Interview with Hollywood Composer Craig Safan

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Interview with Hollywood Composer Craig Safan

On February 21st, 2017, as part of its fifth season program, the Dallas Chamber Symphony will premiére a new score for the classic silent film The Kid, Charlie Chaplin's first full‑length movie.  Released in 1921, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and starred in The Kid, playing his iconic figure, The Little Tramp.  I had the opportunity to interview the composer of the new score, Craig Safan.  An accomplished Hollywood composer, Safan has written scores for film and television, as well as live theater. 

Notable works include the instrumental scores for The Last StarfighterStand and Deliver, and the music for the television series Cheers. Tickets for the Dallas Chamber Symphony performance of Mr. Safan's score, which will be performed live with a screening of the film, can be purchased at the Dallas Chamber Symphony website, dcsymphony.org.

Listen to interview audio or read transcript...

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A Tale of Sadness and Regret: Manchester by the Sea

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A Tale of Sadness and Regret: Manchester by the Sea

Is there a direct antonym for the term nostalgia? If not, I’d like to submit a new word for that purpose. Lonergania: To look back on the past not with fondness or a desire to return, but with deep pain and unease. That’s exactly what director Kenneth Lonergan explores in his film Manchester by the Sea. The picture is a mix of devastating tragedy and sharp comedic moments that either work or don’t depending on the scene. It’s a bruising experience, filled with an emotional richness that achieves the goal for which all great art should strive – uncovering a fundamental truth of the human experience.

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Gold

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Gold

There’s a well-known maxim in Hollywood:  the best way for an actor to get an Oscar is to play a role in which he or she is ugly or disfigured. See Charlize Theron in Monster, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Typically, this strategy only works in tandem with one other element – the movie showcasing the performance must be good or interesting in some way. Matthew McConaughey has the first part down in his new film, Gold. He isn’t exactly disfigured in the movie, but to lose his trademark good looks for a role amounts to the same thing. He plays an average schmo, complete with a potbelly and male-pattern baldness. That’s the most interesting thing about the movie, and it’s not nearly enough to salvage the mishandled structure and uninteresting story.

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The Founder

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The Founder

Mark Zuckerberg only thought he was an original. Long before he upended all of our lives with social media, Ray Kroc did the same thing with burgers. According to The Founder, the biopic about Kroc and the fast-food empire he swindled from a pair of brothers, the two even shared a few of the same tactics. The subject matter of both this film and David Fincher’s The Social Network, about the founder of Facebook, make comparisons between the movies almost unavoidable. In any such assessment of the two, The Founder is bound to come out as the lesser work of art. That’s mostly because director John Lee Hancock is not as assured or stylistically bold as Fincher. Robert D. Siegel’s script also lacks the verbal pyrotechnics of Aaron Sorkin’s dialog for The Social Network

All that makes it seem like The Founder is a failure, which isn’t true. The movie is entertaining and even, at times, compelling. The core performance, Michael Keaton as Kroc, is a wonder to behold. Almost every actor around him turns in similarly solid work. There’s just a missing sense of pathos in the overall effect of the movie that, were it present, would transform The Founder from good to great.

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20th Century Women

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20th Century Women

It’s a rare bit of magic when a movie can perfectly blend comedy and drama to create a bittersweet poignancy. Writer/director Mike Mills has performed just that with his new film 20th Century Women. His tale of a collection of oddballs who form a unique family unit in a specific time and place in America’s recent past is mournful, yet hopeful. It captures the humanity and heartbreak in everyday relationships: mother and son, deep friendships, and lovers. The movie is an examination of the sublime that’s hidden in the mundane. It’s a transcendent experience.

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Lion

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Lion

If you’re already familiar with Garth Davis, it’s probably from his work on television commercials.  Subtlety isn’t high on the list of attributes for that particular discipline, but it is something Davis excels at with his feature-film debut, Lion. It’s one of the most emotionally resonant movies of 2016, yet it is completely devoid of manipulation. The physical, emotional, and spiritual journey of Lion’s protagonist is transcendent. Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies take care to never succumb to heavy-handed melodrama. They tell the story simply, and let the character’s actions speak for themselves. A film can’t stand on writing and direction alone, though, so Davis and Davies brought in a cinematographer (Greig Fraser) who shot the film beautifully, and cast actors who brought the story to life with powerful, but understated performances. Lion is a quiet, unassuming movie and it’s that much more impactful for it.

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North Texas Film Critics Association Announces Best of 2016

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North Texas Film Critics Association Announces Best of 2016

The North Texas Film Critics Association (NTFCA), of which I am a member, voted late last month to honor the best films of 2016. As an organization, the NTFCA is proud to call attention to outstanding achievements in the craft of filmmaking. I consider movies to be not only entertainment, but in the best examples, they are also art. They teach us about the human condition. Here are the winners for each category in which we voted:

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Passengers

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Passengers

Passengers is a great movie. At least, it’s a great movie if you hate thinking. The makers and marketers were clearly aware of this. Razzle and dazzle ‘em enough, they must have thought, and they’ll look past the fact that it's deeply flawed on a basic, storytelling level. It’s true enough. If you mentally check out, Passengers is a pretty enjoyable experience.

The tale of two interstellar space travelers, who wake up from hibernation 90 years too soon, is packed with gorgeous special effects and tense action sequences. The two leads have a heavy burden, and they pull it off in grand style. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, semi-stranded like Robinson Crusoe, are on a lonely craft adrift in the vast ocean of space instead of on a deserted island. Almost the entire movie rests on their shoulders, and they prove themselves capable of the task. But they do all that in a movie so clunky and half-baked that it’s easy to forget; the film’s rightful destiny.

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Fences

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Fences

When adapting a play for the screen, there’s always the risk that the result will feel stage bound. Movies are uniquely visual, whereas plays, more often than not, rely heavily on words to convey ideas. In his adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson play Fences, director and star Denzel Washington probably felt the pressure to bring a cinematic style to a stage production that takes place entirely in the yard of a house. Washington moved several of the scenes inside the house, and a few of the 140-minutes of run time take place in other spaces: a bar, the walk home from a hard day’s work. Aside from the real shooting locations, the outcome is reminiscent of a filmed play. But when the words being spoken are as brutal and honest as August Wilson’s, and the performances are as emotionally pulverizing as they are in Fences, the fact that the movie feels stagy is much less important.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The opening crawl is missing. The opening crawl is missing! Those famous paragraphs that follow “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” in every Star Wars movie – one of the most iconic things about the series – are absent in Rogue One. I don’t know if that set off shrieks of rage around the internet. I purposefully avoid that sort of thing, but it’s not hard to imagine the internet outrage machine losing their collective minds about this when the mere mention that the next James Bond might be portrayed by a black man nearly broke the internet forever.

Director Gareth Edwards took the opportunity of ditching this de rigueur element as a way to set his entry in the Star Wars franchise apart, while also including a sly nod to it, if you’re paying attention. The opening action is set on a planet like Saturn, complimented with a series of rings. Edwards’ camera drifts in space, looking at the planet, and tilting up to reveal the majestic rings above. In an ingenious touch, the special effects department gave a funny quality to those rings. In a way, they look just like blurry, upside down, and backwards text. We, and the film, Edwards is intimating, are just underneath the events of the official “Episodes” that make up the main story arc of the Star Wars universe. This movie doesn’t have an Episode number, after all. Its full title is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

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Top Ten Films of 2016

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Top Ten Films of 2016

As December draws to a close, I'm celebrating another year of seeing, studying, and writing about movies. Today marks my second anniversary of deciding to dive a little deeper than the average cinephile, and devote a large portion of my time to analyzing the art form I love so much.

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Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a great example of a fascinating story told in an uninspired way. The title of the film hints at how important the true-life subject matter is. It tells the tale of people who made critical contributions to the success of a defining moment in human history, but who went unrecognized because of their second-class status. They are finally getting the credit they deserve, but it’s a shame that the style doesn’t do the content justice. The movie indulges in every biopic cliché imaginable. The way it handles race issues of the early 1960s is similarly flawed. Missing are the nuanced shades of gray that made a movie like Selma so rich. Instead, Hidden Figures focuses on easy crowd pleasing moments that are cathartic, to be sure, but that lack the subtle nuance that would make them emotionally complex and satisfying. It’s A Beautiful Mind meets The Help, with all the problems of both.

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Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals

If there’s any doubt that fashion-designer-cum-film-director Tom Ford loves playing the role of provocateur, the opening to his new film, Nocturnal Animals, should cast it out. A series of naked, morbidly obese women, each with a single stylistic flourish like a drum majorette’s hat or a pair of boots, gyrate on screen in super slow motion.

Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination.

Opinions about the sequence range from calling it body shaming to body positive. There’s no context for what is on the screen until the sequence is over. Your relative comfort with bodies that don’t conform to the Hollywood ideal of beauty will play a role in how you react, as well as how you feel about your own body. It’s one of those cinematic moments that tells you more about yourself than the film you’re watching. Ford probably included it just to get a rise out of people. It’s intentionally confrontational in what is a particularly confrontational movie.

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It's Not the Optimistic Musical We Deserve, but It's the One We Need: La La Land

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It's Not the Optimistic Musical We Deserve, but It's the One We Need: La La Land

It’s been a rough year. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. We may have lost American democracy as we know it. The jury is still out on that one, 2016. Director Damien Chazelle couldn’t get here soon enough with the follow up to his breakout film Whiplash. It’s called La La Land, and it’s everything we need right now. It’s infectiously upbeat, idealistic, heartwarming, and joyous. Basically, it’s everything the world seems to be lacking right now.  In addition to being uniquely cinematic, La La Land is the breath givingnew life to the big Hollywood musical, a genre that’s best days have been gone for 50 years. What the 2011 surprise hit The Artist did for silent films, La La Land promises to do for musicals. Both films allow Hollywood to indulge in its favorite pastime, looking back to its golden days and reminding itself of its former glory. You’ll notice The Artist didn’t lead to a boom in production of new silent films. Neither is La La Land likely to lead to a major revival of musicals. The most magical thing that both movies do is remind us that the old cliché “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” isn’t exactly true. Sometimes they do, and it’s a rare and special enough occasion, so when it happens, we should count ourselves exceptionally lucky to witness it.

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Rules Don't Apply

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Rules Don't Apply

It’s hard to overstate how big of a disaster Warren Beatty’s film Rules Don’t Apply is. The man who ruled Hollywood for over two decades has delivered the first movie he wrote, directed, and starred in since 1998’s Bulworth, and it’s a complete mess. Beatty became an instant sex symbol in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and he won the Best Director Oscar for Reds, his 1981 ode to John Reed, one of only two Americans ever granted burial at the Kremlin in Moscow. Almost none of Beatty’s earlier successful filmmaking skills are visible in his latest project.

Like Reds, Beatty’s focus for Rules Don’t Apply is also a real-life figure, mercurial billionaire Howard Hughes. The legendary stories about Hughes, a man who inherited his father’s oil drill bit company and used his fortune to focus on his twin passions of aviation and filmmaking, are practically the makings of a fantastic movie all on their own. If you need proof, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a remarkable example. Not only was Hughes an eccentric and mysterious figure of great renown from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was also plagued with mental health issues, most notably a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Beatty’s movie, by contrast, suffers from bipolar disorder. 

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Arrival

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Arrival

Arrival is one of those movies that depends almost completely on a twist surprise that comes in the last half hour or so. That makes writing about it without ruining the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen it particularly difficult. There are plenty of really great movies that are structured this way – Fight Club and The Sixth Sense are two that spring instantly to mind. There are also movies that are weakened by depending too heavily on that one surprise to hold up the entire film – The Village and The Forgotten are good examples. It’s too dismissive to write that Arrival is somewhere in between. If it is, it’s on the high side of that middle area, more intriguing than not. That engagement mostly comes from the beautiful and strange atmosphere director Denis Villeneuve creates for Arrival. His visuals are complemented exquisitely by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dark, moody score.

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History is watching: 13th

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History is watching: 13th

“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n---er, n---er, n---er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n---er’ – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N---er, n---er.” – Lee Atwater

Lee Atwater was a Republican operative who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He stated the above quote in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis. The idea is that as openly racist attitudes and speech becomes less acceptable with civil rights advances, politicians and institutions wishing to uphold the white hegemony must find new, more acceptably racist ways to achieve that goal. The examination of that tactic is central to director Ava DuVernay’s powerful new documentary 13th, so named for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That’s the one officially ending slavery in America. Well, almost.

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Moonlight

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Moonlight

There is an idea in progressive politics and critical theory known as intersectionality. Simply put, intersectional theory supposes that we are all made up of multiple overlapping social identities. In order to understand the complexities of human behavior, and the varying levels of discrimination in our society, each social identity must be understood as being inextricably linked with the others. That’s why an LGBT woman of color can face more oppressive obstacles than an LGBT man who is white. If that feels overly clinical and cold, art holds the key to humanizing such ideas. Moonlight, the story of one man told over 20 years, explores these notions in emotionally exquisite and sublimely human ways.

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Certain Women

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Certain Women

Certain Women is a breath of fresh air. It’s the perfect antidote to the sensory overload that can become agitated after seeing too many loud blockbusters. While those blockbusters can be a hell of a lot of fun, it’s best to heed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous advice: “Moderation in all things.” The Transcendentalist thinker seems to be a kindred spirit to the movie’s director, Kelly Reichardt, because of his belief that the divine could be understood by having a close relationship to nature. The stillness of Certain Women works like meditation. The stunningly gorgeous backdrop of the movie’s setting, Montana, often occupies the edges of Reichardt’s frame. There’s a connection to the land that her characters feel, even if it’s only subconscious. Told in three interconnected vignettes, the stories of four women, and how they move through a world that can be, if not outright hostile then aggressively dismissive of their very existence, represent the best in modern independent filmmaking.

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American Honey

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American Honey

As improbable as it sounds, American Honey melds the sensibilities of disparate movies like Easy Rider and Lawrence of Arabia to craft a modern portrait of driftless youth. Director Andrea Arnold’s film is epic, funny, heartbreaking, and challenging. It captures the cynicism and hopelessness that characterizes the way many U.S. citizens view the American Dream. Through all the unfairness and terrible situations life throws at Star, Arnold’s main character, American Honey gives us a glimpse into the life of a survivor. Star refuses to be broken, and this quality allows for a hopeful ending to the movie that is both uplifting and defies easy explanation. In short, American Honey is a stunning achievement. It’s a movie that stirred my emotions and gave me a view into a world so different from my own that it might as well have been from an alien planet.

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