Feb 28, 2011


2010 had a lot great films and the scores to coincide with them but nothing took me by surprise like DreamWorks Animations' fantasy/adventure How To Train Your Dragon did. Loosely based upon the children's series novels written by Cressida Cowell, How To Train Your Dragon tells the story of a forbidden friendship between a viking boy and his dragon.
Filled with adventure, comedy, action, fantasy and headspinning animation, Dragon stole my heart within the first few minutes of it's 98 minute running time. While it is aimed at children, Dragon manages to attract adults as well, as it never resorts to 'stupid' bathroom humor (like too many DreamWorks films have done in the past), has a morally effective plot and heart with a deeper meaning than most animated films do these days. Oh, and there's also that breathtaking visual design as the icing on the cake.
Since the beginning of DreamWorks Animation productions, the musical voice has belonged to Hans Zimmer and his Media Ventures/Remote Control protégés, most notably Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. Normally, I'm not awfully fond of a lot of these guy's big blockbuster action scores as they tend to fallback on uninteresting electronic textures and overly masculine brass sections. However when it comes to scoring animated features, it seems to bring out an unstoppable creative force in them. Time and time again they've dazzled me with such scores as Zimmer's Prince Of Egypt, Gregson-Williams' Sinbad & The Voyage of The Seven Seas and of course Powell's numerous collaborations with Gregson-Williams on the first Shrek score, the highly entertaining Chicken Run and Antz and with Zimmer the wonderfully fun Kung-Fu Panda
Powell is finally allowed to let loose all on his own with How To Train Your Dragon and he doesn't disappoint. In fact, I honestly feel he's written the best score for DreamWorks Animation to date.
What Powell does here is ignore the historical facts of the vikings and sets the tone himself using musical arrangements more akin to Scotland rather than something you would associate with the Scandinavians. To be fair the primary solo instruments he uses here are the sakpipa, which is the Swedish version of the bagpipe and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, both of which match the traditions of the geographical area that Dragon supposedly takes place in. When it all comes down to it, it is a children's movie about kids riding dragons, so historical inaccuracies can easily be dismissed. After all, it's this specific sound that helps bring out the huge heart that Powell's Dragon score is brimming with.
The whole album begins with "This Is Berk" which serves as a mini-suite to a certain degree, with all of the main themes wrapped into one cue. It's almost as if it's presented as sort of an overture as it gallops and dances up and down the scales with incredible excitement and positivity. From the very get-go Powell makes it obvious he isn't going to shy away from distinguishable themes and bold statements here.
"This Is Berk" opens with a lone, yet honorable, horn performance (which acts as the "flight" theme later on in it's all it's full blown glory) and gracefully leads into an effectively pretty woodwind segment that plays as the main characters' "love" theme. After a minute of intimacy and subtly, Powell allows the orchestra to detonate and thunder into the film's rousing main theme. An anthemic powerhouse fueled by a humongous orchestra, a male choir and an arrangement of traditional instruments. It's brings up visions of good old fashioned swashbuckling and adventure, something that is sorely missed in so many adventure scores these days.
Things get a bit more menacing, but no less fun, as we flow with ease into "Dragon Battle". Powell makes great use of the traditional Viking tone at the beginning of this cue with a blaring horn call. Low-end brass chords and a heart-racing marching rhythm give the dragons a definite voice of impending danger. Most of todays composer wouldn't find a spot to fit the main themes into their action cues but Powell manages to gracefully weave, not one but, two themes in this minus 2 minute cue, without sacrificing any of the action.
Things slow down for a bit when we are greeted with a quieter cue, "The Downed Dragon". Making use of an array of wonderful woodwind arrangements, complimented with some brass and male choir moments nestled in, we are soon introduced to what one might call the "curious" motif. Things get a little nervous as the main human character, Hiccup, first meets his soon to be dragon companion, Toothless.
The next few cues juggle themes back and forth with delicate precision, going from loud to quiet in such a graceful manner it's astounding. We are constantly hinted that the music is just waiting to completely explode with excitement and adventure but the composer is quick put a lid on it before it completely bursts into full blown action music quite yet.
We are then brought to what I believe is not only the highlight of the entire score but THE outstanding cue of the entire year, "Forbidden Friendship". Sprinkled with a light child-like innocence and curiosity, highlighted by tick-tocking xylophones and marimbas, only to build and build with a celestial female choir and wonderfully delicate orchestral crescendo arrangements. It brings tears to my eyes, not because it's sad but it speaks of an innocence I've long let go and a nervous heart-felt new love for a pet, which I think we can all associate ourselves with. When I first heard this cue I must have replayed it back to back at least six times in a row.
"See You Tomorrow" brings such a blissful outgoing feel to it, it will probably test the patience of anyone who can't stand a good ol' Highland stagger. Bagpipes, fiddles and a pennywhistle flutter in and out of the centerstage as a harpsichord and a overly happy snare tapping holds the rhythm. If anything, this highlight cue is going to remind Powell fans of the same positive drive he and Harry Gregson-Williams brought to the screen with their Chicken Run effort.
The flight theme is finally allowed to soar in all it's glory in the astonishing "Test Drive". Powell captures the feeling of free flight with such perfection you can almost feel your eyes tearing up from the wind blowing in your face. The orchestra cascades up and down the scale, as a thundering drum section keeps everything at a steady pace. If you know my musical tastes, I absolutely detest the silly sounds of an electric guitar in adventure/action scores like this. They usually run up and down the frets like Yngwie Malmsteem with a bad case of diarrhea, not doing much for the music but quickly outdating itself (Ramin Djwadi take note...you fucked up Iron Man). However, Powell uses the guitar to enhance the lower end of the orchestra with simple strumming and no more. It's extremely effective and not abused like most of these Media Venture composers would do to it.
The tender "love" theme we heard at the very beginning of the score is finally let out of it's box and given the chance to flourish. It floats and sweeps through with such finesse you hardly notice the big build up it ends in, with a brilliantly orchestral arrangement supported by a muted female choir.
A more serious tension really begins to build with "The Kill Ring", while not sacrificing the playfulness of the fluttering woodwinds. A vast array of various drums rumble and growl, waiting for the charging orchestra to really lay on the heaviness. When it finally does let go, it is wonderful. It has the dizzying orchestral arrangements of Chicken Run but the serious action writing of say John Williams' Indiana Jones' scores.
The next four cues play as sort of a single climatic piece adding up to about 20 minutes of some of the best action music the cinemas received in 2010.
"Ready The Ships" starts off with a brass heavy percussive pounding joined by a male chanting, before it drops off into a determined sense of loss and hope reflecting each other simultaneously, making for one of the most subtly quiet and thoughtful moments on the entire album.
"Battling The Green Death" takes you by the scruff and throws you right into the middle of the action. Much like Hans Zimmer's amazing climatic cue "I Don't Think Now Is The Best Time" from the third Pirates of The Caribbean, Powell manages to throw all the themes at you in one single cue and completely blows you away with the spectacular rollercoaster of orchestral endeavor coming from all sides. It takes you back to the Golden Age days of swashbuckling adventure of Max Steiner's work. Making use of every single instrumental, vocal and kitchen sink element Powell's used so far "Green Death" dares your heart not to start racing in place. In all the excitement, Powell manages to let the main "flight" theme take center stage and it soars to such a great height that the hairs on my neck all stand up.
Concluding the action cues "Counter Attack" swells into pure magnificent chaos and urgency, before dropping off into a haunting echoing choir trailing off into nothing.
"Where's Hiccup?" starts off in a rather melancholy haunting mood but it gently transcends into a swelling orchestral rise and then into an astonishingly beautiful rendition of the "flight" theme on a solitary piano.
Concluding the score presentation of the album is "Coming Back Around". Here the main themes are allowed to spread their wings with such power and glory I'm literally floored and just nodding my head in amazement with the heart and soul put into the final moments of score.
The album ends with a little bit of a misstep. Sigur Ros' Jon Por Birgisson (credited as Jonsi here) contributes a song for the end credits. "Sticks & Stones" is a pretty good song but it breaks the mood and doesn't really stand up to Powell's music. Although Jonsi has actually penned a happy song (very much the opposite of his regular Sigur Ros material), "Stick & Stones" still projects somewhat of a downbeat mood and seems really out of place. I would go so far as to say it destroys the mood and emotion Powell had set up for the entire film.
The album ends with a rather bizarre cue tagged on titled "The Vikings Have Their Tea". With somewhat of a aristocratical feel to it, it brings a smile to my face and almost takes away the strange taste that "Sticks & Stones" left in my mouth.
When all is done, it's amazing the emotion and thought Maestro John Powell put into every single note of every single cue on this score. It's rare that a score is this excellent front to back. Usually we are left with a lot of filler cues and tend to skip a lot but with How To Train Your Dragon it's meant to be experienced from beginning to end.
I don't think I can gush over this score anymore without being overly fanboyish but I honestly believe it deserves the praise myself and the armies of critics have given it. It's way to rare that a score this good comes around that I can't help but carry on about it like this. I wholeheartedly can be certain it deserved the Oscar for Best Score for it's energy, heart and originality.
...and with that, I award this score with my 5 out 5.
It truly deserves it.

***** out of 5

Feb 26, 2011


Like the past three years, I'll do a short review of 4 of the nominees and a complete review of my pick of what I think should be the winner.

127 HOURS - A.R. Rahman

The story of 127 Hours is about being stuck between a rock and...well..another rock. It's based on the true events involving thrill-seeker Aron Ralston's struggle to survive after he suffers a brutal accident leaving him stranded alone in the middle of nowhere. It's not necessarily the great movie it's made out to be, as it's been tremendously overrated and pushed by studio moguls who just wanted to recreate the critical and box office success of filmmaker Danny Boyle's previous Oscar winning 2008 effort, Slumdog Millionaire.
Back to serve under Boyle's direction is Indian film composer A.R. Rahman who seems to be establishing quite a name for himself in Hollywood after his successful score and hit song "Jai Ho" for Slumdog. Like his woefully ignored and spirited 2009 score for Couples Retreat, Rahman once again proves with 127 Hours that he is not just a Bollywood composer or a flash in the Hollywood shitpan.
Rahman composes a somewhat challenging score that reflects on the euphoria, intensity and isolation that is portrayed quite profusely in the film. Rather than composing something as flamboyant as his usual work, Rahman takes a different route and creates quite an effective atmospheric score. Rahman seems to favor eccentric instrumentations over the usual score ensembles and that's what makes him stand out from the rest of the score composers working today.
The central character theme is somewhat of a urgent piece titled "Liberation", which serves as the cornerstone to the film and is broken up into three movements. Each piece gets increasingly more violent and desperate as we watch James Franco's character slowly fading away on screen. Oddly enough it shares the same gritty progressive rock qualities that Boyle's former go to composer John Murphy would have brought to the table, particularly echoing that of 28 Days Later's "In The House In A Heartbeat". While it's interesting to hear it develop more and more into frantic urgency, it never really gets off it's feet into anything worthy of award material.
The gorgeously calming "The Canyon" is without a doubt the highlight of the score. With it's thought provoking clarinet solo played over a lush string section fading in and out, it can't help but remind me of the lonely, yet lovely, theme Alan Silvestri composed for Cast Away.
Rahman ventures into disturbing territory with the hallucinogenic cues "Acid Darbari" and "R.I.P." Making use of an Indian chants and some abstract vocal laments, tinkling bells, a sustained distorted guitar in the background and some mystical sounding electronic effects that seem to act as the voice of the blistering sun.
It should be noted Rahman has also co-written and performed a song with pop vocalist, Dido for the end credits roll. The consoling and absorbing "If I Rise" is a fitting song to round out the film and a wonderful way to close the score. The messy album presentation is another story, with source songs scatter all over the place. Some good, some terrible. Either way they are sorely out of place.
The score is all right and works perfectly with the film itself. As a listening experience it doesn't add up too much but a good 17 minutes worth of 4 star material salvages it from being a complete bore.

**1/2 out of 5

INCEPTION - Hans Zimmer

Thank the sticky-floor, popcorn gods for Christopher Nolan and Inception.
For an unreasonable number of years, the Hollywood Blockbuster has been nothing but mindless and noisy eye candy inflated with pointless CGI that does nothing to carry the story and only sell toys.
Memento & Insomnia director, Christopher Nolan has changed all that with his uber-moody reboot of the Batman franchise. By investing us into solid storytelling and over the top, yet strangely believable action pieces, Nolan brings the brains back to the table of the Blockbuster, while not sacrificing any of the fun in the process.
Now Inception may not be the mind-bending complicated head-trip the average popcorn munching fanboy has made it out to be but thankfully it still asks you to keep your thinking cap firmly in place.
Playing like a mixture of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Alex Proyas' Dark City, infused with a heavy helping of The Matrix, Inception is a tragic love story wrapped in intricate neo-noir dream sequences and extravagant action scenes set in James Bond-esque backdrops.
With all that on the cinematic palette, composer Hans Zimmer was given a wonderful collection of ideas and statements to paint a musical picture with. Sadly that is precisely where things begin to fall short and I suspect Nolan might actually be the one to blame.
Time and time again, Zimmer has proven himself as a top-notch composer with a large resume of extraordinary scores from all genres, almost always filled to the brim with a keen sense of creativity and more than adequate instrumentations. However Nolan seems to have his mind very firmly set onto what sort of style and sound he is looking for and that would probably be why a lot of Zimmer's work for Nolan sounds like a larger scaled reworking of the director's former main composer, David Julyan.
Not to say that Zimmer's score doesn't work with the film itself, because it does to a tee. It sewn so deeply into the film that it's often difficult to differentiate what us as the viewer is hearing as backdrop music and what is part of the sound design the characters on screen can hear in Inception's world.
Now because the score is so deeply woven into the film, it suffers greatly when standing alone. It's almost like tearing out the heart and seeing how long it can sustain life without it.
Inception has a few very engaging ideas musically wise and some very bold statements are made but in the end it just falls a little short. Mostly due to constantly resorting to meandering electronically produced foggy moments that just sort drift alone without any character or development for anything that our thoughts or ears to grab onto.
One of the most impressive ideas Zimmer came up with for the dream-woven world of Inception, was the use of iconic French singer, Edith Piaf's classic "Non, je ne regrette rien" as sort of a plot device, linking the waking world and the dream world together. What Zimmer does is takes the opening bar of Piaf's song, slows it down to an unrecognizable speed, then pumps up the bass and volume, twisting it into something similar to a strikingly menacing foghorn. This fascinating and alluring motif is used to reflect on the idea that the time in the dream world passes by slower than in the 'real world'. Very clever, Mister Zimmer. Very clever indeed.
Next up, Zimmer makes use of an orchestra in such a strange manner he most definitely deserves recognition for his inventiveness with this technique. After writing short motifs and themes, he recorded them with an orchestra, sampled the recordings, then with sharp auditory manipulations and filtering, Zimmer mixed them into the new age type compositions he wrote on his synths. With this he created a very modern sounding noir-ish type score that would easily appeal to the younger generation. This approach to scoring is quite effective in some of the quieter and moodier moments of the film but for the loud, more action-oriented scenes it suffers greatly. It comes off as sounding like a symphony being strained through a pop can. It would probably lose a lot of it's impact in the film too had the volume not been turned up in the mix and the sound effects not overpowered many of these moments on screen.
Perhaps the most strangest idea was to bring in The Smiths & Modest Mouse guitarist Johnny Marr and have him play a few notes here and there. While it is welcome to see the two musicians come together on the project, Marr's work on the album could have easily been performed by anyone. It's not terribly complicated guitar work nor does it even feature any of his own compositions. They could have had Joe Blow from accounting on the third floor to play the guitar parts and it wouldn't have made a difference. In fact the guitar work is buried so far into the mix you might not even recognize it's even there.
Once again Zimmer resorts to his tiring chopping board string charges and overly simplistic testosterone pumped brass arrangements that just doesn't do it for me anymore. It was fun when he first started using this tactic but after so many years of recycling this idea and hearing many other composers today emulate it, it just becomes impotent and dull.
To be fair, Zimmer has some great moments of beauty and wonder that is actually quite rewarding. There's a sort of sublime elegance and mystery that haunts these moments with an ambience reminiscent of textures used in Vangelis' Blade Runner score.
The highlight of the entire score is the concluding cue, "Time" which in a way could be a hopeful rearrangement of Zimmer's own "Journey To The Line" from A Thin Red Line.
Hans Zimmer delivers an extremely compelling score as heard in the film, however the scores falls short on it's own with too many moments of Zimmer on action-writing auto-pilot. Although with about 20 minutes of top-notch material here, it is possible to edit together a very impressive concert suite.

As heard in the film : **** out of 5
As heard on it's own : ** out of 5

THE KING'S SPEECH - Alexandre Desplat

The King's Speech at it's core is a moving story about a building friendship based upon personal struggle and the battle to overcome it. The film follows the true story of King George IV and the conflict he endures to conquer a potentially crushing speech impediment as he's being ascended into The Throne.
The public humiliation and sadness is captured so well in the first five minutes of The King's Speech that it immediately absorbs you into this beautifully framed and delicately yet powerfully written film. The same can said about French composer Alexandre Desplat's wonderfully sublime and heartfelt score for this thoughtful little piece of cinema. When I say "little" I mean small in scale and that's precisely what enthralls you with it. The King's Speech doesn't try to overwhelm you with extravagant settings, larger than life dialogue and costumes like most films about royalty seem to be guilty of. Desplat understands this and holds back from ever becoming overly pompous or melodramatic.
Instead he opts for a very small and intimate score consisting mostly of a warm string and woodwind section led by a sole piano, likely representing the feeling of family and friendship.
The King's Speech is a delightfully light-hearted score with just a hint of sadness brilliantly merged into it's leading theme. The piano lightly taps away in a pizzicato style, taking the personification of a stutter without sounding too abrupt or disrespectful. This particular theme is what captures a certain sense of dignity quite well without ever getting too prudish or stilted. In fact it flows with such grace and warmth it easily allows you to emphasize with the characters on screen with a sense of familiarity.
The secondary theme that represents the developing friendship between the two main characters is based around a warm string section and some graceful piano playing ascending into some absolutely gorgeous woodwinds and harp. Without words it speaks so loudly and clearly of an undeniable sense of the respect and empathy the two characters have for each other.
We are taken down some darker passages as well, as Desplat reuses some of similar minor chord progressions he used so brilliantly in his submission to Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows. Deslplat explores slight hints of dissonance and inevitable dread to creates a sense of fragility and tragedy we all can relate to.
Desplat takes some interesting approaches with the thematic material, that could have easily taken the score on a detour into the mundane and repetitive but with beautiful melodic writing he avoids that road all together. First off he almost never lets the emotions swell into overly dramatic territory, instead he steps aside and allows the actor's powerful yet delicate performances take center stage. Secondly, Desplat doesn't develop the themes at all until the very end and even then it's very, very brief. By not allowing the melodies to expand, it seems to mirror the stutter of King George IV and never rises until the speech impediment no longer controls the King.
Things are finally allowed to really cut lose for a brief moment in "The Rehearsal" cue. Both themes are cleverly interwoven with each other in an up-tempo rhythm, as a flute prances into the fold with such optimism it reminds me of some of the happier moments in Elfman's Black Beauty.
In an interesting and incredibly effective twist, director Tom Hooper and Desplat decided to use source material for the climatic scene and closing of the film. Two faithful adaptations of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7 -II" and "Piano Concerto No. 5 Emperor II" were recorded apart from the rest of the score using a larger ensemble.
The only shortcoming I can find with this score, is a minor one but can't go unnoticed for most audiophiles like myself. Desplat decided to go for some authenticity with the recording process of this score and brought in six authentic microphones that were used by the Royal Family to record their speeches during this historical era. An interesting process but sadly the sound quality sometimes suffers in the lower reqions of the score, particularly during the moodier moments. This goes completely unnoticed on film but on album it is quite apparent with a respectable sound system.
Sound quality aside,The King's Speech is a score worthy of the recognition it's receiving and should be a staple in your Desplat collection.

**** out of 5

THE SOCIAL NETWORK - Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Who would want to see a movie about the internationally popular, social networking internet site known as facebook?
That seemed to be the most frequently question asked when someone would mention The Social Network, before it became a critical and box office success.
It's full of unlikable characters, shallow situations, possibly factually inaccurate and, to be blunt, it's about the creation of facebook. At first thought, you would think you'd rather see a movie documenting Bill Gates' morning breakfast habits.
All that aside, it's also scripted and paced with well-refined precision, well acted, shot beautifully and hypnotizing in a strange, pessimistic and unsettling way.
The finer points in this film would mostly be credited to the wonderfully casted performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield. As well as the admirable script from screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, who was fresh from TV's criminally under-appreciated The West Wing and woefully canceled Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which was what attracted Se7en and Fight Club director David Fincher.
One of the most surprising additions to the team was Nine Inch Nails mastermind, Trent Reznor, who had been hired to score the film. Initially, he was completely uninterested about working on a facebook movie and passed on the job to enjoy some free time away from anything remotely musical and just relax. Fincher insisted that he read the script before making a final decision and much to Reznor's surprise he was drawn into the morally warped screenplay and signed on right away, sacrificing some much needed holiday time. In Reznor's own words about the film: "it's really fucking good...and dark",
With Reznor enthusiastically on board, it was time to lighten the workload a little and bring in one of his working partners, Atticus Ross, who had just handed in a reasonably impressive and atmospheric score for the forgettable The Book Of Eli, earlier that year.
After Fincher's last film collaboration with composer Alexandre Desplat on the quiet and melancholy The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, it came as a colossal surprise to the industry and the public that the director had chosen two 'rock' composers not known for their subtly or orchestral elegance.
What the final product proved, was that Reznor and Ross are fully capable of handing in a score worthy of the buzz it's received.
Using a combination of '80's pop sounds, modern synth textures and moody atmospherics, Reznor & Ross created a fascinating 'wall of sound' with layers of interweaving sound design and rhythms.
The album comes off as almost a continuation of Nine Inch Nails' daydreamy instrumental album 'Ghosts'. In fact it even goes so far as to rearrange two tracks from that record for the final score.
The composers manage to capture the modern insane hell that the film paints and the timid, social awkwardness of facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg into just a few simple descending piano notes heard in the main theme at the beginning.
Breaking the ice with an off putting stuttering drone, much like Hans Zimmer's theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight, then smoothly introducing a few lonely piano notes at the forefront, reflecting that of Zuckerberg's alienation and ironic inability to function in social situations.
The main theme is heard only a few times throughout the film but by the end, the piano is buried under layers and layers of distortion and noise, it's almost as if it's supposed to emulate Zuckerberg's emotions being engulfed within the legal and relationship Hell he's created for himself.
Apart from this single theme The Social Network doesn't really have a thematic voice to attach itself to but rather a textural one filled with electronic blips, waves of uncomfortable sound and some catchy beats to boot.
With all these wonderful moments on the album it has to include just a few instances of almost laughable silliness as well.
At some points you could almost swear it's going to break into an inane dance number with some cheesy robotic voice telling us to "dance around the world and back".
On another track you almost expect to see Top Gun's Maverick appear over the horizon after the big jet-fight and everybody cheers.
Normally I would say these blunders aren't the composer's fault as they are just writing for the specific scene but there really aren't any definitive scenes in this film that would call for such dippy musical numbers.
Perhaps the most absurd moment on the album is the duo's synthetic rendition of Edvard Grieg's classical jewel "In the Hall of the Mountain King". It's like they decided to rearrange the piece for the Super Nintendo and drain it of all it's original impact. It's very much like Wendy Carlo's classical synthesized hack job on A Clockwork Orange soundtrack, only it plays no purpose in the film or the specific scene it's attached to. It's completely pointless and is quite frankly incredibly distracting.
When it all comes down to it, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross' contribution to The Social Network is a brave accomplishment for all parties involved. After working with such celebrated composers as Howard Shore, Elliot Goldenthal and Alexandre Desplat, I'm sure it took a little courage for David Fincher to involve Reznor & Ross and request such an untraditional score.
There are many weak moments in the album and it does become tiresome after about 50 minutes but the talent can't go unrecognized and if these two keep on working on it, they could be well on their way to becoming accomplished score composers.
I'm happy to see avant-garde scores like this and 2009's The Hurt Locker get recognized by the Academy, rather than the usual traditional score. Whether or not they're actually being noticed for the thought and work put into the music or just the films they are attached to, doesn't really matter to me. It means the general public are taking notice and quite frankly is somewhat amusing to see these scores create such silly, bitchfest squabbles on snooty film score discussion boards.
Should it win (or won, like it did) the Oscar? I don't think so. There are two other scores I think are more deserving but Reznor & Ross do deserve the attention and will hopefully keep on working in the film business to eventually prove themselves worthy to even the snobbiest of film score fan's ears.
I like this.

*** out of 5

Feb 21, 2011

Monsters (Dir. Gareth Edwards - 2010)

Monsters is an independent British film from first time film director Gareth Edwards and it’s one of the better films to come out of Britain for a very long time.  I’m allowed to say that because I live there.  Edwards worked in TV for some years before moving into film and he carries that TV ‘get the job done as inexpensive as possible’ attitude with him.
He wrote the script, he storyboarded it, he was the DoP, he did the visual effects and he directed the feature.  No small feat for one man and the final result deserves some attention.

So how does one make a film with very little money?   Take the Easy Rider (D Hopper - 1969) approach and improvise like hell.  Get a camera (Sony EX3 with a Nikon 50mm lens) and carry it yourself, hire a sound man, go on location and shoot without permission, utilise the natural light so no need for lighting rigs etc, use real people as unpaid and unscripted extras and hire a real life couple to be your stars, don’t bother with a full script because the actors can wing it on the day.  Now we’ve got ourselves a movie.
Afterwards apply visual effects using Adobe Premiere and edit with Adobe CS4.  Job done.

Six years prior to the films beginning a NASA probe had been sent into deep space to collect a sample of a newly discovered alien life.  The probe crashed upon re-entry and the alien life forms it had been carrying now occupy the northern regions of Mexico, just a little south of the United States border.  They are breeding and the two governments are struggling to keep the area safe for human habitation.

Andrew Kaulder (played by Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist in the area seeking that one essential shot that will kick-start his career but he is ordered to escort his boss’ daughter Samantha Wynden (played by Whitney Able) to safety, up through Mexico and into America.  The border has been sealed and a giant wall built, designed to keep the aliens out.   In order to get into the country the couple have to navigate through an ‘Infected Zone’, an area that the aliens use as a migration lane.  Andrew is reluctant to do so but he gives in and so he and Samantha set off together.

The plot steals from H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) and John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) and mixes them together into a kind of post apocalyptic road movie, albeit one informed by Jean-Luc Godard’s film form, John Cassavetes’ love of improvisation and some of Steven Spielberg’s more commercial monster moments.
It’s a documented telling of an imaginary event.
Considering the differing influences it shouldn't work but it does.  Approximately every 15 minutes the script throws something quite philosophically profound at the viewer, something that will fuel the conversation on the ride home from the theatre or the debate over a pint at the bar.

The two protagonists are from different backgrounds and have developed a very different outlook on life.  Samantha is a rich girl with a silver spoon upbringing and Andrew is a bit of an impatient cynic with a cold journalistic nature that threatens to engulf him.  I should really say three characters as the cameraman is a 3rd unacknowledged character; he is us and we are him, witness to each characters thoughts.  Despite being the ‘little rich girl’ Samantha has none of the prissy self-important clichéd attributes one would expect. 

Tragedy brings people together, we’ve all witnessed it and some of us have even lived it.  It’s no great spoiler to say that the couple begin to develop feelings for each other.
The relationship develops clumsily, awkwardly like in real life.  Samantha has a fiancé waiting for her back in the States so things aren’t as black and white as Andrew would like.

Characters drift in and out of the story; they interact with the two leads and then move on with their own private lives.  Like Apocalypse Now (F Coppola - 1979) we are aware that the journey is equally as important as the destination.  (We even hear Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries on more than one occasion.)

Each new area we travel through offers some new visual clue that we are going headfirst into the very heart of the beast.  The perimeter town is chaos filled with people trying desperately to get away, all except the locals who seem to accept that life is something to be lived and not escaped from; they accept the migration of the aliens as they would accept a storm, it will pass and life will go on as normal.

The jungle area is next and here we get one of the best scenes of the entire film, it’s powerful emotionally and visually and perfectly timed.  We get a visual indication that things are not as they seem just prior to it, a bloody hand print on the side of a passing boat and the presence of militarised locals tell us something is not right.  The director gives a number of visual and audio cues like this.
The keen viewer will be drawn into the world and the slow pace will be seen to be justified.  From this point onward (from about 45 minutes in) the film is pure gold.  The slow beginnings begin to mature and the characters know what they must do to survive.

When the titular monsters return for the inevitable finale it’s a definite Spielberg moment, think Jurassic Park (1993) but on a more personal scale.  Unlike Spielberg’s Hollywood sensibilities however the scene does something unexpected which had me enthralled.   For some viewers this ‘action’ moment may come a little late in the proceedings but I found it to be perfectly timed and perfectly executed.  I can’t say any more as it will be spoiler.   It may seem like I have laid out a lot of the story in this review but it’s nothing that you won’t have predicted from the first 15 minutes.  Believe me when I say there are much more important things to be found in the film that I have avoided mentioning.

The score is by musician Jon Hopkins, another Brit whose previous film experience was in helping Brian Eno score The Lovely Bones (P Jackson - 2009).  The mostly electronic score floats in and out at opportune moments, seeping into the atmosphere of a scene like soft waves caressing a deserted shore.  It’s effective, functional, and unobtrusive and it fills the empty spaces in the dialogue well.  Thankfully it never explodes into the bombastic monster movie fare that Hollywood would require of its compositions.

For the film student I would highly recommended a viewing of Monsters and I’d award it a three and a half or maybe a four star rating but for everyone else I don’t think it will sustain interest, and for those people it’s maybe closer to a two star rating.  So let’s split the difference and call it a:

*** out of 5.

Feb 19, 2011

TETSUO I - II & TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN - composed by Chu Ishikawa

Some people don't like having their senses attacked and beaten into a pulp.

I do.

So naturally writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto's frantic Tetsuo sci-fi/thriller series appealed to me from the get-go. The industro-punk trio of films carry themselves like a '70's era David Cronenberg film overdosing on amphetamines, with elements of twisted, campy humor and stomach churning erotica spattered throughout them.
Just as suitably discordant and raged-induced is composer Chu Ishikawa's ear-splitting transgressive score. Taking elements from his industrial percussive project "Der Eisenrost", Ishikawa uses his trademark "metal percussion" sound and works it into the films seamlessly adapting to Tsukamoto's nightmarishly crude visions. Ishikawa would impress the cult status director so much, Tetsuo would only be the beginning of a long time working partnership for the two sensory contortionists.
First up is the 1994 album release of the Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo: Body Hammer packaged onto one disc and simply titled Tetsuo I-II.
The score that Ishikawa produced for the first film in 1989, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, was clearly made with a low budget but it worked so well in it's context, budget didn't matter. It was so creatively raw, noisy and very, very dirty, Tsukamoto couldn't have asked for anything better. It split your ears wide open when needed and grated the nerves with such wonderful precision, I knew I had to have this on album to relive that feverish auditory offense over and over again.
Sadly I was severely let down by the album that was eventually produced long after the two films were released. For some strange reason, Ishikawa opted to re-record the score for both the first and second film, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer and release them on a single disc that runs for just under forty minutes. Not only is it re-recorded but it also appears to be rearranged to form a "comprehensible" listening experience. The sound is cleaned up and almost too precise to actually satisfy anyone that was hoping for that nerve-shattering sound they heard in the first film. I found that the album completely ignored the David Lynch-esque '50's rock that portrayed the "once-happy" couple or maybe it was the car's front end theme...I'm still not clear on that yet. No matter. Perhaps the reason behind leaving this particular composition off the album was because it wasn't actually Ishikawa's piece. I can't be too sure, as it's next to impossible to find anything on what was written for the films and what wasn't. More on that later.
After getting over the initial disappointment that the "soundtrack" album was not what I was hoping for, I decided to give it a chance anyways.
As it turns out only three tracks (16 minutes) on this album represent the first film, those cues being the curiously titled "Megatron", "Mausoleum" and "Lost".
"Megatron" (the standout track that defines The Iron Man segments of the album) appears to be a more agreeable version of the central noise motif heard prominently throughout the first film. Sure, it's noisy and not tailor made for radio play but it still doesn't quite have the same paranoid impact as the original version. Nevertheless there are some interesting elements heard on this track that's grown on me and has resulted in many repeated listens. Some descending synthesized vibe organ is played over rhythmic metallic banging and clanging that strangely develops into something that wouldn't be out of place in an industrial night club filled with "sad" goth boys and snotty vamp girls. It vaguely reminds me of the music one would hear in an old school video game, similar to Castlevania, that would play over the first incarnation of the final boss. If I'm not mistaken this video game sound is probably intentional, seeing as the final image we see on screen of this first film are the words: "Game Over".
"Mausoleum" is the track from The Iron Man that suffers the most from it's re-recording. In the original film the shakuhachi flute that bursts up and down the scale gives off a feeling of mental fragility like it's struggling to stay together. It's actually quite striking and ingenious the way it's used in the film. Sadly, on record the flute is mixed so prominently and cleanly into the forefront it loses all the desired effect and gives off a feeling of power and intimidation, quite the opposite of what it originally portrayed.
Strangely enough, "Lost" is almost an identical extended version of what was heard on film. It's the closest thing to a pleasantly calming theme that the music in the first film ever got to. It floats through in a dreamlike state that echoes shades of a percussion heavy, synthesized reworking of Philip Glass' second movement on his Metamorphosis project. Coincidence?
The lackluster second installment in the series, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is represented on this album with six cues, totaling up to nearly 22 minutes worth of material.
"The Sixth Tooth" begins with promise easing us in with an unsettling introduction that resembles Trent Reznor's Quake video game score. However it is quick to disintegrate into campy early 90's synth rock that I suspect is a more colorful and irksome reworking of the "Megatron" motif we heard from the first film. This carries onto for about 4 minutes until it revives itself, by completely turning over to a driving percussive charge met with a synthetic drilling sound on the way out.
"Rana-Porosa Porosa I & II" both share the same chord progression, only the first one is played to a more upbeat tempo, while the second is a dramatically slower tempo almost falling into ambience. The first is just plain annoying and seems to meander on for far too long. It's like somebody taught a monkey some simple Technotronic hooks on the synthesizer and that's all they taught the tortured primate. The second part is a bit of an improvement mostly because it clocks in at less than 2 minutes and plays the mood with more of dreamlike subtlety. For the life of me, I've scanned the film twice and can't seem to find either parts included. Although, there is an even more annoying motif played during chase scenes that bares some strong similarities to this motif but is not quite the same thing. Perhaps, Ishikawa realized this by the time the re-recordings came along and went with a slightly different direction with this particular composition. Either way, it's still bothersome to the ears...and not in a good way like the rest of the score is.
Next up we have "Dinosauroid" (what is with these track titles?) and it is simply a nerve-grating, ear-splitting joy to play at a very high volume. It bangs, it clangs and it drills into your head with such a driving rhythmic charge I can't help but smile and shake my head at the absurdity it beholds. It has all the charm of early '90's industrial music with a hint of snarky humor to poke and prod at your all ready dwindling patience.
Finally, "A Burned Figure" is the definite highlight of The Body Hammer's portion of the album. It reminds me of a stripped down version of Ministry's Dream Song from their The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste album. I only wish Ishikawa had decided to release the vocalizations from this track as heard in the film as well. On film the vocals were left to play out a cappella and it's actually quite beautiful and moving in it's original element. Here they are quite pleasant but don't share the same emotional impact they had in the film.
What's odd and somewhat annoying about The Body Hammer soundtrack is that the source material isn't credited for whatever reason and forces you to do extensive research to find out what it was that was playing during key scenes. Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria" is fairly recognizable and played several times throughout Body Hammer but the song played over the end credits is not. If you're like me and are interested in seeking it out, you should know you'll be hunting for Tomoyasu Hotei's song "Materials" on his 1988 album Guitarhythm.
In conclusion (sort of), Tetsuo I-II is a moderately good album that has some 4 star material on it but also has it's fair share of 1 to 2 star material as well. It loses even more praise for not being the original recordings from the film. Had it been the original recordings, I'm sure I would have been more enthusiastic about it.
While researching for this album, I did discover that there is a pricey 3-CD release of the original recordings from Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer and the soundtrack to the third film, Tetsou: The Bullet Man. It is an import and probably more trouble than it's worth to order, so I will more than likely never get around to purchasing it but it is nice to know that Ishikawa had the sense to release the the scores they way the fans wanted it in the first place.
...and with that, we come to the Tetsuo: The Bullet Man portion of this lengthy score review:
Right off the bat, I can honestly say that I appreciate this album eminently more than the first album, as this actually is the original soundtrack from the film.
The album opens like the film itself, with a beautifully titled track call "Scal" it's intense, terrifying and very, very intriguing. A heavily reverberated droning builds itself up over the course of a minute, penetrating your sense of well being and sanity.
After that intense first minute has taken you out of your comfort zone we are then treated to the nightmarish "Sparky". A wicked aural journey into a Skinny Puppy-esque soundscape. A possessed distorted voice whispers into your head only to be invaded by a LOUD banging with the treble cranked up to the elusive 11, it's guaranteed to damage your sound system or hearing if it's turned up too loud.
"Sand I" & "Sand II" are companion pieces at opposites ends of the album. They shatter the nerves with some prominently clear clanging, while a deeply distorted rhythmic beat plays in the back along with a someone chaotically tooting on that shakuhachi flute again. This is what the chase theme from the second film should have been.
The "metal percussive" arrangements that Ishikawa is known for is the most apparent in the "Double I" & "Double II" tracks. They're abrasively intrusive and downright dirty sounding. The sounds of scraping metal crackles and sears the eardrums with no such thing as an apology.
Things settle down for the three "Born" cues all placed back to back. A mournful synth-drone is washed over the industrialized palette that creates a sense of floating. As calm as these cues might be, an impression of something bad remains buried deeply into the background.
"Depth" is my personal favorite cue. It's noticeably softer than some of the other compositions on the album but by no means is it any less distressing. It sputters out a strange mutated brass blare, as a very, very upsetting wail cuts in and out of the mix. A synthesized cello begins marching into the mishmash of harsh racket, developing a sense of irrational urgency that we don't really need but it's just so damned bewildering you can't help but to continue listening.
It's not long before things get extremely aggressive again, as "Zinc" grabs you by the scruff of the neck and takes you for quite the beating. While it's not a very interesting track musically or original , it's everything I've come to love about the Tetsuo sound. Loud, angry, surreal and makes quite an impression on you.
"Block" introduces the use of an electric bass into the palette of instruments and sounds that Ishikawa has used so far in the series. Why he chose to use it so late into the series mystifies a bit, as it works quite well with what's all ready been established and would have been interesting to hear more of this mixture.
Finally we get to what is probably the highlight of the entire series for a lot of people: Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails' inevitable contribution to the series, "Theme For Tetsuo: The Bullet Man". It serves as the end credits to the film and might ultimately close the entire series if Tsukamoto decides not to make another one. I might like Trent Reznor's work with NIN and his other musical projects but I feel this just doesn't belong with Ishikawa's all ready brilliantly established metallic sound created for the series. Had Reznor decided to make use of Ishikawa's techniques and sound palette I probably would have enjoyed this cue quite a bit more.
All in all I find the album presentation and recording of Tetsuo: The Bullet Man to be my favorite of the two soundtrack albums by a tremendous landslide.
Chu Ishikawa's created the perfect soundscape to compliment Shinya Tsukamoto's harsh industrial images onscreen. Both visuals and sound leave such a lasting impression it can't be denied that they were really onto something with this project.
Ishikawa's Tetsuo scores aren't for everybody...well...most people actually, but if it's harsh industrial music that tickles your fancy than the most recent album is a must have. While the first album disappoints quite a bit, there is some good material worth checking out as long as you know what you're actually paying for.

Tetsuo I - II as a soundtrack album * out of 5

Tetsuo I - II as a stand alone album *** out of 5

Tetsuo III: The Bullet Man - **** out of 5

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For further interest, check out Dr Faustus' extensive review of the three films at this link:
Tetsuo I, II, III (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)

Feb 18, 2011

Tetsuo I, II, III (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989, 67 mins)

Summary: You’re a regular metal fetishist.  You like to cut yourself and insert bits of metal into the wound.  Hey, it’s a crazy world, right?  You are minding your own business, walking down the street enjoying your own private and harmless perversion when some fool messes up your day with his car.  What do you do?

My first thought after viewing Tetsuo: The Iron Man over a decade ago was, “How did this film ever get made?”  Not because it was bad but because it was so very unorthodox.  I was familiar with weird anime but Tetsuo was to me even more bizarre than Urotsukidoji.  

The backbone of the story isn’t new; it’s been around for hundreds of years, as far back as the Greek tragedies.  A victim takes revenge on his malefactor (known hereafter as the salaryman) with an apt and fitting punishment.  No matter, if the plot involved Tigger in a pink hockey mask bouncing on pumpkins I’d still have watched it.  Why?  Because in writer/director/editor/actor Shinya Tsukamoto’s hands this trite and clichéd plot device exists merely to serve the visuals, not the other way around.  The plot is secondary.   Usually when I have such a realisation I would begin reaching for the stop button but the frenetic cyberpunkesque visual assault that Tsukamoto burned into my retina was a welcome, and moreover, engaging one.

Oh, and there is some of that famous Japanese tentacle porn.
Still reading?

The punishment takes the form of a gruesome transformation.  The flesh of the salaryman is slowly changed into something less organic.  I would say less human but his actions up to this point haven’t really painted him as very humane.  The effects are amazing considering the obviously shoestring budget.

Stylistically Tetsuo: The Iron Man is harsh; it’s an avant-garde greyscale nightmare wherein both the architecture and editing are clearly designed to disorientate the viewer.  Shot on 16 mm film it looks grainy and at times either underexposed or overexposed.  The inclusion of stop-motion photography, probably due to budgetary constraints but perfectly suited, only serves to make it even more anarchic.  It seems to want to make you hate it while at the same time it draws you in with its unique aesthetic. This duplicitous nature is its greatest asset however for there is a beauty to 16mm film that most modern digital cinematography has destroyed and despite the severity of the image that nostalgic beauty shines through. 

Just as the freaks in Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) get aroused by their unhealthy desires so too do the salaryman (the fool in the car) and his wife bring sex into their transgression.  Yes, the two films couldn’t be more different on the surface but the man-meets-machine eroticism that Cronenberg has dealt with in the past is similarly explored in Tetsuo so such a comparison is not as inapplicable as it may initially seem.  The more grotesque the man’s transformation makes him the more his wife desires him.  This attraction to the grotesque was a trait exhibited by, and is a curse inherited from, the metal fetishist.
The sexual union between the couple is an unforgettable scene.  It’s frightening and blackly humorous at the same time and is worth the price of admission alone.

So it’s a film about change and it’s a film about sex and relationships?  Right?  Maybe.
It’s also a film about the individual, and choice, and private secret longings and the potential repercussions of avoiding culpability.  Or is that just throwing labels hoping some will stick in a bid to make sense of it?  Does it even need to be pigeonholed?  While not totally incomprehensible it sure is complicated and it both invites and shuns critique.  I could pick away at it all day and still not have anything concrete.  This film raises more questions than it answers, even after repeated viewings.  If that lack of clarification frustrates you then Tetsuo is not for you.

At times the acting is simply ridiculous, often resembling bad theatre.  The movements are OTT and the expressions exaggerated and comical but once you realise that is all intentional (isn’t it?) that quickly becomes another plus.  At other times it reminded me of the wonders of silent era cinema.  I loved that.  I half expected some intertitles to pop up with something weird like:

The music serves the action admirably; they fit together like two pieces of the same warped jigsaw.  (Note: A link to cuckoo’s review on the music of all three films can be found at the end of my ranting.)  Outside of the score the non-diagetic sound often erupts into a torturous white noise or a cacophonous metal on metal screech.  Think Merzbow deconstructed and remixed by Merzbow’s evil twin.  At times it’s excruciating to listen to.  It also complements the imagery perfectly but a cheese grater on your nervous system would not be an unwelcome trade.  Your ears may well cry for solace but your brain will grin with understanding.  Personally, I loved every agonizing minute of it.

When the salaryman encounters what I like to call ‘the platinum bride of Frankenstein’ things get very strange.  Urotsukidoji’s tentacle antics spring to mind once again.  I shuddered.  And I giggled.

Without going into detail, the final third of the film is a crazy montage of sound and imagery that for some viewers may go on a little too long.  I beg you to persevere because the final scene is one of the most kinetically charged, relentlessly energetic air-punching moments of WTF and awesome combined that I have ever seen.  I was clapping like a happy seal at that point.  

It’s an infuriating and intoxicating visual experience and a beautifully grotesque and engaging trip.  It also features the best tasteless use of a power drill this side of barely acceptable.  Do your eyes a favour and seek it out.

A cyberpunk rocking **** out of 5


Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992, 80 mins)

Summary: You’re a regular Joe salaryman.  You like family dinners and typical boring clichés.  You are minding your own business, out walking, enjoying your happy joy family time when two fools mess up your day with their actions.  What do you do?

Despite featuring the same metal fetishist as before, the second film is not a direct sequel; rather it shares and explores similar themes as the first, hence the similar summary above.

This time the madness is in colour which I thought would bring in a whole new dimension for Director Tsukamoto to play around with.  Unfortunately it loses a lot of its impact.  In many places there is either a blue filter over the lens or some colour correction during post-production; I was unable to determine which.  Elsewhere it is often poorly lit, the aesthetic black and white of before forced the scene to be lit a specific way and it managed to keep the effects looking good but here the transformation isn’t quite as interesting nor as effective.

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer also tries to introduce a proper narrative structure and ends up drawing attention to itself which only serves to highlight and expose the flaws.  It’s still far from conventional but it seems less effective than before.

The plot this time involves a father with a memory block.  The reason for this is revealed as the film progresses so I won’t say any more.  The surfacing of the hidden memory and the big reveal are some of the better aspects of the film.  Certain key scenes from the first film are played out again almost verbatim, either in direct reference or as a means to add some easy gravitas to the plot without having to make it explicit.  I liked those moments.

The transformation this time is fuelled by anger and concern and also fear but I can’t say fear of what without spoilers.  In this respect the transformation can be seen to echo the emotional state of the individual.  He is a product of his environment and not wholly in control of his emotions.  (Aren’t we all?)  The film can be summed up in one sentence: The will to kill versus the will to avenge, fuelled by the insanity of loss.

There is a very overt reference to H R Giger which makes a mention of his biomechanical designs all but impossible to avoid this time.  I’d rather not dwell on that, though.  If that film is to be made it should be the Swiss artist himself that green-lights it (and soon, he’s 71 years old now).  Perhaps he could get Tsukamoto to direct it and just handle production and design duties.  I would vote ‘YES’ to that.

There is one scene which I found very disturbing.  A couple indulge in a very private kind of sex play.  Others may get excited by it.  It was like the scraping of fingernails down the blackboard to me.

I’d like to be able to give Tetsuo II the same praise as its predecessor but the simple fact is it’s not worthy of it, for me at least.  It stumbles where it should have leaped and coils where it should have sprung.  Nevertheless, it should still be applauded for being so downright weird and daring.  Ultimately, the film is a bold experiment that didn’t really payoff second time around. 

A misfired squib ** out of 5


Tetsuo III: The Bullet Man (2009, 79 mins)

Summary: You’re a regular Joe salaryman.  You are minding your own business, walking down the street enjoying your time with your son Tom and talking to your beautiful wife on the telephone when some fool messes up your day with his car.  What do you do?

Twenty years after the first film, Tsukamoto made a third.  And my summary is again almost identical.  So, is Tetsuo still relevant in today’s society?  Can the man/machine concept still shock us like it used to now that we are all more familiar with technology and cybernetics etc?  I’d say yes.  Furthermore, Tsukamoto’s film technique definitely can.

The screen ratios of the previous films were both 4:3 so it’s a joy to finally see Tsukamoto use the 16:9 format.  And from the onset it’s clear that he has grown as a filmmaker and obtained some higher quality lenses.  It’s shot on digital and looks great.   In fact, it looks amazing.  The budget for this must have been more than the other two combined.  The post-production trickery on the image is a welcome addition this time.  

The first major difference you’ll notice between this and the other two is that this one is in English.  No subs.  Personally I would have preferred subs because there are times when it was hard to hear exactly what was said, the voice is low in the mix and the characters mumble a lot.  I had to turn the volume up louder than usual to make sure I heard everything.  Conversely this meant that when the music kicked in it was like a wall of sound that engulfed me and totally drew me into Tsukamoto’s twisted world.

The use of sound is again fantastic.  This time it no longer just complements the imagery, it is inseparable from it.  The noise of the car in the first 10 minutes of the film roared out of my speakers like a demon’s war cry and put my nerves on high alert.  That bit scared the crap out of me.  Then the opening credit sequence rolls like a perverted Talking Heads video and from there I was totally hooked.

The setting is the big city and Anthony, our main protagonist, a half-American, half-Japanese salaryman is alienated by its size and its cold sterility.  The city is a malevolent entity.  We see very little of it but more than once it made me feel like I was watching a J G Ballard novel come to life; a concrete hell filled with personal demons, waiting for their moment to strike.  Most of the action is internal shots so despite the larger frame the action takes place in close quarters; the prison like environments are perhaps reflective of the Tetsuo’s mind.  The lighting is again stylised but much more appropriate to the setting than the second one.  At times it was lit like a horror movie but those moments are themselves a little scary so that works fine.

Tsukamoto once again plays the guy that is the catalyst for the transformation.  I was afraid there would be lots of CGI in place of the stop-motion but I’m happy to say that there isn’t.  Most of the effects are achieved through careful editing or in-camera.  As a result the transformation is neither as invasive nor as violent as before but it’s still unsettling.

Things get freaky in corridors a lot and it’s unnerving to watch; for some it may be downright irritating.  I personally hate lengthy shaky-cam shots but I found the camerawork in The Bullet Man to be acceptable, it sustains the visceral atmosphere and didn’t outstay its welcome.  

Anthony attempts something that the other Tetsuo’s haven’t.  You’ll have to watch the film to find out what I mean as it’s a major plot point.  He is characterized a lot more than the others have been and his journey is a lot more scripted and has more purpose.  The exposition is a little awkward and interrupts the flow but it’s brief.  There is still much repeated from the other films with only slight differences.  The salaryman’s wife takes a more active role and even tries to influence the Tetsuo this time around.  She gives the film something the second one sorely lacked, and even with her poor English language skills I found her to be a welcome addition to the madness.

This is the film the second one should have been; it’s the spiritual sequel to the first one.  It's possible to watch it without having seen the second at all.  if you do, you won't really be missing out on anything.

An on target ***1/2 out of 5

Feb 12, 2011

RAVENOUS - Damon Albarn & Michael Nyman

Cannibalism is weird.
It's even weirder the way it's portrayed in the 1999 horror/black comedy Ravenous, by English director Antonia Bird, based loosely on the cannibalistic murders of the infamous Donner Party incident.
Ravenous was a narrative mess that is never quite sure what sort of film it's supposed to be, meandering back and forth between pure horror and oddly misplaced comedic moments. This gross-out Civil War cannibal piece stars a slew of cult favorite actors, including The Proposition's Guy Pearce, Trainspotting's Robert Carlyle, Beetlejuice's Jeffrey Jones, LOST's Jeremy Davies, Band Of Brother's Neal McDonough and in what I suspect was the studio's last minute addition to cash in on the Scream franchise hoopla, David Arquette.
Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski of the wonderful and overly under appreciated Before The Rain was originally on board but was fired by the studio two weeks into filming deep in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia and was quickly replaced by Robert Carlyle's Priest director, Antonia Bird. This might be one of the main reasons Ravenous appears so uneven and awkwardly bizarre in many moments. That and the actors were given free range to do what they wanted, including choreographing their own climatic fight scene, which is surprisingly quite effective. Another up in the air element to the film was in many of the scenes the actors were allowed to make way with their own dialogue, resulting in the main character of the film not uttering a complete sentence until thirty minutes into the film, while many of the other characters mumble incoherently for the most part.
Over the years since it's release, Ravenous has garnered a rather strong cult following and it's well deserved. It really is a strange mess of a movie and a lot of the stranger elements I don't believe are intentional. As a movie, it might not be the greatest or most memorable, as an experience it is one of the oddest and more disturbing ones to leave you feeling completely vulnerable, in such a way not really felt since Deliverance or the original The Hills Have Eyes.
As equally deranged is the avant-garde score dually composed by Damon Albarn who is the mastermind behind the virtual, trip hop, comic book-esque musical project, known as the Gorillaz and the minimalist composer, Micheal Nyman, known best for the biopunk sci-fi flick Gattaca and the New Zealand 19th Century drama The Piano.
The writing process was not really a collaboration between the two, as neither actually sat in a room and wrote together. The score was actually composed with each artist writing specific pieces and then orchestrated by Nyman once all the composing was complete. Damon Albarn wrote about sixty percent of the music and Nyman came in at the last minute and filled in the blanks. Together they recorded and produced the score, in which they both realized that they wished they had spent more time composing together as well.
First up is one of Micheal Nyman's more humorous contributions to the film, a very fitting period piece: a rearrangement of the original U.S. National anthem, "Hail Columbia". It starts off as a proud brass and woodwind set, if not a little off tune. As it progresses it slowly disintegrates into slop and is eventually taken over by a rather charming performance by a banjo and a slightly off key violin. What's interesting about this piece and it's two counterparts on this album, "Welcome To Fort Spencer" and a rearrangement of Stephen Foster's "Noises Off" is that they are played by a group of non-musicians, Nyman had assembled called "The Foster's Social Orchestra". The results are hilarious and quite frankly sound worse than any high school band I've ever heard.
If you all ready hate what you're hearing, then Ravenous is clearly, without any doubt, not your thing. I'd probably go find something else to listen to, because it only gets weirder and even more challenging.
Next up is one of my personal favorites off the album, a progressive composition called "Boyd's Journey". It starts off with a pleasantly grating banjo plucking, repeating the same descending two notes over and over again. It develops a bit more with every other bar, adding in a squeeze box accordion, a bassoon, a fiddle, a violin and a tuba mixed very distantly into the background. As pleasant (and to many, really annoying) as this track is, it's got a somewhat somber feel to it, foreshadowing the dark, downward spiral this adventure will be taking the listener on. This is the first cue that caught my ear upon my initial viewing of the film and I absolutely hated it. Overtime it began to grow on me, as I peeled off the layer of happiness it portrays to the naked eye and found a rather sad and lonely emotional core hidden underneath.
"Colquhoun's Story" is the highlight of the entire score, in my humble opinion. It starts off with that cute squeeze box accordion again, that seems harmless and somehow comedic but within seconds it doesn't sound so humorous anymore as you realize it is on a maddening loop that is both hypnotizing and effectively eerie. A banjo, a pan flute and a sustained violin note creep into the mix with ease and wonder and is quickly joined by a slew of other instruments creating a powerful feeling of dread and terror as it explodes from all sides in it's final minute. It is apparent that the funny is no more....for now.
"The Trek" and "He Was Licking Me" (yuck) are the first tracks on the album that are quite obviously composed by Michael Nyman. They swell and create a sort of emotionally deep, yet distant backdrop to the palette we've been introduced to all ready. While they are the closet thing to a traditional score in this film, they still manage to stand out as well, with the obscure uses of the banjo and bassoons.
"The Cave" is similar to "Colquhoun's Story" in that it slowly develops through strange loops and little subtle elements that creak back and forth, creating a wonderful sense of tension and suspense. There's some beautiful percussive work near the middle of this eight minute opus that is reminiscent of Danny Elfman's Night Breedscore, which builds itself up with crude intensity. Along for the ride is a swaying brass section that would normally sound funny one it's own but is simply far from anything remotely humorous. An interesting thing about this track, which is an obvious Albarn composition, it contains sampled loops from Nyman's rejected score from the light-hearted Sandra Bullock comedy, Practical Magic. So, if you want to stretch the truth a bit, one might consider this to be the closet thing to a Albarn and Nyman joint effort.
"Run" plays like a hilarious hillbilly foot-stomping good time, with some smile inducing vocal "woo-hoos" to boot. You wouldn't think someone was having his intestines eaten out of him during this scene in the film, but it happens and it is the perfect example of what this film and score is.
"Let's Go Kill That Bastard" takes some of the instrumental elements and textures Albarn introduced to the table and allows Nyman to really let it soar, with some interesting electronic work and a high end violin crescendo, intensified with some well placed jolts amongst the mix. It grabs very tightly onto your emotions, dragging them along rather fiercely and doesn't let up for a moment, aside from two slight pauses that just teases you into thinking "whew".
"The Pit" is as equally hypnotizing as some of the other hypno-tracks on this album, only in a much different way. It gracefully offers it's hands to you and sweeps you up into a haunting, moonlit waltz of see-sawing strings and a plucky harp, that feels like time has slowed down.
Although "Martha & The Horses" follows some of the rhythmic characteristics of Albarn's work on this score, I'm not sure who actually composed this one, as it also has the intense orchestrations Nyman's produced for previous film projects. A deeply reverberated drum tap teeters back and forth on a loop with some immensely disturbing piano work that reminds me of a lower end, detuned rendition of the "house" theme from John Carpenter's Halloween score. This track is the first cue that truly sounds like it's in the mind of homicidal maniac. It actually makes me quite uncomfortable, which is impressive considering some of the disturbing "arts" I surround myself with.
The second track the creeps me out to no end is the near nine minute climatic piece "Saveoursoulissa". A heavily electronically loop that slowly develops into a wall of terrifying sonic madness. The opening loop is a sample from Jon Brion's Magnolia score and it's used so well and in a completely different context, I almost want to cry from the sheer terror it projects. A very subtle haunting solo female voice enters into the mix, along with a rather prominent Jew Harp that quivers like a fluttery insect crawling up your leg. A very low vocal chanting is skillfully brought into the mix, building itself up with such precision and skill it reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith's "Ave Satani" from The Omen. "Saveoursoulissa" is pure evil and dread composed with magnificent perfection and intelligence. I don't even want to know what kind of head space Albarn got into, to develop such raw and controlled emotion.
I should note that there is a small difference between the North American and U.K. release of the soundtrack album. The U.K. release omits three score tracks and replaces them with three William Orbit remixes that aren't great, but are an interesting listen if you can track them down in MP3 form.
Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman have created an extremely impressive experimental score that is so tangled up and twisted, like the movie itself, that I can't just recommend this to everybody. If you've got an extremely eclectic taste and a great sense of patience, it really pays off with multiple listens.
The album presentation itself could have done with a few tracks and minutes shaved off, but I would assume it would be a difficult task to perform, when you're attempting to represent two different composer's work equally on the album.
It's weird, funny, scary and confusing, but what else could you do with the cannibalistic source material?
So, in closing: Bon Appétit. :)

**** out of 5

TRON: LEGACY - Daft Punk

1982 saw the release of the groundbreaking, Disney sci-fi cult film TRON, written and directed by animator Steven Lisberger. The animator was inspired to create the digital world, known as The Grid, after getting a sneak peek of the revolutionary video game known as Pong in 1976. Leading the cast was Oscar winner Jeff Bridges as protagonist Kevin Flynn and Babylon 5's Bruce Boxleitner in the title role. The Shining and A Clockwork Orange composer Wendy Carlos provided an interesting musical score, using a MOOG & digital synthesizer and an orchestra. The film went on to become a moderate box office success and blew audiences away with it's stunning visuals and dazzling special effects. Strangely enough, TRON was disqualified by the Academy in the Visual Effects category because using computers for special effects was considered cheating back then.
Flash forward eighteen years into the future and a whole new generation of movie goers are introduced to the digital world of The Grid in 2010's highly anticipated sequel, TRON: Legacy. Former TRON director, Lisberger, took a back seat comfortably in the producer's chair and handpicked an unknown to take his place. In comes Joseph Kosinski, known only for some impressive direction in some CGI generated commercials for the Halo 3 and Gears Of War video games. Kosinki must have done an impressive job as Disney has hired him to update its other sci-fi live action cult classic, The Black Hole, slated for a 2012 release.
Returning to "play" in the world of The Grid are Bridges and Boxleitner, reprising their respective roles. Joining them are Eragon's Garret Hedlund as Flynn's son, TV's House hottie: Olivia Wilde and a very creepy CGI generated younger version of Jeff Bridges as the main antagonist.
This time around, a different composer would be chosen to bring the digitally generated world a musical voice. The obvious choice for such a film would probably have been Hans Zimmer or Harry Gregson Williams who seem to be Disney's go to guys for their live action fare. In an impressive and very fitting twist the electro-dance duo from France, known as Daft Punk (aka Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo & Thomas Bangalter) were chosen to provide the music. Known for chart topping dance hits, like "Around The World" and "Da Funk", Daft Punk wouldn't seem to be a qualified choice to score such a film. However, their music, flavored with hints of the electronic grooves of the '70's and '80's, would prove to be the perfect fit to a film that still echoes such an era both visually and stylistically.
Daft Punk, as a duo, is new to the world of film composing and at first, sounded like it would have been a disaster on paper. However one half of Daft Punk had all ready done a little bit of dabbling in the world of film scoring. Bangalter had provided a deeply frightening score for French director Gaspar Noe's incredibly disturbing film, Irréversible in 2002.
With a little bit of background in the film business the Daft Punk boys started working on the film two years prior to the film's completion. From the beginning they knew that a film this vast would not suffice to just the use of a drum machine and a synthesizer. In addition to their usual synths and other trinkets, they decided to back themselves up with an 85-piece orchestra. Having no real experience writing for orchestra the "Punk"s requested some uncredited help from Hans Zimmer and some of his Remote Control boys, most likely John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams.
The final outcome of the score is surprisingly very impressive, considering it's from some newcomers to the world of film music. Although the sound does share some familiar ingredients with the modern action film, (electronics layered with live orchestra), Daft Punk uses it in an intelligent and refreshing way. While most composers today seem to be trying to hide the fact they are using electronics in their scores, the "Punk"s make no attempt to hide the electronics and it results in something really interesting and somewhat stimulating to a listener growing tired of the generic modern action score.
The score blends flavors of Vangelis, John Carpenter, Basil Poledouris and Wendy Carlos (although DP makes hardly any use of her original TRON score), then sprinkling it with some more modern sounds and techniques used by Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky. The driving force of the orchestra merging with electronic '80's styled beats and sounds, creates a unique foreign soundscape unlike anything really heard in film before.
The album opens with a very impressive introduction to this brave new world, "Overture". I assume it's Daft Punk expressing that this is not your usual trip into their world, as the first track is purely orchestral. Opening with a noticeably muted yet very present brass section it builds and builds with numerous layers of strings until it is allowed to soar with a powerful heroic glory. This track, as simple as it may be, resonates with a power that feels both nostalgic and simultaneously new. It's almost as if it's a long lost score cue from 20 years ago. I simply love it.
Next up, is "The Grid" where we are treated to a monologue by Jeff Bridges that for some reason reminds me of Peter Cullen's Optimus Prime. Strangely enough, that's the only voice ever heard on the album and sort of sticks out. The theme is a Daft Punk styled reworking of the same theme we heard in "Overture". Only this time it's rearranged using strings and electronic rhythms, resulting in something surprisingly just as effective as it's predecessor.
Three cues into the album we are greeted with something that's more of a traditional Daft Punk composition. "Son Of Flynn" gives off a late 70's, early '80's ascending electronic fluttering that almost feels like data flowing across one's computer screen, ala Matrix. To be fair, it is different from a regular score piece but it just sort of sits in place and looks bored.
"Recognizer" is when the Zimmer influence becomes quite clear. It adds a new layer and electronic manipulation to a motif introduced in the first two cues, proving it to be it the first track to successfully merge orchestra and electronics with a near perfect effect. A charging low end string section introduces the track with a very subtle electronic rhythm running through an audio filter, as it builds itself up with a high end string section and some heavy doses of Inception style brass blasts. It finally soars into a bold statement of pure urgency and wonder. I might go so far as to say the duo manage to beat Zimmer at his own game with this piece.
Brad Fiedel's famous Terminator "bup-bup-bup-bup-bup" is an obvious influence on "Arena" and "Rinzler". It's a neat little nod to Fiedel but it never really goes anywhere interesting or adds a whole lot to what is all ready established. However, in "The Game Has Changed" the same percussive pounding is used to much better effect, with interesting textures weaving in and out of the forefront as a slight string ensemble is charging throughout the background, until it is gracefully pushed into the forefront with a tremelo effect. This paves the way for "Outlands" to begin with the same strings churning and undulating, as Daft Punk astonishes with an extremely strong orchestral cue that's reminiscent of Don Davis' orchestral work on the Matrix series.
"Adagio for TRON" is one of the strongest highlights of the entire album and a respectful nod to Samuel Barber's classic "Adagio for Strings". It begins with an absolutely gorgeous solo cello in the first half before Daft Punk lets an electronic current and some strong brass statements run through resulting in an extremely successful marriage of the two sounds before exiting with that mournful solo cello again. "Adagio" is perhaps the only rendering by DP that even remotely resembles any of Wendy Carlos' themes used in the first film.
Back-to-back tracks "End Of The Line" and "Derezzed" are the cues that will most likely please the average Daft Punk dance fan with their electronic club vibes. While equally electronically produced, "Solar Sailer" couldn't be more of a different creature, as it pleases the ears with a dream like ambience that takes one back to the days of Vangelis' Blade Runner.
"Rectifier" is a wonderfully orchestrated cue that could easily be played over the Mussorgsky "Night On Bald Mountain" segment in Disney's Fantasia. It looms over you with an intimidating sense of the ominous and dangerous, created by loud blasts from a heavy horn section and some loud string stings to boot.
"C.L.U." simply astounds the listener as the epic finale, of which I'm sure the Daft Punk boys were simply jumping up and down with joy when they first heard it performed by a live orchestra. It takes the main theme introduced in the first few tracks and absolutely blows the roof off with an increasing tension and excitement, until it suddenly drops off making you wonder if your heart just stopped.
The final three cues, "Flynn Lives", "Finale" and "End Titles" played together could be used as a very effective sampler of the wonderful main theme and statements made throughout the film. They take all the different elements heard throughout the duration of the score and meld them together seamlessly. Without a doubt one of these three tracks will appear on a Best of Daft Punk compilation in the future.
Daft Punk's TRON: Legacy is an accomplishment to be proud of for the duo. However, it leaves me wondering, whether or not another project will come along for the boys to score that fits their sound so perfectly. Had it been any other film I'm not sure their sound would be as successful or as entertaining.
Daft Punk fans might be left a little confused and wondering where all the dance hits are, while the classic film score fan will be left as equally confused wondering where all the lush moments of string solos and woodwinds performances are.
Once again Disney shits the bed with another soundtrack release and not only puts out a single album but also sends the collector on a wild goose chase for extra track releases all over the map that practically forces a collector to illegally download the cues.
First off is a 2-CD limited edition that is fairly easy to track down but only offers an extra 12 minutes of score. Mind you, it is quite good and isn't simply filler, it's just that it tries the patience a little to even think of making such a release.
It doesn't end there. Disney decided to add in extras to digital downloads as well, offering separate cues from iTunes and Amazon not available on any disc or with each other. To add to the annoyance, even more cues were made available through another offer that included some impressive remixes. In the end a collected 41 minutes of extra music is made available. You just need to be prepared for a world of frustration as you run all over the place to track it all down.
All in all, the single disc album presentation is all right but it can be fixed with a little bit of rearranging and editing to create a superior fan made edition. It's especially rewarding if you do go to the bother of tracking down the other not so readily available bonus material. With nearly 100 minutes of music available it can all be edited down to about 40 minutes of 5 star material and that's what I highly recommend.
In conclusion, I found Daft Punk's first real attempt at film scoring to be an incredibly successful one and makes me hope another project comes along that offers visuals that matches the duo's sound.
I'd like to finish this extensive review by stating that when I first heard that Daft Punk would be scoring TRON: Legacy I thought "oh shit, this is going to be a disaster".
I am happy to admit that I couldn't have been more wrong.

A VERY strong *** 1/2 out 5