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A good movie lurks BELOW

Plus: Andy reviews DAREDEVIL, ABANDON, SWIMFAN, and the Mail Bag!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Now that we're well into March, the doldrums of winter are finally beginning to wear off and the promise of spring lurks just days away (for those of us in the northeast, it's especially appreciated!).

At the movies, I finally caught up with DAREDEVIL (***) last week, and was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.

Sure, I had heard all about how Mark Steven Johnson's live-action film of the Marvel Comics hero was "edgy" and more "adult" than "Spider-Man" and other comic book films -- but as we all know, it's one thing to hype your movie as being different, and quite another to make a movie really as edgy as it claims to be.

The good news is that "Daredevil" is that movie -- a more adult comic book adventure that still manages to be faithful to its source. This is a stylish and highly entertaining flick that boasts crisp action scenes (with vibrant fight choreography by Hong Kong martial artists), solid character development (considering the material), and even some decent performances. Yes, believe it or not, I actually liked Ben Affleck in this role, with the actor playing blind lawyer/super-hero Matt Murdock as actually written in the comics, and not the smarmy, sarcastic guy that Affleck plays in virtually every film he's made. Of course, it helps that Jennifer Garner is easy on the eyes, and that Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan adequately portray those classic villains, Bullseye and the Kingpin, respectively.

Johnson does a superb job mixing action, comic book adventure, and developing the dark themes lurking under the surface to the degree where "Daredevil" ranks as one of the best movies of its kind. The film has certainly received mixed reaction from critics, half of whom seem simply tired out by all the super-hero films that have been made. True, maybe if you're adverse to these kinds of movies, you may want to bypass "Daredevil," but anyone looking for some slick entertainment and a good time is urged to give it a shot.

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

BELOW (***, 105 mins., 2002, R; Dimension/Buena Vista): A crew on an American sub during WWII rescues three survivors from a sunken British ship, only to find out that their own vessel is haunted while they attempt to flee from an enemy cruiser!

This smart, exciting ghost story/action thriller manages to deliver on its intriguing premise penned by Darren Aronofsky, Lucas Sussman, and director David Twohy. Perhaps it figures, then, that BELOW was cast off by its distributor and barely released, surfacing in a few late night screenings in various metropolitan venues before being sent to video. At a time when so many genre films are either gory or derivative (or both), BELOW offers a water-tight story with a few frights of the old-fashioned, "is something in the corner of my eye?" variety rarely seen these days (the movie's R rating notwithstanding), something that evidently lead Dimension Films to the conclusion that the movie wasn't commercially viable enough to promote.

The film doesn't offer an abundance of stars -- Bruce Greenwood ("13 Days") plays the sub's captain, Olivia Williams ("The Sixth Sense") is the lone female, while Matt Davis ("Legally Blonde") and Scott Foley ("Felicity") play crew members -- but Twohy's no-nonsense, effective direction plays off the claustrophobic trappings splendidly. The creaking sounds of the sub and the shadowy corridors are expertly shot by Ian Wilson, while the smart script manages to both play off well-worn sub movie cliches (especially in how a ghostly phonograph reveals the vessel's location while hiding from an enemy top-side) while crafting its own spooky tale of a haunting set beneath the depths of the sea. Twohy even manages to include a few doses of humor along the way, most notably in an amusing exchange between crew members offering theories to explain the predicament they find themselves in.

Dimension's DVD offers a strong 1.85 transfer and a terrific Dolby Digital soundtrack, which needs to be played at a high volume so you can feel every whisper, creek, and clank in the involving sound design. Graeme Revell's score is also effective without drawing attention to itself.

For supplements, Dimension has included an engaging commentary track with Twohy and a few members of the cast, plus three deleted scenes, one of which extends the film's ending (which feels a bit abbreviated in the theatrical cut). The movie's theatrical trailer and a 15-minute featurette round out a better-than-anticipated DVD package for a movie that deserved better in its theatrical run.

BELOW is one of those movies that we can be thankful that we have video for. Certainly one of the best genre films to come down the pike in a while, this is a taut and suspenseful movie that manages to deliver the requisite creeps and chills with a fair amount of class considering today's contemporary horror filmmaking. Well worth a look!

Recent Releases

SWIMFAN (**1/2, 85 mins., 2002, PG-13; Fox): Easily my candidate for Guilty Pleasure of the Month, this surprise box-office hit offers yet one more variation on the ages-old "Fatal Attraction" formula.

Jesse Bradford plays a high school student who has it all: a successful swimming career, a cute girlfriend ("Roswell"'s Shiri Appleby), and the prospects for a bright future. Unfortunately for Bradford, his life is quickly turned upside down when new student -- and sexy seductress -- Erika Christensen shows up. She's just one more screen villainess out to wreck the life of a poor innocent guy, and Bradford soon follows in the tradition of Michael Douglas and countless others before him, watching helplessly as Christensen manages to ruin everything Bradford has going for him. Fortunately, like Glenn Close before her, a little digging into Christensen's past assists Bradford as he tries to turn the tables on her.

SWIMFAN isn't great cinema. It's not great storytelling, nor is it a contender for the next 100 films to appear on the AFI List of the Best Movies Ever Made. But, SWIMFAN is an enjoyable enough B-movie for teenagers made palatable by the performances, particularly Christensen with her sleek and engaging turn as an attractive young woman who just happens to be insane. Director John Polson does a solid job crafting a visually satisfying programmer that looks great in 2.35 widescreen, ending the movie before the 90-minute mark so it doesn't wear out its welcome. Speaking of the finale, it's unusually abrupt (if you were in a theater, you'd ask the projectionist if he was missing the last reel), but apparently it could have been worse if the movie's scripted ending was included instead.

Fox's DVD offers a terrific visual presentation (in both 2.35 and full frame transfers), plus a throbbing Dolby Digital soundtrack offering a score by Louis Febre with "Music Themes" by John Debney. I remember a time back in the '90s when Debney would score films that had themes penned by A-list composers like James Newton Howard ("Liar, Liar" comes to mind), and I suppose it says something about the state of film scoring today that Debney has now graduated to composing themes for movies actually scored by someone else.

The DVD offers a chatty and fun commentary by Bradford, Christensen, and director Polson, who seems to be quite aware he's not making Shakespeare but a fun, fast thriller aimed at a young demographic. Some 10 deleted/alternate scenes are included, along with a promotional featurette.

If you're up for a trashy, entertaining teen flick with attractive young performers, SWIMFAN may just entertain if it hits you in the right mood.

ABANDON (*1/2, 98 mins., 2002, PG-13; Paramount): Katie Holmes strikes out in another attempt to shed her good-girl image from TV's "Dawson's Creek" in this unpleasant, interminable thriller notable only in that it was written and directed by "Traffic" Oscar winner Stephen Gaghan.

Holmes plays a graduating college senior who believes that her pompous ex- boyfriend (Charlie Hunnam) who mysteriously disappeared is back and stalking her around campus. Troubled cop Benjamin Bratt soon walks into the situation and finds Holmes and her friends (including star-to-be Zooey Deschanel) to be a group of self- absorbed losers who enjoy taking a few drugs in their spare time. Naturally, Bratt falls for Holmes even though we all know what really happened to Hunnam, whose relationship with Holmes is laid out in a seemingly endless series of flashbacks that attempt to convolute the relatively obvious story Gaghan concocted here.

ABANDON is interesting principally in that it's a relentlessly cold, dour film with a downbeat ending so showy that you get the feeling Gaghan wanted to be patted on the back for it. Unfortunately, despite the potentially intriguing premise, Gaghan's script is populated by boring, one-note characters you care nothing about, with countless subplots (like Bratt's alcoholism) that never pay off. You can also see where the movie is going miles ahead of all the characters, who rank as the most unpleasant seen in any teen film since "Gossip," the lamentable Kate Hudson bomb from a few years ago.

Gaghan's commentary, recorded with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, may prove to be of interest for film students since the director details the process of making his first feature film, but he comes off as pretentious in detailing how the "twist" ending of his script is more satisfying and complicated than other films like "The Sixth Sense" (sorry Stephen, but your movie is nowhere as satisfying as Shyamalan's work).

Paramount's fine DVD offers an atmospheric 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, containing a decent score by Clint Mansell. A handful of deleted/extended scenes are included, along with a Making Of featurette and the theatrical trailer.

I SPY (**, 97 mins., 2002, PG-13; Columbia TriStar): One of last year's more financially disappointing blockbusters, this in-name-only big-screen adaptation of the classic TV show illustrates once again that big talent and a franchise name amount to little without a good script.

Eddie Murphy plays a boxing superstar recruited by the US government to aid secret agent Owen Wilson on a top-secret mission: to recover a stolen plane taken by nefarious bad guy Malcom McDowell. Along with a sexy fellow operative (Famke Jenssen), the duo head overseas to Budapest where McDowell leads the mismatched odd couple on a series of chases filled with special effects.

Director Betty Thomas has made some choice comedic vehicles in her career as a filmmaker, including the sublime "Brady Bunch Movie" back in the mid '90s. This time out, though, Thomas seems as if she was an odd choice to handle I-SPY, a movie with as many action scenes and F/X as there are comedic passages.

The chemistry between Murphy and Wilson is amiable enough, but the trouble is that the script -- credited to four different writers, no less -- gives them little to work with. Often times, the vocal sparring between the two isn't funny at all, and while both performers seem to be having a decent time, there aren't any fireworks to come out of the "odd couple" pairing between the two. Thomas' direction at least moves the picture along (at 97 minutes, there's not a whole lot of padding), but again, she seems at odds with the picture whenever the film shifts from character interplay to the action scenes, which come off as particularly claustrophobic and unimpressive for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Columbia's DVD offers a sterling 1.85 transfer (a full-frame version is also available on the disc), plus a 5.1 soundtrack containing a workman-like score by Richard Gibbs. For extras, commentary with the filmmakers is included, along with four featurettes on different aspects of the production, with an accent on the technical side. I-SPY isn't a terrible film, just a bland and average one that might be worth a look mainly for die-hard Murphy and Wilson fans.

Video Premieres

SNIPER 2 (91 mins., 2002, R; Columbia TriStar): It's been ten years since the release of the original SNIPER, and while audiences haven't exactly been crying out for a sequel, the efficient and fairly entertaining direct-to-video follow-up SNIPER 2 should deliver the expected goods for action fans. Tom Berenger looks a little weary reprising his role as Sgt. Thomas Beckett, first seen leading a group of weekend war games in the deep south. The government, though, quickly comes a-callin' for Beckett to return to action, in an attempt to dispose of a ruthless Balkan general currently engaged in ethnic cleansing. Beckett is subsequently teamed up with your average death row inmate (Bokeem Woodbine) who needs to assist the top sniper or else be thrown back in his cell, but the mission turns out to be far more complicated than it initially seems.

My recollections of the original SNIPER, which was released in 1993, are pretty dim: I believe I rented the laserdisc and fell asleep sometime in the first 45 minutes. I do remember that the movie had some cool visual effects whenever a bullet would fly through the air -- a device absent from SNIPER 2, which seems to have been as influenced by "Enemy At the Gates" as much as its predecessor. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, and B-movie expert Craig R. Baxley ("Action Jackson") keeps the movie rolling along at a brisk pace, with some decent action scenes compensating for the often lazy performances. Overall, SNIPER 2 is nothing spectacular, but compared to most direct-to-video action films (especially the recent Steven Seagal offerings), this is a clearly superior effort for its type, and well worth it for fans of the original. Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a crisp 1.85 transfer (a workable full-frame version is also available), along with a 5.1 soundtrack featuring a decent score by Gary Chang. Supplements are limited to bonus trailers.

JUST A KISS (90 mins., 2002, R; Paramount): Last year, actor Fisher Stevens co- produced the teen hit "Swimfan" (see above), and made his directorial debut with the barely-released indie film JUST A KISS, which boasts a fine cast performing one of the most obnoxious scripts in recent memory. Patrick Breen's contemporary tale of relationships chronicles life among a group of a group of New York City thirtysomethings including an annoying TV commercial director (Ron Eldard), his annoying girlfriend (Kyra Sedgwick), his annoying actor-friend (Breen himself), his annoying, afflicted ballerina-girlfriend (Marley Shelton), and an annoying waitress (Marisa Tomei) obsessed with Breen's TV persona.

The inanity of the script, which veers from brainless comedy to melodrama and back again, is compounded by Stevens' baffling directorial style, one that continuously -- for no apparent reason -- segues into quick bursts of animation. If there was a point to this, or to any of the film, I seemed to have missed it. The cast, meanwhile, tries their hardest with the material, but outside of a confrontation between Breen and a midget who was vying for the part he snagged in a peanut butter commercial, there is precious little to recommend about JUST A KISS.

Paramount's DVD looks (in 1.85 widescreen) and sounds (2.0 stereo) fine. JUST A KISS seems to have been produced in some kind of digital video format, since the picture occasionally looks blurry and constantly glossy, as if it was filmed on something other than traditional film. It's just one more distraction that fails to pay off in a very odd movie that never goes anywhere.

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Dan Hobgood:

Hey Andy; enjoyed your column as usual. Regarding "Superman," I thought Lois and Clark--especially in the first season--was a superb re-creation/re-invention of the superhero tale. Dean Cain didn't look the part the way Chris Reeve did, but, at least thanks to the scripts, his portrayal was quite endearing [perhaps even just as endearing as Reeve's].
I've been saying it since last year's The Count of Monte Cristo: Jim Caviezel should play Superman in any potential upcoming film. As The Count, Caviezel was fantastic--and proved to me that he could play and look the part of "The Man of Steel."
It's a shame Chris Reeve couldn't be thirty forever, but I think Caviezel would be a worthy silver screen successor.
I've enjoyed the episodes of Smallville I've seen; I think filmmakers would be wise to follow its producers' lead and call any "Superman" movie something other than just "Superman." How about the hero's aforementioned nickname--Man of Steel?
Dan, in regards to whole SUPERMAN mess, reports have it that the casting is down to soap opera actor Matthew Bomer and Brendan Fraser, with Josh Hartnett having (wisely?) turned it down. I am not sure what to make of this project, which apparently lead producer Jon Peters and director Brett Ratner to come to blows last week over the casting situation. Here's a good idea: why not just call the whole thing off?

From Ron Fortier:

I really liked your dead-on review of THE FOUR FEATHERS. Having seen several older versions, including a made-for-TV telling, I was dissappointed in this big-budget remake for the reasons you stated. Was wondering if any of the older versions are available on DVD?
Ron, unfortunately no. The classic Alexander Korda version is available outside the U.S., but nothing domestically is available.

From Mark Hatfield:

I think I share your interest in THE KEEP, flawed movie that it is. I went crazy trying to find the score for years; then spent a truly ridiculous amount of money to get TD's Official Millennium Booster package a few years ago, just to have two relevant cues (one of them is from the sequence showing McKellan heading toward the Keep's entrance with the artifact, and the crosses lighting sickly green as he passes). Hell, I even went so far as to purchase a copy of the script on eBay! Some people's kids, I know, I know.

I'd like to ask you to please let me know if you ever do get this TV cut of the film. I remember at the time reading in trade magazines and genre publications like FANGORIA, CINEFANTASTIQUE, and STARLOG that the movie's special effects master died while the movie was in post-production. He was British, and in the old style of Master/Apprentice, had not shared all of his secrets, or passed along everything that he had planned to do. This caught them in a lurch (I remember reading specifically about some sequences that he had filmed for matting in front of black, rather than blue, screens). The FX they were left with were not deemed suitable for release at the time, and Paramount went ballistic after some poor test screenings, so they hacked the thing up & dumped it with little fanfare or promotion, on an unpromising opening weekend. I can't aver as to the truth of most of that as I was not there; but my memory is pretty good, and I DO remember having read all that at the time.

I was in the Army at the time, mostly overseas, and never did get to watch much TV during the 80's, so I never knew of an alternate cut of the film until you mentioned it. I am EXTREMELY curious, man, and would kill for a copy. In this era of Director's Cut Special Edition Razzmatazz DVD Release, I have often longed for someone at Paramount (I know: keep dreaming!) to give Mann the opportunity to put together a definitive edition -- maybe even throw in a little finishing money for digital FX. Hell, they're going to give us some sort of Vanity Special Edition of STAR TREK V! At the very least, they could make available one of the few horror films of that decade of Freddy and Jason that was aiming -- despite missing -- for Art.

Good points all, Mark. Paramount is doing a terrific job this year with back catalog releases (there's a whole slate of classic westerns due out in just a few weeks, for starters), so maybe it's not such a long shot. And indeed, hopefully they'll track down the original ending -- which WAS included in certain TV versions -- when the DVD is eventually released. Michael Mann has been involved in the DVD release of several of his movies, so if he still cares at all about THE KEEP, maybe it will happen.

NEXT WEEK: More reviews, news and your comments, which as always can be emailed off to Have a great one and see ya then!

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