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by Bill Gibron

15 Sep 2008


It is safe to say that there are several kinds of soundtracks, each type geared towards exactly what the filmmaker wants or the narrative needs. Some act as nothing more than metaphysical mix tapes, complications collecting the various pop music tracks secured for a marketing tie-in release. To call it commercial would be stating the bloody obvious. Others act like subtle supplements, doing little more than emphasizing the storyline or subject matter inherent in a film. For these ethereal attempts, the slightest sonic breeze might simply blow it all away. But some scores are wholly reflective, capable of offering the listener an inner mirror. They provide a resource for mimicking the moviemaker, turning their vision into the sonic serenade heard over the Cineplex speakers.

In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at three examples of this rarified reality in action. In each case, the person with pen in hand and orchestra at bay is attempting to play inferred filmmaker, realizing the same style and vision of the person paying their wage. From the latest supporting stance from a longtime creative companion to the luxuriant efforts of one of the few women in the business, each presentation perfectly matches the material on hand - for good and for grating.

Burn After Reading - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

If there is one constant in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, aside from the arcane cleverness and attention to old fashioned cinematic detail, it’s the music of Carter Burwell. Part folklorist, part sage sampler, this amazing musician has guided every one of the boys bravado movie moves, from Blood Simple to their most recent masterpiece No Country for Old Men. While never nominated for an Oscar (his work on both Miller’s Crossing and Fargo deserved at least some minor Academy Award acknowledgement), his themes have become the sonic signatures for the Coens’ complex aesthetic. His most recent collaboration with the filmmakers - the fantastic Burn After Reading - easily reflects the same anarchic attitude the brothers attempted when bringing the surreal screwball comedy to the big screen.

The main approach taken by this unusual film is that all romance is like high espionage. As a result, the Coens create a comedic backdrop in which everything - from extramarital affairs to breaches of national security - is treated within the same ersatz-thriller ideal. Burwell applies the same schematic energy here, such bracing selections as “Night Running”, “Breaking and Entering” and “How is this Possible?” playing like outtakes from a bawdy Bourne provocation. Elsewhere, the composer creates certain themes for specific characters, including a three part piece illustrating the look for love by health club employee Linda and tripwire Treasury agent Harry. Together without other standout tracks like “A Higher Patriotism” and “Carrots/Shot”, Burwell defends his position as full fledged member of the Coens’ creative consensus. It just wouldn’t be one of their films without his amazing musical muse.



Towelhead - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

Looking over his resume, composer Thomas Newman has provided some sensational aural backdrops for some equally impressive films. From Pixar’s Wall*E to Todd Field’s Little Children, from Revenge of the Nerds in the mid ‘80s to the upcoming Revolutionary Road, he has a unique ability to capture the sly subtext of the films he is complementing. After working with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball on the Oscar winning American Beauty (he also received a nomination), it’s not surprising to see his name associated with the follow-ups from both men. Road won’t be released until December, but already making the festival and limited release rounds is Towelhead. Alan Ball’s directorial debut, centering on the sexual coming of age of a 13 year old Lebanese girl in Texas, is tough subject matter for a movie. Sadly, Newman’s score illustrates just how off base this entire production really is.

Made up mostly of ethnocentric beats and faux Middle Eastern influences, this lackadaisical soundtrack does little to amplify the sinister and shocking elements contained in Towelhead. Sequences like “Snow Queen”, “Vuoso”, and “Rain & Good Weather” feel barely fleshed out, locked in a slow simmering sonic strategy that barely delivers any intrigue. Even worse, when Newman starts with the polyrhythmic drumming and cultural swatches, he seems to be trying far too hard. How obvious is it that a film centering on an Arab teenager in America would be backed by what sounds like the Disney version of a Syrian sword dance. Besides, this score is miniscule in comparison to other efforts. With only eight tracks and a very limited running time, this feels like something Newman tossed off from the top of his head. Even a movie as miserable as Towelhead deserves better.



The Duchess - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

It is unusual to find women working in the mostly man’s world of film scoring. It’s not for lack of talent. Instead, the studio system and their approach to soundtracks apparently still have a very high, and very unnecessary glass ceiling. Rachel Portman has clearly broken through, although not with the kind of commercial and critical respect given to her more masculine counterparts. Working in film since 1982, she’s provided the sonic setup for such interesting efforts as Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, the Johnny Depp vehicle Benny and Joon, and most recently, the ‘other’ Truman Capote/In Cold Blood film Infamous. She even has an Academy Award for her work in Emma. Yet it’s clear that as a facet of a film, Portman perfectly matches the moviemakers she’s paired with. Never overstepping her bounds or breaking the tone established, she ends up offering the kind of support that few composers can claim - unobtrusive but totally necessary.

It’s the same with her creative classic revisionism for The Duchess. Featuring Keira Knightley and centering on the scandal plagued life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana Spencer, Portman’s pieces here sound like found chamber music from a noted master’s overflowing filing cabinet. From perfect little tone poems like “I Think of You All the Time” to more majestic works like “Some Things Too Late, Others Too Early”, Portman’s methods segue perfectly into the noted legends on hand. Indeed, she doesn’t sound out of place among Beethoven or Hayden, both of whom are represented here. Certainly, there is a more contemporary bent to some of the selections, including the suggestively named tracks as “Gee and Grey Make Love” and “Rape”, but for the most part, The Duchess lilts along on the kind of antiquated atmosphere that seems perfect for this kind of period piece. Such a situation brings out all the British in this smart English artist.

by Bill Gibron

14 Sep 2008


In case you missed it, here’s a chance to catch up with PopMatters 2008 Fall Preview


Talk, Talk, Talk: The PopMatters Fall 2008 Preview

Enjoy!

by Bill Gibron

14 Sep 2008


You can’t capture lightning in a bottle, according to the old cliché. Such electrical discharges also never strike in the same place twice, if you believe the rap. Applicable to hundreds of situations, we film critics tend to pull these maxims out whenever a sullied sequel rears its dreadful, usually unnecessary head. Almost always a clear case of cash from commercial chaos, revisiting a previous success ups the amperage for such a potential kinetic crash. Thus, the proverbial responses. Retardead, the new film from Monsturd makers Rick Popko and Dan West, wants to revisit the scatological success of that previous crap creature funny business. Unfortunately, the wit and weirdness of the first film just doesn’t translate over to a flailing zombie stomp.

Although everyone in the tiny county of Butte thinks that their fecal nightmare is over, the truth is far more disturbing. Seems the creator of the scat monster, Dr. Stern, has found a way to escape his fate, and is now teaching at the local institute for students with special needs. His goal is simple - use a hyper-intelligence serum to turn a group of mentally handicapped kids into abject geniuses. There’s just one side effect, however. After a while, these buffoons to braniacs start snacking on human flesh. It’s not long before Sheriff Duncan, Deputies Dan and Rick, and FBI Agent Susan Hannigan are ass deep in zombies - and desperate to find a way to stop the cannibal corpse holocaust. Oddly enough, Stern might have an answer for that as well.

There are times when a movie hits you in a certain way. Perhaps it’s the material, or the sort of day you had previously, but when a film that shouldn’t actually clicks, you wonder if it can happen again, and if not, what caused the connection in the first place. Monstrud, the first horror comedy from duo Rick Popko and Dan West, is this kind of non-quantifiable quackery. While cornering the market on mieda humor, it also worked as an effective bit of b-movie schlock. Of course, one is convinced that revisiting the title now would probably result in the aforementioned ambivalence. After all, the story of a killer stool sample would seem to have a limited shelf life. Still, Popko and West hope that Retardead offers up some similarly stupid fun. And for the most part, it does.

Of course, that also means there are some gaping flaws in the filmmaking reasoning. As Shaun of the Dead taught us, the living dead can be hilarious - that is, as long as you concentrate on the characters and circumstances surrounding the satiric scares. Here, Popko and West rely on our previous knowledge of the Butte County citizenry instead of reintroducing their individual quirks. Similarly, gore is rarely handled with humor. Sure, we can laugh at a particularly outrageous bit of arterial spray, but for the most part, blood letting is the perturbing pause before any other slice of slapstick. But Retardead thinks fiends feasting on spinal chords and bodies blowing apart is the height of hilarity. Sadly, sidesplitting is NOT sidesplitting. 

Even worse, this is a movie that wusses out on the most important facet of their (potentially) tasteless humor - the retards. After all, if you’re going to call a movie by such a politically incorrect term, you should treat the material in an equally offensive manner. At first, it looks like Popko and West will come through. We get a rogues gallery of identifiable idjits, from the inappropriate pee girl to the oversized homunculus with a safety helmet and hygiene issues. As we are introduced to Dr. Stern’s class, each cretin getting their individual moment to shine, we keep waiting for the filmmakers to break free. Instead, they immediately jump into “Flowers for Algernon” mode, turning their punchlines into frequently unfunny props.

Still, there are some reasons to rejoice. As the most dip-sticked deputies in the history of law enforcement, Popko and West are a cunning comedy team. There is a sequence when they are sharing some porn and a beer that’s a classic of understated spoofing. Also, the technical ambitions and actual achievements are well worth celebrating. The movie looks larger, the scope matched well by the improvement in cinematic technique. Sure, there is still too much padding here (a zombie comedy shouldn’t last longer than 85 minutes - Retardead is 100), and Dan Burr’s Dr. Stern is a fairly ineffectual villain. Instead of being over the top and evil, the actor turns on the seriousness and subtlety. A movie about retarded kids turning into bloodthirsty killers doesn’t need such nuance.

In fact, it’s fair to say that most of Retardead suffers from the seminal sophomore slump. It’s too ambitious, too overloaded with feigned confidence to completely succeed. Granted, in a realm where most homemade horror movies are a single step away from being digital chum, Popko and West deliver a fun and somewhat solid experience. But they also suffer from the same lo-fi failings that most no budget efforts experience. Instead of simply doing what they do best (and did well before), they purposely try to up the ante. And just like the concept of capturing lightning in a bottle, they barely manage to make it. This is a film that should be better than it ends up being - and perhaps it’s not Popko and West’s fault. Their Monsturd was a noxious little novelty. As the old saying goes, it’s almost impossible to repeat such accidental anarchy.

by Bill Gibron

13 Sep 2008


If art were easy, everyone would do it. And if it were a purely private endeavor, few might pursue such a lack of fame. Still, some prefer to work their particular brand of magic outside the glare of the ever-present camera, their concern being that pure truth and absolute beauty only comes from a secure sense of privacy. When former Velvet Underground guide John Cale set out to make his album 1989 Words for the Dying (a tribute to poet Dylan Thomas) with superstar musician/producer Brian Eno, he asked filmmaker Rob Nilsson to tag along. He thought that the recording process would make a decent documentary - or at the very least, a clever commercial tie-in. Upon arriving in Moscow, the crew discovered something quite disturbing. Eno wanted no part of the project - and his objections were strident.

Thus begins the cinematic presentation named for the LP, an incredibly intimate and often unwieldy look at the creative process. Never simple, always impassioned, and technically rife with all manner of mood swings and personal/professional pitfalls, why anyone would want to invite unattached eyes into the process seems arrogant at best. Lucky for us film fans, such ego overdrive has resulted in some classic motion pictures - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, DiG, and now Words for the Dying. While Cale can occasionally be a figure of feigned experimentalism, gravitating toward the avant-garde and the unusual because it seems to satisfy his lingering sense of importance (and this is meant in a good way), his work on “The Falklands Suite” and other Words tracks making up this album argues for a musician of much broader scope.

Eno, on the other hand, comes off as the kind of snickering dick you’d immediately want to shy away from. Nilsson listens to his surreal psychobabble explanation of why he doesn’t want to be filmed (and this after Cale warned him and he relented), and even stands on his head to get the producer to acquiesce. Instead, Eno sets up three rules of filming which could easily encapsulate the entire recording process. It seems strange to watch the same man who hogs the screen during several U2 clips (the rehearsal video for the hit “(Pride) In the Name of Love” comes to mind) act like a pissy prima donna. The few glimpses we catch suggest a meticulous taskmaster, a Kubrick like magician who won’t let his artist rest until he gets the exact performance he hears in his head. While such a stance might be embarrassing, it’s also quite engaging. We want to know the mechanics of making music. Eno’s demands strangulate the insight.

Instead, Nilsson is left looking for other areas of focus, and Words for the Dying (new to DVD from upstart distributor Provocateur) is better for it. The first section of the film takes place in Moscow, in the still Soviet Union. Perestroika has given Cale the chance to work with a major orchestra, and the conductor praises the rock God turned composer to the point of embarrassment. It’s quite the contrast from Eno’s frequent faultfinding. Similarly, when a legendary soloist comes in to record, his moment of singular glory is immediately undercut by our beloved producer nitpicking over improvisational choices. It’s an odd experience, like watching someone complain to Picasso over his lack of symmetry. Much of Words for the Dying takes this tricky approach.

Much of the mixed messaging falls on our man from Wales. He is supposed to be celebrating a comeback of sorts (this was his first album in almost four years), and yet he allows Nilsson to do things that deaden the merrymaking. When he has to “trick” his mother into signing the family house away, the director follows Cale to the nursing home, and through the uncomfortable moments between the two. Similarly, a group of snooty pseudo-intellectual fans rag on their imperfect hero in a backstage parlance of self-righteous smugness. After finally covering the creation of Words, Nilsson then offers Cale a chance to see this prosh predetermination. His response? A second or two of feigned acceptance, and then a literal run off into the English countryside.

It would be nice to understand why the filmmaker took such a confrontational conceit. Unlike previously mentioned movies, Words does not do the inward soul searching that Metallica or The Brian Jonestown Massacre/Dandy Warhols offer. On the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an interview with Nilsson, offers limited explanations. Much of the blame is foisted on Eno, the director stating rather emphatically that if said producer had only allowed for greater access, we wouldn’t have the overall piecemeal paradigm, shooters struggling to find material to fill the frame. But this doesn’t address the implied disdain for Cale. Why hurt a man already suffering? Even better, what does seeing the trailed twinkle in the musician’s mother’s eyes add to the creation of an album?

Indeed, the biggest flaw in all of Words for the Dying is the lack of clarification and context. We never get to hear the final tracks, much of the music presented in snippets or snatches. Cale’s previous career is given an equally cursory montage, allowing the elitist dreck spewed by those so-called devotees to remain our lasting impression of his post-Velvets years. Unlike other making-of movies, Nilsson’s cinema verite variations never offer the true backstage experience. Of course, some of this could be Eno’s fault, but one senses a loss of interest in the subject at hand. As state before, Words is at its best when it’s talking to Russian rock bands, listening to a female violinist discuss the chauvinistic Soviet view about women in the workplace, or capturing Cale with his precious daughter Eden.

Again, if any of this were easy, films like Words for the Dying wouldn’t be necessary. For all its turmoil and travails, for allowing Eno’s attitude to drag everything down to his illogical level, Nilsson deserves censure. Luckily, the small amount of music we hear in combination with the inherently interesting man that Cale appears to be mends most of the fences. It’s hard to argue against Words wounded effectiveness. It may come off as coarse and unsympathetic, especially when one realizes that actual professions and reputations are at stake, but the ancillary aspects surrounding the sturm and drang continuously draw us in. Clearly, Cale deserves better. His entire career can’t be marked by what happens here. For Eno and Nilsson however, the results do feel like jeering just desserts - at least for now.

by Bill Gibron

11 Sep 2008


Sometimes, an excess of talent can lead to very little in evidence. Put another way, you can overload a film with artistic aspirations, failing to see that several pluses can still create a great big minus. Ten years ago, any film starring Robert DeNiro and/or Al Pacino would have been cause to celebrate - or at least to pay attention. And after Spike Lee’s sensational take on his Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gerwitz also represents a fairly hefty amount of commercial viability. Toss in a decent supporting cast that includes John Leguizamo, Donny Wahlberg, Carla Gugino, and Brian Dennehey and stick them all under Jon Avnet’s capable if sometimes clunky direction and the results should speak for themselves, right? Well, in the case of the new cop thriller, Righteous Kill, the resulting oration is not exciting. In fact, it’s ordinary at best.

Turk (DeNiro) and Rooster (Pacino) are two longtime partners in the NYPD. Both have seen their fair share of injustice, and when a child killer is set free, the duo decides to frame him. Shortly thereafter, more scumbags start turning up dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, a nursery rhyme like poem left at each scene. With the help of officers Perez and Riley, and forensics specialist Corelli, the pair hone in on the potential murderer. One lead takes them to a nightclub run by suspected drug dealer Spider. Another takes them directly to the door of one of their own - namely Turk. Seems everyone on the case considers this seasoned veteran the prime suspect. After all, he had access, motive, and a means of covering it up. Of course if it does turn out to be a cop, it could be anyone on the squad…even someone himself desperate to solve the crimes.

Righteous Kill is so average that the standard bell curve can’t calculate just how general it is. Locked into the standard crime and punishment paradigm, with a genre mandated twist at the end, this is not so much a missed opportunity as a subpar story making the most of its limited appeal. The pairing of our former powerbrokers, each one covered in the less than appetizing patina of tainted Oscar, has none of the indomitable force we were promised. Instead, as in Michael Mann’s Heat, DeNiro and Pacino play off each other marvelously - and then that’s about it. The script provides inadequate opportunity for the (former?) A-listers to move beyond their basic personalities. Of the two, Pacino comes out the clear winner. His Rooster character is a collection of snarky comments and lightning one-liners. Most of the time, Big Bob is like Travis Bickle with a goiter, indigestion, and a tight fitting truss.

The rest of the cast is really no help. Leguizamo and Wahlberg pull shtick that seems left over from their often spotty resume, and Gugino is given the thankless role of a polished professional who trades it all in once the badge comes off for some dangerous and kinky sleazeball sex. With 50 Cent along for added street cred (which the movie fails to capitalize on, by the way) and various faceless performers playing random felonious archetypes, DeNiro and Pacino are left doing most of the movie’s manual labor. There are scenes where you can literally see the former giants pushing the plot forward. Avnet, for all his hit or miss mannerisms behind the camera, really can’t be faulted here. He’s firm, if a tad too flashy. No, all the flaws extend directly from Gerwitz’s work. The story is less than solid, and some of the sequences definitely needed another trip through the word processor - or a toss in the trash.

Maybe the real reason Righteous Kill is not more engaging is that, as an entertainment, the police procedural has gone the way of the romantic comedy and the erotic thriller. Call it the CSI influence, or better yet, the overexposure of the category via the direct to DVD market, but every time your turn around, another 88 Minutes or Untraceable is stinking up the Cineplex. DeNiro and Pacino would have to be packing major motion picture moxie to reinvigorate the format, and they don’t appear too excited to be taking on the challenge. While not quite the perfunctory payday of some of their recent efforts, Kill does contain enough problems to prevent its straightforward embrace.

And yet, thanks to the inherent nature of the storyline, the desire to get to the end and see how everything wraps up, we more or less stick with this unspectacular stuff. Oddly enough there are some big laughs here, moments where Rooster ridicules his fellow boys in blue with a kind of loveable crassness. We also find some solace in that the victims are all vile, indefensible scum of the earth. But then Gerwitz gives us the aggravating narrative device of having DeNiro appear on screen, right up front, and ‘confess’ to the crimes. It deadens the impact of the true finale. The film would work much better if the story was left open, the eventual lead to a cop coming from hard work and deduction, not a cinematic gimmick. But then we wouldn’t get those meaningless monologues, Turk looking into a surveillance lens and spilling his (or someone’s) guts about the joys of killing.

Because they do work well together, because we get the innate appeal of having the two major league Method actors tumbling within a formula they are familiar with, Righteous Kill gets off easy. Taking away our touted leads and substituting any number of nominal celebrity skins would result in something almost wholly unwatchable. But with DeNiro and Pacino at the helm, and Avnet doing little to get in their way, we end up with a decent, derivative journey through material that should have crackled with sizzling urban suspense. Such lax results couldn’t have been part of the plan. But then again, putting these firebrands together was never a guarantee of success in the first place. Nothing they’ve done since turning in their talent for some trinkets indicates otherwise.

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