Friday, June 26, 2015

Nostalgia Nugget: Movie Music of James Horner

In the 1980s you had three masters of film music. John Williams gave us Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jerry Goldsmith was on hand for Gremlins, First Blood and Poltergeist. And then you had James Horner, the youngest of the three.  Man, did he have a run of hits in the 80s: Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, Cocoon, Aliens, An American Tail, Willow and Glory. That was just the start of a career that would hit dizzying heights with Titanic and Avatar.

Horner has a signature sound - immediately recognizable. He was firmly rooted in classical style, often working with lush sweeping melodies and bombastic action music. But his style made him a divisive figure among film score fans. He often borrowed (or was heavily inspired if you prefer) by classical composers particularly the more romantic Russian ones. But this is hardly a unique fault. All film composers who work in a primarily orchestral style often gain inspiration from classical pieces.

I think the bigger issue for most film score fans was Horner’s tendency to borrow heavily from himself. The main theme from Glory (which is familiar to fans of a certain Russian composer) turns up again in Avatar with almost no changes. Khan’s wild theme turns up again as evil queen Bavmorda’s theme in Willow and that gets abbreviated down to what film score fans call Horner’s danger motif. And that sucker appears in nearly all of Horner’s film scores at some point. Some listeners find this annoying. Others find it like listening to one giant symphony filled with familiar traits and moments.

One thing no once can accuse James Horner of being is emotionally cold in his music. Of the big three 80s composers Horner was the most unabashed when letting the music just swell and take over. His romantic moments were passionate. His sad moments were devastating. His horror moments were terrifying. And while he could work subtly, most of us film score fans loved his ability and skill of going for broke and touching the listener and the viewer with his music.

One of my favorite scores by Horner, Glory shows off this skill so well. He runs the gamut of emotions in that score and nails each and every one of them. It’s a powerful score, one of my favorites from the 1980s.

And for me, that is where Horner’s best music resides, in the 1980s. The stretch form Battle Beyond the Stars to The Rocketeer (technically 1991, but has his 80s trademarks all over it) is filled with nostalgic memories.

When it came to the early 80s, I lost two of my favorite fictional characters. Han Solo was frozen in 1980 (and I was pretty convinced he was dead), and then Spock died in 1982. Horner’s score for the moving death scene and finale to Star Trek II make those moments resonate. As a kid I didn’t’ have a chance and was pretty shook up over the death of Spock.

The main themes to Krull and Battle Beyond the Stars were both lodged in my brain after viewing them over and over in my youth. But Horner’s gift of melody kept them there for nearly a decade long after I had forgotten all about the films. So when I revisited these two movies in the 90s, a huge wave of nostalgia kicked in based on the title music alone.

My sister was a huge fan of An American Tail and The Land Before Time. Those films had regular play on the VCR. Horner did some fine work for these animated films and hearing those scores takes me back to memories of watching these with my sister and plush versions of the main characters.

The soundtrack to Glory was one of the very first CDs my family owned (along with the Prince song compilation for Batman). We all noticed the music during the film and hearing it on CD was a real treat.

But it was Willow that had the biggest impact for me. In 1988, I had just started collecting soundtracks on cassette tape. I had two Star Wars scores, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Conan the Barbarian. After seeing Willow in the theater, I wanted that score. Hell, I thought John Williams composed it. I searched and searched for that score and I could never find it.

As the years passed, I would pick up the search off and on again. Even making it a regular goal when I hit the music section at Borders in the 1990s. I actually saw the CD, once in a Music Plus store, but I didn’t have any money on me (and this was before I had a credit card). I rushed to the ATM to pick up some cash and by the time I returned, Willow had vacated the premises. It became a holy grail of scores for me. And it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally added that score to my collection!

James Horner’s sudden death has shocked all us film score fans. His music,, so powerful and emotional, really touched people. Many folks are saying that it was Horner’s music that got them into film score collecting, or writing music, or inspiring them in other ways. It is a testament to his skill and the power of the medium that his music has such an impact.

Horner was a unique voice in the film music world. No one else’s music sounded like his did. Few approached films with such naked emotions. And in the current mindset of Hollywood studios, Horner’s approach was frowned on. His output had slowed over the years. But it made each new score a real treat when it did come along. For me, I will always enjoy his work, and enjoy the nostalgic memories those themes bring back.

Four of my favorite James Horner cues:

Genesis Countdown – Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan



Escape from the Tavern – Willow



Closing Credits – Glory




Rocketeer to the Rescue/End Titles – the Rocketeer


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

New Nightmare (1994)

Introduction:
When it comes to the Nightmare on Elm Street series, most folks agree, the ones directed by Wes Craven were the best. Well for the longest time, I had never seen Freddy’s swan song. Hell, I hadn’t seen much more than the first film. But I digress. Netflix finally revealed the 1994 finale for the series (at last as far as Mr. Craven was concerned). I kinda knew what to expect. I’d seen a little bit of the film nearly a decade before. But was I really ready for more Freddy?

Summary:
Heather Langenkamp (played by Heather Langenkamp of all people) has been trying to put her role in the Nightmare on Elm Street series behind her. But no one wants Freddy to die. Not the fans. Not the studio. And seemingly not Wes Craven (played by Wes Craven of all people!) So news of a new, and FINAL Freddy film quickly begin to spread. But with them come the nightmares.

You see Heather had to deal with horrible nightmares during her filming of the original film. It seems that Freddy’s power to twist dreams is not fictional, and that Craven actually tapped into something powerful. As Freddy’s fame grows, especially with children, his nightmarish power grows too. Soon Heather finds herself at the center of a supernatural plot that will allow Freddy to become flesh and may cost not just her soul, but the soul of her son as well. This is one New Nightmare no one will ever wake up from.

Good Points:
  • Gets back to the roots of the concept by making Freddy scary again
  • Twists reality, dreams and the world of making films together
  • Heather Langenkamp gives an excellent and challenging performance

Bad Points:
  • Those looking for fun and wisecracking Freddy will be disappointed
  • Feels like it owes quite a bit to Candyman
  • This movie is so self aware that its ton may rub viewers the wrong way

Overall:
In so many ways this feels like a prototype for Scream. It is a movie that knows it is a movie, and yet it also focuses on delivering thrills and dread. I like that Craven had some real balls to go in this direction, and it is fairly successful. This is mostly due to Lagenkamp’s excellent performance. She is literally in every scene of this film and carries its emotional weight. This is a less campy and overt entry, more adult in it’s approach. But also very snarky at times. I got a kick out of the meta approach, but some people may not like it. An unusual ending I don’t think anyone saw coming.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Introduction:
When I revisted this film recently, I was struck by one thing – there is no way it could be green lit by any major studio in this day and age. If you read my summary below, and realize that the only “star” is a comedian who has about five minutes of screen time, and a concept so dumb it just can’t possibly work. It is not a sure bet at all. Hell, it wasn’t a sure bet in 1988 either, but it got made and we now have some the best catchphrases of the 1980s.

Summary:
Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are in a most heinous situation. They are about to fail their high school history class, and if that happens they fail school! Ted will be shipped off to military school and Bill will most likely end up hanging out with Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Before that can happen a telephone booth (remember those) from the future arrives carrying George Carlin. No, it really does.

Carlin plays Rufus a man who has seen the most excellent future that Bill and Ted create – but only if they stay together to form their band Wyld Stallyns. To ensure they are kept together, they must pass the history class. To do that Rufus gives them the telephone booth/time machine to travel into the past. Bill And Ted go along with this and are soon meeting Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc! Of course shenanigans ensue and you end up with historical figures running around the San Dimas mall, Napoleon on a waterslide and Abraham Lincoln telling everyone to “Be excellent to each other.” Prepare yourself for a real blast from the past (and the 1980s) with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Good Points:
  • Embraces the silliness of the concept and keeps things fun
  • Winter and Reeves are a great comic duo
  • Snappy writing leads to some very quotable lines
Bad Points:
  • Looking for a serious examination of time travel – uh, go watch Primer instead
  • Looking for historical accuracy – uh, go watch the History chann… wait that won’t work either
  • This movie is as dumb as its protagonists 
Overall:
But you could argue that fact. Much like Bill and Ted themselves, the movie is actually a bit smarter than it lets on. Some of the humor is silly, but there are also some solid satirical jabs at 80s society. But the thing that works is the spirit of fun and comedic chemistry of the leads. These guys are likable goofballs who get a lucky break but actually grow up a little because of it. For me, this is one of the classic comedies (and adventures) of the 1980s. Well worth seeing or revisiting.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Introduction:
I tend to give American animation the short shrift on this blog. But that doesn’t mean I don’t admire it. Pixar has made some genuine classics, and Dreamworks has given us a couple really fun and exciting films. In fact I reviewed How to Train Your Dragon for DVD Verdict and really enjoyed it. I was looking forward to seeing where the crew could take the story for the sequel, and if the quality would match the 2010 original.

Summary:
Things have changed a bit since we last joined the Vikings on the island of Berk. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now exploring the wide world with his dragon companion Toothless. During one of his adventures he runs into a group of men who are actually hunting dragons and capturing them for an overlord calling himself Drago (Djimon Hounsou). These men claim that Drago can tame and control any dragon and is slowly taking over the world with his dragon army.

Hiccup and Toothless attempt to warn the people of Berk but along the way they run into another group of dragons! This group is lead by the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett) who actually knows who Hiccup is, and has a history with his father Stoick (Gerard Butler). Will the combined forces of Berk’s dragon riding teens and Valka’s dragons be enough to stop the onslaught?

Good Points:
  • Aging all the characters giving them more depth
  • Feels like a natural thematic and story follow-up to the original
  • An amazing musical score by John Powell

Bad Points:
  • Some of the freshness has worn of the concept and characters
  • A few of the plot twists won’t be a surprise
  • If you didn’t like the previous entry, you probably won’t like this one

Overall:
But honestly, how could you not find something to enjoy about the previous film. This sequel is exactly what you want it to be. It builds on the characters, world and themes of the original. It gives us new characters and settings to visually dazzle. It adds some gravitas to the plot with older characters and more of a coming of age reckoning for Hiccup. It also retains its amazing visual splendor and wonderful music. Fans of the original will be very happy with this film.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Red Lights (2012)

Introduction:
You know me, I love supernatural thrillers. I get drawn into the concepts and think there are some really good stories that can be told in that genre. So I’m a bit of a sucker for them. And when you get a cast that includes Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro… well I tend to ignore the one star ratings on Netflix. I figure, there has to be something good in the film to attract those kinds of actors, right?

Summary:
Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) has dedicated her life to studying the supernatural. Well, let me rephrase that, she has dedicated her life to proving all supernatural events as natural events misinterpreted or outright hoaxes. Helping her in her regular forays into “ghost busting” is Tom Buckley (Cilian Murphy) a student at the university that Margaret teaches at. The two are enjoying themselves quite a bit and even torment fellow professor Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones) who is attempting to prove the existence of supernatural events.

Then, the ultimate test arrives, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a man who was very famous back in the 70s for using ESP and other amazing mental powers to wow large audiences. After an event where a cynic confronted him and was killed mysteriously, Silver disappeared from public view. Well he is back with a vengeance, and Tom sees this as the perfect opportunity to put the paranormal on trial very publicly. But Margaret refuses, and Tom becomes more and more obsessed with going after Simon himself. Is Margaret hiding a secret? Is Simon more dangerous than anyone can guess? And what is driving Tom’s obsession. Check out Red Lights to find the answers.

Good Points:
  • The basic plot and characters are interesting and set up well
  • The cast does a fine job in the roles
  • Some wonderfully dark and atmospheric scenes

Bad Points:
  • Some horribly over the top and badly edited scenes
  • Starts to spin its wheels about half way through
  • The final “twist” at the end just doesn’t make the impact it should

Overall:
This is one frustrating film. I can see a really good movie struggling to get out, but the final result is something that seems messy, unfocused and in the end not thrilling or creepy at all. When you look at the whole thing on paper, it probably reads fine, but the execution is what hurts the movie. With strange editing choices, some bombastic sequences that pull you out of the film and a twist that just feels contrived and empty, the end result is a movie I can’t recommend.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 2
Music: 2
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

Introduction:
When I was a kid, I had a friend who was a horror fiend. This guy loved anything with monsters, blood, guts and ghosts. He had a subscription to the magazine Fangoria, and that is pretty much what I remember most clearly about this movie. He was showing me a whole article on the creature creations for the film, especially the gargoyles. I didn’t see the film till much later, and had forgotten all about it. When it appeared on Netflix, I decided to give it a revisit.

Summary:
That’s right it is time for another horror movie anthology. The wrap around story features a kid (Matthew Lawrence) trying to escape a witch played by Debbie Harry. He starts telling her stories, Arabian Nights style to distract her from cooking him. The first story is about a nerdy college kid played by Steve Buscemei who obtains a mummy. Of course the mummy is cursed, but Buscemei can control the thing, and he starts taking revenge against those that wronged him. Christian Slater and Julianne Moore play fellow students.

Gears shift to tale penned by Stephen King and George A. Romero.  In this tale a rich old bastard played with glee by William Hickey, hires a hit man played by David Johansen to assassinate his arch nemesis. This nemesis happens to be a black cat that is very capable, and is more than willing to show these two jokers who is boss. The final story revolves around a down on his luck artist (James Remar) who meets a lovely woman played by Rae Dawn Chong. Let’s just say that this dark city has more secrets than I can tell you right now, but its safe to say that the dark wings you see in the night don’t belong to bats… or batman. This can only be described as one of the Tales from the Darkside.

Good Points:
  • Some fun performances from familiar faces
  • Some really cool practical and make up effects.
  • A couple of the stories have a creepy atmosphere

Bad Points:
  • The scripts are really a mixed bag
  • Never gets really scary or spooky
  • The cat story works fine on paper but feels off-putting or silly visually

Overall:
Horror anthologies are tough to get right. And yeah this one makes a strong effort, but never quite gels. None of the individual stories is better than the others. But all of them have neat or clever moments combined with bizarre or weak elements. It entertains, but you keep wishing for a bit more: better characters, better plot twists, or maybe just replacing that cat story with something better. The final result passes time, but you might be better off watching Creepshow again.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Fly (1958)

Introduction:
This is one of those movies that I’d heard about back when I was a kid. But I had never seen the 1950s version. Yeah I’d seen the 80s version when I was in junior high and was promptly traumatized. So maybe that viewing kept me from seeking out the original (kinda like what happened during the Trauma of the Planet of the Apes incident). But I finally got brave and decided to watch it. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Vincent Price wasn’t the mad scientist in this one.

Summary:
Andre Delambre (David Hedison) is a driven scientist who dreams of achieving something truly groundbreaking for all humanity. His wife Helene (Patricia Owens) supports his efforts, but is sad that it comes at the expense of spending time with her or their son Philippe (Charles Herbert). She often confides with Francois (Vincent Price), Andre’s brother, who is still carrying a torch for her.

Andre eventually creates a working prototype for a device that can transport matter from one location to another instantly. It works fine with inanimate objects, but he runs into some difficulties when he tests it on living creatures. Eventually he perfects the experiment and tests it on himself… yeah, it doesn’t go well. Helene is now faced with a disturbing revelation that her husband may not be the man he used to be. You could blame the failure on Andre, or the bossa nova, but I think we all know it was the fault of The Fly.

Good Points:
  • The film works as a mystery suspense film building up to the horror of Andre’s revelation
  • Patricia Owens does a very good job in the main role
  • There is something just plain disturbing about that scene with the web

Bad Points:
  • Those looking for a horror film will be disappointed
  • Those looking for Price in his usual wicked self will be disappointed
  • The impact of the costume at the end my not work for modern viewers

Overall:
My expectations were just completely wrong with this one. I always assumed it was a horror movie focusing on the mad scientist. Instead it is a suspenseful mystery focusing on Helene and her actions to help her husband. It makes for an interesting film (even though I knew how the whole thing ended). Solid acting and a nice build up made this an entertaining watch.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.