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by Bill Gibron

11 Apr 2009


To paraphrase a famous quote by one Homer J. Simpson, family is the cause of, and the solution for, all of life’s problems. Issues between parent and child, sibling and sibling, adults and children more or less rule and ruin our sense of self. One day, we’re happy go lucky. The next, we’re dealing with psychological trauma so deep seeded and scaring that it feels like it came directly from the darkest recesses of the womb. As a result, the problems between relatives and crazed kinfolk have sparked dozens of artistic sentiments, from sad songs and symphonies to comic/tragic motion pictures. As part of their seventh outing as humor independents, the gang at Cinematic Titanic have tapped into the bizarre Asian awkwardness of Blood of the Vampires. And as a subtext to their spoofing, the always plentiful wit centers around issues that run thicker than one’s own vein vermouth.

During a luxuriant party for neighbors and friends Don Enrique Escodero is taken ill. On his almost-death bed, he warns his two children, son Eduardo and daughter Leonore, that his will mandates the burning of the family home to the ground. Why? Well, you see, dad has a little secret that he intends to take to his grave. Apparently, the kid’s mother didn’t die as previously stated. No, she fell victim to a crazy curse which only affects the females of the clan. In fact, Don Enrique has the matriarch hidden in a secret basement crypt, living in a coffin. That’s right - Mom’s a vampire and Leonore is apparently destined to become one as well. As the two children try to appease the demands of their specific boy/girl friends, their mother gets loose and starts sucking on the citizenry. Before long, Eduardo and his honey are “infected”, and they intend to turn Lenore as well. Luckily, her main man Daniel is there to help, even from beyond the grave.

Like most movies made in a foreign land while relying on elements wholly Western and unnatural to their culture, Blood of the Vampires (a Philippine production meant to mimic early 20th century Mexico - no, really) is one mixed-up mess. From its hate crime like depiction of subservient slaves (nothing more than actors greased up with very bad - and very obvious - black face) to the weird folklore fashion vampirism is introduced (there’s no main ghoul, just a traditional ‘curse’ that seems to function whenever and however it wants to), director Gerardo de Leon and his capable cast think they’re making a standard cinematic melodrama. There’s so much hand wringing over who will and can get married, so much personal palpitation over the notion of Mom living like an animal in the basement that we hardly get any horror. Instead, there’s confrontation and conflict, but no creeps.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the film is not the various side characters running around with fake fangs in their mouth. Nor is it the incredibly icky sequence where son Eduardo actually lets his Mammy sink her psycho teeth into his neck (incest never seemed so disgusting and unsavory). No, the real brain burner here is the prevalent, one could say overwhelming use of black face and racially insensitive make-up on various extras. Somehow, this movie got it into its thick little skull that turning all the servants into Al Jolson (sans Southern fried accent) was a brilliant bit of period piece recreation. Of course, how dressing actors up like chocolate covered versions of their Asian selves recalls Mexico 100 years ago is anyone’s guess. Still, Blood of the Vampires indulges in such ethnic slander openly and willfully. All needle incisors aside, it’s the film’s most unconscionable calculation.

Family and faux Africans therefore become the main focus for the always hilarious CT tribe. As with past installments in the DVD only series, we continue to get introductory material that explains away some of the concept’s premise. Clearly, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Mary Jo Pehl are part of some giant experiment to give children of the future riffed versions of every film ever made. Of course, while digital copies of the Godfather trilogy metaphysically merge and spoil in storage chambers (a classic opening gag), our heroes have to tolerate incredibly crappy films like Vampires. Elsewhere, the single “stop-gap” sketch features Weinstein brings out a bottle of booze - and Conniff breaking his 22 year old AA vows. In between is the classic comedy stylings that made Mystery Science and its various offshoots so gosh darn popular.

Indeed, the best thing about Cinematic Titanic, outside the abundant laughs, is the feeling of familiarity and the accomplishment that comes with skill. All of these performers are so expert in their craft, so freewheeling with their wit, that they can turn anything into a joke. And since much of this humor here centers on familial dysfunction, parent/child peculiarities, pre-marital strife and old world ritual, along with abundant hate crimes, there’s no lack of material for these masters. Indeed, one of the downsides to the Cinematic Titanic collection is that, outside of major studio support or distribution, self-financing and releasing equates with limited additional content. Here, a new feature (“Extras”) is actually nothing more than a collection of trailers that one can already access online. In addition, smaller budgets mean less room for sketches. Perhaps one day we will actually get to see the actual inside of the gang’s underground think tank.

Until then, as long as Hodgson and his pals have access to material and an outlet for it, Cinematic Titanic should do more than survive - it should thrive. Purists who pounce whenever one of their prized schlock sensations is giving the in-theater shaft should really just shut up. Sure, this may be the one and only time film fans see your fabled foreign neckbiters film starring overly tanned Philippinos playing superstitious Hispanics, but when the results are as reprehensible as Blood of the Vampires, your passion is definitely misplaced (this is, after all, a movie that lets the famous monsters walk around in the daylight and see themselves in the mirror). It’s very similar to the kind of uproar one experiences when family goes fetid for the sake of individual angst or anxiety. Such biological links indeed create both benefits and detriments. In the case of Cinematic Titanic, however, they’re nothing but fodder for genius. 

by Bill Gibron

9 Apr 2009


It’s safe to say that, somewhere down the line, Jody Hill is going to make a truly f*cked-up masterpiece. He’s going to drop all the idiosyncrasies and preplanned insularity, dig deep into his feverish and often fetid imagination, dump the angst-ridden Apatow shtick and come away with something truly remarkable. You can sense it in the work he’s done so far - the mean-spirited satire of The Foot Fist Way, the equally ugly honesty of Eastbound and Down. Now comes his latest big screen screed, the wickedly weird mall cop craziness known as Observe and Report. Starring funny business flavor of the month Seth Rogen and dealing once again with an isolated individual struggling to make a statement in a world that only wants reassurances, Hill definitely has his hands full. This time around, however, audiences may not be ready for the eerily familiar juggling act.

All his life, Ronnie Barnhardt has wanted to be part of law enforcement. His dream is to become a police officer and carry a gun. Unfortunately, he is stuck as head of security for a local mall, and while he takes his job very seriously, the rest of the employees think he’s a joke. When a flasher starts stalking women at the facility, including Ronnie’s dream babe make—up counter girl Brandi, the mentally unbalanced rent-a-cop vows to solve the case. In doing so, he hopes this prissy party gal will become his regular Saturday night thing. Of course, he will have to get around actual lawman Detective Harrison, a severe lack of clues, and his own inept sense of self to apprehend the pervert. To add to his frustration, Ronnie finally takes the necessary steps to enter the police academy. While physically capable, his current psychological “deficiencies” might make this a one way street as well.

It’s not Hill’s fault that Kevin James stole his thunder. Indeed, the stand-up turned pseudo-star could not have anticipated that Paul Blart: Mall Cop would be one of 2009’s surprise hits (hackneyed and horrible as it is). Indeed, as audiences exit Observe and Report, many will probably wonder why Rogen and company choose to ride the coattails of said slapstick slice of family farce - especially with such an antisocial take on the material. The truth, of course, is that both films found their way to market without direct correlation of competition from the other. In addition, Hill was hacking away at this screenplay long before James was jumping up and down like an overstuffed burrito in a ball pit. Still, the similarity in subject matter (and the eventual acceptance of Blart‘s mindless mediocrity) means that Observe and Report has absolutely no chance at the box office. By the end of April, it will be listed as one of the Spring’s bigger disappointments.

And that’s too bad. Clearly this film is not for everyone. It doesn’t reach across commercial boundaries to try and embrace the demographic or be everything to everyone…and fail. Instead, Hill is like a stubborn old man, sitting on his motion picture front porch and chasing away all but the more adventurous from his aesthetic lawn. Let’s face it - anyone who uses a naked fatso running full frontal throughout the finale (in slow motion, nonetheless) is tweaking the tenets of modern audience attention spans. He’s challenging those who expect warm and fuzzy with material tepid and frazzled. Rogen is not the cuddly teddy geek he’s portrayed in numerous films. Instead, his Ronnie is a bi-polar problem with a penchant for inappropriate comments, obsessive-compulsive fantasizing, and a real love of weaponry. The minute we watch Rogen shooting targets with a massive handgun, we can guess where this contextual characteristic is going to eventually reveal itself.

There are a lot of hidden agendas in Observe and Report, from a fey Hispanic co-worker who might not be completely honest, to a police detective who’d rather screw around with Ronnie than actually solve the case. There is a classic, curse-laden crossfire between Rogen and a kiosk worker that proves that the F-bomb is still the most versatile of all putdown, and we do enjoy the drunken directness of Ronnie’s mother. Her combination of inebriated insights and off the wall warmth are almost magical. Indeed, one of the best things about Hill’s particular brand of humor is that it’s based wholly on people - problem, hate, and pain filled individuals, but human beings nonetheless. He doesn’t go for the gross out, unless it’s part of someone’s personality, nor does he dim the sentimentality to keep the anarchy alive.

This doesn’t mean that everything works in Observer and Report. Two important players - Ray Liotta’s sarcastic investigating officer and Michael Pena’s lisping security guard are significantly underused and ambiguously formulated. When each one reveals their true nature, it’s less of a surprise and more like a sudden, senseless shock. The same can be said for Faris’ fried make-up clerk. Ditz can only take you so far, and this otherwise capable actress is reduced to playing potted and prone to date-rape like sex. Hill also has a hard time keeping things straight. In one scene, Ronnie is so fascinatingly adept at fighting that he beats down a bevy of street toughs. But in a last act confrontation with the cops, he gets a few good licks in before having his clock cleaned.

And yet, when placed alongside the current crop of gutless comedies, films which manufacture funny stuff out of grade school level quips and uncomfortable physical crudeness (isn’t that right, Pink Panther 2?), Observe and Report is like Conan (the Barbarian, not the late night talk show host). It’s not afraid to take chances, to push envelopes, and explore elements that usually don’t make it into a satire or spoof. With a cast that, for the most part, fits perfectly into Hill’s humor ideals and a story that serves the basic needs of the underdog hero formula, a good time should be had by all. But don’t underestimate that dreaded Blart effect. Word of mouth will doom the eventual bottom line, but that doesn’t take away from what Hill has accomplished. One day, he’ll create his classic. Until then, we’ll have to put up with above-average efforts like Observe and Report. It’s very good. We’ll have to wait until Hill achieves ‘great’.

by Bill Gibron

9 Apr 2009


Times are tough for true independent films. Just ask Troma. The leading purveyor of outside the mainstream art has just had one of its best years. They released the theatrical masterwork Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead back in October to massive critical acclaim, and soon thereafter, restarted their definitive DVD distribution of new and unusual off the radar titles. Still, according to the longstanding icon of all things iconic, all is not well within the world of maverick directors and iconoclastic producers. Just ask Evan Husney, the company’s co-director of video releases. “Studios, mainstream and independent, need to stop worrying about films solely as a ‘product’ and realize that there are still people out there who enjoy seeing a good film,” he said recently in an interview on the subject of independent film. His assessment on the genre in general? “It’s pretty grim.”

After a year which saw the Troma go from almost afterthought to continuing vanguard of a truly dying breed, Husney thinks he knows the cause of the current chaos. “There are and always will be filmmakers producing unique, groundbreaking work,” he says. “However, the distribution vehicle for such work is pathetic.” He elaborates: “Studios are not taking enough risks breaking or developing new artists with new ideas. Film buyers and retailers believe there isn’t any appeal for such alternative product - and that’s B.S.!” Husney experienced this first hand while attending last year’s American Film Market. “I was astonished to find that the current output of most of the indie studios seems as much of a contrived product as that of the mainstream,” he concludes. “If I see another trailer for an indie film with handwritten credits, I’m going to kill myself.”

Hunsey continues: “Most of the independent films featured in the marketplace co-star Michael Madsen as ‘Bob’, ‘Joe’ or ‘Ace’ (take a look at his IMDb for laugh). Other common findings are a tons of Saw imitation posters, children’s films with a CG talking dog, films with phony Cassavetes aesthetics, or somehow a combination of all three co-starring Michael Madsen.” And don’t try to argue for a lack of viable examples. “There were some great indie films last year which were a breath of fresh air,” he adds, “films like Wendy and Lucy, Shotgun Stories, and Let the Right One In. At a grassroots level, these films proved to be successful both critically and financially.”

“Something needs to change, and it’s not the filmmakers, it’s the studios,” and as Husney points out, Troma has persevered to remain at the forefront of truly untarnished individual art. “I really hope as digital distribution grows,” he offers, “it will open more avenues for new talented artists to get their work seen!” One of the ways his company continues this good fight is via the freshly minted Tromasterpiece Collection. As Husney explains, “the ultimate goal for the (label) is to take older Troma catalog titles and give them new life to find a much deserved, broader consumer awareness outside of our customer base.” As a close collaboration between the company, founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz and the creative element involved in each, Husney points out that, “fans have been really appreciative of the ‘Tromasterpiece Collection’. We’ve received nothing but praise on the (recent) Redneck Zombies Tromasterpiece DVD, and we owe a lot of it to Pericles Lewnes and Edward Bishop for putting together most of the bonus material.”

Indeed, upcoming titles in the series will follow the same path. According to Husney, the next classic up for reconsideration will be the slasher favorite, The Last Horror Film. It stars Joe Spinell in, what the company refers to as” his most unnerving, perverse performance since his unforgettable starring role in William Lustig’s Maniac.”  The film also reunites Spinell with another Maniac-¬alum; Hammer horror film and Bond-girl babe Caroline Munro. Husney adds that “The Last Horror Film DVD will include the uncut version of the film, which has never been released in America on video and was only available on the pre-certification UK VHS tape released over 25 years ago.”

Fans can also look forward to a wealth of bonus features including a brand new featurette, My Best Maniac which features Spinell’s closest friend, Luke Walter, a brand new audio commentary with Walter, a new interview with Maniac director William Lustig, Buddy G Giovinazzo’s (Combat Shock) short film Mr. Robbie aka Maniac 2 which features Spinell in one of his last performances before his untimely death, original and new trailers, and much more.

After that, Troma will tackle one of its most unusual and satisfying foreign films. “Later in the year we will be releasing the highly anticipated Director’s Cut of Philippe Mora’s Australian bushranger classic Mad Dog Morgan,” says Husney. “The film will be presented with a new beautifully restored, uncut, anamorphic widescreen transfer loaded with new and vintage bonus material.” Mora’s Outlaw masterpiece stars Dennis Hopper in, what the company considers, “his greatest performance of the 1970s next to The American Friend.”

“The Tromasterpiece Collection will also expand with a new anniversary edition of Troma’s War,” Husney points out, which will feature new cast and crew interviews, including a career-spanning featurette on the life and times of Troma’s most famous action hero Joe Fleishaker. In addition, future titles up for consideration include the hilarious the pre-Toxic Avenger ensemble sex comedy, The First Turn-On, Spanish horror classic The Hanging Woman starring Paul Naschy, and Lech Kowalski’s harrowing Story of a Junkie (a true underground masterwork).

But perhaps the most anticipated title of the year is also one of Troma’s most controversial and complex. “Combat Shock has remained hidden in the underground video universe for more than 25 years,” Husney points out, “and has now fully ripened to disgust, revolt and depress a new generation of indie film viewers.” The 1986 thriller about a returning war vet and the troubles he faces readjusting to civilian life is, according to the company, “more relevant today than it did during its initial theatrical release.” Husney explains.  As usual, fans and first timers can expect a great deal of depth from the upcoming digital package.

Combat Shock: 2-Disc Never-Before-Seen Director’s Cut will include the heavily sought-after pre-Troma cut entitled American Nightmares which is somehow more delightfully repulsive and grim than the Combat Shock cut (which will also be included in the set for comparison).” That’s not all, of course. The most exciting special feature in the set is Post-Traumatic, an American Nightmare, which Husney describes as “a new featurette which contains interviews with filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo contemporaries lending their praise, critical analyzes, and also examining themes of other nihilistic films of the 1980s.”

And the wealth of added content continues. Present in said featurette are such famous genre names as John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), William Lustig (Maniac), Jorg Buttgereit (Necromantik), Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn, The Manson Family), Roy Frumkes (Street Trash), Mitch Davis (Fantasia Film Festival), Joe Kane (The Phantom at the Movies), Rick Sullivan (The Gore Gazette – his first interview in 20 years!), David Gregory (Severin Films), and the star of Combat Shock, in his first sitdown ever…Rick Giovinazzo.

According to Husney, the set will also include, “an audio commentary with Buddy and Jorg Buttgereit, an all new interview with Buddy conducted by Lloyd Kaufman, Buddy’s rarely-seen short film starring Joe Spinell titled Mr. Robbie aka Maniac 2, a look at the locations from Combat Shock as they appear today, original press and photo galleries, new liner notes by Steve Puchalski of Shock Cinema, and other highly anticipated material.”

Last but not least, perhaps the most important DVD collection the company will release this year is not an actual film. Coinciding with founder Lloyd Kaufman’s latest must-own tome, Direct Your Own Damn Movie (published by Focal Press), Husney indicates that “Troma Team Video will be releasing a four-disc DVD box set (of the same name), which will include a newly produced, feature-length documentary with interviews from Stan Lee, Trey Parker, Eli Roth, James Gunn, William Lustig, Stuart Gordon, Penelope Spheeris, Mick Garris, Monte Hellman, Ernest Dickerson, and many more.”

The main feature is a documentary, offering “a step-by-step breakdown of operating outside the studio system as well as a guide to script-writing, pre-production, casting, managing sets, post-production, and the secrets of selling your own dam movie,” says Hunsey. The box set also features six hours of bonus material, including documentary featurettes, extended interviews, music videos, and much more!

“We would love to reissue more forgotten Troma gems from the toxic basement,” Husney indicates, considering how successful DVD updates of titles like Getting Lucky have been. They also plan on putting out the long delayed box set of Giuseppe Andrews films. In addition, the company will continue to seek out and resurrect unusual offerings from around the world, as they did with such new post-millennial classics as Bloospit, Cyxork 7, and The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi. With the limited edition three disc set of Poultrygeist already sold out (Husney adds, “we have hatched the final batch. What ever is on the shelves at your local retailer is all that’s left. Get them while they’re hot!”) it seems like true individual art still has substantial support. Even in these tough economic times, Troma abides. “We have base audience that loves us no matter what,” Husney explains, “and thanks to them, the lights are still on. They are loyal and for good reason.”  Good reason, indeed. 

 

by Chris Barsanti

8 Apr 2009


Right around the moment in Adventureland that desperately awkward James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) and fellow tortured soul Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart) go for a quiet drive in Em’s car, the cassette deck blaring Hüsker Dü‘s “Don’t Want to Know If You’re Lonely” into the suburban night, it becomes clear who exactly this film is targeted at. Yes, it’s another moody evocation of not-so-great times past for those lovesick children of the 1980s who are closing in on middle age.

It’s a peculiar form of nostalgia, born out of little more than an aching memory of post-adolescent longing and confusion, that fraught period that seemed so hopeless at the time and yet can be burnished by hindsight into a sort of bruised Avalon. The jobs might have sucked and that girl or that boy was destined to smash your heart in two, but at least one was young.

And the music was great. Writer/director Greg Mottola could be accused of directing by soundtrack in Adventureland, but what does it really matter when The Replacements get deployed with as much soul-stirring precision as they are here?

There’s more to the film than mood, though at times it hardly matters. Mottola wrote a thin reed of a plot, following James during a post-graduate summer when, instead of backpacking around Europe with his rich buddy, he’s stuck back home, working at a crap amusement park in suburban Pittsburgh to save up money for graduate school. The girl, Em, is destined to steal his heart in the worst way. Meanwhile, James’ either over- or extremely-undereducated co-workers serve as woeful warnings about what a future without graduate school might hold.

The story that Mottola’s crafted contains more battered elements of the drifting indie romantic comedy than should normally be allowed: the bookish and gawky protagonist, the soulful girl with a past, one crazy summer after which nothing would ever be the same, and even a passionate declaration made in the midst of a thundering downpour.

Mottola’s lengthy list of potential sins here also include Apatow-friendly Saturday Night Live cast members (Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig) in supporting roles and a comic relief bit player whose claim to screen time is a predilection for thwacking other guys in the crotch. His screenplay also drags out revealing a particularly obvious “secret” of Em’s long past the point at which even the dullest viewer will have cottoned on to it.

But instead of some rote piece of manufacture, tricked out with smart casting and a demographically-smart soundtrack, Adventureland turns out to be something approaching magical. Maybe it was the spell of those twinkling amusement-park rides against the soft summer dusk, or the languorous ease with which James slips into the summer-job rhythm of low expectations and even lower amounts of effort. The gorgeous usage of Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”—utilized during another soul-stirring nighttime drive, Mottola understanding the centrality to American youth of aimless driving and music like few other artists—certainly helps clinch it.

(It also deserves mentioning that Mottola wisely bucks the recent trend of writing and casting characters in their teens and early-twenties as though they were simply adults with different slang and wardrobes than their parents; by simply looking and sounding their age, his performers come off as impressively authentic.)

A loping comedy of displacement that snaps off dozens of easy laughs without breaking a sweat, Adventureland transcends the indie comedy trap by dint of not being content merely to capture its milieu but to animate it. Another filmmaker might have turned this same story into something like last year’s infinitely disappointing Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist; a film that got all the cultural signifiers right but lost its soul along the way. Adventureland uses its post-punk soundtrack (clashing against the pounding and disco-esque New Wave playing at the awful nightclub they occasionally frequent) and literary references to pinpoint its characters, but it doesn’t let those things fence them in. Yes, James is impressed by Em’s music collection, but it’s her fiercely burning eyes and the way she takes down a co-worker for making an anti-Semitic comment that makes him fall ridiculously in love. She could have loved “Rock Me Amadeus” (playing on infinite loop in Adventureland) and there still would have been sparks. So while Mottola might have created one of the most spot-on soundtracks for depressive survivors of the mid’80s, he’s not substituting music for character, ala Crowe and Tarantino.

Because of this ear for time and place, Adventureland is certainly a more limited creature, in terms of audience reach, than Mottola’s faster, raunchier, and more generalized, but quite similar suburban comedy Superbad. All that the former film required for somebody to love it was their having been, at some point in their life, a teenager. Whereas this newer (and seemingly much more personal) creation is an entirely different thing. Adventureland might not be quite as funny as Superbad in the end (not much has been, the last few years), but it’s a richer and more resonant film in the long run.

by Bill Gibron

7 Apr 2009


There are two kinds of musical scores in movies - those which do their damnedest to announce their presence and participate in the stories/scenes/scenarios being offered, and those that are content to sit back and act like scented candles in an overall atmosphere of shared experience and communal creativity. The former tends to make up the vast majority of today’s musical output, composers so concerned about the next job that they have to make their sonic status good and known less the next skilled craftsman take their place. We see it all over the mainstream movie dynamic, from the underrated Danny Elfman to the overrated John Williams. The latter, on the other hand, is far trickier to get a handle on. Rock and roll icons like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Blur’s Damon Albarn can step out of their bandmate mode and give subtle, signature sounds to even the largest project, while the genre’s biggest names continually revert to the same old pomp and cinematic circumstance.

This passive-aggressive act is perfectly illustrated in this installment of Short Ends and Leader‘s soundtrack overview, Surround Sound. In looking at three recent releases, we find illustrations of both flash with little substance (Monsters vs. Aliens), electricity with more fuel than any film should have (Crank: High Voltage), and the kind of subtle softness that balances support with symbolic shimmer (Sunshine Cleaning). Oddly enough, in two of the three cases, the studios have decided to “accent” these offerings with the same old canned pop charts chum that’s supposed to act like a kind of instant recall. While they work in one (Cleaning), they really undermine the epic earnestness another is attempting. In all three situations, however, we can literally see where ego usurps artistry, and where a need to be recognized is measured against the ability to truly support a motion picture paradigm. We begin with:


Monsters vs. Aliens - Music From the Motion Picture [rating: 6]

It’s tough for composers to make the transition from assistant to featured player. It’s doubly difficult when you’re moving from creator of additional music (for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda) to producing the score for one of 2009’s possible blockbusters. That was the assignment given to Hans Zimmer protégé Henry Jackman. The classically trained UK artist who once collaborated with known pop music producer Trevor Horn, was asked to take on Dreamworks CG spectacle known as Monsters vs. Aliens. Following the tale of an everyday bride struck who grows 50 feet high after being struck by a meteor (she is then kidnapped by the government and secreted away with other so-called “creatures”) the assignment required Jackman to balance the needs of the narrative with the overall campy nature of the project. And just to make things a tad more interesting, he had to make room for a myriad of mandated “classics”, tunes taken in to suggest the 1950’s foundation for the set-up.

If Mars Attacks! and Wolfman Jack had a baby, the bizzaro world offspring known as the Monsters vs. Aliens soundtrack would be the result. Part b-movie schlock, part playlist from an out of touch studio exec’s IPod, this perplexing combination of score and songs gives sonic schizophrenia a new name. On the one hand, Henry Jackman does a marvelous job of matching the movie’s inherent camp with his over the top marathon orchestrations. Nothing here is small, not even the moments where the music drops down to supplement something sad or dramatic. Instead, numbers like “A Giant Transformation”, “A Wedding Interrupted” and “The Battle at the Golden Gate Bridge” literary excite the speakers with outsized action film scope. Then, just as the backdrop is promising something truly grand, we are taken aback by moldy oldies like “Tell Him” (by the Exciters), “Wooly Bully” (from Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs) and that Dr. Demento benchmark, “Purple People Eater”. We expect there to be some bows to ‘50s fluff when it comes to a movie named Monsters vs. Aliens. What we don’t need are the same old Happy Days jukebox tracks shoved down our sensibilities.



Crank: High Voltage - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

When I arrived in theaters three years ago, no one knew what to make of Crank. It starred up and coming action adrenal gland Jason Statham and was helmed by a pair of aggressive upstart who referred to themselves by the last name novelty Neveldine/Taylor. Working on the neo-noir premise of a criminal with 24 hours to find the people who poisoned him, it was a video game gonzo trip into a wild ride world of testosterone, stunts, and scantily clad women. With an ending that suggested a possible (if highly improbable) sequel, and a growing cult following thanks to DVD, the inevitable update is here. On the negative side, the studio (Lionsgate) won’t be bothering to show the film to critics. That’s never a good sign. On the positive, however, is the sensational soundtrack from Faith No More’s/Mr. Bungle’s brilliant Mike Patton. Like a retarded rave on hallucinogenic, this multi-track masterwork is what contemporary composition is all about.

Like a kitchen sink gone psycho, this all inclusive sonic smorgasbord runs the gamut from balls out rock, ridiculous electronica, pure punk posing, and slinky lounge lizardry. There’s buzzsaw riff riots and overcharged chill outs o’plenty. Over the course of 32 astonishing tracks, Patton plays both participant and provocateur, giving Crank: High Voltage its necessary zing. You can practically see the cinematics propelling “Juice Me”, “Ball Torture”, “Shock and Shoot-Out”, and “Car Park Throwdown”. Elsewhere, Patton puts his own unusual spin on situations such as “Organ Donor”, “Porn Strike”, “Surgery” and “Epiphany”. For those used to the typical faux rock chug of the noxious nu-metal tracks that supposedly suggest brawn and battlements, the score for Crank: High Voltage is an astonishing ear-opener. It argues that, sometimes, a more avant-garde approach to aural backdrops is far more fascinating that more mock Marilyn Manson. Here’s hoping Patton continues is the realm of reel music making.



Sunshine Cleaning - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

When Michael Penn broke out of his famous brother’s shadow in 1989, delivering his debut album March and the MTV hit single “No Myth”, few could imagine the eventual path his career would take. Over the course of seven albums and numerous guest stints, he’s developed an oeuvre both instantly likeable and quietly insular. Current married to pop chanteuse Aimee Mann and working on films as well as his own self-released LPs, Penn has been responsible for the music in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights) and actor Alan Cummings (The Wedding Party, Suffering Man’s Charity). Now comes his work on the indie effort Sunshine Cleaning. Sharing the soundtrack with a group of neo-novel navel-gazing tracks that tend to mimic the movie’s moxie and sense of spirit, Penn delivers a likeable collection that takes its own sweet sonic time before settling it to assuage your soul.

If you liked plucked acoustic guitars, ethereal strings and keyboards, and a symphonic style that sounds like Carter Burwell channeling a college alt-rock station, you’ll adore Michael Penn’s ambient score for the recent indie quirk fest. The story of ladies working as crime scene clean-up “specialists” demands an equally idiosyncratic soundtrack, and the former hitmaker (with some help from Golden Smog, Ken Andrews, Electrelane, Bodega, Ernie Miller, and David Majzlin) turns in a lovely set of aural signatures. Each individual beat, from the laconic limits of “CB Radio and Resolve” to the buoyant beauty of “Some Ice Cream” defy easy description. More like tone poems than actual tunes, Penn plays around with character and time signatures to keep us off balance and emotionally connected. Standouts include the moving “Trestling”, the atmospheric “Trailer Park”, the personal themes for “Joe and Oscar” and “Rose and Mac”, and the terrifically tender “Mrs. Davis”. If there is one weak link, a moment so unnecessary it almost sinks the entire project, it’s the inclusion of the superfluous ‘70s stalwart “Spirit in the Sky”. Penn creates his own spirituality. We didn’t need this novelty bit of Bible thumping to amplify Cleaning‘s cosmic aura.

 

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