Monday, January 23, 2012

Original Scores - A Return to Classicism

I've been a huge fan of movie music for more than 40 years, as my first experiences were with the marvelous scores of Jerry Goldsmith; his music for Patton was the first great original score I remember when I saw this film in theaters in 1970 when I was 14 years of age. Goldsmith was following in the footsteps of classically-oriented composers before him who wrote outstanding scores for Hollywood films of the 1930, '40', '50s and '60s; the composers included Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Bernard Herrmann and Alex North to name only a few.

Goldsmith, along with John Williams and Ennio Morricone in Italy carried on the glories of the film score written for a full symphony and it has been those three without question that have been the finest composers in Hollywood since the mid-1960s. Goldsmith, who composed such memorable scores as Chinatown, The Wind and the Lion, Poltergeist and L.A. Confidential, passed away in 2004, while Williams, who will turn 80 years old in February, is still composing; his body of work, for films such as Star Wars, Superman, Schindler's List and dozens of others is known to every film fan. Morricone, truly one of the most gifted composers in film history, has delighted film goers with his beautifully melodic themes to such films as Days of HeavenThe Mission and Cinema Paradiso, to name only a few.

There have been others who have treated us with memorably melodic scores over the past few decades; Randy Newman's score for The Natural stands out, while Rachel Portman (Emma, Chocolat), Dario Marianelli (Atonement, Jane Eyre) and Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up) have also turned in some  lovely compositions in recent years.

Yet more and more, we are experiencing a shift away from lush, romantic scores toward those dominated by electronics. Last year when the score for The Social Network composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Academy Award as the year's best, it marked a seismic shift in film music; electronic scores had been with us for years, but here was a minimal work that was accepted as one of high quality, a decision that I completely disagreed with, given the unremarkable nature of this work.

I have nothing against electronic scores per se; indeed Goldsmith started experimenting with electronics to add another sound to his work back in the 1960s and some of his best work such as Hoosiers and Gremlins are famous for their use of synthesizers. But Goldsmith utilized electronics in conjunction with the full sound of a symphony; he did not write any full electronic scores, as with Reznor and Ross. Their scores, while moderately effective (their latest score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a better opus than The Social Network in my opinion, although it still isn't what I'd call an accomplished work), don't stand well on their own. While some of the electronic music that Reznor and Ross - as well as a few others such as Jonny Greenwood (I did enjoy his music for There Will Be Blood) - works well for a few moments in these films, they are not scores that can stand alone. One can't even compare listening to the score for The Social Network with the great symphonic scores of Goldsmith, Williams, Morricone and their counterparts.

So while electronic scores are here to stay, I was thrilled to hear so many classic symphonic scores for the cinema of 2011. Here are the three finest from this past year:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two - composer Alexandre Desplat
French composer Desplat has risen to the top of the ranks among film scorers in a very short time, as his first major work Syriana is from 2005. His score for last year's The Ghost Writer was superb, its edgy strings reminiscent of Herrmann's work; overall the score had a drive that added to the unease felt by the characters in this film.

Desplat wrote a fine score for Deathly Hallows: Part One in 2009, but he has outdone himself for Part Two, composing his finest film score to date. He was given the challenging assignment of composing scores for a franchise that had been a success for John Williams, especially with his "Hedwig's Theme", written for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone back in 2001. Undaunted, Desplat went ahead and composed a score for Deathly Hallows: Part Two that recalls the musical heritage of these films, while at the same time, taking it in a new direction.

Desplat wrote two new themes for this film, "Lily's Theme", a lovely piece with Celtic overtones and a cue called "Statues", one of his prettiest themes melodically. This is a score with lush arrangements for strings and woodwinds, while other instruments such as celesta, harp and trumpet and used in memorable passages. Desplat's cue, "The Resurrection Stone" (#19 on the soundtrack album), is a haunting variation of "Lily's Theme'; this quiet, highly moving and romantic piece features a spare string arrangement that alternates with piano for the theme, backed by a choral section with a lovely solo performance. This works beautifully in the film and on its own and is the loveliest piece of film music I heard in 2011. This is a great score!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - composer Alberto Iglesias
The main job of a composer when writing a film score is to heighten the emotions of what we are witnessing on the screen. Goldsmith (and others) said that in so many words and it's a lesson well-learned by Iglesias for this marvelously crafted spy thriller. His theme "George Smiley" (#1 on the soundtrack album), heard under the main titles, is a quiet, haunting theme that successfully sets the tone for this drama; featuring muted trumpet, oboe, strings and piano, this is a moody cue that gets under your skin. This cue ends as quietly as begins, as the mystery of this film begins to unravel. This is a film score that is subdued, never announcing itself - again, this is music that serves the film and does so marvelously. Iglesias has been a solid composer for several years now; I throughly enjoyed his romantic score for The Constant Gardener (2005) as well as his quietly effective music for The Kite Runner (2007). Iglesias also composed a lovely classical piece for string quartet this year for The Skin I Live In  and continues his maturation as a composer with this work.

War Horse - composer John Williams
How wonderful to have John Williams back composing for films again after a three year hiatus. In fact, the maestro graced filmgoers with two new scores this year, this one as well as his highly entertaining and imaginative work for The Advenutes of TinTin (his quirky theme for the wild opening sequence is simply wonderful).

For War Horse, Williams gives us a grand score reminiscent of his "large" compositions of the past. What he does so well is to write memorable themes for any moment in a film, be it a small personal one or one that's more majestic in nature. Compare two cues for War Horse, first the one entitled Dartmoor, 1912 (#1 on the soundtrack album). This lovely Celtic-influenced theme, featuring strings, woodwinds and brass, starts quietly and then builds in texture, as Williams paints the lyric qualities of the English countryside setting in the early 20th century. The cue "Homecoming" (#16 on the soundtrack album) gives us another Celtic theme performed by flutes and strings that is soon followed by a lilting Irish jig, itself eventually followed a heart-wrenchingly beautiful theme for strings that celebrates the reunion of Joey the horse with his young owner Albert as well as the final welcome back on the farm for these two. This section of the score is uplifting and captures the love that Albert has for Joey and that he has for his family and land. This theme made the three year wait for Williams's return to composing for the cinema worth the wait.

There are three other scores from 2011 I want to comment on, as I thought they were also among the finest of the year. The first is the score for Hugo, composed by Howard Shore. Twice an Oscar winner for his scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shore has composed a lovely, lilting score for Hugo that befits the fantasy and childlike wonder of this film. This is a multi-layered score written for a variety of instruments, including piano and strings and of course, accordion, which seems to be a prerequisite for a film set in France. However, the accordion passages are not cliché-ridden, but gentle and lyrical. There are also some darker passages in this score as well, especially in the track labeled as "Purpose" (#12 on the soundtrack album). This is a wonderful score with a light touch that fits this film like a glove and listening to it on its own instantly takes you back to the particular scenes in the film. Well done, Howard!

Secondly, I want to briefly discuss the wonderful work of Mychael Danna for Moneyball. This is a subtle score, one that you don't notice right away, but one that slowly creeps up on you. Written primarily for strings, there is a great amount of dissonance in the music; as this is a more reflective look on baseball and not the usual pennant-winning-heroics type of movie, this is perfect. There are some electronics utilized in this score, but their use is spare and they are only small ingredients in this work. Rather this is more of a classically oriented, string quartet type of score - one that adds a layer of depth to this film (track #17, entitled "Game 5" is a brilliant example of the composer creating tension through dissonance in the strings - it is heard in the film as we see a pop fly land in an infielder's glove that suddenly ends a baseball season - it's a small gem of a piece).

Finally, kudos to Ludovic Bource for his charming score for The Artist. Of all the films made in 2011, this was arguably the film that most required fitting musical accompaniment and Bource accomplished that very well. I absolutely love his theme "George Valentin" (#3 on the soundtrack), a bouncy, jazzy cue written for piano, xylopohone, clarinet and strings with light percussion that perfectly recalls the essence of Charlie Chaplin's work from the 1920s. Yet this is not a rip-off of Chaplin's music, rather it is a complex set of compositions that perfectly fit the mood of this enchanting film. I have seen many silent films with specially composed scores that were not only wall-to-wall music, but ones that announced themselves and took away from the visuals on the screen. So Bource's score is the best of both worlds, a lengthy score (as needed for a silent film) that perfectly fits the film and one that has much more creativity and subtlety than most scores written for silent films (regardless of being composed for the film's premiere in the '20s or commissioned years later).

So there you have it- 2011 was a year that lovers of classically-oriented film scores should treasure. Let's hope that we can look forward to many more scores such as these in 2012 and coming years.

P.S. Given that Alexandre Desplat had a remarkably busy year in 2011, scoring five different films (The Tree of Life and Carnage were among other works), this is a promising sign that classic scores are returning.

P.P.S The Academy Award nominations will be announced on Tuesday and it seems certain that three of the nominations will go to The Artist, War Horse and Hugo, all well-deserved. That leaves two more nominations and chances are that John Williams will receive one of those for his score for TinTin, which wouldn't bother me. I'm also guessing that as Reznor and Ross won the Oscar last year, they'll get another nomination this time around for Dragon Tattoo. Personally, I hope not, but that's probably how it will go.

That means that the scores for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Moneyball would lose out on a nomination, which would be a shame, especially for Potter, as I believe it was the finest score from 2011. Maybe with this category (as well as a few others such as cinematography and editing), there should be a floating number of nominations - from five to ten - as with the Best Picture category. Back in 1945, there were 21 original dramatic scores nominated for an Academy Award; that's probably too many, but why only five? Yes, only one can win each year, but why limit this to five choices? Why not recognize excellence when it's present? For some of these composers, the nomination is an award in itself.

P.P.S. In case you think I am being a bit tough on the work of Reznor and Ross, wait until you read this review at the site. This critic really can't stand their work!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Best Films of 2011 (plus two for 2012)

Assembling a list of the Top Ten Films of the Year was a delight this time around, as 2011 was a marvelous year at the movies. A quick glimpse of the films that I finally decided on will tell you a great deal about the variety and quality of cinema 2011-wise.

At first I was going to simply list the films in alphabetical order, but given that people want to know the opinions of various writers and critics as to exactly what their number one film is, I will be listing the films in order. Still, it seems a bit silly to talk about the difference between my sixth and seventh favorite film of the year. But, hey... there's no perfect method here, so this is what I'll go with in this post.

Before I list my Top 10 of 2011, I do want to mention two films that I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival back in October that would have made my list if they had been given a normal theatrical release. They are Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan of Turkey and Miss Bala, directed by Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo. The former is a haunting study of a murder investigation that takes place over the course of one evening and part of the next day. It's brilliantly directed and photographed and I think it is a masterwork.

Miss Bala is a damning look at the drug wars that are currently tearing apart families in Mexico. Narnajo gives us a story of a young woman who only wants to compete in a local beauty pageant, but is kidnapped and forced to work with a drug trafficking gang. It's first-rate entertainment and an argument against the insanity of this criminal behavior and it's a memorable film.

However, since both Miss Bala and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are technically going to be considered as 2012 films, I will have to wait until next year's list. I am quite confident both will be on that list in one year's time.

So on to the list... The Best Films of 2011

1) Melancholia (Director, Lars Von Trier) - The apocalypse, at least according to Von Trier. This is a film that challenges you and stays with you for a long time. How would we react if we knew that the world would end in a matter of hours, especially if we knew the violent manner in which it would happen? The prologue, set to the strains of the Wagner's overture to Tristan und Isolde, is a stunning sequence, filled with unsettling images, while the ending is both memorable and awe-inspiring. Kirsten Dunst gives a beautiful, multi-layered performance as the woman who maintains a calm amidst the madness surrounding her.

2) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) - Who would have thought that the director of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver would have had this enchanting film inside of him? This is both a dazzling visual display as well as a fond memory of early cinema; it's also a call from Scorsese for film preservation. All of the director's colleagues perform brilliantly in this fantasy aimed at children and adults; especially noteworthy are the production design from Dante Ferretti, the costumes of Sandy Powell, the photography of Robert Richardson and the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker. Scorsese clearly had the time of his life making this film and it shows in his accomplished, effortless direction.

3) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson) - A marvelous adaptation of John Le Carré's classic spy novel set in the Cold War era of 1974, this movie looks like it could have been made in 1974, given the emphasis on old-fashioned story telling. The excellent script along with Alfredson's classical direction combine to give the viewer a treat for the ears and eyes. Beautiful performances by the entire ensemble, especially from Toby Jones and Tom Hardy, while Gary Oldman is quietly brilliant in the lead role of Smiley. It's been some time since we've seen a spy film this good.

4) Moneyball (Bennett Miller) - I liked this film very much the first time I saw it; I loved it the second time around. Based on Michael Lewis' book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's attempt to radically change how a major league baseball team would be assembled, the movie was a nice balance between the actual games of the A's 2002 season along with Beane's inner doubts. Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian wrote a brilliant adapted screenplay, finding a human story amidst the mountain of baseball statistics. Brad Pitt turned in his most complete performance to date and Jonah Hill as Beane's assistant was charismatic and quite funny.

5) Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog) - Herzog's chilling look at the effects of a triple murder on several individuals, from the families and friends of the victims to the killers themselves. Herzog gracefully conducts interviews just off camera, asking each person a few questions about their feelings, all the time respecting their viewpoints. Herzog himself is against the death penalty, but this is not a film that rides this argument, rather it gives us great insight into the human condition, especially when it involves grief. At times moving, at times unsettling, but always absorbing.

6) We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay) - A beautiful film about an ugly subject- mass murder. Kevin is the son of Eva and Franklin; the young boy seems to hate his mother, while greatly admiring his father. Eva, brilliantly portrayed by Tilda Swinton with great inner strength and fierce pride, struggles with her son's behavior, yet still embraces him after his horrific deed. Ramsay is a director fascinated with the power of images; this along with her approach of presenting this story as a puzzle that moves back and forth in time makes this an unforgettable experience.

7) The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) - A sometimes serious, sometimes enchanting film about an 11-year old by who has been abandoned by his father and whose bike has been sold. Mad at the world, he refuses all attempts at love and friendship until a local hairdresser in her 30s agrees to take him in on weekends, altering both his and her perspective on life. This is one of the most mature studies of teen-age troubles that I have ever seen. Both leads- Thomas Doret as the young boy and Cécile de France as the hairdresser - are naturally gifted performers and it's the ease with their characters that help this film become the charmer it truly is.

8) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius) - A black-and-white silent film in 2011? Who would ever think this would be a success? Well it's been an unmitigated one, thanks to the vision of Hazanavicius who gives us a film that respects audiences' love for both silent films and for human stories. This is funny, sweet and charming all rolled into one, yet it has its moments of pathos as well. Great performance by Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the silent film star and a fine score by Ludovic Bource that recalls Chaplin's early work.

9) Le Havre (Ari Kaurismaki) - A film about the simple dignity of the everyday man, as Kaurismaki gives us a story of a humble middle-aged shoe shine in the port town of Le Havre who discovers a young refugee from Africa and plots to protect him and ultimately reunite him with his family. It's funny in a droll, offbeat way and it gives you pause to think as well. Just lovely!

10) A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) - The true story of Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein, one of their patients. The film deals with hidden desires and urges and what happens when we act on them. The thinking of these famous doctors may be rational, but ironically their actions are not always so. Marvelous performances, especially by Viggo Mortensen as Freud and how nice to see Cronenberg tell a story without having to resort to violence.

Other films from 2011 I admired include Margin CallWar Horse; The Skin I Live InThe DescendantsThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Last Rites of Joe May.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Superficially Fair Minded and Collectively Concerned

Carnage, the latest film from Roman Polanski, is a hilarious, often biting satire on the emptiness of modern day living. Although it is far from top-drawer Polanski, it is still a very well-crafted film from this master filmmaker that deals with characters that live an uneasy life, somewhat like those individuals in many of his other works.

The film is based on the play Le Dieu du Carnage by Yasmina Reza, who adapted her play for the screen along with Polanski. The story is a simple one, as two New York couples meet to try and settle the remnants of a dispute among their teenage sons. Zachary, son of Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) hit Ethan, son of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) in the mouth with a stick, causing a bloody lip and two broken teeth. The couples get together in the Longstreet's modest, but beautifully appointed Brooklyn apartment to resolve matters.

What should be a simple matter, is anything but. Of course, we expect this or we wouldn't have a story, but it's the way that the cleverly written dialogue unfolds that makes this tale an engaging one. Right from the start, we see that the couples can't even agree on a single word - was Zachary "armed"with a stick or was he "carrying"one?

But given the differences in the couples, it's no wonder that they will quarrel for the entire time they are together in this small living room. The Cowans are quite well off - Nancy is an investment banker while her husband is an attorney, while the Longstreets have much more simple occupations - Penelope is a part-time writer who works at a book store, while Michael sells houseware supplies. Part of the charm of this film (and play) is the way it perfectly captures the small talk these individuals use during those clumsy moments that are so humanly displayed. "Is cobbler a cake or a pie?", asks Michael as he serves dessert to the Cowans in an effort to lighten the mood. Penelope replies, "The way I see it, if there's no crust on the bottom, it's not a pie."

But it doesn't take long for the conversation to take on a more serious mood. What should have been a simple meeting to set up a similar one for the teens turns out to be a marathon verbal exchange about who is to blame and who's right - not only as far as the boys, but especially among the parents. The four adults take turns mocking each other for their beliefs, especially Alan in his disdain for Penelope, who will not accept anything less than a full apology from Zachary - and even then, she really won't be pleased.

Michael stands up for his wife, but the next thing you know, he's mocking her. The same thing happens with Alan and Nancy and at times the men agree with the men while taunting the women and soon afterwards the women join forces to ridicule their husbands. This constantly shifting tone is a wonderful device and keeps the conversation engaging.

There's also some wonderful commentary about materialism, with Alan seemingly attached to his cel phone, while Penelope is hyper serious about her art books. Maintaining this behavior keeps each of them from truly connecting with their respective spouses and what's more, alienates them from what's really important in life - connecting with other people on an equal level.

While this film hardly addresses the world-weary attitude of the characters of Polanski's finest films such as Chinatown (1974) or The Ghost Writer (2010), you can understand why the director would take on this project. One of the main themes in the films of Polanski is that of being trapped (see my post on The Ghost Writer where I go into great detail about this) and that situation is the central point in Carnage. The Cowans, who came to the Longstreet's apartment for what they thought would take only a few minutes, literally become trapped in this setting, as they leave on three occasions but are brought back by coffee and dessert and then by some taunts from Penelope.

Alan is trapped in his momentary work, as represented by the numerous interruptions with calls on his cel phone. Nancy feels like a prisoner in her marriage, as she believes her husband doesn't care enough about her. Penelope is trapped in a world that doesn't see the problems in Africa, where she did research for her book and Michael is trapped in between all this, admiring his wife, but feeling like he can't do enough to please her demands.

Much of the dialogue is quite funny, especially as delivered by these four pros, who must have enjoyed this experience greatly as I'm sure Polanski did. Each performance is excellent with the finest coming from Waltz, who is the quietly ironic and very self-assured; he can't see the silliness of his constant phone conversations. Foster captures the irritating quality of Penelope quite well, never going over the top; Winslet is just fine, especially when she's had a bit too much single malt scotch and Reilly brings a lot of charisma to his role as a put-upon husband.

At only 75 minutes in length, this may seem ridiculously brief for a Roman Polanski film (heck that's not much of a running length for any feature), but it's a highly entertaining time. Carnage will never be viewed as one of the director's finest films, but it's one that takes us into a familiar world for the filmmaker, a world where the characters simply try to survive the madness that surrounds them. In the final analysis, the children in their innocence can settle their differences far easier and with more grace than the adults who have become "successful" with their cel phones, art books and fancy clothes. It's a challenging concept that this film tackles head on and does so very well.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Troubled Relationship

Late in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) tells her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) "You don't look happy," to which he replies, "Have I ever?" This brief exchange tells you all you need to know about the fractured relationship that is at the heart of this harrowing film, directed with great flair and dignity by Lynne Ramsay.

The film deals with how a couple reacts to the behavior of their first-born son, who seems to enjoy having the upper hand on his mother, behaving with wild abandon even as early as seven or eight years old, when he sprays paint all over his mother's room. While Eva is furious with him, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) thinks she is overreacting, analyzing that young boys do foolish things from time to time - it's all part of growing up.

But Kevin continues to terrorize his mother, all the while showing affection for his father. This continues even after the couple's second child, a sweet girl named Celia, is born. Kevin's behavior becomes more bizarre, even to the point of bullying his younger sister. Eventually, he will commit a horrific crime, forcing Eva to endure the taunts of her fellow townspeople.

As grim a subject as this is, this is not a depressing film, thanks to the imaginative direction of Lynne Ramsay. The director tells this story in a non-linear fashion, opening with a flashback scene of Eva, in sheer ecstasy at the La Tomatina tomato-throwing festival in Spain. Shot in a dreamy slow motion, we see her being passed amidst the crowd, covered with the juice from the tomatoes. This same slow motion technique is used again in several flash forward images from time to time in the film, when we see the scene where Kevin has gone on his rampage; here the mood is much more eerie.

The film also works largely in part because of the remarkable performance of Tilda Swinton. Her character's joyous past, a fond memory throughout the film, will never be part of her life again, except perhaps in her dreams. She wanted to continue living in the city, but her husband convinced her that a large house in the country was perfect for them, especially if they wanted to have children. Eva performs her motherly duties, but deep down, her sense of pride is slowly evaporating; the present time in this film deals partly with her mundane job at a small, rather amateurish travel agency. Swinton has a stare and a clipped delivery that perfectly captures the angst of her character; she captivates the audience and you literally can't take your eyes off her at any moment. It would not be a stretch to say that both Swinton and Murray are co-auteurs of this work.

The film also deals with the difficult question of a mother's love when she knows her son is bad, if not downright evil. Should Eva have had this child? Since she did, how far will she go to show her maternal instincts in the face of his mocking behavior? These are not easy questions to answer and the filmmakers to their credit, do not shrink from these issues.

This is not to say that this is a film without its flaws. Sections - especially midway through the film - need to be tightened up, as they don't deliver much punch (the Christmas party scene at her new job adds little here). Also, when Eva walks into Kevin's room while he is away at school, the Beach Boys song "In My Room" is heard on the soundtrack. This is much too obvious, and besides the song has been used by other filmmakers to better effect (a much more convincing use of music is the inclusion of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" during the scene on Halloween night - this is a chilling moment in the film!).

But aside from these faults, We Need to Talk about Kevin works extremely well on a visual as well as a visceral level. In her last film, Morvern Caller (2002), Ramsay showed glimpses of her loosely structured style; that movie worked in stretches, but ultimately lacked cohesiveness. With this work, she has matured as a director, not only as a story teller, but even more so as a filmmaker who understands the power of the image (her director of photography Seamus McGarvey deserves much credit here, as his lighting creates the harrowing aspect Murray is after.) This is a film that is powerful, haunting and original. It is one of the best films of 2011.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What I Loved at the Movies in 2011

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball

Next week, I'll publish a post on my top 10 films of 2011, but first I need to review a few final films from last year. For today, however, I'm writing about some of my favorite things from movies from 2011; this will include some of the best sequences as well as acting performances along with screenplays, original scores and a few other categories:

Best Sequences

The elevator sequence in Drive.

The seven and one-half minute flashback in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, beautifully directed, photographed and scored.

In Moneyball, the game where the 2002 Oakland A's go for the American league record of 20 consecutive wins. I love the way director Bennett Miller uses actual film clips and recreations of certain situations in that game (these recreations are done remarkably well). I also love the way he alternates between crowd noise and silence on the soundtrack, as this game took its strange twists and turns. This sequence was one of several highlights from this notable film.

The Halloween night sequence in We Need to Talk about Kevin, with the use of Buddy Holly's song "Everyday." What a chilling moment!

The fire sequence in The Artist where Uggie the dog helps save the life of George Valentin.

The wildly inventive title sequence of The Adventures of Tintin. It's too bad the rest of the movie wasn't as inspired.

The first battle in War Horse, where the cavalry is seen emerging from a wheat field. Beautifully photographed by Janusz Kaminski and directed by Steven Spielberg.

The sequence in Hugo where we see how Georges Mélies made his movies - wonderful imagination by Martin Scorsese.

The scene at the café in Budapest, near the opening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; this set the tone for the rest of this first-rate work.

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Performances

The list of lead performances by actors in 2011 begins with Gary Oldman and his remarkably subtle turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Another wonderful performance was that of Brad Pitt in Moneyball; this is the most complete acting job to date. Also high marks for George Clooney in The Descendants, Michael Fassbender in Shame (as well as a fine turn in A Dangerous Method) and Jean Dujardin in The Artist. My final praise for a leading actor is for Antonio Banderas in The Skin I Live In. Banderas is cool and calculating in this role and beautifully underplays this intense character.

As for supporting roles, I loved Jonah Hill in Moneyball - what an engaging, charming performance! Ditto for Ben Kingsley in Hugo as well as Viggo Mortensen for A Dangerous Method. I was also impressed by Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey in Margin Call, Niels Arestrup in War Horse, Albert Brooks in Drive and Tom Hardy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Finally, kudos to Robert Forster for his brilliant small turn in The Descendants as well as Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn.

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk about Kevin

The finest performance I saw turned in by an actress this year was given by Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk about Kevin. Intense and proudly fierce, she adds tremendous depth to the chilling film - you can't take your eyes off of her! Kirsten Dunst was first-rate in Melancholia; I'm hopeful this leads to more serious roles like this for this actress who is finally starting to receive much overdue praise. 

I also liked Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method as well as Michelle Williams who was very enchanting in My Week with Marilyn.

As for supporting performances, I loved the work turned in by Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life, Emily Watson in War Horse as well as Shailene Woodley in The Descendants and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist.

2011 was a wonderful year for cinema - just look at this list of directors who gave us some of the year's finest films. Let's start with Martin Scorsese for Hugo - who knew that the maker of Raging Bull and Goodfellas had this absolutely charming film in him? I also loved the light touch of Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris, a breezy comedy with several ideal performances. Pedro Almodovar gave us a chilling world of an obsessed doctor in The Skin I Live In that featured arguably the finest visual compositions of any film from 2011.

Lars Von Trier brought us a highly personal vision of the apocalypse with Melancholia, while Terrence Malick gave us creation and its aftermath with The Tree of Life. It was also nice to see David Cronenberg turn in a beautifully executed film such as A Dangerous Method, without resorting to violence, one of his trademarks in the past.

Lesser known directors that were at the top of their game in 2011 included Lynne Ramsey for We Need to Talk about Kevin - what dazzling images! - Bennett Miller for Moneyball, Tomas Alfredson for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist and J.C. Chandor for Margin Call.

Kudos also to Aki Kaurismaki for his delightful and ironic Le Havre, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for their sometimes troubling, sometimes enchanting The Kid With a Bike and finally, high praise to Werner Herzog for his brilliant documentary Into The Abyss.

Brilliant job by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin adapting the script for Moneyball, taking a book based on statistics and finding the human story. Also a marvelous job by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughn, putting together a beautifully cohesive and well-structured script for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the famous John Le Carré novel. Likewise an excellent job of structure for the adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steven Zaillian. 

Woody Allen gave us one of his most charming original scripts ever for Midnight in Paris while J.C. Chandor wrote a detailed screenplay that took us inside the inner doings of an investment firm in Margin Call. Michel Hazanavicius contributed a funny and touching original screenplay for The Artist

Other excellent adaptations include that of Lee Hall and Richard Curtis for War Horse, Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon for The Descendants and Christopher Hampton for A Dangerous Method.

The outstanding quality of work turned in by cinematographers not only in Hollywood, but also around the world, is amazing. Technology has changed dramatically in this field over the past decade, as many films are now shot digitally - think about it, just 15 years ago, who could imagine a movie not being shot on traditional film stock? Whatever the method selected, the visuals of films today are stunning.

Every year, we see as many as a half-dozen brilliant jobs turned in by cinematographers, but in 2011, the number was much higher. For me the finest cinematography was by Emmanuel Lubeszki for The Tree of Life. Lubeszki, who has been one of the two or three most brilliant cinematographers of the past ten years, always delivers outstanding work, but he topped his previous efforts with this film. Working with a genius of a visual storyteller such as Terrence Malick helped as the compositions are brillliantly composed and lit; an especially memorable image is a wide-angle shot of a field of sunflowers. This shot, just before the end of the film, is simply breathtaking.

Another superb job of cinematography was supplied this year by Janusz Kaminski for War Horse. Kaminski, who has been Steven Spielberg's regular cinematographer since Schindler's List in 1993, paints a lovely portrait of the English countryside during the First World War; the images are deeply saturated, as though he were recreating Technicolor from the films of 50 and 60 years ago. The final images of a burnt orange sky and a golden sunset are straight out of Gone With the Wind.

Jeff Cronenweth set a cool tone for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, capturing the gloomy blues and grays of a Swedish winter. Given the depravities of the film's characters, Cronenweth's work instantly gives the viewer the perfect visual feel, helping us understand the behavior of everyone in the film. 

Robert Richardson simply dazzled the eye with his work for Hugo. The opening scene in the train station is marvelous and I love the saturated golds of the clocks at the station as well as the deep blues of the costumes. 

Manuel Alberto Claro had to present a visual tone for a marriage ceremony in a darkly lit country club as well as that of a mysterious planet in Melancholia and he was up to the challenge. I loved the lighting of the wedding scenes outside at night as well as the bluish tones of the planet. 

Of course, only one individual can win the Academy Award for cinematography, but I think all five of these craftsmen deserve an award this year!

Other very impressive work was turned in by Jose Luis Alcaine for The Skin I Live In; Wally Pfister for Moneyball; Hoyte van Hoytema for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Seamus McGarvey for We Need to Talk about Kevin (the bright colors of the house are especially ironic, a nice touch); Peter Suschitzky for A Dangerous Method; Newton Thomas Sigel for Drive and Sean Bobbitt for his cool look of corporate Manhattan in Shame.

Original Score
I will write a separate post on this very soon- 2011 marked a return to the symphonic score. While I have nothing against electronic scores, it is the composer who writes for a full symphony that generally writes the loveliest themes.

Briefly then, two scores stood head and shoulders above the competition this past year. The first was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, composed by Alexandre Desplat. While Desplat did incorporate some of John Williams' previous themes for the Harry Potter franchise into his work, he did compose two lovely original themes and gave this film a regal and accomplished musical setting. This is an outstanding score!

The second score that reached the top in 2011 was that of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Alberto Iglesias. This is a subdued score that perfectly suits the moodiness of this Cold War spy drama. The music picks up on the emotions of the characters in a most subtle fashion; the score never announces itself. This is a marvelously complex work from Iglesias.

Other excellent scores were written by John Williams for War Horse (bless him, at 79 years of age he is still able to turn out such a lyrical piece of work), Howard Shore with a charming, lilting score for Hugo;  Mychael Danna for Moneyball and Ludovic Bource who beautifully captured the feel of the silent film scores of the 1920s with his work for The Artist.

Other scores that had some effective moments were composed by Clint Eastwood for J. Edgar, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Johnny Greenwood for We Need to Talk about Kevin.

And finally... a few of my favorite movie quotes from 2011

"You have your mother's eyes." - Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

"Speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever. It wasn't brains that got me here, I can assure you of that." - John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) - Margin Call

"Sometimes you have to do something terrible just to go on living." - Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) to Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) - A Dangerous Method

"Nothing is genuine anymore." - Control (John Hurt) to George Smiley (Gary Oldman) - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" - Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) to Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) - Moneyball

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

I have begun reviewing films for Kenneth Morefield at his excellent blog, 1MoreFilmBlog. I will review older films as well as new releases. To date, I have written about I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953) as well as In The Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001). Here is my first review of a current release, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

David Fincher is back in fine form with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a highly charged suspense film about an investigation of a decades-old murder in an upper crust family in Sweden that is solved by some rather unusual methods. Despite some less than stellar material to work with, Fincher provides enough style and energy to make this a very satisfying work that keeps you involved in guessing what the film's assorted characters will do next.

Continue reading at 1More Film Blog...

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Spy Thriller Extraordinaire

I admit that I was a bit apprehensive about what my reaction would be to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. After all, I've seen too many spy thrillers that shift focus from one exotic location to the next while introducing a bewildering group of characters; all of this can make for a confusing and frustrating film experience. Happily, this film shows us what can be done with this genre when everyone - from the screenwriters to the actors, the director and all the technicians - have their batteries charged and work in unison to craft a superb thriller.

TTSS is based upon the classic novel of the same name from John Le Carré. Set in the midst of the Cold War in 1974, the story revolves around the fact that a Russian mole has infiltrated the British intelligence agency MI-6. A British Undersecretary recruits spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to investigate this issue; Smiley in turn persuades his assistant Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to do whatever it takes to find the individual who is passing secrets along to the Russians.

The screenplay, adapted by Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor (she died late in 2010), is a model in how to economize a complex story that has several plot lines. The film opens in Hungary with a botched assignment and then takes us straight into the "Circus", the nickname for the MI-6 group. We meet this small gathering of spies and see how their inner circle works; their meeting room with its soundproof walls a testament to their secrecy.

We also follow Smiley and Guillam, working from outside the Circus and meet a young British spy named Ricki Tarr who reveals some key secrets from his recent encounters with a Russian spy and his lover. Each character from Smiley and Tarr to Control (John Hurt), Smiley's former boss as well as Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), two members of the MI-6 inner circle are written with a beautiful clarity and preciseness.

Director Tomas Alfredson takes this labyrinth plot and weaves it into an absorbing thriller. By necessity, there are numerous scenes of spies sitting around talking about what their next move will be; these are not the most exciting cinematic situations imaginable, but Alfredson does an excellent job bringing out all the drama in these moments. His pacing is superb and I can only imagine that he was at least partially influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, especially in the way that he draws out suspense. Watch the scene in the opening moments that takes place in the café in Hungary and note how the director slows things down as he cuts back and forth between all the individuals - key characters as well as bystanders - that are present at this locale.

Alfredson's attention to detail - something necessary in a complicated story such as this - is impressive. A drop of sweat that lands on a table, the Undersecretary buttering his toast, a half-empty pack of cigarettes are all momentary images that help define the complexities of this story. This is a movie that demands your attention during its entire length, so every small piece of information that is presented could be a major clue in the ultimate revelation. How nice to see a film that respects its audience for its intelligence and then rewards them on so many levels.

Along with his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Alfredson gives us a world of dark images; moody grays, browns and blues are the primary colors here and it's the sensation of gloom that hangs over the lives of the characters in this film. We do see a few scenes of the spies at Christmas parties and such where they let their hair down for a while, but these are fleeting moments of frivolity in their existence. The everyday happenings of these characters is generally mundane, with only a few encounters among outsiders providing a bit of relief. The production design, from the meeting rooms to the research rooms to Smiley's drab dwellings enhances the solemnity and loneliness these men face and place us squarely in a time and locale that capture a sense of gloom among both these individuals and their respective governments.

Another important contribution is the film's original score, composed by Alberto Iglesias. His cue for the sequence near the beginning of the film, where we first meet the members of the Circus and see the environment in which they labor, is marvelous. Haunting and sad, this theme, written in a minor key, features a mournful passage for oboe and muted trumpet. It's subtle, complex and quite memorable - you may not realize it at the time, but it grabs you and stays within your soul. The music as a whole gives you a beautiful sense of the loneliness of the spies and Iglesias writes with the necessary subtleties needed; this is a score that never announces itself, yet it fits the film like a well-tailored suit. This is among the top two or three scores of the year and it has all the beauty and resonance of a Jerry Goldsmith score from his glory days of the 1970s. This is about as high a praise as I can give to an original musical film score!

The entire ensemble delivers an amazing array of performances, especially from Jones, Hurt and Firth, as well as Mark Strong as world-weary spy Jim Prideaux. But there are two actors whose work in this film must be singled out. As Smiley, Gary Oldman delivers a performance of uncommon discipline and subtlety. His character is a decent man, but one who is deeply flawed; adding to his mistrust of his fellow man is the fact that his wife cheated on him with a former colleague. Smiley is reluctant to let anyone into his world, the one exception being Guillam; in a remarkable scene in Smiley's living quarters, he bares his soul in a somber monologue about a flight he took years ago and what he learned during that situation. Oldman delivers much of this speech directly to the camera and it's a moment of quiet grace for his character.

Viewing the world through his oversized horn-rimmed glasses, Smiley seeks the truth, but makes for the realization that the majority of the individuals he meets are dishonest. He says what he has to say quietly, raising his voice only once in the film, always keeping his guard up. Oldman has been known for his quirky roles in the past (Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK to name only two); here he gives us a solemn, proud man who quietly and gracefully lights up the screen. It's an outstanding performance, the finest I have seen all year.

The other remarkable performance here is given by Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr. The brief episode of his character, who elicits dangerous secrets from a beautiful Russian woman, is one of the most engaging in the film and Hardy relishes this time on screen. We see the self-doubt in his face and hear the fear in his voice, as he knows that everyone is out to learn about his secrets. There's a seductive charm to Hardy's performance and the film's tone changes ever so slightly during his time on screen; Hardy has great charisma and his moments with Oldman are riveting.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a superb return to the spy film genre. Both a marvelously crafted thriller as well as a commentary on the mistrust and selfishness of individuals who indirectly affect the policies of their governments, the film is an absorbing, highly intelligent drama that is among the best of 2011.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Silent Triumph

The Artist is a sweet, utterly charming movie that understands the audience's love of what movies represent. This silent film (except for two wonderful moments I will not reveal) is both a beautifully told story about an actor who sees his fortunes change during the transition from silent films to talkies as well as a look at the joy of making movies, both in terms of today's cinema as well as in years past.

Directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist tells the story of silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who as the story begins, is standing behind the curtain of his latest film at its 1927 premiere. While others, such as studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wait anxiously for the audience's reaction, Valentin is confident that the moviegoers will love his new work and sure enough, just as the film ends, there is thunderous applause. 

As The Artist is a silent film itself, Hazanavicius cleverly shows us the audience clapping their approval, but we cannot hear the sound of their appeciation. Valentin steps in front of the curtain along with his trusted canine friend, a charismatic Jack Russell terrier who always seems to be at the side of the actor, both on and off-screen. Valentin proceeds to ham it up in front of the audience, taking bows far beyond the normal time any other actor would be allowed, much to the chagrin of his leading lady, though Zimmer, who is used to this behavior, doesn't seem to mind; after all, this is his meal ticket.

As he meets his fans outside the theater, one admiring female named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) stumbles from the crowd and bumps into Valentin. She is embarrassed at first and Valentin is puzzled, but after this awkward beginning, they laugh and pose for the cameras, with Miller even stealing a kiss from him. A photo of this brief encounter runs in publications across the country with the headline, "Who's That Girl?"

I won't give away too many more plot details, but it is important to know that from that moment on, the two of them will be linked forever more. They will make a film together and eventually she will become a starlet in Hollywood, while his fame decreases. Valentin will become morose and feel sorry for himself, but Miller will always be there for him and if he will only let her help him, as she says in the film, he can meet with renewed success. 

If The Artist consisted merely of this story of how these two characters alternately discover the joy as well as the despair of sudden fame, it would be more than enough to make this film a success. The two characters are wonderful icons, Valentin, the dashing star and Miller, the irresistible young discovery. Aiding greatly in our appreciation of these two characters are the performances of these actors, especially that of Dujardin. The actor has the necessary good looks for the role of a film star, but it's his physical mannerisms that really convince us of his talent. He's light on his feet, elegantly maneuvering his way through good and bad times. Bejo is just lovely here, as she clearly has a face the camera loves (as does Hazanavicius, her real-life husband) and her facial expressions are perfect, whether she is expressing joy during an audition or surprise when being discovered during a simple dance step she performs at the studio.

But The Artist give us so much more than a heartwarming story, as it's also an unabashed tribute to silent films and even a few sound films of the past. The story of his downfall and her success has that A Star is Born theme, while the scene of Valentin watching his old films in his drab apartment by himself is straight out of Sunset Boulevard. Hazanavicius understands that the audience knows and loves those films and plays upon our admiration. He also includes a scene at the dining table of Valentin and his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), where she reads a paper as he tries to express his true feelings toward her. This is a direct tribute to a similar scene in Citizen Kane, one of the cinema's most iconic works. 

While I loved these tributes, I do have one quarrel with this approach and it's when the director includes the famous love theme from Vertigo, composed by Bernard Herrmann. While this music does transmit the emotions on the screen at this point in the film, it's debatable as to why it's included here. It's an iconic piece of music and to anyone who's ever seen Vertigo, this cue will be forever linked with that work, so when we hear this music in this situation, it takes us away from the film we're watching and instantly transports us to that famous Hitchcock work. As The Artist features a delightful original score by Ludovic Bource - a score that has the charm and bounce you'd expect from a silent film - it's really a mystery as to why the director didn't just have Bource write music for this particular sequence as well.

That aside, Hazanvicius made so many great decisions with this work and let's give him credit for making The Artist. How much of a risk was this, making a black and white silent film in 2011? Who would think such a movie could ever be successful? Hazanavicius, who also wrote the story and screenplay, has given us a movie that succeeds not because it is a piece of fluff (as some reviewers have termed the film), but because it is an enchanting, clever and highly entertaining work that reminds all of us of the pleasures of filmgoing in our youth - and of the sheer joy that can still be gained when moviemakers use their God-given talents to craft a film that delights us with its simple and heartfelt moments that celebrate life - both on and off-screen.