MMM: Miller’s Third Deadly Crossing

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three from various films of the noir persuasion…


There is no better noir theme in existence than this classic piece for Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’, played here by a talented kid on a guitar, while the original was performed on a zither.


Well, maybe Nat King Cole could contend for it. This is the theme for ‘Kiss Me Deadly’.


It’s difficult to get away from Carter Burwell and his memorable contributions to the Coen brothers’ repertoire. This thematically dissonant theme for the under-appreciated neo noir ‘Miller’s Crossing’ sounds like it could accompany an Oscar bait biopic, and I mean that in the best way possible.

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.

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.

The King’s Speech

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Warm, resonant, and perfectly crafted cinema that pops with strong performances.

Review:  Something I notice about great movies is that they often play so strongly that it makes me wonder how everybody else missed the mark.  The drama is so deceptively organic that it leaves me, the stumbling storyteller, wondering how I became such a dunce.  If filmmaking is like a farming metaphor, ‘The King’s Speech’ was ripe for the picking.  If in truth we’re all walking about blindfolded, director Tom Hooper and company had fate’s guiding hand.  It’s so good that they must have cheated.

I’ll put off the puffery for a moment.  ‘The King’s Speech’ appears as a simple story, an inspirational drama about overcoming personal difficulties to do great things.  The trouble is, great movies like this aren’t simple, they’re just compact.  The tapestry is woven tight.  There are no bizarre rabbit trails or meaningless moments bridging story beats.  Every word, every shot, every emotional beat is part of the organism.  No perfect dividing line exists between good and bad cinema, but certainly one of them is unity.

Here’s what I mean.  ‘The King’s Speech’ appears simple because its emotional center never sways, always developing the central character in direct and indirect ways, examining him from every angle; character, culture, criticisms, and whatever is necessary.  If you said, “It’s a film about British monarchy in the early days of World War II”, you would be partly correct.  In a strictly dramatic sense, the only reason the British monarchy is in this story about a king is that it reveals something about his character, a vital part of his emotional journey.  Even saying, “It’s about speech therapy“, is not completely on the mark.

There’s a tool you’ve probably heard of that storytellers use to help isolate the kernel of emotional truth behind a good story.  This is a premise.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, just dramatically sufficient.  Consider this version of the premise from IMDB:  “The story of King George VI of Britain, his impromptu ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helped the unsure monarch become worthy of it.” If in some way any moment of the film diverts from this premise, there’s something wrong.  You’ll notice.  Compromising unity is like breaking a bone.  It makes forward movement awkward at best.   Again, I quote Stanley Kubrick, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.  It should be a progression of moods and feelings.  The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” Filmmaking is not like writing a novel, designing a video game, or painting, well, a painting.  They all have things in common, to be sure, but in effect film is music evolved.

Okay, now that I’ve rattled off my usual cool, detached analysis, here’s a little specificity.  I loved, perhaps most of all, the familial element.  Despite a distinctly tragic backdrop — both personally for George VI and culturally — it felt warm.  Human.  Relatable.  Whimsical, maybe.  I had this big silly grin on my face for most of its running time; that is, when the filmmakers weren’t yanking the tears out of my ducts.  Partially it was from the clear, classical craftsmanship, but mostly it came from the performances.  If Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush get Oscars, they deserve them.  Unsung, I feel, is Guy Pearce as Edward VIII.  I didn’t realize it was him until the theater lights came on.  And I mustn’t forget Helena Bonham Carter!  She’s the picture’s backbone.

I love this film.  As a resonant, accessible story (forget the swearing!) and clever cinema, it’s not only Oscar-worthy, it’s classic.

NR: The Sci-Fi Ghetto

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It’s painfully predictable that I would comment on the Oscar nominations (find them all here), but I’m going to do it anyway.  My interest, though, is in one particular issue that continues to torture nerds, geeks, otaku of certain colors, and anybody with an interest in fair play.  It’s the aptly named sci-fi ghetto.

This is the stigma associated with science fiction and fantasy works of all kinds that often prevents them from being taken seriously by most critics.  As enlightened critic Andrew Gordon points out, “…certain film genres are read as ‘less fictional’ (Westerns, gangster, and war films) and others as ‘more fictional’ (the musical, horror, and fantasy).” [1] It’s a skewed understanding of fiction and, sadly, a prevalent attitude.  Ursula Le Guin found that, in America, the cultural mindset is “to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful”, which she ties to “our Puritanism”. [2] Many great movies are ignored at the Oscars as a result.  They tend to get technical awards, but Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, etc. are reserved for “higher” movies.  After all, who needs that juvenile, unsophisticated, fast food genre junk?

Oh… Oh, that’s right, okay.

A really good example of the cultural dissonance between what the Oscars deign to honor and what the public actually appreciates is in the case of the 55th Academy Awards, where ‘Gandhi’ beat ‘E.T.’ for Best Picture.  Richard Attenborough, the director of ‘Gandhi’, said “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” [3] By quoting this I am not implying that historical dramas are all “mundane”, but that a movie’s emotional power transcends its trappings.  There’s no reason a sci-fi, fantasy, or (to add a veggie to this stew) an animated film should be disregarded because its subject or narrative style is distinctly different from so-called “less fictional” works.  Either it’s good or it isn’t.

While ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ were given nominations this year, there’s little hope of them winning, for the reasons I gave above.  I’m inclined to believe that ‘The Social Network’ will win for being a topical, up-to-date film, even over other dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’.  I’m not sure that it’s the year’s best picture, but I don’t believe that I’m qualified to make that judgment.  I don’t believe the Academy is either, for that matter.  The difficulty I have with the Academy’s pending decision is that ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’s loss due to critical snobbery is a foregone conclusion.  I’d love to be proven wrong.