Favourite movie soundtracks – Forrest Gump and Departures

Alan Silvestri’s Oscar-nominated soundtrack from Forrest Gump consists of 4 major themes. The most well-known is the opening theme (also referred to as the ‘Feather Theme’). It is one of the most beautiful pieces I have heard in a movie in modern times. It works just as well whether played on piano or with strings (as in the closing scene). I love it for its simplicity and for how perfectly it matches with the on-screen visuals, particularly the emotional ending. Although Alan Silvestri continues to score for big blockbusters like The Avengers, Captain America and GI Joe, I feel his recent work has been quite generic.

Joe Hisaishi has been a long term collaborator of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. His scores have complemented Miyazaki’s films for years without ever dominating them (I mean that as a compliment). Then in 2008, Hisaishi composed the soundtrack for the multiple-award winning Japanese drama Departures (Okuribito), about a cellist (played by former J-pop idol Masahiro Motoki) who returns to his hometown and inadvertently takes up a new job as a mortician. He stands firm against the ridicule of his family and eventually excels at his new job, eventually performing the ‘encoffining’ ceremony on the body of his own estranged father. The film deals sensitively with themes of death, duty and filial piety, beautifully supported by Hisaishi’s score. The cello solo played by the lead character is the most well-known piece…wistful and poignant.

The feather theme and the cello solo would probably classify as the most emotional pieces of music I have heard on film.


Favourite movie soundtracks – The Italian Job and The Bourne Identity

This is actually the first time I have ever written exclusively about movie soundtracks. Not even sure how to articulate my thoughts or describe music, but here goes!

I’m trying to create a list of my top movie soundtracks. This is not the way the Oscars pick their nominees, there is no evaluation of technical skill or difficulty. It’s just music that I like.

I’ll probably write about one or two films in each post, based on some sort of thematic similarity. Today’s post is about two movie soundtracks composed by the same person – John Powell.

John Powell specializes in two very different genres of films. On one hand, he is the man behind the scores of many successful animation films from Fox Animation/ Blue Sky Studios (The Ice Age moviesRobots, Horton Hears a Who! and Rio) and Dreamworks Animation (Antz, Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon). But he has also composed the score for several high octane action films like Face/Off, the Bourne series, The Italian Job, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I don’t consider his animation work to be particularly memorable, but I am a fan of two of his action movie scores.

One is the opening score for The Italian Job remake of 2003. It feels like a perfect caper film score, starting off with lots of percussion, clicks and chimes, before the strings kick in at the 1:19 mark. I would describe it as intelligent, intriguing and upbeat.
The 2nd is the main theme for The Bourne Identity. There’s a long slow build up and then the string section kicks in with some staccato percussion which sounds like gun shots. It creates a sustained mood of excitement and anticipation, very much in keeping with the theme of the film.

Sadly, John Powell seems to be getting only animation projects these days, with his recent projects being Happy Feet Two, The Lorax and sequels to How to Train Your Dragon and Rio. I’m hoping he will get an action film assignment soon and there’ll be some more of that suspenseful music magic.

Pacific Rim, a worthy successor to…Aliens

In 1986, James Cameron directed Aliens and my life changed forever! I read the synopsis of the story published in the Indian Express weekend pullout over two consecutive Sundays. At that point, I hadn’t yet seen Ridley Scott’s original space-horror classic Alien, although of course, I knew quite a bit about the story (related breathlessly and with great drama by one of our high school classmates). I was amazed that a story so horrifying could morph into a sequel that was thematically so different…a military action-adventure.

A year later, I watched a decent VHS print of Aliens on a small TV screen at a local ‘video theatre’, followed it up some months later with a viewing on a proper cinema screen and then watched it a few more times over the period 1988-91. By that time, I knew every scene and every dialogue. Cameron’s film was an unrelenting thrill ride, filled with incredibly detailed military equipment as well as memorable and believable characters who I quickly became emotionally invested in – Corporal Dwayne Hicks (played by Michael Biehn), Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), Pvt. Vasquez (the oh-so-butch Jenette Goldstein), her close friend Pvt. Drake, the no-nonsense Sgt. Apone and even their pompous and clueless leader Lt. Gorman (William Hope) who eventually redeems himself by popping a grenade and taking himself and Vasquez out along with a bunch of aliens.

Aliens went on to become a hugely influential scifi-action film, but surprisingly, there haven’t been any notable high-octane ensemble action films set in an alien environment since then. So, when I watched Pacific Rim this morning, I felt like this was the film I had been waiting a quarter-century to see. Although the inspiration and origins of Pacific Rim lie in the Japanese ‘mecha’ and ‘kaiju eiga’ sub-genres, I really feel that knowingly or unknowingly, writer Travis Beacham and director Guillermo del Toro have also paid homage to Aliens…the pacing and intensity of the action, the wide range of personalities in the ensemble cast and the incredibly rich detail of the creatures as well as the equipment. I had already been following the viral marketing for the past 6 months, downloading the blueprints of the different Jaegers.

While Aliens had a strong feminist/ maternal theme running through it, Pacific Rim is all about bonding and pairing. There are several such pairs in the film, some naturally formed and some created through the force of circumstance.

One of the characters who stands out on his own (although we discover that he also has a strong relationship with someone) is the superbly named Stacker Pentecost, the leader of the Jaeger team which has been battling the alien monsters for a decade; his physical presence is matched by his unwavering dedication to the cause, exemplified by his short but powerful speech just before the final act – “Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen to believe in each other. Today, we face the monsters that are at our door. Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!”

Pentecost is played by British actor Idris Elba who made quite an impression on me playing Heimdall, the guardian sentry of Asgard in Thor in 2011. A year later, he played Janek, the captain of the space ship in the Alien prequel Prometheus (there’s that Alien connection again). He is of course, best known for playing Chief Inspector John Luther in the British crime drama Luther, which I haven’t seen. He will soon be seen playing Nelson Mandela in a biopic coming out later this year.

The Aussie father-son duo of Hercules and Chuck Hansen are one of the significant pairs in the film, strongly played by Italian-American actor Max Martini and British actor Rob Kazinsky (he plays Ben Flynn in TV’s True Blood). I believe they’ve taken quite a bit of flack in Australia for their unconvincing accents, though.

The two scientists played by Burn Gorman and comedian Charlie Day both provide some much-needed relief from the intense action scenes. Gorman’s slightly unhinged scientist Gottlieb would not have been out of place in director del Toro’s Hellboy movies and Charlie Day is at his shrillest best as he tries to unlock the secrets of the Kaiju invaders.

The big scene stealer is of course, del Toro staple Ron Perlman, who plays Hannibal Chau, a black market dealer in Kaiju organs. This sub-plot plays out as a nice bit of satire on the Asian obsession with animal parts and Perlman is perfectly cast as the flamboyant and ruthless king of the black market operating out of Hong Kong. Here’s another Alien connection – Perlman played the high-strung mercenary Johner in 1997’s Alien Resurrection.

Finally, we have the main protagonist Raleigh Becket, played by British actor Charlie Hunnam, who looks like an intelligent version of Channing Tatum. We first see Becket as he pilots a Jaeger called Gypsy Danger on a mission…a truly impressive sequence which gives viewers a clue as to where most of that USD 190 million production budget must have been spent. Eventually something goes wrong and Becket spends the next few years in self-imposed exile before he is brought back by Stacker Pentecost for a final desperate mission against the Kaiju. Hunnam shares quite a bit of screen time with Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi (who was nominated for an Oscar in Babel) and there are some entertaining scenes as they build their relationship.

I really loved the score by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones); very intense with lots of brass horns and low notes.

Based on the first weekend box office numbers, it appears that Pacific Rim will struggle to turn a profit at the global box office, so chances of a sequel are slim. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I feel that so many sequels just dial up the action and miss out on the human element, which is equally important in movies like this. As I did with Aliens, I can always watch this movie again and again…who needs a sequel!

PS: Travis Beacham’s prequel graphic novel, Pacific Rim: Tales from the Year Zero is a good companion piece to read after watching the movie.

Project 1939 – watching the 10 nominees for Best Picture Oscar from 1939

When one looks back at Oscar winners of the past, there are some years – particularly in ‘40s and ‘50s – when every film in the list is a classic.

1939 is one such year, and is generally considered to be Oscar’s greatest year ever.

On the night of February 29th 1940, David O. Selznick’s magnum opus Gone with the Wind produced for MGM, fought off studio stablemates The Wizard of Oz and Ninotchka to win the gold statuette. The other 7 films in the mix were Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair and Dark Victory.

I just finished watching Ninotchka this morning, without realizing it was a member of this exalted group. It was only when I was updating my movie database that I noticed the other legendary pictures under the year 1939, and realized that I had watched 8 out of the 10 nominees from that golden year.

Interestingly, the first movie I watched from this list was only about 10-12 years ago and it wasn’t Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, the 2 films most likely to have been seen by any movie buff early in their ‘movie-watching career’. In fact, I watched both those films only in 2008-09! Instead, that status goes to John Ford’s Stagecoach, the movie that made John Wayne a household name and led to a string of roles in memorable Westerns, many of them directed by John Ford as well.  Ford had a tough time getting a studio to finance this film, because he insisted on casting then-unknown John Wayne as The Ringo Kid. John Wayne was just a B-movie actor at the time and the big studios wanted big names Eventually, the film was picked up by independent producer Walter Wanger and the rest as they say, is history. Westerns were always a big staple on Turner Classic Movies but I had a healthy dislike for them, for some reason. I watched this movie only as an ‘obligation’, as it was so highly regarded, but it kicked off my love affair with the Western genre, John Wayne and John Ford. I can never forget the thrill of watching the scene where The Ringo Kid is introduced to the audience…we hear a gunshot, the stagecoach staggers to a halt, cut to John Wayne with the sun and the Monument Valley landscape behind him; he flips his shotgun full circle (Schwarzenegger did the same thing in Terminator 2) as he shouts out “Hold it!”. The camera zooms into him so quickly that it actually loses focus for a few seconds before settling on his look of surprise as he recognizes the riders on the coach. Even now, I frequently go to Youtube and replay this clip.

My other sentimental favorites from this list are Love Affair and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Love Affair has been remade twice, once by the same director Leo McCarey as An Affair to Remember in 1957 with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and then disastrously in 1994 as Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.  I love both the 1939 and 1957 versions equally, with Charles Boyer every bit as charming a leading man in Love Affair as Cary Grant was in An Affair to Remember. My favorite scenes are the ones with Grandmother Janou and of course, the final scene in Terry McKay’s apartment.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably the 2nd James Stewart film I have ever watched, after It’s a Wonderful Life, which was made much later in 1946 by the same director Frank Capra. Mr. Smith features James Stewart as an idealistic young man thrust into the unforgiving world of Washington politics. The naïve and earnest Mr. Smith is set off well against the suave and crooked Senator Paine (played by the always reliable and watchable Claude Rains, who received an Oscar nomination for the role). The filibuster scene is one of my favorites, of course.

Wuthering Heights and Goodbye, Mr. Chips are the two films from the list that I admired and enjoyed while watching, but are probably a bit too ‘heavy’ to be watched again and again.

It was in Wuthering Heights that I first saw Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon on film; as a kid I had read an article about how she went to great lengths to hide her Asian origins from the public, employing extensive use of cosmetics and drugs which ultimately damaged her skin. A few years later, she was involved in a car accident which caused further facial scarring. During this time, she was married to cinematographer Lucien Ballard who then designed a lighting system – called the ‘obie’ – which would make the scarring disappear on film. The obie is widely used even today! I’m not sure if I was imagining it, but while watching Wuthering Heights, I thought was able to detect the occasional Indian tone in her accent. The film itself is one of William Wyler’s early masterpieces, well before he went on to make Best Picture winners like Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of our Lives and Ben-Hur.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a biographical film, describing the life and times of a school teacher Mr. Chipping (played by Robert Donat) from the start of his career as a Latin teacher at a boys’ school till his retirement as headmaster and subsequent death. It is a warm, sentimental film and provided the role-of-a-lifetime for Robert Donat who had to age 63 years over the course of the film. He beat Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights) and James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to win the Best Actor Oscar.

Getting back to Ninotchka which started this entire train of thought, it’s actually my first ever Greta Garbo film. Having only seen stills of her from her silent era, I initially didn’t recognize her when she appeared on the railway platform as Russian envoy Nina ‘Ninotchka’ Yakushova. I love Ernst Lubitsch comedies (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be) as they are filled with sharp, intelligent dialogue and memorable supporting characters. I have to admit though, that I was a bit creeped out the first time Great Garbo laughed, having got so used to her stern ‘comrade’ persona up to that point in the movie.

So, I’ve decided to retrospectively call this 10 year unfinished journey Project 1939. I have 2 more films left on this list. The first is Of Mice and Men, which stars Lon Chaney Jr., who took a sharp career turn after this film and went on to play the full suite of Universal Studios’ horror characters in films like The Wolfman, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula. The second film is Dark Victory, which has Bette Davis in the lead role of a socialite dealing with terminal cancer and Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. Both are rather grim films and it’s no surprise that I haven’t watched either yet. Hopefully, I will get hold of the two films and be able to report the completion of Project 1939 in the near future!