Listening to- Mary Queen of Scots Soundtrack by Max Richter

mary maxComposer Max Richter has pulled off something quite extraordinary here. This is a beautiful score. How he has interpreted the subject-matter of the film (as the film is not released here until early next year, I must presume it’s an intimate historical drama) reminds me of how Vangelis tackled  his scores for 1492 and Alexander. While these do indeed seem to be typical scores for period dramas and function well as such, they yet feel rather timeless, and that’s what Richter has achieved with this.

There are some wonderful sweeping melodies in this score, really powerful and atmospheric and involving, strengthened by great performance and orchestration.

If I were to suggest that this might be Richter’s finest score to date, that might impress on just how special this score really is. I can only imagine how well it serves the film, because of course until January I can only judge it upon this listening experience, but simply on that basis, it seems like some kind of masterpiece.  However the film turns out, I’m pretty confident this music will be listened to for years. Its a wonderful thought that in a year in which we lost Johann Johannsson, we still get a great score like this.

Black Mirror: Nosedive & San Junipero

I love instances of synchronicity, where image and sound become something special, reaching some other cinematic level through the sublime combination of craft and music.  Here’s two examples; two episodes of Black Mirror that each attain some extra level of greatness because the great scripts and performances are accompanied by utterly perfect soundtracks that enable a special emotional ‘kick’-

nose5Black Mirror: Nosedive

Finally subscribing to Netflix enabled me to at last catch up with Black Mirror and I started with the episode that intrigued me the most- and it was the Max Richter soundtrack that got me there. I’ve been listening to Richter’s music for years and his many original albums and scores have been one of the soundtracks to my life and work commutes, and I’ve been very curious about this particular work. Fortunately the episode itself blew me away.

Nosedive is about a society of social media-obsessed people whose lives revolve about their status, their score that they carry everywhere and which is governed by what everyone else thinks about them, their lives, their achievements, their posts on social media. Peer pressure is everything- you are your score, your rating, and its mostly governed by everyone else. So smile, look happy, be content, and if you mark someone else highly they might do the same for you too. The more people you know, the more likes and ratings and ‘hit’s’ you get, the higher your score, the higher your worth, and the greater your happiness.

nose3It really doesn’t feel that far into the future. Somewhere around the next corner, maybe, and future-fiction in the grandest tradition of The Twilight Zone. Being a Black Mirror story, this is naturally a cautionary tale, a pastel nightmare. Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard, utterly wonderful here) lives what is on the surface a fairly idyllic life, but her social standing and life- opportunities are squarely defined by her score of 4.2, a measure openly noted by everyone she comes in contact with. Everybody wears contact lenses that work a little like Google Glass, augmenting what they see with a virtual avatar, like a numeric hologram that floats like a Facebook Halo by their heads. A simple number that somehow summarises everyone’s life and worth.

The insidious part of this is that this number limits your life choices- quality, life-changing loans/discounts are only offered to people rated 4.5,  the quality of your job or the car you drive or the place where you live can all be impacted by your score. In Nosedive, Lacie needs a rating of 4.5 to enable her to receive a discount that will enable her to live in a plush apartment and all the opportunities it will give her. She needs to be more popular, to be ‘better’, and her efforts spiral into a descent into horror as circumstances get the better of her and her rating actually plunges, forcing her to reassess her life and the ways she lives and measures success and those around her.

nose2Nosedive looks utterly brilliant, all pastel colours and clean art direction, a world designed by Apple for IPad people, it pictures a utopian world that looks perfect but is, naturally, rotten to the core and in just the same way as the best Twilight Zone episodes did, the story forces viewers to consider how it colours our own world and our own values and perceptions. The cast is terrific, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard, who blew me away her with a charming and powerful performance that is career-defining in my book. The heart and soul of the episode though is Richters music, full of emotion and pathos, fragile and tender as the veneer of idyllic perfection is stripped away to reveal the real horror beneath. The soundtrack is barely 24 minutes long so it’s woefully slim for an album, but here is a case where quality wins out over quantity. The music is quite haunting and adds substantially to the impact of the episode.

San1Black Mirror: San Junipero

Clint Mansell’s score manages the same with the next episode of Black Mirror that I watched; San Junipero. Its a 1980s-flavoured score, its electronics sounding like something John Carpenter might have written for one of his films of that period. Its a rather warm and tender soundtrack in spite of it being synthesisers, suffused with a sadness that permeates the episode itself.

On a neon-drenched Saturday night in a 1980’s Californian seaside town, two young women meet in a nightclub- shy, inhibited Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and confident, mysterious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  rather a case of opposites attracting, the two begin a relationship, but as usual for Black Mirror, something feels ‘off’, something about the place and the people and obscure offhand references to limited time and it always being a Saturday night with a deadline of midnight.

The twist is that the seaside town of San Junipero isn’t real- its fake, a virtual world in which the two women are escaping from their harsh realities.  In the real world, both girls are actually old women near the end of their lives, living far apart and never destined to meet. Yorkie has been in a coma for 40 years, and Kelly is a widow and bereaved mother who is dying from cancer. San Junipero offers a few hours of escape, but they have the option -as their real bodies fail and they die- to stay in San Junipero forever. Yorkie is keen to do so, but Kelly wants to die and try her chances for a real heaven and a real reunion with her dead husband and daughter. The love affair seems ultimately doomed, and Yorkie destined to spend eternity in her virtual seaside heaven alone.

san2Beautifully acted and sensitively told, for me, the story was as much a study of what is ‘real’, as much as it was a love story. There were some pretty deep ideas being shuffled around. The guarantee of a virtual heaven in San Junipero against the act of faith in a real heaven was an interesting concept, and the possibility of humanity through technology being offered the comfort blanket of a virtual heaven, versus the unproven promises of religion, seemed fascinating. At the end of the episode, we see a vast hall full of servers in which no doubt thousands or even millions of dead people live forever- literally, per the Belinda Carlisle song that opens the episode, Heaven is a place on Earth. 

Or is it? In a similar way to the technological promises of Star Trek‘s transporters or Altered Carbons‘ stacks and ‘sleeves’ offering immortality, the seductive promises of San Junipero surely lack substance. The way I see it, the transporters of Star Trek are actually rather scary- people are scanned, disintegrated, and then re-integrated, or copied, at their destination. The Kirk that appears on a planet is surely a copy of the one that was vanished from the Enterprise – looking and feeling identical, with identical memories etc, but surely not the same Kirk. In Altered Carbon, the stacks are hard-drive backups of the real people, simulacra that when re-loaded into new sleeves are just that, copies, perfect in every detail and convinced that they are real, but just duplicates nonetheless. In San Junipero, Yorkie really dies and her brain dies too- it’s a download or copy of her brain waves that lives forever in the virtual heaven of San Junipero. The ideas and promises of the technologies are seductive but they are not real. Or maybe it’s real enough for the virtual Yorkie in her virtual world, as is the false immortality that stacks and ‘sleeves’ offer in Altered Carbon. Maybe technology really will save us. Maybe copying/downloading our intellects is future salvation, or maybe our souls are salvation and those digital intellects redundant.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking stuff. God, I love sci-fi. Its some crazy shit at times.

This music is real though- Richter’s Nosedive and Mansell’s San Junipero are wonderfully evocative, powerfully affecting scores. And these two episodes of Black Mirror are two of the best pieces of television I have seen in years.

san3

Max Richter – ‘Sleep’

sleep1This is a pretty extraordinary release- Max Richter’s opus ‘Sleep’ is over eight hours long, and in this full version arrives in a box with 8 cds and a Blu-ray that will play the whole thing uninterrupted. Pretty much designed as an aid for listeners to sleep, its also something of an experiment to see how that sleep can be improved and affected by the sleeper subliminally listening to the music through the night (hence its eight-hour running time). Its 31 pieces are variations of several themes, the structure designed after Richter consulted neuroscientist David Eagleman. Its generally ambient chamber music augmented by synthesiser.

How it works at improving sleep quality or affecting dreams I cannot say, as I haven’t bothered to try that out- I think my wife thinks I’m strange enough as it is (and I doubt it would work any magic on our Westie, Eddie, but you never know). Instead I’ve listened to the music as background music while driving to work or working at home on this blog, or when reading.  If ‘listened to’ really means anything with such ambient music -to be fair though, there is some argument that this music really works beyond any sleep experiment. With its soothing tones and melodies working a calming magic in the background, it creates a valid soundscape for daylight hours too. The sheer madness/eccentricity/bravery (delete as you seem fit) of creating and releasing something as huge as this eight-hour sleep cycle is quite impressive though, regardless of what you think of the music. It must be the music equivalent of the Ultimate Cut of Watchmen– clearly OTT and insanely self-indulgent but nice to experience all the same.

(Richter has also released a single-disc version ‘From Sleep’ for less ambitious listeners).

Eddie on the run

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Slow news day, so a picture of Eddie from this morning’s walk. Bit blurry, as it’s a snap taken with my phone, but you can tell the little fella was enjoying himself. He did insist on running through mud which necessitated a bath when he got back so his good mood didn’t last long (Westies seem to despise baths/water- at least, this one does).

I’ve been ‘off the grid’ for a few days (Tron lives forever). Its birthday week, you see, in which my family has five birthdays within the space of a week, with Valentine’s day thrown in the middle just for good measure and further expense at the card shop. So its a belated Happy Birthday to me (last Wednesday) and an apology for breaking my daily postings if anybody out there is noticing (hey, I managed from Jan 1st thru to middle of Feb, so not bad).

So whats happening? Well, I’ve been progressing through season 4 of Person of Interest as I bought season 5 a few weeks back and I’m adamant that I’m not buying discs just to leave them on the shelf. I’ve been reading Carrie Fisher’s memoir The Princess Diarist (birthday present) and listening to Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works (another birthday present). No doubt I’ll enlarge upon them on subsequent postings. Oh, and I’ve been wasting time shooting bad guys on Sniper Elite 4 of course. The only good Nazi is a dead… well, you know how that goes. And I pulled a 14-hour shift at work on Friday. So I’ve been tired all weekend, but it’s been a great weekend with young Eddie.

 

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

last22016.80: The Last Days on Mars (Network Airing, Film Four HD)

The Last Days on Mars isn’t a terrible film by any means, its just badly flawed and hampered by a thin script, poor editing decisions and the fact that its missing what should be its first reel. That aside, considering its low budget it looks pretty terrific and remains fairly impressive visually even compared to Ridley Scott’s rather more handsomely-budgeted The Martian of a few years later.

In the failing hours of a six-month mission on Mars, the second manned expedition to the Red Planet starts wrapping things up in anticipation of the long journey back home. The mission has been successful but is still deemed a failure by one of the frustrated science leads as no evidence has been found of life once existing on the planet. However, one scientist notices some tantalising clues in some of the extracted soil samples and in an effort to presumably claim the discovery for himself (why?) sneakily goes out on one last excursion pretending its forced on him due to faulty sensors at the dig site. His attempt for scientific immortality goes terribly wrong however when in the midst of his euphoric confirmation of life on Mars a tremor opens up the ground beneath him and he plunges to his death, whilst unleashing alien microbes upon the rest of his team that turn his corpse and that of his victims into, er, Space Zombies.

Okay. It sounds terrible.

The thing is, so much wrong about this film was easily fixable. Take that missing first reel. Part of the genius of Scott’s earlier Alien is its slow build-up, the first forty-five minutes spent introducing the characters, the dynamics of their individual relationships, the space of the Nostromo and its hardware. By the time they land on the alien planet and the shit hits the fan, we know who they are and where they are and the mechanics of it all. We don’t have that in The Last Days on Mars. We are thrown into the events not knowing who is who or the mechanics of their mission (it later transpires they are waiting to be ‘picked up’ rather than launching on a rocket themselves). We don’t understand why Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) is acting a bit oddly and isn’t looking forward to the trip home, or why  Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) is such a bitch, or why Capt. Charles Brunel is so weak-willed (Elias Koteas getting so typecast now as such hopeless leaders we just know everything he decides is just plain wrong).

Just twenty minutes spent with them in the base beforehand, explaining their relationship dynamics and the mechanics of their mission and timeline for getting home would have benefited the film immeasurably. There is a reason why the first important scene in Alien (and likewise in Sunshine) is a communal meal in which the banter of the crew sets everything up.

Instead we are launched into the crisis almost immediately, something intended to be gripping but ultimately just proves confusing. We don’t know anyone or what they do. We don’t understand why there are two habitats or that they are linked by subterranean tunnels. We don’t understand where the base is compared to the dig site or where the pick-up location is or when it is due. Thanks to clumsy editing we don’t even know why Campbell keeps having odd visions of a spaceship (they are actually flashbacks to a claustrophobic attack on the journey to Mars, but I didn’t work that out until much later- for most of the film I thought they were visions of the future or messages from the aliens or something).

last3It doesn’t help that these characters are such lousy astronauts who can’t obey commands or keep their cool and ‘work the problem’ in NASA tradition. If any one of these guys suffered the fate of astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian they would be dead within a week. They are stupid and selfish and emotionally strung-out; maybe they were intended to be like the working-jock space truckers of Alien but they should instead be trained astronauts on a billion-dollar expedition.

So the film has its moments, but most of the time its painfully frustrating. It could have been good. After all, the cast is pretty high-profile for the most part and they could do much more with better material. In the end its all just a pretty vacant, dumb b-movie about alien bugs on Mars turning people we don’t care about into Space Zombies. It might have been more fun had it looked a bit more low-rent akin to the old Hammer movies; as it is, its a competently-shot, overly-serious film hampered by a weak screenplay needing much more work in an impressive-looking but frankly vacuous sci-fi/horror movie. In a way, its a bit like a modern-day Space:1999. Bit of a shame really. We need more competently-made, low-budget sci-fi films like this, but ones with great ideas, not the stupid stuff usually reserved for the big blockbusters that use spectacle and bombast to get away with it.

Space Zombie Martians. Ugh.

But the Max Richter soundtrack is pretty good- deserves a better movie infact.