Sunday, April 19, 2015
Despite the quality of even the best film scores, they're largely all part of the same musical phylum. Great film scores always function for their films, but I've only ever seen a few that really interacted with their films, and Atonement was the first time I noticed such a thing.
For a film which is largely about the power of typed words, the artistic decision for the opening scene score to use the sounds of a typewriter as its percussion was a stroke of pure brilliance.
I also particularly love the way it's used in this scene:
As the pivotal moments of the plot are being set in stone, the sounds of typing drive home the idea that the characters are essentially writing their own futures in the moment, and Briony in particular is editing events in her head into the version that makes the most sense. (Side note: how weird is it to see Theon Greyjoy in there?)
Composer Dario Marianelli won a well-deserved Oscar for this score, and he's been nominated two other times, both for other collaborations with director Joe Wright, Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012). Surprisingly he doesn't have many other especially notable credits to his name. Beyond his Joe Wright collaborations (the aforementioned ones and The Soloist), his only films to get wide releases are V for Vendetta (which I remember being quite good), and four films I haven't seen: The Brave One, Eat Pray Love, The Boxtrolls, and 2011's Jane Eyre adaptation. Hopefully soon he'll find more directors that bring out his best.
What I watched last week (titles link to trailers):
Daredevil: Season One (Marvel/Netflix)
Fast & Furious (Justin Lin, 2009)
Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015)
1. It Follows is at least the best new horror film I've seen since The Cabin in the Woods, and maybe even since The Blair Witch Project, which was 16 years ago. (Related news: I don't tend to see many horror movies, as most of them are so poorly reviewed.)
I spent a solid day thinking about it, but not really in terms of story, which is rather simple, but more in terms of mechanics. Apropos for its title, the unsettling dread of the movie really does follow you, at least for a time. The next day, a friend asked me if it was scary, and I almost didn't know how to respond. It really comes down to how you define the word. There really aren't any moments in the film where you'll jump or scream, but the film devises a way of just maintaining a steady, mounting pace of unnerving you, and it's a feeling that really doesn't dissipate when the credits role.
There's a brilliant style of cinematography in the film. Most horror films thrive on what you can't see just off screen--corners, darkness, stairwells, shut doors… anything to create a space of unknowing. Not only does It Follows NOT do that, but it goes so far in the opposite direction that it's like a magician emphatically displaying the emptiness of something. "Nothing to see here!" It Follows mostly takes place during the day, and often outside (though with virtually no direct sunlight, which is a nice artistic touch), and the camera frequently does complete 360 degree turns to show us the entire surrounding, and its apparent safety net. It's this illusion of fake safety, which virtually no other horror films attempt to create to this degree, that makes the proceedings so terrifying.
It Follows will likely be remembered as a true classic in its genre.
2. Two weeks ago I watched the first three Fast & Furious films, and wrote about how they tried a lot of things that mostly didn't work. But what did work about them was the trial and error process. Each film taught us something to do, and something not to do. The first film worked in the creation of a dynamic where the ties of family intersect with illegal racing, but failed in the recycled Point Break plot. The second film succeeded in plot (send these guys on a job), character interplay (the buddy cop dynamic), and stunts (increasingly insane), but utterly failed in losing the family atmosphere and casting power of the original. And then the third film just taught us everything not to do.
Fast & Furious (2009's 4th film in the series) and Fast Five (2011's 5th entry) are where those lessons really started paying off. The Fast & Furious movies are one of the only franchises that have gotten noticeably better with time because they spent four movies figuring out what works, and then once they did, they made three more movies basically only doing those things. Writing it like that, it sounds so simple, so why is it so seemingly unique to this one franchise?
Fast & Furious is basically just a better version of the first film, without the plot stolen from Point Break. It was a good back to basics move for the franchise, and it ended in a way that was effective in giving a new status quo to the franchise. Then Fast Five is really where it became the most fun franchise in Hollywood. I do have a bit of a difficult time with the climactic chase scene where the two mustangs drag a giant safe through the streets of Rio, because it so gleefully ignores every law of physics, but whatever. These aren't movies you see for their relationship to reality, and you just have to make a conscious decision to not let the absurdity distance you from the fun.
3. There's a 20-ish minute sequence in Batman Begins, from when Bruce Wayne returns from the orient to when Batman makes his debut and brings down Carmine Falcone (before the movie changes gears and gets into the Scarecrow poisoning the water plot), and Netflix's Daredevil is basically a 13 hour version of those twenty minutes. I mean that in the best possible way. As with Batman Begins, we don't see the hero in full costume until the climactic moment where he's ready to take down the crime lord for good, and everything prior is about how we get to that moment. Daredevil meanders a bit, as most shows do, but it keeps its eye on the prize because it knows what the prize is. It knows the payoff moment it's building towards, and it knows the key beats on the way there. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sucks because it has no idea what it's doing or what it wants to be. With Daredevil, there's never any question.
And on that point, Daredevil is also notable for what it doesn't try to do. The indefensible 2003 film attempted to tell the entire Elektra story, along with having both The Kingpin and Bullseye play major roles. You can't do that in two hours, or at least not well. But the new iteration, which had 11 more hours to play with, still opted to leave Elektra and Bullseye on the bench. It was the right move.
4. The biggest thing that's so immediately refreshing about Daredevil is that it's clearly a show meant for adults. One review I read (and I honestly can't remember which one it was) pointed out that this is likely the first major superhero movie or television show not attempting to sell lunch boxes, and I love that point. Marvel's movies depend on multiple viewings by 14-year old boys for their grosses (and therefore need 14-year old boys legally allowed to shell out for tickets), and Agents of S.U.C.K. has to follow the content restrictions of network television. Daredevil has no such problems on either front, and it takes advantage of that. This is a very violent show, and as Grantland's Alex Pappademas put it, "It reacquaints the comic book genre with pain and bodily consequence." But more than that, Daredevil also reacquaints the comic book genre with character deaths that aren't inserted for mere shock value. The characters who die here (which is about a third of the main cast) do so because playing in this world ought to realistically lead to death a fair amount of the time. It never feels like the product of a more ulterior motive than that.
5. Some Daredevil pro/cons:
Pro--Vincent D'Onofrio is legitimately great as The Kingpin (which he's never actually called).
Con--The Kingpin/Vanessa relationship felt way too rushed and ridiculous. Not from his end, but from hers.
Pro--I really liked the actress who played Karen Page.
Con--I'm much less enthusiastic about the actor who played Foggy Nelson.
Pro--The series gets better in its middle and final thirds.
Con--The series' first third is its weakest.
Pro--The amount of beatings Daredevil takes felt refreshing for a superhero flick.
Con--The amount of beatings Daredevil takes make his ability to walk by the series' end seem wildly unrealistic.
Pro--The cinematography and production design of the show were great.
Con--It needed a better score and theme music.
Pro--It hugely raises the hopes and expectations for Marvel's next Netflix series.
Con--That next series, A.K.A. Jessico Jones, is being created by the same person who wrote the screenplays to all five Twilight movies.
We'll see where it goes from here.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Writing and reading about Game of Thrones all week, and hearing its epic score, reminded me of my other favorite score for a fantasy story, the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian.
What I love about Conan the Barbarian is that it's an only semi-watchable B-Movie, but it carries itself like the Citizen Kane of loincloth flicks. The lead costars were tri-named prestige actors James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow, the screenplay was by Oliver Stone, it was directed by John Milius, who was (seriously) considered to be part of the same "Movie Brat/Film School Generation" group as Spielberg/Coppola/Scorsese, and the score sounded like it belonged to a David Lean-style epic.
The main theme goes through three basic parts: the thundering build-up (1:06-1:57, and again 2:41-2:58), the romantic theme (1:58-2:40), and the hero theme (2:59-3:40). All three parts are very good, but specifically the first 10-15 seconds of the hero theme are what makes the score transcendent. I honestly think it's one of the best pieces of heroic film music ever written, and it stands up to John Williams' best work. It's so layered, so gigantic in scope, and so seemingly weathered, like just getting to that sound was a struggle. There's a mythology to it that's almost godlike, like when fantasy characters say ridiculous things like "Songs shall be written of this deed." This would have to be what those songs sound like. Honestly, Marvel should have just purchased the rights to that score-segment and reused it for their Thor movies. There're only about 38 people on the planet that would have recognized it anyway.
The score was by Basil Poledouris, a Greek-American composer also noted for the scores of Robocop (which is equally great), The Hunt for Red October, Starship Troopers, Red Dawn, The Blue Lagoon, and the Emmy-winning score of the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove. Poledouris never became the film-scoring force that it seems he should have. He mostly stuck to B-movies by overly masculine directors like John Milius, Paul Verhoeven, and John McTiernan, never really doing anything that could generously be called a prestige project. He never received an Oscar nomination, and died in 2006, at the age of 61.
Poledouris also scored the Conan sequel, 1984's Conan the Destroyer. It's a horribly regarded movie, fully embracing its "B-ness" by employing the likes of Grace Jones and Wilt-fucking-Chamberlain as lead characters. Consequently, it's much more fun than its predecessor, almost 30 minutes shorter, and featuring far more ridiculous looking villains, including one that's basically a cross between a unicorn and an aborted yeti. So of course I love it.
But it's hard not to hold a special place for the original, which really believed itself to be a Great piece of filmmaking. And it goes through stretches of nearly convincing the viewer of that, until you realize things like one of the score segments is called "The Orgy Chamber Attack on Thulsa Doom," and then you're right back to reality.
Friday, April 10, 2015
Way back in late 2001, during my Sophomore year of college, I read a piece on ESPN called "A Few Good Hoopsters," where a new columnist named Bill Simmons used 50 quotes from A Few Good Men as awards for the NBA season. It not only introduced me to Simmons' work, but also to the great possibilities of creative nonfiction writing, which I took up not long after. Ever since then, I've wanted to try my hand at that gimmick, using movie quotes as awards for something.
And now, here we are. It's time for 50 quotes from the most quotable movie of the last decade, Inglourious Basterds, handed out as awards for Game of Thrones: Season 4, in preparation for the Season 5 debut in a few days.
Winter is coming!!
To Arya Stark, who is quickly becoming an adult and a remorseless killer, and seems destined to get her bloody revenge. Stick 'em with the pointy end, girl.
Also to Sansa, who finally seems to be keeping her wits and learning how to play the Game of Thrones, lying to save Littlefinger only because she knows it's in her best interests.
To all of the plot lines involving Bran Stark, the white walkers, and whatever supernatural shit is happening north of the wall. I just don't care. The characters aren't compelling, none of it makes sense, and it gets too far away from the conceit of the show: games, thrones, and games of thrones.
-Well, I speak the most Italian, so I’ll be your escort. Donowtiz speaks second most, so he’ll be your Italian cameraman. Omar third most, so he’ll be Donny’s assistant.
-I’m French. We respect directors in our country.
-There’s a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch. Seeing as I may be rapping on the door momentarily… I must say, damn good stuff sir.
-Why do you have your Walther pointed at my testicles?