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A Haunting RING

Plus: STAR TREK III, Saturday Night Fever DVD Special Editions, and the Mail Bag on RED DRAGON -- again!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Genuinely creepy new horror films are tough to come by, which is why -- if you're looking to make a last-minute trip to the multiplex in honor of Halloween -- you should check out THE RING (***), the American remake of a hugely popular Japanese novel and film.

Now, for a couple of reasons, I had to admit my expectations for the film were low right from the start. First, it was directed by Gore Verbinski, a Dreamworks "in-house" director whose last misfire was "The Mexican." Second, it's a horror flick from Dreamworks, and the last time the studio released a genre film, we ended up with the heavily compromised "The Haunting," where Steven Spielberg himself apparently "helped" re-shoot the final third of the movie.

Despite those elements seemingly working against it, I was pleasantly surprised by the picture. THE RING manages to be genuinely spooky and highly entertaining, with a couple of chilling scares.

The plot, which follows the Japanese version fairly faithfully, features the premise that a video tape brings death to all those who view it within the span of seven days. Journalist Naomi Watts stumbles upon the tape after her niece's heart mysteriously stops beating, and sees a series of seemingly random images on the video, several of which involve a little girl. This forms the basis for a mystery that takes Watts to an island off the northwest coast, where a horse breeder and her husband had a daughter with unexplained, incredible powers.

Hideo Nakata's Japanese filming of Koji Suzuki's novel was a smash hit in its native country, and one of the few recent genre films to succeed primarily on the power of suggestion and minimalist scares -- not gore and violence. It was followed by the tepid "Ring 2" and a so-so prequel ("Ring 0"), none of which are available domestically but can be obtained as subtitled DVD imports from England.

The American remake, scripted by Ehren Kruger ("Scream 3"), drops the ball in a couple of places (most notably the subplot involving Watts' son, who apparently shares a physic connection with the girl that's never elaborated upon), and adds a couple of unnecessarily ghoulish-looking Rick Baker corpses, but otherwise adheres closely to its source material. THE RING is a movie that starts off slowly but picks up steam as its mystery unfolds, culminating in a doozy of a climax that's a little more Hollywood than the Japanese version, yet in some ways is more fun.

Throughout it all, Verbinski does an adept job at building and sustaining tension. The Pacific Northwest locales are vividly photographed by Bojan Bizelli, and if there's one area where the American RING is a marked improvement on its predecessor, it's in the film's stylish look and mood.

Complimenting the picture is a marvelous score by Hans Zimmer -- or at least, Zimmer and his stable of Media Ventures composers (three are listed with having written "Additional Music" in the end credits). I actually didn't know who scored the film going into it, and thought it may have been James Horner or James Newton Howard. To my surprise, the moody, Herrmann-like score was written by Zimmer, and THE RING is unquestionably one of the composer's finest works. If nothing else, it's one of the best genre soundtracks I've heard in a long while (hopefully the film's commercial success, and the score's recording in London, will result in a soundtrack album soon).

THE RING is slick and entertaining, with enough memorable sequences to keep you from turning on the TV late at night. With Halloween coming up in just a few days, it'll get you in the seasonal mood and keep you there for a while -- whether you like it or not! (PG-13)


New On DVD

The widespread success of "Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan" led Paramount suits to immediately put another sequel in motion. Of course, that film's door-so-wide-open epilogue wasn't exactly ambiguous -- director Nick Meyer's original ending had been "re-tooled" by the studio into a virtual advertisement for a third big-screen adventure.

With Leonard Nimoy taking over the directorial reigns, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK was put into production and released in June of 1984.

Immediately picking up where its predecessor left off, "Search For Spock" shows the Enterprise crew battered and torn from their battle with Khan, one that left the Enterprise in shambles and Spock dead (well, sort of). Soon, however, Dr. McCoy begins showing signs of a ghostly, post-traumatic stress disorder -- as in, speaking like Spock and telling Kirk that he's possibly still out there, somewhere.

Meanwhile, the Klingons -- lead by the ruthless Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) -- have learned of the Genesis Planet and quickly engage in a race against the clock to seize its power. Kirk and Co. commandeer the Enterprise against Starfleet's wishes, and take off not to stop the Klingons but rather try and find whatever of Spock remains on the quarantined planet.

Written by producer Harve Bennett, STAR TREK III (***, 105 mins., 1984, PG; Paramount) is the middle part of what turned into the only true story arc among all Star Trek cinematic adventures.

As such, it's the only film in the three-film trilogy that doesn't quite exist on its own merits: it bridges the gap between the more thrilling II and the rousing IV, advances the plot, and does so in an unremarkable but effective enough manner. It doesn't quite get a chance to breathe and is strictly workmanlike in execution (partially due to its multiple, claustrophobic sets), but it nevertheless gets the job done and has a particularly satisfying ending that paved the way for the lighter and more energetic "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."

Previously released on DVD in a movie-only edition, Paramount continues their revisiting of the Trek films here with a double-disc Collector's Edition of "The Search For Spock." Notice that this isn't a "Director's Cut" (like the Special Editions of TMP and Khan were), as the film is the same as the theatrical version and includes a 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack virtually identical to its earlier DVD release.

What have been added are a fine array of special features, most noticeably an informative group audio commentary from Nimoy, Bennett, Robin "Saavik" Curtis, and cinematographer Charles Correll. Nimoy is unsurprisingly candid and enlightening when talking about the film, particularly when he discusses how he talked Paramount executives into letting him direct the picture. Bennett explains his "task master" role in the series, Correll talks about the challenges involved with filming entirely on studio sets, and Curtis basically praises the cast for accepting her into the fold (while Curtis seems to be an extremely nice person, one still can't help but lament the absence of Kirstie Alley in the role here).

Also on the first disc is another text commentary from Michael and Denise Okuda, authors of "The Star Trek Encyclopedia," that runs as a subtitle caption throughout the movie. Someone at Paramount must have listened to criticisms of their previous text notes, since they move at a much more palatable, leisurely clip here (on "The Motion Picture" and "Wrath of Khan," the notes moved so quickly I developed a headache trying to read through all of them!). As with before, the Okudas have included all kinds of trivia and anecdotes, though in keeping with the movie itself, there aren't as many fascinating nuggets here as there are on the previous two pictures.

Disc Two houses a handful of featurettes, including a half-hour documentary ("Captain's Log") that sports interviews with Nimoy, Bennett, William Shatner, Curtis, and Christopher Lloyd among others. While this is pretty much another talking head featurette, at least it's not quite as dry as the one produced for "The Wrath of Khan," and Bennett doesn't stare right into the camera again.

Other, shorter featurettes touch upon ILM's special effects on the film ("Space Docks and Birds of Prey"), the Klingon language (with linguist Marc Okrand), costumes, and a technical account of NASA's own "Genesis Planet" terraforming (don't venture here unless you're a REAL sci-fi junkie!). Storyboards, photos, and the very brief theatrical trailer (which resembles a TV spot) round out the disc, though there's one other featurette housed as an "Easter Egg" on one of the menu screens that is well worth looking for (thanks to reader Bill Williams for the tip).

Overall, Paramount has delivered yet another quality Star Trek Special Edition with THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. While I've always been an admirer of the film, I doubt there are many Trekkies who feel this is the best of the series. It is what it is, and includes several strong scenes mixed in with a straightforward plot and stage-bound atmosphere.

With Nimoy having gained experience behind the lens, "Star Trek IV" would arrive two years later and prove to be an overwhelming commercial and critical hit -- one of the finest sequels ever made and the next to receive the Collector's Edition treatment come 2003.


Dancin', Groovin', and Reviewin': Paramount Musicals

Tony Manero is STILL, indeed, the man. Just watching John Travolta strut his stuff again as the Brooklyn dance king in John Badham's seminal '70s classic SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (***, 1977, 118 mins., R; Paramount) is enough to make you get off your couch and groove to the classic Bee Gees soundtrack one more time.

This slick, stylish, and memorable Robert Stigwood production was scripted by Norman Wexler from a New Yorker story about blue-collar Brooklyn residents who would take to the dance floors at their neighborhood discos each weekend.

Travolta's superstar-making performance as Tony -- an ordinary young guy trying to break out of his drab daytime existence and make something of himself after dark -- formed the heart of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, a slice-of-life drama with melodramatic and tragic passages, highly memorable lines, a few laughs, and a dash of romance sprinkled into the mix. Add in the chart-topping soundtrack, featuring "Stayin' Alive," "More Than A Woman," and "How Deep Is Your Love," and you had a smash hit that seemingly defined the fashion, dance, and mood of the moment.

Some 25 years later, disco may still be dead but SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is very much alive. If the film's then-contemporary look is dated, its story of small-time dreamers trying to make something of themselves -- and break beyond their barriers -- is just as timely now as it was then. Travolta's sensational, oft-quotable performance anchors the movie brilliantly -- as director John Badham mentions in his commentary track, Tony is in virtually every scene and it's a testament to Travolta's charisma that SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER holds itself together despite a wide-ranging and at times inconsistent tone.

Paramount has issued a Special Edition DVD of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER that offers several excellent supplementary features.

First off is a candid and informative commentary track from Badham. If you've ever seen Badham interviewed (or watched the PBS "Directors" series he hosted back in the mid '80s), you know he's a talkative and honest filmmaker who enjoys discussing his craft. His commentary here covers the bases of the film's production, and while it tends to be highly sporadic during the second hour of the picture, Badham nevertheless relays plenty of interesting stories about the movie's turbulent production, and singles out David Shire's original underscoring as being noteworthy for its early use of synthesizers.

He also, surprisingly, says that many of the film's "alternate takes" produced for the PG-rated TV version were SUPERIOR to many of their counterparts in the R-rated, original theatrical cut (Badham cites the actors' more relaxed demeanor as being more "real" in the secondary takes he shot).

Badham had shot the alternates to eliminate the profanity in the R-rated version, intending for them to be included in network TV broadcasts. However, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER proved to be so popular that the film was re-released in a shortened PG version in 1978, containing the alternate takes and footage, in an effort to gain younger viewers (it worked).

For those reasons, it would have been nice to have the PG version also available on DVD, but at least Paramount has rounded out the disc with several deleted scenes and a half-hour "VH-1 Behind The Music" documentary that's surprisingly candid.

Badham, Travolta, co-star Karen Gorney, and other principals were interviewed for this flashy 2001 episode of the popular cable series, and the special doesn't pull any punches in discussing the picture's troubled shoot. Original director John G. Avildsen ("Rocky") is interviewed about his firing from the picture, and there are clips from Avildsen's home movies of Travolta dancing during rehearsals.

Travolta also talks about how he re-cut his famous dance sequence in the editing room -- against Badham's wishes -- after a test version only showed him in close-ups, while Roger Ebert is on-hand to discuss his late colleague Gene Siskel's obsession with the film (Siskel shelled out quite a few bucks to buy Travolta's actual white suit in a charity auction!).

While this is obviously a VH-1 production and not a "scholarly" documentary, the information presented is quite compelling and far from the promotional fluff we often see in "Behind The Scenes" featurettes.

Paramount's DVD offers a vibrant 1.85 transfer and excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which easily surpasses all earlier video releases (including those VHS tapes that showed the boom microphone throughout Travolta and Gorney's final scene!). All in all, a highly recommended disc for a veritable staple of '70s cinema.

While John G. Avildsen had been fired from "Saturday Night Fever," he did ultimately take home the Oscar for "Rocky" and later handed over the reigns for a Tony Manero sequel to -- who else? -- Sylvester Stallone himself.

Stallone directed and co-wrote (with Norman Wexler) the belated SNF sequel STAYING ALIVE (**,  1983, 105 mins., PG, Paramount), which was fairly successful at the box-office and yet the subject of much critical derision upon its release.

Seeing the film again, it's not hard to see why. This overstuffed turkey came out during the same year as another ridiculous, MTV-influenced slice of pop culture -- FLASHDANCE (**1/2, 1983, 94 mins., R; Paramount) -- which has also, not coincidentally, been released on DVD by the same studio.

Both films share a few things in common: they're both incredibly silly, include several music video montages (in some ways 1983 marked the origins of the whole '80s music montage phenomenon), and have about as much depth as your average Coors Light commercial does nowadays.

That's not to say, however, that the two films aren't a whole lot of fun for different reasons.

STAYING ALIVE is a far cry from the gritty streets of "Saturday Night Fever." Travolta is back as Tony Manero, once again trying to make it big as a Broadway dancer but having to do so by starting out at the bottom. The script -- by original scribe Norman Wexler and co-writer/producer/director Sly Stallone -- is an utter mismash of show biz movie cliches, from Tony's faithful girlfriend (Cynthia Rhodes from "Runaway") to the obnoxious, bitchy queen (Finola Hughes) who uses and abuses Tony prior to her big show opening. And speaking of that, the absurd and over-inflated musical finale, "Satan's Alley," is indeed an all-time camp classic, complete with original songs by the Bee Gees and Frank Stallone.

Fortunately, it all goes down nice 'n easy on Paramount's no-frills DVD, featuring a solid 1.85 transfer and matching Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks. (Alas, it does not include the original trailer, which featured footage of Stallone directing Travolta, and I recall seeing as a kid prior to a screening of "Superman III").

FLASHDANCE, meanwhile, is just as silly but is nevertheless a far superior piece of cinematic art. OK, so maybe that's going a bit far, but certainly the movie was one of the few that could legitimately call itself a box-office smash AND commercial phenomenon at the time of its original release. Its simple rags-to-riches tale of an 18-year-old (Jennifer Beals) who welds by day and dances at night -- so she can make it as a legitimate ballet dancer -- is basically "Cinderella in Pittsburgh," complete with a knight in shining armor (Michael Nouri), who here happens to be the boss of the construction company she works at.

All you have to do is take a look at the individuals who made "Flashdance" to know what the movie is all about. It was directed by Adrian Lyne, produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, co-written by Joe Eszterhas, and scored by Giorgio Moroder (with "Sylvestor" Levay receiving credit for arranging and conducting Moroder's compositions). The soundtrack features plenty of classic '80s songs (including the Oscar-winning Irene Cara title track) and offers slick and satisfying entertainment so long as you aren't looking for much of a story.

Paramount's DVD again features a nice 1.85 transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1/2.0 soundtracks, though there aren't any extras to be found.

A year after "Flashdance" hit it big, Herbert Ross notched a success with FOOTLOOSE (**1/2, 1984, 107 mins., PG; Paramount), the Kevin Bacon turns-a-repressed-town-into-rock-n-rollers musical that also boasted a smash hit soundtrack.

Bacon plays a big city kid who moves to the sticks with his mom, only to find out that dancing in Hickville is strictly prohibited. Minister John Lithgow is among the moral majority leading the charge to ban dancing, only to find out his out-of-control daughter (Lori Singer, whose appeal I've never been able to figure out) is -- gasp -- no longer a virgin! Lithgow's rantings about the evils of rock & roll, drugs and drinking are really just a facade for a man still grieving over the loss of his own son in a car accident, so leave it to Bacon to strut his stuff -- and win them over -- thanks to a soundtrack filled with memorable Kenny Loggins and Deniece Williams tunes (including the classic "Let's Hear It For The Boy").

Granted, Dean Pitchford's script is wallowing in nearly as many cliches as "Staying Alive" and "Flashdance" combined, but at least there's a sincerity in the performances of Bacon and Lithgow, even though the minister's predictable turn towards the teenagers' sides is a little too quick in happening. Ross, meanwhile, does a terrific job directing the cast, which also includes Dianne Weist and Chris Penn.

Paramount's DVD doesn't offer any special features, but does contain a nice 1.85 transfer and 5.1/2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Fans may be clamoring for a Special Edition, but at least this no-frills disc should tide them over until then.


Also New From Paramount

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (***, 123 mins., 2002,  PG-13; Paramount): Ben Affleck's bland Jack Ryan notwithstanding, Phil Alden Robinson's slick Tom Clancy adaptation provides top-grade 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 re-launching of the Clancy franchise: a semi-prequel with a young Jack Ryan, yet set in the present day with its own set of characters. THE 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, and Liev Schrieber as a stealthy CIA operative. Schrieber's role and performance are so interesting, in fact, that they turn Affleck's cardboard hero into one of the film's weaker elements. Just like in "Pearl Harbor," the actor seems totally out of his element here, lacking the conviction and believability this kind of material demands. 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 a bit of a stretch.

That said, nearly everything else in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS reeks of class: Robinson's relatively subdued direction, the widescreen cinematography, solid performances by veteran character actors, and Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score among them (this is clearly one of the maestro's finest outings of late).

Director Robinson sets us up with a first half so strong and restrained, in fact, that it's unfortunate that the second portion of SUM OF ALL FEARS becomes saddled with a few 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. I also could have lived without the tepid scenes involving Ryan's girlfriend -- played by the bland Bridget Moynahan -- in a subplot that's neither romantic nor interesting in any regard.

Robinson, though, does deserve a lot of credit for a making a thought-provoking thriller that exhibits some intelligence at a time when too many action blockbusters have nothing on their minds at all.

Paramount's DVD offers a strong 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, along with a handful of extra features. Certainly on the audio and video side this is a terrific presentation, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise given Paramount's past DVDs in the Jack Ryan series (that old "Hunt For Red October" disc excepted).

First on the list are two audio commentaries, one by Robinson and Tom Clancy, and the other with Robinson and cinematographer John Lindley.

The Clancy-Robinson commentary is clearly the more revealing of the two, with the author -- who was sharply critical of the previous Ryan films with Harrison Ford -- talking about actual military and government strategies and how they would relate to the finished film. Robinson and Clancy also discuss the myriad of changes between the novel and the movie, making for a revealing discussion unlike most DVD commentaries we typically hear. The Lindley-Robinson track is more routine, discussing the picture on a technical level (i.e. how certain shots were achieved during production, etc.), but nevertheless will be of sufficient interest for fans.

Despite the fact that there's no trailer here, several featurettes are included, broken up into detailing the film's pre-production and casting, as well as the creation of the picture's visual effects. The former is more interesting than the latter, since it does delve into the major changes the project faced after Harrison Ford and Philip Noyce opted out of the series.

Good stuff, and a strongly recommended DVD.


Mail Bag

From Josh Gizelt:

Despite Brett Ratner's caveats to the contrary, I don't think that the new version of Red Dragon is any more accurate to the book than Manhunter.

In fact, in one particular area, it really comes up short, and that is in the portrayal of Francis Dollarhyde.  Don't get me wrong, Ralph Feinnes does a perfectly fine job in the role. However, he and Ratner followed the Jonathan Demme/Ted Levine model of making the killer a creepy monster.

While Tom Noonan's Dollarhyde could certainly be creepy, there was also an element encoded in his performance and the screenplay missing from the new version -- empathy.

Will makes it clear BEFORE his confrontation with Dollarhyde how badly he feels for the child that the killer once was. This is supported by Noonan's beautifully crafted performance. Interestingly, he also appeared more menacing when he had to, possibly because of the dichotomy he showed. Will also makes much clearer in Manhunter how important images are to Dollarhyde, which makes his involvement with Reba so much more moving.

Ralph Feinnes, in comparison, comes across as much more one-dimensional, which also hurts Emily Watson's otherwise fine performance as Reba -- her attraction to Dollarhyde is something of a mystery, while Manhunter, which actually went into more detail in that regard, it made sense. Joan Allen's performance was quite good, actually, and her character's adaptation is much better handled in Mann's film.

One scene that is better in Manhunter than in Red Dragon was Reba with the tiger; something that I have not seen anybody disagree with. There is something awesome and primal (and, yes, a little erotic) about the scene in Manhunter, while Red Dragon just seems to chronicle the event.

Of course, the restoration of the trip Dollarhyde takes to the Brooklyn Museum is an important one -- but unfortunately, the film never took the time to explain Dollarhyde's fixation on that work (sure, he has the tattoo, but the significance of "hearing" the dragon is never delved into). As a result, I find that the scene in the museum, while certainly important in the book, is incidental to Red Dragon the film.

These are just my opinions, of course. But I found Red Dragon to be just a little too easy, which the book is not supposed to be. While the events of the film may run closer to the book, when stripped of their meaning, they become pointless, and I think that Manhunter was closer to the intent of the novel.

Bruce P, all I can say is to each their own; while I agree elements of the film have dated (and much of it, obviously, falls more into the Michael Mann aesthetic of Miami Vice and Heat than what we have come to associate Hannibal Lector with) that should not, really, detract from one's perception of the film (can one really judge "King Kong" against today's standards?).

If there is anything that is central to the novel, it is that what made Francis Dollarhyde a monster would have made ANYONE into a monster.  Unfortunately, in the new version, all we see is the monster.  The purpose of Will Graham's role in the film, to get into the mind of the killer, is so barely glanced at in the finished product that it may as well not be there.


NEXT WEEK: Could it be that November is here already? That must mean the first holiday DVD of the season, as we review the Special Edition of THE SANTA CLAUSE (you can't wait, can you?) and much more! Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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