Film

Summer Scrapheap - Hot Rod/Bratz/The Hottest State

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.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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