Sunday, July 15, 2018

Score Sample: The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

These days if you mention director Michael Mann, most people will  immediately think of Heat or Collateral. A few people will mention Miami Vice, both the series and the movie. But not many people mention Last of the Mohicans, because it like of sticks out of filmography as a "wait a sec, he directed that?" kind of movie. But sure enough Mann tackled this historical epic before diving in the modern epic of Heat.

Mann is notorious for cobbling his film's music from different sources, sometimes even going so far as hiring a composer to score the full movie and then replacing half the original score with other pieces of unrelated electronic and techno music (just ask James Newton Howard about his experience on Collateral). For Last of the Mohicans, we have a similar oddity, two composers working on one film. Neither composer collaborating together, but each gentleman scoring different scenes. Jones was hired initially, but production delays and constant re-editing ended up running into another project he was working. Jones completed as much as he could and Randy Edelman was brought in to finish the project. Edelman provided some of the textural music, material that was lighter and used in the quieter scenes, with a few exceptions. Trevor Jones was brought in for his powerful themes and bombast. Mann managed to make it all work in the film, and as a listen on album it can be a bit uneven (especially with Edelman's uses of electronics). But still, that main theme by Jones is one of the most memorable of the 1990s.

So here is a sample of both men's work

First we have Edelman's music for a quiet scene early in the film, Cora.



And here is the dramatic Main Theme by Jones.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Introduction:

The first game/VHS combination I ever played was Clue VCR Mystery Gamefrom 1985. It was an odd thing with goofy acting and some new characters including Miss Peach. But board games featuring VHS prompts were a bit of a thing in the late 80s and early 90s. And one of those inspired a trip Beyond the Gates.

Summary:

Two brothers, Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) are packing up the family video store after their father disappears. We learn that both brothers have some issues with each other, not to mention their dad. Maybe this little project will bring them closer together. 

Instead they find an old VHS board game called Beyond the Gates in their father’s office. The tape is just sitting in the VCR, as if it was the last thing their father watched before he vanished. The brothers start to play the tape as a bit of a lark – and find out that there is something very dangerous about this game. You see the lady in the television (played with verve by Barbara Crampton) seems like she can see them. Each move brings new dangers, and quite a bit of blood. Will the Hardesty brothers survive this trip Beyond the Gates?

Good Points:
  • Crampton is having a good old time as the enthusiastic host of the game
  • When the film focuses on fun, it handles itself well
  • Some effective gore and horror moments

Bad Points:
  • Spends a bit too much time with the family drama set up.
  • Some of the acting is a bit questionable.
  • The tone shifts wildly from deep family drama to over the top gore and laughs

Overall:

I really like what they were going for. Imagine if you asked Sam Raimi to write and direct it Jumanji. Parts of the film play out that way. But focus on the brother’s angst and drama takes over too many scenes. If they had focused a bit more on the fun concept, as hinted at in those oh so 80s opening credits, I think the whole movie would have worked better. It is an enjoyable time.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals:  3
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.

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Introduction:

Oh hai readers. I have to confess that I am a fan of The Room. The film is one of my favorite “beautifully bad” movies to enjoy when I’m in the right mood. I found out about The Room when the team at Rifftrax tackled it, and of course when Alison Preglar did her review of it as Obscuras Lupa back in 2010 (man she looks young in that video!). If you haven’t seen it and you don’t mind being traumatized by bad movies, then check it out first. Because the Disaster Artistis all about the making of The Room.

Summary:

Greg (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor in San Francisco who dreams of making it to Hollywood some day. At an acting class he meets Tommy (James Franco) an passionate performer who inspires Greg with his enthusiasm for the craft. But Tommy has some oddities about him, he claims he is from New Orleans, when his accent is clearly eastern European. He won’t talk about his past. He won’t say how old he is. He obviously has a lot of money… and he want to spontaneously go to Los Angeles with Greg to jumpstart their careers. Greg is young and ready for a challenge so they go.

Things don’t go so well at first. Greg and Tommy both struggle to find work in the film industry. Tommy is having a very tough time landing the part of the hero when everyone keeps telling him he looks and sounds like a villain. When a producer tells Tommy that the only way he would ever be cast in a film is if Tommy made the film himself: Tommy is inspired. He hammers out a script, casts Greg as “the best friend Mark” and Tommy plays the all American hero “Johnny”. The movie will be a modern Tennessee Williams drama, about a man trying to rise up in the world, only to be brought down by a conniving girlfriend and duplicitous best friend. It will also have terrible dialogue, acting, music, sex scenes and sets. Tommy is convinced he has created a masterpiece, but Greg realizes that he is witnessing the creation of The Disaster Artist.

Good Points:
  • Excellent acting brings the characters to life
  • Masterfully recreates scenes from The Room using the new cast
  • Feels like a tribute as well as a bit of a parody 

Bad Points:
  • Some of the best parts of the book are left out of the film
  • Tommy (and Franco’s performance) may annoy some viewers
  • Don’t like glorification of a bad movie, you might not like this

Overall:

This movie would make a fun companion piece with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Both are lovingly crafted films about an ambitious filmmaker who is out of their league. And both present the filmmaker as the optimist in spite of all the challenges they face. An entertaining film, with really great performances, and a solid adaptation to the book (which is well worth checking out if you enjoy either film)

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

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Friday, June 22, 2018

And Then This Happened... Seven Samurai

Just because Seven Samurai is one of my favorite movies, doesn't mean I can't have a little fun with it. In fact Seven Samurai may be classified as a fun adventure movie. But when revisiting this film recently, I saw this moment and just had to include it as one of the And Then This Happened... series. Time to add a caption to this moment when Gorobei is about to walk into a whole mess of trouble.

And then this happened...


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Spice and Wolf - Season Two (2009)

Introduction:

After taking the unusual and engaging trip with Holo and Lawrence in the first season of Spice and Wolf I was ready for another trip. The world created in the first season of the fantasy series was intriguing, and so were the economic based storylines. But I had grown really attached to these characters and was looking forward to seeing where their adventures took them and if they would grow closer or get pulled apart.

Summary:

Kraft Lawrence (Jun Fukuyama) the crafty peddler and Holo (Ami Koshimizu) the wolf goddess traveling in human form, continue their journey to the north. While the final goal is to reach Holo’s homeland, Lawrence isn’t going to shy away from any deals on the way there. At their first stop, they meet a dashing young merchant, Amarti (Saeko Chiba) who falls head over heels for Holo. Soon he engages Lawrence in a contest of merchant guile involving pyrite. The winner will end up traveling with Holo!

After managing to wiggle out of that predicament, the duo arrives in the far north in a city where fur trading is king, and the powerful church hangs like vulture over everything. They meet a sly merchant, Eve (Romi Park) who entices Lawrence with a very lucrative deal. If it works out, Lawrence will finally have enough money (and a location) for a full-fledged shop. He will achieve his life long dream, but does that mean the end of his journey with Holo?

Good Points:
  • Maintains the easy going tone of the first season
  • Holo and Lawrence have some great interactions in this season
  • Introduces some interesting supporting characters and antagonists

Bad Points:
  • The two storylines seem too thin to be supporting the full season
  • Dialogue sequences go on way too long and too wordy
  • Lots of reuse of animation from previous episodes and season 1

Overall:

Sadly, this season was a bit of a disappointment. At its core, the characters take an interesting journey, but the execution turns it into a slog. Pacing gets dragged down by too much dialogue that spins its wheels. The resolution feels unsatisfying. There are some good moments and whole episodes that work really well. But it just doesn’t quite measure up to the first season. I’d say, you could pass on this one, unless you are thirsting for more from these characters.

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

In Depth Review

Well if there is a festival, you know they have to dance.
When I watched and reviewed the first season of Spice and WolfI mentioned that the pacing of the show was very relaxed. It allowed us to enjoy time with Lawrence and Holo, and absorb the world around them. There were plenty of scenes of the duo traveling the countryside, talking about all kinds of things including religion, economics and philosophy. It was interesting to hear two such different characters (a mortal merchant looking to start his own shop, and a immortal wolf goddess who was used to being served by humans), discuss a wide array of topics and get to know each other. It was the charm of the show. The plots involving moneymaking and negotiations gave it a unique flavor that made the series feel different from most other fantasy anime.

I’m restating this, because Spice and Wolf IIseems to take certain aspects of the first season, but modifies them in ways that hurt the overall series. 

What remains the same is the core relationship between Lawrence and Holo. The writing for these two remains excellent. They are more comfortable with each other, and this allows for some easy going teasing and banter. Some of the challenges to the relationship presented by the amorous Amarti and the scheming Eve twist the relationship in ways that force our duo to make choices they may not be ready to face.

Amarth get's bold about gold (fool's gold).
I like how Lawrence learns that Holo’s homeland may no longer exist, and that centuries have passed since she has been there. He knows this will devastate her, and so he has to decide if and when he should reveal this to her. Because he hesitates in telling her, he also must grapple with the fact that he is really fallen for Holo, maybe not as dramatically as Amarti has, and comparing himself with Amarti doesn’t do any good either. 

In that same storyline, Holo is on the receiving end of Amarti’s affections and this puts her relationship with Lawrence in stark contrast. And when she discovers Lawrence is hiding a secret from her, things take a turn. Yes it is a bit soapy, but it really evolves the relationship even further.

"No you can trust me completely..."
The second story arc in Spice and Wolf II puts Lawrence’s ultimate goal in plain sight. Sure he has to deal with the sly Eve, who is obviously up to no good. If anything goes wrong the church is going to come down hard on Lawrence. And if they find Holo, that could be even worse. Even if Lawrence gets the shop, then he will have to end his relationship with Holo (and their journey together). Holo won’t let him give up his dream, and seems ready to end it all with this deal. Again, some great character development moments built into this storyline.

I will also add that the music in this season continues to be very effective and appropriate to the series. Some of the pieces may be borrowed from the first season, but it all works well to build the atmosphere. There is an interesting bit of string dissonance used when Eve is scheming. Unfortunately there is only one variation of it, and in certain episodes Eve does a lot of scheming, so you get a little sick of the piece after a while.

The opening and ending J-pop pieces fit Spice and Wolf II as well. The opening song, Mitsu no Yoakeperformed by one of my favorite J-pop singers, Akino Arai. Her lovely voice gives a wistful performance of this melodic piece. The end song brings Rocky Chack back with Perfect World. While not as catchy as the previous end credit song, it is a nice little tune.

Midnight meeting the Leper's quarter, what
could go wrong?
So lets dive into what doesn’t work for the sequel series. First off it looks like the budget was reduced, or the new animation studio that stepped in for this season wasn’t quite up to the task – because Spice and Wolf II reuses a lot of animation. Sometimes it brings up images from earlier in the season. Sometimes it flashes back to scenes from the first season. And sometimes it flashes back to earlier in the episode. To quote Tom Servo “You can’t flash back to something that happened five minutes ago!” Many times the flashback animation doesn’t seem connected to what is happening on screen (which is dialogue 98% of the time). It feels arbitrary most of the time and it adds almost nothing to dialogue. Even worse, some of those flashbacks to season one are pretty much the same set of images from the very first episode. I swear we see Holo standing naked in the cart about 15 times in flashbacks.

There could be two reasons to include all these visual flashbacks. The first is because the animation budget wasn’t too large, so they compensated by adding these moments to keep costs down. The other is to try to add some visual interest to the long, drawn out dialogues that were spilling out all over the place. I’ll get to those in a moment.

"I told you darn peddlers to get off my lawn!"
The rest of the animation does a pretty good job of creating mood. The two cities that Lawrence and Holo journey to are dark and dower locals. They feel imposing and dangerous. While the first city does have a festival going on (that seems to last for days and days), the joy is contrasted with the night vistas and dark stonework. Much of the dialogue happens in darkened rooms and shadowy corners. We don’t get those lovely pastoral scenes in this series. The second story arc in Spice and Wolf II is even darker visually. The port city seems to be in a constant state of gloom, and the inn where our duo spends a lot of time is nearly 100% shadow. It gives the storyline a very uneasy feeling, and works to its advantage. It really feels like this whole deal that Lawrence is working with Eve could go south very quickly. 

One of the few bright scenes in the season.
In the end the visuals feel very dark in tone. It mostly works, and when we do get some brighter moments, like the dance at the festival or the greenhouse later in the season, they really stand out. I appreciate giving the season it’s own tone and mood, but I did miss the open fields, sprawling forests and towering mountains of the first season.

But the animation can only work with the script, and that is where Spice and Wolf II runs into its biggest problem. The first season spread out a series of adventures for Lawrence and Holo to engage in. We had about four mini arcs over the span of 13 episodes. Here we have two storylines spread out over 12 episodes. While there are some great character interactions built into these storylines, it becomes apparent that there just isn’t enough material for 12 episodes. You have quite a number of episodes where everything seems to stop cold while Lawrence talks with another character (not Holo) for scene after scene, going on and on about the same topic, but not really giving us new insight. It feels like padding

Feathers take on a whole new meaning when
Diana is around.
Sometimes I like the discussion as it starts. Lawrence’s conversations with Diana (Akeno Atanabe) are very interesting. Especially when you learn that she is a bird goddess that is living in human form. Obviously parallels between her life and Holo’s make for interesting character examination. But it takes so long to get to that point, and so little is done with it. Instead, Lawrence spends nearly two episodes worth of time making his way to Diana while pondering his fate (with tons of flashbacks) and then talks with Diana about stories and how she gathers them and the philosophy of storytelling (all fascinating topics, but treated here with a lot of words not adding up to much). Again, many many flashbacks occur during these discussions, and the sum total of what we get is that Diana and Lawrence agree about storytelling, and discuss what she found out about Holo’s homeland. 

"Oh I know exactly what you're thinking... dirty mortal."
Yes, I got really frustrated with the pacing in Spice and Wolf II. I appreciated the relaxed storytelling of the first season, because it felt like we were building the world and the character relationships. Here, it feels like padding dialogue in dark uninteresting rooms. Anime writing can go this way often. Even my favorite series Neon Genesis Evangeiion is notorious for long scenes of characters monologuing about philosophy and psychology. But the difference is that in NGE, the monologues or dialogues feel like they are leading us to a revelation with these characters. The series is a psychological examination of Shinji and his battle against fear. In Spice and Wolf II the dialogues just feel like endless words leading to a whole lot of nothing. The key moments occur between Holo and Lawrence, but the two don’t end up spending all that much time together. What moments we do get are the best of the season. I even like the final discussion at the end of the series where they define what they mean to each other.

Divine wrath!
Let’s look at the ending for a moment. It feels rushed, as if they were hoping to build up to something else, but realized they weren’t getting a third season, and so they just kind of threw in a final dialogue, and had the characters walk off into a city besieged by riots. The key moment where the two finally come to grips with how much they really care about each other is handled well. But I wanted something a bit more, some kind of moment where Holo finally arrives home, with Lawrence at her side. What gets hinted at, in the discussions between Diana the chronicler, and Lawrence never gets a payoff. It is a real missed opportunity, since storytelling, lies, and deception are key thematic elements in the second season. The series ends with a bittersweet finale, I appreciate that. But if doesn’t satisfy, not because we don’t get “happily ever after”, but because it feels rushed. Spice and Wolf as a series is anything other than rushed. 

I did enjoy my second trip with Lawrence and Holo. There are some really good character moments for sure. And fans of the first season will probably enjoy those. But this is one of those instances where the potential feels wasted. Tighter storytelling (maybe throwing in another arc with Holo and Lawrence arriving in Holo’s homeland) would have helped this season immensely. It would have resolved the flashback issues, the longwinded meandering dialogue, and given us an ending that felt earned and satisfying. If you are a die-hard fan, you’ll probably enjoy this season, but everyone else can stick with the first season, the novels and manga that are out there. 

Divine understanding.
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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Score Sample: Solo (2018)

So it is time to roll out another Star Wars track for the score sample. I have to say I was pretty excited to hear that John Powell was going to be providing the score for Solo, even though I wasn't too excited about the movie itself. Powell is one of those composers who knows how to create some orchestral bombast, and keep his themes colorful and engaging. His style is a bit different from John Williams, but his use of percussion in action music is impressive. His score for How to Train Your Dragon remains one of my favorite scores from the previous decade.

Then we got the news that John Williams was going to provide a theme for Han Solo, and Powell was going to utilize it in his score. That was music to this film score fan's ears. The result is one of the most entertaining and exciting Star Wars related scores we've ever got. Lots of great stuff on this album, but my favorite track has to be Reminiscence Therapy. Not only does Powell give us a great statement of the new Han Solo theme, but he works in classic musical moments from A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back into the cue. He keeps it all flowing into one amazingly dynamic track, a real highlight of the album.

So enjoy Reminiscence Therapy from Solo composed by John Powell including themes by John Williams.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wonder Woman (2017)

Introduction:

It was inevitable that I would watch Wonder Woman. It has Amazons in it. How am I supposed to resist that? Well you also have the fact that the character has always been around since I was a kid. I used to watch Challenge of the Super Friends a lot. But I got the feeling from the trailer that this movie would be a lot less silly and lot less 70s.

Summary:

On the hidden isle of Themyscira Amazons from ancient Greece are still alive and doing well, thank you very much. Their queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) tries to convince her spitfire of a daughter Diana (Gal Gadot) that she doesn’t need to be trained as a warrior. Even though the Amazons have been created by Zeus to battle Ares, the Gods were all destroyed many centuries ago.

Unfortunately it looks like Ares is also alive and doing well, thank you very much. Currently he has The Great War blazing across Europe and threatening to engulf the entire world. An American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) brings this news to the Amazons after he crashes on their island in his biplane. It doesn’t take long for Diana to grab her Lasso of Truth, her sword and shield and join forces with Trevor to find Ares. She suspects the ancient god is somewhere in the thick of the war, and will stop at nothing to destroy him. But this Wonder Womanis going to find that the world is deadlier than she even imagined. Robin Wright, Danny Huston and David Thewlis round out the cast.

Good Points: 
  • The cast does a great job bringing these characters to life
  • Some excellent visuals and action scenes keep things interesting
  • The movie moves at a good pace, balancing well between action and drama 

Bad Points:
  • The story is pretty familiar, super hero origin stories are a dime a dozen
  • The bookend scenes tying this movie to the Justice Leaguefeel unnecessary
  • The final battle against the big bad is by the numbers and fairly uninteresting

Overall:

Yeah the movie got its share of hype when it came out, so it is hard to not to come at it with high expectations. What you get is a solid superhero origin story that doesn’t break new ground, but is well put together and paced. The engagement of the cast and the handling of most of the action scenes make the film work. Not quite a wonder, but still a fun time.

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

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

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