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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS [dir. Tim Hill]


When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.


Jason Lee stars as the post-modern Dave Seville, a hard working adman who longs to be a successful songwriter. Unfortunately, his old buddy, record executive Ian Hawke, thinks his music stinks. When our hapless hero stumbles upon a group of talking chipmunks in his apartment, he immediately thinks he’s gone crazy. After some convincing, the human strikes an accord with the talented critters - he’ll let them stay in his house if they sing his songs. When the rodents express a desire to have their very first Christmas, Seville is inspired. He writes a nutty novelty tune, plays it for Ian, and the rest is history. As the reticulated boy band burns up the charts, their two legged guide tries to patch things up with ex-girlfriend Claire. This distraction allows Ian to swoop in and steal the varmints from under his pal’s nose.


Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less. It is nothing more than an excuse for overpaid computer geeks to render quasi-realistic wildlife - all in service of a crass commercial statement. While it only plays the fart and poop card once each, this is still a juvenile effort helmed by individuals (Jon Vitti - ex-Simpsons, and Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi of Pete and Pete fame) who should really know ‘funny’ better. Substituting stupidity for smarts and silliness for satire, we wind up with the kind of mindless box office babysitter that lets inattentive parents feel safe about dragging their kids to the Cineplex. Had it strived for anything subversive or revisionist, the lack of sell-through support would only be matched by the bellyaching coming from the Bagdasarian camp.


It’s clear that the owners of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore don’t cotton to the modern comic sensibilities. The Chipmunks are never anything more than a vehicle for sloppy slapstick, surreal non-sequitors, and an overdose of pallid pop references. If you think CG critters cracking hip-hop wise is the last word in witty, you’ll adore this dreck. In fact, the script seems stuck in the early phases of the 2000’s, a time when rap and urban slang flooded the commercial concept of culture. It makes the use of the band’s old standards (both “Witch Doctor” and “Christmas” make multiple appearances) and their frequent freaked out cover versions (“Funky Town”? Please!) all the more bizarre.


It would be nice to think that the adults could balance out the saccharine shtick. Unfortunately, neither Jason Lee nor comedian David Cross (as Ian) can deliver. Lee is lost, mostly playing at a pitch right above psychopath. Instead of being frustrated by his new roomies - thereby guaranteeing Seville’s trademark shriek of “ALVIN!!!” - the My Name is Earl star seems to be having a hissy for no apparent reason. Cross is even more clueless, trying to riff on the surreal situation of talking, singing vermin in a plausible post-modern way. It doesn’t work. About the only actor who finds the proper tone is Geena Davis lookalike Cameron Richardson. She’s light and airy, as fluffy in her self-effacing superficiality as the movie is loud and lumbering.


And then there’s the question of marketing. Who is actually aching for a live action Chipmunks movie? It can’t be the Boomers who grew up with the gimmicky act. There is nothing in this adaptation to make them smile. It can’t be the Gen-Xers who made the Saturday morning cartoon series from the ‘80s sail. Again, this film avoids anything remotely resembling the character’s retro past. If it’s aimed at current wee ones, then Hollywood really thinks children are dumb. As long as it’s colorful, corny, and constantly in motion, it should hold the bratlings at bay, right? Wrong. Alvin and the Chipmunks is so lacking in legitimate fun that even the simplest of small fry brains will have a hard time finding a reason to rejoice.


Even the CGI looks second rate. In an attempt to make the trio as ‘true to life’ as possible, a weird combination of approaches has been employed. The bodies are like that of real chipmunks, but the faces have that blank, dead-eyed stare of an attempted anthropomorphizing. Instead of going with something more suggestive, the contradictory combination makes the main characters look unnecessarily busy and blurred. When the action does slow down, Alvin and the boys get away with a lot of cheesy glances. And don’t let the voice talent fool you. Justin Long (Alvin) Matthew Gray Gubler (Simon) and Jesse McCartney (Theodore) might just as well have not shown up for the recording sessions. They do nothing that’s memorable.


In the end, Alvin and the Chipmunks comes across as another nostalgia raiding stab by Tinsel Town directly into the heart of many an individual’s childhood memories. Like the equally unseemly (but much more successful) Underdog from Disney, studios can’t seem to recognize that every old school kid vid character doesn’t need a mid-millennial update. You can make them krump and Emo everything to kingdom come, but these weird wildlife sensations stand as a specific symbol from a specific era. As an old novelty act, they may have some staying power. But it’s clear that Bagdasarian’s babies can’t carry a big screen comedy - not even one aimed at the single digit age demographic. 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

I AM LEGEND [dir. Francis Lawrence]


Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.


The year is 2012. A cancer cure based on the measles has mutated, wiping out 90% of the Earth’s population. Those who did not die have turned into blood craving creatures, adverse to sunlight and primal in their brutality. The last supposed survivor is Dr. Robert Neville. Along with his German Sheppard Sam, he’s stayed behind in an abandoned New York City in hopes of finding a cure for the remaining monsters. He spends his days foraging for food and trying to contact anyone else still alive. He spends his nights barricaded in his house, avoiding the horrifying beings outside. One day, he discovers something frightening - the fiends are no longer acting instinctually. Instead, they appear to be thinking, determining the best way to get at Neville - even if it means their own destruction.


I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong. About as faithful to Richard Matheson’s novel as I, Robot was to the work of Isaac Asimov, this pointless exercise in production design strives to be the most understated blockbuster in the history of the format. Sadly, it fails to realize that there already is a category for this kind of film - it’s called the ‘lackluster’. Smith’s star power might guarantee tickets and fans in the seats, and he does hold the screen with a desperate charisma that’s hard to challenge. But when you come to a post-apocalyptic thriller, you expect solid sci-fi and considered cinematic chills. Sadly, we are only partially satisfied.


Though it tends to look like a backlot gone to seed, the digital rendering of Manhattan into a gloomy ghost town is very effective. The quarantined buildings, aging shredded plastic drifting in the breeze, look remarkably real, and when Smith interacts with famed facades (Union Station, Times Square) we get a feeling of grandeur and scope. Lawrence does a good job in these moments, making up for times when the script stifles his efforts, and there’s one particular sequence where Neville cases his dog into a horrific hive of evil that exemplifies what I Am Legend could have been. But then the movie shifts over into Cast Away mode, and we’re stuck with another superstar talking to mannequins.


Indeed, the foremost problem with the film is the lack of intrigue. Since we don’t see the actual destruction of New York (flashbacks fill in some blanks, most dealing with how Neville lost his family) or the nature of the monster’s terror, we are left without the necessary context to create suspense. Even worse, the occasional scares are limited to the standard horror film histrionics - the sudden appearance of deer, the trailer highlighted arrival of a lion. For a narrative wanting to work on a much more subtle, slow burn nature of fear, these jolts feel forced and completely calculated.


Even worse, the movie has to manipulate our feelings by sinking to animal endangerment as a means of mining emotion. Since Smith is given little to do except weep and look despondent, it’s up to his sidekick to provide the pathos. Even worse, when a last act twist triples the population, lame ideas about religion, destiny, and faith come crashing into the mix, making the movie even more scattered than it needed to be. With the unexceptional CGI used to render everything outside Neville’s domain (the various wildlife, as well as the creatures, look sloppy and second tier) and the failure to come up with a satisfying finale, I Am Legend plays like 80 minute of set-up in service of 10 minutes of mindless mediocrity.


While fans have often complained about Price and Heston’s efforts, one thing about previous versions of Legend are crystal clear - Matheson’s main themes were mostly respected. Here, Goldsman and fellow scribe Mark Protosevich toss out 90% of the novel, and instead appear to remake 28 Days Later by inserting albino zombies lacking anything resembling a personality or purpose. There is no real interaction between the two sides - Smith does some doctoring stuff on the fiends, but that’s about it. Gone are the confrontations where semi-salient beings discuss their issues with our hero. Instead, we get stupid sequences of Neville ‘renting’ DVDs and mimicking the dopey dialogue of Shrek.


Even worse, we really don’t care about Neville’s plight. Since we are unaware of the danger, unsure of how he’s managed for over three years without a great deal of “only in the movies” luck, and fail to fully experience the devastation that he has witnessed (both literal and personal), we wind up with enigmatic visions that offer nothing but art department air balls. Neville’s methodical daily routine is only interesting once. After that, it becomes an illustrated guide to the amateur survivalist. The backdrop looks great, but it’s never really explored. There are dozens of unanswered scientific questions (why can’t the monsters just wear lots of protective clothing before venturing out? why aren’t deer and lions affected?) as well as issues involving basic human nature (why didn’t Neville simply sail away, or conduct his research somewhere else?)


It all adds up to a movie that’s more puzzling than evocative. Smith can still carry almost any concept, but he has to work overtime to get this mess to gel. Lawrence is even less guilty, since he builds a decent playset out of some horribly hackneyed screenplay parts. What could have been compelling, if done right, ends up looking great but feeling very, very hollow inside. For those hoping that the third time (or if you count off title rip-offs, forth) would be the charm, you’d better be ready for a dire disappoint. The only place this movie is legendary is in its own feeble mindset. 



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Wednesday, Dec 12, 2007


Preview screenings audiences covet. They covet the tickets that got them into the promotional event in the first place. They covet the swag that studios send to their advertising partners. They covet the attention of representatives eager to get some word of mouth feedback. And they covet seats. Now, this may sound like a realistic reaction to any entertainment circumstance. If you’re going to stand in line, be herded like sheep, wade through the pointless banter of a low end station personality/disc jockey, then you should be able to sit where you want - and for the most part, these lucky viewers do…unless, of course, they want to sit in the critic’s row.


While the job of a film reviewer is often shrouded in a cloak of mystery and unwarranted elitism, the truth is that the same mass mentality is applied to their presence as anyone else at a screening. Long ago, before Hollywood realized the ‘two for one’ value in such a pack ‘em in premise, movies were shown to critics in private morning advances. Depending on the locale, 10 to 20 local press would pile into an empty theater and sit through one, two, or even three showings. In most major cities, that’s how it’s done to this day, and in the major hubs - New York and LA - there can even be multiple setups. But out in the minor market boonies, where release patterns can dictate when critics see a film, the group experience is far more common.


And so is the desire to sit in the rows reserved for press. Talk to an old timer and you’ll hear that, before the mid-‘90s, studios didn’t demand that specific seats be reserved for critics. In the vernacular, finding a place to sit in those days was ‘catch a catch can’. But with a decreasing desire to offer private screenings, mirroring the media’s de-valuation of the critical community, putting everyone together made sense. As a minor compensation for the journalist/professional, studio reps started masking off certain places for the press - and thus began the entitlement based concept of coveting said seats.


While it’s clearly not the case with every preview audience member, there is a typical CSC (or “critic seat coverter”). The doors typically open an hour before the screening, yet they will show up 10 to 20 minutes before the start and wonder why the theater is already packed. They are usually with a date/spouse/family member (or more than one) who equally bemoan the lack the automatic access to two adjoining seats. They are typically adults, sometimes representing the oldest generation of film fans, though there are also many examples of ‘who cares, it’s free’ cinematic slackers. And they are always vocal about their inability to share space with the looked down upon members of the unnecessary media.


No matter if you’re a populist scribe who writes nothing but marketing friendly poster blurbs, or pride yourself on never shilling for a studio, people desperate for a place to sit look down upon you. The rest of the crowd is their common man ally - even if they represent the other 380 of the available 400 seats. No, the CSC views the critic as a pointless, pampered villain, ready to rip their favorite horror icon/action star/buddy pic with an aesthetic forged out of snobbish subjectivity, not a notion of enjoyment or fun. Even worse, they are taking up valuable space - space where they and their own sense of privilege demand access.


It never fails to happen. If a critic attends 100 screenings a year, 99 times a person will stand directly in front of them, seek out the rep, and wonder loudly “why do they get to sit there?” Sometimes, it’s a question of pure logistics. In today’s stadium ideal, the press is usually confined (and that’s the key word here) to a section consisting of the first two rows of the mezzanine (or where there are only two sections, the ‘upper’ tier). This is not by choice - this is where tradition dictates they be placed. Talk to someone who works the event, and they will explain that, because of the lack of viewers in front, and the ease of ingress/egress, the front is a preferred position. Obviously, that poll was taken long ago before home theater made such oversized screens appear oppressive.


Want proof? On the rare occasions where the press screens a film alone, most of the critics head for the middle to back of a theater. They spread out near the ends and away from the pack. They like to be alone with their thoughts, experiencing a movie without the constant barrage of scratching pens, rustling popcorn, and sipped drinks. So it seems only natural to conclude that, when heaped together in one specific row (usually reserved for both critics and advertising partners/guests), a writer feels uncomfortable. Granted, they’re used to it by now, but it’s still not the preferred way to do their job.


And folks often forget that there are people working during these freebies. As part of their daily reportage, or weekly cinematic wrap-up, the man or woman sitting in this special section is trying to figure out the film they are seeing. Whether it’s a lame laughfest or a churlish drama, they’ve got to commit moments to memory, jot down context confirming notes for later, and embrace a whole myriad of big picture issues that the nacho-eating, Raisinettes chomping public need never embrace. And while you’re explaining the plot in a running commentary behind them, or constantly tossing out inappropriate bombastic bellylaughs, someone is trying to pay their bills.


So this seating situation is definitely a ‘lesser of two evils’ ideal. The studios no longer wish to cater to a community they view as lethal to a film (though it’s hard to name the last time a legitimately good film was undermined by reviews ONLY) and they love the killing two birds with one concept of grouping everyone into one miserable mob. There are rare occasions when a free preview is less than full, but more times than not, it’s standing room only, with the critic’s row viewed as a cinematic Shangri-La. And since a line is never drawn between legitimate press (print, online, media) and “friends” of same (someone at a news station who got a group email from a marketing agency), the rows can fill up as readily as the regular seats.


This doesn’t stop people from scheming and whining, however. There are those who will sit in the seats directly in front of the critics, walkway and/or handicapped aisle separating the two, and stare incessantly. Whenever the studio representative walks by, they glare with implied hatred, and even confront them on the availability of said section. The “No” answer just increases their glower power. Some will actually harass the press, albeit indirectly. As they walk by the rows, disgruntled over not being able to sit within, they mumble everything from slurs to outright vitriol. Then there are those who simply tempt fate, crossing the police/duct tape roping off the section and hoping security doesn’t spot them (they usually do).


In the end, it makes the press very uncomfortable - and the reps love to enhance said discomfort by making the entire situation their fault. Then they do their little “how y’all are?” warm-ups, the standard warnings usually involve the cellphones, crying babies, the critics, their needs for silence, and an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that mandates the audience modify their behavior to satisfying the snobby cabal sitting front and center. The usual collection of scoffs and giggles that follows definitely makes a journalist feel appreciated. But it’s more than that. The lack of respect that flows between the two camps is so palpable that one wonders why the studios continue such a practice.


It’s clear that, in a perfect world, preview audiences would love the whole experience to be about them. They’d want unlimited gifts, buckets of swag, and the chance to sit anywhere they want. For a critic, it’s exactly the opposite. They want no muss, no fuss professionalism, the chance to spread out with their thoughts, and the freedom to feel important to the process, not the unjustifiable means to an ends. As the ‘Net continues to marginalize the importance of reviewers, turning everyone into an ersatz Ebert, the truth remains that some people are actually still getting paid for their opinion. To discount them in favor of a more group-oriented ideal seems insensitive.


Still, it doesn’t keep the CSC from grumbling and huffing. It won’t keep the angry man in the row behind from kicking the chair or translating the dialogue for her non-English speaking partner. It doesn’t make the studio charge any happier when a pissed off critic decides to avoid their post-screening questions as a matter of personal principle. It definitely doesn’t make the seatless happy for being without a way to see something for free. And in the end, it doesn’t really make a difference to the movie being shown. Many times a genuinely horrible effort will receive enthusiastic applause, while a major artistic statement is left with deafening post-credits silence. In some ways, the screening process is a sham. It looks good in principle. It’s barely effective in practice.


So the next time you wander into the latest Will Smith vehicle, or bring your entire brood to a CGI kid flick starring some adorable signing rodents, remember a few things: (1) you are an invited guest, not a member of a disenfranchised movie going minority that demands their seating civil rights; (2) critics don’t always enjoy being jumbled into a single front row, (3) that everyone involved in the process is human, and demands respect and dignity, and (4) you didn’t PAY for anything, therefore no implied privilege exists. While these suggestions won’t stop the covetous nature of those envying the press rows, they may provide some pre-preview food for thought. 


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Tuesday, Dec 11, 2007

In celebration of Sidney Lumet’s recent triumph Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, SE&L takes a look back at one of the director’s seminal ‘70s masterpieces.


Is it possible for a writer to be too prescient? Could they be so in tune with the turning tide inside a stalwart of cultural existence that their insight goes from being clever to creepy? Such is the case with one Paddy Chayefsky and his take on the manipulation of the news media called Network. Thirty years ago, critics were agog at the notion that something as sacred as the evening news would or ever could be turned into a platform for demagogic rants, unimportant tabloid scandal, and agenda-based crusading.


Sadly, this brilliant scribe, responsible for The Hospital, Marty, and The Catered Affair, didn’t live to see his scenario come frighteningly true. We now live in a time when information has been usurped by infotainment and 24-hour cable stations offer rant time for the demagogic, exploit every scandal to untold tabloid proportions, and let their left or right freak flags fly brilliantly. You may indeed question whether we have actually come to the point where acts of political crime and social terrorism are run as part of basic prime-time programming. The answer? Ever watch TLC, or Court TV?


When longtime UBS anchorman Howard Beale learns that he will be “forcibly” retired, he makes a shocking statement on that night’s news. One week to the day, he will commit suicide on national television. Naturally, the stunt gets him fired, but the public seems intrigued. Over the better judgment of News Division President Max Schumacher, Beale is left on the air. The next day, he explains his actions with a simple phrase. After years of telling the people the “truth,” he just “ran out of bullshit.” The expletive gets him yanked again, but the climb in the ratings gets the attention of entertainment programmer Diana Christensen.


She sees the possibility of turning Beale into a prophet, a mad monk of the medium spouting off about the ills of society. While simultaneously developing a prime-time show centering on a group of renegade radicals, Christensen approaches corporate bigwig Frank Hackett with a proposal. She will take over the nightly news and turn it into a hit show. Of course, Schumacher refuses, but success breeds strange bedfellows and Beale’s late-night revelation of his new “calling” creates an instant national phenomenon. Suddenly, UBS is not just some podunk pariah. It is now a viable and visible network. However, as with all prophecy, doom and gloom are not far behind and destruction will meet all those who pretend to play God—even if it’s just on TV or in the corridors of corporate power.


When it was first released in 1976, Network was nothing short of a satiric revelation. It hinted at the horrors that could come if TV turned its back on the public interest and instead pursued the all-mighty dollar. It dug deep into the crawling corporatization of the media and argued against allowing multinational interests to filter into and through the fourth estate. It spit on the First Amendment, flirted with outright controversy, and made outrageousness and ridiculousness seem prophetic but improbable. With Walter Cronkite seated behind the CBS chair, trusted like no one else in Bicentennial America, there were no Howard Beales waiting in the wings for their insignificant sound bite of fame.


In 2007, however, Network plays like a blueprint for a myriad of modern pundits. To today’s viewer, Beale becomes a crazy combination of Bill O’Reilly, John McLaughlin, and Geraldo Rivera. Where once the news was a sanctuary of ethical considerations and investigative insight, it has now become a chatty-Cathy coffee-klatch commiserating over the communal back fence, arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong (or left), and how much sex, drugs, and residual rock-and-roll was involved.


As a movie, Network is nearly perfect, one of those cinematic statements that its participants can wear with special, inexhaustible pride. It was a breathtaking final testament to Peter Finch’s acting acumen, a reminder that William Holden wasn’t a longstanding member of the Hollywood hierarchy for nothing, and a realization of Faye Dunaway’s incredible bravery. Everyone in the cast, from corporate raider patsy Robert Duvall to Ned Beatty’s capitalist-as-biblical-serpent Arthur Jensen, radiates a kind of performance flawlessness that one just doesn’t find in most modern movies.


Certainly credit must be given to American auteur Sidney Lumet. He discovered the heart and soul of Chayefsky’s surrealistic statement and infused the entire project with a kind of knowing authenticity that made it even more powerful. For a director whose legendary output is impressive, to say the least (he is responsible for many masterful films, including 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, just to name a few), Network stands as one of his greatest triumphs. Its compact completeness and sense of plausible implausibility draws laughs out of lunacy, sorrow out of selfish egotism.


True, this is really a writer’s film. There are no action scenes to highlight a filmmaker’s flair or narrative gimmicks (like mental impairment or physical flaws) to show the actors’ obvious bravado. No, what Chayefsky created was a poetry of purpose, a lyrical lassoing of the insanity derived from the post-Watergate world of TV news. He was singing a sentimental, silly dirge to a dying giant and his stanzas as speeches are some of the best-crafted screenwriting ever attempted. There are several standout spoken set pieces, not just the instances where Beale goes ballistic for his nightly news tirades. When the obviously insane newsman tells his audience to go to the windows and yell out that seminal statement of stagnant citizenry, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” the words leading up to the chant are far more effective than the catchphrase itself.


Similarly, Ms. Christensen uses a bargaining deal for some James Bond films as seduction, foreplay, and pillow talk during a frantic sex scene. Holden delivers a devastating denouement about broken relationships as he says farewell to his accidental mistress, while Ned Beatty delivers the movie’s main theme—how the upcoming “new world order” will be papered in multinational conglomerate stock options, not U.N. peacekeeping initiatives or CARE packages—like a preacher gone potty.


In fact, one of the most amazing things that you see when you watch Network some 30 years later, aside from how right on its predictions about television were, is how hopeful it seemed. When Beale’s fire-and-brimstone act comes back to bite the UBS executives in their aspirations, the actions discussed to “eradicate” their crisis are unapologetically absurd—at least, that’s how Chayefsky sees it. He is writing from a position of shuttered optimism. He knows things are bad, but he can’t imagine they’d ever get to the point were murder might solve programming problems. He argues that the people wouldn’t cotton to such craven cruelty and they especially wouldn’t tolerate it being shown on national television.


Perhaps it’s better then that Chayefsky left this planet when he did. He missed Morton Downey Jr. and his gladiatorial gross-out as chat show. He didn’t see Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer pull a .45-caliber Magnum out of a manila envelope and put the business end in his mouth, committing suicide in front of a live press conference crowd. He didn’t get to see Jerry Springer or Richard Bey, or bask in the bloated glow of misguided media moguls Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch. One could easily see the author writing sequels to his critical cautionary tale, adding more and more mania to the multi-channeled glass teat until, spent and defeated, he realized that the boob tube would always win.


If anyone keeps this all grounded though, it’s Lumet. His Oscar nomination for directing was well deserved, as he manages to make the contemptible seem common and the mind-boggling appear minor. He uses actual locations to keep situations authentic and never lets his actors overstay their importance. That is why Finch is so fine as Beale. His is a character that could easily be played for overblown comedy or uninspired pathos and Lumet lets neither occur. Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the same way. She is an ice queen, a bossy bitch with a Cheshire-cat grin masking the backstabbing knife in her hand. She could have been a caricature, but Lumet lets her be bad for pure badness’s sake.


As Schumacher, Holden is the fulcrum upon which the entire enterprise balances. He is reason looking in on madness, the ethical broaching the source of station squalor and scandal. If we don’t feel for him, understand his personal plight, and accept his occasional lapses (why an affair, and with whom?), we will never believe the movie’s over-the-top tenets. They will feel like sketch comedy, not stinging satire. Lumet is indeed the reason Network triumphs. He knows the game inside and out, and never once lets it fall beyond the boundaries of believability. He knows that, if it’s not real, it’s preposterous—and nothing kills comedy faster than indecipherability.


Though most may not like to admit it, the world of TV is a reflection of what we watch. Programs are not invented on the off chance that we will watch them. Our viewing habits have been studied and consulted over, represented on graphs, and argued over in marketing meetings. Every few years, a film comes along condemning such practices. In the ‘80s, it was Broadcast News (or if you are a little more forward-thinking, Videodrome). The ‘90s had The Insider and the minor Wag the Dog. But in the ‘70s, it was Network and the reverberations from that seismic smack in the cathode ray have been felt all throughout the industry, even as the airwaves turned coaxial and then digital.


While its pronouncements might seem dated and many of its references as ancient as the history on which they were based, this is still a masterpiece of a movie, a great big flailing middle finger to a cultural icon that didn’t heed its warning. In a post-millennial maze of reality shows, prime- time confessionals, and stunt-oriented idiocy, TV has totally lost its way—and we as the audience have let it. Argue about its position as a vast wasteland, but the truth is far more painful. As a mirror to our own internal tendencies, Network is more foreboding than every before. If Chayefsky saw us arriving at this point so many years before, what does the future hold?


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Monday, Dec 10, 2007

Hollywood is obsessed with the epic. They can’t get enough of the ‘bigger is better’ mindset when it comes to moviemaking. At one time, a $100 million budget seemed unthinkable, then condemnable. Now it’s near the low end, especially in light of $200 to $300 million mainstream monoliths. Of course, with such an outlay of cash, all avenues of financial recoup need to be explored - and that includes the inevitable soundtrack/orchestral score release. Be it the work of the actual composer, or a selection of songs provided by name rock bands, a blockbuster film or franchise almost always mandates as many merchandisable paradigms as possible. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at how Michael Bay, the studio behind the Saw series, and New Line’s continuing obsession with a certain celebrated hobbit, continue to provide CD shelves with an endless stream of tie-in fare. Some is good. Some is grand. And others represent the lower depths of movie music marketing. 


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The Complete Recordings [rating: 9]


In the realm of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classics, there is no such thing as ‘enough’. Everything involved in the billion dollar earning trilogy - the settings, the effects, the films themselves - move beyond the scope of normal cinema to turn into a universe all their own. As a result, production house New Line has found as many ways as possible - with and without the auteur’s input - to continue the seemingly constant revenue streams. In this case, we have the third in a continuing CD series hoping to bring every note Howard Shore composed for the films to soundtrack lovers everywhere. The Complete Recordings for Fellowship of the Ring came out two years ago, and Two Towers shortly thereafter. Now, it’s the Oscar winning installments turn to shine, and as with anything associated with Jackson, Tolkien, and the famed film franchise, it represents the best the specific medium has to offer.


Spread out over four discs (with a fifth DVD-Audio presentation offering Advanced Resolution Surround, Advanced Resolution Stereo, Dolby Digital Surround and Stereo), we get 53 separate tracks covering everything conceived for the film - epic battle backdrops, tiny connective inserts, full blown orchestrations, and incidental sounds. There’s Annie Lennox singing the song “Into the West” (found on disc four), and snippets from the film itself. For completists, it’s a gem, the kind of complementary treasure one rarely gets from a studio. On the downside, much of the material here is recycled from previous parts of the triptych. When Frodo needs an aural cue, it’s the same one that’s been following him since Part One. In addition, Shore’s sensibilities have since become quasi-cliché: the mixing of musical genres, the overtly Celtic Enya-like drones, the moments where the music becomes as manipulative as the sequences on screen. Yet the overall impression is one of size, heft, and massive dramatic weight - just what Return of the King requires. And since it has the Jackson seal of approval, it’s a worthy component of the Rings legacy.


Transformers The Score [rating: 7]


Sometimes, the bigger the project, the smaller the score. While many would argue that blockbusters require bombast, it’s also clear that some composers want subtlety to sell the mood, not amplified orchestral chaos. Someone should tell this to Steve Jablonsky. As the man behind the music for The Hitcher, The Island, and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his aural pallet runs to the grandiose and the shapelessly suggestive. When you hear a Jablonsky backdrop, the action inherent in a stunt sequence is evident, the wall to wall wonder of an F/X moment is practically painted in your mind. This is old school film music, the kind that wants to be an entity in and of itself while also functioning as a integral part of the movie’s overall experience. Yet unlike those he freely mimics - John Williams, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard - there’s a bit of false bravado here. It’s as if Jablonsky the composer sat back, listened to the complete catalog of his industry idols, and created a sound that followed their formulas implicitly.

Anyone looking for oversized motion picture sturm und drang will definitely find it inside these enjoyable, bass heavy symphonic soundscapes. Both “Autobots” and “Decepticons” introduce the characters it was created for perfectly, and the last act tracks “Optimus vs. Megatron” and “No Sacrifice, No Victory” do a nice job of selling the mechanical melee that occurs. It’s the same experience one gets from “Soccent Attack”, “Downtown Battle”, and “Sam on the Roof”. There are very few quiet moments here, times when the music modifies a lesser situation in the narrative. Of course, this could be due to the fact that director Michael Bay doesn’t really do ‘small’. Yet “Sam at the Lake” and “Witwicky” have a little less oomph than the other extravaganza supporting material. In the end, your enjoyment of this compilation will depend mostly on how fond you are of the movie they modify. If you loved Transformers, you’ll really dig this overly dramatic backing. If you think Bay and his brethren are scope without substance, you’ll find this score equally empty.


Saw IV Music from and Inspired By [rating: 4]


Apparently, when one thinks of the Saw franchise, their mind instantly turns to Metal - and not just any heavy rock retreads but full blown balls to the wall death, thrash, and other extreme guitar workouts. If you like your sonics loud, fast, and in your scarred face, you’ll love this 19 track aural assault. Granted, it is as repetitive as the symbols of Satan, but one has to admit that the decibels describe the actions in the never-ending horror series quite well. The chugging, growling, primal scream nature of this score (actually, a collection of songs used in, and finding their muse from, the movie) matches the torturous, gross out glee of Jigsaw’s various games, even if after the first 15 or so tracks you want to drive a drill bit into your cerebellum. The raw anger inherent in the musical genre placed outside of the cinematic screamfest’s context does make for some heavy metaphysical lifting, but if you’re prone to howling at the moon or spending you nights cutting yourself, this album will definitely sync up with your psyche.


Many of the names here are less than mainstream or memorable. While Nitzer Ebb, Drowning Pool, Ministry, and Skinny Puppy all have identifiable cred, bands like The Red Chord, The Human Abstract, and Dope Stars Inc. come across as ‘formed for this project’ style oddities. One thing’s for sure - no one here will be winning an award for their lyrics anytime soon. The recent DVD release of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse has more memorable - and believable - sentiments than the blood, sweat, and fears offered throughout. Still, tracks like “Life is Good”, We’rewolf”, and “Shame” offer a terrific mix of musicianship and the macabre. This is not a collection for the casual fan of Scandinavian shrieking or German grind pulses, however. This will be headache inducing for the uninitiated, and too much of a terror trip even for those who love their Metal unrefined and unprocessed. Don’t be confused - this is not the work of series composer Charles Clouser (he is represented once here). This is a standard CD tie-in. 


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