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RELOADED For One Last TREK?

Andy returns to THE MATRIX and examines NEMESIS on DVD

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

The unofficial opening of the summer movie season gets earlier and earlier each year, and with it, so do the release of several blockbuster movies. The downside to the early arrival of hits is that there will be weeks with fewer big-name movies out there later on this season, when "X-Men 2" and "The Matrix Reloaded" will be closer in time to their inevitable DVD debuts than their original release dates.

Speaking of THE MATRIX RELOADED (***), the highly anticipated sequel from the Wachowski Brothers turns out to be a dizzying, frantic blast of sci-fi entertainment that's lots of fun to watch despite some glaring flaws that prevent it from being a classic.

The sequel dives right into the action as we find our heroes (Keanu Reeves' Neo, Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus, Carrie-Ann Moss' Trinity) heading to the subterranean city of Zion, where the last remnants of humanity are bearing down for one last confrontation with the machines. While there are those in the city who believe that collective might will be the only way to defeat the tyrannical machines, leader Anthony Zerbe believes Morpheus' claim that only Neo stands a chance of defeating the technology that enslaved them all and threatens to do so once again.

After an effects heavy opening, this second of two Matrix sequels grinds literally to a halt -- taking time out for a few sex scenes and an utterly bizarre bump-and-grind sequence between thousands of Zion inhabitants that feels just a little out of place here.

Once the talk and sex is out of the way, and our heroes head into the Matrix, RELOADED finally comes to life. Neo meets with the Oracle again and takes on Hugo Weaving's "bad cop" from the original -- not just one Weaving, but hundreds of them, in one of the film's two must-see, jaw dropping action scenes.

A brief encounter with a villainous program guarding the "keymaster" (not Rick Moranis, but a man who knows the location of the source program) enables us to get a glimpse of sexy Monica Bellucci, though her time in the movie comes and goes a little too quickly.

On the other hand, her scenes set up the sequel's most incredible and entertaining set piece -- a dizzying, preposterous and yet awesome car chase on a futuristic freeway that goes on for nearly 20 minutes of dazzling screen time. No matter what you think of the rest of the movie, this sequence alone more than justifies the price of admission.

Speaking of the rest of RELOADED, it's good but not great -- sort of the reaction I had to the first movie, which had a little too much exposition inbetween its memorable effects scenes. RELOADED, though, doesn't have enough of a story to sustain itself on that front -- the jumbled script raises the obvious religious parallels early on, but then drops them and any semblance of a coherent story as it moves into the Matrix. On the other hand, who cares? The movie looks and feels like the ultimate video game you've ever played. The non-effects scenes are just filler for the money sequences audiences will remember long after the movie is over.

Don Davis' score works tremendously well here -- it might be even better than the original -- and while the climactic cliffhanger is a dud (it follows through on a subplot that's barely alluded to), THE MATRIX RELOADED provides more unforgettable visual effects than anything you've seen since, well, its predecessor. It's a triumph of technology that hopefully will be followed by a worthier story in November's "Matrix Revolutions" finale. (R, 138 mins)


New on DVD

One of the most frustrating experiences as a movie buff is seeing a mildly entertaining movie that should have been a whole lot more than it actually was.

Such is the case with STAR TREK: NEMESIS (**1/2, 116 mins., 2002, PG-13; Paramount, on DVD today), the tenth Star Trek film and quite possibly the final cinematic journey in the series, at least for the foreseeable future. This latest cinematic entry in the franchise bombed at the box-office last December, gaining the dubious distinction of being the lowest-grossing Trek movie ever released in the process.

This came in spite of the fact that producer Rick Berman wanted this particular picture to be The Next Generation's version of "The Wrath of Khan": an accessible action film that would appeal to the masses, not just hard-core TNG fans. An "outsider" -- Stuart Baird -- was recruited to helm the picture, while "Gladiator" co-writer John Logan was tapped to provide the screenplay. Even the budget on "Nemesis" was higher than its immediate predecessors, with Paramount going the extra mile to supply the production with the necessary effects budget that a few previous films in the series lacked.

Certainly the film's story is an intriguing one. Immediately after the wedding of Riker and Troi, the Enterprise is sent to be an emissary for the Romulan Federation, claiming to subscribe to a newfound desire to establish peace in the galaxy. Of course, not all is what it seems to be -- especially not after the crew finds a duplicate of Data on an isolated planet's surface, then meets the diabolical Shinzon, leading the Romulan effort with his own agenda and secret past. Shinzon, as we eventually find out, is a clone of Captain Picard, and it's not peace that he's after but rather: universal Armageddon!!

"Nemesis" is a valiant attempt at making a Star Trek movie that you needn't be a Trekkie to fully appreciate. On paper, Logan's script does all the right things: establishes a basic, central conflict with a principal villain whose motives you clearly understand, gives the supporting characters something to do (not too easy, as we know from previous Trek movies), and plays off the strengths of Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, the cornerstones of the TNG series.

I can only imagine that Logan's story must have been a great read, but something went amiss on the way to the 23rd century. NEMESIS is flat when it ought to be thrilling, talky and dull when it should be energetic and interesting -- it's a movie that keeps teetering on the edge of being something MORE, but it never gets there.

Part of the problem is that, for a so-called "action" film, there's little excitement to be found in the first hour. Aside from a clumsy ground chase on ATVs, the movie is filled with talky exposition, establishing the political maneuverings of the Romulans and the origin of Shinzon, who spars with Picard in a series of conversations over his background and beliefs.

The problem is that these scenes never come close to approaching the dynamic interplay of, say, Kirk and Khan in "Star Trek II." Patrick Stewart is, of course, wonderful as Picard here, but newcomer Tom Hardy, playing Shinzon, doesn't prove to be his equal: his villainy is continuously cut down by the performer's leaden delivery and lack of screen charisma. One could sense another actor raising "Nemesis" to the dramatic level it needed to be at in order to be successful, but Hardy resembles Vin Diesel more than Stewart, and that's definitely not a good thing.

Part of the blame also has to go to director Stuart Baird. A terrific film editor who has gone on to direct several unremarkable action films ("U.S. Marshals," "Executive Decision"), Baird's lethargic pacing never feels right, and the action scenes are completely routine when they do occur. The long battle between the Enterprise and Shinzon's vessel is so bland that it's easily forgotten once the film is over, and the movie's "Khan"-like sacrifice of one of its main characters is so obvious in coming that it doesn't pack the emotional punch it should have had.

"Nemesis" is also an ugly film to look at. I'm not sure if it was cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball's idea to use a black and green color scheme, but the movie's drab look doesn't help matters any, either. Over-exposed lighting in the early auto chase is also an annoyance, though the movie is at least complimented by a decent score by Jerry Goldsmith, which plays better with the movie than it does as a soundtrack album.

So, then, is "Nemesis" the end of the line for Star Trek films? If it is, it's a disappointing way for the TNG cast to go out. The elements were in place here to make a slam-bang entry, if not a finale, in the series, but the movie's rather pedestrian execution proves to be a letdown. Still, the picture is watchable and an improvement on the last TNG film, anchored by another great performance by Patrick Stewart. For those reasons "Nemesis" is a recommended view for Trek fans, especially on DVD where it contains a plethora of special features.

Paramount's DVD offers a predictably great widescreen transfer, representing the film's 2.35 Panavision aspect ratio, and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack with bass effects that will make your shelves shake throughout.

Writer John Logan had mentioned that "Nemesis" was cut down by nearly 45 minutes on its way to the big screen, and some 20 minutes of cut footage are screened in the Deleted Scenes section. These range from an added epilogue to the movie, to a different introduction of Shinzon, and a nicely written early conversation between Picard and Data. Also worth viewing is another creepy scene between Troi and Shinzon, which further elaborates upon one of the final cut's most effective sequences. Fans will love to see these scenes and may be upset that they were cut, though again, I can imagine that they read better than played on-screen, where the pacing seems too leisurely.

Short featurettes, between 5-15 minutes each, examine the making of "Nemesis," featuring conversations with Stewart, Baird, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, and producer Rick Berman. They're mostly promotional in nature, discussing the "different, exciting, new" slant that Baird and particularly Logan were bringing to the project. Baird also contributes a commentary track, which is interesting though not especially critical of the film in any way (chances are that it was recorded before the movie was even released), and a photo gallery rounds out the disc. (If you're looking for the theatrical trailer, it's not here, but can be found on the Collector's Edition of "Star Trek III.")


Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week

RABBIT-PROOF FENCE. 94 mins., 2002, PG, Miramax. ANDY'S RATING: ***1/2. CAST: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil, Kenneth Branagh. COMPOSER: Peter Gabriel. SCRIPT: Christine Olsen from the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara. DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce.

Harrowing true story takes place in 1931 Australia, where Aboriginal children of mixed racial lines were taken by the government to be trained as servants or industrial workers. Here, three young girls -- Sampi, Sansbury, and Monaghan -- are taken from their mother and brought to a school to be made "fit" for white society (or at least fit for working in it), while government bureaucrat A.O. Neville (Branagh) looks on, believing he's doing the right thing -- however insanely misguided he was -- in tearing the children away from their family.

Christine Olsen scripted RABBIT-PROOF FENCE from a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, which documented the childhood experiences of her mother and aunts -- part of Australia's "Stolen Generation" -- as they escaped from the school and traveled some 1,500 miles home. The movie, directed by Phillip Noyce ("Dead Calm," "Patriot Games," "The Saint"), does a remarkable job capturing the atmosphere of the time and place, and documenting a policy that, shockingly, stood in effect until 1970! The film is poignant and powerful, with a strong visceral style and sound design -- augmented by a somber Peter Gabriel score -- enhancing the already potent narrative.

Miramax's DVD offers a strong 2.35 transfer and outstanding Dolby Digital soundtrack, along with an excellent group commentary with Noyce, Branagh, Olsen and Pilkington Garimara discussing the film. A documentary, "Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence," is likewise insightful and a must-view along with the film itself. Highly recommended.


AVENGING ANGELO. 98 mins., 2002, R, Coumbia TriStar/DEJ Productions. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Sylvester Stallone, Madeleine Stowe, Anthony Quinn, Raoul Bova. COMPOSER: Bill Conti. SCRIPT: Will Aldis and Steve Mackall. DIRECTOR: Martyn Burke.

The second of two Sylvester Stallone movies that went unreleased in North America, AVENGING ANGELO is a definite improvement on "Eye See You" [aka "D- Tox"], even if the DVD packaging misleadingly brands this offbeat mob comedy as just another mindless action flick.

Sly plays Frankie Delano, bodyguard to aging mob boss Angelo (Anthony Quinn, in his final film role). When Angelo is taken down in a hit, Sly is sent off to protect Angelo's daughter Jennifer (Madeleine Stowe), a bitchy, annoying woman unaware of her father's true identity and suffering through a failed marriage. Not only that, but she also reads far too many romance novels for her own good, and tends to escape from reality at any given chance. Naturally, Sly's wise protector has to endure her verbal wrath at the same time that the duo try to stay one step ahead of the bad guys, and a few romantic sparks begin to fly along the way.

Produced by former Franchise heads Elie Samaha and Andrew Stevens under their new Dante Entertainment banner, AVENGING ANGELO is a low-key and old- fashioned romantic comedy -- with a mob flavor, of course -- that's being sold on DVD as a typical Stallone vehicle. Overlook the disc's packaging, though, and you'll find a surprisingly whimsical movie that seems like it could have been made 20 or 30 years ago, anchored by the performances of the two stars (Sly is remarkably relaxed, while Stowe's beauty enables you to overlook the grating elements of her character). It's also great to see Quinn on-screen for the final time -- even with his failing health (he died just weeks after filming), the actor gives it his all. Be sure to watch the DVD's Making Of featurette for priceless footage of the star's final day on the set.

If the movie's wacky sensibilities aren't enough to entertain you, AVENGING ANGELO also boasts a marvelous score by Bill Conti that ranks as one of the composer's finest. The sprightly main title is complimented by a lyrical love theme and better-than- average pop tracks, adding immeasurably to the action.

Overall, AVENGING ANGELO is easily one of the best straight-to-video, would- be theatrical releases I've seen lately. If you can accept the movie's fairy tale premise, and get into the spirit of Martyn Burke's film, it may just catch you off-guard. Well worth a look.

Columbia TriStar's DVD contains a pair of theatrical trailers, Burke's audio commentary, an interview with writers Will Aldis and Steve Mackall, and the before- mentioned, 20-minute "Making Of" segment that's thankfully comprised of on-set footage without much in the way of fluffy PR narration.

Although the movie does contain a fine 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the DVD actually defaults to an unadvertised full-frame transfer in 2.0 stereo, so be sure to head into the "Set Up" menu before actually starting the movie.


Also New On DVD

FAMILY BUSINESS. 113 mins., 1989, R, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick, Rosana DeSoto. COMPOSER: Cy Coleman. SCRIPT: Vincent Patrick, based on his novel. DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet.

An interesting cast makes this uneven version of Vincent Patrick's novel worth watching, even if it's saddled with some mawkish moments and a bizarre, Broadway- style music score by Tony winner Cy Coleman.

Dustin Hoffman's reformed gangster has a young college graduate for a son (Matthew Broderick) but a mastermind ex-criminal (Sean Connery, believe it or not) for a father. Connery doesn't want to spend any more time in the big house, yet when Broderick comes calling with a request for another big heist, it's a chance for not only Connery to pull off one more deal, but also for Broderick to bond with his father, who has reservations about it all.

FAMILY BUSINESS was not a box-office hit, and was generally regarded as a major disappointment considering its high-powered star cast. Certainly Patrick's overly melodramatic script doesn't help, but Lumet's NYC location filming and the performances of the trio put it over the top, at least for fans of the actors. Connery is especially good, and his scenes with Hoffman create a rare opportunity to see the two together on-screen -- something that even, at least partially, overcomes what Leonard Maltin called "one of the most appalling film scores" of all-time. Cy Coleman's tuneful and yet severely misguided soundtrack is definitely an oddity, particularly with its main theme, which sounds like an overture to a Broadway show!

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers an excellent 1.85 transfer with Dolby Surround 2.0 audio. Both are in decent shape for a film from 1989, and bonus trailers round out the disc.

FAMILY BUSINESS may be a forgotten movie these days, but despite its obvious drawbacks, the film is worth seeing for the presence of Connery, Hoffman, and Broderick. They may not comprise a convincing set of characters, yet watching the three interact as actors is worth savoring for buffs -- offbeat soundtrack and all.


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From David Jeffrey Moraza:

Hello Andy,
I read [the Mail Bag entry] about seeing "The Reivers" 13 times. I can relate, because when I was about 11 or so, I saw 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" probably about 10-13 times myself. It was playing along with "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" for more weeks than I can remember at our one - theatre small town in California in 1969. I'd have rather have heard the score to 'The Reivers' more than I had to hear Bacharach's ('catchy') tunes. Regarding the August release of "The Haunting" , I can't wait. I have the letterboxed laserdisc of it, but find the transfer far too 'muddy'. Probably THE BEST ghost story on film with a knowing nod to 'The Innocents'. Any news on the release of 'The Innocents" on DVD from FOX.
David, THE INNOCENTS is one of my favorite supernatural films of all-time. I'm still hanging on to my laserdisc, but hopefully Fox will delve into their back catalogue for another round of Halloween releases of which this Jack Clayton classic would possibly be a part. Let's hope so, anyway!


NEXT TIME: TV on DVD is obviously the new big thing, but are the latest round of DVD box sets worth your time and money? Andy goes in search of CHEERS and CHARLIE'S ANGELS among others. Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. 'Nuff said!


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