Some Good Scenes Require An Even Better Song Choice

After various discussions recently with a number of people I’ve realised how lucky I am to be at an age where I talk with an all manner of different people with different interests. I may be someone who is a fan of films but I would find it considerably dull if all I talked about all day was films and I would end up driving myself mad. But then by the same token it’s always interesting when two interests cross because it sparks off a very interesting debate indeed. Just recently I found myself engaged in quite an in depth conversation about music which lead on to the use of music in films. A topic I feel very strongly about.

The discussion turned eventually so we were talking about specific song choices for films and the songs we felt were placed at the perfect moment in a film. Having written about the topic of soundtracks a couple of months ago, it made me realise that it’s not just an entire soundtrack that can make a film good, sometimes the scene can be brilliant because of one specific song.

Thinking back to some of the songs used in films that really made me shiver because of what it added to the scene, one of the first that jumped out at me was the use of the remix by Jon Brion of ‘He Needs Me’ for the film ‘Punch Drunk Love’ one of my favourite films and a perfect display of Paul Thomas Anderson’s talent as a writer and director. The song was used to show the positivity that was flowing in to the life of Barry Egan, a character whom we see conflicted and targeted before to the point of instability. The music reflects the positive influence that love has had on a man who has experienced so much unhappiness previously. It made the scenes of Barry frantically rushing to Hawaii to see the woman he loves seem realistic and made me feel somewhat overjoyed. Aiding in the artistic development and character building of the film I feel it was perfectly utilised, and is still a song I hold close to me.

Whilst on the topic of songs that made me feel overjoyed when they appeared in a film, I still get shivers when I watch the Richard Curtis film ‘The Boat That Rocked’ and it reaches the scene in which ‘Dancing In The Street’ by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas plays. It’s a perfect reflection of the atmosphere of a film filled with young love, rock’n’roll spirit and having a good time. Seeing a montage of various people dancing to the song and having a good time made me feel both happy and uplifted. It was similar to the scene when ‘Lets Spend The Night Together’ by The Rolling Stones plays. It’s an uplifting, positive spirited song that makes people across the country (within the film) dance their feet off and leaves me with a smile on my face.

Dancing as some followers will know is quite an interest of mine when it comes to films. Just recently I posted an entry (entitled ‘the talent behind dance sequences in films’) about the use of dance sequences in films and how effective they can be if they are done well. Part of this for me is the song choices because it’s crucial when showing the different entities characters are when they dance, to have a song that expresses their emotions. Personally I feel that this was achieved in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ during the end dance sequence at the competition. All of the song choices suited the scene well, but one of my favourites was ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ by The White Stripes. It was a loud and vicious song that allowed the characters of Pat and Tiffany to express all of their anger they have towards the members of society that judge them and all of the people that have upset them, but then it also reflected the chaotic friendship they have where neither of them know where they stand. It added a different level to who they are as dancers as well which worked brilliantly.

Songs can be used for two different purposes in films, which works when they are contrasted against each other to show a change. An example of this is the use of ‘Shipping Up To Boston’ by Dropkick Murphys in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ in which the song is used during the opening credits (seventeen minutes in incidentally) and then later when the film is drawing close to it’s conclusion. The pace and the volume of the song are used to show a contrast between the police unit and the mob being confident in their plan and comfortable in their position, to then later feeling exposed and concerned for their safety. Hearing the song play during a fast car journey while Jack Nicholson shouts at someone really left me feeling like his character was coming to the end of his tether and as though the king was getting his crown taken off of him so to speak. It developed a sense of excitement at the beginning with a feel that anything could happen but then was used to create tension later, with both working brilliantly from my perspective. How the song is used twice is also important to consider when you realise that much like the character of the mole with either party it has two different sides to it.

On the other hand of course you have to consider the fact that a song can have the opposite power on a film, it can make a scene feel awkward and stale when it’s out of place. I still feel that the soundtrack for ‘Shutter Island’ is very poor, being too loud and clangy for a film that is supposed to be tense and chilling. It was too loud and didn’t suit the idea of mystery and deception that the story was attempting to convey. Instead of large landscape shots of the prison accompanied by quiet and disturbing music, you have darkened shots of the island accompanied by the bursting of your eardrums.

However when I talking about out of place soundtracks I once again (for the third time) have to talk about the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation of ‘The Great Gatsby’ which is filled with out of place songs. Set in the 1920s American party scene you’d expect it to be filled with heavy Jazz music with loud trumpets for dance numbers. Instead you’re watching scenes accompanied by Jay-Z and The XX? I don’t think so Mr Luhrmann. If you really loved the book as much as you say you did then you’d respect the source material and act accordingly. You don’t add too much of your own image to the point where the original image painted by F Scott Fitzgerald has been altered in to something quite ugly. You can try and be quirky with your party scenes but this isn’t ‘Moulin Rouge’ anymore, and you are not a teenager anymore! I addressed him directly in the hope that he might see this one day. I have doubts but it’s always worth trying.

I’m not suggesting that the songs and films mentioned are the best combinations, they’re just combinations that had an impact on me and sprang to mind when discussing the topic. There were a lot I could have mentioned but I assume that people have already lost interest by this point so I didn’t want to make it longer. If anyone is still reading by this point then thank you. I hope you’ve all had a pleasant day or are going to have a pleasant day, depending on where you are in the world.

I’m going to take pride in the fact that I’ve managed to talk about film soundtracks without mentioning ‘Submarine’ by Alex Turner!

Oh…

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Rapid Reviews – Flight

From the man that brought you ‘Back To The Future’, ‘Polar Express’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ there’s drug use, profanity and nudity within the opening minutes of the film. Is this step back to ‘adult themed’ films a step in the right direction?

The film centers around a pilot who is in an emotional conflict with himself, turning to drugs and drink on a regular basis. When a flight he’s piloting goes badly wrong it’s up to him to land the plane safely despite being somewhat “under the influence”. This then leads to the turn of events where we see the development of his character going through the successful/ unsuccessful recovery process and the different questions that are asked about the incident. That’s about it really. Simple storyline but with very complex characters so it’s still an interesting and entertaining experience.

The acting is sound throughout, with a supporting cast made up of John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle who all give good performances but nothing too special. Kelly Reilly is of particular interest in this film, playing a drug addict who is trying to recover from her past actions. I’ve never really seen her shine in anything before but I think ‘Flight’ is the first time I have been impressed by her acting, she is well suited for the role and gives a solid performance. But the man who really keeps the film together right from the word go, is of course Denzel Washington.

Washington’s character is really what keeps the piece together, showing emotional and personal conflict very well and keeping the film interesting. The film does lose it’s way after a very impressive first act, but it’s the character development that made me want to continue watching the film. Now I don’t know if that’s down to his acting or the writing but either way it was impressive to see Washington add a human level to the character so he was believable and someone you could connect with. It may not have been someone you wanted to connect with, but you still did so on an emotional level. It reminded me a lot of his character in ‘Training Day’ because much like he was for that film he is at conflict with himself and really made that work for the film. He stops the film from slacking too much which is commendable. It wasn’t his best performance, but it was good to see him getting back in to some serious acting after a couple of shaky films in recent years.

The writing for the film is sound, the screenplay was a bit weak in some areas but still good nonetheless. The directing is of a high standard but it’s not Zemeckis’ best piece of work by far. It is a good film, but after making films like ‘Castaway’ and ‘Forest Gump’ it doesn’t really compare. That isn’t a bad thing, it just shows variety in his work.

After a certain point it is easy to see where the film is going and it does lose interest for a bit which is a shame, but it doesn’t negate the elements of the film that are good and it does manage to pick itself back up and find it’s footing when the questions start being asked. It does present some interesting themes, mostly based around the idea of redemption but it does so in a more cynical light that shows failure and a weighted attempts at changing which was a different experience and one I rather enjoyed. More importantly for me it explored the idea of what it means to be a hero and whether someone can truly be a hero in today’s world which was interesting to see develop. The messages of believing in yourself and determination were accompanied very well by the idea of reflecting on your actions and the questioning of religion, making it stand out for me on a personal level.

Overall I would give the film three and a half stars out of five, but it is close to four stars. It was an enjoyable piece of film that was baggy in sections but was definitely held together by Denzel Washington who is the star of the film. I have been informed that the science behind what happens to the plane isn’t strictly possible or realistic but the way it is presented makes it seem believable and works as an exciting piece of cinema.

Could have done without the appearance of Piers Morgan to be honest.

Rapid Reviews – Django Unchained [DVD]

This film is almost like a representation of how Quentin Tarantino is as a film maker: a superb writer but an ill disciplined director.

Branching in to a film genre that is derived from Spaghetti Westerns and being referred to as a ‘Spaghetti Southern’ by Tarantino himself, the film follows the story of Django, a freed slave turned bounty hunter in search of his wife. Quite a simple story line which is sprinkled with a touch of Tarantino so it has fantastic characters, scenes of brutal violence accompanied by scenes of carefully written dialogue. It is a visual treat but also a treat on the ears, with Tarantino showing us that he deserved his Academy Award for screenplay writing this year, being cleverly witty as ever.

The acting is top notch on all accounts, Jamie Foxx is very good as the lead role and had brilliant chemistry with Christoph Waltz. It’s the second occasion Waltz has worked with Tarantino and has received an Academy Award for his performance which is well deserved in this case, his acting is absolutely superb and he really adds depth to the character. Kerry Washington works well as the wife of Django who manages to be intriguing as a character who has the balance between being frail and strong willed. The other star in the cast for me however along with Waltz is Leonardo DiCaprio as the owner of a plantation. He is utterly fantastic but terrifying as well, playing someone who is bordering on psychotic.

In terms of directing it is the usual case of the Tarantino’s comic style violence, which does have some value in terms of entertainment but it does become very over indulgent towards the end where we have sequences that work well as action scenes but are tangential to the main story. The violence is as usual the sort that makes you cringe but feel excited at the same time because it’s surreal, but this does wear off towards the third act of the film. It’s a shame that the film has so many tangents that are unneeded but this is down to writing that allowed Tarantino to indulge himself. There are sequences of the film that could easily be cut out, including the sequence in which Tarantino himself actually makes an appearance with a rather odd accent that is difficult to understand.

The film explores some interesting themes, the most obvious of which are based around racism and the oppression of lower classes which Tarantino does handle sensitively to an extent. The main issue with the topics the film explores is the language used, specifically the use of the ‘N’ word which appears 104 times over a 165 minute period. Excessive is one word to describe it, but then some would describe it as accurate considering the film is based in a time when political correctness was considerably less important than it is today. I admire the fact that Tarantino wanted the script to be true to the time period and to represent people’s attitudes, however it was in the end something that modern audiences were uncomfortable with and weren’t ready for.

Overall I would give the film three and a half stars out of five, it was a mixed film because of the directing and the writing style Tarantino has but inevitably the film was too long and over indulgent. It was a shame that Tarantino couldn’t make the film shorter and better disciplined but it was still an enjoyable experience, and it was relieving to see Tarantino make a good film after his 2007 attempt at grindhouse cinema. I would watch the film again because it is good, it’s just not great.

Rapid Reviews – Looper [DVD]

Having sat down about this time last year to watch ‘Skyfall’ but catching the first ten minutes of this film due to a mistake in the projection booth, I was actually looking forward to watching it. After waiting for it to be released on DVD and then watching it with the same excitement, I think it’s safe to say my interest was like a bag of sand with a small hole placed in it; it slowly drained out of me as the film progressed.

From the first ten minutes you hear Joseph Gorden-Levitt recite a speech that sums up who his character is and what sort of world he lives in, being a gun for hire who kills people that are sent to him from the future. That was interesting I’ll admit, but I wish I could say the same for the rest of the film. The concept behind the film is very good and has some level of interest but the delivery was not up to scratch. You have a story that fills you with details as you go along that somehow become important or don’t amount to anything so it’s all a bit hit and miss. The film the writer set out to make at the beginning is really good but it looses it’s way and turns into a different film entirely which is a real shame.

I’m not saying that Rihan Johnson did a terrible job, it’s just it needs a lot of tweaking, particularly in terms of writing. If I was sat there questioning how someone was somewhere at one time but then this happened to them later and then this person can’t even exist anymore it just goes to show two things; firstly it can’t be that well written, but secondly I’m not engaged enough in it. Time travel is always a fascinating area to use in a science fiction film, but it has to be applied well. I can appreciate that the film is ambitious with what it’s trying to achieve but personally I don’t feel it reached it.

I also found some of the visuals quite out of place as well, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt being altered to look like Bruce Willis (his character from the future) but not actually looking human any more. It’s got the usual splattering of ‘future technology’ thrown across the screen, combined with a “this is how the poorest of the poor live” and “this is how the wealthy live” making it quite average in terms of how visually pleasing it is. The violence in the film is a bit over the top too, with Bruce Willis engaging in some very stupid scenes towards the end involving a machine gun which were incredibly boring and were the points in which I considered leaving the room to get a drink. The violence is really vamped up to eleven and phasers are set to ‘dumb’ in the last section of the film and it really made my eyelids feel heavy.

From my point of view the film thinks it has more themes and messages than it actually does. I think the film is attempting to show the exploitation of the class system and how the lower classes can be treated in certain circumstances but this is only touched upon briefly so it doesn’t matter. And the whole message of “be careful of your actions because violence has it’s consequences” is completely negated by the level of violence in the third act of the film in which the film shows Bruce Willis killing an innocent person and then asks you not to care about it. I don’t think so.

Overall I give the film two and a half stars out of five, it wasn’t terrible but it was far from perfect. I really science fiction films and I have to say this didn’t meet my expectations. I can appreciate how ambitious it was and how gritty it tried to be, but it was trying too hard to be the type of science fiction film ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Total Recall’ already succeeded at being before the year 2000. It’s a real shame that the writer lost their way and ended up not making the film we all wanted from the first half. In the end I would feel more angry about the film if I was more engaged with it and took an active interest. But that would mean watching it again. Which I don’t want to do.

300 and Titanic Aren’t Good Films, Pirates Of The Caribbean Wasn’t Johnny Depp’s finest Moment, And Episodes I, II & III Killed Star Wars – Among Other Unpopular Opinions

In recent conversation with fellow film enthusiasts the subject of directors and writers caused quite a bit of stir, with blocking positions and take down moves being thrown about like a bad game of Street Fighter. It gets very annoying when a discussion gets turned into an argument when someone cannot accept an alternative opinion. I like to stay reasonably open minded when it comes to people’s opinions about films because obviously we all interpret them in different ways and get different things out of them. However, if I am faced, for example, with a situation where someone is ramming their opinion down my throat about how “House Bunny is one of the best films ever made” then I’m afraid it is a case of the feces and the fan. 

What people cannot seem to accept is that directors and writers have their off days. It happens with nearly all of them; the Coen brothers made ‘The Ladykillers’, Quentin Tarantino made ‘Death Proof’, Ridley Scott made ‘Robin Hood’, Francis Ford Coppola made ‘The Godfather Part III’, Zack Snyder made… films, but you can see my point that every once in a while they slip below standards. It just so happens that some people do it a lot more than others. 

As the title suggests there are films that other people consider to be “good” whereas I on the other hand disagree. If my opinions are labelled as being unpopular then so be it, I’ll stand by them. I come from a generation of teenage boys that would label ‘300’ and ‘Watchmen’ as “awesome” which makes me want to bury my head in the sand like an Ostrich. It just goes to show the mental age of directors like Zack Snyder that impresses young audience by overloading a film with visual effects a blood rather than substance. He does have a unique visual style and it does work well for films, but in terms of directing he couldn’t direct traffic let alone a decent film. Any director that makes a film where they ensure every actor has some stomach muscles present and then let’s Gerard Butler get away with not actually acting needs to be sat on the naughty step by Supernanny, have their camera taken off of them and left to think about what they have done wrong. By which point they’ll obviously have missed on their chances of gaining an award for lifetime achievement. People seem to think that there is a direct link between running time and substance, which clearly isn’t the case because ‘Watchmen’ rambles on for the best part of three hours and remains consistently average. The source material clearly wasn’t considered by Snyder enough, he was too distracted in making sure the latex outfits looked good. Which they didn’t. Both ‘Watchmen’ and ‘300’ poorly made films that lack real substance and interest, but you know something, they’re marketed perfectly for the audience they’re aimed at; bored teenagers who need violence to keep them awake.

It’s not just the young lads of my age group that annoy me though, the girls have their fair input as well, nearly deafening me by ranting about how good a film ‘Titanic’ is. Just for the record in case anyone hadn’t figured it out yet; it isn’t. James Cameron had the chance to make a big and bold film that was historically accurate but instead he turned it in to a romance film based on a fictitious couple. It ruined what could have been a good film, with elongated scenes of Jack and Rose talking aimlessly about things we don’t care about. I don’t know what James Cameron was thinking when he wrote the screenplay, but it must have been along the lines of “MONEY MONEY MONEY” which would explain why we have such painful scenes. For example, the most ridiculous scene of the entire film is when Jack and Rose are stood on the main deck with the ship slowly sinking and everyone screaming in fear, Rose turns to Jack and says “this is where we first met” which after nearly three hours of our lives wasted was not only an obvious statement but a stupid one too. Why did we need this repeated? To make us care about their relationship and to reinforce how strong their love is? If anything it made me care less about their relationship, I was feeling rather sorry for Jack being stuck with someone who can’t prioritise in a time of genuine panic.The montage of the different people that we see as the ship is sinking, such as the mother comforting her children, was of more interest. I cared more about them in thirty seconds of screen presence than I did after three hours of Jack and Rose face time. I wouldn’t say that it is a bad film, I would go so far as to say it is an awful film that was a wasted opportunity.

But it’s not just film makers I dislike that I have to slate sometimes, on the rare occasion I do have pick at the ones I do like. Those who try to start an argument with me by saying “Django Unchained was a bad film” never expect me to agree with them which is brilliant. It’s not that I think it’s a bad film, because it is excellently written and Tarantino deserved his Oscar for screenplay. but because it is very ill disciplined. The comic book style of blood splattering violence did become quite tiresome towards the end and there are tangents in the film that could have been avoided. Not one of Tarantino’s best films, but it is clearly one of his best scripts. It was funny, it was intelligent, it had a certain charm to it that made the characters interesting, it was well thought out and only ever dropped out during the tangents. 

It’s always interesting when people like an actor and so automatically defend their work regardless of their performance. For instance I know a lot of people who like Johnny Depp, which I can understand because he is a very talented actor, and yet they fail to see that his best performance is not in ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’. His impression of Keith Richards is slightly funny to begin with but becomes quite tiresome and it is not his best acting role by far, however I do not blame Depp for his performance being tainted in the film, I blame the director. There was a famous story from the filming of the first ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ in which Johnny Depp came on stage and started acting like a drunk Keith Richards without being told to. The studio hated his performance and told Gore Verbinski as the director to tell him to change it, which he didn’t because he didn’t. That shows the directing capability of such a man, who cannot tell his leading actor how to act out of the fear that he may leave the film. The first Pirates film was a bit all over the place but it was enjoyable in places and Johnny Depp was alright in his role, but we didn’t need there to be sequels. This allowed Verbinski to indulge himself in this franchise that got out of control until even he didn’t want to direct the fourth film. Does it need to end now? Definitely. Is it going to end now? Of course not.

I’ve mentioned the next point before but only briefly so I will repeat it just for those who missed it; the Star Wars prequels are awful. Yes they may be visually pleasing and have a lot of action, but what’s that thing they’re lacking…that….what is it… oh yes substance. The original trilogy was fantastic, with three films that really set the bar for how science fiction films should be made, and then George Lucas decided he wanted another yacht, or he wanted money to power his golden fountain that shoots out hundred dollar bills or whatever, but either way he wanted more money and so made prequels we didn’t want and/ or need. They darted off in to random political scenes that weren’t actually intelligently written when you listen to them, they were just dull. The visual effects were clearly a high priority which is why we were overloaded with head banging chase sequences and quite poorly choreographed lightsaber duels, leaving us with a script that sounded like it was written in someone’s lunch break. None of the three prequels had any where near as much interest as the original three and the characters were so deflated they made R2-D2 sound like a complex and philosophically inspiring character. And what’s that sound we all heard at the beginning of last year? It was George Lucas rubbing his hands together after signing the contract for the 3D release of the prequels.

Arguments do arise frequently when I talk about films with friends and family but that’s only because I’m passionate about the art form. I’ve always said to myself that taking an interest in anything is about appreciating what you like, rather than settling for what other people like. I cannot think of any other way to describe being interested in films. If you have an opinion then stick by it no matter what people say. It’s what I have to do nearly on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. What’s life without a challenge every now and then?