Aisle Seat New Year's Edition
Multiplex Round-Up from GANGS OF NEW YORK to THE TWO
Plus: New DVDs including SIGNS and MGM Catalog Titles
By Andy Dursin
Happy New Year everyone, and welcome to what will be the seventh year
(is that even possible?) of rants here at The Aisle Seat! I trust everyone
had a happy and healthy holiday season, and managed to fight the crowds
long enough to see a few flicks over the break.
I did my part, catching "Gangs of New York" and "Chicago," not to mention
"Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," thankfully before all the kids broke
for Christmas vacation.
Though I liked the original, I profess that I wasn't the world's biggest
fan of "The Fellowship of the Ring," and THE TWO TOWERS (***), like
its predecessor, is a generally entertaining though a bit under-whelming
fantasy at the same time.
Since everyone knows the story by now, I'll spare you from a lengthy
plot summary. Suffice to say this sequel picks up right from the end of
the first picture and is comprised of big action scenes, sprawling battles,
and fascinating new creatures. Gollum is a tremendously articulated CGI
character, and Andy Serkis' "performance" gives this second part of Peter
Jackson's trilogy a boost of energy in all the scenes he appears. There
are some amazing moments here, marked by the climactic tussle at Helm's
Deep that will surely draw repeat viewing from action and FX enthusiasts
for years to come. I still don't understand how Liv Tyler nabbed herself
third billing on the credits (she's been in the first six hours of the
trilogy for a grand total of, what, 25 minutes?), but still, the movie
manages to deliver the goods most of the way.
I was entertained by the film on the level of an old-time fantasy adventure
(not unlike a technically proficient updating of an old Ray Harryhausen
Greek mythology flick), but problems still linger in Jackson's Tolkien
First, I know it's the "in" thing right now to praise Howard Shore's
"intellectual" score, but I quite honestly found his work here to be repetitive,
relentlessly bombastic, and ultimately tiresome.
Hardly a scene goes by in the movie without music, and even a friend
of mine -- who could care less about film scores -- commented to me that
he was worn out by the soundtrack, noting that "there was too much music
in it." It's a dense, deadly serious score with little variation in terms
of the overall tone of the music, needing a little more swashbuckling and
a bit less chorus for my taste. Again, I wasn't bowled over with his score
for the "Fellowship," but it worked far better in that picture than it
does here (I will refrain from elaborating upon the hideous, Bjork-like
"Gollum's Song," which I hope will NOT be performed at this year's Oscar
Secondly, Jackson's film doesn't know when to quit. The Helm's Deep
battle is impressive, all right, but after 30 minutes of it, I had seen
enough. In its own way, the small-scale and much lower-budgeted "Army of
Darkness" had a climactic battle sequence that was more fun to watch. Ditto
for John McTiernan's underrated "The 13th Warrior," with its crackling
Finally, Jackson and his screenwriters have moved around elements of
Tolkien's book, including what a friend of mine tells me is an unnecessary
extension to Frodo's run-in with the brother of Sean Bean's character from
the original -- resulting in a pointless trip to a burned-down city near
the end. There are also long stretches of the movie when the hobbits are
hardly in the film, with Jackson taking the safe route of concentrating
on Aragon's adventures instead of developing Frodo's internal struggle
with the Ring.
Don't get me wrong: "The Two Towers" is certainly an exciting piece
of escapist fare. Yet, I still am not convinced the success of these films
has so much to do with Jackson's "vision" as it does the inherent quality
and timelessness of Tolkien's classic text. It's the cool thing right now
to be into LOTR from a cultural standpoint, but whether or not this series
will stand the test of time cinematically as Tolkien's books have is open
A far different -- and more satisfying -- epic
is GANGS OF NEW YORK (****), which has received as many great reviews
from critics and audiences alike as it has mixed reactions.
For me, this Martin Scorsese epic does all the things a great historical
movie should: transport you to a time and place (1860s New York), convey
bits of actual information our school systems no longer teach children
(the drafting, rioting, and overall hideous treatment of immigrants from
Ireland and all over the world), and create memorable characters to frame
the action around.
In the latter category we have Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis,
both in sensational performances as a young man trying to avenge the murder
of his father, and the New York City mob leader whose corruption extends
through every facet of the fledging metropolis.
It seems to me that as many people are criticizing the movie for its
off-screen reputation (long delays, editorial re-cuts, arguments between
Scorsese and the Miramax executives) as for what the movie lacks on-screen.
True, there are times the three-hour picture seems to have been cut down
from something much longer, but overall, I was absolutely captivated by
the history, period settings, attention to detail, and rich performances
of the two leads. Day-Lewis deserves another Oscar for his work here, and
even Robbie Robertson's assembling of the soundtrack -- comprised of modern
pop-rock, ethnic music, and an unreleased Howard Shore concert piece --
works splendidly. After hearing this potpourri soundtrack, it's easy to
surmise that Elmer Bernstein's rejected original score would have been
"Gangs of New York" may have worked better as a true, four or five-hour
epic, but the end result is that rare three-hour film that goes by faster
than many movies that run half its length. It leaves you wanting more,
and it's my pick for the best film of 2002.
A close runner-up is CHICAGO (***1/2),
the long-awaited filming of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Broadway musical.
This faithful adaptation of its source has Renee Zellweger as a nightclub-wannabe
who's imprisoned for murdering her lover. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the
torch singer Zellweger emulates who's also on murderer's row in '30s Chicago,
while Richard Gere essays the high-priced attorney who ultimately represents
Director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon employ the device
of having most of the musical numbers originate from the minds of the various
characters -- a decision that results in some bare-bones production numbers
that are nevertheless faithfully reproduced from the stage version. You
may also get tired of the cross-cutting between the movie's "reality" and
fantasy sequences, but Marshall's direction is sure-handed most of the
way and the choreography (based on Bob Fosse's original staging) is vibrant.
The song adaptations, meanwhile, are excellent and the performances
right on the money: Zeta Jones is sensational while Zellweger proves to
be a pleasant surprise as the anti- heroine. John C. Reilly and Christine
Baranski shine in supporting roles. Only Gere seems a little out of his
element, with a singing voice that at times resembles Buddy Hackett (!),
but he does, to his credit, manage to pull off a few deft dancing moves.
Despite the "dark" subject matter, "Chicago" is a breezy blast of musical
entertainment with a memorable score and zesty song sequences. Anyone who
enjoys a good musical -- the kind they just don't make anymore -- is urged
to check it out.
Finally, I didn't get out to see STAR TREK:
NEMESIS, thinking I'd be able to catch up with it after the holidays.
Well, the poor reviews and tepid box-office have drove this critic to wait
for the video release -- a first for this life-long Star Trek fan (though
I will admit I'm a bigger fan of the original cast as opposed to the Next
Regardless of whether you thought the movie was good or not, the facts
are that Paramount once again did a lousy job marketing the film. For what
was supposed to be the final journey for the Next Generation crew, you'd
think they could have come up with a better advertising campaign and trailer
that just kind of sat there and said "hey, it's another Star Trek movie,
come see it."
It seems certain now that the big-screen adventures of Picard and Co.
are over, since "Nemesis" will likely go down as the lowest-grossing film
in the entire series (even without taking inflation into account).
That being said, I think it's time Paramount laid the franchise to rest
-- for a few years, anyway. There was a time when Star Trek's commercial
potential was un-tapped, but after four long-running TV series, two motion
picture franchises, and another spin-off currently on TV, I think it's
safe to say TREK has been over-exposed to the point where its success is
being diluted through too MANY shows and spin-offs.
The time has come for some fresh ideas, a new cast, and something developed
SPECIFICALLY for the big-screen. Whatever that may be, who knows -- but
the TNG movies didn't work nearly as well as the old films and it's undoubtedly
time for some new blood to be injected into a series that's crying out
for a hiatus.
New On DVD
Just out on disc is another one of my picks for best movie of 2002.
If nothing else, it also has the best film score of the past year -- and
that alone should be reason enough for another viewing.
The movie is M. Night Shyamalan's SIGNS (****, 106 mins., 2002,
PG-13; Buena Vista), which had to have been, in part, inspired by the farmhouse
sequence from George Pal's "War of the Worlds."
That it confirms the promise of Shyamalan as one of the most talented
cinematic storytellers today is somewhat of a surprise, since SIGNS shows
the filmmaker to have more than a few new tricks up his sleeve -- this
isn't another "Sixth Sense" with a huge twist ending. What it is is a science
fiction story from a uniquely human perspective, a highly entertaining
and sometimes thrilling work that more than makes amends for the plodding
misfire that was "Unbreakable."
In Shyamalan's script, aliens descend upon Earth, leaving symbols around
the globe and encircling major cities with ships hovering in the sky. Once
such sign is ingrained in the crops of Pennsylvania farmer -- and former
minister -- Mel Gibson, who lives with his young children and brother Joaquin
Phoenix. Gibson is battling his own demons -- a tragic personal loss and
loss of faith in general -- to say nothing of the spooky noises his family
hears on a baby monitor and the possible presence of extraterrestrial creatures
outside their home.
I wouldn't give any more of Shyamalan's plot away except to say that
SIGNS isn't a movie about cities collapsing and armies of creatures battling
with the military -- for that, watch Pal's seminal '50s classic. Rather,
it's an examination of a broken family trying to hold themselves together
and move on following a tragic loss, and having to do so in the face of
an unknown, possibly evil enemy.
Shyamalan's usual bag of tricks that served "The Sixth Sense" so well
but failed in "Unbreakable" are in evidence again, but have been tempered
with: Shyamalan again paces the film leisurely, frequently cutting away
from showing us TOO much at once, instead allowing suspense and anxiety
to build as the film progresses. The fantastic sound design again plays
a major role -- people creep around fields, footsteps on creaky stairs
and strange clicking sounds can be heard, standing out from the silence
contained in so many unnerving scenes in the picture.
However, in SIGNS Shyamalan has written a collection of characters with
far more warmth and emotion than the sleepy protagonist Bruce Willis played,
for example, in "Unbreakable." There are moments of sadness, tenderness,
and humor (I kid you not) in the film that makes the family far more identifiable
and believable than the sometimes- robotic characters in Shyamalan's previous
Of course, it helps that the cast is so strong: Gibson anchors the film
with a marvelous lead performance, complimented by Phoenix's equally fine
work as his younger brother. The work of the two children (Rory Culkin
and Abigail Breslin) is also terrific, with neither juvenile performer
offering the typical cute-kid cliché so prevalent in Hollywood today.
Also worth noting is the performance of Cherry Jones as the local cop that
also avoids the standard movie cliches inherent in that type of supporting
What makes SIGNS so entertaining is that Shyamalan's story works both
as a piece of sci-fi entertainment (not unlike a good, intimate "Twilight
Zone" episode) and a human story of rediscovering one's faith. The latter
element is convincingly discussed in a series of well-written scenes involving
Gibson and Phoenix, as well as a powerful and yet understated reconciliation
between the family during what might be their own "last supper." One of
the greatest accomplishments in Shyamalan's script is that the family's
problems are so great that the extraterrestrial backdrop seems secondary
to the grief that Gibson's character is going through -- something that
becomes evident as the resolution approaches and Shyamalan deftly wraps
up both storylines. The filmmaker understandably keeps the unknown beings
under wraps, but just when you think he's going to cheat us of ever seeing
what's running amok -- or go in a pseudo-mystical "Field of Dreams and
Aliens" direction -- SIGNS comes up with a sensational climax that's going
to surprise a few viewers who think the director is all about smoke and
SIGNS is part Val Lewton, part H.G. Wells, but the way in which the
characters relate to one another and the appearance of aliens from above
is distinctly Shyamalan, whose unique visual vocabulary and storytelling
makes SIGNS one of the best of 2002.
The film put up huge numbers around the world in terms of box-office,
but perhaps not surprisingly, the movie works even better on DVD. The film's
intimate nature and use of sound at key points suits the small screen perfectly,
where you also don't have the distraction of other theater-goers making
Buena Vista's single-disc "Vista Series" Special Edition offers a sensational
5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, which demands to be played at a high volume
so you can hear the wind sweeping through the rear channels. The 1.85 transfer,
though, turns out to be a bit disappointing: there is a distinct shimmering
noise around various objects, and also some grain, which leads one to believe
the compression on the disc wasn't the best. It's of course watchable,
but still a let down considering the high standards of most Buena Vista
A few brief deleted scenes (mostly under a minute, with one longer five-minute
deleted scene extension) are included, but the meat of the supplemental
material is comprised of several behind-the-scenes featurettes, most of
which are narrated by Shyamalan. (There's no theatrical trailer, however).
One of them is an extended, eight-minute conversation between Shyamalan
and composer James Newton Howard. They discuss their working relationship
and the director's conception of film music -- and how Howard has, at times,
to work around that. Recording session footage is also included in one
of the better soundtrack-themed segments I've seen on DVD in a while.
And finally, there's Newton Howard's score itself: alternately subtle
and powerful, brooding and emotional. The soundtrack remains my favorite
of the past year, and its usage in the film itself is every bit as exceptional.
Highly recommended -- the movie AND the score.
New DVDs From MGM
MGM has jumped into 2003 with a handful of releases comprised of both
recent and catalog favorites. Here's a rundown:
BARBERSHOP (**1/2, 102 minutes, 2002, PG-13): Ensemble comedy
about a Chicago barbershop turned into a surprise box-office hit last fall,
despite having been the center of a drummed-up "controversy" over some
comedic dialogue involving Rodney King, Jesse Jackson, and Rosa Parks.
Ice Cube leads a wacky assortment of types (including Sean Patrick Thomas,
singer Eve, and comedian Cedric the Entertainer) whose shop forms the gathering
place for the residents of an inner-city neighborhood. However, after Ice
decides to sell out, the entire future of the shop is thrown in doubt,
leading our protagonist to fully understand the nature of family and friendship.
Tim Story directed the Mark Brown-Don D.Scott-Marshall Todd screenplay,
which is ripe with laughs and amiable characters. The over-hyped controversy,
instigated by none other than the Rev. Jackson, ultimately helped the movie
gain viewers than hurt it, and it's hard to imagine any kind of video boycott
going on in regards to "Barbershop." This is a predictable and yet entertaining
character piece that should prove to be a hit with audiences on video.
MGM's DVD offers a fine 1.85 transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack, along
with a nice collection of extra features: four behind-the-scenes featurettes,
audio commentary and deleted scenes, a bevy of bloopers and outtakes, photo
gallery, an interactive "Barber School" game, and more.
THE CROCODILE HUNTER: COLLISION COURSE (*1/2,
89 minutes, 2002, PG): There have been some odd big-screen spin-offs of
popular TV novelties over the years, the last one being MGM's bizarre movie
starring cable host "Super Dave." While the antics of Animal Planet star
Steve Irwin would seem a more natural choice to exploit in the form of
a feature film, COLLISION COURSE plays like a warmed-over rehash of a Crocodile
Dundee sequel, minus the easy-going charm of someone like Paul Hogan.
In a strange, though understandable, choice, writer Holly Goldberg Sloan
and director John Stainton opted to make a movie where all the scenes involving
Irwin were shot in a TV-like aspect ratio, since the device dictates that
the Crocodile Hunter is making his TV program. The "movie," as such, goes
on around him, and the aspect ratio increases to 2.35 whenever the "plot"
kicks in. It's something, though, that viewers may find especially distracting
on DVD, since large chunks of the action go by with a tiny picture framed
on all four sides by black bars stuck in the center of your screen.
As far as COLLISION COURSE itself goes, there are some laughs scattered
about, but the excuse to get Irwin and his wife Terri wrapped up in a big-screen
caper (involving a crocodile that swallows a top-secret government device)
is awfully flimsy, and the scenes minus the couple are tediously written
and performed. Call it a rental for die-hard Irwin fans only.
MGM's DVD offers a Making Of documentary, deleted scenes introduced
by director Stainton, a photo gallery, featurette on the animals involved
in the filming, effects footage, and a Baha Men music video.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (***1/2, 111 mins.,
1993, PG): MGM's re-issue of the acclaimed 1993 Kenneth Branagh film should
prove to be a godsend for those who have tried to track down copies of
Columbia's discontinued 1997 DVD.
The movie itself needs little comment: Branagh's delightful Shakespeare
adaptation is light and romantic, wonderfully performed by an ensemble
cast comprised of Branagh, Emma Thompson (during the day when she was quite
appealing on-screen), Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves,
Robert Sean Leonard (whatever happened to*?) and a young Kate Beckinsale.
The film's gorgeous scenery and stirring Patrick Doyle score make this
one of Branagh's most satisfying pictures.
MGM's new DVD sports a 1.85 transfer (16:9 enhanced) that one-ups the
original Columbia TriStar DVD, which did look pretty darn good for an early-format
disc release. Supplements include a theatrical trailer and a promotional
featurette that are nice bonuses to have, though the real reason to own
MGM's disc is the improved transfer and, naturally, the movie itself, which
remains a thoroughly satisfying view each and every time.
THE WOMAN IN RED (***, 86 mins., 1984,
PG-13): Gene Wilder's last gasp at the box-office until he reunited with
Richard Pryor on a series of pedestrian (though financially successful)
late '80s comedies, this Americanization of a French farce remains a scattershot,
though generally entertaining, comedy.
Wilder plays a married businessman who runs into Kelly LeBrock (once
the big thing back in the mid '80s) in a fitfully funny sequence that mimics
Marilyn Monroe's memorable twirling dress in "The Seven Year Itch." From
there, Wilder takes to trying to cheat on his wife (Judith Ivey), while
getting an office co-worker (Gilda Radner) mixed up in the shenanigans
and Charles Grodin and Joseph Balogna look on.
There's an energy inherent in Wilder's madness here, with the actor
also writing and directing this somewhat bittersweet comedy. The performances
are all on-target, while John Morris contributes a typically breezy score.
However, most of the soundtrack consists of a terrific collection of original
Stevie Wonder songs, including the classic "I Just Called To Say I Love
You." Does it get any sweeter than that?
MGM's DVD offers 1.85 and full-frame transfers, both of which look exceptionally
good all things considered. The Dolby Surround soundtrack is also fine
and a theatrical trailer has been included.
SECRET ADMIRER (***, 98 minutes, 1985,
R): In the annals of wacky teen comedies from the '80s, this nutty romp
involving mistaken identities, secret crushes, and feuding parents ranks
with the best.
C. Thomas Howell stars as your typical high school student from 1985
-- in love with the pretty prom queen (Kelly Preston) and oblivious to
the fact that his equally cute best friend (Lori Laughlin) really has the
hots for him. The relationship between the three is stirred up by a letter
Howell receives from a secret admirer -- a letter which then passes into
the hands of his parental units, who, after reading it, believe they're
cheating on one another!
Fred Ward, Dee Wallace Stone, Leigh Taylor-Young, and Cliff DeYoung
essay the adults, and the scenes in which they play off one another are
priceless -- a nice contrast to the movie's more standard but nevertheless
likeable youth romance. The Jim Kouf-David Greenwalt script is unusually
smart for this kind of fare, and Greenwalt infuses the movie with a lot
of energy thanks to his direction. You also get a surprisingly adequate
electronic score by "Miami Vice" composer Jan Hammer, some bouncy '80s
rock 'n roll, and a memorable race-to-the-finish-line finale. What more
can I say? SECRET ADMIRER is a guilty pleasure, and it's a good one! C.
Thomas would never again be "The Man" so much as he was back in the summer
MGM's long-awaited (by me, anyway) DVD sports a terrific 1.85 transfer.
In comparison with the Image laserdisc, picture information is added to
the sides with only a minimum cropped out at the bottom -- in other words,
the 16:9 framing is far more comfortable and in keeping with the theatrical
exhibition (a full-frame version is also available). The Dolby Surround
stereo isn't out of this world, but it doesn't need to be, and the theatrical
trailer has been included as an extra.
MYSTERY DATE (***, 98 minutes, 1991, PG-13):
Yet another manic teen comedy, this Jr. league version of Martin Scorsese's
"After Hours" has echoes of "Risky Business" in it as well, but it's a
frantic blast of brainless entertainment just the same.
Ethan Hawke plays a boy-next-door whose new neighbor -- the very alluring
Teri Polo -- quickly turns into the object of his affections. With Hawke's
folks away, he makes his moves on Polo, only to find out the credit card
and goods his brother (Brian McNamara) purchased for him are associated
with a drug lord he ultimately becomes mistaken for.
Jonathan Wacks' direction and the Parker Bennett-Terry Runte script
are a cut above for this kind of film, offering some twists and turns one
usually doesn't find in the teen comedy genre. However, what sells the
movie is Hawke's appealing lead performance -- back before he turned his
back on "mainstream" cinema in an attempt to be "arty." Also notable are
the supporting performances of Fisher Stevens and B.D. Wong, plus the attractive
Polo, whose career never got a jump start until she recently appeared as
Ben Stiller's girlfriend in "Meet the Parents."
MGM's DVD offers matching 1.85 and full-frame transfers, both of which
do justice to Oliver Wood's solid cinematography. The Dolby Surround stereo
is fine, sporting an OK score by John DuPrez, and a trailer has been included
on the supplemental side.
MYSTERY DATE is an underrated comedy well worth taking a chance on,
now that MGM has properly rescued it from video obscurity on disc.
MUSIC FROM ANOTHER ROOM (**1/2, 105 mins.,
1997, PG-13): Little-seen romantic comedy features Jude Law in one of his
first starring performances as a regular Joe who believes he's destined
to marry a woman (Gretchen Mol) whose birth he assisted with, back when
he was her five-year-old neighbor! Mol, unsurprisingly, is set to be married
to someone else (Jon Tenney, currently starring on this season's 24), while
her eccentric sisters (Jennifer Tilley and Martha Plimpton) prove to be
possible alternatives for Law in his quest for fulfilling what he believes
to be a fate-ordained romance.
Charlie Peters (whose credits range from "Blame It On Rio" to bland
'90s Disney comedies like "Krippendorf's Tribe") wrote and directed this
wacky, contrived, though oddly watchable comedy, which barely got released
during the final days of Orion Pictures' existence. The movie isn't any
kind of classic, but there are some laughs and good performances to be
found here, which makes it a recommended view for romantics searching for
a new flick to check out as we near Valentine's Day.
MGM's DVD offers only a standard full-frame transfer and Dolby Stereo
soundtrack. Orion/Image's laserdisc from 1998 offered a 1.85 transfer,
but since I haven't seen it I can't compare the two transfers, except to
say that the DVD looks reasonably well composed. A theatrical trailer has
been included on the bonus side of things.
NEXT WEEK: THE BOURNE IDENTITY checks
in on DVD. Plus, your comments and more of the usual rants and ravings.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll
catch you then. Have a better one!