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by Bill Gibron

15 Sep 2008

It is safe to say that there are several kinds of soundtracks, each type geared towards exactly what the filmmaker wants or the narrative needs. Some act as nothing more than metaphysical mix tapes, complications collecting the various pop music tracks secured for a marketing tie-in release. To call it commercial would be stating the bloody obvious. Others act like subtle supplements, doing little more than emphasizing the storyline or subject matter inherent in a film. For these ethereal attempts, the slightest sonic breeze might simply blow it all away. But some scores are wholly reflective, capable of offering the listener an inner mirror. They provide a resource for mimicking the moviemaker, turning their vision into the sonic serenade heard over the Cineplex speakers.

In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at three examples of this rarified reality in action. In each case, the person with pen in hand and orchestra at bay is attempting to play inferred filmmaker, realizing the same style and vision of the person paying their wage. From the latest supporting stance from a longtime creative companion to the luxuriant efforts of one of the few women in the business, each presentation perfectly matches the material on hand - for good and for grating.

Burn After Reading - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

If there is one constant in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, aside from the arcane cleverness and attention to old fashioned cinematic detail, it’s the music of Carter Burwell. Part folklorist, part sage sampler, this amazing musician has guided every one of the boys bravado movie moves, from Blood Simple to their most recent masterpiece No Country for Old Men. While never nominated for an Oscar (his work on both Miller’s Crossing and Fargo deserved at least some minor Academy Award acknowledgement), his themes have become the sonic signatures for the Coens’ complex aesthetic. His most recent collaboration with the filmmakers - the fantastic Burn After Reading - easily reflects the same anarchic attitude the brothers attempted when bringing the surreal screwball comedy to the big screen.

The main approach taken by this unusual film is that all romance is like high espionage. As a result, the Coens create a comedic backdrop in which everything - from extramarital affairs to breaches of national security - is treated within the same ersatz-thriller ideal. Burwell applies the same schematic energy here, such bracing selections as “Night Running”, “Breaking and Entering” and “How is this Possible?” playing like outtakes from a bawdy Bourne provocation. Elsewhere, the composer creates certain themes for specific characters, including a three part piece illustrating the look for love by health club employee Linda and tripwire Treasury agent Harry. Together without other standout tracks like “A Higher Patriotism” and “Carrots/Shot”, Burwell defends his position as full fledged member of the Coens’ creative consensus. It just wouldn’t be one of their films without his amazing musical muse.



Towelhead - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

Looking over his resume, composer Thomas Newman has provided some sensational aural backdrops for some equally impressive films. From Pixar’s Wall*E to Todd Field’s Little Children, from Revenge of the Nerds in the mid ‘80s to the upcoming Revolutionary Road, he has a unique ability to capture the sly subtext of the films he is complementing. After working with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball on the Oscar winning American Beauty (he also received a nomination), it’s not surprising to see his name associated with the follow-ups from both men. Road won’t be released until December, but already making the festival and limited release rounds is Towelhead. Alan Ball’s directorial debut, centering on the sexual coming of age of a 13 year old Lebanese girl in Texas, is tough subject matter for a movie. Sadly, Newman’s score illustrates just how off base this entire production really is.

Made up mostly of ethnocentric beats and faux Middle Eastern influences, this lackadaisical soundtrack does little to amplify the sinister and shocking elements contained in Towelhead. Sequences like “Snow Queen”, “Vuoso”, and “Rain & Good Weather” feel barely fleshed out, locked in a slow simmering sonic strategy that barely delivers any intrigue. Even worse, when Newman starts with the polyrhythmic drumming and cultural swatches, he seems to be trying far too hard. How obvious is it that a film centering on an Arab teenager in America would be backed by what sounds like the Disney version of a Syrian sword dance. Besides, this score is miniscule in comparison to other efforts. With only eight tracks and a very limited running time, this feels like something Newman tossed off from the top of his head. Even a movie as miserable as Towelhead deserves better.



The Duchess - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

It is unusual to find women working in the mostly man’s world of film scoring. It’s not for lack of talent. Instead, the studio system and their approach to soundtracks apparently still have a very high, and very unnecessary glass ceiling. Rachel Portman has clearly broken through, although not with the kind of commercial and critical respect given to her more masculine counterparts. Working in film since 1982, she’s provided the sonic setup for such interesting efforts as Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, the Johnny Depp vehicle Benny and Joon, and most recently, the ‘other’ Truman Capote/In Cold Blood film Infamous. She even has an Academy Award for her work in Emma. Yet it’s clear that as a facet of a film, Portman perfectly matches the moviemakers she’s paired with. Never overstepping her bounds or breaking the tone established, she ends up offering the kind of support that few composers can claim - unobtrusive but totally necessary.

It’s the same with her creative classic revisionism for The Duchess. Featuring Keira Knightley and centering on the scandal plagued life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana Spencer, Portman’s pieces here sound like found chamber music from a noted master’s overflowing filing cabinet. From perfect little tone poems like “I Think of You All the Time” to more majestic works like “Some Things Too Late, Others Too Early”, Portman’s methods segue perfectly into the noted legends on hand. Indeed, she doesn’t sound out of place among Beethoven or Hayden, both of whom are represented here. Certainly, there is a more contemporary bent to some of the selections, including the suggestively named tracks as “Gee and Grey Make Love” and “Rape”, but for the most part, The Duchess lilts along on the kind of antiquated atmosphere that seems perfect for this kind of period piece. Such a situation brings out all the British in this smart English artist.

by Lara Killian

15 Sep 2008

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image credit: cherryred2001

I’m just going to go ahead and blame an international move and return to full time grad school for distracting me enough to overlook this one: a group of concerned crafters, wanting to show British fantasy author Terry Pratchett the depth of their concern for him. As a group, starting in January, they created a ‘pratchgan’ – a patchwork afghan composed of small blocks referring to various aspects of Pratchett’s Discworld. The completed work was presented to Pratchett at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 August; he seemed quite impressed. Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease almost a year ago. He publicly stated in May of this year that the disease is now affecting his work – spelling is becoming more difficult and his typing has slowed down. Pratchett is determined to keep writing for as long as possible rather than take an early retirement. Different fans find various ways to show their support, and you can see more about the pratchgan on the blog of the organizer, here, including pictures of Pratchett accepting the gift along with a batch of letters from fans.
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image credit: Kit Cox

Personally, I have to love the Librarian square, with his brown orangutan face surrounded by fluffy orange fringe. I think I also spotted the Death of Rats in there somewhere, have a look yourself! What character or concept from the Disc would you most like to see rendered in yarn?

by Jason Gross

15 Sep 2008

The world of non-iTunes entertainment offerings got a little more interesting this week.  In a sign of how much entertainment companies and other retailers hate Apple, they’ve joined together to form Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), an organization to get movies sold online.  According to this Hollywood Reporter story, the DECE group includes “Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox Entertainment Group, NBC Universal, Sony, Paramount Pictures and Comcast Corp. with retailer Best Buy along with tech giants Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign.”  They might as well call it the “No Apple Allowed Club” since they’re all banding together to compete against Steve Jobs.  Usually, you could laugh off an Apple competitor as being naive but with such a big group of big shots, they might have the last laugh, especially since they own a big percentage of the film content out there and can slowly bleed off what they offer or don’t offer to Apple.  If consumers get used to going to another source (or several sources) besides iTunes for movies, then Apple’s got some problems ahead especially as these companies, not to mention Best Buy, can set up loss-leader pricing to entice buyers and also work with the tech/hardware people to have multiple ways to deliver it.

The other big anti-Apple move was the word that MySpace was readying its own music store and that now Facebook is probably looking to do the same, as detailed in this CNet article.  But note an important little item at the end of the article- there’s speculation that MySpace was forced into offering up music for sale because of legal stickiness.  First off, Facebook offers up streaming music because “clever legal language in the terms of the developer platform means that Facebook is exempt from many of the legal issues that would require it to negotiate with the labels.”  In the case of their competitor, “an industry source hinted that legal issues, not profit margins, were the driving force behind MySpace Music.”  Of course that’s speculation but as the article also points out, as I did in my last blog post, the profits for music sales with any service (even iTunes) is so tiny that the whole idea is self-defeating for everyone involved except for the labels and publishers.  That’s not a very encouraging sign for either MySpace or Facebook and it spells out why they’re not about to kill off iTunes themselves, unless they can also offer up a cooler entertainment player than the iPod.  Or if they find friends in high places like DECE…

by Mike Schiller

14 Sep 2008

LucasArts' Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

LucasArts’ Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

There always seems to be equal amounts of trepidation and anticipation when a new Star Wars game comes out.  On one hand, there’s the chance to play as part of a universe that was an integral part of many gamers’ childhood fantasies.  On the other, it’s been proven time and again that any new entry into the lore of that universe is woefully deficient to the content of the three movies that built it.  As such, it’s with some caution that I’m looking at The Force Unleashed this week above all of the week’s other releases.

The Wii version, for its part, features light sabre action, which Wii owners have been fantasizing about since motion controls were even a suggestion.  It’s nice to be able to finally realize that dream, though the fact that the upcoming Motion Plus controls aren’t involved sort of indicates that it’s not quite going to live up to expectations.  Still, there’s still some buzz behind the game, and even with the possible light sabre goodness aside, there’s a buzz behind this game that I haven’t seen for a Star Wars game in a long time.  At the very least, the demo’s worth a shot—it’s a blast, actually.

Ubisoft's Armored Core: For Answer

Ubisoft’s Armored Core: For Answer

Elsewhere, interesting material comes from some strange places.  The prize for Most Awkward Title this week is Armored Core: For Answer, in a landslide victory.  Despite the rather strange subtitle, I’m a sucker for anything that has big giant mechs running around and blowing stuff up, so maybe it’s at least worth a rental.  Armored Core is an awfully long-running series regardless, and its devotees would certainly be wise to give it a look.

If you’ve got the power (and the original game), Crysis Warhead is another one that’ll probably be worth a purchase.  Lost in the hubbub about its system specs and the nasty computer you need to actually get something out of it, Crysis turned out to be a pretty impressive, if somewhat run-of-the-mill, shooter.  As it turns out, Warhead even has some optimizations that will allow it to run better on the machines that can handle it, so hey, maybe you can push your machine past that 8 frames-per-second max that you were getting out of the original.

Electronic Arts' Crysis Warhead

Electronic Arts’ Crysis Warhead

Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’ll ignore all of my own advice and just go buy Dragon Quest IV, given that I never met a JRPG remake that I didn’t like.

What are you playing this week?  Is anybody out there buying Zoo Hospital for the Wii?  Does anybody else have a better idea than I do of what “For Answer” means?  Are you too busy playing Rock Band 2 to leave the house?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the Star Wars action in the trailer after the break.

by Bill Gibron

14 Sep 2008

In case you missed it, here’s a chance to catch up with PopMatters 2008 Fall Preview


Talk, Talk, Talk: The PopMatters Fall 2008 Preview

Enjoy!

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