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Aisle Seat New Year's Edition

Multiplex Round-Up from GANGS OF NEW YORK to THE TWO TOWERS
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 adpatation.

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 ceremony).

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 action scenes.

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 to debate.


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 more cliched.

"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 both.

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 Generation crew).

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 stories.

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 role.

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 mirrors.

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 noise.

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 titles.

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 of '85.

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 dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Have a better one!


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