Sunday, July 31, 2011

What is the "Magical Music Cue"?

          People tend to geek about the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where Gwyneth Paltrow exits a bus to the tune of Nico's "These Days." I enjoy it too. The image of Margot Tenenbaum moving in dream-like slow motion toward the audience is supplemented perfectly by the song, and it is usually one of the three musical moments of recent films that people my age cite as being their introduction to the power of music in cinema. The other two moments include, inevitably, Requiem for a Dream's "Lux Aterna" sequence composed by Clint Mansell and Fight Club's "Where is My Mind" Pixies finisher.

         This fact has actually turned into something of a game. I've gotten into the habit of asking fellow movie-lovers their favorite movie-music moments. 9 times out of 10, if the person is under 25 and over 18, it is one of the three scenes mentioned above.

         Of course, there are exceptions. Some people might mention one of the many worthy sections of I'm Not There, or perhaps the Urge Overkill "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" lip-synch in Pulp Fiction. Or maybe even the Walter Carlos Moog-fest of a Clockwork Orange score (most notably the opening shot). All perfectly good examples, I must say.

         But examples of what? Well, obviously, music in cinema. But something more, too. They're not just examples of music in movies, but they're examples of "Magical Music Cues". "Magical Music Cues", as they're sometimes called by film historians, present themselves as totally emotional, tonal, and supplemental moments that detach themselves from the film in order to stir the audience in a specific direction.

        If this definition is difficult to wrap your mind around, and you haven't, for some reason or another, seen any of the previous examples, try checking out this perfect example from Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66, a film I more-or-less shrug about.

       As you can see, once the music is placed into the aural foreground, all hope for plot progression is thrown out the window, and the audience is just left with a stylistically jarring and emotionally compelling image. There is a marriage. The visual and audio artistry is merged into a sort of dance, each piece perfectly supplementing the other.

      Some films try to have these moments but fail to make the marriage a faithful one, with the music sometimes cheating on the image with the actors, or perhaps a special effect.

      You may think this sounds crazy, but try to remember one of these shocking infidelities: the painful use of any song at any point in Peter Jackson's horrendously clumsy The Lovely Bones (specifically the use of The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman" in what is supposed to be a heart-wrenchingly dramatic sequence where Susie's brother almost dies), the poor man's golden era singing of Liza Minnelli in Martin Scorsese's unfortunate New York, New York, and of course the nauseating display of sentimentality at the end of Pay It Forward with "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry.

      All of these examples of lousy attempts at "Magical Movie Cues" are by filmmakers who may have felt their films were lacking some sort of emotional punch. The good cues are designed to jump-start audiences emotionally and inspire them. I mean, basically the entirety of Baraka is one long musical cue. People tend to dig that movie. They get emotionally attached to it. Why? Because that marriage is admirably healthy.

      A recent example of a successful cue (I'm going to keep mentioning this film forever, so you'd better not get tired of it) is the use of Zbigniew Preisner's "Lacrimosa" in Terrence Malick's mesmerizing creation of the universe segment of The Tree Of Life. The perfect combination of sound and sight. A totally overwhelming piece of cinema.
     In addition to The Tree of Life, some more examples of my favorite cues include, in no particular order:

  • The "Wise Up" scene in Magnolia
  • The Ry Cooder "Cancion Mixteca" piece during the super 8 sequence in Paris, Texas
  • The Nick Cave "O' Children" sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
  • Club Silencio, all of Club Silencio, in Mulholland Drive
  • "In Heaven" in Eraserhead
  • Raging Bull's Intermezzo
  • Leonard Cohen's "Stranger Song" opening sequence in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
  • Daft Punk's "The Grid" in Tron: Legacy
  • Glen Hansard's "Say it To Me Now" in Once
  • Michael Brook's "Best Unsaid" in Into The Wild
  • Nick Cave's "Song for Bob" in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  • James Rado's "Aquarius" in The 40 Year Old Virgin

What are some of your favorite "Magical Music Cues"? What are some of your least favorite? Let me know in the comments section or on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cry Already 2: Biggest Tearjerkers

I'm already crying
          Somebody asked me what I find to be the most manipulative movie I've ever seen. I responded with Crash. I stand by that answer. I've never seen a movie scream at me so hard to cry already. Michael Pena's screaming scene (pictured in the below blog) is bundled with all of the plot devices string pulling necessary to build a bridge out of Dolly Parton movies.
          That said, I'll admit it. I cried the first time I saw Crash. I was very much manipulated by its dark magic. However, the second time I saw the movie I couldn't help but cringe. After being asked that question, and thinking about Crash's effect on me, I got to thinking about tearjerkers that are consistent with their manipulation.
          What are the movies that always seem to make me cry, no matter how many times I've seen them?
          I'm going to break these down by category, rating the films by the mileage they get out of my tear ducts.

The Denzel Tear
So what, I'm crying

  • The Champ
    • If any of you can sit through this scene without shedding a Denzel, then I suggest you buy a coffin and lay in it. Seriously. 
  • Rudy
    • You see a pattern emerging? Sports movies tend to illicit the coveted Denzel tear from me. You've got the basic question, can this underdog really do it? And when that resounding yes is finally given, how can you not cry? HOW CAN YOU NOT CRY!
  • Into the Wild
    • This movie's ending is not what makes me cry. It is instead the entire performance of Hal Holbrook. Almost every moment this man is onscreen is completely heartbreaking, especially the moment where Holbrook's character pleads for permission to adopt Chris, only to be met with, "Can we talk about this when I get back?" Holbrook knows he'll never see Chris again and breaks down as he watches the young man walk away. Powerful stuff. 
  • Toy Story 2
    • Don't act like you didn't shed a Denzel when Jessie sang her song about being forgotten by her owner and left on the side of the road. Don't. Even. Act like it. 

The Sniffle
What? It's sad!
  •   Life is Beautiful
    • You cried. I cried. We all cried. Admit it. When that little boy tells his mother that he's won a tank, all I've won is the condescending stare of the dude that only caught the ending. "That's not dust," I say, mildly flexing my biceps as I wipe my tears, "I'm freaking crying." 
  • Big Fish
    • Oh yeah. Billy Crudup's final monologue, and ultimate acceptance of his father, rips me a new one every time. A new tear duct. 
  • Paths of Glory
    • Often accused of being emotionally distant, Stanley Kubrick fans are quick to point out the  heart wrenching ending to this often overlooked masterpiece. 
  • Cast Away
    • You cried too. Right? Right...?

The Uncontrollable Sob
Go away!
  • Breaking the Waves
    • This movie does terrible things to me. Every time I see those bells ringing at the end I lose it. It doesn't matter if that's the only part I saw. 
  • Toy Story 3
    • And we thought Jessie's song was sad. Andy's beautiful farewell to his toys at the end of Toy Story 3 is like watching my childhood get folded into a bottle and thrown to sea. 
  • Cinema Paradiso
    • OH MY GOD
  • Dancer In The Dark
    • Either Lars Von Trier has a direct line to all things sad, or I have a lot in common with the man. Either way, I'm scared. This movie slaughters all things good in the world and leaves you in a kiddie pool made of salt water and snot. If you ever watch this movie with another person, apologize to them in advance for the emotional sewage you will become. 

What are your biggest tearjerkers? Let me know in the comments section or below the link on Facebook.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cry Already! Questions and Answers and Lists and Things

The Plot Devices Made Me Sad
          I decided to write a question and answer blog because I wanted to see what kinds of blogs you want me to write. Apparently you people love lists. So your wish is my command. Several of you asked me similar questions, so I've boiled them down to the overlap.

Who Do You Prefer, Godard or Truffaut?
          To be totally honest, I don't really care too much for either. I'm a Louis Malle man. I appreciate their contributions to cinema, but I don't think either filmmaker has aged particularly well.

What are your five favorite films since 2005?

  • Synecdoche, New York
    • On most days I consider this the best movie I've ever seen. 
  • Inland Empire
    • There is nothing else in the world like it. In a good way. 
  • A Serious Man
    • The most emotionally jarring Coen Bros. film. 
  • The Tree of Life
    • It's possible that I could change my mind on this. But at the moment, I'm really, really impressed by this one. 
  • The White Ribbon
    • An absolutely soul-crushing masterpiece of modern cinema. See it immediately. 
What's the movie you wish you had made the most?
          I think this to myself all the time when I'm watching a movie. It usually doesn't even matter if it's high quality or not. Sometimes I find myself wishing I had made crap. Just something. Strangely enough, I often catch myself wishing I had made a comedy. 

         I get jealous of Judd Apatow's directing career, especially when I watch Funny People, because a lot of those ideas have been in my own fiction. However, I think the strongest memory I have of watching a movie I wish I had made myself was when I watched Mean Streets for the first time. There's something about the improvisational quality of that movie that made me believe anybody could have made it. Even me. 

What are some movies you find yourself constantly defending? 

  • Southland Tales
    • I've already written an article on this one, but this is definitely the one I defend the most. "Donnie Darko was good, but Southland Tales was too silly and confusing." I hear that all the time. And I find myself totally compelled to argue it. There is just something about that movie that really does something to me. 
  • Inland Empire
    • Too weird, to confusing, the image is too muddy, it's too long. I've heard them all. I've argued them all. Almost constantly. 
  • Hulk
    • I've actually written a fairly lengthy defense of this one that almost got published. This movie, to me, is the best superhero movie ever made. It has everything I want in my big budget character studies. The problem people have with this movie is that it is too moody, too slow, and too focused on its characters. Well, what is the Hulk if not a moody, lumbering green dude with serious anger issues? Ang Lee made a spectacular film with Hulk and people, inexplicably to me, complain about it all the time. As if the Liv Tyler muscle-fest did any better. 
  • I feel like I've been constantly defending The Tree of Life lately. If you're one of those people who hates it, read my review to see what I think of it. 

How many movies do you watch a week?!

          It depends on the week. I tend to watch at least one movie every other day. Sometimes two in one day. Sometimes one in one week. But the average is probably seven movies a week. Sometimes more, though...

Where do you find all the movies you watch?

          I read a lot of articles online and buy lots of autobiographies from filmmakers where they list their favorite films and filmmakers. I usually find the influences of some filmmaker, then watch those influences, and then find those influences, etc. Netflix is VERY helpful. 

What are the movies that changed how you feel about the medium? 

  • Sideways
    • When I first saw this movie, I think I was 14, I didn't think much of it. I saw it again, at about 18, and completely identified with it. It completely absorbed me and shook me emotionally. This is when I found out that movies effect you in different ways at different times. It's an extremely simple thing to learn, and I'm sure I learned it really late, but there you have it. 
  • The Dark Knight
    • I learned that genre, budget, and audience need not get in the way of brilliant filmmaking. And that, sometimes, those things enhance the picture. 
  • Dead Man
    • Dead Man taught me that I should write whichever story I can dream up in my head, and that it is possible for it to get made. Far and away Jarmusch's cinematic triumph, Dead Man shows young writers and filmmakers that there will always be an audience for the weird and original things we come up with. 
  • Nashville
    • Your film is only as good as its casting. 
You gave us your favorite movies, but what do you think are, objectively, the best movies ever made?
          I think it would be impossible for me to give an objective answer to this question. But I suppose I'll try to break it down to most impressive examples of sheer filmmaking talent. 

  • Citizen Kane
    • Duh. The phenomenal camera tricks, the fast pacing, the groundbreaking use of lenses. This one is near perfect. Everybody knows that. 
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
    • Literally the perfect special effects blockbuster. The filmmaking, the acting, the writing, the pacing. Everything works. 
  • The Empire Strikes Back
    • The ultimate sequel. Even better than The Godfather, Part II. Why? Because big summer movies have a different kind of hype. This picture didn't just have to amp it up, it had to live up to the world building, the legions of fans, the merchandising market, and the box office returns. And it did it. 
  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
    • One of the most impressive performances ever committed to film while simultaneously being one of the most impressive, and bold, uses of film as a means of fighting "the man" possible. 
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller
    • A perfectly conceptualized western in every way. Totally unique, and yet completely familiar. 

What is the most heavy-handed, manipulative movie you've ever seen? 
          Crash. Definitely Crash

What are some under seen gems you're always trying to get people to watch? 
  • True Stories
    • I love this movie. I feel like everybody would love this movie if they watched it. If you haven't seen it, what are you doing reading this blog? Go! Go now!
  • Winter Light
    • An absolutely spellbinding drama. One of the best ever made. 
  • Zerkalo
    • Cinematographer's delight. 
  • Crumb
    • An emotionally devastating documentary. Infinitely fascinating. 
  • Synecdoche, New York
    • Because it's awesome. 
  • Paris, Texas
    • One of the finest screenplays ever written. 
  • 25th Hour
    • No, no, I know it's Spike Lee, but it's really, really brilliant. 

That's all the questions I'll answer for now. I'll get to the others at some point, I'm sure. I'd love to hear some of your answers to these questions. Just fire off in the comments section below, or message me answers on facebook below the inevitable link I'll post to this blog. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

         Early on in Terrence Malick's newest film The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt's character (named Father) wakes up his three boys and takes them to their church, where he plays a huge pipe organ in the seemingly endless sanctuary. As the music plays, Father's oldest son Jack (played by an excellent Hunter McKraken) smiles. And then, for an instant, the film switches its focus to a sandstorm moving across a desert. And then, before you know that the image has changed, the focus returns to Jack and his father's organ playing. 
        It wasn't until this moment that I believed in The Tree of Life, and in the direction that Terrence Malick seems to be heading. 

       And what direction is that? It's hard to describe. The film lies somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Which means that those of you with a short attention span may want to look elsewhere. It moves slow. But I will say that the pacing is much, much faster than Malick's previous effort The New World, which many people consider unwatchably dull. 

       Although, when I talk about pacing, some people may confuse that with plot. So I'm going to get this out of the way early. There is no plot. There is no point A trying to reach point B. In fact, the film seems to be in direct opposition to point B. There are just moments. Hundreds of moments. These moments are linked together by a free-associating mind. For example, when the young boys are shown walking like their legs have been broken, moving side to side as if on a ship during a storm, the film cuts away to a man whose physical deformity forces him to really walk this way. We cut back to the kids, but it's a different day, and they feel guilty--maybe because they've insulted the man, but maybe not. Maybe because they've just watched a man get arrested. 

         "Could that happen to anybody?" Jack asks. But what is it he's afraid of? The film has shown us a man with deformed legs, men being pushed into the back of a police officer's car, and another man who seems to be having some sort of a seizure, since the last time we've seen Jack's face. Is he asking about all of those things? Does it matter? 

        I suppose it only matters if you're trying to find a plot. There are many opportunities for you to try and decipher one, but I don't think you'll have much luck. It's better to just watch the movie as if you're watching a dream. It's best to watch it the way you would watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the only other American film to work on such an ambitious level. 

A Screenshot From the Film
         The closest thing to a synopsis that I can give you is the movie is, essentially, a series of questions and attempted answers. Like Kubrick's film, The Tree of Life works more like an essay than a narrative. While 2001 attempts to answer questions about progress and technology, The Tree of Life attempts to answer why God seems so distant, and why people never seem to get what they deserve. In fact, it seems that the entire movie balances on a single question, "God, how could you let my son die?"

       This question, asked very early in the film, sends the audience through millions of years of evolution. Where was God? Well, as the quote from the book of Job shown before the start of the film asks, "where were you when I created the heavens and the Earth?" 

      These two questions wrestle with each other for the duration of the film. We're treated to huge, momentous events like the creation of the sun, and small, microscopic ones like the way a small child looks at his baby brother. No event is treated as more important than the other. In this film, everything is treated with a sense of balance. A dinosaur crushing another dinosaur's head into a rock is presented with the same curiosity as a young boy smashing his neighbor's window. 

     Malick seems to be saying that all of these things are of equal importance. Or, that they are at least similarly ranked among what is important in the cosmos. The juxtaposition, for the most part, works quite well. 

     The movie's problems lie in runtime and focus. While there is no plot to speak of, there is most definitely a focus. However, throughout the lengthy prologue and epilogue, the focus is somewhat diminished. Match the aimless epilogue with the film's 157 minute runtime, and you can guess that this movie may not be for everybody. 

     But I encourage you to stick with it. Especially if you are a fan of Terrence Malick's previous work. You'll appreciate the absolutely brilliant imagery, the haunting musical score, and what is perhaps Brad Pitt's best performance so far in his career. 

     I feel like I have more to say, but for right now, just know that this a movie that isn't for people who say, "that movie was too weird" and it is not for people who say "but what was the point?" This movie is for those of you who smile to yourself whenever you hear somebody say those things.  And to those of you, enjoy the show.