Thursday, April 07, 2016

OVP: Sound Mixing (2014)

OVP: Best Sound Mixing (2014)

The Nominees Were...

John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, and Walt Martin, American Sniper
Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, and Thomas Varga, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker, and Mark Weingarten, Interstellar
Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montao, and David Lee, Unbroken
Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, and Thomas Curley, Whiplash

My Thoughts: What?  A second OVP article in a week?  I know, miracles never cease.  Though miracles aren't really what we are looking at in this particular lineup, as the Academy was hardly thinking outside the box here.  Like so many years, the Academy relied largely upon its Sound Editing nominations slate (going 80% for the same contenders), so if you were liking our five films yesterday, you're going to love them today.  Next up we'll be getting a little bit more animated, and weirdly enough that means no crossover into this field (animation being a typical favorite for sound).

Perhaps the most animated of the nominees here is Birdman, which does in fact feature a character that may or may not be real, so animation is at least in its general family tree.  Birdman I spent a good portion of yesterday criticizing in terms of its actual sound editing, but the sound mixing, in my opinion, is first rate.  For starters, there's that killer Antonio Sanchez score that reverberates throughout the film, passing energy to Riggan Thomson in every single jaunt of the camera.  You can't help but feel the percussive measures of the story heightened by that jolt.  Plus, there's the wonderfully cavernous echo that come from New York, and in particular the St. James Theatre and the constant movement of the conversation as we pass from interjection to interjection.  Sound is as integral to Inarritu's vision as Lubezki's cinematography, and here the Academy hit the nail on the head.

Drums are a central component in Whiplash, that tale of a boy extending into the darkness that I, well, have largely remained indifferent toward.  In the over-a-year since this movie picked up a trio of Oscars (at least one of which wasn't entirely expected), Miles Teller has sort of come out as an asshole which has admittedly colored the movie for me here, but even putting that aside the sound isn't really what you'd want to celebrate here.  The drumming occasionally is off from what is seen onscreen (I wasn't a strong drummer in high school, but I did play for seven years and the sound doesn't always equal what is happening in front of our eyes) and there's not a lot of interesting stuff happening, audibly, in this movie to warrant the mandatory "musical" slot here.  The same tired dragging of chairs or tuning up of an orchestra, or even the awesome final drum solo-that feels more a capture of Miles Teller (or whoever is playing the drums there), than the sound department.  There's nothing that feels "wow" here in terms of technical skill.

Of course, Whiplash's lack of precision when it comes to matching its sounds to the film is nothing compared to the travesty of Interstellar, one of the worst nominations I've seen in this category in years.  Interstellar, as we discussed Wednesday (all links to past 2014 contests are at the bottom of the page-check it out!), was a pretty decent Sound Editing nominee, but Sound Mixing is another situation entirely.  There are actual pieces of this film where the score and the sound of the film itself is so muddled that you can't hear dialogue.  There were actually people who, after the film opened, complained to theater managers that there was something wrong with their sound equipment until Nolan himself said that this was his intention.  Considering that you shouldn't have dialogue in your film that isn't clearly understood, that's an enormous problem and the Academy should have essentially recused itself from nominating such a film.  Since it didn't, we're left with what feels like an automatic nomination for an effects film that didn't deserve the benefit of the doubt.

American Sniper was another nomination bound to happen (prestige war film), but it at least didn't have batches of dialogue that were being covered up in the mixing room.  I remembered thinking at the time that Sniper, while fine in its sound, was in no way comparable to what Lone Survivor did just the year prior in its tech categories.  The film is great in its war sequences, but unlike Lone Survivor, there's not the same precision in its non-action scenes (and quite frankly, the Mark Wahlberg picture has very few civilian scenes to accentuate).   As a result, it sort of slacks and just goes through Cooper's emotional turmoil, which is really the reason to tune in here as the rest of the film kind of falls apart, and even some heightened emotional sequences (like the "don't pick it up" emotional thrill-ride) don't truly warrant this nomination.

The final citation is for Unbroken, which here feels considerably more deserving of its praise.  Unlike American Sniper, who loses most of its cache in this category once it steps out of the war-zone, Unbroken continues its sound reach, and not just because of the Alexandre Desplat score.  Here we have a cascade of windy trees, crowd scenes that actually feel crowded and yet the conversation onscreen isn't muddled.  I do argue that the score occasionally reaches too far (there's a reason that Desplat didn't get one of his 812 nominations for this film), and of course the film's sound would have been better if the dialogue being spoken was, well, stronger, but overall this is one of the better forays of the year, certainly compared to its competition.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Cinema Audio Society has both Live-Action and Animated nominees, so we split here.  The animated film list is interesting since none of these movies made it into the Oscar lineup, with Big Hero 6 topping The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Penguins of Madagascar (what?!?), and The Lego Movie, while Live-Action preferred Birdman over American Sniper, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and Unbroken.  At the BAFTA Awards, Whiplash emerged victorious over Birdman, American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game.  Part of me assumes that the dubious prize for sixth place probably would have been Grand Budapest-it's a major player in most other categories, has that score that was clearly a draw, and the tech categories usually go pretty lock-step.  I'll hear arguments for Guardians in the comments.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I'd probably rehaul all but my winner here, to be honest.  Under the Skin is a hushed wonder of a film, audibly, and the sound is critically-important, especially considering that the stars sometimes feel like they aren't even speaking English.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is marvelous, and has that added benefit of animation walking around in live action, which always seems to make the sound seem more impressive.  I'd also include Wild, one of my favorite movies of 2014, which relies heavily on rain and the sounds of the trail as Reese finds herself.  And yes, I'd probably throw The Hobbit in for good measure as the sound work in Peter Jackson films are always tremendous.
Oscar’s Choice: Oscar developed a mad crush on Whiplash post-nominations (it's surprising in hindsight it didn't land the Foxcatcher slot in Best Director), and picked it over Birdman and American Sniper.
My Choice: This is a pretty easy choice for Birdman, who towers over the other contenders on the list (thus I am giving the eventual AMPAS Best Picture its first OVP).  I'd follow that with Unbroken, Whiplash, American Sniper, and Interstellar WAY in the back.

Those are my choices-how about you?  Are you onboard with me giving this to the costumed Birdman or were you with AMPAS and Whiplash' drumming?  Why do you think the Academy nominated the convoluted Interstellar here of all places?  And was it Grand Budapest or Guardians who just missed the cut?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Past Best Sound Mixing Contests: 200820092010201120122013

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