Pitching Planet of the Apes to a Studio in 2014: A One-Act Play (and/or Planet of the Apes Retrospective)

Planet-of-the-Apes

In anticipation of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I was initially going to compose a straightforward feature reflecting on the original films and their scores.  After sitting through all five of these films again, however, I’m in too much of a stupor to put together a standard series of mini-reviews. While I can intellectually understand the historical and social circumstances that made these films so popular in their day, it is still absolutely insane to me that a pitch-black series about monkeys and nuclear holocaust became a massive franchise.  This is a series of films in which Part Two ends with [SPOILER] Charlton Heston shouting down a guy in a monkey costume and then wiping out all life on this planet. And then the series still produced three more films, a live action TV show, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a slew of toys and lunchboxes. For perspective, imagine trying to pitch these films to a studio today. In fact, don’t imagine – I’ll do it for you! The little one-act play below is my hypothetical attempt at pitching the original Planet of the Apes franchise at a modern day studio executive. It’s “kind of” a review of the original films and their scores, but it’s mostly for fun. So without further ado:

 

Scene: Interior.  Office of a prominent Studio Executive.

Me: So I know everyone’s looking for the next big franchise – something that adults and kids will flock to, something from which we can squeeze out multiple films, tv shows, toys, and other merchandise.  Well, I think I have it!

Studio Exec: Did you just say, “from which”?

Me: It’s grammatically correct!

Studio Exec: Yeah, but nobody actually says that in everyday speech.

Me: Look do you want to hear the pitch?

Studio Exec: Yes. Kind of.  Not really.  But tell me anyway.  Can you make it quick?

Me: Oh, god no! [sits up in chair, leans forward] So it starts with a trio of astronauts who travel into the far distant future and land on a planet where … ok and get ready for this … everything is run by monkeys!

Studio Exec:  … um …

Me: Basically in this world, monkeys are in control – they talk, wear clothes, live in cities, and have their own government and religion. People are dumb and can’t talk. They’re basically treated the way we treat other animals; they’re hunted for sport, kept in zoos, and experimented on for science.

Studio Exec: Ok… Ok, I think I’m getting it. I was expecting something a little more serious, but I can see this as a CGI animated comedy for families. We’ll scrap the scientific experiments, but I can see a kind of Shrek with monkeys.  Wacky pratfalls, banana jokes, you know the drill. Let’s see if we can get some A-list comic actors to voice the astronauts.  Now I think Will Ferrell is committed to a Land of the Lost sequel, but maybe Ben Stiller – there are three astronauts you said?

Me: Um, yeah, but two of them get killed off in the first act.  Well one gets killed and the other gets a lobotomy. So essentially, only one astronaut.

Studio Exec: Wait, what?  One gets a lobotomy?! What kind of movie is this?

Me: Yeah, I should have finished – this isn’t a kids’ comedy. It’s a live action movie, and it’s going to be like, super dark.

Studio Exec: It’s a super dark movie … about a planet run by monkeys?

Me: Yeah! I want to call it, “Planet of the Apes!”

SE: … planet of the “apes”?

Me: Yeah!

SE:  Couldn’t we call it, “Planet of the Monkeys” or “Monkey Planet,” or something like that?

Me: Well that would just be silly. Monkey is a silly word.  Who would take “Planet of the Monkeys” seriously? “Ape” though – that’s a word that just sends shivers down your spine. Ape. Oh man. [shivers, clearly affected by the term’s gravitas]

SE: But “ape” is such a comically archaic term.  When was the last time you heard someone refer to a monkey as an “ape”?  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the word “ape” unless it accompanied by the words, “Great Grape,” and even that was from an ancient Saturday morning cartoon.

Me: Look, it’s called “Planet of the Apes.” That’s non-negotiable.  So getting back on point, the main character is this misanthrope named Taylor.  Taylor hates people, so he who volunteers to go on a big space voyage into distant lands where he can maybe – maybe – find something better than man.  But when he lands in this ape – or fine, “monkey” – planet, he finds himself treated an animal. First he’s hunted, and then he’s shoved into a lab where he’s treated like an experiment. He finds a planet where people aren’t in control, which is what he thought he wanted, but he finds out that he has it even worse on a planet controlled by monkeys.

Studio Exec: Ok … ok, so maybe we can sell this as a horror/thriller movie?

Me: Well … not really. I mean it’s thematically dark, but we’re going to shoot most of the scenes in super-bright exteriors. And yeah, there will be a few action scenes – including one awesome chase through the monkey city – but it’s mostly just this guy and a bunch of people in monkey costumes sitting around talking. It’s more of a morality tale, I guess.

Studio Exec: So … to be sure I’m following along. You want to launch the next big franchise with a super-dark morality tale about a guy who lands on planet full of monkeys. And you want most of the movie to consist of this guy and people in monkey costumes sitting around talking about … what?  I don’t … what would the moral of this movie even be?  Does Taylor learn that that he didn’t really have it so bad with people after all? Does spending all of this time with these awful monkeys make him realize that people aren’t so awful and that he actually misses them?

Me: Um … maybe a little, but really I think the moral is that people are exactly as awful as this guy thinks they are. I mean, in the first act you see him treated like a lab animal, so there’s a big animal rights message there about how people are so much worse than all other animals because we treat other animals like dirt.

Studio Exec: But aren’t the monkeys in this movie themselves just as nasty and abusive as people?

Me: Well … yeah, but …just let me finish. So at first it seems like the monkeys are being really awful to this guy, and once they find out he’s smart and can talk, they pretty much treat him like he’s the anti-Christ.  But then at the end he escapes and finds out … and here’s the big twist, so I can stop if you don’t want it spoiled.

Studio Exec: What? No, you’re … you’re pitching this to me. Obviously you’re going to tell me how the movie ends.

Me: Just making sure. You REALLY don’t care if I spoil the ending?

Studio Exec: Yes, spoil the ending! How does it end?

Me: So Taylor escapes from the apes and flees along this deserted beach.  He’s got a mute girlfriend and he’s all excited about starting a new life when he comes across – get this – the remains of the Statue of Liberty, buried in the sand!

Studio Exec: Ah.

Me: Get it? See, all this time, he thought he was on a different planet run by apes, but it turns out that it was really Earth in the distant future! Mankind apparently nuked itself into near-extinction, so monkeys evolved to be the primary sentient creatures in the intervening years! So really, the monkeys had every reason to fear and hate a smart human like Taylor – smart humans are self-destructive idiots who blow up the planet if you give them half a chance!

Studio Exec: Ok, but I’m trying to … did the guy not realize he was in the future?

Me: No, he always knew he was in the future.  He knew that the laws of space travel meant that thousands of years would pass for the rest of the universe while only half a year had passed for him.  He just thought he had traveled to a distant planet.

Studio Exec: So he thought that this planet – with deserts and oceans and oxygen just like on Earth – with horses and people and monkeys – monkeys who speak English – was somehow not Earth?

Me: Well … yeah. But look –

Studio Exec: And what exactly happened with his spaceship?  Did it just stay in one place while also traveling at light speed for half a year?  Did it somehow circle the entire universe and end up back where it started?  Did it spend all of that time just running loops around the Earth at light speed?  How would this even work?

Me: Look, you won’t be thinking about any of that in the moment. Wait until you see the guy pounding his fists in the sand, screaming “Damn them all to hell!” And then the credits roll and all you hear is just cold, cruel sound of the waves hitting the beach – I mean, this is going to be powerful stuff.

Studio Exec: Wait, the credits roll – the movie ends here?!

Me:  Yeah!

Studio Exec: So it’s a talky, serious movie about a planet run by monkeys, and the moral at the end is that people are terrible and they should all be damned to hell. … Why, exactly, do you think this is going to be popular?

Me: Because monkeys!  People love monkeys!  And I mean, isn’t the idea itself cool enough to get you to want to see the movie? Look, I know that when I talk about it, it sounds ridiculous, but this one really is going to be a legitimately great movie. A lot of it’s going to be ham-fisted, and it will get talky at points, but it’s also going to be full of some of the most iconic scenes in movie history. And even though the message is dark, the film will have enough of a campy sense of humor to keep things from getting outright depressing. There’s going to be wild avant-garde score by Jerry Goldsmith that will still be a front-runner for “most audaciously experimental score for a Hollywood film” 50 years later, and it will keep the tone slightly wacky without sacrificing the fundamental cynicism at the story’s core.

Studio Exec: What the, why are you telling me about the music? This hasn’t even been written yet!

Me: Because I’m so excited about it!  Anyway, the characters – human and ape alike – are all going to be memorable, three-dimensional characters, so even when it seems like we’re leaning hard on the metaphors, none of the characters will ever just seem like walking symbols.  The fact that you’re not entirely sure about the moral is part of what’s going to make it so great – it will allude to real world issues without pinning itself down to any of them.  Yeah, it’s a downer of an ending, but sometimes it’s cathartic to see a movie end with a hambone actor yowling out all of your fears and resentments about humanity.

Studio Exec: Well! What a bizarrely specific pitch!  Ok, for the sake of argument, let’s just say you’re right.  This seems like – under the right circumstances – it could make a perfectly fine one-off  high-concept movie.  Maybe we could sell it as a big “twist” movie, ala The Sixth Sense.  But how does this turn into more than just one movie?  How are we going to turn it into a franchise?

Me: Oh!  Well first off, there’s going to be an immediate sequel – called “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” – that literally picks up right when the original film ended.  In fact, we might even start it with the last five minutes of the first film, just for people who might not have seen it.

Studio Exec: But won’t the last five minutes of the first film be meaningless for people who didn’t see it? And won’t it just be annoying for people who did?

Me: Yeah… yeah, I’m actually not sure why we’re going to do that.  Maybe to pad out the running time?

Studio Exec: Fine, get on with it. So this film follows the further adventures of Taylor?

Me: No no, Taylor disappears at the start of this sequel. He doesn’t come back until the very end, at which point he’s suddenly the main character again.  Most of the movie is about another astronaut from Earth’s past who travels to the future to find Taylor.

Studio Exec: Wait, why?

Me: Well there’s no way we’re going to be able to afford the actor from the first film for more than a few scenes.  But he’s still going to be the focus of the movie, because the new character literally does nothing except look for Taylor and talk about how he’s trying to find Taylor.

Studio Exec: Why is he looking for him in the first place?  Didn’t the people who sent Taylor and his crew into space know that they’d be traveling into the distant future and trying to colonize a new planet?  Were people expecting him to come back?

Me: Um.

Studio Exec: And why is the new guy only looking for Taylor? I thought there were other astronauts in the first ship.  From the sounds of it, Taylor was kind of a jerk and probably the last person in that crew anyone would care about finding.

Me: Right, but … look, none of that matters.  The guy’s looking for Taylor because Taylor was the main character in the first film. Taylor’s the only guy the audience cares about, so he’s the only one the new guy cares about.

SE: Does the new guy even have a personality?

Me: No, like I told you, his entire role is “Guy who really wants to find Taylor.” Even when he finds an entire planet run by monkeys or discovers that the planet is actually post-apocalyptic Earth, his only response is, “Wow, this is really making it harder for me to find Taylor!”

SE: Why…

Me: That way the audience won’t notice that Taylor is barely in the movie!  Look, forget about Taylor for a second. He’s not the point.

SE: Then why does one guy spend all of his time obsessing over him? If you don’t want the audience to focus on the actor you can’t afford, why keep reminding them about him every second that  he’s not onscreen?

Me: … I don’t know.  But really, there’s more to the movie than just Taylor. In fact, the movie pretty much takes all the big features from the last film – thinly-veiled metaphors of problems in modern-day society, threats of nuclear apocalypse, ham-fisted acting, downbeat ending – and turns them up to 11.  It still has nutty costumes and makeup, and it still has an experimental atonal score (this time by Leonard Rosenman).  But in this one, the nutty makeup is just ugly, and the atonal score is less playful and more militaristic.

SE: Stop telling me about the music!

Me: No! Look, my point is that yes, the movie’s going to take away all of the fun and novelty from the concept, but people are going to love it because it will be so extreme!

SE: Back up – I’m almost afraid to ask, but how are you going to turn the first film’s downbeat ending – in which a guy discovers that humanity wiped itself out and screams about damning humanity to hell – how are you going to turn that “up to 11”?

Me: Oh, haha, well where the first film ended with Taylor discovering a past nuclear apocalypse, this one will end with him causing one!

SE: WHAT?!

Me: Yeah, at the end they discover this society of crazy mutants who worship a nuclear “doomsday” bomb that has the power to wipe out all life on earth.  There’s a big skirmish between the mutants, the apes, and the humans that ends with Taylor getting shot and begging the main monkey leader for help.  The monkey says no and tells Taylor that people are awful, so Taylor gets even by pushing the doomsday button, blowing up all life on earth! The movie ends with the screen going white and an offscreen narrator saying, “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”  Then roll credits in complete silence!

SE: ?!?!?!?!

Me: Isn’t it great?! And then for the third movie -

SE: No, hold on! … let’s just … pretend … that anyone … would want to see a movie – a big, escapist campy sci-fi movie – that ends with the main character killing – not just himself – not just the other main characters – but every other possible character on the planet. How do we make a third movie?! You just killed off anyone and anything that we could use for the next movie! Is the next movie just going to be footage of earth burning itself away over the course of 90 minutes?

Me: No, it’s –

SE: What are you going to call it, “Planet Without the Apes”?

Me: No, we’re –

SE: Actually, that’s pretty good. Let me write that one down

Me: No, let me finish! It’s not Planet without the Apes! There are still going to be plenty of apes.

SE: How…

Me: Two words: prequel trilogy! Or, actually, sequel trilogy. And prequel trilogy.  Seprequel trilogy!

SE (massages temples): I don’t know why I’m still listening to this, but go on.

Me: See it turns out that two of the nice monkeys from the other films – the husband and wife who help Taylor and his friend then disappear from the movies –

SE: You never told me about nice monkeys.

Me: I didn’t?  Well there are two nice monkeys – a married couple named Cornelius and Zira – who help Taylor escape in the first film, then try to help his friend find Taylor in the second film. And even though they disappear in the second half of the second film, it turns out that they actually managed to steal Taylor’s friend’s spaceship – and they flew away before the planet blew up. So this third movie is called “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” – because they “escaped” from the “Planet of the Apes.”

SE: Couldn’t we just call it “Ape Escape”?

Me: No. Anyway, it turns out they actually didn’t escape to another planet – they ended up travelling back in time and landing on present-day earth – exactly when Taylor originally left. Ooooooh! Did I just blow your mind?!

SE: …How would that work?  I get the whole theory of relativity thing where going into space at the speed of light means going forward in time – well I don’t get it, but I understand that it’s a thing – but it’s not like the reverse is true. Is the space ship also a time machine?

Me: Look, it’s best not to think too hard about it. The important thing is that you get to see smart, talking monkeys interacting with people in present-day society. Doesn’t that sound fun?

SE: Actually, yeah. I see a lot of fish-out-water comedy potential, like Austin Powers with monkeys. So would this one actually be funny?

Me: Yeah! Well, at first.  In the opening scenes, there’s a lot of merrymaking with the monkeys getting confused about human customs, getting drunk on wine, etcetera. Everyone will have a great time. But then in the second half, the government figures out that the monkeys come from a future where mankind is subservient to apes, so a few high-ranking government figures start arguing that Cornelius and Zira should be executed – or at least prevented from procreating.

SE: Oh no.  Please don’t tell me this is going where I think this is going.

ME: See, the female monkey is pregnant, and the government is afraid that if these monkeys have babies, they’ll end up giving birth to the smart monkey who leads the revolution against mankind.

SE: Why do they assume there’s going to be a monkey revolution against mankind? I thought that mankind got wiped out because of the nuclear war?

ME: Well at one point in the movie, Cornelius tells the humans the history of monkey society.  In a pretty long monologue, he says that monkeys used to be pets for humans, but as they evolved and got smarter, humans starting treating them like slaves. So one of the monkeys finally rebelled and said, No!”, then started a monkey rebellion that eventually ended in the downfall of mankind.

SE: Wait, how does he know this? Did he indicate he knew about this historical monkey rebellion the other films? Because it seems like he could have just told Taylor about it and saved him the trauma of finding out with the Statue of Liberty.

Me (thinks about it): …No … no in the other films it was pretty clear that Cornelius didn’t know anything about the origins of monkey society. In fact, the whole point of his character in the first film was that he was the one monkey who was even willing to entertain the idea that there might have been a society of intelligent humans in the distant past.  He certainly wouldn’t have known anything this specific.

SE: Then how does he –

Me: Look, who cares? The point is that he tells people monkeys are eventually going to take over the planet, so the government freaks out and turns on the monkeys.  In the last act, Cornelius and Zira are fugitives from the law.  In the end, Zira has her baby, but soon after, government guys find the two monkeys and gun them down with their baby.

SE: *Bangs head against his desk*

Me: Don’t you like it? Look, it’s going to be an improvement over the last one at least. It will basically have TV movie production values, but the characters are at least intelligent sympathetic people/monkeys who make understandable decisions.  Even the bad guy who guns the monkeys down has a legitimate point of view – he thinks he’s preventing the destruction of mankind. It’s at least a little lighter than the last two, and even Jerry Golsmith’s music does a fun funk-mod thing with –

SE: STOP TALKING ABOUT THE MUSIC AS IF –

Me: And yeah, the dark ending kind of comes out of nowhere, but if it didn’t have a depressing ending, it wouldn’t be a Planet of the Apes movie.

SE: Ok! So! After killing off the two characters who had any remote connection to the original films – along with a goddamned adorable baby monkey – where can the series possibly go from here?

Me: Well it turns out that the government gunned down the wrong baby monkey.  Before Cornelius and Zira were found, they spent a few days hiding out with a sympathetic circus trainer.  In the last shot, you find out that the circus trainer secretly switched their smart baby monkey a regular stupid baby monkey.

SE: Oh god! So they actually gunned down a poor innocent regular baby monkey? That’s even worse! [Puts his head on his desk and sobs quietly].

Me: Well, yeah, but the point is that the smart baby monkey is still alive. In Part 4 – called “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” – we’re going to jump forward a few decades into the near future.  This is like, the Revenge of the Sith of the series – here’s where we learn how the big monkey revolution finally happens…What are you writing?

SE (writing): Sorry, you just gave me an idea for a remake and I want to jot it down before I forget it.

Me (looks at notepad):  “Monkey Revenge of the Sith”?

SE: I’m between that and “Revenge of the Sith with Monkeys.”

Me: What about “Revenge of the Monkey Sith.”

SE (scribbling): Oh, that’s good!

Me: Can we, um…?

SE: Yeah, yeah, keep going.

Me: So now we’re in a quasi-dystopian future where people have essentially turned monkeys into household servants.  It started with people taking in monkeys as pets, but as the monkeys started getting smarter and better at learning how to perform menial tasks, people essentially started treating them like slaves.  So you know, huge potential metaphor for racism.

SE: Wait, are you actually proposing a movie where oppressed monkeys are a metaphor for oppressed black people?

Me: …. um ….

SE: Take your time.

Me: … … …

SE: I really want to hear you explain this.

Me: … Well it sounds way more offensive when you say it out loud than it did in my head!

SE: Uh-huh. Go on.

Me: Look, this is going to be a socially progressive movie!  It’s about how the oppressed monkeys finally revolt against their awful masters.  See, the smart baby monkey from the last film is now a young adult.  The benevolent circus trainer – basically this world’s only monkey rights activist – has kept him hidden from society and taught him how to talk.

SE: The monkey rights activist is a circus trainer?

Me: I know, it’s weird, but can we -

SE (laughing): When does he campaign for monkey rights? Before or after he captures monkeys from the wild and tortures them into performing stupid tricks?

Me: Ok, I get it! Look, it’s supposed a morality tale about racial oppression; it’s not a circus expose! Can I get on with my pitch?

SE: Yes, you can get on with the world’s longest pitch about how smart monkeys conquered the world, all with the help of the animal kingdom’s wisest, kindest benefactor: the circus trainer.

Me: Ok! Jeez! So the smart monkey – who eventually starts calling himself Caesar – ends up as the servant of a cartoonishly evil governor who hates monkeys and is terrified of Cornelius’s story about a smart monkey leading a rebellion.  The governor eventually gives an order to round up every potentially smart or deviant monkey, and it’s strongly implied that he means to have them executed. Or maybe he outright says it. I forget.

SE: Wait – so if everyone is so terrified of Cornelius’s prophesy about the monkey rebellion, why did the humans turn monkeys into servants in the first place?  Wouldn’t the easiest way to avoid the problem be to just let the monkeys be?

Me: … Come on, let’s be reasonable. What are people supposed to do, not oppress monkeys and turn them into slaves?

SE:  Touché. Keep going.

Me: So eventually Caesar starts forming a sort of Monkey Underground. He has all of the monkeys steal weapons from their masters, and he gradually starts organizing them into a monkey army. In the climax, the monkeys revolt against their humans, and after a series of badass battle scenes, they take control of the city. The movie ends with Caesar giving a big angry speech about how man’s day is done and it’s now the Planet of the Apes!  I really want to end it with them dragging the evil governor out into the town square and beating him to death!

SE: That’s actually really chilling!

Me: Except apparently people think that’s too dark, so we’re probably going to do last minute edits to make it seem like Caesar is sparing the guy’s life and telling his fellow monkeys not to get violent just yet.

SE: Wait, are you telling me that after three movies with miserable endings – one in which the entire planet blows up and another in which an adorable baby monkey gets gunned down – you’re pulling your punches now and deciding that killing off the villain is too dark?

Me: Well … look at this point we’re really not sure what we’re doing anymore. But the movie is at least going to be the best since the original film.  It’ll be full of weird plot holes, but it will have a sense of scope and purpose that the last two lacked. Some clever tracking shots will create the impression of chaotic riots even when we only have a few sets and extras to play with, and Tom Scott’s music will get back to the avant-garde roots of the original film – with a little –

SE: [Starts punching self in the head]

Me: – With a little urban jazz to go with the modern setting.  And you know, maybe it’s over the top, but at least we’re trying to say something about racial oppression.

SE [stops punching, pours self a drink]: Do you at least keep the race stuff subtle?

Me: No … no there’s actually a scene where a sympathetic black guy tries to convince Caesar not to resort to violence and Caesar’s like, “I would think you of ALL people would understand!”

SE [takes a deep breath]:  … please leave.

Me: No, but there’s one more!  The next one’s called “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”!

SE: Does it finally depict the massive war that ends in mankind nuking itself out of existence?

Me: Oh, there’s no way we’ll be able to afford that.  It takes place a few decades after that big war.

SE: Then why make the movie in the first place?

Me: I actually don’t know.  Really the movie adds almost nothing to the series. It depicts Caesar living with a small group of monkeys and people in a small woodland village, trying to form a new society.  A chunk of the film sort of turns into a monkey version of Mad Max, with a gang of radiation-scarred humans trying to invade the monkey village with their military weapons.  But the monkeys win, despite an attempted coup from the war-hungry gorillas. I guess there’s kind of a racial harmony message awkwardly shoved in there in some places.  At the start, humans aren’t quite servants, but they don’t have equal rights with monkeys. But the movie ends with Caesar realizing that monkeys can be violent too, so they should give humans equal rights.

SE: But doesn’t that contradict the first film, where humans have become so subservient to monkeys and so devolved that they can’t even talk?

Me: Yeah, but it’s kind of vague if that’s still going to happen. Caesar’s really worried about causing that bleak future and he’s trying to prevent it. And he has a wise friend who’s convinced that you can change the future if you make the right decisions.  He’s going to be played by Paul Williams!

SE: …Fine. So the film indicates that the future is going to change?

Me: Kind of.  It’s going to end with John Huston in a monkey costume –

SE: All this time we could have had John Huston in a monkey costume?!

Me: Yeah, I really wish we had thought of that earlier too. So it ends with Monkey Huston telling an audience of human and monkey children that nobody really knows the future. Then you see a human kid start to fight with a monkey kid, and the camera cuts to a statue of Caesar that starts crying. So maybe things will be different, but there are ominous signs.

SE: It ends with a statue of Caesar crying?! Like that old pollution PSA with the sad Native American?

Me: Yeah, even I can’t defend this one.  Its heart is in the right place, and we’ll bring back Leonard Rosenman to write a decent continuation of his militaristic music from the second film.

SE: Oh good! Boy, that’s a relief! Golly, for a second I thought this would be a real stinker, but now that I know good old Lenny Rosenman’s doing the music, I can just put my cares to bed!

Me: Uh, yeah?

SE: Boy, I don’t even know why I even need to keep coming in to work! My whole year’s taken care of!  The fifth Planet of the Apes movie is going to have music by Leonard Rosenman, so I can just move on to Easy Street!  Haha, no worries for me!

Me: Are you … are you ok, buddy?

SE: I’m great! In fact, I should start filling out a change of address form right now – I’d sure hate to for any of my mail to go to the wrong address, now that I’m moving to Easy Street! Unless – hey, do you suppose Leonard Rosenman could take care of my change of address form too! Haha, just kidding! Of course he can! He can do anything!  He’s Leonard Rosenman!

Me: Can … Can I finish the pitch?

SE: Oh please!

Me: So … [looks nervously at SE, who is now grinning maniacally] So even though the movie ends with a big battle, the whole thing is really about at the scale of a TV pilot, not a major motion picture.  Oh that reminds me, I was thinking after this we could do TV shows.  A live action one for grown-ups and a cartoon for kids.

SE [snapping out of sarcastic stupor]: For kids?! You’re going to turn all of this into a cartoon for kids?!

Me: Of course! Kids are just gonna love those wacky, daffy monkeys!

SE: I think I’ve heard enough!  Look, I have to admit, in away, I’m impressed. This is the most insanely detailed pitch I’ve ever heard.  It’s almost as though these films have already been made and you’re just describing them to me.

Me: Right?!

SE: Really, though, I don’t know how this combination of audacious cynicism and goofy camp could get through the door in today’s moviemaking climate. The only time a series like this would have had the remote possibility of making money would have been in the late 1960s, maybe early 1970s.

Me: How on the nose of you!  Why?

SE: Well for one thing, it was a point in film history where the studio system had basically collapsed.  The studios were desperate enough to bring back audiences that they’d try just about anything if it didn’t cost much.  The flat-out insane Jerry Goldsmith score you described might have gotten through in 1968, because then the studios were so unsure of themselves that they might actually have said yes to an atonal score film score with wacky instruments for a big popcorn movie.

Me: But does that mean it would have been successful?

SE: Maybe. I mean, all of the themes you seem to want to address – nuclear holocaust, race riots, disenfranchisement with political institutions, ect – were so vividly present in the cultural consciousness at the time. It’s not that these problems have gone away today, but in the late ‘60s, some audiences were so afraid of the world blowing up or tearing itself apart that it might actually have been cathartic to see all of those fears writ large on the big screen. And because shows like The Twilight Zone had already popularized the downbeat twist ending, people might not have been so startled at pulpy science fiction films ending with the world blowing up – they might even have expected that as part of the genre.  Now none of this is to say that audiences today wouldn’t get anything meaningful out of the films.  Most of these themes sound like they’re ultimately universal, even if they’re framed in 1960s terms, and the first film sounds like it could be a timeless classic. In fact, even the terrible films in the series still sound so endearingly earnest and audaciously bleak that they’d still be worth watching today.  But I don’t see these films actually getting made by any contemporary studio – I don’t see them getting made at all outside of that very specific point in the mid-20th century.

Me: … what the hell was that?!

SE: What?

Me: That!  You like, transformed into a crappy history teacher for a few minutes there.  Seriously, are you ok?

SE: Honestly, I’ve been feeling weird really weird lately. Like I’m a character in some really contrived -

Me: You know what, I don’t actually care. So you’re saying “no” to the Planet of the Apes idea.

SE: I’m saying … maybe.  Could you try re-imagining this whole story as a vehicle for Mark Wahlberg?

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How to Train Your Dragon 2: Film and Score Review

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The Film:

Few aspects in Western culture are as immune from criticism as our love for our pets.  You can be the world’s most jaded, intellectual, cynical hipster and still rest easy knowing nobody will judge you for thinking your dog is the bestest, sweetest, most perfectest friend in the whole wide world.  Whatever biological history of inbreeding led them to this point, your dogs and (some of your) cats seem to have morphed into living stuffed animals who seem to exist just to love you unconditionally.  Or more simply put: Your dog is the one creature on the planet who will never get upset with you. You don’t have to worry about your dog getting edgy when you bring up politics, or hurt that you forgot her birthday even when you had a Facebook reminder, or irritated that you won’t shut up about Game of Thrones even though you know she doesn’t get cable, so seriously, why would this be interesting to her?  No, your dog will just look up at you devotedly and hope against hope that you might take a few moments to scratch her behind the ears.  We’re devoted to them in part because they seem capable of sustaining the perfect uncomplicated love that isn’t even possible in the healthiest human relationships.

2010’s surprisingly wonderful How to Train Your Dragon did many things well, but its smartest move was tapping into that bottomless reservoir of good-will that audiences have for their pets. Toothless, the film’s star dragon, became a practical repository for favorite pet traits: he had a cat’s playful expressiveness, a horse’s willingness to be ridden, and a dog’s fiercely protective and unrequited love for its person. The film took the time-tested boy-and-his dog formula and committed to it with so much disarming sincerity that it managed to make all of the old clichés seem fresh again.  You could call the film a shamelessly manipulative crowd-pleaser, but damned if it wasn’t an effective shamelessly manipulative crowd-pleaser.  Few people are immune to a story that reminds them how wonderful their pets are, and the film milked that soft spot for all it was worth.

The result was a rare film from Dreamworks Animation that was both a box office hit and a critical darling. The studio wasted no time exploiting this success into a massive franchise, with multiple TV shows, holiday specials, and even stage shows following each other in short succession.  But to the studio’s credit, they didn’t rush on the sequel. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has arrived four years after its predecessor, an unusually long time for a studio that rarely waits more than two years before pumping out part two of a moderately successful animated film.  After seeing the film, it’s clear that this extra time directly reflects the care and attention that went into making the sequel a worthy follow-up.  Where the first film limited its aims to telling a simple story effectively, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is far more narratively, emotionally, and thematically ambitious.  The film is still fundamentally about the connections people share with their pets, but the film takes a surprisingly mature and multi-faceted approach to that relationship, and the result is a rare sequel that’s actually more powerful than its predecessor.

I won’t go into too much detail about the story here, as some of the potential spoilers come early on.  But the basic premise entails young Hiccup’s now-pro-dragon Viking community learning of a potential threat from Draco, a crazed warrior who sails from shore to shore hunting dragons and turning them into submissive weapons for his massive armada.  Hiccup rushes off to confront Draco, confident that he can change the warrior’s mind and persuade him to see the benefits of the Vikings’ peaceful symbiotic relationship with their dragons.  This sets off a plot that has far-ranging implications for Hiccup and his relationships with this family, his community, and, of course, his dragon.  The film attempts to cover a great deal of ground, and it has much to say on topics ranging from the possible limits of pacifism, the role parents play in shaping our identities, the responsibilities of leadership, balancing the needs of the local community versus the global community, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, the consequences of animal abuse. This is lot for an ostensible children’s film to bite off, and to be fair, the film handles some of its messages with more grace and subtlety than others.  But the filmmakers are ultimately remarkably successful at letting these themes build off of one another organically without sacrificing character-driven storytelling.

Of those themes, however, the film cuts deepest in its treatment of animal abuse.  I said I won’t give away any major spoilers here, but I will say that a tragic second act development is going to feel especially wrenching for anyone who’s seen an abused animal lose control and lapse into blind violent instinct.  The filmmakers even attempt to imagine the animal’s point of view in this violent state, which is depicted here as a blurry void where loved ones disappear into blurry shapes and noises.  It’s an act of empathy – an attempt at imagining the painful places our pets can go when we can’t reach them – and it’s empathy that the filmmakers demand of the audience as well.  Where the first film took the beauty of the human-animal bond at face value, this one has the fortitude to put that bond through legitimately harrowing challenges. The film takes a pointed stance on the compassion and empathy that we owe our animal companions, even – and, indeed, especially – when instinct and abuse robs them of their agency.

But reading the review up to this point might give one the impression that the film is a solemn sermon, which is certainly not the case.  Significant screen time is still devoted to exuberant spectacle, with giddy flying scenes and some of the best large-scale battle scenes since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The film makes some of the best use of 3D technology in recent memory, particularly in a mid-film action set-piece that manages to stage separate battles in the foreground and background simultaneously, all in perfect focus.  The film is at its best, however, when it’s simply letting its main characters – human and dragon alike – interact with each other. This comes across through voice cast, of course, with Jay Barachel, Gerard Butler, and Cate Blanchett all giving subtle, multi-layered vocal performances (the film even partially redeems Butler’s performance in Phantom of the Opera by finding a context where his raggedy singing voice is actually dramatically appropriate). But the film is more intuitive at developing these characters when they aren’t speaking.  There are requisite moments where people state exactly what they’re feeling for the younger viewers, but the filmmakers also place significant trust in expressive animation and sensitive music to convey much of the characters’ conflicting internal emotions (this is particularly true of Hiccup’s interactions with Cate Blanchet’s new character, Valka).  It’s perhaps for this reason that the film never feels heavy-handed, even when it does introduce serious issues; there’s never a point where the characters and their relationships aren’t driving the story.

So while the film isn’t entirely perfect, for my money it’s easily the best studio-produced animated film since Toy Story 3 in 2010.  For that matter, it’s the first film from Dreamworks Animation that deserves serious consideration alongside Pixar’s best. The film introduces heavier emotional gravity, but it manages to do so in ways that actually enhance the unabashed joy that made its predecessor so well-loved.  It’s disappointing that the film has struggled so much at the box office, but I can say with confidence that if you want summer popcorn spectacle, you’re going to have a much better time here then you are with any of the transforming/mutant/superhero/Godzillas currently fighting for your attention.  It will be a shame if the film’s disappointing box office leads to the cancellation of the planned third installment, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 is more than strong enough to stand on its own without getting roped into a trilogy.

The Music:

Steven Spielberg once famously claimed John Williams’ music for Jaws accounted for 50% of the film’s success. In the case of John Powell’s music for the original How to Train Your Dragon, I’d bump that number up to at least 70%.  As well-animated, edited, scripted, and acted as that film was, it might have been nothing more than a than a well-meaning piece of fluff without Powell’s unabashedly earnest, heart-piercing music.  Dramatically urgent without ever straying into sentimentality, Powell’s music was frequently the biggest reason to feel invested in scenes that might have played out like tired clichés in any other film. The film’s many dialogue-free sequences gave Powell the opportunity to write the sort of emotionally direct, instantly memorable melodies that have long-since gone out of style in Hollywood, and the result was a rare contemporary film that actually allowed music to drive its narrative.  The score has gone on to become what is quite possibly the biggest fan-favorite in the film score community in nearly a decade, and it’s left the composer with a great deal to live up to with this follow-up.

But he certainly made sure to take the time he needed to get it right.  When Powell scored How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, it was one of approximately several thousand animated Hollywood films he had scored over the course of several years.  He followed Dragon’s success with an insane sprint that entailed scoring Mars Needs Moms, Rio, Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet 2, The Lorax, and Ice Age: Continental Drift, all back-to-back over the course of 2011 and 2012. While he did a pretty amazing job with a few of these, it was also clear towards the end of this run that he was starting to run out of steam. Following the last Ice Age in 2012, he took a well-needed sabbatical from Hollywood, a decision he apparently made both to spend time with his family and to recharge his compositional batteries. In other words, How to Train Your Dragon 2 marks more than his return to the franchise; it also marks his return to film music itself (ok, technically his score for Rio 2 was released a few months before Dragon 2, but it’s splitting hairs).

While he obviously didn’t take his break specifically for the sake of writing a great score for How to Train Your Dragon 2, the extra time he spent absorbing new musical influences and rethinking his technique certainly shows in this sequel score. While it certainly reprises much of what everyone loved about his first score, Powell has also taken this as an opportunity to push himself into much denser and more detailed orchestral writing, drawing in equal measure on English composers like Vaughan Williams and impressionists like Ravel. This means that, much like the film, Powel’s score often comes across as a more complex and nuanced continuation of its predecessor.  It possibly loses some of the original’s non-stop emotional immediacy in the process, but it makes up for those instant pleasures by taking the time to build to what is ultimately the most profoundly moving music of Powell’s career.

Having said that, Powell certainly doesn’t abandon the key features that made his first score so beloved. All of the old themes and motifs are back, from the Vikings’ burly Scottish theme to the insanely catchy “Flight Test” theme that hasn’t been out of my head since 2010. Powell gets a great deal of mileage from spinning new variations on these themes, and the score is worth listening to just to hear Powell finding endless ways to twist the first film’s melodies in and out of new harmonies and orchestrations.  The caveat is that because the film isn’t quite as linear or straightforward as its predecessor, the score has a little less room to carry the film with broad, long-lined statements of these themes (though mammoth showstoppers like “Battle of the Bewilderbeast” will certainly fill that craving).  At the same time, not always being in the spotlight also gives Powell the space for more intricate and nuanced orchestral writing, and his clever new arrangements are captured in a detailed recording that’s miles above the first score’s notoriously muddy mix (which was the first score’s only real shortcoming).

As nice as it is to hear old favorites, however, Powell anchors the score on a new theme, a wistful melody with vaguely Celtic overtones.  Though it initially seems to represent Hiccup’s relationship with a new character who enters the film, it eventually comes to stand for Hiccup’s evolving relationship with his dragon (and while I can’t go into detail here, I will say that using the same theme for the two connections is narratively significant).  Unlike virtually every buoyant theme from the first film, this melody has a melancholy edge that speaks to the graver emotions the film has its characters face.  True, Powell often uses the theme to joyous effect, most prominently during a mid-film flying montage that sends the theme through everything from rousing swashbuckling statements to effervescent Madrigal choir arrangements.  Yet even in iterations like this, melody’s minor chords always carry traces of sadness that make even jubilant moments seem like they’re constantly on the cusp of despair. Multiple relationships in the film are underlined by an unspoken fear of loss and abandonment, and the music keeps that fear present even in seemingly lighthearted moments.

That added level of gravity also pays enormous dividends during the climax, where Powell transforms the theme from a desperate and vulnerable choral arrangement into a massive “rallying the troops” march.  It’s  here that Powell’s score truly elevates and transforms the film; the logic of certain plot points in the climax are arguably a bit muddy, but the music is so overwhelmingly powerful that it’s all but impossible to notice anything but the huge emotional stakes playing out onscreen. The music manages to answer questions that the script withholds, and it makes the film’s bittersweet resolution feel as world-changing to the audience as it does to the characters.  It’s enough to give the score a slight edge on its already nigh-perfect predecessor, which also makes this the finest score Powell has written to date.  I’m under the impression that Powell will only be taking the occasional film scoring assignment from this point on, but if slowing down results in music this profoundly moving, I hope he continues to take as much time as he needs.

Film Review: ****1/2

Score Review: *****

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Film and Score Review

 

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The Film:

As many have others have noted, The Grand Budapest Hotel is in some ways the most intensely “Wes Andersonery film” (apparently this is becoming a common descriptor) that the director has yet made. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this is hard to argue: the director’s signature visual ticks are so extreme here that they take on the point of near-parody. Anderson’s painstakingly intricate mise-en-scene, perfectly symmetrical shots, extreme contrasts in shallow and deep space composition, miniature model work, stop-motion effects, and overall celebration of artifice have all been taken to the nth degree in this film. Yet though he is playing with all of his favorite visual toys, this film is actually something of a diversion for the director. Anderson tends be as consistent thematically as he is visually, and few of his films are not on some level centered on selfish father figures, precocious genius children, and/or fraught sibling relationships. But while the director does not entirely avoid these themes in Grand Budapest Hotel, the film marks the first occasion where he doesn’t seem wholly consumed by them. Budapest is less about familial relationships being repaired, and more about the ways we turn to fantasy and storytelling once death places those relationships beyond repair. This is an idea that has always lurked somewhere beneath the surface of Anderson’s earlier films, but it seems to be the first time he’s addressed the idea head-on.

The result is also one of Anderson’s most tonally deceptive films, so much so that my initial reaction was one of mild disappointment. If one were to strip the film to its core narrative, it would easily be the most light-hearted and superficial film of the director’s career. Like a Pink Panther film where the animated opening credits never stop, the fanciful plot follows the adventures of Gustavo H, the concierge of the titular hotel during the 1930s in the fictional European Republic of Zubrowka. Early in the film, Gustavo is framed for murder, spurring a galloping story that constantly morphs from murder mystery to heist caper to prison escape thriller to globe-trotting adventure to farce, and likely circles back several times. At each step, the film seems to revel in the gleeful implausibility that come from these genre twists, casually resolving major story beats without explanation and bending the laws of physics in ways that would make Daffy Duck say, “um, this is a bit far-fetched, yes?” (I know, he’d probably have a more of a lisp, but it seems kind of rude to draw attention to it, doesn’t it? Are you really trying to make Daffy Duck self-conscious? Don’t you think he has it rough enough as it is?). At points, Anderson actually seems to be going out of his way to show that he can adapt his signature style to high concept genres, as in a surprisingly gruesome chase through a museum that plays like baby’s first Hitchcock thriller, or an alpine chase that plays like a James Bond film directed by Rankin and Bass. Indeed, this is easily the most cartoon-like film of the director’s career, and that includes his actual animated film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Throughout, Anderson keeps the momentum as breathless as a Road Runner short, buoyed by some of the funniest one- liners and absurdist gags of the filmmaker’s career.

Taken alone, all of this genre-hopping is not necessarily anything new for the director; certainly, key scenes from films like The Life Aquatic and Mr. Fox also gave us hints of what Wes Anderson’s version of an action or fantasy movie might look like. The key difference here lies in the hero at the center of the adventure. Earlier Anderson films never pretended that their characters were suited for these fantastic excursions – in the attack on the pirate island in Life Aquatic, for instance, much of the humor indeed comes from the stony faced Zissou and his band of introverted looking so ill-suited for this ‘80s action sequence. Conversely, Budapest has a hero who is just as wildly over the top and benign as the storybook world he inhabits. Gustave is a rare Anderson protagonist for many reasons, not the least of which being that he’s neither a precious child prodigy nor a selfish cad. The latter may seem like a strange claim, given that the character initially looks like a swindler and a scoundrel. Indeed, we learn early on that he regularly conducts romantic affairs with the wealthy elderly patrons of the hotel, and nearly every word out of his mouth is so floridly pompous and pretentious that he almost has to be full of shit. Yet as the film progresses, it gradually becomes clear that Gustave means every word of his hyper-articulate grandstanding. This is a man, we come to realize, who takes the genial bullshit the rest of us use as social lubrication with earnest sincerity. He’s a person for whom good customer service is not simply a professional policy, but a world-view that carries over into every aspect of his life. Even his proclivity towards sleeping with his elderly patrons registers less as the action of a sleazy hustler and more as a natural extension of his commitment to servicing his hotel guests. He’s by no means a flawless character; he’s prone to occasional cursing fits, and in one scene he lets out a shockingly nasty tirade of insults towards his loyal sidekick. But where earlier Anderson protagonists would hold on to this jerkish behavior until the very end of the film, Gustave immediately and sincerely apologies after each outburst; the film treats his lapses as humanizing quirks, rather than defining character flaws. As a result, Gustave does not receive any sort of character arc; he enters and exits the film as the same genial charmer.

In other words, this protagonist and the world he inhabits could never exist outside of the most whimsical of fantasy worlds. This is not a point the film expects us to overlook; indeed, Anderson regularly draws our attention to the fragility of this storybook universe. He does this primarily through multiple frame narratives, each of which situate the fantasy in bleaker contexts. The most important comes from Zero Moustafa, Gustave’s young sidekick in the main story who also narrates that story as world-weary old man. When the elderly Zero begins telling this story, most of its main characters have long since passed away, and the once-opulent hotel has fallen into a state of ruin. The narrator is clearly still in mourning for these friends and loved ones, and his sadness often plays at tonal odds with the jubilant story he’s ostensibly telling about them. Initially, we may expect these two narrative worlds to connect – for the frivolous business involving stolen paintings and prison escapes to evolve into a more serious tragedy that would explain the elderly Zero’s sad isolation. But this never actually happens – while we eventually learn about the unhappy circumstances that lead to Zero’s seclusion in the hotel, these tragic incidents have little to do with the manic yarn he tells about his youthful adventures with Gustave. Indeed, Agatha, the lover Zero seems the most devastated to have lost, scarcely features in this story. Though this may seem like sloppy writing on the part of the film’s director, that stark tonal disconnect between the light-hearted adventure and Zero’s later-day melancholy makes a poignant amount of sense. The events Zero narrates are not defining memories that would explain his present-day situation; rather, they’re pieces of a story he’s invented to distract himself from his grief.

That perspective throws the film’s fixation with exaggerated fantasy into sharp relief. What initially seems like Anderson indulging in his most precious and twee impulses instead emerges as a self-reflexive attempt to understand the appeal of precious and twee fantasies. All of the intensified stylistic devices – from the deep-space shots of his massive diorama sets to the shallow-space miniature shots that make mountains look like greeting card illustrations – all feed in to Zero’s attempt to craft a bubble of whimsy where real-world traumas can’t intrude. This is not the first time Anderson has explored this idea; as Mark Zollar Seitz notes in The Wes Anderson collection, characters like Max Fischer and Steve Zissou also seem to build ornate fantasy worlds as ways of coping with loss. But this is the first time Anderson has focused so squarely on the fantasy itself, rather than its creator. In Rushmore, we’re conditioned to observe Max Fischer’s elaborate theatrical productions with some level of detachment, our focus instead directed towards Max’s coming of age arc. Conversely, Budapest encourages us to get lost in the world Zero creates, so much so that it’s often easy to forget that this world is the product of its storyteller. Anderson pulls every stop to make that imaginary space seem infectiously appealing, and in the process he compels us to want to escape into this world nearly as much as Zero does.

Yet this escape can only be a temporary reprieve, as we remember every time the fantasy slams hard against the ugly realities that can’t be compressed into tidy genre conventions. Anderson emphasizes this point at regular intervals by cutting away from the bright candy-colored world of Gustave’s adventures to the stark and desolate hotel where the elderly Zero mourns. Some forces – war, human brutality, sickness, and death – are too cruel and capricious to fit into our attempts at turning our lives into stories, and Zero’s attempts at bending his memories into a storybook adventure can’t eradicate his saddest memories. As much as the film seems to celebrate fantasy, its final assessment is uncharacteristically bleak for the director. This is not a world where fantasy offers any sort of transformative healing power – nobody in the film ultimately matures or grows because of it. It provides minor solace for Zero’s sadness, but it does not prevent him from spending decades of his life holed up in a fading hotel, nursing his heartbreak in solitude.

But perhaps providing minor solace is enough. Zero’s narration is not the film’s only framing device, after all; he relays his story to a guest in the hotel, who decades later turns the story into a novel, which in turn a young girl reads at the author’s gravesite in the present day. These layers suggest that the fluffy diversion Zero has created for himself has a lasting power that extends past its author’s own grief. If it only serves as a brief relief for its maker, at least it can perform the same function for future generations of lonely dreamers. This is an ambivalent defense of fantasy at best, but it’s fitting that a film with such conflicted feelings about storytelling and escapism should end on a bittersweet question mark.

The Score:

The Grand Budapest Hotel marks Alexandre Desplat’s third collaboration with the Wes Anderson, and it’s arguably the most distinguished of the three. While Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom both had charmingly quirky scores that were perfectly suited for their films, I was never entirely clear on what Anderson thought he was getting from Desplat that he couldn’t have received from his former go-to composer, Mark Mothersbaugh (whose wonderful Baroque-jazz inspired music for films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums certainly did not lack for off-beat charm). In Grand Budapest, however, Desplat’s presence makes perfect sense, as the film’s setting gives the French composer room to stretch out into his distinctly European aesthetic. Romantic old-world European melodies along the lines of Maurice Jarre grace the hotel itself, while the film’s various chase scenes and montages inspire a charming mix of Eastern Europe and Nouvelle Vague-inspired jazz licks. As with Desplat’s other scores for the director, it’s extremely simple material, largely consisting of variations on a few brief themes (and indeed, long stretches seem to consist of various clever solo instruments taking turns jamming on the same seven chords). But while this means that the music can get a bit repetitive as a stand-alone listen, the score’s constant effervescence adds immeasurably to the film itself.

Indeed, Budapest is a unique Anderson film in that its soundtrack is almost exclusively score-driven. Where the director’s prior films are famous for their offbeat compilations of songs and classical pieces, Budapest’s soundtrack very rarely breaks away from Alexandre Desplat’s instrument underscore. And while I’m sure some may miss playing games of “Spot the Portuguese Bowie Cover/1950s Disney TV theme/Benjamin Britten oratorio” (and I’ll admit that I kind of do), it’s fitting that Budapest emphasizes music that does not call immediate attention to itself. Where those earlier song choices had the effect of temporarily pulling the audience out of the narrative, Desplat’s score subtly draws the listener into Budapest’s fantastic universe. Unsurprisingly, the score features most prominently in the scenes involving Gustave, where Desplat’s spritely European jazz is the perfect musical extension of the film’s feather-light artifice. The score sets a breathless pace that leaves little room for reflection, and its constant giddy tone keeps these scenes bouncing (my personal favorite cue is the cimbalom-driven, “The Society of the Crossed Keys,” a jangly piece that practically hops with glee).

The music is much sparser in the various framing sections. This is fitting, as it further accentuates the sharp contrast between the fantastic world of Gustave’s caper and the cold “real” worlds inhabited by Zero and his future listeners and readers. The exception is that Jarre-inspired romantic theme for the hotel, which occasionally whispers into scenes with the elderly Zero. In these moments, the wistful melody acts as a soft echo, a feint trace of a more innocent world that, to paraphrase Zero’s closing words, never actually existed. All told, it’s a deftly spotted score that knows precisely when to carry the film and when to let chilly silence make its impact.

Budapest is thus a recent high point for Desplat, and I’d say it was the same for Anderson if it wasn’t so hard to pick out the low points in his career. I don’t know that it’s productive to call this one of Anderson’s “best” films when just about all of them have been excellent, and most of the superlatives I’ve used to describe it (“delightful,” “charming,” “poignant,” “quirky,” “affecting”) could essentially apply to any Anderson film. But Budapest is charming and affecting in ways that are new for the director, and considering how many times Anderson’s films have often seemed like variations on the same themes, this is a significant development. After seven films that have kept us at an ironic remove from Anderson’s characters and their hand-made universes, The Grand Budapest Hotel finally drops these barriers and invites us inside one of those universes. And while the film populates that space with some of Anderson’s most exuberant and charming characters to date, the film is less interested in its characters than it is in its audience. For in the end, the film is most invested in our own relationship with fantasy and storytelling. It’s a film that gently but firmly interrogates our impulse to seek solace in fantasy worlds, even when those worlds are patently artificial, and even when we’re fully aware that they’re painfully impermanent.

Film: ****1/2/*****
Score: ****/*****

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The Best Film Scores of 2013

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Around this time last February, I looked back at the year’s film music highlights and actually thought I saw signs that things were changing for the better.  In 2012, a remarkable number of big-budget studio films seemed to be allowing composers with distinct voices more leeway.  Love them or hate them (and I’ll admit I hated some of them), Michael Giacchino’s John Carter, Alan Silvestri’s The Avengers, James Horner’s The Amazing Spider-man, Thomas Newman’s Skyfall, and Carter Burwell’s Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 2 were all clearly written by their respective composers; each represented its author’s distinct dramatic instincts, and none could be mistaken for the work of anyone else.  For a moment, the pendulum seemed to be swinging away from the Remote Control factory music that has dominated film music throughout the twenty-first century.  Sadly, 2013 saw that pendulum abruptly stop mid-swing and turn right back around.  A brief survey of 2013’s biggest films – commercially successful or otherwise – reveals a long list of scores that rigidly adhere to the clichés that Hans Zimmer and his various protégés have steamrolled over the industry.  Listen to the music in Oblivion, Iron Man 3Man of SteelPacific RimCaptain PhilipsEnder’s GameThor: The Dark World, or Gravity and you’ll hear variations on the same looped ostinatos, the same three or four pop chord progressions, the same orchestras recorded to sound like synthesizers, and the same blaring “BWAAAAAAMPs” that sound like a garbage truck just cut you off.  These scores aren’t all irredeemably bad (Oblivion in particular has a handful of standout moments where M83 actually gets to cut loose), but they’re built on such tired, simplistic, and superficial foundations that they’re practically interchangeable.  On a surface level, some have basic entertainment value, but enjoying music like this requires so much aggressive intentional amnesia that I just can’t do it anymore.

Granted, my lack of patience may have as much to do with my own drifting tastes in music as it does with current trends in film music itself.  It actually embarrasses me to say this now, but 10 years ago, I listened almost exclusively to movie scores.  I like to think that the quality of said movie scores was generally higher 10 years ago, but I also know I was much more forgiving of mediocre work back then.  If a score featured 60 minutes of monotonous padding and 15 minutes of halfway pleasant melodies, that was usually enough to keep me listening.  After all, when your CD collection is largely limited to the used soundtracks you’ve found at Wherehouse Music, you tend to be more willing to grasp at those straws.  Somewhere along the line, however, I started branching out into other genres of music, and I found myself falling in love with the sorts of trendy indie bands and popular musicians that used to make me feel alienated (it helps that so many indie bands in the 2000s have started incorporating the same ornate orchestrations and pretentious compositional quirks that drew me to film music in the first place).  I still care deeply about film music and I still listen to copious amounts of it, but my perspective on listening to it has changed.  When so much fresh and exciting music gets released every month from so many different genres, I find myself growing less willing to sit through film score albums that strike me as generic or derivative or generic.

This may be coming across like a negative rant, which isn’t my intention.  2013 also gave us some wonderful and original film music, much of which I will no doubt still be pouring through years down the line.  What I’m finding though is that the scores I gravitate towards today are actually the sorts of scores I’d have vehemently opposed 10 years ago.  Where I used to staunchly defend traditional composers writing “proper” orchestral music, I now tend to drift towards smaller experimental scores for independent films, scores written by people who are largely outsiders to the industry.  I’ll always have a soft spot for big traditional orchestral scores with memorable themes (and a few made it on to my top ten list this year), but these qualities alone are no longer enough for me.  At this point, I don’t particularly care whether the score is written for a full symphony orchestra or for a Casio keyboard; I just need it to sound – if not unique, then at least distinct.  Something that doesn’t sound like it could have been tracked in from another film.  Something that doesn’t sound like it could have been written by anybody but the person (or people) who wrote it.

As a result, the scores you’ll see in my yearly top 10 list below are primarily written by either veteran composers who developed and mastered their voices before the industry became a factory, or industry outsiders who have actually been given the space to try something fresh and original.  Few of these scores are perfect, and I already know that many of my fellow film music critics absolutely hate some of my top choices (my top 2 in particular). But every score you’ll see below place is sensitively and thoughtfully attuned to its film, and each serves as a reminder – for me at least – that film music can still be one of the most powerful contemporary forms of expression.  They’re reminders, in other words, that film music can still be an art, even when Hollywood seems intent on turning into a craft.

10.  To the Wonder by Hanan Townshend

Director Terrence Malick has a strange habit of inspiring film composers to do their best work for his films, then hacking all but a few minutes of that work out of his finished films in favor of classical music.  Newcomer Hanan Townshend is the first composer in a long while to emerge with his score relatively intact, which is perhaps ironic as he’s easily the least prestigious composer Malick has worked with since Badlands in 1973.  Yet to listen to this confident and sensitive classically attuned music, you would never know that this was Townshend’s first film score.  Apparently he was also Malick’s music licensee in Tree of Life, so perhaps it would make sense that he’s so in key with the ethereal melancholy “Malick sound” that so many eclectic composers struggle to replicate. While it’s not quite on the level of Morricone’s Days of Heaven or Desplat’s Tree of Life, Townshend’s To the Wonder is still a beautiful, graceful composition that at least deserves a place alongside those earlier Malick masterworks.  Its centerpiece, “Marina’s Theme,” is in many ways Malick encapsulated in a single piece of music: pastoral, graceful, and aching with a sense of loss and spiritual yearning.  While the score can at times get a little too withdrawn for its own good, it’s nevertheless an extraordinary achievement.

9. The Best Offer by Ennio Morricone

By most conservative estimates, Ennio Morricone has written music for approximately 145,346,345,678 films.  It’s easy to take someone for granted when they’re that prolific, even when that person is very possibly the great living film composer.  Yet his work for Giuseppe Tornatore always seems to particularly spark his creative energy, and if The Best Offer is never going to rank among Morricone’s greatest works, it certainly displays more than enough evidence of the man’s brilliance.  Tornatore’s attempt at turning his signature treacle into a Hitchcockian thriller is more than a little ridiculous, but Morricone’s music creates emotional dimensions that the film arguably doesn’t deserve.  Of particular note is his dazzling music for the protagonist’s horde of artwork – as Geoffrey Rush’s characters sits and gazes at the hundreds of great artworks hanging in his secret room, Morricone responds with a canon of solo sopranos, fluttering voices that twist over and under each other as they ripple across the sonic spectrum.  In moments like this, it’s almost as though Morricone is scoring from the perspective of the artwork itself, suggesting a legacy of aesthetic beauty that rises above the convoluted plot machinations and implausible character behavior that otherwise dominates the film.

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Howard Shore

I’ll admit that I’m of two minds about this one.  On the one hand, this is easily the least enjoyable of Shore’s middle earth scores, lacking the instantly memorable themes and emotionally vibrant moments that characterized his Lord of the Rings music (which remains film music’s greatest achievement of at least the 21st century).  But the film also didn’t give Shore much to work with, offering little of the drama or character development that used to inspire such so much emotionally charged music in these films.  Shore then at least deserves to be commended for creating so many distinct musical landscapes within the narrow confines he’s been given. From the unsettling echoing string effects for the forests of Mirkwood, to the distorted reversal of his elf music for the woodland elves, and finally to the exotic metallic percussion music for Smaug’s cave, the score is rife with inventive textures.  And once again, the long-term thematic development is extremely impressive; as he did in the Lord of the Rings sequels, Shore gradually reveals that throwaway melodies from the last Hobbit film have actually been character motifs all along (Smaug’s theme, referenced briefly at the start of the first film, practically takes over the last act of this one).  Part of me wishes that Shore the restrained intellectual would have made a little more space for Shore the crowd pleaser, but this is still substantive and original music.  I only hope that the final film in the series stops wasting its time with subplots nobody cares about and centers back on Bilbo Baggins for its last installment– if for no other reason, then because the hobbits themselves seem to bring out Shore’s most lyrical music.

7. The Book Thief by John Williams

It always seems ridiculous to call any John Williams score underrated, especially one that’s been nominated for an Oscar (I can almost promise you it won’t win)  Yet this one seems to have taken a lot of guff that it didn’t deserve.  While it doesn’t push the composer into any new frontiers, The Book Thief is easily the best of Williams’ “post-retirement” scores, sensitive and restrained in ways that Williams hasn’t been in decades.  There are certainly similarities to the composer’s score for Angela’s Ashes, but where that score tended to have an overbearing impact on its film, The Book Thief is a gentle and delicate score never overwhelms the story’s central drama.  Like the film’s personified version of Death, the score sympathizes with the characters from certain point of removal.  The music responds to emotional currents of the story, but it does so from a distance, always maintaining a wry tone that skirts the balance between whimsy and melancholy.  While certain critics are inclined to see Williams name on the credits and assume that they’re in for overbearing Hollywood schmaltz, Williams’ music here is easily the most thoughtful and nuanced aspect of this misguided holocaust drama.

6. Grand Piano by Victor Reyes

The entire concept of this movie almost forces a high level of quality from its film score: a disgraced classical pianist comes to a concert hall for a comeback performance, only to learn that an anonymous gunman is threatening to kill him if he plays a single wrong note.  What follows is a stylish mesh of Speed and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but if the film works it’s 80% because of the elaborate score/source piece by Victor Reyes.  Reyes composed the central piano concerto that Elijah Wood’s protagonist performs onstage, and it’s music that functions both as an insanely difficult showcase piece for piano virtuosity and as dramatic film music for the suspense plot.  I’m not crazy about some aspects of the recording – the orchestra often sounds at least partially synthesized, which is particularly odd given that we often see actual instruments playing onscreen.  Yet the music is so memorable and so effective at generating tension that it’s easy to overlook any reservations about the recording.  The piano writing is suitably insane, written to be as difficult as humanly possible while still reflecting the protagonist’s tumultuous character arc.  Reyes succeeds in paying homage to composers like Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, but members of a certain generation will likely be more reminded of the gothic excess of 1990s Batman music. As a members of said generation will tell you, this comparison is the best compliment I can give a score.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines by Mike Patton

Synth choirs, electric bass, and keyboards – if you had walked up to me 10 years ago and told me that I’d love a score with these ingredients, I’d have said, “What?! Who are you?! I don’t have any change,” and likely called the police (seriously, don’t do that to people).  But 2014 Paul will tell you that you’re absolutely right, even if he’ll also ask you to please not follow him home.  Mike Patton creates a feverishly compelling atmosphere from these inauspicious elements, with sharp choral bursts and menacing bass creating a larger-than-life soundscape.  The resulting score is harmonically and sonically inventive for all of its simplicity, and it signals to the audience that this seemingly small-scale character drama has epic ambitions.  In the film, the score is augmented effectively with music by Avro Part and Ennio Morricone, but Patton’s score is ultimately what gives the film such a unique hallucinatory glow.

4. The Wind Rises by Joe Hisaishi

Hiyao Miyazaki’s apparent retirement also marks the end of one of the most fruitful director-composer relationships of the past three decades.  For nearly 30 years, Joe Hisaishi has been accompanying Miyazaki’s flights of fancy, often serving as the tender earth-bound anchor that grounds Miyazaki’s outlandish fantasies in pure human emotion.  For The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s love letter to flight and the pre-industrial Japanese countryside, Hisaishi responds with a stroke of counterintuitive genius: old-world European romance.  Essentially ignoring period-specific Japanese music, Hisaishi writes in the dreamy style of mid-20th century European film composers like Maurice Jarre (Doctor Zhivago) and Nino Rota (La Dolce Vita), and the result almost makes you wish you could jump several decades into the past.  It’s an old-Hollywood score written to a film with intensely conflicted feelings about Japan’s military history, and it aids immeasurably in tipping the film’s balance away from militant nationalism.  For by evoking another culture’s musical tropes for bittersweet nostalgia, Hisaishi keeps the film from seeming like a glamorization of the WWII-era Japan itself.  Instead, both film and score emerge as a more universal attempt at savoring life’s fleeting moments of beauty, even if the horrors of industrial warfare ultimately can’t be suppressed.  The end result registers as an achingly poignant coda to one of the international filmdom’s most treasured artistic partnerships.

3. Only God Forgives by Clint Martinez

When I listened to this score by itself, I was at a loss for why anyone was paying attention to it; all I could hear was an eclectic and unpleasant grab bag of gothic pipe organ music, synthesizers that sound like they belong in a 1980s Yamaha demo, and pan-Asian percussion, all operating with no melody to speak of.  Yet somehow, this ugly mix takes on a level of brilliance in Nicholas Refn’s film.  Only God Forgives is essentially Refn’s Drive stripped of its charm and romance, an intensely abrasive journey into highly stylized depravity that almost seems to punish its audience for taking enjoyment from Drive’s extreme violence.  Somehow, despite sounding for all the world like a series of minimalistic doodlings, Martinez’s score takes on a level of operatic grandeur when it plays against the film.  The score amplifies the cruel and avant-garde aspects of the onscreen violence so much that the finished product registers less as a thriller than a modern art installation.  I’d hesitate to recommend anyone the album – or the film for that matter – but combined, I can’t deny that they create an aura of fevered brilliance.

2. All is Lost by Alex Ebert

Here we get to the point where I start enthusing about scores that other members of the film music community seem to hate.  Make no mistake: Ebert’s score to J.C. Chandor’s character study about an old man lost at sea could not be further from traditional film music.  Indeed the score is often so subtle that it almost registers as sound design.  But this is also one of the most legitimately organic scores I’ve come across in a very long time, and Ebert’s score quietly adds layers of spiritual meaning to this intensely minimalistic film.  The score largely eschews a traditional orchestra, but the ensemble is also entirely acoustic.  Woodwinds dominate, often blending so seamlessly into the ocean wind that it’s difficult to tell where the music ends and the environment begins.  But when the score gradually does lean forward, pushing into long-lined melodies (complete with chord progressions straight out of Ebert’s work with Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes), the effect is mesmerizing.  The film is extremely light on dialogue and narrative, and it relies almost entirely on Ebert to probe at any deeper layers in the straightforward story.  Ebert responds by finding moments of quiet grace in small details.  When Robert Redford’s character takes a brief pause in his labors and savors the cooling rainstorm that’s drifted overhead, for example, Ebert’s soothing main theme gradually pours out of the woodwinds, making the moment one of gentle transcendence.  The score also avoids restating the obvious, favoring sympathetic serenity over suspense – even in climactic scenes when the protagonist seems close to death.  And the end credits song, “Amen,” is one of the most powerful things Ebert has ever written, a riveting musical catharsis that easily equals anything he’s sung as Edward Sharpe.  I don’t think I’ve listened to any film score more in 2013 than I listened to All is Lost.

1. Her by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet

While not as flashy as the type of score that typically stands out as the year’s best, Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet’s score, more than any other released in 2013, positively makes its film.  Spike Jonze’s mediation on human relationships in the digital age is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and deeply affecting film on just about every level, but it would not work without its music.  The film rests on its ability convince the audience that a man’s relationship with his operating system deserves to be taken seriously.  And without discounting Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson’s excellent performances, I would argue that the music is ultimately what ensures we’ll take this relationship as more than a bizarre joke.  In a pivotal love-making scene – a scene that essentially determines whether you the audience are going to be able to buy into this love story – the score surges with so much vulnerable longing, tenderness, and heartbreak that you practically need to be a smartphone app yourself to not give in.  Arcade Fire fans may be particularly inclined to find this moment potent, as it climaxes with a string arrangement of the finale from their song “Porno” (it’s taken from the point in the song where Win Butler starts wailing, “I’m not over it”).  The band apparently composed this score while writing songs for Reflector, and the motifs and themes from that album that bleed into Her’s score add rich extra-textual dimensions to the music.  Yet you don’t need to be familiar with Arcade fire as a band to feel the impact of its score for this film.  This is deceptively complex music that evolves alongside the film’s characters, a score where every individual instrument, timbre, and harmony reflects on the characters’ psychological development.  Though it begins as a slightly off-putting series of electronic distortions, it gradually evolves with the characters and their relationship, growing more emotionally accessible as both Theodore and Samantha learn to come to terms with themselves. Sadly, the score has yet to see release as an album release, but it’s really at its best in the context of the film.  Her is my favorite film of 2013, and I’d even go so far as to call it one of the great films about human relationships, period.  But as much as I love the film, I doubt it would have anywhere near this profound impact without Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet.

Runners up:  While I didn’t have room for them in my top 10, Joe Hisaishi’s romantic Miracle Apples, Angelo Bandalamenti’s rousing Stalingrad, Javier Navarrete’s elegant Byzantium, M83’s seductive and ethereal You and the Night, and Danny Elfman’s charmingly cornball Oz: the Great and Powerful are all very fine 2013 scores that come highly recommended.

And that’s it: thank you all for coming back.  I know that it’s been a long time since I updated this blog, but I do mean to change that in the future.  Despite my grousing at the start of this piece, few things give me more excitement than great film music, and I look forward to exploring more of it in this blog in the months to come.

2012 Oscar Predictions and Reflections

Best-Picture-nominees-2013-Academy-Awards

Casual and obsessed moviegoers alike tend to have a love-hate relationship with the Academy Awards.  On the one hand, we feign to hate/not care about the Oscars and all the stupid decisions they make.  Yet much though we profess disgust, we obsess over this ceremony for weeks on end, and the outrage that we express every year only confirms how much power we’ve given the ceremony.  My own thoughts on the Academy Awards are mixed.  On the one hand, I of course get frustrated when middle-of-the-road dramas somehow take home all the major trophies while legitimately great films go unnoticed.  At the same time, I fully realize that to a large extent, this is inevitable.  Tempting though it may be to complain that the awards are political or biased, we should remember that those two adjectives also apply to just about every decision-making process run by humans.  It would be nice to think of some ideal scenario where a group of experts have managed to come to some objective consensus, but you’re always going to have individual voters swayed by their own baggage.  In the case of the Oscars, we also have to remember that these are the awards that Hollywood essentially gives itself while the rest of the world watches.  The members of the Academy don’t have that much in common with each other apart from a shared desire to make the whole ordeal look respectable without alienating their massive audience.  As a result, the films that generally end up winning usually have two things going for them – they look important on the surface, and they make their target audience members feel good about themselves.

This is why, even when I pull out my hair to see middling efforts like The King’s Speech or A Beautiful Mind walk away with statues, I understand why it happens. These are movies that seem to discuss serious subjects even when they only reduce those subjects to easy sentimentality.  The members of the Academy want to maintain the impression that they’re honoring respectable films (which is why you so rarely see genre films break into the race), but they’re rarely willing to give their prize to a film that might actually challenge or upset viewers.  Of course you’ll occasionally get an exception – 2007’s unabashedly nihilistic No Country for Old Men was a particularly welcome fluke – but more often than not you’re going to find strictly middle-of-the-road fare.  That doesn’t mean the Best Picture winner is always undeserving – after all, plenty of legitimately great films also happen to be uplifting.  But more often than not, the Best Picture Winners are simply fine – movies that you would happily watch on DVD but promptly forget two weeks later.

With that in mind, below is my analysis of this year’s nominations.  I’m not going to run through every category, because this post is long enough as it is, but I will cover the Best Picture and Best Score nominations (given the blog’s title, how could I not?).  We’ll start with the former: below are my thoughts on each of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year.  I’ve divided each film into two sections – one discussing the film’s likelihood of winning the award, and the other discussing my own thoughts on the film’s merits.  Members of the Academy vote by assigning a ranking number to each film on the ballot, with 1 being their first choice and 9 being their last.  I will be doing the same here – in the “Will it Win” column, 1 represents the film with the best chance of winning, while 9 represents the film with the worst chance.  The same logic applies to the “Should it Win” column – 1 means the film is my personal pick of the lot, and 9 goes to the film I consider the least deserving of recognition.  I probably just made that sound way more complicated than it should, but you’ll get the gist as you read.  So without further ado:

The Best Picture Nominees (in Alphabetical Order)

Amour

Will it win:  I’d like to say it had an off-chance, but it seems extremely unlikely.  I don’t believe a foreign language film has ever managed to pick up the Best Picture Oscar, and the films that have probably come the closest (Cinema Paradiso and Life is Beautiful) have been far more uplifting than Haneke’s agonizing endurance test.  It’s a triumph of the film’s near-unquestionable quality that it managed to get a Best Picture nomination in the first place, but I have a hard time seeing such an uncompromisingly brutal film drawing the widespread appeal needed to win this (also, considering the Academy’s large majority of geriatric voters, I wonder how many people are actually going to want to celebrate a film that reminds them of getting old and dying).  Likelihood: 5

Should it win:  It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it would be a very deserving winner.  Michael Haneke’s famously merciless camera-eye forces us to look at death and old age straight in the face, without any of the sentimental mediation that film usually offers us.  No music, no cathartic monologues, and no closure – just bed pans, sponge baths, and malfunctioning motor skills.  My only reservation, as I mentioned in my piece last week, is that it’s hard not to wonder what a viewer can get out of Amour that can’t be had from two hours in a nursing home.  At the same time, most of us hesitate to visit nursing homes even when our own family members are there.  If Haneke achieves nothing else, he succeeds in forcing us to look at something that most of us pretend won’t happen, even though it very likely will happen to both our loved ones and ourselves.  My vote: 4

Argo

Will it Win:  Oddly enough, it’s looking like the favorite right now.  When Ben Affleck didn’t receive the directing nomination, most people assumed the film was out of the running, but Argo has picked up seemingly every other major award in the lead-up to the Oscars. Moreover, it looks like the biggest crowd-pleaser of the year – it’s managed to balance critical acclaim, strong box office, and a relative lack of controversy despite the fraught political ramifications of its subject.  As a film that flirts with realism and political import even as it does nothing but satisfy its audience’s desires for thrills and feel-good closure, Argo pretty much ticks off all the requisite boxes of past Best-Picture winners.  The fact that it’s a movie in which Hollywood literally saves the day certainly doesn’t hurt its chances with group of voters who are always eager for a little more self-congratulation.  My guess is that the Academy will give the directing award to Spielberg and give Argo Best Picture.  Likelihood: 1

Should it Win:  No.  Don’t get my wrong – taken as a popcorn thriller, Argo is more than effective.  For most of its running time, the film is gripping without going over the top, and funny without detracting from the seriousness of the subject.  And in the opening scenes, Affleck actually takes an admirably even-handed approach to the material.  The film incorporates real news footage to remind us why the kidnapping happened in the first place, and while the Iranian revolutionaries are certainly the villains in this story, Affleck at least has the respect to give their actions context.  But that carefully balanced approach goes out the window in the last act.  In a ridiculously contrived (and blatantly fictionalized) climax, Affleck’s protagonist turns into a lone wolf hero operating against both meddling government officials in Washington and cartoonishly evil Iranian security guards in Tehran.  Obviously no Hollywood movie can be expected to follow the reality of historical events completely, but there’s something supremely unsettling about turning still-living people from the recent past into snarling villains for the sheer sake of narrative momentum.  It might be more understandable if the film clearly presented this material as a stylized fiction, but Argo frames its ridiculous climax through the same docu-realist aesthetic that it uses for the actual real-life events.  The result is a film that sacrifices any deeper insight it might have offered for superficial thrills.  My vote: 8

Beasts of a Southern Wild

Will it Win:  I wouldn’t put it at the top, but I’d put it in the top 4.  The film does have a few major obstacles to overcome.  First, because Beasts went into relatively wide release earlier in the year, a lot of the initial acclaim has died down (this is why studios usually save their Oscar hopefuls until the end of December).  And while everybody loves an underdog, the fact that the entire cast and crew is made-up of unknowns might put off voters more inclined to vote for friends and peers they already know and respect.  At the same time, Beasts is one of the best-loved films of the year, and much like Slumdog Millionaire a few years ago, it pulls a neat trick of being a serious film about poverty (check) that nevertheless provides its audience with a big heaping serving of cathartic uplift at the end (check plus).  If the film starred, say, Will Smith as the father, it would be a shoe-in (though much weaker as a film).  As it stands, Beasts is a potential dark horse but I don’t see it unseating Argo.  Likelihood: 4

Should it Win:  Well … yeah!  As I’ve stated a few times at this sight already, this is my personal pick for the year’s best film. What makes Beasts so remarkable is that it does follow through with feel-good bursts of emotion, but it doesn’t compromise its gritty integrity to reach that point.  In an ideal world, all the Oscar-winning crowd-pleasers would be this excellent. My vote: 1

Django Unchained

Will it win:  I severely doubt it.  Even if Tarantino hadn’t been glossed over for the Best Director nomination, the idea that this controversial genre pastiche could garner enough widespread support necessary for a win is extremely unlikely – I’m surprised (albeit pleasantly) that the Academy nominated it at all.  As I mentioned earlier, the Academy tends to have a strong aversion to genre pictures, even when they’re as critically acclaimed as The Dark Knight or Skyfall.  Tarantino’s auteur signature and the historically sensitive subject may have been enough to let voters to feel ok nominating this one despite its roots in violent Spaghetti Western/blaxploitation thrillers, but I doubt those factors will be enough to net Django a win.  Add to that the (unfair) accusations of racism that have plagued the film from he start, and I suspect that most voters will stick with a film less likely to upset people.  Likelihood:  8

Should it win:  I certainly wouldn’t be upset to see it take home the statue – Django ranked high in my year-end list, and it sure would be deliciously ironic to see Hollywood award a film that so viciously attacks Hollywood’s own history of racial representation.  Plus if it wins, future Oscar ceremonies might feature clips from both Django Unchained and Gone with the Wind in the same “great moments in Oscar history” montages – how great would that be? My vote: 2

Les Miserables

Will it Win:  Almost certainly no.  By far the poorest reviewed entry in the best picture nominees, most people are surprised it even secured a nomination.  It did win a Best Musical/Comedy award from the Golden Globes, but internationally beloved musicals tend to have an edge with the foreign press, however poorly executed they may be (see Evita – or rather, don’t).  Hathaway will probably win the best supporting actress award for her acclaimed Fantine, but it’s hard to see the film securing anything else.  Likelihood:  9

Should it Win:  God no.  Les Miserables, to its credit, gets better in its second act, but the first half of the film rivals The Phantom of the Opera as the worst execution of a stage musical as a major motion picture. I appreciate the desire for realism, but Tom Hooper’s version of realism is antithetical to a rock-opera like Les Miserables.  Lead actors haltingly choke out melodies that need to be belted, big crowd number descend into chaos, and all the while the orchestra never seems fully in-synch with the singers.  Maybe this is more “real,” in that it’s probably closer to what it would actually sound like if starving peasants and factory workers started singing.  But as we’re already suspending disbelief enough to accept people randomly bursting into song, surely we can also suspend disbelief far enough to accept that they can also sound good when they sing.  And this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of unnecessary Dutch angles and extreme close-ups for actors who are already going into histrionics, or the editing choices that seem to flat-out ignore the rhythm of the music.  For whatever reason, a lot of these problems resolve themselves once the action moves to Paris in the second act, perhaps because so many of the young actors who appear here have actually had professional training in musical theater.  But it’s not enough to redeem an opening act that seems to do everything in its power to sabotage the material.  My vote: 9

Life of Pi

Will it Win: Rather unlikely.  The film is well-loved, but I don’t think anybody loves it enough to put it at the top.  In some ways the film checks off most of the Oscar boxes – literary prestige, feel-good ending, dazzling filmmaking – but it has the built-in liability of being based on a book that a lot of people have read and loved.  That sounds like a good thing, but often it means that voters attribute the film’s larger qualities to the novel rather than the filmmakers.  Lee did a rather spectacular job of making the film his own regardless of its source, but Yann Martel’s novel still casts a heavy shadow over the film, fair or not.  There’s an odd chance that this will get a director win for Lee, given that it’s such a virtuosic display of directorial vision, but even here I suspect voters will lean toward Spielberg or Haneke.  Likelihood: 6

Should it Win:  Again, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’d be happy if it happened.  It’s not a perfect film – Lee over-simplifies some of the book’s central questions in ways that result in some awkward scenarios (particularly with the tiger, who seems much more like a walking symbol here than he did in the book).  But it’s such a viscerally thrilling moviegoing experience, and it would be nice to see the director get some love that he should have received for Crouching Tiger and Brokeback Mountain (though he at least won a directing Oscar for that).   My vote: 3

Lincoln

Will it Win:  When the awards were first announced, this looked like the favorite, and it still has a lot of points in its favor.  To begin, Lincoln is leading by a wide margin in nominations and it has won widespread critical acclaim.  The fact that it’s a Spielberg drama, written by Tony Kushner, that stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln should make this a done deal.  Yet the qualities that have endeared the film to many of its critics – its general lack of grandstanding, a restrained tone, and willingness to look at ethical ambiguities –  might also hurt its chances.  The sublime burst of catharsis that Oscar voters generally favor isn’t here, leaving Lincoln as a film that a lot of people admire but few people seem to love.  It still has a strong fighting chance, but I’d be a little surprised if this won over Argo.  Likelihood: 2

Should it Win:  Lincoln is a movie with many strong, admirable qualities, and if it nets Spielberg another Oscar or two, I won’t be upset.  But while the film exercises admirable restraint for the bulk of its running time, Spielberg falters in significant ways that are hard to overlook.  Some of the flaws are forgivable – any subplot involving Lincoln’s family detracts from the more compelling story about the 13th Amendment, but I can understand the desire to humanize Lincoln as a character.  Less forgivable is the way that the film marginalizes the experiences of African-Americans even as it feigns to celebrate their emancipation.  It’s particularly egregious when the 13th Amendment finally does pass, and Spielberg devotes far more time to the white senators’ celebrations than he does to the actual African-Americans who are directly affected by the amendment (I won’t spoil it, but a final close-up on Tommy Lee Jones’ face is actually borderline offensive).  It’s still an intelligent, well-meaning film, and Day-Lewis is indeed phenomenal, but it’s hard not to be unsettled at yet another film about slavery that exclusively celebrates exceptional white people.  My vote: 6

 

Silver Linings Playbook

Will it Win:  This, Lincoln, and Beasts are the three most likely dark horses, and several months ago, I might have said Silver Linings Playbook had the best shot.  It has a lot going for it – it’s well-loved, it features serious subject matter, and it’s funny and uplifting enough to leave anyone happy at the end.  The fact that the Weinsteins are making such a strong push for it also helps its chances considerably.  But the movie doesn’t seem to be picking up much in the awards leading up to the Oscars, and the general consensus that the film sells itself short in its last act is a huge hurdle.  Ironically, the crowd-pleasing aspects of the film might actually be its undoing – if it loses, it will be proof that even the Academy has its limits when it comes to forced happy endings.  Likelihood: 4

Should it Win:  It’s a cute movie, but no.  I suppose I’m echoing the consensus here, but the first half of the film is such a real and raw look at mental illness that it feels like a cheat when the film shifts into lighthearted romantic comedy territory.  There are scenes in the film that are as brave and painful as any in David O Russell’s career, but seeing how good Russell can be only makes it that much more disappointing when he settles for Hollywood hokum in the end.  My vote: 7

Zero Dark Thirty

Will it Win:  Most likely no, though there’s a slim chance.  It’s one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and the film won a handful of major critics awards in late December.  But the negative campaigning done by people convinced the film is pro-torture seem to have backed Zero Dark Thirty into a corner.  It doesn’t help that the film has what is easily the bleakest worldview of all the nominees (and in a year where a Michael Haneke film was also nominated, that’s saying something). Where Bigelow’s Hurt Locker was at least able to sell itself as a tribute to the brave men fighting overseas, Zero Dark Thirty is quick to deny any such patriotism.  Americans soldiers aren’t vilified, but the film doesn’t shy away from their brutality, nor does it oblige us with a justification for that brutality.  Zero Dark Thirty is a film that denies catharsis, closure, and anything resembling an uplifting message.  Acclaimed though the film may be, that’s an awful lot for Academy voters to take.  Likelihood: 5

Should it Win:  No, unless the award could somehow only go to the last 30 minutes.  For all of its admirable qualities, much of Zero Dark Thirty embodies one of the lowest trends in contemporary moviemaking  - contrived Hollywood conventions masquerading as hard-biting realism.  Despite the intense attention to grim and gritty aesthetics, this is nevertheless a standard thriller about a lone wolf genius fighting against an incompetent system.  Everybody who isn’t Maya is a stupid bureaucrat who either makes reckless decisions or gets in the way of the one genius who knows how to find Bin Laden.  It’s also the sort of movie where people convey narrative information by getting into screaming matches in office hallways, and Jessica Chastain, so great in other roles, is frankly terrible when she has to yell.  But the film’s pivotal raid on Bin Laden’s headquarters and the aftermath is such a perfect piece of pure cinema that it’s almost enough to make up for everything else.  Far from the jingoistic spectacle audiences might crave, Bigelow instead maintains a tone of chilly anxiety, lingering on the terrified children and innocent casualties that result from the Navy Seals’ raid on Bin Laden’s compound.  It’s a powerful enough piece of filmmaking that it makes me inclined to forgive everything that precedes it, and it renders any claims that the film is pro-torture or pro-military ludicrous.  My vote: 5

 

Thoughts on the Best Original Music Nominees

The Oscar for Best Original Score is frankly, something of a joke.  I don’t meant that dismissively – plenty of legitimately great scores have won the award – but there’s a reason that winning a this award has almost zero impact on a composer’s standing in the industry (for proof, look at how many recent Oscar-winning composers’ careers dried up immediately after winning the statue).  The problem with the award stems from a problem that plagues every award from the non-major categories – it’s chosen by people who by and large have no idea what they’re voting for.  Most people who work in the film industry has some idea of what constitutes a great picture or a great director, but how many actors understand the difference between sound mixing and sound editing?  And more pertinently, how many costume designers, makeup artists, actors, writers, or production designers understand the difference between best original score and best song placement?  Few viewers actually pay attention to film music when they watch a film, and I doubt many voters bother to educate themselves before voting on this award.  This means that while the Music Branch itself is generally intelligent (and strategic) about the scores it nominates, the rest of the Academy often goes in with no memory of the music in question.

This means that the score that wins Best Original score almost always wins for one of five reasons.  Either:

A) The award is being used as a consolidation prize for a Best Picture nominee that isn’t going to win anything else.

B) The award is attached to a Best Picture nominee that’s sweeping every other major category.

C) The award goes to a score for a film full of memorable songs that voters mistake with original score (though in recent years the Music Branch has added new rules to prevent this from happening)

D) The award goes to a composer who is famous for something other than film music (i.e., an acclaimed concert composer or a former rock star)

E) The award goes to a score that is so prominent in the film, even laymen are inclined to remember it afterwards.

Of the three, only E actually has anything to do with the merits of the score in question, and even this has more to do with music’s prominence than its quality.  Sometimes it works out that legitimately great scores still win the award, but when it happens it’s almost more of a happy coincidence.  So with those qualifications in mind, here are my own thoughts on this year’s Best Original Score nominees.

Argo

Will it Win:  Unlikely.  If Argo sweeps all the awards there’s a chance that the score get carried along for the ride, but I’m guessing that the winners will be more spread out this year.  Moreover, the score in Argo is so minimal that few voters are likely to remember it even existed.  Likelihood:  5

Should it win:  No – in fact, of the five, I’d say it’s easily the weakest contender.  Desplat did some marginally interesting things with the score that didn’t make it into the film, but onscreen it’s generic mood music that only comes to life during a schmaltzy closing scene.  Ironically, Desplat delivered a much more intelligent and purposeful score for the other Oscar contender about conflict in the Middle East – Zero Dark ThirtyMy Vote: 5

Anna Karenina

Will it Win:  It has a decent chance just by virtue of the enormous role it plays in the film itself.  Due to the meta-theatrical nature of Joe Wright’s production, the Dario Marianelli’s score often features directly in the story itself.  Musicians walk onscreen playing the score during set changes, and elaborate dance sequences are painstakingly choreographed to the music.  But the score has two major obstacles – it isn’t particularly emotional, and the film itself isn’t very popular.  It’s rare for a score to win if its film hasn’t at least been nominated for Best Picture, and Anna Karenina wasn’t even a critical or commercial success.  Those factors will make it hard for Marianelli to take home another statue. Likelihood:  3

Should it win:  While it isn’t my favorite, the score is a deserving contender.  Marianelli is an accomplished composer, and his music for Karenina is appropriately detailed and authentic to the period.  But like the film itself, the score is also a bit too mannered and restrained for its own good.  While Marianelli writes an impeccable pastiche of late Romantic Russian music, he rarely allows the music to open up in ways that might actually make us feel something for the character.  This of course is no doubt an artistic decision of sorts, but it’s one of the many artistic decisions that keeps the film from working as more than a novelty project.  It’s hard to shake the sense that the score is treating the entire enterprise as an extremely elaborate joke, and while that’s fine to an extent, at some point you have to give us a reason to care about the characters.  My vote: 3

Life of Pi

Will it Win:  Odds certainly seem to be in its favor.  It won the Golden Globe equivalent and it seems to be sweeping every other film music award.  It’s also exactly the sort of film that voters tend to love – prominent but not overbearing, ethnic but not alien, intelligent but not inaccessible, emotional but not saccharine.  It helps that the music plays for long stretches without any competition from dialogue or sound effects, almost ensuring that voters will remember it after the fact.  Furthermore, the score is attached to a Best Picture Nominee that likely won’t win any major awards, which makes it prime material for a consolation prize.  The fact that it’s also the year’s best score almost seems like an afterthought.  Likelihood:  1

Should it Win:  Yes – didn’t you read what I just said?  I already raved about the score in my Best of 2012 post a few weeks ago, but Michael Danna’s exquisitely detailed music is both beautiful and profound.  Danna is one of Hollywood’s most underrated composers, and however meaningless the Oscar might be as a barometer of talent, he deserves the accolades all the same.  My Vote:  1

Lincoln

Will it win:  I doubt it.  Williams is a favorite within the music branch, but his enormous fame has backfired on him in popular circles.  Too many people see him as a square fuddy-duddy who writes the sort of old-fashioned music Hollywood music we’re supposed to turn our noses at.  This is of course a completely unfair characterization, but it seems to have stuck for Academy voters throughout the past decade and a half.  Moreover, his music for Lincoln plays a very muted role in the film, and on the few occasions where it is noticeable, it arguably does more harm than good.  Still there’s a chance that the Academy will realize they aren’t going to have John Williams forever, so Lincoln may end up winning out of deference to one of the last living film music masters.  Likelihood: 4

Should it win:  No, with a qualification that the music itself is beyond repute.  If this were a best composition award then … well I would still give it to Life of Pi, but Lincoln would be a worthy contender.  Williams has written a beautiful and intelligent piece of Americana, but the music functions poorly in the film itself – when it isn’t whispering inaudibly, it’s goosing up scenes that should speak for themselves with swelling sentimental strings.  I don’t blame Williams so much as I blame Spielberg for pushing him in this direction, but the result is nevertheless an unfortunate as film music.  My Vote:  4

Skyfall

Will it Win:  It’s a reasonably long shot, but not an implausible one.  Again, it’s rare for a film that wasn’t nominated for any of the major awards to pick this one up, especially when that film was a genre piece.  But Skyfall is an enormously popular film with both critics and audiences, and people who ordinarily don’t even mention music have singled out Thomas Newman’s score for its effectiveness (the fact that the music is so loud in the audio mix helps considerably).  While die-hard John Barry fans seem to want Newman’s head on a spike, general audiences seem to be won over, evidenced if nothing else by the enormous sales for the soundtrack album (especially impressive considering that Adele’s song isn’t even on the album).  Skyfall is also a film that many members of the Academy probably wish they had nominated, so I can easily see them showing the film some love through a Best Original Score Oscar.  Likelihood: 2

Should it Win:  I have my reservations about the score, mostly because I hear so many missed opportunities to dig deeper into the franchise’s rich musical legacy.  But the score does succeed in bringing something fresh to the table, and I’m impressed with the way Newman balances his own distinct personality with the classic Bond idioms.  And while my heart (and my bet) is on Life of Pi, it would be nice to see a score win, not because it is attached to a Best Picture nominee, but because people genuinely like the music.  My Vote: 2

And that, my chums and chumlettes, is Movie Music Musing’s last word on 2012.  Thank you all again for reading.  Expect more reviews of recent films in the weeks to come, along with other various odd thoughts that occur to me (and of course your suggestions are always welcome).  Here’s to 2013!

The International Film Music Critics Association Announces Their 2012 Awards

ifmca-logo

As some of you may know, I’m a member of the International Film Music Critics Association.  As the name suggests, we’re a group of critics and journalists from around the world dedicated to promoting film music appreciation.  Every year we vote on various “bests” in film music, as a sort of movie score-exclusive version of the Oscars (without the ceremony, granted).  While I don’t always agree with the selections my fellow peers deem outstanding, I actually do think we’ve agreed on some excellent choices this year (and you’ll see some overlap with my own best of 2012 post from a few weeks ago).  I’m posting the press release below, and I strongly recommend giving it a look.  Also, if you would like to hear clips from some of the winners and nominees, click here for our annual podcast (you even get to hear my voice introducing one of the pieces).  And with no more ado:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

INTERNATIONAL FILM MUSIC CRITICS ASSOCIATION HONORS MULTIPLE FILMS; “LIFE OF PI” TAKES SCORE OF THE YEAR BUT DESPLAT, ELFMAN, GIACCHINO, NEWMAN, VELÁZQUEZ, WILLIAMS ALSO WIN

http://filmmusiccritics.org/2013/02/ifmca-winners-2012/

FEBRUARY 21, 2013 — The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) announces its list of winners for excellence in musical scoring in 2012. Unlike in previous years, where one score has taken multiple victories, the main film prizes are split equally between 11 different movies and composers, the greatest spread in IFMCA history.

The award for Score of the Year goes to Canadian composer MYCHAEL DANNA for his score for director Ang Lee’s vivid shipwreck drama LIFE OF PI. Danna’s dramatic and beautiful score made use of a large number of Indian musical elements in addition to a traditional western orchestra, capturing through music one the film’s key ideas, the collision of different cultures to form the large, ethnic melting pot from which the lead character, Pi Patel, originates. This is the first Score of the Year award from the IFMCA for Golden Globe winner and double-Oscar nominee Danna, who had never previously been nominated in this category, although he did receive five previous nominations in genre categories for scores such as BEING JULIA, THE NATIVITY STORY and THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS.

Hollywood A-lister DANNY ELFMAN was named Film Composer of the Year for his outstanding body of work in 2012, during which he composed music for such popular and successful films as DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE, HITCHCOCK. MEN IN BLACK III, PROMISED LAND and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Elfman’s music in 2012 ran the gamut of styles and genres, from the soft rock of Silver Linings Playbook to the Gothic atmospherics of Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie, to the subtle Bernard Herrmann echoes of Hitchcock, cementing his position as one of the most versatile and sought-after composers working today. This is the second Composer of the Year Award Elfman has received from the IFMCA, having previously been similarly honored for his work in 2008.

The IFMCA’s ongoing recognition of emerging talent in the film music world this year spotlights 37-year-old Colorado-born composer NATHAN JOHNSON, who was named Breakout Composer of the Year for his unconventionally percussive music for the acclaimed sci-fi thriller LOOPER. To create the film’s unique aural atmosphere Johnson took a standard small orchestra, featuring mainly strings and piano, and augmented them with a massive array of sampled sounds and processed percussion effects, ranging from trash can lids, an oscillating fan, and gunfire to hammered PVC tubes and fire alarms. The end result is cacophonous, unsettling, but weirdly fascinating music that somehow manages to bring together these seemingly random and incoherent musical collisions of sounds into a propulsive, exciting score.

Spanish composer FERNANDO VELÁZQUEZ wrote the IFMCA’s Film Music Composition of the Year – “The Impossible Main Title” from director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film THE IMPOSSIBLE, which tells the story of a family caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Velázquez’s main title is an overwhelming emotional powerhouse, capturing both the tragedy of the situation and the sense of desperation felt by the family concerned. The score was recorded by the excellent string section of the London Metropolitan Orchestra at the historic Abbey Road Studios, and has been praised by numerous mainstream film critics as one of the outstanding elements of the film. This is the first IFMCA Award win for Velázquez, who was previously nominated for his scores EL ORFANATO (THE ORPHANAGE) in 2007 and GARBO: EL ESPÍA in 2009.

The various genre awards were won by JOHN WILLIAMS for director Steven Spieberg’s historical drama LINCOLN, WALTER MURPHY for the raucous comedy TED, THOMAS NEWMAN for his work on the near-universally lauded James Bond film SKYFALL, MICHAEL GIACCHINO for the epic Edgar Rice Burroughs space adventure JOHN CARTER, ALEXANDRE DESPLAT for the whimsical fantasy animation RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, and Finnish composer PANU AALTIO for his music for the beautiful nature documentary METSÄN TARINA.

In the non-film categories, British composer MURRAY GOLD won the award for Best Original Score for a Television Series for his outstanding work on the most recent season of the classic BBC science fiction show DOCTOR WHO, while composer AUSTIN WINTORY won the award for Best Original Score for a Video Game or Interactive Media for his score for the groundbreaking game JOURNEY, which earlier this year made history by being the first Video Game score nominated for a Grammy.

La-La Land Records won the Best Archival Release of an Existing Score award for their magnificent release of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic 1979 score STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, newly re-mastered and re-released in a lavish 3-CD set. They also continued their monopoly of the Film Music Record Label of the Year category, winning for the third straight year, and solidifying their position at the top of the list of labels specializing in lovingly restoring the greatest film music of the past.

Finally, conductor Nic Raine and producers James Fitzpatrick and Luc Van de Ven won the Best Archival Re-Recording of an Existing Score award for the monumental re-recording of Miklós Rózsa’s score for the epic 1951 film QUO VADIS?, which featured stellar performances from the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

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THE WINNERS

2012 Film Categories

FILM SCORE OF THE YEAR

• LIFE OF PI, music by Mychael Danna

FILM COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

• DANNY ELFMAN

BREAKOUT COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

• NATHAN JOHNSON

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DRAMA FILM

• LINCOLN, music by John Williams

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A COMEDY FILM

• TED, music by Walter Murphy

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ACTION/ADVENTURE/THRILLER FILM

• SKYFALL, music by Thomas Newman

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A FANTASY/SCIENCE FICTION/HORROR FILM

• JOHN CARTER, music by Michael Giacchino

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ANIMATED FEATURE

• RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, music by Alexandre Desplat

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

• METSÄN TARINA, music by Panu Aaltio

FILM MUSIC COMPOSITION OF THE YEAR

• “The Impossible Main Title” from THE IMPOSSIBLE, music by Fernando Velázquez

Other 2012 Categories

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A TELEVISION SERIES

• DOCTOR WHO, music by Murray Gold

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A VIDEO GAME OR INTERACTIVE MEDIA

• JOURNEY, music by Austin Wintory

BEST ARCHIVAL RELEASE OF AN EXISTING SCORE

• STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, music by Jerry Goldsmith; album produced by Didier C. Deutsch, Mike Matessino, Bruce Botnick, MV Gerhard, Matt Verboys and David C. Fein; liner notes by Jeff Bond and Mike Matessino; album art direction by Jim Titus (La-La Land)

BEST ARCHIVAL RE-RECORDING OF AN EXISTING SCORE

• QUO VADIS?, music by Miklós Rózsa; conducted by Nic Raine; album produced by James Fitzpatrick and Luc Van de Ven; liner notes by Frank K. DeWald; album art direction by GINKO DIGI (Prometheus/Tadlow)

FILM MUSIC RECORD LABEL OF THE YEAR

• LA-LA LAND RECORDS, MV Gerhard, Matt Verboys

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The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) is an association of online, print and radio journalists who specialize in writing about original film and television music.

Since its inception, the IFMCA has grown to comprise almost 60 members from countries as diverse as Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Previous IFMCA Score of the Year Awards have been awarded to John Williams’ WAR HORSE in 2011, John Powell’s HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON in 2010, Michael Giacchino’s UP in 2009, Alexandre Desplat’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON in 2008, Dario Marianelli’s ATONEMENT in 2007, James Newton Howard’s LADY IN THE WATER in 2006, John Williams’ MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA in 2005 and Michael Giacchino’s THE INCREDIBLES in 2004.

For more information about the International Film Music Critics Association visit filmmusiccritics.org or facebook.com/ifmca, follow us at twitter.com/IFMCA, or contact us

Best Films of 2012

Was 2012 a good year for film?  It was certainly a good year for hype.  Last January, we were looking at a year that promised new films by Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg, in addition to widely anticipated entries in the Batman, James Bond, Avengers, Alien, and Lord of the Rings franchises.  How much did these widely disparate films live up to the hype?  By and large, extraordinarily well.  While there were always going to be disappointments, 2012 was largely a year of great filmmakers reminding us why we pay so much attention every time they make a new movie.  Some of them surprised, some of them fell short, and some simply managed to meet intimidating high expectations, but more than any year in recent memory, 2012 felt like a year when individual director’s voices dominated  both the blockbuster and the arthouse.  As much as the media would like to turn a “flop” like John Carter into a cautionary tale of too much directorial power, it’s telling that three of the hugest hits this year – The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall – are each clearly the product of a strong-willed director with a distinct voice.  That said, there were also many unexpected surprises, often from first-time directors who will hopefully go on to have long and fruitful careers in movies.  But for the present moment, the stars seem to have briefly aligned so that it’s possible to be an artist and still find enormous commercial success within the Hollywood system.  I’m not holding my breath for how long it will last, but 2012 was a nice reminder that quality and commercialism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Below are 10 films that – for me – stood out amidst a remarkably strong year.  Motivated in part by this blog, I made an effort this year of seeing as much as possible, and as a result I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to condense my favorites into a top 10 list.  The picks below are by no means perfect – in fact, many are so heavily flawed that some of you may be flabbergasted that I’ve included them.  But every film below tried something ambitious, something memorable that attains greatness despite – and sometimes even because of – other perceived shortcomings.  Before I begin, I should acknowledge one caveat: I still have not seen Holy MotorsWuthering HeightsRust and Bone, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Killer Joe, and a handful of other titles that have made a lot of other critics top ten lists.  Others critical darlings like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are absent for a reasons that I will get to into in a later post.  With that out of the way, here are Movie Music Musing’s …

Top 10 Films of 2012:

10.  Prometheus

Remember that thing I said in the opening paragraph about some of these films being heavily flawed?  I know it was a long time ago, so I can wait while you go back to re-read it if you like….  Good?  Good.  Well, I was mostly thinking of Prometheus when I said that.  Ridley Scott’s film certainly has its weak spots, especially when it tries to be a traditional horror film and sends presumably brilliant researchers to do insanely stupid things.  Yet these moments are secondary to the film’s remarkable achievement – legitimate science fiction on a massive blockbuster budget.  For the first time in decades, the Ridley Scott who made thought-provoking, visually intricate films like The Duelists and Blade Runner seems to have returned.  Working with a script by Damian Lindelof, whose final season of Lost covered similar ground, Scott uses the epic platform to pose a provocative question – can we assume that any creator that made us had wise benevolent intentions in mind when we take such a reckless and cavalier attitude to our own creations?  The film doesn’t outright state this message so much as it allows the question to play out through various interlocking creator/creation relationships, whether from man to robot, father to daughter, or mother to an entirely new species of life.  Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the film is the way it weaves its origin story of the creature from Alien in as a thematic parallel to mankind’s own obsession with its own origin story – while the humans run around desperately searching for the secret of their creation, they themselves are inadvertently creating a brand new form of life that they’d just as soon destroy as abandon.  There are of course better films this year, but short of The Master, I can’t think of another film that prompted more interesting conversations.

9.  Antimetheus

A spin-off of Prometheus about a little-known god who runs around looking for people lighting fires, then angrily snatches the fires away and shouts “Hey – you can’t have that!”  It’s a stunning use of … ok fine, there is no movie called Antimetheus – that was a goof.  But if anybody’s interested in my spec script: “Antimetheus Decides He’s Fine Being Bound, Really Don’t Trouble Yourself,” please contact me.

9 (actual).  Skyfall

I reviewed this a few months ago, and since that time the film seems to have attracted equal measures of intense praise and criticism (the latter mostly from fans who can’t get over the film not looking precisely like their version of a Bond film).  As I stated then, it’s another flawed film, particularly clumsy during the action scenes that would normally be the Bond film’s reason for existence.  The thing is, in this particular film they aren’t – Mendes invests the film with so much emotional weight for both Bond as a character and Bond as a cultural institution that all the various plot holes and awkward fight scenes just seem like trivialities.  Remember that brief gasp of tragedy that closes the otherwise lighthearted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?  Skyfall is that moment extended over two and half hours, resulting in installment for this franchise where the thrills come from the character relationships, not the explosions.

8.  Amour

Part of me feels guilty for placing this so low on this list, because it’s an objectively brilliant film and I completely understand why it’s received so much widespread critical adulation.  Michael Haneke is notorious for brutal portraits of human cruelty in films like Funny Games and Cache, but he’s often misunderstood as a cruel director as a result.  In truth, every Haeneke film invites compassion from its audience – he just uses cruelty to make us recognize how much damage we can do to each other when we aren’t careful.  Amour might be his first film that instead focuses squarely on humankind’s capacity for kindness, though Haneke being Haneke, the film does so in the most brutal fashion imaginable.  Without a trace of sentimentality, he shows us the last days of an elderly married couple (played by French New Wave icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva).  After a botched operation and stroke leaves Riva unable to tend to even her basic body functions, Trintignant’s role gradually shifts from husband to nurse as he struggles to take care of his wife even while her brain slowly leaves her.  In terms of achieving what it sets out to achieve, Haneke’s film is unimpeachable – the cold static shots, the absence of any musical score, and naturalistic performances of the actors create an approximation of reality so convincing it’s often easy to forget you aren’t in a nursing home (I know that people throw these statements around quite a bit, but it really will be an outrage if anybody but Riva wins the Best Actress Oscar).  Yet that same commitment to realism can make it hard to shake the feeling that I could have the same experience with a trip to the local nursing home.  That isn’t necessarily a problem with the film, but it makes for occasion where I can say a film was a masterpiece, yet I’m not entirely sure what I gained from seeing it.

7.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s probably not fair to call this the best representation of high school in any American film, but statements like that assume that everybody has the same memories of high school and their teenage years.  But I will say that it is the only film I have seen, to date, that actually resonated with my own memories of being a teenager.  The film does not exist in a reductive universe made up of broad character types (i.e.  The Breakfast Club) – it’s instead a sensitive and nuanced look at the makeshift communities we form when we’re just old enough to start developing our own identities.  Director Stephen Chbosky adapts the story from his novel, yet at no point does he fall to the traps of other novelist-turned-directors – he knows when to trust wordless audio-visual sequences to tell the story, and when to let the actors carry the emotions that aren’t explicitly spelled out in the dialogue.  The film captures the early point in adulthood where we’re mature enough to have profound feelings but not mature enough to know how to control them – if that doesn’t seem like big praise, think of how few American can films can genuinely make the same claim.

6.  Life of Pi

When word broke that Ang Lee would be adapting Yann Martel’s novel, I suspect that most expected Pi’s odyssey would be getting the somber treatment of the man who gave us The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain.  What a wonderful surprise then, to see that Lee has instead turned the material into his most whimsical and visually spectacular film to date.  Navigating around the problem of adapting a book that spends the bulk of its story on a lifeboat, the director turns the film’s potentially monotonous setting into a showcase for vivid, impressionistic fantasy sequences and 3D effects that put Avatar to shame.  These showstopping set-piece aren’t gratuitous, but rather extensions of the protagonist’s free-flowing spiritual imagination.  Granted, some of the film’s philosophical musings hit dead ends (the film stakes a lot of weight on whether or not the tiger has a soul, and its criteria for determining this question are questionable at best).  But the film’s viscerally thrilling combination of dazzling imagery and soulful music makes an extremely convincing case for the spiritual ecstasy that the Pi embraces.  It’s rare to see Ang Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve so shamelessly, and it’s a pleasure to discover that he’s actually very good at it.

5.  Django Unchained

Django Unchained is probably Tarantino’s most straightforward “movie” since Jackie Brown, and one of the few that functions just as well as a satisfying action film as it does a metacommentary on filmmaking.  Yet though it succeeds in telling a supremely satisfying story, it also doubles a sly rebuke against Hollywood’s frequently shameful history with racial representation.  Much controversy was caused by the film’s premise – a Spaghetti Western/exploitation pastiche about a slave who slaughters white Southerners – and if you take Tarantino’s highly stylized vision of the Antebellum South on strictly historical grounds, I’m sure you’ll find a great deal of fault.  But while the world that this film creates isn’t plausible as a real historical setting, it’s highly plausible as a slightly distorted reflection of the equally fictitious worlds we see in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.  Tarantino sets up the icons from these films – the majestic Klan, the plantation, the southern belle, and the Uncle Tom/Mammy figure, and then proceeds to reveal how dangerous despicable all of these fantasies actually are.  Then Django blows them to smithereens (spoiler?).  After so many films that spend their time hand-wringing and falling over themselves to make sure that white audiences don’t have to feel too bad about slavery, there’s something cathartic about a film that’s willing to declare all-out war on the sentimental tropes that have somehow allowed white American culture to get nostalgic for its darkest shame.

4.  Moonrise Kingdom

Another film I’ve already reviewed, and I don’t have a lot to add other than to reiterate how moving it to see Anderson take the whimsical children’s storybook world that his disillusioned adult characters usually cling to, and firmly give that world back to the children who still have a chance to avoid their parents’ mistakes.  Wes Anderson will always make “Wes Anderson” films, but when they’re this charming and deeply felt, how could that be a bad thing?

3.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

I know next to nothing about director Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Turkish cinema, but part of this chillingly beautiful crime drama’s brilliance is that it could have been made anywhere.  Perhaps that isn’t strictly fair – the simultaneously gorgeous and dreary rolling hills of rural Turkey have a distinct quality that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else on the planet  -  but the film’s mediation truth and morality extend far past its geographic and cultural setting.  Two brothers confess to a murder and proceed to lead a group of policeman and law officials to the body.  But because one brother is mentally handicapped and the other drunk when the murder took place, the search for the body ends up stretching long into the night.  The long monotonous scavenger hunt serves as a fodder for philosophical conversations with unsettling ramifications, but the film is the most affecting when it quietly hints at a heartbreaking truth that the confession conceals.  Not that truth is ever clear in this story – Ceylan keeps his central themes unresolved, resulting in a gut-wrenching film that’s all the more devastating for the closure it denies us.

2. The Master

Yet another film I’ve already reviewed, and while there are certainly many more things that I could say about it, let’s just suffice to say it’s a masterpiece, a film that we will be talking about for decades to come.  Nobody else is making movies like this – nobody who can build an entire film on character relationships that are painstakingly intimate yet ambiguous in nearly every respect.  I had to limit my reading to Joaquin Phoenix’s character just to keep my review from turning into a book, but I doubt that even a book-length analysis would do justice to the countless beguiling and contradictory layers that Anderson has woven together.  Part of me feels that this should be in my number one spot, and really at this point, the rankings are arbitrary.  But if, gun to my head, I have to pick one film from 2012, I have to go with:

1.  Beasts of the Southern Wild 

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who read my earlier rave.  This is a film that manages to burrow deep into squalor, yet with that filth it builds its own beautiful new universe.  In some ways, the film is the polar opposite of The Master – where that film buries any affect or meaning under countless contradictory layers, Beasts gives us direct, naked passion from the first frame.  Perhaps because it relies so much on its raw emotional appeal, the film does admittedly tend to either affect people enormously or not at all.  But I don’t necessarily see that as a shortcoming – any film that pierces so fiercely at the heart is going to miss a few viewers in the process.  Ultimately, while there may have been more intellectual or carefully crafted films released this year, none of them could claim such a startlingly unique and overwhelmingly moving vision.

Runners Up:

Martin McDonagh’s meta-dramedy Seven Psychopaths might seem like a Tarantino riff on the surface, but it’s much closer to his own play Pillowman - like that theater piece, the film is a dark examination of storytelling and its capacity to both mirror and influence traumatic violence in the real world.  The man against-wolves plot of The Grey might seem like a horror thriller on the surface, but the film itself is a surprisingly a sensitive and tender look at the different ways we face death, and it features Liam Neeson’s best performance in nearly a decade.  A dramatic event takes place midway through a couple’s backpacking trip in The Loneliest Planet, and your ability to accept the film will likely hinge on whether you can swallow the idea that the couple could go for days without so much as mentioning the event.  Yet it raises profoundly unsettling questions about gender roles in the 21st century, and deserves to be seen simply for the difficult conversation it prompts.  The last act of Spielberg’s Lincoln caves a bit too much to celebrating the brave rich white men who talked about ending slavery, but it’s otherwise a remarkably sober reflection on the way our political process forces even a national hero like Lincoln to make ethical compromises for the greater good.  Finally Looper operates on a brilliant high concept premise, and it manages to surprise even as it follows that premise to what, in retrospect, was always its natural conclusion.  That it also builds to a surprisingly moving critique of our modern-day culture of selfishness almost feels like a bonus.

Five Great Popcorn Films from 2012:

These films that ultimately didn’t have the substance to merit a place in the above lists, but they proved that quality and innovation aren’t always enemies to escapist entertainment.

The Avengers

Clever dialogue, great character chemistry, and a sense of scope that’s as gloriously ridiculous as the comic books themselves lead to one of the few modern-day action films that kids will still be watching in their basements decades into the future.  No other film this year was quite so successful at creating a giddy sense of fun, and it served as a reminder that in the right hands, a crossover can actually be thrilling.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

People expecting either the scope of the Lord of the Rings films or the quiet whimsy of the original novel are almost certain to be disappointed, but taken on its own terms, Jackson has created an enormously entertaining adventure yarn.  It’s best approached if you consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings appendices as raw material for a new story, rather than as a holy text that requires the film’s total fidelity.  While the frame story with Ian Holm is a bit much, in other respects Jackson and his writers actually improve on the novel – it’s clearer why Gandalf’s here and how he eventually evolves into the character we see in the later films, and the dwarfs’ quest has a meaningful justification here that never quite came across in Tolkien’s novel.  No it’s not as powerful as the first trilogy, but it makes up for epic scope with a more light-hearted and inventive approach to escapism.

The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard’s film probably isn’t as profound as it seems on the surface, but he deserves kudos for delivering both a clever deconstruction of horror movie tropes and the biggest monster melee since House of Frankenstein.  It manages to satisfy both fans of slasher flicks and people who generally hate slasher flicks, and it closes with one of the most perversely satisfying closing sequences of any film this year.

Premium Rush 

This zippy action-comedy about a thrill-seeking bicycle messenger shows its cards from the start when it refers to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s hero as Wile E. Coyote.  Truth be told though, both the film and the hero are much closer to the Road Runner.  Like that cartoon bird, Levitt and the film are singular in purpose, and they make fast-paced adrenalin its own ethos.  The result is a compact speed-run that’s more electrifying than any live-action Looney Tunes cartoon has right to be.

Dark Knight Rises

Nolan’s big caper to his Dark Knightt trilogy was rife with plot holes and troubling thematic implications (this is not a film that handles class or gender conflict gracefully), but it’s hard to fault Rises for its entertainment value.  The film relies a lot on the audience’s built-in goodwill from the previous films, but by and large Nolan manages to draw his saga to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, even in the midst of significant shortcomings.

And that was 2012!  Tune in later next week when I talk about this year’s Oscar nominations, and thanks for reading!

The Ten Best Film Scores of 2012

It’s been awfully quiet at Movie Music Musings for the past few months, but that’s changing this February.  As people who follow the movie industry know, Hollywood’s year doesn’t end until the annual Academy Awards ceremony wraps in late February.  With that in mind, for the next several weeks I will be contributing my own “best of” lists for the year’s end, as well as my reflections on the Oscar Nominations themselves.  Because this would be a gargantuan blog post if I attempted to do this all in one go, I’ve elected to break the year-end reflections up into 4 separate posts:  Best scores of 2012, Best films of 2012, my rundown of the Best Picture nominees, and my rundown of the Best Film Score nominees.  If, by February 24 you aren’t sick of Movie Music Musings, it won’t be for lack of trying on my part.

With that in mind, here are my personal choices for the ten best film scores of 2012.  Picking this list was not easy.  Most film scores have two different lives – one in the film itself, and one on the soundtrack album.  In making my selections, I tend to favor the former and single out the scores that have significant impact in their respective films, regardless of any entertainment value on the standalone soundtrack albums.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however.  Sometimes music that was clearly had the potential to make a film shine gets either edited beyond recognition in post-production or mixed so poorly beneath the dialogue and sound effects that it might as well not exist.  In the occasions where it seems clear to me that great film music was given less than ideal treatment in a film, I often go with my gut instinct and include the score in my list anyway.  This list is of course always a work in progress, and I suspect that my thoughts on some of these scores will change years down the line.  But my below are my best guesses for the present, in reverse order:

The 10 Best Film Scores of 2012

10.  Zero Dark Thirty - Alexandre Desplat

At some point in the last half-decade, Desplat went from being a well-respected composer of European art scores to being the most prolific and in-demand composer in Hollywood .  In truth he’s probably too prolific, and his scores can often fall into listless monotony as a result.  But when he’s on, as he is in Zero Dark Thirty, his dramatic instincts perfectly compliment his sense of restraint.  This score is subtle and sparsely spotted throughout the film, but when it does appear – often under the dialogue – it always has a tangible psychological effect on the drama.  But it’s his music for the journey to Bin Laden’s compound is the real reason the score is on this list.  As the SEALS’ helicopters chug quietly over the mountains leading into Pakistan, Desplat’s  relentlessly grim strings churn with the helicopter blades while brass chords heave with mounting anxiety.  The music elevates the sequence to cinematic poetry, and serves as a chilling prelude to what is by far one of the greatest sequences in any Hollywood film of the past decade.  I have problems with Zero Dark Thirty as a film that I’ll elaborate on in a different post, but Desplat’s music is certainly not one of them.

9.  Prometheus – Marc Streitenfeld

Believe me, nobody is more surprised than me than this ended up making my cut.  Prior to Prometheus, Streitenfeld seemed like one of the single worst composers working in Hollywood, a musician capable of little more than generic keyboard noodlings whose best quality was that he knew how to stay out of the way.  Yet in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s provocative science-fiction epic/backdoor prequel to Alien, the composer reveals an imagination that he never even hinted at in his earlier scores.  This is bleak, probing orchestral music that very much in keeping with the best scores of the Alien franchise.   Streitenfeld strikes a perfect balance between grim, long-winded melodies and atmospheric probing that isn’t a million miles away from Goldsmith’s own experiments in the original Alien score.  Synthesizers play a role, but they’re treated like unique instruments rather than substitutes for the orchestra (their usage here actually reminds me of later Goldsmith scores like Legend and Total Recall).  A majestic choral piece by Harry Gregson-Williams ends up playing a much more obvious role in the film itself, but it’s Streitenfeld’s theme, heard most prominently during the climatic collision sequence, that cuts to the heart of the story.  Tragic and portentous, it carries the weight of the film’s futile theological inquiries. If this is what Streitenfeld is actually capable of when given free rein, I actually do look forward to seeing what he does next.

8.  Cosmopolis – Howard Shore and Metric

I don’t know if any contemporary composer’s range astounds me more than that of Howard Shore.  Much of his greatness, as both a film composer and an artist in general, comes from his constant willingness to throw himself into unfamiliar territory.  Here, the man most famous for his operatic Lord of the Rings scores abandons himself entirely to moody synth-pop, collaborating with Metric for an extremely rare thing – a contemporary electronica score that’s actually current with contemporary electronica.  This being a Shore score for  Cronenberg film, the music favors texture and rhythmic drive over melody, but it’s amazing how seamlessly Shore’s signature menacing mood music flows into Metric’s idiom.  And though that mood remains consistent, Shore and Metric do give the score a musical arc that mirrors that of the anti-hero’s rapid fall from non-grace.  What begins as a seemingly unbreakable tone of gloomy ennui gradually builds in intensity until the score explodes into raw despair in its final minutes.  Cronenberg never manages to turn Delillo’s oblique novel into a wholly successful piece of cinema, but Shore and Metric have found the story’s ideal musical corollary.

7.  Beasts of the Southern Wild – Behn Zeitlin and Dan Rohmer

I wrote about this score at length in my earlier review, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  Suffice to say though, this was one of the purest expressions of raw musical affect in any film this year.  True, the score is simple and rough around the edges.  But like the film itself, this music is emotionally direct in ways that, without resorting to sentiment whatsoever, are almost certain to reduce even the curmudgiest of curmudgeon to tears.

6.  Paranorman – Jon Brion

Brion’s jangly indie rock sensibility usually finds its home in projects from Charlie Kauffman, David O Russel, and Paul Thomas Anderson, so the idea of him scoring an animated children’s film was certainly a surprise.  Even more surprising, however, is the fact that Brion has managed to keep his signature sound more or less intact.  It’s one thing to hear Brion’s ambling melancholy guitars over a Charlie Kauffman monologue, but it’s quite another to hear them juxtaposed over a lonely animated boy’s interactions with cartoonish zombies.  Rather than water down his style, Brion uses it to provide unique insight into a genre usually dominated by madcap Mickey-Mousing.  Though the score has its moments of traditional orchestral mayhem, Brion ultimately treats his lonely child hero the same way he treats every damaged Emo hero in his indie films – with quirky charm that only barely holds back a core of nearly unbearable sadness.

5.  Brave – Patrick Doyle

Doyle is one of our best living film composers, but he disappointed a lot of his fans last year when he opted to adapt his signature orchestral style to the more contemporary language of power anthems and drum loops for films like Thor and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  While I personally thought those scores were just fine, it is nice to see him back in more traditional Doyle mode in Brave, the biggest showcase he’s had for his considerable musical gifts in some time.  A rare Celtic-flavored score that actually sounds like authentic Celtic music, Doyle manages to capture both the sweeping Scottish setting and the intimate character drama, all the while constantly keeping his finger precisely on the film’s emotional pulse.  His best contribution, however, is his song “Noble Maiden Fair,” a lullaby that features prominently both in the plot and in the non-diegetic underscore.  A duet sung by both mother and daughter that could easily be mistaken for an ancient Celtic air, the melody manages to wed the story’s dual concerns about the power of the mother-daughter bond and the value of ancient legends far more gracefully than the film does itself.  When the lullaby reappears at a pivotal moment during the film’s climax, it’s one of the most powerful moments in any movie this year.

4.  The Master – Johnny Greenwood

I reviewed this one a few months back, so there isn’t much need to go into it again, but in short:  this is brilliant, beguiling, and thoroughly challenging music from one of the most astonishing director/composer relationships of recent memory (though in fairness, the same could also be said for Anderson’s earlier work with Jon Brion).  I was reserved in my praise in the earlier review, but repeated listens continue to reveal more nuances in this multilayered work.  It doesn’t totally upend film music conventions the same composer did for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but Greenwood’s score for The Master is immensely intelligent and original film music.

3.  Dark Shadows – Danny Elfman

Another score I’ve already reviewed, so little more to say here other than that Danny Elfman had an incredible year, with six, SIX major scores, each strong in entirely different ways.  Dark Shadows is easily the best of the lot, however - it refines and perfects the gothic melodrama upon which Elfman made his name, but it also seamlessly reinvents long-forgotten cult horror music idioms from the ’60s and ’70s.  Like Burton’s film, Elfman’s score is a concentrated attempt at reanimating a long-forgotten pop cultural memory – unlike Burton’s film, the music is an unqualified success, virtually a conversation between Elfman and the ghosts of composers like Les Baxter and Robert Cobert.

2.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore

For quite a few people in the film music community, no score from 2012 was more anticipated than The Hobbit.  With the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Howard Shore wrote what is frankly one of the greatest and most important works of film music, period.  It was going to be impossible to write anything that lived up to that, especially given that The Hobbit is far slighter material.  But Shore responded in the best manner possible, taking the lighter story as an opportunity to take a more playful approach to the action, all while subtly planting the seeds for his later scores in the saga.  While familiar themes return, what’s most impressive is the way he manages to build new motifs that somehow still develop directly into the later Rings films (listen, for example, to the way he builds the theme for the dwarfs from a brief chord progression that accompanied the reveal of the abandoned dwarf kingdom in Fellowship of the Ring).  In fairness, the score in the film itself was heavily edited and re-worked into something much less subtle and more melodically extroverted (Shore’s original conception can be heard undiluted on the Special Edition album).  A few strange thematic juxtapositions result, but honestly, the music is excellent in both its film and album forms.  The film version gives the picture the visceral kick of adventure it needs, while the album version provides rich fodder for countless hours of closer study for geeks such as myself.  The music technically falls short of the Lord of the Rings scores in that it isn’t one of the ten greatest scores ever written, but Howard Shore’s worst Middle Earth music is better than all but a few of his peers’ career high points.

1.  Life of Pi – Michael Danna

The biggest surprise this year, and thankfully one that other people seemed to notice as well.  Danna has always been one of the smartest composers working in the film industry, but in the past his intellect has sometimes been a mixed blessing – Danna can be SO intellectual in his music that he at times comes across as cold and clinical (qualities that ultimately resulted in his last score for an Ang Lee film – 2003′s Hulk – getting rejected by the studio).  This could not be further from the case with Life of Pi, which is quite simply the most moving and piercing beautiful score of 2012.  Though the East-Asian influences, subtle melodies, spiritual choral music, and delicate orchestration are very much hallmarks of the composer’s previous work, here all of those elements merge into a disarmingly innocent and vulnerable musical perspective.  Like the title character, the score quietly wears its heart squarely on its sleeve, and it guides us through both the charming whimsy and the devastating crises of faith that oscillate throughout the film .  This is a score that completely deserves all the accolades it’s been receiving, and it’s a high-water mark for one Hollywood’s most undervalued composers.

Ten more well worth your time:  The ImpossibleAnna Karenina, HitchcockPromised LandFrankenweenie, Les Souciens des SuicidesSkyfall, The Avengers, John Carter, and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

Best Song Compilation Scores from 2012:  I tend to evaluate film scores themselves rather than the song compilations that often make up film soundtracks, but I couldn’t let this post end without mentioning three particularly excellent song scores from the past year:  Django Unchained, Moonrise Kingdom, Lawless, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Great Score Albums that Don’t Quite Work as Film Scores:  Film scoring is a delicate balance, and sometimes music that is great in its own right ends up having a detrimental effect in the film it’s meant to support.  Below are three scores that fit that description – I’ve spent far too much time listening to and enjoying them this year to not mention them here, but I can’t in good conscience include them in the list above when they each actively harm the films they accompany.

Lincoln - John Williams

As a tone poem about Abraham Lincoln, Williams’ score is pretty faultless – built on noble and stoic harmonies that suggest Copland without quoting him, Williams’ score is the ideal accompaniment for a tour of the National Mall.  But in the film itself, the score too often forces an uplifting interpretations of ethically dubious events that are best left up to the audience.  I’ll talk about this more when I write about the Oscar nominees, but the best way to appreciate this score is on the soundtrack album, where you can enjoy the noble Americana without feeling as though its twisting your arm.

The Dark Knight Rises - Hans Zimmer and friends

As a score album, The Dark Knight Rises contains some of my favorite material of the year, including some legitimately epic payoff to the prolonged restraint that plagued Zimmer’s first two Batman scores.  But in the film, the score embodies both everything that Zimmer’s good at and everything that he’s done to seriously damage the art of film scoring.  When the score is at it’s best, it brings a genuine element of emotionally charged drama to the proceedings.  But as with seemingly Zimmer score, the composer and his team have spotted the music so haphazardly; it surges to extreme levels when nothing of note is happening onscreen, yet somehow whispers anonymously when climactic things actually are happening.  A lot of this is a result of Zimmer’s committee approach to film scoring that I probably shouldn’t get into here.  Whatever his methods, however, I wish Zimmer would just approach a film score as a complete narrative entity, rather than a series of vaguely connected cues that can be plastered onto the screen at random.

The Amazing Spider-man - James Horner

This one is less a great score album than a guilty pleasure album, but Horner’s Spider-man score  makes for a very enjoyable and relaxing fantasy concept album if you can get over the dated new age beats.  That said, it’s a terrible film score.  Horner’s fans often laud him for his ability to write emotional music, but frankly, Horner in the past 15 years has demonstrated that he can score precisely 2 emotions: sentimental joy (“That’s so wonderful that you should just cry!”) and sentimental sadness  (“That’s so terrible you should just cry!”).   These two emotions are the extent of his contribution to The Amazing Spider-man, and they smother the film from start to finish, with absolute disregard to what’s actually happening onscreen.  Every now and then a cue works in context, but because Horner expects us to be just as unspeakably moved by Peter’s casual exit from the subway as he does for the death of Peter’s uncle, the few moments that do work get buried in the sap.  This is, make no mistake, very pretty and pleasurable music in its own right, but it couldn’t be more at odds with the angsty teen character drama and superheroic action onscreen.

And with that negativity out of the way, I’ll end with my…

Favorite Movie Music Moments from 2012 (in no particular order):

Batman clawing his way out of the pit while Zimmer’s urgent music pounds along with him in The Dark Knight Rises- one of the rare moments where Zimmer’s Batman music is completely in-synch with the drama onscreen.  The impact is only slightly compromised by the fact that the same cue plays earlier during a far less significant action scene.

The cathartic reprisal of the main theme as Hush-Puppy marches towards the camera at the end of Beasts of a Southern Wild - it’s about as close as a film score can come to bursting into song without actually bursting into song.

The return of “Noble Maiden Fair” during the last sunrise in Brave.

Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme emerging for the first time when the superheroes gather into a huddle during the final showdown – it actually gets a cheer out of the audience.

Michael Danna’s overbearing anguish as Pi screams at his maker during the last storm in Life of Pi.

The racing variation on the Shire theme as Bilbo Baggins giddily sprints through Hobbiton to catch up with the dwarfs in The Hobbit.  

The theme song from “Trinity is my Name” during while Django makes his horse strut in f Django Unchained – has there been a more purely joyful moment in a Tarantino film?

Victor reunited with his newly resurrected dog as Elfman’s Sparky theme surges in Frankenweenie - one of the purest musical expressions of love for a pet that I’ve yet heard in a film score.

The combination of Adele’s “Skyfall” chorus and the image of James Bond frantically shooting at his own reflection in the opening credits of Skyfall - probably the closest I’ve come to getting choked up during a James Bond title sequence.

Norman shuffling his way to school and greeting the ghosts only he can see as Brion’s bittersweet guitars strum along in Paranorman – I can’t quite explain why, but when the strings swoop in midway through the scene, I find the effect almost unbearably despairing.

Eddie Redmayne managing to break down in tears during his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” without once compromising the operatic quality of his voice – I didn’t even realize that was possible.  I hated a lot about the Hooper’s treatment of Les Miserables, but that scene nearly redeemed the entire film.

And that, my friends, was 2012 in film music.  Keep an eye out in the next few weeks as I do a similar run-down of my favorite all-around films from last year.  And thank you all for following this blog for the past year.  I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback I’ve received, and it’s heartening to know that so many other people are interested in this stuff.

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Skyfall – Film and Score Review

There was a point – and by a point, I mean four solid decades – where a James Bond film meant two solid hours of mindless action, sex, nifty toys, and exotic scenery.  Then at some point in the 2000s, our culture started to shift, and we collectively began taking former mindless pleasures very, very seriously.  Star Wars films started presenting themselves as biblical epics, and Batman films doubled as civics lessons.  This isn’t necessarily a bad trend – indeed I think it’s refreshing that audiences now seem to actively want blockbusters that ask thought-provoking questions.  But it means that James Bond, formerly the most brazenly cartoonish action icon, now inhabits a world where all of his adventures are treated with solemn reverence.  Gone are the smirking (borderline sociopathic) wisecracks of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.  Now we have Daniel Craig, a scowling blond who looks like one of the henchmen Bond used to dispatch and speaks like Cary Grant’s sulky teenaged son.  Yet somehow, this dark approach works for the character, and it has resulted in legitimately good films from a franchise that used to stop at mindless entertainment.  Craig has been so effective in this role, and the films so tailored to his pained, moody approach, that he nearly makes one forget that the character wasn’t always a broody, tortured loner.  Prior to Skyfall, the EON producers made two tries at re-inventing Bond for a more cynical modern audience.  The first was the extremely effective Casino Royale, a bare-bones thriller that stripped the character to his gritty basics.  The second was the considerably less-loved Quantum of Solace, a film that attempted to advance Casino’s plot but fell short of bringing anything remarkably new to the table.  Quantum also marked the first time that prestigious Oscar-talent was in complete control of a James Bond film, with Monster’s Ball’s Marc Foster directing a script by Crash‘s Paul Haggis.  Given the negative reception that film ultimately received, you’d think the producers would have aborted OPERATION: SERIOUS BOND for Skyfall.  Instead, they’ve returned with an even MORE prestigious director: American Beauty‘s Sam Mendes.  This is apparently what a post-Dark Knight Hollywood looks like – the people who used to make kitchen-sink domestic dramas are now handed the most expensive toys in the playroom.  Again – not a bad thing – but a mark of how bizarre Hollywood in 2012 has become.

The film recognizes this to a certain extent, and to its credit, the filmmakers are intent on doing more than simply providing Bond with another somber thriller.  As it turns out, Skyfall is by far the most ambitious James Bond film to date, at least in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish.  It attempts to be nothing less than an old-fashioned James Bond adventure, a clever meta-reflection on the franchise’s history, a more serious reflection on the traumatic cost of espionage, a gripping psycho-drama, and a grand British epic all at the same time.  In other words, it wants to be every possible version of a James Bond film simultaneously, a lofty ambition that the film isn’t always capable of reaching.  But though the resulting film is uneven and tonally schizophrenic, it’s also compelling and moving in ways that are completely new to the series.  At it’s best, the film achieves a level of epic greatness previously unthinkable for the character.

Credit Sam Mendes then for bringing qualities that seem antithetical to a James Bond movie and making them work.  As a director, Mendes can perhaps best be characterized by his eye for human relationships.  For Mendes, characters are rarely as interesting by themselves as they are when they interact with each other.  This makes for an interesting challenge here, as human interaction has never had much of a place in James Bond’s world – every iteration of the character, from Connery up to Craig, has been a staunch lone wolf.  Mendes’s solution is to focus on the one relationship that has been a constant in Bond’s world for the past 17 years – the spy’s relationship with the head of MI6, Judy Dench’s M.  Dench has been Bond’s boss since Brosnan took over the role in 1995, and throughout she’s maintained a commanding, hard-edged presence that rarely draws attention to the fact that she is a woman in a traditionally masculine role.  Yet when Craig took over Bond in 2006, the series began making subtle overtures towards a more maternal relationship between M and her best spy.  Those hints rise to the surface in Skyfall, which explicitly delves into the Freudian dimension between M and her agents.  Bond, we learn in learn in this film, is an orphan, as are most of his fellow MI6 agents.  M relies on this, knowing that she can count on steadfast loyalty from her agents because they don’t have competing loyalties to family and friends.  But it also means that for these orphans with severe unresolved childhood trauma, M ends up filling a maternal role.  And in order for M to do her job, that relationship can only be one-sided.  Her agents may see her as a mother figure, but she can only view them as tools – tools that must be traded and discarded the moment the situation calls for it.

The film establishes this dynamic from the start, when at the peak of an intense chase sequence, Bond nearly dies because M knowingly sacrifices his safety for the good of the mission.  Bond ultimately accepts M’s defense that she was simply doing her duty, but the ugly reminder that he’s completely dispensable to the country he’s sworn to defend leaves him visibly shaken for the rest of the film.  The full scale of that trauma, however, does not play out on Bond – it plays out on Raoul Silva, an ex-field agent M long-ago abandoned to the Chinese.  Silva re-emerges as a modern-day cyber-terrorist, one with a very specific vendetta against M and the institution she represents.  Played with theatrical gusto by Javier Bardem, Silva marks an abrupt change of pace from the villains that Bond usually faces.  Silva is not a crime lord bent on world domination, nor is he a business tycoon trying to trigger a new World War for profit.  Instead, he’s another emotionally damaged killer with mother issues.  For M, who can only function by viewing her agents as numbers, Silva represents the worst imaginable threat – an agent who all but forces her to recognize their relationship on human terms.  He launches a grand scheme to kill and publicly humiliate M, but he wants more than revenge – he wants to force her to recognize herself as the “mommy” who betrayed him, to personalize a relationship that has always been professional.  Silva, unlike Bond, either can or will not accept his role as an inhuman blunt instrument, and he plummets into madness as a result.  He’s the best sort of villain in that he represents, not the hero’s opposite, but rather a glimpse of what the hero could become with just a little more trauma and a little less self-control.

Having said all of that, however, dwelling on the story’s mommy issues suggests a film that’s much more coherent than Skyfall ultimately is.  Mendes is at his best when he’s treating the character relationships seriously, but the intimate scenes often co-exists awkwardly with lighter attempts at self-referential humor and over-the-top spectacle.  Action, it must be said, is not the film’s strong suit.  Mendes comes from theater, and he is most at home building exquisite tableaux in front of his camera as though he’s dressing a stage-set.  He never seems particularly comfortable with the frenetic editing and movement required for action set-pieces.  Characters often dawdle for no reason right in the middle of chase scenes, reflecting pacing problems in the editing room.  The film also has a bad habit of abruptly throwing Bond into elaborate stunts that defy the laws of physics, stunts that seem strangely out-of-place in a film otherwise so committed to grounded realism.

Yet when the film isn’t stumbling at spectacle, Mendes’s love of poetic still images often works in the film’s favor.  Skyfall has by far the most striking imagery of any James Bond, and Mendes knows how to pose Bond against his exotic settings for maximum iconic effect.  Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins also work miracles with expressionistic lighting, often reducing the characters to shadowy silhouettes against their exotic backdrops.  Sometimes this can get excessive, and anybody hoping for a fast-paced action thriller might get restless during the long sequences that seem to exist entirely to show of the arty imagery.  But if you can accept the often-leisurely pace, watching the film play with light and screen space is thrilling in its own way.   This is particularly true during the chilling final act, where small shafts of fire provide the only lighting on the vast expanse of the Scottish Moors at night.  James Bond films have always been filled with beautiful scenery, but it’s rare to find one that gets so much mileage out of pure aesthetic beauty.

It is, in other words, a James Bond film that makes a very aggressive reach for high art, and your enjoyment of the film will ultimately come down to your ability to accept it as such.  Bond doesn’t just chase down terrorists in this film – he chases them down while Judy Dench recites lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”  One could argue that scenes like this are overwrought, and there are certainly points where the film seems to scream, “I”m a Sam Mendes movie, Give me an Oscar!”  But no Bond film has ever had the same visceral emotional charge, nor the same weighty sense of high drama.  Skyfall wants to be the first genuinely epic James Bond film and simultaneously function as a meta-commentary on the very idea of James Bond.  It can’t do all of that at once, but when it succeeds, it really is phenomenal.  The last 30 minutes of the film are easily the most powerful 30 minutes of any Bond film, and for all of its flaws, the film holds its own with the series’ very best.  If we have to take James Bond seriously, we might as well do it like this.

Score:

Thomas Newman’s score is more of a mixed bag.  Like Mendes, Newman is primarily famous for his austere music for prestige films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road (with a few quirky scores for Pixar films like WALL-E thrown in for good measure).  He is one of the few remaining film composers with a strikingly distinct style, generally distinguished by his experimental instrumental textures and atmospheric mood music.  But the qualities that often make him a great film composer do not necessarily make him right for the James Bond franchise, which tends to require composers flexible enough to adapt to the series’ established “sound.”  John Barry established this sound - a swinging combination of ’60s big band jazz and surf rock – with his arrangement of “The James Bond Theme” in Dr. No, and he cemented it with iconic scores to films like Goldfinger and Thunderball.  Not every score since Barry’s departure has stuck rigidly to that style, but few have been able to stray too far from it with any success.  Like the catch phrases, cars, and drink preferences, “Bond music” has been a stable control element for the series, a signifier that reminds us we’re watching a James Bond film even when the actors and settings change dramatically.  Thomas Newman acknowledges this musical tradition to a point, and he at times does find interesting ways to slip the James Bond theme into the score without abandoning his own identity as a composer.  But when he’s not quoting some aspect of The James Bond theme, his music is so staunchly “Thomas Newman” music that it might as well belong to a different movie.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad in its own right.  Newman remains a great dramatic composer, and he’s written a score that’s filled with the same delicate instrumental quirks that mark his most interesting scores.  And at certain points his approach is very effective – at one point his quirky prelude to a prison-break nearly turns Bardem’s movements into choreography, and I also love the lush orchestral arrangement of Adele’s theme during Bond’s entrance in Macau.  Moreover, the score never outright hurts or dates the film.  He avoids the pitfall of some of the series’ musical low points (*cough* For Your Eyes Only, *cough* Goldeneye) by ignoring contemporary pop trends – this is simply a Thomas Newman score, the same kind of Thomas Newman score he’s been writing for the past two decades.  For that matter, his music is generally so subtle that it’s never an outright distraction.  But it’s also subtle in places that would benefit from a more assertive musical presence, particularly during several anonymously-scored climatic sequences that cry for a bigger shout-out to the series’ brassy and melodic tradition.  It’s not a bad score, and I can understand why so many people appreciate its freshness after hearing David Arnold for five straight films in a row.  But it does seem like a shame that a film so painstakingly knowledgable of James Bond’s cinematic heritage has a score that isn’t particularly interested in James Bond’s musical heritage.  I’m not saying that it should sound like John Barry, or even like David Arnold – I just wish the music was as interested in deconstructing the Bond sound as the film is in deconstructing the Bond legacy.

Film Grade: * * * * 1/2

Score Grade: * * * 1/2

Post-Script:  I haven’t mentioned it because it isn’t strictly part of the score, but Adele’s song is excellent, and it manages to do what I wish the score had done – balance the franchise’s history with the artist’s own personality.  “Skyfall” is a beautiful homage to the Barry/Bassey belters from the ’60s, but it’s also very much a contemporary Adele song.  The song’s lyrics and concept also foreshadow much of the film’s central drama, which is a nice change of pace from a run of Bond songs that seem to be based on their films’ titles and nothing else.  And the opening sequence it accompanies is phenomenal, a surreal nightmare that more or less sends Bond into his own personal Hell for five minutes.  Whatever problems the film as a whole may have, the title sequence marks a new high for the series.

Apologies

Apologies for anybody who follows this blog for the occasional “Discussion Prompt” posts that end up on Movie Music Musings.  As you might imagine, these are intended for the Course Blog of a class that I teach.  Wordpress seems to have some sort of glitch that sometimes resets any new post back to your default blog, even when you’re posting it on a different blog’s home page.  Sorting this out, and hopefully it won’t happen again.  Thanks, and stay tuned for new “real” articles on Movie Music Musings.

Best,

Paul

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