Talking Movies

March 21, 2019

A Perfect Circle

Disney should not own everything. This is not apparently a thought that has occurred to the compliant regulatory authorities in America who have allowed the House of Mouse to just swallow 20th Century Fox. But Disney should not own everything. And it would be rather nice if the American online media could also start repeating this proposition, instead of propagating the opposite. Every time I see Sony being lambasted for having the audacity to own Spider-Man rights, or Universal for having Hulk interests, or, previously, Fox for having the bad taste to continue to make X-Men movies, I wince.

Disney now owns the rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Alien, Die Hard, Avatar, Planet of the Apes, Ice Age, Home Alone, Predator, Kingsman, Goosebumps, having already scooped up Marvel and Pixar’s rosters. Who’s next? Sony?

Ahab has not any peace while Naboth has his vineyard…

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.

July 11, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis, via motion capture, returns one last time for more monkey business as Caesar, the Moses of intelligent apes.

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Caesar is in the woods, with his apes, and just wants to be left alone; to brood over his murder of rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), and raise his new young son. But not only have Koba’s followers started to collaborate with the humans against Caesar in order to avenge his death, the humans have also become menacingly organised under a new leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). An early bloody skirmish is followed by a night raid with the Colonel himself attempting to terminate Caesar’s command, with extreme prejudice. Caesar abdicates his duties as leader, vowing revenge. While the apes set out for the promised land beyond the desert, Caesar, with trusted lieutenant Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval), and two gorilla bodyguards, sets out to assassinate the Colonel. But matters are complicated by a new mutation of the virus assailing humanity.

War for the Planet of the Apes would be more accurately titled Commando Raids for the Planet of the Apes. Indeed a large portion of the movie is Prison Break for the Planet of the Apes, cycling back to the pivotal sequence of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes where super-intelligent Caesar was incarcerated with regular chimpanzees – because he chewed off a man’s fingers for being rude. Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ does not advocate having your hero chew off a man’s fingers for being rude to elicit audience sympathy, quite the opposite really. Yet we are expected to automatically root for Caesar through three films progressively less interested in human characters. If one could call the ciphers in this franchise human. This is surely the worst written trilogy this decade, and logically so; if an audience accepts ciphers, why bother sweating writing characters? If an audience accepts Gary Oldman’s noble sacrifice to save humanity resulting in nothing, why bother even setting up protagonist and antagonist humans? Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough is the only articulate human, and even Harrelson can’t excel with this straw man antagonist. Hard to credit this franchise was spawned by Rod Serling’s mischievous screenplay.

Rupert Wyatt in Rise, and Matt Reeves in Dawn, both threw in striking sequences of directorial bravura to try and paper over the poor scripting. But here, there is nothing going on in that department, which is a tremendous surprise given that Reeves returns as director. Where are his visual trademarks – the lengthy tracking shots following chaos exploding into frame, the fixed-position sequences, the Hitchcockian visual suspense? This is all the more surprising given the unsubtle references to the visually extravagant Apocalypse Now: slogans daubed everywhere, a shaven-headed Colonel expounding on history, culture and morality, a mission to exterminate (‘The only good Kong is a dead Kong’), Jimi Hendrix, and, just in case you didn’t get it, ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ graffiti. It’s as if Reeves has just given up, going through the motions in a permanently 3-D darkened landscape of snow and concrete that renders things verily sepia-vision. Steve Zahn as a nebbish ape is a highlight, mostly because, when dressed akin to Bob Balaban’s Moonrise Kingdom narrator, he appears to have wandered in from Wes Anderson’s Planet of the Apes; the idea of which is more entertaining than this tedious movie, dragged out by its insistence on ape sign language.

The powerful and emotive finale is unintentionally hilarious when you realise just how literal the Caesar as Moses motif is being taken, but it’s just one final plodding mis-step. Caesar blows up the Colonel’s base and yet escapes the fiery blastwave because it is all-encompassing but apparently all to one side just to avoid enveloping him, Caesar’s final confrontation with the Colonel sees him extend a character redeeming mercy that looks uncannily like the height of cruelty, and the new mutation of the virus, which reduces humans to mute amiable simpletons, leads us seamlessly into the world of the Charlton Heston classic. So, we are required to cheer for the devolution of the human race into mute amiable simpletons, and yet that isn’t presented as a somewhat challenging proposition when even 2008’s disastrous The Invasion noted the paradox of rooting for free will at the cost of world peace. To reference another 1979 film that’s been in the air this summer Caesar’s story involves us losing the ability to produce another Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Ingmar Bergman, Gustave Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Paul Cezanne or even understand who they were or appreciate what they did. Hail, Caesar?

0.5/5

June 28, 2016

Ice Age: Collision Course

Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), and Diego the sabre-tooth tiger (Denis Leary), are enlisted by weasel Buck (Simon Pegg) to face down an apocalyptic asteroid.

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Scrat the sabre-tooth squirrel, engaged in monomaniacal pursuit of an acorn as ever, is now mucking about in outer space; ruining Mars and producing some choice deus ex machina moments on earth, while making nonsense of logic and physics in the best Roadrunner and Wily Coyote manner. Meanwhile on Earth, Manny and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are fretting over daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) leaving home as soon as she marries idiotically enthusiastic Julian (Adam Devine, channelling his Modern Family role), wedding planner Sid is pining for a mate of his own, and Diego and Shira (Jennifer Lopez) are worrying whether they’d be good parents. These troubles become moot when a meteor shower heralds an extinction level asteroid, but not to fear – deranged swashbuckling weasel Buck has an improbable plan! If only he could keep some vengeful dino-birds off his back…

Buck is introduced anew with possibly the most unlikely musical number imaginable, new lyrics to the tune of ‘Figaro’s Aria’ from Rossini’s Barber of Seville; which turn it almost into a Gilbert & Sullivan jape. Nick Offerman drolly voices the dino-bird patriarch disapproving of his weakling son Max Greenfield, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson enjoys himself as the snooty Shangri Llama. There’s an amusing cameo from Neil deGrasse Tyson as a voice in Buck’s mind, but overall there’s not quite as many laughs as you’d like. Having said which the central arc of parental disapproval is infinitely preferable to Ice Age: Continental Drift’s incredibly unsubtle and irritating arc involving Peaches and the too cool for school mammoths she desperately wants to befriend. Whereas the dialogue and voicing of those scenes was excruciating, nothing in Ice Age: Collision Course is ever obnoxious.

It is curious to have arrived at Ice Age 5 14 years after the original. 5 year olds who enjoyed the first movie are now 19 year olds, think about that. Michael J Wilson, who wrote the 2002 story, returns for the first time to script with Michael Berg and Yoni Brenner. Brenner previously wrote on the dinosaur instalment, while Berg is institutional memory having only missed writing the second movie. Perhaps this writers’ reunion explains why the tasteless mining of Granny sloth’s Alzheimer’s for comedy has been quietly forgotten, but also why fantastic wordplay has largely disappeared; a situation not helped by ‘Son of a Birch Tree!’, featured in TV spots, being cut. But such are the necessary compromises, after all Jessie J voices a female sloth almost purely to allow her belt out a song in the finale.

Ice Age 5 is a moderately amusing kid’s film which includes just enough for parents, including a blink and you miss it POTA gag.

3/5

July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis (in motion capture) returns as evolved primate Caesar, but Cloverfield director Matt Reeves cannot rescue this iteration of the franchise from itself.

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A chilling prologue shows the lights going out globally as the GenSys-created simian flu decimates humanity. A decade later Caesar (Andy Serkis) is in command of the apes in the Bay Area forest, flanked by scarred warrior Koba (Toby Kebbel), wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and loyal Rocket (Terry Notary). There is tension between Caesar and his petulant son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), and everything falls apart when Rocket’s son Ash (Doc Shaw) is shot by Carver (The Black Donnellys’ Kirk Acevedo). Carver is part of a team led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), which includes Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smith-McPhee). They are trying to restart a dam to provide power to San Francisco’s human colony led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The dam is Caesar’s, and Dreyfus gives Malcolm three days to negotiate a peaceful solution…

Matt Reeves inserts some visual trademarks; a lengthy tracking shot in which chaos explodes into frame, a fixed-position sequence from a tank turret’s POV, and a nicely vertiginous use of the Golden Gate bridge; but whereas Let Me In’s slow-burning approach achieved agonising levels of suspense, this is just agonising – Reeves takes forever to unfurl a very simple and remarkably boring plot. Technically everything’s competent: Michael Giacchino’s music is effective if uncharacteristic (no sad tinkly piano!), and Michael Seresin’s cinematography approaches that of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and would be commendable if it likewise served a mood – but you can’t help feel it’s hiding creaking CGI. Ah, CGI… This is our defining modern paradox; an air of distancing unreality hangs over everything, but the great technology and preparation that created it is extolled as cutting-edge and therefore preferable to engaging verisimilitude achieved practically. The non-ending is as insulting as that of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and a trend that needs to be denounced: it’s like ending The Two Towers halfway through the battle of Helm’s Deep.

Writing takes effort. 2011’s reboot had a shocking poverty of characterisation but was a roaring success. Writing becomes much easier for Jaffa, Silver, and Bomback if they know the audience doesn’t want characterisation… Blue Eyes is petulant. That’s his one note. Then later he’s cowardly. He’s easily duped, because… and sides with Koba, because… then finds his steel, because… the script said so. Koba recalls Firefly’s “Curse your sudden, but inevitable, betrayal!” He discovers Dreyfus’ preparation for war and returns to warn Caesar, but loses his rag because he sees Caesar helping humans; except Caesar’s not actually helping them when Koba arrives… But hey, in event of plot emergency break glass for jerk, right? Carver’s rejoinder to Ellie’s fact – “The virus was created by scientists I don’t think the apes they were testing it on had much say in it” “Don’t give me that hippie-dippy bullshit” – is comically awful, but it’s easier to have jerks spark plot points rather than have Dreyfus and Malcolm’s reasonable disagreement over how to achieve their aim be teased out; perhaps that’s why Oldman is barely in this movie. By the climactic “What are you doing?” “Saving the human race!” gambit we’ve reached a truly low point where self-sacrifice that doesn’t work (like Alona Tal in Supernatural) isn’t tragic, but a running gag from 21 Jump Street.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so poor it makes you nostalgic for the awful Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Whither Rod Serling’s scripting intelligence?

1/5

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