Monday, September 28, 2015

The Top 10 Empire Strikes Back Musical Moments

In the wake of my most recent semimonthly rewatch of the Star Wars trilogy (that’s the Original variety, naturally), and in anticipation of The Force Awakens this December, I present another Top Ten list.  No, not a Top Ten ranking of the films in existence – the correct answer, by the way, is 5, 4, 6, 3, 2, Clone Wars, 1 – but a more musically minded listing.

The task was arduous, though, and I couldn’t bear to throw that many children to the wolves. Rather than rank the ten best tracks from 797 minutes of movies, I’m going to break this down by film. Here we present the second in an ongoing series of lists, “The Top 10 Empire Strikes Back Musical Moments!” (Look at it this way, you’re getting more posts – one for each movie!)

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. For source/cue division, I’m using both the 1993 four-disc “Anthology” box set and the 2004 two-disc “Special Edition” reissue editions, so track listings may vary for those playing the home game.

10. “The Magic Tree”
 While I’m scratching my head at the name of this track – it’s a cave, not a tree – there’s no denying that it’s a subtly effective piece that communicates the eerie nature of Luke’s Dagobah experience without overplaying it. Williams wisely refrains from deploying “The Imperial March” in this moment, going instead for a creepy synthesizer that nicely complements the mystery and atmosphere conjured by director Irvin Kershner’s ominous cinematic vision.

9. “Lando’s Palace”
 This light and breezy track does so much for the film that I almost think it’s the most underrated piece in the film. You may have been taken in by Billy Dee Williams’s charisma (and really, how could you not?), but the bouncing majesty of this piece as he gives his grand tour of Cloud City lulls you into that false sense of security – just before Williams pulls the musical rug out from under your ears and reveals the menace lurking in Cloud City. It recurs in the film’s final segment to remind us of Lando’s true allegiance, an effective refrain.

8. “Luke’s Rescue”
 Another very short piece, and I confess I have very fond memories of hearing it in many Star Wars video games as a youngling (most memorably in the opening scene of Star Wars: Dark Forces II). But it’s a nice bit of musical reassurance that Luke Skywalker is indeed going to be okay, a jaunty 90 seconds or so that communicates the lifted spirits of the snowspeeder pilots at finding their generals alive.

7. “Yoda’s Theme”
 One of a number of original themes Williams composed for Empire, “Yoda’s Theme” makes it this high on the list for being longer than the others thus far, and second, for its versatility in the way Williams uses it throughout this film and the next one. But it also discloses the idea that “wars not make one great” – where Darth Vader gets a brassy bombastic anthem, the great Jedi Master Yoda gets a more contemplative, more melodic piece that bespeaks his great wisdom.

6. “Yoda and the Force”
 And speaking of ways that Williams weaves “Yoda’s Theme” into the film, I get chills thinking about this moment, and it’s due almost exclusively to the way Williams’s score builds as Luke tries, then fails, to lift his X-Wing from the swamps of Dagobah before Yoda’s theme rises triumphantly over the score, with a dramatic fanfare (which you may have recently heard in trailers for The Force Awakens) closing out as Luke and the audience stand agape at Yoda’s power.

5. “The Battle of Hoth”
 This is one of my go-to tracks for pumping myself up, getting myself in gear – all the clichés entailing motivation are addressed by this track. It begins with the Rebels rallying their forces before the Imperials attack, and then it’s ten minutes that just don’t stop. If you think a track of this length is cheating, I can distill “The Battle of Hoth” to the five-note ba-dum ba-dum-bum percussion that scores the march of the AT-AT walkers and that really says what the battle is all about: a hopelessly outgunned force fighting with all they’ve got against a relentless enemy.

4. “Han Solo and the Princess”
 I could never understand why, when “Across the Stars” was released on the Attack of the Clones soundtrack, it was hailed as the first great love theme in the Star Wars franchise when “Han Solo and the Princess” so clearly fits that bill. The best use of it comes when Han and Leia have their romantic “My hands are dirty too” rendezvous, but it’s one of those pieces that conjures up the entirety of the relationship in about three minutes. If we don’t hear this piece in The Force Awakens, we riot.

3. “The Asteroid Field”
 Would you believe that Han Solo doesn’t have his own theme? “The Asteroid Field” is the closest we come, and fortunately it’s a doozy of a track and in any other film would probably be the standout musical sequence. (However... check out the rest of the list!) It’s a grand sweeping action track that begins with a wonderful variation on “The Imperial March” but quickly segues into a frenetic collision of ideas as Han struggles to repair the Falcon before launching his audacious escape attempt with a track that positively soars.

2. “The Imperial March”
 Do I need to justify this one? It’s a track that has very nearly supplanted the “Main Theme” in terms of recognizable association with the film franchise, and it’s so iconic that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t part of Darth Vader’s cinematic DNA from the very beginning.

1. The entire last half-hour of the movie.
Before the masses rally up in arms at my #1 choice, consider the following: I will put the last thirty minutes of Empire against any consecutive half-hour of film score out there, because nothing can be more epic, more comprehensive, more engaging than what John Williams gives us for the finale of Empire. In a musical landscape of love, loss, struggle, and revelation, Williams manages to weave all the film’s signature motifs together in a powerhouse suite of sorts which works just as well detached from the film as it does in context. It’s become my default music lately, perfect for study sessions, long drives, cleaning the house, or strolling around the block. If you want to know why John Williams is the maestro, the last half hour of Empire has your answer.

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite Empire Strikes Back musical moment! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss my “Top 10 Return of the Jedi Musical Moments!”

Monday, September 21, 2015

Monday at the Movies - September 21, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”

Nightcrawler (2014)Nightcrawler is one of those critically acclaimed films that I missed during last year’s Oscar season, something that never registered high on my radar but always felt like I’d get around to it eventually. I finally did, on a very small television in the middle of the night, and I’d venture to say that that’s the perfect way to view this film. As Louis Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal is supremely creepy as a videographer turned ambulance chaser who sells his footage to morning news programs. Think Taxi Driver meets Blow-Up by way of American Psycho; it’s a captivating performance, Gyllenhaal with his lean wolfish appearance and relentlessly unsettling efforts at charisma, that doesn’t quite let you forget who’s underneath the character but allows you to look at him askance as you ponder just how bad it’s going to get. And oh my, does it get bad – bad in the sense of morally transgressive, never unwatchable but ethically uncomfortable for how compelling the movie ends up being. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this was director Dan Gilroy’s first outing behind the camera, for the tension he creates as Louis slips further into amorality is absolutely palpable, literally placing me on the edge of my seat as Louis’s master stroke unfolds. Indeed, the metaphor of a car crash is particularly apt, since Louis frequently films those, but it’s also gripping in the way that a moment of brutality is, prompting the viewer to wonder just how complicit we are in these actions. We watch the news, but how often do we turn away when that salivating teaser of “graphic footage” is intoned? How much guilt can be placed solely at the feet of Louis and his ambitions? And what’s Gilroy going to direct next? This is one to watch, folks.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

With three directors over the course of four films, the one thing the Harry Potter films haven’t had is visual continuity. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong – the thing I really appreciate about the films is how they render the same world from different vantage points. With Order of the Phoenix, director David Yates climbs aboard the Hogwarts Express, and he’ll be with us for the rest of the journey (four films down, four to go). And while we’ll have consistency of vision, I’m not terrifically excited by that because Order of the Phoenix is my least favorite Harry Potter film – not just by dint of comparison, but because I’m genuinely underwhelmed by this one.

Though the wizarding world carries on in a state of denial, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) knows the truth – the dark lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. The Ministry of Magic installs the stern Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) at Hogwarts, amid the vehement disapproval of headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), and Harry is elected to supplement the education of his fellow students with some practical Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons.

The older I get, I seem to have less patience for the old argument “the book was better.” It seems there’s a latent old media prejudice in there, for a film can be as thoughtful as a book (albeit in a different way). And so I don’t lament the excision of particular subplots; indeed, I didn’t notice the film had cut Quidditch until it was pointed out to me. What I do lament is the excision of depth. J.K. Rowling’s prose style is very smart, very contemplative, giving us a very powerful omniscient narrator who can tell us quite a bit about the characters and their motivations.

On film, however, Yates doesn’t seem able to capture that narrative depth. Instead, we have a lot of characters, including many new ones, who all seem terribly interesting but who don’t have the opportunity on screen to prove it. Take for example the titular Order of the Phoenix, a collection of powerful witches and wizards who hide out in a magical house doing... well, it’s not actually that clear. It’s obvious to the readers of the book, and that’s a problem, because the film and the book ought to be tangentially complementary experiences. There are so many intriguing characters in the order – the werewolf Remus Lupin, back from Prisoner of Azkaban; his shape-changing paramour Nymphadora Tonks, and the criminally underused Gary Oldman in his third role as Sirius Black.  But the film touches these only briefly, and moviegoers may find themselves wondering why book-readers have grown so attached to characters who appear on screen with minimal weight.

Yates, it seems, is not terribly interested in the Order, even if I am. What intrigues him more about the plot is its political statements about governance in a time of fear and the place of centralized authority in education. These are weighty issues, and Order of the Phoenix is the most political of the Harry Potter movies because of them. The analogy to Neville Chamberlain is perhaps less obvious to American audiences, but it’s quite clear that Yates dismisses the right of any government to interfere in a student’s education, and he does so with the wonderful casting of Imelda Staunton. As Professor Umbridge, Staunton is delightfully detestable and a fine adversary for Harry and his friends. Though she never rises to the level of Voldemort in terms of pure evil or clear motivations (other than reveling in literally torturing her students), she’s a fine fill-in while the Dark Lord schemes off-screen.

Order of the Phoenix introduces two more new characters, Ravenclaw classmate Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and mad mass murderess Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Of the latter, little need be said – if ever perfect casting existed, it’s HBC as a killer lunatic with Tim Burton’s hair. Lynch’s Luna, though, is the real find of the film, enchanting in a deliriously dreamy sort of way. Sadly, the film doesn’t give her much of an arc (nor does the franchise, as I recall), but her scenes with Radcliffe are so good, the chemistry between them so strong as the two bond over the losses they’ve endured, that I believe – and here I’m about to say something book readers will judge heretical – the films should have departed from the books and had Harry end up with Luna and not Ginny Weasley, who’s been undercooked since Chamber of Secrets.

At the end of the day, a disappointing Harry Potter movie is still a step more interesting than a lot of what’s out there. Yates has an interesting visual style, and I especially like the way he crafts the Ministry as this austere brick building with inverted colors, illuminated primarily by magic wands. But the storytelling on display in Order of the Phoenix is nowhere near as strong as it’s been in previous installments, and the film does a disservice to most of its characters by narratively shortchanging them. Put another way, Order of the Phoenix treads too much water where it ought to be gliding, losing too much momentum by attempting to tell us what’s important when it ought to be showing us.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is rated PG-13 for “sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.” You have a lot of scenes of wizards silently casting spells, propelling each other across the room, and flying around in smoky forms. One character is killed by magic, while another is tortured.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Although it takes a veritable meat-cleaver to its source material, pruning more than 700 pages into 150-some minutes of film, Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a strong contender for my new favorite Harry Potter film. I’d always maintained that Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban held that rank, and although Goblet of Fire isn’t as moody or as visually striking it’s a tight and engaging film that gives us the most spectacular (emphasis on “spectacle”) Harry Potter film yet.

When the fabled and dangerous Triwizard Tournament unites three wizarding schools at Hogwarts, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) inexplicably finds himself the fourth contestant for the Triwizard Cup. While his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) work to keep him alive during the perilous games, Harry learns that the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is once again plotting his return.

Goblet of Fire is, in a way, the Willy Wonka of the Harry Potter world, in that it consists of a very episodic movement from event to event while a grander story is being told. But where a Willy Wonka adaptation runs the risk of feeling somewhat obligatory, shuffling its audience from set piece to set piece, Goblet of Fire manages to maintain a level of tension throughout, compounded by the fact that Harry isn’t necessarily the best competitor in the Triwizard Tournament. He might lose this thing, and it might kill him before Voldemort can.

Here I’ve got to step aside and breathe a sigh of “Finally...!” at the arrival of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort. Finally, the series has its Darth Vader, its Sauron, its inimitable force of evil to match the inherent goodness of the Potter gang. While Newell does a fine job humanizing the Hogwarts crew, giving them opportunities for a range of very human emotions and quintessential teenage experiences, Goblet of Fire really ought to be remembered as Harry Potter and the Amazing Fifteen Minutes with Voldemort. While we’ve heard tales of Voldemort’s evil and seen incarnations of his ghostly lingerings, it’s something else entirely to behold Fiennes in all his glory, offering a master class in malice and demonstrating for the viewer exactly why the very thought of his name terrifies the wizarding world. If the rest of the films can capture the character as well as Goblet does, we’re looking at the franchise’s Empire Strikes Back moment.

As much as I want to spend this review lavishing praise on Fiennes’s Voldemort, there are other things in the film, and the other things are really quite successful. In streamlining the novel’s plot to focus less on the academic calendar (Hogwarts is, lest we forget, first and foremost a school), Newell instead focuses on the spectacle of the Tournament and all its task-based adventuring. We have colossal dragons, ephemeral mer-people, and a spooky maze populated with fewer horrors than in the book but with an impeccable visual style that makes the sequence a compelling lead-up to the graveyard climax. Much as I loved Cuarón’s Burton-lite visuals, Newell has a flair for the visual that is less stylized than affective. Goblet is full of small successes, moments when the film surprises you by how well it’s working. (Take, for example, the occasion of the death of a character; the plaintive wail that accompanies said character’s passing is more moving than half of any given year’s Oscar nominations, a powerful moment from a bit performer that sells the film’s pathos.)

I started this rewatch-and-review for the Harry Potter films because of how fun the Lego video games have been, but I’m sticking with them because of how well-crafted these movies have been. Removed as we are from the hype surrounding the books when they debuted, it’s comforting – and refreshing – to see thoughtful and well-made adaptations that offer something cinematically engaging for devotees and dilettantes alike.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is rated PG-13 for “sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.” You have your run of the mill magical hijinks, although this one amps up the tension by including dragons and beastly mer-people, as well as the arrival of Lord Voldemort and the on-screen abrupt (but bloodless) killing of a fairly important character.