Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"It Follows" by Rich Vreeland

David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows" is like candy for the eyes and brain, and Rich Vreeland's excellent score is the ear candy that adorns it. It's heavy with distorted synthesizers, ominous low tones, ring modulated bells, swooping filtered sound sculptures, and even some John Carpenter-esque moments. It often refers to 70's and 80's horror music but always sounds fresh and cutting edge. There's a few scenes in which all the sound drops out and we're left with only the music, which has a great, classic effect.

It doesn't hurt that these sounds complement one of the freshest horror films in recent memory. It's great filmmaking. Nice wide camera angles. There's allusions to classic horror but like the music, the film feels modern, or even ahead of its time. Mitchell shows the urban decay of Detroit to great effect which adds to the unease. And what is the time setting? It's hard to know, which adds a fascinating aspect to the film. The teens that make up the core cast watch old TV's that look to be from the 70's or 80's, they drive cars from the 70's and yet one reads a book on what looks like a modern e-reader in the shape of a shell. I'd watch the film again just to try to find more clues of the time setting, and that's only one of the things that makes "It Follows" so enjoyable and absorbing. It was made on a very low budget, but you'd never know it. There's very little special effects or gore but it's very unsettling. Both Mitchell and Vreeland (also known as Disasterpiece) are going places. See it now or risk living a life filled with sorrow and regret.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Ex Machina" by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury

I love Geoff Barrow and his band Portishead - he's one of the most unique producers in electronic music history, if not pop history itself. A million years ahead of their time. Joined by Ben Salisbury to create the score for "Ex Machina", the two craft sounds that move and build, giving a pulse to the slow, dreamy sci-fi film. A lot of rich, deep arpeggiated analog synths appear and disappear, snaking their way through the middle of a murky atmosphere that spreads itself all the way across the stereo field. Multi-tracked clean guitar plays a melodic jangle, and builds into something darker. One of the final scenes is especially impressive, when the atmosphere grows steadily more ominous, culminating in a distorted sine wave. The compositional ideas themselves are not revolutionary, but they are executed so brilliantly that it doesn't matter, and anyway, what we want is a musical nod to the glorious history of sci-fi scores that is augmented by cutting edge ideas. And that's just what we get.

The film was made on a relatively low 15 million budget, but you would never know it considering the slick cinematography and expensive sounding score. I've enjoyed Alex Garland's novels, and his first turn as a director is promising. I had some problems with the film, but I won't go into those because I think people should see it and decide for themselves, which most people can do easily now that it's streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

The poster above is from Michael Sapienza Designs, go to his Etsy shop to buy it immediately or risk living the empty life of not having a cool Ex Machina poster..

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"A Girl Walks Home At Night" by Johnny Jewel

What a great vampire flick. There's a lot of classic stuff going on here. The film is in black and white, and a lot of the aesthetic here is an homage to French and Italian new wave, not a style often referred to in modern horror films. The music, by Johnny Jewel of the great Portland synth-pop duo the Chromatics (along with various others), manages to be very cutting edge but also to work within that new wave aesthetic. Even the techno that a coke-snorting, slimy drug dealer listens to is top notch. Lots of incongruous elements are fitted together nicely; an operatic female voice sings over a ragtime piano in an atmosphere of strings; a deep, vintage-y guitar slowly tremolos under a male voice singing in (presumably) Farsi; we also have the more standard fare of low percussion decaying endlessly and soaked in reverb while dissonant high strings freak us out. There's definitely some sonic references to David Lynch's "Eraserhead" in the sound design (or any Lynch film afterward and through Mulholland Drive); infinite drones that perfectly complement the dark, empty streets of the film's setting of Bad City. Much of the soundtrack is Iranian pop, which works well, and also the Portland band Federale, which lends a spaghetti western-ish aspect to the mix. It's an extremely varied soundtrack that somehow manages to work within the world it underscores.

You can currently stream "A Girl Walks Home At Night" on Netflix. Or if you can manage to see it in the theater, I'd imagine that would be worth it.

Monday, October 26, 2015

"Beyond the Black Rainbow" by Jeremy Schmidt

This is just how I like it. Analog synths, mellotron choirs, surreal atmospheres, and jarring dissonant stabs work together to create the perfect mood for the score of Panos Cosmatos' midnight movie "Beyond the Black Rainbow". It's almost as if Jeremy Schmidt's excellent music was created specifically for me. That's what a good composer can make any listener think when they're experiencing his or her music - make them think it's just for them. Another thing a good composer does is heighten the experience of the film itself, because after all the ear informs the eye.  A movie with a great score is a much better movie, and that's the case here with "Beyond The Black Rainbow".

The film itself is a great sci-fi/horror/midnight movie. The color, the aesthetic, the atmosphere is perfect; it also looks like it was shot on real film. It reminds me a bit of the surreal world contained in the house of the final episode of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks", and a bit more obviously of Stanley Kubrick's "2001" and parts of "A Clockwork Orange" (Note the similarity between the poster above and the poster for the latter). Due to the surreal nature of the film, it's quite slow, so don't expect fireworks, (a lot of slowly tracking down hallways while Schmidt's score freaks us out) and don't expect a whole lot to happen, but there's a story there; a story that reminded me of George Lucas' thesis film "THX-1138" (if you haven't seen that definitely do it as soon as you can or risk living a life of regret). And also see "Beyond the Black Rainbow" - at the time of this writing is freely available to stream through Netflix.

Monday, September 28, 2015

"The House of the Devil" by Jeff Grace and Graham Reznick

If someone played Ti West's "The House of the Devil" for me and told me it had come out in 1980, I don't think I'd have any reason not to believe them. If I had been watching carefully I might have noticed that it probably looks a little cleaner - it was presumably shot digitally ** - and instead of film grain, they use noise (which is just like tiny semi-transparent dots that randomly pop in and out for a millisecond, sort of like an old TV that isn't getting a signal at full strength.) The titles, the music, the sound design, are all authentically late 70's, early 80's.

Jeff Grace's score and Graham Reznick's sound design are impressively authentic, and beyond that, very satisfying, putting us in the creaky old Victorian house in the middle of nowhere where the majority of the film takes place. Atonal strings bend in and out of pitch, the obligatory old piano plays an unsettling tune, monastic drones a la "Hellraiser" add to the ritualistic atmosphere, and low drums add sporadic punctuation to the more intense scenes. Great work.

A few notes, some of these you might consider spoilers depending on how picky you are. 

- It takes a very long time for anything to happen. There's about 30 minutes left in the runtime of 95 minutes before there's anything that could be considered scary going on. When something does happen, it's not particularly scary, but one could argue this stylistically appropriate: when we go back and revisit classic horror from the 70's and 80's, the era this film is emulating, those movies are not that scary by todays standards. West seems to have set out to make a film using only the technology that was available during the era it stylistically emulates. The makeup is pretty archaic looking; there's no noticeable CGI, etc. If you dig horror movies from the 70's and 80's for the style and the great scores and nostalgia of it, as I do, you'll love this. It must have been really fun to make. However, if you watch a horror movie with the express purpose of getting scared, "The House Of The Devil" is not for you. 

- A couple more nit-picky things; in once scene Jocelin Donahue, who plays the main character Samantha, is ascending a stairwell toward an offscreen muffled noise when suddenly the doorbell rings very loudly, making us jump; however the doorbell is nowhere near the shot (at least as far as I could tell). 

- One of the songs Samantha listens to while she dances around the house is "One Thing Leads To Another" by the Fixx, which came out in 1983 - this film looks to be stylistically emulating an era at least a couple years before that, even though otherwise the song is a great choice for the scene, from a nearly forgotten and underrated band.

Apropos of nothing, I have a new project which is duo called Jake and Elizabeth, you can buy/listen to our first EP here:

** Graham Reznick tweeted and let me know the film was actually shot on 16mm film, so there goes my theory!

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Across 110th St." by J.J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson's astounding score to Barry Shear's epic blaxploitation (ish) thriller "Across 110th Street" has to be in the conversation of the great soundtracks of all time. Taken as just a record alone, it's excellent, but the smart, spare, mostly percussive tracks that underscore the great chase scenes are completely perfect - the musicianship is superb, the musical concepts are tight and the overall tone matches the scenes perfectly. It certainly doesn't hurt that much of the soundtrack features vocals by one of the great all time soul singers, Bobby Womack, who also wrote the songs that weren't strictly part of the score, which was performed by J.J. Johnson and His Orchestra. It gets no better than this.

It's interesting to note that the song "Across 110th Street" used in the film is not the same version you've probably heard before; it's tougher, faster and more raw than the more polished single. The sweet, sad love song "If You Don't Want My Love" had also been a single for Womack, and was re-recorded here in again a much more raw, sparsely instrumented style. The Latin flavored, almost disco-ish "Quicksand" plays as background music in a Harlem bar, and the tough blues song "Do It Right" blasts in suddenly and jarringly, underscoring a scene in a dry cleaner where hoods try to coerce information out of a man by putting his head in a hot press.

This film isn't often talked about as one of the great 70's films; a lot of times it's not even one of the first films that comes to mind when discussing great blaxploitation films, but it ought to be. One could argue that the production value is too high to put in firmly in the category of true blaxploitation, and that's true: ten blaxploitation films could probably have been made for what "110th Street" cost. It moves very quickly, and even though there's a few unintentionally funny moments, (mostly due to Anthony Quinn's character's hilariously short temper: "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE NOT TALKING?!?!?" punch, kick etc), overall it's pretty legit dialogue-wise. See this film immediately if you haven't and you like blaxploitation or mafia movies, or even just great music.

Monday, May 11, 2015

"The Case of the Bloody Iris" by Bruno Nicolai

Bruno Nicolai's score to Giuliano Carnimeo's 1972 giallo thriller "The Case of the Bloody Iris" is as fun as the film itself. It begins with a theme that contains all the hallmarks of the Italian film scores of the day: heavy, groovy bass and drums, overlaid with a melody played by a harpsichord, with some high strings joining in as things progress.  There's plenty of the classic elements of horror scores as well: dissonant high pitched strings with piano playing tense low notes, and in one of the more original moments, atonal mandolin music. Nicolai is a master composer and film scorer but nothing here is particularly groundbreaking. I like the toughness to the sound of this score. A lot of film scoring of the giallo era has that toughness because of the technology in 1972, just before recording techniques employed a more sanitized approach.

The film stars the knockout Edwige Fenech as an oft-naked young woman who moves into an apartment with another oft-naked young woman immediately after the former occupant (also an oft-naked young woman) is brutally murdered. Don't expect anything to start to make more sense from there on in; the plot is thin, and the solution to the mystery is thoroughly unsatisfying, but none of that matters because we're not watching it for the plot, we're watching it for boobs and gore (in this case thankfully more of the former). "The Case of the Bloody Iris" is completely overdubbed, and like most of the other giallo horror films of the day, that only adds to the unintentional humor; the dialogue is hilarious: "she's black, but not too black"; "we're all human and every man wants a black girl". It also contains probably the best reaction/non-reaction from a character that's being clung to by a girl who's just been stabbed and is covered in blood.

I'd love to see a sub-titled version of some of these movies, even though I wonder whether it would be worth it. It could be that the performances come off a lot more powerfully and that adds to the impact of the film. Or it could be that it's better over-dubbed because that makes it all the more bad-good.

This is a solid giallo film but I would recommend the somewhat similar "Baba Yaga" over this one.

Monday, May 4, 2015

"Baba Yaga" By Piero Umillani

Piero Umillani's diverse score to Corrado Farina's giallo horror film "Baba Yaga" sounds like at times like a soundtrack to a great American blaxploitation film, and at others some classic 70's horror films like "the Omen" or "Carrie".

This era of giallo filmmaking features a glut of Italian composers who are naturally gifted at making scores that mix up genres; they're very diverse but the skillfulness in the execution is always impressive. Not only does Umillani jump all over the map stylistically here, but he puts a lot of fresh touches on his music, so that nothing sounds by-the-numbers: the sexy opening titles feature a organ quartet laying down a tough, funky groove. A gritty blues rock song seamlessly transitions into jazz fusion. A celesta chimes a pretty melody, the harmony is provided by a clavinet that sounds like a classical guitar; this theme is later reprised with a mellotron flute in place of the celesta. A lounge jazz piano is accompanied by a cathedral organ. In one scene, an almost Mancini-esque vibraphone adds to the mystery.

This film appears to have been filmed with the actors speaking their native languages and then was overdubbed depending on the country of release; for example Carroll Baker speaks English and many of her co-stars speak Italian and are overdubbed for the English version. As a result, the dialogue can be truly bizarre and almost non-sensical, often resulting in the unintentional hilarity that makes these films so fun to watch. It could be that some of the metaphors get lost in translation from Italian to English. But let me be clear, this is an amazing film from beginning to end.

There are also plenty of tits.

And there's a virtual shitload of amazing cinematic ideas. The filmmaking seems more influenced by French new wave than more typical Italian giallo; there's loads of great images and the quick cutting you'd expect from Goddard (who is discussed at a party of intellectuals at the start of the film. "Goddard is Goddard". So true. It would be really weird if Goddard was Jean Stapleton). It's colorful and vibrant: occasionally reinforcing its vibrance is still black and white photography intercut with live action, the same motif is then used with close-ups of the pages of a graphic novel in place of the photos.

I can't recall having seen another film which features such well shot sex in one scene, and Jesus getting punched in the face in another. In fact I don't think I've ever seen a film with only the latter. If anyone can think of any great Jesus-getting-punched-in-the-face scenes from other films, let me know. The music is great, the film is great, see it immediately or risk living a life of regret.

Monday, April 27, 2015

"Tenebre" by Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli, and Claudio Simonetti

The score for Dario Argento's giallo masterpiece "Tenebre" is so ahead of its time that I'm sure I could fool an unwitting friend into believing it came out yesterday. The main theme was used as a sample by the Parisian electronic duo Justice for the song "Phantom" on their well regarded 2007 album "Cross"; it features an epic evil robot sounding vocoder line and driving disco drum beat. Justice did not have to do much to it to make it sound new. In my opinion they definitely did it justice!! WAKA WAKA! Get out of here, Dad.

Throughout the film there's disparate styles coming together to create an effective score: heavy breakbeats with weird choirs and vocals by synthetic operatic demon women, syncopated bass lines, amazing Giorgio Moroder-esque disco (which plays under the credits, cutting out abruptly for a few seconds and then hilariously continuing right where it's left off in the next scene), and plenty of that weird funk sound that only Italians making music for giallo horror films seem to be able to create. Warbly, unsettling jack-in-the-box music and even baroque organ, neither of which sound on paper like something that would fit the general tone the composers have set fit in perfectly.

The three composers were ex-members of the legendary Italian band the Goblins, who scored many horror films in the 70's and 80's (including the well known "Suspiria", another giallo masterpiece of Argento's), and their mastery of making music for the genre is on full display.

I love Tenebre - not only is it a great film but there's plenty of WTF moments, particularly in the dialogue overdubbing; I spent almost the entire film trying to figure out if the cast was filmed speaking Italian and was later overdubbed in English, eventually coming to the conclusion that no, they're speaking English the whole time and occasionally (or really, more than occasionally) the audio doesn't seem to be synced up correctly, though I'm still not sure about it (do you know?). In one of the countless unintentionally hilarious moments two of the main characters try to sneak around behind the house of the suspected killer while wearing brightly colored clothes and whispering and talking to each other audibly to anyone within 50 yards. "He couldn't have seen us!" says one, as the suspected killer looks out his window. Watch this movie, listen to the soundtrack - (be warned that the link to the film is going to a streaming Amazon version which is really shitty quality; however it doesn't seem to be possible to stream a higher quality version (anyone out there know of one?) and to buy it on blu-ray or DVD seems a pretty expensive proposition but it's probably worth it. Cin cin!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Elevator To The Gallows" by Miles Davis

Louis Malle's grainy film-noir "Elevator to the Gallows" is as timeless as its score by Miles Davis. Davis' reverb soaked trumpet splashes paint on the film's canvas, while in tenser scenes the instrumentation is more sparse; often only drums and bass play, and sometimes only drums, and sometimes only bass and even just cymbals, to absolutely pitch perfect effect. Despite extremely high levels of musical sophistication most of the score is very simple and very effective. The combination of the genius of Davis and Malle results in one of the best film noir thrillers of all time. I highly recommended this if you're into thrillers, or even if you're just into a good film, or if you have ears and eyeballs; you can stream it on Hulu Plus as it's part of the Criterion Collection, if you just want to listen to the soundtrack you can do that here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Fight Club" By The Dust Brothers

The Dust Brother's soundtrack to David Fincher's "Fight Club" is full of the big beat sound popularized by the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and the Crystal Method that was threatening to unseat hard rock as the preferred choice for arenas in the late 90's. Industrial bass synths complement piercing sirens and stiff, busy breakbeats. A lot of Fight Club's sonic elements and visual imagery might give you ecstasy flashbacks, if those exist, particularly Brad Pitt's rave-wear. The Dust Brothers inject energy and adrenaline to much of the film's action while keeping the instrumentation sparse enough so the music is loud without being overly intrusive. Distorted beats, wah guitar, metallic riffing, syncopated bass lines and at one point a drum kit with a three dimensional echo effect all augment the visual aesthetic the film keeps hammering home. The defining musical moment is not part of the score but the Pixies classic "Where is My Mind", which plays under the final scene. Much of the Dust Brother's work here is old enough to sound dated but not quite old enough to sound classic. We'll have to listen back in five years and see how it holds up.

The film itself of course is already a cult classic, there's very little that's dated about it save for a couple scenes where the CGI is pretty easy to spot; luckily there's not much of it. It's definitely a timepiece like Go, or Trainspotting; films that slickly reflected the fast paced stylistic aesthetic of the late 90's. This film may leave you with the feeling that it's fun to get punched in the face. Try to resist the urge to act on that notion. The quick cutting and breathless storytelling in David Fincher's direction are executed so well it makes you wonder what happened to him; not that there's anything with directing a solid thriller like Gone Girl or an engrossing docudrama like the Social Network, but Fight Club was ahead of its time. I'm sure Fincher goes to bed every night with the knowledge of that crying into his pillows made of million dollar bills, yearning for his lost youth.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"The Last Man On Earth" By Mark Mothersbaugh

Will Forte's "The Last Man On Earth" is off to a great start with a great cast of Forte himself and the always hilarious Kristen Schaal - I knew nothing about this show going in, other than that it had a pretty high metacritic score for a network show and that it starred Forte, which was enough for me as I have yet to see him in something that isn't brilliant - throughout the first two episodes I kept noticing how forward thinking the music is: lots of fresh, kooky ideas that match the picture perfectly; it hangs back enough not to become obstructive but places just the right sonic elements around the images of Forte driving an RV through an empty dystopian America; and it maintains enough absurdity for a comedy. The credits roll and of course the composer is the great Mark Mothersbaugh, who started a second career years ago as an a list film composer.

It's expertly shot, vibrant and colorful; it has the aforementioned great score and solid cast: I look forward to hearing and seeing more.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"Nightcrawler" By James Newton Howard.

James Newton Howard's score for Dan Gilroy's tense thriller "Nightcrawler" varies wildly aesthetically from one scene to the next, but it always works. Both the direction and the score are executed flawlessly. The sonic choices range from the opening shot's jangly guitar all the way to flanged drum machine beats in the very next scene, and then at one point staccato orchestral strings and at another huge breathy sound sculptures. Howard's score only gets dissonant a few times, remaining melodic throughout the rest of the film, which is somewhat of a different way of thinking about scoring a modern day film in this genre, where constant dissonance seems to be the preferred method of creating tension. My favorite moment of music in the movie is bizarre spaghetti western tune coming through a radio while the protagonist fuels up at a gas station.

The film itself is riveting and very original, definitely one of the best big budget Hollywood thrillers I've seen in the last year. It features one of the best car chases since Bulliet. I'd think Gyllenhaal's portrayal of the deranged protagonist would have gotten him a best actor nomination but I've accepted at this point that I'm the world's worst guesser of who will get nominated for an Oscar/what people will like. Nightcrawler is also notable for avoiding displaying the news camera's footage during the action; we only see what the camera sees when they're cutting the footage together at the news station, and thus the film avoids a gimmick which is growing old fast in modern cinema. It's a little weird, very exciting and very highly recommended.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

American Horror Story by James S. Levine

One can't watch FX's hit series "American Horror Story" without noticing the excellent score by James S. Levine or the alarming theme song by the increasingly more accomplished Charlie Clouser along with César Dávila-Irizarry.

In the theme song, jarring atonal synths blast their way through a spartan groove complete with scrape-y percussive noises, upright bass and a barebones drum beat along with some sort of weird repetitive ghostly whisper.

In Levine's score, a recurring theme features a fingerpicked spanish guitar while a child like voice sings "la la la"; it seems to be an homage to Komeda's theme song from "Rosemary's Baby", but it never comes close to being a direct ripoff. All sorts of familiar sounds occur during the score, cleverly referencing any number of horror classics but the addition of modern production techniques and some innovative ideas take the music into the now; it's all expertly executed. The entire music department at AHS does an enviable job; the music is such an important part of the show; it would only be half as good with your typical stock TV thriller sounds.

Though AHS treads a lot of familiar territory, even the most cynical horror fan would have a hard time denying its effectiveness, both visually and sonically, and for a basic cable TV show it's very graphic and is able to get satisfyingly freaky. And it's one of the highest rated shows on cable TV. It's silly that the same Hollywood that produces such a high quality product for television continues to churn out sub-par, tired tripe to release in theaters.

I doubt very many horror fans have managed to miss American Horror Story, but even if you're not a horror obsessive, you'll still enjoy the show; particularly the first season.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Blue Ruin" by the Blair Brothers

Jeremy Saulnier's revenge thriller "Blue Ruin" is an instant classic, and the Blair Brother's score for the film augments it perfectly. The brother's atmospheric sound sculptures and pulsing synths never obstruct. They do a great job of avoiding convention; blaring brass cuts through a fog of distant strings. High pitched tones create confusion and unease. Dreamy atmospheres make the film feel almost surreal. They're not trying to grab your attention, they're working to advance the story.

The film itself is so tense it's sometimes nearly unbearable to watch. This is aided by sparse dialogue and a great performance by Macon Blair as the male lead Dwight Evans (named after the mustachioed outfielder for the Red Sox in the 70's and 80's?). Blair isn't sexy or Hollywood handsome but in a just world he'd be in the conversation for a best actor Oscar. We cringe as we watch him accrue flesh wounds and blood soaked clothing. In one scene he vomits and it's not fake, he's got to be actually vomiting. The performance, the movie and its score are top notch. It's streaming on Netflix so watch it immediately or risk living a life of regret.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Under the Skin" by Mica Levi

Mica Levi's astounding score for Jonathan Glazer's 2014 surreal thriller "Under the Skin" is an example of how the sonic aspect of a film can be so pivotal that it informs how we perceive the images on screen. The film's atmosphere is shaped by Levi's taut, atonal string arrangements and sparse, distant drum pulses, which seem to exist in a three dimensional realm that floats around us as the film bores its way into our consciousness.

Under the Skin is a visually stunning film, and despite its other-worldy, dream-like pacing, it never risks losing you. It doesn't hurt that a considerable amount of screen time features a completely nude Scarlett Johansson, and also a fair amount of erect penises. If you think modern cinema has a dearth of erect penises, this is definitely the film for you.

It reminded me at times of Louis Malle's "Black Moon", although it's much less silly than that. This is a solid surreal thriller, and I'd also recommended it for fans of horror and sci-fi.