‘Focus’ – Jóhann Jóhannsson

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JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON

Blade Runner 2049 has finally arrived in UK cinemas, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir. The typical reasons this film might pique your interest could be due to its director, Denis Villeneuve, its impressive cast, cinematographer Roger Deakins or perhaps most importantly, the fact that it is a sequel to one of the most influential sci-fi noir films of all time! Whilst my ‘Focus’ posts are generally focussed on the people who are credited for the film that are perhaps overshadowed by others, this post is a little different. The reason this post is about solo artist and film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is due to the fact that he left the film as composer late on into production and the subsequent controversy (or lack of it) for reasons that I will explain. First and foremost though, I want to highlight the talent of this fantastic composer and celebrate his work thus far in the film industry and if even one reader is inspired to have a look into him, that’ll be a success in my book. It is important to note that Jóhannsson has a successful solo career as well and has released many albums but the main purpose of this post (in line with this website) is his film career.

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Iceland-born Jóhann Jóhannsson began film composing quite late into his career in 2012 with Chinese drama film Mystery. However, his big break came in 2013 when he teamed up for the first time with Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners. Prisoners is my favourite film of 2013 and one of my favourite’s of the decade. It is a harrowing, dark account of the kidnapping of a young girl and the subsequent investigation that ensues. Jóhannsson first came onto my radar with his fantastic score for this film which is wholly original and frequently haunting. One of my favourite musical moments of this film is a sequence in a car towards the end of the film – Jóhannsson’s score adds to the urgency of the situation beautifully. I’ve got the soundtrack and the whole piece is excellent.

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Jóhannsson’s career elevated when he scored James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. Whilst it is a little Awards-baity, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and I gave it an honourable mention in my Mid-Year Review. This score didn’t grab me as much as Prisoners but there are some nice cues in it, particularly in its opening. Clearly I’m in the minority as he was nominated for his first Academy Award for Best Original Score – personally, I’d much rather he had been nominated for Prisoners but I suppose if it got his name out, that can only be a good thing.

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Jóhannsson reteamed with Denis Villeneuve for Sicario, an extremely intense thriller about a FBI investigation in bringing down the Mexican drug cartel. Jóhannsson’s score is stunning and not only fits the film but also works as a soundtrack in its own right, it’s one of the very rare soundtracks that I can listen to every track and think it’s all very good. Part of the reason why this score is so good is because it defies convention – for example, for a film set in Mexico, his score completely ignores typical Mexican cues and it really acts as its own character in the film. It’s a sensational piece of work. Luckily, the Academy listened and he got his second nomination – rightfully so!

Lovesong was Jóhannsson’s next project, an American drama film directed by So Young Kim. I haven’t seen the film yet to give an opinion.

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Jóhannsson reteamed for the third time with Villeneuve for Arrival, an Oscar-nominated sci-fi starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I don’t think this film is as strong as some of Villeneuve’s others (although I’m in the minority as it was nominated for Best Picture) and I would say the same for the score again, which has some brilliant sections but it’s not consistent like his other works. His score was disqualified for Oscar contention as Jóhannsson had used a track by Max Richter, ‘On The Nature of Daylight’ in the opening and close of the film.

2017 was meant to be a big year for this mighty composer. Jóhannsson was scheduled to score both Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, a task he regarded as “an enormous challenge of mythical proportions” and to score Darren Aronofsky‘s latest film mother! in a departure from his usual composer, Clint Mansell. A Jóhannsson score for both of these films would have been sublime, particularly for Blade Runner 2049 as I believe he could have done an excellent job in rivalling Vangelis’ legendary work on Ridley Scott’s original.

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Late into post-production with mother!, Aronofsky and Jóhannsson came to the mutual decision that the film would work better without a score. Having seen and reviewed the film, I think the lack of score works and it only adds to the lack of order and coherence in its world that the film tries to portray. But I think the film could have done with some score in parts to really help the film flow better and give it more weight – particularly when you have Jóhannsson involved, to throw out a score is sacrilege! Jóhannsson remains credited to the film as a “Music and Sound Consultant”.

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We’ll never know the full story with Blade Runner 2049 as Jóhannsson is contractually forbidden from commenting on the matter but he was suddenly taken off the film very close to the film’s release date and replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Both Zimmer and Wallfisch are great composers and whilst I am yet to see the film, the score will likely be far more generic than anything Jóhannsson could have conjured up! Earlier this week, director Denis Villeneuve commented on the matter:

“The thing I will say is that making movies is a laboratory. It’s an artistic process. You cannot plan things. Jóhann Jóhannsson is one of my favorite composers alive today. He’s a very strong artist. But the movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis. Jóhann and I decided that I will need to go in another direction — that’s what I will say. I hope I have the chance to work with him again because I think he’s really a fantastic composer.”

I do hope that this is true and the two of them came to the mutual decision so they can work together in the future. Perhaps Jóhannsson’s score was too experimental? It is also certainly strange that Jóhannsson cannot comment on the matter due to his contract but I think the way Villeneuve has phrased his answer is most diplomatic. We’ll never know and we can only imagine the great things Jóhannsson had came up with for the film.

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So if you do get a chance to watch Blade Runner 2049 in cinemas, try to look at the film with a different perspective if Jóhannsson had scored this film. Would it have drastically changed the film? Ridley Scott’s original film has multiple cuts over time – should there be a Jóhannsson cut? This question might be a little crude but it’s certainly an interesting enigma, almost as fascinating as the film Villeneuve has inevitably made.

What’s next on the horizon for this composer? He’s got two films lined up (hopefully the situation with his two films this year won’t repeat itself). He will be re-teaming with James Marsh for his new film, The Mercy and will be working with Garth Davis, who directed Lion earlier on this year, on Mary Magdalene, both scheduled for release in 2018.

‘Blade Runner 2049’ and ‘mother!’ are now playing in UK cinemas.  

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‘Focus’ – Taylor Sheridan

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TAYLOR SHERIDAN

There’s a new film called ‘Wind River’ releasing in the UK this week, a murder mystery thriller that has so far recieved very favourable reviews. The typical reasons this film might pique your interest could be due to its strong cast which includes Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen or that it is the latest film to be distributed by the Weinstein Company. If you do go and see it, what I think is the main reason and the basis for this ‘Focus’ post is in its writer-director Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan is most famous as a writer who has been behind some outstanding films over the past couple of years and now looks set to make his directorial debut.

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Texas-born Taylor Sheridan began his film career as an actor, most notably in ‘Sons of Anarchy’ as David Hale. His big break however, came in 2015 which saw the release of Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario‘ to which he wrote the script. ‘Sicario’ was one of my favourite films of 2015 and it is an extremely dark and bleak take on the Mexican cartel. It is also Sheridan’s debut script for a film and allegedly the first script he had ever written. Whilst I admired the film for focussing more on actions and body language of its characters as opposed to pure dialogue, Sheridan’s narrative is mightily impressive and the film has some well-executed twists and turns. The film impressed me more though by its performances, direction by Denis Villeneuve, cinematography and score.

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Sheridan firmly got me gripped though last year with his next script ‘Comancheria’ which was then retitled to ‘Hell or High Water’. It is a near-perfect film (one of my favourite films of last year) and manages to juggle all the best elements of a rural Western / revenge thriller whilst standing out on its own. Sheridan revisits the Western theme but it is a far more emotive film than ‘Sicario’ as itt tackles a multitude of thematic elements and is very poetic in its narrative. Sheridan’s ear for dialogue also blew me away and there are many moments in the script which are just perfect. Part of why Sheridan’s influence is able to seep through more in this film than ‘Sicario’ is perhaps due to its director, David Mackenzie not being quite as commanding as Villeneuve, a real auteur whose films are all very dark and moody. That’s not to knock Mackenzie at all who is a fine director but ‘Hell or High Water’ really balances the influences of its crew more. Sheridan rightly earned his first Oscar nomination for the script for this film and the film earned many Awards nominations including Best Picture.

‘Wind River’ is targeted as Sheridan’s directorial debut, another thriller set in rural America which he has also written. If Sheridan can pull off three-for-three, I will be deeply impressed considering how highly I rate ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water’. Early reviews would suggest this to be the case.

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However,  Sheridan has directed before. He directed a micro-budget horror film in 2011 called ‘Vile’ before turning to screenwriting. ‘Vile’ was panned on its release and was released at a time where the horror torture-porn genre was lacking in originality. It’s interesting that he has tried to hide this film, instead referring to ‘Wind River’ as his directorial debut presumably to strengthen his credentials and his natural progression to this job from his other two films that he had written. Sheridan isn’t the first person to have done this – look at James Cameron for example with ‘Piranha II: The Spawning’ – little did people know at the time he would make hit films such as ‘Terminator’ or ‘Titanic’.

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So if you do get a chance to watch ‘Wind River’ in cinemas, remember to take note of the hopefully excellent script and direction by this very talented individual. Sheridan has also written the script for ‘Soldado’ which is the sequel to ‘Sicario’ due next year and hopefully if ‘Wind River’ is as good as the reviews suggest, he gets more credit for his talents.

‘Wind River’ will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 8th September. 

‘Focus’ – Anya Taylor Joy

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ANYA TAYLOR-JOY

There’s a new M. Night Shyamalan film coming out this week called ‘Split’ which many are hailing as his comeback film and it has so far recieved favourable reviews. This builds upon the success of 2015’s, ‘The Visit’ which recieved mixed-to-positive reviews and ‘Split’ looks to further capitalise on his improving image after his series of flops. Although James McAvoy is receiving most of the publicity for the film for his electric turn as a Kevin, a man with 23 personalities but for me, equally as important is Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, Casey Cook who is kidnapped by McAvoy’s character and following this film, she is an actress who continues to build an impressive career in the film industry on the strengths of this film.

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American born Argentine-British Anya Taylor-Joy’s breakthrough performance was in Robert Eggers’ directorial debut ‘The Witch’ and also was when she first clocked onto my radar . Her performance in it was exemplary and nuanced and one could tell the amount of committment she put into her role. She plays the lead protagonist, Thomasin who is the eldest daughter in a family that are banished from a Puritan plantation who experience supernatural occurrences. It is a fantastic film and one that will certainly feature in my upcoming Best Films of the Year list – stay tuned!

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Since appearing in ‘The Witch’, Anya Taylor-Joy also featured in the titular role in Luke Scott’s directorial debut, ‘Morgan’. I have yet to see the film but although reviews have been mixed for the film, many critics have singled her performance out and although only currently released in the USA and a handful of other countries, she also appeared in ‘Barry’, a biopic about Barack Obama’s years at Colombia University .

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So if you do get a chance to watch ‘Split’ in cinemas, remember that you’re not just watching a film that will undoubtedly have a great performance by James McAvoy, assured direction by M. Night Shyamalan and a twisty plot – take note of the performance by Anya Taylor-Joy who keeps going from strength to strength. I have seen an advanced screening of the film and confirm that she again is one of the highlights of the film and I will have a full review up soon.

‘Split’ will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 20th January

‘Focus’ – Bradford Young

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BRADFORD YOUNG

There’s a new Denis Villeneuve film coming out this week called ‘Arrival’ which his first foray into sci-fi ahead of next year’s highly anticipated ‘Blade Runner 2049’. Although Villeneuve’s normal cinematographer for his films is the legendary Roger Deakins, ‘Arrival’ is shot by Bradford Young who I’m really impressed by his work so far.

After studying Film at Harvard University, Young first shot ‘White Lies, Black Sheep’ in 2007 which didn’t really make an impact but Young won a Cinematography Award at Sundance in 2011 for his work on ‘Pariah’. Young then continued to rise up the ranks forming bonds with directors Andrew Dosmunu and more importantly, Ava DuVernay with their films and Young’s big hit was DuVernay’s universally acclaimed Martin Luther King biopic ‘Selma’.

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Now although I absolutely hated ‘Selma’ with a passion and cannot understand why this obnoxious film was so well-recieved but before this post turns into a slating of this god-awful film, the two redeeming features of it were David Oyelowo’s mesmerising lead performance and Young’s cinematography.

Young next clocked onto my radar when he shot J.C. Chandor’s brilliant crime thriller, ‘A Most Violent Year’ which was suitably bleak, drained and visually reminiscent of ‘The Godfather’. Young’s cinematography beautifully compliments the suspenseful tone Chandor sets out for in this film and gives the viewer the feeling that New York is a dangerous city to live in during this period with all of the washed-out colours and general dark tone.

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It’s very interesting that Villeneuve selected Young for ‘Arrival’. Villeneuve’s main cinematographer seems to be Roger Deakins who has shot all but two of his English-language films so far –  ‘Prisoners’, ‘Sicario’ and Deakins will also be shooting the upcoming ‘Blade Runner 2049’. Nicolas Bolduc shot 2014’s ‘Enemy’ and now Young has shot ‘Arrival’. From the footage so far, Young’s work looks very impressive and the film looks visually astute.

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So if you do get a chance to watch ‘Arrival’ in cinemas, remember that you’re not just watching a film that will undoubtedly have great performances, assured direction and a memorable score – take note of the cinematography as well because judging from Young’s previous work, it should be inspiring.

‘Arrival’ will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 11th November 

‘Focus’ – John Michael McDonagh

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JOHN MICHAEL McDONAGH

John Michael McDonagh is a film director / screenwriter that I have a lot of respect for and I am very excited as he has a new film that is being released this week – ‘War on Everyone’ which is being marketed as a black comedy / buddy cop film starring Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña as two corrupt policemen who blackmail and frame every criminal they cross paths with.

McDonagh first started off writing / directing with a short film in 2000 called ‘The Second Death’ before foraying into writing ‘Ned Kelly’. His first feature length film debut came in 2011 when he directed ‘The Guard’ starring Brendan Gleeson as a racist policeman who is forced to buddy up with a FBI agent played by Don Cheadle to investigate a drugs smuggling ring. ‘The Guard’ is excellent – it’s short, sharp and to the point whilst also being very witty and humorous and has stellar performances. This film also helped promote Ireland in terms of film and I love how it offers an insight into what the country is like (although a rather satirical view). The film was a big success and still holds the title as being the highest-grossing independent Irish film in terms of the Irish box office of all time.

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‘Calvary’, McDonagh’s follow-up came in 2014 and once again reunited the director with Brendan Gleeson who’s performance is in my opinion, a career best. On first viewing, the film wasn’t really what I expected – it wasn’t really a comedy and was quite dark in places. However on subsequent rewatches, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘Calvary’ is nearly a masterpiece. The story is touching and delves deeply into the subject of the Catholic Church and poses some astonishing ideas and a great script to boot. There are some wonderful sequences in the film that are beautifully shot and the characters are extremely well-developed. It’s one of my favourite films of 2014.

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Although 2014 was only 2 years ago, it felt like an age until details of McDonagh’s next project surfaced. At first, he was meant to reunite with Brendan Gleeson on ‘The Lame Shall Enter First’ where he would play a paraplegic ex-policeman who gets caught up in a murder investigation. I hope this film still gets made as Gleeson and McDonagh are in my opinion as fitting a match as Leonardo DiCaprio is to Martin Scorsese.

That was until about a year ago when first details of ‘War on Everyone’ were released and then a trailer which looks set to continue McDonagh’s trademark thoughtful, comedic scripts. I am a little disappointed that Brendan Gleeson isn’t here but I think this film is important for McDonagh as this will hopefully project him to American audiences as this is his first feature to stray outside of Ireland.

In many ways, McDonagh has emulated his younger brother, Martin McDonagh who I think is just as good a director if not better than John Michael McDonagh. Martin McDonagh is responsible for the masterpiece which is ‘In Bruges’ and the pretty great ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and will also have another film due out next year – ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ – more on that nearer the time. To me, ‘War On Everyone’ looks like John Michael McDonagh’s response to his brother’s ‘Seven Psychopaths’ – an offbeat comedy that propels them to an American audience. Although I have great respect for ‘Seven Psychopaths’, it didn’t particularly do much to Martin McDonagh’s career so here’s hoping that ‘War on Everyone’ will be a success. Both of these brothers are geniuses so check out their work and go and see ‘War on Everyone’.

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‘War on Everyone’ will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 7th October 

Introducing ‘Focus’ – John Hillcoat

What is ‘Focus’? 

‘Focus’ is a new feature  primarily designed to raise awareness of talents who are not yet fully recognised. If there is a film that is due to be released and there is a talent there, then they will appear in a ‘Focus’ post. These people can range from actors to directors to cinematographers to composers – anything that deserves a mention! Sometimes higher profile talents may appear but primarily, it is for people who have not yet been recognised.

This Week

This is a little late and I had planned to have finished this last week in time for the film, but I have been catching up with many of the films that have been nominated for Academy Awards. Check out my Reviews for some of the Best Picture nominees and I plan to rank all the Best Picture nominees in a post next week once I watch ‘Brooklyn’.

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JOHN HILLCOAT

John Hillcoat is a film director, responsible for  last week’s crime thriller ‘Triple 9’. Now ‘Triple 9’ has received mixed-to-positive reviews (I am still yet to see it) but regardless of the quality of the film, Hillcoat is an accomplished director.

He heralds from Australia and started out by directing music videos and rose up to make a documentary of the music band, INXS in 1985. He then went on to making low-budget Australian films which included 1988’s ‘Ghosts…of the Civil Dead’ and ‘To Have and To Hold’ in 1996.

His big break came in 2005 with a western, ‘The Proposition’ starring Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone which received very positive reviews and won 4 Australian Film Institute Awards. It’s a really visceral and well-acted film with a great script penned by Nick Cave who also does a great job in composing the film along with regular Warren Ellis. For me, this is Hillcoat’s best film to date.

He then made his first American film, ‘The Road’, a survival film starring Viggo Mortensen and was Kodi Smit-McPhee’s big break and he won a Critic’s Choice Award. Although generally regarded as his best work, I found ‘The Road’ to be very atmospheric in places and it has some beautifully shot sequences but I thought it fell a little flat the more it went on.

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‘Lawless’ was Hillcoat’s next film, released in 2012 and is a drama set in the Prohibition era and has a hell of a cast comprised of Shia LaBoeuf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Hillcoat-regular Guy Pearce. I really liked the film although it received good-not-great reviews and it’s a gritty and dark film and is very black in its sense of humour. Guy Pearce is the standout here as the sadistic villain.

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Now 4 years later, ‘Triple 9’ is Hillcoat’s latest offering and once again, has a tremendous cast. Hollywood actors definitely recognise John Hillcoat as a great director to work with, even if his films don’t always receive the best reviews. Hopefully, this talented director will become a household name in the years to come if he keeps doing what he’s doing.

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‘Triple 9’ is in cinemas now.