Friday, May 1, 2015

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Raging Hormones, Werewolves and everything brutally beautiful

Wes Craven's Scream started with the premise that every kid in high school knew the teenage slasher flick genre by heart and, therefore, why pretend? This low-budget but immensely popular Canadian film (it spawned 2 sequels) follows the same route, but from a different perspective. 

It's no joke, for one thing. Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are sisters. They live in a suburban home with a groomed dad and hands-on mom (Mimi Rogers) who talks to them like china dolls. Ginger is 16, Brigitte 15. For fun, they fake murders and suicides and have a death pact, which means if one dies the other kills herself. 

Menstruation becomes a big issue because it hasn't happened yet and the grown-ups can't wait to give advice and be patronizing. The girls are in rebellion against life. They want freedom from the safety of their uneventful existence and refuse to be told what to do. They consider prettier girls bitches and boys unmentionable. They are called freaks. 

Outside the narrow confines of their sulky patch, odd things have been reported, such as the brutal killing of household pets. Have the sisters lost control, or is there a wild creature abroad? When Ginger is attacked in the woods and barely escapes alive, Brigitte knows instinctively what nameless horror awaits. Except, it is not nameless. Does their pact include the living dead? 

The success of Ginger Snaps lies in the commitment of the director (John Fawcett), the actors, most notably the two sisters, the writer (Karen Walton) and a great soundtrack too. They don't go for the it's-behind-you pantomime approach that modern teenage horror movies enjoy. They take it seriously, which makes all the difference between empathy and objectivity. When the most responsible member of the school body turns out to be the in-house dope dealer, you know you cannot trust stereotypes. 

The performances appear forced at first, as if these girls are only pretending to be off-the-wall, which is the point. They grow through fear. Perkins captures the confusion of role play, torn between loss and loyalty, discovering an inane ability to make rapid decisions, while Isabelle thrives on her new identity, decreasingly dependent on the blood of the innocent. If you are the rare soul who has still not seen it yet, the time in now! The Wolf

This review first appeared in the British online magaizne Inside Out way back in early 2000.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Life Itself (2014)

A deeply enthralling documentary on Roger Ebert that's essential watching for every Ebert fan!

Having finally been able to watch this  universally acclaimed and documentary Life Itself created by master craftsman Steve James (Stevie/Hoop Dreams), I now seem to have developed a new renewed appreciation for the Pulitzer prize winning film critic & commentator Roger Ebert, one of the very best film critics the world has ever seen. 

Throughout most of his life (and his former colleague Gene Siskel's life, as well) Roger and his famous thumb scrutinized much more than the films they reviewed. There was a time where their simple 'Thumbs up or thumbs down' could be a blessing or a curse to any given film on any given week. Roger and Gene became international celebrities and became their own business first on PBS in the mid 70's, all the way into the 90's with Siskel and Ebert and The Movies. Tragedy befell them both but not before their contribution to film and film criticism became monumental. It is true everyone is a critic in their own way. These two perfected it. 

Life Itself is a poignant look at Roger's life as a child growing up in Chicago, writing his own paper as a child all the way to his tenure at the Chicago Sun Times. He battled alcohol, fast women and his own ego for most of his adult life, but James shows that Roger, although flawed like all of us, was at his heart passionate about what he loved and hated - Cinema and he let the whole world know it, too. His famous feuds with Gene are the stuff of legends, for me. 

Its evident Roger was very smart, educated not only in books but in life. To him there were no limitations on anything and Life Itself touches on just how larger than life Roger became. Love him or hate him he was his own man; take it or leave it. I also appreciated just how smitten he was with his wife Chaz, who reciprocated equally. They were in love and made a wonderfully cute couple. Married one time at age, 50 Roger had found his soul mate in Chaz. She was with him when he passed playing Dave Brubeck as he gently into the light. 

Life Itself is a fascinating look into Roger's life and it was one filled with happiness, sadness, loneliness and triumph. He created film festivals in his own name for the films he loved. He was the only film critic to have ever won the Pulitzer Prize. Roger was an artist, writer of books about film,and some just about travel which he loved to do. 

Life Itself was shot mostly as Roger battled Cancer in the latter part of his life and it had tried its best to beat him down. He refused to go quietly and continued to write up until the last week or so of his life, when he became too weak. 

Steve James has created a masterpiece of one man's life. Filled with insight about a man battling his own demons to rise up and become a legend. So influential were Roger and Gene, they gave Martin Scorsese a fresh start by giving him their own award which led to the director getting studio backing for some of his biggest films. I was awestruck at just how influential they both were and they both loved every minute of it. This is a film they both would have been proud of and loved, just like Life Itself. Life Itself-**** out of 4 ! JohnnyTwoToes

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Homesman (2014)

JohnnyTwoToes finds this western mildly comic but still quite entertaining! 

A Palme d'Or nominee in the main competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Tommy Lee Jones' newest film, The Homesman, is an interesting western themed mix (set in the 1850s) of a love story, action and dark comedy with a heartbreaking twist three quarters of the way into it. One I did not see coming and it threw me for a loop. 

The film stars Hillary Swank as Mary Lee Cudy, a single lady who is desperate for a husband and as the film opens she is conversing with a farmhand whom she wants to marry. He refuses, so depressed as she is, she agrees to drive three women who are accused of horrific crimes across the country to a mental institution. Cudy is fierce, tough and independent but still craving a man's touch. She is not ugly, but she is described as being 'plain as a bucket'. One can only imagine her personality is the reason she cannot find a suitor. 

En route to their destination, the group happen upon a drifter that has been strung up a tree with a hangman's noose while still sitting on an animal. He begs and pleads Cudy to save him and she does with one condition. The drifter, George Briggs (Jones), must help her navigate through hostile open country chock full of Indians, robbers, three crazy women and now a lazy boozer in the form of Briggs. "I'm afraid this is more than I have bargained for, Ms. Cudy" But she holds him to their agreement, in addition he will be paid $300.00. 

The prairie is still untamed, fraught with danger and provides the group with no shortage of perils, which could have been boring and filled with cliches, but Jones is as good behind the camera as he is in front. His direction is smoothly confident and the script by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, based on the novel Glendon Swarthout, is sweet, sentimental and lightly comic at times. Its also an added pleasure to see a great ensemble supporting  cast on screen including Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, Miranda Otto and James Spader besides a mesmerizing score by Marco Beltrami.

I enjoyed the company of this group of misfits as they all seem to have fallen on hard times, seem destined to lead unhappy lives but, they become sympathetic towards one another as the film progresses. Jones never forces the emotional bonds they form so we genuinely care about these characters as people. 

There is a big intresting twist about three quarters of the way through The Homesman. Trust me, you will know only when you see it. I will not say anything further about the plot but The Homesman struck me as a quietly effective film about lonely souls who find kindred spirits with other lonely souls even in the harshest conditions. It is about dealing with pain and what we seek in others to ease that pain. On that personal level The Homesman works and it entertains us in the process. The Homesman-*** out 5

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Onegin (1999)

An opulent tragic romantic drama with splendid visuals and costumes!   

Onegin is a Fiennes family affair. It was the directorial debut of Martha Fiennes, stars her brother Ralph Fiennes, and is scored by her other brother Magnus Fiennes. The famous epic narrative poem "Evgeny Onegin" by Alexander Pushkin provides the basis for this British-American 19th century period piece. It may be considered a risky exercise for a non-Russian to adapt a famous Russian work; however, Martha Fiennes doesn’t seem to do a bad job in bringing the period to life. The artistic charm and visual splendor is most evident. The tale of a tragic love affair and the casting must have been the key ingredients as to whether this would work satisfactorily. 

Onegin tells the story of Evgeny Onegin (Ralph Fiennes), a well-mannered member of Russian society who squanders his wealth through gambling and careless spending habits. When his uncle becomes gravely ill, Evgeny makes his way to his uncle’s estate, only to arrive too late. Evgeny is the sole heir and inherits the magnificent estate. He is the epitome of fashionable cynicism and jaded sophistication. 

In getting to know his neighbors, Evgeny starts to take more interest in his surroundings. He befriends a young poet Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens), but his heart really flutters when he sets eye on the gorgeous Tatyana (Liv Tyler), sister of Vladimir’s fiancĂ©e Loga (Lena Headey). The two begin an unspoken bond. She falls in love with the arrogant Onegin but his cynicism sets his thinking elsewhere. Flirtations and arguments among the group lead to tension and drama. Onegin makes himself scarce and we catch up six years later, back at St Petersburg, when an old friend of his (Martin Donovan) marries the mature Tatyana. Onegin having changed a great deal now finds Tatyana irresistible. It may be too late though. 

Martha Fiennes provides a lucid view of a difficult story, and allows the domination of sparkling glasses and chandeliers to etch their presence. There are luscious scenes and great costumes. Solid acting marks the film’s quality also. Ralph Fiennes’ tight, sour demeanor sends the right signals. Liv Tyler is notably breathtaking when transformed from innocence to bruised adolescence, and then into the final sophisticated woman of principle. 

With impeccable production values, this film is a rare costume drama that looks good and feels strong. Martha Fiennes keeps a brisk pace for the most part and has a clear command on how Onegin journeys while the stellar music from Magnus Fiennes is a plus on its own . So, if you are in mood for a brooding but lush authentic romantic drama set in the early 19th century Russia, this is the flick to see! 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Watch it for the Combat Scenes, Ignore the actual history!

I went to a war last night, and for two and a half hours had my adrenaline pumped and my patriotic heart strings tugged by US soldiers in battle, bravely tracking down and trying to capture the enemy. No it wasn't Osama (he is dead, you see), because the movie which felt like it might have taken place in the rubble of Kabul or Baghdad was actually a replay of the battlefield disaster of Mogadishu in l993. 

The film is Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, an account of elite Ranger and Delta force soldiers fighting the good fight based on the book of the same name by Mark Bowden. Their mission, the publicity flyer tells us, "to capture several top lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, as part of a strategy to quell the civil war and famine that is ravaging that country." 

The action is non-stop; only the outcome is/was disastrous. Nineteen Americans were killed along with over l,000 Somalis dead in the Battle of Mogadishu before US forces were withdrawn in an intervention that started nobly and ended in one of the bloodiest messes you can imagine. The movie shows  what the TV news of today does not: actual combat, and the feelings of those engaged in it. You see soldiers fighting with great courage, but they are not motivated by a cause or an ideology; they fight to protect each other, for personal survival. Obvious is that US forces have a clear advantage in terms of technology, helicopters, communications, etc. But in the end they are defeated by the determination of a far less organized urban guerrilla force that sees itself defending its hometown against a foreign intervention. And like the TV news accounts of Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, the movie comes to us largely context-free, with a twisted and distorted perspective that simplifies that conflict beyond recognition. 

Black Hawk Down also seems part of a obvious propaganda strategy aimed at Americans, not people overseas where it is unlikely to win many hearts and minds. Larry Chin noted in the Online Journal when this movie was released: "True to its post-9/11 government-sanctioned role as US war propaganda headquarters, Hollywood has released Black Hawk Down, a fictionalized account of a tragic 1993 US raid in Somalia. The Pentagon assisted with the production, pleased for an opportunity to 'set the record straight. The film, though, is a lie that compounds the original lie that was the operation itself." 

Forget the revelations that one of the story's big heroes who was awarded a Silver Star, in real life, later got convicted as a child rapist. Forget the dramatization formulas. Just think about the impression left with the audience, and how that perception has little to do with reality. After watching the film, which made me uncomfortable because it showed how senseless the US policy was as well as how ineffective, I also realized how little it conveyed what really happened in that tortured land. 

The film starts with signposts - literally, writing on the screen, a few short paragraphs, to remind us what happened. The problem is this: the information is false. It implies, for example, that US troops were sent to Somalia to feed the hungry. Maybe the initial shipments of troops were, as part of a UN force, but not by the time the Black Hawk Down disaster took place. 

In David Halberstam's book, War in a Time of Peace, which recounts the Somalian mishap in some depth, the Defense Secretary apparently told an associate, "We're sending the Rangers to Somalia. We are not going to be able to control them. They are like overtrained pit bulls. No one controls them." Doesn't sound much like a charity mission, does it? The Rangers were indeed sent with great fanfare, to hunt and capture Aidid. Their mission failed. 

Halberstam's book mentions, but does not detail, the bloody background: The massive crimes of the Somali dictator Siad Barre, who the US backed and who Somali warlord Mohamad Farrah Aidid ejected. Halberstam also describes the American hatred for Somalis, expressed in the much-bandied phrase, "The only good Somali is a dead Somali." Is it any wonder Somalis fought back? (In the movie, the battle looks like a racial war, with virtually all-white US forces going mano-a-mano with an all-black city.) Halberstam reveals how these forces made arrogant assumptions in Somalia, underestimating the resistance, and how the urban "battlefield became a horror. . .a major league CNN-era disaster." 

You can read Halberstam's book, and many others, if you want to know more becuase Balck Hawk Down is riddled with falsities and many inaccuracies. Anyway, the major point is that the romanticization of our modern warriors all too often misses the underlying political dimension of a conflict. In Somalia, we intervened in the domestic affairs and conflicts of another society we least understood and we still least understand. What started as a war on hunger became a war on Aidid. We became warlords ourselves and Somalia is still a lawless country.

In spite of all its battle oriented combat realism and the sad reality of the many dead, Black Hawk Down still comes across as a ensemble casted action movie starring big name actors like Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Sam Shepard and many more that tries to turn a US defeat into a victory by encouraging you to identify with the men who bravely fought their way out of an urban conflagration not of their making. Danny Schechter

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Horror Flashback - The Fun Side of Fear

Reminiscing Comic Horror Cinema, from the Laughable to the Humorous 

When I was a youngster, and by this I mean much younger than today, for I am by no means entirely beyond the folly of youth, that is idealism -- I overheard someone, probably even a someone I knew well and respected, comment about how fun it is to go to a scary movie. Well, needless to say, that seemed a bit odd, even perverse. But as hope I have made perfectly clear in my opening sentence, I was quite young. Probably still an infant. Probably. Hardly matters these days, for I've heard the expression far to many times to count in a single sitting. Never really had a penchant for counting that high, anyhow. Patience is most likely the problem there. Patience has always been a problem of mine. So I hope no one is going to force me to go into detail about the extent to which I have been assaulted by that particular phrase about which I have so far concentrated my energies. BUT: 

I do know one thing. Being scared is not fun. There is not a single person I know who has ever laughed about how dang funny it was at that moment when he or she was sure death was unavoidable. Oh, yeah, the time the Miller kid pissed his pants 'cause he was sure there was a ghost behind the tree... folks laugh at that crap all the time. But it is hardly real horror, and I doubt the Miller kid ever really thought it was funny. 

And that brings us to the topic of movies. Where did this 'fun being scared' thing get started. Certainly not with "Psycho (1960)" Although there are plenty of funny moments in that film, I have read too many accounts of early viewings to believe people went to see it for kicks. Besides, my mother still has trouble taking a shower while weird violin music is playing. So the phenomenon must have had earlier roots. (I know this also because of my mom, for she told me about how her friends used to amuse themselves with 'horror' films as kids.)

Now, I feel I must assure you, dear reader, that I have indeed done my homework on this matter. Very quickly in life did I take up the advice found in, "there's nothing like a good scare." And once VCR's became widely available, I availed myself of all the more filmic atrocities. Cinematic horrors, if you will. And I finally, one winter night, realized what the trouble was. And fortunately, in the last few years and especially the coming few, the problem appears to be on the verge of elimination. So, what is the problem? Actually, it is compound. 

First, there was the audience. Then there were the producers. And lastly, there were the writers, actors, and directors, etc. It's hard to fault this last group, however, as it is so difficult to find work in Hollywood. Especially if you aren't particularly good (or too good, as the case has frequently been). The producers were only doing what was profitable. So I guess that the blame appears to fall solely upon the audience. Blame, that is, for the ultimate problem. It is a problem from which audiences and filmmakers alike have suffered from since at least the early thirties (arguments have been made that pre-date film, I must add, and as such my time approximation is thoroughly arbitrary). And this problem has many names, not the least of which are "Stupidity" and "Bad Film making." 

For purposes of clarification, I would like it known that I do not believe either of these things necessarily makes a film a waste of time. Sometimes a dash of stupidity or technical ineptitude is the saving grace of a film. Take, for instance, the self-proclaimed "horror classic" known as "The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)." Shot in about two days from something less than a script, it is brilliant in its stupidity and spontaneity, and holds a certain appeal that the high gloss musical version could never touch. But of course, Roger Corman was good at that sort of thing. However, "The Little Shop of Horrors" is not at all scary. Not even the acting has sent too many people running. But I must get back to the problem before I digress so far as to forget entirely about mentioning the good news. 

Quite simply, it really was not a whole lot of fun being scared. At least not as far as I can tell. The fun part might come afterwards, in the comforting stages ["Honey, I'd better stay with you tonight so you don't have nightmares"], but that would be the fun AFTER and not the fun OF. And I do not believe being frightened will EVER be particularly enjoyable, at least in the pure sense. Interesting, perhaps, under the right circumstances. But maybe I should mention what is not frightening, just to be sure there is no confusion. Roller coasters are not frightening. At least to the people who ENJOY riding on them. This is because of the (sometimes erroneous) assumption that they are safe. Movies are not frightening, unless the viewer has a problem differentiating realities. For the purposes at hand, we will assume that this problem is too tiny to address. I realize my ethnocentric assumption may upset some people, but please bear with me, as I am only trying to appeal to those already involved in the situation. 

{Naturally, people have been frightened by certain films they have seen from time to time. This must be attributed to a perceived element of reality in such films and would vary on a personal basis. Often this is a psychological reality, as in "Psycho," or a photographic reality as in some documentaries, though reactions to these usually can be categorized under repulsion rather than fear. And, anyway, the claim is not then made that, boy, were they fun.} 

It is time to confess something. I do enjoy a good scare. I love horror films. But I am never truly frightened by them. It is a sort of vicarious fear, really. A sick, voyeuristic thing. So, what is the fun of going to a horror film? Certainly not the fear. Yes, a great plot with tight suspense and a lot of psychosis can be intriguing and keep viewers on the edge of their seats in fascination. But fun is a laughter kind of thing. Fun is comic and light. A really good horror film is rarely comic and light. In fact, even the bad ones are traditionally dark, but that tends to be due to a lack of exposure. And that last sentence gives it all away, almost. Put simply, people used to go, and still often do, to see movies and laugh at them. That is the real problem I was getting at earlier (and it seemed I had forgotten about). There is a big difference between laughing at and laughing with, one I do not feel needs explaining. In fact, people used to go in amazing numbers to see incredibly horrendous pictures. And this only intensified the problem. 

Yet, if it were not for the problem, there could be no solution. That solution is the 'horror comedy.' Certainly, it can be argued that the horror comedy has been around as a genre since "Abbot and Costello Meet the Wolfman," or whatever it was called. But the problem was that these low budget flicks were, with the rare exception, just as bad as the films they were supposed to be having fun with. And the elements of fear were so watered down as to be non-existent. So let's leap forward through the years, shall we? 

Let's discuss the seventies. But briefly. We had such titles as "New Year's Evil (1980)" and people went to see them. Granted, it was mostly impressionable kids whose parents were not thinking clearly. But those kids have grown up as my friends, so I will try not to talk too harshly about them. The point, there, was that the laughter came from the stupidity of both film and viewer (it varied). Plot and character were virtually thrown to the wind by the end of the decade. Kids mistakenly thought they were having fun watching their would be contemporaries become shish-kabob, but found they were laughing at the inanities of the situations. A whole new set of rules evolved, where the moment a girl revealed her breasts, she got knifed. This was not a healthy sort of thing, and a perverse fascination drew viewers to these films (more perverse than I, let me assure you). It was not a sense of 'fun,' at least not in the socially acceptable sense. 

The eighties brought us sequels upon sequels of bloody bodies, slightly toning down the sexual implications while increasing the gore. But in general, any 'fun' was due to the ineffectiveness of the filmmakers. For I will say it again, a good horror film is NOT fun. If it is, something is wrong, most likely with the viewer, and a shrink should be involved. And yet, it appeared that this may not be entirely true. That, maybe, a good horror film could be amusing, make one laugh... But that was a confusion dealing with irony and satire. For, yes, a man named George Romero had done an experiment with a couple of films done many years apart, yet continuing the same story. The first failed to start an intelligent trend in the late sixties, it was "Night of the Living Dead (1968)," and it was very, very amusing, as well as appearing to be a decent horror film. The trick here was satire, as opposed to comedy. Unfortunately, few people were able to catch onto this right away. The second film, "Dawn of the Dead (1978)," was much more horrifying, and still satiric. It was also very dark in nature, and not particularly easy to laugh at. The third, "Day of the Dead (1985)," was even darker and more serious. But the point was that elements of humor could successfully be injected into horror films without ruining their effectiveness. 

Now it is not uncommon for comic relief to take up a good deal of time in most horror films, especially those aimed at the pop audience. Freddy Krueger has more witty one-liners than you can shake a stick at, now doesn't he. But, before I go off track again, this is the time to reintroduce the genre of horror-comedy. 

Because of the increased use of comedy in horror films, and the infrequency with which it worked, it became something of an art form to pull it off. Also, there was an ever-growing awareness of the bad stuff that had gone before. Call it camp or call it crap, the fact is it had a following. Little can touch, however, the likes of "Orgy of the Damned" for shear boring stupidity, and there is a line to be drawn before offering too much nostalgic reverence in its direction. So there were bad bad films and there were good bad films. The problem was often telling them apart. Be that as it may, some success has been made in that matter, and the horror comedy is often a self-conscious acknowledgement of that fact. Fortunately, it has also become something more in recent years, no longer relying on mistakes of past history for their humor, many horror-comedies today are as fresh and original as anything coming out of Hollywood [read that as you may]. 

"House" was fairly effective in offering humor alongside comedy. However, Sean Cunningham's efforts left the direction (by Steve Miner) a little too far on the comedy side to be fully effective as a horror-comedy, for this genre relies very much on a balance of power. Meanwhile, his former partner, Wes Craven, was still leaning very much on the horror side of things, with his films (as good as they may have been) being not very good natured at all, even with Freddy's previously mentioned quick wit. 

About 1985, however, things took a permanent change. A man named Stuart Gordon moved out to L.A. from Chicago to direct movies, helped by his friend, Brian Yuzna. The two of them made "Re-Animator (1985)" which was both funny and intelligent while going over the top with its elements of horror. Not long after (early 1987), Sam Raimi directed a remake of his film, "Evil Dead 2 (1987)," calling it a sequel, and adding intensely to the plot and action. (Technically, it is the next day, but the entire first film is capsulated in the beginning of the second one, leaving out surprisingly little.) This second film, however, is at once a superb comedy (if you prefer slapstick to the subtle) and a daring bit of horror. With it, a revolution had been completed. 

Unfortunately, it seemed as though these two early successes could not be topped. Things relaxed back into horror films with wit or comic relief thrown in frequently. But the fun had once again faded in a sad way. Some exceptional horror films were released, but nothing to really have fun with. That trend, however, was about to change again. 

Very soon, theaters were playing a couple of films by Brian Yuzna. "Society (1989)," which is more satire than anything else, perhaps the most effective use of the horror-comedy, mixes gruesome effects with a pervading, surreal sense of humor. It tends toward biting at times, but in general retains less acidity than sense of fun. Unfortunately, this was one of those quick to video releases, where it found a sizable, and deserved audience. 

Considerably more anticipated was Yuzna's "Bride of Re-Animator (1989)," with a hell of a lot more laughs as well as a sizable dose of violence and gore. (Somehow, though, it still almost comes close to coming off nearly as a sort of a family film. But no.) Both of these films have nasty special effects and a bit of nudity and fowl language, all jumbled together for that nifty R-rating. But there is still something in both of them that appeals to the child inside. And along the way, a message even manages to squeak through, something that rarely occurs in most straight horror films. (The main objective here is not body count, but quality of entertainment, even if it is a little sick.) 

Anyway, the point is this: just as I thought we were all doomed to a sea of mediocrity, along comes the rebirth of a fairly new genre that had all but faded in the few years since it was put into any serious practice, and it sticks itself in my face. Now I'm sticking it in yours. It is time to really have fun at the horror movies now, my friends. The trend has moved from laughable to humorous, and even tacked on intelligence along the way. Jeffrey Poehlmann

This blogpost was adapted from a work-in-progress originally conceived for a now-defunct newspaper serving the Los Angeles community in the 90s called "What's Up LA" for which Mr. Poehlmann was the original editor of the Film section. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Film Score of the Month - Less Than Zero (1987) by Thomas Newman

JohnnyTwoToes shares his second most favorite Film Score and its good as gold!

This is a bit of an soundtrack oddity. The film score for the late 80's crime drama Less Than Zero is not available for purchase except in an ultra rare cd 'promotional' disc. If you are lucky enough to find one, it will probably be very expensive. So why do I recommend it? It IS available for your listening pleasure on YouTube in its entirety (and on this blog too). Simply type in 'Thomas Newman Less Than Zero Score' and you will see the various listings of the tracks from the 'promotional' score cd. It has been remastered and one track, originally fifty-five seconds long is now expanded to two minutes and fifty-five seconds long. 

At full the score is now a little over forty-eight minutes, including the video suite that is included and is simply one of the best scores I have ever heard. I have made no attempt to conceal my love for Thomas Newman's music for film, especially his earlier works, but his emotionally strained score for this 1987 film based on the Bret Easton Ellis' debut novel, is my second favorite film score, with only Blade Runner narrowly squeaking by. The newer version even has a suite complete with screenshots for the suite from the film. 

If you have not seen Less Than Zero, I strongly suggest you do. It is a tragically sad film about drug addiction but the bonds of friendship that remain. The film was met with mixed reviews, but I have not seen a more anti-drug film in a long time, quite as effective as this one. It is even more so, now, knowing that Robert Downey Jr., who plays Julian, a drug addicted recently graduated high schooler who has run afoul of a local dealer named Rip (James Spader), was himself battling drug addiction all through the making of this film. It was not until early in 2000, Robert FINALLY beat the addiction and his career could not be going better, now. 

Back to the score. It is Christmas and Clay (Andrew McCarthy) has returned home after he receives a cryptic call for help from his former girlfriend, Blair (Jami Gertz). So Clay heads back to LA and see what he can do. To his horror, Blair and Julian are into the drug scene and Julian is in serious trouble. 

The film opens with the 'Early Phone Call' from Blair to Clay as he is freezing his butt off at college back east. Newman's score starts quiet and slow and as the scene progresses, it builds into a solid crescendo of warm synthesized tones and chords with ever so quiet percussion in the back round. A single and lonely guitar strums subtly, although noticeably. The song quickens and the scene unfolds in a series of black and white flashbacks to get us to the present day in LA. It is a mournful piece of music, suggesting a happier time when they were all together before betrayal sent them all on their separate ways. 

'Zuma Beach' and 'Heading To Palm Springs' are two tracks that feature some percussion and some sax as the friends try to remedy their situation as friends, once again. They are good road music pieces. 'Going Through Withdrawal' is my favorite track of the score. This was the track that originally was only about fifty five seconds long but now has been expanded to its entire length, thankfully. With dreamy synth and a piano ( played probably Mr. Newman, himself, as he does on all of his score recordings) building the chords begin to pulsate like a clock with a lonely sax as Blair and Clay try, desperately to get Julian to kick his drug habit. The scene itself is a time lapse scene and the music lets us be a spectator as Julian's body goes through the agony of filtering the toxins out. 

'Quick Escape' is a percussion only track signifying Rip's efforts to keep Julian under his  shoebut Clay, Blair and Julian escape after a short tussle with Rip and his goons. 'Seeing Blair Again', 'Julian On The Stairs', 'Rip's Hotel Suite', 'I Need $50,000' all feature the strained synthesized strings with a beautiful theme, common to all three that never gets tired or old. It is that beautiful. 'Blair and Her Dad', 'Feeling Nostalgic', 'Sex At The Loft', 'The Cemetery' and 'The Loft Has Been Trashed' all stick to the dreamlike state the film's tone takes. 

The final song, 'Julian's Dead' is where Newman cuts loose one last time with the reprise of the opening track, only this time after the first few minutes, a full orchestra sends continues in all of its painfully glorious splendor. The film features an aerial shot over the desert landscape with Newman's sweeping score as the camera settles in on Clay's car and the three after they realize Julian has passed. It is a tragic track but swelling, gorgeous and heart felt. 

There are no bad tracks on this album. Each one tells the story it needs to and for me, this is a personal and intimate score; something that hits me like a freight train. It deeply affects me each time I listen. I think about my own past, my own demons I deal with (as we all do), the bad choices I made, the good and the ugly. There were rumors that circulated as to why this was never "Officially" released. Some for personal reasons of Mr. Newman himself. I respect that. It is awesome that this exists on YouTube, though, now for all to listen. It is a terrific film and a phenomenally tragically sad score that will soften your hearts and take your breath away, like it does for me. Every time. 

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