Now Streaming on NPR: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Gone Girl. Plus My First Impressions.

For anyone who missed it, NPR is now streaming the entirety of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score for the David Fincher’s upcoming film, Gone Girl.  You can listen to the score here:

I’ll give this a proper review once I’ve spent a little more time with the music and watched the film, but I’ll share a few of my first impressions right now.  I have to say I’m a bit underwhelmed, and I’m starting to wonder if Fincher might benefit from a new composer collaboration.  Granted, Reznor and Ross’s scores for Fincher’s films have always been polarizing; while The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were critical darlings for the Pitchfork crowd, much of the film music community has actively despised these scores.  I’ve typically fallen somewhere in the middle, but if nothing else I’ve admired the brazen originality of Reznor and Ross’s earlier scores for Fincher.  With Gone Girl, however, tired familiarity is starting to sink in; sitting through the album, I can’t help but feel like I’m listening to variations on the same ambient, occasionally grungy minimalism I just heard in Dragon Tattoo (and given that Dragon Tattoo‘s soundtrack album clocked in at 3 whopping hours, it’s not like I was in desperate need of a second helping!).

I’ll admit there are some new potentially compelling new ideas, and they might grow on me after I hear them in the film.  The biggest – and most advertised – new conceit comes in the cues where new age “massage parlor” music gradually sinks beneath ugly electronic distortions.  The idea is at least clearly executed, and if I hadn’t just heard Reznor and Ross do something very similar with the chilling “What if We Could” from Dragon Tattoo, I might be wowed.  But even in moments like this, I can’t shake the suspicion that Reznor and Ross’s frequent brilliance as music producers is no longer enough to make up for the stark simplicity of their compositions.  The occasional melodies are about as basic as is humanly possible, and I’m finding myself increasingly less compelled by the intricate sound design that used to compensate for the lack of melodic or harmonic invention.  Howard Shore recently wrote a score with a very similar concept for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, but Shore’s icy combination of new age synth textures and ominous chamber music is much more compositionally nuanced – and to my ear, much more compelling – than anything Reznor and Ross have created for Fincher’s film.

This is all a first impression of course, and I may take back all of this after I experience the music in the context of the film itself.  At the moment, however, I’m starting to wish Fincher would find new composers to collaborate with.  He’s already worked with such a wonderfully diverse array of artists – among them, Elliot Goldenthal, Howard Shore, The Dust Brothers, and David Shire – that I’d hate to see his films grow musically stagnant.

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Introducing the Critic: Paul Cote Interviewed by The International Film Music Critics Association

Recently, I was featured in the International Film Music Critics Association’s ongoing interview series, Introducing the Critic. This was a wonderful opportunity; while I frequently analyze specific film scores at Movie Music Musings, I’d never previously taken the time to really analyze myself as a film music critic. In the interview, I go into detail on my background as a fan and aficionado of film scores, my thoughts about the industry as it currently stands today, and the things I overall value most in a film score. You can read the interview here:

Boyhood – Film and Score Review


Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the biggest critical darling in recent memory – indeed, it’s the only film on Metacritic to reach a 100% approval rate on its initial release.  I struggle to add anything to the conversation that hasn’t already been said at length, but I’ll start at least by saying that the film is just as staggering, brilliant, and moving as everybody else has lead you to believe.  For the three of you who aren’t already aware of the premise, every year for 12 years, director Richard Linklater made on short film with the same cast, most of them centering on a young boy played by Ellar Coltrane and his relationships with his divorced parents. After 12 years – at which point the boy had grown to be a young man entering college – Linklater cut the short films together and released them as one narrative. This might sound like a gimmick on paper, but it’s hard to overstate how powerful and unique the effect is onscreen.  Yes, many critics have cited the Harry Potter films and the 7 Up series as precedents for watching children growing up on camera (and you could go back at least as far as Francois Truffaut’s “Antoine” tetralogy if you’re really intent on playing “who did it first”). But those are all instances of watching children grow up over the course of multiple films; they essentially take place in real-time, because you actually have to wait seven years to see the cast of the Up series age another seven years. Boyhood, the other hand, compresses that experience into one two-and-a-half hour sitting, and it attempts to forge a coherent movie-length narrative from this expanse of time.  The gradual realization that the characters onscreen are literally growing a year older every 10 minutes – not through makeup, not through CGI, but through actual bodies that are aging onscreen – is as emotionally staggering as it is unprecedented. There are many films that try to represent the fleeting nature of childhood, but this is the first film I’ve come across that literally captures it on-camera.

The sense of gradual growth extends to all aspects of the production. Linklater reportedly allowed his cast to improvise heavily, and did not have a set narrative end goal in mind when he started this long-form endeavor. While that loose framework might have led to the aimless, ramshackle quality of earlier Linklater movies like Slacker, improvisation in Boyhood rarely results in formlessness. Rather, Linklater and his cast’s open-ended approach enables the narrative and the characters to evolve organically.  We see characters in their casual, everyday moments, but each of these moments, however seemingly mundane, is presented as a key insight into the way these characters are constantly developing as human beings.

This sense of development holds for both the characters and the actors who play them.  It’s most dramatic for Ellar Coltrane, who stars as Mason, the “boy” of the Boyhood. Mason remains a quiet, sensitive young man throughout Boyhood, but as the film progresses, we see him grow from a child who wears his vulnerability on his sleeve into a teenager who tries to mask that vulnerability in sarcasm and philosophical musings (Mason will likely be spending much of his time in college watching Linklater’s Waking Life). Coltrane grows from being a great child actor to being a legitimately promising adult actor, and one can only imagine that his natural sincerity onscreen was informed by his own experience of simply becoming a teenager.  The same extends to the adults in the film. Patricia Arquette gives an uncharacteristically raw performance as Mason’s struggling single mother, but her intensity from the earlier scenes gradually subsides as her children mature and she loses her fear that their futures hang on her life decisions. Ethan Hawke essentially reprises his affable Before Midnight persona as Mason’s life-lesson spouting father (so much so that I half-wonder if this is what Hawke is actually like when the cameras are off), but he also laces each cocky joke and charming smile with a sense of guilt and sadness that grows more pronounced as the film progresses. Time’s passage seems to render him acutely aware that while he can play the part of a sage benevolent father to his children, he’s only able to do so because he only sees them at sporadic intervals.

None of this is ever stated directly, thankfully. The film touches on a wide range of themes ranging from divorce, alcoholism, bullying, and teenage romance, but the film never makes a point of being “about” any of these themes; they’re simply incidents that pass through one family’s lives over the course of a decade. For all of the widespread praise the film has received, Linklater seems to have little interest in being overtly cinematic or artful – this is not a Terence Malik-inspired tone poem on the nature of human existence. But by observing characters with a casual, nonjudgmental eye and allowing their growth to dictate the terms of the story, Linklater and his crew have creating something just as profound.  It wouldn’t be fair to claim that the film captures some sort of universal experience, as this is very much the story of one relatively privileged middle-class family dealing with middle-class problems. But the film’s unassuming and unsensational treatment of one family making its way through the decade captures something raw and piercing about the passage of time, and it’s unlikely that we’re ever going to see anything quite like it again.

The score:

Calling this a “score” review is something of a misnomer, as the film does not have a traditional score (at least in the instrumental non-diegetic sense of the word).  That said, the soundtrack is guided by brilliant song choices that perfectly capture the larger pop and indie trends of the past decade. The director apparently commissioned actual young friends and acquaintances to help curate the songs on the soundtrack, and the result is a much more honest account of what young people in the mid-2000s were actually listening to than Linklater could have hoped for if he’d relied on a studio marketing department to compile the soundtrack.  The approach also leads to a refreshingly eclectic compilation, ranging from Britney Spears to Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys, Arcade Fire, and even John Williams’ Harry Potter music (a cue from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban plays during a midnight Harry Potter book event – I’m somewhat embarrassed that I immediately recognized the piece as “The Whomping Willow,” a cue where the Harry Potter theme isn’t even present).  As great as the music itself is, it’s also deployed with subtlety.  Songs are rarely foregrounded for long; more often than not, we only hear brief snippets of songs in the background of bars, dorm rooms, and car stereos. And while each song is likely to carry its own emotional triggers for individual audience members, the film doesn’t use the music to goose up the audience’s emotions – there are no weepy montages where the music is supposed to carry the film. Rather, the music provides insight into the characters’ own tastes and personalities – the songs play because this is the music that these specific characters connect with at these specific points in their lives.

In the rare occasions where music does rise to the foreground, it’s less because the movie is trying to use a song to make a point and more because the characters are. That dynamic is particularly compelling in a scene where Mason Sr., Hawke’s character, gives his adolescent son a mix CD for his birthday. The CD, which Mason Sr. has proudly dubbed, “The Black Album” (adorably oblivious to Jay-Z, apparently), is a compilation of post-Beatles solo songs from Starr, Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney – the equivalent of a “new” Beatles album, he explains. In a scene that was apparently drawn from something the real Ethan Hawke did for his daughter, Mason’s father tries to use this compilation as a life lesson about the value of collaboration; he urgently tries to impress on his son that together, these songs elevate each other, for each Beatle’s solo work gains new meaning when it comes into conversation with his other former bandmates’ songs. But where the film could easily take this sweet idea at face value, instead it uses the father’s CD as a site for generational tension. Mason is now at an age where he’s starting to have his own ideas about music, and he quietly pushes against his father’s insistence that he appreciate all of these songs on his father’s terms. Because Mason Sr. has prepared this album as a statement, not an entry point for conversation, he’s visibly agitated when it seems that his son might be resisting the premise of his carefully rehearsed pearl of wisdom. For if his son now has his own opposing opinions about the music, Mason Sr. is forced to face the fact that his children are not always going to take his subjective thoughts on art and music as gospel; a new generation will eventually assign its own values to these songs.  Thus when Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” plays to cap off this scene, it doesn’t emphasize the father’s message so much as it emphasizes the lingering tension in the air. The music in this scene doesn’t dictate meaning or emotion; instead, it reminds us that meaning and emotion in music are constantly in flux, shifting as different generations negotiate their own relationships with popular culture.

The scene is illustrative of the film’s overall ambivalent approach to music – songs in Boyhood serve less to amplify emotion than they do to reveal different aspects of the characters and the culture they inhabit.  While the music is rarely dramatically vital to the story as a result, this is hardly a bad thing.  Rather, the music’s subtlety is in keeping with the rest of the film; rather than force an interpretation on the audience, it gracefully gives the characters and their stories the space to develop on their own terms.

Film: * * * * *

Score: NA, but * * * *  for the diegetic song choices.


For people in the Long Beach/Los Angeles Area: Come See a Great (Free!) Show from The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble

I know I don’t usually plug things on the blog, but this upcoming show is too awesome to ignore. For anyone in the Long Beach/Los Angeles area who’s looking for a great way to spend next Saturday evening, I strongly recommend checking out this free show from The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. I met Jack at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference last March, and in addition to being a brilliant scholar and an all-around great guy, he’s also an amazing film composer and musician. This performance will spotlight one of his new compositions – it won’t be film music-related per se, but it sounds like a video component will feature prominently in the performance. The show is at Third Eye Records in Long Beach on Saturday, August 9, at 8:00 pm. Check it out if you’re in the area. Also, whether you’re in LA or not, keep your eye out for screenings of I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Pool, a documentary featuring a great Jack Dubowsky score.

Here’s the press release for the August 9 show:

performs “How I Got To Long Beach”
with video and electroacoustic contemporary new music

“Redefining musical boundaries” – San Francisco Classical Voice

For Immediate Release Long Beach, CA: The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble (JCDE) will perform live at Third Eye Records in Long Beach. The new music ensemble, currently an electroacoustic trio, will consist of founder/composer Jack Curtis Dubowsky on synth, Scott Worthington (wasteLAnd new music group) on acoustic double bass and Alicia Byer on clarinet. They’ll showcase new material with a video element titled “How I Got To Long Beach”—a three-part composition composed by Dubowsky, who recently relocated to Long Beach from St. Paul MN and before that spent a good part of his career in San Francisco. The compositions are inspired by aspects of each city. The performance will be the premiere of JCDE’s first collection of new work since 2013’s multimedia show “Current Events.” The show is free.

WHO: The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble
WHAT: New music work “How I Got to Long Beach”
WHERE: Third Eye Records, 2701 E. 4th St. Long Beach, CA 90814
WHEN: Saturday August 9th
7pm The Keith Walsh Experience
8pm Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble

JCDE is an internationally recognized new music group that combines acoustic instruments, electronic hardware, composed material and structured improvisation. The ensemble treats analog synthesizer as a rare and unpredictable performance instrument. The ensemble has released three full-length albums and has performed in noted venues nationwide including The Tank (NYC), Meridian Gallery (SF), AS220 (providence, RI) and The Lilypad (Cambridge, MA).

For more information on JCDE visit:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Film and Score Review

dawn planet apes

The Film:

Very few people were especially looking forward to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second attempt at rebooting a franchise that seemed to have long since run its course (for more on that subject, see my Planet of the Apes retrospective). But director Rupert Wyatt and his team surprised everyone by making the most all-around likable movie of the series. Rise didn’t attempt any of the headier social commentary of the original film or its sequels, but its focus on character-driven storytelling, as well as its careful balance of tension and rousing payoff, managed to turn an ostensible doomsday scenario into an uplifting crowd-pleaser. Of course, that overall upbeat feeling was largely possible because the film focused on the triumphant rebellion of sympathetic ape protagonist Caesar, leaving the actual end of human civilization to a brief epilogue during the credits.  It was a smart move, but it all-but-ensured that any sequel was going to be a significantly bleaker affair.  And sure enough, this summer’s much-anticipated Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, helmed by director Matt Reeves, has turned out to be a much darker film that its immediate predecessor.  This isn’t a bad thing in all ways, and the film ultimately builds to a final act that’s more than exciting and moving enough to warrant a recommendation.  But the pitch-perfect balance of light and dark moments that made Rise of the Planet of the Apes so riveting is sorely missing here, and the film’s unrelenting bleakness too often feels at odds with the story it’s trying to tell.

Having said that, I’ll give the film this: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes executes its story far more gracefully than the film it remakes.  This is damning with extremely faint praise, however, as the film it’s remaking turns out to be Beneath the Apes, the barely competent fourth sequel that finally drew the original series to a puttering close in 1973.  Like that film, Dawn picks up years after a disaster that wipes out most of humanity, and it follows a small community of apes as they try to forge a society in the wilderness.  As with Battle, much of the drama in Dawn comes from ape-leader Caesar’s attempts at maintaining peace after a group of potentially dangerous humans disrupts the ape community’s delicate balance.  Both films also pit their version of Caesar against a duplicitous “bad” ape who would rather wage war on the humans than maintain the safety of his own people. Hell, the two films even open with ape children in a makeshift school learning the community’s central commandment, “Ape Not Kill Ape,” a noble sentiment that of course proves impossible to uphold.  I’m not entirely sure why the filmmakers were committed to paying homage to a film that almost nobody remembers (or wants to remember), as I’m pretty sure this would be one occasion where they could have ignored the franchise’s mythological “canon” and absolutely nobody would have complained.  But if they were hoping to look good by comparison, mission accomplished, because Dawn is everything that Battle wasn’t – it treats its themes with stern gravity, it avoids unintentional silliness, and it has the budget and scope to play out the conflict on an almost Biblical scale.  In other words, it fits a post-Dark Knight world’s version of a “good” summer blockbuster – a solemn epic with pretensions towards larger social commentary, even if that solemn epic features talking warrior monkeys fighting on horseback.

On one level, I admire how earnestly the filmmakers have tried to imbue the film with so much gravity and sensitivity. Dawn moves the franchise squarely back into the realm of political allegory, but it does so without the blunt sermonizing of the ’70s films. If the apes were abused animals in the last film, here they’re a culture that’s about on equal footing with the surviving humans. The two cultures teeter on the brink of war, not because one is in the wrong, but rather because both are so terrified of losing the fragile space they call a home that anyone outside the community seems like a potential threat. It’s of course tempting to read this as a metaphor for the current conflict in Israel and Palestine, but the metaphor is broad enough to encompass any situation where fear and mistrust endanger cross-cultural understanding. Many of the film’s best moments capture the subtle ways that this fear infects fledgling attempts by ape and human characters to form tentative relationships – every tentative moment of connection is just a small misunderstanding away from violent disaster.

Yet that emphasis on weighty social commentary also leads to a near-constant morose tone that often works against the drama. The film opens with scenes depicting the peaceful utopia that the apes have created. One might think these scenes are supposed to show us the beautiful world the apes start with so that the threat of its destruction has emotional heft. Yet director Matt Reeves treats these would-be lighter sequences with the same hushed gloominess that he applies to the later epic battle scenes. The result severely deadens the dramatic impact of the narrative – we intellectually understand that the apes don’t want to lose their home, but nothing in the film’s audio-visual design tells us that we should care.

This problem is evident from the very first scene.  The film starts with a close-up of Caesar’s glaring eyes. The camera gradually zooms out to reveal a full band of apes, clad with spears and battle makeup. Caesar raises his hand, pauses, and then motions downwards, ordering his apes to leap into action. But in the next shot, we discover that the apes are not about to fight a battle – they’re partaking in an elk hunt. It seems like this should read as a fake-out gag, one that sets the audience up for an epic war scene and then turns around with a more upbeat hunting sequence (in the grand tradition of Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans). In theory, this is a scene that would show us the apes at their happiest, working together for a common goal of feeding the community. But because Reeves shoots the scene as though it were itself a grim battle, the gag doesn’t land and the larger dramatic point doesn’t register. Desaturated colors cast a grey pallor over the forest while Michael Giacchino’s furious dissonant music makes the sequence seem like the climax from a brutal horror movie.  This tonal disconnect persists throughout the film’s first act, and speaking for myself at least, it prevents a full emotional investment in these characters and their plight.

It doesn’t help that Andy Serkins’ Caesar, the central focus of the last film, is given a comparatively reduced role in the first half of the film. He’s still technically the main character, but the film introduces so many new characters and side conflicts that Caesar often feels like a supporting character in his own film. This all comes from good intentions – Reeves is clearly trying to build a more three-dimensional world – but he spends so much time trying to build audience-interest in characters that don’t have time for proper development that he frequently sidelines the one character we’re already inclined to like. This is to say nothing of the film’s cartoonishly evil ape villain, Koba, whose tragic disfigurement in the last film is now treated as a visual signifier of his inherent evilness. He’s about as three-dimensional as The Lion King‘s Scar, and he doesn’t have the benefit of Jeremy Irons’ silky voice.

Having said that, once the film does shift into full-on grand tragedy, it grows markedly more gripping. Reeves struggles when he’s expected to deliver small moments of joy or humor, but he’s more than adept at handling grand spectacle. The last act features the most spectacular action set-pieces the series has produced to date (not that the bar was especially high on this front). It helps that [vague spoiler alert] Caesar finally steps back into the spotlight and takes control of the story in the last act, giving Andy Serkins the opportunity to develop the excellent motion-capture performance he began with the last film. A final showdown atop a collapsing tower is particularly riveting, and it brings enough emotional gravitas to the proceedings that it nearly redeems the film’s dour opening half.

The film is overall a worthy follow-up to its excellent predecessor, and most of its flaws are flaws of ambition and noble intentions. But I can’t help but wonder what the film would have looked like if Rupert Wyatt had stayed in the director’s chair.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes had the potential to be just as dark as this film, but Wyatt was perceptive enough to realize that you need scenes of dazzling ecstasy – golden twilight romps through redwood treetops – if you want the gut-wrenching scenes of brutality to achieve their full impact. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes still manages to pull a few gut-punches of its own, but it’s a bit disheartening to see a reboot that started with such a warm human heart edging closer and closer to the nihilistic misery of the original ’70s films.


The Score:

Rupert Wyatt is sadly not the only major creative force from Rise who’s missing this time. Patrick Doyle’s score for the last film may have been more mainstream than any other Apes score, but it was a fine example of musical storytelling, a nuanced score that was perfectly in-synch with each subtle beat of the film’s dramatic arc. But Matt Reeves brought along his composer of choice when he assumed the director’s chair, so Dawn now has a score by Michael Giacchino. On paper, he seems like the perfect composer for the assignment – Giacchino is a self-professed fan of Silver Age film music fan, and his experimental music for the hit show Lost often felt like an homage to Goldsmith’s original Apes music. And on the album at least, there are reasons to be impressed with Giacchino’s music. The composer is clearly trying to develop the experimental textures he started with Lost, and the music features some of Giacchino’s most interesting orchestrations in some time. Anybody upset that Doyle took a 180 on the franchise with his contemporary score for the last film may be inclined to celebrate Giacchino’s work here, as he’s clearly trying to move the music back into the avant-garde idiom that defined the ’70s series.

The problem is that Giacchino’s painstaking Goldsmith homage comes at the expense of the actual film playing out in front of him.  Goldsmith’s wild and abrasive atonal music was perfect for the 1968 film because it captured the perspective of a misanthrope who has been thrust into an insane world where humanoid apes hunt him like a feral animal. There was no reason for the score to follow a dramatic arc or create sympathy for the characters in the original film because that particular story only required different shades of terror and confusion. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, does not take place on an alien planet, and it features characters we’re supposed to care about. Every time Giacchino lays down dissonant brass clusters or 12-tone xylophone scales over otherwise innocuous scenes, it sounds like a different movie’s score has invaded the film. At best, it creates unnecessary emotional distance from the characters – at worst, it’s actively distracting.

I suppose I should acknowledge one exception, which is the tender “theme” Giacchino has written for – well for essentially every would-be emotional scene in the film. The problem is that it’s less a theme than a series of drippy pop chords played whole note-by-whole note on the piano; it almost sounds as though somebody laid down chords for a melody and then forgot to write the actual melody. It’s the sort of music I associate with the Hallmark movie of the week style of scoring, and it’s unfortunately becoming a staple of Giacchino’s music. But even if we put my stylistic preferences aside, the larger problem is that this music gets repeated without any discernible variation over nearly every vaguely touching or peaceful scene in the film. Usually the benefit of writing something so simple is that the composer can more easily develop and adapt the music to the changing needs of the film. Here, unfortunately, thematic development is largely lacking even when the character relationships are developing and changing. As a result, scenes where characters are quietly going about their daily routines don’t feel any more or less urgent than scenes where characters are saving each others’ lives or mourning the deaths of loved ones.

And while the rest of the score is more interesting from a compositional perspective, it all still suffers from the same lack of thematic or dramatic development; the music from that opening elk hunt is pitched at just about the same urgent ferocity as the music from the actual climactic battles. It’s not bad enough to ruin the film’s best scenes, but it adds nothing to our understanding of the characters and their developing inner lives.

The score, in other words, is one of many dour formal elements that keeps the film from reaching its full dramatic potential. The film itself still has enough going for it to make it one of the best films of the series – the script is sensitively written, the acting is superb, and the spectacle in the third act reaches the apocalyptic proportions that other Apes films have only hinted at. But the score might actually be the series’ low-point. For all of its good intentions, it’s the only Apes score that offers neither emotional insight nor daring counterpoint to the film it’s meant to be supporting. Instead, it gives us fan-service and throwbacks to earlier films, ignoring the possibility that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has its own story to tell.

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

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


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!


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 –


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

dragon 2

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



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 minions 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


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


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)


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


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


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.


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


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


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!


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