As of November 15, 2013, Sonic Cinema will be temporarily holding off on accepting further filmmaker requests for reviews. I have had a great many significant life changes this past year, and I have not yet been able to get to all the ones I currently have on the books. Until those have been completed, I will not be accepting new ones at this time. Thank you for your understanding. -Brian Skutle

Religion: The Movie- A Commentary

Last year was the first year I didn’t do a recap of the Oscars after the ceremony, and you know what? It was glorious. Part of it was the fact that very little that happened was unexpected (seriously, I correctly predicted 20 of 24 categories this year), while part of it was, “What’s the point, really?” Instead, I posted a blog I had been working on about “Star Wars.” My time was much better spent doing so.

This year, I want to talk about religion, and particularly, films with a religious subject matter. Now, I’m not a religious person myself—I would consider myself “spiritual, but not religious.” I do believe in the existence of God, but I don’t subscribe to a particular religious mindset, despite years spent going to a local Presbyterian church when I was growing up. And while my own time in church was a positive time, I am wary of the idea of organized religion because of it’s ability to be corrupted by influences more politically-motivated rather than spiritually-driven, and also because of people who use the pulpit, and the power it can have, for selfish means.

The same can be said for religious films. It was actually 15 years ago that “The Omega Code,” a film made by Christians, following a religiously-driven narrative, was released, and actually made a big splash at the box-office. It wasn’t a blockbuster (nor was it a good movie), but it proved that there was an audience for such films, and two years later, a sequel (“Megiddo: The Omega Code 2”) was released. It didn’t do well. In the interim, an adaptation of the Christian best-seller, Left Behind, came out, and though it wasn’t successful in theatres, it did spawn two sequels, which were direct-to-video.

In the past six months alone, the theatre I work at has shown five movies with a religious/Christian theme, including this weekend’s “Son of God,” which is nothing more than a reworked version of footage used in last year’s “The Bible” miniseries in TV. And this coming month brings three more—“God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven is for Real” (directed by “Braveheart” screenwriter Randall Wallace), and Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah.” There’s even a re-adaptation of “Left Behind” in the works, with Nicolas Cage starring. It’s a good time to be a Christian when going to the movies.

Or is it? I haven’t seen all, or even any, really, of the Christian films the theatres have shown over the years (let alone the past six months), and there’s a reason for that, and it doesn’t always have to do with my lack of religion, so to speak. In the Christian films I HAVE seen over the years, the stories are contrived and cliched; the performances feel forced; and the technical qualities in the filmmaking aren’t exactly that good. From an outsider’s perspective, the filmmaking makes it difficult to get into the story, and sometimes, the blatantly evangelical nature of the story is disengaging, even off-putting. But does the filmmaking craft matter to the choir these films are made for, or is the message all that matters?

This disconnect with quality is a problem. I admire the success Georgia’s own Sherwood Pictures has had at the box-office with “Facing the Giants”, “Fireproof”, and “Courageous”—it’s a great, positive message for independent filmmakers—and actually own the first two myself, but all of them suffer from the negatives I listed above, in one way or another, and none of them are going to hit my Top 10 list at the end of the year. And other films, like “October Baby” and “To Save a Life”, aren’t much better, and pale in comparison to even Sherwood’s modest, average efforts. Even though Christian stories, and themes, have been a part of film history since the silent era, it’s become a niche market, unable to really attract top-tier talent, even after the monumental success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ten years ago. Some might say it’s a result of Hollywood liberalism, but how do you explain the hundreds of millions of dollars studios are gambling on “Noah” or Ridley Scott’s upcoming “Exodus,” especially after Scott had a misfire with his underrated 2005 Crusades epic, “Kingdom of Heaven”? Studios have been trying to court Christians for years, but the results have shown, ultimately, that it’s not exactly worth their time from a financial perspective, although to be fair, they don’t always put their best foot forward. (Of course, when they do, like in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” or Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” it doesn’t help that the Religious Right attacks the film with closed-minded rage and aplomb, but that’s for another article.)

Part of the reason I was inspired to write this wasn’t just the influx of religiously-themed movies I’ve seen come through the theatre of late, but because of the curious case of “Alone Yet Not Alone” and the Oscars. To recap: when nominations were announced in January, the Best Original Song category included the titular song from a Christian film called “Alone Yet Not Alone.” On the day, it seemed like a genuinely bizarre happenstance: the song is a hymn-like effort, and a nice enough song, but the film was an unknown quantity; it’s actual release is not until April of this year, though it did, supposedly, get the minimum qualifying run in 2013 for Oscar consideration. Immediately, red flags were raised, and it was discovered that one of the song’s composers, a member of the Academy’s Music Branch, had emailed members of the Branch asking them to consider his song, a violation of Oscar campaigning protocol. As a result, the nomination was rescinded. Now, the question of what should constitute “inappropriate campaigning” when it comes to Oscars is a subject in and of itself, but this is just one of the most recent examples of the perceived lack of quality in modern Christian cinema that makes it difficult to take the sub genre seriously for movie buffs.

There has to be some way that filmmakers and Christians can come together, serve each other’s desires, and thrive and be successful in a way that expands the tent, so to speak, rather than contracts it. “Gimme Shelter” may have had Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, and James Earl Jones, but that doesn’t make up for a story that speaks only to the faithful, and production value that looks like a student film. That’s part of why I’m optimistic about Randall Wallace directing “Heaven is for Real”: here’s a film with a very Christian story, directed by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, starring an Oscar nominee in Greg Kinnear, and distributed by Sony, even if it’s a subsidiary studio. Yes, it could suck (Wallace did write “Pearl Harbor,” after all), and yes, it’ll probably be treacly and overtly sentimental, but it seems like a positive step in the right direction for an industry to bring it’s weight, and it’s craft, to an audience that deserves to have films that speak to them, and are well made, while not alienating people who don’t see the world quite the same way they do.

All of that being said, below is a list of films, with religious themes and subjects, I consider some of my favorites.

1) “The Last Temptation of Christ”- Martin Scorsese’s harsh, provocative adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel explores the story of Jesus as that of a man for whom divinity was a process, not a given. It’s a profoundly moving, human portrait by the Roman Catholic filmmaker.

2) “Andrei Rublev”- Andrei Tarkovsky’s big, broad epic about the Russian icon painter, which looks at the artist’s role in society through trials and tribulations within Russian history, and Rublev’s own life. Made during the Cold War, Tarkovsky’s startling, spiritual film is the antithesis of what the Soviet Union stood for at the time, and as a result, was deeply cut by the censors, and didn’t get released until three years after it’s completion. (On a personal note, I think all of Tarkovsky’s films contain a spiritual center religious people would find deeply satisfying, but don’t tread lightly into his movies—it’s not the easiest trip to make.)

3) “Into Great Silence”- A 162-minute documentary showing life within a brotherhood of Carthusian monks in the mountains of France. Compared to it’s running time, few words are said, but a great deal is said visually about the devotion to God, and a simple life, these monks display.

4 & 5) “Dogma” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”- Two wildly controversial comedies that look at questions of faith, and the absurdity of religious dogma, through the witty world views of some of the most singular comedic voices in movie history.

6) “God in America”- Six hours is hardly enough time for PBS to explore all of the nuances of religion’s place in American history, but by looking at specific times, and events, it gets to the heart of what is still a complicated issue.

The second tier of favorites come from all manner of cinema and sources. They include: one guilty pleasure of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation (“A Walk to Remember”); a Korean work about the Buddhist faith, as told in many seasons, and a single location (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring”); three more documentaries, including a hilarious essay skewering religious belief (“Religulous”), a genuinely objective look at the Evangelical movement and their kids (“Jesus Camp”), and a heartfelt look at one man’s faith-based journey around the world (“The Cross: The Arthur Blessit Story”); an iconoclastic look at a start-up religion post-WWII, through the experiences of a mentally unhinged veteran (“The Master”); a story of holding on to one’s faith when faced with unimaginable evil (“The Exorcist”); Bergman’s classic tale of a Crusade knight playing chess with Death (“The Seventh Seal”); and finally, Mel Gibson’s brutal vision of the Passion, which wasn’t the deeply felt religious experience some had in watching it for me, but is a genuinely moving film nonetheless (“The Passion of the Christ”).

Thanks for listening, and Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

A Movie a Week

A Movie a Week: "Full Metal Jacket"

A new year, a new set of “A Movie a Week” reviews to write.

We are beginning year six of this column, and hopefully, it’ll be a more consistent one in terms of getting reviews written. I got behind a lot in 2013, and while a lot of it was out of my control, just as much of it could have been avoided. And one film ended up being skipped entirely, but only because I don’t own it, and wasn’t able to get it from Netflix in time. Hopefully, this year will avoid such happenings.

I am playing with fire in that respect, though. There are a great many of the films on my projected lineup this year I don’t own, but part of the fun is in reviewing films I either haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in a while. We’ll see how it goes.

As you know, I always like to bookend this column each year with a particular director. After three foreign filmmaking masters, I really went outside the box with Ed Wood, and last year, started and finished the year with the polarizing Spike Lee. This year, I’m returning to the undisputed upper echelons of cinema with The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but not with any of the usual suspects in terms of his films.

This week, I’m still working on catching up, and we come again to a film from the ‘80s. It doesn’t quite have the ”’80s identity” other films during this run has, but “Full Metal Jacket”, Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam war film, is completely in sync with the director’s own identity as a storyteller. I hope you enjoy!

Brian Skutle

“Full Metal Jacket”- A+
Whereas Stanley Kubrick had become known as being ahead of his time with his films (best exemplified by “2001,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Lolita,” and “A Clockwork Orange”), “Full Metal Jacket” seemed to be just behind the times. Although other filmmakers had looked at the horror that was the Vietnam War years before (especially “Apocalypse Now”), the release in 1986 of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” based on the director’s own experiences, made “Jacket” feel irrelevant to many people. The fact that Kubrick shot the film in London, where he had been making his films since “Lolita,” didn’t help matters much once the film transitioned to the war zone. The notion of Kubrick making an irrelevant film by this point in his career is laughable, though, and watching the film, we see that Kubrick had bigger fish to fry that went beyond realism.

That’s established right at the top, as the first thing we see is recruits getting their heads shaved. A sea of shaved hair is the last thing we see before we go inside the barracks, and follow around Gunnery Sergeant Hartman as he roams around the room, shouting at these new recruits he lovingly calls “pukes.” Hartman is played by R. Lee Erney, who was a drill instructor during the war, and was so impressive to Kubrick with his authenticity that the exacting director allowed Erney to ad lib much of his dialogue. Erney sets the tone for this part of the movie, and it’s a powerful look at basic training that makes no one envious of the prospect of joining. It also shows Kubrick in his element as a chronicler of the dehumanization of man. Though the recruits are given nicknames that help define their personalities, throughout the process of training, they lose that personality, and become monotonous instruments of war. This is best represented in the character of Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, a fat, clumsy recruit who draws the ire of Hartman, and scorn of the other recruits, on a regular basis. Lawrence is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who notoriously gained 70 pounds for the role, and while that was an impressive piece of method performance, his acting goes beyond just gaining weight. D’Onofrio’s work is dynamic as we watch the transition from goofy recruit to stoic, damaged killing machine as Private “Joker” (the main character, played by Matthew Modine) is assigned to work with him, and make him an effective recruit. Joker succeeds, but a little too well, as Pyle has a psychological break, ending in tragedy just as they are set to ship out. Erney and D’Onofrio won acclaim for their roles, but not much else, I’m guessing because nobody was quite ready for the type of “acting” either did. But the more one watches the film, the more it’s clear that both deliver two of the most significant performances in modern film history, and they drive the action in one of the most devastating sequences in Kubrick’s career.

The basic training sequence is so vital and energized that for many, when the action turned to the battlefield of Vietnam, the results were underwhelming. Part of that was no doubt because Kubrick was trying to recreate “the shit” in England rather than location filming, but I think Kubrick was aiming less for realism and more for an emotional truth about war. As with his 1957 film, “Paths of Glory,” Kubrick is arguing against war by focusing on moral ambiguities. That’s why the basic training sequence is so important to the film, and also why one of the first things we see from the battlefield is Joker, who is a war reporter, in meetings with his editor about stories—the target of Kubrick’s probing eye here seems to be military propaganda, both the type that gets volunteers, without telling them the harsh realities of basic training, and the type that focuses on certain stories that will boost moral, but shelving ones that don’t fit the narrative the higher ups want to tell about what’s happening on the ground. In that way, Joker is a perfect protagonist, as he is someone who was brought into the Corp through the first type, and he becomes a part of the machine that propagates “the official story” when he hits the front lines. Modine is superb throughout, and that his character has “Born to Kill” written on his helmet, and a peace sign button on his uniform is representative of the complex world the character finds himself in, especially when he sees his first combat. He’s not really a soldier, at least not in the way his friend “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard) is, or “Animal Mother” (played by Adam Baldwin) is; even after a sniper attack, we see that he’s retained some of that individuality the others lost in basic training, although after the sniper has been taken out, he has to decide which message on his uniform is the true one. It’s not an easy one.

In a way, “Full Metal Jacket,” adapted by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford from the latter’s novel, The Short-Timers, is just as nihilistic and bleak in its view on war, and Vietnam in particular, as “Apocalypse Now.” That it hasn’t received the acclaim that unquestioned masterpiece has earned isn’t too surprising when you consider how wholly unique and hallucinatory Coppola’s film is; by comparison, Kubrick’s film seems old-fashioned in the way it’s narrative unfolds. But Kubrick was never quite as over-the-top in his cinematic approach as Coppola was at his peak, though he was always, arguably, more ambitious as a filmmaker. That’s definitely true with his instincts as a storyteller, which are on full display in “Jacket” as he takes the viewer on a psychological journey into Hell on Earth, as only Kubrick could. Some films take a piece out of the viewer; Kubrick always asked for a little more, and he earned that price every step of his career.

Previous “A Movie a Week” Reviews
“Suspicion” (1941)
“The Big One” (1998)
“BASEketball” (1998)
“Parenthood” (1989)
“Seven Samurai” (1954)
“Beat the Devil” (1954)
“Robocop” (1987)
“Manhattan” (1979)
“Some Like It Hot” (1959)
“Inherit the Wind” (1960)
“College” (1927)
“The Muppet Movie” (1979)
“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
“Howard the Duck” (1986)
“Ghostbusters” (1984)
“Full Metal Jacket” (1987)

See Brian’s list of 2009 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2010 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2011 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2012 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2013 “Movies a Week” here.

Music News

If you are a fan on Sonic Cinema, Brian's music, or the work of Cinema Nouveau Productions, and would like to show your support, a store is now available through Cafe Press, with T-shirts, hats, buttons, and other merchandise. A wide variety of designs and products are available. The store is Sonic Cinema Shop and can be found at the link provided. Thank you for your support, so I can continue to do what I love. -Brian Skutle

Musical Happenings - March 2014

Since I last wrote in this section back in June of last year, a LOT has happened. Not necessarily from a musical standpoint, but in life. The most significant change in my life over the past nine months was the passing of my father, Mark, after a year and a half of heart trouble. That put my plans for my October composing practice, which included releasing an album’s worth of horror-inspired pieces, many of which I would write during the month, on hold for a year, and resulted in a lot of changes in terms of how things were getting done around the house, but as the months have passed, and this “new normal” has settled into routine, it’s become time to focus on the future, and if I have any say about it at all, it’s going to include a life as a composer or creative artist.

What does that future entail? Well, rather than trying to focus specifically on one particular area in which to shift my career into, I’m looking at several. As many of you may remember, my major at Georgia State University was not composition, but Sound Recording in the Music Industry track; when I really began composing was in Fall 1998, when I took the first of two MIDI courses, and my musical creativity exploded from there. The only real composition-based courses I took were in my fifth year, when I took two semesters of composing lessons, as well as courses in Instrumentation and Orchestration. By that point, I had some open room available in my schedule, and was able to indulge the composing bug that had taken hold two years prior. All of my internships, meanwhile, were in studios (or the GSU Recital Hall, where I worked the last two years of my time at GSU). When I graduated, however, it was difficult to find placement in my “major” field on my own, and in November, I ended up taking a job at a local movie theatre. The rest, as they say, is history, and I’ve been at said theatre ever since. Over twelve years later, though, it’s more obvious to me than ever that it’s time to move on—that industry has changed in many dramatic ways, and with so many new methods of content distribution, those changes aren’t always good for job security. Best to get out now than wait for the rug to be pulled out from under you.

But trying to get into the recording industry, so long after graduating college, is just as tricky as it was back in 2001. More so, because there’s a dozen or so years of my life in which I have no professional experience in a studio environment, and in terms of my film music projects, they were either personal projects, or ones my friends at the theatre were working on, and while I think they are a good representation of what I’m capable of as a film composer, they are very, very independent and amateur efforts, and in the case of my work, incomplete. The past few weeks, I have been sending my resume out to studios around town expressing interest in getting into recording, and maybe even sound design. Unfortunately, responses have been few and far between. But this time, I’m not going to just give up and settle like I did twelve years ago, although I hesitate to dismiss my time at the theatre as settling because it gave me friends; opportunities to work in the projection booth (another interest of mine that, unfortunately, became obsolete when we went all digital in 2011); people and chances that inspired me to continue composing, and really hone my craft; chances to grow and come out of my shell a bit; and last, but certainly not least, introducing me to the woman who have been my girlfriend for the past 14-plus months. Life has been very, very good to me since 2001, even if it didn’t always seem that way. Now, it’s time to put myself in a position that allows for long-term satisfaction in terms of career, and work on putting a bow on my blossoming personal happiness.

This week, one of the music “connection” site email lists I belong to pointed me to an opportunity that is intriguing…online classes. The Berklee College of Music, which I first heard about when I got stuff from them my senior year of high school, offers a specialty certificate program in Orchestrating and Producing Music for Film and Games online consisting of three 12-week classes. Doing some looking into it, I gotta say—this is the type of thing that is perfect for me because it hits on my exact desires for what I want to do, and does so in a way I’ll be able to maximize my time while still working full-time at the theatre. This is happening, starting in early April. I always said that if I went back to school, it was going to be for something I was passionate about. I guess that time is now. I’m quite excited about it.

In terms of my musical growth as a composer, not much has happened of note since I had to postpone my “October Horror” album this past Halloween after my father died, which I chronicled here. Back in June, though, I did mention that I had started writing a piece for a band orchestration. Once the Fall got started, and the Summer wound down, that work got put aside, but I began fresh with some sketches and motifs a few weeks ago, and started orchestrating and writing the piece, putting pen to paper, this past week. This is the biggest work, from an orchestration standpoint, I’ve worked with in about 10 years, since my 2007 album, “Sonic Visions of a New Old West”, and I’m curious to see how I do with it, and I hope you are, also.

On the album front, I have two goals this year: 1) the “October Horror” compilation, titled “The Cold Wind of Horror”, that got put off in 2013; and 2) the long-in-limbo release of the more-classical ”’Five Stages’...and other pieces from the heart”. That second one has been a long-time coming, and requires some live performances of parts before that gets released, especially with the titular suite. On the “Five Stages Suite”, composed in 1999, I’ve got every part recorded but the three string parts. The catch is, those recorded parts are on Hi-8 tape, as I never got those transferred to .wav files at Georgia State. That will need to be done, in addition to finding people to record the last few parts. (If anyone has leads that can help me with either in the Atlanta area, that would be awesome.) Given recent events, though, I have decided, for the first time, to share the MIDI-recorded version of the suite in it’s entirety. Few people have really heard the entire thing, and this will be the only time I make the MIDI version available. You can hear it at the links below.

“Five Stages Suite” (1999)
Mvmt I: Denial
Mvmt II: Anger
Mvmt III: Bargaining
Mvmt IV: Depression
Mvmt V: Acceptance

Well, that’s all she wrote for today. Don’t forget, I’ve got a lot of music available at the links below and at places like Amazon and iTunes, as well as the Music page on Sonic Cinema. I hope you take the time to listen to it, and good or bad, feedback is always welcome.

Thanks for listening,

Brian Skutle
“Creative Beginnings” at CDBaby
“Dark Experiments” at CDBaby
“Sonic Visions of a New Old West” at CDBaby
“Beyond the Infinite: A Musical Odyssey” at CDBaby´╗┐
“Storytelling” at CDBaby
“Arpeggiations & Atmospheres” on BandCamp

(view news archive)