Category Archives: Film

The Ten Best Film Scores of 2014

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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.

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Boyhood – Film and Score Review

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

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

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

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

The score:

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

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

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

Film: * * * * *

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

 

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

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The Film:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Score:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planet-of-the-Apes

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

 

Scene: Interior.  Office of a prominent Studio Executive.

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

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

Me: It’s grammatically correct!

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

Me: Look do you want to hear the pitch?

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

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

Studio Exec:  … um …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SE: … planet of the “apes”?

Me: Yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studio Exec: Ah.

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

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

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

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

Me: Well … yeah. But look –

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

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

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

Me:  Yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studio Exec: Wait, why?

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

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

Me: Um.

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

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

SE: Does the new guy even have a personality?

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

SE: Why…

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

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

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

SE: Stop telling me about the music!

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

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

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

SE: WHAT?!

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

SE: ?!?!?!?!

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

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

Me: No, it’s –

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

Me: No, we’re –

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

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

SE: How…

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

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

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

SE: You never told me about nice monkeys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SE: Then how does he –

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

SE: *Bangs head against his desk*

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

SE: STOP TALKING ABOUT THE MUSIC AS IF –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SE (scribbling): Oh, that’s good!

Me: Can we, um…?

SE: Yeah, yeah, keep going.

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

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

Me: …. um ….

SE: Take your time.

Me: … … …

SE: I really want to hear you explain this.

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

SE: Uh-huh. Go on.

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

SE: The monkey rights activist is a circus trainer?

Me: I know, it’s weird, but can we –

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

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

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

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

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

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

SE:  Touché. Keep going.

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

SE: That’s actually really chilling!

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

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

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

SE: [Starts punching self in the head]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Uh, yeah?

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

Me: Are you … are you ok, buddy?

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

Me: Can … Can I finish the pitch?

SE: Oh please!

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

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

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

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

Me: Right?!

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

Me: How on the nose of you!  Why?

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

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

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

Me: … what the hell was that?!

SE: What?

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

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

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

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

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2012 Oscar Predictions and Reflections

Best-Picture-nominees-2013-Academy-Awards

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

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

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

The Best Picture Nominees (in Alphabetical Order)

Amour

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

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

Argo

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

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

Beasts of a Southern Wild

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

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

Django Unchained

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

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

Les Miserables

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

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

Life of Pi

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

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

Lincoln

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

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

 

Silver Linings Playbook

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

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

Zero Dark Thirty

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

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

 

Thoughts on the Best Original Music Nominees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Argo

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

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

Anna Karenina

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

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

Life of Pi

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

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

Lincoln

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

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

Skyfall

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

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

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

The International Film Music Critics Association Announces Their 2012 Awards

ifmca-logo

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE WINNERS

2012 Film Categories

FILM SCORE OF THE YEAR

• LIFE OF PI, music by Mychael Danna

FILM COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

• DANNY ELFMAN

BREAKOUT COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

• NATHAN JOHNSON

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DRAMA FILM

• LINCOLN, music by John Williams

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A COMEDY FILM

• TED, music by Walter Murphy

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ACTION/ADVENTURE/THRILLER FILM

• SKYFALL, music by Thomas Newman

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

• JOHN CARTER, music by Michael Giacchino

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ANIMATED FEATURE

• RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, music by Alexandre Desplat

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

• METSÄN TARINA, music by Panu Aaltio

FILM MUSIC COMPOSITION OF THE YEAR

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

Other 2012 Categories

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A TELEVISION SERIES

• DOCTOR WHO, music by Murray Gold

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A VIDEO GAME OR INTERACTIVE MEDIA

• JOURNEY, music by Austin Wintory

BEST ARCHIVAL RELEASE OF AN EXISTING SCORE

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

BEST ARCHIVAL RE-RECORDING OF AN EXISTING SCORE

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

FILM MUSIC RECORD LABEL OF THE YEAR

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

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

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

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

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

The Ten Best Film Scores of 2012

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

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

The 10 Best Film Scores of 2012

10.  Zero Dark Thirty – Alexandre Desplat

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

9.  Prometheus – Marc Streitenfeld

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

8.  Cosmopolis – Howard Shore and Metric

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

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

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

6.  Paranorman – Jon Brion

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

5.  Brave – Patrick Doyle

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

4.  The Master – Johnny Greenwood

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

3.  Dark Shadows – Danny Elfman

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

2.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore

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

1.  Life of Pi – Michael Danna

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

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

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

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

Lincoln – John Williams

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

The Dark Knight Rises – Hans Zimmer and friends

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

The Amazing Spider-man – James Horner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Concert Review: Battleship Potemkin by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

It probably looked like I dropped off the face of the planet, but I’m writing now to (very belatedly) talk about a very interesting performance that I had the pleasure of attending last month.  At the Kennedy Center on March 9, the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra gave an excellent performance of a newly commissioned score for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet film, Battleship Potemkin.  New scores for silent films are almost always interesting in and of themselves, simply for their ability to transform works of art that might otherwise seem fixed.  If you screen Battleship Potemkin four times with four different scores, it might look the same each time, but the different scores will turn each screening into an entirely different film.  As a new musical interpretation of Eisenstein’s film, Berklee’s orchestra did not disappoint.  The score was simultaneously faithful to the idioms of Soviet Modernism and contemporary in ways that made it emotionally accessible to a modern audience.

But just as interesting as the music itself is the manner in which it was created.  The score is the result of a one-semester course taught at Berklee by Dr. Sheldon Mirowitz.  I’ve been in touch with Dr. Mirowitz via email in the weeks following the performance, and his project sounds genuinely unique.  In his course, students learn to compose film music, not as solitary composers, but as part of a team.  As he explained to me, Dr. Mirowitz gets the commission to score a silent film, and then creates an outline for the music and its core themes.  He next assigns each student a reel of film, and has his students compose and arrange music for their segments based on his core material.  Throughout the composing process, the students workshop their music in class.  Everybody brings their demos, synched to picture, and both the professor and his students give critical notes for revision.  Ultimately, these separate pieces form one cohesive soundtrack, one that sounds like product of a singular vision even though it emerges through collaboration.

The course’s pedagogical approach is thus very well suited to contemporary film scoring, even though it’s put in the service of decidedly old-fashioned means.  From what I understand, Dr. Mirowitz’s process of scoring by committee is very similar to Hans Zimmer’s method at Remote Control Studios.  Zimmer, who is at this point the most powerful film composer in Hollywood, has used similar “composer teams” to score some of the most powerful moneymakers of the past two decades, including The Rock, The Lion King, The Thin Red Line, Gladiator, Inception, and Rango, along with the current Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes franchises.  Zimmer’s method – the head composer writes a handful of theme suites, develops an overall architecture, and then hands things over to his team of composers who score the actual scenes – has in many ways become the industry standard.  In this sense, having students learn to write as part of a committee under the voice of a guiding composer is remarkably to what they’d actually be doing were they to work in Hollywood.

Of course, were they to work in Hollywood, it’s very doubtful that they’d be asked to write anything like the music we heard at the Battleship Potemkin performance.  While Dr. Mirowitz and his students’ score had many modern harmonic touches, it was nowhere near Zimmer’s synth-doubled brass anthems, pre-programmed percussion loops, or synthesized ostinatos.  What Zimmer and his associates produced is generally not so much traditional orchestral music as pop music partially played by an orchestra.  By comparison, the music that the Berklee students are writing is much more traditional, rooted in the language of early 20th century concert music.  Add this to the fact that silent films themselves have a radically different sense of pacing, editing, and overall sensibility than contemporary Hollywood films, and it seem that these students are training for a career that has long since passed.  But actually, the archaic nature of this project is part of what makes it so brilliant.  Many of the problems of present-day Hollywood music come from so many composers only knowing how to write the simple, chord-based music that fits into Zimmer’s landscape.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of music in its own right, but it becomes a problem when it’s literally the only kind of music that major film composers understand.  Professional music literacy, not only in terms of theory but also in terms of history, often seems like a thing of the past.  I’m not saying that every film composer needs a degree in music composition – in fact, many of the most accomplished composers of orchestral film music have been entirely self-taught (from Danny Elfman to last year’s Oscar Winner for The Artist, Ludovic Bource).  But the people who write movie music for a living should still be able to demonstrate some basic comfort-level with film music idioms that predate the last Jerry Bruckheimer film.

The benefit of Dr. Mirowitz’s project is that while it does train students to write in a contemporary committee setting, it also educates them in varied and complex orchestral languages from generations past.  Based on the evidence I heard at the Kennedy Center, these students leave the class knowing how to do more than program simple chord progressions into a keyboard – they leave with a genuine sense of their musical history and the ability to evoke many different iterations of film music.  This adaptability will serve as a great asset for any of them, should they decide to enter the film industry.  Producers and directors are not always going to want the Remote Control Sound, after all – sooner or later, the industry is going to change again.  When that happens, the composers who make it will be the the ones who can adapt the most readily to new musical languages.  In training his students in varied film music styles from generations past, Dr. Mirowitz is also training them to be adaptable composers.

For the present, however, his course makes for a wonderful music project in its own right, and I look forward to many new silent film scores from Dr. Mirowitz and his students.  For more information, visit:

http://www.berklee.edu/news/4225/podcast-berklee-silent-film-orchestra

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