The best film scores of 2017 (sort of)

It’s been two years since I’ve written a year-end reflection on film scores — and a little more than 18 months since I’ve written anything on any score at all. I have enjoyed the change of pace and stress relief that comes from not balancing writing workloads that essentially combine to another full-time job, but a part of me became restless again in 2017 and more than a little curious to catch up on movie music.

“A little curious” is the key because these are by no means thoroughly researched picks. It turns out that pressing pause on film writing means it’s easy to press pause on film watching, too, and I can’t recall a time in the last 10 years when I’ve watched fewer movies (shouts to Daniel Hart’s A Ghost Story, Brooke & Will Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, and Michael Giacchino’s pun factory). Much of that has been replaced with more reading and more listening.

I digress. Here are my favorite selections from 2017 (with Spotify links that are misbehaving this morning). Until next year:

The LEGO Batman Movie — Lorne Balfe

Indulgence has never felt so smart. As magnetic as Will Arnett’s Batman is in The LEGO Movie, a dedicated LEGO Batman film and its ensuing soundtrack had no right being this good. From big band to Handel to euro-pop and nu metal, Lorne Balfe’s voracious sampling is, like the movie, an exhilarating, exhausting experience. Balfe takes decades of Batman theme versioning and marries them in an unholy union of sound: the fanfarish tendencies of Burton’s era, Zimmer and Nolan’s wall of sound approach, and even nods to Junkie XL’s trickling rockpocalypse in the DCEU. However you prefer your Batman, it’s all here with the volume cranked to 11.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/64HHn6tVwTA7micrBqFMyb

Wonder Woman — Rupert Gregson-Williams

From annihilating box office prognostications to re-staffing Warner Bros.’ production team, right now is really Wonder Woman’s time and deservedly so. Wonder Woman is by no means a flawless picture, but its strengths as a necessary symbol at a particular moment outshine a limp third act and iffy CGI. There’s a soulfulness at work I’m not sure any superhero movie to date has captured as well. Part of that Gal Gadot’s winning performance, and part of that is the music. The glorious slow crescendo that opens “No Man’s Land” announces Diana’s power and relevance to the world, but “Pain, Loss & Love” is the real star in Rupert Gregson-Williams’ effort, embodying passion, empathy, sadness and strength. It’s a distillation of what makes the character so unique and vital, whether that’s today or 100 years ago.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/1JfUHgRacRhvLADvwK2hAk

Dunkirk — Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch

This was an easy pick. Dunkirk was the best film I caught this year, and boy am I glad I ponied up for IMAX because Zimmer and Wallfisch’s team-up deserves the biggest, boldest presentation possible. It’s a cerebral, stupefying listen. The expected blend of analog and digital instrumentation receive a novel facelift with the incorporation of the “Shepard tone.” Regardless of how you feel about Dunkirk‘s Venn Diagram of sound and music, its effects are undeniable, complementing Christopher Nolan’s accordion-like timeline with a sonic claustrophobia that feels essential for a wartime epic. Relief then, is a fleeting proposition. When it comes, like on “Home” and its riff on Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, there’s nothing quite like it.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/7wOgJQ6YPnBPv930cYZAgA

Thor: Ragnarok — Mark Mothersbaugh

By and large, culture pastiche deserves a slow, painful death (looking at you, season 1 of Stranger Things) but this particular blend of Reagan-era actioners and the usual Marvel brand finally gave us a post-Iron Man movie worth remembering. “No One Escapes” especially features a stained-glass cascade of churchy synth tones under the conventional bluster. Mothersbaugh’s work is so critical to the unabashed gleefulness on display, a perfect accompaniment to Ragnarok‘s hipster approach to MCU cliches.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/5QyMarjsZcG3uy4ztCkR00

Lady Bird — Jon Brion

Thor: Ragnarok and Lady Bird were both personal reminders that Mark Mothersbaugh and Jon Brion continue to put out solid work even if they’re no longer collaborating with Andersons Wes and Paul Thomas. Brion’s snappy title ditty is just the right amount of quirk, and the melancholic groove in “Lady Bird” sublimely assuages any fear that Greta Gerwig’s irresistible debut would be just another manic pixie dream.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/6yzzno5cXBkh5c6UzRxcyM

Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi — John Williams

The more I listen to this score, the more it confirms that The Last Jedi is about as honest and fresh of an episode of Star Wars as anyone could hope for. It’s such a brilliant blend of old and new. “The Battle of Crait” is another fine piece of action music, dusting off the “Here they come” moment all the way back in A New Hope. “The Spark” features such a moving nod to “Luke and Leia” and includes a great variation on “The Imperial March,” a cantankerous build to Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren’s epic non-duel. And what a non-duel it is! The seafaring, doomed end passages of “The Last Jedi” complement Luke’s send-off to Kylo Ren, a nefarious wink that in-context only feels threatening to the Jedi Formerly Known as Ben Solo. It’s yet another of Rian Johnson’s clever inversions, flipping the trope of the big baddie getting in his last laugh. 2017 was such a nasty, disgusting, soul-crushing year in so many ways, but let’s all count our blessings and be grateful that we’re still getting new music from the Maestro himself.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/69qAhQ1p5kGzRpcVctqlgK

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Why Canto Bight is the most important part of ‘The Last Jedi’

(Spoilers. Duh.)

Via Eric Vespe over at RoosterTeeth.com:

“Above everything else [The Last Jedi] is about hope. Not hope in some prophecy or chosen one, but one that can be found in anyone, whether they’re a slave child or a pure-hearted low-level resistance engineer. It’s about goodness and light inspiring the next generation. That is represented the best in the new character of Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran, and it’s the reason why I scratch my head at people dismissing the Canto Bight section of the movie. Sure, there’s some iffy composite shots here and the highest concentration of CGI creatures, but this section is the linchpin of the entire movie…”

 

Canto Bight is the most important sequence in The Last Jedi. 

First, Canto Bight — like much of the movie — introduces more “new” to Star Wars. A bacchanalian, Vegas-Planet rife with buzzed, alien gamblers and a race-track is, if not novel to space fantasy, certainly new territory for this on-screen world. And that’s just the physical setting. The wealthy patrons couldn’t give two shits about the intergalactic civil war these movies have been so consumed by. They’ve profited from decades of arms races, a galaxy-spanning military industrial complex. That — again, like much of the movie — flies in the face of the audience’s interests. We do care who comes out on top in this. So that teetering furball who mistakes BB-8 for a slot machine reads as ridiculous on face value, but his ambivalence to selling weapons to Resistance and First Order fighters alike grays out an otherwise black & white world.

That goes ditto for Benicio Del Toro’s “DJ.” Lest we think Canto Bight’s 1% wasn’t enough, the slovenly codebreaker spells out his amorality to Finn and Rose in plain speak. Essentially: ‘My allegiance to you is always situational.’ Friends get in the way of profit. He’s like Lando Calrissian without a conscience.

The slaves tending to the rabbit-horse Fathiers contradict this amorality. They’re subject to the whims of the wealthy few, collateral damage to DJ’s bulging purse. Their anonymity seems to have bothered many, particularly since Rian Johnson chooses to end a Star Wars movie with dust-faced cherubs rather than a familiar face. But isn’t that the point? That’s the value of introducing self-admitted fangirl Rose Tico, of giving lip service to that little boy on Canto Bight. We are them. They are us. For the first time in… ever, a Star Wars episode finds the Skywalker bloodline kind of boring. This is Kylo Ren’s revelation to Rey. She’s nobody, she’s no one. And for starting over, for creating something new, for making progress — whether that’s social, environmental, or narrative progress — that’s essential. Luke and Leia and Han can inspire us to do something on our own. We don’t have to wait around for the next Chosen One.

I’ve seen a number of reviews that ding Johnson’s script for having a non-plot, that Finn and Rose’s heist sequence is a waste of time because they don’t succeed in sabotaging the First Order’s hyperspace tracking. All due respect to RedLetter Media and the Now Playing Podcast, that’s complete nonsense. In fact, I would venture to say more things happen in The Last Jedi than things in any other Star Wars movie:

  • The Resistance fleet gets decimated
  • General Organa is blasted into space
  • General Organa uses her Force powers (Note: Let’s not overlook how absurd it is that it’s taken five movies to show this)
  • Poe Dameron tries to stage a coup d’etat
  • Rey connects with Kylo Ren across the galaxy using the Force
  • The old Jedi ways are roasted — by Yoda (Note: Let’s not overlook how absurd it is that it’s taken eight movies to show this)
  • Rey turns herself into Supreme Leader Snoke
  • Kylo Ren kills Supreme Leader Snoke
  • Rey and Kylo Ren kill all of Supreme Leader Snoke’s guard — together
  • A capital ship takes out another capital ship at lightspeed
  • We learn about Rey’s lineage
  • General Hux tries to stage a coup d’etat
  • Luke Skywalker projects himself across the galaxy using the Force
  • Luke Skywalker dies after projecting himself across the galaxy using the Force

Leaving aside just how many of those points re-shape our understanding of this universe, it’s remarkable how little the characters succeed in The Last Jedi. That seems to be driving a lot of this “non-plot” criticism. Finn and Rose make it onboard the Supremacy only to be undone by a little greed. Our heroes try and they fail. Other heroes try and then they fail, too. Here’s our corrective to that “lucky millennial” criticism of The Force Awakens and its band of merry Mary Sues. Nobody in this movie gets anything handed to them. Christ, it takes two hours to get Luke to do anything other than drink his milk. And when he decides to do something, he’s not really there. He’s a distraction, a diversion, an illusion. In a reality beset by defeat, sometimes our heroes can’t bail us out. Sometimes inaction is the greatest action. Sometimes failure is the greatest teacher.

Er, the greatest teacher failure is. Sorry.

Some of my favorite ‘The Last Jedi’ reviews

(Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Last Jedi.)

The Last Jedi is excellent, and I hope to write about it in the coming days. For now, I’ve been enjoying others’ thoughts on Episode VIII and collected them here.

Jacob Hall at /Film on the film’s dodging of cyclical narratives:

“In a universe where everything is connected, where we’ve been trained to expect greater meanings and profound truths, this is a punch to the gut. Not everything is connected.”

The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story want to please you. They want to hit familiar beats and remind you why you love Star Wars. They are so much fun. But The Last Jedi doesn’t want to remind you of anything. It doesn’t care about your relationship with Star Wars.”

Matt Zoller-Seitz at RogerEbert.com writes about how legacy influences expectation:

“Sometimes The Last Jedi violates our expectations in a cheeky way that stops short of telling super-fans to get over themselves. There’s a touch of Spaceballs and Robot Chicken to some of the jokes. Snoke orders Kylo to “take off that ridiculous helmet,” Luke chastises an old friend for showing a nostalgic video by muttering “That was a cheap move,” and an early gag finds one of the heroes calling the bridge of a star destroyer and pretending to be stuck on hold. This aspect adds a much-needed dash of self-deprecating humor (The Force Awakens was often a stitch as well, especially when Han Solo, Chewbacca, BB-8 and John Boyega’s James Garner-like hero/coward Finn were onscreen), but without going so meta that The Last Jedi turns into a smart-alecky thesis paper on itself.”

“Like The Force Awakens, only more so, this one is preoccupied with questions of legacy, legitimacy and succession, and includes multiple debates over whether one should replicate or reject the stories and symbols of the past. Among its many valuable lessons is that objects have no worth save for the feelings we invest in them, and that no individual is greater than a noble idea.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Jen Yamato writes about the power of The Last Jedi’s inclusiveness:

“In a film that slyly subverts the traditional male-hero imperative, the best-laid plans and aggro methods of men on both sides of the Force give way to the valor of women. The Last Jedi also posits the radical notion that one doesn’t need Skywalker blood to inherit a powerful destiny, a populist concept that should ripple across the galaxy in future installments to come.”

Sean Fennessy at The Ringer dissected what makes Kylo Ren such a compelling villain:

“At the end of a simmering, balletic battle, Kylo turns toward Rey and reaches out to her: Join me, he says. ‘Let the past die,’ he says. ‘Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.’ And even though we know that Kylo has made a choice that will affirm his manhood, we can see that he is damaged, unsure of his place in the world, selfish, vain, searching for an identity. He wants to rule the galaxy, too, just like his grandfather. Is it because he was turned by an opportunistic cult leader in Snoke? Is it because he resented his parents’ legend? Is it because he was spoiled rotten? Is it because every generation wants more than the one that came before them? The answer is yes. Some of this makes Kylo Ren unusually empathetic—even as Driver stalks across the bridge of spaceships, throttling poor British actors across the room with the flick of a wrist, we can see a broken kid acting out. And that brat becomes a scorned man, abandoned by an ungrateful woman who is clearly his better, more powerful and clear of conscience. In The Last Jedi, Emo Kylo Ren discovers indie rock.”

The Verge‘s Tasha Robinson sees the film’s use of humor as humanizing:

“And Johnson tells that story while occasionally delving into a loopy sense of humor that’s 100 percent guaranteed to deeply offend some viewers. This might be a good time to remember that Star Wars has had its funny side from the very beginning, from the comic-relief sidekick duo of C-3PO and R2-D2 to Han Solo’s occasional bout of goofy incompetence. Johnson’s only radical step here is to extend that humor past the heroes, and let it briefly disrupt the villains’ solemnity as well. For a series that’s so often treated its primary antagonists as towering, intimidating bastions of evil, that feels radical, but it also punctures their balloons and makes them a little more ridiculously human. It isn’t a dominant or central choice — Johnson doesn’t have Supreme Leader Snoke cracking porg jokes — but it’s foregrounded in an unmissable way.”

iO9′Rob Bricken on why Luke’s fate is important for the future of Star Wars:

[The Last Jedi} proclaims boldly it’s time for a truly new Star Wars saga, for a new generation of kids to fall in love with, just like I did. That Star Wars can be more, should be more, than the original trilogy and its prologues and epilogues. That the franchise belongs to more than just those born in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. That it’s time for me, like Rey, to let go of the past. It has been that time for awhile now.

This is all exactly how it’s supposed to be. The franchise needs to do more than just ape the original trilogy in order to evolve, if not outright continue. I shouldn’t be holding Star Wars hostage. Lucasfilm and Disney shouldn’t be making these movies just for me. They can’t if they expect to continue for the next decade.”

‘The Phantom Menace’ is the best of the Prequels

The Prequels are bad movies. Across the board, really. And no amount of distance between the immediate letdown and the present will change that.

If anything, time has been unkind to Star Wars — Episodes I – III. Their increasing overreliance on CGI removes much of the illusion from crucial characters like General Grievous. And with human actors, vital stunt work is extinguished by poorly rendered somersaults and fight combat. The Special Editions, while not without their positives, did little more than encourage George Lucas to tinker in his Industrial Light and Magic sandbox, providing a bankable field test for throngs of Federation Battle Droids whose utter ineffectiveness is reduced to a punchline in less than a trilogy’s worth of time. The digital technology revolution is greatly indebted to LucasFilm’s early pioneering, but cinema is not.

As far as the actual narrative of the Prequels, the epitaph’s been written for a decade. These scripts stretch and condense their stories in odd, often baffling ways. One would be hard pressed to explain why we needed to see Anakin Skywalker as a nine year-old slave at all, and Attack of the Clones indulges in a shaggy dog assassination plot while failing to deliver on the Clone Wars front. And despite Lucas’s intentions, Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil does not “rhyme” with his return to the light, cranking up the volume on his friendship with Palpatine to hide an otherwise hasty betrayal of the Jedi Order. Comparing this bungling of such a pivotal arc to Return of the Jedi‘s subtle changes in Vader’s psyche is borderline unfair. Revenge of the Sith might actually fare better were it released in 2015 rather than 2005, where a 5 minute compilation could capably summarize the sparse plot points for YouTubers and fans alike.M

Much of the Prequels’ 6+ hour saga is bloat, but that was apparent on opening weekend. What time and distance have come to show is that “The One With Jar Jar” might actually be the best of the bunch. No, you’re not misremembering anything. Jar Jar Binks is as intolerable and insensitive as ever, Lucas’s flat direction turns a solid cast into plasticine playthings, and I still can’t explain why the taxation of trade routes was so pivotal to intergalactic conflict.

But in addition to a recurring theme of interdependence and a good-if-not-great grasp of visual language, The Phantom Menace has another point in its favor: narrative proximity. A slave boy’s podracing exploits are a headscratcher in the grand scheme of things, but the Boonta Eve Classic’s distance from the Original Trilogy numbs its shenanigans. Midichlorians are dumb, but they don’t rewrite characters’ relationships. By and large, Episode I tells us what we already knew: Anakin was a good pilot. He was strong with the Force. He knew Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here, Obi-Wan can tell you:

The Phantom Menace has no lasting effect on Star Wars, and it’s a better Star Wars movie for it. If that seems like a low bar, rewatch that scene where Vader comes to in Revenge of the SithGo ahead. I’ll wait.

The Phantom Menace preserves a timeline where a compelling Prequel story is still possible. It’s a place where Leia’s memories of her mother still make sense. Where Boba Fett isn’t a stunted clone with a dodgy accent. Where the Galactic Empire wasn’t kickstarted by a Gungan senator’s emergency vote. Where Yoda doesn’t know Chewbacca.

To be clear, re-shaping perceptions doesn’t have to be bad. Rogue One shows how change can be done right. Change is bad when it’s done simply for the sake of change. In other words, whenever George Lucas does it.

“And who gave you permission to remove that helmet?”

I was a little late on getting around to reading Phasma, one of 2017’s recent additions to the Stars Wars new canon. And as I like the Star Wars Explained YouTube channel a great deal, I’ll begin my thoughts in relation to channel head Alex Damon’s.

Damon was, predictably, positive on the book. I too appreciate a lot of what Delilah S. Dawson accomplishes. She makes Captain Phasma a threat, something The Force Awakens never succeeds at — because it never tries. Phasma‘s bits about Brendol and Armitage Hux are more than welcome in this nebulous post-Aftermath timeline as well, and the Mad Max: Fury Road nods by Dawson were refreshing ways of elevating the story universe.

Damon goes on to claim that “Dawson perfectly balanced revelation with mystery.” I’m not so sure. To date, the best new canon novels understand that psychology is vital to a quality character-driven book. James Luceno and Claudia Gray nail this in Tarkin and Bloodline, respectively. Save for a wonderfully forthcoming final chapter, Phasma’s interiority remains a riot baton’s length away, which is a problem when your book is titled Phasma.

What Dawson does offer is a sloppy oversimplification of Phasma’s tribal history on Parnassos. Lawlessness bad. Order good. First Order must be good, too. Phasma is all about the character’s surface elements. Combat prowess. Leadership. Cunning. Phasma and her Scyre clan’s home planet is just another backwater upbringing to add to the list of backwater upbringings: Tatooine. Jakku. Eriadu and its Carrion Plateau. Now, Parnassos. These are the same pieces that make up the backstories of the galaxy’s most notable fascists.

Dawson’s approach — or, for all we know, the Disney story group’s direction — wants to have it both ways, though, because we’re teased with the question of what could possibly motivate this ruthless warrior to begin with and never really given a convincing answer.

Phasma‘s structure is frustrating, in part, because the story itself is about that frustration. I get it. It’s what makes the search for truth between Resistance spy Vi Moradi and Cardinal so sharp and compelling. First Order Captain Cardinal’s desperation to dig up dirt on his rival makes for a clever parallel to fan intrigue over a character that, up until recently, has felt like kind of a letdown.

Boba Fett is the easy corollary here: the mysterious hard ass with an awesome set of armor. The lack of details on Fett are what made the character interesting. For the entirety of Episode V, he’s the silent type, the man with no name. And Phasma is to its subject what Attack of the Clones is to Fett. It portends to tell too much. It kills the illusion. Now, Captain Phasma runs the risk of becoming just like ole “Bucket Head.” He’s not a character but a product, a Kenner toy frenzy made literal.

But Boba Fett was screwed as soon as we left Kamino. If we give Disney and Lucasfilm and the Star Wars story group some credit, The Force Awakens and now Phasma are opportunities to build on. What begins as a shallow, shiny object has a chance for some real humanizing. As a First Order agent, Captain Phasma is a unique touchstone for young fans numbed by decades of doughy Stormtrooper impotence. This can still be more than some silly Clone Wars retcon. But will it?

I don’t like Marvel movies and neither does ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

“You’ll always be the God of Mischief, but you could be more…”

I gave up on Marvel Studios just before the end-credits sequence in Age of Ultron. As effervescent and celebratory as Joss Whedon’s first team-up felt, the second Avengers movie left me wanting more from this long-running, intricate franchise and its domino-stacking. That Kevin Feige, et al could kill the joy in a creator and his project felt a little like killing Superman. Wrong IP.

I may yet have faith, though because Thor: Ragnarok is the best Marvel Studios movie ever. For emphasis, let’s point out just how many creative liberties Taika Waititi’s new film takes with its material:

  • Thor loses his hammer
  • Thor loses his hair
  • Paternal godhead Odin is revealed to be a revisionist fraud
  • A revisionist fraud who used his daughter, Hela, as a weapon of destruction before imprisoning her forever
  • Now returned, Hela can’t conquer worlds because her incompetent executioner can’t find a magic sword
  • Her executioner is too busy impressing women with his assault weapons collection
  • And that magic sword is in the possession of Heimdall, who’s busy handling the MCU’s first refugee crisis
  • This refugee crisis sends all of Asgard onto a space ark
  • The space ark is delivered by a talking rock alien and Thor’s brother and arch-rival, Loki
  • Thor teams up with the talking rock alien, a self-aware Hulk, and a high-functioning alcoholic
  • Their team makes fun of The Avengers
  • Thor loses an eye
  • Their team defeats Hela by resurrecting a Norse demon that wants to destroy Asgard
  • Asgard is destroyed
  • The talking rock alien makes a joke about Asgard being destroyed

Perhaps the bar has been set so low. Maybe the needle budged an inch instead of a click this time. After nearly a decade of underwhelming, status-quo-affirming, masculine copypasta, Marvel has finally zigged instead of zagged. Sure, Iron Man 3‘s deconstructionism was a valiant effort for a potential MCU face-turn, but it never felt like an honest takedown of a guy who had already invoked Ozzy Osbourne at a press conference. Ragnarok is unexpected and quirky and reflexive in all the ways Guardians of the Galaxy so desperately wanted to be — and at a fraction of the effort.

There’s a throwaway moment when a de-Hulkified Bruce Banner is steering a stolen orgy ship into an interplanetary gateway nicknamed “The Devil’s Anus.” Yes way. Desperate for a weapon, he jams an important looking button, which lights up the cabin with sex strobes and a hologram of Jeff Goldblum’s The Grandmaster singing “It’s my birthday!” Kenneth Branagh directed the first one of these, guys.

For years, I’ve wondered what exactly people mean when they describe a movie as “fun.” Apparently it involves making thespians look as ridiculous as possible. While Marvel hasn’t always admitted it, there’s an ugly side to its heroism, and flaunting it can be beautiful in its own way.

Endings

I chose to shut the doors to LakeFrontRow today.

To be candid, I felt a growing disconnect between the time I was spending and what I — and at least part of this community — was getting out of it. Serving on the festival awards jury and hosting a successful panel were surreal, validating experiences, but ones that felt like a plateau rather than big steps.

The bigger takeaway is that I owe a great many people my gratitude for their support and advice over the last four and a half years. I’ve linked to the site’s last statement below:

http://lakefrontrow.com/the-end/

It’s been a fun ride. We’ll see what comes next.