Category Archives: Film Music Reviews

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.


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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The Grand Budapest Hotel: Film and Score Review



The Film:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Score:

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

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

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

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

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

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Skyfall – Film and Score Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Film Grade: * * * * 1/2

Score Grade: * * * 1/2

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

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Film and Score Review


In a year that gives us new films from P.T. Anderson, Quintin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, David O. Russel, and Steven Spielberg, it’s fittingly ironic that the best of the lot might actually be this low-key fantasy from first-time director Behn Zeitlin.  Perhaps best isn’t the right word (particularly given that half of the aforementioned films have not been released yet), but I have a hard time imagining that anybody is going to make a more singularly unique and viscerally moving film than Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Scrapped together with a miniscule budget, a non-professional cast, and a director who doubles as his own writer and co-composer, the film pulses with raw youthful energy and a rebellious spirit that has gone all but missing in today’s corporate-controlled filmmaking industry.  A crowd-pleaser despite its refusal to pander to the crowd, Beast is a film that builds its own universe from the ground up.  Here, that universe takes the form of the film’s fictional island in the New Orléans Bayou known as “The Bathtub.”  Located outside the levee walls, the “The Bathtub” sits in constant danger of flooding, and is consequently deemed uninhabitable by society at large.  The people who do eke out an existence there do so by hunting and scrounging, all the while knowing that every storm represents a threat to their already-fragile survival.

Yet living on the cusp of oblivion also gives The Bathtub’s residence a special form of freedom.  Until a temporary mid-film development, the government does not even seem aware that The Bathtub exists.  This turns the community into an insular bubble where residents seem to live in complete freedom form the concerns of modern society.   Few seem to have “jobs” in the modern sense of the word, living instead off of animals they either own or hunt.  This gives residents of The Bathtub a sense of self-sufficient independence that at times appears invigorating.  In the process The Bathtub comes across as its own isolated universe, one that is part Neverland and part third-world country.  On the one hand, people in this community live in what we know as squalor – within the first ten minutes, we witness a child attempting to feed herself by frying a can of cat food.  Yet they also seem to live in a constant state of perpetual celebration – adults seem to be drunk 24 hours a day, and community wide music-and-fireworks festivals are a nightly routine.  The film makes surviving on the fringe of society seem thrilling, even as it refuses to undersell the gritty hardships that come with that world.

We see this dynamic encapsulated in Hushpuppy, the film’s young protagonist who embodies both the childlike and the fierce survival qualities of The Bathtub.  Though vulnerable in her need for parental love and vivid in her imagination, Hushpuppy is nevertheless a hardened warrior of a child.  She has been raised by her single father, Wink, though Wink does not so much raise his daughter as train her  to survive in her wild environment.  A fiercely independent alcoholic, Wink embodies both the best and worst qualities of The Bathtub.  At his worst, he leaves his child for days, and gets drunk and nasty when he returns.  At his best, he treats his daughter like a peer and nurtures her fighter instincts.  Despite his volatile temperament, he clearly loves his daughter fiercely, and their bond ultimately gives the film its heaviest emotional weight.  Hushpuppy loves her father and wants to echo his fighter’s spirit, but she also craves parental affection.  Wink loves his daughter, but he knows painfully well how essential toughness is to survival in their world.  His preferred way of bonding with Hushpuppy is to encourage her physical acts of strength, challenging her to arm wrestle or prompting her to pry open crabs with her bare hands (it’s telling that he only knows how to express approval in masculine terms, screaming “You the MAN, Hushpuppy!” when she succeeds at something).  But as the film moves forward, both daughter and father’s shells begin to crack, and Wink and Hushpuppy’s efforts to negotiate tenderness with stoicism leads to some of the film’s most searingly moving sequences.

All of this is executed with incredible gusto from the people both behind and in front of the camera.  As actors, both Quvenzhané  Wallis and Dwight Henry give raw, piercing performances.  I don’t usually hold stock in the neo-realist idea that non-professional actors automatically give the most “real” performances, but it’s hard to imagine professional actors making Hushpuppy and Wink seem more spontaneously alive than Wallis and Henry.  And as a filmmaker, Zeitlin has the makings of a visionary.  With the film’s emphasis on images from nature and guileless voiceover from its child protagonist, one might be tempted to draw comparisons to Terrence Malick.  But Zeitlin is much grittier and looser in his style, and the film has an improvised feel that stands at odds with Malick’s immaculate imagery.  Beautiful images don’t gracefully float by Zeitlin’s camera – they stumble past haphazardly, tripping over the images of grime and squalor that share the screen.  The director manages to hold your head under filth for 90 minutes and still have you leave thinking you’ve just seen the most uplifting crowd-pleaser of the year.  That takes a special breed of filmmaking magic, and it makes me excited to follow Zeitlin’s future career.


It’s rare for a director to score his own movie, and its even rarer for a director to competently score his movie.  But in the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, with a score co-written by Zeitlin with Dan Rohmer, it’s hard to imagine the film with any other music.  Far from the typical low-key meandering that often plagues small indie films, the music unashamedly carries some of the film’s biggest moments.  In a style best described as Cajun Minimalism, Zeitlin and Rohmer merge a small chamber ensemble with a Creole folk group “The Lost Bayou Rumblers.”  In the process, they create a musical aesthetic that’s recognizable as film music but completely unique to the world they’ve created.  The composers make an asset out of the limited ensemble, emphasizing the rough earthy timbre of every individual plucked string and guitar fret in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a full studio orchestra.  They have also anchored the score to a powerful main theme, one that actually goes through major development as the film progresses.  At times played as an intimate lullaby on the glockenspiel, at others as bold and heraldic anthem on the trumpets, the theme functions as a moving musical extension of Hushpuppy’s emotional life.  The music is simple in its construction, to be sure, but Zeitlin and Rohmer have an uncanny ability to mine the simplest pieces for the biggest emotional impact.   Like the film, the music is rough in its execution but vibrant with raw emotions.  That balance between roughness and sweetness perhaps explains how both film and score manage to wear their hearts so blatantly on their sleeves without ever lapsing into sentimentality.  And it at least partly explains the special magic that makes Beast of the Southern Wild one of the year’s most uniquely moving filmgoing experiences.

Film Rating: * * * * *

Score Rating: * * * *

The Master – Film and Score Review

At this point, I don’t think we’d be courting too much controversy if we called Paul Thomas Anderson one of the five best filmmakers of his generation.  From his late ’90s classics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to the apocalyptic masterpiece that was 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the man has yet to make a film that falls short of greatness.  So it perhaps goes without saying that expectations have been high for The Master, the director’s first film in five years.  And once again, Anderson has both met and thwarted our expectations with a film that is oblique, thought-provoking, and beautiful in equal measure.  It may not reach the same operatic heights as There Will Be Blood, but the subtle way it probes at deeper questions might make it Anderson’s most challenging film to date.

Situated in Anderson’s larger filmography, The Master is in some ways the natural continuation of a trend that has been developing in Anderson’s films since the early 200os.  Where his earliest films tend to feature likable (if flawed) characters who invited our empathy, Anderson’s post Punch-Drunk Love work has shifted towards violent, unpredictable characters that constantly keep us at a distance.  Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan is sympathetic, but the film presents his destructive outbursts in such an alienating way that we observe him more than we identify with him.  Anderson took this idea to an even greater extreme with There Will Be Blood, the cinematic equivalent of being  locked in a  room with a rabid tiger for two hours.  There Will Be Blood practically dares us to find any humanity in Daniel Plainview’s embodiment of pure animalistic rage, and the result is one of the most intensely unsettling cinematic experiences in recent memory.  In comparison, The Master might seem positively warm and fuzzy, but it’s nevertheless another film that places us into constant close contact with a violently unhinged individual.  In this case, that individual is Freddie Quell, a WWII veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.  He is played by Joaquin Phoenix in a phenomenal performance that has unfortunately been overshadowed in the press by the actor’s own publicly staged meltdown in I’m Still Here.  Regardless of any perceived connection to the actor’s own public persona (which itself was a feat of immersive acting, however bad the resulting mockumentary may have been as a film), Phoenix disappears into the Freddie, delivering a grunting, staggering performance that often barely seems human.  Communicating primarily through inarticulate mumbles, disarming laughter, and violent outbursts, Freddie is a difficult character to warm to, and Anderson emphasizes the character’s grotesqueness with large closeups on Phoenix’s scarred, glowering mug.  On one level, Freddie seems like another specimen of Anderson’s ever-growing menagerie of feral man-beasts.

Yet as unsettled as Freddie can make us feel, the film doesn’t keep us as distant from him as we might initially expect.  It’s ambiguous in many respects about his character – the film never flat-out states why Freddie behaves the way he behaves, or why he makes certain seemingly arbitrary decisions over the course of the film.  It does, however, give us just enough information to hazard meaningful guesses.  We see enough of Freddie’s past to get the sense that he longs for some lost sense of human connection, and enough vulnerability under his compulsive laughter to see a wounded childlike creature underneath his scars.  Anderson bookends the film with images of Freddie curling up on the beach next to a naked woman made of sand, an image that suggests volumes about Freddie’s underlying desire to regress back into the womb.

The film is not just about Freddie, however – it centers on Freddie’s relationship with cult leader Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in played by a grandstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman is a great actor, but he sometimes seems to rely on a series awkward-aggressive actorly tics that can detract from his performances.  This is not the case at all with The Master – Hoffman drops all of his usual mannerisms and presents Lancaster as a charismatic showman.  In a performance that recalls Orson Welles at his most grandiose, Hoffman plays a man who seems able to reshape the world with the power of his voice.  Lancaster is in the early stages of forming a Scientology-like cult known as The Cause, one that promises to “cure” its followers bad impulses through an intense therapeutic/brainwashing process known as “Processing.”  Freddie ends up falling in with Lancaster, and for a time he becomes Lancaster’s “guinea pig and protegé,” a test subject for Lancaster’s experimental processing methods.  In theory, if Freddie can successfully work  his way through the “Processing” trials, he will cure himself of his violent temperament and recurring bouts of madness.

Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship –  and all of the questions it raises –  ultimately lie at the heart of the film.  We don’t know exactly why the usually restless Freddie is so content to fall in with Lancaster’s cult practices for so long, just as we don’t entirely know why Lancaster is so dedicated to keeping the uncontrollably violent Freddie in the cult.  But with subtle gestures, the film hints at answers to these questions.  On one level, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be using each other – Freddie gets unlimited access to room, board, and booze from Lancaster, and Lancaster gets a test subject who can validate The Cause’s methods to the world.  But Phoenix and Hoffman have intense chemistry as performers, and their interactions suggest emotional undercurrents that aren’t directly stated in the script.  When we see them embrace and playfully wrestle after a prolonged separation, the affection between the two men seems genuine.  Furthermore, Freddie’s fierce commitment to Lancaster’s “Processing” method indicates that he actually does believe in Lancaster’s teachings on some level, just as Lancaster’s staunch loyalty to Freddie in the face of all of his violent transgressions indicates a genuine desire for Freddie’s recovery.  In their complex relationship, the line between self-deception and honest human connection blurs beyond perception.

It’s perhaps because of our investment in this relationship that we grow closer to Freddie as a character than we ever did to Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood or Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love.  We might never understand Freddie enough to know exactly what makes him tick, but we understand  him enough to recognize why Lancaster and his cult would be appealing to Freddie.  Rather than paint this The Cause in a judgmental light, Anderson presents the cult the way it appears to Freddie: as the promise of a happier, more secure way of living with benevolent parental figures.  We sympathize with Freddie’s desire for these things, in part because we identify with this desire.  In this way, Freddy’s conflict – whether to listen to the nagging voice that tells him Lancaster is a fraud, or to fully give himself over to the teachings of his friend – becomes a more universal conflict about what people value most in life.  Are we happiest with independence or emotional security?  Cruel honesty or blind loyalty?  Adult agency or childlike dependence?  Anderson, to his credit, never gives us answers, and allows the film to end with all of its question marks very much intact.

So says my reading, that is.  The film is oblique to the point where many people leave the film and come away with a very different understanding of what it all means.  This, however, is part of what makes Anderson such a rarely gifted filmmaker – he provides just enough powerful fragments that we can piece together our own meaningful readings of his films without making us feel like we’re grasping in the dark.

Film Rating:  * * * * *


I’ve spoken so far about the film in terms of content, but Anderson’s audio-visual aesthetic is just as essential to his style of filmmaking.  At the start of his career, Anderson was famous for his ability to select the perfect song to nail the emotion in any given scene (so much so that Aimee Mann’s songs in Magnolia are organically integrated into the script itself).  But after Magnolia, Anderson has taken a sharp turn towards scores that thwart the musical pleasures of his earlier films.  It begins with Jon Brion’s kitschy avant-garde score for Punch-Drunk Love, abrasive music that constantly emphasizes the dangerous instability of the film’s protagonist.  But the real watershed comes in Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood,  practically a modernistic concert work that becomes a separate character in the film.  Greenwood’s score is a textbook case of what sound theorist Michel Chion refers to as anempathetic music – film music that seems coldly oblivious to the drama unfolding in the film.  Greenwood’s ferociously dissonant score isn’t entirely divorced from the equally ferocious Daniel Plainview, but it churns ahead with complete disregard to what the character is actually doing onscreen.  The result is a score acts as a wall of dissonance around the character, a wall that blocks any access to his internal thoughts and emotions.  It’s one of the most original and controversial scores of the 2000s, and it sets a high-water mark for the Greenwood’s score for The Master.

As it turns out, Greenwood’s music for this new film isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking as his music from There Will Be Blood.  But with that caveat out of the way, the score is nevertheless a fascinating work that adds great emotional depth to the film.  What’s perhaps most interesting about the Greenwood’s The Master music is the fact it is how conventional it is in its approach.  Where his score for There Will Be Blood went out of its way to block our access to the protagonist, Greenwood’s music for The Master actually seems to invite us inside Freddie’s head.  In this respect, the score is not that far removed from the great psychological scores of Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver) and Alex North (Streetcar Named Desire, The Sound and the Fury), composers who used music to dig into the unseen turmoil churning inside characters’ heads (parts of the score actually remind me of North’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a masterpiece of psychological scoring that Greenwood does well to emulate).  The Master‘s score has many facets, but they all revolve around illuminating some aspect of Freddie’s complex internal life.

The composer anchors the score on two primary ideas, one representing Freddie’s schizophrenic madness, the other representing Freddie’s complex relationship with Lancaster.  For Freddie’s madness, Greenwood employs vaguely playful atonal passages that feature sharp pizzicato sounds, from harshly plucked strings to piercing notes on the oboe.  It’s unnerving music, and it effectively captures the irritable anxiety that Freddie seems to live with.  That said, Greenwood is following in a long line of composers to use avant-garde textures and atonal music to represent madness;  for all of its experimentation, this music actually shows Greenwood following fairly standard Hollywood conventions .

Far more interesting, however, is Greenwood’s music for Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship.  Here, the composer actually introduces a rare note of tenderness into the score.  Greenwood reveals the effectiveness of the simplest devices, with strings that gently enter with a sustained major C chord before gradually descending in and out of dissonance.  The push and pull between the innocent purity of the basic major chord and the turbulent dissonance gracefully reflects Freddie’s relationship with Lancaster – hopeful and tender, but constantly laced with the potential for doubt and disorder.  And just as this central relationship remains unresolved in the film, the music shifts in and out of dissonance without ever firmly resolving itself.  It’s brilliantly perceptive film scoring, and it adds great emotional depth to the film.

It’s music like this that ultimately makes The Master such a rich and challenging audio-visual experience.  Greenwood might not have recreated the explosion of his last Anderson collaboration, but he’s nevertheless created a profound and intelligently constructed film score.  Greenwood has always demonstrated meticulous attention to technique and orchestration, but here he balances that technical precision with searing insight into human emotion.  While composers who could balance all of these qualities were not so rare a few decades ago, today Greenwood seems to be one of the few  still capable of writing uncompromising music like this.  This is perhaps why, while it doesn’t rewrite the book, Greenwood’s score for The Master is one to savor.  It balances the suggestion of tenderness with the threat of madness, and like the film, it leaves its central question marks intact right through the end.

Score Rating:  * * * * 1/2

Film and Score Review: Moonrise Kingdom

The Movie:

I’m not the first person to say this, but Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom might be the most Wes Andersoney Wes Anderson movie that Wes Anderson’s Wes Andersoned yet.  Wes Anderson.  It’s hard to imagine a fan  of the director not adoring it, just as it’s hard to imagine a non-fan being won over (in other words, I can’t imagine that anybody who hated Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums is going to see this film and say, “This is great!  You know, I think my problem with Anderson’s previous movies is that they just weren’t precious enough!”).  All of Anderson’s hallmarks are present: intricately realized storybook settings, miniature worlds that seem like life-sized dollhouses, deadpan dialogue that mixes irony with melancholy, disappointing parent figures, and children who are as gifted as they are troubled.  If you found these elements charming and strangely moving in the past, you’re unlikely to feel differently with this film.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom differs from Anderson’s earlier films in at least one significant way – it places the story firmly in the hands of the children, rather than the adults.  With the possible exception of Rushmore, most of Anderson’s films are primarily about adult disappointment.  Films like Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all have a storybook aesthetic, but that aesthetic ultimately works as a sad counterpoint to the arrested development and wasted potential of the films’ adult characters.  Moonrise Kingdom‘s intricate fantasy worlds, conversely, are a pure extension of the film’s child heroes’ imaginations.  The story itself is simple: two pre-adolescent misfits – geeky orphan Sam Shakusky and sheltered bookworm Suzy Bishop  – fall in love and decide to run away together.   Armed with Sam’s preposterously meticulous wilderness skills and Suzy’s collection of records and young adult novellas, the two set off into the pristine forests of New Penzance, Anderson’s fictional New England island.  As adult authority figures search the island for the young runaways, Sam and Suzy set about turning the island setting into their own private universe.  Everything element of the film is devoted towards realizing that universe.  Moonrise Kingdom‘s world follows the logic of a child’s daydream – it exists in a world  where 12-year olds earnestly speak like characters in a 1940s melodrama, record players can get jerked across rocky terrain and still play perfectly when it’s time for a slow dance, and lighting can strike a child and leave him with no other injury than the ash that appears on Yosemite Sam’s face after an explosion.  It’s the same signature whimsy that we always find in Anderson’s films, but it’s unsoured by adult disappointment.  The film certainly contains plenty of sad, disillusioned adult characters, but the film doesn’t belong to them or their half-hearted attempts at redemption.  The grown-ups either take the children’s lead or they fade in the background – Sam and Suzy own the movie, and they dictate its terms.  It’s perhaps for this reason that while the film has its melancholy undercurrent – Sam and Suzy are drawn to each other in part because they’ve both had such lonely unhappy childhoods – the overall tone is optimistic.

The Score:

An enormous part of the film’s impact of course comes from the film’s soundtrack.  Music plays a remarkably foregrounded role in Moonrise Kingdom, even by Anderson’s standards.  Like Tarantino, Anderson is famous for his jukebox scores, assembled from the obscure corners of his record collection.  His soundtracks are typically unified only by their eclectic nature –  you’re just as likely to hear songs from forgotten ’60s French New Wave films as you are famous hits by Bowie, and even the most popular songs tend to come in the form of obscure covers (i.e., the harpsichord arrangement of “Hey Jude” in Tenenbaums).  Yet the song choices never feel arbitrary – they emerge directly from his characters.  Anderson films tend to render the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music moot, because characters in his films constantly provide their own soundtracks.  We rarely hear music that the characters don’t hear as well, because Anderson’s characters go to great extremes to make sure that they can always listen to the soundtrack (i.e., Jason Schwartzman brining portable iPod speakers into the Indian desert in The Darjeeling Limited).  In Anderson’s films, part of expressing an identity comes through providing one’s own soundtrack, and his characters often communicate more about themselves through their song choices than they do through dialogue.

This is true of Moonrise Kingdom as well, though Anderson introduces a remarkable change of pace with his music selections.  Apart from the occasional period-establishing Hank Williams song or French doo-wop ballad, the bulk of the soundtrack consists of grandiose orchestral selections by mid-twentieth century English composer, Benjamin Britten.  It’s about as sharp a left turn from Portuguese Bowie covers as Anderson could have taken.  It’s a refreshing change of pace, as there’s nothing particularly hip, flashy, or even retro-chic about the composer’s music.  While enormously respected in the pantheon of 20th century composers, Britten’s qualities are generally too subtle to find much life outside of the concert hall world.  Influenced in equal measure by English composers from centuries past and his contemporaries in Russia and America, Britten’s music tends to walk a delicate balance between English tradition and contemporary modernism.  It’s perhaps for this reason that we rarely hear Britten’s music quoted or referenced in film, mainstream Hollywood or otherwise.  When filmmakers want beautiful British pastoral music, they tend to turn to Britten’s more immediately accessible contemporary, Vaughan-Williams.  When they want something more violent and menacing, the tend to turn to more overtly dissonant modernists like Shostakovich and Stravinsky.  Britten tends to sit in the middle of the two extremes, and his in-betweenness rarely suits filmmakers who need quick extremes.

It’s that in-betweenness, however, that seems to speak so much to the young characters in Moonrise Kingdom.  In what might be the film’s best running gag, nearly every child in the film seems to vehemently love Britten’s music.  They listen to his music constantly, and it never comes across as classical music imposed on them by their parents; the kids seem to have taken ownership of Britten’s oeuvre for themselves.  And they often go to extreme lengths to continue listening to the music: Suzy caries her brother’s record player across the island’s terrain largely so she can keep listening to Benjamin Britten, and her brothers are outraged when they discover that their record player – their sole apparatus for listening to Benjamin Britten – has been taken from them.  While the notion of 12-year old children obsessed with a concert hall composer is funny, it’s also strangely perfect for the characters.  Just as Sam and Suzy struggle to balance their sad family lives with their attempts at creating something beautiful for themselves, Britten’s music frequently struggles to  find melodic beauty from a backdrop of tumultuous dissonance.  This quality is most prominent in the composer’s “A Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra,” which Anderson uses as the film’s musical centerpiece.  Designed as a primer to teach children about orchestral music, Britten’s piece breaks a fully orchestrated melody down to its individual instrumental lines.  Britten’s purpose is ostensibly to illustrate the way that the various pieces of orchestral music come together to form a whole.  But while the piece seems designed to make orchestral music more accessible to young people, Britten does not soften any of the darker edges that come with his concert pieces.  The piece is based on a somber minor-key melody from 17th century composer Henry Purcell, and Britten’s massive orchestral variations are frequently ominous and tumultuous.  The music holds beauty as well, but it’s a dark beauty that never simplifies unpleasant emotions for the sake of sentimentality.  This music, which is supposed to make the adult world of orchestral music simpler for children, ends up exposing children to heavy adult emotions that conflate overpowering bleakness with beauty.  For Sam and Suzy, that music is a fitting illustration of their own relationship with the world around them.  Their outlook seems simple and naïve, yet their innocence does nothing to weaken their capacity for depression or euphoria.

Augmenting Britten’s music is Alexandre Desplat’s original score.  Desplat’s music occupies a fairly limited running time in the film, but it makes a strong impact.  I don’t believe he wrote more than 15 minutes of material, but that’s a lot when you consider that those 15 minutes consist of nothing but variations on two chords.  The music represents minimalistic layering at its most extreme – Desplat establishes those chords as a foundation, and then uses them to build solo lines for seemingly every major instrument in the Western musical lexicon music (from strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion, to ukulele, banjo, and B3 organ).  While the music initially seems much smaller and quainter than Britten’s imposing orchestral forces, Desplat’s score gradually reaches epic proportions of its own.  By the time we get to the last act, Desplat is bringing male singers and tubular bells into the mix, signaling the apocalyptic urgency of the storm that bears down on the island during the climax.   It’s extremely effective film scoring, and it serves as a fitting reflection of the world that Sam and Suzy build in Moonrise Kingdom – built from simple whimsical pieces, but fully capable of snowballing to enormous and menacing proportions nevertheless.  The score’s biggest treat comes at the end credits, however, where the film turns the score into Desplat’s own “Young person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”  In hommage to the child narrators in Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Britten’s “Guide,” Anderson has a series of young child narrators identify each instrument that appears in Desplat’s suite.  I don’t think a director has ever treated his composer’s music more generously, and the effect is both charming and amusingly redundant (“16 Baritone-Bass singers,” a child announces at one point, as though this needed clarification).  Like Britten’s piece, the end credit suite manages to break the music down into its core components without reducing its affective impact.  It brings things full circle in a way that, like the film itself, is simultaneously charming, funny, and affecting.

Final Thoughts:

Moonrise Kingdom is probably Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, and its youthful exuberance often acts as a counterbalance to that earlier film’s series of adult disappointments.  And Anderson, Desplat, and their collaborators have built a score for the film that is witty, powerful, moving, and innovative – all qualities that have grown increasingly rare in today’s filmmaking climate.  It’s a rare soundtrack that actively encourages the audience to notice its presence and observe the way that the music interacts with the narrative.  That the music manages to do so without taking us out of the story or hindering its emotional impact on the characters is extremely impressive.  Anderson detractors are unlikely to find anything new to sway them, but the film comes highly recommended to everybody else.  If nothing else, the film seems poised to achieve something that previously seemed completely impossible: inspiring a new generation of hipsters to start listening to Benjamin Britten.

Film Rating:  * * * * 1/2 out of  * * * * *

Score Rating:  * * * * 1/2 out of * * * * *

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Dark Shadows – Film and Score Review

Note:  This is a new feature that I’m trying out, one in which I review both a film and its soundtrack album in the same piece.  Ideally, this feature will both offer a place to examine the relationship between a film and its score, while also allowing space to appreciate both as separate entities.  If these go over well, I will try to make them a regular feature here.

Danny Elfman’s relationship with Tim Burton now encompasses fourteen films and countless smaller projects – it is probably second only to that of Steven Spielberg and John Williams as the most famous composer-director relationship in Hollywood history (no shame in Number 3, Herrmann and Hitchcock!).  With so much time spent together, one would think that the two might run the risk of learning each other’s ticks and falling into grooves.  So far, however, this has not been the case, largely because Elfman and Burton’s relationship has always been built upon a foundation of cognitive dissonance.  Where John Williams generally re-articulates with music exactly what Spielberg is communicating with images, Elfman tends to find ways under and around Burton’s visual content.  If Burton gives us a menacing looking figure with blades for hands, Elfman responds with a fragile and bittersweet lullaby.  If Burton gives us a candy-colored chocolate factory, Elfman gives us a somber dirge that makes the factory feel more like a prison.  The music always ends up communicating the underlying emotion under Burton’s image, but it’s rarely an emotion that seems immediately obvious.  These constantly unexpected tonal juxtapositions are largely what have kept Burton and Elfman’s audio-visual collaboration consistently interesting, even when the films themselves have varied in quality.

The Film:

Understand, however, that when I say that the quality of Burton’s films sometimes flags, understand that I am not jumping on the “Tim Burton hasn’t made a good or original film in decades” bandwagon.  This is a criticism that tends to come up every time Burton makes a film that a critic doesn’t like, and it tends to reflect the short-term memory of the writer more than Burton’s career itself.  I certainly agree that Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland were misfires (though certainly not commercially), but in the past decade, Burton also made Big Fish, The Corpse Bride, and Sweeney Todd – all critically acclaimed films that represent new steps forward for the director.  It’s true that Burton does have a signature aesthetic, and he does return to similar themes.  But he has not simply been repeating the same themes ad nauseam for three decades – he’s been developing them.  Where Burton once fixated on loners who are cast out of communities, he now seems more interested in the possibility of integrating his loners into those communities.  Since Big Fish in 2003, his films have been exploring the extent to which the prototypical Burton misfit has a place inside a family unit.  Edward Bloom, Willy Wonka, and Mrs. Lovett are all fiercely individualistic misfits who nevertheless find themselves torn between their desire for freedom and their desire for a nurturing family.  The extent to which these characters are able to find some version of happiness tends to depend upon their ability to balance those two desires.

This theme was admittedly all-but-absent in Alice in Wonderland, which felt more like Burton illustrating a video game than Burton propelling his own personal narrative.  But it’s more pronounced than ever in Dark Shadows, an uneven film that nevertheless feels like a return to Burton’s personal style of filmmaking.  While nominally a gothic love story, much of the film’s heart lies in vampire Barnabus Collins’ relationship with his family.  Barnabus is a 18th century nobleman who is cursed, turned into a vampire, and then entombed for two centuries.  When he is accidentally unearthed in the 1970s, his first impulse is to seek out his modern-day ancestors and re-integrate himself into the Collins family.  While driven in part by aristocratic pride, Barnabus displays genuine affection for his new great-grand nieces and nephews, and he seems to find true fulfillment from their company.  The message – that families provide a community for people who might never be accepted elsewhere – is admittedly very on the nose.  Barnabus habitually spurts out words of wisdom from his father about “family being the greatest treasure,” and unlike Big Fish or Sweeney Todd, Dark Shadows doesn’t seem particularly interested in complicating this message.  But the family theme does lead to several of the film’s most moving moments, from Collins’ handling of a young boy’s negligent father to the vampire’s awkwardly endearing attempts to connect with the family’s surly teenager.  Depp plays the character with un-ironic conviction, and he sells scenes that might veer into either camp or sentiment in other hands.

Having said that, the film is frustrating from a narrative perspective.  The film’s central romance hangs on the premise that Barnabus Collins and Maggie Evans, a young caretaker who seems to be some reincarnated version of Collins’ fiancé, are soul mates.  But because Burton spends so much time going off on tangents and exploring every nook and cranny of the world he’s created, the lovers only have a few short scenes together.  Our emotional investment in their relationship is thus never as strong as it should be.  An otherwise beautifully-executed final sequence between the two characters might have equaled the melodramatic weepiness of Edward Scissorhands, but it falls short because the film never takes the time to make us care about their relationship.

But because what Burton sacrifices in storytelling, he makes up in freedom.  After the confining quest-driven nature of Alice in Wonderland, it’s refreshing to see Burton following his nose.  He seems happy to explore odd little scenes and moments for the sheer pleasure of exploring, and the feeling is infectious.  Burton seems ultimately more interested in watching Barnabus’s interactions with the various members of the household than he is in advancing narrative, and while some of these tangents never go anywhere, they help in selling Barnabus’s growing attachment to his new family.  That this familial aspect of the film is ultimately far more believable than the love story is perhaps completely fitting for modern-day Burton.

The Score

Elfman’s score is oddly positioned in the film.  One would think that a gothic Tim Burton film filled with werewolves and vampires would be the sort of thing that Elfman could write on autopilot.  And it’s true, the opening and closing sequence do recall Elfman’s earlier work in the genre.  The bookending scenes on Widow’s Hill receive outlandishly gothic tragedy, music that works as a cross between the operatic lyricism of his score to Sleepy Hollow and the primitive bombast of his score to The Wolfman (Elfman fans might recognize this music as a de-Kilared version of Elfman’s Wolfman theme – the racing arrangement is nearly identical, but Elfman has replaced Wolfman‘s Wojciech Kilar-inspired Slavic theme with a melody that is 100% his own).  These scenes are driven by a remarkably long-lined melody, one that races through gothic melodrama with grandiose abandon.  It’s nothing particularly new, but these sequences provide vividly powerful illustrations of signature Elfman at his best.

Apart from these bookends, however, the score is a remarkable change of pace for the composer.  With a few exceptions, Elfman’s score is little invested in selling the emotional side of the film – any resonance that comes from Barnabus’s relationship with his family comes primarily through the performances and not the music.  Rather, the film uses music primarily for atmosphere – the score functions as an extension of the film’s unsettling environment.  Elfman’s unrelentingly somber tone often works as an anchor, giving the film a serious foundation even when silly fish-out-of-water gags are occurring onscreen.  If Elfman’s music was an extension of the characters in previous Burton films, in Dark Shadows his music is an extension of the world that the characters inhabit.

It’s the uniqueness of that sonic world that really makes the score something special.   Because the film is an adaptation of a 1970s soap opera, Dark Shadows already comes with a musical heritage.  This is not the first time Elfman and Burton have tackled material with a pre-existing musical background, but it is the first time that they’ve actually paid attention to it.  Rather than approach the film from his typical quirky and whimsical standpoint, Elfman has actually made a remarkable effort to recreate the sound of a 1970s horror film.  Some of this comes in the form for homage to the original soap opera’s music – in key sequences, Elfman actually integrates Robert Cobert’s eerie 1970s Dark Shadows theme seamlessly into his own thematic material.  But the score also plays as a larger homage to music in ‘70s cult horror films in general (particularly the work of Les Baxter, whose psychedelic score for The Dunwich Horror feels like a very close cousin to this one).  The ensemble is generally chamber-sized, with an emphasis on vibes, vintage analogue synthesizers, wind effects, and most prominently, bass flutes.  It’s a sound that should be familiar to anybody who’s familiar with Hammer horror films or the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe adaptations, but it’s also a sound that popular culture has all but forgotten.

With that in mind, what Elfman does with this score is actually quite incredible.  Modern day films will occasionally go for a retro sound, but these films tend to aim for easily recognizable targets – Golden Age melodrama, ‘60s swinging spy music, Spaghetti Western anthems, and so on.  These are musical idioms that have become instant associations in the collective cultural consciousness, and evoking them is generally as easy as referencing a few superficial signifiers (i.e., an electric guitar lick modeled after The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or James Bond’s chord progression).  What’s rare is something like Dark Shadows, where a composer painstakingly recreates a sound that virtually no one remembers.  If anybody who isn’t already intimately familiar with the source material recognizes the music, they recognize it on an entirely subconscious level.  That Elfman has managed to evoke this forgotten auditory world – and to evoke it so exhaustingly – is remarkable.

It also reminds us of what we’re missing in modern horror films.  Elfman crafts a genuinely haunted soundscape, one that scares without reverting to shock stingers or atonal cacophony.  Conventional effects like that are powerful too, and Elfman has certainly used them a fair amount himself in his time.  But there’s something unique about the sound he’s tapping into in Dark Shadows, something that chills on a more sensory level.  His approach is subtle – so subtle that I suspect it will be lost on many of his fans (and indeed, early score reviews are already bemoaning the lack of accessibility in the middle section).  But with a little patience, there’s something extremely fulfilling about this score.  Headphones help, as so much of the score’s power comes through subtle instrumental effects.  The bass flutes are an ingenious touch, particularly when Elfman has them creep up the scale and then abruptly fall off and fade away.  These bass flutes – instruments that are almost never used in contemporary film scores – create the impression of voices vanishing into the mist, and they’re evocative and unsettling on a primal level.  I also love the way the cellos in “The Killing of Mr. Hoffman” reverberate deep below the bass clef, seemingly inspired by Henry Mancini’s clinically elegant suspense scores in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s (I’m thinking of Lifeforce in particular – if you only know Mancini for his easy-listening jazz soundtracks, you are missing out).  Elfman has created a score that has a very firm grasp on the past, but it doesn’t just evoke an earlier era for the sake of nostalgia – Elfman actually makes a case for this forgotten musical language, and demonstrates how effective this music in creating uniquely unsettling sensations.

Unfortunately, the music is largely lost on Burton’s film, for its mixed so low that most of its subtleties are lost.  Cues like “The Killing of Dr. Hoffman” still effectively support the on-screen narrative, but the music would be so much more powerful if it loud enough to assert itself.  In general, the film uses Elfman’s grim score to give the film some semblance tonal consistency.  It’s effective in that regard, but it’s a shame to see a brilliantly detailed cue like “Lava Lamp” buried under one of Barnabus’s fish-out-of-water gags.

This ultimately means that, for perhaps the first time, Burton’s film and Elfman’s score are best appreciated as separate entities (though to a certain extent, this also goes for Alice in Wonderland).  The film is far from Burton’s best, but its unevenness is itself a welcome return to Burton’s looser style of filmmaking.  The story that drives the film never quite hangs together, but Dark Shadows is nevertheless an entertaining diversion that gives Burton a chance to further develop his theme of misfits and their families.  The score album, however, is genuinely something special, one that should appeal equally to Elfman fans and anybody with an appreciation for offbeat retro horror scores.  Seek it out, find a good pair of headphones, and let yourself get lost in its trance.

Film:  *** ½ out of *****

Score:  **** ½ out of *****

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Film Score Review: John Carter

Composed by Michael Giacchino.  Released by Walt Disney, 2012.

The media decided that Andrew Stanton’s massive-budgeted space opera, John Carter, was one of the cinema’s greatest commercial disasters before the film even premiered this weekend (more evidence, as if we needed any, that 24-hour entertainment journalism is severely distorting the way we look at movies).  I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hope it manages to prove the naysayers wrong for two reasons.  One, because Stanton, director of Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, is a brilliant filmmaker, and it would be a shame to see his live-action filmmaking career cut short in its tracks because Disney didn’t know how to market John Carter.  Two, because the film has given composer Michael Giacchino the rare chance to write a bold, thematic, and epic orchestral score, the kind that studio heads are convinced that audiences don’t want anymore.  I want the movie to do well in part because I want the studios to realize that, hey, there actually is an audience for old-fashioned symphonic adventure music.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s productive to place too much stock in what the score stands for.  I miss the days when popcorn movies received shamelessly melodic orchestral scores as much as the next child of the ’80s, and I’d like to see them come back.  But I also recognize the danger in mindlessly lavishing praise on a new score just because it’s competently orchestrated and has a discernible theme.  I’m not particularly pleased with today’s film music climate, but I also think we should be cautious of getting so caught up in nostalgia that we blind ourselves to genuine innovation.  With that in mind, Michael Giacchino is a composer who’s balanced nostalgia and innovation as deftly as any I can think of in his generation.  With scores for The Incredibles, Star Trek, Up, Super 8, and the last two Missions: Impossible, he’s written music that fondly recalls the film music of bygone eras, but he’s also developed a contemporary voice that keeps him from seeming out-of-date to modern-day directors and producers.  I’m not always the hugest fan of his music, but I respect what he’s been able to do immensely.  In his 8 years writing feature film scores, he seems to have become the most sought-after contemporary composer after Hans Zimmer, and that he’s managed to do it without playing Zimmer’s game is pretty admirable.

John Carter is in many ways the cumulation of everything that he’s achieved so far.  I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say it’s his best (his work on Ratatouille and Lost sets a high bar), but it’s easily his biggest crowd-pleaser.  Here he’s written a score that’s nearly impossible for film music fans to dislike.  It has the grandeur and earnestness of old-fashioned Hollywood adventure, the contemporary Middle Eastern exotica of modern-day Hollywood epics, and its all rounded off with Giacchino’s own signature action/drama music that he’s been developing since Lost.  Moreover, he manages to tie all of this together in a very coherent and very entertaining package that seems to bring out the best in all of the above-mentioned worlds.  In many ways, it feels much more like a hybrid of Giacchino in Lost mode and James Horner at his fantasy peak in the early ’90s.  The theme, as others have pointed out, even has a vague hint of Horner’s Glory (not to mention every score in which Horner reuses that theme), and the score feels like it would fit right in with any of the big thematic fantasy scores that were all over the place two decades ago.

That said, I do think it’s worth pointing out that while it would fit in with the much-loved fantasy scores of decades past, it wouldn’t necessarily stand with the best of them.  Many members of the film music community have been bursting with superlatives for this score, even going so far as to compare it to Williams at his peak in the late 1970s.  While I’m happy that so many people have found new music to love, I also think a little perspective might be in order.  Midway through my 3rd listen to this album, I came to the following series of realizations:  A) a brief passage reminded me of Goldsmith’s 1999 score for The Mummy, B) I didn’t find this score anywhere near as memorable as Goldsmith’s The Mummy, C) The Mummy is actually pretty low on my list of favorite Goldsmith scores, D) I’m not even the world’s biggest Goldsmith fan, and finally, E) that this line of thinking is really depressing.  Now it’s ridiculous to knock John Carter down because it doesn’t quite hold its own with the best scores it’s recalling, particularly as Giacchino’s managed to keep the music resolutely in his own voice.  But while the score is very entertaining, coherent, and satisfying, I don’t know that it’s a lot more than that.  It doesn’t move or excite me the way the best adventure music moves and excites me, and while I imagine that in five year’s time I’ll still occasionally give the score a spin (erm…through my iPod…), I doubt there will be many occasions in which I choose John Carter over Star Wars, The RocketeerCutthroat Island, or, yes, The Mummy.

Now this is not a reasonable expectation to set for any new piece of music, and it probably seems churlish to complain about a score that’s this good, simply because it doesn’t quite stand with the best of the best.  But my reservations aren’t really for Giacchino’s music itself, which is very, very good.  My reservations are rather for the prevailing attitude that champions an entertaining diversion as the best of the best, simply because it represents something that we miss.  Regardless of how well the film performs, I hope that Michael Giacchino gets the chance to write more scores like John Carter.  I also, however, hope that he gets to expand his palate further, that he finds more chances to be innovative, that he finds more opportunities to experiment with music that isn’t immediately crowd pleasing, even if it’s more substantial.  And I hope that the people who have been so quick to herald John Carter as the return to film music’s glory days are just as receptive when Giacchino takes them to more meaningful places.

Rating: **** out of *****

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