Friday, February 7, 2014

'Falling Down' a modern masterwork

If ever there was a relevant time to rediscover a film, the time is now, and the film is 1993’s “Falling Down”. An insightful masterwork of well executed, stirring set pieces tied together by a haunting (and underrated) performance by Michael Douglas as Bill Foster. “Falling Down” is an unforgettable exercise in nihilistic angst—a meaty film that provokes strong polarizing reactions.
The movie holds up a mirror to the world around us. And not everyone will like what they see.
“Falling Down” tells the story of a distraught and recently displaced, divorced loner. The movie struck a chord in 1993, and the film has a strong cult following. Much like “Wall Street” (1987), this is movie where Michael Douglas is cast as a villain who ends up becoming the focal point of worship among fans—a tribute to the great actor’s ability to humanize complex, dark characters and to his fearless choices in the roles he takes on.
There are many elements that contribute to the movie’s powerhouse effect; the outstanding original script by Ebbe Roe Smith, the on-location cinematography of Andrzej Bartkowiak, Joel Schumacher’s uncompromising direction (hot off of the underrated “Flatliners” and hit tear-jerker “Dying Young”), and of course, the masterful performance of Michael Douglas.

But there is one other element so important to creating the movie’s unrelenting atmosphere of sweltering tension and helping us feel the emotional pain of a man without hope—James Newton Howards remarkable musical score. It is a soundtrack desperately sought after by fans of the film for over two decades and now at long last—thanks to Intrada—the commercial album has been officially released in a comprehensive limited edition that captures Howard’s score in all its brooding glory.
Howard ingeniously captures the tone of the film and takes us into the mind of Bill “D-Fens” Foster from the opening second of the shrewdly directed, claustrophobic, traffic jam in “Opening Titles”.

Amid the carefully constructed soundscape of jazzy urban dissonance, Howard introduces us to the main theme used for the character of Bill Foster, a brooding, deep brass and percussive march. It is a heroic march inverted by descending notes held longer—a technique used to create themes for villains by John Williams in the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” movies as well as by Howard Shore in the “Lord of the Rings” films.
It is the perfect way to score the character because D-Fens is the ultimate real life urban anti-hero–a culture warrior for the lonely and forgotten who have been cast aside in the new Tea Party led America where if you are not successful it is because you are a “loser” or a “taker”, and it is your own fault you are “not economically viable” and were laid off.
“Falling Down” is primarily a score of atmosphere, but do not let the use of that term fool you. Unlike the majority of today’s soundtracks where atmosphere is equated with linier, monotone, droning walls of sound with no rhyme or reason, Howard approaches “Falling Down’s” soundscape with a minimalistic approach and an acute sense of instrumentation choice. This is intelligent film scoring at its best, very reminiscent of the approach Howard shore used for all the classic David Cronenberg films.
A simmering sense of foreboding tension is created in minimalistic cues such as “First Phone Call”, “Second Phone Call” and “Hole in Shoe”. Just like the film, during the first act Howard’s score is a winding spring, a compressed emotional powder keg getting ready to burst and in “Drive By Shooting” it finally does as Howard unleashes his a cacophony of urban atonal action angst.
But make no mistake about it, this is not just an exercise in urban soundscapes and atonal minimalism. There is a lot of melodic beauty here, haunting passages, and even a few moments of profound sadness.
“Back Room” is a chilling suspense cue used to score one of the film’s most disturbing scenes. This is the music playing when Nick, the Nazi fascist freak played by Frederic Forrest, takes Bill Foster on a tour of his chamber of horrors before assaulting him. Next up is “Other Side of the Moon”, an absolutely monumental track that plays during the haunting scene where Bill calls his ex-wife right after he kills the racist Nazi. This is one of the great highlights of the soundtrack—a sad and spooky theme that serves as a precursor to Howard’s landmark score for “The Sixth Sense” six years later in 1999.
In “Under Construction” we get a bold, forceful statement of the main theme as Bill Foster emerges from the Army Surplus store “dressed as GI Joe” and armed with a rocket launcher—essentially in his super hero uniform (or anti-hero uniform)—as he solves traffic problems and takes on a loudmouth jerk on a golf course.
“Caretakers Family” begins with a statement of the main theme before morphing into a melancholy version of “Other Side of the Moon” with an added achingly sad motif as Bill talks about the family and the home he can never go back to. It is a deeply affecting scene and tribute to both Michael Douglas’s outstanding talent as an actor and James Newton Howard’s ability to bring out the emotions of a scene. It is one of those moments where everything comes together in film and creates movie magic.
“Till Death Do Us Part” starts out as an aching sentimental motif—the music that plays as Bill sits in his home watching an old family video—before transforming into an chaotic action cue as the police move in, flushing him out to set up the inevitable tragic finale at the Venice Pier in “Beth Kicks the Gun” and the mournful, jazzy “I’m the Bad Guy”.
This Intrada release is an absolute treasure trove for fans of the film or composer; a complete score presented in more or less sequential order with crisp, vibrant sound, extra cues and alternate tracks, beautifully packaged with insightful liner notes written by Douglas Fake. It is a must own score for fans of the movie or any soundtrack collector who appreciates intelligent film scoring by a talented composer at the top of his game.
One can hope that this album will lead to a commercial release of that other James Newton Howard masterwork from a Joel Schumacher film—“Flatliners” (1990).

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