Wednesday, August 3, 2016

"Stranger Things" by S U R V I V E

The Duffer Brother's "Stranger Things" pays homage to Spielberg or Zemeckis' character driven sci-fi movies from the 80's. It perfectly captures the era, and the sense of wonder and magic of "ET" or "Back to the Future". Though the show itself is pure Spielberg, the Austin synth band S U R V I V E's score borrows more heavily from John Carpenter, with a dash or two of Vangelis' score to "Blade Runner". The opening titles are spot on, simple and effective and augmented perfectly by the arpeggiated analog (sounding) synths. This score has just enough of a modern sensibility to keep it from merely being a rehash. S U R V I V E are obviously well versed historians of the synthesizer, and that's reflected in their good choices here. The whole packaged is super entertaining, highly recommended. Streaming now on Netflix. Buy S U R V I V E's music here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"Goodnight Mommy" by Olga Neuwirth

The Austrian horror film "Goodnight Mommy" is disturbing, slow, moody, and beautifully shot and Olga Neuwirth's dense, atmospheric score underscores the unsettling feeling throughout it. 

The score is used very sparingly at first, it comes into more abundant play during the latter half of the film, which makes sense since "Goodnight Mommy" is basically a one hour 40 minute crescendo. Reverb-soaked atmospheres adorn the picture in outdoor environments, adding to the vast feeling of the cornfields and forests that surround the house that most of the film is set in. Inside the house we're confined, claustrophobic - strange, out of focus photographs are on the walls. Though the house is large it feels cramped; and when we're inside it the music reflects the cramped feeling. The score is almost exclusively atmosphere; melodies don't really appear out of the haze.

There's a lot of effective sound design outside of Neuwirth's excellent score - the tried and true "not quite in tune distant piano played by a child" is used well here, as well as children singing a lullaby in unison. The kind of stuff that seems to work every time. What sounds like it may be a glass armonica plays a baroque piece in one scene; I didn't recognize it, it may be Neuwirth's own or it could just as easily be from the actual baroque era. (A glass armonica is an instrument that produces a sound similar to running your finger over the edge of a wine glass; obviously the mechanics of it are more sophisticated than that. It could also just be a church organ on the flute setting.)

For more on Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz great horror film, read this great AV Club piece on it. Or better yet just watch the movie with no expectations. It's streaming on Amazon Prime now.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"Spring Breakers" by Mac Quayle and Gregory Tripi

I was a little late to the party on Harmony Korine's colorful epic "Spring Breakers" (and there's no party quite like a Harmony Korine party) mostly because I assumed it was for teenagers and I was not the target audience; I didn't know it was directed by Korinne, and the poster is somewhat misleading too, given the weight of the film. (not the poster above, that's an alternative designed by Linda Hordijk. The main promotional poster shows the four female co-stars donning skimpy bikinis. If you give it anything more than a passing glance, you'll see it actually is quite ominous. But I didn't.)

The film is visually stunning; there are beautiful cinematic moments throughout, particularly of the four main characters - doing headstands and cartwheels in a dimly lit dorm hallway; dancing in a circle holding hands while toting machine guns and wearing ski masks by a Miami Beach swimming pool at dusk; a really nice tracking shot around the outside of a building portraying a robbery inside. There's also a lot of gracefully shot slow motion sequences of Ft. Lauderdale spring break debauchery.

Many times in the film it was difficult to tell how Korine wanted me to interpret things, or if he was leading me in any direction at all. Sometimes it seemed he was demonstrating the vapidity of the sort of frat culture that exists in that environment, other times it seemed like he was making no judgement on it one way or the other, just merely portraying it as it is. Some scenes that showed the non-stop partying were accompanied by a voice-over of one of the girls talking about how beautiful everyone on spring break is, how beautiful the experience of spring break is, and how many friends she's made, and while it certainly comes across as sounding naive, it was again difficult to tell how the director wanted me to interpret this, or if he was leaving it up to the viewer without bias.

In any case, music and sound play a vital role to the feel of the film. The additional music was composed by Mac Quayle and Gregory Tripi, and the washy, three dimensional synth pads and bells blend really well with the colors splashed across the screen. There's a lot of great transitional elements in the sound design, including the unsettling sound of a gun being cocked which is accompanies cutting throughout the film. It's ominous; a darkness on the horizon, and it's very effective. The soundtrack itself is mostly Skrillex, which is an obvious choice to complement the debauchery onscreen. Whether it was meant to be or not, his music is an effective metaphor for artifice without substance; vapidity. It doesn't know that it's stupid; it's puffed up, proud.

If you thought this was just going to be a dumb teen exploitation movie, watch it and be pleasantly surprised. It's actually a classic, and I think it will be mentioned years from now as an indicator of the youth culture of this time...

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.