Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Original Score

Atonement – Dario Marianelli
The Kite Runner – Alberto Iglesias
Michael Clayton – James Newton Howard
Ratatouille – Michael Giacchino
3:10 to Yuma – Marco Beltrami

Will win: Musicals tend to rule in this category, but the Academy couldn’t find any it liked this year (given that Across the Universe just covers countless songs by the Beatles, it doesn’t qualify), so that gets us absolutely nowhere. What is informative, however, is that six of the past seven winners were also Best Picture nominees – using that logic, we’re narrowed to two choices. As fine a film as Michael Clayton is, I can’t recall anything about James Newton Howard’s music – it may have functioned admirably, but if so, it did its work in the background. Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement, in contrast, exists almost as its own character, mirroring the movie’s broad range of emotions with wondrous sonic versatility. It is truly arresting music and should have firmly implanted itself into voters’ memories.

I also think that it’s vaguely telling that of the five nominated scores, Atonement’s was the only one I was able to successfully download – I mean, legally purchase. It’s clearly the most visible of the selections. The only factor that gives me pause is that this is James Newton Howard’s seventh Oscar nomination, and he’s never once won, so there could be a sympathy issue. But Howard hasn’t been tastelessly parading himself as some victim of musical prejudice the way Randy Newman did six years ago, when he bullied voters into giving him the Oscar – after losing his first 15 tries – for Monsters Inc.’s banal “If I Didn’t Have You”.

So Atonement, the best and most glorious picture of the year, finally wins an Oscar. And I’m not changing my mind on this one. For now.

Should win: Again, I honestly tried to procure copies of the other nominated scores, but the Internet refused to comply. Still, I’m completely confident that none of them even compares to the intimate majesty of Marianelli’s score for Atonement. The main theme, “Briony,” actually opens with the harsh punching of typewriter keys, a repetitive thump that Marianelli gracefully transforms into the plinking of a piano. That piano soon transitions into a soft but insistent melody, but Marianelli keeps the typewriter going, accompanying his piano’s elegance with a firm, almost discordant percussion. This theme of transition is repeated in “The Half Killed”, which begins as a quiet contemplation of mournful brass but then morphs into a driving tour de force of haunting winds and shimmering strings, bolstered by deep brass and that ever-insistent piano. And then there’s the “Elegy for Dunkirk”, a soaring lament of sadness and loss that slowly fades to a plaintive, whispering violin. It’s a score that only further enhances a film of incomparable beauty.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – Hans Zimmer. A splendid return to form. After Zimmer’s protégé Klaus Badelt composed a stirring, landmark score for the franchise’s first installment, The Curse of the Black Pearl, Zimmer himself took a step backward for the sequel. The music for Dead Man’s Chest had its moments – Zimmer created memorable themes for the Kraken as well as Capt. Jack Sparrow – but it felt bogged down in Zimmer’s bizarre eccentricities. His score for At World’s End isn’t without its peculiarities, but it’s more appropriately old-fashioned and rousing, and he supplies several jaunty new refrains, most visibly the “Hoist the Colors!” theme, an actual song of freedom that typifies the franchise’s giddiness and exhilaration.

Zimmer also shrewdly integrates several of the earlier films’ various sonic threads into his work here. This is most apparent and impressive on “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time”, the soundtrack for the maelstrom sequence that plays like a who’s-who of the franchise’s most recognizable musical moments. The result is a self-aware but inspiring score steeped in Pirates of the Caribbean lore. Zimmer even offers a wickedly sly homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone with “Parlay”, a blaring siren that inescapably recalls Ennio Morricone’s classic theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are all about having fun, and no one seems to be having a better time than Zimmer.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – Nicholas Hooper. To be honest, this isn’t a great score; Hooper’s work is one of the sharpest downgrades relative to Patrick Doyle’s exceptional score for Goblet of Fire. It has some lovely quiet moments, particularly “Possession”, which adds pathos to the movie’s most painful and powerful scene. But Hooper is also frustratingly restrained, almost as if he was overly concerned about overshadowing the movie’s images (not bloody likely), and the music for Order of the Phoenix is sadly lacking in bold, robust musical themes.

However, I have to put it on here out of respect for my mother, who downloaded one of its tracks (“The Sirius Deception”) to serve as my ringback tone, so that whenever I personally call my parents’ cell phone, it makes her think of Harry Potter. Apparently she derives great pleasure from this, and given that I have “The Imperial March” as my master ringtone (with “Raiders’ March” for text messages), I’m in complete charity with her. But I’m also absolutely certain that every time I call and that theme rings, my father is painfully reminded of the $2.99 it cost to download it to her phone. He’ll never get over that one.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – Carter Burwell. Burwell is also credited as composer for No Country for Old Men, which I find laughable, since the film has virtually no music. But he certainly gets the job done here, furnishing Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with a percussive, forceful music track that assists Sidney Lumet in driving his melodrama forward with clarity and vigor.

NOT deserving:
There Will Be Blood – Jonny Greenwood. The lack of a nomination for Jonny Greenwood’s much-lauded, overstuffed score for There Will Be Blood caused a relative uproar – this was like when Isiah Thomas was preposterously left off the Olympic team. Eventually the Academy issued a statement explaining that the score wasn’t eligible because it wasn’t officially original; much of the music had already been featured in a BBC production called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver”.

And thank God for that. A pompous, highly ingratiating score, Greenwood’s music is emblematic of Paul Thomas Anderson’s weaknesses as a filmmaker – it is self-congratulatory, ostentatious, and haughty. Some great film scores assist their movie subtly, working mostly in the background (such as that of The Shawshank Redemption), while others (such as that of Atonement) boldly utilize music to complement their pictures’ key themes. Greenwood’s score does neither of these things; all it does it detract from our enjoyment of There Will Be Blood as a whole. The music endeavors so insistently to get itself noticed that it results in a supreme distraction. It tries to pass itself off as avant-garde and succeeds in being nothing more than obnoxious.
But it was ruled ineligible, meaning a little movie called Atonement might actually win an Oscar. Thank God for technicalities.

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