Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Storm of Swords

Most of the reviews on any of the Song of Fire and Ice books I've read are universal in their agreement that George R. R. Martin is a unique and original voice in fantasy. Some have even called him a cruel god, as the creator of characters whom he them makes suffer in unexpected ways. In A Storm of Swords, Martin elevates his modus operandi to new extremes. The reader should never get comfortable in the Martin Universe because nothing will stay the same for long.

Having had a day to reflect on the book since finishing it, I think this volume reminds me of LOST in some ways. Most LOST season finales were had some sort of big event that was a "game-changer" for the rest of the story to come. A Storm of Swords has more game-changers in one novel than all the LOST finales combined. So far in the series, the story has only gotten better. I have high hopes for what's to come.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Digital Scrapbook Throwback

Beethoven's 5th Symphony.
Repin was replaced by pianist Alexander Toradze for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2

And for the throwback entry, a 2007 35mm screening of Back to the Future.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fog Tropes

I wanted to have a link to this in the last post, but it was running way too long. An alternative to commissioning a new score for a film is to use existing music. Usually this is done with pop or rock music, but occasionally a soundtrack is pieced together from classical or modern classical music. Stanley Kubrick seemed especially adept at the practice in his films like The Shining and 2001.

This piece is the opening to Shutter Island. It's a very non-traditional piece of music, where it's sometimes difficult to tell where the sound effects end and the music starts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Movie Music

Last year about this time I posted a blog before the final season of LOST began and how integral the music was to the show. The same is no less true for film. Some film scores go mostly unnoticed, delicately complimenting the story, while others boldly secure the epic backdrop of a celluloid tale. While some may argue that mood music is used to create a false emotional depth, I think everyone would agree that the score to a film shouldn't be a distraction. Maurice Andre's score to Doctor Zhivago was one of the best-selling movie soundtracks of its time, but repetitive balalaika music at loud volume (whether because of the soundtrack mix, or the projection volume?) will quickly pull the viewer out of the film (sorry Josh and Rick).

From Wikipedia: In editing Zhivago, Lean and producer Carlo Ponti reduced or outright deleted many of the themes composed by Jarre; Jarre was angry because he felt that an over-reliance on "Lara's Theme" would ruin the soundtrack.

So a film score needs to support the story and develop the atmosphere without drawing too much attention to itself. That doesn't mean it needs to shirk away into the background either. John Williams is probably the best known film composer of the last 35 years precisely because his best known scores are big and brash, but they enhance the excitement of those films. It all depends on the mood the director wants to set.

Now, following my stream of Afghani musician going by the name birdfeeder decided to slow down John Williams' classic orchestral theme to Jurassic Park (amazing by itself) and slow it down so that it stretches out to nearly an hour of ambient music. It becomes something more appropriate for (depending on the section) Inception (slowed brass), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, or Sunshine.
The effect is really quite incredible. I recommend downloading it and listening to the entire thing. Right around the 9:45 mark the discord is so tense and drawn-out it feels like the chord will never resolve.

The real reason I started this entry, though, was an observation I had during the previews for upcoming films before True Grit started. It's no secret that at least the first trailer is edited before the final music for the film is complete, so it's fairly common to hear a familiar tune played over images from the upcoming movie. I remember for awhile a piece from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves seemed like it was in every other movie trailer. Anyway, I recognized a couple of unique pieces of music that each give a very specific tone. Water for Elephants is set at the circus and used the playful music-box theme Song for Jesse from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

The other seems to be getting even more play, though I'm not sure I can remember every place I've heard it lately. John Murphy wrote the synth-based score to Sunshine (underrated, or at least "under-seen"). The most recognizable track is Adagio in D Minor, used in the trailer for a film I'm pretty excited about, The Adjustment Bureau (Philip K Dick + Emily Blunt + Matt Damon). I heard the same track used in an episode of The Walking Dead, which was especially interesting to me, since Bear McCreary's score for the TV series seems influenced by the scores from both Sunshine and 28 Days Later...written by John Murphy.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Three-fifths Compromise

Last Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives opened their 112th session of Congress by reading the entire [amended] Constitution aloud from the chamber floor for the first time in its history. The amendment process does not delete text from the Constitution when changes are made. This allows us to go back and see our "scars". Pundits and congressional reps alike, however, made a big deal about "which version" of the Constitution would be read. One of the comments I saw most frequently is, "Will they read the part about African-Americans only being three-fifths of a person?" I even saw a comment on that claimed the North wanted to count slaves as "one", and the South wanted to count slaves as "zero". This represents a completely upside-down understanding of the three-fifths compromise.

Slaveholders and Southern supporters of slavery wanted slaves fully counted for the purpose of apportioning representation in Congress (and distribution of taxes). This would give southern voters a disproportionate representation in the House to their advantage, further institutionalizing slavery into the new nation's fabric. Abolitionists did not want slaves counted at all since they could not vote, and for the above reason that it would give slave-owners disproportionate power in the House and electoral college. At no point does the Constitution refer to anyone as 3/5 of a person. By lowering the RATE at which "all other Persons" were counted, those founders were trying to set the stage for the day when slavery could be ended. Additionally, slavery opponents were showing the hypocrisy of slave-owners who claimed slaves were property, but demanded they be counted as people.

Despite the 3/5 not being as controversial as some want to believe, it was not read since it has been superseded by the 13th and 14th Amendments, and has no bearing on this session of Congress.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The King's Speech

I don't do very many actual film reviews, mostly because I don't think I have anything especially profound to add to a given discussion. However, once in awhile a film has enough of an impact that it can't help but overflow into your conversations and in this case, writing.

Minutiae out of the way first. I was amused to see no less than three actors from the critically respected 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice: Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, and David Bamber, although there is only one scene where two of those actors cross paths.
Guy Pierce is truly a pro in any role, but as he is 7 years younger than Colin Firth, why cast him as his older brother King Edward VIII?

Rocky. Karate Kid. Even The Matrix. Pick your own and compare away. It's the familiar story of a brave underdog under the tutelage of an older mentor overcoming a great challenge. The big difference is that The King's Speech is a true story. While there seems to be a minor obsession with royalty over the past few years in the film industry, the efforts have yielded terrific films (see The Young Victoria or The Queen). The King's Speech, however, was a long time in the making. Screenwriter David Seidler obtained permission to tell this personal story of King George VII from his wife Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, during the 1970's. Her only stipulation was that the movie couldn't be made in her lifetime. I guess no one expected her to live to be 101.

At its core, The King's Speech is the story of a friendship between a royal and a commoner. At the parallel is the story of Prince Albert's ascension to the throne as King George VI. The two intersect in the problem of a prince, and later, king who stutters and stammers while the empire is on the verge of war, all during the rise of radio (or "wireless"). Firth is incredibly sympathetic as the reluctant royal who is fearful of becoming king, while Helena Bonham Carter shows a rarely seen softer side as his incredibly supportive wife. Geoffrey Rush plays the unorthodox Australian speech therapist and WWI vet who genuinely wants to help his patient, insisting on informality in his office.

It's a shame that the audience for The King's Speech will be limited by the R rating due to a short but concentrated bit of swearing in the context of speech therapy. I know there was some controversy in Britain when it was given a "15" rating, which was revised to "12A", which is similar to taking it from an R to a PG-13.

The King's Speech is alternately funny, compassionate, uncomfortable, and dramatic, but never dull, despite ostensibly being a movie about speech therapy. The direction and cinematography are excellent, with unexpected and surprising camera angles and framing throughout. Alexander Desplat provides a string, wind, and piano score that's never overly emotional, allowing the actors to provide that element. The film's climactic moments, though, are underscored by the dramatic and stirring Allegretto from Beethoven's 7th Symphony (the same one I had the pleasure of hearing performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra last month), followed by Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto. This is the rare engrossing cinematic experience where your hands begin to involuntarily move towards applause before your brain stops them in the realization that it's a film.