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Aisle Seat Winter Blues

The Weekly DVD Pick of the Week, Mail Bag, and more!

By Andy Dursin

Will February ever come to an end?

The perennial dumping ground for bad movies continued last weekend with the horribly- reviewed THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE and GODS AND GENERALS, the latter a 3 hour, 45-minute "Gettysburg" prequel that somehow copped better reviews than Alan Parker's latest work, which was almost universally proclaimed as a pompous, preachy, contrived mess (yeah, I still want to see it for that very reason. It's the trash movie-goer in me, I admit it!).

March is at least looking a little more promising: THE HUNTED looks like it might possibly return William Friedkin to form, with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro in an action thriller that seems like a variation on everything from "First Blood" to "The Fugitive." DREAMCATCHER also looks promising, though it's been a while since Lawrence Kasdan hit the bullseye (ditto for William Goldman, whose last Stephen King adaptation, "Hearts in Atlantis," was -- well, let's just say it was pretty bad). John McTiernan, meanwhile, will try to hit his stride again with BASIC, a military thriller starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Connie Nielsen, who hasn't been seen a whole lot since "Gladiator" and "Mission to Mars." [Actually, Nielsen is in both "One Hour Photo" and the aforementioned "The Hunted"--SB]

Big DVD releases are also brewing on the horizon as well, and as always, the Aisle Seat will be here diligently to cover them all. In the interim, here are a few possibilities to cure your late-winter blues:


Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

MOSTLY MARTHA [Bella Martha] (***1/2, 106 mins., 2001, PG; Paramount; German with English subtitles): Hit German story of a chef who finds herself having to raise her young niece has already been swiped up by Lawrence Kasdan for an American remake.

Hopefully Kasdan won't lose the intimacy and perfect tone that writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck instilled in her wonderful, low-key film, which manages to be poignant and moving without becoming overly melodramatic.

Martha (Martina Gedeck) is a strong-willed, single woman who works as the head chef at a posh German restaurant. Her life is turned upside down when her sister dies in a car accident, causing the independent Martha to raise her young niece (Maxime Foerste) while continuing to live her workaholic life style. Things soon change, though, when the restaurant hires a charismatic Italian chef (Sergio Castellito) to work in the kitchen, in order to take some of the load off Martha.

There aren't a lot of fireworks in MOSTLY MARTHA -- no plot twists that come out of left field, no needless supporting players to detract from the film's central protagonists. Instead, what we have is a delightful character study that, however predictable it may be, proves to be increasingly endearing as it progresses.

The appealing performances of Gedeck, Foerste and Castellito are much of the reason for the film's success. All three create believable characters who behave rationally, as if they were real people, throughout the course of the story. One can sense that an American version may easily become heavy-handed or saccharine, but in MOSTLY MARTHA there's never a wrong note struck -- a credit to the cast and filmmakers. Paramount's DVD offers a perfect 1.85 transfer with yellow English subtitles set towards the bottom of the frame. If you aren't fluent in German, you may have a tough time keeping up with the subtitles at the beginning of the film, but it becomes less of an issue as the film progresses. The German 5.1 soundtrack is fine, sporting an engaging jazz score by Keith Jarrett, Arvo Part, and David Darling, with a sprinkling of Perry Como added for good measure.

MOSTLY MARTHA is an endearing character drama that comes highly recommended on disc. Chances are that the movie didn't play locally for many viewers, making this DVD a great opportunity to savor one of the most successful international films to hit American theaters in some time.


Also New on DVD

THE FOUR FEATHERS (**1/2, 130 mins., 2002, PG-13; Paramount): Director Shekhar Kapur's filming of the novel by A.E.W. Mason may have been a box-office disappointment, but this is a perfect example of a well-crafted -- if highly flawed -- spectacle that should find an audience on home video.

Heath Ledger gives a fine performance as Harry Faversham, the member of a British regiment assigned to fight in the Sudan in the 1880s. Yet, despite being a loyal friend to fellow soldier Wes Bentley and engaged to be married to Kate Hudson, Ledger finds himself questioning his decision to fight -- a decision that makes him a coward in the eyes of his four peers, who each give Ledger a feather as a sign of cowardice.

Ledger loses his friends and fiancee, but soon travels to the Sudan on a personal odyssey, accompanied by Abou Fatma, an African warrior (Djimon Hounsou from "Amistad"), who watches over the former soldier while he attempts to make amends and finds himself in the process of waging a huge battle with his regiment -- all of whom fail to recognize him.

Kapur ("Elizabeth") directed this sweeping epic, adapted by screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini from the Mason novel. In their aspirations, though, to draw parallels to the present day, the filmmakers almost completely obscure the point of the source material by making Faversham's decision not to fight into some kind of muddled "anti-war" statement -- err, something like that. Turns out that Faversham's rationale for not joining his allies is completely botched by the filmmakers, never being developed to the point where we understand the character's motivations one way or another. Is he making a statement about war in general? Is he just a coward? Is he more enlightened than his peers? Ultimately, Kapur and the writers give you so little to go on that it could be any or all of those things.

It turns out that there are a lot of moments like that in THE FOUR FEATHERS, a movie based on a classic story that never quite gels. At various points throughout the picture, important elements in the narrative are poorly developed or glossed over entirely (such as Hounsou's first meeting with the British soldier, and Ledger's later revelation to Bentley that he saved him in the desert). Kapur, in his commentary and in the DVD's fine supplemental features, seems quite pleased that he created an "enlightened" (i.e. Politically Correct) version of Mason's story -- and essentially played Monday Morning Quarterback with the political and religious viewpoints of the British Empire -- but all he ultimately did was clutter the film with multiple viewpoints that confuse the film's meaning.

That being said, the film is still a journey worth taking, if only for James Horner's excellent score and the fine performances by the cast. Despite being hindered by a thinly-drawn characterization, Ledger gives it his all in the lead role, while Hudson and Bentley are also acceptable in roles similarly plagued by simplistic writing. Hounsou, though, fares best in a role that the filmmakers seem most comfortable with.

Horner's score is undoubtedly a highlight. Kapur understandably boasts about how the soundtrack incorporates both Eastern and Western sensibilities, and it's one of the film's strongest accomplishments: bombastic at one moment, more introspective at the next. Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provided ethnic vocals to contrast -- and ultimately compliment -- Horner's work, which sounds tremendous in the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.

Visually, Paramount's DVD is perfectly framed at 2.35, but Robert Richardson's cinematography proves to be a letdown. Many of the sequences in the film seem needlessly dark, from the interior scenes set in England, to later scenes in the middle of the desert, where the brightness of the backgrounds play at odds with the faces of the characters. Richardson has done an outstanding (if sometimes overly self-conscious) job on past films by Oliver Stone and others, which makes the look of THE FOUR FEATHERS one of its most disappointing aspects.

Paramount's DVD offers a strong array of special features, grouped into various featurettes that together form one longer documentary. Interviews with the filmmakers are included, discussing their motivations to "update" the intent of the original story and draw parallels to the present day. Whether you agree or not with his decisions, Kapur is a talkative, fascinating director to listen to, and his commentary is likewise insightful. A brief discussion of the music is included, though Horner does not appear, leading one to believe that Kapur played a large hand in the construction of the score.

THE FOUR FEATHERS has a lot of problems, and yet the central plot of Mason's original novel still proves to be a compelling one. Liked a lot of flawed epics, there's a lot to like in the finished product, if you can manage to see through its drawbacks.


Andy Makes A Request

It's not often I do this, but I wanted to put out a request to all FSM readers for a copy of the expanded TV version of Michael Mann's THE KEEP.

Now, you may be wondering why I'm interested at all in Mann's botched filming of F. Scott Wilson's vampire novel. All I can say is that the movie has some sentimental value to me, being one of the first R-rated flicks I ever watched (albeit on home video).

The movie's theatrical version ends with an abrupt freeze-frame, but sometime in the late '80s or early '90s a syndicated TV version ran that kept the movie going with a far more satisfying conclusion, more effects, and a better resolution to the story.

If anyone has a copy of this TV cut, do drop me a line at dursina@att.net and I'm sure we can work something out!


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Michael Karoly:

Any word on ED WOOD, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, and what's the 'word on the street' about this new ALIEN box set? Do you have any inside info??? Thanks!!!
Michael, mum is the word on THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. As far as ED WOOD goes, there are Special Edition DVDs available outside the U.S., but nothing confirmed as to an American release, at least through mid-2003. The big, 9-disc ALIEN series box- set is going to be great -- we'll go through the details when they're confirmed and the set is closer to release.

One word of warning, though: the isolated, original Goldsmith score track from the 20th Anniversary ALIEN DVD was put together not long after the disaster with "The Mummy" DVD. Although nothing has been confirmed, it goes without saying that the inclusion of the Goldsmith score track in the new 9-DVD box set may NOT happen simply because of the composer's recent stance on isolated DVD scores (royalty issues, etc.) So, hang on to those original ALIEN DVDs until the new set is actually released.

From The Kaplans:

Your latest Aisle Seat column marks the third time you've called Howard Shore's THE TWO TOWERS "repetitive and/or overstated." We respect the opinions of others, but in this case you might take your own advice and stop being repetitive and overstated. =)
I thought I would be ironic and take the lead from Shore's score by being repetitive and overstated, guys. :)

From David Coscina:

Andy, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of SIGNS. It's a great film although I still believe UNBREAKABLE is a far more compelling work- it's just more metaphorical than Shyamalan's other offerings. IF you had ever been in a state of depression, you would understand how well Willis nailed that role. And I think that the story of UNBREAKABLE is a little more developed than SIGNS. Shyamalan could have used another revision in the third act of his recent fare as it has a slightly incredulous feel to it. Gibson's performance is better than average, but the revelation he undergoes seems a little contrived, possibly because of how quickly he changes his perspective. I think that there should have been more time dedicated to the family in the basement or the aliens' siege on the house. It would have helped give the climax, which I think is still one of the best I've seen in recent years, more dramatic weight.

Regardless of my minor quibbles, I think Shyamalan is one of the most exciting, intellectual directors out there and I anxiously look forward to his next film. More than anyone out there, he seems the most likely candidate to carry on the high standards of filmmaking set out by Spielberg and Hitchcock in the popular film arena.


NEXT TIME: Steven Seagal goes HALF PAST DEAD, Disney tries a youth love story with TUCK EVERLASTING, and SPY KIDS 2 tries to keep the formula going. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then! Have a good one.


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