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by Bill Gibron

26 Apr 2009

While sports reporters have sat back and lamented laboriously about the apparent death of “the sweet science” (aka, boxing), mixed martial arts and its various pugilistic paradigms (cage fighting, pit fighting, bare knuckles, etc.) have slowly taken over the squared circle demographic. Returning the art of kicking someone’s ass to the days of no holds barred bedlam, this new breed of brawl is like Thunderdome without the random Tina Turner appearances. It’s pure brutality and body builder frescos, aggression laced with nothing except amped adrenalin. Now, in an attempt to broaden their brawny appeal, certain MMA superstars have made a movie. Entitled Never Surrender, it’s as shameless as it is packed with the kind of product a videogame fed fight fan of this new style of smackdown would adore. 

Diego Carter has just won the championship belt in his professional cage fighting division. How does he celebrate? He hooks up with some random Russian babe at a club and ends up competing in an illegal underground fight tournament. The stakes? Lots of cash - tax free - and the “use” of a sexual consort. If you win, you get your opponent’s bed buddy for the night. If you lose - well, Diego never loses, so that’s not important. While his friends and brother obsess over his whereabouts, our hero continues to kick butt and sample the “spoils” of his victories. But when he learns that the ladies are white slaves to the competition’s director, an evil man named Seifer, and that there is really no hope of escape, Diego decides to settle things once and for all - and there’s only one place where he meters out his brand of justice…in the ring!

Never Surrender is perfect man cave entertainment. It’s all fisticuffs and fetching females in various states of undress. It’s testosterone fueled with ludicrousness, a movie so unabashedly aimed at the crotch of its potential viewers that it barely comes up for some fresh, musk free air. The brainchild of former champion/fighter extraordinaire Hector Echavarria (who wrote, produced, directed AND stars here), this is merely an excuse for 89 breezy minutes of sex and violence. When Diego and his pals aren’t messing up wannabes who think they can challenge their well chiseled sense of propriety, they’re beating the snot out of each other in ADD edited action scenes. It has to be said that, as a filmmaker, Echavarria gets the concept of celluloid clashes right. His fights are gladiatorial in nature, ebbing and flowing before faces are smashed directly into the canvas.

He also loves the ladies. While the primary casting commitment needed to be an actress here revolves around a desire to show off your dirty pillows, our director makes the most of his monkey business. It’s as if Zalman King stepped off the set of Red Shoe Diaries circa 1992 and decided to make Bloodfist IX: Tits and Tap Outs. The longue lizard muzak in the background. The emphasis on nubile flesh being literally manhandled by battle weary hunks. If it weren’t for the post-modern LA/Las Vegas setting, you’d swear this was some kind of perverse peplum. Scattered throughout are Eschavarria’s pals - men with names like Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, Anderson “The Spider” Silva, BJ “The Prodigy” Penn, and someone this critic has actually heard of, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Together, they turn a nonstop barrage of barely believable elements into a grand goofy guilty pleasure.

The biggest props, however, need to go to Patrick Kilpatrick as the vile, villainous Seifer. This is a meat puppet who clearly believes every sentiment slipping out of his chiseled, cauliflowered façade. Though he’s not a professional fighter, he has the look of someone who has used his biceps instead of his brains to solve problems. Attempting a passable Eastern European accent (lots of V-ed “W"s here), he comes across as malevolence housed in a steroided stump of a human being. He’s the reason we care about anything here. His omnipresent threat, positioned against the inevitability of a last act showdown, pushes Never Surrender forward where it would otherwise stumble and stop.

As for our multifaceted lead, Echavarria suffers from his resemblance to another ‘80s icon. When you squint your eyes and add a pronounced Bronx honk, this Argentine athlete looks striking like Andrew Dice Clay, down to the slicked back hair and chest forward persona. If he wasn’t spewing Shaolin style proverbs about being true to yourself, you’d swear he’d be cracking wise with curse-word laden nursery rhymes. Otherwise, he’s like the rest of the fighters present - capable, if not very polished. They can definitely stand tall during the well choreographed fight scenes. But give them a ream of dialogue, or even worse, a silent sequence where they must react to something off camera, and they turn into Carl Lewis throwing out the first pitch at a 2003 Seattle Mariners’ game. They’re not bad, just a little befuddled by thinking with anything other than their mitts.

As for the DVD, Lionsgate does little to celebrate this attempt at cinema. There’s a nice, EPK-like Making-of, which tends to let the montages, and not the cast and crew, do the talking. Then there’s “Anatomy of a Fight”, which does a much better job of explaining Echavarria’s directing style and the amount of work that went into ‘faking’ these fights. Last but definitely least, the horrid half-metal musings of a band known as 12 Stones gets a chance to remind us of how awful the opening song is by offering “Adrenaline” as an actual video. Joy. What would have been nice is a commentary track, Echavarria and his fellow fighters settled down to explain their love of MMA and the sport in general. This would help those outside the mixed martial arts sphere of influence understand the men involved, and the attraction to such brazen brutality.

If all you want is groin-grabbing entertainment that never even attempts to engage you on an intellectual level, then Never Surrender will be your flawless fight club companion. It’s unapologetic at delivering exactly what you expect from a movie made up of MMA members, and it delivers said viciousness with enough panache and bare bodkin to serve its demographic very well indeed. As it continues to put traditional boxing in its place, as it removes the tag of art from anything having to do with the muscular destruction of another human’s being, mixed martial arts moves closer and closer to the kind of professional “status” that wrestling once enjoyed - a massive, multimedia spectacle that was eventually undone by the inability to deny how staged it all was. This genre is far from fake. Still, it has a way to go to achieve universal appeal - and Never Surrender is an excellent example of why.

by Bill Gibron

25 Apr 2009

If there is one name that’s synonymous with over-generalized ‘80s ennui, it’s Bret Easton Ellis. From his initial literary phenomenon Less than Zero to the publishing scandal that was American Psycho, this so called savant has obsessed on the hedonistic decadence of the Greed Decade to the point where he’s literally blurred the lines between truth and taboo. Indeed, most of his stories seem shocking in their lack of human connectivity and with their rampant descent into sex and violence, he appears numb to the normalcy of individual existence. Now comes The Informers, a planned “satire” that was sidetracked by a studio wanting a more studied period piece. What they wound up with instead is a scattered, frequently intriguing omnibus that makes the audience work too hard to find something satisfying.

When their best buddy dies in a freak car accident, drug dealer Graham, video director Martin, their mutual gal pal sex partner Christie, and the rest of their cocaine-fueled friends take stock of their spoiled rich kid life in 1984 Los Angeles. When they’re not zooming around town playing grown-up, they are watching their parents fall in and out of love and loyalty. This includes Graham’s mother and father, who split up when he, a studio executive, began a torrid affair with a fresh faced news anchor. It devastated her life, to the point where she’s taken up with one of her son’s friends. Then there’s rock star Bryan Metro, returning to California for the first time since his previous band broke up amid the death of one of its members. He hopes to reconnect with his damaged wife and kid. Finally, Graham’s doorman Jack is being pestered by his criminal uncle who has the unsettling idea of kidnapping a young child to settle his illegal debts.

At its core, The Informers wants to be a tale about inevitability. It wants to argue that no matter what you do, no matter the precautions you take or the care you give to your decisions, the end result is predetermined by the situation you find yourself in to begin with. So when the late Brad Renfro discovers his felonious relative Mickey Rourke on his doorstep one day, the decision to not call the cops results in his eventual collaboration in an unspeakable crime. Similarly, when party boy Martin is marked as a bisexual prostitute selling his favors for whatever he can get, the cloud of AIDS that’s hanging over the story’s subtext is bound to make an appearance. Indeed, in this wasted world of bright lights, bad pastels, and an overreliance on Ray-bans, everything hinted at - homosexuality, promiscuity, self-gratifying excess - eventually comes back to bite the people populating this particular patch of Sodom.

But that doesn’t mean the movie works. Not at all. This is nothing more than Short Cuts with shortcuts. Indeed, Gregor Jordan, an Aussie with a resume that barely suggests an ability to handle a multi-faceted and dysfunctional narrative, spends so much time suggesting and inferring that he never gets around to actually answering any questions. What is the problem between the clearly alcoholic Chris Isaac and his dandy, determined son? Why is Kim Basinger always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and what was the “horrible thing” Billy Bob Thorton did to destroy their marriage? Does Christie have AIDS, or is she just another half-dressed supermodel corpse rotting in the LA sun, and is her propensity toward body fluid swapping going to doom those she’s favored? If it were sleazy fun, or seriously insightful, we might enjoy the experience. But Jordan, working from a heavily edited script by Easton himself and collaborator Nicholas Jarecki, thinks that somber is the same thing as dramatic. Somewhere along the line he got “engaging” and “inert” mixed up.

His cast tries, through an almost unrecognizable Brad Renfro (in his last film appearance, sadly) is a bit too mannered as the everyman tossed into his Uncle’s pedophilic like predicament. One of the biggest problems facing The Informers is the decision to cast a bunch of faceless pretty kids from the CW school of character representation. Basinger has presence. Thorton, when he’s not looking like he’s lost in a wave of near unconsciousness, has presence. Even Rourke going gonzo again has presence. But the semi-clothed wanna-tweens taking up space as supposed refugees from the by-gone era of blow and bad hair are like interchangeable dolls in Mattel’s new Really Bad Bratz line. Their acting may be adequate and their look reminiscent of a time that would support both Adam Ant and Jerry Falwell, but that’s where the charisma ends.

Indeed, by the time we see the tripwire rocker beat a corn-fed groupie, when Christie lays covered in sores from what seems like a weekend battling HIV, when Basinger makes her charity function move, we’ve stopped paying attention to the plot points. Instead, The Informers is by then coasting on a decent soundtrack, a nominal look, and a surreal sense of watching highly paid celebrities acting awkward for the sake of an unclear endgame. True, Jordan thinks he’s pitching a period meditation on the last bastions of freewheeling excess before Mrs. Reagan and the “gay plague” would come along and take all the fun out of life. Someone probably has a really insightful multi-character look at LA sitting around in their laptop, a truly important work that doesn’t substitute MTV for meaning or casual fornication for the shape of things to come. Bret Easton Ellis has made quite a career out of carving up the ‘80s into disposable bits of bite-size irony. With The Informers, the nibbles are nice, but the overall meal is bloated with unnecessary excess.

by Bill Gibron

24 Apr 2009

Not every true story makes for good cinema. Sometimes, an intriguing idea is just that - a decent concept that can’t take the transition from fact to big screen “fiction”. From the soggy motion picture biographies of far more significant individuals to the frequently fabricated horror films based “on actual incidents”, the notion that truth trumps anything that a writer could create is narrow-minded at best, ridiculous at the very worst. Speaking of subpar, the proposed award season entry from last year, The Soloist, is finally hitting theaters just before the start of the Summer movie blitz. Many have waited several months to see Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx tear up the screen in anticipation of several little gold statutes. Based on the movie being offered, however, they will be waiting a really long time.

While he recuperates from a bad bicycle accident, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez scours the city, looking for the next great human interest story. He discovers it in one Nathanial Ayers, a homeless musician who claims to have attended Juilliard. A little research proves the man’s claims as correct. A little more investigation reveals why he never completed his education - Nathanial is mentally ill, hearing a nonstop stream of voices in his head that only a life on the street can stifle. Lopez wants to help, steering Ayers toward a skid row shelter where he might get some much needed assistance. But the well-meaning journalist soon learns that Los Angeles’ street people need more than just a handout. They deserve and demand respect, something that even this high minded reporter can’t completely provide.

There is not a single honest emotion in The Soloist - from the divorced reporter who sees himself as the voice of a city to a schizophrenic virtuoso who saw the voices in this head ruin his chances at Juilliard, and all that comes from such a studied musical education. Like another movie about mental illness which substituted gimmicks for gritty truths, this is A Beautiful Mind with random accents of Beethoven. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is back in the good graces of Hollywood’s acting A-list, his troubled reporter reduced to spastic stoicism as a way of making up for his lacking as a parent and partner, and Catherine Keener is all hippy momma earthiness as his ex-wife/editor keeping the corporate wolves at bay while her man makes his way around the general interest elements of Southern California.

The minute Jamie Foxx shows up, however, whatever effectiveness director Joe Wright can muster is melted away in a community college level of thespianism. There is never an authentic note in what the former In Living Color comic turned Oscar winning egotist tries with the troubled Nathanial Ayers. While it all may be based in reality (this is a - mostly - true story after all), Foxx just doesn’t have the depth to pull it off. He’s so mannered, so obviously giving a “performance” that we see ever preplanned twitch, cringe at every ad-libbed attempt at turning reams of dialogue into demented rants. Foxx fails miserably here. He will be heroic and championed only by those whose cinematic experience is limited to movies made in the last ten years. Others who trodden down this territory and succeeded - Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? - could give the wannabe scene stealer a lessen or two.

None of this excuses Wright. Somehow, his epic eye in Atonement has gone cloudy and unfocused here. When Foxx “experiences” classical selections, the audience witnesses them in some of the most confusing, disconnected montages ever. One offers CG pigeons cascading across as Google Earth version of LA, while another is a direct rip-off of Fantasia, down to the darkened screen and the sudden bursts of rhythmically timed color. Ayers madness is realized in Dolby Digital delirium, the constant conversations in his head rendered moot of meaning or motivation. And then there are the flashbacks. The first one arrives so unexpectedly that we don’t even recognize that Wright has taken us into the past. Soon, whenever the story gets complicated, we are whisked back to sepia tones, bad fashion, and a repetitive reminder that, if it wasn’t for his bad brain, Nathanial would be a star.

It all becomes so trite and unconvincing - and that’s not even dealing with the excess material Wright feels compelled to add in. There are literal cinematic lectures about respecting the homeless, neo-noir journeys into the dark pits of Los Angeles Hell-like skid row, and an obsession with urine that’s never explained. Downey’s character is supposedly one of those gruff and uncompromising newshounds who can smell a story a mile away. Yet when the city pulls a fast one and uses its multi-million dollar commitment as an excuse to sweep through the streets with a “clean up” task force, he seems stunned. In fact, he’s so dew-eyed and defeated that he can’t see the object of his concern standing right behind him. From the ‘Go with God’ cello instructor that actually makes Ayers worse to the coda which claims that all is right with the situational world now that our subject is living indoors, The Soloist strains for credibility. All it manages to do is pull a series of motion picture muscles.

Had there been a more concerted effort to boil things down to a purely personal level, had Wright and his screenwriters stripped away all the strangled social commentary and simply focused on Lopez and Ayers, we might have something special. Indeed, had a real actor been paired against the always terrific Downey, we’d perhaps experience the same kind of emotional tug that made this tale so celebrated in the first place. No one is knocking the work the real Steve Lopez did to help Nathanial Ayers rise up from a horrible, squalid situation, and the movie never really exploits the talented and troubled man. But when dealing with the often harsh realities of life on the street, we shouldn’t be so aware of the falsehoods floating around. The Soloist is all artifice. It should have stayed true to the art involved. 

by Bill Gibron

23 Apr 2009

It’s a shame when otherwise capable performers fail to get their due. No, not like Anvil, who have spent the last 35 years rocking in the free world of undeniable talent and missed opportunities, or Jeffrey Combs would could definitely defend himself against the A-list big boys but continues to wile away in low budget b-movies. In this case, the conversation turns to one Joe Spinell. Recognize the name? If you are a sleazoid horror fan, you probably remember the imposing actor’s turn in the classic ‘80s slasher epic Maniac. Or maybe you’ve seen him trading paisans with fellow Italians Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro in Rocky, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver respectively.

Yet ever since the tough guy archetype passed away under mysterious circumstances in 1989 at age 53, his celebrity has been subverted, replaced by a reputation based solely on an exploitation-like effort and an inability to step out and defend himself. Home video has a habit of turning journeymen into jokes, emphasizing one or two titles without putting a specific performer into a realized perspective. Spinell was much more than his frequent freak show parts. He was an accomplished stage actor, parlaying his size and outward ethnicity into a stint alongside some of the great post-modern filmmakers of the ‘70s. He worked with Coppola, Scorsese, and Friedkin - he even lost a part in Jaws thanks to a friend’s ongoing relationship issues.

Seen today, Spinell is indeed special. His work resonates with a kind of unhinged power, an unpredictability that comes from being expertly schooled in your craft. A brief YouTube trek bears this out. From small time scenes in Driver to a full blown supporting part in Nighthawks (where he puts a verbal smackdown on Sly), Spinell more than holds his own. He grabs the audience’s attention, demanding they watch as his characters move between moods with intensity and intrigue. Maniac may be his best remembered turn, but such splatter film histrionics don’t truly illustrate his abilities. No, if you really want to see Spinell unravel right before your eyes, you need to check out an early ‘80s sleeper entitled The Last Horror Film (also known as Fanatic. As wannabe auteur Vinny Durand, delusional and obsessed with actress Jana Bates (Caroline Munro), Spinell puts out a tour de force performance that few in his peer group can match.

The set-up here is key to understanding what he accomplishes. Vinny is a Momma’s boy in the worst kind of way. Middle aged, disheveled, and resembling a porn star gone to seed, we first see Spinell interacting with said matriarch, a mousy Italian widow who plays her part in a perfect combination of disconnect and dictator. She loves her son, but thinks he’s a bum. He reacts by going into fits of bug-eyed rage that have to be seen to be understood. Vinny is not necessarily crazy, just insanely committed to the belief that he’s a great filmmaker. He even travels to Cannes to catch up with Ms. Bates, hoping to convince her that his script for a new Dracula tale is the ‘last horror film’ she will ever have to do. In between psychotic episodes, various members of the visiting Hollywood elite are picked off by an unseen killer.

Of course, the narrative presumes that Vinny is the murderer, and all throughout The Last Horror Film, Spinell is portrayed as being just fringe enough to be capable of slaughter. Applying the kind of dense dream logic that makes David Lynch a genius and shifting wildly between reality and motion picture make-believe, director David Winters definitely keeps us guessing. Even as the blood flows and the organs fly, we are never quite convinced if what we are seeing is truth, falsehood, or a complete fabrication in Vinny’s mind. Spinell is given a chance to confuse matters further by going full bore bonkers in several supposed fantasy scenes. He even confronts himself, Spinell #1 choking Spinell #2 in amazing meta style.

Indeed, it’s safe to say that every moment that this actor is onscreen during The Last Horror Film is sensational. Spinell doesn’t just steal that movie from his various well equipped co-stars: he’s like a cinematic terrorist. He holds the audience hostage and demands they come around to his way of thinking before he even considers setting them free. Nerded up in uncomfortable clothes and greasy hair, he’s like a more tainted Toby Radloff, a savant reduced to savagery by a society that doesn’t understand his hopelessly hidden talents. And when he breaks down, when the truth tears apart his fragile false reality, he dissolves into pools of despair so massive they threaten to swallow up everything in the frame.

Some might call it over the top. Others could confuse it with some manner of amateurish incompetence. But both would be missing the bigger picture. Spinell’s intensity is not a burden, but a shiny badge of indie honor. He was willing to take any part and make it a full blown cinematic experience. As he did in Maniac, Spinell found the evil inherit in all men and made it flesh. He also discovered their nobility, their need, their all consuming passions and their implausible relationships with others. Spinell’s mother also elicits nothing but smiles, her pinched faced fierceness matched only by her complete lack of affectation. She’s just like her son. Both are genuine. He’s just more skilled at applying said sincerity to any and all situations.

That’s why it’s such a shame that Spinell died when he did. Now, in the glare of DVD’s redefining laser light, he could become the celebrated superstar his work ethic demanded. He’d be first on the list for any homage heavy filmmaker, from Quentin Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson while continuing to find favor with previous collaborators from the ‘70s and ‘80s. He might be a little slower and a lot older (he’d be 73 this year), but his powers would not be dampened by age or physical limits. When he commanded a role, no one was as domineering as Joe Spinell. He stands as a forgotten giant in an arena which barely acknowledges its current crop of talent. Here’s hoping that, as time goes on, he’s rediscovered by a messageboard nation ripe to turn him into an obsession. His legacy deserves it.


by Bill Gibron

22 Apr 2009

In the big bad world of motion picture morality, there is a never-ending battle between good and evil. From the very foundations of the artform to the recent hits that bring audiences to their feet, heroes and villains are the reason for cinema’s lasting impact. They may not always be visible, and there are times when post-modern philosophies try to blur the lines between virtue and vice. Still, the war between ethical factions rages on - in dramas and action spectacles, horror narratives and standard morality plays…and linked in lockstep are the composers and musicians who make the differentiation between pro and con all the more recognizable. Indeed, aural symbolism works wonders in keeping the often cloudy contour between nice and nasty in check, and if it can add a little atmosphere and mood to the overall experience, then all the better.

This time out, Short Ends & Leader’s Surround Sound will look at three recent soundtracks that take the notion of white hats and black hats all too seriously. First up is the non-hit parade version of one of NBC’s biggest flashes in the pan. Luckily, the ladies behind the music make a much more profound (and lasting) impact. Similarly, a sedate update of a true terror sleazepit is buffered by a brilliant score from an unsung cinema MVP, while various tunesmiths see their work for a certain Bruce Wayne reworked by one of Eastern Europe’s most accomplished orchestras. Together, they take the notion of what constitutes merit and what emphasizes meanness and turns it into a jolting journey through the soundscapes of your own complicated perception, beginning with the brilliance that is:

Heroes: Original Score from the Television Series [rating: 9]

For many Prince fans, the contributions of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman are crucial to the Purple One’s rise from studio savant to stadium superstar. They were pinnacle personnel in his band, The Revolution, and were literally instrumental in helping him achieve mass media prominence with many of his main ‘80s albums. But rising tensions caused the duo to leave their one time collaborator, and the rest is half-rumored history. While His Royal Highness went through a symbolic phase and continues to struggle for commercial parity, Wendy and Lisa have found cult success with a series of “solo” albums, as well as working on the score for the film Dangerous Minds. When NBC phenom Heroes bowed in 2006, the pair provided the sparse, ambient backing. Now collected in a soundtrack compilation, their contributions to the series mark an important development in both their professional direction and the concept of what constitutes television composition.

Tinged with Eastern flavor and running the gamut from straightforward and symphonic to ethereal and excessively moody, the work Wendy and Lisa offer for Heroes is nothing short of astonishing. Bringing everything to the table from their rock and roll roots to the slightest bit of blue-eyed funk, these unquestionable artists understand the inherent need to fuse drama with dynamics when backing a show of this style. Everything, from the eerie opening “Title” to the longer tone poems like “Peter”, “Claire”, and “Mohinder” (most of the songs here are themes for specific characters and/or show elements) effortlessly move between cinematic styling and aural splendor. Other highlights include “Kirby Plaza”, “Skylar”, and the terrific triptych “Jessica/Niki/Gina”. By the time the disc ends on the splashy “Fire and Regeneration”, we feel like we’ve traveled to a mystic land within the world, a place where sound fuses with significance to make the entire process seem important and oh so entertaining.

The Last House on the Left: Original Motion Picture [rating: 9]

He’s offered his composition skill to some of the best, most ambitious movies of the last ten years, from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Yet few outside these cult titles know John Murphy - and that’s a shame. Aside from Snatch and Miami Vice, he’s never been part of a monster mainstream hit, nor has his haunting, evocative scoring shown up on a brassy popcorn treat. Instead, he’s slowly worked to make his name as a writer of intense, interesting backdrops. One of his best comes from the unlikeliest of sources - a remake of one of the ‘70s most controversial and crude exploitation classics. Indeed, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left remains a notorious video nasty, as much for what it actually accomplishes onscreen as for the unforgettable ad campaign asking audiences to remember “it’s only a movie.” While the revamp definitely suffers in comparison, Murphy’s musical contribution is amazing. It’s one of the best horror scores ever.

This is a soundtrack that takes the position of locational substitution, placing us directly into the line of fire and inside the fear and danger of the film’s frightened characters. Random piano arpeggios underline the fatal, depressing nature of the crimes to come and throughout, the atmosphere is increased by frequent atonal blasts and moments of frigid silence. Beginning with the “Opening Titles”, and treading through an amazing set that includes “The Pool”, “The Boathouse”, “In the Woods”, and “Are You Ready to Be a Man”, Murphy prepares us for the terrors to come. By the time we experience the awful aural truths of “Killing Paige”, “Saving Mari”, and “John vs. Krug”, Last House on the Left has become a kind of radio play. We can see the shivers in our mind, witness the struggles between the innocent and the wicked. With “The End” putting a poetic, ambivalent cap on all the mayhem, the result is something sonically incredibly. For anyone interested in ambient music with an edge, Last House is a score to savor. 

The Music of Batman Performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus [rating: 7]

They are such cultural linchpins, snapshots of cinema from the various decades they helped define, that it was only a matter of time before the Batman movies (as well as the seminal ‘60s TV series and recent animated reinventions) would get their own kind of aural scholarship. With contributions from compositional giants like Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard, and Hans Zimmer, this compilation of all things Dark Knight offers the Prague Philharmonic covering all the caped crusader bases. We even get the highly effective work of Shirley Walker and Christopher Drake on the cartoon version of the masked vigilante. Of course, a little orchestral bombast can go a long way, but with the polished performances and brilliant sense of scope provided on this releas, the results more than speak for themselves.

Things begin with the most recognizable. When they arrive, it’s amazing how well known and culturally significant Elfman’s work on the Burton Batman really is. The CD offers cuts including the “Theme”, “Flowers”, “Love Theme”, “The Joker’s Poem”, “Clown Attack”, as well as “Up the Cathedral” and the creepy “Waltz with Death”.  Things shift significantly, both in quality and ability to entertain outside the cinema with Elliot Goldenthal’s work on the far less effective Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Of course, things return to greatness when Howard and Zimmer amplify what’s epic about Batman Begins and the smashing Dark Knight. These final two selections, offering the cuts “Eptesicus” and “Aggressive Expansion” show how well Christopher Nolan redefined the comic book hero epic. The rest of the material, from Mask of the Phantom, Gothic Knight, and the ABC kitsch classic (including Nelson Riddle’s big band vamp for the eventual film adaptation) act like end notes to a symphony constructed out of Victorian swells and classical gas. It’s all so outsized and tonally terrific.

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