Archive for the ‘Steven Spielberg’ Category

Soundtrack Collection: Cohen & Tate to The Commitments

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Cohen & Tate

Cohen & Tate (Bill Conti, 1988): Intrada very recently released a CD containing the first ever album release of Bill Conti’s score to this late 80s Roy Scheider thriller.  It is a surprisingly dark and aggressive score for Conti and isn’t immediately recognizable as his work.  It is an effective score and an interesting look at a different side to a popular composer.

The score is dominated by some very aggressively low piano music, which generally serves as the primary theme for the score.  Harsh strings and some very deep brass, particularly French horn, additionally build upon the foreboding atmosphere that is established by the primary piano music.  Much of the score is fairly dissonant and non-melodic, instead going for more of a rhythmic approach.  There are some exceptions where Conti does introduce more melodic elements, such as a fairly cold, but definitely melodic theme that is particularly clearly established in the cue “Tail Lights”.

The later part of the score includes some pretty intense action music, with percussion joining the deep piano and strings to create some aggressively fast-paced, very rhythmic music.  The short cue “It’s Really Them” is one of the first really strong examples of this aspect to the score and this approach is further developed impressively in the cue “Kaboom”.  In the end, all of the different elements of the score come together in the fairly impressive “The Last Battle” cue.

The Color Purple

The Color Purple (Quincy Jones, 1985): To date, The Color Purple remains the only full-length theatrical movie directed by Steven Spielberg that did not contain a score by John Williams.  Before Spielberg joined the project, Quincy Jones was already attached as a producer and wished to score the film as well.  Jones, working with a fairly large team of co-composers and orchestrators, delivered a score that fit the film exceptionally well and also plays quite well on CD.

The primary theme to the score is a beautiful melody that seems to be inspired by Georges Delerue.  In fact, the theme is perhaps a bit uncomfortably close to Delerue’s main theme from the 1967 film Our Mother’s House.  Despite this similarity, it is still an exceptionally nice theme that works extremely well in the film and the score.  The theme is initially introduced as primarily a flute melody, but is developed into more fully orchestral versions.  Much of the score has a pretty distinctively rural quality to it, particularly emphasized by the occasional use of harmonica.

The score also occasionally introduces some other ethnic elements, most significantly some African rhythms, starting with the cue “High Life/Proud Theme”.  Jones and his team are particularly effective at blending some of the score’s melodic themes with these African rhythms in order to retain a cohesiveness to the score.  This ethnicity is most impressively featured in the very powerful cue “Celie Shaves Mr./Scarifiaction Ceremony” which underscores one of the film’s most intense sequences. 

Songs play a key role in the film as well due to one of the key characters, dubbed by singer Tata Vega, being a singer in a 1930s juke joint.   The most important of these is the very distinctive, jazzy song “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” which actually opens the soundtrack album (as the first part of the “Overture” cue) and then is given a complete performance later.  Vega also performs the songs “Careless Love”, “The Dirty Dozens” and leads a choir in the lively gospel song “Maybe God Is Trying to Tell You Something”. 

Back in 1985, a 2-LP soundtrack album was released that was pressed on rather striking purple vinyl.  The same program was eventually released on a 2-CD set that still remains in print and readily available.

Coma

Coma (Jerry Goldsmith, 1978): Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Michael Crichton’s 1978 medical thriller Coma was generally one of the composer’s more dark and challenging scores of that era of his career.    The score somewhat straddles the line between the more atonal approach that Goldsmith sometimes took during the 1970s and the more melodic approach that dominated his later scores.

A distinguishing element of this score was that Goldsmith composed it using a limited orchestra, principally featuring piano, strings, and percussion as well as some occasional electronics.  Brass is entirely absent from the score.  The result is a score that has a sort of compressed, vaguely oppressive tone, reflecting the overall mood of the film itself.

While much of the score is fairly non-melodic and atonal, Goldsmith does provide a melodic, somewhat pop-inspired love theme that is only used very sparingly.  The theme is given a full performance in the cue “Cape Cod Weekend (Love Theme from Coma), but is rarely re-visited within the main parts of the score.  The expanded soundtrack ends with a song entitled “Sunday’s Moon” which adds lyrics by Goldsmith’s wife Caroline to the theme.

A 35-minute soundtrack album was released on LP at the time of the movie’s release and has been re-issued twice on CD, once by the now-defunct Bay Cities label and also by the Chapter III label, which paired it with Goldsmith’s score to Logan’s Run.  Most recently, Film Score Monthly released an expanded, 51 minute (including bonus tracks) program of the score as part of a 2-disc set that also included scores from two other Michael Crichton movies, Westworld and The Carey Treatment.  That release is still available.

All of the soundtrack releases have included an additional disco instrumental entitled “Disco Strut”, written by Don Peake.  This cue is pretty much exactly what you would expect from a cue by that title and is definitely a product of its era.  The soundtracks also include a disco version of Goldsmith’s love theme, which benefits from the strong source melody, but still is rather dated.

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Soundtrack Collection: The Clearing to Cocoon

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

The Clearing

The Clearing (Craig Armstrong, 2004): As I know little about the film, it is fairly unlikely that I would have bought this soundtrack myself. It is one of several that I was given by a friend who works at the movie studio and it is a pretty good score.  My only previous familiarity with Craig Armstrong was mainly through his projects with Baz Luhrmann, which tended to be pretty song-oriented.  It is interesting hearing a more full score.

Much of the score has a very dark and moody quality.  The opening cue is a solo violin presentation of the score’s main theme.  This kind of low-key presentation of the theme establishes a pretty distinctive mood right at the start.  The theme is a fairly simple motif, built around a fairly simple 8 note melody with the first 3 notes repeated.  This motif is woven throughout the score, often either via the solo violin or via piano (including a stand-alone solo piano cue of the theme). The soundtrack ends with a full orchestral arrangement.

Armstrong includes some electronic elements as well, introducing a bit of a modern style to some parts of the score.  The early cue “Arnold On His Way” especially showcases this aspect of the music and comes as a somewhat interesting shift in tone after the moody, more classical instrumentals of the first couple cues.

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger (Trevor Jones, 1993): Trever Jones’ Cliffhanger is one of my favorite action scores of the early 1990s and it comes from what I think was probably the most purely entertaining action film of Sylvester Stallone’s career.  I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that Jones didn’t make a bigger name for himself as an action composer.

The score is built around an absolutely thrilling main theme.  The theme is built around a series of very brassy fanfares backed by some absolutely soaring strings.  This is one of those themes that really sticks in your mind after listening to the album or seeing the film.  The opening cue of the album is a terrific concert arrangement of the theme.  It may have played over the main title, although I don’t recall for sure.  Either way, it gets the album off to a rousing start while firmly establishing the score’s primary musical voice right from the beginning.

Stallone’s action movies often tended to have something of a brooding quality to them and Jones’ score does reflect this with some cues that are fairly moody.  This is pretty effective scoring, with Jones retaining a melodic quality that never strays excessively far from the style of the main theme.  This helps to keep the darker side of the score from becoming oppressive and also retains a cohesive sound to it.

One thing that might be a tad surprising about the score is that it doesn’t have a lot of extremely high-adrenaline action music.  It isn’t completely absent, of course, but even some of the core action cues like “Bats” or “Helicopter Fight” still stay very anchored in melody and are a bit heavier on tension and mood than on what you might usually expect for a big-budget action movie.  When more actively percussive music comes into play, it tends to be particularly effective due to its fairly sparing use.

Cloak & Dagger

Cloak & Dagger (Brian May, 1984): I haven’t seen it for years, but this was a movie that I especially enjoyed when it first came out.  I was 15 years old and already a definite computer/video game nerd by then, so the film connected with me pretty well.  What I don’t remember was ever really thinking too much about the music in the movie, particularly since there was no soundtrack released.   Intrada released Brian May’s score for the first time earlier this year and I found the music to have a certain familiarity, although not as much as I might have expected from a film that I saw a number of times back when it was reasonably new.

May provided a pretty charming adventure score for the film.  It is a fully orchestral score with a somewhat old-fashioned sound.  Considering the computer and video game theme to the film, it is actually a bit surprising that the score is so traditional and lacking in electronic elements.  The score is dominated by some very active string and piano melodies, with occasional militaristic brass and percussion brought into some of the action sequences, including a pretty great march that appears occasionally during the score and then gets a full performance in the end credits cue.  Gentle woodwinds often accompany piano during the more quiet parts of the score.

The score is very energetic and fast paced, although it is somewhat limited in thematic elements.  May does introduce a very short primary motif that serves as something of a main theme for the score, but it isn’t one that is especially distinctive and, thus, probably not one that will stick in your mind too much after seeing the film or hearing the album.  In fact, this fairly minimalist main theme is probably the reason that I didn’t find the music exceptionally memorable based on multiple viewings of the film.  This isn’t necessarily a negative, though, as the music is pleasant to listen to and likely served the film well.

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Soundtrack Collection: Back to the Future trilogy

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Back to the Future Part II Back to the Future (score) Back to the Future Part III

The success of Back to the Future in 1985 came as something of a surprise.  The film had been a pretty troubled production, particularly since the lead actor had to be replaced a few weeks into shooting.  As the movie neared its release date, the low expectations started to be replaced by extremely positive reviews.  Once it opened, positive word of mouth propelled it to become the year’s top grossing film and it remains a true enduring classic from that era.

Several careers were boosted dramatically by the film.  Robert Zemeckis instantly became an A-list director and Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd both were transitioned from TV stars to movie stars.  The film also firmly established Steven Spielberg’s credibility and marketability as a producer on films he didn’t direct.  The film also became an important franchise for Universal, eventually spawning two sequels, an animated TV series, an attraction at the Universal Studios theme parks, and various merchandise tie-ins.

Alan Silvestri’s career as a film composer also received a major  boost from the film’s success.  He had previously had success as a composer for TV (particularly scoring many episodes of CHiPs) and had collaborated with Zemeckis for the first time on the previous year’s hit Romancing the Stone, but Back to the Future was the first time he really achieved widespread attention and acclaim. 

Even though the soundtrack album only had a small portion of his score (the whole score wouldn’t come out until nearly 25 years later), the main theme quickly became extremely recognizable and the sequels both received score-only soundtracks.  After Back to the Future, Silvestri has continued to work regularly on major film projects right up to the present, including every subsequent film that Robert Zemeckis has directed.

My collection includes the original song soundtrack that was released in 1985, the complete score collection released in 2009, both of the sequel soundtracks, and a Varese Sarabande re-recording of music from all three films.  After the break, I will discuss each of the albums in some detail.

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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. 

Indiana Jones Memories: Last Crusade

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Click here for my post on Raiders of the Lost Ark
Click here for my post on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The 5 years between the second and third Indiana Jones sequels were pretty eventful ones in my life, as is probably typical for the years between age 14 and 19.  In early 1985 (a little over 1/2 year after Temple of Doom came out), my family moved from Flint to Kenosha, Wisconsin.  My parents ended up making another move to Sandusky, Ohio just 3 years after that, although I was attending college in Milwaukee by that time.

We ended up all seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on opening day at a theater in Cleveland, so the movie’s opening day (the Wednesday before Memorial Day 1989) must have been shortly after I completed my sophomore year of college and returned to my parents’ home for summer vacation.  While there were a couple movie theaters in Sandusky at the time, they were generally older theaters and their presentation usually left a lot to be desired.  As it was only about a one hour drive to Cleveland, we quickly got into the habit of going there to see most movies.  My grandmother also lived in Cleveland at the time, so we were able to often combine a trip to the movies with a visit to see her as well.

I don’t remember the name of the specific theater where we saw the film, but we basically picked it out by looking in the paper for the closest theater that listed a 70mm 6-track presentation and Lucasfilm’s THX sound system, which had become pretty commonplace in larger cities by that time.  Our whole family (including my mother this time) got up fairly early to head into Cleveland for the first opening day matinee of the movie.  I’m not sure if there were any midnight showings of this one, but we did go to the first regularly scheduled showing at that theater.

Even with the show being fairly early in the day on a Wednesday, the theater was pretty full, although I don’t recall for sure if it was a completely sold-out show.  The most memorable audience moment actually came during the previews.  Just a couple minutes into them, the film broke and the lights came back up.  A few moments after that, someone in the theater started loudly humming the Raiders March.  It took only another moment or so until pretty much the entire audience had joined in.  I strongly suspect that this was considerably more frightening to the poor employee that was tasked with getting things up and running again than the more traditional audience taunts and complaints would have been.  Fortunately, they were able to get it fixed pretty quickly and the movie itself played through without interruption.

Last Crusade is a very good film with some considerable strengths.  Sean Connery is absolutely great as Indy’s father and he and Harrison Ford played off each other wonderfully.  It was also nice seeing Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies reprise their roles from the first film and, of course, the action sequences and big set pieces were as much fun as ever.  I can easily understand why most people seem to prefer this one to Temple of Doom and some even consider it to be the best of the original three movies.

For a couple reasons, though, it is pretty solidly in third place for me.  While Temple of Doom was able to genuinely surprise me by going off in a different direction in setting and style compared to its predecessor, Last Crusade instead repeated a lot of key elements from Raiders pretty directly, whether it be the reuse of the Nazis as the key villains, the quest for another famous Christian religious icon, or even the use of some very similar settings and locations.  I couldn’t help but feel like Lucas and Spielberg took the complaints about Temple of Doom too much to heart and responded by largely reworking Raiders for the third film.

I also can’t help but think that the difference in my memories of the films are somewhat reflective of the different viewpoints of an 11-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 19-year-old.  By the time Last Crusade came out, I was a pretty avid moviegoer that was seeing a pretty wide variety of movies of many different styles and genres.  As excited as I was about seeing this one, I doubt I was quite as receptive to it as I was when I was younger.  I do recall still seeing the film a few times over the course of that summer, but I don’t think it was more than a handful.  Even taking into account home video, I have a hunch that I still probably haven’t seen Last Crusade as many times in total as I saw Raiders in the theater during its first year of release.

With that in mind, I’m very excited to go see an opening-night showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tomorrow night, but I also can’t help but wonder exactly how I am going to respond to one of these movies now that I’m 38-years-old, married, and a father.  There is a good chance I’ll write a review of the movie over the next couple days, but I suspect I won’t really have enough distance to write another one of these "memories" articles about it for quite a few years.