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Surround Sound: Rom-Complacency

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Wednesday, Aug 12, 2009
In this edition, we discuss The Time Traveler's Wife, The Ugly Truth, and the breezy (500) Days of Summer.

The current slump in RomCom success shouldn’t be a surprise. Hollywood, hopeless for what to do with their latest up and coming starlets, seems sold on the notion of putting each and every one into as feeble a fake wish fulfillment fantasy as possible. It used to be, Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts got all the feel good guy/gal scripts. Now, Tinseltown churns them out with unconscionable regularity. In fact, the only thing that differentiates the multiple takes on this material is the artistic approach applied. Sometimes, the standard is used. In other instances, attempted invention leads to lameness. Look at the three soundtracks being discussed today as part of Short Ends and Leader‘s standard Surround Sound update. Each one proposes to be a witty, warm look at the neverending battle between the sexes. Instead, one is dull, another dumb, with only the third doing something both unique and novel.


It’s a difference that’s actually reflected in the musical accompaniments to each effort. When it comes to Mychael Danna’s backdrop for the big screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s celebrated sci-fi weeper, it’s all clichés and sonic commonality. On the other hand, Aaron Zigman’s work on the Gerard Butler/Katherine Heigl stereotype-a-thon reeks of the kind of onscreen schizophrenia the movie - and its mannered characters - seem to suffer from. Only the brilliant Marc Webb deconstruction of the entire genre gets it right. By relying on moan and groan gods like Morrissey and Regina Spektor to make its point, the sonic setting perfectly reflects the differing dynamics between each one of these 500 days - give or take a few. 


Of course, it’s all a matter of taste. Some may actually enjoy Danna’s drippy, droning accompaniment, while there will surely be listeners who ingest one sample of Summer‘s syrupy alterna-pop and want to strangle the songwriters. Music is a difficult discussion point, since it’s so personal to each individual. Still, when graded on a scale as to how successful it is as part of an overall motion picture package, the judgment becomes a little easier. What’s clear is that, in the world of man/woman destiny, slow and stead is really just tedious and mindless, while up tempo and inventive translates into a far more intriguing aural experience. Of course, there is always one confusing case among the easily identified. In this situation, the “ugly” truth title may be more than applicable.


The Time Traveler’s Wife: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 3]


The notion of being “unstuck” in time, Billy Pilgrim in your personal, physical, and emotional well-being, may seem like an odd idea for a romance, but apparently, Audrey Niffenegger nailed it when she created her bestselling story of Henry and Claire. He’s the man who can’t stay settled in one era for very long. She’s the young woman who has loved him ever since she was a child. Together, they learn that such a speculative fiction foundation can only lead to heartbreak, tragedy, and the soul-searching passion that comes with both. So now it’s up to composer Mychael Danna to capture that ethereal element in his score for the film. Sadly, what he turns in is so rote and routine that it could be the backdrop for any motion picture experience, not just one dealing with mostly magical elements.


Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front - Broken Social Scene should be embarrassed for their appalling cover of the Ian Curtis/Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Rendered dirge-like by the multi-member collection, it’s literally unrecognizable, only the identifiable lyrics in the chorus giving away the origins. By the way, it does nothing for the scene between actors Eric Bana and Rachael McAdams. Why director Robert Schwentke decided to include it is baffling. As for the rest of the soundtrack, it’s equally weak. Danna delivers a lightweight set of cues, each one using the typical orchestral facet of symphonic seriousness to what is often confusing and quite boring as depicted. Tracks like “In the Meadow”, “Do You Know When”, and “How Does it Feel” are featureless, while additional moments like “Five Years”, “Who Would Want That”, and “I’m You Henry” lack legitimate spark. Indeed, the whole score feels limp and lifeless, adding nothing to the work it supposedly projects.




The Ugly Truth: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]


What do you do when you’re an uptight TV producer who can’t get laid? Why, you turn over your labored love life to a Neanderthal talk show host who believes keeping women barefoot and pregnant is actually way too good for the gender, that’s what. Indeed, the entire set up of this underwhelming Katherine Heigl starring vehicle does a disservice to all women everywhere while championing the kind of crude, rude comedy that Judd Apatow and the gang have made profitable over the last few film seasons. That it was conceived by a group of gals is unconscionable - kind of like Arthur Zigman’s way too zany sonic complements. This is a musician who has taken the notion of variety being the spice of life to unheard of, heartburn-inducing extremes. One moment, the soundscape feels like a frothy feel good romp. The next, it is diving into tunesmith territory better reserved for oddball BBC programming.


Like a series of bad speed dates, the score for The Ugly Truth indeed runs the gamut from space age bachelor padding to intentional sonic quirk - and then back again, just in case you didn’t get the point the first few track times around. For Zigman, who has crafted the backdrop for films like The Notebook, Bridge to Terabithia, and the last four Tyler Perry films, really does throw everything he’s got at the mixing board. There are moments of sly Euro-whodunit drowsiness (“Abby and Mike Rant”), unintentional indie navelgazing (“Who Would I Love”), pseudo sexual swagger (“Get the Stain Out”) and a strange Footloose meet foot race accent (“Frowny McFlaccid”). Along the way, Motown gets referenced (“Right this Way”), we are treated to more introverted introspection (“Goodnight Then”) and there are moments when the music is barely audible (“The Ugly Truth”). Such a scattered approach may seem sensible, considering how all over the map the movie is, but as a showcase for Zigman’s skills, the results here are equally unnerving.




(500) Days of Summer: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 8]


Some might call it a reinvention. Others will honor it with the tag “deconstruction”. However you view it, commercial creator/music video man turned feature film director Marc Webb has taken an interesting script from Pink Panther 2 scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and turned it into the first RomCom to speak directly to the Twitter generation. Dealing with a failed architect who now writes greeting cards and the saucy secretary who has just moved to LA from Michigan, Webb works in short, sensational bursts, taking the title of the film literally. We spend individual moments with our wannabe lovers, seeing how passion grows, philosophies conflict, and when fate no longer fuels the flame. It’s a realistic if highly stylized look at relationships, and it’s all couched in a backdrop brimming with indie-rock resplendence.


This is indeed a definitive love/loss mixtape, from the sonic sensation of The Smiths (“There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”) to amazing tracks from Regina Spektor (“Us”, “Hero”), the Doves (“There Goes the Fear”) and Mumm-ra (“She’s Got You High”). Granted, Meaghan Smith’s take on the Pixies playful “Here Comes Your Man” is rather dreary, though her performance definitely tries to elevate its effectiveness, and the inclusion of Simon and Garfunkel (“Bookends”) argues against the collective’s anti-folk sensibilities. Still, “Bad Kids” by the Black Lips and “Sweet Disposition” by the Temper Trap work well, and old school hits like “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates match effortlessly with contemporary kitsch from France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni (“Quelqu’un M’a Dit”). Sure, there are perhaps better songs to select, especially given the material’s sense of individualized eccentricity. But like the movie it mimics, the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack proves that all Moon/June/Spoon romances don’t have to be the same.


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