Monday, 17 March 2014

10 Scores that are better than the Movie

This is an idea that's been brewing for some time now.  I listen to soundtracks more than anything else, and I'd noticed how quite a few of the ones I really like are from films that aren't considered that great.  I couldn't initially think of 10 movies, I think I only got as far as 8; but thanks to the wonders of social media I was helped by others.  So, many thanks to +Steve Nixon +Jaina Mistry +Daniel Silva +Josh Murphy +Valerie J +Benjamin L. Harris and +Alain Kemp for their help, ideas and discussion.

So here is my final list.  Maybe you agree with me, maybe you think I've missed some howlers, or (more likely) you think I'm being unduly harsh on Up!  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

For those on Spotify, the playlist of all these scores is here.

So, in no particular order:

TRON: Legacy (2010)
The Film:
Practically a re-run of the original 1982 movie, Legacy is surprisingly stale given the potential for excellent effects and Jeff Bridges; but Bridges is kinda cancelled out by Garrett Hedlund who is clearly trying to be as dynamic as Sam Worthington.  Great fun perhaps, but an unnecessary remake/reboot.

The Score:
Daft Punk's thumping soundtrack is definitely the best part of the film: brilliantly complimentary to the digital world of The Grid and loud!  My go to album of choice if I need to wake up.

The Wolfman (2010)
The Film:
Style over substance is the order of the day in Joe Johnston's version of a classic story where the effects are great but the characters are generally bored.

The Score:
Though I'm not generally a fan of Danny Elfman, his score here is very atmospheric and combines with the great Gothic design of the the film to give a lasting impression; shame the rest of the film doesn't.

Pearl Harbour (2001)
The Film:
A typical Michael Bay overblown stodgy mess of a film full of characters no-one cares about.  The film features a couple of dramatic set pieces strung together with lots of boring nothingness.

The Score:
Hans Zimmer has composed some of my favourite scores, Gladiator got me into orchestral soundtracks.  Even for a turkey the size of Pearl Harbour, Hans manages to rise above it and create a sense of longing and loss that Michael Bay could only dream of.

Transformers (2007)
The Film:
Another Michael Bay film on the list, but actually this is rather a guilty pleasure of mine.  For all the appalling failings of the next two films, Transformers actually has (I think) moments of style, and a main character that we can get on with.  I freely admit that this isn't a great film, I just think it's hugely enjoyable.

The Score:
For all I enjoy this film, I like the score even more and I listen to it a lot.  Without a weak track Steve Jablonsky's score is rousing, full of excellent themes and generally fantastic.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
The Film
An over-bloated over-storied and overly-complicated entry into the POTC series, but at least Geoffrey Rush was back in it.  There are a few nice moments in it, and it's kinda fun if you ignore all the ridiculous crosses and double crosses, but overall the film is just a big mess.

The Score
The second Hans Zimmer score on this list, and he again proves that sub-par movies are no obstacle to a composer of his talent.  There are many tunes on this soundtrack that are great, but Up is Down is brilliant and is also rather a fun part of the film.

UP (2009)
The Film
Now I know that lots of people really like this film, but it just did my head in.  Other than the first 20 heartbreaking minutes, I just found the whole thing daft and unnecessary.  So essentially from the point when Russell turns up, the film just becomes completely un-entertaining and downright annoying.

The Score
Michael Giacchino's score however is elegant, moving and perfectly uplifting.  Indeed the piece that I've picked as representative, encapsulates the best part of the film.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
The Film
What can I say that hasn't already been said about The Phantom Menace?  Jake Lloyd, Jar Jar Binks and Ewan McGregor's plummy accent.  Rather than Death Stars, asteroid chases and AT-ATs we are treated to politics, trade negotiations and Darth Vader shouting Yippee!  It's a good Sci-fi film (with an amazing light sabre fight), it's just not a good Star Wars film.

The Score
John Williams rarely disappoints, and the score to The Phantom Menace is no different.  Perhaps not as amazing as his Empire Strikes Back score, but ranging from the military themes of the Droid army and some great fanfares to the dramatic Duel of Fates this score is nonetheless very good.

Clash of the Titans (2010)
The Film
Rushed out with post-production 3D in the wake of Avatar's successes, this is a real train wreck of a film.  Confusing, headache - inducing 3D (at one point I took my comedy glasses off to massage my sore head and realised that the glasses were making no difference to the image) and featuring personality vacuum himself; Sam Worthington.  A truly bad film.

The Score
From the man who gave us the brilliant score for Game of Thrones, Ramin Djawadi has composed another top notch soundtrack to this abomination.  There are plenty of dramatic themes as well as a few surprisingly thumping tunes too.  Listening to it, I almost want to see the film again, but not quite.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
The Film
Starts out promisingly, but by the time Logan escapes following his adamantium treatment, the film degenerates into inconsistent contrivance and farce.

The Score
Harry Gregson-Williams score is a fairly dramatic affair (unlike the movie) with some great themes and a real cinematic feel to it.

Man of Steel (2013)
The Film
Possibly the biggest disappointment of 2013, I was looking forward to seeing Snyder's interpretation, but instead of a Superman we got a morally questionable weapon of mass destruction.  A completely preventable Jonathan Kent death and a pointless Lois Lane completed a completely mediocre unnecessary film.

The Score
The third and final Hans Zimmer entry on this list, and another cracker.  Clearly the usual Superman themes were given a wide berth, and the score is all the better for it.  Where John Willams originally went for a score as iconic as the character himself, Zimmer went for real power and the result is quite tremendous.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Hammer’s seminal Frankenstein movie is just as much a departure from Mary Shelly’s novel as the Universal “classic”, but for me it doesn’t grate half as much.  That’s not to say there aren’t departures from the text or silly points in the plot, but at least there are no huge leaps or ridiculous name changes, and it starts with the right idea of Victor telling someone about his terrible deeds.

At the heart of it all is a, yet again, superb Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein; and in particular his banter with Robert Urqhuart’s Paul Krempe is excellent.  Unfortunately Hazel Court’s Elizabeth is rather a wet fish; your usual Hammer damsel, rather than the relatively strong character she should be.  Christopher Lee is good as the creature, though as he is silent (like Boris Karloff’s monster), it’s hard to fully appreciate him.  Strangely when we first see the creature, he looks more like Al Pacino than Christopher Lee!  Even the young Frankenstein (not the Gene Wilder one; he actually looks a bit like Armando Ianucci) is actually very entertaining, it’s a shame there isn’t more of him.

The Curse of Frankenstein is very well paced, packing in enough plot while still allowing Cushing and Lee to chew the scenery (if a mute part can chew scenery).  While not the whole story and not a patch on Danny Boyle’s stage production, Hammer’s version is very entertaining and very watchable thanks to the strong main cast.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Running Man (1987)

The Running Man is a brilliantly 80s take on America's addiction to TV, so it's somewhat appropriate that it's directed by a TV star: Dave Starsky from Starsky and Hutch.  Paul Michael Glaser has made quite a daft film, with a definite Paul Verhoeven vibe, but is none the less great fun.  Preceding the likes of Battle Royale (2000) and The Hunger Games (2012), The Running Man is a gameshow (the world’s most popular TV programme) rather like Gladiators, except with more fatalities.

Originally penned by Stephen King, and adapted for the screen by Steven E. de Souza (Commando and Die Hard), the movie actually has more going on than you might expect; though I’m not sure how faithful the film is to King’s source material.  In a world of increased crime & violence, the government sees no option but to fight fire with fire, cracking down on criminality with belligerent and enthusiastic ruthlessness.  Of course they don’t care how many innocents are shot as long as they get their man; collateral damage eh?  As well as the more obvious sideswipe at The United States of Television, the totalitarian state also does a mean job in re-writing history a la 1984.  Naturally the media is crucial in enforcing this pseudo-reality so that the general public swallow everything.

Arnie is Arnie; a great action hero with some typically cringeworthy kiss off lines and lots of running.  Yaphet Koto is rather wasted as Arnie's friend who predictably gets thrown into the arena and suffers.  Maria Conchita Alonso is functional enough as the victim turn heroine/love interest, but the most interesting character is the TV presenter Damon Killian.  As presenter of the TV show The Running Man, he is smarmy, arrogant and convinced he is in the right, giving the people what they want.  Personified perfectly by Richard Dawson he really is what the film is worth watching for.  That and some cameos by Jesse Ventura, and bizarrely Mick Fleetwood and Dweezel Zappa!

By no means a fantastic film, but enough going on under the surface to prevent it from being completely brainless.  Apart from KIllian, the characters are all predictable and could be copy/pasted from any number of 80s actioners, but then that’s the joy of 80s Arnie, isn’t it?  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Priest (2011)

Historically Scott Stewart is more involved with visual effects as a cofounder of The Orphanage (credits include Sin City (2005); Pirates of the Caribbean (2006 & 2007) and Iron Man (2008)), but increasingly he is spending time in the director’s chair.  Priest is his third feature film and is very loosely based on the graphic novels written by Hyung Min-Woo.  Not the first film to be based on a graphic novel by any stretch, and I'm sure it won't be the last.  However, it is one of the few movies that I can think of that actually features a cartoon; Hellboy 2 being another obvious example.

The exposition cartoon at the beginning is very stylish, very cool and gave me hope that the rest of the film would be similarly stylised, and perhaps to an extent it was; but for all the great ideas, the movie is disappointingly flat.  It essentially boils down to a revenge movie of sorts, but it could have been so much more.  What saves it from being dreadful are the technical achievements.  I really liked the harsh, high contrast of the badlands which were reminiscent of Pitch Black (2000) and generally the cinematography by frequent Robert Zemeckis collaborator Don Burgess is great (also responsible for lensing the harsh look of The Book of Eli (2010)).  I also liked the idea that the vampires were a race themselves and didn't just suck blood of of their prey, they tore them apart!

Paul Bettany was fine, as was Cam Gigandet.  Christopher Plummer and Alan Dale both phone in their cameo performances.  As did Karl Urban, but his character just reminded me of Rattlesnake Jake from Rango!  Some great ideas (the premise is more interesting than the source material sounds!), I just think that the film falls short of what it aimed to be.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

If only...

Friday, 7 February 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Having had to go all the way to Glasgow to fast track my passport renewal, I ended up with 3 hours to kill.  At least that's my excuse for going to see such an amazingly average film.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was the only film that would really allow me to get to my train home on time.  Jack Ryan has previously been played by 3 actors, (though to be honest I can't remember Ben Affleck's portrayal) and now it's Chris Pine's turn to bring whatever he brings to the role.

The story is concerned with Ryan's beginnings and his first mission to prevent a national economic disaster precipitated by a terrorist attack on New York.  The plot is methodical, ponderous and predictable; nothing inventive at all.  Chris Pine is fine, Keira Knightley isn't sprightly and Kenneth Branagh, erm doesn't rhyme with anything other than spanner, but he's OK, just not a villain really (and has no lips!).  Crinkly faced Kevin Costner was the best thing, but that's rather like saying a ray of sunshine is the best thing on a rainy day.

The film was full of fast edits contrasting with several steady cam moments; which was presumably a conscious decision by Branagh, who was behind the camera as well as in front of it.  Otherwise nothing stood out in this film to analyse at all.  A barely passable way to waste some time in Glasgow.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Over the past couple of years I’ve managed to increase (albeit only slightly) the number of silent movies I’ve seen.  For the most part I’ve loved them, both Metropolis and Nosferatu were magnificent as was The Artist; and while I appreciated the impact and relevance of Battleship Potemkin I really didn’t get on with it.  However, despite Buster Keaton being quite a legend of silent cinema, I’ve never seen any of his films.  Until now.  Many thanks to Tom over at At The Back for mentioning this gem in his “Top ten ‘New to Me’ Films of 2013”; and also thanks to the internets for being able to watch this for free!

Made in the middle of Keaton’s “golden era” between 1920 and 1929 (though actually his 22nd of 31 films in that time!), Sherlock Jr. is the story of a theatre projectionist who is framed for a very minor theft.  While he is in the projection booth that evening his mind starts to wander and he imagines himself as super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes solving the mystery of some stolen pearls.

This sounds relatively mundane, but therein lies Keaton’s genius.  The short (only 45 min) film contains so many inventive gags that despite seeing this 90 years later I was still surprised and laughed out loud.  Often a joke would start off as fairly routine only for there to be a sudden unexpected twist, leaving the viewer giggling and admiring the downright creativity of it all.  Naturally, being a silent movie, all the jokes are slapstick; not your custard pie in the face humour; but slick, perfectly choreographed and clever visual jokes.  All his escapades are carried out with the same deadpan face (a trademark of Buster Keaton), with perfect timing and seemingly with a cavalier disregard for his own safety.  Apparently during a particular scene involving a water tower at a railway stop, he broke his neck, but only realised later on!

Perfectly judged slapstick comedy, I thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock Jr., and I want to see more Buster Keaton films sooner rather than later. But, well, you know, don’t just take like, er, my opinion man. Watch it yourself here:

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Stormbreaker (2006)

Based on the novel of the same name, Stormbreaker is an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's teen espionage thriller.  School kid Alex Rider (Alex Pettyfer) still coming to terms with the sudden death of his uncle, is thrown into his secret spy world, and trains (very briefly) to become an agent himself in a bid to track down the killers.

The premise is interesting enough; helped by a star-studded cast (as well as Jimmy Carr) and some well designed scenes by director Geoffrey Sax, the movie begins strongly enough.  Unfortunately it doesn't sustain, and by the time Alex has picked up his Bond gadgets from his Q (Smithers; a trying-too-hard-to-be-like-Desmond-Llewelyn Stephen Fry), the film has become predictable and stale.  Plot points are set up to give an obvious payout/henchman comeuppance, and even the eccentric Mickey Rourke doesn't impress as the villain of the piece.  Alex Pettyfer is fine as Alex Rider, nothing spectacular; it is really only Bill Nighy as Alan Blunt (head of MI6) and Damian Lewis as mercenary for hire Yassen Gregorovic, who save the film, the other members of the supporting cast are shamefully wasted.

There is a whole series of Alex Rider books, so I’m sure all involved in the movie were sure they were onto the next big franchise cash cow; except that Stormbreaker was so brazenly average, that no other films were ever mooted.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Cosmopolis (2012)

What was that all about?

I’m afraid that this was just lost on me.  Body horror virtuoso David Cronenberg (Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), and Existenz (1999)) directs an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.  Following 28 year-old billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) across town in his luxury limo just so that he can get a haircut (encountering his new wife, riots, a terrorist threat, sexual encounters with other women and horrendous traffic due to a Presidential visit) the film is generally concerned with the perils of capitalism (I think), but I just didn’t get it.  A lot of the dialogue was really mumbled, and without subtitles on I really would not have had a clue what Pattinson was talking to Paul Giamatti about.  The narrative was really confusing; I thought at the time that the story was very non-linear, but by the end I realised this not to be the case and everything was just very disjointed.  

The one thing I did enjoy about this film was Robert Pattinson.  I’ve only seen him before in Twiglet and Harry Potter but this shows that he has the chops to carry a serious (if random) film.  Actually there was a second thing I enjoyed, the design of the limo and the way the sense of space inside was created was cool, as was the lighting by regular Cronenberg collaborator, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (Existenz, A History of Violence, Crash and even The Empire Strikes Back).  Speaking of previous collaborators, Howard Shore composed the music, but to be honest I hardly noticed any music in the film.  Confusing, boring, aimless and hard going, I really didn’t get on with Cosmopolis, though at least Pattinson was good.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Dracula (1958)

Having previously been disappointed with Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) I was very keen to see Terence Fisher's vision starring a young Christopher Lee and a slightly less young Peter Cushing.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Where Lugosi's Prince of Darkness has designs on moving to London (and Mina's "beautiful neck"), writer Jimmy Sangster shuns Stoker's source material to a degree and crafts a story similar to Nosferatu in that all the action takes place in Germany (Karlstadt, only a few hours coach drive from Castle Dracula).  The familiar names are all there, but the relationships have often changed. Jonathan Harker is engaged to Lucy, who is Arthur's sister and Mina is Arthur's wife!  Dracula and Van Helsing are of course the same, but despite all these changes they do not grate the same way it did in Frankenstein (1931).

It goes without saying that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are fantastic.  Despite Dracula being one of the roles most synonymous with Lee, this is actually his 33rd film (I think) which is fairly incredible!  Where Lugosi was enigmatic and stilted, Lee is charismatic and full of energy; his Dracula is very active and physical which leads to a very dynamic movie as he desperately tries to stop Van Helsing.  Lee actually says very little.  Beyond welcoming Jonathan Harker to his castle and getting him settled in, he doesn’t actually say anything.  Which surprises me more that apparently he refused to say any lines in the script for Dracula: Prince of Darkness, as his Dracula is hardly verbose anyway.

Of course, where Lee is very physical, Cushing can match it.  Despite him looking not too far off Grand Moff Tarkin age, he is able to mix it with Lee in running around the excellent Gothic sets and fighting him off for a dramatic climax.  That’s not to say he is just “knees-bent running around”, most of the time he is the perfect Van Helsing using brain rather than brawn and displaying the same cold logic that he portrayed so well in Frankenstein Created Woman.  An honourable mention should go to Michael Gough (will later be Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman films) who plays Arthur; he fits his story arc perfectly as a grieving family man who comes to realise the horror (slowly) of the situation and is then determined to protect those he loves.

I've already mentioned the Gothic sets, which are brilliantly created by production designer Bernard Robinson, who will become a Hammer Horror regular, working on the classics as well as Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Plague of Zombies, The Reptile and Rasputin: The Mad Monk to name a few.  Actually some of those were filmed back to back on the same sets; so he knew how to save some pennies too!  Terence Fisher’s direction is smooth and accomplished.  He seems to favour fluid tracking shots across a room, moving past pillars, columns and such like.  This way he shows off the great sets and creates a sense of scale that a static camera wouldn’t do; as well as mirroring the dynamic performances from the two main leads.

One of the happiest improvements over 1931 Dracula, is the moment Van Helsing explains that Dracula's ability to change into a bat or a wolf is a myth.  So no stupid rubber bats, or even armadillos (I'm still not sure why there were armadillos!) which instantly enhances the film’s credibility.  Great performances, smooth direction, smart story and wonderful sets.  I really enjoyed Dracula.  Now I’m looking forward to Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Wanted (2008)

In a post-Matrix post-300 world, Nochnoy Dozor writer/director Timur Bekmambetov brings us a flash, funky, duplicitous tale of assassins, family values and curving bullets.  Yup, you heard that right; curving bullets!  Wesley (James McAvoy) is an average nobody in a dead end job, until someone tries to kill him in a supermarket and Fox (Angelina Jolie) suddenly appears to improvise a rescue.  Wesley soon learns that he has a historical connection to the "Brotherhood" of assassins to which Fox belongs.

When Wesley's world is turned upside down James McAvoy immediately turns the air blue and I feared he wasn't going to be right for the role at all.  However, he soon settles down and was actually pretty good.  Whether the fact that he is the best thing in a film that stars Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp and Angelina Jolie is because he’s a better actor or because the others don’t bring their "A" game is probably obvious, though McAvoy does prove he can mix it with some of the best.

Released in the same year as (the inferior) Max Payne, Wanted has more of a resemblance to the Matrix-inspired computer game (2001) than the Wachowski Brother's game changer itself.  This is not as bad as it sounds; it means that some logic is given for the assassins' ability to slow time down and make a single fatal shot at an otherwise impossible angle; and since Mitchell Arundel is DOP (Transformers, Mission Impossible III and Ghost Protocol) it looks pretty cool too.  However, because there have been other films with slow-mo effects, Wanted doesn’t really do anything new, which lets it down and left me wanting more.  Having said that I found it entertaining enough to keep me awake to past 1 o'clock in the morning, which is saying something.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.