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by Bill Gibron

12 Aug 2009

The current slump in RomCom success shouldn’t be a surprise. Hollywood, hopeless for what to do with their latest up and coming starlets, seems sold on the notion of putting each and every one into as feeble a fake wish fulfillment fantasy as possible. It used to be, Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts got all the feel good guy/gal scripts. Now, Tinseltown churns them out with unconscionable regularity. In fact, the only thing that differentiates the multiple takes on this material is the artistic approach applied. Sometimes, the standard is used. In other instances, attempted invention leads to lameness. Look at the three soundtracks being discussed today as part of Short Ends and Leader‘s standard Surround Sound update. Each one proposes to be a witty, warm look at the neverending battle between the sexes. Instead, one is dull, another dumb, with only the third doing something both unique and novel.

It’s a difference that’s actually reflected in the musical accompaniments to each effort. When it comes to Mychael Danna’s backdrop for the big screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s celebrated sci-fi weeper, it’s all clichés and sonic commonality. On the other hand, Aaron Zigman’s work on the Gerard Butler/Katherine Heigl stereotype-a-thon reeks of the kind of onscreen schizophrenia the movie - and its mannered characters - seem to suffer from. Only the brilliant Marc Webb deconstruction of the entire genre gets it right. By relying on moan and groan gods like Morrissey and Regina Spektor to make its point, the sonic setting perfectly reflects the differing dynamics between each one of these 500 days - give or take a few. 

Of course, it’s all a matter of taste. Some may actually enjoy Danna’s drippy, droning accompaniment, while there will surely be listeners who ingest one sample of Summer‘s syrupy alterna-pop and want to strangle the songwriters. Music is a difficult discussion point, since it’s so personal to each individual. Still, when graded on a scale as to how successful it is as part of an overall motion picture package, the judgment becomes a little easier. What’s clear is that, in the world of man/woman destiny, slow and stead is really just tedious and mindless, while up tempo and inventive translates into a far more intriguing aural experience. Of course, there is always one confusing case among the easily identified. In this situation, the “ugly” truth title may be more than applicable.

The Time Traveler’s Wife: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 3]

The notion of being “unstuck” in time, Billy Pilgrim in your personal, physical, and emotional well-being, may seem like an odd idea for a romance, but apparently, Audrey Niffenegger nailed it when she created her bestselling story of Henry and Claire. He’s the man who can’t stay settled in one era for very long. She’s the young woman who has loved him ever since she was a child. Together, they learn that such a speculative fiction foundation can only lead to heartbreak, tragedy, and the soul-searching passion that comes with both. So now it’s up to composer Mychael Danna to capture that ethereal element in his score for the film. Sadly, what he turns in is so rote and routine that it could be the backdrop for any motion picture experience, not just one dealing with mostly magical elements.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front - Broken Social Scene should be embarrassed for their appalling cover of the Ian Curtis/Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Rendered dirge-like by the multi-member collection, it’s literally unrecognizable, only the identifiable lyrics in the chorus giving away the origins. By the way, it does nothing for the scene between actors Eric Bana and Rachael McAdams. Why director Robert Schwentke decided to include it is baffling. As for the rest of the soundtrack, it’s equally weak. Danna delivers a lightweight set of cues, each one using the typical orchestral facet of symphonic seriousness to what is often confusing and quite boring as depicted. Tracks like “In the Meadow”, “Do You Know When”, and “How Does it Feel” are featureless, while additional moments like “Five Years”, “Who Would Want That”, and “I’m You Henry” lack legitimate spark. Indeed, the whole score feels limp and lifeless, adding nothing to the work it supposedly projects.

The Ugly Truth: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

What do you do when you’re an uptight TV producer who can’t get laid? Why, you turn over your labored love life to a Neanderthal talk show host who believes keeping women barefoot and pregnant is actually way too good for the gender, that’s what. Indeed, the entire set up of this underwhelming Katherine Heigl starring vehicle does a disservice to all women everywhere while championing the kind of crude, rude comedy that Judd Apatow and the gang have made profitable over the last few film seasons. That it was conceived by a group of gals is unconscionable - kind of like Arthur Zigman’s way too zany sonic complements. This is a musician who has taken the notion of variety being the spice of life to unheard of, heartburn-inducing extremes. One moment, the soundscape feels like a frothy feel good romp. The next, it is diving into tunesmith territory better reserved for oddball BBC programming.

Like a series of bad speed dates, the score for The Ugly Truth indeed runs the gamut from space age bachelor padding to intentional sonic quirk - and then back again, just in case you didn’t get the point the first few track times around. For Zigman, who has crafted the backdrop for films like The Notebook, Bridge to Terabithia, and the last four Tyler Perry films, really does throw everything he’s got at the mixing board. There are moments of sly Euro-whodunit drowsiness (“Abby and Mike Rant”), unintentional indie navelgazing (“Who Would I Love”), pseudo sexual swagger (“Get the Stain Out”) and a strange Footloose meet foot race accent (“Frowny McFlaccid”). Along the way, Motown gets referenced (“Right this Way”), we are treated to more introverted introspection (“Goodnight Then”) and there are moments when the music is barely audible (“The Ugly Truth”). Such a scattered approach may seem sensible, considering how all over the map the movie is, but as a showcase for Zigman’s skills, the results here are equally unnerving.

(500) Days of Summer: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 8]

Some might call it a reinvention. Others will honor it with the tag “deconstruction”. However you view it, commercial creator/music video man turned feature film director Marc Webb has taken an interesting script from Pink Panther 2 scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and turned it into the first RomCom to speak directly to the Twitter generation. Dealing with a failed architect who now writes greeting cards and the saucy secretary who has just moved to LA from Michigan, Webb works in short, sensational bursts, taking the title of the film literally. We spend individual moments with our wannabe lovers, seeing how passion grows, philosophies conflict, and when fate no longer fuels the flame. It’s a realistic if highly stylized look at relationships, and it’s all couched in a backdrop brimming with indie-rock resplendence.

This is indeed a definitive love/loss mixtape, from the sonic sensation of The Smiths (“There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”) to amazing tracks from Regina Spektor (“Us”, “Hero”), the Doves (“There Goes the Fear”) and Mumm-ra (“She’s Got You High”). Granted, Meaghan Smith’s take on the Pixies playful “Here Comes Your Man” is rather dreary, though her performance definitely tries to elevate its effectiveness, and the inclusion of Simon and Garfunkel (“Bookends”) argues against the collective’s anti-folk sensibilities. Still, “Bad Kids” by the Black Lips and “Sweet Disposition” by the Temper Trap work well, and old school hits like “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates match effortlessly with contemporary kitsch from France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni (“Quelqu’un M’a Dit”). Sure, there are perhaps better songs to select, especially given the material’s sense of individualized eccentricity. But like the movie it mimics, the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack proves that all Moon/June/Spoon romances don’t have to be the same.

by G. Christopher Williams

12 Aug 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the curiously moralistic approach that Grand Theft Auto games take towards drug use.  In response, my colleague L.B. Jeffries pointed out that, perhaps, Rockstar doesn’t find drug usage as an activity for the player to be all that reasonable.  While Jeffries point seemed to be that GTA‘s grotesque nature as a game that allows us to do things that we normally wouldn’t think of doing (stealing cars and murdering innocents) is in direct contrast with the realistic notion that drug usage is something that the average person with a moral compass might still plausibly do, nevertheless, his point got me thinking about the “active” nature of the crimes committed by the player in GTA as opposed to the passive presentations of the protagonists of these games.

There is a bit of a disconnect in any open world game between choices that the player makes as he or she inhabits a character and the choices that that character makes in the storyline that evolves in the plot of the game.  While there are many examples of such problems, I remember reading a message from a GTA player in a forum once that reported that that player always drove as carefully as possible when playing Vice City while his kids were in the room because he didn’t want them to see him casually mowing over innocent bystanders.  Such a player choice is obviously fairly antithetical to the decisions made by Tommy Vercetti throughout the game as he destroys the lives and properties of many innocents that get in his way on his way to becoming a criminal overlord.  The morality of the character in essence changed when actively being directed by the player from what is was when being passively viewed through cutscenes.

Such disconnects, though, might serve an interesting purpose in this particular series, however, since the activities that a player can engage in might make the character that they are playing extremely unsympathetic, and thus, undesirable characters to want to play as again.  What I mean by this might be clarified by my recent experiences reviewing another open world game, Prototype.  Unlike many other reviewers as my review indicates, I actually liked a fair amount of a number of the elements presented in Prototype.  However, one thing that I really didn’t like was the protagonist, Alex Mercer.  I had trouble with the game initially because of this general dislike.  Largely, I was a bit disgusted with the choices that I had to actively pursue in order to “be” Alex.  Since the character in that game feeds off of others as a means of fueling his superhuman powers and maintaining his own health, I was brutally murdering just about anyone that was close at hand.  To make matters worse, as I passively witnessed the way that Radical Entertainment chose to portray this character in cutscenes, I didn’t feel any better about Alex.  He seemed like a man largely indifferent to others.  As a rather stoic personality in the Clint Eastwood vein (but lacking some of the clever one liners of an Eastwood cowboy), he also lacked any recognizable personality traits that might make up for this heartlessness.  He wasn’t funny or charming or really anything more than a moody, brooding bastard occasionally growling out “tough” (but unspired) one liners.  My general distaste for Alex and the ferocity of the brutal killings that I was participating in by “being” him almost led me to turn off the game early on.

Ferocious and brutal behavior is not a strange idea to any fan of the GTA series, and yet, characters like CJ and Niko remain generally well liked.  Much of their likability depends not on player generated choices (after all, GTA allows the player some pretty grotesque choices throughout the game and does make murder and theft requisite activities if the player wants to complete the major story arc of any of the games) but instead on reshaping how the player views the character through the passively viewed sections of these games’ plots.

To return to my discussion of drug usage for a moment, San Andreas contains a passively received anti-drug theme by pitting the player against bad guys that represent drug usage, like Big Smoke, in the story missions and showing CJ turning down Officer Tenpenny’s offer of a hit from a bong in one scene.  The player is never asked if he or she would like CJ to turn down that hit or if he or she wants to free CJ’s hood from the tyranny of dope dealers.  Playing the story requires such decisions be made for us and also reshapes our views of CJ in light of other more reprehensible choices that the player might make at other times in the game.  CJ’s decisions to protect his family are not ours, but they make him seem much more human and humane than our other decisions may have made him seem.  A strung out pothead like the game’s Ryder is somewhat hard to like, but CJ depite his criminal behaviors at least evidences some self restraint, making him appear a bit more noble than his fellow thugs.  Additionally, CJ is often funny and almost inevitably charming whether we as the player guiding him are or not either of those things.  A little humor and charm go a long way in making a criminal and anti-hero likable.  Just ask Han Solo.

With the upgraded combat mechanics of the game, Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the more effective killers in the series’s history, and GTA IV may be the most murderous game in the series with many more missions oriented towards assassination than the other criminal activities of prior games.  Nevertheless, Niko is a very sympathetic character because players are witness to his intentions in making himself over into an assassin through the cutscenes.  Of particular note is Niko’s murder of the minor mobster, Vlad.  Because Niko’s motivation and his relationship to his victim is spelled out so clearly in the mission in which the player is required to kill Vlad (as seen in previous scenes, Vlad has been a jerk to Niko throughout their prior interactions, and he is screwing Niko’s cousin Roman’s girlfriend), offing Vlad becomes an action that may not be pretty but is at least comprehensible and seemingly not the act of a sociopath.  Niko isn’t killing Vlad as casually and indifferently as he might when you are playing him and simply running down a jaywalker, he has a legitimate beef with him and a beef that reveals his concern for a loved one.

Admittedly, the story missions in GTA IV do allow the player to make some moral choices that effect the plot (most notably, decisions that concern killing or sparing several individuals).  However, these moments tend to be fraught with more ambiguity than the Vlad episode (should Niko get revenge against a guy who betrayed he and his fellow soldiers years and years ago?), and they are once again offset by our knowledge of the scripted elements of Niko’s character.  And once again, they are also offset by the personality that Niko derives from scripted experiences like when he goes bowling or drinking with friends that indicate a bit of a sense of humor and a humble kind of charm (I defy anyone not to crack a grin, the first time that they hear Niko declare to a bowling buddy “I may not be great at life, but I bowl like an angel!”).

I think that because our medium allows for participation in building characters and shaping plot rather than the pure voyeurism enforced by storytelling media like film or literature, gamers are sometimes offended by scripted scenes and enforced choices that occur in “their” storyline (I’m looking at you Bioshock and Prince of Persia).  Nevertheless, what the lovable thugs of GTA demonstrate is that sometimes a little scripting goes a long way in simply making our “selves” into someone that we can actually like.

by Justin M. Norton

12 Aug 2009

Precious Metalby Albert MudrianDa CapoJuly 2009, 384 pages, $18.95

Precious Metal
by Albert Mudrian
Da Capo
July 2009, 384 pages, $18.95

Decibel Magazine, covering everything in extreme metal, started publishing in 2004. The magazine has thrived at a time when other music magazines have dwindled or closed thanks largely to Internet competition. Decibel’s success is due in part to its professionalism and an eye for detail often missing from the glossier magazines, which are often little different from fanzines that cover metal music and culture.

The centerpiece of each Decibel is its “Hall of Fame” article, which details the making of classic metal albums. Each feature includes interviews with every person who played on the album—even, if need be, the half-assed bassist who left the band after that one special record. Needless to say, compiling these stories can be tricky when some band members don’t even talk to old friends, or have passed away—which isn’t a rarity in extreme metal. While this requirement leads to the exclusion of many worthy albums it also lends a sense of authenticity often missing in music journalism, which is inevitably shaped by the most willing interview participants.

Precious Metal, published by Da Capo press in July, is a collection of Decibel’s 25 best “Hall Of Fame” entries, many expanded with additional information and details. It’s a gripping look at just how these extreme metal albums were recorded, often on shoestring budgets and with terrible equipment. The collection was compiled by Decibel editor Albert Mudrian, who also authored a well-received history of grindcore and death metal appropriately titled Choosing Death (Feral House, 2004).

There’s little time for big studio namedropping here, and a lasting impression left from many of these articles is a sense of wonder as to how their featured albums came to be recorded and released at all. What’s also apparent is the dedication shown by these metal musicians, and the issues they overcame just to record their albums, issues significantly reduced in these days of ProTools and MySpace singles.

Each feature is told via oral history by those in the room when classics like Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales and Napalm Death’s Scum were recorded. The veteran metal journalists responsible for these stories know their stuff. Their questions elicit insights that will entertain both the dedicated metal fan and curious music reader. Among the many gems: Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward was in such an alcoholic fugue that he doesn’t remember recording Heaven and Hell, and Bard “Faust” Eithen of Norwegian black metal band, Emperor, was arrested for murder shortly after the band finished In The Nightside Eclipse.
If you aren’t into metal then a 300-page book recounting the details of albums you don’t know might not be your cup of tea. But if you’ve so much as heard of Obituary, Opeth, and Sleep then this book is like getting a master’s degree in metal and a few credits toward your doctorate.

by PopMatters Staff

12 Aug 2009

Volcano Choir
Releasing: 22 September (US)

Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver teams with Collections of Colonies of Bees for a collaboration known as Volcano Choir. Their debut work releases next month.

01 Husks and Shells
02 Seeplymouth
03 Island, IS
04 Dote
05 And Gather
06 Mbira in the Morass
07 Cool Knowledge
08 Still
09 Youlogy

Volcano Choir
“Island, IS” [MP3]

by Diepiriye Kuku

12 Aug 2009

It can’t get no more personal than this. I am sitting here, listening to streaming radio, writing on my laptop, with full WIFI coverage. Crickets and croakers in the background—someone speeds by in their boat—the motor roars. It’s 1:30 AM, and one wonders why these boys are speeding by?

I look out at the house nearest by, and it’s my uncle over there with his wife. His mother lived here, grew up here; and we are all here because he had the courage, and foresight, to genuinely, stake out a place on his ancestors’ location. They were poor- and so are we, by many measures—but poverty was never part of the equation.

We were wealthy—wealth, of course, measured right! Wealth measured by cash and shown in ostentatiousness is vulgar. Why is Africa poor? Ask yourself.

//Mixed media

Tibet House's 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert Celebrated Philip Glass' 80th

// Notes from the Road

"Philip Glass, the artistic director of the Tibet House benefits, celebrated his 80th birthday at this year's annual benefit with performances from Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Brittany Howard, Sufjan Stevens and more.

READ the article