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by Marco Lanzagorta

30 Apr 2008

Arguably, soundtracks are more than simple music. That is, while music itself can be described in terms of compositions, orchestrations, harmonies, melodies, and performances, movie scores also evoke the rather complex synergy that exists between sound and the cinematic image. As such, a soundtrack can only be rightfully appreciated within the context of the movie it accompanies. But then again, there are a few instances where we can listen to a score and still appreciate all its structural and inspirational beauty. This installment of Surround Sound explores a few recently released soundtracks that guarantee a pleasurable listening experience, even if heard outside the movie theater.

Atonement - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 10]

Nominated for several prestigious awards around the globe,Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) is a gorgeous movie that talks about culpability and penitence. Based on the celebrated novel by acclaimed writer Ian McEwan, Atonement is a compelling study about the unbearable guilt felt by one its characters, who, after giving a wrongful accusation that ultimately led to the destruction of several lives, cannot find solace in life. As such, Atonement is about those irreparable loses, that no amount of remorse and regret will ever bring them back. Furthermore, Atonement beautifully reconstructs the serene mid-‘30s on a refined English estate, as well as the dreadful beaches of Dunkirk and the overwhelmed military hospitals in London during the War World II years. Adding to the mix, the movie enjoys the truly exceptional performances of James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Atonement is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2007.

Dario Marianelli’s Academy Award winning score for Atonement is truly outstanding. Believe it or not, its most salient characteristic is the use of an old-fashioned typewriting machine as a musical instrument (but then again, the legendary maestro Ennio Morricone did something similar in Il Mio Nome e Nessuno [aka My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973], where he accompanied his orchestra with alarm clocks and automobile claxons). Still, most of the score relies on the English Chamber Orchestra, French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and cello prodigy Caroline Dale to create a majestic, romantic, and dramatic underscoring to the film. Furthermore, the compositional style of this soundtrack is at times reminiscent of Beethoven, and it truly conveys a wide spectrum of emotions. For instance, the track “Elegy for Dunkirk”, a mournful composition accompanied by a solemn chorus, not only is the highlight of the score, but also one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed for a film. From depressing sadness to paradisaical happiness, Marianelli’s score for Atonement is a true masterwork that demands to be appreciated on its own strengths.

Youth Without Youth - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

Youth Without Youth (2007) marks the return of the illustrious Francis Ford Coppola to the directorial chair after a 10 year hiatus. Unfortunately, in spite of its many highlights, Youth Without Youth falls short of what is to be expected from such a legendary director. Based on a novella by Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth takes place right before the first shots of World War II were fired, and Tim Roth plays Dominic, a 70 year old Romanian linguist who is struck by lighting. Instead of killing Dominic, this inexplicable atmospheric event somehow causes his body to rejuvenate. As a consequence, Hitler and his Third Reich want to capture Dominic and study his unique physiological processes, probably with the purpose of building a race of super-soldiers. Full of intrigue and romance, Youth Without Youth succeeds in articulating an intriguing and preposterous idea, providing a satisfying viewing experience.

Acclaimed Argentine classical composer Osvaldo Golijov provides Youth Without Youth with a truly outstanding score. Golijov’s composition gives Coppola’s film a moody atmosphere of mystery, drama, romance, and suspense. Avoiding the gargantuan orchestrations that are popular in modern Hollywood flicks, Golijov’s music feels kind of retro, reminiscent of the scores written by Max Steiner and Franz Waxman during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Furthermore, Golijov’s orchestration uses rare instruments, such as the Kamanche (a Persian stringed instrument played with a bow) and the cimbalom (an Eastern European instrument that looks like a hammered dulcimer). In addition, even though the movie takes place in Romania, Golijov adds some Argentinean flavor to this films score. Indeed, some of his compositions, such as “Love Lost”, have the same rhythm and instrumentation as the Tango. A beautiful soundtrack, Youth Without Youth offers a refreshing approach to movie scoring.

Hitman - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Over the past decade, films based on popular video games have proved to be problematic. The adaptation of an intrinsically egocentric environment into a narrative structure is far from being an easy step. And still, these movies continue to be produced in spite of negative critical reviews and poor audience reception. Such is the case of Hitman (Xavier Gens, 2007), a violent flick based on the game of the same name. In Hitman, Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant) is a brutal mercenary who gets embroiled in a complex political conspiracy. A brainless action movie if I ever saw one.

The effective action oriented score for Hitman was composed by Geoff Zanelli, a member of the renowned Media Ventures (nowadays know as Remote Control Productions). As most connoisseurs know, since the late ‘90s, and under the firm direction of the legendary Hans Zimmer, this group has defined the musical structure of the action genre. In terms of compositional style and performance, Hitman does not offer many musical surprises. At times this music brings to mind the incessant percussions and relentless rhythm that characterizes the Bourne scores, and tracks such as “Train Station” offer action driven orchestrations with a spotlight on strings, percussions, and electronics. In a nutshell, the score for Hitman is loud, uses a combination of orchestra and synthesizers, and although structurally simple, it offers extraordinary moments guaranteed to raise our adrenaline levels.

Into the Wild - Original Score [rating: 6]

Allegedly based on a true story, Into the Wild (2007) tells the story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a successful student and thriving athlete, and his trip of self discovery in the Alaska wilderness. A film with a narrative structure clearly cemented on the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Into the Wild shows how Christopher donates most of his possessions to charity, and then hitchhikes his way to the top of the continent, meeting several characters who shape his view of the world. Firmly directed by Sean Penn, Into the Wild is an inspirational and evocative film that questions the cultural traps of modern society and consumerism.

The score for Into the Wild was composed by no less than three artists: Michael Brook, Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder. However, while Michael Brook provided most of the instrumental compositions that underscore the action seen in the film, Eddie Vedder and Kaki King provided a series of songs. Thus prospective buyers should beware that there are two different soundtracks available on the market, and the present review is about the one that includes Brook’s inspiring music. With this score, Brook proves to be a great musician with a good sensibility for film scoring. For instance, the unique location of the film is aptly encoded into the music. That is, most of Brook’s compositions rely on harmonicas and guitars to emulate the wild and rural landscape of Alaska. Overall, the score for Into the Wild is structurally simple, but very melodic and elegant.

Broken English - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 5]

Zoe R. Cassavetes’ Broken English (2007) is a surprisingly delightful romantic comedy. Parker Posey plays Nora Wilder, a thirty-something single woman who clearly lacks a meaningful personal life. Furthermore, her mother and friends constantly remind her of her loneliness and misery. Under these circumstances, she meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud), a Frenchman who will teach her a couple of lessons about life. In a sense, Broken English tries to poke fun at the complex behavior of single adults who cannot fit within the norm established by a coupled society.

The soundtrack for Broken English mostly consists of a series of pieces composed and performed by Scratch Massive, a techno group created by two famous Parisian Disk Jockeys, Maud Geffray and Sebastien Chenut. The techno music is surprisingly good, featuring rhythmic instrumental tracks that emphasize electronic tonalities and percussions. The track that opens the Broken English album, “In the Dressing Room”, probably is the best on the entire CD and features soft and elegiac female vocalizations. In addition to Scratch Massive’s composition, we also get to hear three good pieces by Juan Trip. The best of them, “A Dreamful of Time”, is mostly based on a rhythmic guitar. Taken as a whole, the soundtrack for Broken English may not be noteworthy in the scoring scene, but nevertheless it provides a good listening experience.

Darfur Now - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Darfur Now (2007) is a harrowing documentary that denounces the heinous acts of genocide currently taking place in Darfur, Sudan. These terrible and brutal events are portrayed in Darfur Now from the perspective of six different individuals. From a UCLA graduate student to a United Nations humanitarian, this film explores the intractable difficulties of the situation by showcasing the first hand experiences of its protagonists. By any means, Darfur Now is a powerful piece of filmmaking, and its highlight may well be the strong ideological, political, moral, and legal complexities that the movie conveys.

Acclaimed composer Graeme Revell has made a name for himself by making scores with unusual instrumentations that generate a musical atmosphere made of tribal, ethnic, and ancestral sounds. That is, avoiding melodies, themes, and motifs, Revell shines in the creation of overwhelming musical backgrounds. And such is the case for his score for Darfur Now. Indeed, most of the tracks on the soundtrack CD feature guitars and synthesizers accompanied with what appears to be native instruments. Nonetheless, the dissimilar sounds produced by Revell’s distinctive instrumentations blend nicely with each other. Overall Darfur Now is a notch above the average music for a documentary, and deserves to be listened on its own. 

Persepolis - Original Soundtrack [rating: 5]

One should not get fooled by the fact that Persepolis (2007) has substantial animated sequences, as this flick packs a strong political and ideological subtext. A French production directed by the duo Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is sort of an autobiographical effort exploring the troubled upbringings of Satrapi. Indeed, most of the movie is based on a series of popular graphic novels authored by Satrapi, where she narrates her cultural angst as an inquisitive kid with a love for western culture while living in traditionalist Teheran. Combining comedy and drama, Persepolis succeeds in its discussion of complex themes such as the Islamic Revolution and the difficult cultural conflicts that have troubled Iran over the past three decades.

The score for Persepolis was composed by Oliver Bernet, and smoothly mixes a variety of sounds and styles. Even though traditional Middle Eastern tonalities are heard throughout the entire soundtrack, we also appreciate delightful guitars playing Spanish and Mexican music, and a strong Parisian flavor. At some points during the film this music is used in a fun way, reminiscent of the scores for the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. And at other times the music is rather majestic, bringing to mind Maurice Jarre’s opulent score for Lawrence of Arabia. Furthermore, the soundtrack includes a new envisioning of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (featured as the main theme in the unforgettable Rocky III). Arguably, the combination of musical styles in the soundtrack of Persepolis further highlights the cultural conflicts featured in the film. 

The Great Debaters - Music Recorded for the Film with Vintage Bonus Tracks [rating: 3]

The Great Debaters (2007) unmistakably shows the many outstanding artistic sensibilities of Denzel Washington, not only as an accomplished actor, but also as a competent director. Based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a farsighted professor at Wiley College in Texas, The Great Debaters succeeds in providing an inspirational and motivating cinematic experience. Washington plays Tolson, and the film is a dramatization of how he created the school’s first debate team, and subsequently challenged the prestigious University of Harvard at a national championship.


The instrumental score for The Great Debaters was composed by the versatile James Newton Howard. However, this review is for the accompanying CD that features a generous selection of songs featured in the film. As such, this soundtrack is a mere collection of pieces that appear to combine the gospel, jazz, and blues in a rather rhythmic fashion. Most of these songs are composed and performed by Alvin Youngblood Hart and Sharon Jones. A true mixed bag of goodies, this CD can only be recommended to those die hard fans of these often misunderstood musical genres.

by Bill Gibron

29 Apr 2008

Ki-tae and Cheol-su are a couple of young street toughs looking to get married to the mob. Cheol-su fancies himself an enforcer for the local “working girls,” while Ki-tae protects neighborhood kids from other would-be hoodlums. Through their connections, they end up taking part in a big-time drug deal. When the exchange turns deadly, the boys break ranks and flee. The crime boss is none too pleased with their panicking, and demands that they either repay the lost $10,000, or avenge those who died.

Naturally, the guys try to raise the cash while keeping one step ahead of the law. When Ki-tae stumbles across a big bag of cocaine, they see a possible way out of their predicament. With the help of a hooker friend, they head off to Japan to make a deal worth $500,000. This way, they can repay the boss and start life over again. But there is someone from their past, someone very angry, who wants his own satisfaction, and he won’t take an apology, or cash, to quell it.

Loud, illogical, and without a single redeeming character, Jungle Juice is the Korean cinema’s idea of an American mob comedy. You know the kind - idiots want to join the syndicate, screw up a big job, end up owing the bosses big time, and botch their way through trying to replace the cash/stash. Profanity is tossed about freely, and violence forms both the slapstick and the sinister quality of the narrative. In the end, we are rooting for our amateur anti-heroes, since no one wants the gangsters to win and, with the help of a surprising ally, our leads learn a lesson and get some manner of backwards reward in the process.

It should work effortlessly. We should grow in our acceptance of these misfits, learn why the wrong side of the law holds such an allure, and realize that the adventures we’ve witnessed were all part of some strange coming-of-age ritual that results in change and catharsis. Without these elements, we have nothing but a “crime is glamorous” crapshoot that kills its purpose with firepower and foolishness.

But director Min-Ho Cho doesn’t understand the basics of balance. He allows Jungle Juice to careen all over the screen, moving from dark drama to way-out wackiness in a manner that is both awkward and obvious. In his lead roles, he employs two over-the-top baboons (actually, actors Hyuk Jang and Beom-su Lee) and forces them to mug, mince, and basically mess about without a single scintilla of purpose. No attempt at dimension or depth is made, and their cartoonish capering is about as endearing as an ear infection. In essence, they are not really part of the story.

They are like the necessary linking verb in a sentence, a way of connecting the drug-dealing story with the gang violence goofiness. Min-ho doesn’t even set up the story properly. Instead, we are introduced to necessary elements in offhand, haphazard fashion. The backstory involving sports and college? It’s part of a post-coital tryst with a hooker. The entire power struggle playing out in the mob? Left to a couple of casual comments between the hoods. One character’s missing testicle? A one-off joke that goes nowhere. Instead of setting up clear distinctions, believable aims, and straightforward action, everything here swirls around like a bunch of rats caught in a sewer riptide…and all we are left with is the smell.

Not only is Jungle Juice an outrage, but it can also be categorized as something much worse - the promising film that pisses all of its potential away. There really is no hope for these brain-dead dolts, but the whore with a heart of ice and a decided derring-do (she is nicknamed Meg Ryan and is played with pluck by Hye-jin Jeon) would make a natural center for the story. Our unpleasant putzes could be tossed aside, and Min-ho could have made this Meg’s story of survival and double-crossing. She has the most interesting history, her resolve is fierce and independent, and she manages to thwart those situations that her idiotic partners fall into like fruit carts during a chase scene.

But Min-ho keeps her minor, never letting anything she does or determines overwhelm her miserable macho sidekicks. Perhaps it’s a sly commentary on Asian social structure, or a way of representing girl power without shooting off sparks, but it’s boring. Indeed, almost all of Jungle Juice is inert and uninteresting. Even the title tonic - a homemade brew that leads to some heady hallucinations - makes a single, sad appearance here before disappearing into the ephemera.

At the one-hour mark, we are wishing for something to happen, and at the one-hour-and-30-minute mark, we just want it to end. Jungle Juice could very easily be called Bungled Sap or Botched Brew as it lumbers along on screams, curse words, and…not much else. This is moviemaking as an amplified experience, with everything turned up to Spinal Tap‘s “11,” without any of that film’s wit, wisdom, satire, or irony. While it’s a professional and high-profile movie to look at (this is no low-budget romp), we are still treated to a scattershot story that never settles in to allow us entry.

It may have sides splitting in Seoul and be breaking box-office records in Bangkok, but for some reason, Jungle Juice just doesn’t translate to a Western ideal - and the funny thing is, it more or less steals, openly and honestly, from the British and American indie scene from the last two decades. Two better and more accurate titles would have been Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Dimwits or Dolt Fiction, since this is one homage that is hasty and malformed. Unless you’re some manner of Asian film completist, there is no reason to sample this stale, stinking fluid.

by Bill Gibron

28 Apr 2008

Tradition holds that, for Hollywood, the Spring represents the end of ballyhoo - and the business year. During the four month flatline between January and April, every unmarketable mess, every experimental excuse, every contractually obligated star vehicle, and otherwise underdone effort would get a mandatory release - a few days of bewildering box office glory before fading into VHS obscurity. It was always an aesthetic stop gap, a means of making talent happy, critics cranky, and audiences wary. Summer would come soon enough, and with it, the far more palatable popcorn fare. Yet for over 16 weeks, we had to tolerate some pretty pathetic offerings. All of that changed a few years ago when Hollywood realized it could up the ante, just a little, by providing a couple less than mediocre movies. The accompanying turnstile twists proved their approach correct.

Now, Spring is a battle between horrendous and highlights. There are still more stumbles than sonnets, but when you consider the crap that used to pour forth, literally nonstop, a few fine films is all one can ask for. Yet oddly enough, 2008 saw a trend toward documentaries that indicates a real failing among fiction films. While the studios seem convinced that everything old is repackage-able again, the men and women exploring the reality around us are doing it with style, wit, and a clean, clinical eye. They say that everyone has a story to tell, a narrative that if captured properly, would give the old “truth is stranger than…” mantra a clear run for its money. Two of the five films listed below do indeed bring that maxim to startling life.

But there were other excellent offerings that deserve a runner’s up mention: the beat-happy British heist flick The Bank Job; Leatherheads, the half-successful screwball comedy from George Clooney; the uneven document Sputnik Mania, centering on a certain Soviet satellite and the effect it had on a worried West; and the gonzo zombie stomp of Shine a Light, featuring the undead Rolling Stones in all their going through the maverick motions glory. In addition, the underserved demographic of Florida finally got to see two outstanding foreign films from 2007 - The Counterfeiters and Persepolis - movies that would have made this list had they not already had their moment of glory last year. So here is what SE&L thought were the best Spring flings of 2008, beginning with:

# 5 - Forgetting Sarah Marshall dir. Nicholas Stoller

While some may believe - falsely - that the Apatow era of feature length funny business has peeked and begun to ebb (thanks to Dewey Cox or Drillbit Taylor, take your pick), the truth is that there’s lots of satiric fire left in the old furnace. Case in point, this wonderful brom-com from Freak and Geeks costar Jason Segel. While the story of a rather caustic breakup may seem like the last place heart or hilarity could be found, there’s a heaping helping of both in this tale of a struggling composer dumped by his TV star girlfriend. Our hero hopes a trip to Hawaii will cure what ails him. Turns out, his ex is there with her slezoid British boy toy as well.

There’s so much more to this movie than raunch and the risqué. Sure, penis abounds, but so does some emotional insights into how love can linger long after it really should. Besides, there’s puppets - putting on a production of Dracula - with music! How much more do you want. While Segel is a strange leading man, he is surrounded by a capable cast including Kristen Bell (riffing on her current career arc with self-deprecating brilliance), Mila Kunis, and UK yutz Russell Brand, playing every Amy Winehouse inspired pub spud imaginable. Together they take a subject that should sink like a stone and make it laugh out loud loveable. And rumor has it that Segel will be scripting the new Muppets movie. How weird is that?

# 4 - The Dhamma Brothers dir. Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein

We really don’t know what to do with our exploding prison population, do we? We love the notion of warehousing the dangerous and deadly, keeping ourselves and our wee ones away from the true (yet undeniable) horrors of the world. Yet mention the concept of rehabilitation or rights and the cold, conservative nature inherent in all of us leaps to the fore. We don’t want inmates given a chance. Instead, we demand that they be kept locked away forever - no matter what the judges, juries, or sentencing guidelines suggest. It’s from this narrow-minded premise that this look at the use of Buddhism in an Alabama penitentiary gets its undeniable power.

Certainly, there is every reason to be skeptical. As one of the guards convincingly argues, prisoners will “fake it ‘til they make it”, meaning they will do anything to gain some early release favor. But Vipassana (a tiring ten day ritual) seems like an insane way to achieve that ends, especially with all the deep-seeded personal problems and unhealed wounds it tends to open up. We learn a lot about these men - stories that seem antithetical to the crimes they committed and yet completely in line with the standard police profiling. Their tales of abandonment and abuse are horrific, just like the ways they choose to compensate for them. This is as eye opening and uneasy as fact filmmaking gets.

# 3 - Cloverfield dir. Matt Reeves

Sure, the viral marketing campaign that swept the Internet last summer seemed overly calculated, guaranteed to make whatever turned up in theaters four months later appear simultaneously exciting and exasperating. Who knew that producer JJ Abrams and a couple of his TV pals (Felicity‘s Matt Reeves and Lost‘s Drew Goddard) would turn the whole thing into one of the finest genre efforts of the new millennium. Sure, some consider this monster movie nothing more than Godzilla with a Blair Witch POV, but that’s just part of the film’s appeal. There are also riffs on 9/11, our current sense of social fear, and the notion that nothing is real unless it’s viewed through a camera or featured on TV.

Now that it’s out on DVD, the movie can be studied more closely (and without some of the accompanying handheld shaky-cam nausea), and some interesting elements definitely come to the fore. The relationship between the friends (and former lovers) becomes even clearer, the emotional needs that each carries adding to the seriousness of the situation. The monster’s movements are also clarified, thanks to the lack of an anticipation/shock factor. We get to see the amazing CG destruction in all its wow-factor glory. It all makes for one of the most creative kaiju-like efforts ever.

# 2 - Be Kind, Rewind dir. Michele Gondry

No, this was not that wacky, weirdo comedy that the presence of Mos Def or Jack Black would indicate. Nor was it just another piece of Michele Gondry wistfulness mistaking pure imagination for screenwriting. Instead, this is the finest love letter to the VCR and the videocassette ever constructed, a story that requires audiences to drop their pretexts and perceptions and recognize exactly what the scenes are saying. What we are witnessing here is not just the recreation of classic ‘80s films by a bunch of video store employees turned amateur auteurs. Instead, the so-called “Swedeing” that occurs is a reflection of just how pervasive cinema has become as part of our everyday lives.

As with most broad canvases, it’s the details that get lost. When Black and company make their new versions of these well-remembered films, they are done so without any real reference - no script, definitely no VHS copy to consider. Instead, this is moviemaking from memory, the rote revisiting of favored titles by people who have them memorized. All geek love should be this pure and pristine. Thanks to Gondry’s vision, which places all the action in a gee-whiz setting of communal consideration, we witness the first movie ever to acknowledge the seismic change that occurred when theaters headed home. Destined to be considered a modern masterpiece in the future.

# 1 - Young@Heart dir. Stephen Walker

Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are additionally viewed as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and The Clash as points of sonic reference.

This fantastic feel good documentary, chronicling the preparations by the Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), is so uplifting that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Balancing the joy inherent in making music with the inevitability of a life slowly fading away, we meet individuals so inspiring they practically preach to us. Certainly, British filmmaker Stephen Walker pushes a few buttons here and there, and middle aged choir director Bob Cilman can ham it up with the worst of them, but these are minor quibbles in what is destined to be another overlooked fact-film come Oscar time.

by Bill Gibron

27 Apr 2008

With the faux infighting of Baby Mama and Harold and Kumar 2 making the 25 April weekend as anticlimactic, cinematically speaking, as possible, it’s time to take a look back at the movies that made the last four months a Bataan Death March of motion picture torture. Of course, bad is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes, it’s impossible to deny the dearth of imagination and originality cascading off the screen. Frequently, we chalk it up to needing a paycheck. In other instances, it’s the marketing minds that determine retardation, and that redundancy equals receipts. Of course we, the audience, are somewhat culpable. We claim to hate how Hollywood throws us the same old slop every year, and yet we turn out in droves for the carbon copy comic book movie, or the indistinguishable slacker comedy.

Yet looking over this quintet of crap, this fivesome of flotsam, it’s clear that some studios aren’t even paying attention. Even worse, the mindbending mediocrity of some of these choices seems to indicate that highly paid industry bosses think we’re drooling, dunderheaded morons. How else would you explain giving Uwe Boll more production value, offering up yet another J-Horror remake from a pair of Frenchmen? Does Larry the Cable Guy really need more beer and chew money, and could someone please stop the terrible, tedious lampoons before the genre sees fit to actually eat itself? Of course nothing could save us from the Spring’s worst endeavor, a purposeful slap in the face by a foreign filmmaker who believes the West loves movie violence a bit too much. Nothing like fighting fire with foolishness.

So here they are, SE&L‘s selections for the titles that made the first quarter of 2008 such a trying theatrical experience. And don’t think we forgot about you 88 Minutes, Doomsday, Untraceable, or Jumper. It’s just that, with only so much bile to go around, it’s better to reserve one’s jaded judgment for a future feature than to come out shooting blanks. Let’s begin with number five:

# 5 - In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale dir. Uwe Boll

Dr. Uwe Boll. What more needs to be said, really? True, his past motion picture output has more or less destined him to take over Ed Wood as the worst director who ever lived, but there were actually people who pointed to this production (and his summer stool sample, Postal) and argued that he has the potential to make good movies. Apparently, he’s reserving that ability for sometime in the future. When you consider his cast here is made up of Jason Statham, Leelee Sobieski, Ron Pearlman, and Ray Liotta, the omens of awfulness seem rather slight. Then Burt Reynolds shows up as the title ruler and any artistic authenticity gets flushed down the toilet.

But the acting is not the only oddball element in this Lord of the Rings redux-ulousness. The CGI is sloppy, to say the least, and the narrative lacks the kind of creative context that keeps us wondering about the next plot point. Instead, we are merely dropped in the middle of this Dungeons Without Dragons dreck and asked to buy every unconvincing moment of it. The pacing is schizophrenic, the editing clearly from the “meanwhile, in another part of the film” school of cutting. In fact, while there are some improvements shown along the way, it’s clear that Boll is only getting worse when it comes to mastering the language of film.

#4 - The Eye dire. David Moreau and Xavier Palud

Beyond disheartening, this was just plain abysmal. Anyone lucky enough to see David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s brilliant Ils (released in the US as Them) knows that this French filmmaking duo can really deliver the shivers. Their simple set-up, involving a secluded Romanian estate and a couple victimized by some unseen invaders was a stark, suspenseful romp. It literally rekindled one’s faith in the subtler forms of the horror genre. This rancid remake re-killed it. Granted, the mere presence of Jessica Alba in the lead guarantees a groan inducing time (Sin City aside), but our directors also seem to suffer from some kind of cinematic amnesia. They seem to have forgotten everything that made Ils so wonderful.

Instead, we get the standard J-Horror junk…unseen phantoms, lots of spooky noises, scenery that shifts between the supernatural and the just plain stupid realms. Even worse, Moreau and Palud rely on gimmicky cinematic stunts to sell this story of a blind musician who ends up with the corneas of a rural clairvoyant. While the narrative mirrors its Asian counterpart rather closely, the usual cultural inconsistencies occur. Americans like to think of themselves as much less superstitious than some other world citizens. Sadly, this is the kind of movie that relies on such made-up mumbo jumbo to work.

#3 - Witless Protection dir. Charles Robert Carner

It’s time to put this sleeve-less, malapropism prone menace out of our misery once and for all. This is by far the worst film the former Blue Collar Comedy tour titan has ever made - and that includes the despicable Delta Farce and the disposable Larry the Cable Guy - Health Inspector. Sure, NASCAR nation can’t get enough of his cornfed cornball cracker-isms, a combination of the Ku Klux Klan and observational humor. But that doesn’t mean it translates successfully into a 90 minute movie. Unfortunately, this cesspool extends said running time by another 7!

The truth be told, there is nothing really wrong with pandering to a narrow demographic. Tyler Perry does it all the time, and his movies literally print their own payouts. But for some reason - maybe it’s the melting pot make-up of the human race - such blinkered bullspit doesn’t wind up being universally hilarious. Sure, there are moments when a chuckle may unexpectedly pass from your lips, but it could be yourself you are laughing at. After all, just think about it - you paid $10 to see this Gomer geek show, and you ain’t ever getting that money (or those brain cells) back.

#2 - Meet the Spartans dir. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer

Gene Siskel once said that the greatest sin a big screen comedy can commit is not being funny. Actually, the late great critic was wrong. A pointless parody positioned as an all out laughfest is the true Hitler of humor. One would assume that after Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie (and most recently, Superhero Movie), all genre in-joking would be covered. Apparently, the homo-erotic spectacle of 300 needed tweaking as well. Enter the talentless twaddle that passes as ability from screenwriters/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. These guys seem capable of taking any current pop culture trend and turn it into the most tired of token takes.

Indeed, hack burlesque comedians are more witty and inventive than this dung - and referring to half-naked musclemen as closeted gays is not the height of satire. Nothing here works - not the timing, not the acting, not the all-important cinematic spoofs. Instead, the pair’s poisonous grab bag approach makes sure that no one subject survives unscathed. Oh, but it is unfunny. Very unfunny indeed. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that the motion picture category of comedy itself has filed a restraining order against these two spoof stalkers.

#1 - Funny Games dir. Michael Haneke

There is nothing worse than an ex-girlfriend who hates you so much that she becomes obsessed with you (it happens with ex-boyfriends too, so no gender baiting, okay?). In that regard, Austrian director Michael Haneke is such a jilted lover. You see, he clearly was enraptured by American moviemaking at some point in his career, but as with most foreign entrants into the industry’s boudoir, he was rejected. So what does he do in return? He takes all of his anger and aggression out on his former paramour with a little experiment in shite called Funny Games. This is supposed to be a deconstruction of the deconstruction of the standard serial killer thriller. Instead, it’s garbage.

By augmenting the very confines of cinema, but subverting our expectations out of a clear egomaniacal drive to make a point, Haneke’s hate permeates every frame. Like arguing that abuse is unhealthy by beating someone over the head, this movie wallows in the very genre excesses that the filmmaker wants to foil. Even worse, he purposefully insults the audience, asking them to accept his treatise as truth even when he doesn’t have the balls or backbone to support his stance. There have been few films as irredeemable as Funny Games. It’s not only one of this year’s worst - it’s a worthy competitor to the “all time” title.

by Bill Gibron

26 Apr 2008

It was the final nail in his financial coffin, the epic that would eventually close his by now infamous Spanish studios. After the troubled production surrounding his last epic, 55 Days at Peking, many believed producer Samuel Bronston would exercise some manner of restraint. But in true visionary form, he actually tore down his original Rome sets when actor Charleton Heston (who had appeared in El Cid) expressed interest in the Chinese spectacle. When the famous star eventually rejected a role in Fall, Bronston hired Stephen Boyd, and then rebuilt the entire Forum and most of the ancient city across 55 sprawling acres. Budgeted at $20 million (in 1964 dollars), Fall flopped, and even with its high profile cast, it couldn’t save the producer’s professional reputation.

That’s the great thing about DVD. It can help reestablish an unfairly maligned career. It can also argue for filmmaking facets that contributed to an already predetermined downfall. Both elements are present in the The Weinstein Company’s gorgeous restoration of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Presented over three discs and supplemented with a wealth of explanatory material, we get a chance to see Bronston’s vision the way he intended it (sans the 70mm Ultra Panavision Cinerama, that is). We also get an opportunity to witness the hubris that believed audiences would enjoy a scattered, three hour dramatization of the decline of the famed civilization. With the usual international casting conceit, and lots of expansive sets, director Anthony Mann was given a simple mandate - make it big. He frequently went further, making it boring as well.

While fighting Germanic forces north of his empire, Marcus Aurelius is poisoned by conspirators. Unable to name his beloved friend General Gaius Livius as his intended successor, the role of emperor falls on the ruler’s ineffectual son, Commodus. After marrying off his sister - and Livius’ lover - Lucilla to an Armenia king, he begins his reign. Believing that the road to peace is best paved with war and taxes, he causes rebellion amongst many of the outlying regions. In the meantime, Livius brokers a truce with the North, and uses his connection to Aurelius’ adviser Timonides to get the Roman Senate to endorse it. Of course, Commodus disapproves. As the leader’s hubris grows, his control on the empire wanes. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Lucilla is sentenced to death. She is joined by Livius, who has been set up by his own men. A final gladiatorial battle for the fate of Rome awaits our two competing conquerors.

Over the years, some have argued that Gladiator glommed on and stole most of the meaning from this overstuffed production, yet what’s most clear about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that it is a movie at odds with itself. On the one hand, director Anthony Mann and his fine group of actors - Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren - do a wonderful job of bringing out the personal interplay and individual strife that would lead to the collapse of the mighty civilization from the inside out. We believe in the dynamic between the cast, and see how the fate of men (and one woman) could lead to the undermining and the misery of half the world. It’s not a new story - absolute power corrupts absolutely, in a nutshell - but Mann does indeed make it come alive.

On the opposite end is Bronston’s desire for more: more sets; more battle sequences; more extras. What we witness onscreen does indeed look impressive. While many marveled at Ridley Scott’s CGI version of the famed Italian city, Rome and its fantastic Forum look so much more real here. Of course, the tactile effect of a real practical backdrop does help. But there are other elements that are just as successful - the Temple of Jupiter (with the head of Commodus), the winter camp of Marcus Aurelius, the sweeping battlefields. Yet they seem to exist outside of the more intimate material at hand. The Fall of the Roman Empire can frequently feel like a character study played out amongst the very planets themselves. Scope and scale frequently countermand narrative and nuance.

Of course, that was the point. Bronston never thought that a non-spectacle would fill seats. The cinema was still battling TV for the all-important entertainment soul of the American public, and without something sensational to sell, the small screen’s convenience and novelty continued to win out. In many ways, such massive bombast was indeed revolutionary. It was mimicked as recently as the late ‘80s/early’90s, when the VCR and home video threatened to make movie-going obsolete. The studios responded with special effects laden efforts. To paraphrase the position - the viewer never starves when there’s eye candy around.

It was the same four decades ago. Of course, the sweets have soured a little since then. Much of Fall feels forced, pageantry played to the hilt simply because it can be. Plummer is wonderful as the egomaniacal brat, and Mason literally makes the movie. Of course, there are performers like Guinness who appear to be putting in the miles without delivering much of the necessary effort, and Loren was still in iconic beauty mode. She was much better back when she was battling Heston (off screen) during El Cid. Yet the optical wonder provided here, the sheer opulence of Mann’s moviemaking and Bronston’s approach give The Fall of the Roman Empire just enough to keep us going. It may be a tough road to hoe sometime, but the overall effect is impressive.

Equally extraordinary is this new DVD edition. Named after the Weinstein’s mother Miriam, the sheer wealth of added content here should make even the most amateur film historian weep with delight. The movie itself contains a commentary by Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin. While a tad too self-congratulatory (after all, they aren’t really going to criticize the man), it’s still a remarkable discussion. Disc Two trots out the Making-Ofs and the Behind the Scenes featurettes. One of the best highlights the “fact vs. fiction” way in which history is manipulated by Hollywood to fit its dramatic needs. Finally, a third DVD delivers a series of short films, commissioned by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which offers a classroom like take on Roman History (this material is only available as part of the limited edition package).

Frankly, anyone coming to this film hoping for historical accuracy should really seek some cinematic guidance. The Fall of the Roman Empire is meant to be nothing more than a sumptuous banquet of motion picture excesses served with a side dish of the slightest narrative accuracy. That Samuel Bronston saw this as the ultimate form of entertainment speaks as much for his approach as a producer as his fate as a filmmaker. It’s not surprising that he ended up going bankrupt when Fall tanked. Too much of what he was - and always would be - was wrapped up in this extremist ideal. And just like all outsized imaginations, a crash was inevitable. The Fall of the Roman Empire may not be the most notorious motion picture morass in the history of the medium, but for Samuel Bronston, it was the ultimate expression of what he was - for better and for worse.




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