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by Bill Gibron

13 Jan 2009

About this time of year, when awards are looming in the mind of every marketing agent, attempts are made to woo the critical community. There are junkets and special perks, packages containing screeners and other movie-related merchandise regularly arriving at a journalist’s doorstep. The goal of each one of these items is clear - leave an impression. If they can do that, perhaps the individual inspired will say something nice about them in a column, or better still, cast a vote that winds up winning the item a place on some year end Best Of list. Then the studio can advertise such an acknowledgment, pushing the product ever closer to a chance at Oscar (or at the very least, Golden Globe) glory. Soundtracks are not immune from this approach. Every year, dozens of discs come traveling over the SE&L transom, each one hoping to motivate some aesthetic appreciation, and as a result, a quote-worthy comment or two.

For the high profile titles like Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire, and Milk, there is frequently no need to flaunt their importance. The media, mindful of jumping on any bandwagon before it hits full stride, always wants to be the first to taut any soon to be phenom, so there are many instances where the hype machine simply sits back and fuels itself. Between Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, Ain’t It Cool and Movie City News, there’s enough pre-release publicity to render most post-experience analysis moot. Take the three titles being discussed today as part of this installment of Surround Sound. Both The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have been lauded as ‘tough to beat’ Academy faves. Yet few talk about the work of Alexandre Desplat or Nico Muhly, respectively. In the case of Last Chance Harvey, the two main actors - Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson - have garnered all the talk, leaving composer Dickon Hinchliffe out of the conversation all together.

While it may be too late to save their trip to the podium come 22 February, what’s clear about the three efforts discussed here is that they have every right to be considered among the year’s finest. While perhaps not 100% awards worthy, they still show a tremendous amount of musical breadth and aural atmosphere, beginning with:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

As Brad Pitt vehicles go, this David Fincher masterpiece of modern filmmaking has its narrative issues. Frankly, screenwriter Eric Roth seems impervious to the forced melancholy that made his take on Forrest Gump so syrupy. As a result, he adds just as much pap here. But thanks to the man who made Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac so memorable, the movie more than stands on its own. It also helps that Alexandre Desplat handled the aural backdrop. Nominated for his work on 2006’s The Queen, the Frenchman has spent the last two decades dreaming up slightly idiosyncratic scores for many important movies. Benjamin Button, with its unusual narrative and timeless title character, requires a balanced aural perspective to keep things from becoming outrageous or simply unbelievable. Desplat does this magnificently. Along with a collection of era-appropriate songs (available on a second CD), we end up with a perfect sonic buffer.

Starting with “Postcards” we get the basics of Desplat’s approach - a careful combination of harmony and discord, with strings used to smooth out some of the rougher edges. It’s a conceit he will carry on throughout much of the score’s first half. You hear it in tracks like “Meeting Daisy”, “A New Life”, and “Love in Murmansk”. By the time we get to “Mr. Button”, we sense a shift, Desplat going for a more plaintive, studied ideal. With “Alone at Night” sounding like a hymn or prayer and “Nice to Have Met You” providing a new recognizable theme, the composer definitely creates a remarkable canvas. Toward the end, things start to get overly gloomy, however. Pieces like “Growing Younger” and “Dying Away” overstate their sympathies, while “Benjamin and Daisy” makes a nice, if unnecessarily soapy, finale.

The second disc, steeped in all kinds of amazing New Orleans jazz - “That’s How Rhythm Was Born”, “Freight Train Blues”, “If I Could Be With You (One Hour a Night)” - is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the ages. We get wonderful classic tracks, a couple of Louis Armstrong masterworks, and snippets of movie dialogue, reminding us of what’s responsible for this embarrassment of riches.


Last Chance Harvey - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

Even for those well versed in the comings and goings of current Cineplex releases, the arrival of Last Chance Harvey seemed like a shock. Writer/director Joel Hopkins was not some Tinsel Town face to watch. His last big screen effort was 2001’s Jump Tomorrow. Huh? Right. Granted, costars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson carry four Oscars between them, but their latest thespian doings don’t normally draw the kind of press that flailing no name TV stars seem to earn. Besides, this is a romance for aging adults - the title even suggests same - so Tinsel Town must understand the demographical concerns. No matter the film festival recognition or independent awards nods, many just didn’t know this was arriving on their year end radar. Even composer Dickon Hinchliffe is something of an unknown quantity. While his efforts have graced such divergent fare as Forty Shades of Blue and Married Life (both for director Ira Sachs), many more probably know the musician as a founding member of the UK pop band Tindersticks.

Such a background really shows throughout the Last Chance Harvey score. “The Brief Encounter” is like the instrumental version of a beautiful ballad, while “Parallel Lives” uses lilting piano lifts to create an atmosphere of longing and loss. “Kate” gives Thompson a wonderful theme, building on the melodies heard before, while “Taxi to the Airport” is another lovely piece with a melancholy edge. About halfway through, we get the song “I’m a Mean, Mean, Mean Son of a Gun”, and along with the closing number “Where Do We Go?”, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Neither track was composed by Hinchliffe, and the juxtaposition between his melodious trills and each song’s stomping staginess just doesn’t work. Why they were included is anyone’s guess. Frankly, more of the musician’s tiny tone poems would have been just fine.


The Reader - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

Slow, loping, and laconic, Mulhy’s work on The Reader is more ambient than aggressive. There is no solid repetition of themes, no attempt to remind the audience of action or individuals via certain sonic cues. Instead, the combination of piano signatures, lazy string streams, and occasional dramatic flourishes provides an even soundscape for the films many flaws to flow within. Mulhy doesn’t make the mistake of over-romanticizing the material. She’s not out to turn Hanna and Michael into some manner of star-crossed lovers. Instead, the entire score stays securely within a serious, almost strident ideal. This plotline needs to be respected, says Mulhy’s melodies, and for the most part, the listener acquiesces. Even toward the end, the score stays understated, avoiding outward melodrama and schmaltz to keep the sentiments real.

Beginning with minor moments like “The Egg” and “Spying”, things don’t really take off for the score until “The First Bath”. For those who know the film, this is also the beginning of Hanna and Michael’s elicit relationship. By the time we get to “You Don’t Matter”, Mulhy has done a good job of creating a compelling backdrop for their love. “Go Back to Your Friends” turns the tide, setting up the setting half of the film and the realization of our heroine’s troubled, inexcusable past. From then on, “Handwriting”, “The Failed Visit”, and “The Verdict” all accentuate the narrative with little bits of instrumental brilliance. Like the best movie compositions, The Reader supplements the tale. It doesn’t try to technically stand on its own or provide a wholly iconic counterpoint. Instead, Mulhy sees her role as coc-onspirator, not main attraction. It’s a role she and her score essay very well indeed.

by Rob Horning

13 Jan 2009

Rob Walker recently posted about Polaroid’s efforts to survive in the digital-camera era. It now intends to offer the PoGo, a digital camera that comes with a built in printer. Judging by the AP review Walker cites, both the camera and printer are somewhat rudimentary, yielding small, low-res prints. This, Walker suspects, will prove to be a feature rather than a bug, since “the imperfections and limitations of actual Polaroid pictures were, in a way, part of their appeal.”

This got me thinking about photos as artifacts, as specific objects that acquire a patina. Part of what makes photos worth saving is not their content alone, the image itself, but also the history that the object itself accumulates as it becomes like a heirloom. And as printing an image becomes more onerous and unnecessary, old photos seem to become valuable in and of themselves, as souvenirs of lost technologies, like old 78s or rotary phones.I wouldn’t want to take the photos I have in box, scan them all, and throw them away (as I did with my CDs after I ripped them to my hard drive). The physical collection has a gravity to it that would be lost and would probably become inconceivable if it were digitized. Handling the objects seems to affect the feelings I have about what I am seeing. (I feel the same way about my long-since-scattered record collection, sacrificed because of NYC-apartment space constraints.) Paging through photo albums, too, is utterly different than scrutinizing image pools online. (This line of thinking makes me wonder if I should print my blog out and bind it, stick it with my college notebooks.)

With actual printed photos, there is a sense that something delicate and ineffable has managed to survive, a small miracle amidst the rampant image destruction we experience in our disposable culture. They seem to have an occult power, as pictures in lockets sometimes seem portentous, mystically imbued with significance. Digitization, though, puts photos in the same category with flickering TV images, meant to be consumed and forgotten after being experienced as entertainment. A physical archive seems to put them in a category with paintings, which invite us to take the time for contemplation. Digital photos are pushing prints further into the rarefied realm of fine art, the audience for them will most likely become reduced to those with the appropriate cultural capital—the aesthetic appreciation training and so on.

Anyway, as a result of all this, I find digital-image frames strange and sad. Would you really stop to contemplate an image in a digital frame? Particularly one that will rotate new images into view like the billboards on bus shelters rotate ads? A certain contempt for memory seems to be built in to this technology. It encourages us to regard nothing framed as permanent, and by extension it prompts us to consider every impulse we might have to frame and preserve a particular image as provisional. The disregard for permanence embodied in such devices as this may establish a kind of material base for institutionalized forgetting. (I typed that sentence a few minutes ago, and now have come back to this and have no idea what I was getting at. Talk about forgetting.) History could be effaced, 1984-style, but worse, we could be convinced by the sorts of things we have in our culture that we shouldn’t even bother with memories. (When people from my high school who I never talked to contact me through Facebook as though we were friends, I have this sense that memory is already under attack—technology affords such interconnectivity that it seems to undermine the finality of choices made in the past, as though they never happened.) There may be no reason to automatically assume that memory preservation is inherently important to us. Given the right conditions, and a certain kind of society fixated on novelty, we could end up with every incentive to try to forget as much as possible, and have new images in our digital frames on a quarter-hourly basis.

by Jason Gross

13 Jan 2009

Just as music was ready to flow freely from iTunes, with all of the DRM stripped away (and offering suckers who already had DRM-coded files to pay extra to free them), entertainment companies now want to add the thorny little copy protections to movies/DVD’s, presumably so they don’t have to go through the same headaches they did with… iTunes and Apple! 

So far, the sheer size of movie files has stopped them from being as easily and readily traded as music has been online but as technology catches up and faster connections are offered to consumers, the gate-keepers realize that this is gonna become a big problem.  The question is, will DRM help these companies lock in consumers and make them buy the movies through Apple or other online services? 

The answer is that if movies are locked down in stupid, confusing, frustrating ways (the way way that digital music has been), consumers are going to find non-sanctioned ways to get the goodies.  Given the entertainment industry’s track record in the digital age, we can count on them to keep doing the wrong thing and provide good cautionary examples for future generations.

by Matt White

12 Jan 2009

The 1993 music video for “Gentlemen” was my introduction to the Afghan Whigs, who would quickly become one of my favorite bands. At first glance it might seem like a pretty standard-looking rock video, but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be something much stranger.

In the video singer Greg Dulli stalks around a house that looks like a set from Beverly Hills 90210, peering out the windows at the neighbors, snarling and looking more than a little like Joaquin Phoenix (young Joaquin, not new shaggy Joaquin). Behind Dulli, the band is rocking out with such force that it’s hard not to wonder why the Whigs aren’t brought up more as one of the truly great bands of the ‘90s. The song itself is an all-out attack, with Dulli not so much singing the words as spitting them. Recounting a relationship gone sour, you can hear the venom in his voice on lines like “We dragged it out so long this time started to make each other sick” and “I waited for the joke…it never did arrive.” The chorus has him pleading innocence: “Do you understand?! I’m a gentle man!” The delivery of these lines would lead us to believe otherwise.

As Greg walks through the house after peeping on the neighbors, something very strange happens. It cuts from him walking towards the camera, singing, to a large black man walking towards the camera, singing. It then cuts back to Dulli and then to an old (white) man walking towards the camera, singing. Both the big black guy and the little old man are dressed exactly the same as Dulli, suggesting that they in fact ARE Dulli. It’s bizarre and somewhat unsettling and what it’s suggesting is anyone’s guess. The whole video actually, from the sets to the editing, has a very ominous Twin Peaks-like, surreal quality about it. In other words; a great video and a perfect introduction to the Afghan Whigs.

by Bill Gibron

12 Jan 2009

For a long time, fans of Hong Kong action movies have complained about the “Americanization” of the genre. No, not the obvious bows to Western convention copied by film directors desperate to bring some style to their spectacle, but the brutal, mostly unnecessary desire by US studios to overdub dialogue and substitute scores. A perfect case of this revamp attitude is Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3. The third in the successful series for superstar Jackie Chan, it was a huge hit in 1992. But it wasn’t until after Rumble in the Bronx proved the Asian actor’s box office power in the States that the film was retitled, redubbed, and given a slick urban hip-hop sheen. Now, Dragon Dynasty is offering purists a chance to see the film outside the English and rap realm. Sadly, however, some of the more controversial cuts remain intact.

After several successful cases, the Hong Kong police want to promote Inspector Chan Ka Kui. The chief, however, countermands his supervisor Uncle Bill Wong and requests that their “supercop” take a deadly assignment on the mainland. With the help of Interpol director Jessica Yang, the policeman will infiltrate a coal mining prison, rescue a wanted drug dealer, and deliver him back to his mob boss leader, Big Brother Chaibat. All goes to plan, and soon Ka Kui and Yang are working for the criminals as brother and sister. As they prepare for a massive deal with a disgraced dope smuggling general and his many minions, the lawmen think they’ve finally won. Leave it to Ka Kui’s jealous girlfriend May to mess things up. She exposes her undercover lover, leading to a standoff between our heroes and the hard-boiled villains.

With nearly ten minutes missing from this version of the film and a desire by The Weinstein Company and its martial arts imprint to label this edition “Ultimate”, fans of Jackie Chan and Police Story 3 have some serious issues to consider. On the one hand, Dragon Dynasty does its typical bang-up job when it comes to sound, image, extras and overall packaging. We get interviews with Chan and incredible co-star Michele Yeoh, as well as talks with director Stanley Tong and ‘FoJ’ (friend of Jackie), bodyguard and training partner Ken Lo. Heck, even Hong Kong film scholar and sometimes producer Bey Logan is back for another of his effervescent, informative commentaries. But to take a movie originally running 101 minutes and trimming it down to 91 seems like a shame. And since we are supposed to believe that this DVD trumps all others, the absence of said sequences is troubling.

Don’t be mistaken - Supercop (as it was retitled) is still a great film, not matter the final content. It represents a perfect pairing in Chan and Yeoh, a chemistry that calls into question any other combination with the performers. It offers fights o’plenty and a plethora of pulse-elevating stunts. It illustrates how favored actors and familiar characters can lead to all manner of entertainment options, and ends with one of the most classic car/helicopter/train chases ever. As a matter of fact, if you watch closely, you can see some of the moves Matrix action coordinator Woo-ping Yuen more or less “borrowed” for his work with the Wachowskis. Add in the usual amount of Chan-inspired self-deprecating humor, a nutty subplot involving Insp. Chan Ka Kui long suffering girlfriend May, and a viable villain in Chaibat, and you’ve got all the elements for a first rate rollercoaster thrill ride.

And director Tong truly delivers. This is a perfectly paced effort (which naturally makes you wonder about the missing minutes) with the narrative unveiled in calm, considered chunks. When Ka-Kui is asked by Brother Panther to visit the undercover cop’s ancestral “home”, the drawn out process towards a police-inspired familial set-up makes for a nice level of nervousness. Similarly, when Chan is hanging from a helicopter, clearly performing his own stunt several HUNDRED feet above the Hong Kong skyline, the inherent vertigo is frightening. Tong plays up the bidding relationship between Chan and Yeoh, making Maggie Chueng’s May (a series mainstay) seem almost unnecessary.  He even milks laughs out of “Uncle” Bill Wong’s inspired drag act.

For their part, The Weisteins and Logan argue for the changes. The discussion centers on how to successfully market a foreign film to novice viewers and the various reasons for Chan’s success in the West. They complain that those arguing for the inclusion of the lost footage have rarely seen it, suggesting that its initial inclusion was somehow superfluous. The also explain a “culture-ccentric” view of the entire process, stating that Hong Kong crowds want a more “serious” look at their crime stories, while Americans crave big, dumb spectacle. While they have a point - and the added Q&As are indeed excellent - what true aficionados want is the complete film, flaws and all. They want to judge what should and should not be in the final cut, not someone who senses they know better.

Whatever the controversy come messageboard debates, one thing’s for certain - Supercop (or Police Story 3, whatever you want to call it) is a super film. It breezes by on the charm and physical acumen of its leads, and leaves nothing behind in its pursuit of big screen, balls to the wall thrills. The notion that Americans couldn’t appreciate Chan in his “native” form is foolish. Nothing done for this US version countermands the elements that make Master Jackie a worldwide phenomenon. He is still one of the bravest, most affable actors in all of action filmdom. And his physical grace matches his personal courage flawlessly. Nothing can rewrite that bit of show business truth. While it may not actually represent the “ultimate” edition of the film, the DVD of Supercop is sure to please even the most diehard martial arts maven.

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