Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Better Than the First: Pretty Good

Note: This is a very long review because I’ve also begun with a combinative look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first Hobbit movie to put this review in perspective. If you want to only read my thoughts on this film, scroll and look for the quintuple-spaced paragraph break or just “Ctrl+f” “but this is a review”.

I must admit to having begun viewing the first entry in the Hobbit trilogy segment of Peter Jackson Middle Earth sextology of adaptations during the approximately 4 hours before attending the midnight premier of this, the second entry. (I actually was unable to see the end of the film as I had to leave in order to get a reasonably good seat at the theater.) Also, I have not read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit since I was in 7th grade, and therefore remember very little about it. I felt I should mention these two points as a disclaimer before I begin in earnest, so take them for what you will.

I will begin with some thoughts on the first film as well as on the Lord of the Rings trilogy in order to put my thoughts on this most recent entry into perspective.

That first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure was, most certainly, a letdown, though still a passable effort. The film was, as can be expected of a Peter Jackson film or any film benefitting from New Zealand’s scenery (the film, of course, had both of these going for it), visually great. But with a decided smaller amount of panning scenery-shots, its cinematography paled to that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while its CGI was about on par.

The LOTR trilogy had terrific writing in my opinion, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Jackson, did a terrific job making the fantasy genre accessible, as well as meaningful, to people for whom elves, dwarves, and orcs might not be their elevensies, sorry, cup of tea. The storytelling was masterful, and while there were a fair amount of obvious lines, I can let them slide because that’s just something you get in fantasy and because watching Orlando Bloom deliver them is a real treat (“They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!”).

The acting is also quite good from much of the cast, despite the limitations on the characters. Sean Bean and Ian McKellen in the first, Bernard Hill and Andy Serkis in the second, and Sean Astin and Ian McKellen in the third give great performances, with Viggo Mortensen providing consistently solid support, that were worthy of awards recognition (McKellen’s first, of course, was the only one that received any). Along with the storytelling, the editing was fantastic, with each one of the storylines cut exactly where necessary to make the story flow perfectly.

The first Hobbit film did not really have any of these qualities. In fact, where the film really floundered, I thought, was in the writing. It was, admittedly, a lively film with occasionally great humor, humor that, at times, rivalled anything the trilogy has on offer, but the storytelling itself was greatly lacking. Despite expanding the writing trio to a quartet with the addition of the great Guillermo del Toro, the story was disappointingly episodes and queasily edited. Storyline jumps were haphazard (and there weren’t even that many of them), and the story just failed to flow as any sort of cohesive whole.

As a result, the rest of the film suffered greatly, directly and indirectly. The acting, especially, was sunk. Acting in these film has always been difficult, especially in certain roles because of relative lack of character arcs, but the first film’s lack of plot all together made any attempts to create a compelling character essentially moot. Martin Freeman, who I think is a great, emerging actor, creates a wonderfully loveable character in Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen is solid at being old and wise (which he probably does in his sleep), and Richard Armitage tries really hard as Thorin Oakenshield, and might have actually succeeded to some noticeable degree if the script had provided any character development whatsoever.


But this is a review of the second film, not of the first and not of the trilogy, so I’ll get on with it, 675 words in.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, compared to the collective averageness of the first installation I have just described, a definite step up. The writing is much improved, the editing pretty well-done, the cinematography and CGI are gorgeous, and the acting firmly founded.

The improved writing yields a cohesive storyline that provides pretty good character development opportunities, a well-done examination of the title phenomenon, a very fun and adventurous tone, some terrific action sequences, and at least one hysterical moment that surpasses any humor theretofore present in Middle Earth.

Because the cohesion and character development improves, so do the performances. Freeman is, once again, a complete joy, but, simply because of how his character develops relative to the storyline, he will not get a chance to show his true stuff until the third, and final, installation next year. He reminds me somewhat of Mickey Rooney, except that Freeman is much better. They both utilize(d) a pretty set repertoire of mannerisms. The difference is that, while Rooney’s could get annoying and repetitive and sometimes, depending on the part, were out of place and failed, Freeman’s aren’t. In fact, they make his character endearing, and he understands how to use them to the appropriate ends. Many of the mannerisms he uses in this are essentially identical to those in Sherlock, but they evoke something completely different.

McKellen is given a much better storyline, and he delivers admirably, but, as I hinted at earlier, he’s done this same thing many times before and here he does none of it any better than he has in the past.

Richard Armitage succeeds far more than he did in the first one, mostly because his storyline is much improved. But I do not wish to take anything away from him. He quite effectively portrays Thorin’s ongoing battle between the side of him that wants to retake the Lonely Mountain for his people and the side of him that wants to retake it for, to best honest, I have no idea. It’s not really his greed for gold, at least not too much more than the greed any other dwarf feels toward it, but it’s not really the power, but this open-endedness isn’t really an issue because Armitage makes you it real and believable, even though I can’t really name it.

As the voice of Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific. His voice is one of my favorites currently in show-business, so its masking in the first half of his performance was unfortunate, but not his fault. Voice performances are typically hard to judge, but not this one. He voice alone exudes the malice, greed, intelligence, manipulation, conniving, and convincing nature of the dragon.

Armitage and Cumberbatch would be vying for my favorite performance in the film if not for Luke Evans. As Bard, he surprised me completely. In his character, as well as in Armitage’s to a lesser extent, is seen the exploration of the titular desolation of Smaug, and they both do an amply good job in portraying it. In addition to looking like Orlando Bloom from Pirates of the Caribbean, Evans very effectively portrays the mysteriousness of his character and the pain from his past and his present, much of which is due to Smaug. He quietly commands every scene he’s in and is the character I cared about the most.

Not everyone is great, though. Lee Pace, who I think was brilliant on Pushing Daisies, but who I found underwhelming in Lincoln, convinces me even more he should only be in comedy-dramas. As the king of the wood elves, he exudes so much malice it’s actually ridiculous and renders him ineffective. This malice also makes any of his attempts at exuding the grace and elegance of elves fall totally flat. In a later scene with a captured orc, he’s quite good in a short reaction, but this cannot make up for his earlier debacle.

The editing, as well, is much better, though there still are a couple of rather awkward cuts, such as the final Gandalf-Necromancer one. The CGI, especially inside the Lonely Mountain (especially Smaug and the forge sequence), is absolute brilliance and completely deserves to win the Best Visual Effects Oscar. The action sequences, too, are excellent. The forge sequence is astonishingly brilliant and beautiful and the escape from the wood elves is terrific, especially because of the inclusion of Legolas (who, quite thankfully, speaks very little and fights very much) and, more importantly, because of what I will call “Bombur’s Barrel Bowl,” is the funniest sequence in any one of the Middle Earth movies yet.

But all is not sunshine and rainbows and puppy dogs. The writing quartet introduces Tauriel, a female elvish archer. I’m not complaining about her introduction, not least because the stunning Evangeline Lilly portrays her. I am complaining, however, about the ridiculous love story tacked on with her on the female end. It’s decently well done for what it is, but it’s wholly unnecessary and adds an additional 20-30 minutes to a movie that’s already long. Also, despite being better written than the first, Desolation still completely pales in comparison to any one of the three LOTR film in terms of its ability to storytell and draw the audience into the story.

As a side note, I would’ve liked to have heard a less self-derivative score from Howard Shore. He succeeded completely with the LOTR films by making the scores somewhat derivative of each film’s main theme (Two Towers’ scores flounders somewhat because it’s too fanfare-oriented), but in the first Hobbit film and now this one, he is simply being completely derivative of his LOTR work, which would be fine in moderation, but moderation is nowhere to be found.

Overall this was a pretty good film that could have been so much better.


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Saturday, November 16, 2013

12 Years a Slave: Surviving Isn't Living

To say the 12 Years a Slave, adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same name, is a triumph of epic proportions is an insult to the film. The film is difficult viewing, to say the least, but I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The film follows a free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a husband and father of two living in Saratoga Springs, New York, who is a violin player and carpenter. Lured into a business deal by two men in 1841, he plays violin for their touring show before reaching Washington, D.C., where the slave trade was legal until 1850. He is kidnapped and shipped to New Orleans, where he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively kind slave owner. The rest of the film follows his life during his twelve years in often cruel and unpaid servitude, some of which he also spends under the ownership of Edwin and Mary Epps (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson).
The screenplay, by John Ridley, previously known for the screenplays to Three Kings and Undercover Brother, is an astonishing achievement. Much of the film is episodic, and yet it flows with startling clarity and depth. It leaves not one character one-dimensional, instead showing that everyone, even the most horrible of slave traders, kidnappers, or owners, is not just pure evil. While the first quarter of the film may seem slow, the rest of the film would have fallen flat on its face without the expert craftsmanship Ridley exhibits.

This screenplay, however, is moot without the truly inspired work of Steve McQueen, director of 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame, who cements his status as perhaps the premier director in cinema today.

Many of the performances are masterworks, and yet a few of them are what ultimately keep the film from being perfect. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an always underappreciated, underutilized, and very talented actor, is terrific. His Solomon Northup is a man fighting for his freedom after having it taken away. Ejiofor easily could have been self-righteous, especially in the scenes in which he consoles fellow slave Patsey, portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan actress making her American film debut, in an astonishing performance, but instead he only ever displays the truest of emotions. He is by no means a perfect, but instead a man who cares deeply for his family and his freedom, so much so that he will do just about anything to get them back. Opposite Ejiofor as Edwin Epps is Michael Fassenbender. His performance is simply superb. He gives life to a man that cares so much about financial success and personal lust that he is willing to throw his family by the wayside. His and Ejiofor’s scene with the pig-pen is great, but the scene that shall evermore be known simply as “the scene,” is simply incredibly, and provides the best scene for both Fassbender and Nyong’o. Much of the depth instilled in his character, however, would not have been possible without the strong, assured performance of Sarah Paulson as his wife. Her performance as the wronged wife, while much too short, is great. The wrath she unleashes on her husband and his slave mistress to punish them is both deathly frightening and strangely sympathetic. In addition, Alfre Woodard gives a wonderful single-scene, scene-stealing performance as a former-slave-turned-wife-of-her-former-master. Brad Pitt is also surprisingly good, giving an un-self-righteous performance, a feat given the nature of his role.

But just because the film is aglow with the brilliant lights of these actors does not mean there aren’t some duds. Benedict Cumberbatch is fine, but his Southern accent is an absolute disgrace. Also, some of the acting of the single-scene parts is unfortunately one-dimensional, despite how easily they could have been instilled with more depth given Ridley’s screenplay. Paul Dano's performance is especially disappointing, which is unsurprising given it is Paul Dano.
Technically speaking, the film is a masterpiece. The cinematography is probably, as much as I hate to say it, even better than Gravity’s. Sean Bobbitt is simply masterful. Going hand-in-hand with the cinematography is Joe Walker’s great film editing, which depicts the passage of time to interesting effect and makes an over-two-hour-long movie seem to be three-quarters that long. Patricia Norris’s costume design and the production design Adam Stockhausen, David Stein, and Alice Baker are great, with the detail of Norris’s work being especially impressive to me. Now while I do not dislike him, I am no fan of Hans Zimmer, as I find his work to be far too general and derivative of himself. There are exceptions, including Driving Miss Daisy and Inception, but this film is entirely different. He creates one of the most fascinating film soundtracks I’ve heard recently. He seems to combine completely disparate musical styles and creates a brilliant soundtrack that seems as though it were written jointly by Jonny Greenwood, Howard Shore, and Zimmer himself.
And now for some Oscar discussion. If the film does not receive nominations for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Ejiofor), Supporting Actor (Fassbender), and Supporting Actress (Nyong’o), then the eventual winner of the category may as well be stealing the award. At this point, however, each of these nominations seems all but assured. Additionally, nominations for Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, and Sound Mixing seem all but assured as well. I’m no expert on what makes the voters in the Makeup and Hairstyling department tick, but I would guess the film will make an appearance there too. Sound Editing, which is mostly about sound effects, seems perhaps the biggest leap. Additionally, despite their short roles, I would not be shocked if Sarah Paulson and/or Alfre Woodard made it onto the Supporting Actress ballot. Overall, I don’t think 12 nominations is a stretch at all. In fact, tying All About Eve and Titanic for a record 14 nominations or even surpassing them with 15 is not out of the question.
I could ramble on and on about the brilliance of this film, but I feel I've already rambled so much that many have already quit reading, so I guess I'll wrap it up.

Overall, this is a film of astonishing quality and is completely heartwrenching, especially in the film’s final scene. It never shoves emotion in your face; it never resorts to cheap sentimentality. Every tear, every yell is as true as if it were happening right in front of you. It’s probably the hardest-to-watch film I’ve ever seen, but it’s also a film that I would never give up having seen.

It’s a film about a horrible practice that will always mar America’s past. But even more so, it’s a film about the immensely powerful and effecting journey of a man who early on says, “I do not want to survive. I want to live.”


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity: When Devastating Beauty Meets Devastating Consequences

"Space scares me to death." That's what all of my friends said when facing the task of watching Alfonso Cuarón's follow-up to Children of Men, Gravity, with me. After-the-fact, I must say that I, too, am scared to death of space.

Gravity is one the best movies I've seen as of late, and possibly better than anything I saw last year, though it is difficult to compare this to Beasts of the Southern Wild. It's on par with Zero Dark Thirty, though the ways by which they create their thriller atmosphere differ greatly, and it's most certainly a better movie than last year's Best Picture winner, Argo.

The film is about Dr. Ryan Stone, a doctor from Illinois and NASA specialist for whom this is her first ever space mission, and astronaut Matt Kowalski, a seasoned veteran for whom this is his final mission. They are one day from completing they're mission when word of a chain reaction of satellite collisions caused by a botched Russian anti-satellite test are heading for the space shuttle. They are struck and are fighting for their lives. Their race to get back to earth is the entire film's premise.

The film's 90 minutes are some of the most breathtaking I've encountered, and that's not just because Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is Oscar-worthy. The immense stress put upon the viewer by Alfonso Cuarón, an almost certain nominee for Best Director, and with great reason, is almost debilitating, and that says even more about this film. Only about 30-45 minutes of the film's runtime, I'd say, are true "thriller moments," with big, dramatic, thrilling music (an Oscar-worthy score by Steven Price, might I add) and all that goes along with them. Yet from the moment they are struck by the initial wave of debris, the viewers are fending for their lives just as much as Ryan, the real protagonist of the film, and Matt, who disappears midway through (I will not divulge the reason though it is none too difficult to guess).

As I've already said, the film is aided immensely by it's terrific direction and stunning cinematography, but that's not all it needed. If the visual effects team does not win the Oscar, it will be a travesty greater than the current government shutdown. Sandra Bullock also deserves a huge amount of credit. Early on, I had no idea how the character of Ryan would change and grow during the film. I figured it would be just another standard thriller character, which requires a better-than-average actor (I don't think Bullock is) to make it good. It wasn't, and Bullock's performance is vastly better than I ever could have expected, and vastly better than her Oscar-winning turn in The Blind Side. Her best scenes are, contrary to what some of my friends thought, her monologues in the later portions of the film. My favorite scene is when she's talking to the Chinese man back on earth on the satellite radio. She runs the gamut of emotions and is utterly heartbreaking. From her woofing like a dog to her falling apart at her separation from life itself, I almost teared up watching it. I would be completely okay with her getting her second Oscar nomination, though it is somewhat unlikely as the Oscars rarely recognize thriller performances.

All of this ogling and praising aside, the film is far from perfect. It's 3D, while the best I've seen (which isn't saying anything since I've refused to watch one until this point), is underutilized. The debris scenes could have been much more 3D-centric. Also, 3D's inability to focus on one thing without completely making everything else blurry is annoying, though not really a critique of the film, so much. George Clooney's performance, while perfectly fine and not falling into his unfortunate trend of being completely uninterested, is simply fine at best, and I cannot help but think about how much more the original choice, Robert Downey, Jr., would have brought to the rather simple role. Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón's script is also somewhat weak, though this only applies to the beginning of the film. The exchanges between Ryan, Matt, and Mission Control (a cameo voice role by Ed Harris essentially revisiting his Apollo 13 role), are weak at best. The lines are wooden and, worse than clichéd, seem as though the Cuarón brothers sat down as said, "Let's write some meaningless smalltalk for the beginning of the film. Not being an astronaut, I'm unsure as to whether these sorts of exchanges actually occur, but it was painful nonetheless.

Overall, though, this is an absolutely tremendous film. It is stunning, mostly wonderfully acted, and magnificently directed. It is a technological marvel of modern filmmaking, an uncommonly complex and human thriller, and a film that should challenge 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture, though whether it will is another story entirely.

I'm going to start a new method of rating:

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Official 2013 Emmy Nominations and Analysis: Comedy Series

It took me far longer than I anticipated to get around the rest of my Emmy nomination analysis, but here it is:

Comedy Series:
I predicted:
  1. Modern Family
  2. The Big Bang Theory
  3. Arrested Development
  4. Louie
  5. Girls
  6. 30 Rock
Actual nominees:
The Big Bang Theory
Modern Family
30 Rock
Result: 5/6

Analysis: By no means bad, though I would have loved to have gotten all 6. I'm surprised Veep snuck on for a 2nd year in row, but am not disappointed about it in the least. I'm immensely disappointed Big Bang didn't get massively snubbed, but am not surprised it made it, of course. It's a massively popular show that could potentially win under much the same circumstances Friends did 11 years ago. It's a show in its late seasons that is at the top of weekly viewership every week. The difference between the two is that Friends was occasionally funny and actually had some brilliant episodes. Big Bang is never funny. The only times I even chuckle are when Sheldon has nothing to do with it. I'm completely fine with the rest of the nominees. I actually seen Girls, but a show with critical acclaim like that deserves a spot. 30 Rock is my favorite comedy of all time (though Frasier is a close second), Modern Family is absolutely hysterical and shows no signs of declining in quality, and Louie is brilliant. It works so perfectly despite, or perhaps because of, its groundbreaking storytelling method and its delicate, but perfectly executed juxtaposition of heartfelt moments, hysterical stand-up, and awkwardly hilarious black comedy. It's a hard category to predict. A 4th-straight Modern Family seems the most likely scenario at this point, with either Louie or 30 Rock in 2nd and 3rd position and Big Bang as the dark horse.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Modern Family
  2. 30 Rock
  3. Louie
  4. The Big Bang Theory
  5. Veep
  6. Girls

I predicted:
  1. Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock
  2. Louis C.K. as Louie in Louie
  3. Jim Parsons as Dr. Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory
  4. Jason Bateman as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development
  5. Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan in House of Lies
  6. Jake Johnson as Nick Miller in New Girl
Actual nominees:
Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock
Jason Bateman in Arrested Development
Louis C.K. in Louie
Don Cheadle in House of Lies
Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc in Episodes
Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory
Result: 5/6

Analysis: Not a bad result at all. I had been waffling between LeBlanc and Johnson for quite a while and actually had just switched it back to Johnson right before nominations were announced. It's a reasonably strong field. There honestly aren't many great comedies around these days so the potential new nominees were scarce. Considering the rest of the categories, I'm rather surprised Bateman was nominated. C.K. and Baldwin are the clear frontrunners. It's Baldwin's final season with one of comedy's greatest ever lead male characters, and it's certainly not C.K.'s last season with another one of the genre's greatest characters.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Louis C.K. in Louie
  2. Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock
  3. Jason Bateman in Arrested Development
  4. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes
  5. Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory
  6. Don Cheadle in House of Lies
(Parsons certainly has a better chance of winning than I'm giving him credit for, but I hate him so much I can't give him any help.)

I predicted:
  1. Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in Veep
  2. Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in Girls
  3. Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock
  4. Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation
  5. Zooey Deschanel as Jess Day in New Girl
  6. Edie Falco as Nurse Jackie Peyton in Nurse Jackie
Actual nominees:
Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened
Lena Dunham in Girls
Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey in 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep
Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
Result: 5/6

Analysis: Pretty good. Much happier Dern made it than if Deschanel had (her sister, Emily (aka Bones), is far more talented and far less lauded than Zooey). Louis-Dreyfus will probably repeat, and rightfully so, but I can always hope for my main girl Tina with the two part finale. That's pretty much it. Dern is the dark horse, I've just never seen her and I love Poehler.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep
  2. Tina Fey in 30 Rock
  3. Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
  4. Laura Dern in Enlightened
  5. Lena Dunham in Girls
  6. Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

Supporting Actor-Comedy:
I predicted:
  1. Eric Stonestreet as Cameron Tucker in Modern Family
  2. Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy in Modern Family
  3. Jeffrey Tambor as George Bluth, Sr./Oscar Bluth in Arrested Development
  4. Will Arnett as Gob Bluth in Arrested Development
  5. Simon Helberg as Howard Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory
  6. Ed O'Neill as Jay Pritchett in Modern Family
Actual nominees:
Ty Burrell in Modern Family
Adam Driver as Adam Sackler in Girls
Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mitchell Pritchett in Modern Family
Bill Hader as various characters in Saturday Night Live
Tony Hale as Gary Walsh in Veep
Ed O'Neill in Modern Family
Result: 2/6

Analysis: Obviously a poor showing here, but I have good excuses. One of last year's 4 Modern Family men had to go, so I chose Ferguson. Instead, the didn't nominate Stonestreet, the cast member that makes me laugh almost constantly. The snubs for Tambor and Arnett were surprising, but not when the near absence of Arrested Development is considered. I'm really glad Helberg didn't make it. Hale didn't even put himself in contention for Arrested, but both series in combo probably gave him his nomination. Hader is an unfortunate waste as I've never found him to be the strongest member of the SNL cast. Driver is, as far as I can tell, a pleasant surprise. This one's a toss-up.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Ty Burrell in Modern Family
  2. Ed O'Neill in Modern Family
  3. Jesse Tyler Ferguson in Modern Family
  4. Adam Driver in Girls
  5. Bill Hader in SNL

Supporting Actress-Comedy:
I predicted:
  1. Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy in Modern Family
  2. Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development
  3. Allison Williams as Marnie Michaels in Girls
  4. Jane Krakowski as Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock
  5. Sofia Vergara as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett in Modern Family
  6. Kaley Cuoco as Penny in The Big Bang Theory
Actual nominees:
Mayim Bialik as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen in Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky as Amy Brookheimer in Veep
Jane Krakowski in 30 Rock
Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester in Glee
Sofia Vergara in Modern Family
Merritt Wever as Zoey Barkow in Nurse Jackie
Result: 3/7

Analysis: I did pretty badly here too. I am psyched Krakowski was nominated as she's a 6-time person winner. She makes every episode better with her stupendous acting. I'm also glad that Bowen and Vergara made it, though, sight unseen, Vergara's episode selection is probably pretty poor. Bialik's nomination is disgusting an worthless since word has it she had far less to do this season than last. Chlumsky is a very welcome surprise indeed, and Wever's surprise repeat appearance is great and wholly unexpected. Lynch is an absolute head-scratcher, and not one that I am particularly pleased with. This one's also pretty much a toss-up.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Jane Krakowski in 30 Rock
  2. Julie Bowen in Modern Family
  3. Sofia Vergara in Modern Family
  4. Anna Chlumsky in Veep
  5. Jane Lynch in Glee
  6. Merritt Wever in Nurse Jackie
  7. Mayim Bialik in The Big Bang Theory

I'm not going to go into the writing, directing, or guest acting categories. Instead I'll list my predicted winners. These will be followed by my predicted winners in all of the Movie/Miniseries categories and the reality categories. Therefore I will make this my infuriated rant admonishing the Academy for nominating the great Betty White as Reality Host for the absolutely horrendous Off Their Rockers. Carson Daly is terrific and win-worthy for The Voice (the only reality competition series worth watching, I feel), and yet he wasn't even nominated.

Writing-Comedy: 30 Rock for Last Lunch
Directing-Comedy: Louie for New Years Eve
Guest Actor-Comedy: Bob Newhart on The Big Bang Theory (though Louis C.K. and even Justin Timberlake, both for SNL, are definite spoilers)
Guest Actress-Comedy: Melissa McCarthy on SNL
Movie/Miniseries: Behind the Candelabra
Actor-Movie/Miniseries: Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra (if he doesn't win it's the upset of forever)
Actress-Movie/Miniseries: Jessica Lange in American Horror Story: Asylum (Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake is an upset threat)
Supporting Actor-Movie/Miniseries: James Cromwell in AHS (Zachary Quinto in AHS is the only other real threat)
Supporting Actress-Movie/Miniseries: Sarah Paulson in AHS (runaway favorite)
Writing-Movie/Miniseries: Behind the Candelabra (The Hour is the best written, but BtC is the favorite for everything)
Directing-Movie/Miniseries: Behind the Candelabra
Reality Competition Series: The Amazing Race (because screw people who say something can't win every single year; it's actually a fine series, but The Voice is better)
Reality Host: Tom Bergeron for Dancing with the Stars
Reality Series: Shark Tank (Duck Dynasty was unfortunately not nominated)
Variety Series: Daily Show with Jon Stewart (he's great, but The Colbert Report has never received the recognition it wholly deserves)
Variety Special: Who da hell gives a crap?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Official 2013 Emmy Nominations and Analysis: Drama Series

Emmy nominations are official, and so begins the 2-month-long trek to awards night. I failed to follow through with my "promise" to post revised predictions this past week leading up to the reveal of nominations today. As a result, I'll be listing them before each of the categories actual nominations. I did brilliantly on some categories and horrendously on others. Overall, I guess 62% of the nominees correctly in the major categories in Drama, Comedy, Movie/Miniseries, Reality Competition, and Variety. Here we go.

(all of my predictions are listed in order of the probability I thought they had of being nominated)
Drama Series:
I predicted:
  1. Homeland
  2. Breaking Bad
  3. Downton Abbey
  4. Mad Men
  5. Game of Thrones
  6. The Americans
Actual nominees:
Breaking Bad (4th nom)
Downton Abbey (2nd nom)
Game of Thrones (3rd nom)
Homeland (2nd nom)
House of Cards (1st nom)
Mad Men (6th nom)

Result: 5/6
Analysis: My predictions were almost completely correct. All but The Americans were nominated, and House of Cards was the series I thought to be the 7th most likely to be nominated. All of the series are wholly deserving. The only shame is that there can't be 10 or 12 nominees so that more deserving series such as The Americans, Justified, Parenthood, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire, and The Newsroom (less so) could get the recognition they deserve.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Breaking Bad
  2. Game of Thrones
  3. Homeland
  4. House of Cards
  5. Downton Abbey
  6. Mad Men

I predicted:
  1. Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad
  2. Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody in Homeland
  3. Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards
  4. Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Man Men
  5. Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in The Newsroom
  6. Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire
Actual nominees:
Hugh Bonneville as Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey (2nd for role and overall)
Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (5th for role and 7th overall)
Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom (1st for role and overall)
Jon Hamm in Mad Men (6th for role and 9th overall)
Damian Lewis in Homeland (2nd for role and overall)
Kevin Spacey in House of Cards (1st for role and 2nd overall)

Result: 5/6
Analysis: This category was always 5 solid nominees with an iffy 6th. I haven't seen Boardwalk, so I honestly have no inkling of Buscemi's season, but as an avid lover of Downton Abbey, I can say that Hugh Bonneville did not deserve his nomination at all. This is of no fault of his own as he fulfills his part excellently on the series, but he simply isn't given much of anything to do. If his episode submission is anything but one of the early episodes in which he struggles with his estates finances and the rapidly shifting social norms of the time period, this is an utterly and completely wasted nomination. That being said, I think the relative lack of shift in the nominees is a good thing here. They're all quite strong. Daniels could surprise for the win as he his Sorkin-Daniels speech at the beginning of the series pilot is the stuff that won James Spader 3 Emmys (1 for The Practice's final season and 2 for the first and third (I think) seasons of Boston Legal), albeit Sorkin-written as opposed to David E. Kelley-written. Daniels' best episode of the season was most certainly the season finale, The Greater Fool, which showed fantastic range and could rival the always terrific work of Bryan Cranston, but that's definitely not what he's going to submit. That being said, he's definitely the spoiler.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (This would his 4th, which is my only qualm as the Academy's going to have a hard time getting themselves right with equating him to Dennis Franz, which they shouldn't, because Cranston and Breaking Bad are better.)
  2. Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom
  3. Damian Lewis in Homeland
  4. Kevin Spacey in House of Cards
  5. Jon Hamm in Mad Men
  6. Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey

I predicted:
  1. Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland
  2. Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife
  3. Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
  4. Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Man Men
  5. Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal
  6. Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans
Actual nominees:
Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes in Nashville (1st for role and 4th overall)
Claire Danes in Homeland (2nd for role and 4th overall)
Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey (2nd for role and overall)
Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates in Bates Motel (1st for role and overall)
Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men (5th for role and 5/6th overall)
Kerry Washington in Scandal (1st for role and overall)
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards (1st for role and overall)

Result: 4/7
Analysis: I freaking hate it when this happens. Every year the Academy thinks it's okay to nominate 6 actors in all of the non-guest acting categories except for one. In that category, they screw you over because you automatically get one wrong. Rant over. New rant beginning. This is a great and horrible category. It's great because a great, but potentially forgotten performance by Vera Farmiga was recognized. The recognition for Robin Wright (formerly Robin Wright Penn, or Princess Buttercup) is somewhat unexpected, but not unfortunate in the least. It's horrible because Margulies isn't here for her always great work and Russell isn't here, unrecognized again for her wonderful TV work (first on Felicity and now here). Also, shoo-in winner Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black wasn't nominated, making my job of picking a winner that much harder. I greatly dislike Shonda Rhimes (mostly because she threw away the greatness of Grey's Anatomy's first 3 seasons by making it a terrible, melodramatic, redundant nightmare that has no business still being on the airwaves but is), so seeing any recognition for Scandal is atrocious. Seeing Connie Britton get recognition for the unfortunate Nashville is, well, unfortunate, and actually infuriating since she took Maslany's and Russell's spots. That being said, it's not a huge surprise as she is coming off a two-time nominated role as Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Danes is the huge frontrunner, with Washington playing spoiler. Having not seen Danes, Dockery is my choice, as she had the best season on Downton. She ceases to be my selection if she fails to submit her best episode, Episode One.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Claire Danes in Homeland
  2. Kerry Washington in Scandal
  3. Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men
  4. Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel
  5. Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey
  6. Robin Wright in House of Cards
  7. Connie Britton in Nashville

Supporting Actor-Drama:
I predicted:
  1. Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad
  2. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones
  3. Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in Homeland
  4. Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad
  5. Corey Stoll as Peter Russo in House of Cards
  6. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones
Actual nominees:
Jonathan Banks in Breaking Bad (1st for role and 2nd overall)
Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire (1st for role and 3rd overall)
Jim Carter as Mr. Charles Carson in Downton Abbey (2nd for role and overall)
Peter Dinklage (3rd for role and overall)
Mandy Patinkin in Homeland (1st for role and 4th overall)
Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad (4th for role and overall)

Result: 4/6
Analysis: The lack of nomination for Coster-Waldau is incredibly unfortunate, as it means that Thrones has only slightly more than zero chance of winning Best Drama Series, as it shows that the voters weren't really watching the series all that much/closely. I'm ecstatic to see Banks nominated, as he gave (per what I've heard and hope to see soon) the best performance on the series this half-season. I'm beyond bummed to see Jim Carter undeservingly nominated once again for his incredibly warm performance on Downton Abbey, but a performance in which he, like Bonneville, is given next to nothing to do. He is simply taking up a space somebody else, like Coster-Waldau or the great, scene-stealing Corey Stoll, should've received. If the voters wanted to give Downton the acting recognition it deserved here, why not nominate Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow on the series), who gave a great performance this season as he was given an excellent storyline about his attempts to conceal his homosexuality and the issues that come when others find out about and react to it. Cannavale's nomination is a jaw-dropping shocker. He has absolutely zero nomination buzz and the lack of recognition for the rest of the series truly makes me wonder about his nomination here. As for  winners, Banks should win, but seeing as how Esposito should've won last year but lost to Paul, I wouldn't be surprised if Dinklage took his 2nd for Thrones or if Patinkin won his 2nd overall (his first was Lead Actor-Drama in 1995 for Chicago Hope) this year.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Jonathan Banks in Breaking Bad
  2. Mandy Patinkin in Homeland
  3. Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad
  4. Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones
  5. Bobby Cannavale in Boardwalk Empire
  6. Jim Carter in Downton Abbey

Supporting Actress-Drama:
I predicted:
  1. Maggie Smith as Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey
  2. Anna Gunn as Skyler White in Breaking Bad
  3. Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in Mad Men
  4. Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman in Parenthood
  5. Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in The Good Wife
  6. Morena Baccarin as Jessica Brody in Homeland
Actual nominees:
Morena Baccarin in Homeland (1st for role and overall)
Christine Baranski in The Good Wife (3rd for role and 11th overall)
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones (1st for role and overall)
Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad (2nd for role and overall)
Christina Hendricks in Mad Men (4th for role and overall)
Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey (3rd for role and 7th overall)

Result: 5/6
Analysis: I'm happy I predicted this correctly, but I'm unhappy that I had to include Baranski in order to do so. It's a great category, and I'm especially glad they included Clarke, even though her inclusion and the exclusion of Coster-Waldau is beyond strange. Potter gave one of the best performances on television this season with her excellently done cancer storyline on Parenthood, the most underrated network show on the air. I'm also sad not to see Elizabeth McGovern on there for Downton Abbey. She wholly deserved recognition this season for her storyline involving the loss of a child, which was also Bonneville's best episode, but which featured her more than anybody and was a spectacular showcase. Maggie Smith is great and I wouldn't be disappointed if she won a 3rd time for the role this year, but she just didn't have as much to do, which is really saying something since Maggie Smith and the things she can add to the role are the reason it's so good. Without those two, Gunn takes this easily with her beyond incredible performance in Fifty-One.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad
  2. Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
  3. Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
  4. Morena Baccarin in Homeland
  5. Christina Hendricks in Mad Men
  6. Christine Baranski in The Good Wife

Guest Actor-Drama:
I predicted:
  1. Nathan Lane as Clarke Hayden in The Good Wife
  2. Michael J. Fox as Louis Canning in The Good Wife
  3. Ray Romano as Hank Rizzoli in Parenthood
  4. Dylan Baker as Colin Sweeney in The Good Wife
  5. Jimmy Smits as Nero Padilla in Sons of Anarchy
  6. Jim Beaver as Sheriff Shelby Parlow/Drew Thompson in Justified
Actual nominees:
Dan Bucatinsky as James Novak in Scandal (1st for role and overall)
Michael J. Fox in The Good Wife (3rd for role and 15th overall)
Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn in Homeland (1st for role and overall)
Harry Hamlin as Jim Cutler in Mad Men (1st for role and overall)
Nathan Lane in The Good Wife (1st for role and 4/5th overall)
Robert Morse as Bert Cooper in Mad Men (4th for role and 6th overall)

Result: 2/6
Analysis: Guest categories are always by far the hardest to predict, but this is ridiculous. While Beaver being snubbed isn't surprising, especially considering they snubbed the series as a whole in general, and especially the episode Decoy and easily the best male guest cast on television (Beaver, Mike O'Malley, and even Patton Oswalt). Robert Morse deserves absolutely nothing for his recurring guest role on Mad Men, especially not the now 4 nominations her has received. He does literally nothing. I'm happy to see Harry Hamlin on there, but he was obviously nominated for who he is, which is unfortunate, since who he is is an actor who should have been nominated 3 or 4 times for Best Lead Actor-Drama in from 1987-89 or 90 for L.A. Law but was nominated not one time. The lack of recognition and respect for Parenthood is disgusting and unfortunate. I thought Ray Romano would definitely get on even if Potter didn't, simply because of who he is, but even he can't get over whatever stigma surrounds the show. Rupert Friend is a nice nomination. I'm a little surprised that Smits didn't get nominated, seeing as how he's received 12 Emmy nominations throughout his career, but I'm also unsurprised because of the complete and utter lack of recognition Sons of Anarchy as a whole, but especially Katey Sagal, has received over the years. I really can't say anything about Bucatinsky except that I really do hate Shonda Rhimes.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Nathan Lane in The Good Wife
  2. Rupert Friend in Homeland
  3. Michael J. Fox in The Good Wife
  4. Dan Bucatinsky in Scandal
  5. Harry Hamlin in Mad Men
  6. Robert Morse in Mad Men

Guest Actress-Drama:
I predicted:
  1. Shirley MacLaine as Mrs. Martha Levinson in Downton Abbey
  2. Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing in The Newsroom
  3. Stockard Channing as Veronica Loy in The Good Wife
  4. Martha Plimpton as Patti Nyholm in The Good Wife
  5. Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones
  6. Margo Martindale as Claudia in The Americans
Actual nominees:
Linda Cardellini as Sylvia Rosen in Mad Men (1st for role and overall)
Joan Cusack as Sheila Jackson in Shameless (3rd for role and overall)
Jane Fonda in The Newsroom (1st for role and 2nd overall)
Margo Martindale in The Americans (1st for role and 2nd overall)
Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni in The Good Wife (1st for role and overall)
Diana Rigg in Game of Thrones (1st for role and 6th overall)

Result: 3/6
Analysis: I'm disappointed MacLaine wasn't nominated, but more because I had her as the most likely nominee. I thought she was entertaining enough in Downton Abbey, but I didn't find her remarkable in any way. She was hurt by surprisingly weak writing and a definite lack of witty verbal jousting with Maggie Smith. That being said, her lack of nomination based on name alone is surprising. I like seeing Rigg there. I put too much faith in Channing's name alone and assumed that Plimpton would get in again after winning the award last year. I love seeing Martindale there. Cusack's nominations for that role are getting a bit old. Fonda was brilliant and most definitely deserves the award. I'd heard Preston had her best shot yet to get in for the role but simply didn't listen or take it into account. Cardellini is also nice to see. Without MacLaine, Fonda is an extremely easy winner here. Her name alone makes her a threat, and her absolutely spectacular performance cements it.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Jane Fonda in The Newsroom
  2. Carrie Preston in The Good Wife
  3. Margo Martindale in The Americans
  4. Diana Rigg in Game of Thrones
  5. Linda Cardellini in Mad Men
  6. Joan Cusack in Shameless

There was no way to predict this, so here are the nominees:
Breaking Bad--Dead Freight, written by George Mastras
Breaking Bad--Say My Name, written by Thomas Schnauz
Downton Abbey--Episode Four, written by Julian Fellowes
Game of Thrones--The Rains of Castamere, written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Homeland--Q&A, written by Henry Bromell

Analysis: This is a great set of nominees. I was hoping that Breaking Bad might get a third for something like Fifty-One, but you can't win them all. Breaking Bad as a whole making it in for writing is brilliant. This is their first nominations ever in the category, and as I view the series as the best written, directed, acted, and every else on TV, this is beyond wonderful. I'm dreadfully disappointed in the episode selection from Downton, however. Episode Four was a perfectly fine episode, but it was the third-best written of the season at best, behind Episode One and Episode Five. Nevertheless, I'm happy as always to see Fellowes and Downton make it onto the list. I've also heard really good things about Q&A. It is somewhat strange not to see Mad Men in for writing, however. Now Game of Thrones and its nomination is easily the most talked about episode of TV from this past year. It's the Red Wedding, and for that, it lands at number one in my predictions right now, though that could change in the future.
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. The Rains of Castamere from Game of Thrones
  2. Dead Freight from Breaking Bad
  3. Say My Name from Breaking Bad
  4. Episode Four from Downton Abbey
  5. Q&A from Homeland

Just like Writing-Drama, there were no predictions here, so I'm just going to go ahead with this just fine, but far from great, category.
Boardwalk Empire--Margate Sands, directed by Tim Van Patten
Breaking Bad--Gliding Over All, directed by Michelle MacLaren
Downton Abbey--Episode 4, directed by Jeremy Webb
Homeland--Q&A, directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
House of Cards--Chapter 1 (Pilot), directed by David Fincher

Analysis: This is still a great category, but it is missing a few obvious things. Gliding Over All, while great, is absolutely no match for Rian Johnson's perfect direction of Fifty-One. The bedroom scene alone should have not just garnered him a nomination, but a win. Also, where the hell is The Rains of Castamere? The writing of the episode is excellent and wholly deserved recognition, but the real strength of the episode, aside from its startling conclusion, was David Nutter's brilliant direction, which is what made the episode finale so startling. I will again say how strange Boardwalk Empire's nominations are and how much I struggle with Downton's odd episode submission choices, as Episode Five was leaps and bounds ahead of Episode Four in terms of its direction (there was simply far more to do). Plus, Brian Percival is far and away consistently the best director the series has, and not submitting his work as the representative sample of the season is an insult. Fincher's nomination is something I completely forgot about when considering what might be nominated, but I am wholly unsurprised now that it has happened. Boardwalk gets last, but it could pull a complete surprise just as the Tim Van Patten-directed episode To the Lost did last year (Face Off most definitely should have won).
Likelihood of Winning:
  1. Gliding Over All from Breaking Bad
  2. Chapter 1 (Pilot) from House of Cards
  3. Q&A from Homeland
  4. Episode Four from Downton Abbey
  5. Margate Sands from Boardwalk Empire

Top Series by Total Nominations:
17-Game of Thrones (5 in major categories)
13-Breaking Bad (8 in major categories)
12-Downton Abbey (7 in major categories)
12-Homeland (8 in major categories)
12-Mad Men (7 in major categories)

I am leaving for Italy on Saturday evening and most likely will not be posting again until I return on August 6th. Once I return, I will do my best to post my predictions, results, analysis, etc. about the Comedy Series categories, the Movie/Miniseries categories, and the Reality Series and Variety Series categories as soon as I can. Though quite late in terms of time elapsed since the announcement of nominations, there will still be more than a month and a half before the actual awards show. I hope you enjoyed.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Dawn of Film Music, Part III: Various Other Great Scores

Metropolis by Gottfried Huppertz:
Metropolis was a silent German film with German subtitles directed by the great Fritz Lang and released in 1927. Its influence on modern filmmaking is immeasurable, its take on science-fiction, and its commentary on industrialization and the rapidly approaching age of human-less mechanization. It’s a fascinating expressionist masterpiece.

I wouldn’t say that Metropolis’ score is necessarily all that influential, but it certainly is great at least in my opinion. It’s very classical in style, bearing far more resemblance in style to the composers of the 1700s and 1800s than to that of the film composers to come. That being said, the film’s score works wonders for me. Throughout much of the early part of the suite, there is an unmistakable air of grandeur and power and triumph that is simultaneously mixed with this almost magical quality. This technology is wondrous, but not flawless. Throughout the first half of the suite, this magical quality remains, but the tone darkens and so the themes of the film are mirrored more than beautifully by the score.

Aaron Copland:
Copland is my favorite classical composer of the 20th century and is my favorite English-speaking composer ever. His lush, full-bodied, earthy chords and sounds and instrumentations are brilliant in my mind, and all of his music is at once unique and wonderfully similar. His film scores, in comparison to one another, were more on the side of unique. Here are a few excerpts from some great scores of his. I won’t even analyze them at all afterward. Simply enjoy. I will say that what I like a lot about Copland’s film work is how he focused more on atmospheric theme than other things. He would compose based upon the action, whatever was going on in the film at the time, but he would refrain from putting exaggerated emphasis on a specific action (i.e. a gunshot with a fortissimo staccato note or something like that). I also love his incidental music for the play Quiet City, which I won’t post here since it’s not a film.
Of Mice and Men (1939):
If you can find Threshing Machines, that’s my favorite part of the entire soundtrack.
The City (1939):
I couldn’t find any videos with just the score itself, but here’s the entirety of the short documentary The City. Just listen for the score as the film itself is of varying quality, but never of particularly high quality.
Our Town (1940):
While not a particularly good film based on a play that’s pretty good but not great and had no business being made into a film, Copland’s score for Our Town is gorgeous.
The Heiress (1949):
This score won him his only Oscar.

Laura by David Raksin:
A 1944 Otto Preminger-directed film noir starring the unbelievably beautiful Gene Tierney (I think she’s probably the most beautiful actress ever in Hollywood), a great Dana Andrews, and the never better and more pompously amusing Clifton Webb, Laura is quite an underrated film.

David Raksin is not a name you hear often when talking about film scores, though he has been known as the “Grandfather of Film Music” on various occasions. He was a solid composer who occasionally achieved greatness. His nickname comes from his composition of over 400 combined scores for TV and film. Raksin’s work on Laura is brilliant stuff, though. It’s a hauntingly beautiful score that leaves me in awe every time. There’s never really any specific moment I look at and say, that’s masterful composition, or, that’s so haunting. Rather, the entire score as a whole creates this haunting portrait.

The Best Years of Our Lives by Hugo Friedhofer:
The 1946 Best Picture-winning film was directed by legendary director William Wyler and starred Fredric March, Dana Andrew, Harold Russell (a non-actor who actually was a war veteran), Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo. It was a great film that probably won because of its subject matter (it’s one of the absolute best films ever made examining the trouble returning vets face in returning to civic life). It’s a Wonderful Life has always been my favorite. Friedhofer’s score is simply remarkable, so I’ve included 2 videos of various themes from the film.

Unfortunately, the uploader of the videos only has left the two videos I posted as open for embedding. This entire score is quite interesting. I really love how ingeniously Friedhofer weaves the theme of the first video I have into the second I’ve posted. His inclusion of even more themes presented in other tracks (you can find on YouTube also posted by the same person) in the final track is complete and utter brilliance.

The Red Shoes by Brian Easdale:
This 1948 film written and directed by the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) and starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, and Marius Goring is great and arguably the duo’s best. The score is Easdale’s most famous and it’s wonderfully charming and enchanting.

The Third Man by Anton Karas:
Carol Reed’s 1949 film noir starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard is utterly and completely amazing in every sense. It’s score is as well, though in a completely different manner.

Anton Karas’ use of the zither is odd but ultimately brilliant. His selection of it is odd and catches a first-time viewer off-guard, much in the same way Cotten’s Holly Martins is out of the loop pretty much the entire film. Also, the way the zither creates its music makes it sound like it’s always one step behind, just like Martins, and in many ways the viewer, is in understanding what has happened to his friend Harry Lime.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Alex North:
The 1951 version of Tennessee Williams’ brilliant play is classic and ubiquitous. Vivien Leigh is characteristically brilliant, and Marlon Brando gives an absolutely iconic performance. Karl Malden and Kim Hunter are also top-notch.

Alex North holds the record for the most Best Score nominations without ever winning. He was one of the first composers in Hollywood to compose a score based on atmosphere rather than actual action. His incorporation of jazzy string movement and big band-esque brass parts of varying kinds fits the New Orleans locale perfectly. I simply love the score. That he didn’t win for this score is only made easier to handle by knowing that Franz Waxman won instead for A Place in the Sun.

High Noon by Dimitri Tiomkin:
Some don’t like Gary Cooper. I’m not one of them. He’s certainly not my favorite actor, but I think he’s quite good much of the time, especially here, in this wonderful Fred Zinnemann western, also starring the beautiful but incredibly untalented Grace Kelly and the egregiously Oscar-snubbed Katy Jurado, who I feel should have won the Oscar this year, despite her segments of the film being altogether unnecessary for the film itself.

Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darlin’ is a classic film song, and Tiomkin’s variations on it (beginning at about 2:45, with the song itself ending at about 2:30) are wonderful. The rest of the score is brilliant in my opinion, from beginning to end.

From Here to Eternity by George Duning:
A classic war film (even though it’s about what happens right before Pearl Harbor) if there ever was one, Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 film is well-acted, well-directed, and well-written. It’s score is also incredibly well-done by George Duning, a very good, but oft-forgotten composer.

Surprisingly and pretty disappointingly, I couldn’t find a video containing the main theme of the film, so we have this, one of the most famous kissing scenes in movie history. The music is just incredibly pretty.

I also have to include the scene, featuring the brilliant Montgomery Clift.

Around the World in 80 Days by Victor Young:
This film, obviously based on Jules Verne’s novel is overlong and only intermittently entertaining. David Niven doesn’t stand out nearly well enough and Cantinflas is annoyingly over-the-top, completely unfunny, and rather terrible. That being said, Victor Young’s score is wonderfully fun, exuding the adventure and magic of the entire premise of the film. If the main theme of this particular score excerpt sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s been borrowed many times. (I’m pretty sure Michael Giacchino even borrowed elements of it for both Up and Ratatouille. Even if he didn’t, the instrumentation quality similarities and influence is unmistakable.)

Giant by Dimitri Tiomkin:
This, the main title theme, of George Stephen’s worthwhile epic 1956 film starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean is very western, especially with its singing chorus and rich orchestrations complemented by bombastic trumpet sections. Simply wonderful.

The Bridge on the River Kwai by Malcolm Arnold:
David Lean’s 1957 masterpiece starring Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, and Jack Hawkins also includes Malcolm Arnold’s counter-march to the well-known Colonel Bogey march is wonderful and catchy. It won him an Oscar and rightfully so. The best known version of Arnold’s The River Kwai March isn’t the one in the film, but I’m posting the one from the film.

The Big Country by Jerome Moross:
Though overlong and sometimes uncompelling, William Wyler’s 1958 western, starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, and Charlton Heston, benefits greatly from a brilliant turn by famous singer Burl Ives and a wonderfully catchy main theme by the otherwise unnotable Jerome Moross.

As I’ve said in the past, I love brass, and the brass sections in the theme are great, as are the lightning-fast string parts. It’s very reminiscent (that’s not really the correct word, but whatever) of a film, whose score I will address eventually because I love it, made 27 years later.

Anatomy of a Murder by Duke Ellington:
This brilliantly made 1959 courtroom drama directed by Otto Preminger and starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, Lee O’Connell and George C. Scott is also blessed by an incredibly fun score by Duke Ellington.

As a note, the opening only goes until about 1:30 of the video. As the score is by Ellington, it’s obviously jazz-based. I just love the score and I had to use the opening title sequence because of how brilliant Saul Bass was.

Some people may have noticed that I have omitted all of the work of one major composer entirely from this list. I am well aware and will be addressing him in my next post. I hope we are thinking of the same person. I feel like this composer more bridged a gap between the lush and grand scores of old Hollywood and the more atmospheric composers of newer Hollywood.

I think I’m just going to end every post with a couple of videos of interviews between the great Dick Cavett and some Hollywood personality. They’re always incredibly fascinating and are oftentimes hysterical. So here’s 2 hours of Richard Burton and Cavett. If you have the time, I can’t recommend sitting down and listening to this in the background while doing something else. It’s incredibly interesting.

The Dawn of Film Music, Part II: The Other Four

This entry is going to be at least a little, if not quite a bit, longer than the Max Steiner article. During his career, Steiner was nominated 24 times for some version of an Oscar for Best Score, and he one on 3 occasions: The Informer, Now, Voyager in 1942, and Since You Went Away in 1944. Obviously, Gone with the Wind losing is looked upon as a major misstep by the Academy in 1939. That it lost to Herbert Stothart’s greatly deserving score for The Wizard of Oz makes the loss no less unbelievable.

The other 4 composers I’m going to talk about were no worse composers necessarily than Steiner, but their work was decidedly less influential. The other four composers I’ll focus on had a combined 76 nominations and 16 wins (I think I added that correctly) for some variation on the Oscar for Best Score. One was born in German-controlled Poland, one in Hungary, one in Austria, and one in Connecticut, but all ended up in Hollywood.

Franz Waxman:
Born a Jew in Silesia in modern day Poland, Waxman probably would’ve ended up in Hollywood eventually, but not nearly as soon as he did if not for being attacked by a group of Nazi sympathizers in 1934. His first major work was for James Whale’s horror classic, Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935:

This is a composite of some of the different themes of the film’s great score. What strikes me, much in the same way Steiner’s did, is how well Waxman is able to combine different feelings into the same combinations of notes. Listen for yourself and see if you can hear the stretches during which Waxman expresses both love and uncertainty and a little fear. Waxman’s ability to make something out of very little, which came to be his trademark, is evident here. All throughout his career his variations on the use of single notes or of seldom-used composition techniques earned him acclaim.

Waxman stayed out of major composition until he composed the score that made him famous in 1940, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca:

This rather short, 2 minute main theme is so haunting, even while it’s grandiose. It’s large and loud orchestrations are made all the more powerful because they’re all in minor keys. The music almost becomes the subconscious saying, “Be careful what you let yourself get caught up in. It might not be what you think.” And then it becomes your own response, “But it’s so beautiful and wondrous that it couldn’t be all that bad no matter what.” Simply masterful work.

Waxman composed quite a bit during the rest of the 40s, garnering 5 total Oscar nominations. His work in Sorry, Wrong Number in 1948, though not nominated, is great work. I won’t go into detail on it as I couldn’t find a video of it, but the climax of the film is incredibly interesting in its usage of seldom-used musical techniques.

Along with Rebecca, Waxman’s greatest score was for 1950 release, Sunset Boulevard, a brilliant film only enhanced by Waxman’s wonderful talents.

This was his first score to win an Oscar. The poster on the video says, “A Most Unusual Picture,” and indeed the film is. It’s also a most unusual score. The beginning is wonderful in how excellently it plays up the Hollywood angle of the film, giving an over-the-top, bombastic portrait of the establishment. A few minutes in, Waxman then gives us the strangely haunting, but simultaneously enchanting nature of Norma Desmond, encompassing who she is, what she has become, and what she wishes to rise again to become.

The next year, he received another Oscar win for his wonderful score for A Place in the Sun.

The score is beautiful in many ways, and only adds to this largely underappreciated film. I particularly enjoy how quickly he changes from piano to fortissimo and then all the way back down to pianissimo in the span of 2 or 3 measures. His interesting and uncommon orchestrations are evident here as well if you listen closely in certain places.

His 1954 work on Rear Window, though unrewarded, still stands as a testament to his great talents as a composer:

Waxman’s jazzy main title to this Hitchcock thriller is very interesting to me. The jazz is fun and playful and upbeat, just the way Jimmy Stewart played his role as the potentially despicable, but ultimately endearing Jeff Jeffries. At the same time, his submelodies are all devoted to showing the suspense/thriller aspects of this excellent film. It’s an incredibly interesting and ultimately quite affective approach to this fantastic film.

His final great work was the 1959 Audrey Hepburn film The Nun’s Story:

His last great score, The Nun’s Story showcases Waxman as a man moved by the film for which he’s writing. As such, his score is beautiful in every sense of the word.

Miklós Rózsa:
Born in Budapest, Rózsa achieved fame in actual classical composition in Europe, before moving to Hollywood and gaining fame for his scores of one of it seems like thousands of adaptations of The Four Feathers in 1939 and for his enchanting work on 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad:

I find this rest to be perfectly fitting for everything I’ve heard of the film. It’s a beautiful score that evokes the fantastical elements of the film wonderfully.

In 1944, he received a nomination for his score of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.

This is simply a gorgeous and powerful score that underscores everything dark and devious about the film to wonderful effect. It doesn’t necessarily come across that way on its own, but even then it’s still worth listening to.

The next year he won his first of 3 Oscars for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound:

While the film certainly is not one of Hitchcock’s better 1940s films, but Rózsa’s score is lovely and certainly was deserving of its Oscar. Just listen to the video and see why it’s such a great soundtrack for a psychological mystery thriller with romantic touches like this. It should be incredibly obvious. Rózsa never gives you time to relax. Instead, he piles on more and more and more stuff. It’s a lesson in going as close to beating someone over the head with something without ever coming close to doing it. I love it far more than the film itself, which could have benefitted from someone more convincing than Gregory Peck. I didn’t listen to the entire thing, but another interesting part of the score is his use of the theremin, an early electric instrument that controlled pitch using a sensor that sensed where the player’s hands were moving.

Rózsa’s score for the underseen 1946 film The Killers is quite good, as well. In 1947, Rózsa received his second Oscar victory for A Double Life.

This was a film noirish kind of film in which Anthony John, played to perfection by the underrated Ronald Colman, goes crazy because he begins to have increasing trouble separating his real life self from the self of the Othello he plays on the stage. I think this suite excerpt shows all of this quite well. Plus, it has great Renaissance-style composition for when Colman’s actually onstage. It’s really something.

During the 1950s, Rózsa became MGM’s go-to composer for their epics. First the overlong, overrated Quo Vadis; then Ivanhoe. Julius Caesar was the last of his 3 straight Oscar nominations. Rózsa’s crowning achievement came with his tremendous work on William Wyler’s 1959 classic epic Ben-Hur. Every bar of Rózsa’s score is arguably of equal grandeur and excellence as Steiner’s score for Gone with the Wind. Obviously the most well-known is the Parade of the Charioteers.

Ignoring how funny the guy sounds since he’s speaking German, this is absolutely recording of Rózsa’s astonishing work. Above all, this is just supposed to be a grand display of power and that makes this song an unqualified success. The rest of the score is probably just as influential as Gone with the Wind’s in some respects. Rózsa finds incredible nuance in his composition for this oftentimes undernuanced film. Also, I couldn’t find a clip of the film with the parade itself, so instead here’s a video of the astronomically expensive and awesome race itself.

My favorite part is and forever will be the sequence from 6:15 through 7:00, but especially at 6:54 or 55.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold:
Another Jewish composer, Korngold was born into music, being the son of an eminent Austrian music critic. He was described as a “musical genius” by Gustav Mahler and composed a ballet that received acclaim at just 11. He composed his first orchestral work at 14 and two operas by 17. In an earlier time, Korngold would have been the next big thing on the court composer circuit. But being 17 in 1914 meant that, at some point, composition for film was the place to be at some point. After completing his 4th opera at the age of 26, he did some more composition before going to Hollywood and arranging some Felix Mendelssohn for the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring such actors as a young James Cagney. His first major success was his Oscar-nominated original score for 1935’s Captain Blood, as swashbuckler starring the dashing Errol Flynn in his first starring role.

The upbeat, brass-heavy, exciting composition style found here is highly characteristic of Korngold’s film music, and that makes him a favorite of mine. I love how, even during the non-brass sections, there is still this sense of action and excitement.

The next year, Korngold won an Oscar for his score for the epic costume drama Anthony Adverse starring Fredric March.

The score is quite a bit better on the whole than the incredibly overlong film itself. It’s gorgeous, but Korngold makes sure to include the brassy, brazen touches that always endear him to me. The over-1200-page novel had absolutely no business being adapted in the first place as it’s not really all that engrossing and rambles for much of the time (at least it did for the few pages I read). From Here to Eternity, on the other hand, despite being almost 1000 pages as well, definitely was worth it.

Two years later in 1938, Korngold won his 2nd Oscar for another Errol Flynn adventure film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, a fantastically entertaining and colorful film about Abraham Lincoln. I’m kidding.

I simply love this and every other second of this gloriously entertaining film and score. There’s really nothing left to say.

Korngold received a 4th Oscar nomination for yet another Errol Flynn film, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Korngold’s last Oscar-nominated score is also the last I will talk about for him. The Sea Hawk, also starring Errol Flynn, isn’t as good as Adventures of Robin Hood, but it’s still entertaining.

Though I think Adventures of Robin Hood is an altogether better score, I do enjoy the main theme of The Sea Hawk the most of all of Korngold’s work. It’s a ubiquitous melody that most people have heard and either don’t know it or have absolutely no idea where it comes from.

Alfred Newman:
The only American of the bunch, Newman is a member of the Newman musical family. His brother Emil was best known for conducting The Best Years of Lives, and his other brother, Lionel, received 11 Oscar nominations and was musical supervisor for all 3 of the original Star Wars trilogy films. Alfred’s two sons are David Newman, a composer best known for his score of the animated 90s film Anastasia, and Thomas Newman, a wonderful composer who wrote The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Skyfall. Moreover, Alfred’s nephew is Randy Newman. During his career, Alfred himself received 43 Oscar nominations for Best Score and won 9 of those times, both of which are the records. Anyway, Newman first won an Oscar for his Scoring of the musical film Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1938, but it really was nothing special. He really hit it big with his nominated score for 1939’s Wuthering Heights. This is Cathy’s Theme.

Much like the film itself, this is just a gorgeous embodiment of the melodramatic, romance imbued nature of the film. (I’ve always thought Merle Oberon had a fascinating sort of enchanting beauty about her (see 1:35).)

His work on the Charles Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also quite good, but Laughton’s tremendous work completely steals the film. Anyway, much of his work in the 40s was lauded, but nothing has ever struck me as much as other stuff.

His work on All About Eve is simply wonderful. The film itself is absolutely masterful and is my 2nd favorite film of all time, what with Bette Davis, my favorite actress, giving her best performance, and George Sanders’ peerless turn as Addison DeWitt, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s astonishingly brilliant script. Also, I just find Celeste Holm to be incredibly charming, though I know some don’t. Anyway, this video is of the main title sequence of the film and the early few scenes of the film. It isn’t entirely representative of the entire score, but it functions well enough in that regard.

He won some more Oscars and received several more nominations before, in 1955, composing the score for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, a truly horrid melodrama starring William Holden, in my opinion a great actor who was, in virtually every case, an absolutely incompetent romantic lead, as a newspaper writer from America, and Jennifer Jones, a perfectly good actress from Oklahoma, as a Chinese doctor. It’s laughable and terrible and I yelled at the TV about how bad the film was and even almost got off my couch and left the room it was so pathetic.

Despite how much I hated the film and everything it stood for, the score is remarkably beautiful and exemplifies everything the film was at the time. It’s romantic and beyond gorgeous.

In 1959, Newman received another nomination for his work on The Diary of Anne Frank.

The score really is beautiful with hints of the heartbreaking nature of the film.

Newman’s score to How the West Was Won earned him another Oscar nomination in 1963.

It’s the prototypical Western score and I absolutely love it. Though it’s may not be one of my top 5 favorite Western themes ever, it’s certainly up there in the top 10 somewhere. It’s catchy and brassy and completely impossible to hate.

The l970 film Airport, for which he received his final Oscar nomination, was, I’m pretty sure, his final score overall as well.

This film marked the beginning of the disaster film trend of the 1970s continued by movies like The Poseidon Adventures, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno. The score shows Newman keeping up with the times but not forgetting about what made him so successful earlier on. His score still has the classical Hollywood feel somewhat, but it most certainly feels updated. There’s just something about his orchestrations and the instruments he chooses to inhabit each specific part that makes it sound more modern. Plus, it just sounds like something bad is going to happen, which it is.

My next post will be a series of miscellaneous other scores and tracks I enjoy from the 30s, 40s, and 50s that weren’t composed by one of these 4 men. I might also include a TV theme, a TV theme that is heard all over the place but is almost never identified as the theme of a specific TV show. After that, your guess is as good as mine as to what I’m going to post about.

To end, in order to continue the trend started last time with the Bette Davis videos, here are two videos with Elsa Lanchester on The Dick Cavett Show.

Talking about Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester

Talking and being hysterical about Isadora Duncan