Boredom of THE DEAD

Andy Reviews the New Remake
Plus: GOTHIKA, PANIC ROOM Special Edition, and SPLASH 25th Anniversary
An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Though I've long held a fondness for horror movies, the zombie genre has never been a particular favorite of mine. Unlike your average movie monster, vampire or werewolf, the zombie does little but feast on human flesh. He snorts, eats a limb or two, sucks on blood, then moves on looking for more. He has little to say -- if they ever staged "American Monster Idol," you'd have to think that the zombie would be quickly voted off by the viewing public in favor of other genre types.

I say this because I went into the new remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD fingers-crossed, hoping for more. The early reviews pegged this as an effective remake of George Romero's seminal '70s zombie classic, and clearly one of the better mainstream-received horror releases in recent memory.

Taking a page out of Danny Boyle's superior zombie thriller "28 Days Later," the zombies in "Dawn" 2004 move a whole lot faster than our walking undead friends of old: here, they run, leap, jump, and seem to be on the kinds of steroids that have been rumored to aid today's baseball players in taking annual runs at the single-season home run record.

Aside from that, however, these zombies are no different than any others we've seen. They still don't dance, sing, or pose any other kind of menace other than growling and eating flesh. And most of the human characters in director Zack Snyder's wildly over-praised remake (*1/2 of four) likewise have little else to offer: it's one thing to have one blatantly stereotypical White Trash character on-hand, but in this movie we have a whole slew of them -- plus a pregnant woman who gets nibbled on the arm just in time to give birth to the most unintentionally funny genre off-spring seen since the end of the third night of "V: The Final Battle."

Not that the new "Dawn" doesn't start out well. The first ten minutes are supremely effective, showing nurse Sarah Polley returning home to her husband one night and being properly awakened the next morning by the zombie incarnation of the little girl next door. Within seconds, Polley and the audience are thrown into a widespread zombie apocalypse, and her escape from the suburbs is a well-executed set-piece that keeps you glued to your seat.

Just like Romero's original, Polley and several other human survivors (including cop Ving Rhames and expectant father Mekhi Phifer) seek refuge in that towering pinnacle of American commercialism, the local mall. They hole up, hoping to wait it out, and ward off the advancing hordes of zombies congregating in the parking lot.

It's here, unfortunately, where the new "Dawn" deteriorates into a tedious, predictable, and ridiculous parade of cliches. It would have been fine if Snyder and writer James Gunn (of "Scooby-Doo" I & II infamy) stuck to Polley as the film's central character, yet they make the fatal choice of shifting the focus off her and adding an abundance of idiotic, weakly-drawn supporting characters -- truckers, a male chauvinist, and a dying dad played by Matt Frewer -- all complimented by some of the dumbest dialogue heard in any recent movie. In fact, there are so many characters that, when someone calls an individual by their first name, you have no idea who they're talking about since the movie hasn't bothered to develop any one person in the entire film (Frewer, for example, is in and out of the movie in about 90 seconds).

You don't care about any of the leads, and in place of building suspense and characterizations, Snyder throws in musical montages (always a desperate sign) and even a trip into the sewer where -- wouldn't you just know? -- the zombies chase after our rag-tag band of heroes. The most surprising thing about the remake isn't the gore but the predictability of the story and how few legitimate scares it generates, with Tyler Bates' score tipping off the audience to the anticipation of zombie-shocks and a hideous end credits coda hopefully putting the kibosh on future sequels (it's far more "Blair Witch"/"Ring"-like than it is Romero-esque).

To give credit where it's due, the movie does have a pair of effective sequences after its prologue: Rhames' relationship with a fellow survivor on the roof-top of a nearby building is nicely handled, while the concluding mall escape is reasonably well-crafted, though a bit heavy on the grainy cinematography and hand-held camerawork.

When the smoke is cleared and all the legs, arms, and other body parts devoured, though, "Dawn of the Dead" shapes up as a tired new version of a horror staple. I'm at a loss to explain why this film has received so many positive notices, especially when most genre films are shrugged off by mainstream critics as "just another horror show." Maybe I'm too old to find this kind of film scary or disturbing (indeed, with the movie's throbbing rock soundtrack, it seems as if viewers who weren't born when the original was released are its target audience), but for whatever reason, I ended up caring more about the movie's dog than any of its human leads ("as long as the dog is OK, I don't care if they all get eaten," carped my girlfriend). In the words of one fellow audience member, who couldn't contain his laughter when "the baby" is born, "this movie is [expletive deleted] ridiculous!" (102 mins., R).

New Releases on DVD

GOTHIKA (*1/2, 2003). 98 mins., R, Warner Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, music video, trailer; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Unpleasant, thoroughly routine supernatural thriller recycles "What Lies Beneath" -- minus the elegance of Robert Zemeckis's film -- and adds ample doses of seedy sexual content (a la "8MM") as it wastes a talented cast in a lurid plot.

Halle Berry must have been lured by the check and little else as she plays a Miranda Grey, a psychologist who ends up in a car accident on a dark and stormy night. After she wakes up, she finds out that she's been accused of murdering her husband (Charles S. Dutton) and haunted by the ghost of a young girl. And wouldn't you just know, the ghost is a tormented spirit trying to avenge her death and bring the culprits behind her murder to light?

If you've seen "What Lies Beneath" and "The Ring," there will be absolutely nothing in "Gothika" to sustain your interest. Mathieu Kassovitz directed the international hit "Crimson Rivers" and does a fairly good job early in the movie maintaining a creepy atmosphere, but it all goes to hell as the absurd script by Sebastiuan Gutierrez plays itself out. Berry has little to do but react to the predicament she finds herself in, while Robert Downey Jr. is wasted in an obvious red herring role and Penelope Cruz pops up as a female inmate in an under-developed part that doesn't really pay off.

It'd be one thing if "Gothika" was simply by-the-numbers, but it's also slimy and repellent, so much that the movie leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth. The circumstances of the girl's death (absurd and unpleasant) ultimately turn what was a competent formula piece into one of last year's worst movies. Hopefully, "Gothika" will put an end to the now-tired avenging-ghost genre until someone has something new to say.

Warner's DVD offers a strong 1.85 transfer that's well composed -- it's the ugly, claustrophobic cinematography that doesn't translate well to video. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is OK, and sports an unremarkable John Ottman score. Extras are limited to the trailer, a music video, and commentary from director Mathieu Kassovitz and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, both of whom are capable of far better than this movie.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (*1/2, 2003). 126 mins., R, Dreamworks, available this week. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Filmmaker commentary, Deleted Scenes, Behind the Scenes Featurette, 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Well-performed but laughably overwrought melodrama stars Jennifer Connelly as a woman evicted from her San Francisco house and Ben Kingsley as an Iranian refugee -- now a highway worker -- who purchases Connelly's home from the city.

Connelly and Kingsley give strong performances in Vadim Perelman's film, which is atmospherically shot by Roger Deakins and well-scored by James Horner. The script, though, by Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto (adapted from a novel by Andre Dubus III), becomes increasingly tragic and ultimately ascends to such levels of bathos that it's nearly as absurd as "Dawn of the Dead." How this movie nabbed a few critical kudos is a mystery to me -- its heavy-handed story of chasing after the American dream and the dark side of that vision sounds like another Dreamworks release, the similarly overpraised "American Beauty," yet it's far more overwrought and humorless than Sam Mendes' Oscar winner.

Dreamworks' DVD is out this week and sports commentary from Kingsley and Perelman, plus several deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette. The 1.85 transfer is fine (Deakins's cinematography is one of the best things about the movie), and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is decent for this kind of film.

CAMP (**1/2, 2003). 110 mins., PG-13, MGM. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted and extended scenes, Making Of featurette, live cast premiere performance, trailer, 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Todd Graff's cute though disjointed indie film profiles a group of students at Camp Ovation, a fictitious camp where -- in place of campfires, swim meets, and baseball games -- its members sing Sondheim, stage musicals, and get ready for their next life on Broadway.

Graff, who wrote, produced, and directed the movie, loosely based this personal project on his own experiences at a summer camp for theater geeks -- something that's in evidence in "Camp," a movie that has flashes of humor and a few excellent songs. It's just unfortunate that Graff's affection for the musical-theater isn't matched by his storytelling skills, which attempt to focus on three central individuals: a cross-dressing teen named Michael (Robin de Jesus), aspiring singer Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), and straight would-be teen heartthrob Vlad (Daniel Letterle), who arrives at Camp Ovation just in time to croon some tunes that have all the counselors in a daze.

Broadway vets Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens penned a pair of original songs for "Camp," and when the movie belts out into music the film works. The trouble is that there are a lot of dead spots in between tunes in the overlong 110-minute running time, and Graff's script -- which rambles on, switching from teen melodrama to stereotypical comedy and back again -- isn't strong enough to pull all of the threads together. Still, in spite of its flaws, "Camp" is worth a view for musical-theater aficionados, and MGM's DVD sports several special features including deleted/extended scenes, a Making Of featurette, a live performance by the cast at the movie's L.A. premiere, and the original trailer. The 1.85 transfer exhibits some unstable colors and minor artifacts at times (perhaps a result of the movie's low budget?), though the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack fares better.

Special Edition Re-Issues

Several films have been newly-reissued on DVD with extra special features, including a pair of Ron Howard Special Editions.

Howard's breakthrough smash hit, SPLASH (***, 1984, 110 mins., PG; Touchstone), has long been one of the enduring comedies of the '80s. Tom Hanks' performance as a guy who falls for a mermaid (Daryl Hannah) in present-day New York, John Candy's unlikely but amusing turn as his brother, and even Eugene Levy as a scientist hot on their heels all compliment each other in a movie that seems to have never left the cable airwaves. Certainly the images of Hannah in her mermaid suit, lying on the beach, are some of the most indelible of any film of the decade -- Hannah would never be as appealing or attractive on-screen as she was here, in a silly but sweet comedy that very nearly was never made.

The competition between "Splash" and a Warren Beatty-Hal Ashby mermaid project is one of the principal discussions in the new 20th Anniversary DVD, which features an excellent half-hour documentary and audio commentary track with the filmmakers. Despite the success of Howard's "Night Shift," he and Brian Grazer had a tough time shopping their mermaid project (due to the big names attached to the Beatty film), ultimately arriving at Disney, which had yet to launch its live-action renaissance via the Michael Eisner era. Despite a relatively modest budget, the studio agreed to finance Howard's comedy, and ultimately launched their "mature movie" Touchstone brand name with the film's debut (that said, I still had one friend in third grade whose parents walked him out of the movie when it was released back in '84).

Comments from Howard, Grazer, writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, Tom Hanks, Eugene Levy, Daryl Hannah, and the late John Candy all add up to a terrific program that also includes snippets of deleted scenes. There are also extensive audition tapes with Hanks and Hannah on-hand, which fans should find fascinating. The commentary, meanwhile, is just as much fun, sporting Howard, Grazer, and the screenwriters reflecting on their work on the movie, and its ultimate box-office success.

The new 1.85 transfer seems to be a marked improvement on the earlier DVD, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is just fine, featuring a lovely Lee Holdridge score (and that end credits ballad performed by Rita Coolidge).

Another Howard hit has been newly-reissued on DVD: the 1996 Mel Gibson thriller RANSOM (**1/2, 121 mins., R; Touchstone), albeit in a presentation that its fans may find to be quite disappointing.

Shortly after the film was released, Howard added footage to the movie for its laserdisc release. That cut of the movie ran over 140 minutes, and featured a number of additional sequences that added depth to the characterizations.

Not only does the DVD not contain the longer version of the movie, but only some five minutes of those excised scenes are included in the disc's supplemental features (this in spite of the DVD's claim that there are "extensive deleted scenes").

It's a let down that fans may find to be partially off-set by a solid commentary track with Howard talking about the film, a behind-the-scenes special sporting interviews with the cast and crew, another more promotional featurette, and one theatrical trailer.

Unfortunately, in what many will find to be inexcusable in this day and age, the DVD doesn't even include a 16:9 enhanced transfer, but rather the same, tepid non-anamorphic transfer used for the first DVD release (which itself wasn't very good). So, unless you're a die-hard fan of the film, you may want to hold off until a superior DVD trickles out one day.

Thankfully more satisfying is Columbia's long-awaited, three-disc Special Edition of David Fincher's entertaining PANIC ROOM (***, 112 mins., 2002; Columbia).

Fincher directed the formulaic but highly watchable thriller from a typical David Koepp script, meaning the story is filled with unbelievable moments and plot holes, yet is still well-crafted enough to work on a "popcorn movie" kind of level (which is exactly the term Fincher gives to the movie in his new commentary track). Jodie Foster gives a strong central performance, as does Forest Whitaker in a predictable role as a thief who isn't as ruthless as his associates. The scope cinematography of Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khonji is impressive, in keeping with the trademark darkness inherent in Fincher's past work. The result is a movie that's more conventional than the filmmaker's previous pictures (make no mistake, this is a studio film all the way), but shows that the director can make a superior piece of mainstream filmmaking, despite its unsurprising script.

Columbia's previous DVD was a straightforward "Superbit" title, meaning supplements were forgone in favor of a high-bit rate 2.35 transfer and equally potent DTS/Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Right from the time of the original DVD's release, however, we knew that a Special Edition would follow -- and now, two years later, it has finally arrived.

Though the DVD does not contain a Superbit transfer and DTS soundtrack, it adds a number of excellent supplementary features courtesy of producer David Prior.

Disc One sports three commentary tracks, all of which should be of interest for buffs. Fincher provides his own director's commentary and is soft-spoken and reserved about his work in one track, while a cast commentary includes Jodie Foster, Dwight Yoakam and Forest Whitaker. Foster is honest about her preparation for the picture (she took over Nicole Kidman's role just days before filming started), as are Yoakam and Whitaker discussing their work with Fincher. The third commentary offers David Koepp and "special guest" William Goldman discussing Koepp's script, and it's interesting to hear two screenwriters of different generations espousing their views on the nature of the traditional Hollywood screenplay.

Discs Two and Three offer generous featurettes on the production of the movie. The second disc sports Pre-Production and Production vignettes, taking you through the movie's pre-visualization, production design, storyboards, dailies and more -- a fascinating journey into Fincher's creative process, even though most of the interviews are with other members of the creative team. There's also a solid hour-long documentary on the shoot and interviews with make-up effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., while the Disc Three sports a myriad of featurettes on the movie's visual effects. There's also recording session footage with Howard Shore, spotlighting four tracks from his score, though I was disappointed that there weren't more angles available to choose from.

An examination of the Super 35 process and the sound design round out an excellent supplemental package, complimented by both a superb 2.35 transfer of the movie and an "all-new" 5.1 Dolby Digital mix (included, I presume, to take the place of the Superbit's DTS track). Like the better DVD documentaries we've seen, it's less promotional than it is enlightening and educational about the moviemaking process, making the two year wait for this set worth it. Well done!

New Release Capsules

BEYOND BORDERS (**1/2, 2003). 126 mins., R; Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by the director; hour-long "Behind the Lines" documentary; interview with the screenwriter; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Well-made, improbable but entertaining adventure serves partially as a two-hour ad for the Peace Corps. Not that there's anything wrong with that sentiment, since director Martin Campbell's film mixes the plight of humanitarian relief workers with a soap opera romance between Clive Owen's dashing doctor and Angelina Jolie's married American socialite. She becomes enraptured with Owen's work, and as the two trek around the globe helping impoverished peoples, they gradually fall for one another.

Despite its poor box-office showing, "Beyond Borders" is a classy production that deserved a better financial fate: the picture looks impressive (sporting excellent scope cinematography by Phil Meheux and production design by Wolf Kroeger), sounds appropriately evocative (cheers to James Horner for another superb score), and offers attractive leads who actually have a bit of chemistry with one another. Despite its old-fashioned love- against-the-wild backdrop, the movie manages to touch upon real issues without totally insulting the intelligence of the audience, and Campbell makes it all work with the panache he brought to "The Mask of Zorro." Paramount's DVD offers an excellent 2.35 Widescreen presentation, along with a terrific 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras are highlighted by an hour-long "Behind the Lines: The Making of 'Beyond Borders'" documentary (split into two segments), along with a featurette on the screenwriter and an informative running commentary by Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips.

If you're in the mood for a well-made, suitably old-school melodrama, "Beyond Borders" is well worth a view.

DREAMKEEPER (**1/2, 180 mins., 2003; Lions Gate): A free copy of the Varese Sarabande soundtrack CD is included with the DVD of "Dreamkeeper," the under-rated Hallmark Entertainment mini-series that sets out to accomplish for Native American folklore what Robert Halmi's mini-series of "The Odyssey," "Arabian Knights," and "Gulliver's Travels" did for other literature-to-TV fantasy adaptations. Writer John Fusco ("Young Guns," "Hidalgo") has fashioned a fascinating tapestry of American Indian tales, framed unfortunately by a weaker modern story involving a young man driving his grandfather (August Schnellenberg) to a pow-wow. The effects and cinematography are striking in this entertaining production, which ABC dumped onto the airwaves during last Christmas with little fanfare. The full-screen DVD transfer is excellent, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound spotlight's Stephen Warbeck's effective score, and supplements include a better-than-average Making Of featurette and director commentary from Steve Barron. The Varese CD is included at no extra charge, though the track listings are included on the inlay packaging, meaning you have to remove the DVD from its placeholder in order to read them.

THE MAGDALENE SISTERS (***, 120 mins., 2002, R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Filmmaker Peter Mullan based his acclaimed film on a 1997 British television documentary that profiled an unfortunate legacy left by the Catholic Church in Ireland: a "laundry" intended to "correct" the wayward ways of young women who wouldn't fit into the conformity of '60s society. Mullan's dramatization of the horrors and injustice of the Magdalene Laundries is a potent, powerful piece that's made all the more vital by the DVD's inclusion of the original UK TV program that brought these tragic events to light. The 1.85 transfer is a bit grainy (in keeping with the film's look) while Craig Armstrong's mournful score comes across adequately in 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

VAMPIRE EFFECT (**1/2, 88 mins., 2003, R; Columbia TriStar, available this week): Hong Kong blockbuster stars local pop-music icons Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi as a pair of young women who become vampire hunters, just in time to fight off an attempt by "The Fifth Prince of the Vampire Nation" to take over the world. This silly but engaging piece of fluff boasts an extended Jackie Chan cameo and several well-choreographed martial arts sequences, all of which help off-set the rather convoluted plot and tedium that sets in when the "story" kicks into gear. Still, HK aficionados should give it a look, and Columbia TriStar's DVD offers both Cantonese dialogue with English subtitles, as well as an English dubbed track in 5.1 Dolby Digital. The 1.85 transfer is very good, with the movie's colorful cinematography ably suiting the comic-book action.

Columbia Catalog Titles

JERSEY GIRL (**1/2, 96 mins., 1992, PG-13; Columbia TriStar, available this week): Not to be confused with Kevin Smith's "Jersey Girl" (or the forgotten Jill Schoelen "Jersey Girl" from the late '80s), this entertaining romantic comedy stars the woefully under-utilized Jami Gertz as a girl from the other side of the river who longs for a New York knight in shining armor. He eventually appears in the form of Dylan McDermott, who literally crashes into Gertz and seems to be the exact opposite of her no-nonsense, down-to-earth persona. Still, this is a genre piece, and Gina Wendkos' script brings the opposites together, with inevitable complications ensuing from Gertz's Jersey-girlfriends and McDermott's high-pressure job and on-again, off-again relationship with art gallery owner Sheryl Lee. This is a cute piece of escapism, with Gertz's engaging performance carrying the day -- it's just unfortunate that the movie's drab soundtrack, including a nondescript score by Misha Segal, detracts from the fun. Columbia's DVD offers a standard full-screen transfer that's framed just fine, along with a Dolby Surround soundtrack and trailers for other Columbia catalog titles.

MAC (**1/2, 118 mins., 1993, R; Columbia TriStar): John Turturro's moving paean to his father is a somewhat disjointed film that nevertheless has its heart in the right place. Turturro plays a the oldest of three brothers (to Michael Badalucco and Carl Capotorto) who decides to start a construction business in 1950s Queens. Their relationship, the failure of their venture, lives and loves form the basis for Turturro's emotional and well-acted film, which does ramble on a bit (at 118 minutes) and suffers from some pacing issues inherent in the star's feature directorial debut. If you can overlook the flaws, "Mac" is an honest and poignant film filled with memorable characterizations -- a slice of life if there ever was one. Columbia's DVD offers a fine 1.85 transfer with Dolby Surround stereo, and no supplements.

SYLVESTER (**1/2, 103 mins., 1985, PG; Columbia TriStar, available April 6th): Entertaining, old-fashioned horse saga stars Melissa Gilbert as a young horse wrangler who, along with veteran Richard Farnsworth, trains a wild horse for competition. Sure, on the surface, "Sylvester" might seem like a standard horse movie aimed at teenage girls, but there's an earnestness to the piece brought by director Tim Hunter ("Tex," "River's Edge") and screenwriter Carol Sobieski that separates the movie from most of its genre counterparts. Farnsworth is his usual self, and the movie is a first-class production with a pleasant score by Lee Holdridge and scenic locales adding to the entertainment. Columbia's DVD, due out next week, offers a solid 1.85 transfer with Dolby Stereo sound and no supplements. Perfectly acceptable family fare.


My apologies to author Kathleen Orrison, who I labeled as "Orbison" in my review of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS -- turns out she's not related to the crooner of "Pretty Woman" after all.

The SCHINDLER'S LIST DVD is not a two-disc set. However, it IS a "flipper," meaning the movie is split onto two sides of the same disc (so, in my defense, it just as well might have been)

NEXT WEEK: A walk back on the wild side with reviews of WILD THINGS (Unrated) and its direct-to-video sequel.


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