Thursday, June 25, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Spy (2015)

A much easier movie title to place on a marquee than The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love
Every Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm intentionally pulling out the ticket that says "Spy," due to the Melissa McCarthy comedy's box-office success and the excitement over the beginning of the filming of McCarthy's Ghostbusters reboot. This will be the final post here on the AFOS blog before I take a two-or-three-week-long break from the blog in July. The blog--and that goes for the blog's year-long TBT series as well--will resume with new posts in the middle of July.

The least creative thing about writer/director Paul Feig's enjoyably foul-mouthed action comedy Spy is its title. Spy is also the title of a fairly recent Britcom about an MI5 agent and his 10-and-a-half-year-old son. The Feig movie's original title was Susan Cooper. By the end of the movie, Melissa McCarthy and Feig have created such a distinctive and likable new heroine--and managed to give her a satisfying dramatic arc in addition to her comedic antics--that you won't forget the name Susan Cooper, and her name deserves to be part of the branding of the super-spy franchise that will likely arise from Spy, much like how Austin Powers' name is part of the title of every movie of his and Jason Bourne's name is in the title of every Bourne movie, including ones he doesn't even bother to appear in.

But then again, Feig's the kind of director who seems to prefer movie titles that don't take up too much space on a marquee. I Am David, Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters are all titles that are easy work for marquee changers, especially ones who'd get an anxiety attack after finding out they have to put the letters up for Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.

Birth.Movies.Death., the new name of Badass Digest, makes me think of some Godfathers song for some reason.
Mondo poster illustrated by The Dude Designs (Photo source: Birth.Movies.Death.)

So had Sky 1 not come out with a show called Spy, I'd be more enamored with the movie's title because it nicely conveys in just three letters that Susan was born to be one. But because Spy is a comedy, the transition from mission control support to CIA field agent for Susan, who's a winning mix of Midwestern politeness and the fearlessness of McCarthy's Boston cop character Shannon Mullins from The Heat, isn't exactly a smooth one. That transition is initially loaded with the usual slapstick McCarthy frequently excels at, as well as the honest and comically appalled reactions many Feig characters have to any kind of mayhem (think the bridesmaids' varied reactions to food poisoning in Bridesmaids or Sandra Bullock amusingly panicking over a knife shoved into her thigh and wanting so badly to break her vow to never curse in The Heat). Spy arose out of Feig's wish to make a spy movie like one of his favorite movies, the 2006 version of Casino Royale, but because these are Feig characters, not Bond movie characters who respond to everything in the most badass and suave (as well as PG-13-friendly and extremely--and implausibly--sanitized) ways, they puke from the sight of accidentally impaling someone they've killed or launch into a barrage of F-bombs when they don't get their way.

But once McCarthy's Bridesmaids co-star Rose Byrne enters the picture and Susan becomes more confident about her field work and is able to infiltrate the Byrne character's enemy organization, thanks to a very particular set of skills (like intuition) that Susan's overconfident colleague/work rival Rick Ford (Jason Statham) is too bullheaded and inept to possess, Spy takes an interesting turn as a spy comedy. It becomes a comedy about an underestimated spy who's good at her job instead of incompetent (Get Smart) or competent but immature (Archer), which also makes it an intriguing companion piece to the Marvel Studios show Agent Carter, another story of a frequently underestimated female spy. But where's the conflict when the central character's a competent spy? Isn't that a comedy killer? When McCarthy has such great--and often improvised--dialogue and trades insults with the consistently funny likes of a perfectly cast (and perfectly big-haired) Byrne as a villainous arms dealer and Statham in what has to be the funniest and greatest role of his career as the hilariously useless Ford, nobody has to worry about the disappearance of humor.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The late James Horner was the master of suspenseful '90s hacking scene music during Sneakers and Clear and Present Danger

James Horner's arpeggios are swirling in the heavens tonight.
"There were so many Horners," said Matt Zoller Seitz to fellow journalist S.I. Rosenbaum during a conversation about the work of legendary film composer James Horner, who died at 61 in a single-engine plane crash earlier this week. "There was the shoot 'em up, macho, urban Horner of 48 HRS and Commando and Red Heat, the grand adventure Horner of the Trek films and Aliens and Titanic and Avatar, the caper Horner of Sneakers... He really did have range."

Anyone who's a film music fan has a favorite Horner. Film music heads who are into Horner deep cuts--and are of the opinion that Horner tended to repeat himself, especially in the middle part of his career--will likely say the Horner of Battle Beyond the Stars is their favorite, while more casual film music heads will likely pick the Horner who made teenage girls cry with his score to Titanic. For me, it's either the Horner who made nerds cry with his scores to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock or the Horner who gave the third best performance, right below Denzel Washington and Andre Braugher, in Glory and crafted, with the help of the Boys Choir of Harlem, a powerful and operatic score for that 1989 white-savior-movie-that's-somehow-better-than-the-average-white-savior-movie.

The eerily prescient Sneakers is one of many movies I just never got around to seeing until more than 20 years after its release. On New Year's Eve 2014, it was one of several titles Netflix streaming was getting rid of from its library after that night, so I couldn't pass up the chance to stream before its expiration this caper movie I--a fan of caper movies--bizarrely overlooked for too long. I instantly fell in love with the score Horner wrote for Sneakers. It's now one of my favorite Horner scores. Like Gimme the Loot composer Nicholas Britell said about the Sneakers score, it's music you wouldn't expect to hear in a hacker movie. "It features unlikely elements--choirs, folk themes, minimalist piano, the saxophone of Branford Marsalis--that lend the film an unusual emotional richness and depth," wrote Britell.

Dig the score cue Horner created for the scene where Robert Redford's crew discovers the codebreaker to end all codebreakers, and Redford and Sidney Poitier both realize it's too much power for anyone to have. I'm not a musicologist--I'd be unable to tell you the difference between an arpeggio and an ostinato--so I have no idea what Horner was doing with the piano during this scene. It sounds like he grabbed a cat that was wandering around the recording studio and let it walk all over the keys. It turned out to be an inventive and effective way to build tension for that scene.

So now I have a new favorite Horner: the Horner who, through his music, could take something as mundane-looking and boring on the screen as typing things into a PC and make it exciting. Horner's work in Sneakers reminds me of Clear and Present Danger, where Horner also worked his magic on a similar moment of computer-related tension. The nerve-wracking Bogota ambush sequence is what everyone remembers about Clear and Present Danger, but an equally memorable sequence--and one that's handled with a bit more humor, especially when Harrison Ford discovers there's no paper in his printer--is Ford's attempt to salvage all evidence of the government conspiracy Henry Czerny helped orchestrate right when Czerny deletes it from what we now call "the cloud." It's the second best action sequence in the movie, even though nobody fires a gun or a missile and nobody dies. Horner had a lot to do with that.

There's an old featurette TCM used to frequently air between movies about how crucial Elmer Bernstein's score was in enhancing The Magnificent Seven. The featurette took a clip where Bernstein's rousing main theme accompanied shots of Yul Brynner and his crew riding on horseback rather lethargically and posited that without Bernstein's theme, the scene was dead. Without Horner's "Deleting the Evidence" cue, which is part of the playlist for the AFOS espionage genre music block "AFOS Incognito," the computer showdown sequence would have been dead too.

Throughout Clear and Present Danger, Horner made use of a shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, to heighten tension. It's kind of an unconventional choice, just like the clumsy kitty cat stepping on the piano keys during Sneakers, because it makes you think, "Did one of those Peruvian pan flute bands that invaded South Park also invade the orchestra?," but it works for the hacking sequence. Horner would get pilloried a lot by film music critics for recycling his own previous motifs when he was alive, but that's not the case here: his score to Clear and Present Danger, a blockbuster that came out two years after Sneakers, sounds much different from his score to Redford's movie, and it echoes the differences in tone between the serious-minded Clear and Present Danger and the much more light-hearted Sneakers.

Today, hacking scenes are such a cliché that I can't watch another hacking scene without thinking of Scandal star Guillermo Diaz making fun of the ways actors pretend to type on laptops by basically channeling the piano-playing sight gags in Tom and Jerry's "The Cat Concerto" and Bugs Bunny's "Rhapsody Rabbit" while he was typing--and doing so with such a straight face--during Jimmy Kimmel Live's transformation of Scandal into a telenovela. But back when these scenes hadn't yet crossed the line into unintentional silliness and very '90s Fisher Stevens entrances, Horner was the master of scoring these scenes, and his skills with those scenes were honed while working on the franchise that made his career: Star Trek. Again, it all goes back to Star Trek. Hell, everything goes back to Star Trek. What David Strathairn and Harrison Ford are doing at their terminals is basically what Kirk and Spock did to trick Khan into lowering his starship's shields in Star Trek II and what Kirk and Scotty similarly pulled off to steal back the Enterprise from Starfleet in Star Trek III. Horner's brilliance with musical texture and enlivening action that has the potential to look as dull as office work was also key to why those moments of starship bridge console trickery are such highlights of those Trek films.

I haven't been interested in a Horner score in ages, but now that his score to the upcoming Chilean miner survival drama The 33 has ended up being one of the last things he composed before his death, I'm curious about his work in The 33 (and in this summer's Antoine Fuqua-directed boxing drama Southpaw). I wouldn't be surprised if Horner was able to take another potentially static-looking scenario like a bunch of miners trapped for more than two weeks under a collapsed mine and help make that compelling as well. Which Horner are we getting for his last couple of scores?

Selections from Horner's scores to Star Trek II and The Rocketeer can be heard during both "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS, while selections from his score to Clear and Present Danger (and hopefully someday, selections from his score to Sneakers) can be heard during "AFOS Incognito."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Anatomy of a melody: Hrishikesh Hirway's Song Exploder podcast entertainingly breaks down the components of a TV score cue or pop song

I'm so glad Song Exploder will never do an episode about the theme from Enterprise.
Hrishikesh Hirway

The one-and-a-half-year-old podcast Song Exploder has a tantalizing premise for a show about the craft of music. Each episode, produced and edited by musician Hrishikesh (pronounced "rih-shee-kaysh") Hirway, who records under the name The One AM Radio, takes a new or recent piece of music from any genre, whether instrumental or with vocals, and explains each of the components that form the composition. As a sometime hip-hop blogger, the Song Exploder installments about tracks by Open Mike Eagle, Ghostface Killah and RJD2 (whom people outside hip-hop only know as "the Mad Men theme guy," but he's more than just "A Beautiful Mine," old white fogeys) definitely captured my interest, but my favorite Song Exploder episodes would have to be any installment that delves into the making of a film or TV score cue, and they're all worth a listen.

Bob's Burgers presently kicks off with one of the most effective mood-setting themes in animation, a ukulele piece accented with xylophone and Casio keyboard samples of drum fills and some of Gene Belcher's favorite sound FX, in much the same fashion as a beef patty getting accented with outré ingredients or toppings by Bob Belcher (an example of one of these outré ingredients is when Bob attempts to win a burger contest by adding Korean black garlic, and an enemy of his amusingly responds to his intro for the garlic burger recipe with "Don't blame Korea for your stupid burger, Bob"). On Song Exploder, Hirway got Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard to go into detail about how he composed the show's opening theme, which he also revealed is actually a longer composition than what we currently hear on the air.

Bouchard said, "This had to be a story of hardship as it pertains to running a restaurant, but it's supposed to be an optimistic show and a nice slice of life with a lot of happiness in it. The ukulele was perfect, so I knew that I wanted to start with that." In more recent seasons, Bob's Burgers has occasionally flirted with slicing out the opening titles--and sadly, the local business name puns during those titles as well--and cutting straight to the first scene of the story, but fortunately, the theme survives in the form of the presence of Bouchard's uke during those episodes.

Other score music-related installments of Song Exploder have delved into Jeff Beal's House of Cards theme; Brian Reitzell's eerie and complicated sound design for his music on Hannibal, as part of a crossover with Roman Mars' architecture-and-design podcast 99% Invisible; the brief score cue Brian Tyler wrote for the Avengers: Age of Ultron title card; and Jeremy Zuckerman's creation of the very last cue in the final episode of The Legend of Korra ("On a kids' show, showing a lesbian relationship... I kind of wanted the music to reflect that this is a historic moment"), during what has to be Song Exploder's most oddly affecting installment. Zuckerman's masterful Korra cues are a good example of what animator Timothy Reckart once told me about score cues that excel by not overdoing sentimentality: they don't dictate the emotions and instead suggest the depth of those emotions.

For its premiere episode as a new addition to the podcasting network Radiotopia about two weeks ago, Song Exploder chose as a suitably grand first subject the global phenomenon that's spawned everything from billions of YouTube musician covers of its main title theme to really annoying and asinine fan reaction supercuts of narcissistic viewers recording themselves and hamming it up for the camera while they watch beloved characters perish: Game of Thrones. The Ramin Djawadi episode doesn't go into the pressure Djawadi must have been under when he had to replace Stephen Warbeck as the Game of Thrones composer about a few weeks before the premiere of the very first episode. That's a forgotten part of the history of the hit show's music I'd like to hear more about.

But the episode does have Djawadi breaking down each element of his Game of Thrones main title theme (which can be heard during "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS), from the cello to the female choir. The ability to finally get to hear about the origins of this piece of music I've heard trillions of times in many different forms--including the vocal version South Park came up with--is one of the many aural highlights of Song Exploder.

'Wow, I can see Cersei's naked body double from up here,' said the astrolabe.
(Photo source: The Art of VFX)

I wish the miniature model shots of Mister Rogers' neighborhood looked as fucking cool as this.
(Photo source: HitFix) aptly compared each Song Exploder episode to watching somebody take apart a car and put it back together. Hirway's podcast is also the aural equivalent of a chef visiting the table and describing the ingredients of his meal before unveiling it and letting the diners savor it. It's a terrifically edited and very cut-to-the-chase podcast, which explains the 10-to-15-minute length of most episodes. After 15 minutes, any music discussion by anybody--I don't care if you're Sheila E. explaining hi-hat techniques in a Victoria's Secret catalog outfit or in Ava Gardner's femme fatale gown from The Killers--can start to wear thin.

Hirway is clearly aware of the virtues of brevity, hence the thankfully short length of each episode. He speaks only during the podcast's opening, the intro to the score cue or song in its entirety and the podcast's outro. The rest of the time, he gets out of the way, and the musicians behind the track do all the talking. This approach is a nice change of pace from the often tedious navel-gazing of too many podcast hosts, even during some of the comedy podcasts I like. Song Exploder is far from omphaloskeptic. Look it up, fool!

If you prefer your podcasts to be insightful about the creation of art but very succinct--or if you're a film or TV score music fan who's curious about the scoring process but doesn't have time to sit through lengthy discussions of the process, which can be tedious or incomprehensible if you're not versed in music theory--Song Exploder is your jam. Too bad Song Exploder didn't exist when I was a kid. I really wanted to know what was going on inside the head of the genius who wrote "By Mennen!"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Godzilla (2014)

Too bad the feature presentation wasn't preceded by Bambi vs. Godzilla because that would have fucking ruled.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

Jurassic World just experienced the most successful opening weekend in film history, outgrossing even the opening weekend of the original Jurassic Park, a kaiju (Japanese for "strange beast") movie where smaller-sized dinosaurs are the kaiju instead of a 164-foot-tall lizard with atomic breath. But as much as I like both the craftsmanship Steven Spielberg brought to the moments of suspense (and occasionally, levity) in the first installment and Stan Winston and ILM's effective blend of practical FX and CGI in that installment, I find the Jurassic movies to be oddly underwhelming in comparison to Spielberg's masterful work in the original Jaws. As material in between the creature scenes, which are the main reason for flocking to these Jurassic blockbusters, the "Sam Neill learns to get in touch with his paternal side" storyline--a tiresome staple of post-SNL comedy vehicles starring either Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler or more recently, Will Ferrell--is less intriguing than the character interplay between Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw in Jaws.

I lost interest in the Jurassic franchise about halfway through The Lost World: Jurassic Park and never got on board the franchise again (I still haven't seen Jurassic Park III and will most likely wait until Jurassic Not-Yet-5, as I like to call it, comes to Blu-ray). I remember falling asleep in the theater during The Lost World--at some point between Julianne Moore nearly falling to her death while glass slowly breaks beneath her and the lame moment when a raptor gets kicked in the face by the gymnastic moves of Jeff Goldblum's preteen daughter, I dozed off with my eyes open--and I got the sense that Spielberg, whose first shot of Goldblum in The Lost World shows the star yawning in a subway station, was equally disinterested with the material in his own sequel. (Fifteen years later, you could sense the same thing when Christopher Nolan only truly became alive during the stunning plane hijack sequence for The Dark Knight Rises, and for the rest of the project, it felt like the death of Dark Knight star Heath Ledger had sapped Nolan of his enthusiasm and energy.) Spielberg was phoning it in. He, in fact, later admitted in interviews to experiencing a constant feeling of "Is that all there is? It's not enough for me" throughout the filming of The Lost World. However, there is one moment in The Lost World where Spielberg didn't phone it in, and it's that literal cliffhanger scene with a petrified Moore unable to move or sneeze, the only genuinely nerve-wracking scene in The Lost World, as well as the only moment where Spielberg is back to his old enthusiastic and alert self, and it's not even a dinosaur attack.

So the Jurassics have never been my favorite kaiju movies. But Korean director Bong Joon-ho's The Host, a.k.a. Gwoemul (Korean for "monster")? Now that, to me, is the perfect kaiju movie, in which the human side of the movie is, for a change, as satisfying as the monster action and isn't an ordeal to sit through in order to get to the monster action. The Host is an effective mix of monster movie thrills, dysfunctional family comedy and political satire (about the incompetence of both American and Korean institutions) that's reminiscent of the anti-nuke satire in Ishirô Honda's original 1954 version of Godzilla.

Bong wanted to take everyday people like the extremely flawed members of the working-class Park family (in comparison to Sam Neill's sole flaw of being awkward and standoffish around kids, which isn't all that interesting as a character flaw) and place them in a central role that's usually reserved in monster movies for scientific geniuses or muscle-bound heroes, the kinds of characters Bong says he finds to be boring. His risky and unconventional decision resulted in my favorite human protagonists in an earthbound kaiju movie since, well, the trio in Jaws. Like all the films in Edgar Wright's superb Cornetto trilogy, The Host isn't a genre spoof; it's a thriller with genuine stakes that happens to be comedic and is full of characters worth being invested in, so that when one of the protagonists dies or is nearly dead, it's a moment that genuinely stings.

Even the creature in The Host, despite being an efficient and single-minded killing machine, or rather, in the parlance of both Matt Hooper and Jaws trailer announcer Percy Rodrigues, an "eating machine," is imbued with personality too. The film's digital FX may vary in quality, but they're never too cartoonish-looking. The creature's clumsy gait cleverly mirrors the klutziness of Host star Song Kang-ho's anti-hero Park Gang-du. Sure, Gang-du learns to be a better dad just like in that sappy Jurassic Park/Billy Crystal/Adam Sandler storytelling device that annoys me so much, but The Host handles that device so much better. It also handles humor better than Roland Emmerich's Jurassic Park-ified 1998 reboot of Godzilla--a kaiju movie in the form of a terrible and unfunny '90s Fox sitcom stretched out to over two excruciating hours--did (the terrible '90s Fox sitcomminess of it all is further enhanced by Emmerich's casting of both Maria Pitillo, star of Fox's short-lived Partners, as Matthew Broderick's love interest, and Simpsons veteran Hank Azaria, star of Herman's Head, a.k.a. Inside Out if it were an oversexed '90s Fox office sitcom).

The Host's effectiveness as both a character study and a creature feature is precisely why I've never warmed up to any of the old-school Godzilla movies, except for the intriguing first movie, which I first caught on TCM, luckily without the stupid Raymond Burr-related changes that were made to it by the movie's first American distributor (the horrendous dubbing in the American versions of these films has also made me avoid the Godzilla franchise; except for spaghetti westerns and some of the Studio Ghibli films, I can't stand watching foreign films when they're redubbed by Americans or the British). As a kid, I took one look at 1973's Godzilla vs. Megalon back when it was once the feature presentation on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and thought, "That's the formula for Godzilla? It's a terrible one. Nah, I think I'll skip the other Godzilla flicks."

Godzilla vs. Megalon is one of the least beloved Godzilla installments, partly because Godzilla was basically a guest star in his own movie. It was produced during a time when the Toho Studios franchise was past its prime and had abandoned its nifty roots as an allegory about post-war Japan to strictly cater to the kids in the audience. I know Godzilla vs. Megalon is a lousy way to be introduced to the Godzilla franchise. It would be like if someone who's never seen any of the 007 movies chose A View to a Kill or Die Another Day as their first 007 flick to watch; they won't understand what all the fuss over the other movies is about. But Godzilla vs. Megalon is a good example of how boring and pointless the human characters tend to be in kaiju movies, a problem that doesn't afflict the 1954 Godzilla and is also a problem I was hoping British director Gareth Edwards wouldn't fall prey to when he got the chance to not repeat Emmerich's countless mistakes while reintroducing Godzilla for a second time (not counting the two Americanized and badly butchered Godzillas that starred Perry Mason) to non-Japanese audiences.

Godzilla threatens to unleash his atomic garlic breath on this MUTO.

While there's much to enjoy about Edwards' gritty, Fukushima-inspired 2014 version--like Alison Willmore said, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and the redesigned Godzilla look terrific and are "lumbering and massive with a sense of incredible heft to them, despite being CGI creations"--Edwards, unfortunately, has a problem of focusing his films on white lead characters who aren't as interesting as he thinks they are. It's a problem that goes back to Edwards' prior sci-fi film Monsters, his low-budget 2010 breakthrough. Monsters is a film about Mexico experiencing first contact with giant alien creatures, and it's told not through the eyes of any of its citizens but through the eyes of the most annoying white hipsters since those douches who gentrified the barrio side of Arlen and slipped salmon into Enrique's fish tacos?

As The Daily Dot astutely pointed out, Godzilla suffers from a boring white guy problem--a problem that mars another recent kaiju flick, Pacific Rim--and is part of a long line of Hollywood tentpole blockbusters that opt for the least interesting characters as their leads. Out of a cast that includes the likes of Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins as audience surrogates, Edwards chose to center the film around the individual with the least charisma or personality? Yo, Honest Trailers, your "Discount Channing Tatum" line is dead fucking on.

"The funny thing here is that the franchise originated in Japan. I actually haven't seen any of the old movies, but I'm going to assume that they--at least the Japanese ones--don't use Japan and its people as merely the backdrop against which white protagonists can shine and save the day," noted one of the teen authors of the blog Cool Asian Kids. "And that's essentially what the new film does."

Warner Bros. advertised Edwards' whitened-up take on the Japanese franchise as Godzilla and his atomic breath vs. Cranston and his atomic toupee--the studio made it look like Cranston would be channeling Dr. Loomis from Halloween--but (spoilers!) that's not the movie we got. Edwards told Willmore in a BuzzFeed interview that he chose to kill off Cranston's nuclear physicist character early on in Godzilla in order to raise the movie's stakes and create the sense that "anything could happen." Sure, Cranston's physicist dad character is kind of a boring white guy too, but kicking his badacondunk out of the movie so early is such a mistake because Cranston is much more alive and present in his scenes than Blando McBombdefuser--who, as Willmore says, "jumps through a series of increasingly improbable plot hoops to stay in the path of the creatures"--is in his.

It's just the wrong character to be spending a huge chunk of the movie with (and as the type of white savior Cool Asian Kids rightly criticizes him as being, he's amusingly inconsequential in comparison to Godzilla's heroics in the movie), and it's a shame, because Edwards kicks the movie off so promisingly with one of my favorite opening title sequences in a recent tentpole blockbuster. The sequence is a cleverly assembled montage of both real and fake archive footage that establishes the history of MUTOs, nicely scored by Alexandre Desplat--who's skillfully following in the footsteps of the old Akira Ifukube score music that both Pharoahe Monch and Tracy Morgan love so much--and surrounded visually by hastily redacted text from fake government files. The Prologue Studios opening titles are one of the 2014 Godzilla's few instances of humor, one of many things Edwards accomplishes better than Emmerich did. The passages that are redacted to isolate the names of the cast and crew are either silly, freeze-frame-worthy sentences like "The monster communicates through music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat" or are full of in-jokes like "Walter Malcolm has claimed that government men dressed in white lab coats routinely appear at site and Bryan Cranston shortly after the event all residents are sworn to silence." Walter is a reference to Breaking Bad, and Malcolm is, of course, a shout-out to Malcolm in the Middle (although shouldn't it say Hal, Cranston's character's name on Malcolm, instead of Malcolm?).

Despite all the sleep-inducing moments involving Discount Channing Tatum, as well as the fact that it's nowhere near the league of The Host, the 2014 Godzilla is superior to Emmerich's previous attempt to bring Godzilla to America and is more effective at building tension and staging monster action. Also, it's not trying to rip off so much of Jurassic Park. Recent Throwback Thursday guest blogger Hardeep Aujla, who hails from Word Is Bond, a U.K.-based hip-hop blog I've contributed pieces to, disagrees. He dislikes the 2014 Godzilla so much that he's skeptical about how Edwards will handle Star Wars in his next directorial effort, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One. So Hardeep, how would you have improved the 2014 Godzilla if you worked on it? Would you have made the reboot into a boy-and-his-best-friend-who's-a-strange-creature story like the old Godzilla sequels, the Gamera sequels and my favorite of all those stories, The Iron Giant? Or would you have said "Fuck the American audience" and told it from the point of view of Ken Watanabe's scientist character? Or would you have completely gotten rid of any audience surrogate characters and told it from the point of view of Godzilla, which would have probably caused the movie to cost 200 million more American dollars to make but is a kaiju movie that's never been done before?


Hardeep Aujla: I think I read that Godzilla's screen-time was only 10 minutes in the whole 130-something minute film. This isn't Jaws, Edwards - less is not more in kaiju films.

As for what I would have done, I love The Iron Giant and that whole story too but I would've gone with your last suggestion, hands down. This is what I always thought AvP should have been. I would have started the film introducing a crack team of badasses equal to Dutch's or Apone's team, but then would've had them torn apart gloriously by the titular creatures (perhaps they stumbled into the vicinity of a one-on-one confrontation). Then the title of the movie comes up accompanied by strong audio tone with the intention of stating "That's fucking right" to the audience and their expectations. I'm thinking a very loud shrill-type noise that starts off monotonous but evolves a couple of seconds later into something with a bit more character before ultimately revealing itself to be the war-cry of either a Predator or an Alien as we cut straight back to the duel (yep, this idea has been rolling around in my head for a while). From there on out we get a pure Aliens versus Predators narrative with no more English spoken.

'Speaking words of wisdom, let them fiiiiiiiiiiight.'

I haven't seen many of the old kaiju movies (the Gamera trilogy from the 90's is superb though), and the ones I did see were a long time ago, but I do remember some very protracted sequences where it's just Godzilla or his kid doing stuff and the audience just follows along. I may be completely fabricating those memories though. Either way, the challenge for Gareth Edwards would have been to make an engaging film like this in the modern era, one that is good enough to stand strongly unaided by human faces and words. There could of course be some human characters (retaining Ken Watanabe who was wasted in the actual film) but they should have minor roles. I can see how this would be tricky for a character like Godzilla who seemingly doesn't have a rich variety of activities to fill a movie with apart from swim, smash and roar, but therein lies the challenge, and I would be a lot more impressed with Gareth Edwards as a filmmaker if he pulled it off, or at least respect his effort if he tried.

None of Alexandre Desplat's score cues from Godzilla are currently in rotation on AFOS, but Desplat's main title theme ought to be.

Monday, June 15, 2015

If you think GoodFellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are inspirational stories of triumph, you need professional fucking help--and a lobotomy from Thelma Schoonmaker

Diminish the role she played in the making of GoodFellas, and she'll inflict cuts on you that are as bad as a jump cut in a Ridley Scott movie.
Thelma Schoonmaker

When I recently wrote about The Wolf of Wall Street, I said, "A lesser filmmaker would rain down judgment on Travis [in Taxi Driver]... or he'd make Rupert [in The King of Comedy] and Belfort... experience a personality change and become remorseful after their short prison time. But not Scorsese. He wants to sit back, let the audience judge Travis/Rupert/Jordan for themselves and see what happens. If many in the audience squirm over their behavior and the repercussions, that's great. If others view them as their hero or spirit animal--like how several Homer Simpsons out there cheered The Wolf of Wall Street on as if it's School of Hard Knockers... to the dismay of those who completely sympathize with Belfort's victims--that's great too. It's weird but great. As for a man named John Hinckley..."

Right-wing film critic Kyle Smith definitely belongs in the "It's weird" category. If you stayed away from Twitter all last week like I've been frequently doing lately, you might have missed the appalled reactions to Smith's umpteenth attempt to troll everyone: "Women are not capable of understanding GoodFellas," his so-ridiculous-it-could-be-easily-mistaken-for-a-ClickHole-parody New York Post op-ed.

It's funny how--like a clown--the New York Post published Smith's op-ed the day after GoodFellas re-entered my consciousness when I stumbled into the film's 25th Anniversary Blu-ray in a rack of Blu-rays at Target, and I became worried that I'd have to double-dip because the new Blu-ray contains a cast and crew commentrak with Scorsese, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino (I was relieved to find out a few days later that my copy of the 2004 GoodFellas DVD contains the same commentrak). In his article, Smith says things like "To a woman, the GoodFellas are lowlifes. To guys, they're hilarious, they're heroes. They rule the roost." Remember Henry Hill's coke-fueled meltdown on his last day as a wiseguy? Yeah, that was really heroic.

Fans of GoodFellas, both male and female, went apeshit on Twitter over Smith's sweeping statement--his op-ed is such a hacky '80s stand-up routine about the differences between men and women that I can practically smell the brick wall--but they went apeshit in sardonic and entertaining ways that made nuance-free, often way-too-shrill-and-humorless-for-my-tastes Twitter worth reading again.

Why do right-wing film critics often misread gangster movies as endorsements of gangster behavior, just like how so many right-wingers misinterpret rap lyrics? Smith's misreading of one of his favorite mob movies as Entourage with guns (I'm looking forward to someone--with way too much time on their hands--mocking the much-ridiculed Smith article by replacing GoodFellas' dialogue with dude-bro dialogue from Entourage) reminds me of when Armond White, who currently writes for the right-wing National Review, panned Better Luck Tomorrow in 2003 because he was dissatisfied with what he thought was the Justin Lin film's endorsement of the Asian American friends' slide into crime and bloodshed. Better Luck wasn't endorsing and fetishizing the murder in the garage towards the end of the movie, you old conservative fuck. Same to you, Mr. Rosso lookalike who prefers his entertainment to be Pollyannaish and, like White, condescendingly accused Lin of selling out his own people by making an "empty and amoral" portrayal of Asian Americans in Better Luck.

What GoodFellas and Better Luck--and in a not-as-gory way, The Wolf of Wall Street--are doing is initially reveling in the allure of a gangster lifestyle (for me, the most alluring part of the gangster lifestyle in Better Luck was Roger Fan's sociopathic character beating up at a party a racist jock who needed his ass kicked). Those films have to do so in order to sell you on why these characters are attracted to crime--Scorsese once described the Copacabana sequence in GoodFellas as a moment when the gangster lifestyle seduces Henry--but then they kick the seat from under you and switch to focusing on the downsides of such a lifestyle. Unlike the boring lifestyle porn of Entourage, those films intend to undermine the gangster fantasy they introduced.

GoodFellas excels at its hard right-hand turn into the downsides of its characters' behavior by not stupidly opting for the bad-movie-screenwriting route of having a character--or an on-the-nose pop song--flat out say, "This is bad, mmm-kay" (Scorsese's terrific use of existing songs to comment on a scene, but only "in an oblique way," was partly why existing songs from GoodFellas like "Monkey Man" were all over the playlist for the now-defunct AFOS block "Rock Box"). The pre-MTV Films, pre-DJ Shadow cut of Better Luck excels at that hard right-hand turn as well. The MTV Films cut? Uh, not so much. Lin, perhaps more rattled by Mr. Rosso's outburst at Sundance than he'd let on, tweaked the ending in the MTV Films version so that the characters, including a pre-Fast and the Furious Han Seoul-Oh, ended up being a little more remorseful about their actions.

Of course Smith wouldn't be aware that a woman edited GoodFellas because he strikes me as an idiot who never reads the credits on the boxes of things. Last time I checked, reading the credits of things is one of the requirements of being a film critic. The outcry over the New York Post article is a good time--hell, it's always a good time--to reassess or pay more attention to longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker's pivotal role in making GoodFellas a classic of adrenalized pacing, rock n' roll filmmaking and moral ambiguity (my favorite line from Schoonmaker about the editing of GoodFellas was her reply to someone's bafflement over how such a demure and unassuming lady could be the cutter of Scorsese's most violent works: "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them").

Scorsese and Schoonmaker's partnership ranks as one of the all-time greatest director/editor partnerships. Without Schoonmaker in the editing suite, I don't think Scorsese would have been able to take four hours' worth of material he shot for The Wolf of Wall Street and whittle all that material down to three hours. Yeah, three hours can be demanding on someone with a weak bladder, but that's why I never buy any beverages at the movie theater or drink anything before the feature presentation.

The outcry over the New York Post article is also a good time to remember that all Rupert Murdoch's right-wing daily is good for is lining a bird cage. One of the 4,080 things I learned from listening to Public Enemy in its prime was to never take anything published by the New York Post seriously. Like Chuck D said, it ain't worth the paper it's printed on.