MMM: The Sixth Unbreakable Lady

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three selections from James Newton Howard’s body of work, specifically his collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan.   I like all three pieces for the same reasons — effective blending of fear and wonder, aural establishment of the film’s iconography.  Good music.  Yep.

MMM: Desert Chase, E.T., The Dark Knight

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three rousing pieces today as a counterpoint to last week’s subdued direction.

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is one of my favorite films of all time.  John Williams, the modern-day maestro, composed a landmark score for this beauty.  This piece, which follows Indiana Jones through the Egyptian desert as he fights Nazis to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from a truck, hits every visual beat perfectly, and I can envision almost every moment of the iconic scene in my head as it plays.  Check out that climatic brass explosion!

Yes, even more John Williams, from ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’, which I have yet to review.  This end credits piece is, well, rousing.  And tear-jerking.  Pretty much perfect.

Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard may not have the iconic, classy reputation of John Williams, but their score for ‘The Dark Knight’ has some great moments.  In particular this track, accompanying Batman’s willful, messianic transformation from hero to scapegoat.  A beautiful, cathartic piece filled with energy, angst, and hope.

MMM: The Hand of Fate, Blade Runner, The Trio

James here with Movie Music Mondays.

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.”

Stanley Kubrick

So say we all.


James Newton Howard’s collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan yielded some of my favorite film music, not the least of which being the theme from ‘Signs’, best exemplified in ‘The Hand of Fate, Part 2’, a piece better heard than described.


Vangelis’ score for the cult classic ‘Blade Runner’ is one of the most sought-after soundtracks among sci-fi enthusiasts. ‘Blade Runner Blues’ is a great, meditative piece that, in my mind, would communicate Philip K. Dick’s vision even without the music’s symbiotic relationship to this great film.


Ennio Morricone was a prolific film composer, and that’s a bit of an understatement. His best score, by most accounts, is ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, and my favorite track from it is ‘The Trio’.

Signs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A terrifying but hopeful film that suffers from a cultural divide but benefits from an incredible musical score.

Review:  There are some movies that stick with you.   Little bits of soundtrack, snippets of dialog, memorable images that excited or traumatized you.  Since before I can remember, I’ve had a bit of a problem with aliens; well, the pop culture conception of them as home-invading demons with psychosexual tendencies.  When I first saw Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’, it scared the hell out of me.  It was the sum of all my nightmares.   It didn’t end when the credits rolled; I kept seeing the monsters in my living room and in blank television screens, I heard their voices over my shoulder while that awful, brilliant music heralded their arrival.  ‘Signs’ was nightmare fuel unleaded.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that, even though it has some peculiar flaws, ‘Signs’ is one of my favorite films.   It’s because of the way that M. Night skillfully turns a horror story into an uplifting parable of the divine hand.  It’s my greatest fear and my greatest hope combined.   It still chills me at the right moments, but my newfound affection for it has dimmed the alien monsters in my peripheral vision.

‘Signs’ has a major flaw, a storytelling hiccup that defines the latter half of Shyamalan’s career thus far.   That is, he doesn’t speak the same language as most filmgoers.   He has a distinctly Eastern worldview, one that remembers the power of folklore and allows, in a childlike fashion, for leaps of logic.  A filmmaker risks it all on an audience’s capacity to understand the story he or she tells.   Shyamalan tells stories from another time and place, and doesn’t bother to explain the philosophy; probably because he can’t.  It’s a communication breakdown.  I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where I breathed in Eastern philosophy along with the incense.   Shyamalan’s storytelling resonates with me.   He speaks a language I’m lucky enough to understand.   Most critics of his work, it seems to me, come from a Western, rationalist background, which values logic and clarity above all else.   The problem with ‘Signs’ is that it’s a Western movie with an Eastern soul, and that disconnect prevents the story from reaching everyone that it could.

The film’s cinematography is superb.   It feels like a Hitchcock film with a more dynamic camera.  The frame bleeds suspense.   But, of course, sound is half the picture; much like Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Psycho’ and John Williams’ score for ‘Jaws’, James Newton Howard’s jaw-dropping music is insanely good and exceeds the film’s own quality.  It is equally wonderful and twisted.   The mark of a good score, such as this one, is that it fires the imagination on all cylinders, even without the film.

M. Night Shyamalan has fallen out of vogue, but I’ll always think fondly of his distinct style, and I’ll continue to revisit this film again and again.

Cult Classic: Unbreakable

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary:  Introspective and powerful, M. Night’s second film touches the heart and stirs the mind.

You have to have the right kind of expectation.

You have to have the right kind of expectation.

Review:  After the smash hit ‘The Sixth Sense’ left horror/thriller fans and movie fans in general out of breath, many expected M. Night Shyamalan’s next film to repeat the success and leave another indelible imprint in our popular imagination.  Perhaps it did, but it did so in a way people did not expect.  Unfortunately for the ambitious director, the studio was intent on capitalizing on ‘The Sixth Sense’ to sell ‘Unbreakable’.  M. Night was not pleased.  They are completely different films, despite sharing the same star, a similar production crew, and twist ending.  ‘Unbreakable’ is a thoughtful, slow, careful drama that has the power to rend your heart and provoke your mind.  The studio didn’t sell it as such, leading to the disappointment of filmgoers.  Since its initial lackluster run, however, it has found new life and finally, a home in the hearts of a cult following.

It spins the tale of a security guard, David Dunn, played by a very quiet Bruce Willis.  He is haunted by a mysterious, handicapped, comic book historian, Elijah Price, who believes that David is some kind of superhero.  You see, David was involved in a horrific train wreck, which killed everyone on board, except him.  He doesn’t know what to think, but after unexplainable things begin to happen to him, he has to turn to Elijah for answers.

The film touches on the most universal of questions: The meaning of life.  Is there a reason why David survived?  Is there a reason why Elijah was born with his debilitating condition?

Wrapping up this story is a sense of art direction both subdued and unforgettable.  M. Night frames his shots as if they were frames in a comic book, and even uses certain colors and color coordination to draw our attention to certain people at certain times… just like a comic book.  This is brilliant.

Backing the emotion is James Newton Howard, M. Night Shyamalan’s composer of choice.  Mr. Howard brings no bombast or silliness, only a quiet, stirring reflective spirit, until the danger, both spiritual and physical, rises, when he unleashes the pent up emotions within the central themes.  Violins dominate the orchestral selection, except a quiet, almost mournful heroic tune, played by a sparse brass section.

Bruce Willis is excellent.  It’s hard to say more.  Samuel L. Jackson, as Elijah Price, makes you truly care about his often suspicious character.

As a unique take on the superhero genre, it definitely left a mark on my mind, and I’m sure it has on many others.