Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Movie Music of 2011

Overall 2011 was not a particularly amazing year in motion pictures, but there were the few that struck just the right chords, figuratively and literally. Presented here are what I believe to be the stand-out pieces of music in this year's slew of films (in no particular order).  I use the broad term "music" because I'm encompassing everything, including music scores, original and previously written songs, and anything in between. I'm doing this because sometimes, even when the music was not originally written for the film itself, the bond between sound and screen is so powerfully cinematic that the piece has been given a whole new life.  Enough with my babbling, let's start this thing...

Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Song:  "Nightcall" - Kavinsky feat. Lovefoxxx

This song immediately brings you into the world of Drive.  Playing over the opening credits, this chilled-out electro-80's sounding track let's you know that Drive is not a rockem sockem action flick, in fact it borrows more from the French New Wave Movement of the 50's and 60's than Speed.  This song is strangely catchy, offbeat, moody, and although I'm no music connoisseur, is unlike anything I've ever heard - much like the film it accompanies.

Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski)
Score:  Hans Zimmer
Song: "The End of the Road" (Originally from The Kingdom) - Danny Elfman

Rango was definitely my favorite animated movie of this year thanks to Pixar tripping over Cars 2.  The soundtrack is pretty eclectic, with Hans Zimmer's booming score underlying the whole piece, the Mexican trio Los Lobos singing in for Rango's theme song, and other random pieces of music are featured as well, including a banjo-laden version of "Ride of the Valkyries" (who knew banjos could make things so much more epic?).  My personal favorite music moment is actually a piece originally written for the forgotten 2007 film, The Kingdom, but the piece's use in this movie gave me goosebumps.  Great movie, great soundtrack.

Hanna (Dir. Joe Wright)
Score: The Chemical Brothers

Much like how last year's Tron: Legacy and The Social Network attained score-writing newbies yet highly notable musical talents to compose the soundtrack, Hanna follows suit, giving the acclaimed British electronic music duo The Chemical Brothers a shot at establishing the mood for this interesting, offbeat action flick.  They hit the nail on the head with this - it's fast, it's electric, it's weird: exactly what was needed.  My favorite track is called "Container Park," and during the film it takes place during the final action scene in the movie.

The Muppets (Dir. James Bobin)
Music Supervisor: Bret McKenzie

The Muppets was pretty much a love letter to Henson's talking puppets from a generation of now-famous talents who grew up on them.  Bret McKenzie, best known for his role on HBO's Flight of the Conchords, was in charge of the overall music and wrote most of the original songs, including my two personal favorites, "Life's a Happy Song" and "Pictures in My Head."  The first is truly one of the catchiest and happiest Muppets tunes ever created, and the second almost had me in tears over a talking puppet frog singing to portraits.  Also included as a bonus is a barbershop quartet version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" simply because I shat a brick when that happened in the movie.  The Muppets are too awesome for words.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin)
Song:  "Marcy's Song" - John Hawkes

Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't have much music and its "score" is limited to mostly the diagetic sounds of nature and the farmhouse.  However, in one of the best and most powerful scenes in the film, John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), a cult leader who has lured many lost young girls into his farmhouse, sings a special song for his newest recruit, Martha.  The song encompasses everything that works in the film and is as dark, mysterious, and haunting as its best scenes.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher)
Score:  Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Song:  "Immigrant Song" - Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross feat. Karen O.

Holy mother of fuck, this is the best score of 2011 hands down.  Reznor and Ross have once again teamed up with The Social Network director David Fincher and have outdone themselves.  As of this writing I have yet to see the final film, but this makes me extremely excited to see the final product.  Before the trailers for the movie came out, I really was not very into the idea of this adaptation.  I mean, not only have I read the book, but I've already seen the story put to screen in the Swedish-language version, which only came out in the US a year or so ago.  But that trailer, booming with a techno-garage rock version of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and quickly cutting from one dark, perfectly beautiful frame of film to the next I was won over.  Can't wait for this now - it's going to be badass.

There you have it - I hope you enjoyed listening and feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, and/or criticisms!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

QUAD-Review: Because I'm Lazy

I'm gonna half-ass some of these - and by some I mean all.  Sorry to all two of my readers!

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Brad Bird, the celebrated director of Pixar's The Incredibles and Ratatouille is making his live-action feature debut with the forth entry in the Tom Cruise spy movie series.  The film also marks a comeback for Cruise after some terrible numbers at the box office.  The story follows what's left of the IMF after they are framed for a terrorist plot; with a rag-tag team of four unique members, Tom Cruise has to drive, jump, and run intensely to clear their name and to abort a possible plan to destroy the world using nuclear missiles.

The story is pretty cookie-cutter but what makes this a great flick is some amazing action and great casting of the main "ghost protocol" team.  Co-starring with  Cruise is Jeremy Renner (Academy Award nominee for The Hurt Locker and soon-to-be Hawkeye in The Avengers), Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead star/Hollywood's go-to British nerd), and Paula Patton (who you may remember as the teacher from Precious).  All have different personalities and all make the movie more entertaining.  But really, the action is where it's at and this film is a must-see for adrenaline junkies.  I don't want to give anything away (although the trailer shows pretty much every action set piece), but I'll just say that one scene literally gave me vertigo.

The film is not perfect at all; the "villains" in the film are generic and lifeless, and certain side characters that could have been interesting are underused, but when it comes to the gadgets, the guns, and the gratuitous amounts of action, it's hard to not enjoy MI:4.  What else could you want out of this movie?

Rating: B+

My Week with Marilyn:

It's entertaining to see Kenneth Branaugh scream as Lawrence Olivier and Michelle Williams is spot-on as Marilyn Monroe in this true story about a young man, aspiring to be in show business, who has a week-long affair with the legendary sex icon.  The portrait of Monroe is layered and interesting, and the time period is captured pretty well.  Some of the characters (like the role Emma Watson plays, aka Harry Potter's platonic friend) aren't given enough to do, but the central love story is well handled.  Entertaining for any Marilyn fans, or just anyone who likes a good drama.

Rating: B+

The Descendants:

George Clooney cries a lot in this story about a Hawaiian man whose wife gets in a boat accident, rendering her in a catatonic state.  The acting is really good, especially from Shailene Woodley, who I didn't recognize from anything, playing Clooney's daughter.  You can also tell this movie succeeds on some level because Matthew Lillard is playing an actual character and not just "that dude from Scream."  Plus there is a nice and disgusting body we get to look at for the nearly-dead wife (complete with white lip-crud). Despite what it had going for it, for my taste the film was a little too much of a downer.  It's still good, but expect the joy of believing Hawaii as a bright, sunny tourist destination to be sucked dry and ruined forever for you.

Rating: B

Young Adult:

Charlize Theron stars in the latest film directed and written by Juno alumni Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody.  The film to me was "The Wrestler" for not-yet-matured thirty-somethings.  It was very true-to-life, had some great writing, and packed some very powerful moments.  Patton Oswalt also brings in a surprisingly dramatic performance and I have nothing to complain about regarding this film (besides its overly comical marketing and just a few strange behavioral moments from Patrick Wilson).  No real loose ends, just a raw look at the facades people create.

Rating: A-

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Double Review: The Muppets and Hugo

I didn't "double feature" these or anything, but I'll probably release my reviews two or three at a time from now on.  Just a little note!

The Muppets:

I grew up with the Muppets.  I truly consider Muppet Treasure Island and A Muppet Christmas Carol to surpass their source material [in entertainment value].  Hearing that the Muppets were coming back to theaters both excited and scared me.  This could be the perfect chance to re-establish a franchise, or it could be an opportunity to ruin childhoods.  All the recent Muppet-related Youtube videos that were popping up and the movie tie-in “The Green Album,” a collection of Muppet covers by modern artists, gave me a feeling of security, but still, considering all the hype and hopes put into this movie – a screw up could be very easy.  Although the resulting product at the end of the day isn’t perfect (in fact I have some major problems with certain aspects of the film), it handles its source material lovingly and by the final credit scroll it’s impossible not to feel your spirits lifted up.

The story follows a newly introduced Muppet, Walter, whose friends Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) are planning a trip to Los Angeles for their anniversary.  Walter happens to be the biggest-ever fan of The Muppet Show, and the Muppet Studios is located in Los Angeles.  Gary decides to let Walter come along, but they find out that the Studio is long abandoned and an evil oil tycoon (Chris Cooper) wants to demolish it.  It’s up to Walter to find all the Muppets so they can stop the evil son of a bitch.  They have to raise $10 million dollars to save the theater, so the incredible talking puppets must reunite, play the music, light the lights, raise the curtains and play the Muppet show for one last night!

There’s a lot going on here, and the beginning of the movie hits all the right marks and feels absolutely perfect.  Many of the songs in the film are top notch, especially “Life’s a Happy Song” which is bound to be a new classic.  The film is filled with wit and endless pop culture references that would clearly fly over kids’ heads.  There is also one celebrity cameo after another, most of which are seemingly random but always hilarious.  Alan Arkin as the Muppet Studios tour guide is a highlight for me and without inducing spoilers, Zach Galifianakis, Jack Black, and Dave Grohl have some great moments as well.  Sometimes it just seemed like famous faces just popped up with no rhyme or reason as if they just grabbed someone walking by and said, “Hey, want to be in The Muppets?”  “Sure, why the fuck not?” 

So the songs, the humor, and the pop culture “adult” portions are fine and dandy – then what’s wrong?  Well not much, but there is one song in the film that made me feel very uncomfortable, called “Me Party.”  The song features a lonely Amy Adams dancing and singing in a dimly lit restaurant, suffering neglect from her partner who is more interested in Walter’s antics with the Muppets than spending the day with her.  The song is handled really awkwardly and she is juxtaposed with Miss Piggy's cartoonishly desperate love connection with Kermit; when the love is between a talking frog and a pig wearing fine french jewelry it's cute, but when it's a human displaying those emotions it's just weird.  Another thing that bothered me was the product placement.  There was so much blatant product placement, I would have thought that the characters would have eventually mentioned it in their fourth-wall-breaking witticisms.  A huge billboard for Cars 2 is prominently displayed three times throughout the film to the point of distraction.  Also, criminally there’s not enough Gonzo.  He has a pretty good introduction scene but that’s about it.  And Rizzo the Rat?  Not even one line of dialogue.  For shame.  Pretty much everyone else in the Muppets cast [that I care about] is given their moment to shine, but come on, give the rat one damn line (maybe there is a Rizzo scene somewhere on the cutting room floor, but I'm sad to see him subject to background character status).

So yes, sometimes moments got a little awkward, and others were overly cheesy, but by the end of the movie, I just felt happy – remembering old Muppets memories and going back to a more innocent care-free time (and a time when there was no 3D or CGI bullshit everywhere).  The movie is genuinely funny and witty, and has a lot of that good ol’ fashioned fuzzy-wuzzy heart.  Considering the balancing act the writers had to deal with, including having material both kids and adults would like, making catchy, plot-moving songs, trying to include all the Muppets, introducing and making us care about the new Muppets and human characters, placing the right amount of cameos and jokes, and putting in enough nostalgic elements for the older members of the audience who grew up with the Jim Henson creatures (not to mention the technical challenge it is to animate the characters, with sometimes 20 or so puppets in the same shot) – I’d say I can look past the film’s problems.  They did a damn good job.

Rating: A-


Martin Scorsese + 3D = me in a theater.  My main thought going in was just how will this true artist of the medium make a film using this extra dimension?  Plus this is his first foray into “family film” territory.  It’s odd to consider the man responsible for Goodfellas and Taxi Driver would want anything to do with either 3D or family fare, but here we are.  The result is eye-popping to say the least.  Hugo is visually a breakthrough and cinematographically is very impressive.  On the other hand I had some major story and character problems – but the look and feel?  Spot-the-fuck-on.

The movie begins in the 1930's with Hugo Cabret, a boy from Paris who tends to all the clocks in a train station, spying on the various comers and goers behind giant ticking hands.  He’s known as a thief; often robbing from the local merchant in order to finish repairing an automaton (a robotic machine that, when operational, writes a message) his father was working on before he died.  The first half, maybe the first two thirds of the film, involve Hugo trying to figure out what the message is that is located in the Automaton, and as an audience member, I assumed it had to do with his father or something that held a lot of personal weight to him.  I don’t want to give anything away, but what the machine creates is essentially a snowball effect towards Scorsese showing off his knowledge and love for movies.

Now I enjoy learning about film history in a classroom setting or on my own accord – but when Scorsese gives you a history lesson in film, he wraps it up in the disguise of a children’s fantasy film.  Sounds cool, but this was my main problem with Hugo.  A lot of critics and audiences are lauding this film for how it expresses Scorsese’s love for cinema.  I have no problem with the fact that the man is expressing his love for something, but when you make a movie leading me on for 40 minutes, telling me I’m going on a children’s fantasy adventure only to 360 yourself midway through, I personally get annoyed.  Had I known at the onset that this was a film about movies, I would not have been as off put.  It’s hard to write about the film and not spoil it, but I had the same problem with this as I did Super 8 this summer: simply expressing your love for a certain kind of movie (in Super 8’s case it was old Spielberg and monster movies) gives me a sort of weird vibe.  It goes beyond allusion or homage – it’s simply showing you what was great about those films.  Save that stuff for a documentary or a lecture; there’s just something so “I have this knowledge of cinema” about it, I don’t know.

It's not like I totally detest Hugo. The beginning of the film, where we're introduced to the train station and this labyrinth of clockwork that Hugo maneuvers around is one of the best uses of 3D I've ever seen.  In particuar there's this one swooping shot that runs through the entire length of the station, past all the passengers and conductors, and up towards a big clock where we get closer and closer until we see Hugo looking out through one of the numbers.  This, to me, is as impressive as the "Copacabana" steadicam shot in Goodfellas - it just totally brings you into this world.  I also really liked the overall look of the film.  Although I wish its scope was a bit bigger and that it would stray outside of the station a bit more, the brown and golden hued locations, the old-fashioned clothing, and the steampunk-ian automaton were visually arresting and "cool."

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are the two main child actors, and their “love story” was pretty weak.  Moretz showed a lot of promise in last year’s Kick-Ass as the killing machine/daddy’s girl “Hit Girl,” but here she is outright annoying.  Her voice is chirpy and irritating – maybe it’s just me, but I think her character could have not been in the film at all and it wouldn’t have made a difference.  Co-starring are some familiar faces, including Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays a bumbling station guard who poses as a villain in the film, but is not even close to threatening enough.  Also featured is Ben Kingsley, who gives a solid performance as always, as a local owner of a magic/knickknack shop.
Overall, Hugo was impressive on a technical scale, but failed to keep me interested to the end.  Once the element of Scorsese sucking cinema’s dick crept into the movie, I felt as though my time had been wasted.  I already have this knowledge of old movies, so maybe to an uneducated viewer they might be more "awed."  There’s all this “everyone has a purpose” talk at the end, signifying that there’s some sort of message to the film, but by the end all I got was, “I love movies and you should too!”  Well I do love movies, but I don’t make them just to say that.

Rating: B-
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