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.

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.

Slumdog Millionaire

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Gripping, intimate, and ultimately hopeful, 2008’s Best Picture deserves its recognition.

D. Thats my final answer.

D. That's my final answer.

Review:  Yesterday evening, I went to go see the critically acclaimed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which has enjoyed great success in the past few weeks.  It’s made the rare move up the box office top ten, rather than degrading.  I had wanted to see it awhile back, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.

I saw it the night it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

I have had a distaste for the Academy’s decisions in recent history, snubbing great movies that deserved at least a nod (like, say, ‘Gran Torino’ or ‘The Dark Knight’), but I do agree that, out of the nominees, ‘Slumdog’ deserves the prize.  Granted, I only saw two out of the five hopefuls, but the only other Best Picture nominee that I wanted to see was ‘Frost/Nixon’.  For myself then, its only competition was ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, which, ironically enough, is something of an antithesis of ‘Slumdog’.  ‘Benjamin Button’ is about death.  ‘Slumdog’ is about life.

Something else that struck me as particularly different was how conservative ‘Slumdog’ was, as contrasted with most modern cinema.  ‘Slumdog’, since it was shot in India, had to play by their rules to get past the censors.  Unlike Europe and the United States, India is a country that has not alienated its religious side.  As such, something approximating the U.S.’s Hays Code still exists.  The sexual aspects of the story, then, are told and shown in a way that does not titillate, but invites sympathy.  There is about one-and-a-half kiss(es) shown on screen, and the way it is played makes this act seem all the more intimate.  The conservative guidelines play right into the filmmakers’ hands.

Though the sexuality is, thankfully, subdued, the violence can still be disturbing.  Yet it is never gratuitous.  What makes the film earn its R rating is the tone, not the acts themselves.  I’ve seen worse in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but that film has a lighter tone than ‘Slumdog’.

As I said, the film was shot on location in India.  Entirely.  The landscape is naturally exotic, and the cinematography dynamically captures this feel.  We are immersed in the culture from the get go.  When we are on the streets, running with the slum children, we feel the energy of the chase, but when we are in a plain hotel room, we feel the staleness and restlessness through the camera.  I don’t think I can imagine a film about India again without thinking of the way this one was shot.  While I’m a bit old school in my preference of a steady, unblinking camera, the fast editing worked perfectly here.

The cast, nearly entirely unknown locals, was incredible.  I believed.  The bad guys were convincingly menacing (one reminded me of Ledger’s Joker, in a good way), the good guys honestly innocent, and the in-betweens reasonably conflicted.  It all played very nice.

This film won Best Score, as well.  That’s one of the few points I’ve got to disagree with the Academy about this film… I don’t think it deserved it.  The score is good, and works very well in the context of the film, but Thomas Newman’s score for ‘Wall-E’ was better.  So was the collaboration for ‘The Dark Knight’, my personal favorite score from last year, but it wasn’t nominated.  But I digress. What I will say about the sound editing is more favorable.  It’s got to be the best sound editing I’ve ever heard, barely topping ‘Wall-E’, which still has better sound design, an important distinction to make.

I’ve given this film a lot of glowing praise, and I think it deserves it.  I can’t say this was my favorite film of this past year.  I can’t say that I have a favorite anymore, actually, but it is definitely up there among the best I’ve seen.

What makes me the happiest about this movie is its undying optimism.  Some may accuse it of being unrealistic, but this is ironic to say in a culture that credits random chance with the creation of life.  I’d say chance and the odds are given too much power.  Some things, as ‘Slumdog’ says, are written.  I believe God looks out for the everyday man.  He gives grace to the humble, no matter who they are.  ‘Slumdog’ doesn’t clearly choose a religious stance, but it does point in the direction of a positive force or intelligence in charge of the universe.  It’s easy to say this is good for fairy tales, but if it isn’t true, what hope have we?  If there is no God, how can a “slumdog”, a poor kid with nothing but a street education, become a millionaire?  Or are we doomed to decay, to die without memory and without hope?  I’d rather believe there is a chance for a happy ending.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  Though excellent in almost every way, the second and third acts plummet so fast that it ruins the effect of a brilliantly played character’s curious case.

Hes not nearly this dull in the movie.  The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess its fair.

He's not nearly this dull in the movie. The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess it's fair.

Review:  For the 2008 Oscars, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ holds the most nominations, literally one in every category.  And for most of these, it absolutely deserves it.  The direction is phenomenal, the effects and performances pitch-perfect.

What prevents this good movie from becoming a great movie is a distinctly flawed story.

It all begins with an intriguing introduction, one so iconic that it could be used as the plot for an entire film.  That’s the story of a blind clockmaker, whose son goes off to fight in the Great War.  Tragicly, the son is killed in combat, leaving the clockmaker with one last goal.  He builds a clock for a train station in his native city of New Orleans.  When it is unveiled to the public, it ticks backwards, which causes some confusion and disappointment.  The blind clockmaker calmly explains that it represents his desire for time to work backwards, so that those who were lost so soon in the Great War could somehow return to their families.  After this unvieling, the clockmaker simply vanishes.

This story is told to us by a dying old woman named Daisy, who is lying in a hospital bed in New Orleans during the year 2006.  Attended by her daughter, Caroline, she asks of her to read an old journal aloud so Daisy can hear it before she dies.  What Caroline reads makes up the bulk of the film’s narrative.  It is the memiors of an enigmatic individual named Benjamin Button- who was, as he says, “Born under unusual circumstances”.  He has the mysterious, supernatural oddity of aging backwards.  The first third of this film, showing Benjamin’s days as an old-young man, is captivating.  This is the part of the movie worth watching, in my book.  Brad Pitt plays the vulnerable Benjamin, who remains naive and idealistic throughout his whole life.  The character he brings to the screen is amazingly well done.

Unfortunately, after Benjamin’s experiences in the Second World War, everything slows way down.  Benjamin remains as interesting as he used to be, but his character seems cheated and wasted by a story that is going in the wrong direction.  Not that the reverse aging is a problem; that’s not the issue with this story.  It is rather that the pure drama of the first act is quickly lost, traded in for a tragic romance.  It’s a shame that the romance was not captured well.

There is a lot of material in this movie. It makes it particularly hard for me to explain the problems I have with this movie.  My biggest problem is the ending, but that opens up a can-o-worms big enough for me to write a separate article about it.  I’ll probably compare its ending to another film, ‘Gran Torino’, which I felt handled itself much better and left you with a smile on your face.

I won’t discourage you from seeing this movie.  It is interesting, and quite entertaining at times.  You may like it better than I did.  To me, it shows a sort of hopelessness, which I didn’t like at all.  I think the part of the culture that ‘Benjamin Button’ reflects is a relentless, unfocused search for meaning, which eventually gives up and declares everything futile.  That’s not a good way to live.  That’s definitely not a good way to die.