Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Edge Of Darkness by Howard Shore (Review)

For a while we didn’t see much of Howard Shore. He was off busy at work on the opera stage version of The Fly. For the past 3 years we hardly got any Shore at all. The Departed in 2006, The Last Mimzy and Eastern Promises in 2007 and Doubt in 2008. That was pretty much it.

Shore now returns to his true form with Edge Of Darkness for Martin Campbell. Edge Of Darkness was exactly what I was expecting. It’s pure vintage Howard Shore that calls back on his masterful work for Fincher with Se7en and Panic Room. Brooding and somber strings that provide wall to wall sound make up the bulk of the score. His signature low end brass adds variation to the structure. Shore throws in some high pitch violin screeches now and then to climax certain cues. They are hair raising to say the least and the first one caught me off guard and gave me quite the chill.

While most of the music is pretty much bubbling tension there are moments of gentle emotion that peek out. The score is harsh in its mood but is not aggressive in its approach. Like I said before it’s bubbling tension. It reaches a full boil but never splashes over the edge of the pot. The score is well contained and focused. There is nothing complex about Shore’s approach to this sort of material. If you’ve seen Se7en and Panic Room then you know what I’m talking about. That being said this is old ground that has been well covered. There isn’t anything fresh nor any moments that stand out. Shore’s scores usually don’t make the best solo listening experiences, but that shouldn’t deter you from checking this one out. The score is very atmospheric rather than thematic and it succeeds in mounting tension till it erupts.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Road by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis (Review)

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis continue their collaboration with director John Hillcoat. Those familiar with their sound know just how amazing they are. Subtle and simple melodies echo powerful emotions through their scores. You won’t find a 70 piece orchestra here. Their most notable scores are The Proposition and the masterpiece that is The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.

The Road is the most recent Cormac McCarthy novel adaptation. A haunting and harrowing look into human nature in a post apocalyptic world. It contains everything of the genre but is presented in a much more quieter way. This is not Mad Max. The main theme is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Satie in that it’s a minimalist piano tune. Of course it’s backed by that signature violin that has become the Cave & Ellis sound. Tracks like “The Road” and “The Mother” have a nurturing and hopeful tone, and that sets up our main characters on their journey. Within the score you will also find some terrifying music; atmospheric horror that will make your tear up, put a knot in your stomach and tingle your spine. If I had to compare the style it would be to Akira Yamaoka’s work on the Silent Hill franchise. “The House” and “The Cellar” are quite unsettling tracks to listen to and even more so if you’ve seen the film. While the score plunges into a hellish nightmare at times it resurfaces back to that nurturing beauty towards the end.

This is an amazing score. It is nothing short of brilliant and stands up with their previous work as something all film enthusiasts should take note of. While it may be less thematic and more atmospheric than their previous work it doesn’t change the fact that this score will emotionally move and stir you in a profound way.

La Virgen Negra by Elik Álvarez (Review)

Venezuelan composer Elik Álvarez composes his first noteworthy score with La Virgen Negra. I love being introduced to new talents, new sounds and fresh approaches which is exactly what I got with La Virgen Negra. Don’t get me wrong, I love that a composer can be an auteur just like a director where you can pick out similarities within the body of their work, but let’s face it sometimes you want something new.

La Virgen Negra is a romantic fantasy and the score echoes that. It carries a mystical atmosphere that suggests curiosity and the unknown. Right off the bat we get an established tone and Álvarez keeps that up. The tone gradually changes as we plunge deeper and deeper into the story. While the score is influenced by Álvarez’s background and nationality it’s not so much traditional in that sense. The guitar plays a heavy solo role in the score but beautiful strings fill in the rest of the space. Renowned vocalist Lisbeth Scott provides the vocals to the score. In some tracks it’s more subtle and in others her voice carries the music more in a Lisa Gerrard way rather than a song with lyrics way. If I had to pick a score to compare this one to (which I usually don’t like doing) it would have to be Ramin Djawadi and Heitor Pereira’s score to Ask The Dust. It’s the only recent score in my memory that is heavily influenced by a hispanic sound yet as the modern feel backed with strings.

If a score cannot stand apart from the film then in my opinion it’s a bad score. This score stands apart from the film and is a fantastic solo listening experience. There are some great new talents emerging that understand this like Jeff Grace and his score for The Last Winter. There are also some new talents that don’t such as Atticus Ross’ score for The Book Of Eli. Scores that can carry an emotional story without the images of the film is that much stronger when placed within the context of the film. Álvarez accomplishes this with La Virgen Negra, which is a great score and highly recommended. It can be found on iTunes and Amazon MP3 as a digital download.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The 10 Most Influential Film Composers Of The Decade

Music, it’s what breathes life into a film. Music lets us into the inner workings of the character, it transports us to places we’ve never been and it paints a sonic landscape for our emotions. The composer holds this power and responsibility. As a filmmaker myself this is where I find all my inspiration. In the music.

Over the past decade we saw some amazing films, and in retrospect it was the composers that made them amazing. With 2010 here I wanted to look back at who I thought were the 10 most influential film composers of the decade. This is in my mind a measure of the impact they made with their music in the past decade (2000 - 2010).

10. John Powell: John Powell’s first film score was Face/Off, which he did under the supervision of Hans Zimmer. The British composer slowly found his voice and today is one of the most prolific talents working in the industry. His sound is unmistakable. Rythmic percussion pulses through his scores with a signature descending note progression. In the past 10 years he brought Jason Bourne his memory back, he showed us the terror of what it felt like to be on flight United 93, and he worked hard for 4 years to show us that penguins can not only sing but dance too. He is also without a doubt the king of animation. He helped Hans take us on The Road To El Dorado and showed us that a Panda can learn Kung Fu. He helped Harry introduce us to a green ogre who lives Far Far Away and showed us that chickens don’t want to be pies. He brought to life a Wooly Mammoth that sounded a lot like Ray Romano, helped Horton when he heard a Who, and took us on a journey that just reinforced that Robin Williams is just as loud when he’s an animated robot. John Powell has made his mark and with a huge slate for 2010 (Green Zone, Knight And Day, How To Train Your Dragon, Jonah Hex) here’s looking forward to the decade to come.

9. Nick Cave (and Warren Ellis): Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are two co-composers who emerged late in the decade. Cave and Ellis obviously had prior fame with the band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. However it was with The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford that the two musicians left an unforgettable mark in cinema. Their score is as heart wrenching as it is beautiful. It shows us that we don’t need lush orchestras and loud music. Small and simple melodies echo powerful emotions very similarly to their scores for The Proposition and The Road. The future will hold great things for these brilliant composers.

8. Akira Yamaoka: If you don’t play video games then you won’t know who this unique Japanese composer is. Yamaoka is single handedly responsible for scoring some of the most disturbing and hair raising atmospheric scores of the past decade, and they can all be found in the games of the Silent Hill franchise. He’ll contrast guitar based tunes in some tracks with bizarre sounds in others. Electronic tones working in horrendous harmony will give you nightmares for quite some time. The scores are a stronger experience in the game as they lose any structure when listened to as a standalone experience. However, Yamaoka started a genre and started an unmistakable sound that has riveted gamers over the past decade. The games are horror masterpieces and are never to be judged based off the terrible film adaptation.

7. Alexandre Desplat: A French composer who is now one of the most sought after talents in Hollywood. Desplat’s sound is unique and he approaches each score with a sensibility and gentleness that is hard to describe in words. I wasn’t a fan of his earlier American scores but in the past couple of years his music has won me over. His score for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is a wonder to be heard. His score for Fantastic Mr. Fox is brilliance. Desplat replaced James Newton Howard on Terrence Malick’s next film so that’s something to take notice of.

6. James Horner: With John Williams doing less and less work James Horner is becoming one of the last great orchestral composers working today. His scores for The Perfect Storm, A Beautiful Mind and The New World (what was left of it in the film anyway) are brilliant. His sound continues to be a trademark and is unmistakable. Very few composers can do what he can. It’s true that until Avatar the past couple of years have been subpar for him. However, his score for The Perfect Storm alone puts him on this list because of how iconic the sound is with the film.

5. Harry Gregson-Williams: Before Harry met Hans Zimmer he had never used a computer. Today Harry is THE best electronic composer working today. His versatility allows him to switch from his hardcore electronic sounds to lush and grand orchestrations to quiet piano based themes. He has an ongoing collaboration with Tony Scott and Harry’s sound has become synonymous with Tony’s chaotic and fast paced visuals. In 2005 he composed the score to Kingdom Of Heaven, which is undoubtedly his best work to date. Gone Baby Gone is another small masterpiece that is as beautiful as it is tragic. Harry is responsible for all the Shrek films as well as the first two Narnia films. Unfortunately since a new director has taken over that franchise Harry won’t be back for the third film. Harry is also responsible for scoring the Metal Gear Solid video game franchise (2, 3 & 4), which is a brilliant demonstration of how his sound has affected that genre of storytelling. The man had enough of a sense of humor to spoof his (and Hans Zimmer’s) style with his score for Team America: World Police. Harry also oversaw the score for Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with his collaborator Stephen Barton, which is one of the best selling games of all time.

4. John Williams: John Williams. King among kings. The man has left us a legacy like no other. Unarguably the best thematic composer of all time. His sound is solely his and no one else’s. While his workload is slowly tapering off he did compose some amazing work this decade. Munich is a masterpiece and I believe to be one of his best works. He also gave us Harry Potter, which is a theme that has echoed through the franchise long after he left it. We got to hear 2 more Star Wars scores this decade as well, which is something grand to behold. We also got another Indiana Jones score! While, he may not be THE definitive influential composer anymore his work is still something to behold and his contributions to the films we watch is unmatched.

3. Howard Shore: One composer to rule them all. His scores for all three Lord Of The Rings films will go down in history as some of the best scores ever composed. The themes are now iconic amongst our everyday lives. When you hear those 5 notes there is no mistaking it for anything else. He not only created a score he created a world. He brought Middle Earth to life. He gave the shire a history, he defined evil, he made us cry and hope that our heroes complete their journey. His work over the past decade is just as iconic. With films like High Fidelity, Panic Room, Gangs Of New York, The Departed, A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises and Doubt Shore had made his presence known. He is Scorsese’s go to composer if that means anything.

2. Michael Giacchino: I remember playing the first Medal Of Honor game in 1999 for Playstation. I remember holding the soundtrack and not knowing who he was but I remember liking the music. Giacchino got his start in video game music. His scores for the Medal Of Honor franchise are brilliant. He even composed the first Call Of Duty score. He forayed into television with J.J. Abrams and started off the series Alias. In 2004 Brad Bird hired him to score The Incredibles, and boy what an incredible score that turned out to be. A fusion of 60’s lounge music with that John Barry feel yet it felt completely original. It was that year that Giacchino did another TV show merely because J.J. Abrams asked him to. LOST exploded into a huge success. With the show Giacchino has given us the best television series score you will ever hear. The score is the life of the show and is iconic. In fact, it’s really because of his commitment to LOST that he has such limited time to do films. Yet he was still able to compose amazing scores like Ratatouille, Up, Speed Racer, Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek. Oh yeah and he’s already been nominated for an Oscar. Giacchino’s unmistakable sound defined my generation’s childhood of video gaming and he is now defining our entertainment both on TV and in theaters.

1. Hans Zimmer: Before you say “big surprise” just continue reading before you think this is a biased opinion. In the past 10 years Hans Zimmer has composed 39 scores. Yes, that is correct. 39 scores! That’s 39 films over the past 10 years that you have probably seen. He took us to Rome and showed us how a general won his freedom, he showed us Hannibal Lecter’s cooking skills, took us to Hawaii on December 7, 1941, threw us in the heart of modern warfare where no man is left behind, helped start the Japanese horror remake phenomenon and showed us what a shitty week you can have just from wanting to watch a video. He took us to Africa once more and brought inspiration to a suffering people, he ticked and twitched his music to bring us into the life of an obsessive compulsive con man, he took us to Japan where an American soldier helped the Samurai win their freedom, he brought back medieval warfare as Arthur became a king, helped a bunch of animals escape their zoo and go back to Africa. He gave a dark knight his wings, he made pirates swash and buckle on the open sea, he brought America’s favorite yellow family to the big screen, made us believe that Frank Langella could in fact be Richard Nixon. He helped Tom Hanks crack some codes, showed us that sleeping with your ex can be complicated and had some fun with a certain British detective that has a knack for solving grand mysteries. Hans Zimmer not only defined certain genres this past decade but he also reinforced his way of composing through collaboration. He took a stand against his critics and gave a big middle finger to the Academy. He is currently housing the next generation of composers as they work together to learn and give us some of the best music heard in films today. Cheers, Hans. Can’t wait for the next 10.

So, it's been an incredible decade for films and scores especially. The music that defines the stories we love will echo through time. Filmmakers who realize what an emotional impact good music can have in their films will always make better films. Films that we as an audience will remember for the rest of our lives.

**Honorable Mention: Clint Mansell- While Clint has come into his own the past 10 years his work wasn't enough for me to place him on the list and bump off anyone else. However, his scores for The Fountain and Moon if placed on a "top 10 scores of the decade" list would be high up there.

Friday, January 8, 2010

It's Complicated by Hans Zimmer & Heitor Pereira (Review)

Hans and Heitor’s score release is resurrected from the dead and makes its way to iTunes. Honestly, what’s better than one Hans Zimmer score? How about 2? On December 25th both Sherlock Holmes and It’s Complicated hit theaters. I call It’s Complicated “low calorie Hans”. After a hearty and heavy helping of Sherlock Holmes what’s a better way to finish a meal than a light and fluffy serving of It’s Complicated?

Hans continues his collaboration with director Nancy Meyers and teams up with his friend and amazing guitarist, Heitor Pereira. Originally this was supposed to get a CD release but out of nowhere the release was canceled. We learned later in an interview that Hans pulled the plug because he felt the CD would have just been too much repetition since there is not that much variation in the score. He also didn’t want to release a short CD and rip off people. So instead he decided on a shortened release just on iTunes for a cheaper price. The score release is only 16 and a half minutes, but it’s good stuff.

The style is very much akin to his score for Meyers’ last film, The Holiday. Heitor is an amazing guitarist and the guitar is a major staple of the music. This film is very much dependent on the writing and the acting. It has a great cast and Hans and Heitor made sure they didn’t overpower anything so that the writing and acting could shine. There isn’t anything spectacularly special about the score though. It’s effective in what it does without stealing the spotlight. It makes for a relaxing listen with a slight emotional echo. It’s warm, comforting, it’s gentle and it will softly carry your mind and put a smile in the corner in your mouth. It also shows just how versatile Hans and Heitor are. Many composers only stick to one genre, but only a few have a switch that can make them turn from intense adventure to romantic comedy in a snap.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sherlock Holmes by Hans Zimmer (Review)

Hans Zimmer explodes into adventure with his highly entertaining and very unique score to Sherlock Holmes. When I first read that Hans would be doing a Guy Ritchie film I became a little curious. Ritchie is known for using mostly songs and little to no score in his films. So, why would he hire a composer who is known for making music stand up and take charge in the narrative? I don’t know why, but I’m glad it happened. The score is incredibly fun and is a concoction that only Zimmer and his featured soloists could have come up with.

Hans says the score took inspiration from Irish and gypsy music. So the tunes are off key in places and utilize uncommon instruments such as the banjo or the custom hybrid “Experibass”. It has the swashbuckling waltzy feel of his theme for Jack Sparrow yet all the instrumentation and attitude of an Ennio Morricone western score. In other words, it brings what you see on the screen to vivid life. The track “Not In Blood, But In Bond” showcases one of the many amazing soloists in a hauntingly beautiful track. This track plays over the slow motion sequence of the wharf bombing and will honestly give you chills. Yet you will have a ridiculously goofy track like “ I Never Woke Up In Handcuff’s Before”, which has a Middle Eastern flair accented by an accordion that eventually weaves the main theme in.

The film itself is hugely entertaining and there is not a dull moment in the entire score (or the film). The highlight is of course the 18-minute track titled “Psychological Recovery . . . 6 Months”. It’s practically all the music from the final act of the film and it’s one helluva ride. The structures and sounds bleed Zimmer and will keep you riveted and smiling all at once. Hans is still the only composer I know who knows best how to create these grand emotional ascending arcs that continually build and build and then erupt, which is exactly what the final act of the score does.

Sherlock Holmes was a great way to end the year. It was like getting a summer action score in the winter when usually all we have is the “serious” stuff. Hans Zimmer continues to go out of his way to try and not tread over old ground. He continually creates emotionally driven music that lifts the films he scores to new heights. I still love the fact that he can do all this crazy and innovative instrumentation and the sound is still unmistakably Zimmer. I also love the “Black Hawk Down” strings that come in at 10:35 into “Psychological Recovery . . . 6 Months”. If there are any Modern Warfare 2 players out there they might recognize it. I don’t know if Hans or Lorne is responsible for that one, but it made me smile.

Avatar by James Horner (Review)

So, does James Horner’s score live up to the images in James Cameron’s film? You bet! James Horner is a fantastic talent and I’m glad Avatar was able to bring him out of this slumber he’s been in for the past couple years.

Avatar is such a grandiose and melodramatic story that it of course was going to require an epic sound to carry it. It takes a while before it hits the ground running but once it does it carries you through romance, tragedy and inspiration. The score has an overall mood and quality that calls on the native american culture and sounds for obvious reasons. Horner uses vocals beautifully. A small chorus for the live renewing sections of the score that bring on a feel of tremendous beauty and lets the story sore. For the tragic parts of the film he utilizes a heart-wrenching solo vocal accompanied by his 4-note “danger motif” that is his signature in almost every score.

The question for Horner was how was he going to score such an overused story to make it feel fresh and new. I mean, we can all agree that the story in Avatar is nothing new here (Dances With Wolves, The New World, The Last Samurai, Ferngully, etc). Hell, even the love story in Titanic can be compared to it. The romance of the score lies within the heart of the film. Horner fans will instantly pick up sounds and arrangements that call back to his work on Braveheart and Titanic. Horner uses synths and electronics more so in this section of the score than anywhere else.

The last third of the score is where all the action music lies. Now, this is where I was taken by surprise. Maybe in a good way or a bad way. I haven’t really decided yet. All the action cues in the score to me feel uninspired mostly because they follow the Hans Zimmer style in such obvious places. Most of it sounds like a hybrid between Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky. So much of it reminded me of the score to Gladiator and in some instances Transformers. Don’t believe me? Listen to “Gathering all the Na'vi clans for battle” from Avatar and immediately listen to “The Might Of Rome” from the Gladiator score. While the score works to tremendous success I was hoping for a little more “Horner” in the arrangements. One last weakness to the score is the lack of a strong central theme. There is one and it’s best heard at 3:45 into the track “Gathering all the Na'vi clans for battle”, but it lacks a commanding presence.

Is this score a masterpiece? No. Is it highly effective, emotional and entertaining? Absolutely. I still think The Perfect Storm is my favorite Horner score if anyone wants to know what standard I’m holding his work to. Avatar is an exciting romantic epic melodrama that will not disappoint. The film however will mostly be remembered by audiences for its breathtaking visuals rather than its story. James Horner’s score carries this film without a doubt but in this case is only as good as the film can be, which is really good but it’s no masterpiece.