Talking Movies

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

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December 2, 2016

Hail the 1930s Generation!

Leonard Cohen’s morbid remarks about waiting for death some weeks before his death had made me think about the 1930s generation who were actively working and not thinking about death. So the day that Clint Eastwood (86) releases his latest film Sully into Irish cinemas, and a day after Woody Allen turned 81 having recently made his first TV show, I thought I’d round up some people born in the 1930s who are still very much alive and well and working as hard as ever.

Clint Eastwood

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Woody Allen

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Donald Sutherland

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Glenda Jackson

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Michael Caine

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James Earl Jones

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Vanessa Redgrave

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Martin Sheen

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Dustin Hoffman

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Anthony Hopkins

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Maggie Smith

Downton Abbey Season 2 on MASTERPIECE Classic, Part 4 - Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 9pm ET on PBS; Shown: Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE This image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE CLASSIC. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.

Ian McKellen

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Quincy Jones

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Harvey Keitel

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Morgan Freeman

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Diana Rigg

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William Shatner

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Robert Redford

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Ridley Scott

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John Williams

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Judi Dench

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Judd Hirsch

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George Takei

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Philip Glass

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Lily Tomlin

Jane Fonda

Terence Stamp

Derek Jacobi

Eileen Atkins

Steve Reich

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November 28, 2015

Being AP

Tony McCoy was Champion Jockey for 20 consecutive seasons, a dominance of his field that few sportsmen achieve, and this film records his final season. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

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Beginning in 2014 McCoy is looking to retain his position as Champion Jockey in the upcoming season, but has also another target in mind. Buoyed by passing the 4,000 mark for career winners, he is set on setting a new unbeatable record: riding 400 winners in a single season. The key to this is McCoy’s phenomenal work-rate. As director Anthony Wonke trails him the length and breadth of Britain we see a man jumping into helicopters to fly from racecourse to racecourse to make tight schedules to ride another horse on a long summer’s day. McCoy’s willingness to drive hundreds of miles to ride a horse and then return home the same distance enables him to outpace his rivals for the title. But his driven nature is his own worst enemy, because when things fall apart he falls apart too…

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org.

October 6, 2015

The Last Hotel

Playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh adds another string to his bow with his first libretto, the opera being scored by his Misterman collaborator Donnacha Dennehy.

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Mikel Murfi’s silent hotel porter cares for a ramshackle two-star hotel. At least it’s ramshackle from what we see in Jamie Vartan’s set, which impressively fills the Belvedere College stage; a canted platform surrounded by the detritus of hotel cleaning and catering, with a series of ad hoc handholds to one side for Murfi to shin up the back wall to his tiny bedroom above the stage. From that perch he notices with horror a bloodstain on the platform and descends to clean it up. This cleaning their room is what holds up the opera’s characters: Soprano Claudia Boyle’s Irishwoman who cheerfully greets an English couple; baritone Robin Adams and his sullen wife, soprano Katherine Manley. Adams helped Boyle at an event; she’d underestimated the amount of wine that would be drunk; so she’s turned to him for darker help…

Walsh’s libretto isn’t quite as outré as his plays, but it’s still recognisably his world. Adams and Manley have been hired to murder Boyle with a gas canister, a plastic bag, and some rope to make it fast. Manley is reluctant, and sings sadly of her husband’s emotional distance from her. Adams, however, extols the joys of hotel food; “People tend to pile the plate, but not me, I respect the buffet”; exults in the extension Boyle’s blood money will finance; “A kitchen of substantial size”; and scolds Murfi over his lack of hygiene in preparing mashed potatoes. Boyle seems to be suicidal because her teenage daughter is moody, or because everyone’s always looking to her for leadership; pretty flimsy reasons for checking out. But in this strangely haunted last hotel, as Manley chillingly predicts, no one can ever leave.

Walsh also directs, which means not only showcasing Murfi’s physical acting and creating an elevator from spotlighting a square light and having Crash Ensemble play muzak, but also, after recent bafflingly squib-free stabbings in A View from the Bridge and By the Bog of Cats, that blood is properly spilt when Adams and Murfi have an altercation. It’s harder to judge Dennehy’s contribution. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a Verdi score, and yet, while plenty atonal, it’s not Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire either. The most unsettling moments, especially the climax, are driven by jagged, frenzied strings that almost combine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Herrmann’s Psycho. The prominent use of piano, flute, and xylophone gives an unusual texture to the music, while there are definite touches of Philip Glass in the minimalist repetition that Dennehy often uses to underpin arias.

The Last Hotel is a qualified success. It’s certainly an interesting meeting of minds between Enda Walsh and Landmark Productions and the other cultural world of Wide Open Opera.

3/5

October 2, 2015

9 Days of 90s Horror

Hallowe’en comes to the Lighthouse with 9 days of 90s horror films from 23rd to 31st October culminating in a Scream-themed party before a screening of the late Wes Craven’s third reinvention of horror cinema.

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While the IFI’s Horrorthon unleashes a slew of new genre entries, the Lighthouse will hark back to the 1990s; the origin of the ‘ironic slasher’ sub-genre which was murdered by torture porn, and found-footage, which, like many a horror bogeyman, just won’t die. In association with the Bram Stoker Festival the 90s Vampire strand brings Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Stoker’s text back to the big screen, placing it beside other 90s vampire movies Blade, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the original iteration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The most important film being screened, however, is Scream. Wes Craven redirected the current of horror cinema three times: Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Teamed with razor-sharp screenwriter Kevin Williamson he delivered a totemic movie well worthy of a Scream-themed Hallowe’en night costume party.

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FROM DUSK ‘TILL DAWN

Friday 23rd October 10:30pm

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s first blood-soaked collaboration is presented in a digital restoration; that won’t make QT happy… A grimy, violent B-movie about a seedy Mexican bar that happens to be crawling with vampires this had its origins in VFX guys wanting a showcase script for their handiwork. So, after some quintessentially Tarantinoesque build-up, with fugitives George Clooney and Tarantino trading taunts and riffs with their hostages Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis, Rodriguez’s aesthetic takes over: Salma Hayek and energetic mayhem.

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BLADE I & II – (Double Bill)

Saturday 24th October 9:00pm

Never let a high concept get in the way of a good double bill! Guillermo Del Toro’s 2002 sequel sees humans and vampires form an uneasy alliance to defeat the mutated vampires known as ‘Reapers’, who threaten to infect and/or eat everyone. But first we have to see Wesley Snipes’ vampire superhero take down Stephen Dorff, with some help from Kris Kristofferson, in the 1998 debut of the ‘Daywalker’. All together now: “Some motherf****** are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”

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BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Sunday 25th October 10:30pm

Nothing bad is ever Joss Whedon’s fault. That trope began here. His script for this 1992 teen comedy was apparently neutered in production, leading Whedon to dream it all up again for TV; where, even as show-runner, season 4 was also somehow not his fault. Buffy’s cinematic origin story isn’t a patch on the TV development, and, while Donald Sutherland’s Watcher and Rutger Hauer’s Master Vampire add class to proceedings, this is more interesting as a time capsule (Look! It’s Luke Perry!).

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BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Monday 26th October 3:30pm

Director Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay differs wildly from Stoker’s book. Coppola fixated on a ‘true love never dies’ doppelganger love story between Gary Oldman’s Count and Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray, that shaped Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ recent steam-punk TV adaptation. Cast adrift amidst outré sets that bellow their obvious artifice, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker try to ground things, but the best verdict remains Winona Ryder’s acidic “I deserved an Oscar for the job I did promoting that movie…”

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SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – (Cinema Book Club)

Tuesday 27th October 8.00pm

The Halloween edition of the Lighthouse’s Cinema Book Club is Jonathan Demme’s film of Thomas Harris’ best-selling chiller. Harris’ universe has been thoroughly mined, most recently in Bryan Fuller’s hallucinatory series Hannibal, but this 1991 Oscar-winner was the breakthrough adaptation. Jodie Foster’s FBI rookie Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ imprisoned cannibal Hannibal Lecter are indelible performances. It’s become fashionable to disparage this in favour of Manhunter, but there’s a reason few people ever saw Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter…

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THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Wednesday 28th October 8.30pm

The greatest horror producer of the 21st century Jason Blum passed on this at Sundance, and has been kicking himself ever since. Some people at early screenings in 1999 thought that this was real; giving its unnerving ending enough power to create a buzz that made it a sensation. It wasn’t real. It was, however, the moment where found-footage horror stomped into the multiplex and declared it would never leave, all because of an unsettling walk in the woods in Burkettsville, Maryland.

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WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE

Thursday 29th October 8.30pm

Wes Craven wrote and directed this late meta-instalment in the franchise he had kicked off with his original vision of Freddy Kreuger. Heather Langenkamp, Nancy in 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street, plays herself; plagued by dreams of a Freddy Kreuger far darker than the one portrayed by her good friend Robert Englund. Featuring cameos from several of the original cast and crew Craven produces a postmodern musing on what happens when artists create fictions that take on a life of their own.

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CANDYMAN

Friday 30th October 8.30pm

Bernard Rose’s cult classic, an adaptation of genre legend Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, follows a thesis student who is researching urban legends. Unfortunately for him he discovers the terrifying world of ‘Candyman’, the ghost of a murdered artist who is summoned by anyone foolish to say his name out loud into a mirror five times. Masterfully made, still absolutely terrifying, and the reason we all cheer whenever Tony Todd makes a cameo ever since, this also features the unlikely bonus of a Philip Glass score.

HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

HOCUS POCUS

Saturday 31st October 3.00pm

A token film for the kids is 1992’s Hocus Pocus. Why the misfiring hi-jinks of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy’s trio of Salem witches is perennially on TV is a mystery, but to present it as the essential kids’ Hallowe’en film is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. Especially when Nicolas Roeg’s film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, starring a scary Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, dates from 1990…

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SCREAM I & II – (Double Bill & Party)

Saturday 31st October 9.30pm.

Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic, a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of slasher clichés which is also a brilliant slasher filled with tense sequences. Williamson’s delicious dialogue (“Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”) is brought to memorable life by an ensemble on truly top form, with star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, and Skeet Ulrich. 1997’s sequel isn’t quite as good, but Kevin Williamson’s dialogue remains a joy, there are some nail-biting moments, it’s as subversively self-aware as 22 Jump Street of its sequel status, and uses Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O’Connell, and David Warner to great effect.

‘9 Days of 90s horror’ ends with a Scream-themed Hallowe’en party preceding the Scream double bill, beginning at 8pm. Dress as your favourite 90s horror icon and enjoy the ironically-named cocktails, soundtrack of 90s hits, and general japery all related to Wes Craven’s classic slasher.

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TICKETS FOR 90S VAMPIRE FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8323

 

TICKETS FOR 90S HORROR FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8455

February 28, 2013

Stoker

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook makes his American debut with a suitably twisted  tale of an alienated teenage girl’s growing suspicion of the motives of her  newly discovered relative, Uncle Charlie.

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India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a bright but withdrawn teenager whose  beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) dies on her 18th birthday. However,  his death is immediately followed by the arrival of his brother Charlie (Matthew  Goode); whose existence comes as a complete surprise to India. Her mother Evelyn  (Nicole Kidman) explains that Charlie has spent the past 20 years travelling the  globe on geological surveys and was estranged from his brother Richard. Charlie  decides to stay on at the Stoker Mansion and while Evelyn throws herself at him,  India maintains an aloof distance. But the mysterious disappearance of their  housekeeper Mrs McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) followed by a visit from her  grand-aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), who warns India to be wary of Charlie,  arouses her suspicions about Charlie’s shadowy past. She soon has concerns about  his present intentions as they start bonding…

Stoker looks and sounds amazing. The  colours are rich, and Park does amazing things with ambient sound; consistently  pushed to the foreground to incredibly unsettling effect giving the film a  sustained intensity of unease. One stunning moment in which the camera circles a  character, following a belt being deafeningly pulled off, creates an effect akin  to hearing the tell-tale warning before a rattlesnake strike. Park doesn’t hold  back on the Hitchcockian flourishes; the camera swoops away and pushes in  dramatically, observes characters eavesdropping, generates suspense from the  mere framing of innocuous dialogue scenes, and even features a memorably  diabolic shower scene. Park teases the audience magnificently, holding on back  on information at key points, and then complicating our interpretation of  certain images with additional back-story. Even performing a simple piano duet  written by Philip Glass becomes a deliriously transgressive experience.

But there’s a flipside… Wentworth Miller’s original screenplay lifts a  number of elements from Hitchcock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt, but doesn’t pilfer such  crucial traits as a sympathetic protagonist, likeable antagonist, believable  characters, or sustained ambiguity. I’m not sure a film set in Connecticut can  really claim to be part of the Southern Gothic literary tradition as it’s been  positioned, and in any case this is more Shadow  of a Doubt by way of Dexter than  Flannery O’Connor. And this isn’t just me seeing Dexter everywhere; as probably the most  original show of the last decade it’s unsurprising that ideas from it are  percolating. But Dexter DNA doesn’t  include ciphers masquerading as people. Goode’s unblinking Charlie is positively  reptilian, Wasikowska’s India is totally deadened, and Kidman’s Evelyn a mere  melodramatic type. The result is an anti-Hitchcockian emotional detachment.

Miller’s script rocked the Black List in 2010 but it’s the weakest link in  Park’s accomplished film, which lacks his Korean movies’ visceral punch.

3/5

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