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Midsummer Round-Up

by Jason Comerford

Let's see, after Star Wars and The Mummy, we've certainly seen a unique batch of summer flicks to round out the millennium. Outside of Deep Blue Sea, there've been precious few empty-headed shoot-em-ups to waste brain cells on... but then again, the year is yet young.

Star Wars I've already whined about, so let's move on to the other noteworthy big-budget time-waster: why, Wild Wild West, of course. This was one odd stab at a summertime fun-machine: a militantly unpleasant, surprisingly unfunny waste of however many millions of dollars it took to make, not to mention a dream cast of comic talent. Between Will Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kenneth Branagh (the latter two of which I'll pick as two of the finest actors working today) in front of the camera and Barry Sonnenfeld behind it, it's all the more of a letdown to see that they had precious little to do or go on except a script full of smarmy puns and rub-your-nose-in-it plot machinations. Even junk can be fun on a certain level, but the whole movie was emobodied in Branagh's giant iron spider: big, expensive, charmless, and often just plain ugly. Leave it to the composer, of course, to make some sense of this mess, and Elmer Bernstein pulled it off. His score turned out to be the most refreshing element, a delightful concoction fully in the mindset of his comedy scores from the eighties, but crossed with his finely-tuned Western sensibilities. The main title cue alone is worth the price of the 30-minute Varese album -- it starts out with a wonderfully rollicking cowboy fanfare that morphs into a jazzy rock beat so infectiously silly that when I saw the movie, it elicited the only belly laugh I got out of the whole affair. The rest of the score is a wonderfully canny combination of Bernstein's tried-and-true styles, scored so seriously as a Western that it achieves a kind of loopy facetiousness. There seemed to be plenty of great material missing from the Varese album, but that complaint aside, the score album is hands-down my favorite of the year thus far, in terms of sheer good fun.

The summer's real bright spots in terms of humor to me were Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and, yes, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. I started laughing at Austin Powers from the moment the New Line logo popped onto the screen, and I just didn't stop until it was all over. The goofy "Eeeeviillll" credits song -- in the vein of Shirley Bassey's immortal "Goldfinger" vocal -- set the stage for more of the same, only better (alas, the song is not on the soundtrack CD). After the grim, humorless Phantom Menace and the smug Mummy, Austin Powers' self-effacing humor came as a blast of fresh air in a markedly stale summer. George Clinton's orchestral accompaniment to the sequel more often than not seemed to be a retread of the first score's licks, but it was still cleverly honed comedy scoring, deftly paying homage to Barry's indelible 007 style while at the same time gently sending up the cliches of spy-movie scoring. South Park was similar in terms of approach, and raunchy as it was it was still a gut-busting riot of a movie, a scarily well-timed satire about censorship and parental responsibility. It's awfully easy to read a lot into South Park's obvious political stances, so I'm just going to take it for what it was: a hilarious send- up of just about everything, in particular the Hollywood musical. The songs by Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman are, of course, obvious send-ups of the Menken/Disney era, but they're also pretty well-done on their own trashy terms. And every time I hear the choir swell up behind Terrence and Philip during "Uncle Fucka", I just can't help but to laugh at the gleeful insanity of it all.

Of course, summer's had its drawbacks too: Trevor Jones was delegated mostly thankless work in Notting Hill, predictably scoring the predictable "romance" between Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts with some lilting string melodies and, as I remember it, the occasional thumping comic-chase cue. Trevor Rabin's Deep Blue Sea was just more of the same, as was James Newton Howard's The Sixth Sense; both scores were totally in tune with each composer's orchestrate-it-to-death, throw-out-any-innovation sensibilities. And I'm still at a loss as to how to accurately take Mystery Men, a whacked-out movie if there ever was one. Sometimes clever and sometimes just plain strange, this was one film that was so offbeat it scuttled itself, if such a thing is possible. Shirley Walker apparently rescored a lot of Stephen Warbeck's original material, and it's just as well -- Walker's Gothic, unmistakably Elfman-esque title cue set an appropriate tone for the movie. But the music seemed to do little else - perhaps it was the mix, but little of the music made a lasting impression on me. Hopefully an album will do each composer justice -- both are fine composers and their work here deserves to be heard. Whether or not this will happen, of course, remains to be seen.

A lousy mix mostly ruined John Debney's Inspector Gadget, but that wonderful theme music was a treat to hear played by full orchestra. His score to the hilarious Watergate send-up Dick (an underappreciated film if there is one this summer) featured a far better mix and was much more coherent; sometimes it was standard-issue stuff but on the whole it was fresh enough and kept the comedy clicking right along. Michael Kamen's score to The Iron Giant was also an interesting affair, wisely staying away from animated-comedy histrionics and going more with the genuine emotions that the story conjures. This is one film that deserves some seeking out, and its lousy box-office take is undeserved -- the Disney animation juggernaut is definitely not advantageous to other animated efforts that are just as effective. I'd even go so far as to suggest this is the best animated feature since Beauty and the Beast -- a honestly moving little film that richly deserves a far bigger audience. Kamen's music is understated and sometimes quite beautiful -- his finale is wonderful. The score album, coming from Varese, ought to be a treat.

Two scores which seem to be rather hotly debated of late are Goldsmith's The Haunting and Conti's The Thomas Crown Affair. I found Goldsmith's score to be, as usual, an excellent fit to the movie and a pleasant surprise on disc -- no classic but not exactly what I was expecting, either. Goldsmith apparently decided to score the "look" of the film rather than the drama, which was for the best -- The Haunting's script is so lackluster it introduces characters, then just forgets about them. Ah, Hollywood. At any rate, Goldsmith's indelible brand of elegant intellectualism was an excellent match for the film's smooth, gliding camerawork and lavish production design. There wasn't much dramatic thrust to speak of, but Goldsmith gave it a shot anyway, with a nice little ascending lullaby-like melody for Lili Taylor's central character that sprinkled itself around effectively enough to give the movie a little charge. Goldsmith can do far better, of course, but even subpar Goldsmith blows most of the competition away.

Conti's score, on the other hand, marks probably the best surprise I've had all year. This is truly some off- the-wall stuff, which is why, no doubt, it's driven some score fans right up the wall. I found it to be a wonderful shot at scoring a movie in a totally unconventional way -- completely lacking in the Barry style that many think it "should" have had. Since I'm one of these twentysomething know-nothings, I'm unfamiliar with the original film and its Michel Legrand score, so I'm delegated to taking the movie -- and the score -- for what they are, which is to say they're both a risky shot at doing something different for a change. I doubt the score would gel very well in an album format, but in the film it works like gangbusters, giving it a sense of ebullience and sprightly energy that its attractive leads often don't achieve. Yes, sometimes it's downright annoying, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for Conti and John McTiernan for not doing the same thing all over again. Like the film, the score sometime dragged its feet but on the whole it was a nice change of pace and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

I've missed things like Instinct, Lake Placid, and The 13th Warrior, so hopefully by the fall I'll have dipped my toes into those waters. Until then, have fun.

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