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. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Calvary (2014)

JohnnyTwoToes feels this Irish Drama is a missed opportunity!

This is the plot synopsis for Calvary, John Michael McDonagh's latest film on IMDB. Their words not mine.."After he is threatened during a confession, a good-natured priest must battle the dark forces closing in around him." Okay, I'll buy that. Interesting as it sounds, sadly this is not a supernatural horror movie. It is a talky Irish drama with Brendan Gleeson as the Priest who is threatened. He has one week to get his affairs in order before he is killed by one of his flock for past sins committed by other priests when the killer was a child. Still sounds interesting?

I don't know what town this was but it is one town I would avoid like the plague. With the exception of the Priest and an ailing American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) there is not one character that is likable. Where the film Lucy failed to make any characters that had any depth, Calvary does the exact opposite. We get to know them and can't stand any of them, less the two I have mentioned. Calvary does have its moments of levity, but I was unsure if they were intended as laughs or the laughs were unintentionally intended. I found myself laughing but uneasy, still. 

The townsfolk are a bunch of narcissistic losers and sad sacks that spend most of their time swilling booze and mocking the Priest. Why he would not want a transfer is beyond me. If It had been me I would have said, "Why wait a week to kill me?" Gleeson does shine as the Priest. He is a kind, compassionate and an ULTRA PATIENT man who knows his calling and continues to do God's work, the best he can. But even the Priest has his limits, as you will see. 

McDonagh wrote and directed the infinitely better The Guard which also starred Gleeson as a local cop teaming up with an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to bust a drug ring. That film was a masterpiece filled with terrific performances by the leads and a terrific script by McDonagh. He had an eye and an ear for clever dialogue in that film and knew how people would talk to each other. It was blisteringly funny, foul and Gleeson is a sheer joy to watch. Calvary also has some of the same clever dialogues but the film goes nowhere with it. It tries and Gleeson does a fine job in carrying the film, but I was so repulsed by the supporting characters that my sympathy for their problems was slight at best. 

Kelly Reilly is sweet as the wounded daughter of the Priest who comes to visit after she has some issues with addiction. It seems the Priest WAS married, but his wife died and that is when he became a man of the cloth. The film basically centers around the Priest finishing he duties to the final climax and it is hit and miss. Some are more interesting than others but the ending is depressing and the final scene of the daughter is especially disturbing. 

Calvary is not a bad film but it is, for the most part, dull, uninteresting and plods along at a snail's pace. I love dialogue driven films if they are saying something interesting, challenging and have some depth to their conversations. There has to be energy and vitality to the characters so we can relate to them and feel their pain. Unfortunately, Gleeson is the only character I connected with or maybe that is the way it was supposed to go, but it seems for the story to work I had to feel something for the others. I felt nothing but anger towards them.

So, is Calvary worth watching? Maybe, to some and it is not without some merit. Some will like it better than I did and some may even find it 'wickedly funny' as one reviewer put it. I watched it once and that will do it for me. If you really want a writer, director and actor firing on all cylinders then The Guard is what you will want to see. Calvary-**1/2 out of 4

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Pulp - Different Class (1995)

A superlative album for lovers of authentic Britpop !

Even though the English alternative Britpop band Pulp was around for over fifteen years when this hit album was released (in 1995 in England and 1996 in the United States and beyond), they never made much of a ripple outside of the United Kingdom, their home base. This Mercury prize winning, platinum ranked, fifth studio album Different Class, however, changed it all making them popular all over Europe, the US, Australia and even Japan marking a revival of sorts in the Britpop genre. NME magazine went as far as to rank it as one of the 500 Albums of all time, a distinction it still holds at number 6. 

The success of Different Class is understandable. This album does have a different flavour compared to all their previous releases and also the other brit albums of those years. A significant mention is that Different Class has a more potent lyrical content than any brit album of the 90s, with vocalist Jarvis Cocker's songs about longing, contempt and jealousy bringing to mind a younger Leonard Cohen. 

On the opening track, "Mis-Shapes," Cocker declares war on the filthy-rich upper class ("We'll use the one thing we've got more of -- that's our minds"). Over the course of Different Class, Cocker and Pulp put their minds where their mouths are. On "Common People," Cocker plays a poor man approached by a rich young girl who tells him, "I want to live like common people." The man gives in at first, but then tells the girl that she will never be common because, "when you're laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall/ if you called your dad he could stop it all." In the end, the man understands the girl's wish to be a commoner ("You are amazed that they exist and they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why"). 

On "I Spy," Cocker plays the part of an adulterer ("I've been sleeping with your wife for the past 16 weeks/ smoking your cigarettes/ drinking your brandy/ messing up the bed that you chose together"). The reason for the man's interest in the affair isn't love or sex, but revenge. He even hopes to get caught in the act, just to ruin the husband's life. 

Next, "Disco 2000" tackles the subject of heartfelt longing as well as any song ever has. On this track, Cocker tells the tale of two children born the same day: the boy grows up to be a misfit and the girl becomes Ms. Popular. The misfit describes his longing for the girl and the pain he felt as a teenager watching "others try and get you undressed. Different Class reads like a novel, with the songs written here about so far only bringing you up to the fifth track! You may consider some of the music is average 90s Brit-pop material, but Cocker's lyrics lift every song up to the next level. 

When the music is as on target as the lyrics, such as on "Disco 2000" and "Common People," Pulp strikes a deep nerve. With this album, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp make an album that is truly in a class by itself, especially if you are a lover of authentic British britpop/britrock!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lucy (2014)

JohnnyTwoToes considers this french made scifi/action thriller a wasted potential!

Luc Besson is probably France's best known film director and he has done some truly great films like Le Femme Nikita, Subway, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Fifth Element and perhaps his very best Léon: The Professional. These are different films but all terrific. They are deep and well written and directed with style which baffles me as to why his most recent Lucy  with all the pre-release hype and excitement is such a disappointment. Lucy opens up to a world of complex plot possibilities but turns out to be just a dumb sci fi action film bordering on insane logic and preposterous scientific nonsense.

Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a free spirit who is traveling around the world. After she is duped by her scummy boyfriend into delivering a mystery case filled with exotic drugs to a Korean gangster played with pulp aplomb by Korean superstar Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), she ends up with the drugs sewn into her stomach. When the drugs apparently of a new different variety start to leak into her body, she starts to notice visible changes in her cognitive and mental skills and physical abilities. Beyond a remarkable physical resilience including an astounding capacity to self heal and defy gravity, she realizes she is getting smarter (literally) by the minute and can access more of her brainpower. As the drugs continue to leak into her body, her brain and body expand to superhuman levels and the more smarter/intelligent/stronger she becomes. 

Other scifi films inevitably come to mind? The much superior Limitless with Bradley Cooper and the wasted potential Johnny Depp's Transcendence. Lucy however like Transcendence unfortunately, could not hold Limitless's jock strap, I am afraid. Johansson is a fine actress and does a great job with her role, but she is given nothing fresh to do here. There are mindless shootouts, a car chase that completely defies logic and in spite of Choi Min-sik's spirited performace, the absence of a truly smart and diabolical villain

After a good start, everything in Lucy seems to be set on autopilot. This kind of film is agonizing to sit through and at 90 minutes (barely) it seemed long. Some of the visuals of the film are undoubtedly impressive but Lucy sputters along with Johansson carrying this film to a rather disappointing conclusion. For added measure, Morgan Freeman is cast as a doctor who seems to be here for no other reason but give the film some gravitas. But, sadly his character is also wasted and does nothing to enhance anything. The rest of the characters are so thinly created that none of them are really even needed, for the most part. Why create a character and do nothing with them? So empty they are, that there is nothing for the viewer to engage them on any level so I did not care what happened to them. While the ending is strangely logical, it still comes across very predictable and I was left feeling cheated and let down. Lucy will have that effect on you, more than likely. I did like Eric Serra's score as it bounces from action mode to jazzy and sometimes comical as Lucy can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to do. There are some humorous scenes too but since we never really get to know any of the characters, I had no vested interest what happened to them. 

In the end, Lucy ends up  shallow, vapid and uninteresting with only Johansson, some snazzy visuals and Eric Serra's score to keep you occupied. These three saving graces try hard but Besson's direction is scattershot that Lucy never settles down into a coherent film. It plods along with out a brain in its pretty head. 

Hopefully, better things are ahead for Besson who really needs to come up with some new material. He directed and wrote Lucy and what he should have done is do one or the other. He is a good director and he has written some good scripts. Lucy is certainly not one of them. Pick one, Luc and hire someone else to do the other. Your fans and viewers would appreciate it. Lucy-*1/2 out of 4

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Equalizer (2014)

viscerally entertaining film that ranks as one of 2014's very best, JohnnyTwoToes tells you why?

As a fan of the original late 1980's TV show, The Equalizer, I was curious how they were going to approach the feature film. Casting Denzel Washington was a smart move to start. The original role was played by Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a former CIA operative who has retired and taken an out an ad in the paper, "Odds against you? Need help? Call The Equalizer." Each week was a new person who needed help. 

In the film, McCall has become an associate at a Home Depot store called Home Mart. He leads a solitary life of work and life in his apartment. He can't sleep so he takes a tea bag and goes to the local 24 hour diner to read a book. He meets a local prostitute, Teri (beautifully played by Chloe Grace Moretz) and the two become friends but McCall knows she is in trouble. He is a smart man who always seems to know more than he lets on. When Teri is horribly beaten by her Russian handlers and ends up in the hospital, McCall decides enough is enough and proceeds to take the Russians out "Brick by brick. Body by body."

This is not your Daddy's Equalizer. If you are expecting that you will be disappointed. This is a hard hitting, gritty and involving film thanks to Antoine Fuqua's unflinching direction and a terrific script by Richard Wenk with some added help by the show's original creators Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. The script is crafted intelligently and has quite a number of memorable lines. It is also a complex film that weaves corrupt cops, Russian mobsters, and a smart villain, Teddy, suavely played by Martin Csokas. Teddy is also very smart and seems to enjoy his mano-y-mano sparring with McCall. Csokas plays Teddy as a quiet, well dressed man complete with a Hitler like haircut less the mustache, but is ALL business. He is slow to anger but when he loses his cool then you had better get out of his way. He is a violent psychopath and does not care who he kills. McCall also seems to regard Teddy as a worthy adversary and their scenes together are intense. 

The Equalizer is a lean, mean, viscerally entertaining film from start to finish. It is never boring, even though there are a few staples that come with a film of this type. McCall is helping one of his co-workers at Home Mart to lose enough weight to qualify for the security guard position at the Home Mart. This is slightly reminiscent of Washington's character in Man On Fire in which Creasy (Washington) help Dakota Fanning learn how to swim competitively. In The Equalizer they have made it an important part of the story, so it works. 

Washington and Csokas are first rate together and the supporting cast is effective, too. I did miss Stewart Copeland's theme song and score but Harry Gregson William's score is solid and worth purchasing. It develops McCall as a character as a man who has done things he is not proud of and even to this day it bothers him. He is a damaged man still lamenting the loss of his wife, but is trying to make himself a better man. Washington is good at relaying the anguish he feels for his past and the loss of his wife, so when he starts his revenge it is with great hesitation but resolved. 

The Equalizer is a great film, one of 2014's best and deservedly grossing over $192 million at the box office. Hugely entertaining, fun, smart, engaging and always involving. This is a violent film, has some bad language and is not for children, but adults will have a blast. I know I did. The Equalizer-**** our of 4.

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