Variations on a Theme, No. 9: Gods and Monsters (1998)

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Carter Burwell – Gods and Monsters (1998, dir. Bill Condon)

Winner at the 1999 Academy Awards: Nicola Piovani, Life Is Beautiful (1997, dir. Roberto Benigni)

After a week-long break, I am returning to finish my series of posts about great film scores that did not receive Academy Award nominations. Relating back to my earlier post on the 1935 horror classic Bride of Frankenstein, I now take a look at Bill Condon’s excellent biopic of director James Whale (as played by Ian McKellen), Gods and Monsters (1998). Carter Burwell’s score is sometimes quite loud and forceful, but the most moving selections encapsulate the heartbroken exhaustion from the end of Whale’s life and his regret over lost passions or passions never experienced. The composition “Love in the Trenches” (1) establishes what I think of as the main theme associated with the James Whale character. The piece is heard in a scene that recounts Whale’s forbidden romance with a soldier who fought alongside him in World War I, a person whose death haunted Whale and influenced the unsettling, German Expressionist-style imagery seen in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. “Frankenwhale” (2) depicts the darker side of Whale’s personality as a man tormented by inner demons, manifesting both in his directing (in his films’ subject matter and in his on-set actions) and in his private life; the combination of professional and personal leads Burwell to incorporate the main Whale theme at the 1:29 mark. In the last minutes of the film, “Friend?” (3) harks back to the touching question asked by Frankenstein’s Monster in Bride of Frankenstein, aligning Whale with the misunderstood creature who, despite being considered a misfit by society, was both sensitive and lonely, reaching out for a companion.

Remembering Setsuko Hara


In many of her films, [Setsuko] Hara’s luminous smile communicates a variety of sentiments – sometimes she smiles out of genuine love, sometimes as an attempt to hide pain. In the rare moments when Hara’s characters cry, after otherwise accepting all of life’s misfortunes, the emotional release can be heartbreaking. – Ronald Bergan

Last night I found out that Setsuko Hara, who was one of the five “divas” of Japanese cinema in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (along with Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyô and Hideko Takamine), passed away on September 5. She had been hospitalized with pneumonia, and in accordance with her wishes that “no fuss be made,” her family did not tell the media of her death until yesterday. When Hara retired from acting in 1963 (though her last film was released in 1966), she never gave a definite explanation. She remained almost completely isolated from public life for the next half-century, a Garbo-like recluse, although she lived near her family in the Kanagawa prefecture of Kantō. Except for one interview that she gave in 1992, Hara kept out of the public eye and I don’t think there are any confirmed photographs of her from after the 1960s.


Hara, who was nicknamed “The Eternal Virgin” for the kinds of roles she usually played onscreen, never married and I don’t think anything is publicly known about her love life, if she had one. Some rumors about her reasons for retiring were that she had been in love with her most frequent collaborator, director Yasujirô Ozu (who died of cancer in December 1963) – although I have also read rumors that Hara may have been a lesbian, a hunch probably based solely on her never having wed – and another rumor was that she went blind. In her final press conference, Hara said that she had only gone into acting to support her family and she had never enjoyed doing it, so maybe she simply stopped when she was secure enough financially. Whatever the reason, perhaps it is better that the details of Setsuko Hara’s life remain a mystery; that’s the way she wanted it.

Here are a few clips from some of my favorite films starring Setsuko Hara:

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946, dir. Akira Kurosawa) – Here is an assortment of clips from the film, set to Bach’s “Air on the G String.” In a 2008 essay written for the Criterion Collection, Michael Koresky noted that “alone in Kurosawa’s body of work, this film aligns itself with the point of view of a female protagonist: Yukie, played by the brilliantly expressive Setsuko Hara. Moving from bourgeois complacency to social activism, Yukie—the daughter of a conservative university professor and eventual wife of one of his students, an anti-imperial intellectual from a peasant family—is the film’s emotional anchor, guiding us through the political and cultural turmoil of Japan from 1933 to 1945.”

Late Spring (1949, dir. Yasujirô Ozu) – This is a great example of the loveliness of Setsuko Hara’s smile, a grin that could light up the whole room (or, in this case, the outdoors). In 2005, Roger Ebert wrote that Hara was “a great star who would drop everything to work with Ozu. When the studio asked Ozu to consider a different actress for the second film, he refused to make it without Hara.” Furthermore, “Late Spring tells a story that becomes sadder the more you think about it. There is a tension in the film between Noriko’s smile and her feelings. Her smile is often a mask. She smiles brightly during a strange early scene where she talks with a family friend, Onodera, who has remarried after the death of his wife. Such a second marriage is ‘filthy and foul,’ she says, and it disgusts her. She smiles, he laughs. Yet she is very serious … So much happens out of sight in the film, implied but not shown. Noriko smiles but is not happy. Her father passively accepts what he hates is happening. The aunt is complacent, implacable, maddening. She gets her way. It is universally believed, just as in a Jane Austen novel, that a woman of a certain age is in want of a husband. Late Spring is a film about two people who desperately do not believe this, and about how they are undone by their tact, their concern for each other, and their need to make others comfortable by seeming to agree with them.”

Tokyo Story (1953, dir. Yasujirô Ozu) – As Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian in 2010: “[Hara] had a recurring role as Noriko in a trilogy of Ozu films: Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1954), the first of which was reworked as Late Autumn (1960). Of these, it is Tokyo Story – routinely hailed as one of the best films ever made – that can never be forgotten once seen, and Setsuko Hara’s exquisite performance is surely a vital part of what makes this film Ozu’s masterpiece. It is about an elderly married couple who make the tough journey to the big city to visit their busy grown-up children, only to find that they have no time for their parents, and the only person who does is their daughter-in-law Noriko, played by Hara. She is the widow of the son who is still listed missing presumed killed in the second world war. This vulnerable old couple are the only link she has to her husband: they are the only people it makes sense for her to love, and she appears to be the only person who loves them. Her desperately polite smile, her dignity and the quiver of heartbreak in her voice are absolutely captivating. I defy anyone to watch this film and not feel simply overwhelmed with a kind of love for Hara – however absurd that may sound.” Indeed, watching clips of Hara from the Tokyo Story trailer, or the brief scene at the end when she looks at her late mother-in-law’s watch, one knows without a shadow of a doubt that Setsuko Hara was one of the truly great actresses in our world’s cinema.




2015: Part 3

Bridge of Spies. Directed by Steven Spielberg. This cerebral film, based on the real story of a Soviet spy and the American lawyer who defended him both in and out of the courtroom, is worth your time if you are a moviegoer who values intellect over action-heavy excitement, although I would argue that there’s quite a lot of action and excitement in Bridge of Spies. The film is better than the usual Spielberg schmaltz; it has an excellent screenplay written in part by the Coen brothers, and very fine performances by Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Stephen Kunken, Sebastian Koch and Mikhail Gorevoy. I was also impressed by Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, particularly in the Berlin scenes. There are some questionable elements to the film’s story – why was Rudolf Abel’s “honor” as a “good soldier” more important to Donovan than the fact that Abel, upon his return, might continue to aid the Soviets in planning an attack on the US? I also must point out that the trade wasn’t exactly equal; Abel had information, and Powers was a hired pilot who probably didn’t know anything more valuable than how to fly the planes – and as a New Yorker it irritates me that a) Spielberg didn’t cover up the post-9/11 American flags on the trains and b) there was no train intercom announcing the stations like there is today (it’s also redundant screenwriting; after announcing “Broad Street,” a moment later you see characters get off the train and there are Broad St. signs everywhere). Other than that, Bridge of Spies is definitely worth seeing. Obviously, though, if you have no interest in the Cold War era and even less interest in bothering with learning about it, then you may want to try something more popcorn-style. (P.S. Gotta love that moment when Tom Hanks says “HOT DOG!” Good old 1960-talk.)

Run All Night. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Having already seen two previous collaborations between director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson, Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014), I had some idea of what to expect with Run All Night. This NYC-set crime thriller about a former Irish-mob hitman and his innocent son, on the lam after some murders get them set up as fall guys, has a lot of action and some interesting actors, even though it is predictable and not a movie you’re likely to remember after the end credits roll. Neeson does his usual fine work, decently supported by Ed Harris (a vindictive kingpin), Common (Harris’s foremost assassin), Vincent D’Onofrio (a tired but determined detective who has been tracking Neeson for decades), Holt McCallany and Bruce McGill. It would have been nice if Nick Nolte (uncredited!) had had more screen time and if Lois Smith had had anything more to do than lie in a hospital bed, but on the plus side I was impressed by two notable supporting performances: Joel Kinnaman in a respectable performance as Neeson’s hardheaded but sympathetic son (essentially the other lead in the film) and Boyd Holbrook as Ed Harris’s wildly problematic, drug-addled son who causes grief for everyone in the film. You won’t be surprised by many, if any, of the plot turns in Run All Night, and you may get a little tired of how Martin Ruhe’s cinematography gives so many scenes a weird yellowish tint (what is this, Taxi Driver by way of Steven Soderbergh?), but overall the film is good for what it is and Dirk Westervelt’s editing does a good job at keeping the pace pumping in the action scenes. Just don’t expect anything more.

Sicario. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s hard to say whether I feel let down by Sicario (the Spanish word for “hitman”), a thriller about drug cartels run in Mexico and the blurred boundaries between lawful justice and vigilante revenge; maybe my expectations were not very high to begin with, or maybe I had A.O. Scott’s disappointed review in the back of my mind. I am glad that Denis Villeneuve made the film with Emily Blunt as the protagonist – she does as well in the role as she can – and yet the role does not seem like the coup it should have been. Blunt’s FBI agent character exists to take orders from men and react to their actions; unlike Josh Brolin’s and Benicio Del Toro’s characters, Blunt does not have interesting personality traits or particularly good lines (Del Toro corners the market on the latter). It’s true that Sicario effectively portrays the unequal power dynamic between the sexes in law enforcement (Emily Blunt’s character being the only woman working the missions, all of her superiors are men, they dominate her by their job status but also by their physical strength/guns, threatening her body in ways that she can’t threaten them likewise), but the film also does not give Blunt any good dialogue. That’s the biggest issue for me. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan expended all his energy giving Del Toro the memorable lines and Brolin the funny, unsettling quirks, while Blunt was left with nothing but clichés (“I wasn’t trained for this!” “You can’t do that, it’s illegal!”). Don’t tell me that a lack of punchy dialogue is supposed to indicate a difference between the sexes too, because I sure don’t buy that. It’s just poor writing. Kate is written like Caleb, the protagonist from one of 2015’s better films, Ex Machina: idealistic, in way over her head, and never wiser or more adept than the people in charge.

Tab Hunter Confidential. Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. This award-winning documentary tells the compelling story of 50s screen idol Tab Hunter, whose carefully manufactured (by the studios) image of clean-cut, all-American heterosexual masculinity was at odds with the truth of his being a gay man. Having to stay in the closet held Hunter back at many times and he had to deal with family tragedies that I, a person who didn’t know much about Hunter, had no idea about. Learning about Hunter has allowed me to develop a deep respect for him. The talking heads may draw the most attention for casual viewers – Debbie Reynolds, George Takei, John Waters, Clint Eastwood, TCM host Robert Osborne, Portia de Rossi, Connie Stevens, Noah Wyle, Dolores Hart, Terry Moore, etc. – but it’s Tab Hunter who takes center stage, owning the spotlight as a fascinating subject and our narrator throughout the journey of most of his life.

The Walk. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. This was an incredible experience to have in IMAX 3D. (New Yorkers, I hope you went to the AMC Loews Lincoln Square theater because that is the only IMAX screen that could truly do justice to the amazing visuals photographed by one of my new favorite maestros, Dariusz Wolski.) For me The Walk is now second only to Gravity in terms of fantastic use of gravity-defying special effects, making human efforts into superhuman feats of unreal, jaw-dropping proportions. Like the younger kids in the audience with me, I too felt the exhilaration, fear and joy of everything Philippe Petit (played so well by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is growing into one of America’s most interesting leading men) does for his love of high-wire walking. Hearing Alan Silvestri’s score accompanying these astounding scenes made it all even more riveting and magical. Ben Kingsley is, as always, delightful to watch, here playing Petit’s mentor, Papa Rudy; I really liked César Domboy as Jeff, one of Petit’s “accomplices” who gets quite a bit of screen time in the second half of the film since he is the only other person working directly alongside Petit on the top of the south tower; James Badge Dale also has a good supporting role as an American companion on the adventure; last (but never least), it’s fun seeing Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio from “Parks and Recreation”) rolling with the group as well. I suppose Charlotte Le Bon, who plays Petit’s girlfriend Annie, is pretty in a Winona Ryder way, but her performance was merely OK, not as special as it might have been with a better performer. Still, little flaws are a small price to pay for the experience of watching Philippe Petit’s walk – his loving tribute to the architectural mastery of the Twin Towers – recreated so beautifully. The Walk is currently my #1 movie of the year.

To Act or Not to Act (Is That the Question?)


In recent weeks I’ve been making my way through the Rocky sequels, hoping to finish the series so that I can be totally up-to-date when I watch the new installment in the franchise, Creed. Last night I had the distinct pleasure of watching Rocky IV, the 1985 sequel that shows Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) resolving the Cold War single-handed by (surprise, surprise) beating Soviet-trained killing machine Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). I recognize Rocky IV as being lesser than the previous sequels, but is there not some unmistakable joy in watching these musclebound dudes pummel each other in the ring? Do we need the Italian Stallion to be another Chaplin or Welles (after those two, Stallone was the third man to be nominated in the same year for both acting and screenwriting Oscars), and does Dolph Lundgren need to be the new Swedish Olivier? (By the way, don’t be fooled by the dumb-action-star image; Lundgren has a couple of degrees in chemistry and got into MIT on a Fulbright Scholarship before being derailed by the lure of modeling and acting. Not too shabby.)

I mean, just look at all the fun stuff going on in Rocky IV:


US vs. USSR: Boxing for the Fate of the World! (This, friends, is how the movie starts.)


Using 80s computer technology to punch harder!


Cheesy training montage comparing the two athletes!


Sly rocks a sweet beard while angry-jump-roping!


More beard!


The montage ends with Rocky climbing a Russian mountain!


Fighting… to end communism!

Truly, there’s a lot to love. (Also, if you’ve never watched a CinemaSins video, a new one about Rocky IV, “Everything Wrong with Rocky IV in Some Minutes,” was posted to YouTube today. It explains everything I didn’t mention.)

Do these actors need to act well, or is it enough to commit to the role with physical strength and aesthetic presence? It seems like it should be enough just to enjoy the fleshy, sweaty sight of these mostly uncomplicated pugilists, linguistic intelligibility or not. After all, I followed my screening of Rocky IV with Red Scorpion (1988), a Dolph Lundgren action movie that New York Times film critic Stephen Holden described thusly: “Dolph Lundgren’s pectorals are the real stars of ‘Red Scorpion,’ an action-adventure movie set in the fictional African country of Mombaka. Filmed from below so that one has the sense of peering up at a massive kinetic sculpture, his glistening torso, which over the course of the film is subjected to assorted tortures, is the movie’s primary visual focus whenever the action slows down. And since Mr. Lundgren remains stone-faced, rarely speaking except to issue commands in a surprisingly hesitant monotone, his heaving chest actually communicates more emotion than his mumbling lips.”


Yes, but isn’t comprehensible speech overrated sometimes? This critic continues to wonder. And anyway, I’m one to talk; I just borrowed Doris Wishman’s 1961 sort-of-classic Diary of a Nudist from the NYU library. Maybe instead of “good” or “bad” I have developed an everything-taste, and that doesn’t sound too criminal to me.

2014: Part 6

Gone Girl. Directed by David Fincher. (SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MOVIE AND NOVEL. This will all make sense to those of you have seen and read both.) After reading Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller-novel Gone Girl (a page-turner about a missing-person case and a marriage gone horribly wrong) late last year, I knew I had to hunker down and watch the film adaptation (which had just been released on DVD), especially since the Oscars were right around the corner. At the end of the day I was more surprised for what the Oscars didn’t get right with their nominations than what they did acknowledge, which was the film’s lone nod for Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy Elliott Dunne. I’ve been a fan of Pike for years, so I know she’s capable of wonderful performances, but I can’t commit 100% to this particular role for her. The thing about reading the novel is that the way the story is structured – with all those diary entries – it makes for quite a stark contrast once you find out what Amy is really like. When you read those sympathetic diary notes, you imagine Amy to be the sympathetic character she wants you to believe she is. With this film adaptation, Fincher/Pike/Flynn don’t give us that luxury since Pike is ice-cold from the get-go. I can’t imagine anyone not knowing that something has to be off with Amy and that she would somehow be involved with what happened on the morning of July 5. This is not to say that Pike’s performance is bad, but I don’t feel affected by it in the same way that I was emotionally involved in the performance given by another nominee in the Best Actress field, Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night).

Because I knew which characters they played in the film, I pictured Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris in their respective roles as Nick Dunne and Desi Collings while reading the novel. In the film I thought they both did really good work and “that scene” between Desi and Amy in the lake house was probably the best scene in the film, purely because the film dared to go even further and more horrific than what Gillian Flynn originally wrote in the novel. Other actors do well too, including Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Lola Kirke, Scoot McNairy and Missi Pyle. I’d also add that I can’t believe that the film didn’t get Oscar nominations for the editing (Kirk Baxter) and the score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). The editing is particularly impressive; Gone Girl’s opening credits might be the fastest and most efficient that I’ve ever seen in a movie. There were also many notable moments in Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography, like the observation of flashing paparazzi cameras as seen from the Dunne family cat’s perspective as it looks out the front door, although some of the gold-soaked scenes were a little too Steven Soderbergh-esque (in a bad ripoff way) for my taste.

In terms of aspects of the novel that were missing from the movie: I noticed a few omissions, like the interview done in the Bar, which was obviously cut for time. Things that I wish had been used in the movie, though: 1) Hilary Handy, 2) the fact that Nick’s first name is “Lance,” 3) more about Nick and Go’s father, 4) Desi’s mother [the fact that Desi lives with her, and also her resemblance to Amy], 5) the fact that Desi didn’t actually attempt suicide when he was going out with Amy – we see Nick confront Desi about this at the Collings home, to which Desi visibly reacts but says nothing, and we never hear Amy mention either in narration or dialogue that she was the architect behind that event [I can’t recall if the story was a complete lie or maybe Desi actually was found in her bed, but Amy had supplied the pills… but there was more to the story than what we hear in the film], 6) the ending as it is written in the novel, with the memorable final line that Nick says to Amy. Final verdict: Gone Girl is very entertaining. I just don’t think that any adaptation can adequately match the novel.

Learning to Drive. Directed by Isabel Coixet. I saw Learning to Drive at a preview at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater, a screening sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image that featured a post-film Q&A with director Isabel Coixet and stars Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley and Sarita Choudhury. I really enjoyed the experience; the film has a great leading role for Patricia Clarkson, the kind that she (and other actresses her age or older) rarely get unless they’re Meryl Streep. Clarkson does a beautiful job as Wendy, a book critic whose professor husband leaves her after cheating on her with one of his college students. Clarkson’s life is totally uprooted and she makes the first of several new decisions when fate brings her and driving instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley, also excellent) together; Wendy, who has never driven before, takes on the challenge of overcoming her fears and learning how to take control both literally behind the wheel and metaphorically in the driver’s seat of her own life. Sarita Choudhury is also very good as Jasleen, Darwan’s new wife thanks to an arranged marriage. (It’s fun to see Samantha Bee too, playing one of Clarkson’s pals helping her with her divorce crisis, but the role isn’t particularly big.) All three main characters have to find ways to move forward in their lives and take charge of certain situations, which I think the actors, director Coixet and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan accomplish quite nicely. This kind of story has probably been done many, many times before, but Learning to Drive has some new takes on the narrative that give its middle-aged female protagonist (which is to say, the actress playing her) a marvelous showcase.

99 Homes. Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Ah, it’s the most wonderful time of the year again: MoMA Contenders season! First up for 2015 was a screening of 99 Homes, which was extra exciting because at the last minute MoMA updated their website – literally an hour before the show – to say that there would be a post-screening Q&A with director Ramin Bahrani, so that was awesome. As for the film, it was excellent; I didn’t recall what kinds of reviews it got when it was first released to US theaters two months ago, so I decided not to check and to just experience the film as it happened. I thought it was a very fine piece of work, benefiting from a great screenplay, a terrific performance from Michael Shannon as a vicious real estate agent in charge of evicting Florida homeowners from foreclosed properties and an almost-as-good performance by Andrew Garfield as one such evicted (and rather desperate) man who is suckered into working for Shannon, first as a construction worker and later as a guy serving eviction notices to scared and angry families. Shannon and Garfield play their characters in a Faustian story line that morphs from social drama into tense thriller, witnessing escalations of threats and violence in various forms on both sides of homeowners’ doors. (It should be noted that Laura Dern and Tim Guinee are also good in their supporting, and less flashy, roles – Dern as Garfield’s mother, Guinee as a man fighting against being forced out of his home – but they are dependable actors who have never been anything less than good in film and on TV.) Bahrani’s screenplay is top-notch, easily one of the best that I’ve seen this year, so that helps make the film so successful; I’d also like to thank Bobby Bukowski for photographing perhaps my favorite shot of the year, when we see a juxtaposed image of Andrew Garfield and pool water, a visual metaphor for being “underwater” as it relates to mortgage terminology and over his head/drowning in other ways – what an amazing shot. I don’t know if 99 Homes will make it to the Oscars, but I can definitely see it being up for some Independent Spirit Awards. P.S. My favorite thing that Ramin Bahrani said during the Q&A: to paraphrase, describing the time he visited Michael Shannon at his home in Brooklyn, Shannon appearing golden-tanned with a wisp of blonde hair curling on his forehead, looking “like a god had come down to Red Hook. Why hadn’t I ever seen him look that handsome in a movie?” (Bahrani did indeed address this issue in 99 Homes.)

That Awkward Moment. Directed by Tom Gormican. That awkward moment… when you waste time watching this movie. (Seriously, why did I do that to myself? And why did you offer this as programming, HBO Signature?) Starring in a failed romantic comedy about a group of guys determined to have only flings and no serious relationships, Michael B. Jordan is the only one of the three main bros who appears to have a heart and a sense of right and wrong. Zac Efron’s hideous character starts out as a sociopath, treating every casual hook-up like she’s a disposable paper plate to be used for the night and immediately thrown away; Miles Teller’s character, despite being cute and goofy, is overwhelmed by his more weaselly qualities in the dating department. The film’s gratuitous display of assholery is saved only by Imogen Poots’ performance as the woman with whom Efron falls in love, thus redeeming him in the third act in true Hollywood fashion; Poots’ character is the only female character in the film with any kind of development in Gormican’s laughable script. Mackenzie Davis’s character, the young woman dating Teller, has the potential to be interesting (particularly in the scene when she sings and plays the piano) but the film never turns her quirky-funny-girl routine into something more sustainable. Addison Timlin also had some OK moments as one of Efron’s frequent hook-ups. I didn’t understand Josh Pais’s character at all, though; as a co-worker at the publishing firm where Efron and Teller work, Pais only pops up to display some awkwardness (gong!) by cracking unfunny jokes that scream “NERD!” and which make the actor seem extremely uncomfortable. Every now and then Brandon Trost’s cinematography helped things along, but it was always too brief a respite; for 95% of the film, every aspect from the acting to the uninspired dialogue to the predictably poppy soundtrack choices (with the exception of “Still Life” by the Horrors) combined to drag this dung heap down. The cruelest blow of all? The film wasn’t nominated for any Razzies. All that hard work for nothing!

Welcome to Me. Directed by Shira Piven. This dark comedy has a very good lead performance by Kristen Wiig, who anchors the film with both a sense of absurdist comedy and a dedicated portrayal of mental and emotional instability. The film’s story is built on an intriguing concept: what would happen if a woman with borderline personality disorder won the lottery, used her money to buy a TV studio and, despite having little to no social skill, gave herself her own Oprah-like talk show to host? Wiig almost makes this folly believable, but most of the other performances in the film either fall short of Wiig’s mark or are not in the film long enough to register. (How, may I ask, can you cast an actress as good as Loretta Devine and put her in only one scene?) I really liked Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack and Thomas Mann in the film, and Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace have some great little moments as Wiig’s parents, but other characters just… I don’t know, weren’t necessary or weren’t given dialogue that could amount to anything. I don’t see what the point of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character was (a TV exec who has no authority and quits in disgust, how fascinating) and all Tim Robbins did was act like a sourpuss as Wiig’s psychiatrist. I support women directors 100%, so I would give Shira Piven (older sister of actor Jeremy Piven) another shot, but the ultimate shortcoming in this film is that the screenplay is so predictable. There are far too many moments of dead air – television pun intended. Wiig can do great things, and she almost achieves a kind of greatness here, but she needs better work happening around her to support her acting, or the whole thing goes to pieces. Additional note: If you’re one of those people who only wants to see Welcome to Me because you’re interested in Kristen Wiig’s full-frontal nude scene, you might as well look elsewhere on the Internet or crack open a skin magazine because Wiig’s scene is shown in the context of a mental breakdown. It’s not supposed to be sexy.

Variations on a Theme, No. 8: Midnight Cowboy (1969)


John Barry – Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir. John Schlesinger)

Winner at the 1970 Academy Awards: Burt Bacharach, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, dir. George Roy Hill)

John Barry received onscreen credit for “music supervision” in Midnight Cowboy, but for some reason, no credit was given to him for his original score compositions. Even so, every viewer of Midnight Cowboy recognizes his contribution, most of all in the “Midnight Cowboy” (1) theme featuring harmonica performed by Toots Thielemans, an iconic melody for a groundbreaking film. “Science Fiction” (2) plays during the Times Square theater scene between Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and the nervous college student (Bob Balaban), a dark and moody piece that plays while Joe watches a sci-fi film and makes a similar trek into unknown and confusing territory as a male prostitute serviced by a man. And, of course, the upbeat “Florida Fantasy” (3) is heard while Joe and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), freezing in their apartment which doesn’t get heat (it’s in an abandoned building), try to stay warm by shuffling around the floor and dreaming of being in Miami’s sunnier climes. I don’t suppose any of these tracks is more famous than Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” (originally written and recorded by Fred Neil three years earlier) since Nilsson’s cover plays many times throughout Midnight Cowboy, but I can’t imagine any better representation of Joe Buck’s odyssey than John Barry’s main theme; it is equal parts optimistic and sad, the former for the beginning of the film and the latter for the end. All three selections from the score have that duality, a brightness tinged with poignancy.

Variations on a Theme, No. 7: Wings of Desire (1987)


Jürgen Knieper – Wings of Desire (1987, dir. Wim Wenders)

Winner at the 1989 Academy Awards: Dave Grusin, The Milagro Beanfield War (1988, dir. Robert Redford)

Wings of Desire looms large in my perspective not only because of Wim Wenders’ storytelling and the two brilliant concert scenes but also because of Jürgen Knieper’s original score. “Der Himmel über Berlin” (1), from the beginning of the film, gathers a slew of voices, both the angelic sounds of a choir and the buzz of thoughts from humans on Earth, and organizes the chaos. “Der Sterbende auf der Brücke” (2) is an austere, restrained piece that accompanies a man’s dying moments after a motorcycle crash on a Berlin bridge. “Urstromtal (The Glacial Valley)” (3) is another elegant, stirring composition that communicates the beauty of the film’s story. It should be noted, though, that another of my favorite parts of Wings’ soundtrack was composed not by Knieper but by Laurent Petitgand: the jazzy “Zirkusmusik” that plays in the circus performances by aerialist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Any way you look at it and no matter which instruments and/or voices are heard, the music in Wings of Desire is exceptional.