The Ten Best Film Scores of 2014


Putting film music year-end lists together tends to be the fun version of “work.”  Before I actually have to sit down and write the damn piece, making the list just means listening to mass quantities of music.  Sure I jot down the occasional note, but it’s primarily a process of absorbing a year’s worth of film scores while doing other work.  Eventually it can be a bit maddening, but the film music binge does allows me to see certain trends that weren’t always clear throughout the year.  Looking back at the scores that have ultimately stood out to me the most since last January, I’m tempted to dub 2014 The Very Qualified Return of the Film Composer.  That is to say, it’s a year when the people who have put in their time toiling in Hollywood for the past several decades, frequently doing thankless work on generic blockbusters, finally had a chance to do what they do best.

Contrast this with my take on this a year ago, when I’d have told you that the best and most interesting stuff happening in film music was happening outside of Hollywood, at the hands of indie musicians and first-time composers who were managing to work on films that didn’t court excessive studio interference.  That’s probably still the case overall, but for whatever reason, the only people surprising me in 2014 were the people who have been at it for decades.  Indie and alt-rock moonlighters like Johnny Greenwood, Alex Ebert, and Trent Reznor have all written fresh, game-changing film music in the past, but their scores this year – Inherent Vice, A Very Dangerous Year, and Gone Girl, respectively – all felt like watered down versions of music that sounded fresh and exciting only a few years ago.  Meanwhile, veterans like Marco Beltrami and Christopher Young – composers I respect but rarely get excited over – reminded me how brilliant they can be when they’re actually given the space for it.

And though it’s reflected less in my personal list, 2014 was also a year when Hollywood finally started to reconsider its embargo on traditional, intelligently orchestrated film music.  It wasn’t consistent enough to be a trend, but if you look at several of the more successful mega-budgeted films this year – say, Godzilla, Maleficent, or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – you see a surprising number of films willing to allow composers to write old-fashioned orchestral music that doesn’t sound like it’s been processed through a synthesizer or tailored to imitate a temp track.  Granted, that doesn’t automatically reflect the scores’ qualities, and none of the above examples struck me as particularly memorable pieces of work (Desplat’s Godzilla and Howard’s Maleficent both struck me as moderately entertaining genre scores that wouldn’t have stood out when this sort of music was dime-a-dozen twenty years ago, and I thought Giacchino’s Planet of the Apes was actively damaging to the film).  And the moderate resurgence of orchestral music also doesn’t mean that Hans Zimmer’s studio, Remote Control Productions, has somehow lost its influence over Hollywood – the soulless factory scores in this year’s Captain America and X-Men sequels attest to that.  But the fact that there’s even space for old-fashioned stuff alongside the market-tested schlock in today’s film music climate at least indicates that variety hasn’t been entirely stamped out.  And as the list below demonstrates, there’s still plenty of space outside of Hollywood for both members of the old guard and bright freshman voices to write powerful, exciting new film music.


  1. The Monkey King – Christopher Young

For film music fans of a certain age, Christopher Young will always have a free pass for his outlandishly gothic Hellraiser scores in the 1980s.  But while he’s worked diligently in a wide number of genres since, he’s rarely had an opportunity to write anything approaching that level of grandeur until now.  His score for this Chinese epic might be his grandest score to date, and it punches just about every button that people used to want from high-scale fantasy scoring.  This is the definition of a fan favorite – the themes are huge and memorable, the pastoral cues are lyrical without veering into sentimentality, the action cues alternate between riveting dissonance and stirring anthems, and the finale is as glorious and over the top as anyone could dream.  I can’t speak to its qualities as film music per se, as the film is so ridiculous that just about any music attached to it is going to seem ridiculous by association (watching the film is like watching the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers and the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat attempt to remake Lord of the Rings).  But taken on its own terms, Young’s music is grand popcorn entertainment of the best kind.


  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat

There’s little to say here that I didn’t say in my review, but my appreciation for Desplat’s deceptively simple score has grown in the intervening months.  Anderson’s tragicomedy needed an even more nimble tone than usual from the composer, and Desplat never makes a wrong step in his tightrope walk between out-and-out silliness, tongue-and-cheek suspense, and bittersweet longing.  On the one hand, the music serves a very practical purpose of keeping the film moving at a racing pace, and it would be easy to discount the feather-light music as being only superficially effective.  But if you rewatch the film with the foreknowledge of its gut-punch of a conclusion, it becomes clear that even when the music is goofing on cimbalom jam sessions, it’s simultaneously planting the seeds of the film’s deeper tragedy.


  1. La Rançon la Glorie – Michel Legrand

No living composer is a bigger legend than Michel Legrand, who was both a defining voice of the French New Wave and an instrumental figure in popularizing jazz in Hollywood in the 1960s.  He’s understandably been less prolific in film throughout the past couple of decades, which makes La Rançon de la Glorie such , seemingly out-of-nowhere surprise.  This is the first thing I’ve heard from him in a very long time that sounds just as energetic and creative as his innovative jazz scores in his 1960s heyday; the composer has written an endlessly charming combination of old Hollywood nostalgia and dizzying New Wave jazz.  Particularly stunning is the standalone piece, “Un Moment de grace,” where the composer turns his main theme into a cathedral mass, then gradually juxtaposes the reverb-heavy church organ and choir against his insane jazz experiments.  Clearly age has done nothing to soften one of film music history’s most brazenly innovative voices.


  1. Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this one, but it’s hard for me to deny that Interstellar is overall one of the most impressive and satisfying Hans Zimmer scores to date.  To be sure, it is by no means a perfect score, and Zimmer’s habit of treating every moment like a cathartic climax nearly severely hinders the film’s opening scenes.  Yet as the action moves out into the cosmos and the film lurches clumsily between jaw-dropping visuals and ham-fisted expository dialogue, Zimmer’s emphatic music gradually turns into an asset, finding emotionally charged profundity in scenes that would otherwise drag on endlessly.  The score isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking as Zimmer indicates in his interviews (there are times that when seems to think he’s pushed the boundaries of sound itself), but even if you can clearly hear the influence of Philip Glass, Vangelis, and Richard Strauss, the result is nevertheless a remarkably fresh and visceral career highlight for the composer.


  1. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya – Joe Hisaishi

Hisaishi has been associated with Studio Ghibli since its earliest days, and his sensitive, playful, and lyrical music has been a crucial component of the animation studio’s aesthetic signature.  If The Tale of the Princess Kaguya turns out to be Ghibli’s swan song, Hisaishi has certainly given the studio a worthy musical coda.  Delicate and exquisitely orchestrated, the score is in many ways Hisaishi’s Ghibli music distilled into its most intimate essence.  You can hear the influence of both traditional Japanese music and Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” but more than anything else, the score comes across as the bittersweet cumulation of all of the spare and beautiful animation music that Hisaishi has been writing for decades.


  1. Under the Skin – Mica Levi

Taken as pure music, Mica Levi’s score is an endurance test, a near constant screech of white noise that only occasionally lurches into anything even resembling melody.  Yet while I take no pleasure from listening to the soundtrack album, the shrill score is brilliant and essential in the film itself.  The film follows Scarlett Johansson as an alien predator who scours the Scottish countryside for unsuspecting male victims.  Much of what separates the film from your average B-level sci-fi horror flick, however, is the way the film makes human life seem as unnerving and otherworldly to the audience as it does to the protagonist.  This essentially happens through the music, which grinds on so abrasively over ordinary footage of human interactions that it makes human bodies seem like insects.  It’s easily the most groundbreaking, provocative film score on this list, and it signals Mica Levi as a force to be reckoned with if she decides to do more work in film.


  1. Visitors – Philip Glass

I’ve been sitting on this one since September of 2013, and before I realized the film itself wasn’t going to be released until January of 2014, this was going to be my choice for 2013’s best score.  Philip Glass’s work with Godfrey Reggio has resulted in some of the most important audio-visual experimentation of the past three decades, with Koyaanisqatsi in 1983 being a particularly huge landmark both in non-narrative film and in minimalist concert music.  While Visitors is not the barn-burner that started the collaboration, it’s a perfect iteration of Glass’s late-period meditative style.  The polar opposite of the frantic time-lapse cinematography in Koyaanisqatsi, Regio’s latest film moves at a glacier’s pace, consisting largely of slow-motion footage of human faces.  Glass responds in kind, with a ponderous score that takes its time building momentum, laying out its ideas brick by brick in mammoth, 15-minute cues.  Yet Glass knows what he’s doing, and if listeners willing to put in the time will gradually hear the music ascend to some of the most powerful, openly moving music Glass has yet written for the cinema.


  1. How to Train Your Dragon 2 – John Powell

I already raved about this one in my review, so I’ll keep it short: this is John Powell’s best work to date, taking everything that was exciting and moving about his original 2010 score and pushing it forward with new musical and dramatic maturity.  This is probably the score I spent the most time listening to in 2014, and as emotionally direct, heart-on-the-sleeves film music goes, this was easily the year’s best.


  1. The Unknown Known – Danny Elfman

This is Danny Elfman’s second collaboration with Errol Morris after Standard Operating Procedure in 2007, and in many ways it’s a continuation that score’s restlessly inventive minimalism, a provocative side of Elfman that we rarely hear outside of the concert hall.  Elfman’s music in The Unknown Known plays a uniquely crucial role, as the composer is essentially responsible for creating a critical counterpoint to its subject’s obfuscating verbal gymnastics.  The film consists primarily of interviews between Morris and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the later of whom spends most of the film denying any accountability for mistakes made during the Bush administration or the Iraq War.  Morris himself puts pressure on Rumsfeld, but the primary source of critique comes from Elfman, who puts pressure on Rumsfeld’s words without explicitly mocking them.  Sometimes he does this through somber, repetitive piano music that creates a sense of nervous agitation, suggesting a central instability in Rumsfeld’s defense.  In its most powerful moments, however, Elfman uses the music to underline the human tragedies that Rumsfeld would rather downplay.  While Rumsfeld plays rhetorical chess with Morris, Elfman responds with a choir of ghostly children’s voices, a haunted reflection of war’s devastation.  The score becomes a refusal to reduce the thousands of lives that were lost to a verbal tete a tete, and it turns The Unknown Known into a rare film that uses music to interrogate, rather than passively support its subject.

  1. The Homesman – Marco Beltrami

This was a very tough call – really any of the top five scores on this list could have ended up in the number one position had I woken up on a different side of the bed.  But The Homesman ultimately wins out because, more than anything else I’ve spent time with this year, it’s a score that balances rigorous intellectual experimentation and viscerally wrenching drama.  In Tommy Lee Jones’ harrowing Western, a pious women and a shiftless drifter attempt to transport three mentally ill women across the mid-19th century frontier.  Beltrami, who previously did excellent work on Jones’s Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, may have composed his masterpiece this time around, with score that is cerebral and compassionate in equal measure.  The score pulls from a wide range of seemingly disparate threads, mixing warm Americana, frontier hymnals, echoing children’s voices, and bracing music concrete experiments (the latter of which often come on new instruments the composer has invented specifically for the film).  In the midst of this alternately melodic and nerve-wracking collage, Beltrami’s music provides insight into internal lives of the silent women whose minds have been broken by the frontier.  The mentally ill characters have little-to-no dialogue, and it would be easy to see them as marginal to the central relationship between Jones and Swank’s characters.  Beltrami’s music, however, gives the mentally debilitated characters a constant presence in the film, even when the camera isn’t focused on them.  By layering jarring cacophony over sentimental nostalgia, the composer compels us to both imagine the trauma the characters are currently facing and mourn everything they’ve lost in the process.  In giving a voice to characters who have no other means of expressing themselves, the score does the most important thing a film score can ultimately do in my book: it turns film music into an act of empathy.

Inherent Vice – Film and Score Review

Inherent Vice: Film and Score Review

Man, was I looking forward to Inherent Vice.  Like many people of my generation who got into film in the late 1990s, P.T. Anderson is a giant; he’s our exhibit A whenever we need to argue that we have auteurs who can step with the best of the ‘70s film brats.  For that matter, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is on my personal shortlist of favorite books (I’m a bad Pynchon fan who prefers the later, shaggier books to the canonized masterpieces like The Crying of Lot 49; it’s sort of like being Rolling Stones fan who could take or leave Exile on Main Street but is really, really into A Bigger Bang).  So when Paul Thomas Anderson announced plans to film Inherent Vice, seemingly months after its publication, I was needless to say excited.  One of my favorite living authors adapted by one of my favorite living film directors – how often do those worlds converge?

Yet all throughout the hype, I had a hard time biting back a few reservations.  Anderson had yet to make bad film, and his then most recent two – There Will Be Blood and The Master – are both frontrunners for the best films of the 21st century.  Yet throughout the past decade, Anderson has also become an increasingly formal and deliberate director.  While his films all have bracing moments of dark humor, none of them could be construed as light, fun, or whimsical (Punch-Drunk Love might comes the closest, but it takes a long, rage-fueled road to get to its happy ending).  Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, on the other hand, for all of its darker satire and bittersweetness, is a breezy, daffy Krazy Kat comic strip in novel form.  It doesn’t leave behind the grim paranoia or cynicism of the author’s earlier masterpieces, but its overall tone is one of warm, sentimental fondness for a lost anarchic sensibility.  These aren’t qualities I associate with Anderson, and after watching his adaptation of the novel, it’s clear that I never will.  The film of the Inherent Vice was clearly made by extraordinarily talented people, and it’s at the very least a fascinating experiment.  But – at least on first viewing – my overall sense is that it’s an experiment that doesn’t work.  Anderson and his collaborators have certainly poured as much of Pynchon’s prose as was possible onto the screen, but in attempting such a fastidious and literal adaptation, the filmmakers both suffocate the delicate tone of the book and lose any opportunity to make a film that works in its own right.

I’ll grant that on one hand it’s hard for me look at the film entirely objectively.  There’s clearly a disconnect between what made the book special for me and what made the book special for Anderson.  As a story, Inherent Vice places its finger on the transition between the freedom of the ‘60s and the paranoid cynicism of the ‘70s, and I suppose that how you interpret the book is going to depend on which side of that divide comes across more vividly for you.  For me, the novel’s exuberant tone makes the whole enterprise feel much more like a warm embrace of the gleeful anarchy of a distant time than an anxious warning of the turbulent time to follow.  Anderson, however, seems to have taken that vague sense of paranoia as his way into the story.  While the director has kept some of the book’s humor in the form of outright slapstick, the film by and large takes a much more tense, heavy-handed tone than anything I remember from the novel.  In the book, the convoluted conspiracy plot rarely feels like more than a loose framework to zip the reader through a series of crazed vignettes.  Anderson ditches most of those vignettes, and instead pushes us through the conspiracy narrative step by step, as though he were making an actual thriller.  Which by itself is fine – if the director is more interested thumbing through every layer of the Golden Fang conspiracy than he is in pondering why Donald Duck grows 5 O’Clock shadow when he’s lost at sea, well, it’s Anderson’s adaptation.  But even allowing for this difference in interpretation, the slavishly literal-minded approach Anderson takes to this adaptation severely hinders his ability to make a film that works on its own terms.

Much of the problem comes from the near-reverential way the film handles Pynchon’s prose.  Huge chunks of the novel are lifted verbatim for the film, delivered both by Joanna Newsom as the film’s narrator/chorus and by characters delivering long-winding expository monologues.  While it’s easy to admire the director’s attempt at honoring the novel, the issue is that little of this prose was ever meant to be spoken.  Pynchon is one of the best living prose stylists, but the quality of his writing largely comes across in the way his words, with their bizarre character names and comic-strip inspired mispellings, look on the page.  But words that the eye leaps and stumbles over with giddy abandon when they appear on the page stall and putter when actors painstakingly deliver them, one by one, as though reciting from Shakespeare.  In the film, huge chunks of exposition come out of the mouths of characters who rarely look 100% sure that they understand their own dialogue, and it kills the momentum that this material needs to work.

Furthermore, because Anderson largely relies on these nonsensical expository monologues to advance the narrative, the conspiracy plot becomes even more incomprehensible than it was in the book.  This is especially an issue for Joaquin Phoenix who plays Doc Sportello, the film’s stoner P.I. hero.  Phoenix is a talented actor with great comic timing, and his way with a double-take gives the film some of its biggest laughs.  But his method actorly habit of mumbling incoherently, inspired though it was in The Master, is fatal when he’s mumbling crucial plot points here.  And while it’s easy to sympathize with his constant look of panicked confusion, his erratic mugging also prevents him from becoming the laid-back grounded center that the story needs to anchor the surrounding chaos.

Granted, one could argue that the novel was just as guilty of mooring the audience in incomprehensible chaos, but momentum makes a big difference.  In Pynchon’s novel, you don’t always know what’s going on, but you can still feel the tension mounting page by page, and when a character has to say something important, the novel makes sure you hear it with painful clarity.  There isn’t any sense in the film, however, that any of these baffling plot pieces are heading anywhere.  In one of the best scenes in the novel, Doc makes a near-impossible escape from and declares his allegiance to the Bugs Bunnies and Popeyes of the world.  Though one may need to read the novel several times over to figure exactly why Doc was in captivity and who he was escaping from, Pynchon still makes that moment feel like a defining triumph that everything has been building to.  Anderson treats it like just another scene, and one gets the impression that if you reshuffled the scenes and moved the escape to the beginning of the film, few would notice any difference in narrative momentum.

Ultimately, the biggest problems come from trying to make a painstakingly faithful and literal adaptation out of material that only really works when it feels like it’s being made up on the spot.  People have drawn comparisons to Robert Altman’s revisionist Marlow ‘70s classic, The Long Goodbye, but where Altman clearly allowed improvisation to dictate the way he made his ambling gumshoe mystery, every scene in Anderson’s seems fussed over with meticulous deliberation – even when wacky things are happening on-screen.  The film version of Inherent Vice almost seems like it comes from some distant future society that stumbled upon Pynchon’s novel and was under the impression that it was meant to be taken as a sacred hollow text, rather than a shambling shaggy dog paperback.  Which, now that I’ve put it that way, actually makes me like the film a little better.  And I will admit that for all of the harping I just did on the film, I do feel a nagging  urge to watch it again.  Certain filmmakers are powerful enough that even their misfires leave you with the sinking suspicion that you’re the one with the problem, and I may very well take back everything I just wrote months down the line.  But as of now it’s hard not to see this as a noble misfire from a director who is apparently much better at following his own impulses than trying to honor somebody else’s.


Johnny Greenwood’s music encapsulates where I veer from this film.  Greenwood is a brilliant musician and composer, and his past two scores for Anderson – There Will Be Blood and The Master – have been radically brilliant.  But nobody could accuse Greenwood of having a light touch, and – for me anyway – a lighter touch is what Inherent Vice desperately needed.  Greenwood’s music is far more conventional than anything he’s written for the director previously, but it’s no less heavy-handed.  Granted, his anchoring theme for Doc’s ex-lady, Shasta, is certainly more accessible than anything he wrote for There Will be Blood – in fact, it’s probably the first piece of film music Greenwood’s written that could even reasonably called a “theme.”  And on its own terms, it’s a subtly brilliant composition.  Greenwood is a rare film composer who actually writes interesting orchestrations, and the creative interplay between oboes, woodwinds, and the string ensemble makes even a relatively subdued melody fascinating.  But while beautiful in its own right, the piece also has an oppressively bleak quality that ultimately weighs the film down.  Perhaps its meant to encapsulate the doomed nature of Doc’s pinning over Shasta or the even more doomed nature of Doc’s hippie existence, but these are hardly points that needed to be oversold.  Rather than subtly drawing these themes out as the film progressed, the music sets a dour tone so early on that it nearly smothers any of the film’s attempts at humor right out of the gate.

That said, n individual scenes, the music can still be very effective – Anderson and Greenwood have worked out an enviable music-image relationship, and it’s a marvel to watch and listen as Greenwood’s long-lined cues to spool over from scene to scene while Doc proceeds in his investigations.  At times, Greenwood seems to be channelling Bernard Herrmann’s romantic suspense music from the “following Madeline” scenes in Vertigo, and it’s hard not to admire any composer willing to tip his hat in that direction.  At the same time, Vertigo isn’t exactly a classic stoner comedy, and as cue after cue continues this trend of dour melancholia or anxious suspense, the cumulative impact grows increasingly wearying.  I’d like to admire the counter-intuitive logic in taking a period movie that seems to scream for psychedelic rock and scoring it with Herrmann-esque orchestral music, but the result comes across less as a clever joke and more as tonal indecisiveness.

Conversely, the period song selections are excellent, and the film comes alive considerably every time Anderson takes the jukebox approach to scoring the film.  With a few exception, Anderson avoids obvious late ‘60s staples in favor of eclectic gems like Les Baxter’s exotica lounge number, “Simba,” or Minnie Riperton’s Motown classic, “Les Fleur.”  The tone brights considerably every time one of these songs plays, hinting at the film we might have had if all parties involved had decided to let these bright moments guide the overriding tone.  But – and I rarely find myself saying this – the songs are too few and far between.  This is actually a film where I’d happily take less score if it meant hearing more great songs from the period.

Again, on its own terms, Greenwood’s music is great, and I recommend the album (though Radiohead fans should be warned that if you’re coming for Greenwood’s reworked rendition of “Spooks,” you will only get to hear it under Joanna Newsom’s narration).  Greenwood and Anderson clearly have a great working dynamic, and I hope it continues into the future.  But in this particular instance, I actually wish Anderson had returned to Jon Brion, his prior go-to composer.  As his scores to films like Punch-Drunk Love and I Heart Huckabees demonstrate, Brion excels at music that balances offbeat humor with a melancholy underbite and his knack for balancing tonally tricky films likely would have served Inherent Vice well (it helps that Brion’s music often sounds like it was recorded by some long-forgotten ‘60s pop group).  Greenwood, for all of his many qualities as a composer, feels like the wrong person for this project.  And much as I’d love to be proven wrong, I think that statement ultimately goes for the director as well.

Film Grade: * * * / * * * * *

Score Grade: * * * /* * * * *

2014 International Film Music Critics Association Award Nominees

I realize things have been quiet at Movie Music Musings of late – this will change soon, with some end-of-year features and other reviews on the upcoming slate.  Until then, however, I’d like to share with you the International Film Music Critics Association’s annual nominations for excellence in film music.  Every year, film music critics around the world (including myself) discuss, argue, and finally vote on the year’s best music composed for film, television, and video games.  Many great scores made the cut this year, some of which you’ll see in my own Best-of feature coming in a few weeks (no fair giving them away now).  Until then, here’s the press release with the IFMCA’s 2014 nominations:



FEBRUARY 5, 2015 — The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) announces its list of nominees for excellence in musical scoring in 2014, for the 11th annual IFMCA Awards. The most nominated composers are American James Newton Howard and Frenchman Alexandre Desplat.

Howard received seven nominations, including nods for Score of the Year, Composer of the Year, Best Action/Adventure/Thriller score, and Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror score, all of which were split between his two main works of 2014: the action adventure sequel “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I,” and Disney’s reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, “Maleficent”. Howard also received an unprecedented three nominations in the Film Music Composition of the Year category, including one for the song “The Hanging Tree,” which he co-wrote with Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers, and Hunger Games book series author Suzanne Collins, and which was performed by the film’s lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence. Howard has previously been nominated for a total of 23 IFMCA Awards, winning six of them, including Score of the Year in 2006 for “Lady in the Water”.

Desplat received six nominations: for Score of the Year, two for Best Drama score, Best Comedy score, Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror score, and overall Composer of the Year. Desplat’s work in 2014 comprised several outstanding works, notably the blockbuster monster movie “Godzilla,” director Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the critically acclaimed biopic of British code breaker Alan Turing “The Imitation Game,” and the George Clooney-directed WWII drama “The Monuments Men”. Desplat has previously been nominated for a total of 35 IFMCA Awards, winning nine of them. He won the Best Score award in 2008 for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and was named Composer of the Year in 2006, 2007, and 2010.

Other composers with multiple nominations include John Powell, who picked up four nominations, all for his work on the animated sequel “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and Hans Zimmer, who picked up three nominations, all for his work on the Christopher Nolan-directed epic science fiction odyssey “Interstellar”. The other top award nomination went to composer Christopher Young for his score for the epic Chinese action-adventure film “The Monkey King [Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong],” based on the ancient classical novel Journey to the West.

In addition to Desplat, Howard, Powell and Zimmer, the other composer vying for the title of Composer of the Year is Marco Beltrami, who wrote a number of outstanding scores in 2014, including the Danish TV mini-series “1864,” the mafia drama “The Drop,” the futuristic adventure “The Giver,” the spy thriller “The November Man,” and the fantasy action film “The Seventh Son”. Beltrami received an individual nomination for Best Drama score for his work on director-star Tommy Lee Jones’s bleak and powerful Western “The Homesman”.

Each year the IFMCA goes out of its way to recognize emerging talent in the film music world, and this year is no exception. The nominees in the Breakthrough Composer of the Year category include German composer Alexander Cimini, for his work on the surrealist post-apocalyptic drama “Red Krokodil”; Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, the erstwhile conductor-in-residence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, who made his film music debut in 2014 scoring the epic drama “The Liberator [Liberador]”; experimental British singer/songwriter/composer Mica Levi, who impressed with her debut score for the art-house science fiction drama “Under the Skin”; and American composers Matthew Llewellyn and John Paesano, who both wrote impressive scores for a pair of films: Llewellyn with “Deep in the Darkness” and “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and Paesano with “The Maze Runner” and “When the Game Stands Tall”.

As it has in previous years, the IFMCA takes pride in honoring composers from across the film music world; this year’s international nominees include Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for his score for the critically acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic ‘The Theory of Everything,” Spanish composer Roque Baños for his work on the biopic of Mexican comedian and actor “Cantinflas,” Portuguese composer Nuno Malo for his superb music accompanying the 1920s thriller “No God No Master,” Spanish composer Zacarías M. de la Riva for his astonishing contribution to the sci-fi thriller “Autómata,” Frenchman Philippe Rombi for his first ever animation score “Asterix: The Land of the Gods [Astérix: Le Domaine des Dieux],” Norwegian composer Henrik Skram for the feature documentary “Ballet Boys,” and two composers whose superb work on international television series really captured the attention of the voting membership: Japanese composer Yūgo Kanno for the 53rd NHK Taiga drama “Gunshi Kanbei,” and Argentinean composer Federico Jusid for “Isabel”.
Several other composers are receiving their first ever IFMCA Award nominations this year, including Ben Foster (“Hidden Kingdoms,” Documentary), David Newman (“Tarzan,” Animation), Jeff Russo (“Fargo,” Television), and Sarah Schachner (“Assassin’s Creed: Unity,” Video Game).

The International Film Music Critics Association will announce the winners of the 11th IFMCA Awards on February 19, 2015.






  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2, music by John Powell
  • Interstellar, music by Hans Zimmer
  • Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard
  • The Monkey King [Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong], music by Christopher Young



  • Marco Beltrami
  • Alexandre Desplat
  • James Newton Howard
  • John Powell
  • Hans Zimmer



  • Alexander Cimini
  • Gustavo Dudamel
  • Mica Levi
  • Matthew Llewellyn
  • John Paesano



  • The Homesman, music by Marco Beltrami
  • The Imitation Game, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • The Liberator [Libertador], music by Gustavo Dudamel
  • The Monuments Men, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • The Theory of Everything, music by Jóhann Jóhannsson



  • Cantinflas, music by Roque Baños
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • A Million Ways to Die in the West, music by Joel McNeely
  • Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, music by Alan Silvestri
  • Wishin’ and Hopin’, music by Matthew Llewellyn



  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I, music by James Newton Howard
  • Inherent Vice, music by Jonny Greenwood
  • The Maze Runner, music by John Paesano
  • The Monkey King [Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong], music by Christopher Young
  • No God No Master, music by Nuno Malo



  • Autómata, music by Zacarías M. de la Riva
  • Godzilla, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, music by Howard Shore
  • Interstellar, music by Hans Zimmer
  • Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard



  • Asterix: The Land of the Gods [Astérix: Le Domaine des Dieux], music by Philippe Rombi
  • The Boxtrolls, music by Dario Marianelli
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2, music by John Powell
  • Son of Batman, music by Frederik Wiedmann
  • Tarzan, music by David Newman



  • Ballet Boys, music by Henrik Skram
  • Bears, music by George Fenton
  • Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, music by Alan Silvestri
  • Hidden Kingdoms, music by Ben Foster
  • The Unknown Known, music by Danny Elfman



  • Fargo, music by Jeff Russo
  • Gunshi Kanbei, music by Yūgo Kanno
  • Isabel, music by Federico Jusid
  • The Leftovers, music by Max Richter
  • Penny Dreadful, music by Abel Korzeniowski



  • Assassin’s Creed: Unity, music by Chris Tilton and Sarah Schachner
  • The Banner Saga, music by Austin Wintory
  • Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, music by Óscar Araujo
  • Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, music by Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen, Michael Curran and Grant Kirkhope
  • World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, music by Russell Brower, Neal Acree, Clint Bajakian, Sam Cardon, Craig Stuart Garfinkle, Edo Guidotti and Eímear Noone



  • The Abyss; music by Alan Silvestri, album produced by Nick Redman and Robert Townson, liner notes by Julie Kirgo, album art direction by Robert Townson and Bill Pitzonka (Varèse Sarabande)
  • Empire of the Sun; music by John Williams, album produced by Mike Matessino, liner notes by Mike Matessino, album art direction by Jim Titus (La-La Land)
  • Lair; music by John Debney, additional music by Kevin Kaska, album produced by Dan Goldwasser and John Debney, liner notes by Jeff Bond, album art direction by Dan Goldwasser (La-La Land)
  • The Lion King; score by Hans Zimmer, songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, album produced by Randy Thornton, liner notes by Hans Zimmer and Don Hahn, album art direction by Lorelay Bové (Disney)
  • On the Waterfront; music by Leonard Bernstein, album produced by Douglass Fake, liner notes by Frank K. DeWald, album art direction by Joe Sikoryak (Intrada)



  • The Ava Collection; music by Elmer Bernstein, album produced by Douglass Fake, liner notes by Douglass Fake, album art direction by Joe Sikoryak (Intrada)
  • Batman: The Animated Series Volume 3; music by Shirley Walker, Carlos Rodriguez, Peter Tomashek, Todd Hayen, Harvey R. Cohen, Michael McCuistion, Lars Clutterham, Stuart Balcomb, Mark Koval, Lolita Ritmanis, Richard Bronskill, Tamara Kline, Carl Johnson, Steve Chesne and James Stemple, album produced by John Takis and Neil S. Bulk, liner notes by John Takis, album art direction by Dan Goldwasser (La-La Land)
  • Elmer Bernstein: The Wild Side; music by Elmer Bernstein, performed by Big Band de Canarias feat. Esther Ovejero, Kike Perdomo and Sara Andon, album produced by Robert Townson and Kike Perdomo, liner notes by Robert Townson, album art direction by Robert Townson and Bill Pitzonka (Varèse Sarabande)
  • Henry Mancini: The Classic Soundtrack Collection; music by Henry Mancini, album produced by Didier C. Deutsch and Mark G. Wilder, liner notes by Didier C. Deutsch, album art direction by Chris Mancini and Edward O’Dowd (Legacy/Sony)
  • The Naked Gun Trilogy; music by Ira Newborn, album produced by Dan Goldwasser and Neil S. Bulk, liner notes by Daniel Schweiger, album art direction by Dan Goldwasser (La-La Land)



  • Intrada Records, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson
  • La-La Land Records, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys
  • Moviescore Media, Mikael Carlsson
  • Quartet Records, Jose M. Benitez
  • Varèse Sarabande, Robert Townson



  • “Flying With Mother” from How to Train Your Dragon 2, music by John Powell
  • “The Hanging Tree” from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I, music by Jeremiah Fraites, Wesley Schultz and James Newton Howard, lyrics by Suzanne Collins
  • “Maleficent Flies” from Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard
  • “Maleficent Suite” from Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard
  • “Tsunami” from Exodus: Gods and Kings, music by Harry Gregson-Williams


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

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

Previous IFMCA Score of the Year Awards have been awarded to Abel Korzeniowski’s “Romeo & Juliet” in 2013, Mychael Danna’s “Life of Pi” in 2012, John Williams’s “War Horse” in 2011, John Powell’s “How to Train Your Dragon” in 2010, Michael Giacchino’s “Up” in 2009, Alexandre Desplat’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, Dario Marianelli’s “Atonement” in 2007, James Newton Howard’s “Lady in the Water” in 2006, John Williams’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005 and Michael Giacchino’s “The Incredibles” in 2004.

For more information about the International Film Music Critics Association go to , visit our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter @ifmca, or contact us at

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: *****