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Surround Sound: From Genius to the Generic

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Friday, Feb 5, 2010

It’s not the music; it’s the maker - that is, if you believe the old adage. Critics will complain ad nauseum when a composer mimics his previous canon, or when a once reliable name proves more insipid than inspired. But they will also mock someone like Danny Elfman when they go from basic baroque Goth pop configurations to something new and unusual, like his minimalist work for Peter Berg’s The Kingdom. So somewhere between genius and generic lies the truth about movie soundtracks. Many rely on formulas so obvious that a basic musician with minimal training could perhaps maintain their presence. Others, however, break free of the usual and speak of the craftsman’s art and the need to invoke individuality, not the same old sonic strategies.


With the four offerings in this edition of Surround Sound, we can see the wonderful (Hurt Locker, Creation) and the weak (Legion, Extraordinary Measures), the topical (war and threat, love and devotion) with the trite and tried (horror, faux nobility). While it’s impossible to dismiss any soundtrack on how it “stands alone”, one thing is clear here: some of these composers are clearly making a sincere effort. A couple, on the other hand, are cashing a paycheck and heading home.
  
The Hurt Locker: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


Suspense has got to be one of the roughest genres to score. Add too much of your own musical dread and you run the risk of overshadowing - or worse, foreshadowing - the film and its facets. Make the wrong aesthetic choice and you equally jeopardize your part in the production. Sound (or the lack thereof) is just as important to thrills as the shots and situations the director highlights. So when Kathryn Bigelow decided to take on the story of the bomb defusing soldiers struggling within the ‘Hurt Locker’ of the War in Iraq, she needed something that accented her tripwire set-pieces without completely giving away the potential jolts. Enter Marco Beltrami and co-writer/programming assistant Buck Sanders. Their stellar work for this unusual action film finds the perfect balance between low ambient menace and spine-chilling slow burn.


From the first two tracks - “The Hurt Locker” and “Goodnight Bastard” - you know what you are in for. Ominous notes hum and purr, like lethal leopards waiting for the right moment to strike. Similarly, moments like “Hostile” and “Man in the Bomb Suit” suggest the high stakes at play while weaving an almost ambient spell over the listener. Beltrami and Sanders spend a lot of time mixing their mediums, using both orchestration and electronica to expert effect. By the time the trio of final cuts - “Oil Tanker Aftermath”, “A Guest in My House”, and “The Way I Am” hit the speakers, you feel like you’ve been there, right along with director Bigelow, her cast, and the daredevil extreme circumstances they must endure as part of this elite corps. While this particular sort of military work is Hell on the nerves, the score for The Hurt Locker is terrific - and terrifying. 


Extraordinary Measures: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 3]


Sometimes, a movie’s main maker says it all. In the case of the recent Harrison Ford/Brendan Fraser medical weeper, Extraordinary Measures, fledgling upstart CBS Films is the production company. Now if the name suggests a feeble ‘illness of the week effort’ accented by made for TV tendencies straight out of Lifetime, or Oxygen, you’d be right. This dull and dreary feel good drama makes a mockery of research and the raising of money for same, while suggesting that all rich parents have to do is throw cash at a crisis and it will magically go away in 90 to 100 minutes. From its lackluster performances to the pleasant if perfunctory score by Andrea Guerra, everything about this movie screams mediocrity. Looking back over the music once again, you can see why Extraordinary Measures fails to stand out - it has nothing new to offer. 


This soundtrack suffers the first sin of so many sonic settings - it’s so vague and ambiguous it could be supporting any storyline. There is no real indication of the stakes involved, even if tracks bear names like “Call from Hospital”, “Desperation”, of “Sugar High”. In fact, they could have easily been labeled “Indistinguishable Scene Number 23” and “Routine Upbeat Music 1.0” and we’d never be the wiser. Guerra has had a stellar career overseas, even if some of his work (Donkey Xote?) is to be more pitied than appreciated. But when everything else about your production is indistinct and uninteresting, when you can’t match the meaningful emotional tug of a similarly styled story like Lorenzo’s Oil, then you really shouldn’t try. Everything about Extraordinary Measures means well. The results, however, are shrill, shallow, and hard to swallow. 


Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]


Creationism vs. Evolution - it’s a debate that shouldn’t even be held in a 21st Century setting. With all that science has accomplished, with all the supporting proof out there, arguing that man came from God and not a slow and steady stream of genetic alterations over the course of eons is like questioning how the Earth revolves around the Sun (you do know that it does, right?). Oddly enough, director Jon Amiel, perhaps best known for such diverse films as Tune in Tomorrow…, Entrapment, and The Core, uses religion as the basis for conflict in his Charles Darwin biopic Creation. In it, Paul Bettany is the famed theorist at odds with himself, the scientific community and his incessantly devout wife. With the help of Christopher Young’s excellent classical-laced backdrop, Ameil manages to make a strong case for both belief and the certainty of biology.


Young is perhaps best known for bringing Clive Barker’s world of the wicked pain/pleasure demonoid Cenobites to sonic life (his score for Hellraiser remains a true terror gem). But he has also enjoyed massive mainstream success, especially with his work on blockbusters such as Swordfish, Spider-man 3, and Ghost Rider. Creation gives him a chance to pull back on the bravado, to make music instead of accompanying noises. The grace of selections like “The Ghost Pavane” and “Knowing Everything I Know Now” is matched by the moving expressiveness of “To Emma” and “Humility and Love”. Young does enjoy the melodramatic and the music definitely benefits (and suffers) from same. “The Treatment of Malvern” and “You’ve Killed God, Sir” stir such stark, obvious sentiments. It’s nice to know that someone can start out in the genre field, figuring out ways to make gory geek shows aurally apropos. With Creation, Christopher Young definitely proves his musical mantle. 


Legion: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]


Angels with machine guns: totally bitchin’, right? Nothing spells kick-ass apocalyptic doom and gloom better than a fully locked and loaded Rapture. God’s wrath may be mighty and vengeful, but when you toss in a few AK-47s and Uzis, you’re really reinventing Revelations. It’s a shame then that Legion lacks even the remotest entertainment value to keep you interested. In between the “seen it all in the trailer” terrors and in it for the payday acting, there’s the bland, by-the-numbers score from John Frizzell. A TV and film journeyman responsible for everything from The United States of Tara and King of the Hill to such eccentric choices as Josie and The Pussycats, The Reaping, and Henry Poole Was Here, he’s done good work before. Legion, however, seems to throw him for a loop. Except for a couple of nice, moody piano pieces toward the end, it’s all forced frightmare fodder, Jehovah style.


Everything here feels lifted from other movies - the mechanical driving menace of a Terminator title, the screeching string accompaniments of a dozens derivative Psychos. Instead of trying to marry something sacred with all this ersatz Armageddon posing, Frizzell goes for the genre, and comes up substantially short. From the very beginning, moments like “When I Was a Girl” and “Old and Pissed Off” resonate like mixtapes as Jason Voorhees’ bar mitzvah. On the other hand, last minute entries like “I Didn’t Even Want This Baby” and “Are We Safe Now” suggest something more subtle, more ‘crawling under your skin’ vs. ‘blasting out your eardrums’. Frizzell can be successful at suggesting epic evil, creating musical moments like “Attack of the Possessed” and “The Battle” which hint at the horrors being strived for. Yet like the final film itself, the music for Legion is certainly lackluster - and lame.

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Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser make a serviceable team, but Extraordinary Measures can't escape its very ordinary presentation.
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