Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Style of Zorro

Antonio Banderas isn’t all that makes this a pretty picture; the desperation of The Opposite of Sex.

By Hadley Hury

JULY 27, 1998:  About two-thirds of the way through its two hours and 15 minutes, The Mask of Zorro fairly well leaves most adults among its audience in the dust, giving itself over gleefully to the stunt-thirsty imaginations of the braces-and-hormones set. By this point, however, the film has offered much to its mature viewers, perhaps most important the opportunity of remembering vividly what it was like to be somewhere between 10 and 15 and to lose oneself completely in a romantic, glamorous, swashbuckling entertainment. Except for the overextended action sequences near the end, director Martin Campbell and stars Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas manage skillfully to keep every demographic group in the house engaged. The Mask of Zorro is a summer movie as cannily put-together and marketed as any other intended blockbuster. But unlike Godzilla, Deep Impact, or Armageddon, this film relies more on craftsmanship than special effects, wit (albeit youthful) more than cynicism, and heart more than hardware. Like its legendary masked crusader, The Mask of Zorro is, amid the ear-splitting heavyweight turn-offs of the season, seductively light on its feet, and gives evidence that the term “old-fashioned” need not be a dirty word. Children, teens, and adults may welcome the opportunity to be carried away, if only for some part of the journey, by this handsome, well-made adventure.

Hopkins fans will enjoy seeing how he wrings so much, so effortlessly, from his role as Don Diego De La Vega, the Zorro of legend. The brief opening passage of the film puts us in Spanish California in the 1820s, with the colonial governor and wealthy nobles exploiting the human population as callously as any of the rich region’s other natural resources. De La Vega, a wealthy but enlightened and kind-hearted landowner, anonymously (in black cape and mask) and subversively fights against the tyranny of his peers; as the Robin Hood-like figure Zorro, he becomes a legend among the oppressed peasantry. The corrupt governor, Don Rafael Montero (nicely played by Stuart Wilson), catches up with him, however, and embittered by his humiliations at the crusader’s hands and his own impending expulsion from the territory, he throws De La Vega in prison, and wreaks havoc among his family. Twenty years pass: Mexico has become independent, Montero returns from Spain to California with a scheme to wrest the territory from the new republic, and De La Vega escapes from prison to seek his personal revenge against Montero.

Now in his sixties and not as lithe as he once was, he soon finds the means for his revenge (and for the potential, larger purpose of reincarnating Zorro to continue the work of social justice) in a young protege, Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas), an inept but spirited young bandit who seeks a personal revenge of his own. At this point the film becomes a male Pygmalion story in which the shrewdly patient De La Vega must fashion a new Zorro from this good-looking hot-head. Some of these scenes are among the best in the movie. With his award-winning, box-office cachet of recent years, Hopkins now commands in his films an important technical consideration; Hollywood has finally realized that (even more than the wry, world-weary, humor of his eyes) the actor’s most compelling asset is his magnificent voice. As the elegantly masterful De La Vega trains his successor-in-the-rough, Hopkins rarely raises his voice above an intimate conversational volume and his tone is a resonant study in sly subtlety. The film’s sound levels pick up Hopkins’ throwaways like the jewels they are, and they draw us into the film like a magnet.

Banderas handles his light comedy well and will, no doubt, thrill many a heart. He may be upstaged, however, in the eyes of some filmgoers, by the film’s absolutely gorgeous production design (by Cecilia Monteil). There are some unforgettable images. Our appetites are whetted at the end of the film’s very first scene, a big set piece involving the colonial governor’s palace and a public square teeming with angry crowds. Zorro rides in at the last minute on his faithful black steed Tornado and, after making short work of saving the day, they mount, with daring grace, the step-terraced roofs of a tall building far across the plaza. The culminating longshot of the scene is a masterful combination of real, very impressive sets and lushly romantic matte work. For several seconds, against a glorious sunset, the distant silhouette of Zorro waving his hand in the air as Tornado rears and rears again seems held in a sort of magical suspension. In those seconds we understand, as palpably as the cheering throngs below, the stuff of legend at work, within this movie, and, even more thrilling, in our own imagination.

The Opposite of Sex

The Opposite of Sex is a mordant black comedy in which the narrator, an amoral 16-year-old slut (Christina Ricci) cuts a ragged swath through several lives, extorting money, indirectly getting a sometime boyfriend killed, stealing her brother’s current lover and stealing the ashes of his former. DeeDee is a busy, if self-absorbed, girl.

As written and directed by Don Roos, the film itself is too busy, too contrived, too desperate to be hip. But viewers who stick it out to the final credits (which include Martin Donovan as the kind schoolteacher brother and Lisa Kudrow as his dead lover’s sister), may be surprised by the intelligence, wit, and thoughtfulness that has accrued through these characters’ picaresque adventures. A film and a narrative anti-heroine that pride themselves on deadpan cool and remote cynicism end up in a place we might not have expected, somewhere nearer the heart.

As the goodhearted brother, who is gay, Donovan gives an interestingly low-key performance and Ricci seems almost eerily accurate as the street-wise, foul-mouthed, burned-out Lolita, who has run away from an abusive home to a future she has no reason to believe in. But the real revelation of The Opposite of Sex is Kudrow’s funny, very touching performance as the smart, insecure sister who has an ongoing quarrel with everyone in the film, most querulously (and hilariously) with herself.

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