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MISSION Accomplished:

Morricone's MARS Breathes Life Back into Film Music

Plus: MGM DVD Bonanza!

An Aisle Seat Entry By Andy Dursin

Last week at the movies, I was continually frustrated by Brian DePalma's MISSION TO MARS, which had all the makings of a legitimate piece of science fiction. Not warmed-over garbage like ARMAGEDDON, but an escapist entertainment grounded in an actually intelligent premise. Say what you will about the rest of the film (and I'm about to, don't worry), but the story has a fair degree of believability as it chronicles a NASA expedition to Mars and the ramifications that happen when a group of astronauts discover some kind of life hidden there.

Unfortunately, MISSION TO MARS could have served as an ideal issue of the old Marvel Comic "What If??," as in, "What If MISSION TO MARS had dialogue that didn't sound like it was written by a group of seventh-graders?" Director DePalma assembled a first-rate cast (including Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, and Don Cheadle), produced some breathtaking visual imagery (kudos to frequent cinematographer Stephen H.Burum), and even managed to end the movie with an inspiring finale, but somewhere along the ride, the filmmaker settled on filming a script with dialogue so inane it makes SUPERNOVA's prose sound positively Shakespearian.

Too bad, too, because there are many worthwhile elements in MISSION TO MARS -- particularly a conclusion that's more inspiring and satisfying than the comparatively stilted ending to the similarly themed CONTACT, and a music score by Ennio Morricone that is, simply put, a glorious piece of film scoring, one of the best I've heard from the composer and easily one of the most memorable soundtracks I've listened to in the last few years.

I'm not going to tell you that this score isn't at times overwrought, or heavy-handed when matched with the dramatic context of the film, because there are a couple of times when it is (it also doesn't help that, aside from the ending, the movie never comes close to eliciting the emotion present in the music). I'm also not going to guarantee, if your favorite Morricone score is THE THING, that you're going to appreciate the often romantic, flowing lyricism of this score, which at times sounds as if you crossed a Georges Delerue work with Bill Conti's THE RIGHT STUFF.

What I am going to say is that MISSION TO MARS is one of the first soundtracks to come along in a while that actually made me sit up, take notice of the music, and want to rush out and buy the album the second the movie was over.

You might have noticed I don't spend too much time in my Aisle Seat columns discussing soundtracks. Once in a while I'll be moved or interested enough to write something specific about a film score, but to be honest with you, there's been little of note musically speaking in the film music world to come down the pike in the last few years. Every week labels like Varese release a handful of nondescript film scores that are a far cry from the soundtracks that inspired me to gravitate towards film music when I was in grade school, the kinds of albums that made Lukas even begin publishing FSM in the first place. (How excited can you be when every CD you listen to produces this kind of reaction: "I'm listening to the score album from END OF DAYS, which sounds like THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, which sounds like ALIEN 3, which sounds like?.").

What makes MISSION TO MARS so compelling and listenable, effective and moving? Well, the music has a timeless quality almost completely absent from most of today's music. It's a flesh-and-blood, real, legitimate soundtrack, written by a composer in his own musical language and style. The music bears the distinctive mark of a composer who knows how to write film music and doesn't play by the rules normally associated with modern film scoring. (Producers, studios, all sorts of executives get in the way now of a movie's post-production since there's often too much riding on the movie's financial performance; hence, they demonstrate their complete and total disregard for a film's music by virtually placing the soundtrack in a category of "focus group tweaking" by insisting that every soundtrack sound exactly like the other. You know their thinking, and you can hear it in the music).

By comparison with most of today's soundtracks, MISSION TO MARS is almost too melodic, too distinctive. It doesn't sound like everything else; maybe THAT'S why I was so struck by the music in this film.

I cannot count myself as a die-hard Morricone listener; there are the well-known scores of his that I have in my collection (THE MISSION, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and several compilations), but I noticed in this score a genuine enthusiasm and energy that I haven't heard much of lately from the composer. His rejected effort from WHAT DREAMS MAY COME was melancholy, but like a lot of his recent work, it was redundant. One theme played over and over again, something I've noticed in many of his scores over the last ten years or so.

MISSION TO MARS, for some reason, doesn't have that problem. It has several distinctive themes and melodies -- enough to fill several newer Morricone soundtracks -- that are played eloquently and effectively at various points throughout the film (a gorgeous, delicate melodic line for Gary Sinise's character and his wife; an elegant horn passage that wouldn't be out of place in APOLLO 13, but is used only sparingly; a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS-like use of chorus and an otherworldly motif for the Martian finally glimpsed at the end of the film, and even a powerful, uplifting conclusion, marked by a choral and orchestral flourish, that finishes the score off perfectly).

Morricone mixes synthesizers and live chorus in with the preceding, and includes at least one cue with a pounding bass line that's very THING-like. Even a track that sticks out with a firm dissonance (when the astronauts' rescue mission almost falls apart due to a "leak" in the ship's hull) contrasts nicely with the remainder of the work. If there are times when the music becomes too melodramatic, it's almost always the fault of the film for failing to match the inspiration of the music. Morricone gives life to a script that's lifeless except during the final act.

MISSION TO MARS is a throwback movie that doesn't quite come off, but at least it's an admirable failure. However, to place Morricone's score in the proper context, this really is the kind of music that was being written twenty-plus years ago when STAR WARS ignited a rash of outer-space epics. You had Jerry Goldsmith scoring STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE, and John Barry venturing into galaxies far and wide with THE BLACK HOLE.

MISSION TO MARS is Morricone's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, alright, and while it may be a pair of decades after the fact, it only augments how deficient so much of today's film music is. It's a true musical feast just when you thought that you might have heard it all.

DVD Corner: MGM's DVD Tidal Wave of METEOR-ic Proportions

MGM has been raiding their own vaults of late, releasing plenty of older fare on DVD that movie buffs will certainly appreciate. While their efforts yield competent though at times inconsistent results, at least the studio is gearing much of their recent product to viewers whose cinematic point-of-reference goes beyond the collected works of would-be auteur Michael Bay.

Let's start with a movie the FSM readership is certainly well aware of: Joseph Sargent's tense, terrific 1974 thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (****, $24.95), with Walter Matthau as a subway transit chief plunged into a terrorist situation when a trio of armed robbers (led by Robert Shaw, just before he set sail in JAWS) take hostage of a New York City subway train. Shaw's plan? Extortion, of course, but despite being assisted by Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo, Matthau has a few tricks up his own sleeve that prove to be a bit more than the terrorists can handle.

Since this movie was released a short time before I was born, my first viewing of Sargent's film was in a letterboxed laserdisc several years ago. To put it mildly, this is what some critics would call a crackerjack thriller, with smart dialogue (kudos to author/playwright Peter Stone for his literate adaptation of the John Godey book), great performances, gritty, realistic atmosphere, and a pulsating score by David Shire, used in bits and pieces in the film, that ideally complements the emotionally charged story. (Did I mention we have CDs still available for this one? Just click HERE! I know, shameless plug! Shameless plug!).

Sargent shot the movie in Panavision so letterboxing is a must; fortunately MGM used what appears to be the same transfer as the laserdisc, so while portions of the picture look a bit soft, it's generally quite good- looking. The monophonic sound is OK, and there's a nifty theatrical trailer to round things out.

If you've never PELHAM, by all means make this a must-view -- and stay tuned for the movie's tremendous final scene, with its great freeze-frame last shot and Shire's end credits music making for a marvelous piece of '70s cinema.

Released a short time later, MGM's 1976 biopic of folk singer Woody Guthrie, BOUND FOR GLORY (***, $24.98), has also found its way to DVD.

David Carradine stars as Guthrie in this overlong (149 minutes) epic directed by Hal Ashby, chronicling the songwriter's rise to stardom from his Texas roots during the Great Depression in the '30s.

Earnest, noble, but only somewhat engaging and rarely factual, BOUND FOR GLORY was the kind of project meant to bring home a handful of Oscars. Unfortunately, while the film was nominated for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, it only took home wins for Haskell Wexler's atmospheric cinematography and Leonard Rosenman's adaptation of Guthrie's music.

Still, the visuals and good intentions of the film make for a recommended view, despite the movie's chronic overlength. MGM's DVD is matted at 1.85:1 and looks a bit ragged, with some artificating and such, but it's unlikely the picture has ever looked better on video. The mono sound is also uneven, and once again there's a theatrical trailer and collectible booklet included in the package.

Before there was DEEP IMPACT, before anyone had heard of ARMAGEDDON, there was METEOR (**1/2, $24.98), the 1979 disaster epic with Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Brian Keith, Martin Landau, Richard Dysart, Trevor Howard (as "Sir Michael Hughes"), and of course, disaster movie staple Henry Fonda (who was just recently claimed by THE SWARM), watching as a meteorite spins its way to Earth, threatening to extinguish all of mankind -- including Sean's toupee -- along with it.

In addition to sharing the time-honored scenario of impending apocalypse, METEOR had another trait in common with the comet-hitting-the-Earth movies from two years ago: namely its own competition, that being an Anthony Burgess-scripted project which was shot down on its way to the silver screen once word got out that Samuel Z.Arkoff and American-International's production were going to be the first on the scene to exploit the premise.

Too bad, too, because while METEOR has its share of entertaining moments, it also boasts less-than- cutting-edge special effects. Even in its day and age, people expected more than the child's models that substituted for spaceships and blue-screen matte paintings so obvious you can see the lines (and the blue!) around them.

Still, METEOR has a few chuckles, a fine score by Laurence Rosenthal, and has a special nostalgic significance for me since I spent the summer before 3rd grade alternately renting this, TIME BANDITS, and HEARTBEEPS on video cassette. I can tell you how lousy much of METEOR is, but I can't say that I'm still not entertained by it.

MGM's DVD, unfortunately, is a case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. Yes, the 2.35:1 Panavision transfer looks more consistent than Image's laserdisc release from a few years back, but the soundtrack is inexplicably in mono! I am not sure that Image's laserdisc wasn't a remix, but whatever the case may be, the LD boasts crisp, glorious stereo, and the DVD fails utterly to match it with its pinched mono sound.

You do get the theatrical trailer, and a 2-page booklet, but what gives with the mono soundtrack? Now METEOR completists must own both! (But isn't that how it always works?)

While we're on the subject of technical imperfections, MGM has taken over the rights to what is rightly regarded as one of the Best Sports Movies of All-time, HOOSIERS (****, $24.98), a film that -- along with PLATOON-- has been through the ringer of video litigation over the years.

Originally released on video by HBO, then by Vestron because of on-going legal problems between Hemdale (which produced the film) and Orion (which released it), the DVD saga of this outstanding 1986 basketball story was remarkably similar.

LIVE Home Video (now Artisan) released HOOSIERS on DVD in 1997 but discontinued the disc because the rights somehow reverted back to Orion, which itself had been acquired by MGM. LIVE pulled their DVD after several months of circulation, and now MGM has released their package marking the second go- around of David Anspaugh's film in the format.

While newer would hopefully mean "remastered," the unfortunate reality is that MGM's presentation is noticeably inferior to the LIVE release: the 1.85:1 transfer is darker, grainier, and more prone to minor artificating than the LIVE DVD, while the Dolby Digital soundtrack (encoded as 5.1) sounds more jumbled and packs less of a punch than LIVE's 2.0 Dolby Surround mix. The same theatrical trailer has been included, and MGM has also produced a full-frame transfer that the LIVE release lacked, but they cannot compensate for what is a rather large disappointment just the same.

In terms of the movie, it has always been one of my favorites, with its realistic, atmospheric depiction of a small-town high school overcoming the odds and winning the 1954 Indiana state basketball championship. Sure, you've seen the formula before, but HOOSIERS was based on a real story, shot on the actual locations, and completely understands not only the game, but so accurately captures the essence of time and place that it transcends its mere "sports movie" designation. It's a phenomenal movie, from Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper's great performances, to Fred Murphy's evocative cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith's rousing score, and Angelo Pizzo's superb script. In fact, with the NCAA Tournament under way, now is the perfect time to revisit the film.

MGM's DVD is certainly still acceptable, and will satisfy those who didn't have the LIVE DVD, but for anyone who loves the movie, keep an eye out for left-over copies of the LIVE release on store shelves (it was discontinued but not withdrawn), since the earlier release is an improvement on the new edition.

Finally, MGM has unearthed three films from the United Artists vaults: the 1969 WWII epic THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN (**1/2, $24.98), Stanley Kramer's highly regarded 1959 nuclear war drama ON THE BEACH (***1/2, $24.98), and Michael Cimino's moody western HEAVEN'S GATE (**, $24.98), best known as the infamous movie that sunk the studio.

THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN, which offers George Segal, Robert Vaughn, Ben Gazzara and "Special Guest Star" E.G. Marshall, is a standard-issue star-studded war movie, one of many produced during the '60s. The Panavision cinematography looks good, Elmer Bernstein's score is excellent (though the DVD lacks the isolated music/effects track found on the laserdisc), and if you're a fan of this genre, it's worth seeking out.

ON THE BEACH stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins as characters attempting to survive the fall-out from a nuclear war that's claimed everyone except Australians and the crew of a U.S. submarine. Kramer's film remains potent and is exceptionally well-acted, shot (by Guiseppe Ruttono and Daniel Farpp), and scored (Ernest Gold). The 1.85:1 black-and-white transfer is fine, though the disc lacks a theatrical trailer.

HEAVEN'S GATE, finally, is not quite ISHTAR, but there still are a lot of other things you could do to improve your life than to sit through all 219 minutes (!) of this seemingly endless, stilted 1980 western that broke UA's bank and gave everyone ample evidence to discredit the "auteur" theory.

Michael Cimino, fresh off THE DEER HUNTER, was given carte blanche to write and direct this rambling chronicle of the Johnson County War (though there's more fiction than fact in Cimino's script), with Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston and the luscious Isabelle Huppert (the movie is worth at least one star for her appearance) looking positively bewildered as they mope in and around scenic backdrops. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is outstanding and there are moments of great power and beauty in the film, but also a constant, fatal inability to get to the point.

MGM's DVD contains the original, full-length cut (yanked after preview screenings in favor of an even more incomprehensible 149-minute version that circulated nationwide), a crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and an acceptable 2.35:1 Panavision transfer taken from a print that's probably the best one left in the vaults at MGM. (In fact, it may be the only one!). Worth a look for curious cinephiles, and for anyone who read Steven Bach's excellent book "Final Cut."

NEXT WEEK: More of your comments, reviews and the like. Remember to send all emails to me at Excelsior!

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