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by Bill Gibron

13 Mar 2009


There is an argument/mantra among devout fans of cinema that goes a little something like this: “Critics are so hard on and hate (insert name of favorite movie here) because they are merely frustrated filmmakers themselves and can’t do any better.” To paraphrase Woody Allen, “those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, grab a camcorder and call themselves directors.” Thanks to DVD, and the so-called digital revolution, everyone with a basic knowledge of process, a hint of inspiration, and a script/screenplay spinning around in their head/bottom desk drawer thinks they’re the next Kubrick…or if not the late, great auteur, some manner of homemade genius. For them, the motion picture is not about exclusivity. It’s about jumping whole hog into the artform before there’s even a need for their input.

For years, Paul O’Callaghan has added his celluloid two cents on the current Cineplex crop as part of radio’s outrageous Ron and Fez Show. Before that, he was a Tampa, Florida cable access star with his review/preview show Your Life is a Movie. But unlike the cliché, his recent turn behind the lens is not some random outlet for his misspent muse. It’s actually the culmination of a dream he’s been holding onto since graduating from film school in the early ‘80s. The resulting experiment in genre exposition, Gap, gives new meaning to the term “unconventional”. By taking on one of the most stereotypical scary conventions - the serial killer with a desire to record his crimes - O’Callaghan has made a remarkable accomplished and anarchic piece of post-modern social commentary.

Gap is a movie that believes in ideas. It’s a film that follows a certain philosophy. Rebuking the clueless cow-like attention span of the average individual and adding it into the already ripe disposability of our poisonous pop culture, O’Callaghan’s killer (he plays the role himself) is more of a slaughter-bent sage than a manifestation of pure evil. By making these “tapes” (similar in style to the Blair Witch/Cloverfield conceit of first person POV insight), our clearly unhinged anti-hero is creating his Gospel. With each rant, with each frightened face he showcases (and then murderers), this demon dissects the human and finds its insides stuffed with maggots, the media, and a wildly unhealthy dose of “Me First” self-absorption. O’Callaghan’s character isn’t out to purge the planet, though. In his mind, seeing the horrific fate that meets anyone this selfish and simple will hopefully wake the world from its craven, crusty sleep. All they need is a copy of his visual primer.

Gap gets this point across via several divergent means. The first is through a thwarting of traditional horror film convention. When we hear that this movie centers on a killer videotaping his deeds while sermonizing about the various social “sins” he’s addressing, a wealth of gore-laden grotesqueries come to mind. Yet Gap has very little blood. We also anticipate lots of gratuity, including rampant nudity and a certain misogynistic view of the opposite sex. This also doesn’t occur. There are scenes where a particularly ghastly set up leads to an anticlimactic “apology” from our lead. There are also times when a certain strategy gets immediately circumvented for a more “direct” approach. If these descriptions seem vague, it’s because Gap would be ruined by too much advance knowledge. It’s better to go in, unprepared, and experience what O’Callaghan has to offer.

The murders are each handled in a different manner. O’Callaghan plays with the viewer, making them guess when our star will “snap” and procure his dance with death. Some of the sequences are sadistic and quite shocking. Others are almost comical in their nonchalant, farcical flippancy. Sometimes, O’Callaghan’s speech will be more horrific than the crime. In other instances, it’s all viscera and vivisection. Gap definitely keeps the audience off guard, making them guess what’s coming around the next corner, what the next shot or situation will have to offer. It also takes its title literally. The movie’s main theme is the massive ‘gap’ between reason and insanity, life and death, understanding and isolation, wisdom and misplaced contemplation. While we’re never sure if the victims deserve their fate, we clearly see that O’Callaghan’s character thinks so.

This doesn’t mean that Gap is flawless, however. As with any hands-on project, the casting process brings a few amateurish performances to the party - and nothing ruins dread like seeing an actress trying not to laugh while under a threat. In addition, the simple set ups of O’Callaghan speaking to the camera shows very little directorial panache. While he does eventually move the lens around in a more inventive fashion, the point and shoot awareness definitely undermines O’Callaghan’s ambitions. One wonders what he would be like with a bigger budget, a broader scope, and a cast and crew that could realize it for him. Still, as an initial foray into the dark, depressing world of independent creativity, Gap has its subversive charms.

And when you learn more about the production, about the motives behind this first aesthetic attempt and where the inspiration came from, you come to appreciate O’Callaghan even more. This is a man truly open to the process, who has seen the mistakes made in hundreds of horror movies (and mainstream Hollywood hackwork in general) and decided to go in a different direction. This may make Gap difficult for some audiences to accept. In general, we like our macabre measured out in certain, recognizable chunks. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t like having our expectations circumvented or destroyed outright. We want terror, taunting, titillation, and perhaps a tell-all wrap up at the end of it. It’s safe to say that, for the terror traditionalist, Gap will be a baffling experience.

Yet if you’re willing to redefine your expectations and come in with an open mind, Gap will give your genre prerequisites a good tweaking. There are elements of exploitation, mumblecore, comedy, tragedy, experimentation, and outright ridiculousness here along with a great deal of insight into the mind of a madman and our current cultural malaise. O’Callaghan’s killer isn’t some megalomaniacal psychotic with a generic God complex compelled to do the bidding of a higher power. Instead, he’s a troubled individual seeing the world spinning out of control and hopes to impart upon it some necessary “lessons” before things totally go to Hell. Visiting the ‘found artifact’ nature of this movie indicates that the trip to Hades may be inevitable. How we get there, however, may be our only - and the film’s - saving grave. One thing’s for sure, it won’t be pretty. Then again, no attempt at personal reflection ever is.

by Bill Gibron

12 Mar 2009


Boy, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have sure come a long way since the days when they hand animated construction paper cut outs of various shapes to create their anarchic look at life in a small Colorado town. Over the last 12 seasons, the seminal cartoon series has gone from painstaking grunt work to…well, more painstaking grunt work, except this time, with computers. As part of the added content included on the latest DVD set from Comedy Central (by way of Paramount), we are treated to three separate featurettes which explain in exhaustive detail, the process from idea to on air. And those who think South Park simply springs from the boy’s borderline frat house Id, fully formed, are in for a very rude awakening indeed. In fact, this may be one of the most talent intense shows on all of television - broadcast or cable.

By this time, it’s clear that South Park’s comedy has split off into three specific forms: (1) the pop culture lampoon - taking issues and personalities within current celebrity and the media and mocking the holy Hell out of them. This is specifically true of the Spears’ spoof “Britney’s New Look”, “About Last Night”‘s Ocean’s 11 riff on the Obama/McCain election, and the spoof on take down of the High School Musical/Twilight craze (“Elementary School Musical/“The Ungroundable”); (2) the actual parodies of popular titles, as in Cloverfield/Quarantine‘s “Pandemic” and “Pandemic 2: The Startling”, the Heavy Metal mayhem of “Major Boobage”, and the memorable mistreatment of a certain iconic action figure and his latest adventure with a certain Crystal Skull in “The China Problem”; (3) and finally, the real world/little kids dynamic, where issues like AIDS (“Tonsil Trouble”), the use/abuse of the Internet (“Over Logging”) and the dilemma of fighting a girl (“Breast Cancer Show Ever”) are discussed. Toss in a look at “Canada on Strike”, a town literally screaming “Eek, A Penis!”, and life or death struggle for a “Super Fun Time”, and you’ve got 14 amazing episodes of side-splitting satire. 

For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.

Of all the previous seasons of the show, it’s safe to say that twelve is perhaps the most consistent. Sure, it offers the polarizing pleasures of something like “Britney’s New Look” (in which the shrill chanteuse shoots her own face off - and takes America by storm with this new ‘trainwreck’ look) or the “Pandemic” duo (where the only thing standing between the planet and complete annihilation by giant guinea pigs is Peruvian flute band music), but as the bonus features indicate, even these episodes are part of a process that is scattershot in name only. For months, Parker and Stone will agonize over ideas, waiting for the right inspiration to strike. Only then will they cure Cartman and Kyle’s HIV with an infusion of cash - straight cash - or turn the entire country into a desperate Dust Bowl where access to the World Wide Web is the new personal dream. Some inspirations are shelved out of sheer time factors. The breast-oriented “Major Boobage” almost didn’t air because Parker and Stone failed to realize how long it would take to render their ideas in standard pen and ink animation.

Yet all the kvetching and care really shows, from the pristine first person POV filmmaking riffs in “Pandemic”, to the allusions to cinematic rapes past in “The China Problem”. And don’t think our heroes are having second thoughts about skewering Lucas and Spielberg for turning Indiana Jones into an aging joke. On their typical “commentary-mini” tracks, the duo make it very clear that they would stand up to the Star Wars/Schindler’s List pair in a heartbeat, cursing them out for destroying a favored motion picture idol. Elsewhere, they hint at how inconsistent their memories of Heavy Metal were with the film itself, explain the natural defense mechanisms of the Cavia porcellus, and wonder out loud how Comedy Central censors allowed a shot of Randy Marsh covered in “man goo” to make it to broadcast. Indeed, when listening to these crafty creators (or their equally entertaining crew), one gets the distinct impression of artists still rabidly in love with what they do.

Of course, it comes with a price, and the boys love to lament their overwrought work schedule. Watching the behind the scenes documentary for “Super Fun Time” (divided into ‘days’ and spanning nearly 90 minutes), we begin to understand the level of hard work involved. Because it deals in dirty words and tacky toilet humor, critics assume that this stuff is equally simple in creation. But as we soon discover, there is a painstaking process of animatics, rewrites, design changes, and storyline shifts made in the days between the recording of the temp track and the actual airdate. In fact, for the Obama episode, material was being written almost immediately after the President-elect made his acceptance speech. This has also given South Park the difficult task of remaining forever timely. But Parker is quick to point out that they will take on something only when they have something to say, not the moment the news breaks. Fans, however, aren’t so forgiving.

With a genuine masterwork of a series 13 premiere (Disney’s dippy Jonas Brothers ruin Kenny’s chance at some grade school sex), and the promise of more provocation to come, it’s clear that South Park won’t be stopping any time soon. Unlike other popular animated shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy, there’s no debate over “jumping the shark” or overstaying their entertainment welcome. It seems like, even when the push the envelope and go further than most funnymen would dare venture, Trey Parker and Matt Stone maintain a kind of integrity that’s impossible to duplicate. Heck, to last in the low profile waystation that is basic cable deserves some manner of acknowledgment. As one of the few water cooler cartoons left, South Park‘s twelfth season stands as an amazing accomplishment. As with previous DVD releases, it certifies that, as long as they have the drive and the determination to keep going, Parker and Stone will remain the rebels of 2D delirium. 

by Bill Gibron

11 Mar 2009


Of all the supposed masters of macabre, Wes Craven has been the most prolific…and practical. He constantly makes movies, even if fans refuse to take him or his latest titles (Vampire in Brooklyn, Cursed) seriously. He’s also been a shrewd businessman, making sure that he keeps control over almost everything he’s done. That’s why, along with John Carpenter, you see so many of his past “glories” being recast for current audiences. As part of the horror remake craze, Craven has seen The Hills Have Eyes redux become a 2006 hit, and he’s got several more projects in the pipeline - Shocker, The People Under the Stairs, even a new version of his ‘80s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yet messageboard fever has been furious over the proposed plans to take on his most notorious film, The Last House on the Left. Some see it as the ultimate form of sacrilege. Others - with a much clearer memory of the original - wonder what all the fuss is about.

With the Craven approved update arriving in theaters this Friday (13 March), SE&L is going to step up and guide you through the major changes and narrative twists that the new version of The Last House on the Left has to offer. While nominal in most cases, those contemplating a Friday evening trip to the Cineplex may be interested in knowing the score. Be warned though - there are MASSIVE SPOILERS o’plenty here. In fact, both movies have the facts and fatalities completely given away over the course of the article. Perhaps a better plan would be to wait until after a viewing to visit this piece. After all, both the original and new Last House rely on shock value as a means of making their point, and nothing spoils suspense faster than a little firsthand knowledge. Either way, here’s the compare and contrast between 1972 and 2009:

The Characters
At the beginning of the original film, Wes Craven offered the standard “true story” tease, stating that certain names had been changed to protect those still living. Oddly enough, something similar could be said about the update. Gone are the goofball cops who provide more slapstick than protection for the local populace. Equally missing are all counterculture sidebars (harassing hippies) and throwaway local color (chicken farmer Ada Washington). Krug is still here, as are Sadie and Junior. Fred “the Weasel” has been renamed Francis and is given a slightly smaller libido than his 1972 equal. He’s not a fellow escaped con but the actual brother of Krug. Troubled girl from across the tracks Phyllis has been replaced by good natured grocery store clerk Paige, and all the subtext about Mari’s friend being “bad” and “slutty” has been swapped for concepts like “trusting” and “innocently reckless”. Again, this is probably to make her death that much more senseless, but it does remove a rather strong element from the wilderness wilding to come. Perhaps the biggest change happens for Junior, however. Instead of being a strung out junkie selling out everyone for a hit, we now get a weak willed kid who just wants to be liked. His transformation is one of The Last House on the Left 2009’s strangest surprises.

On the other side of things, Mari is a strong swimmer (a fact that makes the middle act escape seem rather obvious), Dad is a workaholic type ER doctor (perfect for suturing wounds and delivering emergency chest cavity venting) and Mom is a slightly sexy teacher with a hidden talent for payback. Gone are the arcane, erudite conversations of the 1972 couple. In their place are a matter of fact pair of parents who see no other solution than destroying the people who imperiled their child. Our new guardians are more thoughtful and “hip”. The original were so old school and square that their sudden switch over to maniac mode was truly disturbing.

The Story
Oddly enough, there is little difference between the basic plot of the 1972 film and this 2009 redux. Screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth are very faithful to the initial movie’s main set-up (sorry, no trips into NYC to see some scummy rock band) while attempting to expand the emotional core between the characters. We learn that the Collingwoods have faced a tragedy the year before with the death of their oldest son Ben. Everyone, especially Mari, still carries complex memories. Our heroine and her pal Paige fall into a kind of trap, although Junior is far less complicit this time around (in fact, one could argue for his complete innocence). The lure of pot is still the main sticking point for the gals’ deadly fate, but sex is now secondary in Krug and company’s plans. As you’ll see below, Mari doesn’t die instantly after her ordeal, and there is less hospitality and interpersonal interaction between the Collingwoods and the criminals before the mayhem begins. In a recent interview, Craven claims to really like the subtle changes. By keeping Mari alive, mandating that she get to a hospital soon or die, the parents have a real reason to go apeshit on her tormentors. In the original, the vengeance felt anarchic and animalistic. Here, it’s in direct correlation for the couples’ need to help their child.

The Killings
It’s SPOILER time, and if you don’t want to know the fate of any character in either film, turn away now and prepare for Friday’s opening. Indeed, the biggest difference fans will see in the recent remake is the way in which all the deaths occur. For those unfamiliar with the Craven original, Mari and Phyllis are taken out into the woods. Both are tortured and tormented. Phyllis is stabbed repeatedly and then disemboweled. Mari is raped, and then as she tries to escape, is shot in the back and left for dead in a nearby lake. Craven originally intended for the girl to remain alive long enough for her parents to find her (the scene was shot and is available on the recent Special Edition DVD release), but he figured that it was better to leave said reconciliation on the cutting room floor. Instead, Krug and his gang show up at the Collingwood house, they have dinner, and then the killing begins. Junior shoots himself. Fred is seduced by Mom, has his “manhood” removed orally, and is left to bleed to death. And in the film’s shocking climax, Krug and Dad battle until the latter gets the advantage via chainsaw. Mom slits Sadie’s throat and leaves her to rot.

In the remake, Mari burns Sadie with a cigarette lighter. This causes a car crash which breaks Francis’ nose. The gang takes the girls out into the woods, where Paige is stabbed. She bleeds to death. Mari is raped in a very brutal manner, and as she escapes to the lake, is shot in the back. She indeed survives, and manages to make it back home. Desperate to get her to a hospital, Mom and Dad soon discover that the individuals who showed up at the house earlier were actually the fiends who did this to their child. After some emergency meatball surgery, Mari is secured away while her parents exact revenge. Francis is semi-seduced, stabbed, and bludgeoned. Mom tries to drown him in the kitchen sink, and Dad steps in to help. Francis’s hand finds its way into the disposal, and the couple throws the switch. Finally, while screaming in agony, Dad drops the butt end of a hammer into the guy’s skull. After retrieving a gun from Junior, Sadie is shot in the face.

Once again, Krug and Dad fight to the death, and before we know it, the escaped murderer is supposedly dead. However, in a key last minute addendum, Dad returns from the hospital to find Krug lying on a table, paralyzed. Seems our father figure cut his spinal column so he couldn’t move. As the criminal pleads, Dad puts his head in a broken microwave, cranks up the juice, and waits for the moist results. One fried face later and Krug’s coconut literally explodes. The End. Now, in some ways, both films are cruel and callous in their disregard for human life. There is much more physicality in the remake, more fisticuff back and forth between the Collingwoods and Krug’s clan. At the same time, however, the deaths in the original seemed more apropos. Fred’s demise in particular mirrored the horrific way in which he treated the girls, and the original Krug’s animalistic bravado required something as extreme as a chainsaw to end its power. Still, the microwave gag is a wonderful denouement, and audiences will surely respond to the comeuppance given these heartless, soulless creeps.

by Bill Gibron

10 Mar 2009


Movies about big ideas require big scores. Films about larger than life individuals also mandate music to match. There’s a fine art to making sonic mountains out of melodious molehills, a true gift that few composers have, and few longtime artists can maintain. Certainly audience familiarity and fondness can ruin/resurrect a career, and there are certain aesthetic and stylistic conceits that follow any musician when they respond to the call of their muse. But the true titans of supercharged soundtracks, names like Elfman and Williams, find ways to challenge themselves as well as the listener. Mr. Oingo Boingo is often known as the man who made Batman dark and diabolical, but his recent score for The Kingdom was a wonderful bit of experimental ambiance. Similarly, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have been hammering out the same bombastic backups for years, but as with last year’s incredible The Dark Knight, it works within the right context.

This time out, Surround Sound looks at the recent almost-phenomenon that is Watchmen. We dissect both Tyler Bates’ contributions as well as those cultural lynchpin pop songs chosen to represent the parallel USA of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In both cases, the results are less than stunning. We then go back to one of the original cinematic stalwarts, the man in the funky fedora carrying a bad-ass bullwhip. John Williams will always be much more than the sonic side of the Spielberg/Lucas money machine, but there’s no denying his iconic help in solidifying both men’s amazing oeuvres. Newly minted with material not previously available on CD or MP3, the Indiana Jones films (the important efforts from the Greed Decade only) are their own unique entertainment experience, thanks in large part to the incredible abilities of the man responsible for their familiar epic sweep.

But let’s start with the recent attempt at broadstroke heroics. As Watchmen proves, not every comic book champion has a signature sound to amplify their importance:


Watchmen - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

As the first certified controversy of 2009, the lack of critical consensus over Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has been interesting to observe. Those who love it embrace the faithful translation of the famed book. Those who hate it clearly expected something more than what was on the screen. In between are opinions ranging from acceptable to awful, with many divergent judgments falling smack dab in the “no particular point one way or the other” middle. Many have hinted that the lack of “epicness” in Tyler Bates score is one of their chief disappointments, and it’s not hard to see why. As the mastermind behind the soundtracks for other Snyder efforts (including Dawn of the Dead and 300), there is a sense of unnecessary nepotism at work, and while some of his efforts for other directors (Rob Zombie, Neil Marshall) have stood out, Watchmen is just not that interesting. Indeed, when most of the music sounds like leftovers chopped from healthier compositions, you know you’re in trouble.

Fluctuating wildly between heavenly choir pomp and subtle, almost inconsequential circumstance, Bates’ score for the much anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel is underwhelming and often underdeveloped. After the requisite hero histrionics of “Rescue Mission”, insignificant snippets like “Don’t Get Too Misty Eyed” and “Tonight a Comedian Died” underlie the music’s lack of impact. “Silk Spectre” gets things back on track, if only because of its Danny Elfman-like flourishes. Indeed, it seems the longer the effort, the more substance it has. As one works through the 21 individual pieces, it’s clear that Bates had little thematic clarity. Indeed, the best bit comes right at the end, when the composer drops the stereotypical spectacle and goes for the heart. “I Love You” is a wonderfully evocative experience, a lone guitar picking out a plaintive melody that seems to drift along, accenting everything that’s come before. It makes up for the meaningless grandstanding of something like “Requiem” (which borrows from Mozart of all things).



Watchmen - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

Oddly enough, the big problem with the actual score for Watchmen manages to cross over and condemn the collection of pop culture hits used as a backdrop to the movie’s main narrative as well. It’s not just a question of poor choices - it’s the idea that, within the vast realm of ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s music available, Zack Snyder decided that these were the indicative songs of the era he was trying to evoke. And they just don’t do the job. When a fan can sit back and pick better tracks than the one’s compiled, there’s an inherent flaw in the formulation. Granted, there are some interesting choices (“Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen), but for the most part, a panel of VH-1 inspired soccer moms with limited exposure to either the time frame or Alan Moore’s novel could probably come up with a similar set of sonic cues.

After the noise nonsense that is My Chemical Romance’s ridiculous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Road”, Watchmen jumps over Nat King Cole (“Unforgettable”) to deliver its sole genius decision. Using Mr. Zimmerman’s ode to cultural progress, “The Times They Are-a-Changin’” works perfectly within the storyline being set-up, the montage meant to bring us up to speed on the entire masked avenger idea, and the numerous historic events being referenced therein. It’s so inspired in fact that later attempts at the same thing with tracks like “The Sound of Silence” or “All Along the Watchtower” seem subpar. Elsewhere, K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “(I’m Your) Boogie Man” is hollow, and the randomness of “Ride of the Valkyries” offsets the depth derived from a modern classic conceit like Phillip Glass’s “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies”. Still, Snyder understands the inherent mood created by these songs. Some are clearly used to enhance atmosphere and little else.



Raiders of the Lost Ark - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

How John Williams, a Julliard trained pianist and composer went from tacky TV themes for The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space to the man behind such magnificent blockbuster scores as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman is an amazing story in and of itself. Getting his start with Henri Mancini and contributing to the works of such luminaries as Bernard Herrmann, and Jerry Goldsmith, the man responsible for the Mystery Science mainstay Daddy-O (his first solo film credit) became an Academy fixture when his work on Valley of the Dolls was nominated in 1967. By 1971 he had a coveted Oscar (for adapting Fiddler on the Roof for the big screen) and had given Irwin Allen’s disaster flicks The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno their popcorn buzz. But it would be neophyte upstart Steven Spielberg who turned Williams into a hummable household name. After working on The Sugarland Express together, the duo delivered the seminal shark tale to a eager Summer of ‘75 public, and the rest is motion picture mythology.

By ‘81, Williams was the go-to guy for the growing Spielberg/Lucas mega-movie empire. Even lesser films like 1941 would see his amazing musical hand in collaboration. When the Hollywood heavyweights decided to pay homage to the Saturday matinee serials they grew up with, Williams was tagged to give the action opus its jingoistic charms. The resulting theme for Indiana Jones, and his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, managed to push the artist into another commercial realm all together. As he had previously with other cinematic characters, Williams created a sonic signature that, even today, offers a kind of instant recall for the icon being preserved. In the person of Harrison Ford, Jones and his first adventure became an instant classic. Naturally, Williams was back for installments two and three (and four, if you’re counting the recent Crystal Skull stumble among the representative efforts of all involved).

Williams was also responsible for what might be called the ‘soundtrack album experience’. Instead of offering one or two recognizable tracks, almost everything he writes becomes a memorable sonic experience. During Raiders, selections for sequences “Escape from the Temple”, “The Map Room: Dawn”, and “The Fist Fight/The Flying Wing” have their own individual recognizability. It’s an effect carried over to Temple of Doom (“Slalom on Mt. Homol”, “Children in Chains”), and The Last Crusade (“Keeping Up with the Joneses”, “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon”). Williams functions in compositional wholes, of making characters thematically clear and aurally symbolic. It does lend itself to a kind of reasonable repetitiveness that makes his scores so undeniably rock solid. And perhaps the best thing about the newly rereleased remasters of these soundtracks is the inclusion of material left out in previous editions. Getting to hear three new tracks on Raiders, ten on Temple, and seven on Crusade makes the experience that much more fulfilling.

Indeed, Williams work here is without comparison. He’s truly the gold standard of such high pitched bravado. The moment his Indiana Jones theme kicks in, we know we’re in for a wild rollercoaster ride of cheesy thrills and action—packed chills. Elsewhere, he evokes the mystical elements of each story quite well, be it the Ark of the Covenant (“The Well of Souls”), the sacred Shiva lingman rocks of India (“Approaching the Stones”) or the actual holy chalice of Jesus Christ himself (“The Keeper of the Grail”). Though his work is often oversized and stratospheric in scope, Williams never gives in to the excess. His compositions always seems compact and complete, not a single note out of place, not a single cue overcompensating.

While it helps to be working with some of the most talented filmmakers in the history of the medium (good melodies have to have visuals to cement their staying power), Williams walks the fine line between necessary contributor and stand-alone star. No wonder his scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Las t Crusade are so timeless. Even in truncated (and now expanded) versions, they speak of one man’s undeniable talent, and his essential assistance as a part of the motion picture equation.

by Bill Gibron

9 Mar 2009


So what is it? A hit? A flop? Something somewhere in the middle? At a mere $55 million in weekend box office, Warner Brothers (and those litigious hangers-on FOX) must be circling the spin wagons and preparing to pour on the positive publicity. Twenty years ago, making more than half of the notorious blockbuster number of 100 in one three day period would be almost inconceivable. Today, it’s a drop in a deep, debt ridden bucket. While the amount of money something makes is never a clear sign of aesthetic or critical accomplishment, Hollywood measures meaning in dollars and cents - and the sheep-like media, incapable of solid independent thought, publish said spreadsheet summarizations with schaudenfraude delight.

So what exactly does a $55 million take mean for the long-in-gestation adaptation? Clearly, when compared to the $100 million of Iron Man, or the $300 million of The Dark Knight, we are waltzing through middling motion picture territory. The revamp of The Incredible Hulk did about $55 million its opening weekend, as did the female niche effort Sex and the City: The Movie. Claiming that a similarly small and specialized fanbase should be ashamed for only half a hundred is ridiculous. Besides, Watchmen is nearly three hours (including previews and trailers) and walked into theaters with an incredibly hard “R” attached to its availability. Making $55 million with the local pre-teen crowd packing Cineplexes is one thing. Doing it with the 17 and up crowd deserves some kind of special consideration.

That won’t stop those who hate the film from filling their greenback ducts with bile and spewing a kind of planned propaganda about the movie’s destined destruction. Others will toss their hands in the air and wonder what more a filmmaker has to do to draw an audience. There will be revisions, considerations for Thursday Midnight screenings and IMAX attendance, but one thing’s for sure - the $55 million figure will become the benchmark of 2009, a number ready to be shot down by X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, and Public Enemies. Still, one can try and gauge the impact this opening will have on the talent involved, taking into consideration more than the amount of cash that fills the coffers. Let’s begin with:

The Studio(s)


Warner Brothers/FOX


For Warners, it was all win/win initially. They had the director they wanted (hot off the phenomenal triumph of 300), the screenplay they needed (wonky, but totally workable), a cast they could bank on (no big names = no big salaries), and a pre-publicity buzz that made marketers drool with anticipation. With both messagesboards and viral campaigns loaded for bear, there was no way a Watchmen movie would fail. FOX must have thought so too, since they jumped in during post-production to claim their piece of the potential pie in court. Now, no matter what happens, Warners has wondered over into lose/lose terrain. If Watchmen doesn’t make $200 million, it will be seen as a failure - especially when it comes to profit sharing time. And if by some chance it surpasses all expectations and makes much, much more, the numerous hands reaching out for a cut will be painful to any earnings margin.

The Source


The Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons


Of all the questionable outcomes, the impact on Watchmen as a literary entity remains the most complex. Surely, the semi-success of any film adaptation will draw readers anew to the original graphic novel, and those not put off by the format will find a work of incredibly dense and discerning wonder. Moore’s prose is plaintive and philosophical, wrapping up many intriguing ideas inside a seemingly simple story of revenge. Of course, the Cold War setting will seem dated, and the notion of Nixon as a three term President could put many off their measured morning in America coffee, yet there’s much more here than parallel histories and wistful “what ifs”.

Still, there is a drawback to such attention and that’s the dreaded “s” word - scrutiny. There will be some who come to Watchmen and wonder why the book is so beloved. Others will see Moore as a miserly old coot who happily cashes the checks his works incur while cursing the various mediums making said money. Some will take his adaptation complaints to heart and boycott anything but the written word - and that’s too bad. The film version of Watchmen is an exciting and rather special epic. While commerciality is perhaps the bane of Mr. Moore’s creative existence, it’s also not the final defining factor of anything’s worth. If it was, his cult would be laughable, not legitimate.

The Writers


David Hayter and Alex Tse


For Hayter and Tse, the ultimate realization of a Watchmen movie means much more to both of them than any bottom line balance sheet. The former has been down this road before (he worked on both X-Men films and The Scorpion King) while the latter is experiencing the first brushes with popcorn fame. In fact, Tse is already hard at work adapting Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man for future Snyder consideration. Since they were given the task of remaining faithful to the graphic novel, and will be seen as doing same (one missing squid aside), there’s no real downside to their contribution. Even if the film went on to severely underperform, they won’t be pegged as the problem. Indeed, for many involved in the production, Moore and Gibbons will be given more grief than those charged with accurately bringing their vision to life.

The Director


Zack Snyder


For his part, Snyder has already won. Even if the eventual returns don’t cover the cost of production, the man behind Dawn of the Dead and 300 set out to make the best. Most believable Watchmen movie he could, and given the outcome, he did just that. Sure, you can argue over how he truncated the tale, and how successful something like The Tales of the Black Freighter will be both outside and included in the final DVD cut, but he bested noted imaginative individuals like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky, and there’s something to be said for actually filming the “unfilmable”. Any primping on his part will be seen as studio swagger and the resulting returns on home video will guarantee at least a few more dream projects before the fiscal reality of a less than Dark Knight return sinks in.

The Stars


Jeffery Dean Morgan/Patrick Wilson/Jackie Earle Haley


Of the many names associated with the Watchmen movie, only three truly stand out. We can’t consider Malin Akerman or Matthew Goode because many thought of them as miscast, and with Billy Crudup disguised under a buff blue CG persona, his career clout is also limited. But there’s no denying the continued interest in Jeffery Dean Morgan (the Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II) and especially Jackie Earle Haley (as the reactionary Rorschach). All three men should see their profile in Tinsel Town amplified significantly. All three give award worthy performances in a genre effort that rarely gets such a mention (Heck, SE&L is still shilling for Haley as a Heath Ledger like lock come Oscar time) and they provide the emotional core to the complex narrative. With only Wilson currently capable of walking the fine line between mainstream commerciality (Lakeview Terrace) and indie edge (Hard Candy), here’s betting the others find their phones ringing relatively soon. 

The Franchise


Sequels?


Oddly enough, this is a dead subject - at least from the purists’ initial position. Aside from the aforementioned side projects and an expanded DVD/Blu-ray run come five to seven months from now, Watchmen just does not lend itself to a sequel or series. Snyder approached it as a self-contained work, and the ending offered currently closes things off nicely. Still, Moore did allow for some continuation leeway when he ended on the discovery of Rorschach’s journal, and you know a cash flush studio - if there is a way to make another Watchmen movie and not totally alienate or piss off the predisposed demographic, they will do it. Here’s betting that multiple digital reconfigurations and special editions will be the most this movie sees of a supposed continuation.

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