Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2009 December 28 • Monday

The ninety-third Soundtrack of the Week is this triple-feature CD: Gian Piero Reverberi and Gian Franco Reverberi's score for Le Malizie di Venere, Carlo Savina's Hypnos: Follia di Massacro and Piero Umiliani's 28 Minuti per 3 Milioni di Dollari.

Le Malizie di Venere had me worried at first. It begins with some generic "lounge" music. This continues with the second track, on which the electric bass playing seems, uh, inadequate.

The third track picks things up with the kind of backbeat-driven number most often referred to as a "shake" in these Italian soundtracks. This is followed by a more laid-back shake featuring some sick timpani playing—the pedal gets a real work out—and very reverby sitar.

After that comes another track of crappy "lounge" music, but then a nice uptempo cue that has the sitar joined by organ. This is followed by a sensitive acoustic guitar piece. After that comes a heinous easy-listening cue, perhaps the world's most irritating samba (if it is a samba). It concludes with an uninspiring theme song.

Hypnos: Follia di Massacro begins with a nicely atmospheric theme song, then continues with effective dramatic underscoring and a very nice, almost eerie piece for percussion, electric bass, organ and electric guitar.

This is followed by a track of almost all percussion, then a couple more dramatic and thematic cues.

28 Minuti per 3 Milioni di Dollari begins with the kind of wordless jazz chorus that some people love but I hate. Once that's out of the way, though, the second cue is nicely suspenseful and toe-tapping at the same time. The third piece has a bouncy, lilting quality, almost too far over the line into "easy listening". I like it anyway.

The remaining cues build on these foundations (with the occasional exception, such as the ninth cue, which appears to be a Mexican folk song or something, or the tenth cue, a vaguely Jimmy Smith-like jazz organ thing). No real stand-outs here, but an enjoyable listening experience.

2009 December 21 • Monday

The ninety-second Soundtrack of the Week is Yasushi Akutagawa's score for Hakkodasan.

This came out in Japan last month. I already had a few CDs of Akutagawa's music that I enjoyed and was about to select one of them as a Soundtrack of the Week when this came along. According to Ark Square, my source for such things, this is "one of the most long awaited" Japanese soundtrack releases.

The movie is apparently a dramatization of a real-life story, about a military training exercise in the Hakkoda mountain range in Aomori, Japan. As far as I can make out from google's translation of this Japanese wikipedia page, 199 of the 210 people involved died from extreme winter weather conditions.

Ken Takakura starred in the movie and received the "Japanese Academy Prize for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role".

The music by Akutagawa is splendid, presented on this CD in two long suites followed by two short songs that incorporate the main theme. I imagine these are the A and B sides of a single that was released at the time. Were the two long suites sides of an LP? I don't know.

The score for the film incorporates lyrical and poignant strings, trumpeting brass, buttery snare drum, at times reminiscent but not imitative of John Barry, Bernard Herrmann, Akira Ifukube, Miklós Rózsa, and other great composers.

2009 December 17 • Thursday

There were several baffling statements in Manohla Dargis's article "Women in the Seats but Not Behind the Camera" in last Sunday's New York Times. For instance, on the subject of female directors who released films in 2009, she wrote that "Some are foreign directors, like Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum) and Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman); others are documentary filmmakers, including Agnès Varda (The Beaches of Agnès) and Aviva Kempner (Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg)."

Agnès Varda is as "foreign" as Claire Denis. And referring to her in passing as only a documentary filmmaker is like mentioning John Updike the poet, or Martin Scorsese the concert filmmaker.

The part that bugged me the most, though, was this:

The usual line on Hollywood is that it cares only about box office, which is at once true and something of a convenient excuse. Money makes the movie world go round, sure. But there are exceptions to this perceived rule, as some of my favorite male directors, including Michael Mann, have routinely proved with various box office disappointments. Released in 2001, Mr. Mann’s “Ali,” a well-regarded if not universally beloved biography of Muhammad Ali with Will Smith, brought in nearly $88 million in global receipts. (The production budget, partly paid for by Sony, was an estimated $107 million.) The next year Ms. Bigelow’s independently financed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a submarine adventure movie with Harrison Ford, was released to solid reviews, raking in just under $66 million globally (with a $100 million production budget).

What did a $22 million difference in box office mean for the directors of “Ali” and “K-19”? Well, Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when she began “The Hurt Locker,” a thriller about a bomb squad in Iraq that was bankrolled by a French company and is said to cost under $20 million. For his part Mr. Mann directed “Collateral,” a thriller with Tom Cruise, for Paramount and DreamWorks (with a budget of $65 million and global box office of more than $217 million), and “Miami Vice,” a reimagining, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, of Mr. Mann’s popular 1980s television series. Paid for by Universal, that movie cost $135 million and is considered a disappointment with about a $164 million worldwide take.

I imagine there are a host of reasons why Mr. Mann has been able to persuade executives to keep writing such large checks. He’s a dazzling innovator, and big stars keep flocking to his side, despite his reputation for difficulty. But Ms. Bigelow is one of the greatest action directors working today, and it’s hard not to wonder why failure at the box office doesn’t translate the same for the two sexes.

I don't know what Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow are supposed to have in common. The big difference in their professional lives, though, I would bet, is that Bigelow's movies are, as Dargis mentions in the first paragraph above, independently financed. Not just K-19, but all of them. I don't care who you are—that's likely to slow you down.

But what's really annoying about this is that Dargis could have just asked Kathryn Bigelow why it took her longer to make her next movie. The Onion, for crying out loud, did just that last June.

The A.V. Club: There was a seven-year gap between K-19 and this new movie. Were you attempting to get other film projects off the ground during that time? What finally brought you to The Hurt Locker?

Kathryn Bigelow: Well, actually, I became familiar with [screenwriter Mark Boal’s] journalism and turned one of his articles into a television series [Fox’s The Inside]. That took a fair amount of time. And then it was a short-lived series, so it’s not one to dwell on. But then at that time—it was 2004, so two years after K-19—I realized he was going off to do an embed in Baghdad with a bomb squad. And not unlike the general public, I felt fairly unaware of what was going on in Baghdad. I think it’s a war that has been underreported in many respects, so I was extremely curious, and I kind of suspected that, providing he survived, he might come back with some really rich material that would be worthy of a cinematic translation, and that’s what happened. So then he came back and we started working on the script in 2005, raised the money in 2006, shot in 2007, cut it, and here we are. These things take time, is all I’m trying to say. I think what people don’t realize is how long these things can take in development. I’ve always developed all my own pieces, and they’re time-consumers.

Well, there you have it. She was busy creating a TV series—for Fox, not some cable channel you never heard of before. Then she spent time raising money, because she's an independent filmmaker.

AVC: Was it always a certainty that the film would have to be made outside the studio system?

KB: We never approached any other financing avenue. I wanted to keep it as independent as humanly possible, and I wanted to shoot in the Middle East. That alone probably would have been a non-starter. And then I anticipated that and didn’t pursue. And also, to be honest, I’ve never made a non-independent movie. No matter what scale it’s been, it’s always been independent. So I wanted to retain complete creative control, I wanted final cut, I wanted the opportunity to cast breakout, emerging talent, and as I said, shoot in the Middle East.

These are all reasons why The Hurt Locker is much, much better than Collateral—better than any Michael Mann movie that I've seen.

It's disappointing that Dargis takes up a lot of space in the Sunday Times to say practically nothing about women in the film business. She writes, for example, "If you have ever wondered what ever happened to Susan Seidelman, Penny Marshall, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, Nancy Savoca, none of whom had the career they should have had, you're not alone."

And that's it. Why doesn't she tell us what happened to them? It can't be too hard to find out—especially if you're a chief film critic for The New York Times.

And I'm not sure what she means by "none of whom had the career they should have had". What careers should they have had? A career like, say, Orson Welles's? Samuel Fuller's? Elaine May's? I'm curious. But it seems that Manohla Dargis is not—not enough to send an email or make a phone call, anyway.

2009 December 14 • Monday

At last! I finally have the original soundtrack recording of Barry Gray's music for UFO on CD! Fanderson (the official Gerry Anderson fan club) released it last month and my copy arrived last week. It's the ninety-first Soundtrack of the Week.

My brother and I were both big fans of Space: 1999 when we were kids, but I don't think either of us knew about its predecessor, UFO. It was about a secret agency defending Earth from alien invaders.

I first saw the show sometime in the 1990s on the Sci-Fi Channel and was very impressed by the music, by turns jazzy, groovy, eerie, ethereal, rocking or just plain weird. You never knew what might happen. While the organ is the main voice of the show, you hear other weird keyboards, great drumming, lots of nice clarinet playing.

I used to tape the shows and then connect the VCR to a tape recorder to extract music that I wanted. In 2003, Fanderson released a two-CD set of the music for UFO. Like all of their releases, only members of Fanderson could purchase it.

Fanderson wasn't on my radar and the UFO CD sold out before I ever learned of its existence.

In 2004 Alice and I were in Japan, and I found a Japanese two-CD set of music from UFO in, I think, the Tower Records in Shibuya (an area of Tokyo). It looked like this:

I was thrilled, until I got it home and listened to it. I'm not sure what the words "Original Soundtrack" on the cover are supposed to mean, but the CD does not contain the original soundtrack recordings. These are re-recordings with almost all of the parts done by synthesizers. It's not good.

Remember the joke Woody Allen tells in the beginning of Annie Hall—the food is terrible, and such small portions? Well this Japanese UFO release has a total of only 75 minutes—on two CDs! Why two? Were they trying to trick people into thinking this was the Fanderson double CD?

But I still didn't know about the Fanderson release. Then one day, while visiting The Million Year Picnic (as I always do when in the Boston area), I heard the real UFO soundtrack playing on the store's stereo. "Hey, that's UFO!" I said to the guy behind the cash register.

He told me about Fanderson, how they only sell the CDs to members, how they put out the UFO double CD in 2003, how it sold out really quickly and how he bought one on eBay for $150 or $300 or something like that. (It was still sealed, he explained.)

For a moment I considered badgering him for a CD-R copy but only congratulated him on his excellent taste and left the store.

When I got home I joined Fanderson. Their release that year was a two-CD set of Barry Gray's music from Stingray, no doubt destined to be a Soundtrack of the Week someday. I also bought all the previous releases that were still available. Better safe than sorry.

A year went by. Should I renew my membership? What was left for them to release? I decided to renew for at least one more year partly because the Fanderson newsletter is one of the most beautifully produced magazines I've ever seen. This is what an appreciation society should look like.

And then, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of UFO, they released the music again—with additional, newly discovered music that hadn't been on the previous release! (Though it seems that the first release included music—cues that weren't used in the show—that isn't on the new CD. You can't win 'em all.)

I've listened to the 40th Anniversary Edition a few times now and it's fantastic. Highlights include the main theme, of course, but also the lounge/swing "Yellow Alert" and the driving "Red Alert", both from the episode "Identified".

"The Leisure Sphere" from "Survival" sounds like something that could have been used in The Prisoner and "Traveling Home", a beautiful and lilting melody from the episode "Ordeal", would be devastating in the hands of the right surf band.

The beginning of "Girl in a Sports Car" from "The Psychobombs" sounds a bit like the reverbed-out big-band Space Patrol music of German composer Peter Thomas while several cues suggest John Barry's James Bond music or Gray's own music for Stingray. March rhythms are also frequent, in keeping with the story, which is about a military organization fighting a war.

It's really great. I'll have to watch the show again one of these days. I don't think I've even seen all the episodes.

2009 December 10 • Thursday

Mechte navstrechu (1963, A Dream Come True):

2009 December 07 • Monday

Happy birthday, Dexter!

He turns two today!

The ninetieth Soundtrack of the Week is a favorite score for a favorite movie: James Horner's music for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The excellence of this movie sometimes gets lost in the cloud of distractions generated by all the other Star Trek this and Star Trek that out there.

Film Score Monthly released the CD of Horner's music last summer and I listened to it about ten times in a row upon receipt. If you're familiar with the movie, it's remarkably easy to follow the story just by listening to the cues.

Director Nicholas Meyer didn't know anything about Star Trek but recognized the influence of Horatio Hornblower on Gene Roddenberry, creator of the series. He approached the movie as if he were making a nautical adventure picture, and asked composer Horner to work in a similar vein.

Horner must have liked this idea. His music suggests winds of various strengths, swelling waves and creeping fog, with the occasional storm at sea. He ingeniously worked in Alexander Courage's theme for the Star Trek tv series and created original cues which are brilliantly sympathetic to the scores for the original series.

Perhaps most importantly he came up with short but extremely effective original cues to identify Kirk, Khan, Spock and the Enterprise. These cues end up doing a lot of dramatic work in the final battle between the two ships, with just seconds of music here and there telling the audience who is doing what to whom.

The liner notes to the CD are insightful and informative, pointing out, for instance, how unusual it is that Kirk and Khan never meet in the movie. They grapple with their ships and communicate only over video screen. This makes Star Trek II one of a handful of movies of that time to explore characters whose most significant relationships with each other occur over television or video screens (e.g., Videodrome, The Osterman Weekend, Sex, Lies and Videotape).

Apparently James Horner was appalled by the suggestion that he orchestrate "Amazing Grace" for the funeral scene, but he performed this duty especially well. More to his taste is the triumphant "Enterprise Clears Moorings", an exhilarating accompaniment to a grandiose scene.

The ending scene of the coffin on the Genesis planet was a last-minute addition, a replacement for a less ambiguous conclusion. Nicholas Meyer didn't want to shoot it, preferring to leave the Spock door closed, and he didn't—somebody else did. Horner came up with great new music for it at the last minute and executive producer Harve Bennett says he cried when he saw it.

Perhaps it would have been better for the Star Trek franchise to have ended with this movie and for all of these other Star Trek shows and movies to have different names, their own identities and histories. Maybe it would have been better to leave the original Star Trek to those of us who are satisfied with it (and unmoved by any spaceship commanded by Scott Bakula). Of course, this would mean no Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and since that's my mother's favorite, I guess I wouldn't have it any other way.