill, run by Richard Dysart. They're cutting down trees, while the Indians continue to stammer and fall down -- not because of alcoholism, according to Assante, but because something in the water is contaminating the system.

Of course, that's not all: salmon are growing to shark-like proportions, while Foxworth and pregnant wife Talia Shire (top-billed in a thankless role she took while taking a break from the "Rocky" series) find a mutated baby bear that they attempt to bring back home to prove that mercury run-off from the paper bill is responsible for ruining the environment.

Unfortunately, after arguing over the legalities of population growth and the housing shortage worldwide, the 'lil mutant bites Shire in the neck as the group attempts to flee from the giant monster bear, which has already disposed of a family of campers (including a teenager who memorably attempts to escape in his sleeping bag).

PROPHECY has all the makings of a good "bad" movie, and unsurprisingly, it delivers: Seltzer's script enlightens about the plight of urban decay, over-population, and environmental contamination, while presenting decent arguments about the natives' concerns over the destruction of their land and the paper mill owner's arguments about how much paper Foxworth is going to take to write up his report (which is going to be quite a lot, judging from his continual ranting about the evils of having a child in today's world).

But after all of the build-up, what we have here is a very, very silly monster movie, with the man-in-the-suit bear running through the woods, ripping the heads off its victims in a fashion that still managed to attain a PG rating, and a hilarious ending where the monster destroys a log cabin situated in the middle of a lake. Fortunately, Assante's bow-and-arrow comes in quite handy, and there's a doozy of a final shot that will leave you in stitches -- all of it matched to an over-the-top, effective score by none other than Leonard Rosenman.

While PROPHECY has gained fame in everything from the "Golden Turkey Awards" to its distinction as being one of Frankenheimer's worst films, it's still compulsively watchable. The Panavision cinematography by Harry Stradling, Jr. is often breathtaking (at least the scenes that weren't shot on a backlot stage), and you get an educational tour of a real-life paper mill at work, that kind that would almost make PROPHECY a decent "Read More About It" book project for grade-school students.

While the movie is laugh-out-loud funny at certain spots, Frankenheimer still manages to make a scene where the characters hide in an underground tunnel from the giant bear creature quite unnerving and effective. Alas, scenes like that are few and far between, with the regulatory JAWS-inspired shocks comprising the rest of the action, and the director using herky-jerky camera work to draw attention away from the ridiculous- looking monster.

Paramount's 2.35 DVD looks spotless for the first two-thirds, with the location cinematography appearing gorgeous and not a blemish on the print in sight. For whatever reason, the final third is much grainier, though it's still certainly passable.

The sound is 2.0 Dolby Surround, and like a lot of early Dolby soundtracks, it has a tendency to bounce from the left to right channel to make its stereophonic presence known. It's not bad at all, with some surprisingly effective usage of the surrounds employed at various points.

There are no extras to be found on the DVD (not even a trailer), but we should be thankful PROPHECY found its way onto the format at all. Kudos to Paramount for unearthing a perfect candidate for "Guilty Pleasure of the Month" during the doldrums of winter.


EVOLUTION (Dreamworks, $26.98): Ivan Reitman's box-office flop sci-fi spoof wasn't one of the worst movies of 2001, and actually feels far more comfortable on the small-screen than it did in theaters.

David Duchovny here eschews his Mulder-esque heroics as a very Bill Murray- like teaching assistant at an Arizona Community College. Orlando Jones plays his sidekick, a professor who also doubles as the school's Division III women's volleyball coach (it sounds funnier than it plays).

After a meteorite crashes into the desert, Duchovny and Jones find that some extraterrestrial life has begun to develop around the artifact in its cavernous home -- first plants, worms, and vegetation, and later, a myriad of Phil Tippett-designed creatures that run the gamut from prehistoric, dinosaur-like winged monsters to critters that look like discarded designs from "The Flintstones."

While the cast seems to be having a good time, there are too many problems -- and not enough jokes -- in Reitman's film for the picture to work. Maybe it's because Don Jakoby's original script was written as a straight sci-fi thriller, changed through re-writes into a comic vehicle for Reitman by screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman ("The Family Man"). The resulting film has some laughs, mainly due to the actors' good will, but after reading up on Jakoby's script, it seems that the rewrites didn't alter the material enough to suit the needs of a spoof.

That said, EVOLUTION is still entertaining enough to work on the small screen, with expectations dialed down and many viewers' tastes being just a little less demanding.

Dreamworks' fine DVD offers a commentary with Reitman, Duchovny, Jones and co-star Seann William Scott, several deleted scenes (including a terrible alternate ending), storyboards, an FX featurette, plus an excellent 1.85 transfer and matching DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.


LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (Anchor Bay, $19.98)
DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (Anchor Bay, $19.98)

Anchor Bay's latest Hammer offerings spotlight a pair of efforts from the early '70s. LUST was the first of the semi-connected "Karenstein" series, featuring Yutte Stensgaard as the voluptuous reincarnation of female neckbiter Carmilla Karnstein, sucking the life out of her local townsfolk, and putting the moves on teacher Ralph Bates.

Bates is also the star of DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, which promises kinky thrills but is more often than not a bit on the dull side considering the possibilities. As the title implies, Bates' Jekyll is here transformed into nubile Martine Beswick, who provides the menace as she wrecks havoc on the unsuspecting London populace.

Although both offer decent T&A for those seeking that kind of thing, JEKYLL is a bit better made (directed by Roy Ward Baker) and a superior film, though LUST certainly has its share of admirers.
 
Both DVDs feature decent 1.85 transfers and mono soundtracks, plus an abundance of extras: audio commentary with the stars, moderated by Hammer expert Marcus Hearn, plus trailers, radio spots, and other goodies.


Also New on DVD

GLITTER (Columbia TriStar, $27.98): You know things are somehow amiss when Mariah Carey spends 2001 going into rehab, losing her recording deal, appearing in her self-produced box-office turkey "Glitter" -- and yet, somehow still manages to secure a gig performing at the Super Bowl this week!

Carey's apparent ability to bounce back from a low-point in her career is about the only positive one can gather from her recent output, with GLITTER itself an awkward, rarely convincing tale of a young singer struggling with her temperamental DJ boyfriend (an over-the-top Max Beesley) while rising to the top of the pop charts. To no one's surprise, the movie recycles every rise-to-stardom cliche you ever heard, plus those you might have forgotten: the troubled childhood with an alcoholic single mom, the best- friends who stand by her through it all, the record executives who have their own plans in mind, and the big ballad performance in front of a packed theater.

GLITTER may be unintentionally funny at times, but more often than not it's simply dull. Carey's lifeless performance takes no chances at all (during the first half of the film she has so little dialogue it's tough to justify her top billing), while director Vondie Curtis Hall tries valiantly to jazz up the action by using well-worn visual tricks like rapid motion to speed up DOA scenes. What's worse, even the pop-fluff music is pedestrian, failing to capture any of the catchy riffs Carey's early work offered for those who liked that kind of thing.

Although Twentieth Century Fox co-produced the film and released it theatrically, Columbia held video rights and their DVD is good-looking in its dual 2.35 and full-frame transfers. The 5.1 sound is predictably a bit on the bass-heavy side, while Curtis Hall contributes a commentary track for supplements (there are also two imminently forgettable music videos from the star diva).

Unlike PROPHECY, this is one of those "so bad it's bad" misfires, worth viewing only for the most devoted of Mariah fans.


DRUIDS (Columbia TriStar, $27.98): Christopher Lambert stars here as Vercingetorix (the movie's original title, at least until prospective U.S. buyers couldn't pronounce it), the great Druid warrior to leads his army against the villainous Roman Army in this "International Epic" -- a really a "Braveheart" wannabe -- with Max Von Sydow and Klaus Maria Brandauer (as Julius Ceasar) appearing in check-cashing performances.

Although DRUIDS aims somewhat high (at least with John Boorman collaborator Rospo Pallenberg co-authoring the script), its ambitions are fatally grounded in a stilted presentation with laughable dialogue and a truly awful music score by Pierre Charvet that mimics Hans Zimmer's "Gladiator" but comes off as a hack synthesizer rip-off. The widescreen images are also potent (shot in 2.35 scope), but most viewers aren't likely to give this Lambert straight-to-video epic any more of a chance than his other, even-worse small-screen efforts.

Columbia's DVD at least looks nice (2.35 and pan-and-scan transfers) and offers a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, though unfortunately there's no way to tune out Charvet's musical score, which detracts from the efforts of the filmmakers at seemingly every turn.


NEXT WEEK: RAT RACE, BEVERLY HILLS COP, and more new DVDs, plus BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF arrives in the U.S. on the big screen. Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. 'Nuff said!


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