Oscar Checklist – Part 4: Audio Tour

Only two movies to check off today, that way I can maintain symmetry. These next two movies only snagged one nomination each, in separate sound categories: Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. To simplify, mixing is about the dialogue, sound effects, and music. A movie with a good mix is one where you don’t complain about not being able to hear the dialogue because the music is too loud. Make sense? To further simplify, sound editing is foley work. Good sound editing can be a lot of things, but is usually when you remember a sound like what a T.I.E. fighter sounds like. Both field’s are, of course, much more complicated than that.

Salt – Nominated for Best Sound Mixing

When you can’t nail down one of the more basic elements of an action picture, it can be difficult to swallow the rest. Such is the case with Salt, a fast paced, stone-faced, spy thriller. The film does have the requisite number of rewind moments. It’s never a bad thing when the action is so baadasssss that you feel the need to watch it twice. However, the plot, acting, and tone surrounding these few scenes are so ridiculous and over-the-top that I felt the ass-kicking was the only thing worth watching twice.

Let’s get the nomination out of the way first. Sound is really difficult to judge, more so when watching at home and trying not to wake your kids up. It wasn’t bad, nor did anything stand out. Perhaps in a theater the gun shots rang truer or the music was more complementary, I can only imagine. What I heard was…mas o menos. As for the other nominees for sound mixing, I will refrain from complaining further about The King’s Speech, but this mix was not in the same league as Inception, True Grit, or The Social Network. The nomination isn’t that upsetting either, it just… is.


What is upsetting, is the crazy–and then crazier for the sake of crazy–plot. It sounds like fun, but it isn’t. Angelina Jolie is the titular spy, turns out she’s actually a Russian spy, a sleeper agent, groomed intensively from a young age to infiltrate American infrastructure. Successfully blending in until activated, her task: to kill the Russian president and incite international conflict. But things aren’t what they seem, once activated, the hunter becomes the hunted and most of the movie ends up resembling Minority Report, complete with running, proving innocence, an unfamiliar agent doggedly pursuing (Chiwetel Ejiofor taking the Colin Farrel role), an old friend revealed as a villain (Liev Schreiber taking the Max Von Sydow role). Predictable, but without any theme or resonance like Spielberg’s sci-fi actioner.

If the idea of lifelong sleeper cells sounds preposterous, then you’re in for a treat. The film goes way off the rails and finds a way to involve the U.S. President and possible all-out nuclear war. Any explanation for Salt’s actions is lazily reasoned away by feeble love-conquers-all flashbacks. None of this is handled with any grace. If you insist on going for broke, then you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously. If you’re going to take yourself so seriously, then I should be able to retain a wee bit of suspension of disbelief. Instead, I was left wondering…“What the hell is going on? Why is Jolie dressed as a dude? Why is she walking around the white house? Is there a reel missing?”

Still, there are those cool scenes I spoke of. There’s the visceral death by handcuffs scene. There’s the clichéd but fantastic slo-mo walk away from a double grenade blast. There’s an entertaining real world version of Frogger with semi-trucks and freeways. And there’s even more fun when the movie isn’t straining to tell its story.

The basic action element I mentioned at the top is running. This might sound like a nitpick, but those who have seen Salt will know what I’m talking about. The early scenes with wide shots of Jolie running are embarrassingly bad. Jolie looks like she’s… well… fake running. It’s bad. I mentioned Minority Report, and one thing Tom Cruise knows how to do is run. Whole montages have been edited to support this claim. So, while there are some savory scenes of action delight, the hyperbolic plot and some halfhearted jogging brings down what should be a mindless action vehicle.

Grade: C-

Unstoppable – Nominated for Best Sound Editing

You can’t get any simpler than this. This action-thriller about an out of control locomotive, paced like its life depended on it, is mighty successful at what it sets out to do. By no means a classic, but it is the right kind of brain-switched-off blockbuster that surpasses other similar movies (*cough* Salt *cough*).

A lazy train yard worker (Ethan Suplee) dimwittedly sets the movie and the runaway train in motion. Once the out of control freight is established, it’s only a matter of thrilling the audience before the two heroes can save the day. There’s a minor attempt at setting up the heroes and their back-stories, but it’s of little import. All you need to know is the train is fast, unstoppable (of course), and it would be calamitous if it were to derail near a populated city, which is where it’s headed.

The straightforwardness works to the film’s advantage. There is no time wasted on anything else except stopping the train. The action isn’t motivated by anything other than a dumb luck accident. No terrorist villains, no natural disaster, all the protagonists (Denzel Washington & Chris Pine) have to do is stop the train. With nothing else to worry about, the director (Tony Scott) is free to concentrate on making the action as visceral and fun as possible.

Scott’s fondness for over-editing and hyperactive storytelling still hinders some of the non-train scenes, but he has dialed back these flourishes just enough. The action zips along. The camera never stops moving, cascading from left to right, and the film constantly feels like the next big thing is about to happen. Washington and Pine have good chemistry. They’re not expected to do more than keep our interest and they both have more than enough charisma for that.

The film does overuse every stock character in the book, but is redeemed by relentless action. Clichéd dialogue and obvious beats in the story would be more bothersome if not for the fun ride I was having. The only overtly annoying contrivance was the excessive reliance on the news as an expositional device. Every other cutaway was to some news report updating us on the status of the train. By the films final press conference, the overuse had damn near turned into a theme, only I don’t know what it was saying other than using news footage is an easy way to tell the audience something.

Oh and the sound editing nomination, very deserved. In fact, all of the technical elements are very accomplished, but the sound in particular. Train 777 becomes a character with its own distinct voice that fluctuates to heighten tension. There’s a lot of other sound layered in, helicopters, sirens, explosions, all in service of giving the audience the best bang for their buck. It might be archetypal, but it works. After a string of unwatchable disasters, Tony Scott has finally made something that gets the job done.

Grade: B

There’s more on the way, including a look at the make-up category, costumes, shorts and whatever else is left over, so keep coming back. And don’t forget to check out Parts 1-3 if you haven’t already.

One response to “Oscar Checklist – Part 4: Audio Tour

  1. Pingback: Oscar Checklist – Part 8: Salute Your Shorts | Shooting the Script

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