marvel mcu music sucks avengers infinity war score

Infinity Worn

I haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War yet, but the FOMO is strong. So strong that — in spite of my sisyphean attempt to avoid spoiling plot twists, deaths or any of the 37 post-credits scenes — I indulged in David Ehrlich’s running diary of the 31-hour Marvel Movie Marathon.

If you’re a fan of his work (and you should be), you’ll already know that it’s hilarious writing. I wanted to draw attention to one of his more pointed observations about the MCU aesthetic, though:

8:18am: Dreaming up a supercut of moments in the MCU when there’s no music playing — it’d be about 25 seconds long. I’ve been trying to put my finger on the sameness of these films, how such a grab-bag of candy can taste like the dominant flavor, and the wall-to-wall scoring is a major factor. The movies were always going to blur together by this point of the marathon, but our current fugue state is enhanced by the sense that we’ve been listening to one long, sustained note since we got here.

This.

As much as I want to credit the crummy approach to action, the bland sounds of the MCU feel like a dark horse of suckitude here. Sure, there are standouts. Silvestri’s Avengers theme is just a subtler version of the music for the NFL on CBS. Thor: Ragnarok sounds like a party, and Black Panther has ingenuity that’s novel for the entire sub-genre, let alone for one studio.

But there’s a pervasive formula to scoring most Marvel movies, with the studio’s go-to composers recycling the same plug-and-play approaches. Heroes and villains get their own themes. Those themes get shuffled into an hour’s worth of dourness and effervescence. Those themes get shuffled into some EPIC fight music. Wash, rinse, repeat and then sit back as the three film music outlets out there have fun playing Find the Motive. Guardians looked novel when it decided to add music that already gets overplayed on classic rock stations. Up until now, I thought Tyler Bates and Brian Tyler were the same person. Yikes.

Anyway, you can read the whole thing at IndieWire.

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Why doesn’t ‘Isle of Dogs’ work?

The best Wes Anderson movies exist in spite of their plots. RushmoreRoyal TenenbaumsGrand Budapest Hotel. These are studies of character over time, distillations of mood that convey emotions at the expense of explicit story beats. Or, to frame this another way: Anderson is at his worst when he’s telling stories. Bottle Rocket and The Life Aquatic are lower-tier Anderson because so much of their focus is on getting the expected quirky players from points A to B to C.

His latest, Isle of Dogs, sits pretty squarely in the latter camp, tracking a pack of stray, outcast dogs as they join up (and bond with) a boy in search of his own furry best friend on “Trash Island.” The emphasis is on the journey to and from Mayor Kobayashi (noted cat lover) quarantine zone for all canines. This is a heist film at its core, a twee spin on The Great Escape with (almost impossibly) numerous nods to Japanese films.

A corollary for Japanese internment was completely lost on me at first. Filmspotting co-host (and noted white person) Josh Larsen argues the setting is beyond cultural pastiche, that Anderson inverts America’s prickly history with Japanese internment as an opportunity reflection. Anderson has always been a deliberate, arch director, and that level of intentionality, of introspection seems plausible in a post-Grand Budapest landscape.

What doesn’t gel is Greta Gerwig’s presence. Understandably, much has been made about the film’s omission of subtitles for its Japanese-speaking characters as, it should be noted, all dogs speak English here. The more damning sin though (to this noted white person) is Gerwig’s gangly, afro’d exchange student. Cut from Anderson’s precocious teen mold, Tracy Walker quickly becomes the key voice of Japan in a story set in Japan. There’s room here to argue that Desplat’s taiko drums and the hyper-focused sushi montages are more pastiche from the master of pastiche. Taken at its most innocent, Walker is an innocent misfire, but unless you squint, it’s hard to ignore the choice in light of the cultural muting that surrounds it.

On that same episode, Larsen and co-host Adam Kempenaar made some points about toying with free will, taking canine characters and sussing out the agency over their natural reactions, against eating trash and biting. What Kempenaar and Larsen forget is that that existentialism is at odds with its packaging. This dog movie, like all Anderson movie, is really a movie about people. Even Fantastic Mr. Fox, ostensibly about a family of foxes, succeeds on the charms of its anthropomorphic players. Bryan Cranston isn’t voicing a dog in Isle of Dogs; he’s just a hairier Bryan Cranston.

wisconsin film festival 2018 reviews wisconsins own blood doorstep

Wisconsin Film Festival 2018

That photo of my ticket haul is misleading because it places, front and center, the worst movie I saw this year. A feel-good note to end on, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is really just an argument for what made Fred Rogers so important, and apart from the cited media nut jobs claiming his messages have made generations of kids “soft,” who’s really out on The Land of Make-Believe?

I want to get the bad out of the way because this year was an important one for me. In particular, the distance from featured filmmakers, which made the short film sections a genuine surprise. Golden Badger winner Great Light is slick and visceral, using last year’s solar eclipse as a ballsy, cosmic background for the dressing-down of an abusive father. Shannon McInnis’ Angelaaa is unlike anything I’ve seen in a while, handling loss through song and puppetry. Its final note felt a touch unresolved yet but voicing a grieving headspace with singing Muppets is right in my wheelhouse. Talk to my son deserved a standing ovation for Sangsun Choi’s effort to reconnect a North Korean escapee mother with her estranged son in China. There’s a fascinating interplay of scale here, shuffling emotional relationship stakes and a deadly serious geopolitical climate.

Speaking of politically-charged documentaries, Los Lecheros looks at Wisconsin’s Trump country, specifically the farming industry’s counter-intuitive resistance to immigration at the expense of dependence on immigrant labor. Jim Cricchi makes it easy to feel for the undocumented families he follows. There’s a captured beauty in a farmer laying out progressive, pro-labor ideas, ideas that aren’t often associated with country music and flannel. Along with deflating the short-sighted, self-righteousness of Buffalo County, Los Lecheros illustrates in plain speak and bovine b-roll that we’re all in this together.

Naturally, I didn’t like everything in “A World of Wisconsin’s Own.” In Our World is beautifully shot, even if using children for voiceovers usually feels like a cheap creative choice to me. Pickle, which finds a similar crutch in its precocious child of divorce, is fine. Despite being more thematically complete than past submissions, Mort continues Bill Bedford’s annual ritual of christening abstract images with a random first name. The Last Squidfish is more an oddity than a fully-realized concept; DP Jason Berman basically confirmed as much in a post-screening Q&A regarding Countdown and its dependence on effects in post.

I was cooler on the subsequent “Dozen” films from Sunday. Experiencing OCD is a innovative use of monologue that opens you into its student director’s difficulties with mental illness. Jake Brewer’s This One’s For Mikey loops odd conversational blips about jellyfish ad nauseam for chuckles. A Voicemail moves me the more I think about it. Adding depth to the titular phone message with a series of captured moments. Julian Castronovo layers word vomit — sent to his own girlfriend — over black and white footage of her. The voicemail itself is string-of-consciousness stuff, simultaneously banal and hilarious that gets meaning through the still, poetry of select images. It’s haunting in its disconnect; this is macabre, but it feels like watching a breakup in slow-motion.

She’s Marrying Steve has unassailable production values and some sound, genuinely deep lead performances. Erika Kramer’s big challenge here — and one she never quite figures out — is understanding what her tone should be. She starts with jokes about depression and ends with a woman watching her ex-girlfriend get hitched to a dude. That’s a hard shift to earn over 20 minutes. I want to harp on Steve more because of its promise and focus less on the others that aren’t so good. By the nature of programming, shorts programs are always a mixed big, and the ones that never find a feature companion get lumped into potpourri collections. Despite my uneven experience, I continue to believe they’re vital to film festivals. Any enterprise that lures septuagenarians into watching avant garde yuks via a family dramedy is doing some kind of public service.

Pete Schwaba’s a pro at hosting these question and answer sessions, too. The “Director’s Cut” host remembers artists’ names and gives everyone attention — even when half your audience only wants to ask about the charming 9 year old from one movie.

He had a tough job on Saturday, staving off the “I don’t have a question so much as a comment” crowd in a session for The Blood is at the Doorstep. The “Golden Badger” winner packed the Union Theater, which felt both bigger and older than I remember it from my college days of free sneak peeks. And what a movie. The death of Dontre Hamilton takes on a quantum effect, where a single event is transformed and changed and gets rippled over days and months and years. One death carries so much meaning, and over time, that meaning multiplies and changes and builds. It grows into other tragedies, into stories about other children in other cities. In the best moment (out of dozens of them), Dontre’s brother Nate Hamilton watches TV in bewilderment as a Milwaukee man talks to a reporter about his own brother’s death — yet another at the hands of a police officer.

I reflected on this earlier, but it amazes me how much work Erik Ljung has put into this project. From commitment alone, he sticks with Dontre Hamilton’s family through their absolute worst for years and years and years. It really is a thorough, engaging piece of work. He’s there with a camera to capture the Hamiltons’ reactions during breaking news segments about Ferguson. He’s there when black activists are pounding on the Milwaukee Police Chief’s office door. He’s there, so we’re there.

It took my friend Grant to point out that You Were Never Really Here has a lot in common with Taxi Driver. I’m a Lynne Ramsey newbie, although after seeing how intimate she gets with Joaquin Phoenix’s hitman, I suspect that may change over the next few months. I’m not sure why Phoenix’s performance is being unrecognizable as the grungy outsider seems pretty on brand. Maybe it’s the character’s extra pounds and packed-in PTSD. Like I said, Ramsey’s visual language is what impressed me most. The front-and-center close-ups. Tight establishing shots. And then there are those faces we almost never see. It’s decided obscurity, a really bad dream, and a feature that really stood out from this festival year’s crop of films.

At the risk of sounding out of touch (and repetitive), it really was surreal to take in a film festival as anything other than a member of the media. I volunteered at the Wisconsin Film Festival in back-to-back years from 2010 and 2011 (As an aside, the first voucher I used was for Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins on opening night). I didn’t apply for a press badge until 2013 and after that, I watched as the focus of LakeFrontRow changed to a smaller, more manageable eye on local events and arts reporting. After countless interviews, a dozen short film previews, and a seat at the jury table, it would be dishonest to pretend that the Wisconsin Film Festival has not had a profound impact on me as a writer, as a filmgoer, and as a person. It felt nice to give something back this time.

David Ehrlich is the best

My favorite film critic turned an awful idea into a great one: raising money for Everytown for Gun Safety by slogging through a 31-hour Marvel Movie Marathon.

having said that, the two things i’ve been most outspoken against in my time as a film critic are the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and gun violence. it goes without saying that one is a much greater threat than the other, but both have become ubiquitous in recent years, both are distinctly American phenomena, and both would be extremely confusing for the Founding Fathers.

You can contribute to stopping either threat here.

The failed Scorsese experiment

Earlier this week, I deleted a task on ToDoist with the name “SCORSESE MONTH BAYBAY!”

Excessive? Most definitely. But the enthusiasm for one of American cinema’s greatest living auteurs deserves some context. For the past few years, I have tried to cover as many Scorsese blindspots as I could in March.  And every time, I have failed.

(Why March? Despite my complicated relationship with the Church, Marty and Lent’s Main Month have always held a strong association — both thematically in films themselves, and through many hasty parallels I’ve drawn to Irish- and Italian-Americana; nostalgia is always at play here, too.)

My failure, upon reflection, is rooted in the unfamiliar. I can safely check off the usual suspects already: Gangs of New York. Goodfellas. The Wolf of Wall Street. Hugo. Taxi Driver. The Aviator. If it’s come out in the last 20 years, chances are I’ve seen it. And seen it and seen it and seen it. Because this past year, I only got one film into my fizzled marathon:

Despite having seen The Departed more times than any other Martin Scorsese movie, I both started and ended my run with this utterly re-watchable mess.

It is a mess. After racking up dozens of viewings, I stand by that assertion that its tone is all over the place. Broad transitional effects feel gimmicky. One actor’s performance is constantly try to out-big another’s. Soundtrack changes give Suicide Squad a run for its money. The score’s “samba of death” motive never quite gels. It’s probably too long.

And yet I can’t stop. The Departed, from this limited vantage point, already feels like lesser Scorsese by comparison but its inconsistencies and its haphazard pacing make for some kind of glorious disaster. I’ve been stuck in 2006, forever glued to Marky Mark’s accent and Dropkick Murphys and severed hands and fuck-laced rants.

There’s always next year.

Listening to this year’s Best Original Score nominees

The Academy Awards are tonight and one of the categories I always pay attention to is Best Original Score. I’ve written about the Oscars and AMPAS’s relationship with film music in the past. The operative question with this category, and really any category in any arts awards show, is not Which nominee deserves to win? but rather Which nominees are worthy of the attention?

With that in mind, I’ve broken down my thoughts on each nominee below — with the caveat that I won’t be seeing The Shape of Water until after this post goes up:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — John Williams

My patience is slim for motivic identification. “Find the theme” is a self-fulfilling exercise and not much else in my mind; folks like the co-hosts of SideShow Sound Radio do a much more thorough job of it than I could ever hope to anyway.

As always, John Williams proves to be the exception in this regard, and I truly didn’t realize how much of his new Star Wars music I loved before digging into this score. The Ahch-To music from The Force Awakens made a surprisingly welcome return for me. The burst of the Resistance March propelling Poe’s one-man distraction is absolutely energizing. Kylo Ren’s signifiers feel both evil and appropriately in complete.

The new and unexpected stuff is aces, too. Williams includes sideways references to Revenge of the Sith during the most dour moments, and there’s an early ostinato in “Battle of Crait” that recalls a sped-up version of the Hoth music. The Force theme gets a sad variation in “Old Friends” before ultimately cresting to a more peaceful place. Like The Last Jedi itself, Williams — again, as always — gets us to approach the familiar in new and rejuvenating ways.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri — Carter Burwell

In my time away from professional writing, I’ve reflected on the fact that by and large film music criticism is often heavy on the “music” and light on the “criticism.” Too many writers focus on how a score sounds. Aesthetics are important in music, but film scores are ultimately functional. Full stop. They exist to aid in the telling of a story. I could go on for a dozen posts about this so I’ll get off my soapbox.

All of this is to say that Carter Burwell’s Three Billboards is a paragon of why context matters. As a body of listening, this is phenomenal, even graceful work. Burwell’s main motive has a folksy drive to it, and a second theme in cues like “The Deer” and “Collecting the Samples” has a tidy, funereal aspect. Note the woodwinds.

The problem here is intent. Were I reading Martin McDonagh’s screenplay with this in the background, I’d say Burwell checks all of his moody boxes. But like a lot in this film, McDonagh’s sloppy delivery wastes the effort. Like its unexpected protagonist Mildred Hayes, Burwell comes at us at face value, and that doesn’t work with a tone-deaf approach to the very social issues Three Billboards wants to dramatize. The music is firmly locked in several stages of grief and makes for sublime listening, yet McDonagh is determined to yank on sensibilities at all costs. If you listen to the Spotify release with its soundtrack selections, bring dramamine.

Dunkirk — Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch

Dunkirk is the polar opposite of this idea, a score that you wouldn’t throw on while chopping vegetables; it also has a clear purpose with all of its droning. Zimmer and Wallfisch pick up on their interest in time which Zimmer first teased out with James Newton Howard in The Dark Knight. Here we get more aqueous textures in cues like the opening “The Mole” and later “Shivering Soldier,” and both begin like the elevator music equivalent for a sensory deprivation clinic.

That’s not a cut, because Dunkirk is such a sonic experience. Not unlike Christopher Nolan himself, Zimmer catches an undue backlash courtesy of the zealous fanboy enthusiasm. Detractors will argue his scores are overly reliant on sound design, which places them in the unforgiving between space of gimmicks and afterthoughts. Tellingly, this is also the Best Score nominee I habitually forget about.

Dunkirk‘s sounds are so inextricable from its picture, but that’s cinema, people. In Nolan’s greatest movie in a decade (maybe ever depending on whom you ask), Zimmer and Wallfisch have a perfect marriage with the onscreen brutalism. The anxiety-laden catharsis of “Home” evokes synesthesia because the listening experience stays elemental. Dunkirk is several interwoven stories about how the ravages of war are worsened, erased even, by the ultimate ravages of time. Whereas time and space got away from Nolan in Interstellar, they couldn’t be more palpable here. Sometimes simpler is better.

Phantom Thread — Jonny Greenwood

Much has been made about how much Greenwood wrote for P.T. Anderson. Let’s parse that out. The Spotify release for Phantom Thread clocks in at 55 minutes, 9 minutes more than Greenwood’s standard release for The Master. There Will Be Blood sits at a sparse 30, but Greenwood’s slim filmography also includes Junun, an hour-long musical collab with Shye Ben Tzur. So let’s call it a draw and move on?

This overemphasis of Phantom Thread‘s length is conflated with the complexity of its cues. The title track’s variations alone are worthy of recognition. They move with a melancholy, Brahmsian lilt that’s essential for a PTA period drama. We’re left waiting for this all this dourness to slip into something happier, and we never get it. It’s Nino Rota in mourning, and boy is it good.

That’s just the interludes. “Alma” is gentle but bruised. “Catch Hold” is starry-eyed and wondrous. “Never Cursed” occupies a kind of hiccuped euphoria that pairs perfectly with the dreamy sophistication of “House of Woodcock.” It’s telling that the lightest moments feel like dreams. Greenwood’s most tangible work here is ornate and prickly. What else, right?

P.T. Anderson was an opaque director before 2017. Fussing with stuffy British sets and passive-aggressive niceties only added a few layers to the haziness, which is why the accoutrements are so crucial in Phantom Thread. The music is bursting to break free, the battered beauty behind a lifetime of sacrifice and abuse. Sublime and sickening all at once.

The Shape of Water — Alexandre Desplat

Instrumentation is the true standout for me here. The catchy title theme, both sad and sweet, features a prominent, whistled melody and plenty of nostalgic percussion choices; there’s a grand, romantic version in “Watching Ruth.” “Elisa’s Theme” operates like a waltz but with many of those same musical choices. The addition of flutes create a fine powdering of sound (love those occasional triplets throw in) against a higher-pitched harmonica this time. This is, to use an already overused touchstone, Lynchian. The Shape of Water has a distinctly middle America flavor, polka sounds with a dark, deep woods spin.

That’s also what makes Renee Fleming and Desplat’s terrific version of “You’ll Never Know” so well. Funnily enough, those porch-watching qualities pair with lax, lounge sounds, linking a legitimately great number with the broader score. (Are you taking notes, Mr. McDonagh?)

Desplat really is among the best of his contemporaries. “The Creature” teases us with something ominous. Comparisons to the Jaws theme are, if not inappropriate a little lazy. I’m actually reminded of another Desplat work and how he built up tension in Godzilla. The tour-de-force “Escape” is also remarkable, with running piano lines that put stressors on those earlier Johnny Costa, easy listening vibes. When I get to Guillermo del Toro’s latest, I’ll be curious to see if the in-film experience is as cohesive as a blind listen, because this is such varied, exciting work that still feels of the same cloth.

To reiterate, winners are the least important parts of these things, but if I’m forced to drop $50 with the bookies, my money’s on this. Best Original Score, like Best Director, has a weird relationship with Best Picture. And depending on how the AMPAS voting system makes or breaks Three Billbaords, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Desplat pick up his second statuette tonight.

Why do we nitpick?

I completed my Last Jedi podcast marathon earlier this month, crossing the finish line with The /Filmcast‘s Rian Johnson interview. It’s a fascinating listen, in addition to being a credit to how good Dave Chen is at maintaining connections over the years. One aspect of the episode struck me as particularly distracting, though, and that’s how Chen and co-hosts Devindra Hardawar and Jeff Cannata return to their habit of picking a film’s nits.

On the one hand, this is admirable for the internet age. It would be all too easy to heap praise and lob softball questions at Johnson. Instead, the co-hosts cheerily throw some of the more vocal criticisms of the film right at its creator. Why has nobody attempted the “Holdo Maneuver” before? What would have happened had the cannon fired at the Resistance base? And why does Luke’s hand disappear, too?

If something pulls you out of a movie, that impulse is no less valid than a moment that draws you in. By the same token, isn’t this missing the forest for the trees? Why do we feel the need to pick nits like this, particularly in a franchise that’s given us mystical frog puppets and retconned sibling romances.

I think part of it is driven by the current journalism model we’re experiencing as a culture. Rather than having weekly issues or monthly editions in print, digital media is a constant churn. The same Monday morning content will be relegated to the archives come Friday. That’s the nature of the click bait beast.

Not to mention the current Hollywood storytelling model is obsessed with cinematic universes. And not just Star Wars. Marvel is the OG of course, and DC Comics has been flailing about in recent years to start its own. Transformers is getting a spin-off. Even — for Christ’s sake — Universal’s still-possibly-happening “Dark Universe” fits this bill. Studios have far greater confidence in throwing hundreds of millions of dollars behind familiar IP.

The temptation to overanalyze is encouraged by both of these paradigms. We’re now constantly reflecting on tie-in novels and in-references and past films.  Or think about it in the inverse: Print journalism isn’t conducive to easter egg listicles when you could be waiting an entire season for the next quarterly to arrive in your mailbox. Imagine American Film running “How Yoda Ruined Star Wars” in their Fall 1980 issue.

Immediacy is driving “call-out culture,” even when applied to the comparatively lower stakes of media consumption. Twitter especially opens up an easy channel between creator and consumer. Whether that’s for earnest conversation or self-gratification is beside the point. Why shout into the void when one can fast-pitch their Guardians 2 issues with Kurt Russell’s character directly to James Gunn? He might even respond! The problem is that directors and their respective audiences often aren’t thinking about the same things. As /Film‘s interview revealed, even when they are, they approach the same beats from different perspectives. Where Dave Chen and Devindra Hardawar might object to Luke’s metal hand vanishing with him when he becomes one with the Force, Rian Johnson wants to avoid interrupting a poetic binary sunset with the clanging echo of synthetic fingers.

Is there a violation of internal logic here? That’s a subjective question, and this isn’t a backwards defense of sloppy storytelling. Star Wars is in an awkward spot right now, where a once-complete “Skywalker saga” is bumping up against wars of infinity and the expectations of serialized multimedia storytelling. But the value of asking about the finer details is also up for debate. I would argue that, for now, The Last Jedi is ultimately a silly space fantasy, not some rigorous encyclopedic document of a galaxy far, far away. You don’t go into a Star Wars movie for a physics lesson in the same way you wouldn’t ask Bruce Banner about urban planning. What this episode made clear is that some of the best storytellers are less focused on crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s and more focused on the proverbial sentence.

Put another way, as Johnson happily points out, it’s not like he’s the first Star Wars director to make this stuff up as he went.