Dec 7, 2011

Sunshine (Dir. Danny Boyle. 2007)

Britain does 3 things well.  1. Bad weather.  2. Movie bad guys.  3. Science Fiction film.  I’ll be focusing on the 3rd while watching the 1st through my window.

Danny Boyle has never been afraid to reference his influences and pay homage to his peers and they’re starkly obvious this time around.  Sunshine is the illegitimate child of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979).  It’s not unfair to say that Sunshine wouldn’t exist in its current state without those two films.  It gels Scott’s sense of entrapment, his cold, hard spaceship design, his internal camera movements and sense of displacement with Kubrick’s low angle corridor shots, his sense of exterior grandeur, the majesty of space and the desperate need for adaption when faced with the loss of control.  It shouldn’t work, it should be called a blatant act of egotistical plagiarism but somehow it not only works, it excels.
I’ll not elaborate much but need to also say that it also owes a debt to Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) but since that was the skeletal basis for and was written by the author of Alien it’s another easy comparison.

The plot of Sunshine is simple.  Our Sun is dying and a permanent solar winter threatens the future of mankind.  A vessel, the Icarus II (this naming is perhaps the only intentional humour in the whole film) is launched with a ‘Stellar Bomb’ onboard.  The bomb has a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island, and when fired into the Sun could theoretically cause a chain reaction that sets everything right again.  I’m not giving spoilers - this is where the film begins.

The Icarus II has an eight man crew, all of whom are the protagonists.  The physicist Robert Cappa (played by Cillian Murphy) is the closest thing we get to a traditional main character type.  Cappa is the compassionate and logical one; he acknowledges his emotions but isn’t ruled by them.  He’s the kind of person we want to be at heart so we readily sympathise and connect with him on a subconscious level.  We want Cappa to succeed, we want a hero.  It’s a tough choice as the characters care about little beyond their fields of expertise. When the tears come it’s not for the individual, it’s for the failure to perform and the feeling of being cast in the shadow of someone else, and of being judged.  They need to be basking in the shining light of their own self-image or they get depressed.  I've heard people that say the human element is missing from Sunshine but I would argue that they simply weren’t paying attention, or perhaps they refuse to accept their own selfish desires and failings and recognise what it is that makes us human.
Cappa has his detractors onboard the Icarus, most notably Mace (Chris Evans) who is the closest thing to an antagonist crew member the film has for the most part; those two have a dynamic that again reminds of Scott’s Alien setup: the small crew that respect each other but are equally as happy to get some peace away from each other.
The remainder of the crew are equally well cast.  They react to threats and stimuli differently and effortlessly keep their character in check.

We spend our time on the ship experiencing the same sense of seclusion as the rest of the crew; we’re the ninth crew member.  There are no happy cuts back to earth to give us room to breathe, no gathering of NASA brains in a room full of computers, ties pulled to the side, name tags tilted, waiting for that camaraderie moment when they can cheer and throw Styrofoam cups in air, thankfully.
The sense of space inside the Icarus II is best described as claustrophobic, an overused device in sci-fi but one that we accept, chalking it up to realism.

Elsewhere the set design, set dressings and props are functional and lifeless; inside the ship there is little colour.
In contrast, outside the ship is a blinding brilliant golden hue.  Being so close to the Sun means the light can kill, it can burn you to a frazzled crisp.  It’s unusual to see light as something threatening, as a menacing force, usually darkness or more correctly the unknown things that lurk in darkness are what filmmakers use to scare and unnerve us.  When sunlight can kill you it takes on a more ominous aspect.  It’s the opposite of what we expect.

The universe is full of unknowns; the mission is based on theory which can be perceived as another word for unknown so the fear of not knowing coupled with the horror of the light is very real for the crew.  When the ship you’re on is slowly inching toward both those things, the tension is sure to cause rifts and perhaps even conflict between thought and action; Mace and Cappa personify this.

Returning to the visuals for a moment, the first glimpse we get of the stylistic space suits is like something from a bad music video.  Once the scene changes the suits begin to make sense within the context of the film aesthetic but it’s hard to shake that initial feeling of fail each time they reappear.  They do manage to highlight the crippling claustrophobic nature of something that is both designed to keep you from dying and causes you to fear your own personal space, so they aren't all bad.

There was some significant post production colour fixing on the imagery but it actually works to the films advantage.  The visual splendour is reliant on the backdrop of space; ordinary studio lighting could never have achieved the same outcome no matter how much money was spent.

The final third of the film will leave a lot of people wondering what happened during the writing process which is something I’ve thought more than once of Alex Garland’s work; he is able to set up a situation with tension and an insistence on strong characters making strong decisions beautifully but when it comes time to providing a satisfactory conclusion he’s like a trout out of water.
It’s not confusing, if you pay attention to the story in the run up to the final act it makes perfect sense, the people that claim otherwise are talking when they should be listening, the problem is the sharp left turn the film takes before it takes us there.  There is a “we’ll add this because we need it” attitude that sits uncomfortably alongside the earlier insistence of pretentious science.  If you make your audience work to appreciate your clever science and then throw in a genie in a lamp it tends to stick out like glow in the dark stitching.

The score by John Murphy (with occasional help from Underworld) is for me his finest moment; it sits in the shadows until needed and when the rousing build hits its peak my heart is in my throat every time.  It’s undoubtedly Boyle’s film but there are three or four special moments during the 107 minutes running time where Murphy steals it from him.  I’m not saying the visuals take second place, they work in tandem with each other beautifully, I’m saying that Murphy makes those moments unique, emotionally draining and achingly memorable.

Sunshine is nothing more than a variation on a theme, it’s 80% homage and only 20% unique but when it’s done with such favourable results and openly acknowledges the constituent parts then I’m happy to go along with it.  Accounting for its flaws and despite Garland’s hokum script towards the end Sunshine succeeds where almost every other English language sci-fi film of the past 20 years has failed.  I will never tire of it's staid charms.
Kubrick gets a final nod in the final scene; you’ll see what I mean.  It made me happy clap.

***** out of *****

Dec 5, 2011

Young Sherlock Holmes (dir. Barry Levinson - 1984)

I'm well aware that what I'm about to say is blasphemous, but I'll say it all the same: I don't consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales to be very good mysteries. They're great stories, to be sure, full of wonderfully crafted characters, but as pure mystery tales, they fall short. To paraphrase S. S. Van Dine, in a good mystery tale, a reader must have the same chance of solving the mystery that the detective does. Part of the appeal of Holmes stories is his dazzling intellect, his ability to look at a person and know things that readers at home would never be able to decipher. Solving mysteries along with Holmes requires more leaps of logic than it does careful analyzation of clues. In Young Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is youthful and inexperienced, which offered the chance to weave a mystery tale in which the viewer and the famous detective were, for once, on equal footing. But, as much as I love a good mystery, I'm glad they didn't take that opportunity. Young Sherlock Holmes has mysterious elements, but it's a pure adventure tale, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Young Sherlock Holmes was a movie that was tremendously special to me as a child. At the time, I loved Holmes enough that I would have enjoyed the movie no matter what, but it was almost as if the writer (Chris Columbus, the first screenwriter whose name I ever took note of) was going out of his way to appeal to me. For the part of me that loved horror, there were scenes that terrified in incredibly imaginative ways. For the part of me who delighted over Indiana Jones, there were scenes that felt as though they'd come straight out of Temple of Doom. For the part of me that was a hopeless romantic, there was a love story I could swoon over again and again. And, more importantly that anything else, the film gave me one of my very first looks into the magic of Pixar.

Pixar spent much of the 80's creating special effects for various Lucasfilm projects, but the work they did on Young Sherlock Holmes is their most notable. Not only did they create the first ever fully CG character, a knight made entirely out of stained glass, but they combined CGI with a live-action background for the very first time. This earned Pixar the first of many Academy Award nominations, even if they somehow managed to lose this one to Cocoon. I'm not always the biggest fan of CG in film, but their work here was absolutely groundbreaking, and still holds up today:

CG is so often used as a shortcut, but the folks at Pixar are true animators. They put so much thought into the way their creations move, into the way their pieces come together, that less than 30 seconds of screentime can still be mindbogglingly awesome. John Lasseter himself created the effect, which required the pieces of the knight to be painted on film via laser, and it remains one of my all-time favorite uses of CG in a live-action film.

Were it not for the work of Pixar, I would have been too afraid to revisit the world of Young Sherlock Holmes. It's a film that I loved so dearly, that influenced the sort of stories I wrote for so long, that I knew it was going to never live up to my memories of it. But thankfully, while it's much easier to see the failings of Young Sherlock Holmes when looking at it through the eyes of an adult, it's still a fantastic kid's movie, and just a pretty great movie in general.

Young Sherlock Holmes, by its very nature, is required to take liberties with the Holmes canon. In Doyle's stories, Holmes didn't develop an interest in mysteries until his time at university, and he and Watson didn't meet until they were both adults. But it feels right for these two characters to be boyhood friends, and it's hard to imagine a Holmes not enamored with mysteries, no matter what the canon says. It's always been easy to understand why Watson is so taken with Holmes- in spite of his many eccentricities, he's an astonishing person, and getting to be a part of his world is worth putting up with all that comes with it. But here, it's easy to understand Holmes' fondness for Watson as well. His peers are largely concerned with being fashionable or finding jobs that will make them money, and the unassuming, country boy Watson must have felt like a breath of fresh air. Watson is unafraid to be wrong, and couldn't put on airs or pretend to be someone else even if he tried. They compliment each other wonderfully, and their friendship is one of the film's highlights.

Unfortunately, the other characters don't succeed in the way these two do. Holmes and Watson are iconic characters, and the film builds on the basic knowledge that most viewers will have of them. However, original creations, such as Holmes' rival Dudley and his love interest, Elizabeth, don't get much in the way of development and suffer for it. The former feels very by the numbers, and the latter doesn't seem to do much except look very pretty. Just a little more work on Elizabeth would've gone a long way, and it's a shame the movie couldn't have been 10 or 15 minutes longer.

Maybe it's just that life's crushed the hopeless romantic out of me, but it's hard for me to see the relationship between Holmes and Elizabeth as the grand romance I once did. More than anything else, their relationship seems to have sprung out of their limited possibilities- for Holmes, she's the only female around, and for her, he's one of the only males who isn't a self-absorbed dolt. But even if I don't think their tale is a romance for the ages, I can certainly buy that the two are in love. I generally think of Holmes as being completely aromantic, but when he watches Elizabeth out the window and professes that when he grows up, he "never wants to be alone", there's a hardened part of me that softens just a tad.

It took me a while to get used to the movie's pacing. In the first half of the film, there's not much of a flow from scene to scene. It feels more like you're watching a series of vignettes than a single cohesive tale. It bothered me at first, but eventually I realized how well it worked with Watson's narrations. It really does feel like he's recounting a few early memories before diving into the meaty tale. Fittingly, the narration slows down once the pace of the film picks up, and it its ending scenes seem to fit in with the feel of its early ones. It's not something every viewer will enjoy- it took me a good while to appreciate it- but I do think it enhances the viewing experience.

But even if you never warm up to the unusual pacing, those early horror scenes are an absolutely delight. Columbus seems to get that the horrors that lurk in your imagination can be more terrifying than any evil villain or monstrous creature that might be hiding in the shadow. I'm not sure I buy the effectiveness of the hallucinogen as a murder weapon. While it often seemed to kill its victims in minutes, anyone wearing plot armor seemed to get around its effects fairly easily. But still, I'm hard pressed to think of a scene more whimsically frightening than the adorable pastries who force Watson- bound up by sausages- to eat them. Nearly all these effects aged beautifully, and they manage to be scary without feeling out of place in a family friendly film.

At times, the movie is incredibly corny. It goes to great lengths to show how various things we know about Holmes came to be, and there's actually a scene in which kid after kid exclaims "Holmes is going to solve the crime!". But it's also extremely creepy, and manages to be fun from start to finish, even with an ending that's a bit of a downer. I wouldn't describe the acting in the film as good, exactly, but it's well cast. Nicholas Rowe plays Holmes as so cerebral and wise beyond his years that the moments in which he genuinely feels like his age are striking. Alan Cox gets some of the movie's best lines in as Watson, and manages to keep his character from diving into annoying territory. Sophie Ward doesn't do much besides look pretty, but it's what the script called for, and she does a good job of it. The film's villain (who went on to play Holmes in another movie) is wonderfully charismatic, and makes his reveal a pretty powerful moment. And I adore Roger Ashton-Griffiths's performance as a pre-inspector Lestrade. Occasionally, I cringed at the delivery of a line, but for a mostly young cast, the quality of the performances wasn't at all bad.

Young Sherlock Holmes has a satisfying ending as is, but the post-credits reveal takes it to a whole new level. These days, an extra scene after the credits is pretty common, but back then, it was incredibly rare, and I can't think of one that pre-dates it. The last few moments are so good that I'm also hard pressed to think of anything that's surpassed it since. Even when I watch it and know exactly what's coming, it gives me goosebumps.

These days, I could see myself being cynical enough to dismiss a movie like Young Sherlock Holmes before ever even watching it, and I'm glad that it came out long enough ago that I got to watch it with a child-like wonder instead. It's not quite as amazing as it seemed to a little girl back in the 80's, but it's still a very entertaining film with a lot of historical importance. Rest assured, you can make it through this one with nostalgia goggles intact.

**** out of 5.

May 15, 2011

Nadja (Dir. Michael Almereyda. 1994)

Note:  If Nadia appears in italics it’s the film I’m referring to, any other instance is the titular character.

Vampires used to be scary, monstrous and dangerous predators.  Then Hollywood made them sexy and enchanting, darkly seductive but still dangerous.
Lately they’ve been sparkly and twee.  Occasionally they are arthouse.  Tony Scott’s wonderfully dreamy The Hunger (1983) springs instantly to mind.  Nadja is arthouse, yet it’s a house not in the same zip code as Scott’s.  It was written and directed by Michael Almereyda back in 1994.  I know it’s not current, I rarely do current.  I have to confess to having never viewed an Almereyda film before so I don’t know if this is typical of his style or not.
It’s a style that left me with contradictory feelings.

The film shifts through various locations in its 93 minute running time.  Initially set in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the cities teem with a sense of hurried nightlife.  
In contrast to the animated city, the characters are drifting, distant, dreamlike and drugged as they move through life or un-life.  Even the married couple, who one supposes the viewers are meant to more readily identify with, are living in a disconnected, self-indulgent, bordering on clinical depression, cloudy haze.  It’s damn depressing.  Every person in the film is living in a self-created fictional reality.
I wouldn’t want any of them at my house for tea and cake.

The characters have names that most viewers will be familiar with as they are taken from Bram Stoker’s original.
Van Helsing.  Lucy.  Renfield.  Count Dracula.  In many ways it’s a modern retelling of the same story, yet they aren’t as alluring as they should be and all have an unlikable dysfunctional existentialism that puts them at odds with their environment.  Vampires are supposed to be ill-fitting in their milieu but usually they sit atop it, not buried underneath its filth.  They are usually isolated from it by self-imposed alienation not their own shortcomings.
Clearly the film has something new to say by taking this stance but does it present it effectively is the burning question.

Our first real insight into Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) comes near the beginning of the film; we play voyeur as she seems to chat candidly with someone.  It’s an interesting scene, putting the viewer instantly in mind of Interview with the Vampire, which coincidently Neil Jordan released as a film that same year.  We listen furtively as the other person feigns interest in what Nadja has to say.  “I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level,” she tells him.
And that is essentially what the film is about.  Nadja is beautiful on the surface but hopelessly lost inside.  Her life is complicated, but much of the complicated nature is a result of her own neuroses.  Superficial is in her blood (no pun intended).  The consciousness inside her wants escape from the dark clutches and the madness that controls her.
She longs to be free of the insanity and the dysfunctional family she is a part of, and yet she is forever bound to them by her condition.
The film can be seen as reflective of that, it too is fighting with itself.  Visually and thematically it is great but the pacing and the script are terrible.

As the film progresses it repeatedly goes back to Nadja telling her story to anyone that will listen; she craves an audience that she can use to help define her.  Nadja is playing a role.  She even wears the long dark ‘look at me, I’m a vamp’ cape when out walking.   

The brief scene with David Lynch was interesting.  It seemed to be homage to the man himself.  He is sat at a desk with a paper coffee cup, it’s dreamlike, it has a similar ambient industrial sound that he and Angelo Badalamenti are known for and it utilises a slow zooming camera reactionary shot.  It’s a shame it’s only 42 seconds long. 

The most effective element of the film was Jim Denault's seductively low key black and white cinematography.  For most of the film it resembles a beautifully constructed painted canvas from a palette of cold light and velvet dark; shadows fall upon walls and give pathos to faces wonderfully.  It gives them a depth and an intensity that is reminiscent of the classic horror films from which Nadja draws much of its story inspiration.

Very occasionally it reminded me of old Bela Lugosi films, with the symbolical climbing of the stairs from a fixed camera position, and the eyes looming omnisciently over the action in a cheap double exposure effect.  Those moments were fantastic.  The director even includes a scene of Lugosi from White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932).  However, these moments are few; more of them would have been a welcome addition.

Unfortunately, Denault occasionally sets aside his beautiful 35mm film stock with its dramatic lighting in favour of what appears to be a child’s toy camera with a horrible pixellated image.  As the film unfolds you should come to understand why he chose such a stylistic approach but personally I found it irritating, almost hateful.  There were a dozen other ways he could have achieved the same result without making it look so amateurish.

I watched the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (Andy Wilson, 2000) directly before Nadja, and while the two productions have absolutely nothing in common with each other, the former served to highlight the poor casting of the latter.  Gormenghast was perfect casting, flawless, faultless, whereas Nadja was just plain terrible.  Nadja herself was well cast, and Elina Löwensohn photographs beautifully in black and white but Renfield, Van Helsing, and the rest of the ensemble were not well suited.

Poor Peter Fonda gets some of the worst dialogue in the film.  He plays the Van Helsing character and he does his best with the material but at times he looks embarrassed to be there.   “Blood is like chewing gum to these creatures!” he says.  I’ve always believed that chewing gum is not supposed to be swallowed.  It’s what we use in place of our real craving and then spat out when no longer needed.  And if that doesn’t make you cringe there is always the “...psychic fax.”  It’s remarkable how Jared Harris manages to keep his dignity as he describes it, and yet he does, only just.  Peter Fonda was spared that one.

I have to admit that 50 minutes into the feature my attention began to drift and I found myself wondering what I was going to make for lunch.  I tried to picture the contents of my fridge the last time I had peeked into it.
And that's when the Portishead moment drew me back into the film.  It was the highlight of the whole film for me and it gelled beautifully.  The music of Portishead is used twice, the second instance accompanies Nadja as she walks the streets in her vamp cape.  It's an avant-garde, sombre and creepy scene that would have sat beautifully in a French New wave film, if they had dabbled in such things.
It was ethereal, dreamy, creepy, pressing, and ultimately fantastic.

In conclusion, the psychology of Nadja is much more interesting than the film itself but is underdeveloped and left hanging in the air, even at the films end.  It does make pains to reference that first insight, “I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level,” but the symmetry is unbalanced.  It tries to be multi-faceted and deeply spiritual but I really don’t think it achieves either of those.
It tries to add depth by adding interwoven relationships but it’s handled so clumsily that I was left not caring at all.
Nadja can be seen as a study of our post-modern world and of the need of the individual to transcend it, or it can be seen as an avant-garde vampire film with some really shitty dialogue.  And for me that’s the crux of the problem I had with the film.  Is it deep, or do we project deepness upon it?  Is it clever or is it empty?  I hate that uncertainty.
I love ambiguity but uncertainty is a different kettle of fish.
I wholly admit that maybe I missed the point entirely but something inside me tells me there was no clear point to begin with.  It’s open to interpretation, so make of that what you will.

* 1/2 out of 5

Apr 27, 2011


Better late than never. In my defense, some of professional and respected score reviewers just posted their lists in the past few weeks.

Without further ado:

10. CLINT MANSELL (and Pyotr Tchaikovsky) / BLACK SWAN

A fascinating mixture of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake masterpiece stirred into Clint Mansell's distorted and unsettling sonic manipulations.
Not for everyone but without a doubt one of the most innovative and ballsy scores to be produced in a long time.


A quirky little gem that is both off-kilter waltzes and Beatles-esque intimacy. It never fails to bring a smile to my face with it's humor and warmth. Shapiro's nailed the comedy genre with his resume of quality scores in the genre.


Desplat turns on the Herrmann-esque scoring for this twist-filled thriller. Frantic and nerve-wracking at times, Desplat's The Ghost Writer digs deep into a paranoid world that leaves the listener very unsettled.


A grim and emotionally heavy score that layers on the tonal textures and sonic wallpapers with a subtle grace that never takes the listener out of the era and the world displayed on screen.
While it may not stand up against Michael Kamen's Band Of Brothers masterpiece it certainly gives it a run for it's money.


French-Israeli-Moroccan composer Armand Amar borrows from cultures all over the world to produce a powerful dramatic score for the "caveman" film, AO.
With the difficult task of having to compose music for a film with virtually no dialogue, while having to remain in the background yet push the emotions forward, Amar excels in this.


Relatively unknown Spanish composer Oscar Araujo reinvents the Castlevania scores with a choir heavy gothic orchestral score that is simply astounding.
Araujo sets the bar on video game scoring genre a whole lot higher, rivaling Giacchino's Medal Of Honor and John Debney's Lair scores.


Another heavy hitter in the "Iberian Revolution" in film scoring, Arnau Bataller sweeps me off my feet with the gothic choral masterpiece. It stands along side Chris Young's best work for horror scoring. A true gem buried underneath a truly horrible film.


A divine mixture of tonal ambient terror and stark beauty, Garry Schymann steps it up a notch with his second score in the BioShock video game series.
It's a chilling and haunting score that lingers with you long after it's done playing.


John Powell's perfect score is the best of his entire career. A smooth blend of thematic progression and exciting action pieces, Dragon is perfect coming from all angles.
It will be difficult to top this one...but I suspect he has it in him.


This score came out of nowhere and knocked me off my feet.
Naoki Sato's "western" action score is simply breathtaking. Throwing in orchestated variations of Hiroshi Miyagawa's original themes with some of his makes for one of 2010's most pleasant surprises.

Apr 23, 2011

CLINT MANSELL (and Pyotr Tchaikovsky) / BLACK SWAN

If you went anywhere near a magazine stand, the television or the cinema last year, director Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan needs no introduction whatsoever.
One of the most anticipated films of 2010, Swan was one of the few films to actually live up to the buzz it generated before it’s release. The film graced us with wonderfully disturbing performances, beautifully shot and choreographed dance scenes, a strong sense of storytelling & direction and of course the much talked about psycho-sexual scene involving co-stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.
Black Swan tells the story of a ballet dancer, Nina (played by Natalie Portman) who is so obsessed with being the best at what she does, she seems to lose focus of who exactly it is she’s trying to impress. With nearly every single scene shadowed with some sort of reflective surface, it gives off a feeling like eyes are always on her, whether it’s her own or an unseen audience only Nina knows. The few scenes that don’t feature a reflective surface are the sparse moments Nina seems to be at peace with herself. Each character in this tale are terrifyingly intimidating in their own way and most scenes are shot in a claustrophobic style, the entire film seems to suffocate you in such an unsettling and effective way, you’re almost glad it’s over, just so you can catch your breath and give some thought to what you’ve just seen.
Aronofsky’s disturbing style of storytelling has always been wonderfully complimented with the music of the former frontman of the alternative/industrial act “Pop Will Eat Itself”, Clint Mansell. After working with Aronofsky on all of his films starting with Pi in 1998, followed by Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler and many more, Mansell’s made a name for himself in the film scoring business and to a certain degree the pop score industry too, along with John Murphy, Steve Jablonsky and Hans Zimmer. Showcasing his orchestral talents has been something Mansell has never really been able to do, apart from the impressive action score Sahara in 2005. Beyond that, he’s been mostly known to score with a prog-rock, minimalist method that seems to be quite favorable to the average music listener, thus setting him into the pop-score category. Using those same orchestral talents from Sahara, Mansell puts them to good use with Black Swan.
You couldn’t make a film with ‘Swan Lake’ serving as a backdrop and not include Tchaikovsky’s iconic music. What Mansell does here is he cleverly adapts and violently distorts it when the action onscreen deems it necessary. What is unclear for a great deal of the film (and very unsettling) is whether or not the score is what we the viewers are hearing as underscore or what Nina is constantly hearing in her head. The score seems to blur the lines of reality and storytelling with wonderful results. It’s actually very well done and thus Mansell receives top credit for using it in such manner.
By hardly changing a note in the actual "Swan Lake" moments in the score, Mansell manages to orchestrate it in such a way that it retains it’s beauty and easy flow but hints at discomfort and neurosis with some bizarre, yet small changes in the orchestration.
Like Nina, we get lost in the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and soon forget that we aren’t listening to it, until Mansell attacks us with threatening electronic slashes and crashes, immediately snapping us back into the cruel world that is depicted into the film. The very first thing we hear is “Nina’s Dream” which is a note for note adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Introduction” from the first act of his ballet. It doesn’t take long for Mansell to insert some unsettling effects to distract us from the beauty of the music and remind us of it’s not just about "Swan Lake". This cue just touches the edge of the different methods and techniques Mansell uses over the course of the film to engulf us into the insanity of the narrative.
While “Mother Me” doesn’t quote anything directly written by Tchaikovsky, Mansell manages to emulate his compositional style so well it’s almost as if the classical composer is haunting Nina even in the moments of her life that aren’t showcasing the ballet. Mansell uses this in a few cues later on and it works so well blending in with "Swan Lake", most reviewers and listeners didn’t even realize it was Mansell’s original work.
“A New Season” cleverly quotes only the first three notes of the 'Swan Theme' with a brass instrumentation and repeats it like a broken record, sounding somewhat incomplete but works quite well simultaneously.
My favorite cue throughout the entire album is “A New Swan Queen” because of the way Mansell adapted Tchaikovsky’s work and turned into something almost unrecognizable. For the first half he uses a portion of the fourth act in an uplifting manner but quickly changes things over into a rather sinister bit that is incredibly clever. While he does use Tchaikovsky’s music, he only uses the brass section from the first scene of the first act. While in it’s original context it’s quite delightful, here without the fluttery string and woodwinds it comes off as very scary in this version. A haunting descending piano motif comes into play as the percussion lightly taps away like something gnawing into your head. And on film “something” is gnawing into Nina’s head….Mansell uses this as Mother’s theme. Very creepsome.
The terrifyingly erotic “Lose Yourself” and “Opposites Attract” are the only two cues that are pure Mansell compositions, that instantly remind me of his scores for Smokin’ Aces and L’affaire Farewell. Making use of erratic electronic withering and synthetic textures, they serve as the only two scenes in the film where Nina completely forgets about her career and lets loose, only to face horrible consequences.
Mansell showcases his unique ability to shift from the inspirationally stimulating to downright creepy and discordant with ease in just flashes of second in “Night Of Terror”. This cue is what I believe defines Mansell’s score as a schizophrenic musical character in the film. It never really breaks but gives off a steam-rolling tension of ‘ready to snap’ at any given moment and that’s the general terrifying feeling the entire film seems to emit.
The beauty of "Swan Lake" and the grinding madness of Mansell’s Black Swan begin to meld together even more as we come closer to the end with “Stumbled Beginnings”, “It’s My Time” and “A Swan Is Born”. The lines begin to blur and everything becomes so insanely unpredictable that you keep waiting for it to let go and allow you to lose everything.
It all comes to a soaring, sweeping climax with the aptly titled “Perfection”. It’s perhaps the longest passage Mansell uses from the original "Swan Lake". Here he makes a bold, dominating statement with the Swan Theme that’s so magnificent and powerful you can’t wait to stand up and cheer before it’s over and the curtain closes.
While “Perfection” is the high point of the album it just doesn’t feel complete without “A Swan Song (For Nina)”. It sort of withers away and feels like a requiem for your sanity. It’s almost like one final exhale from all the tension that’s built up and slowly let loose as you watch the world fade away. Making use of some beautiful piano playing, it slowly becomes more morbid as Mansell adds in layers of unsettling dissonance, breaking glass (reflective surfaces, perhaps?), scattered cello chords and a very small hint of a dying heartbeat. It eventually envelops into a dark and very depressing closing that fades away in a cello hell that reminds me of Angelo Badalamenti’s darker scores for David Lynch.
In the end it is very apparent that Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake" takes center stage with this film but Mansell comes in every now and then and shatters the flow with such precision and violence it becomes a whole new monster of it’s own name.
It’s a shame, because of the use of non-original material, Black Swan was not eligible for awards and therefore Mansell remained empty-handed for one of his most innovative works to date. Of course, working in the business for so long, he would have realized that before he started and he still poured his heart and soul into this and that is good enough. It proves he’s not in it for the business but the music.
Clint Mansell created one of the most effective scores of 2010 and possibly one of the most controversial as well. Classical enthusiasts shunned it for messing with a classic and score enthusiasts shunned it for being too much like Tchaikovsky….I reward it with praise for having the balls to approach such a project.

4 **** out of 5

Apr 20, 2011

YOUR HIGHNESS - composed by Steve Jablonsky

I should start off this review by stating this is not the original album I was going to scrutinize as my next review. In fact I was planning on ripping apart Steve Jablonsky's uninspired Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen score from 2009. I was planning on treating it to a very poor rating and bury it in my cat's litter box to see if the cat shit improves the quality anymore. That was until I heard Jablonsky's score to Your Highness...and with that my mind took another direction.

Your Highness is a 2011 stoner-comedy, taking elements of adventure and fantasy then rolling them into a medieval time period. With the intent of being a comedic tribute to '80's fantasy actions films, such as Conan The Barbarian, Krull and Beastmaster, Your Highness was beginning to sound as if it was going to be a fun way to waste 2 hours at the cinema. Starring Danny McBride, from television's hilarious Eastbound & Down and James Franco, as two not so bright prince brothers that embark on a dangerous mission to rescue Franco's bride-to-be (Zooey Deschanel) from an evil wizard, played by writer/actor Justin Theroux. Along the way they team up with a female warrior, far more skilled than the both of them combined, played by Natalie Portman (who seems a little embarrassed to be seen in such a film) and encounter many dangerous creatures and 'colorful' characters, both human and...well...not human.
The film is silly and inane, not to say that 'silly' is bad when it comes to comedy. You can be silly and still be good, as Monty Python and Ghostbusters proved or you can be silly and just be really bad, as Austin Powers and all the Date/Epic/Scary Movies proved. Mel Brooks tends to teeter back and forth between the two, just for the record. Sadly, Your Highness falls into that 'bad silly' category.
However, what came as a very pleasant surprise to me was Steve Jablonsky's highly entertaining straight-up adventure score.
Here he seems to be channeling Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Miklós Rózsa's The Knights Of The Roundtable and even goes as far back as the late 1930's swashbuckling stylings of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his score for the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood. While he does manage to capture a lot of that feel, he does resort back to the tired MV/RC style and mucks it up a bit with some electronic textures and synths that seem so ridiculously out of place in this "period piece".
Beyond that minor criticism, Jablonsky's Your Highness is by far his best work since the 2004 Katsuhiro Ôtomo anime Steamboy. While it's nowhere near as good as Steamboy it's as equally entertaining as his score for the first Transformers film. After so many years of scoring aimless synthetic slop for shitty Hollywood blockbuster Slasher flick remakes and TV's Desperate Housewives, Your Highness must have been a welcome breath of fresh air for Jablonsky.
Here he is able to develop and layer multiple themes that seem to be constantly taking turns as the main focal point. To be frank, that's what I believe a good film score should do.
Jablonsky takes the film score seriously for the most part and hands in a solid action score with a few elements of a period piece as well, instead of a goofy comedy score most would expect. This writing is much like what Theodore Shapiro did for Tropic Thunder, Christopher Lennertz did for Vampires Suck and Debbie Wiseman did for Lesbian Vampire Killers.
Right off of the bat, Jablonsky almost lost me with an electronic loop and ambient synth textures that seemed nothing like what one would expect for such a film. Instead it came off as sounding like something no different than any other action score today. It may as well serve as the opening notes for a movie about Shia LeBeouf saving the U.S.A. from an Alien nuclear bomb. That was until 40 seconds in and the string section began. It immediately started to give off a medieval folk like feel with somewhat of a modern twist. Joined by a beautiful solo violin and a muted choir, Jablonsky builds upon that while creating a feel of heroism and grandeur. It seems the orchestra is ready to explode and then Jablonsky drops everything and speeds things up a bit with an upbeat single mandolin strumming with all it's heart, that's quickly joined by a strong percussion and brass stings and a swashbuckling styled fiddle racing up and down the scales. It begins to sound like something not much different from Hans Zimmer's entertaining Pirates scores and there's nothing wrong with that. Soon enough an oboe comes into the mix and plays as if it's dueling against the fiddle which proves to be quite effective and suiting to the the sword-fighting in the film.
Immediately toning things down and playing at the other end of the thematic spectrum is "Isabel The Strong". A gorgeous woodwind led theme, backed up by a delicately placed harp is nothing short of impressive. Jablonsky brings in film score regular, Lisbeth Scott for some beautiful vocalizations that seem to act as the romantic and melancholy voice of Natalie Portman's Isabel character. Once he allows the orchestra and vocals fully flourish, Jablonsky proves he is fully capable of writing for not just electronic hogwash, like he's been known for in the past few years but able to compose organically as well. This beautifully penned cue reminds me of the more tender moments in Harry Gregson-Williams & John Powell's scores for the Shrek series, once again establishing that the MV/RC guys don't stray too far from the nest.
"Goodbye Mr. Tinys" is an album high point and serves as Danny McBride's character, Thadeous' theme. Highlighted with some plucky harpsichord playing and a delightful pennywhistle, this cue seems to be written for a cheeky, mischievous type of anti-hero, much like Jack Sparrow or Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, that is not the case for McBride's portrayal of the character and instead he comes off as just an idiotic stoner that calls for a much different style of them played by a tuba. Whether or not Jablonsky was instructed to write such a theme or didn't quite get the character is not certain. On screen, it's a little misplaced, on album is nothing short of highly entertaining and can be forgiven.
"Best Man" is more of slower thoughtful heroic piece, backed by a string and brass section, concluding with a harpsichord tapping in a few final notes. It almost makes you forget this is for a stoner comedy...almost, until the next track that is.
"The Greatest Most Beautifullest Love Song In All The Land" reminds us that this score is indeed for an incredibly ridiculous film. With half-decent vocals performed by Zooey Deschanel and absolutely horrendous vocals by James Franco, I can't help but enjoying this terrible song for what it is. Although it is a little out of place and immediately snaps you out of the mood set up so far with the first 4 cues, it couldn't be better timed on the album.
"The Virgin Is Plucked" is a rather stirring and intimidating action cue that makes wonderful use of that Transformers type of choir chants. It wouldn't be out of place approaching the Realms of Mordor, with it's threatening low end cello stirs and taunting high end string section, joined by a blaring brass section and synthetic, pulsating textures
We are reminded of Vangelis' work in Alexander and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, with the rousing "Not In My Castle". Making use of the cliche MV/RC string crescendos, it raises the bar with an inspiring brass section and percussive marching.
"Playful Secrets!" tick-tock's it's way with wonder and the majestic that takes me back to an old SNES game called ActRaiser or some of John Williams' work on the Harry Potter series.
While the cue "Leezar’s Date, Belladonna’s Hate" reminded me too much of the Fallen's theme from the Transformers' sequel, "Here Come The Marteetee" and "A Fistful Of Snakes" are the tracks that really degrades the score into the boring and mundane. They could be written for any run of the mill action score, from biker cyber punk attacks to Will Smith fistfighting with aliens or monsters and in the end, that lack of creativity just can't go unnoticed. A middle-eastern style flute is what grounds these cues in it's time period a little but not enough to keep one from rolling their eyes, unless you're merely into what sounds "epic" to you.
Jablonksy enters 'horror' scoring territory with "Labyrinths And Humps". It's riddled with orchestrated anarchy and well placed stings that would make Marco Beltrami smile.
Jablonsky stirs the emotions with excitement and suspense on the climatic and wonderfully titled "Orgy Of Violence" cue. One of the finest details I have to point out is a well placed chime hitting the same notes as the choir chanting, which requires a good sound system to really get feel of the impact and intimacy of such a huge piece and it's many finer specifics. I can't help but wonder why Jablonsky didn't go with this sort of action writing for the rest of the score. It's almost entirely orchestral hardly relying on any electronics or synthesizers and is one of the most pleasurable cues he's written in his career.
Concluding the album presentation is the rallying concert cue "Thadeous" reprising the theme with much more heroism and bravery than it's initial performance.
As delightfully enjoyable Your Highness is, I can't help but feel mildly disappointed with Steve Jablonsky's use of out of place electronics and synthetic textures. I don't mind electronics and synths in scores at all, I just feel there's a time and place for them...a medieval set film is not one of them.
Had Jablonsky stuck to the purely organic and orchestral composing I would have awarded it an extra star. He proved he could do it with Steamboy and many cues on this album, why didn't he stay with it?
When it all comes down to it, Your Highness is nothing short of pure fun and keeps Jablonsky on my list of composers to keep an eye on.

3 out of 5

Mar 3, 2011

Cashback (Dir. Sean Ellis. 2006)

Cashback is a little gem of a film albeit with some very visible flaws when held up to the cold light of criticism.  I don’t know how many of these films get made each year (too few) but I do know that most of them fall under the radar due to a lack of promotion.  Large studio films often achieve a profit due to their extensive promotion, even when they don’t have the substance to warrant such success.  This type of film has no such resources and its best hope is to achieve cult status through word of mouth and late night TV screenings.

The film was written, co-produced and directed by onetime fashion photographer Sean Ellis.  It focuses on Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff), an aspiring young art student whose life is not as simple as he’d like it to be.  A less than amicable break up with his girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan) threatens to overwhelm his very soul.  Suzy screams at him menacingly but the sound of her anger is muted.  Instead we get the beginnings of a lengthy voice-over from Ben, a narrative that sounds like a diary entry read aloud.  The breakup crushes him and throws his life into a pattern of chronic insomnia and personal displacement.  He drifts between moments of imagination and dark reality.  As Ben tries to come to terms with the world that he has found he must now reluctantly be a part of we get to go along for the ride.

The introspective v/o narration isn’t the only film technique that director Ellis has used.  A number of flashbacks are also employed to show the young Ben in his formative years.  Some of these are hilarious, male viewers will likely appreciate the humour more.  During these times there is some full nudity so if that offends you stay well clear.  In fact, there is quite a lot of nudity in the film but it’s not presented in a sleazy way.  Ben is art student; the naked form is part of his world and crucial to his perception.  He doesn’t come across as creepy even when undressing women in the supermarket.  (Not recommended outside of movie-land.)

He drifts solemnly through the daylight hours and exists in a state of self-induced limbo during the night, fearing what he calls “the haunting period, the time when the demons of regret come for you.”   In order to fill this void in his existence and the sleepless nights Ben takes a nightshift at a Sainsburys supermarket. For those of you not familiar with the supermarket chain, think mop & bucket, stacking shelves, tedium and a very low wage.

His boss and co-workers are colourful character stock types but they are portrayed and played with such passion and obvious enjoyment by the actors that they are fun to watch.  Much of the cast will be familiar to British audiences but may well be a group of unknowns to overseas viewers.  We have Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin) the supermarket boss whom no one respects; he is an idiot but thinks of himself as a genius and a demiurgic love god.
Also present are the stereotypical comedy duo, Barry and Matt (Michael Dixon and Michael Lambourne respectively), two loveable clowns that reminded me so much of two of my college buddies that I got a little nostalgic.  And finally, the silver lining in this dark cloud, the beautiful wallflower checkout girl Sharon Pintey (Emilia Fox); unlike Ben, Sharon is fully grounded and a dedicated realist, she is his opposite in many ways.  I’ve always liked Emilia’s work and she didn’t disappoint here either.  She never comes out of her comfort zone as an actress but that’s okay as the film doesn’t require such a Cinderella moment.

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that there are similarities in Cashback to some of Kevin Smith’s films but thankfully it shows more restraint and the similarities aren’t enough to drag it down to that juvenile Kevin Smith level.  It also made me think of Donnie Darko (Kelly. 2001) more than once, it too being an enjoyable mesh of ideas stitched together to become something greater than the sum of its parts.

Ben spends his time in work daydreaming about the nature of love and imagines he has the ability to stop time, to freeze a fleeting moment and examine it from his godlike vantage point outside of time’s constraints.  He determines that in order to see the real beauty in people the hustle and bustle of the world needs to be put on pause.  It’s an interesting twist on that much used technique in film when the hero meets the soft focus maiden and time slows to a crawl.  These moments are the real meat of the film.  In the frozen time Ben walks the aisles and ponders his own existence and the lives of the late night shoppers.  The shoppers become a still-life under the artists gaze.  The realisations and reasserting idealisms of the character are never more poignant than at these times.  Some of his observations are beautiful and emotionally stimulating pieces of prose.  While it’s appealing to exist there permanently he soon finds that there is something in the real world that still calls to him and the film shifts to explore that side of a dreamer’s existence.

Much of the action takes place indoors but when we do get outside the external scenes are welcome additions, which is not to imply the internal scenes are bad.  There is no substitute for natural light in film, especially for low budget productions like this but cinematographer Angus Hudson does a good job with the tricky supermarket lighting and it never feels too harsh or unrealistic.  Lighting is something that is often overlooked and it’s nice to be able to mention it and make it relevant to an audience.

The editing is a little schizophrenic, sometimes it’s sublime and sometimes it’s almost amateur.  One particularly great example where it succeeds involves Ben as he moves from the telephone to his bed, and simultaneously from one emotion to another.   The change in location is achieved in a single wonderfully fluid movement and was done completely in-camera; it needs to be seen to be understood.  It took a whole day to shoot.

The film has elements of slapstick (the soccer game) and outright belly laughter but it’s the subtle and often sarcastic dialogue that shines the most.

The success of Cashback ultimately depends on your ability to empathise with Ben and his situation.  If you’ve had a similar relationship breakup and are now far enough removed that you can laugh at it then the film will likely resonate on a much deeper level with you.  If you engage with it on an empathic level you’ll reap more from it.  Watch it passively and you’ll get bored when the comedy wanes.

Which brings me nicely to the flaws I mentioned earlier, they aren’t new or exclusive to low budget independent film.   Cashback falls into the same pit of predictability that its bigger budget American counterparts succumb to, that after the first hour the comedy falls away and the story all of a sudden is forced to stand on its own two feet, quite often it fails and is only saved by the feel-good finale.  To a certain extent this happens to Sean Ellis’ film also.  It helps that the speed of the film has been slow throughout so no great loss of pace is evident.  It stumbles at the usual time but stick with it and you’ll see it recover.  The ending is too abrupt but not unsatisfying.  It’s one of those endings wherein what is not said is more important than what is.

I found out after viewing that the film started life as an 18 minute short that got an Oscar nomination in 2005.  I found the original short on veoh for comparison and discovered that almost all of it all is included in the full length feature which was completed two years later.  It’s an amazing achievement to keep the film looking consistent after such a length of time.
I would recommend not watching the short unless you have first seen the feature length.  It doesn’t ruin the ending but it’s a different entity without the back-story.  For those of you that have seen the full length or those that may want to see only the short it can be found here.  

The film uses some classical and some pop music throughout but also had an original score written by Guy Farley.  Farley is clearly a talented composer and his ability to help bring a scene to life is without question.  His score reflects the highs and lows of the characters emotions and adds to the comedic moments brilliantly.  You can hear excerpts from the film and many of his other works at his official site.

To sum up, what Cashback lacks in finesse it makes up for with ideas in a delightfully sharp and poetic script.  At times the editing is a little clumsy and at others it’s inspired with clever transitions from scene to scene. The feeling you get when the credits roll will hopefully be one of contemplation.  If not then you’ve either missed the point or the director has missed his target.  It’s not perfect but I hope it makes that cult status I mentioned before.  Watch it, tell your friends and tie them to a chair so they will watch it too.

It’s not high art; it’s a British rom com that isn’t a Four Weddings and a Funeral clone.  Thank god.

*** out of 5

Feb 28, 2011


2010 had a lot great films and the scores to coincide with them but nothing took me by surprise like DreamWorks Animations' fantasy/adventure How To Train Your Dragon did. Loosely based upon the children's series novels written by Cressida Cowell, How To Train Your Dragon tells the story of a forbidden friendship between a viking boy and his dragon.
Filled with adventure, comedy, action, fantasy and headspinning animation, Dragon stole my heart within the first few minutes of it's 98 minute running time. While it is aimed at children, Dragon manages to attract adults as well, as it never resorts to 'stupid' bathroom humor (like too many DreamWorks films have done in the past), has a morally effective plot and heart with a deeper meaning than most animated films do these days. Oh, and there's also that breathtaking visual design as the icing on the cake.
Since the beginning of DreamWorks Animation productions, the musical voice has belonged to Hans Zimmer and his Media Ventures/Remote Control protégés, most notably Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. Normally, I'm not awfully fond of a lot of these guy's big blockbuster action scores as they tend to fallback on uninteresting electronic textures and overly masculine brass sections. However when it comes to scoring animated features, it seems to bring out an unstoppable creative force in them. Time and time again they've dazzled me with such scores as Zimmer's Prince Of Egypt, Gregson-Williams' Sinbad & The Voyage of The Seven Seas and of course Powell's numerous collaborations with Gregson-Williams on the first Shrek score, the highly entertaining Chicken Run and Antz and with Zimmer the wonderfully fun Kung-Fu Panda
Powell is finally allowed to let loose all on his own with How To Train Your Dragon and he doesn't disappoint. In fact, I honestly feel he's written the best score for DreamWorks Animation to date.
What Powell does here is ignore the historical facts of the vikings and sets the tone himself using musical arrangements more akin to Scotland rather than something you would associate with the Scandinavians. To be fair the primary solo instruments he uses here are the sakpipa, which is the Swedish version of the bagpipe and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, both of which match the traditions of the geographical area that Dragon supposedly takes place in. When it all comes down to it, it is a children's movie about kids riding dragons, so historical inaccuracies can easily be dismissed. After all, it's this specific sound that helps bring out the huge heart that Powell's Dragon score is brimming with.
The whole album begins with "This Is Berk" which serves as a mini-suite to a certain degree, with all of the main themes wrapped into one cue. It's almost as if it's presented as sort of an overture as it gallops and dances up and down the scales with incredible excitement and positivity. From the very get-go Powell makes it obvious he isn't going to shy away from distinguishable themes and bold statements here.
"This Is Berk" opens with a lone, yet honorable, horn performance (which acts as the "flight" theme later on in it's all it's full blown glory) and gracefully leads into an effectively pretty woodwind segment that plays as the main characters' "love" theme. After a minute of intimacy and subtly, Powell allows the orchestra to detonate and thunder into the film's rousing main theme. An anthemic powerhouse fueled by a humongous orchestra, a male choir and an arrangement of traditional instruments. It's brings up visions of good old fashioned swashbuckling and adventure, something that is sorely missed in so many adventure scores these days.
Things get a bit more menacing, but no less fun, as we flow with ease into "Dragon Battle". Powell makes great use of the traditional Viking tone at the beginning of this cue with a blaring horn call. Low-end brass chords and a heart-racing marching rhythm give the dragons a definite voice of impending danger. Most of todays composer wouldn't find a spot to fit the main themes into their action cues but Powell manages to gracefully weave, not one but, two themes in this minus 2 minute cue, without sacrificing any of the action.
Things slow down for a bit when we are greeted with a quieter cue, "The Downed Dragon". Making use of an array of wonderful woodwind arrangements, complimented with some brass and male choir moments nestled in, we are soon introduced to what one might call the "curious" motif. Things get a little nervous as the main human character, Hiccup, first meets his soon to be dragon companion, Toothless.
The next few cues juggle themes back and forth with delicate precision, going from loud to quiet in such a graceful manner it's astounding. We are constantly hinted that the music is just waiting to completely explode with excitement and adventure but the composer is quick put a lid on it before it completely bursts into full blown action music quite yet.
We are then brought to what I believe is not only the highlight of the entire score but THE outstanding cue of the entire year, "Forbidden Friendship". Sprinkled with a light child-like innocence and curiosity, highlighted by tick-tocking xylophones and marimbas, only to build and build with a celestial female choir and wonderfully delicate orchestral crescendo arrangements. It brings tears to my eyes, not because it's sad but it speaks of an innocence I've long let go and a nervous heart-felt new love for a pet, which I think we can all associate ourselves with. When I first heard this cue I must have replayed it back to back at least six times in a row.
"See You Tomorrow" brings such a blissful outgoing feel to it, it will probably test the patience of anyone who can't stand a good ol' Highland stagger. Bagpipes, fiddles and a pennywhistle flutter in and out of the centerstage as a harpsichord and a overly happy snare tapping holds the rhythm. If anything, this highlight cue is going to remind Powell fans of the same positive drive he and Harry Gregson-Williams brought to the screen with their Chicken Run effort.
The flight theme is finally allowed to soar in all it's glory in the astonishing "Test Drive". Powell captures the feeling of free flight with such perfection you can almost feel your eyes tearing up from the wind blowing in your face. The orchestra cascades up and down the scale, as a thundering drum section keeps everything at a steady pace. If you know my musical tastes, I absolutely detest the silly sounds of an electric guitar in adventure/action scores like this. They usually run up and down the frets like Yngwie Malmsteem with a bad case of diarrhea, not doing much for the music but quickly outdating itself (Ramin Djwadi take fucked up Iron Man). However, Powell uses the guitar to enhance the lower end of the orchestra with simple strumming and no more. It's extremely effective and not abused like most of these Media Venture composers would do to it.
The tender "love" theme we heard at the very beginning of the score is finally let out of it's box and given the chance to flourish. It floats and sweeps through with such finesse you hardly notice the big build up it ends in, with a brilliantly orchestral arrangement supported by a muted female choir.
A more serious tension really begins to build with "The Kill Ring", while not sacrificing the playfulness of the fluttering woodwinds. A vast array of various drums rumble and growl, waiting for the charging orchestra to really lay on the heaviness. When it finally does let go, it is wonderful. It has the dizzying orchestral arrangements of Chicken Run but the serious action writing of say John Williams' Indiana Jones' scores.
The next four cues play as sort of a single climatic piece adding up to about 20 minutes of some of the best action music the cinemas received in 2010.
"Ready The Ships" starts off with a brass heavy percussive pounding joined by a male chanting, before it drops off into a determined sense of loss and hope reflecting each other simultaneously, making for one of the most subtly quiet and thoughtful moments on the entire album.
"Battling The Green Death" takes you by the scruff and throws you right into the middle of the action. Much like Hans Zimmer's amazing climatic cue "I Don't Think Now Is The Best Time" from the third Pirates of The Caribbean, Powell manages to throw all the themes at you in one single cue and completely blows you away with the spectacular rollercoaster of orchestral endeavor coming from all sides. It takes you back to the Golden Age days of swashbuckling adventure of Max Steiner's work. Making use of every single instrumental, vocal and kitchen sink element Powell's used so far "Green Death" dares your heart not to start racing in place. In all the excitement, Powell manages to let the main "flight" theme take center stage and it soars to such a great height that the hairs on my neck all stand up.
Concluding the action cues "Counter Attack" swells into pure magnificent chaos and urgency, before dropping off into a haunting echoing choir trailing off into nothing.
"Where's Hiccup?" starts off in a rather melancholy haunting mood but it gently transcends into a swelling orchestral rise and then into an astonishingly beautiful rendition of the "flight" theme on a solitary piano.
Concluding the score presentation of the album is "Coming Back Around". Here the main themes are allowed to spread their wings with such power and glory I'm literally floored and just nodding my head in amazement with the heart and soul put into the final moments of score.
The album ends with a little bit of a misstep. Sigur Ros' Jon Por Birgisson (credited as Jonsi here) contributes a song for the end credits. "Sticks & Stones" is a pretty good song but it breaks the mood and doesn't really stand up to Powell's music. Although Jonsi has actually penned a happy song (very much the opposite of his regular Sigur Ros material), "Stick & Stones" still projects somewhat of a downbeat mood and seems really out of place. I would go so far as to say it destroys the mood and emotion Powell had set up for the entire film.
The album ends with a rather bizarre cue tagged on titled "The Vikings Have Their Tea". With somewhat of a aristocratical feel to it, it brings a smile to my face and almost takes away the strange taste that "Sticks & Stones" left in my mouth.
When all is done, it's amazing the emotion and thought Maestro John Powell put into every single note of every single cue on this score. It's rare that a score is this excellent front to back. Usually we are left with a lot of filler cues and tend to skip a lot but with How To Train Your Dragon it's meant to be experienced from beginning to end.
I don't think I can gush over this score anymore without being overly fanboyish but I honestly believe it deserves the praise myself and the armies of critics have given it. It's way to rare that a score this good comes around that I can't help but carry on about it like this. I wholeheartedly can be certain it deserved the Oscar for Best Score for it's energy, heart and originality.
...and with that, I award this score with my 5 out 5.
It truly deserves it.

***** out of 5

Feb 26, 2011


Like the past three years, I'll do a short review of 4 of the nominees and a complete review of my pick of what I think should be the winner.

127 HOURS - A.R. Rahman

The story of 127 Hours is about being stuck between a rock and...well..another rock. It's based on the true events involving thrill-seeker Aron Ralston's struggle to survive after he suffers a brutal accident leaving him stranded alone in the middle of nowhere. It's not necessarily the great movie it's made out to be, as it's been tremendously overrated and pushed by studio moguls who just wanted to recreate the critical and box office success of filmmaker Danny Boyle's previous Oscar winning 2008 effort, Slumdog Millionaire.
Back to serve under Boyle's direction is Indian film composer A.R. Rahman who seems to be establishing quite a name for himself in Hollywood after his successful score and hit song "Jai Ho" for Slumdog. Like his woefully ignored and spirited 2009 score for Couples Retreat, Rahman once again proves with 127 Hours that he is not just a Bollywood composer or a flash in the Hollywood shitpan.
Rahman composes a somewhat challenging score that reflects on the euphoria, intensity and isolation that is portrayed quite profusely in the film. Rather than composing something as flamboyant as his usual work, Rahman takes a different route and creates quite an effective atmospheric score. Rahman seems to favor eccentric instrumentations over the usual score ensembles and that's what makes him stand out from the rest of the score composers working today.
The central character theme is somewhat of a urgent piece titled "Liberation", which serves as the cornerstone to the film and is broken up into three movements. Each piece gets increasingly more violent and desperate as we watch James Franco's character slowly fading away on screen. Oddly enough it shares the same gritty progressive rock qualities that Boyle's former go to composer John Murphy would have brought to the table, particularly echoing that of 28 Days Later's "In The House In A Heartbeat". While it's interesting to hear it develop more and more into frantic urgency, it never really gets off it's feet into anything worthy of award material.
The gorgeously calming "The Canyon" is without a doubt the highlight of the score. With it's thought provoking clarinet solo played over a lush string section fading in and out, it can't help but remind me of the lonely, yet lovely, theme Alan Silvestri composed for Cast Away.
Rahman ventures into disturbing territory with the hallucinogenic cues "Acid Darbari" and "R.I.P." Making use of an Indian chants and some abstract vocal laments, tinkling bells, a sustained distorted guitar in the background and some mystical sounding electronic effects that seem to act as the voice of the blistering sun.
It should be noted Rahman has also co-written and performed a song with pop vocalist, Dido for the end credits roll. The consoling and absorbing "If I Rise" is a fitting song to round out the film and a wonderful way to close the score. The messy album presentation is another story, with source songs scatter all over the place. Some good, some terrible. Either way they are sorely out of place.
The score is all right and works perfectly with the film itself. As a listening experience it doesn't add up too much but a good 17 minutes worth of 4 star material salvages it from being a complete bore.

**1/2 out of 5

INCEPTION - Hans Zimmer

Thank the sticky-floor, popcorn gods for Christopher Nolan and Inception.
For an unreasonable number of years, the Hollywood Blockbuster has been nothing but mindless and noisy eye candy inflated with pointless CGI that does nothing to carry the story and only sell toys.
Memento & Insomnia director, Christopher Nolan has changed all that with his uber-moody reboot of the Batman franchise. By investing us into solid storytelling and over the top, yet strangely believable action pieces, Nolan brings the brains back to the table of the Blockbuster, while not sacrificing any of the fun in the process.
Now Inception may not be the mind-bending complicated head-trip the average popcorn munching fanboy has made it out to be but thankfully it still asks you to keep your thinking cap firmly in place.
Playing like a mixture of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Alex Proyas' Dark City, infused with a heavy helping of The Matrix, Inception is a tragic love story wrapped in intricate neo-noir dream sequences and extravagant action scenes set in James Bond-esque backdrops.
With all that on the cinematic palette, composer Hans Zimmer was given a wonderful collection of ideas and statements to paint a musical picture with. Sadly that is precisely where things begin to fall short and I suspect Nolan might actually be the one to blame.
Time and time again, Zimmer has proven himself as a top-notch composer with a large resume of extraordinary scores from all genres, almost always filled to the brim with a keen sense of creativity and more than adequate instrumentations. However Nolan seems to have his mind very firmly set onto what sort of style and sound he is looking for and that would probably be why a lot of Zimmer's work for Nolan sounds like a larger scaled reworking of the director's former main composer, David Julyan.
Not to say that Zimmer's score doesn't work with the film itself, because it does to a tee. It sewn so deeply into the film that it's often difficult to differentiate what us as the viewer is hearing as backdrop music and what is part of the sound design the characters on screen can hear in Inception's world.
Now because the score is so deeply woven into the film, it suffers greatly when standing alone. It's almost like tearing out the heart and seeing how long it can sustain life without it.
Inception has a few very engaging ideas musically wise and some very bold statements are made but in the end it just falls a little short. Mostly due to constantly resorting to meandering electronically produced foggy moments that just sort drift alone without any character or development for anything that our thoughts or ears to grab onto.
One of the most impressive ideas Zimmer came up with for the dream-woven world of Inception, was the use of iconic French singer, Edith Piaf's classic "Non, je ne regrette rien" as sort of a plot device, linking the waking world and the dream world together. What Zimmer does is takes the opening bar of Piaf's song, slows it down to an unrecognizable speed, then pumps up the bass and volume, twisting it into something similar to a strikingly menacing foghorn. This fascinating and alluring motif is used to reflect on the idea that the time in the dream world passes by slower than in the 'real world'. Very clever, Mister Zimmer. Very clever indeed.
Next up, Zimmer makes use of an orchestra in such a strange manner he most definitely deserves recognition for his inventiveness with this technique. After writing short motifs and themes, he recorded them with an orchestra, sampled the recordings, then with sharp auditory manipulations and filtering, Zimmer mixed them into the new age type compositions he wrote on his synths. With this he created a very modern sounding noir-ish type score that would easily appeal to the younger generation. This approach to scoring is quite effective in some of the quieter and moodier moments of the film but for the loud, more action-oriented scenes it suffers greatly. It comes off as sounding like a symphony being strained through a pop can. It would probably lose a lot of it's impact in the film too had the volume not been turned up in the mix and the sound effects not overpowered many of these moments on screen.
Perhaps the most strangest idea was to bring in The Smiths & Modest Mouse guitarist Johnny Marr and have him play a few notes here and there. While it is welcome to see the two musicians come together on the project, Marr's work on the album could have easily been performed by anyone. It's not terribly complicated guitar work nor does it even feature any of his own compositions. They could have had Joe Blow from accounting on the third floor to play the guitar parts and it wouldn't have made a difference. In fact the guitar work is buried so far into the mix you might not even recognize it's even there.
Once again Zimmer resorts to his tiring chopping board string charges and overly simplistic testosterone pumped brass arrangements that just doesn't do it for me anymore. It was fun when he first started using this tactic but after so many years of recycling this idea and hearing many other composers today emulate it, it just becomes impotent and dull.
To be fair, Zimmer has some great moments of beauty and wonder that is actually quite rewarding. There's a sort of sublime elegance and mystery that haunts these moments with an ambience reminiscent of textures used in Vangelis' Blade Runner score.
The highlight of the entire score is the concluding cue, "Time" which in a way could be a hopeful rearrangement of Zimmer's own "Journey To The Line" from A Thin Red Line.
Hans Zimmer delivers an extremely compelling score as heard in the film, however the scores falls short on it's own with too many moments of Zimmer on action-writing auto-pilot. Although with about 20 minutes of top-notch material here, it is possible to edit together a very impressive concert suite.

As heard in the film : **** out of 5
As heard on it's own : ** out of 5

THE KING'S SPEECH - Alexandre Desplat

The King's Speech at it's core is a moving story about a building friendship based upon personal struggle and the battle to overcome it. The film follows the true story of King George IV and the conflict he endures to conquer a potentially crushing speech impediment as he's being ascended into The Throne.
The public humiliation and sadness is captured so well in the first five minutes of The King's Speech that it immediately absorbs you into this beautifully framed and delicately yet powerfully written film. The same can said about French composer Alexandre Desplat's wonderfully sublime and heartfelt score for this thoughtful little piece of cinema. When I say "little" I mean small in scale and that's precisely what enthralls you with it. The King's Speech doesn't try to overwhelm you with extravagant settings, larger than life dialogue and costumes like most films about royalty seem to be guilty of. Desplat understands this and holds back from ever becoming overly pompous or melodramatic.
Instead he opts for a very small and intimate score consisting mostly of a warm string and woodwind section led by a sole piano, likely representing the feeling of family and friendship.
The King's Speech is a delightfully light-hearted score with just a hint of sadness brilliantly merged into it's leading theme. The piano lightly taps away in a pizzicato style, taking the personification of a stutter without sounding too abrupt or disrespectful. This particular theme is what captures a certain sense of dignity quite well without ever getting too prudish or stilted. In fact it flows with such grace and warmth it easily allows you to emphasize with the characters on screen with a sense of familiarity.
The secondary theme that represents the developing friendship between the two main characters is based around a warm string section and some graceful piano playing ascending into some absolutely gorgeous woodwinds and harp. Without words it speaks so loudly and clearly of an undeniable sense of the respect and empathy the two characters have for each other.
We are taken down some darker passages as well, as Desplat reuses some of similar minor chord progressions he used so brilliantly in his submission to Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows. Deslplat explores slight hints of dissonance and inevitable dread to creates a sense of fragility and tragedy we all can relate to.
Desplat takes some interesting approaches with the thematic material, that could have easily taken the score on a detour into the mundane and repetitive but with beautiful melodic writing he avoids that road all together. First off he almost never lets the emotions swell into overly dramatic territory, instead he steps aside and allows the actor's powerful yet delicate performances take center stage. Secondly, Desplat doesn't develop the themes at all until the very end and even then it's very, very brief. By not allowing the melodies to expand, it seems to mirror the stutter of King George IV and never rises until the speech impediment no longer controls the King.
Things are finally allowed to really cut lose for a brief moment in "The Rehearsal" cue. Both themes are cleverly interwoven with each other in an up-tempo rhythm, as a flute prances into the fold with such optimism it reminds me of some of the happier moments in Elfman's Black Beauty.
In an interesting and incredibly effective twist, director Tom Hooper and Desplat decided to use source material for the climatic scene and closing of the film. Two faithful adaptations of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7 -II" and "Piano Concerto No. 5 Emperor II" were recorded apart from the rest of the score using a larger ensemble.
The only shortcoming I can find with this score, is a minor one but can't go unnoticed for most audiophiles like myself. Desplat decided to go for some authenticity with the recording process of this score and brought in six authentic microphones that were used by the Royal Family to record their speeches during this historical era. An interesting process but sadly the sound quality sometimes suffers in the lower reqions of the score, particularly during the moodier moments. This goes completely unnoticed on film but on album it is quite apparent with a respectable sound system.
Sound quality aside,The King's Speech is a score worthy of the recognition it's receiving and should be a staple in your Desplat collection.

**** out of 5

THE SOCIAL NETWORK - Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Who would want to see a movie about the internationally popular, social networking internet site known as facebook?
That seemed to be the most frequently question asked when someone would mention The Social Network, before it became a critical and box office success.
It's full of unlikable characters, shallow situations, possibly factually inaccurate and, to be blunt, it's about the creation of facebook. At first thought, you would think you'd rather see a movie documenting Bill Gates' morning breakfast habits.
All that aside, it's also scripted and paced with well-refined precision, well acted, shot beautifully and hypnotizing in a strange, pessimistic and unsettling way.
The finer points in this film would mostly be credited to the wonderfully casted performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield. As well as the admirable script from screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, who was fresh from TV's criminally under-appreciated The West Wing and woefully canceled Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which was what attracted Se7en and Fight Club director David Fincher.
One of the most surprising additions to the team was Nine Inch Nails mastermind, Trent Reznor, who had been hired to score the film. Initially, he was completely uninterested about working on a facebook movie and passed on the job to enjoy some free time away from anything remotely musical and just relax. Fincher insisted that he read the script before making a final decision and much to Reznor's surprise he was drawn into the morally warped screenplay and signed on right away, sacrificing some much needed holiday time. In Reznor's own words about the film: "it's really fucking good...and dark",
With Reznor enthusiastically on board, it was time to lighten the workload a little and bring in one of his working partners, Atticus Ross, who had just handed in a reasonably impressive and atmospheric score for the forgettable The Book Of Eli, earlier that year.
After Fincher's last film collaboration with composer Alexandre Desplat on the quiet and melancholy The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, it came as a colossal surprise to the industry and the public that the director had chosen two 'rock' composers not known for their subtly or orchestral elegance.
What the final product proved, was that Reznor and Ross are fully capable of handing in a score worthy of the buzz it's received.
Using a combination of '80's pop sounds, modern synth textures and moody atmospherics, Reznor & Ross created a fascinating 'wall of sound' with layers of interweaving sound design and rhythms.
The album comes off as almost a continuation of Nine Inch Nails' daydreamy instrumental album 'Ghosts'. In fact it even goes so far as to rearrange two tracks from that record for the final score.
The composers manage to capture the modern insane hell that the film paints and the timid, social awkwardness of facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg into just a few simple descending piano notes heard in the main theme at the beginning.
Breaking the ice with an off putting stuttering drone, much like Hans Zimmer's theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight, then smoothly introducing a few lonely piano notes at the forefront, reflecting that of Zuckerberg's alienation and ironic inability to function in social situations.
The main theme is heard only a few times throughout the film but by the end, the piano is buried under layers and layers of distortion and noise, it's almost as if it's supposed to emulate Zuckerberg's emotions being engulfed within the legal and relationship Hell he's created for himself.
Apart from this single theme The Social Network doesn't really have a thematic voice to attach itself to but rather a textural one filled with electronic blips, waves of uncomfortable sound and some catchy beats to boot.
With all these wonderful moments on the album it has to include just a few instances of almost laughable silliness as well.
At some points you could almost swear it's going to break into an inane dance number with some cheesy robotic voice telling us to "dance around the world and back".
On another track you almost expect to see Top Gun's Maverick appear over the horizon after the big jet-fight and everybody cheers.
Normally I would say these blunders aren't the composer's fault as they are just writing for the specific scene but there really aren't any definitive scenes in this film that would call for such dippy musical numbers.
Perhaps the most absurd moment on the album is the duo's synthetic rendition of Edvard Grieg's classical jewel "In the Hall of the Mountain King". It's like they decided to rearrange the piece for the Super Nintendo and drain it of all it's original impact. It's very much like Wendy Carlo's classical synthesized hack job on A Clockwork Orange soundtrack, only it plays no purpose in the film or the specific scene it's attached to. It's completely pointless and is quite frankly incredibly distracting.
When it all comes down to it, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross' contribution to The Social Network is a brave accomplishment for all parties involved. After working with such celebrated composers as Howard Shore, Elliot Goldenthal and Alexandre Desplat, I'm sure it took a little courage for David Fincher to involve Reznor & Ross and request such an untraditional score.
There are many weak moments in the album and it does become tiresome after about 50 minutes but the talent can't go unrecognized and if these two keep on working on it, they could be well on their way to becoming accomplished score composers.
I'm happy to see avant-garde scores like this and 2009's The Hurt Locker get recognized by the Academy, rather than the usual traditional score. Whether or not they're actually being noticed for the thought and work put into the music or just the films they are attached to, doesn't really matter to me. It means the general public are taking notice and quite frankly is somewhat amusing to see these scores create such silly, bitchfest squabbles on snooty film score discussion boards.
Should it win (or won, like it did) the Oscar? I don't think so. There are two other scores I think are more deserving but Reznor & Ross do deserve the attention and will hopefully keep on working in the film business to eventually prove themselves worthy to even the snobbiest of film score fan's ears.
I like this.

*** out of 5