Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grotesque Beauty

There was an interesting piece recently on the community site (called The Ossuary) that  detailed 5 of the most beautiful pieces of music unexpectedly used in horror films.  The list includes music by Christopher Young, Goblin, Pino Donaggio (whose beautiful theme for Carrie I think should top the list), Riz Ortolani and Daktari Lorenz, and skews towards a very specific period of horror films (70s and 80s).

What was surprising to me was the author's use of the word unexpectedly.  In my mind, beauty and horror are, in the best horror films, two sides of the same coin.  Bernard Herrmann was a master of this dichotomy in Hitchcock films (think of some of the lush strings from Vertigo), and classic like Waxman's Bride of Frankenstein explore the romanticism and gothic beauty of horror.  I actually think that this has been expanded upon wonderfully by more recent filmmakers.  I'd say that M. Night Shyamalan leads the pack with his The Sixth Sense, which features some absolutely gorgeous writing by James Newton Howard.  The same goes for every Shyamalan film, where his horror is underscored by some surprisingly lush and delicate musical tones.

Guillermo del Toro, much like Tim Burton before him, revels in the beauty of the grotesque, sometimes intertwining the two so much that each is unrecognizable without the other.  He has called upon Marco Beltrami, Danny Elfman (appropriately enough), and Javier Navarrete to emphasize the beauty of these creatures that he creates, in addition to their power and, at times, viciousness.

Danny Boyle's use of music in 28 Days Later is extremely unique, calling upon John Murphy to write what I would call an unexpected score, with some rock and electronic elements combining with an orchestral palette to really ramp up the tension.  But it is a particular moment of beauty that I remember, when our protagonists ride in a car through the deserted London, running over dead bodies, seeing desolation everywhere, and yet feel free in the empty world, shown by Boyle's choice of quasi-religious, beautiful music for the scene.

The best horror filmmakers realize that the most awful thing to watch is not blood and guts or numerous teenagers dying, but is to watch something that is both beautiful and terrible to behold at once.  What is most terrible about Dracula's castle, despite its foreboding gothic spires, is that it is so magnificent to behold.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We're Back - And so is John Williams

I know it's been a long time between posts (I've been trying to work as an amateur film composer and be gainfully employed), but Score Points is back.  We won't be as frequent with our posts as we were between January and the summer, but we will still have coverage of the film score world, as well as some movie and soundtrack reviews, and some general rantings.

In conjunction with us returning is the return of the Maestro, John Williams.  It has been 3 years since his last film score (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a score I believe was underrated simply because of the mediocre film with which it was associated), but he comes back with a vengeance in 2011 with scores for The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and the much more economically named War Horse, both due for release in December.

Samples of Tintin have hit the web, including a fabulous suite brought to us by Erik Woods of Cinematic Sound.  Woods seems to be one of those disappointed by Williams' Indy, but loves his new effort.  I'll withhold judgment until the film and the full soundtrack,. but it certainly sounds like Williams (and perhaps Spielberg) were newly energized by the film, as seen by the variety of styles Williams employs in the short suite.  There is some bold thematic writing, but Williams seems to rely less on big melodies and more on shorter motives (some more rhythmic in nature), which he then manipulates masterfully.

You can listen to the Cinematic Sound show here. 

The soundtrack for Tintin will be released on October 25 as an import from Sony UK.  The film will open on December 21, and has been getting very good early reviews internationally.  Hopefully it and War Horse will be a welcome return to form for both Spielberg and his composer.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Outsourcing Film: Why $1 Billion Doesn't Matter

Transformers: Dark of the Moon passed the $1 billion mark worldwide today, making it the tenth film to reach the milestone, and the one with the second worst tomatometer (it has 36 %, second only to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' 33 %).  With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II having already raked in a cool billion worldwide, the feat, which was incredible when Titanic managed it back in 1998, is becoming less and less astounding and much more worrisome about the future direction of Hollywood.  Of the ten films to reach the mark, three are in the past year, with two (Transformers and Pirates) making most of their gross from 3D prices.   Last year, the poorly reviewed Alice in Wonderland (52 % tomatometer) also surpassed it.

This indicates a troubling trend in Hollywood, and that is the idea of the international gross.  While this has always been a factor in Hollywood, it has become such an incredible source of revenue that even films viewed as domestic failures (like Wolfgang Petersen's Troy) can make great profits overseas.  The majority of these films are big on budget and low on ideas, based on brands, franchises, and stories simple enough that they can be translated into any language or culture without much getting lost in the translation.  Of the billion dollar films, only one, The Dark Knight, made more money domestically than overseas.

What does this mean for American film?  It means, for one, simpler stories and worse writing.  It's pretty hard to translate the uniquely lyrical language of a film like the Coen Brothers' True Grit into another culture, as the script relies on intricacies of the English language and a story that might not be immediately accessible to an outside audience.  The film made over $170 million domestically, but only about $80 million internationally.  With its small budget, it was still a big winner, but consider a film like Troy.  With a reported budget of $175 million, the film made only $133 million domestically.  Dead in the water, right?  Wrong.  The story translated well to foreign audiences, who contributed $364 million to the film's gross, making its combined total stand at just under $500 million, a huge profit for the studio.

Alice in Wonderland had a ridiculous budget of $200 million, made $330  million domestically, and over $690 million internationally.  The same pattern can be seen in films like Transformers or the Pirates franchise.  Why make a True Grit, a film that best case scenario, with the best script, directors, and actors attached, will get you at best a $150 or $200 million dollar profit, when you can just throw money at effects and have 7 writers cobble together a story that is essentially an excuse to look at those effects, and you find yourself with one of the highest grossing films of all time.

The international market is thus determining in which films studios invest.  Brands are recognizable worldwide, so sequels are in, as well as adaptations of superhero and fantasy stories (that is nowhere more evident than in the dreadful summer we have had).  Original ideas, even for big budget action films, are so 90s.  And with the increase in ticket prices and the widespread use of gimmicks like 3D or IMAX, studios can almost guarantee themselves an international profit.  Sure, some films are so bad that they still fail despite all this (see Green Lantern), but it is disturbing how many badly reviewed and soon-forgotten films are now in the top 10 worldwide successes.  One hopes that the bubble will burst someday soon, and moviegoers will respond to some of the dreck being turned out with their pocketbooks, but the film industry has done an amazing job of secluding itself from reality and convincing itself that these inflated grosses mean the film industry is fine.  Fewer people go to the movies now than ever, and eventually, there will be a breaking point for the public when they will simply refuse to go to the theater.  Movies cannot cater to the international market at the expense of a domestic audience, or else they will lose that audience altogether to Netflix and other new services.  In an interesting parallel to current affairs in the US, it seems clear that the industry is content in making a worse product that will make money because of international appeal rather than satisfying the domestic audience.  I don't know how to solve this problem, but I do know that these things have a way of catching up with the industries who perpetrate them, and that the film industry, someday soon, will be in for a rude awakening.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Harry Potter's Musical Legacy

Like about a gagillion other people in the world, I went to see the last (for now) Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II.  As always, what most interested me about the film was the music.  The Harry Potter series has perhaps the most disparate musical identity of any serial franchise (not including James Bond, who has much more of an episodic franchise).  John Williams opened the series with a bang, writing what turned out to be one of the most memorable themes of the decade, though it was overshadowed at the time by the music from another little film series called The Lord of the Rings.  His score for Chamber of Secrets, written with William Ross, was much along the same lines as the first (appropriate as the movie was essentially a retread of the first film), though it introduced some striking new thematic material for Fawkes the Phoenix. 

Things really started to get interesting with the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban.  It marked the first change of director in the series, switching from the inoffensive but static camera of Chris Columbus to the dynamic and darker style of Alfonso Cuaron.  Cuaron seemed to completely change Williams' palette for the third film, as Williams went for a medieval sound, rather than an old-fashioned fantasy sound, to represent Hogwarts, writing a beautiful new theme for Harry's family, as well as a jaunty, medieval-styled song to the words of "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble" that itself became thematic material in his score.  Williams also brought out some great dissonance for the Dementors, turning the music down the darker path it would continue towards for the duration of the series.

Williams left the franchise after Azkaban, and Mike Newell got Patrick Doyle to score his fourth film, Goblet of Fire.  Of the post-Williams scores, this is perhaps the closest a composer got to matching Williams' influence, as Doyle wrote a whole host of broad, thematic material, though his music struck me as more operatic than fantastical.  Still, his music was memorable, which could not be said of Nicholas Hooper's scores for the next two Potter films.  The franchise, under the hand of David Yates (who would direct every film from 5 on), became darker still, and, because Yates and company were going for that gritty, realistic approach that is so popular nowadays, they seemed insistent on having Hooper's music be underscore, and Hooper was never able to fully establish an identity for his music.  The highlight of his music is his sly theme for Dolores Umbridge, one that matches her character perfectly, but otherwise his music is serviceable but forgettable. 

After the sixth film, there were many rumblings that John Williams was going to come back to complete the series.  This never came to fruition, and Yates and the film's producers decided upon the composer-of-the-hour Alexandre Desplat to bring the series to its end.  Desplat's score for Deathly Hallows: Part 1 takes more pages out of Hooper's book than Williams', but from the very beginning it is clear that Desplat is intent on creating thematic material for the characters that would develop in Part 2.  With the exception of the heroic theme for Neville and the villainous theme for Voldemort and the Death Eaters, none of these themes were very melodically memorable, even, in my opinion, the very well-liked cue "Farewell to Dobby".  Desplat said before the film that he thought Williams' "Hedwig Theme" had been underused in previous films, which made it more disappointing that it is underused in Part 1 as well.  Even a slowed down, brassy statement of it in the film's first action scene fails to have the emotional impact that the theme could have possessed, especially for the moment when Hedwig tries to rescue Harry. 

Having been disappointed with many of Desplat's other recent works, I was thus skeptical about his score for Deathly Hallows: Part 2.  But I have to say, it won me over, and I would rank the score with Doyle's Goblet of Fire (though below all three Williams' scores).  Desplat very intelligently develops his thematic material, and finally does make extensive and bold use of Williams' themes, which is welcome so as to bring the series, musically, full circle.  Desplat writes some very good action music (though with less direction than I would like), as well as some nice emotional music for the destruction of Hogwarts that reminded me of Horner's Troy (only without the wailing woman).  His theme for Harry's mother Lily is also a high point, though the lack of development of Voldemort's theme is the score's biggest misstep. 

So Desplat did an admirable job closing the series on Part 2.  Why, then, was he not allowed to score the final scene, the infamous epilogue?  Instead of original music, Yates opted to reuse the Williams cue "Leaving Hogwarts" from Sorcerer's Stone, a magical cue in its own right that concludes with a rousing, major key version of Hedwig's Theme.  Still, in the film, the cue seems extremely out of place in the scene, especially given what had come before it.  I understand that it acts as a return to the innocence and wonder of the first film, bring the series, as I said, full circle, but one wonders why Desplat wasn't given the opportunity to create his own finale cue, one that both tied the film together and referenced the Williams material. 

And that, it seems will be Yates' lasting legacy on the music of Harry Potter, turning what was one of the most promising musical franchises of recent memory into a hodgepodge of musical styles with no cohesive center.  This is only heightened by the nostalgia factor of Williams' final cue, which reminds us of the "good ole days," though not, perhaps, in the way Yates intended.  It reminded us of the series' early musical cohesion, broad melodic strokes, and beautiful, memorable themes that seemed to span every generation.  As the series closes with the mostly satisfying final film, I for one was left with the feeling that the music should, somehow, have been something just a bit more. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Elfman Plays Hunger Games, Makes Up With Raimi

Composer Has 5 Films on His Plate

Below is printed the text of a Q and A with Danny Elfman, talking about his future scores:

I had planned on taking off the end of the year, writing for myself, and then taking more time next year. And as it turns out, I have five films booked, which is the most I’ve ever had in the future, which is weird. I’ve never been able to see more than two or three ahead, and I don’t like, actually, having my future all booked up. So it’s a very weird thing because it’s like, “Oh, I see. Fourteen months of my life is already totally spoken for,” and it’s scary, but it just happened. It’s a two-Tim Burton year, and a Sam Raimi, so there’s three. I’m not going to say no to Tim and Sam -- that’s already three movies. And then Men in Black, well of course I don’t want somebody else to do number 3, so there was another one. And then another one called The Hunger Games popped up, which seemed like really interesting thing. Different -- and different catches my attention in a way that’s like, “Oh, I can’t ever pass up a chance to do something different.” So that deal’s not even closed, it may not even happen, but we’re well along with that.

Elfman's five projects are in addition to Real Steel, the Hugh Jackman starrer that looks like a gritty take on Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em robots (seriously), which comes out in October.

Most notable about the interview for film score fans is his reunion with director Sam Raimi.  The two had a nasty split after Spider-Man 2, with Raimi forcing Elfman too close to Christopher Young's temp track, causing Elfman to leave the project and say that Raimi had completely changed from the director he had previously worked with.  Raimi then hired Young for both Spider-Man 3 and Drag Me to Hell, and it appeared that the new relationship would be a lasting one.  Elfman has a bit of history with spats with directors, as his partnership with Tim Burton ended briefly in 1994, with Howard Shore scoring Ed Wood. Like Elfman and Burton, Elfman and Raimi appear to have kissed and made up (probably to the chagrin of Christopher Young), and Raimi has Elfman back to score Oz: The Great and Powerful (as in the mystical land, not the prison).  As the writer of the linked article comments, it is interesting because Oz seems to have many parallels with Burton's reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, and one wonders if the studio fell in love with Elfman's music for Alice and perhaps forced the reconciliation on the two.

Most interesting to literature fans is the announcement that he is in talks to score The Hunger Games, written and directed by Gary Ross, who has an incredible resume to his name, writing Big and Dave and writing and directing Pleasantville and Seabiscuit.  Ross previously worked with Randy Newman on his two directorial efforts, and it would have been interesting to see what Newman would have done on the project, but Elfman's style is probably better suited to the harsh and dark tones of the story than Newman's.  Either way, with 5 films to come in the next 14 months, and the musical Houdini set for a 2012 release, it looks like Michael Giacchino isn't the only revered composer having a busy year.

Michael Giacchino's Busy Year

2010 was a slow year (relatively) for Michael Giacchino, who worked on only one film, the horror film Let Me In.  This was partly due to the extreme musical demands of the final season of Lost, for which Giacchino wrote some of his finest music of the show's run.  Still, those who clamored for Giacchino's presence in the movies were forced to wait until 2011, when it was promised that Giacchino would return to the cinema.

Well, he has returned, and he's making his presence known.  In June, we have seen the release of Super 8, the JJ Abrams Spielberg homage that saw Giacchino filter his voice through the 80s music of John Williams and James Horner, among others, and will see the release of Cars 2, where Giacchino takes over for Randy Newman.  Giacchino starts off July with the tween comedy Monte Carlo, a departure for the composer that reunites him with his director on The Family Stone

That's it for June, but in the fall, Giacchino takes on 50/50, an indie comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen about a man trying to beat cancer (a little reminiscent of Funny People) and, on December 16, Giacchino returns to the Mission: Impossible franchise with Ghost Protocol, made even more interesting as the action film is the first live action feature to be directed by Brad Bird, who mastered animation with The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille

2011 seems to be, then, the year of the Giacchino.  But quality does not always equal quantity (scratch that, reverse it), and it will be interesting to see how Giacchino fares, especially with expectations from film and film score fans alike being as high as they are.  Giacchino, whether he likes it or not, is seen in many circles as the anti-Zimmer, an anomaly of the younger generation and one of the last holdouts from the generation of non-digital composer, even though he of course writes his music with a keyboard and computer, just like everyone else.  Giacchino even embraced this fact on the cover for the Ratatouille soundtrack, which boasted that all of the instruments recorded were real! 

And yet, in recent years, I feel like Giacchino's sound has actually become more like those composers that he has been pitted against.  He started with the Medal of Honor series channeling Williams, went to The Incredibles (and before that, Alias) and channeled John Barry, and then began to finally channel himself, while still writing fluidly and organically.  This peaked with Ratatouille, a score that has a plethora of great little themes, wonderful orchestration, incredible thematic consistency and development, and, while it is sometimes a pastiche of "French" music and owes something to Carl Stalling's cartoon music, it is also a great distillation of Giacchino's own burgeoning musical voice. 

Since then, Giacchino's writing has become a bit blocky, for lack of a better word.  Others loved his score for Speed Racer, but I found the action writing a bit empty, the themes missing that one little thing that made me love Giacchino's music in the first place.  Star Trek, Up, Land of the Lost, and even bits of the otherwise very good Medal of Honor: Airborne all seemed to suffer in the same way, as if the speed of keyboard writing enchanted Giacchino so much that his orchestration took its cue from his demos, rather than expanding on them.  In addition, Giacchino's thematic writing seemed to lose something.  After writing such wonderful melodies for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and, of course, Lost, Giacchino's themes for the above scores all lacked the complex catchiness that composers like Williams, Horner, and Barry excelled at.  Star Trek especially disappointed me with its very Zimmer-like chord progressions and basic melodic content (though Giacchino's theme for Spock is much better). 

So what will 2011 reveal about Giacchino?  Will he further develop his own voice, while addressing the strangeness of his recent orchestrations and lackluster thematic writing?  He is off to a good start with Super 8.  Though no soundtrack has been released yet, from the film I gleaned a great motif for the government, a catchy and effective motif for the alien, and two very nice themes for the kids, one of which gets a great pay-off at the end.  Some of the action music was drowned out by the sound effects, but I look forward to exploring it on the soundtrack to see if it owes more to Speed Racer or The Incredibles.  One thing is certain: a busy year for Giacchino, who has great chops, means a good year for film score fans, and I look forward to listening to each and every score.  I'll probably pass on watching Monte Carlo, though.  You'll understand, right Michael?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Film Review: X-Men: First Class

"Ok, January, that was good, but I have one acting note.  Could you unzip that shirt a little more?  Perfect!"
My dad always related to me a quote he had heard about the secret to success in the entertainment industry: intelligent entertainment.  In other words, make something that stimulates the mind, but does not focus so much on intellectual value that it negates the plain old fun of going to see a movie.

X-Men: First Class, the latest in the Bryan Singer X-Men universe, gets the second part right, but never really follows through with the intelligence, especially when compared to Singer's first two X-Men films.

This film is only produced by Singer, and is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who was initially set to helm the third in the series, only to leave and be replaced by Brett Ratner.  Ratner's entry into the series was much-maligned, though I thought the film was actually better than most gave it credit for.

Vaughn's film seems to be the opposite, garnering exceptionally positive reviews when it is in fact merely an entertaining superhero film.  There is little of substance here in a film that never quite knows what it wants to be, but Vaughn and co. certainly allow us to have a great time while figuring it out.

The plot is fairly basic.  Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) meet while trying to stop the evil Sebastian Shaw (played with loads of camp by Kevin Bacon), and enlist a youthful group of mutants to help.   McAvoy is solid as Professor X, but it is Fassbender who steals the movie as a young Magneto.  Fassbender has an incredible charm despite the dark role, embodying a Magneto who you root for as a hero and relate to as a villain.  Throughout the film, I couldn't help but think how great a James Bond Fassbender would make when Daniel Craig ends his run.

The supporting cast is solid but forgettable.  Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, is a bit one-note as Raven/Mystique, and the rest of the mutants are given little personality.  Of all of them, my favorite was Nicholas Hoult as Beast, who is charmingly nerdy, although the make-up job after his transformation leaves something to be desired.  The only villain who gets any bit of character is January Jones' Emma Frost.  Jones doesn't do much with the character other than be scantily clad, though the role doesn't really require too much else of her.

Vaughn's direction is fun and energetic, including an intentionally comic book-like montage that reminded me of Ang Lee's Hulk.  The main problem with the film is the script, which needed a couple more drafts.  Mutant's powers are many times not fully established or explained, and lead you to wonder late in the film, "Why didn't he/she just do that 2 hours ago?"  A couple, like Shaw, also just seem way, way too powerful, a problem that has been present in the X-universe since we found out Xavier could stop time itself with his thoughts in Singer's X2.  Several plot elements elements are also unclear.  Some useful character information was also left out (where were Xavier's parents?), and the dialogue is often very unrealistic, serving only to move the plot forward, give cute nods to the comics and other films, or hammer home the differences between Xavier's worldview and Magneto's worldview.  Strangely, that debate, which should have been the strength of this prequel, falls a bit flat, and the Singer films (and even Ratner's film) all handled the debate with much more grace and subtlety.  The film also barely makes use of the thematic potential of the Cuban Missile Crisis, upon which much of the film's plot relies.   

Henry Jackman's score is a forgettable summer blockbuster score.  It is more acoustic than the average Remote Control score, which was welcome, and when it does use electric guitar, it never seems overbearing.  His theme for the X-Men, which really only comes into prominence in the last reel of the film, is actually a pretty good one, reminding me both of Steve Jablonsky's Transformers and Alan Silvestri's theme for The Mummy Returns.  The most memorable theme is Magneto's, a three-note motive that dominates most of the score.  It is a very effective three notes, often accompanied by some Bondian guitars, though is perhaps a bit too reminiscent of John Carpenter's three-note motive for Halloween.  There might have been a theme for Bacon's Sebastian Shaw, but I didn't notice it in the film.  I would say the score is not quite disappointing, but isn't the home run that many were looking for from the young composer, especially given his work on Kick-Ass and the new Winnie the Pooh film.

Overall, X-Men: First Class is good, old-fashioned fun, but I think ranks below the Singer films and is right on par, ironically, with Ratner's X3, both being miles ahead of the Wolverine film.  It's a good film, a fun film, but, with a better script, could have been elevated to the upper echelon of superhero films.

Rating: ***1/2 / *****