Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Soundtrack Collection: Bolt to Brave Little Toaster

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

 Bolt

Bolt (John Powell, 2008): Disney’s 2008 CGI animated feature was not a musical, thus the soundtrack album primarily features the orchestral score by composer John Powell, who has generally done some of his best work in animated features (including Shrek, the Ice Age sequels, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon).  This was his first score for Disney and it is well suited to the film.

The soundtrack album opens with the two songs from the film, both of which have a modern country style.  The first is “I Thought I Lost You”, the end-credits song performed by the film’s voice stars John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, which is a fairly interesting pairing for a duet.  The other song is “Barking at the Moon” performed by Jenny Lewis, which was used more prominently over a key montage sequence in the film.

Powell’s score has an interesting mix of styles, due to the somewhat dual nature of the film itself.  The main story of the lost dog trying to find its way home called for a fairly tender, emotionally driven score, which Powell builds around a piano-driven main theme.  This aspect of the score is quickly introduced during the first cue of the score portion of the soundtrack entitled “Meet Bolt”.  Powell also provides a fun, vaguely Godfather-inspired  theme for Mittens the cat, which is introduced in the cue “Meet Mittens”.  Other parts of the score have a bit more of a rural, country-inspired feel.

The other key aspect of the score is the very fast-paced, action music that is principally featured in the title character’s super-hero type TV series within the movie.  For these sequences, Powell provides an edgy, heavily synthesizer driven score.  On the soundtrack album, these cues feel a bit out of step with the rest of the score, although they fit perfectly in those sequences in the film.  This aspect of the score is heard early on with “Bolt Transforms” and “Scooter Chase” and Powell does occasionally re-introduce some of the TV series action music during appropriate, action-oriented sections of the main storyline.

Born Free

Born Free (John Barry, 1966): Outside of his James Bond songs, the title song from Born Free is almost certainly the most recognizable and familiar composition of John Barry’s career.  The Matt Monro recording of the song (which features lyrics by Don Black) was a big hit and  became Monro’s signature song.  A cover version by Roger Williams was also a top-10 hit.

The title song is the best remembered aspect of the score and its melody is the dominant theme.  Like the song, the score is very lush and romantic and extremely melodic.  Fitting the family-oriented adventure film, the score has a definite playful quality to it and Barry also occasionally introduces some bits and pieces of African styling, such as some of the use of percussion in the cue “Elsa at Play”.  Some slightly darker tones come into play in “The Death of Pati”, while still maintaining the overall style of the score.

For the 1966 soundtrack album, Barry conducted a re-recording of the score’s highlights.  This re-recording plus the Monro version of the song runs just under 40 minutes in length.  The soundtrack album was released on CD by Film Score Monthly in 2004 in a, rare for the label, non limited-edition that was widely distributed to stores.  The CD doesn’t contain any additional music (or the original film tracks), but it is a solid representation of the score.

Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July (John Williams and Various artists, 1989): This film featured John Williams first of the three scores (preceding JFK and Nixon) that he composed for director Oliver Stone.  Those scores were among the darkest and most somber that Williams composed.  This means that they weren’t among the most accessible to listen to separately from the films, but the scores were exceptionally effective within the films.  The Born on the Fourth of July score isn’t one that I return to very often, but it is a very impressive, serious composition that should be a part of any serious film music collection.

The soundtrack album for Born on the Fourth of July is a mix of a song and score album.  The film used contemporary to the era music pretty extensively to help establish the late 60s/early 70s setting and, particularly, the scenes involving the Vietnam War protest groups and the general counterculture of the era.  The album opens with cover versions of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” by Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians” and John Fogerty’s  “Born On the Bayou” recorded by The Broken Homes.  Both of these were recorded for the film.

The rest of the songs were original artists versions of “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “American Pie” by Don Mclean, “My Girl” by The Temptations, “Soldier Boy” by The Shirelles, “Venus” by Frankie Avalon, and  the familiar choral version of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”.  All are good songs, of course, but they are also very widely available from other sources and it would have been vastly preferable to have had more of the score instead.

The score portion of the album opens with “Prologue”, a distinguished and somber theme for solo trumpet, extremely well performed by former Boston Pops lead trumpeter Tim Morrison, a frequent Williams collaborator.  This immediately establishes the very serious mood of the score.  This theme is re-visited quite a bit during the rest of the score cues and Morrison’s solo trumpet is also utilized to perform other themes within the score.

During the second cue, “The Early Days, Massapequa, 1957”, Williams establishes the other primary theme of the score, which is a fairly romantic Americana theme that reflects the all-American, small town origins of the film’s central character.  As the score progresses, this theme is re-visited frequently, but with darker, more downbeat shadings as the film’s very serious story arc plays out.  This is especially true of the last couple cues of the album, which score the last parts of the film after the injured main character has returned home from the war.  Especially effective is Williams use of a bit of a pop beat under the trumpet performance of his Americana theme during “Homecoming”, with a revisit of the “Prologue” theme interrupting it, causing a fairly abrupt shift from optimism to sadness.

The soundtrack also includes a couple cues that underscore the film’s war sequences.  The first of these, “The Shooting of Wilson” is mostly very dissonant in sound with harsh strings and bursts of percussion and brass underlining the tension and pain of the war.  It is the most difficult cue on the album to listen to, although it is still very expertly composed.  The cue ends with repeats of the score’s two main themes, providing a sort of release.  The second war cue, “Cua Viet River, Vietnam, 1968” is more melodic and interweaves more of the main themes, but in a very dark and foreboding style.  Williams’ use of vocal whispering (with unrecognizable words) is a particularly unsettling element of this cue.

Williams’ score only takes up about 25 minutes on the album, so this is obviously a very prime candidate for an expanded release.  Not counting Williams (mostly early) scores that have never been released outside of their films at all, this is almost certainly his most under-represented score out there.  The album does hit the top highlights of the score giving a solid taste for it, but there definitely is a need for more of it to be made available.

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Soundtrack Collection: Backdraft to Bandolero!

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Backdraft

Backdraft (Hans Zimmer, 1991): I’m pretty sure that Backdraft was the first film in which I really noticed a Hans Zimmer score enough to purchase the soundtrack album.  Of course, Zimmer has become one of the most successful working composers in subsequent years, but his distinctive style was something of a fresh discovery back in 1991.

The score features Zimmer’s usual mix of orchestra and synthesizer, with a rock beat behind the main theme.  While this musical sound is now pretty ubiquitous, largely because of Zimmer and his protégées, it felt very new when this film first came out and I remember being very excited to get the soundtrack album.  While it isn’t nearly as distinctive today, the score still holds up as one of the best examples of this style of scoring. 

While there are some action-oriented portions to the score, especially during the cue “Burn It All”, the majority reflects more of a dramatic intensity.  Strings and synths dominate, with a pretty ever present percussion backing.  Occasional choral elements come into play as well, particularly during some of the more action-oriented sections.

The soundtrack CD opens and closes with the Bruce Hornsby songs “Set Me In Motion” and “The Show Goes On”.  Hornsby has a very recognizable style to his songs and both of these are easily recognizable as his.  Generally, I think they fit reasonably well with this score.

BadBoys

Bad Boys (Mark Mancina, 1995): This film was the first pairing of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer and was essentially the first instance of the heavily rock-influenced instrumentals that film score enthusiasts often refer to simply as the “Bruckheimer sound”.  There is a lot of room for debate as to whether or not that should be considered a positive milestone.  The scores to Bruckheimer’s films from 1995 onward are most widely associated with Hans Zimmer and his influence is evident.  While Zimmer didn’t score the film, Mancina was employed by his company (at the time known as Media Ventures) and another Mancina protégé, Nick Glennie-Smith, also contributed to the score. 

Mancina was likely hired to score the film largely on the strength of his generally acclaimed score to Speed the year before and the similarities are obvious, particularly in the main theme.  The score is generally driven by synthesizer, keyboards, and electric guitar, with orchestral components generally given a backseat.  Acoustic guitar is occasionally used to score the film’s rare quieter moments, as in the cue “You’re Going to Leave Me Alone?”  The score also has some appealing reggae influences, first given significant play during the cue “JoJo, What You Know?”, and revisited periodically afterward.  Even the score’s main theme has a reggae influenced melody, which becomes more evident as the score continues on.  Fairly intense wordless vocals are also used periodically.

The soundtrack album released with the film was primarily a song album and only included one 4 minute score cue featuring an arrangement of Mancina’s main theme.   In 2007, La-La Land Records released a limited edition 70-minute CD of the complete score.  This edition is still available at their site and is currently priced at just $9.98.  It is very much worth getting at that price.

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The X-Files: I Want To Believe – Review with Spoilers

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

As a pretty big fan of The X-Files (I even went to a convention once) back when it was on TV, I was definitely pleased when the news came out last year that a new feature film would be coming out this year. Certainly, my enthusiasm was particularly strong thanks to the fact that stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would both be returning and that series creator Chris Carter would be writing and directing. The resultant film is surprisingly modest, but I also found it to be a spooky and compelling thriller that felt true to the characters and effectively reflected the tone of the series.

With it being 6 years since the series ended (and 10 years since the last feature film), Carter and his co-writer Frank Spotnitz (also a regular contributor to the series), wisely decided to go with a story that very easily stands on its own without substantially involving the complex, and sometimes kind of convoluted, conspiracy mythology that ended up generally dominating the later seasons of the series. The result actually has more of the look and feel of an episode from one of the earliest seasons, back when the main focus was on stand-alone plots about a crime with, often somewhat ambiguous, supernatural overtones. While I did enjoy the conspiracy aspects of the series, if nothing else for its pure complexity, I tended to prefer the more standalone episodes. Because of that, this movie largely fit with what I generally liked best about the series. I can understand pretty easily, though, why this film could feel disappointing to fans that preferred the conspiracy stories or who were hoping for a feature film that had grander ambitions.

It has been pretty widely reported that 20th Century Fox would only green-light another "X-Files" feature if Carter agreed to keep it to a very low-budget. Reportedly, the film ended up costing around $30 million, which is amazingly low for a major studio feature today, particularly one built around a known franchise. Fortunately, they came up with a story that fit the budget instead of trying to cut corners. The film is very dialog-driven and does not feature large special effects sequences or big set pieces. The film builds a fair amount of tension, and is even downright scary at times, and that is largely accomplished via fairly old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, including frequently relying on the viewer’s imagination to fill in what isn’t shown directly.  Score composer Mark Snow (who also scored the entire TV series and the previous film) again contributes greatly to the tension and overall mood of the film.

The scale of the film is small enough that I could see a pretty good argument being made that perhaps they should have done this as a TV movie instead of a theatrical release. They did largely ignore the conventional wisdom that a feature film requires a story that is much grander and larger in scope than the typical TV episodes. The longer running time of the film does provide room for more story development at a more leisurely pace. I suspect that will may find the film a bit slow as it doesn’t have the rapid cutting and frequent action sequences that are typical of most summer thrillers. The pacing of this film is actually quite a bit slower even in comparison to the first "X-Files" film.  The film does also benefit from some effective use of the full wide-screen frame, particularly during a few key sequences set in snow-covered fields as well as during one very well-shot foot chase.  I also think that the somewhat complex and dialog-driven nature of the movie was well served from the generally stronger focus given to a movie in a theater than with the usual distractions of a TV viewing.

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Ranking the Pixar Movies

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

I read a couple Disney-fan discussion boards and every time a new Pixar movie comes out, there is inevitably a thread or two in which everyone ranks all of their films to date.  This is probably a result of the relatively few films they have made so far (9) and the game will likely start to die out as the number of titles makes it increasingly difficult.  For now, I figured I’ll play along, but do it as a blog entry where I can be more easily verbose with explanations.

I do see a distinction between a list of "favorites" and "best" when discussing works of art or entertainment and this list is going to be favorites.  What that means is that the order is based more on how much I enjoy the movies and am apt to return to them.  Essentially, this is based more on the "fun" factor than on the full collection of merits.  Finally, the rankings can’t help but be a bit arbitrary and I openly admit that the order could easily change, especially based on how recently I’ve seen each movie.

1. Monsters, Inc.  - Of all the Pixar films, this is the one that I am most apt to stop and watch if I come across it airing on TV or cable.  The film succeeds due to great casting, humor that hits the mark with an amazing consistency, truly exciting action sequences, and a story that takes place in a fully-realized and unique world of its own.  Finally, the closing shot of this movie is right up there towards the top of the list of the all time best endings.  While all of this is in service of a somewhat conventional buddy-movie plot, the whole package simply works.

2. Toy Story 2 – Pixar’s only sequel to date brilliantly expanded on the great characters and concept of the company’s first feature to create a more fully-realized film.  The movie is uproariously funny (it has the most out-loud laughs of any Pixar film) and it also quite touching at times.  The new characters created for the sequel (Jessie, Stinky Pete, and Bullseye) are not extraneous in any way, instead greatly expanding the overall storytelling.  The movie also contains the single best musical sequence of any Pixar film with the highly moving "When She Loved Me". This is a very rare case of a sequel that surpassed the original, largely through the careful application of the experience that the Pixar artists had gained with their first two films.

3. Wall-E – If I were putting together a "best" list instead of a "favorites" list, I’m pretty sure this would top it.   Pixar’s newest film is also their most bold an most creative.  I’ve seen some online debate about whether the film (especially the first 20 minutes or so) is mainly charming and funny or if it is mostly dark and sad.  The brilliance of the film is that it is all of those.  They were able to take a fairly downbeat scenario and present it in a way that is both palatable and, ultimately, even optimistic.  Much of this is accomplished thanks to the title character being Pixar’s most instantly endearing and sympathetic creation to date.  The film’s use of visual storytelling and incredibly detailed sound effects design gives it an exhilaratingly unconventional feel.  I can see the possibility that this one could move up on my favorites list as well with additional viewing and the passage of time.

4. Ratatouille – This one has the sharpest writing and most sophisticated story of all of the Pixar films to date.  While all of Pixar’s films have appealed to a fairly broad age range, this one does seem to skew a bit older than their other films, probably because the appreciation for fine food that is at the heart of the story really has to come with age and experience.  The film does still contain its fair share of visual gags and punch-lines, but it also contains a great deal of wit and character-driven humor.  This one would likely be a close 2nd on my "best" list.

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

I’m writing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull after it has been out for a couple weeks and has probably already been seen by a pretty large percentage of those that were particularly enthusiastic about seeing it.  Because of that, this is going to be a commentary rather than a "should you go see it" type of review and I’m not going to worry about avoiding spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the film and still plan to, consider yourself warned.

 

I honestly can’t remember being this conflicted about a movie recently.  I can definitely say that I enjoyed the movie and that I even am interested in seeing it again.  At the same time, I’m initially did not feel inclined to say it really was a good movie.  That is part of the reason why I didn’t get around to writing this until about 2 weeks after seeing the film.  In fact, I’ve even gone back and revised this opening paragraph to be a bit more upbeat after realizing that the rest of my review is a lot more positive than I really expected it to be.

Right after seeing the movie, my first instinct was to tell various family and friends that this was the best movie I had ever seen that was made from a really bad script.  As I’ve thought about it more, I even think the script was generally pretty good as I recall a lot of snappy and amusing dialog, some good character moments, and well-chosen action sequences.  I think the real problem with the film is that the underlying story is very poorly conceived.  I really do think that this may be the best example I’ve ever seen of a very talented group of filmmakers and actors making the very best of some pretty bad underlying material.

I’ve seen a lot of comments about how much mileage this movie was able to get out of nostalgia for the character and the earlier films, but I think that wouldn’t really go very far if there weren’t an awful lot that is right with the movie.  First and foremost, it still looks and feels like an Indiana Jones movie.  Although he played the character as noticeably older, and perhaps a tad wiser, Harrison Ford seemed to pretty effortlessly slip back into the role.  I actually hope that other filmmakers will note his performance here and recognize that he is clearly still very capable of playing action heroes.  I think he is an actor that has mostly been misused for the past few years.

It was great seeing Karen Allen’s return as Marion Ravenwood, even if she really didn’t have all that much to do in the film.  The interplay between her and Indy was pretty much on the mark, really.  It was very reminiscent of their relationship in the original film, but with some additional history.  While it has been somewhat controversial, I was really happy with the decision to end the film with Indy and Marion’s wedding.  I felt it was a good reflection of the maturity that both characters have achieved with age.  I also thought it provided some appropriate closure to a series that I suspect probably really is finished, in spite of the various rumors to the contrary.

I do think that Shia LaBeouf was appealing and well cast as Indy and Marion’s son, Mutt, but I can’t really say that I thought the character came close to being distinctive enough to carry a film on his own as has been rumored.  With that in mind, and considering how long it took to get Spielberg and Ford’s schedules to coincide (along with that of George Lucas) and all of them to agree on a script, I just don’t see too much of a chance of another film.  I could be wrong about this (and almost hope that I am), but this really does seem like one final nostalgic return rather than the re-start of the series.

For the nostalgia factor, I was really happy to see the brief tributes to Marcus Brody (and, consequently, the late Denholm Elliot) as well as to Indy’s father.  It was disappointing that they weren’t able to coax Sean Connery out of retirement for at least a brief cameo, but I was glad that they still found a couple very effective ways of acknowledging the character, particularly in the context of the new father/son relationship between Indy and Mutt.  As for Marcus, I greatly enjoyed his sort of bumbling comic relief in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, thus, thought it was absolutely perfect to end a chase sequence by having the bad guys run into his statue, causing the head to go through their windshield.  That felt to me like a very sharp, highly in-character tribute.

The overall look, pacing, and rhythm of the film also seem right.  While Steven Spielberg has really matured a lot as a filmmaker over the last 20 years, I think it is great that he still likes to periodically go back to the type of popcorn-movie that generally launched his career.  If he had been making nothing but films like Schindler’s List and Munich in the years since the last Indiana Jones film, I’m not sure if he could have slipped back into this series effectively.  I’m glad he still does occasional projects like the Jurassic Park films, War of the Worlds, and this one.

Some have complained that the now-standard use of CGI animation does give some of the special effects work in this film a less realistic appearance than in the earlier films, but I honestly didn’t really notice it much.  I really wouldn’t say that the special effects work in the series ever really fit the definition of "realistic", regardless of the technique used.  The effects may look a bit different this time, but I can honestly say that it wasn’t something that crossed my mind while watching the film.

I thought the action sequences and chases were very well-staged and, just like in the previous films, lots of fun.  Yes, several of the sequences were completely absurd, but that is not only what I expect from this series, but a large part of its charm.  I’ve been a tad surprised to see other reviews that have criticized sequences like Mutt’s Tarzan swing through the jungle or Indy surviving a nuclear blast in a lead refrigerator.  Sure, both sequences were insanely over-the-top and kind of silly, but they also both put a huge grin on my face.  I really think this kind of pretty much fearless over-the-top action is a big part of the charm of these films.

I’ve now talked a lot about what was right with the film.  As I stated at the top of the review, my overall reaction to the film was pretty mixed mainly due to pretty serious story issues.  To put it simply, I think the plot is just plain too complicated.  The Indiana Jones films have pretty much provided classic examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s concept of a MacGuffin, the term he used to refer to the object that everyone in the film wants to find, steal, protect, or destroy.  What that object is or does really shouldn’t matter at all or occupy much time or attention in the film.

In the previous films, the MacGuffin could be explained in just a few words, thus requiring very little of the running time for exposition and allowing the films to maintain a previously almost unprecedented pacing.  In both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy was seeking Biblical objects that were already well-known to most people in the audience.  Even those that didn’t already know about the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail could pretty quickly get the point when told that the ark was the box that held the tablets containing the 10 commandments and that the grail was the cup used by Christ at the last supper.  The ark’s "power to level mountains" and the grail’s ability to grant endless life could also be explained quickly and easily.  While the Sankara Stones that were sought in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were not a well-known artifact, the film pretty much skipped any serious explanation other than that one of the stones brought good luck to a village and that all of them would bring great power when brought together.

In the new film, the crystal skull of the title is essentially a MacGuffin once again, but this time they have given it a much too complicated back-story.  To be honest, I’m not even sure I even entirely understood it by the time the film was over.  As best as I can tell, the skulls belonged to alien visitors (I think inter-dimensional instead of from outer space) who were, apparently, the gods that were worshiped by the ancient Aztecs, who built their lost city of gold as a tribute.  When brought together at the temple in the lost city, they apparently opened some sort of a doorway while also imparting psychic abilities or some sort of eternal knowledge to anyone who was looking into their eyes.  It also, for some reason, triggered a launch of a flying saucer that either was traveling to space or to another dimension or something.  Anyway, I think that not entirely-successful attempt at a description kind of illustrates the problem here. 

The major impact of the over-complicated plot is that this film pretty much slows to a halt multiple times as it makes not-entirely successful attempts at explaining what was going on.  Prior to this film, slow spots in an Indiana Jones movie almost seemed unthinkable.   A big part of the problem is that even Indy’s motivations and role in the whole adventure become somewhat murky by the end of the movie, particularly after a scene where Indy briefly is forced to stare at the skull and then starts claiming that some of his activities are what it told him to do.  In the past films, the characterization was really a pretty simple mix of a desire for "fortune and glory" and a somewhat overdeveloped sense of altruism, again providing an easy framework for action sequences fueled by dogged determination. 

The problem with the story also impacted the effectiveness of some of the supporting characters.  Cate Blanchett’s villain was particularly hurt by confusing characterization and motivations.  I didn’t mind so much that her desire to find the skull was more based on personal ambition than loyalty to her Soviet leaders as that was a tradition that was pretty much established in the first film with Belloq, who remains the best of the series’ villains.  The bigger problem is that it really was hard to figure out what those motivations actually were.  We were given some indications that she had psychic abilities (or at least thought she did), but that didn’t really amount to much until the confusing climax.  I guess she was ultimately seeking knowledge, but that aspect of her personality almost seemed to come out of nowhere at the end of the film.  It certainly didn’t help much that Blanchett’s performance was a bit too cartoonish, with a pretty uncomfortable resemblance to Natasha from the old Bullwinkle cartoons…

Another weak link was John Hurt’s role as one of Indy’s old colleagues who had initially discovered the skull.  By the time the film catches up with the character, he had apparently gone mad as a result of staring too long at the skull, but it is never entirely clear why that is or why he suddenly returns to normal at the film’s climax.  The character is generally inscrutable to the point of being fairly irritating.  I think the film would have been better off either eliminating the character entirely or having him remain missing (leaving clues) until the finale.

I will say that my initial reaction to hearing that the film involved aliens was generally not very positive, but I now don’t really think that was a bad idea.  Necessarily, the film shifted the setting from the 1930s to the 1950s and a storyline involving aliens fits in pretty well with the types of serial adventure films from that time period.  I think the big mistake was that they way overdeveloped the idea.  Had the story involved a very straightforward and simple artifact that just happened to be alien in origin (instead of religious like in the other films), I think it would have worked just fine.  The error was in seriously trying to over-explain the whole thing.  We have long heard that Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford wanted to do another film, but it was long delayed by trying to get the right story and script.  In a lot of ways, the end result really seems like the work of too many screenwriters severely over-thinking what needed to be nothing more than a lightweight framework for lots of action and adventure.

Despite these huge misgivings about the story, the good really does outweigh the bad here.  As I said at the beginning, I have felt very conflicted about the movie and I think this review probably reflects that.  Looking back at what I wrote, the first half reads a lot like a rave review and the second half reads like a pan.  I think that does basically reflect the two sides to the movie itself, but what is good is so good that I would have hated to miss it.  For me, I think it boils down to being glad that we got one more Indiana Jones film after all these years while also feeling like it was something of a missed opportunity.