MMM: How To Train The Social Speech

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three selections from the Oscar nominated scores of 2010.


‘The King’s Speech’ has a marvelous score by Alexandre Desplat, as warm and human as the film. The title track blends reserved whimsy with tension and unfolding tragedy.


‘The Social Network’ won the Best Score Oscar, and it deserved it. Very inventive and memorable, it’s a shame that the Academy didn’t recognize the same level of invention present in the film itself.


‘How To Train Your Dragon’ is a film I haven’t seen. John Powell, one of the most prolific working composers these days, really outdid himself here. Evocative, with unique instrumentation and lovely progression. Truly listenable.

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Black Swan

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  A finely-crafted noirish psychological thriller, abounding with insights into sex, identity, and art, but occasionally overindulgent.

Review:  Imagination is the life of the soul.  It enables us to evolve beyond our boundaries.  As a million and two film thrillers will tell you, it can also be incredibly dangerous.  Enter Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, a fascinating neo-noir movie about ballet that I’d dare call the female counterpart to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’.  Similarities abound; the relationship between physical and spiritual maturity, the destructive side of sex (both gender identity and intercourse), struggles against imposed ideals, psychological separation, paranoia — probably more.  They’re both disturbing experiences, though for reasons of demographics I found ‘Fight Club’ the more resonant film.

There are important divergences, however.  ‘Black Swan’ is about art and sacrifice and not popular culture and violence, for one.  Stylistically, Aronofsky’s film is claustrophobic and documentary where Fincher’s is large and hyper-real.  ‘Black Swan’ is more intimate, personal, and terrifying in the inescapable moment rather than by implication.

This brings me back to imagination.  Nina (Natalie Portman in her best role yet) is a soul struggling for perfection in the world of ballet, and she hopes to fill the lead role of her director’s new version of Tchaikovsky‘s ‘Swan Lake’.  This version, however, will need her to fulfill the role of the White Swan — innocent, virginal, controlled, much like herself — and the Black Swan — dangerous, sensual, passionate — and the director doubts she has it in her.  The film plays as an adaptation of ‘Swan Lake’ as Nina transforms into the Black Swan, first in her life and then on the stage.  This metamorphosis is a deadly combination of her repressed womanhood and the Black Swan character, her imaginative dreams invading her constrictive waking life.

Many psychological thrillers spring from the idea of personifying unwanted feelings, memories, and behaviors, separating the lead character from their internal torment and therefore dramatizing the conflict in a very visual way.  For the cinematically savvy, this can become predictable, taking the punch out of it.  Where ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Fight Club’ succeed is in diverting our interest from surprise revelations about identity and conscience to broader external conflicts.  ‘Black Swan’s source of tension, the upcoming, life-defining performance of ‘Swan Lake’, is a simple and powerful one.  It grips us like a vice, and everything else adds pressure.

Like a classic film noir, ‘Black Swan’ has strong sexual themes, in particular seduction, jealousy, and control.  Aronofsky dives into explicit territory, but what makes it work is the nagging question of how much is happening in Nina’s mind and how much is real.  Because of the subjective cinematography, we’ve reason to doubt either explanation.  I found this conflict’s resolution incredibly cathartic; by embracing her Black Swan persona, Nina gains control over her sexual identity and becomes assertive, granting her equilibrium and freedom from her mother’s implied abuse.

The film also has a strong horror backbone.  It plays similar to ‘District 9’ in Nina’s queasy, gradual transformation, which may or may not be real.  A quill here, a bleeding fingernail there.  And, of course, the doppelganger stalking her in subways and mirrors.  This is a film about self-image, which can be the worst enemy of self — or a powerful boon.

‘Black Swan’ is packed with great performances, cinematography, music, and ideas, but it certainly isn’t a film for everyone.  I wouldn’t call it the best picture of the year, either.  In some places it overplays its hand.  Nevertheless, it’s another reason to believe that cinema as an art will continue to survive, and even flourish, no matter how imperfect it is.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Room (2003)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ☆☆☆☆ (That’s zero, folks)

Summary:  Ouch!  This movie is so bad it physically hurt me!

Review:  I recently attended a screening of ‘The Room’ at Indiana University, followed by a question and answer from its producer, director, writer, and star, Tommy Wiseau.  For those of you who don’t know, ‘The Room’ has been critically deplored as one of the worst films ever made, although this same notoriety has given it a massive cult following; a following that, unfortunately, I am contributing to by reviewing it.  Oh well, no choice now but to dive in and look over this pathetic excuse for a movie.

To understand ‘The Room’ you must first understand its creator.  That is, IF you can understand him, as Mr. Wiseau, who claims he’s American, speaks in a strange accent I’ve never heard before.  Watered down French perhaps?  It’s hard to tell, as coupled with his accent he also mumbles, slurs his words, and shows little more than a basic grasp of English in general.  In short, he is woefully inarticulate.  What business he had writing a movie in English, to say nothing of overseeing its complete production, is beyond me.

Even without viewing the screenplay, I could tell it was a joke.  Awful dialogue and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.  Less than half of anybody’s lines in this movie are relevant; the rest is either ridiculous, filler, or contradictory. But it goes beyond just bad dialogue and inconsistency.  The film’s very premise, a dark romantic comedy, is filled with so many clichés that, even if everybody’s lines and the plot holes were fixed, this would still be a horribly generic movie.  It seems as though Mr. Wiseau pulled out every trope he could think of and just stuck them in here.  The tragic lead actor, the cheating girlfriend, the best friend of the lead who steals his woman, the kid caught up with a drug dealer, and so much more.  Oh, and have I mentioned the love scenes yet?  Yes, there’s gratuitous sex in this film too.  In fact there are seven (count ‘em seven!) different scenes; each of them way too long, going way too far, and being, frankly, mundane as they come.  I made fun of Mr. Wiseau’s speaking earlier, but this goes beyond a simple misunderstanding of English.  This man did not have an original thought in his head when he wrote this.  Granted, no one is ever truly original, but this is just flat-out pathetic and lazy.

Now you might think that this film is all Tommy Wiseau’s fault, but bad movies of this magnitude can only be the result of a collaborative effort.  ‘The Room’ stars the sorriest bunch of would-be actors I’ve ever seen.  Their paper-thin performances have to be seen to be believed.  Granted, I know the script was hardly deserving of good acting, but I have to believe that, with so many struggling performers in the world, those who get parts have to at least try.  But no, not here.  Blank expressions, monotonous delivery, and lack of any perceivable emotion run amok like a plague.  Amazingly though, even compared to the other actors, Tommy Wiseau is still under-qualified to act in this film.  His speech, which doesn’t improve when he acts, is just ridiculous and dismal, and there is no time when he seems convincing.  Supposedly he took drama classes before making this film.  He should’ve gotten his money back.

And then there’s the cinematography.  The cameraman was certainly apathetic and possibly inebriated when he shot this film.  Apart from nothing striking or interesting about the shots, there are way too many random pans of San Francisco, including several across the San Francisco Bridge.  Why?  Who knows?  For example, a scene will take place at the central house, the film will cut to a pan across the city, and then it will cut right back to the house.  Again, why?  What was the point?

Interestingly enough, the music in this film is the one thing that is passable.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s mediocre as mediocre can be, but its corny piano tracks and obscure hip-hop songs are tolerable, if only barely.  It’s sad that lukewarm music seems okay in this movie, but it certainly feels like a breath of fresh air.

So what is the final verdict on ‘The Room’?  It fails.  It fails so hard it almost seems impossible.  It is the one film that does nothing right, and I mean nothing.  There is not one aspect of this film that’s done well.  Even similarly derided films, like ‘Battlefield Earth’ or ‘Batman and Robin’ at least had premises and visuals that would hold you over for a bit, but ‘The Room’ doesn’t even have that going for it.  This film is boring at best and unbearable at worst.  Granted, many have found humor within the awfulness of ‘The Room’.  Tommy Wiseau, even, has rebranded it as a black comedy.  Certainly, some scenes and lines are funny, but that doesn’t save this film.  Some movies are legitimately so bad that they’re great, but this film is just so bad that it’s, well, bad.

The true importance of ‘The Room’ is this: to show the world everything NOT to do when making a movie.  Never half-ass a script, never think that “generic” is okay, never hire bad actors, and never hire a bad crew.  Filmmakers, take those lessons to your grave.  Most importantly, never just assume anything when making a film.  ‘The Room’s greatest flaw is its creator’s arrogance, a man who managed to raise a whopping six-million for this film, had only minimal experience making movies, and just thought he could create a decent picture.  I hate to kick a feller when he’s down, but if you filmmakers out there take anything away from ‘The Room’, don’t repeat Wiseau’s mistake; please show some humility, and always, always, always give a damn.

MMM: No Arizona For Old Lebowski

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three pieces from the Coen brothers’ longstanding collaboration with composer Carter Burwell, representing Burwell’s musical range in conjunction with the Coen’s flexible command of the cinematic language.


‘No Country For Old Men’ is so brutally present that the filmmakers kept the score very minimalist. Only during the end credits do they find occasion to lean on Burwell’s scary, evocative theme.


Ah, ‘Raising Arizona’. Downright joyful.


Of all the colorful villains in the Coen brothers’ canon, the German Nihilists from ‘The Big Lebowski’ are probably the most hilariously pathetic. This fake krautrock-esque piece is Burwell’s diegetic compliment to their characterization, heard on a boombox during the “fight scene” in the bowling alley parking lot.

No Country For Old Men

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Existential, genre-slashing, disturbing cinema at its very best.

Review:  Cinema gives us innumerable opportunities to vicariously experience fear.  The raw reaction to the most basic of survival instincts is a large part of why we keep coming back for more.  Most times, we opt for the proverbial roller coaster experience; the main characters, our conscious avatars, make it through alive, often by the skin of their teeth to intensify catharsis.  Populist movies are structured to insure such satisfying escapes.  If we want to take these animal emotions seriously, however, we need filmmakers capable of dropping the bottom out.  While we’re physically safe, our psyches, so well-trained by common experience, are vulnerable to truly nightmarish twists.  When filmmakers go this route, they tend to compensate by helping us identify with the killers over the victims.  When the Coen brothers went for it, in their Best Picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’, they balanced our sympathies nigh perfectly, creating a truly disturbing film.

Nihilism and justice collide in an unrelenting chase through Western Texas.  Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and clear cinematography heightens the sense of you-are-there, and the Coens’ screenplay, with minimal dialog, exposes a multitude of procedures that the hunter and hunted use to stay in the game.  Even in the film’s wide vistas, we feel the walls closing in, as the characters we identify with at a simple human level fight to survive.  The hunter and antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played absurdly well by Javier Bardem), exhibits believable sociopathy and a moral code all his own.  He’s a predator incomprehensible to his prey.  In our introduction to the hunted, Llewellyn Moss (ditto by Josh Brolin), the filmmakers encapsulate this theme without saying a word.  Llewellyn is a socially acceptable hunter, a creature who by virtue of intelligence and superior fire power preys on game from a comfortable physical and emotional distance.  In short, in relation to pronghorn, Llewellyn sees himself the same way Anton relates to, well, anything.  Doing his damnedest to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (ditto for Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who views the unfolding chaos with due horror.

The plot mechanics, the $2 Million McGuffin and the why’s behind it all, take a backseat to the story’s inescapable present tense and ever-increasing violence.  While other stories make a point to ensure the audience’s karmic satisfaction, the kernel of truth here is that, despite the best of intentions, evil continues to haunt the human race.  The struggle here is cosmic, between the animal and spiritual natures of humankind.  Predatory and survival instincts often overrule justice.  Our higher ambitions, a fire in the night, pass from one generation to the next, keeping the cold, meaningless chaos from turning us all into Anton Chigurh.  The Sheriff and Anton are almost absolute opposites, but they both answer to a code of ethics.  The difference lies in empathy.  True justice submits to and ensures harmonious coexistence, countering the lone wolf within us.  Anton’s justice, whatever it is, is truly unknowable, because it belongs to him alone.  It is therefore meaningless.

This is an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a, if not “the”, right choice.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ is probably the best picture on this subject.  Being a Coen brothers film, it’s the height of craft, but what makes it special is how far they go in subverting genre expectations.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ defies convention and substitutes original story.  This is a movie for cinephiles who like getting existentially scared out of their wits and making sense of their reaction.  It’s not for the fainthearted or brainless.  It’s too good at what it does.

NR: Write This Way If You Want To Live

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I keep chiming in on science fiction topics.  Go figure.  Today it’s the future of the ‘Terminator’ series, which suffered from not one, but two mediocre revival attempts.  Or so I hear, as I have not seen ‘Terminator 3’.  In any case, McG’s ‘Terminator: Salvation’ didn’t go over too well, and now Universal is batting even more revitalization ideas about the field.  SlashFilm has a few words to say about the situation.  My two cents follow below the poster.

‘Terminator’ is a B-movie, a synthesis of slasher flicks, apocalyptic paranoia and very large firearms.  It revolves around a simple mythology, the endless conflict between humanity’s messianic defender and the ghosts in an army of machines, a war that spills out into logic-defying time travel.   It’s the worst case scenario of the Computer Age as conceived circa 1984.   Every subsequent installment revisits these themes and, rather than manipulating them into new, terrifying shapes, allows them to stagnate.   By ‘Terminator 2’, James Cameron’s final entry, it was obvious that the concept couldn’t go any further in its present form, so Cameron intended to let it go.   The film made a lot of money, however, so those blessed with the franchise rights were determined to keep it alive.   The next two sequels, separated by margins of 12 and then 6 years later, respectively, undid Cameron’s imposition of finality and then undid themselves.  What was necessarily convoluted has become hopelessly confused.

‘Terminator: Salvation’, though, was on the right track.  It brought us into the glimpsed post-apocalyptic war.  It did not deliver on the suspense implicit in the scenario, however, proving largely toothless and shifting the focus from messianic John Connor to a previously unknown character.  When we should have experienced the horrific urgency of Connor’s war, instead we visited yet another illogical time travel plot.

So, should ‘Terminator’ be left to rot?  I don’t think so.  All stories are reinventions.  I don’t find it necessary to complain about sequels or reboots in themselves, only to deliver justified criticisms when they go typically wrong.  There’s no reason a crack team of filmmakers can’t rightfully reinvent ‘Terminator’ to channel the original’s suspense and push the story in an unprecedented direction.  ‘Terminator’ can live again, but it must become unpredictable, passionate and adult.  It should be dangerous.

MMM: So Long! I Will Carry Time

James here with Movie Music Monday!

These three pieces are from my favorite cinematic moments of 2010, those exaltant, transcendant scenes that make me cry buckets, even just hearing the music.  It’s what it’s all about.

The Coen brothers manage some of the best endings possible.  They leave me hanging, in a good way.  This isn’t quite the ending of ‘True Grit’ — but it’s the final scene between Mattie and Rooster, and certainly the defining moment.

This ending cannot help but leave an impression.  It’s joyous, mysterious, and appropriately dreamlike.  I stole this song for my short film ‘Point A’.  Then again, I pretty much stole the whole score from ‘Inception’ for its purposes.

‘Toy Story’, with its third and best installment yet, has achieved cinematic apotheosis.  Randy Newman’s score is a big part of this.