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Zorro's Triumphant Return

Plus: New Soundtrack Releases Reviewed!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

Summer has finally arrived in the Northeast--perfect beach weather, to be sure--and while the heat continues in the Southwest (sorry if I'm sounding like The Weather Channel's Dave Schwartz), at least there are finally some viable viewing options out there in cool air-conditioned theaters around the country.

This week a pair of new Steven Spielberg pictures reach cinemas everywhere--THE MASK OF ZORRO opened at #1 and is currently in theaters, and the much-discussed SAVING PRIVATE RYAN arrives on Friday (John Williams's soundtrack should be in stores today). Spielberg didn't direct THE MASK OF ZORRO, though he was originally attached as director before deciding to produce the picture (he did have a hand in the casting of leading lady Catherine Zeta-Jones). While Spielberg has since left Amblin for the fledging Dreamworks Pictures, THE MASK OF ZORRO had been in development for so many years that it still bears the old Amblin production tag, and ironically enough, the finished product turned out to be one of the best Spielberg-produced Amblin films. Indeed, given Spielberg's uncharacteristically lazy THE LOST WORLD, perhaps it was a good idea that Spielberg himself not direct this movie after all, and left it to others to handle the final product. Hopefully that will bode well for JURASSIC PARK III, which Spielberg will also produce but not direct. At this point in time, Steven's future lies in more "serious" fare like the underrated AMISTAD, though another Indiana Jones is very close to happening in the next two years. As always, it'll be interesting to see what the filmmaker will cook up next, as he has THE LOVE LETTER (to be shot in Massachusetts in September) and MEMOIR OF A GEISHA lined up before another potential adventure of the Jones family.

Until then, let's hope the good weather holds up, and the better movies to go along with it. DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, from "X-Files" series director David Nutter, looks like a teen version of the "Stepford" variety, and it opens this week, along with JANE AUSTIN'S MAFIA (a pretty funny trailer was made from this latest Jim Abrahams spoof) and PRIVATE RYAN. Next Wednesday (the 29th) comes THE NEGOTIATOR with Sam Jackson and Kevin Spacey, while another raunchy summer comedy, BASEKETBALL, appears on the 31st. Looking down the road a bit are HALLOWEEN: TWENTY YEARS LATER (H20) on August 5th, and the oft-reshot Brian DePalma thriller SNAKE EYES with Nicolas Cage on August 7th. (One website of the speculative-news variety commented that the last several months on SNAKE EYES have been spent readying an elaborate FX sequence with a hurricane approaching Atlantic City, only to have test audiences reject it and now it has been completely excised from the film!). Another troubled production, THE AVENGERS, arrives on August 15th and the Wesley Snipes vampire-hunter BLADE comes blasting into theaters on the 21st. Hopefully there will be some sleepers in the mix somewhere, too.

*NEW IN THEATERS

THE MASK OF ZORRO (****): We've sat through enough movies with lumbering monsters, cop-buddy teamings, talking animals, and comets-hitting-the-Earth scenarios to last an entire year, much less one summer. Finally, after surviving many a disappointment, we have--thankfully--come to the one true escapist "summer movie" that perfectly fits that description.

THE MASK OF ZORRO marks an exquisite, lavish, thrilling return for one of the cinema's original heroes, once portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power in movies made veritable generations ago, some before even the dawn of motion picture sound. Aside from watching a few re-runs of those black-and-white matinee flicks on my local PBS station when I was very young, I haven't had much experience sitting through the adventures of Zorro, but I have seen enough Hollywood adventure films of the Errol Flynn era to know that this picture is probably as close to a true romantic swashbuckler as we're likely to see in the modern era. Its execution and direction, look and atmosphere, don't simply recall the elements of derring-do and heroism of the old school, but genuinely, and refreshingly, harken back to the days when villains were nefarious yet didn't react to every situation with a comic one-liner, and heroes fought for causes unrelated to smashing cars and cracking jokes. And unlike many pictures that have rehashed elements of matinee serials without an actual understanding of what makes those elements work, THE MASK OF ZORRO presents a grandly realized vision of what an old-time crowd pleaser should be like in the '90s.

Positively electric and charismatic, Antonio Banderas is the perfect candidate to resurrect Zorro, with his dashing, handsome looks and confident, assured personality romping through a story that would be right at home in a typical Saturday matinee programmer. Of course, the movie's trump card is Anthony Hopkins's performance as Deigo, the original Zorro, who trains his protege Banderas to save the Californian people from the dastardly motives of Montero (Stuart Wilson, perfectly underplaying Hopkins's adversary), who wants to steal the native land's gold to purchase the territory for himself. Hopkins, meanwhile, as a score himself to settle--Montero stole his infant daughter and killed, albeit accidentally, the mother of his child, leaving Hopkins to waste away in a prison for two decades. With both Banderas and Hopkins joined to fight evil for the power of the people, already you would ordinarily have enough plot to sustain an entire picture, but this movie adds the icing on the cake by having Hopkins's grown daughter Elena (the ravishing Catherine Zeta-Jones) thrown into the mix. Romance, swordfighting, thrilling escapes? Who could possibly ask for anything more?

Martin Campbell, who previously helmed GOLDENEYE and the not-so-bad sci-fi thriller NO ESCAPE, treats the material with a perfect touch, never once succumbing to the kinds of pitfalls that often plague modern-day stabs at Saturday matinee adventures. For one, the movie never relies on saccharine-cute or camp, providing witty dialogue instead of cloying one-liners, and wisely focuses on the main characters without throwing in an abundance of unnecessary supporting players (like the seemingly requisite little kids we usually get in Steven Spielberg-produced pictures). Each scene has a purpose, and the plot is well-drawn and thought-out, unfolding at a deliberate yet brisk clip. John Eskow and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio's screenplay should also be commended for being "politically correct" in that no offensive Latin-American stereotypes are anywhere to be found, while at the same time it retains the sense of fun and excitement that the name Zorro carries with it.

Technically, watching the movie is a marvel, like going on a trip to a far-away time and place that no longer exists. Phil Meheux's Panavision cinematography captures all of the costumes and sets with an almost golden glow, and James Horner's music is utterly fabulous. His score, while obviously being sweeping and romantic, features a memorable collection of themes, a perfect blend of orchestra with Flamenco textures, and a flawless understanding of the drama on-screen. While I have always enjoyed many of Horner's works, I don't think it's an understatement to claim that this is nothing short of one of his finest achievements, and even the end-title song (produced by Jim Steinman) is a gem.

I hope THE MASK OF ZORRO finds a place in the crowded market of summer-time movies, particularly because it is a film of the old school and doesn't include frenetic MTV cutting and music video montages. With Banderas and Hopkins, and a confident group of filmmakers behind the camera, this ZORRO resurrects "the old days" to a set of younger movie-goers--myself included--who have been deluged with pre-fab Hollywood action garbage for far too long. It's a perfect summer entertainment, and the first triumph in the genre since Indiana Jones last rode in 1989. Hopefully, along with the next Indiana Jones and "Star Wars" installments, THE MASK OF ZORRO will be the harbinger of more "old-fashioned" adventures to follow in the next millennium. Viva Zorro! (PG-13, 136 mins., **** score on Sony Classical)

ANDY'S SOUNDTRACK CORNER: ZORRO, RYKODISC, & SONIC IMAGES CDs!

Sony Classical's THE MASK OF ZORRO makes for an ideal soundtrack album, running 74:40, as seemingly all of James Horner's recent film scores have on CD. Again, this is a gorgeous work, and only the staunchest of film-music plagiarism curmudgeons are going to carp about such-and-such passage of ALIENS being rehashed here and there (ok, and maybe Khan's theme is there, too, but I could really care less about this exhausted-beyond-belief debate). One intriguing note about the film's song, "I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You"--there's a beautiful orchestral introduction to the song in the movie print, and there seemed to be more prominent strings in the film version mix as well. The album's version is pretty much identical after that intro, where a more commercial "pop" opening is included, obviously to appeal to radio listeners and station managers. Jim Steinman, he of Meatloaf "Bat Out of Hell" fame, produced the ballad, and it's a terrific tune (if nothing else, at least we've finally arrived at a point where a lot of movie songs are now love themes originating from the actual orchestral scores. Beats the old "drag in Giorgio Moroder to pen the pop single" mentality). But it's Horner's score that listeners should eat up, and it's one of his best.

Rykodisc has reissued a new batch of old UA soundtracks, none with dialogue or additional music but all with the same fold-out packaging and CD-ROM material as their earlier releases. First off, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS... is, as Didier Deutsch's liner notes point out, one of the most faithful Broadway-to-film adaptations ever produced. Nelson Riddle conducted the score from this delightful musical and did a superb job adapting Frank Loesser's wonderful songs to the silver screen; alas, no mention is made of the cuts made to the movie (particularly the excised "Coffee Break," a song included on the album and filmed), but the sound remastering is excellent. Ditto on A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, which had some of its Steven Sondheim songs retained for its Richard Lester-directed film version. Ken Thorne adapted the songs and provided a good deal of enjoyable underscore, a lot of which is included on the album. Also re-issued from Ryko is IRMA LA DOUCE, which had NONE of its songs kept intact for its Billy Wilder film version, where Andre Previn came in and wrote a pleasant enough score that will make the most sense to anyone who has seen the movie. Finally, along the same musical lines, we come to a movie that kept most of its songs and is generally regarded as one of the worst musical movies ever, MAN OF LA MANCHA. This 1972 Arthur Hiller production, with Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, was memorably described by critic Leonard Maltin as "beautiful source material [that] has been raped, murdered, and buried." Fortunately, Laurence Rosenthal adapted the songs and his efforts, which resulted in an Oscar nomination, can now be appreciated on CD, as far, far away from the movie as possible. No mention is made of the recording facility for the soundtrack, which sounds quite pinched even on this remastered CD, where the track titles are also completely mislabeled on the back. No such problems to be found with Richard Rodney Bennett's score from EQUUS, the Peter Shaffer play-to-film with Richard Burton. This rather bizarre 1977 picture boasts a restrained, melancholic Bennett score, but the majority of the album is highlighted by Burton's monologues, so its appeal to most listeners ought to be fairly limited. On the other hand, there apparently wasn't much music in the film to begin with, so Bennett collectors ought to be satisfied with it, particularly if they lack the original LP in their collections.

Finally, we come to a pair of new Sonic Images CDs. GONE WITH THE WIND is a reissue of the 1961 Muir Mathieson-London Sinfonia recording, which divides Max Steiner's classic score into two lengthy suites totaling some 37 minutes. Performed with Steiner's blessing, this is a solid interpretation, and the stereo sound--while predictably a bit ragged--opens up the music more than Steiner's earlier, mono recording. This CD is actually a re-issue of Rod McKuen's 1988 CD release for his Stanyan label, and includes a number of additional film themes conducted by Ray Heindorf (two tracks from Manos Hadjidakis's score for Elia Kazan's monotonous AMERICA, AMERICA, Victor Young's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, Rozsa's SPELLBOUND, Jerome Moross's THE CARDINAL), and a six-minute "Overture" from McKuen's own score from THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE.

HEART OF THE OCEAN: THE FILM MUSIC OF JAMES HORNER is one of a handful of recent albums obviously produced to cash-in on the windfall from Horner's chart-topping TITANIC soundtrack. This release is certainly a curiosity, since the majority of the tracks have all been licensed from other re-recordings--several from Telarc (Erich Kunzel and the Cincinatti Pops), a few from Silva Screen and Edel (the City of Prague Philharmonic), and even one from Bill Broughton's "Orchestra of the Americas." A group of newly recorded cues by John Beal run the gamut from THE NAME OF THE ROSE to VIBES, but in the end, only one track--WHERE THE RIVER RUNS BLACK--represents an actual cue taken from an original soundtrack source (and only then because the score itself was entirely synthesized). Naturally, re-recording fees and other licensing issues surely got in the way, but given Horner's recent success, I doubt we're going to have to wait too long before Horner himself takes to the podium to supervise a retrospective of his film music, which will then render releases like this completely worthless.

One last note: In response to Varese's disappointing 30-minute compilation of music from Marco Beltrami's two SCREAM scores, yes, we're all aware about re-use fees and the economics involved in releasing soundtracks, but the obvious consumer perspective is this--the subjective quality of the music aside, why pay $15 for a measily 30 minute album when you can get over 40 minutes more of another score at the same price? Film-music industry folk can't and shouldn't expect everyone to go out and plop down their hard-earned dollars on an album that's short due to re-use simply because, as film music fans, we have some kind of obligation to "support" all soundtrack albums, regardless of length. That thinking is absurd. If you can't afford to pay more re-use than a 30 minute CD, then you have to be prepared for the criticism about the brevity of the album that will undoubtedly follow. We shouldn't just say, "well, it's better than it not coming out at all," particularly if what HAS come out isn't worth the $15 to begin with. With one of the best cues from the series also left off the album (Drew Barrymore's death at the beginning of the original film, music that made me take immediate notice of Beltrami's work), it's very hard to recommend something that has a lot of high expectations riding on it, and doesn't quite deliver what it could have in both the length AND the selections included. Oh well.

NEXT TIME: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. I can be reached at dursina@worldnet.att.net. Until then, aloha!


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