Con Air: Extended Edition
(Disney, 1997) D: Simon West, w/ Nicolas Cage, John Cusack. Rating: NNN
This is one of a trio of Jerry Bruckheimer movies re-released with additional footage (the others are Crimson Tide and Enemy Of The State), and it raises the question of whether we need longer versions of purely commercial thrillers whose prime virtues are speed and a resolute disdain for subtlety? As it turns out, we don't. All the good stuff was there in the original Con Air, and the additional seven minutes add nothing in the way of extra thrills. On the other hand, neither do they wreck the pace. The story is solid and straightforward: a gang of convicts hijack the plane transporting them to a new prison. Among them is Cage, a parolee hitching a ride. Only he can save the day.
The extra length does give us more dialogue here and there that allows quality actors to have fun playing the criminally insane. John Malkovich brings a quiet glee to his criminal mastermind, and Steve Buscemi is so good as a mass murderer that he suggests depravities you've never heard of even when he's sitting still doing nothing.
Con Air has no extras. Pity. It'd be fun listening to a competent Hollywood hack like Simon West strain to justify his personal vision on what is no more than enjoyable commercial entertainment.
Extras None. Wide-screen.
(Universal, 2005) D: Susan Stroman w/ Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick. Rating: NN
As a movie record of a broadway show, this is okay. We've got key cast members, lots of song-and-dance and big, gaudy sets. As a movie and a comedy in its own right, it's not so thrilling. Film isn't the stage, and shooting from the point of view of an imaginary live audience doesn't change that. Nor does having the actors perform at a live-theatre pitch, which, this being farce, means lots of yelling. And when actors deliver lines to the audience when the camera isn't in audience-POV position, the approach becomes downright distancing.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are competent and funny, but they don't really inhabit the madness. Rather, they seem a little tired. On the other hand, Gary Beach and Roger Bart are hilarious as a flamboyantly gay director and his "common-law assistant" roped into producer Max Bialystock's (Lane) scheme to get rich by mounting a dreadful play. They seem to have dropped in from another planet.
So do Uma Thurman as the naively sexy bombshell and Will Ferrell as the Nazi playwright.
Much of the funniest dialogue is from the 1968 original. But Mel Brooks's music and lyrics, despite occasional sharp moments, don't add a whole lot to the party. The peak, of course, is Springtime For Hitler, a howl from the chorus girls' costumes to Hitler's little happy dance.
The Zero Mostel-Gene Wilder original was wildly funny at 88 minutes. At 135 minutes, this version feels long and saggy.
Ample extras provide a good look into the making of a big-budget musical.
Extras Director commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, anatomy of a production number doc. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
The White Countess
(Sony, 2005) D: James Ivory w/ Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson. Rating: NN
Merchant/ivory does casablanca, and what a mistake that is. Double-bill both films and check out the similarities. It's all there: the romantic-loser hero, the fabulous bar, the city poised for invasion, the international men of mystery, even the exit papers that provide a key plot point. But where Michael Curtiz delivered a classic in a brisk 102 minutes, James Ivory's pedestrian romance lifts off in only a very few of its 136 interminable minutes.
His patented genteel approach - the films after his first big success, 1985's A Room With A View, convinced a whole generation that his upwardly middle-brow kitsch was high art - kills it. His dream nightclub is as sexy as a kindergarten dance class, and he keeps yanking us out of the story to admire the lovely photography and fine acting. There's lots of both.
Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson are good, but they seem to be in different movies. She's selling sympathy by the bucket. He's refusing to be sympathetic in favour of character acting, which makes it hard to see what she sees in him.
Richardson's contribution to the commentary is the highlight of the extras. She delicately queries Ivory on some of the film's more blatant problems, including his refusal to limit any scene to its plot function. He doesn't see it as a problem.
Extras Ivory, Richardson commentary, two making-of docs, very nice Ismail Merchant tribute. Wide-screen. English, French subtitles.
When A Stranger Calls
(Sony, 2006) D: Simon West, w/ Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan. Rating: N
It's customary when remaking a movie to remake the whole thing. But the big brains behind this little effort decided they could stretch the 1979 original's opening sequence into a full-length feature. They were wrong. That sequence involves a babysitter who keeps getting creepy phone calls that turn out to be coming from inside the house. At 14 minutes, it's a classic, and made the film a big hit with teenage girls. At 87 minutes, it's pure tedium. We wait and wait and wait for the big reveal that's already been given away on the back of the box.
While we're waiting, we watch star Camilla Belle, who's nothing special, get upstaged by the set - a spectacular California contemporary mansion, all wood and glass, with an atrium in the middle. It's unique and lovely, and West and his DOP have a wonderful time with composition and lighting. But that only distracts us from whatever terror they're trying to create.
Which is not much. This is a movie designed to thrill people who've never even heard of, let alone seen, a woman-in-peril flick. If you find someone like that, let me know. Meanwhile, listen to the commentaries for all manner of self-serving justifications for the extremely soft and repetitive scares. Writer Jake Wade Wall tells us he wanted to explore two specific terrors: isolation and being alone. And those would be different how?
Extras West and Belle commentary, Wall commentary, making-of doc, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, May 23
(Criterion, 1961) Restored, high-definition digital edition of Spanish surrealist master Luis Buñuel's classic.
(Alliance, 2005) A pre-op male-to-female transsexual goes looking for her teen son, now a street hustler. Star Felicity Huffman picked up an Oscar nomination.
Harlan County, U.S.A.
(Criterion, 1976) Award-winning documentary about a violent coalminers' strike in Kentucky.
Boston Legal, Season One
(Fox, 2004) Seventeen episodes of legal comedy from Ally McBeal creator David Kelley. With James Spader and William Shatner.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb