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THE SWIMMER makes its way to DVD

Plus: Andy Reviews IDENTITY, Vintage DVD Reviews, and more!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

A couple of quick items to start off this week's Aisle Seat.

First, an ENNIO MORRICONE DOCUMENTARY is scheduled for DVD release in Japan. The $31 disc is listed from CD Japan as running 54 minutes and featuring interviews with several of Morricone's collaborators among others. If anyone has more info on this, please drop me a line.

Secondly, Jerry Goldsmith has collaborated with Michael Crichton on so many films -- even replacing Graeme Revell's score from THE 13TH WARRIOR -- that the news of Goldsmith's score from TIMELINE being rejected was a shock in many ways. Goldsmith has written some of his best scores for Crichton-produced/directed/written efforts, and even what many of us would rank on the lower end of that collaboration ("Congo," for example) are still superior to most efforts by anyone else working today.

On the other hand, a few of the composer's recent scores have been disappointing -- with THE LAST CASTLE, for one, ranking with his all-time worst in my opinion -- that perhaps Goldsmith is running out of gas after all these years.

With not one but two Goldsmith champions involved in the production of the film (Richard Donner being the director), you'd have to assume that something was up with Goldsmith's score being tossed, aside from the usual studio politics. However, if the movie itself has undergone Crichton's endless stream of post-production tinkering (THE 13TH WARRIOR's opening third was ridiculously abbreviated by the time it was released), there may be more wrong with TIMELINE than simply the score. We'll see.

New In Theaters

IDENTITY (**): Here's yet another thriller with a big twist that proves to be a predictable cinematic game (or sham, depending on how you look at it) instead of an actual drama with characters you care about.

John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and Amanda Peet are part of a group of stranded motorists who end up at a motel in the middle of nowhere on a dark, rainy night. Soon after, the various individuals assembled there begin to be picked off one by one by a killer who may just be one of them. Meanwhile, in a subplot that Might Just Have Something to Do With What's Going On (it couldn't be any more obvious), psychologist Alfred Molina tries to persuade a judge to place a stay on his deranged client's execution.

It's almost impossible to review IDENTITY -- a movie that thinks it's much smarter than it actually is -- without giving away a ton of spoilers, so I'll just say that most movie buffs will have unlocked the movie's puzzle after just a few minutes, and once you've figured it out, there's nothing left to sustain viewer interest. The direction by James Mangold is comprised of stock suspense movie cliches, with nothing remotely scary to make you jump out of your seat as the thinly-developed characters are offed one after another (not unless you count co-star Rebecca DeMornay's latest cosmetic surgery).

IDENTITY feels like the work of someone who recently sat through "The Sixth Sense," "The Cell," "A Beautiful Mind," "The Usual Suspects," and Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None." It's a hodgepodge of cliches without a voice of its own, capped by a laughable ending that's trumped by yet another ridiculous twist -- but, in hindsight, what more could you have expected from the writer of the JACK FROST franchise of direct- to-video horror movies? (R, 90 minutes).

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

THE SWIMMER (***1/2, 94 mins., 1968, PG; Columbia TriStar, available today): I was forced to read John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer" not once or twice, but three times between 7th grade and graduating from high school. While that may be somewhat of a damning indictment of my school (between that and the handful of Toni Morrison novels I was forced to endure, you can understand why kids today have no familiarity with classic literature), Cheever's story was an interesting read, and one that made for an equally fascinating 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster.

Regularly described as a story worthy of "The Twilight Zone," THE SWIMMER probes the fragmented psyche of a wealthy townie who swims from one pool to the next in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, gradually reliving his failed personal and professional life along the way. Lancaster stars as Ned Merrill, and gives a tremendous performance as a guy experiencing his past and re-experiencing his downfall, which is partially revealed in a series of mostly ambiguous run-ins with a series of neighbors. From teenager Janet Landgard to his former mistress (Janice Rule), it's clear something has happened to Ned's job and (possibly) family, and yet screenwriter Eleanor Perry does a remarkable job retaining enough of the mystery from Cheever's story so it's never completely explained. Lancaster, meanwhile, is superb in a demanding role that ranges from a sexist, cheating louse to a sympathetic loser who's fallen from grace. (Look also for Joan Rivers as a party guest Burt hits on late in the film!).
Shot on-location in Connecticut, THE SWIMMER apparently had a rocky post- production period, with an uncredited Sydney Pollack called in to re-shoot scenes involving Lancaster and Landgard as his family's ex-babysitter (Landgard replaced Perry's original choice for the role). Despite whatever problems there may have been, THE SWIMMER turned out to be a powerful film from the late '60s -- a vivid portrait of a man overly swept up in the fast lane of life, who receives his comeuppance as the picture progresses.
Columbia's DVD offers a generally excellent 1.85 (16:9 enhanced) transfer and clear monophonic soundtrack. The print appears to be in near-pristine condition, with the only glaring damage showing up around the 45 minute mark (when Lancaster runs into two of his naked neighbors). The soundtrack is in equally good shape, sporting a brilliant early score by Marvin Hamlisch that fortunately does not include an abundance of '60s period tracks. Special features are limited to the movie's overlong theatrical trailer, which attempts to spoon-feed the story to the audiences of the day -- which upon reflection, had to have been a little baffled by the picture.
THE SWIMMER is a potent and compelling film that has held up surprisingly well over the years. Its ambiguous look at a multi-dimensional man whom you hate one moment but empathize with the next is as valid as ever, and Columbia has preserved the film perfectly on DVD. (As a sidenote, there has been a terrific discussion of the movie on our Message Board)

Other New Vintage DVD Releases

WALK, DON'T RUN (***, 114 mins., 1966; Columbia TriStar, available today): Cary Grant plays a diplomat trying to find a room in a jam-packed Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics. Samantha Eggar is the young British woman who's looking for someone to live with, while Jim Hutton is the Olympic athlete who also needs a space.

With that, the gears are set in motion for a silly but fun piece of '60s fluff, a reworking of George Stevens' "The More the Merrier," best known for marking the final performance of Grant himself, who's relaxed and charming here as the matchmaker to Hutton and Eggar. The Sol Saks script takes its time getting going, coasting along on the performances of the stars, though in this case it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Shot in Panavision, the movie is appealing on a number of levels. Hutton and Eggar are both amiable in supporting roles, though the movie's Japanese location footage is what distinguishes it from the period's similar outings from Blake Edwards and others. Also notable is the terrific score by Quincy Jones, with a memorable, bouncy main theme that will have you whistling long after the film has ended. Columbia's DVD offers a fine, colorful 2.35 transfer that perfectly reproduces the movie's original aspect ratio, which is essential to enjoying the entertainment. The mono soundtrack is OK, and a theatrical trailer has been included on the extras side. Definitely well worth a spin for fans of '60s comedies or Grant devotees.

KING RAT (***, 133 mins., 1965; Columbia TriStar, available May 6): George Segal stars as a cynical American POW in a Japanese WWII camp, struggling to survive in this vivid Bryan Forbes adaptation of James Clavell's novel.

Marked by stark black-and-white photography and an atmospheric, effective score by John Barry, KING RAT is a gritty WWII film with Segal playing a guy doing anything to try and survive. In this situation, it means carving out his own niche as the head of the camp's black market, trying to remain a step ahead of his fellow prisoners by lying, cheating, and doing everything he can to better the horrific living conditions he finds himself in -- even at the cost of losing his humanity.

Forbes' film is marked by excellent performances from Segal, James Fox, Denholm Elliott, John Mills, and Tom Courtenay, all of which are complimented by a strong sense of time and place (the film's cinematography earned an Oscar nomination, as did the production design).

Columbia's DVD offers a crisp 1.85 transfer, enhanced for 16:9 TVs, plus bonus trailers. An uncompromising film -- with a similarly tough ending -- that's well worth a look.

New DVD Releases

DARKNESS FALLS (**1/2, 86 mins., 2003, PG-13; Columbia TriStar): The first ten minutes of "Darkness Falls" are so damn creepy that it almost makes up for the more routine 76 minutes that follow it (65 if you take out the end credits).

Comic book writer Joe Harris' story ruminates on what would happen if the Tooth Fairy were really a scarred, psychotic old ghost who shows up to take revenge on the children who live in a sleepy coastal town that unjustly took her life decades before.

It's a creepy idea that Harris turned into a short movie (regrettably not included on the DVD), and then soon after expanded into the re-titled DARKNESS FALLS, a stylish and fun B-flick that has its share of effective moments -- but none more than its first ten minutes, when a young boy has his first run-in with the Tooth Fairy.

Years later, Kyle (Chaney Kley) returns as a grown-up to help the young brother of his elementary school crush (BUFFY's ever-cute Emma Caulfield), who's now being similarly stalked by the Tooth Fairy, which can only attack in darkness AND if you look directly at her.

Shot in Australia by first-time director Jonathan Liebesman (aside from the two leads, you'll be able to pick out the Aussie accents pretty easily), DARKNESS FALLS falls a little flat after its tense, suspenseful opening. Characters are poorly developed, with a lot of back story apparently left on the cutting room floor. Still, what's there makes for an entertaining creature feature flick, far better than recent genre stabs like "Jeepers Creepers." Liebesman shows some promise behind the lens, Stan Winston's effects are quite good, and there's an inherent creepiness in the material as a whole that makes it compelling. Also impressive is Brian Tyler's score, which comes off really well given the genre and has more character than, say, your average Marco Beltrami effort.

Columbia's Special Edition DVD offers two engaging commentary tracks: one from the producers and filmmakers, the other with writers John Fasano and Joe Harris. The latter is especially interesting, as they discuss scenes and ideas that were dropped, and the move of Harris' story from short subject to feature film. They try not to ruffle too many feathers, though it's interesting that the most relevant excised scenes they discuss (an opening scene establishing the characters as kids, an addendum to the film's coda) are NOT included in the movie's Deleted Scenes section, which is mostly comprised of brief throwaways that were wisely dropped.

A better-than-average Making Of includes comments from the cast and crew, including composer Tyler, who is shown in recording session footage and is praised for being a young (early thirties) and up-and-coming talent (certainly his score is competent enough to justify those comments). Another featurette looks at the "legend" of the Tooth Fairy, in an apparent attempt to create a legend for the character a la the Blair Witch. The 2.40 transfer is dynamite, but even better is the DVD's 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. This is one of those phenomenally-designed soundtracks that takes full advantage of your surround system, with ghostly moans and whispers popping out of the rear speakers at every turn. Turn it up and enjoy the shudders.

DARKNESS FALLS is no "Poltergeist," but it definitely has its share of memorable moments and should provide sufficient entertainment for creature feature fans.

Short Takes

MOONLIGHT MILE (**1/2, 117 mins., 2002, PG-13; Touchstone): Brad Silberling's drama was loosely based on his own personal story of losing a loved one (in his case, the tragic murder of "My Sister Sam" sitcom star Rebecca Schaeffer) and moving on in the face of grief. MOONLIGHT MILE stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a young man who loses his fiancee, yet gains an adoptive family in her parents (Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon) following her accidental death. Situations are soon complicated when Gyllenhaal finds a new love (Ellen Pompeo). Silberling's intimate film is a showcase for Gyllenhaal, Sarandon, and Hoffman, and has numerous scenes of quiet emotional power. Mark Isham's score is markedly restrained as well, but somehow that ends up becoming part of the film's problem: it's a little too long and too restrained for its own good, with some cliched TV-like writing detracting from Siberling's good intentions. Touchstone's DVD offers a terrific 2.35 transfer, a pair of audio commentaries (one with Siberling and the actors, another one with Silbering alone that reflects on his own experience more intimately), plus deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette.

SASQUATCH (**, 86 mins., 2002, R; Columbia TriStar): Passable made-for-video creature feature is "based on a true story," if you can believe that a PREDATOR-like rehash could actually take place in reality. Lance Henriksen stars as a wealthy industrialist who leads a team into the woods of the Pacific Northwest to uncover what happened to one of his company's planes. There he finds the elusive Bigfoot, who apparently has seen enough of the Arnold Schwarzenegger/John McTiernan '87 monsterfest to know something about stealth and picking off naïve humans in a forest setting. There are few surprises to be found in this watchable B-movie, but at least the pacing is fairly slick and director Jonas Quastel handles the action in a manner superior to most Albert Band productions (by the way, whatever happened to Full Moon's endless barrage of "Dollman" and "Demonic Toys" sequels?). Columbia's DVD looks and sounds fine with a 1.85 transfer and bland score by Larry Seymour and Tal Bergman, with filmmaker commentary and the original trailer included for extras.

NEXT WEEK: Try and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, plus a quick peek at the Tom Clancy Special Edition DVD releases and more. Email me at and we'll catch you then!

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