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Thursday, Feb 7, 2008

It’s clear that some filmmakers inherently understand the value of music in setting up the tone of their film. It’s a two way street, of course. The right selection of songs, or perfectly executed score, can turn the everyday into something epic, or the mildly amusing into a comic cavalcade. Yet there are times when, because of excessive ambition or smug self congratulation, the tunes take on a tainted life all their own - and the screen’s not ‘big’ enough for both the sonic and the storyline. Finding flawless examples of the former is far harder than locating mediocre members of the latter, basically because the meshing of music and movies is typically left to those (Scorsese, Tarantino) who know what they’re doing. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we’ll focus on a trio of soundtracks that truly understand the importance of sonics within the cinematic. They also reflect three of 2007’s best efforts.


Juno - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]


How does one match a movie built almost exclusively on quirk? Do you go for an equally eccentric collection of songs, or try and reflect the borderline precocious personalities of the cast? For director, and soundtrack producer Jason Reitman (with help from Peter Afterman and Margaret Yen), you do a little of both. Wisely, son of Ivan relied on Kimya Dawson and the idio-indie vibe left over from her work with the Moldy Peaches to propel the Juno soundtrack toward perfected mix tape nirvana. The selections here celebrate all that’s good about the pregnancy parable, exploring the tentative twee universe of adolescent sexual discovery with the down to earth worldview of its simple syrup heroine. Though it’s lacking the aesthetic cornerstone that drives our ‘with child’ champion - namely, old school ‘70s punk - it does pick through the last 40 years of music to find symbolic soulmates for the character.

Dawson’s work is delicious, a combination of lo-fi lollipops and angst fueled confessionals. “My Rollercoaster”, “Tire Swing”, “Loose Lips” and “So Nice So Smart” are all winners, all walking the fine line between imagined bedroom singalongs and full blown coffee house concertos. Similarly, the ‘main’ musical number, the Peaches pubescent love lament “Anyone Else But You” does double duty - functioning as both theme and last act truce between Juno and her boy joy Paulie. And while it would seem that tracks from established bands like The Kinks (“A Well Respected Man”), The Velvet Underground (“I’m Sticking With You”), and Sonic Youth (the Carpenters cover “Superstar”) would announce their obviousness and overstay their welcome, the way Reitman handles them in the film makes their presence more than mandatory here. Besides, anyone wise enough to give Mo Tucker’s lunatic lullaby a place on their playlist deserves unfettered kudos. The Juno soundtrack is exactly like the film itself - clever, original, and just a tad out of step with normalcy.


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


For a composer, it must be an impossible dilemma to overcome. How does one write songs for a specific actor to sing while also creating music that’s supposed to be the result of said performer’s specific character? Luckily, the minds behind the wacky wintertime comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story took a hands on approach. Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan, along with collaborator/comedy savior Judd Apatow, made sure that star John C. Reilly had some sonic substance to work with, hashing out lyrics and stylistic ideals before calling in actual musicians to bring them forth. Members of the Candy Butchers (Dan Bern and Mike Viola) as well as established artists like Van Dyke Parks and Marshall Crenshaw used the sketches and outlines as the basis for their clever contributions. The results become one of the best parody albums ever, matching considered classics from Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, note for nutty note.

As the movie is meant to mimic the recent biopic of Johnny Cash (among others, including Ray and The Buddy Holly Story), we get several man in black moments. The title track is terrific, a perfect amalgamation of message and mock bravado that comes across as iconic and idiotic. Similarly, early narrative numbers like “Take My Hand” and “(Mama) You Gots to Love Your Negro Man” take stylistic satire and brave bad taste to new levels. During the middle of the movie, when Reilly’s character is experimenting with sound and inspiration, the Parks’ penned psychedelic epic “Black Sheep” reminds us that rock and roll is almost inherently a self-parody to begin with. Between the faux folk protest of songs like “Dear Mr. President” to the late in life resurgence stated in “Beautiful Ride”, this is a score that celebrates the best - and excesses - of a life as a musician. It’s just too bad that the film and the album failed to connect with audiences. Like other examples of the genre, however, it’s destined to become a signpost of cult cool in the years to come - just like another similarly styled heavy metal spoof. 


Into The Wild - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]


For close to two decades now, Eddie Vedder and his post-modern Bob Seeger Everyman routine have kept Pearl Jam a relevant, exciting rock and roll entity, long outliving the band’s neo-nostalgic grunge groundwork. Chosen specifically by writer/director Sean Penn to take on the onerous task of complementing the story of Christopher McCandless and the young man’s self-imposed exile from the world, the famed frontman delivered a collection of amazing tracks. They provided the perfect sonic backdrop to deal with the film’s complex emotional layers. They functioned as celebration and sermon, the All-American instinct toward wanderlust balanced against the needs of Penn’s reinvented road movie. The combination struck a chord with listeners as well as critics, many who saw the acoustic based material as instrumental in the film’s success. Of course, the old coots at the Academy didn’t get it. Vedder missed out on a sure thing Oscar nod (and probable win) when his work was deemed too “song oriented” to be considered a proper score. Huh?

Revisiting the tracks recorded, there is clearly a nomadic troubadour feel to what Vedder has created. Early tracks like “Setting Out” and “Far Behind” are statements of separation and distance, while later numbers like “Rise” and “The Wolf” provide insight into the sense of self-discovery (or delusion) and freedom that McCandless was striving for. Vedder is in fine voice, his balladry belying years as the aural accessory in Pearl Jam’s punk-poseur guitar sound. Yet he also shows with a pair of collaborations - dueting with Sleater-Kitty’s Corin Tucker on the Gordon Peterson/Indio track “Hard Sun”, polishing the Jerry Hannan penned “Society” - that there is a real sense of artistic community in the man. Along with Michael Brooks, who provided the more ambient cues for the film, Vedder’s work on Into the Wild feels like one massively important part of the much bigger motion picture. It verifies the faith Penn had in the musician, and the man’s own belief in his amazing muse. The results speak for themselves - over and over again.


 


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Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

When we think about soundtracks, it is impossible to avoid bringing up the names of the giants in the field: Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Herrmann, to name just a few. Unfortunately, such a bias tends to affect our listening habits, and we often ignore the new voices that emerge from the film music community every year. And this is a real shame, as truly innovative and high quality scores have recently been made by newcomers who may lack the fame, but have the talent necessary to create blissful music. In an attempt to correct this situation, the current installment of Surround Sound will review some recently released soundtracks that feature sublime music made by relatively new talents.


30 Days of Night - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


In spite of its detractors, the cinematic adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel by Steve Niles proved to be an entertaining and intriguing horror flick. Directed with a good sense of pace by David Slade, 30 Days of Night offers a truly nightmarish situation. As the title suggests, in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, the longest night of winter lasts 30 days (in reality it takes 65 days, but I guess Niles thought that 30 made a better title than 65). This long period of time without sunlight is used by a clan of vicious vampires to kill and feed with equal gusto. As a handful of survivors manage to take shelter in a claustrophobic attic, the movie turns suspenseful and ominous. Featuring gruesome visual effects, an absorbing storyline, awesome cinematography, and decent characterization, 30 Days of Night is one of the best horror offerings released in 2007.

The creepy music for 30 Days of Night by Brian Reitzell nicely fits the onscreen horrors and mayhem. Even though this is only Reitzell’s third score (following Friday Night Lights [2004] and Stranger than Fiction [2006]), he magnificently knows how to provide an aural atmosphere that will support the development of the narrative. A former drummer with rock bands, Reitzell followed a truly unusual approach to create the eerie score for 30 Days of Night. Indeed, besides using traditional digital instrumentations, Reitzell produced unsettling noises by manipulating a fast spinning pottery wheel that he bought at the local Home Depot. The result is a cacophonic, non-melodic musical soundscape that aptly captures the violence, otherness, and gruesomeness of the terrifying blood suckers. It may not have sophisticated compositions, instrumentations, or musical structure, but nevertheless the soundtrack of 30 Days of Night remains original and effective.


In the Shadow of the Moon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]


A beautiful documentary that showcases probably the greatest achievement of mankind, In the Shadow of the Moon narrates the dramatic events that culminated with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the lunar surface. The film not only uses stunning materials from NASA archives, but it also brings together some of the astronauts that participated in the Apollo program. Some of the legendary astronauts featured in the movie include Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 and 13), Dave Scott (Apollo 9 and 15), Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), and Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17). Unfortunately, the recluse Armstrong does not provide his personal reflections of such a groundbreaking event. As this flick confirms, even after nearly 38 years, the landing on the moon continues to be an awe-inspiring and breathtaking accomplishment.


The beautiful music for In the Shadow of the Moon composed by Philip Sheppard reflects the epic magnitude of the conquest of the moon. Composed for full-sized symphonic orchestra, choirs, and electronics, this soundtrack is heroic at times, and enigmatic at others. The track “The Eagle has Landed”, for instance, uses overwhelming Americana sounds that bring to mind the frontier mentality. On the other hand, “X-15 Jet” uses minimalist arpeggios that reveal the tenacity of mankind to understand the universe. The second soundtrack commissioned to Sheppard, In the Shadow of the Moon showcases his eclectic education and sensibility for classical music. A respected cellist, Sheppard heavily uses the ominous sounds of this instrument on his compositions and orchestrations. Overall, even though the soundtrack for In the Shadow of the Moon is not as majestic as Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff (1983) or James Horner’s Apollo 13 (1995), it still delivers a beautiful musical background for unforgettable images of human endurance and perseverance.


Lust, Caution - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


The latest film by acclaimed director Ang Lee, Lust, Caution is a charged thriller set in an exotic-looking Shanghai, and takes place during the torrid years of World War II. This film tells the story of a woman who is swept into a dangerous situation with a prominent political figure. Espionage, intrigue, eroticism, and romance characterize Lee’s movie, which is based on the short story written by the highly praised Chinese author Eileen Chang. Featuring the histrionics of Tony Leung and Tang Wei, stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, and incredible production design by Lai Pan, Lust, Caution is an elegant flick that brings to mind the alluring works of Kar Wai Wong.

Perfectly matching the delicacy and exoticism of Lust, Caution is the gorgeous score composed by Alexandre Desplat. Even though Desplat has been composing film scores since the early 1990s in his native France, he only came to international prominence very recently, with his work for English-language movies such as Birth (2004), Syriana (2005), Firewall (2006), and The Queen (2006). Desplat’s inspired orchestral compositions for Lust, Caution prominently use a melodic piano to underscore the drama and the romance, while a solo violin and accompanying strings are used to convey the suspense and scorching political landscape of the locale and time period. The musical duality of Desplat’s score is very expressive, features elegant instrumentations, and manages to provide a pleasing listening experience on its own.


Reservation Road - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Upon its original release, this film was celebrated as an effective dramatic thriller directed by two-time Academy Award writer and director Terry George. Reservation Road tells the heartbreaking story of two fathers and their families, and how their lives suddenly converge after a tragic car accident claims the life of a young child. This is a moody movie that deals with some of the darkest feelings from the human heart such as resentment, retribution, grief, hatred, and unbearable guilt. Featuring an outstanding cast led by Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Mira Sorvino, Reservation Road is a truly emotional flick.

Composed by the celebrated Mark Isham, the soundtrack for Reservation Road is as bleak and gloomy as the movie itself. For some strange reason, even though Isham has scored over 100 movies, he has never achieved the stratospheric levels of popularity that characterize Williams or Goldsmith. Still, Isham’s work for Reservation Road shows what a great musician he is. For this movie, Isham uses a small instrumental ensemble as well as keyboards and other electronic gadgets. Incessant electronic percussions, a sax, an oboe, and a clarinet offer an aural soundscape that conveys sorrow. Placing mood and atmosphere over melody, Isham delivers a haunting score that faithfully reflects the anguish and distress of the characters.


Superman: Doomsday – Original Soundtrack Recording [rating: 7]


Based on the bestselling series of comic books from the early 1990s, Superman: Doomsday presents the tragic story of the death, funeral, and resurrection of the indefatigable Man of Steel. Of course, as it was eventually revealed, this milestone in the history of the comic book industry was more a calculated ploy to increase sales than an artistic compulsion to explore a world without Superman. But nevertheless, not completely faithful to the original source, this animated movie tells how Lex Luthor’s LexCorps accidentally releases an intergalactic creature aptly named Doomsday. The ensuing battle between Doomsday and Superman reaches epic proportions, and culminates with the death of the quintessential American hero. Featuring the voices of Adam Baldwin, Anne Heche, and James Marsters, Superman: Doomsday is fun escapism if not much else.


The composing duties for Superman: Doomsday fell in the able hands of Robert J. Kral, who already had shown sensitivity for dramatic and action oriented scores with his work for the popular TV series Angel (1999-2004). Perhaps the greatest challenge confronted by Kral in scoring Superman: Doomsday was to follow the giant footsteps left by Williams with his unforgettable music for the original Superman (1978). To this end, Kral created a new heroic theme for the Man of Steel, which, even though it lacks the acoustic strength of Williams’ composition, it still delivers a musical punch. Kral’s score combines high and minor chords, and aptly balances action, suspense, and pathos. Quite unfortunately, Kral performed his music with electronics and synthesizers instead of a real orchestra, and the limits of the technology are often revealed during his more majestic compositions.


Things We Lost in the Fire - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]


In this dramatic film, Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), a widow, befriends Jerry Sunborne (Benicio del Toro), the troubled best friend of her recently deceased husband. As Jerry finds his way back in life, he also helps Audrey and her two sons to cope with their grief and confront their loss. Directed with flair by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, and featuring powerful performances by the leading stars, Things We Lost in the Fire presents a heartbreaking story of great sorrow and unbearable anguish, but also of immense hope.

The bleak soundtrack for Things We Lost in the Fire was composed by Gustavo Santaolalla and Johan Soderqvist. However, in spite of the alleged collaborative effort, the musical structure feels rather similar to Santaolalla’s Babel (2006) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). That is, the music for Things We Lost in the Fire is minimalist and mostly made of guitar snippets with infrequent harmonies provided by a small orchestral ensemble.  Lacking major themes and melodies, the lonely guitar in the score effectively provides an atmosphere of lamentation and sorrow. However, while the music is effective within the context of the film, those detractors who have questioned in the past the musical abilities of two-time Academy Award winner Santaolalla are not likely to change their mind after listening at his work for Things We Lost in the Fire.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies [rating: 6]


Arguably, the big problem with “Best of” compilations of film music is that, more often than not, we get the exact same pieces. Indeed, most of these collections feature nearly identical excerpts from John William’s Star Wars (1977), Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Miklos Rozsa’s Ben Hur (1959), Ernest Gold’s Exodus (1960), and Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek (1979). And even though these are undisputable landmarks of the genre, even casual fans probably already own the original releases. Therefore, Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies is highly commendable because it offers an eclectic selection of high quality film music that is rarely brought together in this type of compilation.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits offers awesome film music that most casual fans probably have not had a chance to hear before. Some excerpts found on this outstanding 2-CD collection include John Addison’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), Ron Goodwin’s Battle of Britain (1969), Franz Waxman’s Taras Bulba (1962), Mario Nascimbene’s The Vikings (1958), Bronislau Kaper’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Nino Rota’s Roma (1972). Unfortunately, these are not original recordings, but re-recordings played by the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. And even though the performance of the orchestra is top-notch, some instrumentations and arrangements may sound a bit off the mark for those connoisseurs who are familiar with the original recordings. But nevertheless, featuring 47 tracks this compilation is likely to offer something new for everybody, and perhaps inspire the search for the original recordings. Personally, listening to the excerpt from Geroges Delerue’s Viva Maria (1965) was a true revelation to a beautiful score I was not familiar with.


The Nanny Diaries - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 1]


The stunning Scarlett Johansson may well be the only reason to watch The Nanny Diaries, an uninspired comedy directed not by one, but two directors, Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini. In this flick, Johansson plays the role of Annie Braddock, an aspiring anthropology student who has to work as a nanny for an obnoxious wealthy family to support herself.

The soundtrack for the Nanny Diaries is made up of popular songs, and quite frankly, it is thought provoking. Indeed, after listening to it, one wonders how a major film would be accompanied by such a lame compilation of uninspired songs. Perhaps with the sole exception of WAR’s timeless classic “Why Can’t We Be Friends”, all the other songs are not that good. As such, it is very difficult to envision why anybody would like to purchase such an insipid soundtrack.


The Ten - Film Soundtrack [rating: 3]


David Wain’s amusing comedy is made of 10 vignettes, each of them telling a story of what happens when different characters break each of the Ten Commandments. Even though it brings to mind the wacky situations and narrative structure that characterized Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), The Ten feels refreshingly original. As an added incentive, The Ten features three of the hottest girls from Hollywood, Jessica Alba, Femke Janssen, and Winona Ryder. Towards the film’s end, rather bizarrely, all the interwoven stories culminate with a climatic song and dance cavalcade in the inimitable style of 1940s Hollywood musicals.

The soundtrack for The Ten was composed by Craig Wedren, who also composed the music for Wain’s previous flick, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), and the short lived TV series The State (1993). The music is fitting for the film, and equally multifaceted. From an epic opening in “Fanfare”, to Latin rhythms in “Mexico” and country-style music in “Goof/Prison”, Wedren shows a noteworthy musical background and sensible artistic inspiration. Unfortunately, some of the songs featured on the soundtrack CD are interrupted with snippets of dialogue from the movie. Overall, in spite of its underscoring achievements, The Ten may prove to be a soundtrack that is difficult to be listened on its own.


 


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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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Wednesday, Sep 26, 2007

Since the overwhelming success of Jaws (Steven Spielberg) back in 1975, the summer has become a dramatic battleground where Hollywood studios briskly compete for the audience’s attention and hard earned dollars. During this season, we are bombarded every week with at least one movie that promises unsettling action, unearthly landscapes, and emotional bliss. Faithfully accompanying these flicks to the combat zone are their music scores, eager to reinforce on the perception of the viewer the magical worlds promised by the tag lines. Thus, this time of the year is also the best moment for soundtrack lovers to look for majestic, brooding, or melancholic music. Fortunately, three of the films released during the month of July feature alluring compositions and performances.


Music from the Motion Picture The Bourne Ultimatum [rating: 9]


The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass), which follows The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004), is the latest entry in the successful trilogy of gloomy spy flicks based on the clever books written by the late Robert Ludlum (1927-2001). While there is no contest that Jason Bourne is not as popular as James Bond, it is undisputable that the Bourne films played an influential role in the gestation of the latest Bond adventure, Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), which is by far the grittiest and most violent of the series. Arguably, a substantial contribution to the success of the Bourne movies has been their dynamic scores composed by John Powell. Perhaps the most inspired action film music in years, the soundtracks for these three films are structurally similar on their aggressive use of percussions to underscore the brutal action and brooding suspense.
Released by Decca, the soundtrack for The Bourne Ultimatum presents a generous amount of music in an extraordinarily crisp recording. Composed for full orchestra and electronics, the music places a strong emphasis on the percussions and the low strings, creating a dark acoustic atmosphere. As with the previous films of the franchise, The Bourne Ultimatum is underscored with music that perfectly highlights its unbearable tension, exotic locales, and relentless pace. In addition, The Bourne Ultimatum often reprises the two main motifs from the previous scores, which are the driving force behind the lengthy tracks “Tangiers” and “Waterloo”. Underscoring the two main action sequences of the flick, these tracks are relentless in their use of percussions and rhythm to accelerate the frenetic tempo of the images they accompany. On the other hand, “Thinking of Marie” is a meditative and melodic composition, which serves as a neat balance to the aggressiveness found in the rest of the score. In this regard, this soundtrack is an authentic acoustic tour-de-force that perfectly demonstrates why the music for the Bourne movies has become a staple of modern action film scoring. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]
Another continuing series of popular movies are those in the Harry Potter franchise. But contrary to the consistent musical structure of the Bourne films, the Harry Potter series have featured three different composers over the course of five flicks. Indeed, the legendary John Williams provided serviceable scores for The Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001), The Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002), and The Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004), while Patrick Doyle composed surprisingly effective music with overwhelming dark overtones for The Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005). Now, for The Order of the Phoenix (David Yates), the musical wand was in the firm hand of composer Nicholas Hooper. Arguably, Hooper’s greatest challenge in the scoring of this film was to follow the giant footsteps left by two of the most distinguished composers in the business. While the resulting score is not a breakthrough of musical underscoring, Hooper succeeded in creating an elegant and charming score.
For The Order of the Phoenix, Hooper composed a score for large orchestra and choir in traditional symphonic fashion. As such, Hooper appears to showcase a solid understanding of classical music structure, composition, and orchestration. For this score, Hooper cleverly balances all the sections of the orchestra to enhance the magical content of the moving image. Some of the highlights presented in the soundtrack CD include “Possession” and “Death of Sirius”, two dark passages which feature harps, high strings, and whispering voices. Equally satisfying is the reprising of the Hedwig’s theme, which was originally composed by Williams, and now can be found in “Another Story”, “Hall of Prophecy”, “The Room of Requirement”, and “A Journey to Hogwarts”. But nevertheless, the compositions feel fresh and avoid a simple re-hashing of the original. Overall, The Order of the Phoenix feels as one of those instances where the score proves to be far superior to the film itself. No Reservations Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]
While The Bourne Ultimatum and The Order of the Phoenix belong to well known franchises, No Reservations (Scott Hicks) is one of those summer flicks which are rare to see these days: it is not a sequel, nor a remake. A romantic comedy that takes place in a high brow restaurant, No Reservations mostly relies on opera arias than on an original score. For instance, the soundtrack CD includes “Celeste Aida” and “Nessun Dorma” performed by the late Luciano Pavarotti, and “La Donna e Mobile” interpreted by Joseph Calleja. As such, only a fool would dare to criticize the composition and performance of these pieces. In this regard, perhaps the only wise comment is that the music fits nicely the kitchen locale of the movie.
The CD also includes a couple of popular songs, such as the unforgettable “Sway” by Michael Buble and “Mambo Gelato” by Ray Gelato. The rather brief original music found on this soundtrack was composed by the celebrated Phillip Glass using his characteristic minimalist style. However, the only two tracks with Glass’ music are “Zoe & Kate Watch Video” and “Zoe Goes to the Restaurant”, which are very brief and quite likely to disappoint the artist’s fans. A mixed bag of goodies, the soundtrack for No Reservations ultimately provides an overall unsatisfying listening experience.

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Wednesday, Sep 12, 2007

No matter the time of year or cinematic season, the film business loves to accent its mainstream titles with the occasional obscure, off the wall effort. Usually hoping to achieve a kind of ‘sleeper’ status, these fringe films are frequently geared toward a certain viewership or specific section of the seemingly endless audience. While often blatant in who they’re aiming for, the vast majority of these movies are nothing more than gambles. They’re a production company or noted distributor tossing the dice to see if sevens, or snakes eyes, comes up. Typically, the questionable returns on efforts like these would limit their merchandising possibilities. But thanks to the digital revolution, where product is practically creating itself, a soundtrack seems like an easily achievable addition. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will wade through the Summer scrapheap, looking for any and all aural gems amongst the motion picture pile. While the pickings may appear slim, there are actually a few grins amongst the garbage. 


Music from the Motion Picture Hot Rod [rating: 6]


It’s relatively easy to define eras by their aural backdrop. Put on a selection of merry Mersey Beat tunes, or a sampling of solid grunge, and the nods of ‘60s/’90s recognition (respectively) are hard to deny. Even a more perplexing epoch like the ‘70s can be summed up with a mixtape tricked out with disco, prog, or a proper balance of punk and pop (or for a clever combination of the two, The Ramones). But when it comes to the ‘80s, all bets are off. It was a time period that seamlessly embraced new wave, hair metal, adult contemporary, hip hop, and the emerging genres of techno and gansta rap. By the time Kurt Cobain primal screamed his way to the top of the charts, the decade had reset its cultural landscape several times over. So to call the soundtrack to SNL cult figure Andy Samberg’s screwhead comedy Hot Rod a paean to the Greed Decade is actually too broad a delineation. It is actually a homage to a couple of quintessential bands, accentuated with some wonderfully weird hidden beauties.


Europe is one of the groups in question, and they get four tracks on this combination music and movie dialogue disc. Actually, the inclusion of riffs from the film itself seems kind of pointless, since without the proper context, the comedy fails to resonate, even as a souvenir. But the boys from Sweden really turn up the sonic screech with such guitar power pomp as “Danger on the Track”, “Time Had Come”, “Rock the Night”, and the politically inconclusive (if not quite incorrect) “Cherokee”. For instant flashback fodder, Stacey Q shows up to coo away on the classic “Two of Hearts”, while Cutting Crew tries to glamorize the grimness of a title like “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”. But it’s the formerly unknown entries by Australian artists Moving Pictures (the amplified angst of “Never”) and John Farnham (the drop dead brilliant everyman anthem “You’re The Voice”) that really recommend this disc. They shine as brightly as anything the Norseman or incidental instrumentalist Trevor Rabin can contribute.


Bratz Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 1]


It’s a safe bet that parents who battled Barbie as an example of the repugnant pre-teen role modeling given their impressionable daughters never saw these doe eyed drama queens coming. The doll line – a sad excuse for underage fame whoring camouflaged as imaginative role play – is incredibly popular, and there have been many multimedia variations on its questionable glamour grrrl power routine. Yet unless you were preparing for puberty and Pro-Active-ing your blemishes, you probably weren’t aware that a live action kid flick was in the works. Arriving and diving near the end of the popcorn season, the infallible fashionistas as lamentable social statement were not quite the box office hit the toy manufacturers and demographically demanding marketers expected. Instead, Bratz The Movie was an unqualified disaster, raking in less hard sell scratch than the Itzy Pitzy Bratz Party Palace or the Forever Diamond Rollin’ Runway combined. The last bastion for a possible recoup remains the MTV-friendly soundtrack album. Yet its equally interchangeable nature and lack of artistic integrity dooms it to an equal sense of retail rejection.

A quick glance at the list of so-called musicians that make up this sorry excuse for a compilation immediately indicates your and the film’s, level of pop culture intuitiveness. Nonsensical names like Orianthi, Prima J, Brick & Lace and Jibbs bump sonic uglies with established ear wormers like Ashlee Simpson and Black Eyed Peas. The ratio of recognizeability to shrugged shoulders – at least to those whose biological age has finally reached double digits – is about 1 in 10. The music itself, however, is the same old manufactured dance beat drone you hear pouring out of iPods while online to make your own Teddy Bear at the mall. Nothing here stands out: not the diseased diva dumbness of “Rock Star”; not “Heartburn”‘s mid-tempo test of patience; not the ‘worship me’ waste of time “It’s All About Me”. And the rest is worse. Guardians who find the figurines an abominable social statement will not be prepared for the prepackaged push of this mindless, manufactured mess. While not a clear sign of the impending auditory Apocalypse, it’s a clear indication that the four mock rock horseman are getting ready to saddle up.


The Hottest State Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Back when his cache of youth coup stardom was still pretty full, Ethan Hawke managed to get the novel he wrote as a teen published. Entitled The Hottest State, the inward glancing effort was roasted by critics and dismissed by fans who wanted more of his Realty Bites slacker sense and less of his plain prose. Yet thanks to a latter career skirting the fringes of fame, working in highly regarded independent fare and earning an Oscar nod alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day, Hawke has gained a recognizable Renaissance stance. So it makes perfect sense in these days of camcorder creativity that the actor would revisit his semi-autobiographical turn. Putting on as many production caps as possible – actor, director, writer – Hawke delivered what many considered to be a massive improvement over his original naïve tome. While still an overwrought talk fest, it succeeded in shaking much of the misguided wonderment that hobbled his literary leanings.


Driven by the tentative lilt of acoustic guitars, much of The Hottest State’s soundtrack is reminiscent of open mic night down at the local folkie club. Well known names like Willie Nelson (“Always Seem to Get Things Wrong”) and the ethereal Emmylou Harris (the spectacular “Speed of Sound”) butt up against equally engaging work from bands like Bright Eyes (the whimsical and powerful “Big Old House”) and Rocha (who gets three tracks total). Jesse Harris, famed collaborator with Norah Jones (whose “World of Trouble” makes an appearance) was in charge of the overall score, and his finger picked instrumental pieces “There Are No Second Chances” and the accordion/trumpet tinged “Morning in a Strange City (Café)” provide a solid sense of atmosphere. Of his solo songs, “One Day the Damn Will Break” doesn’t hold the same tonal sway, while “Dear Dorothy” has a real honky tonk twist. There will be those who find his entire enterprise mopey and meandering, like a chill-out CD for the mildly depressed and only slightly socially maladjusted. But for a collection of soft country rock shuffles, accented by heartfelt performances and solid lyrics, it’s an excellent compendium. 


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