Howard Shore

Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg)

About a half hour into Scanners, the film starts to run out of its initial steam. Director Cronenberg (who also scripted) opens the film with some dynamic set pieces–lead Stephen Lack mind frying a mean woman, Lack on the run from goons, Patrick McGoohan chaining Lack down and torturing him (apparently), and Michael Ironside blowing up some guy’s head with his mind. Scanners is a lot right off. Oh, and then a car chase action sequence after the head explosion. Again, it’s a lot.

And then it’s time for the first exposition dump. McGoohan is trying to find “good” Scanners, who are telepaths, like Lack. Ironside is trying to find bad ones. Both want them as biological weapons, McGoohan just wants to sell them to humans. Ironside wants to subjugate the humans. Not all that information comes out at the first info dump, mostly just McGoohan bickering with security chief Lawrence Dane. Dane doesn’t trust McGoohan, but Cronenberg wants the viewer to side against Dane. It’s a confusing turn of events at the end, just because McGoohan’s not a sympathetic character and Dane seems square but level-headed.

Then Lack comes in and goes on a secret mission around Canada as a double agent to join Ironside’s group. Previous to this point in his life story, Lack’s character had been homeless. Now he’s a well-dressed Canadian, kind of a maple syrup James Bond. Only he’s not particularly good at the secret agent stuff. Eventually he meets a girl Scanner–Jennifer O’Neill–who he actually treats terribly and roughly, which is a little disconcerting at times because apparently Lack is supposed to be sympathetic and likable. He’s not, of course, because his performance has all the life of a once damp towel. Same for O’Neill. Same for McGoohan. Dane gives the film’s best performance almost by default.

Well, except for Ironside. I mean, Cronenberg front loads the film with action. He saves some effects work for the grand finale, but there’s no action to it. There’s exposition, there’s pointless contrivance. Cronenberg keeps throwing out big revelations to try to get some emotional connection to the characters, but they’re impervious–Ironside should be intellectually sympathetic but Cronenberg can’t swing it. He really does rely on Lack instead and Lack crumbles, time and again.

But until the late second act, Ironside’s a perfectly good thuggish villain. Sure, he’s also a millionaire war profiteer but it’s Canada, it’s just how Canadian millionaire war profiteering Scanners who operate out of desolate office parks operate.

Nice photography from Mark Irwin, some occasionally strong editing from Ronald Sanders. Once O’Neill and Lack have teamed up in their chemistry-free quest for… it’s unclear. Cronenberg has at least two jumbo red herrings in the script just to keep things moving, which might work at ninety minutes but at over a hundred it’s a slog.

Howard Shore’s music is competent, occasionally Hitchcockian, but most often too much. Cronenberg never really gets a sense of the locations in the film and Shore’s music defaults to filling in mood. But it’s not good at filling in mood.

Really, until O’Neill shows up and becomes Lack’s Eva Marie Saint, Scanners can almost get through. Cronenberg’s got Dane, he’s got Ironside. Sure, Lack’s vacant but maybe he’s supposed to be vacant in that poorly acted way. The strange part about the film is how the first act’s well-plotted. Shame the rest of it is either aimless or misguided.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; produced by Claude Hèroux; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Lack (Cameron Vale), Patrick McGoohan (Dr. Paul Ruth), Jennifer O’Neill (Kim Obrist), Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok), Lawrence Dane (Braedon Keller), and Robert A. Silverman (Benjamin Pierce).


The Fly (1986, David Cronenberg)

The Fly starts with perfect economy. Director Cronenberg does not waste time with introductions or establishing shots–whenever there’s an exterior shot in the film, it comes as surprise, even after Cronenberg opens it up a little. There’s Jeff Goldblum, he’s a scientist, and there’s Geena Davis. She’s a reporter. The film conveys this expository information by having her interview him. It’s perfect.

And that perfect economy keeps going for quite a while, maybe even half the film. A lot happens during that first half–mad science, romance, jealousy, all sorts of things–and it’s outstanding. Goldblum and Davis are great together, John Getz is excellent as her weird, slightly creepy ex-boyfriend and boss. Cronenberg’s direction is exquisite; he’s utterly focused on these three actors. Even the science fiction visual exposition gets downplayed.

Then there’s a shift, a small one, as Goldblum’s character begins to “turn.” Cronenberg doesn’t allow many horror film sensibilities in The Fly. Instead of trying to terrify the audience visually with Goldblum, Cronenberg pulls back and Goldblum disappears. It’s a problem, because the film loses its momentum and never regains it.

Wait, I forgot–there’s one big horror movie sensibility… a dream sequence. It’s cheap. It’s gross and effective, but it’s narratively cheap.

Amazing special effects from Chris Walas, a nice score from Howard Shore, excellent cinematography from Mark Irwin. The Fly ’s a good looking (and sounding) picture.

Unfortunately, Cronenberg’s ambitions decline as the film finally has to deliver the horror.

Still, pretty good stuff.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Cronenberg; screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue and Cronenberg, based on the story by George Langelaan; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Carol Spier; produced by Stuart Cornfeld; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Seth Brundle), Geena Davis (Veronica Quaife) and John Getz (Stathis Borans).


Moving (1988, Alan Metter)

I really wish–even though the cameo is great–Morris Day wasn’t in Moving. If he weren’t, one could make the argument all the terrible people are white and all the good people (basically Richard Pryor and his family) are black.

But Day shows up for a funny moment. Oh, and bad guy mover Ji-Tu Cumbuka is black too.

Race isn’t actually an issue in Moving (except when Pryor gets confused for a robber and even then they don’t press it). I was just trying to find something interesting to say about the film.

Pryor can apparently rise above any material, even writer Breckman’s script–Breckman eventually has Pryor donning body armor and running around Boise, Idaho with a bunch of guns (he got the gun part right, though I think there are more black people in the film than there are in Idaho state).

Beverly Todd is fine as Pryor’s wife, though the script eventually falls out from under her and she’s left to just silently follow him around. Stacey Dash manages to be weak but appealing as the daughter. As twin sons, Raphael and Ishmael Harris are likable.

Randy Quaid falls flat in a Vacation variation, but Dana Carvey is absolutely hilarious as a car mover with multiple personalities. Conversely, everyone else in the film lacks personality.

Howard Shore’s music’s innocuous, as is Metter’s direction (though there are a few good shots).

It’s like they’re trying to do a W.C. Fields movie for modernity.

It doesn’t work.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Metter; written by Andy Breckman; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Alan Balsam; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David L. Snyder; produced by Stuart Cornfeld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Richard Pryor (Arlo Pear), Beverly Todd (Monica Pear), Dave Thomas (Gary Marcus), Dana Carvey (Brad Williams), Randy Quaid (Frank / Cornall Crawford), Stacey Dash (Casey Pear), Raphael Harris (Marshall Pear), Ishmael Harris (Randy Pear), Morris Day (Rudy), Ji-Tu Cumbuka (Edwards), King Kong Bundy (Gorgo), Alan Oppenheimer (Mr. Cadell), Gordon Jump (Simon Eberhart), Bill Wiley (Arnold Butterworth), Bibi Osterwald (Crystal Butterworth) and Paul Willson (Mr. Seeger).


Doubt (2008, John Patrick Shanley)

There’s a good movie somewhere in the idea of Doubt (a nun suspects a priest of molesting a child, but it’s 1964 and the patriarchy of the Church isn’t going to listen to her). The film’s full of almost detective moments (and faux-auteur Shanley pulls out some Hitchcock angles after the big reveal), but the film never embraces that nature. As a character study masquerading as a detective story, Doubt would have been fantastic. As an awkward conversation drama–Shanley opens the film in the church’s neighborhood, then never returns to this neighborhood, it’s all malarky to make a theater adaptation seem opened up for the screen–it’s a failure.

The fault lies, obviously, with Shanley. There are two major problems with his script here. First, either Philip Seymour Hoffman is a good guy priest unduly hunted by Streep or he’s a child molester. I’m sure Shanley feels the movie–ultimately–lets the viewer decide, but that position isn’t just a cop-out (Doubt is in no way a piece about the way people talk to each other so it doesn’t get any leeway for being wishy-washy), it’s also a load. The entire movie, Shanley makes ever action Hoffman takes suspicious. It’s like watching, well, Suspicion. Presumably, the viewer is supposed to wait for proof, for the climatic showdown between Streep and Hoffman where all is revealed. Here’s the problem–if Hoffman’s a pederast, if there’s even a possibility of it, why not just judge him right out. It’s not like Shanley’s just making a movie about a guy killing his wife or robbing a bank, Doubt‘s an argument to–against all the weighted evidence Shanley presents–give the pederast the benefit of the (sorry) doubt. It’s kind of an icky feeling.

The second problem is the lack of character depth. Again, I’m sure Shanley thinks it’s all about the way things play out objectively, but the characters all have hints of depth, but it’s just matte paintings. Streep could have one of her most interesting characters in this part of her career, but instead, she’s playing a mix of the Emperor from Star Wars, the Wicked Witch, Grampa Simpson and the bad lady from Sleeping Beauty. It’s amazing she turns in such a good performance, especially since Shanley wrote most of her dialogue and reactions to get laughs. Her funniest line, the one where Doubt becomes a hilariously turgid melodramatic turd, is actually not for laughs, which goes to show how aware Shanley is of his work.

Sadly, Hoffman isn’t good. His performance shows off his ability–Shanley’s even got him making voices–but the role’s faulty.

Amy Adams is actually pretty darn good, but watching her act opposite Streep and Hoffman… it’s watching a personality (Amy Adams as a naive nun) against actual craftspersons. A trailer for one of Adams’s upcoming pictures played before Doubt and the biggest difference were the vows and the outfit.

Viola Davis has one major scene and is fantastic. Streep’s quiet for most of the scene too, which allows for comparison between the two–Davis wins.

Until that absurdist, goofy last moment, Doubt isn’t terrible. Streep and Adams pull it through–and Hoffman’s fine for the first half, until he’s all of a sudden got to play a real person (something Shanley apparently refuses to write). Alice Drummond’s got a thanklessly small role and she’s awesome. Howard Shore’s music and Roger Deakins’s photography are both excellent.

So where does it go wrong? With Shanley. I’ve never seen someone more ignorant of his or her own work.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Patrick Shanley; screenplay by Shanley, based on his play; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Mark Roybal; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller), Joseph Foster (Donald Miller), Alice Drummond (Sister Veronica), Audrie Neenan (Sister Raymond), Susan Blommaert (Mrs. Carson), Carrie Preston (Christine Hurley) and John Costelloe (Warren Hurley).


The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)

No matter how hard Howard Shore’s score tries, The Silence of the Lambs is just a serial killer movie. I knew it was just a serial killer movie–that realization had occurred to me quite a long time ago–but its adherence to genre standards are still somewhat surprising. The movie wastes so much time on Anthony Hopkins, when he really has only a little to do with the actual story. Even taking into account he brings Jodie Foster into the big case, it doesn’t exactly matter. Foster’s momentous life change in the narrative is becoming an FBI agent, as the closing ceremony attests. Had the movie been about this cadet who got sucked into a huge case, ended up solving it by accident while having these disturbing encounters… well, then it would have made some sense.

The novel was a bestseller and, I’m assuming, Ted Tally felt the need to closely adapt it in regards to Hannibal Lecter. But what the script does is leave the Hopkins and Foster story incomplete while only giving a cursory examination of the actual investigation. Worse, Jonathan Demme lets the Lecter malarky distract from the one thing he has going. The escape, for example, eats up a bunch of running time–why, because the viewer is supposed to think the serial killer is cool for getting away so smart. The escape scene, the revelation of his intelligence and fast thinking, is not treated as a horrific event, rather something to be admired. It plays well on screen, sure, but we’re supposed to be admiring a serial killer.

That one thing Demme had? The way every single male in the first half of the movie ogled or propositioned Foster. It created a disquieting atmosphere and, when I was giving Demme some credit, gave the appearance of having some analog with the story of a man trying to become a woman. I don’t know how, but it doesn’t matter, because Demme flushed the whole subtext down the toilet once he got to do his big escape scene (with two cameos from Demme regulars, Buzz Kilman and Chris Isaak). The rampant sexism thing was never going to work or make Silence somehow special, but at least it would have been an interesting failure.

The acting’s okay. Hopkins has some okay moments, some not. Lots of the problems come from Demme’s annoying direction–he does his whole “stare directly into the camera while speaking” thing here. Foster’s equally problematic, because her character is never believable. I can’t picture her eating a sandwich, for instance, and the whole thing about her being really ambitious (masking insecurity), but she never shows it.

As the serial killer, Ted Levine is great. Anthony Heald is also great. Scott Glenn’s role is terribly written.

Demme runs hot and cold. With the exception of his close-ups, almost everything is good. The end, for instance, is rather scary.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Demme; screenplay by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon and Ronald M. Bozman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Anthony Heald (Dr. Frederick Chilton), Ted Levine (Jame Gumb), Frankie Faison (Barney Matthews), Kasi Lemmons (Ardelia Mapp), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), Paul Lazar (Pilcher) and Dan Butler (Roden).


A History of Violence (2005, David Cronenberg)

There’s something about A History of Violence from the first scene, something about the way the titles become part of the motel exterior. It’s a nice long tracking shot from Cronenberg, with a great (small part though) performance from Stephen McHattie. After the opening, Cronenberg spends a lot of time introducing Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and family. They live in a Hollywood-ized version of a small midwestern town (where everyone looks out for one another, where Bello has a son she had when she was eleven)–it’s a never never land, which is fine, because Cronenberg’s dealing with the role of violence in films here. He manages to make all the commentary on it he wants, while never once letting the characters slip from the most important position.

The film succeeds because of Mortensen and Bello. Bello’s good, but Mortensen is amazing. It’s been a while since the last time I read he was finally going to be big and Violence doesn’t show he can be a leading man… it shows he can act beautifully. The interesting thing about how Cronenberg treats Mortensen… he’s never anything but the protagonist. He never loses the viewer’s identification. Even when he’s scaring the hell out of everyone around him, he’s still the good guy. Because it’s a Hollywood movie. It’s not in the sense one could see Brad Pitt in the lead, but Cronenberg knows very well he can’t comment on Hollywood’s approach to violence without making the film Hollywood.

There is some distraction, given the high schoolers all being mid-twenties or later. I’m guessing it doesn’t have to do with Cronenberg commenting on… the Beach Party movies, but rather… well, regular Hollywood casting practices.

Cronenberg offsets the violence and the implications of it and Mortensen and Bello’s respective inner turmoil with a couple fantastic performances. First, Ed Harris. Harris plays a creepy mobster and he’s a joy to watch, but it’s not a stretch for him. Ed Harris doesn’t usually play creepy mobsters, but it’s not something one wouldn’t expect to see from him. William Hurt, on the other hand, has his flashiest role ever as a funny, posh mobster… seeing Hurt in this kind of role (and forgetting, had the film been made fifteen years earlier, he probably would have been turning down the lead) is joyous. He can do anything, but so rarely does. His scenes are just indescribably great.

Screenwriter Josh Olson, with a pointedly less than notable (to be polite) previous filmography, provides Cronenberg with the material he needs to tell a complicated story. In many ways, it’s like Frank Capra does a mob movie… with composer Howard Shore, who can alternate without any difficulty between the personal and dramatic scenes, setting a mood for the film I can’t really describe.

However, it all rests on Mortensen. And he succeeds.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Carol Spier; produced by Chris Bender and J.C. Spink; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Viggo Mortensen (Tom Stall), Maria Bello (Edie Stall), William Hurt (Richie Cusack), Ed Harris (Carl Fogarty), Ashton Holmes (Jack Stall), Heidi Hayes (Sarah Stall), Stephen McHattie (Leland Jones), Greg Bryk (Billy Orser) and Peter MacNeill (Sheriff Sam Carney).


Nadine (1987, Robert Benton)

There’s got to be some kind of story behind Nadine, one explaining why it makes no sense in its plotting, why the ending makes no sense and why it only runs seventy-eight minutes. Unfortunately, I can’t find any reference online to those issues, so I guess they’ll remain a mystery.

As it stands, Nadine is a couple great characters in search of a story. Well, not even a story–the characters have a story. They’re separated and they get back together. It’s everything around that story. Benton’s script moves real fast–without a lot of bridging scenes; it’s frequently confusing–and he spends some real nice time on the couple, ably aided by Howard Shore’s score.

But the rest of the film–involving a land deal, Rip Torn as a lame villain (he’s Rip Torn, no other explanation for villainy needed apparently), Jeff Bridges’s dumb bar and Kim Basinger hating the dumb bar–is a mess. The bar in question barely appears in the film, but everyone’s always talking about it or mentioning it–at least as much as something can be talked about in seventy-eight minutes.

Bridges and Basinger are both fantastic, whether together or apart, but together’s a lot more fun. But I really don’t know what Benton thought he was doing with the film. There’s a visible lack of content, even if there were bridging scenes in place, because–well, it appears he’s trying to tell the romantic comedy equivalent of Chinatown, which isn’t even necessarily a bad idea (I guess), but there’s no setting beyond the cars and the title announcing the time and place.

There’s three action set-pieces too. There’s a car chase, which isn’t bad and is somewhat amusing, but it’s not a movie with car chases… then there’s a suspense sequence, then there’s a gunfight.

Oh, no, I think Benton was trying to do a non-traditional traditional Hollywood comedy here… argh.

If a movie could float on Jeff Bridges’s considerable charm, Nadine would certainly be a candidate. Except, it’s disqualified, because Basinger’s really appealing and the two of them are wonderful together.

Glenne Headly has a bit part and is great, big shock, as is Jay Patterson. Jerry Stiller is in it for a minute and a half, but it seems like keeping him around would have been a better idea.

I just wish I knew the “making of” of Nadine.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Robert Benton; director of photography, Nestor Almendros; film editor, Sam O’Steen; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Arlene Donovan; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Vernon Hightower), Kim Basinger (Nadine Hightower), Rip Torn (Buford Pope), Gwen Verdon (Vera), Glenne Headly (Renee), Jerry Stiller (Raymond Escobar), Jay Patterson (Dwight Estes), William Youmans (Boyd), Gary Grubbs (Cecil) and Mickey Jones (Floyd).


The Game (1997, David Fincher)

I don’t know what possessed me to watch The Game again, probably my access to the DVD, but even so, I don’t know what possessed me to finish watching it. It’s fairly atrocious early on, once it becomes obvious that no reasonable human being could identify with Michael Douglas’s character. He’s playing a lonely, depressed multimillionaire who lives in a big house and is good for absolutely nothing. He doesn’t even have fun. I was opined–and still do–that the rich cannot produce good art because there’s no real conflict in their lives. Similarly, the rich make difficult subjects for fiction. Something like Sabrina notwithstanding….

But, really, I was trying to figure out–as The Game went from mediocre to bad to mediocre again to worse than ever (the only good moment comes in the last few scenes, not surprisingly, it’s all Sean Penn)–I was trying to figure out why I used to love David Fincher. I saw The Game in the theater and I can’t believe it didn’t cure me. Fincher is shockingly incapable of recognizing good material and not just the script. I mean, Douglas turns in what must be his worst performance, since all it does is rehash his previous stuff (Wall Street and maybe Disclosure specifically). When Douglas does show some humanity, it comes across like someone else wrote the scene and Fincher stuck it in.

The Game also–and I hate to gripe about this one, because I usually advise against it–has logic holes the size of the Grand Canyon. I advise against surveying such holes because they aren’t the piece’s point and when you interact with a work, you have to give it some leeway. There’s nothing to interact with in The Game, so all that’s left is to point out how incredibly stupid it is. Still, Fincher’s composition isn’t bad–though it’s poorly edited and the cinematography begs for someone better–and a lot of the supporting cast is fun… James Rebhorn in particular, love the Rebhorn.

For some reason, I thought I had something else to say about this film, some other way to close it–besides that it’s a piece of horrendous shit. Oh, I remember: Howard Shore’s score is good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Fincher; written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by James Haygood; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Steve Golin and Cean Chaffin; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Michael Douglas (Nicholas Van Orton), Sean Penn (Conrad), James Rebhorn (Jim Feingold), Deborah Kara Unger (Christine), Peter Donat (Samuel Sutherland), Carroll Baker (Ilsa) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Anson Baer).

RELATED

Scroll to Top