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Monday, Dec 10, 2007

I used to make the mistake of thinking that people with a small record collection had no particular taste in music. I’d assume that they just didn’t care about music or else they would be going about assembling an encyclopedic collection. If they knew how much good music was out there, they would know they should have a lot more. Now of course, this is hardly indicative. Anybody can borrow a hard drive from someone else and amass instantaneously a music collection that would dwarf anything even the most astute record collector would have had circa 1996. 


In the old days, a small collection seemed to suggest indifference, as though the discs in the collection were just so much flotsam and jetsam that drifted into their possession—random birthday gifts and impulse buys and the like. And sometimes that is the case. I often forget that not everyone is afflicted with the anxiety of a collector—the secret egoistic suspicion that if something is not in your possession, it might somehow cease to exist or worse, reveal a weakness, a vulnerability in your base of knowledge. They don’t have the peculiar sense of responsibility of needing to have anything you could possibly think to play for someone on hand and ready. Instead they are content to take music as they find it, trusting in the many DJs out there to supply something reasonably entertaining when music is desired, which for a substantial number of people, I’ve discovered to my absolute shock, is not particularly often.


But other people with spartan music collections are not indifferent; they are just operating with a much more stringent filter, working with assumptions much different than the ones I usually have about music. I’m typically guided by curiosity, and since I am listening to music almost all the time, I can make the time to hear anything, no matter how annoying or uninspired, just to know what it’s about. Part of this is to maintain enough familiarity with what is out there to continue to pass as a credible music snob, along with the sheer pleasure of simply knowing things, regardless what it is. But part of this is also indifference, not holding the music you’re hearing to any standard. Falling prey to the sort of consumerist thinking I often complain about, I find I prefer hearing something new to something good. I want to consume novelty rather than appreciate music.


So it often seems like I have no particular taste in music at all, as I will listen to anything, and what comes up on the shuffle of my iTunes gives no indication of the music that I actually think is best. Some find this incomprehensible—why not listen only to the music that you really are into? They are confounded at the idea of spending any time listening to something patently awful or second rate and can’t countenance it. Their collections, a few albums in heavy rotation, explain a lot about their taste, which is revealed to be distinct and well-formed. Meanwhile I maintain a protective distance from anything so definite, always hiding my true feelings behind a mask of comprehensiveness.


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Monday, Dec 10, 2007

Hollywood is obsessed with the epic. They can’t get enough of the ‘bigger is better’ mindset when it comes to moviemaking. At one time, a $100 million budget seemed unthinkable, then condemnable. Now it’s near the low end, especially in light of $200 to $300 million mainstream monoliths. Of course, with such an outlay of cash, all avenues of financial recoup need to be explored - and that includes the inevitable soundtrack/orchestral score release. Be it the work of the actual composer, or a selection of songs provided by name rock bands, a blockbuster film or franchise almost always mandates as many merchandisable paradigms as possible. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at how Michael Bay, the studio behind the Saw series, and New Line’s continuing obsession with a certain celebrated hobbit, continue to provide CD shelves with an endless stream of tie-in fare. Some is good. Some is grand. And others represent the lower depths of movie music marketing. 


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The Complete Recordings [rating: 9]


In the realm of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classics, there is no such thing as ‘enough’. Everything involved in the billion dollar earning trilogy - the settings, the effects, the films themselves - move beyond the scope of normal cinema to turn into a universe all their own. As a result, production house New Line has found as many ways as possible - with and without the auteur’s input - to continue the seemingly constant revenue streams. In this case, we have the third in a continuing CD series hoping to bring every note Howard Shore composed for the films to soundtrack lovers everywhere. The Complete Recordings for Fellowship of the Ring came out two years ago, and Two Towers shortly thereafter. Now, it’s the Oscar winning installments turn to shine, and as with anything associated with Jackson, Tolkien, and the famed film franchise, it represents the best the specific medium has to offer.


Spread out over four discs (with a fifth DVD-Audio presentation offering Advanced Resolution Surround, Advanced Resolution Stereo, Dolby Digital Surround and Stereo), we get 53 separate tracks covering everything conceived for the film - epic battle backdrops, tiny connective inserts, full blown orchestrations, and incidental sounds. There’s Annie Lennox singing the song “Into the West” (found on disc four), and snippets from the film itself. For completists, it’s a gem, the kind of complementary treasure one rarely gets from a studio. On the downside, much of the material here is recycled from previous parts of the triptych. When Frodo needs an aural cue, it’s the same one that’s been following him since Part One. In addition, Shore’s sensibilities have since become quasi-cliché: the mixing of musical genres, the overtly Celtic Enya-like drones, the moments where the music becomes as manipulative as the sequences on screen. Yet the overall impression is one of size, heft, and massive dramatic weight - just what Return of the King requires. And since it has the Jackson seal of approval, it’s a worthy component of the Rings legacy.


Transformers The Score [rating: 7]


Sometimes, the bigger the project, the smaller the score. While many would argue that blockbusters require bombast, it’s also clear that some composers want subtlety to sell the mood, not amplified orchestral chaos. Someone should tell this to Steve Jablonsky. As the man behind the music for The Hitcher, The Island, and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his aural pallet runs to the grandiose and the shapelessly suggestive. When you hear a Jablonsky backdrop, the action inherent in a stunt sequence is evident, the wall to wall wonder of an F/X moment is practically painted in your mind. This is old school film music, the kind that wants to be an entity in and of itself while also functioning as a integral part of the movie’s overall experience. Yet unlike those he freely mimics - John Williams, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard - there’s a bit of false bravado here. It’s as if Jablonsky the composer sat back, listened to the complete catalog of his industry idols, and created a sound that followed their formulas implicitly.

Anyone looking for oversized motion picture sturm und drang will definitely find it inside these enjoyable, bass heavy symphonic soundscapes. Both “Autobots” and “Decepticons” introduce the characters it was created for perfectly, and the last act tracks “Optimus vs. Megatron” and “No Sacrifice, No Victory” do a nice job of selling the mechanical melee that occurs. It’s the same experience one gets from “Soccent Attack”, “Downtown Battle”, and “Sam on the Roof”. There are very few quiet moments here, times when the music modifies a lesser situation in the narrative. Of course, this could be due to the fact that director Michael Bay doesn’t really do ‘small’. Yet “Sam at the Lake” and “Witwicky” have a little less oomph than the other extravaganza supporting material. In the end, your enjoyment of this compilation will depend mostly on how fond you are of the movie they modify. If you loved Transformers, you’ll really dig this overly dramatic backing. If you think Bay and his brethren are scope without substance, you’ll find this score equally empty.


Saw IV Music from and Inspired By [rating: 4]


Apparently, when one thinks of the Saw franchise, their mind instantly turns to Metal - and not just any heavy rock retreads but full blown balls to the wall death, thrash, and other extreme guitar workouts. If you like your sonics loud, fast, and in your scarred face, you’ll love this 19 track aural assault. Granted, it is as repetitive as the symbols of Satan, but one has to admit that the decibels describe the actions in the never-ending horror series quite well. The chugging, growling, primal scream nature of this score (actually, a collection of songs used in, and finding their muse from, the movie) matches the torturous, gross out glee of Jigsaw’s various games, even if after the first 15 or so tracks you want to drive a drill bit into your cerebellum. The raw anger inherent in the musical genre placed outside of the cinematic screamfest’s context does make for some heavy metaphysical lifting, but if you’re prone to howling at the moon or spending you nights cutting yourself, this album will definitely sync up with your psyche.


Many of the names here are less than mainstream or memorable. While Nitzer Ebb, Drowning Pool, Ministry, and Skinny Puppy all have identifiable cred, bands like The Red Chord, The Human Abstract, and Dope Stars Inc. come across as ‘formed for this project’ style oddities. One thing’s for sure - no one here will be winning an award for their lyrics anytime soon. The recent DVD release of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse has more memorable - and believable - sentiments than the blood, sweat, and fears offered throughout. Still, tracks like “Life is Good”, We’rewolf”, and “Shame” offer a terrific mix of musicianship and the macabre. This is not a collection for the casual fan of Scandinavian shrieking or German grind pulses, however. This will be headache inducing for the uninitiated, and too much of a terror trip even for those who love their Metal unrefined and unprocessed. Don’t be confused - this is not the work of series composer Charles Clouser (he is represented once here). This is a standard CD tie-in. 


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Monday, Dec 10, 2007

While Radiohead itself is being cheeky about how much dough they’ve piled up over their latest album, Paste magazine’s similar pay-what-you like experiment has definitely paid off.  Editor-in-chief Josh Jackson maintains that they added 30,000 new subscriptions thanks to this gambit.  I’ll have more details in my year-end round-up for music scribing but for now, you gotta be impressed with numbers like those, especially when they’re dropping most everywhere else.  Yet another lesson the music industry has to teach the print industry?


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Monday, Dec 10, 2007

As the Writer’s Strike heads into its second month, I thought it might be fun to view perspectives on Hollywood from leading authors. Over the next few days, in the Re:Print Tribute to the Writers Here and Gone, we’ll peek behind the curtain a bit to discover the truth about how Hollywood treats its most creative (and necessary) force.


Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison


There is much to share on this topic, old and new. The more things change, right? It appears authors and screenwriters of the 1940s were no better off than writers today. If the fight’s gone on this long, will it ever really end? I’ve found some fascinating documents on this subject and look forward to sharing them this week. Not only will we look at struggles for compensation, but a wide range of other issues, as well, such as gender roles, domineering directors, and problems adapting books to the screen.


Let’s kick off with Harlan Ellison’s wonderful “I sell my soul at the highest rates” rant in Dreams with Sharp Teeth, available here. Then get on YouTube and watch Harlan on Dark Dreamers talking about his writing life.


Another cool view on Hollywood vs. the Writer comes from novelist Jodi Picoult, on her website. Head to the Podcasts section, and you’ll find an eight-minute recording called “You Oughta Be in Pictures”, wherein in Picoult describes her various Hollywood experiences. She briefly analyzes, too, just how vital to success or failure on the big screen depends on gender. This is especially interesting—why, she asks, do Nicholas Sparks and Robert James Waller get to see their books made into blockbusters, but women writers with similarly themes books are relegated to Lifetime? Picoult isn’t bitter, but she is blunt, and she makes some strong points.


Tomorrow, Raymond Chandler gets in on the act.


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Sunday, Dec 9, 2007
With the DVD version of the Summer hit The Bourne Ultimatum arriving at stores this week (11 December), it’s time to look back on the entire Bourne film franchise to date. Within the context of the new digital package’s throng of special features (commentary track, making-of materials, documentaries on the amazing special effects), one can look at the three films together and see a cohesive attempt to transcend the trappings of the traditional action film.


It was supposed to be True Lies that saved the genre. As the Bond franchise continued to settle for spectacle over substance, James Cameron’s overinflated spy flick was destined to change the face of onscreen espionage forever. Turned out, it ended up being nothing more than the director’s inspired action filmmaking, and that’s about it. Even with the nuclear explosions, high rise chase scenes, and last act Harrier jet jive, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold were not the cinematic operatives the public was aching for. Instead, it would be another eight years before Robert Ludlam’s famed black ops assassin would get re-imagined to fit a post-millennial mindset. Instead of turning to bigger and badder special effects, filmmakers Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass brought the secret agent back down to earth, and in doing so, completely rewrote the rulebook on the dying aesthetic.


The resulting films - The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum, are masterworks of compact storytelling and human physicality. They offer realistic plots accented by occasional overreaching ability. In our lead, the monolithic hero Jason Bourne, we have a well trained, tripwire force of nature, capable of constantly being one step ahead of his ever-present pursuers. Yet contrary to his ingrained, almost brainwashed capability for survival, there’s a sad, disconnected man who simply wants to remember who he is. Ludlam’s greatest contrivance was the state of amnesia that Bourne finds himself in. It allows for a palpable level of realism interspersed among the fistfights, car chases, and psychologically challenged intelligence game playing.


Identity centers on Bourne, rescued while floating out at sea, unaware of who he is or how he got there. Through a course of investigation and information, he finds a link to the CIA, their elite corps of international assassins, and the possibility of massive internal corruption. Supremacy sees a Russian conspiracy trying to frame Bourne for a hit against his own people, pushing the agency to try and silence him once more. Ultimatum sees the heretofore amnesiac spy recovering his memory, realizing what he’s become, and coming face to face with the people who poisoned him so. There are dozens of subplots pulsating through each film, but to discuss them openly would ruin the revelation for those interested in experiencing the franchise fresh.


Anyone looking for careful translations of Ludlam’s work should seek out a Richard Chamberlain starring TV movie from 1988. Its Bourne is very faithful to the first novel. But in The Bourne Identity (and the subsequence films in the series), the charismatic killer is retuned to fit a more contemporary ideal. The original spy was part of a Vietnam era setting. There was backstory with an Asian family and a desire for revenge when they eventually died. Now, he’s a man lost in a world he doesn’t remember, instinctually doing a job he can’t recall. Throughout the first film, his struggle for self is offset by a failed mission, a rogue African exile, and the CIA’s need to plug any potential leaks that could compromise their illegal operations. This makes the Bourne films multifaceted as well as singular in design and direction.


So does the love story. Identity really relies on Bourne’s connection to the aimless, drifting Marie. In her, he sees a kindred spirit, a young woman who is as equally lost as he. She, on the other hand, sees a strong, silent hero who can save her from a life without rhyme, reason, or purpose. Several times throughout the first film, Bourne tries to turn her away. He offers her money (her main driving force) and freedom, yet she is captivated by the broken man in her presence. A certain maternal instinct takes over, and their one love scene is more tender and heartbreaking than erotic. Indeed, this relationship needs to be believable and potent. Otherwise, the plot machinations that surround it would seem arbitrary and without motive.


The final element mandated is the need for an outwardly benevolent but inwardly corrupt villainy. In this case, the CIA will do quite nicely. Only in the first Bourne film is there another situation worth considering (the botched assassination of angry African Nykwana Wombosi). In the sequels, we are only concerned with our hero taking on the baseless bureaucrats who want him terminated, with extreme prejudice. Between Alexander Conklin, Ward Abbott, Pamela Landy, and Noah Vosen, we have enough paper pushing precariousness to put even the most skilled agent on edge. Add to that the computer bank of trackers, grid wired to every manner of surveillance on the planet, and you create a monumental (and monstrous) task for Bourne to overcome. Of course, it’s not a matter of if he will succeed. It’s all a question of how - and at what cost.


With that, the franchise found a perfect starting point. The Bourne Identity is action packed yet personal, encompassing all manner of international intrigue while keeping the narrative squarely focused on who this character really is. Matt Damon delivers in the role, creating a believable sense of specialist and psychological sufferer. We never doubt his abilities or his angst. He’s an unlikely action hero, too clean cut and white bread to seem capable of such shocking acts. But as this series will show, Bourne is all about thwarting expectation and delivering on his promise. Director Liman lingers on moments of self-discovery, allowing Damon to dig deep into his character’s troubled soul. We never see it displayed in histrionics, however. It almost always arrives in a look, or a fleeting troubled glance.



As the object of his growing affections, the choice of Run Lola Run‘s Franke Potente is inspired. She’s just pretty enough to be alluring, just practical enough to withstand Bourne’s larger than life tendencies. She’s an excellent match for the unlikely element presented by Damon. Together, they’re like an ordinary revamp of Bond and one of his babes. Indeed, all throughout the Bourne films, we see the old school machismo and borderline misogyny of the original spy efforts constantly deconstructed and destroyed. Unlike True Lies, which saw Cameron utilizing the hoary he-man themes in a subtle, satiric manner (Jamie Lee Curtis’ striptease, as an example), Liman - and later Greengrass - simply ignored the archetypes. The result was films that felt alive and new.


It’s amazing how well Supremacy‘s new director carried on the foundations laid by Identity. Paul Greengrass was a relatively unknown British filmmaker when he took the reigns from Liman. Substituting hand held cameras for a previous Stedicam conceit, the new approach took Bourne into places the standard espionage movie would never dare investigate. There’s family life, the unnecessary destruction of same, the return of old foes and the discovery of heretofore unnoticeable new ones. It signals the end of one covert scheme and the uncovering of yet another. In between we get amazing fist fights, old school physical effects, and one of the most amazing and plausible car chases ever captured on film.



It is clear that the new infusion of vision invigorated the series. Damon is more alive than ever, his darker side clouding an already cracked interpersonal position. He’s lost everything, and with it, the will to tolerate such treatment. He is vengeance reborn, focus renewed on taking down the powers that perverted his life and stole his soul. Throughout the numerous square-offs, showdowns, and claustrophobic cat and mouse moments, we see a man coming undone, only to rebuild himself into a near robotic version of his programmed assassin self. When the results of this reconfiguration finally finish, heaven help those who get in his way.


That’s the premise for Ultimatum, the final head to head between our hero and his harried past. With Greengrass back for another go, and a plot that’s completely focused on bringing down the forces who formed this amoral spying machine, the film is nothing more than two hours of sly setup and potent payoff. Some have suggested that this is the best Bourne movie of the bunch, and they may be right. When viewed back to back, when seen as a psychological and emotional progression from cold to calm, passionate to powerless, Ultimatum becomes the fabulous finale the three part narrative has been hinting at. It’s to the productions credit that Tony Gilroy (with occasional help) stayed around to write all three movies. The consistency in tone and character he brings lends to the trilogy’s effectiveness.



The final (for now) Bourne starts up right where the last left off. A name - David Webb - has been tossed out there, and our trained killer has followed a complicated betrayal all the way to his origins at the CIA. In freaky flashbacks meant to start filling in the gaps, Greengrass shows us Bourne’s derivation. We see him tortured and brainwashed, created like a cog in a menacing and miscreant US government machine. Unlike the scenes in Supremacy where the character remembers his role in the assassination of a Russian leader, these moments are meant to finish Bourne’s portrait. They act as measures of the man, a lineage that he must suffer through and escape from if he is ever to have a life. Love has been left out of the series every since the opening of part two, but Julia Stiles returns as a determined desk jockey who wants to help our hero recover himself. It’s not a romance so much as a really clear friendship based on respect and human empathy.


The filmmakers even throw in an antagonistic turn, making Pamela Landy (a wonderful Joan Allen) into an ally for Bourne - a mother figure, if you will, for a boy who lost his entire family in a fog of calculated cold warring. With the return of a character everyone thought dead, and the arrival of yet another stuff shirt supervisor, we’re back to high tech tracing and continent crossing one-upmanship. There is an incredible sequence in Tangiers where Bourne travels across rooftops and through building windows, only to end up in a remarkably brutal dustup with another assassin. The hand to hand here is so compact, so intense in its imposed ferocity that it literally leaves one breathless.


So does a New York chase that rivals the Moscow version in scope and destruction. It’s important to note that, unlike other summer romps that relied on CGI to stage their practical stunts (Live Free or Die Hard, The Kingdom), Greengrass wanted real life action or nothing. It’s a throwback ideal, but one that plays perfectly into the Bourne franchise’s desire to deconstruct the past. It’s funny to see the latest James Bond - the daring Daniel Craig - pulling off many of the moves witnessed in Identity and Supremacy, yet when matched up against Ultimatum, Casino Royale pales in comparison. Granted, they are two birds of a slightly similar feather, but the idea that a recent upstart could compare favorably to - or God forbid surpass - the famed superspy would be heresy…until now.


The fact remains, however, that the Bourne films are one of the most satisfying collections of high octane thrills every brought to the big screen (and, thankfully, they lose little in the transfer to home vide). They celebrate smart cinema and explore the many fast-paced facets of film’s multilayered language. As detailed character studies, they are sensational. As examples of where espionage can go in a post-Cold War world, they are ideal. And let’s face it, any franchise that can turn Matt Damon from Northeast wholesomeness into international man of intrigue has to be doing something right.


In fact, there is much more to these densely packed films than can be discussed in a single feature or review. Indeed these fine films demand to be experience, to be savored for what they accomplish as well as what they avoid. In the grand scheme of cinema, James Cameron could have taken his ‘titanic’ spy spectacle all the way to the top. Luckily for us, Jason Bourne stepped in and grabbed the reigns. For sheer entertainment and excitement, nothing can beat The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. They are the new spy standard bearers and all future filmmakers need to take notice.


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