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by Bill Gibron

13 Jan 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Bill Gibron

12 Jan 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Bill Gibron

11 Jan 2009

Some directors don’t deserve the reputation they eventually earn. While many consider him to be the worst filmmaker in the world, the late Ed Wood was merely a misunderstood visionary. Really. If you don’t believe it, just look at the efforts of one of his unhinged contemporaries. Responsible for such groan-inducing drek as Wild Guitar, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, The Lemon Grove Kids, and most memorably, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, the former legitimate cinematographer became the kind of bad movie icon that all half-assed directors strived to best. Under the pseudonym of “Cash Flagg”, he acted, worked with fellow b-movie producers, and attempted to keep his creative dreams alive via a wealth of less than successful drive-in fare. When the passion pit finally dried up and drifted down movie memory lane, he started dabbling in porn.

So when it was announced that the 70 year old had died 7 January from a heart attack, few except the most ardent of outsider film fans probably noticed. Unlike similarly styled grindhouse legends like Herschell Gordon Lewis or Doris Wishman, Ray Dennis Steckler didn’t have a considered cult following. Heck, few probably even recognize the name. There were those however who championed his amateurish outrages, and others who merely shrugged their shoulders and went about their web-surfing business. Most probably did know that, at the time of his passing, he was finishing post-production on a sequel of sorts to ISCWSLABMUZ (entitled Incredibly Strange Creatures: One More Time).

Certainly no news services eulogized his loss. No major 24 hour cable channel called upon his supporters and well wishers to remember his life. Film Comment probably won’t write up a retrospective, and when Oscar puts out its annual cattle call of corpses, his visage will surely be missing. It’s not that Steckler was forgotten so much as how forgettable his output was. He fell into filmmaking by accident. Like most men of his generation, Steckler was called to the medium because of military service. He was an Army photographer for a brief bit during the ‘50s. Unlike many of his ilk, however, he decided to pursue the celluloid visions the armed forces placed into his impressionable adolescent head and headed out to Hollywood.

He got his start working for the big names, like Universal. But after an incident involving an unsteady set and Alfred Hitchcock (so rumor/tall tale/ripping yarn tells it), Steckler needed to leave LA. He ended up finding a home with wannabe mogul Arch Hall Sr. and his Fairway Productions. Determined that his pasty faced son Arch Jr. could be the next big teen idol, Pops put his unctuous offspring in several low rent disasters. Working camera, Steckler made a brief stunt appearance in the now immortal Eegah! (as a partygoer tossed in a pool by lead behemoth Richard Kiel) and ended up directing the Halls’ Jailhouse Rock ripoff, Wild Guitar. He even played the part of Steak. While the movie had its moments - especially the mesmerizing song and dance sequences featuring an atonal Arch as an ersatz Elvis - it was nothing short of awful. Undeterred, Steckler decided to head off on his own. Raising $38,000, he decided to stay within the musical genre, and came up with a title he was sure would sell his storyline.

Unfortunately, Columbia took umbrage with newly minted The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie. To them, it was highly reminiscent of their upcoming Stanley Kubrick comedy Dr. Strangelove. With the slightest of name changes, a lawsuit was avoided, and Steckler went about completing the project. Using Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park as a backdrop, and fashioning a story that mixed showtunes, juvenile delinquency, gypsy curses, doughy businessmen, and lame latex monsters, he was convinced he had something that would make him famous.  Instead, ISCWSLABMUZ made Ray Dennis Steckler infamous. For a long time, the film was thought to be nothing more than a joke. Michael and Harry Medved even wrote in their Golden Turkey Awards book that, while the movie seemed to actually have a release (there were marquees to prove the title), no one could confirm that it actually existed.

In fact, it wouldn’t be until the advent of home video before many knew of Steckler’s work - and even then, he was typically relegated to the junk shelf at the local Mom and Pop. For his acclaimed UK documentary series, The Incredibly Strange Film Show, presenter Jonathan Ross stole the moniker and even interviewed Steckler. For many, it was their first introduction into the age of exploitation, drive-in dive cinema, and what would later be referred to as ‘psycohtronic’ moviemaking. Of course, by then he had more than moved on.

The ‘70s saw a rash of quickie smut statements, grimy little exercises with names like Perverted Passions, Teenage Hustler, and Sex Rink. Even with their racy content, Steckler had a hard time raising money for his movies. 1979’s Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher had to resort to a Wishman style of sound recording thanks to budgetary concerns. Instead of actually capturing dialogue on film, he simply filmed the actors at various angles where the mouths couldn’t be seen. He then dubbed in their lines later.

By the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, Steckler was in semi-retirement. He owned a small mail order video business, with one of his hottest sellers being a six volume compilation of actress outtakes/auditions from his Hollywood Strangler sequel - the Las Vegas Serial Killer. The commercial catch? The clips were rife with nudity. Steckler eventually sold the business to one Dan Wayman and watched as labels like Something Weird Video introduced a hungry generation to the abject pleasures of underground cinema. His biggest moment in the limelight came in 1997, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 used one of its initial Sci-Fi Channel shows to mock and make fun of Steckler’s zombie stomp. It would later appear on DVD as part of the Volume Nine set for the series.

Naturally, there are those who continue to call Steckler an unheralded motion picture auteur, someone misunderstood by the mainstream and de-legitimized by a critical community unable to appreciate his genius. To them, the stream of consciousness craziness of ISCWSLABMUZ is what makes it so magnificent. They worship the retarded East End Kid conceit of Steckler’s “Flagg” persona. In this wacked out world, The Incredibly Strange Creatures is not some unknown quantity, but a brilliant deconstruction of the entire old school Hollywood moviemaking myth. Sure, he was seen by many as nothing short of mediocre and for others, he’s much, much worse than Ed Wood. But unlike many in his particular grade-z schlock field, Ray Dennis Steckler found a way to stand out. He may be gone, but one has to imagine he will not be soon forgotten.

by Bill Gibron

7 Jan 2009

Yes, SE&L has been a little lax in its updates the last couple of weeks, what with awards season screenings and end of the year Best Ofs to contend with, but we will be back. After a short, well earned vacation, our staff will start off 2009 by offering a couple of new features - “Off the Shelf”: a look at DVD titles we’ve purchased but never played, and “Signature Statements”: films by producers, directors, stars, and significant crew that mark their lasting cinematic legacy. We’ll also continue our irreverent, sometimes controversial commentary on all things cinema. 

On Monday, 12 January, we will return with another “Leftoverture” update (a round up of un-reviewed specialty titles from December), a peek at Dragon Dynasty’s 2 Disc Super Cop DVD, a look ahead at the most anticipated films of Spring 2009, and a discussion about directors who could really use a career renaissance. Things will get back to normal within a few days, a Friday Film Focus and the typical weekend look at the latest digital offerings a weekly given.

So while we rest up and recharge our critical batteries, free free to click on any of our categorical links and check out our efforts from blog posts past. You’ll be glad you did.

by Bill Gibron

4 Jan 2009

While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at The Top 10 Films of 2008 You Never Heard Of up and including this weekend’s take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. Enjoy!

The Top 10 Films of 2008 That You’ve Never Heard Of

The 10 Worst Films of 2008

The 10 Worst DVDs of 2008

The Top 10 Films of 2008

The Top 10 DVDs of 2008

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