Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oliver Stone - Back in Form

"It's ugly versus ugly and it's time for ugly to get going."

That quote, uttered by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) about two-thirds of the way through Oliver Stone's latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has to do with a plot twist in the film that I will not give away. However, once I heard it, I couldn't help but think of the effect Oliver Stone has on film critics. He certainly has brought out the beast in a number of critics in his career, and while this work does not have the obvious political overtones that previous works such as JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) had, the Stone bashers are once again outraged.

I mention this as I've seen mixed reviews of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, with a few writers extolling this as an insightful look at the stock market meltdown of 1998, with most reviewers knocking the film for its clumsy story lines or lacking the edginess of his original Wall Street (1987). While there are a few flaws in the film, I loved it and I started wondering what these critics were looking for? Once again, the very mention of Stone's name attracts the naysayers like a porch light attracts moths.

What few of these reviewers bother to mention is how entertaining this film is, especially visually. Throughout the years Stone has worked with some of the finest technical talent in the business and that professionalism is evident in this movie as well. Thanks to Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto, this is one of Stone's most visually arresting films, with dazzling views of the Manhattan skyline (occasionally shot in time-lapse, one of Stone's favorite approaches) along with beautiful high-key shots of brokerage offices.

Two scenes in particular are stunningly shot and composed by Stone and Prieto, one a gala affair inside a museum with muted browns and reds as the camera pans among the millionaires, often highlighting a particular necklace or pair of earrings worn by one of the society women, while the second is a lovely shot of the story's main couple, Winnie, Gekko's daughter (Carey Mulligan) and her finacé, Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), side by side in their loft at night with the Empire State Building beautifully lit up in the background in the middle of the shot. Prieto has become one of the most accomplished cinematographers in recent years (Babel, Alexander, 21 Grams); this is one of the most impressive realizations of cinematography that I've experienced over the past few years.

The editing by David Brenner (who won an Oscar for his work on Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, 1989) and Julie Monroe, is equally brilliant. There are all sorts of visual tricks here from split screen to iris in, but even without these sights, the editing conveys the rapid pace that is part of the world of the New York Stock Exchange. I loved, incidentally, the way one character's suicide scene is edited, as it unravels slowly, as he buys the morning paper and a small bag of potato chips from a vendor and then heads down into the subway. He then sits on a subway bench, nonchalantly munching a potato chip or two, before his ultimate decision. The tempo of the film rises and falls with the characters' motives and deeds and that's a credit to the editing team as well as Stone's direction.

If there is a flaw in the film, for me it's the fact that there's just too much going on; certainly the character of Jake's mother (Susan Sarandon) isn't necessary. The only reason I can think of as to why this character is present is to show us the mounting problems in Jake's life, but it seems to me that he's got enough to worry about, given his on-again, off-again relationship with Winnie as well as his encounters with Gordon Gekko; we don't need any more situations to embellish the fragility of his life. Also, while I think Sarandon is an extremely talented actress, her Jewish accent here is way over the top. (As a contrast, I love what Sylvia Miles does with her brief scene- she's got style!)

I don't quite understand all the goings-on with the brokers here; nor did I get everything in the original Wall Street as to the financial decisions. But while that bothers some critics, I don't have a problem. This is a movie, not a documentary and how much is Stone supposed to explain? Do you want a two and one-half or three hour movie? I see these scenes as intrigue and what's most important is not every detail in these transactions, but the emotional decisions undertaken by the characters. There's a real nice evil versus good theme here, but it's not dumbed down. Rather, this comes out over the course of the film, so we can enjoy this as it unfolds. Of course with most of these characters (especially Gordon Gekko), they're walking a fine line between good and bad; it's a complex life these people lead. "So I double dipped?", remarks one character. Stone and his writers seems to be saying that almost everyone in this game leads dual lives.

Again, I just don't see why the film has received such lackluster press. Perhaps in the eye of many critics, Stone is supposed to condemn everyone in the world, and by not doing so, these reviewers may feel that he hasn't brought the hammer down. Of course, if he did that, then some commentators would declare that he's delivered a heavy-handed film- the guy can't win. Say what you will about Oliver Stone's visual style and messages, but would you prefer a hack such as Michael Bay or Brett Ratner at work on some faux epic or dumb comedy? Let's be thankful that Oliver Stone continues to make thoughtful films about important stories in our recent history; after all, few other directors want to seem to make that commitment.

P.S. Very smart decision of Stone and his casting directors Kathleen Chopin and Sarah Finn to use Eli Wallach to portray the character of Jules Steinhardt (last photo above). Though Wallach has only a few lines, he brings a stern presence to his role and I love his little business with the bird chirps!

Wallach also had a small role in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, back in the spring, so what a wonderful year for this 95 year old actor. How many people even live that long, much less get to work in two films by celebrated directors in the same year? To top it off, Wallach will receive an Honorary Academy Award in a few weeks. Great for him!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Scores to Settle

Max Steiner

I've been a big fan of original movie music scores ever since the age of 14, when I saw the film Patton and heard Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant composition. Like most great works of music for the cinema, his score added greatly to the overall quality of the film, especially in the way it highlighted the emotional state of the title character.

Goldsmith was one of the greatest composers to ever write for the cinema and his work was honored with 17 Academy Award nominations, winning one Oscar for The Omen (1976). However, there were a dozen or so scores for which he was not nominated, which I think deserve recognition.

This is not an isolated situation as many other talented composers from Max Steiner to John Williams and several in between were passed over for some of their finest work. For this post, I'd like to call attention to some of my favorite scores that were not nominated for an Academy Award.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Max Steiner (1948)
Max Steiner, who came to Hollywood from his native Austria, is a beloved figure in the history of film scoring, so much so that he is known as "the father of film music." He won three Academy Awards for his scores (The Informer, 1935; Now Voyager, 1944 and Since You Went Away, 1946), although he did not win for what is arguably his most famous score for Gone With the Wind (1939). In total, he was nominated for 26 Academy Awards.

Yet it's difficult to believe he did not receive a nomination for his score for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), especially when you consider the acclaim for this film, as evidenced by Oscars for director John Huston and his father Walter for Best Supporting Actor as well as a Best Picture nomination. Steiner did receive a nomination that year for Johnny Belinda, but his failure to earn a nod for Treasure is a strange omission.

Steiner's main theme, scored for full orchestra, is bravado and triumphant, moving to a quick tempo after a few introductory notes; it sets the tone for this film's sense of adventure beautifully. I also love his brief dramatic theme for the mountain, which we hear several times. The composer also incorporates Mexican themes, my favorite of which is a jaunty cue played by mandolins.

This is a multi-layered score that shifts moods often (joy, sorrow, weariness). It is an accomplished effort that serves the film beautifully; it deserves to be remembered as one of Max Steiner's finest works.

David Raksin - The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Raksin will always be remembered as one of Hollywood's finest composers, if only for his beloved theme to Laura (1944) a composition that has probably been interpreted by more jazz musicians than any movie theme in history. The fact that he was not nominated for The Bad and the Beautiful is as curious as Steiner for Treasure, as this was a very celebrated film, capturing several Oscar nominations.

Raksin's theme that opens this film and is heard in various reworkings throughout, is memorable as having one of the longest melodic lines of any movie theme. It is at once bravura, touching and bittersweet. The first time we hear it, string dominate, while in the brilliant final scene, when the three principals listen to their old nemesis on the phone, Raksin has a solo saxophone play the theme, giving it a racy edge that matches the nervous uncertainty of the scene.

My favorite cue is when the lead actress Georgia Lorrison (portrayed by Lana Tuner) visits the set and her dressing room on the eve of the first day's shoot on her initial film. Raksin introduces the main theme, this time with a solo muted trumpet. This is a brilliant choice as the tone of this music matches her loneliness and unease with making her first movie. Raksin then has the strings swell in joy, as she opens a small gift in her dressing room; just as quickly, the composer introduces a counter theme in a minor chord. This is jarring to the senses and is a perfect accompaniment to the emotional state of Georgia, who suddenly feels her inadequacy as an actress. As her producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) rescues her from her self-imposed misery a few days later, we hear the main theme again, this time with a few bars played by a single saxophone; this gives the soundtrack a nice edginess as well as a touch of sexiness.

Raksin not only wrote gorgeous themes for his films, but was also one of Hollywood's greatest orchestrators; his talents are on display in brilliant fashion in this work. How sad that Raksin never won an Oscar and was only nominated for the Academy Award for two of his scores: Forever Amber (1947) and Separate Tables (1955). He deserved better, even if he will be remembered for one of the most famous movie themes of all time.

Bernard Herrmann - Vertigo (1958)

I could write an entire post about how Herrmann, who was arguably the most extraordinary film composer of the 20th century, failed to receive his proper due from the Academy. It is hard to believe that after winning an Oscar for his score for the 1941 film All That Money Can Buy (beating out his superior score for Citizen Kane that year), Hermann was only nominated once (for Anna and the King of Siam in 1946) until 1976, the year after his death, when his final two scores, Obsession and Taxi Driver, were among the final nominees. That means no nominations for such accomplished and memorable compositions as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), a lush, romantic score considered by some critics to be his finest work; The Day The Earth Stood Still, with its use of electronics (1951), the playful The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) or the haunting score for François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Then of course, there is his body of work for Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps the finest collaboration between a composer and director. His highly charged theme for North by Northwest (1959) sets the frenzied atmosphere for that great adventure, while his shrieking violins for the shower scene in Psycho mark one of the most famous musical cues in the history of cinema. Let's also recall his quirky, dark score for The Trouble with Harry (1955), his complex work for Marnie and of course, his apperance as conductor at Albert Hall in the stunning assassination attempt in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

That leaves his score for Vertigo (1958) as his finest work that did not receive an Academy Award nomination. There are two main themes here; the first, which opens the film, is a nervous-edged blend of strings and brass that is at once jarring as well as heart pounding; it is a beautiful match for the kaleidoscopic images of the Saul Bass-desgined main titles and a notable prelude to the psychological trappings of the film. (Hermann continues this mood as the film opens with a chase across rooftops in which one character falls to his death - this is a superb marriage of visuals and music).

The other theme is the famous love theme, also known as "Scene d'Amour." This is a lush, romantic theme with gushing strings that also has minor chords that bring in a mournful, heartbreaking feel. Hermann uses this theme several times during the film with the most memorable being the James Stewart and Kim Novak characters embracing as the Pacific Ocean waves roll and crash behind them. The theme ends with a short burst of brass followed by a quiet passage for strings. It is one of the loveliest and most haunting themes in the composer's remarkable career.

It would be impossible to imagine Vertigo without its music - that is as high a praise as any score can receive.

Rudy - Jerry Goldsmith (1993)
Jerry Goldsmith, as mentioned above, was nominated more than a dozen times during his 40-plus year career; some of his most famous works include his music for Patton (1970), Chinatown (1974), Star Trek (1979) and Basic Instinct (1992).

But there are several other scores from Goldsmith that should have been nominated; my favorite is his score from Rudy (1993). The title theme is a quiet one, with a solo flute playing the sensitive, very pretty melody that heightens the lonely battle the title character must endure to make true his dream of playing for the Notre Dame football team. The theme slowly adds a few voices followed by strings, but it always remains rather subdued and is always poignant. As many themes for sports films are highly charged, this is a unique take by Goldsmith.

The other theme, entitled "Tryouts" is the cue for the spring football practices; this is a masterpiece. We see the early morning mist and the breath coming out of the player's mouths on a crisp, cool spring day and Goldsmith gives us a bright, snappy theme mixing a simple percussion melody soon joined by brass and strings. Startling slowly and quietly, this is perfectly matched to the drills the players go through, such as stepping through the ropes for improved footwork. Here the brass plays the driving theme that immediately communicates to the viewer the intensity of the practices. It's probably likely that you've heard this theme over the years - the NFL used it in some of their commercials a few years back - and it's a perfect moment where the music matches the actions and emotions on the screen.

I never get tired of hearing this score or watching the scenes of the final game, where Rudy finally gets to play. Goldsmith blends the two main themes together and the effect is marvelous!

The Terminal - John Williams (2004)
After 45 Academy Award nominations (and five awards), it's difficult to believe that John Williams would have written anything that wasn't nominated. But there are a few and my choice is his wonderful score for Steven Spielberg's film The Terminal.

Williams is of course best known for his rich symphonic sound, especially as embraced in such epics as Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Superman (1978) and countless other films, from the Indiana Jones series to those of Harry Potter.

But Williams could also write a quiet, more reflective score and that's what we get in The Terminal. This is an offbeat story about a foreigner named Viktor Navorski from the fictional country of Krakozhia who is forced to spend his time in Kennedy airport when his country goes through a civil war - thus he becomes a man without a country whose passport is meaningless. William's main theme has a jaunty lively, almost comical nature, played by solo clarinet which is then joined by full orchestra; it's a nice beginning to this work.

His romantic themes for the "Fountain Scene" and for his cue entitled "Gupta's Deliverance" are in a word, delightful. This love theme is one of the composer's most beautiful compositions and it is especially touching in the latter cue, where the strings play a counter theme that is all about loneliness. When the two main characters (Viktor and a stewardess he met in the airport) kiss in front of the fountain he has built as testimony to how he feels about her - well, love conquers all, doesn't it? What a lovely moment!

John Williams even went so far as to compose a national anthem for Krakozhia for this film - who else has been asked to do something like that? What a fun, original and unpredictable score by John Williams!