Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Top Ten – Favorite Film Scores of the 1980s

It is safe to say that my enjoyment of film scores started in the 1980s, when I picked up cassette tapes (remember those?) of the scores to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that a large part of my score collection contains music from this decade. I had a few readers ask me for top ten lists involving scores, and I was always at a lose on how to proceed. A top ten list of favorite scores vs. a top ten list of historically important scores vs top ten list of best scores by a composer… you see the problem.

For this one I just stuck with personal favorites of mine from films made in the 1980s. These are not my favorite films of the decade. But they are the top ten most listened to film scores. I did rank them, but this ranking is due to change at any moment, because – dammit they are all so good.

And yes, I love adventures scores, so you may notice a bias toward those types of albums. Fans of romantic comedies, sports films and dramas may be disappointed.

10. Kiki’s Delivery Service composed by Joe Hisaishi
So I start off the one score that isn’t an adventure score. But this happens to be one of my favorite animated films by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Because of that, this score is one I can listen to at almost any time. It is light, bubbly and filled with a kind of European flair that you don’t hear in much of Hisaishi’s work. It has lots of fun little moments that are captured musically. It also features music symbolizing the joy of flying (a soaring waltz-like style that Hisaishi would use in the later film Howl’s Moving Castle), as well as moments of quiet contemplation. It’s just a well-rounded CD presentation, and perfect listening for a lazy Sunday or just to take you back to the world of the film.

9. Tron composed by Wendy Carlos
From sweet and soothing to harsh and electronic. The score to Tron fits the film like a glowing power glove, and is certainly not something that everyone will enjoy. Carlos took actual arcade style music fused it with dissonant orchestral techniques and created something very new and unique for the film. It has themes and motifs, and some of them are excellent. The early 80s digital synth effects just create a whole new audio world, one rooted in Atari and arcades. Whenever I mention this is one of my favorite scores of the decade, I get odd looks, but I stick by it. Nothing like Tron has been created since, and it is still a lot of fun to listen to.

8. Batman composed by Danny Elfman
These days people think superhero music, and they think Hans Zimmer thanks to his work on the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel. But before that, people thought of Danny Elfman. His score for Batman is one of the most iconic superheroes scores around, and one that influenced countless imitators. Gothic, powerful and a little quirky, the score captures the nature of the caped crusader and Tim Burton’s vision of that hero in every detail. Batman’s theme swoops, dives and enshrouds the listener. The action music can be frantic, but crates an elegant chaos that is always overwhelmed by Batman’s theme. I still think this work tops Zimmers in nearly every way (from a stand along listen), and every time I return to it, I’m surprised by how dynamic it is.

7. Transformers the Movie composed by Vince DiCola
Oh man, am I gonna get grief for this one. But I can’t help it, I grew up with the Transformers, and this score is part of my childhood. It also the embodiment of the rockin’ 80s soundtracks. You know the stuff: full of synths and wailing electric guitars. Dicola takes those elements and actually creates a score with themes that battle each other, moments of dread and even a touching electronic piece for the death of Optimus Prime. His action set pieces are great stand-alone cues that could come off an electronic artists CD. But he even manages to work in ideas from the supporting songs on the soundtrack like Weird Al’s Dare to Be Stupid and Stan Bush’s Dare. It’s either genius or a marketing tool, but it is all awesome in a purely 80s sense.

6. Young Sherlock Holmes composed by Bruce Broughton
One of the huge influences on the decade in film music was John Williams. Bruce Broughton’s score for Young Sherlock Holmes takes the Williams template for adventure and fantasy scoring and simply nails it. Broughton keeps a lot of his own stylistic touch in the score, specifically the action queues which are very busy and frantic.  This score has everything you want in a top-notch adventure score. It’s got a great two-part theme for the heroes, a wonderful love theme, a sinister choral chant for the evil cult and a myriad of supporting themes. The action music is energetic, the horror moments are suspenseful and the end credits suite is one of my favorite from this decade.

5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan composed by James Horner
It was tough to pick just one score from Mr. Horner from the 1980s. He created so many wonderful albums in that decade. It ended up being between this score and his work on Krull. But I think as a complete listen, his score for Wrath of Khan is the best. He creates a wonderful nautical theme for the Enterprise and her crew. For a lot of folks, that theme is one of the best of the entire franchise. Horner also wrote a unique sound for Spock, one that inspired future composers Eidelman and Giacchino for their takes on Vulcan themes. Then there is Khan’s motif that brazenly explodes whenever the villain unleashes. Like all of Horner’s scores, it is filled with powerful emotions and big sound. The final tracks are some of the best of the entire franchise.

4. Explorers composed by Jerry Goldsmith
It was very difficult to pick a favorite Goldsmith score too. He created so many scores in all kinds of films, that picking just one was nearly impossible. But it all boiled down to the score that I listened to the most. That has to be his work on Dante’s family adventure film Explorers. There are about six different themes at work in this score, but the best is “the construction” theme, which serves as the heroic adventure theme for most of the score. I love how hints of the theme appear early in the work as the boys start thinking about the possibilities of space travel. Then you get a fully developed version as they build the machine, and then a wonderful exploration version of the theme (and the supporting “dreamer” theme) as they take it for a first flight. That is just one theme! The rest are all treated and manipulated in various ways, telling the story musically and with a lot of energy and warmth. It just makes me smile each time I listen to it, and it captures that feeling of adventure so well. A perfect fit for a score titled Explorers.

3. Conan the Barbarian composed by Basil Poledouris
This wonderful juggernaut of a score is one that I can always listen to from font to back and never once consider skipping a track. It is that good. Poledouris combines medieval rhythms and melodies to create a primeval feel to the score. Most films took a more classical or romantic approach and this allows the Conan score to stand alone, and yet sound so perfect for it’s film. The wonderful use of choir in tracks like Riders of Doom adds amazing power to those scenes. The love theme is sweeping and adds another layer to the propulsive music. It is one of the rare scores, like Tron, that creates a sonic representation of the visual world of the film. You hear this score and you are taken back to the age of Conan.

2. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom composed by John Williams
This one was nearly impossible, but I had to pick just one score from the Indiana Jones series, and in the end Temple of Doom won. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, but when it comes down to it, Temple of Doom is just a hair more fun to listen to. Williams takes the style and themes he created in the first film and builds on them. But he adds whole new thematic colors to the score and they are doozies. A new gal in Indy’s life gets a new love theme. The sidekick gets a theme. But the supporting themes are too many to count. You get some slick action music erupting in key tracks like Slave Children’s’ Crusade and The Mine Car Chase (which had to have killed some of the orchestra with the speed of those notes). The Temple of Doom chant is the dark blood red cherry on top, adding a huge dose of horror to the whole thing. It is a blast from start to finish, with the Raiders March wrapping the whole thing up. Only one score could possibly top it.

1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back composed by John Williams
It was the 1980s and John Williams was king of the film score world. But this is certainly one of his masterpieces. His approach to the first Star Wars sequel is similar to his approach on the first Indiana Jones sequel: take the familiar themes and build on them. He ended up creating two amazing themes for this film: the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme. Both of these themes are driving forces pushing the score into new story directions. The Imperial March is nearly omnipresent, opening and closing scenes, battering the rebels at each turn, and overwhelming Luke’s theme several times. Yoda’s theme works wonderfully during the scenes on Dagobah, often subtly guiding the film. Other times the theme steps forward and takes over: such as in the scene where Yoda raises the X-wing from the swamp. It is even turned into an amazing battle theme as Luke uses Yoda’s teachings to battle Vader. Han and Leia get a sweet love theme that is turned into a dirge when Han is frozen and then into a hopeful beacon as the film swoops into an amazing tour de force end credits suite. All that and again, Williams creates a myriad of lesser themes and motifs that drive the action, with one of his best chase pieces The Asteroid Field taking the cake. It is an amazing score, one of the few that actually tops its predecessor. If you had any doubt that John Williams was a Maestro of film scores, one listen to the complete version of The Empire Strikes Back should convince you to call him Master.


Here is a set of other scores that made into consideration. I could write more about each of them, but this post is long enough. Here they are in alphabetical order. Expect to hear more about them in future blogs.
  • Amadeus
  • Back to the Future
  • Bladerunner
  • Castle in the Sky
  • The Dark Crystal
  • E.T.
  • The Final Conflict: The Omen III
  • Glory
  • Gremlins
  • Hellbound: Hellraiser II
  • Hellraiser
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Karate Kid II
  • Krull
  • The Living Daylights
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • Poltergeist
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Silverado
  • Star Trek III
  • Star Trek V
  • Willow

Friday, April 11, 2014

Score Sample - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

A genre of film music that I've been enjoying quite a bit lately is the Western. I'm not a big fan of the movies themselves. I usually have to be in the right mood to enjoy one. But man, there has been some great music for Westerns of all shapes and sizes. One of the biggest Westerns is, of course, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. And the music by Ennio Morricone is some of the most recognizable of all time. Play the main theme from this film and nearly anyone will know it is a) from a Western and b) it has Clint Eastwood in it.

However Morricone went beyond simply writing a score for a Western, he basically rewrote the musical language of the whole genre. His first crack at this was for A Fist Full of Dollars. But the score to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly really fires on all cylinders for the entirety of it's run time. This score would influence countless Western scores following it, including Jerry Goldsmith's 100 Rifles. It would also serve as one of the main influences on Hans Zimmer. Just listen to some of his music to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise - you'll hear more than a little Morricone in there. That said, here is one of my favorite tracks from Morricone's score The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - The Ecstasy of Gold.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Treasure Planet (2002)

Disney animation hit some hard times in the early 2000s. Pixar was eclipsing them. Dreamworks released a mega-hit with Shrek. Disney’s star of the 1990s was falling fast, and they were trying to shake things up a bit to get back the crown as the kings of family entertainment. So they decided to attempt a couple of straight up action adventure animations. The first was Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The second was this film based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island.

Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a rough and rowdy teenager living in a spaceport town with his mother. He keeps getting into trouble, and yearning for adventure. You know the type. One evening a mysterious alien named Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan) stumbles into their inn babbling about being pursued by a dangerous cyborg. He hands Jim a strange sphere and dies, before space pirates arrive and destroy everything in sight looking for the sphere. Jim and his mother make their escape.

Jim determines that the sphere is really a map to the fabled treasure planet. He joins forces with the fussy Doctor Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) and charters a space ship to seek out the planet. With them are Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) and John Silver (Brian Murray). It becomes apparent that Silver is up to something, and while he befriends Jim, he may be using him to find Treasure Planet. Martin Short, Michael Wincott and Laurie Metcalf round out the cast.

Good Points:
  • Some amazing design, character animation and visuals
  • A fun adaptation of the source material
  • James Newton Howard provides a swashbuckling but modern score

Bad Points:
  • Some of the adaptation concepts are a little clunky
  • The comic relief characters are painful… very painful
  • Never finds the right tone, or pacing, or execution

A simple case of Disney trying WAY too hard. The visual aspects are the best part of the film, creating an interesting world to frame the classic tale. But time and again, the movie is scuttled by bad decisions. I lost track of the number of fart jokes. Martin Short’s character was aggressively annoying. Some of the obvious nods to the book were a little too obvious. Other times, they go in an interesting direction only to not follow all the way through. It was a movie I found myself wanting to like, but in the end found it to be a major misfire.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  3

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

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

For a while there Charleton Heston was contractually obligated to appear only in huge sprawling historical and biblical epics. Ok, I exaggerate a little bit, but only teeny tiny bit. And while we all know about Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, here is one you don’t hear about too often. The topic was unique, the cast was impressive and it has plenty of “epic” moments, but how come you never hear about this film?

The year is 1508 and Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charleton Heston) is hard at work on a glorious tomb for Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). But Pope Julius is more concerned with transforming the Sistine Chapel into something worthy of Papal power. So he demands that Michelangelo paint the 12 apostles on the ceiling. Michelangelo hates this idea, and he tells the pope that to his face. Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor first and foremost. His painting skills were merely a stepping-stone in his education. But Pope Julius insists, and when he insists – he means it.

And so a battle of wills plays out. Michelangelo eventually takes the assignment, but feels no spark of inspiration for it. He drags his feet, and makes many excuses to not work, even fleeing from Rome to escape Julius’s soldiers who have orders to drag him back to the chapel or face prison. While on the run, he is suddenly struck by inspiration – the creation of the world would be a much better and more interesting topic for the ceiling. So he returns to Rome to begin painting, much to Julius’ delight. Unfortunately Michelangelo is a perfectionist. Years drag on and the ceiling is nowhere near completion. Michelangelo begins to go blind and Julius’ health starts to fail him. Will either one survive The Agony and the Ecstasy of this creation of one of the most famous pieces of Renaissance art?

Good Points:
  • A wonderful dynamic between Heston and Harrison
  • Impressive scope and visuals
  • Wonderful score by Alex North

Bad Points:
  • Moves in fits and starts with long dialogue scenes doing little to advance the story
  • The topic seems a bit strained for an “epic” style film
  • The dubbing of the supporting cast may distract some viewers

This seems a strange topic for a huge budget Hollywood epic, and at times the material seems a bit stretched. However the dynamic acting between Heston and Harrison are a real draw. Their scenes together keep the film cooking. The visuals are impressive with beautiful location shooting and impressive sets and interiors. Alex North provides a wonderful musical score. It’s an interesting film done in that classic epic style.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
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.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Rogues' Gallery - Sharon Apple

There is no reason to think Sharon's logo is a twisted
version of the Macross Plus logo, no reason at all.
In my review of Macross Plus I spent a lot of time talking about Sharon Apple and her devious ways, but only included a single teaser picture of the virtual idol. That's because Sharon beguiled me with her melodious voice and stunning visage(s). I ended up with way too many screen captures of her. So I focused on presenting the rest of the cast and the mecha from the series, and decided to give Sharon her own blog post.

And since she becomes the primary antagonist of the series, she's a perfect fit for the rogues' gallery concept. What is interesting about Macross Plus is that Isamu is our main character, but his rival Guld, isn't a bad guy. In fact he seems a lot more sensible and calm than Isamu. There's a bit of irony in that, and any fan of the original Macross (or Robotech) series will pick up on it. Guld is actually half Zentradi. The Zentradi are an alien race of warriors who are genetically bred to be soldiers. So it is in Guld's DNA to fight and to win. There is a brief mention in the series that Guld is taking some kind of drug to help temper his killer instinct. Of course he ends up snapping a few times, and Isamu is on the receiving end. But still, Guld isn't a bad guy, he's made some bad choices in life but deep down he still cares about Myung and Isamu.

Guld focusing hard on not killing Isamu.
Since those three were childhood friends, the series needed someone else to raise the stakes of villainy. Enter Sharon Apple. But in all honesty, I feel a bit bad for her too. She's essentially a super powerful child who has no guidance and doesn't realize that she is doing anything wrong. She just wants to please everyone. And the only way to do that is to give them what they want. Since they all love watching her, they get to watch her - forever. She figures out that Isamu loves living on the edge of danger. This must be because he wants to experience death, right? So why not give him that ultimate experience. See it all makes logical sense in the end... Right guys?

Um, Ok, so maybe I've been listening to too much Sharon Apple music, and I'm sympathizing with the devil. But it's hard to argue with a virtual siren. So without further ado, enjoy some images of the real star of Macross Plus. And why don't you listen to her song Idol Talk while you do so. I'm sure it won't have any affect on your mind.

So if Sharon is a virtual idol, then what does her hardware look like. Well it's pretty simple actually. You've got your basic HAL inspired black box with a red eye. Red is a motif for Sharon. Might have something to do with apples, but she will neither confirm nor deny that.

Sharon keeps a digital eye on all her fans.

Later in the series, Sharon takes control of the "Ghost Fighter", a lethal mecha that gives Guld and Isamu a real run for the money. And what color is it?

Oh she's sleek and wicked looking in her "Ghost Fighter"
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but where's the virtual idol! That's what we all came to see! Ok, well you get three different versions of Sharon in her virtual idol form. First there is the pixie-esque playful version.

Just because she's cute doesn't mean she won't
try to kill you.
Then there's the one with the long red hair and hypnotic gaze. She seems to be the seducer of the group, usually appearing when she wants to entice a watcher to do her will.

Whoops, Isamu made eye contact.

Finally there is the purple garbed goddess. She's the one that speaks the most often and wants to care for everyone. But she's just as dangerous as the others.

Sharon tells Myung that she will take care of
everything. It is not a comforting thought.

In the final episode Sharon and Myung have a face off. Creator and creation try to reason with each other. The thing is Sharon is everything that Myung tried to bury. At first Myung doesn't understand that.

Myung tries to have a chat with her "daughters", but
it's difficult when she's tied up.
Once Myung figures out Sharon's logic, it dawns on her how dangerous the virtual idol is. For Sharon, there is no need to "reason" with her creator. Because the reason is so very clear. The roles reverse and Sharon starts treating Myung as the child, even going so far as to appear larger than Myung in those final scenes.

I'm your mother now. Be a good little girl bring
Isamu to me.
One of the perks of being virtual is you can be in multiple places at once. During the finale concert at Macross, Sharon appears as a towering goddess over the city, while her music and image appears on every screen and holographic projector in the city.

A giant crazy goddess was seen over Macross last
But it's hard to stay mad at Sharon. She looks so peaceful when she's turning everyone into her devoted slave/fans. They'll just sit there and stare at her for an eternity (or until they die of thirst, whichever comes first).

So calm. So serene. So crazy. Notice her earrings
are her symbol. 
Eventually Isamu and Guld manage to defeat some of Sharon's traps and weapons. So she starts playing dirty. Isamu enlisted one of her biggest fans (and an expert hacker) to put a stop to the virtual idol. Well, because the poor dope is using a computer to hack into Sharon's mainframe (is that dirty?), she decides to visit him. 

Sharon comes face to face with her biggest fan, and
twists his mind like a candy cane.
Then she goes for Isamu, swimming through his tracking screen and into his lap, singing her siren song the whole time.

Dealing with virtual idols is never covered in the
airline safety films.
Luckily Myung breaks the spell by singing Voices in the intercom and shattering Sharon's hypnotic music. Isamu snaps out of it and destroys Sharon once and for all. It's a neat call back to the original Macross saga, where a pop star's song brings two warring races together.

Giant goddess Sharon is sad there won't be
an encore performance.
And there you have it, the ULTIMATE Sharon Apple experience on this blog. Short of going to one of her concerts it doesn't get much better than this. So for fans of the muse hell bent on pleasing her fans to death, I hope you enjoyed this gallery. Now, if you excuse me, I'm going to listen to Information High again and wait for Sharon to come out of my computer and sing me to death... sleep, I meant sleep. 

Disclaimer: While Sharon Apple was destroyed at the end of the series, fans suspect that some of her programming survived and is even now plotting a return to the virtual world. Except she changed her name to Hatsune Miku to keep people from freaking out.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Macross Plus (1994)

I blogged about how I’m part of the Robotech generation of anime fans. It was the series that really brought anime to my attention as a kid. And even though I became a full-fledged fan of Japanese animation about ten years after viewing the series, it made an impression on me. One of the anime series of the 1990s that helped pull me into fandom (after Rally and the Gunsmith Cats worked their magic) was a sequel to the Robotech saga. Of course Robotech was the American name for the series, in Japan it was known as Super Dimension Fortress: Macross.

Isamu Dyson (Lee Stone) is a young cocky mecha pilot. He has all the skills to make him great, but a reckless attitude that endangers others when he shows off. Because he’s a bit of an ass, his superiors decide to transfer him to New Edwards on the planet Eden, to be a test pilot for the experimental mecha they are working on. Isamu knows his ego is writing checks his body can’t cash, but he doesn’t care, and heads off for his new assignment with glee.

Little does he know that his old rival Guld Goa Bowman (Richard George) is also a test pilot at New Edwards. The two renew their dislike for each other, and Colonel Millard (Beau Billingslea) uses it to his advantage, forcing the two to compete with each other to determine which experimental fighter will be the best fit for the military.

To further complicate matters, Isamu and Guld both had a childhood crush on the same girl, Myung Fang Lone (Anne Sherman). She’s also returned to Eden as the manager of the hottest idol singer in the galaxy. The singer is named Sharon Apple (Melora Harte), but she is no ordinary idol. She’s actually a computer system that is linked to Myung. Her emotional programming gets a boost from her human counterpart, and the computer creates the perfect image and songs for the spectators – creating the ultimate in entertainment.

These four personalities are going to collide in a battle of egos, history and technology. And don’t count Sharon out, just because she doesn’t have a body, doesn’t mean she won’t play for keeps, and leave nothing but pieces in her wake.

Good Points:
  • Some amazing animation for its time
  • Wonderful score and songs by Yoko Kanno
  • Develops an interesting corner of the Macross universe
Bad Points:
  • Those looking for pure action will be annoyed by the human drama that takes center stage
  • Someone watched Top Gun a few times before writing the script
  • Does not follow any of the characters or events from the television series
Judged on its own merits, Macross Plus is an entertaining series. The impressive animation showcases some amazing battle sequences and the virtual realities of Sharon Apple. Kanno’s songs are a wonderful mix of mysterious, beautiful, and poppy.  It’s solid entertainment, and was certainly a showcase series of its time.

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

In Depth Review
The Macross Plus logo opens each episode. In the
mid 90s this CG image was the cat's pajamas!
This was one of those Original Animated Video (OAV) series that I remember taking forever to get a full release. For some reason the first two episodes were widely available on VHS, but episode three was hard to get a hold of, and the final episode took forever to get released in North America, nearly a year after the third episode of memory serves. But anime fans were patient and while we were waiting we could spin through the epic saga of Record of Lodoss War or Tenchi Muyo again. It’s funny to think back on those crazy VHS only days and remember how rare some of this stuff was, and how excited we were about these shows. Now that anime has saturated the world of entertainment, I wondered how well a glorified version of Top Gun was going to hold up with my memories.

To tell you the truth Macross Plus was still very entertaining. I didn’t remember it being so focused on the love triangle. I didn’t remember the animation being so good (especially during the flying and battle sequences). And now that I’ve seen the entirety of the original Macross series (sure it was in Robotech form, but it counts), a lot of neat parallels became more obvious.

Guld's fighter prepares for it's next test run at
New Edwards.
As a whole Macross Plus has some impressive animation. They’ve taken the overall designs of the fighter planes, outfits and general tech of the original Macross series and pushed it forward a bit. You still recognize this as the same universe, but it everything looks a bit cleaner and a bit shinier. The two specialized fighters transform (of course), and the animators have a field day putting the two fighters into various situations where they can switch modes and continue battling. Each episode contains at least one fighter test sequence, but the finale episode has the biggest and most elaborate fight scene in the series. As far as 90s transforming mecha action, it is hard to top that battle scene.

I have seen some folks take issue with the character design. In an act of rebellion, the characters defy the tiny nose convention of most anime, and go for some serious nasal action. I actually liked this look; it certainly makes the series stand apart from its peers in the visual department. The same look would be used in one of the best series of the decade, Vision of Escaflowne, which boasted many of the same creative team. To me it’s a nice glimpse of a time when unique character design was more prevalent in anime.

Sharon Apple's first concert on planet Eden is
a smashing success.
But the most interesting character, and interesting use of animation in Macross Plus is Sharon Apple. Her computer design is obviously inspired by HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But her virtual self has three distinct looks and personalities. There are two concerts with Sharon and the animators go all out letting the virtual idol assume all three variations of her personality, create holographic backgrounds and a dazzling array of visual flourishes. These concerts scenes are some of the best utilization of CG and integrating it into the hand drawn visuals in the series. Since the whole thing is a virtual concert the incongruous styles don’t detract much. The last episode, where Sharon unleashes her final scheme, gives her plenty of time to shine. My favorite moment is when she appears as a towering goddess looming over Macross welcoming her slaves… I mean fans, to embrace her. There are some wonderful and iconic visuals in this final episode, and Sharon’s fans are sure to pick that one as their favorite.

Isamu is riding the highway to the danger zone when
he trash talks to Guld.
As I mentioned the series does use a bit of computer animation. Since this was the mid-90s some of it looks a bit primitive now. When it is used for holographic displays or during the virtual concerts it’s fine. But there are a few moments where it is used for the fighters, and they just don’t look too good over hand drawn backgrounds or characters. This was an issue with anime of the period, before computers really took over the coloring and consistency of the animation. Some series worked it in better than others, and for me Macross Plus wasn’t as jarring as something like Blue Submarine No. 6.

And speaking of the concerts and music, well you knew I had to mention it at some point. Yoko Kanno’s work on Macross Plus is what really brought her to the attention of many anime fans as well as being her real breakout piece. She composed the score; an eclectic mix of styles ranging from classical inspirations like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, to film composer styles similar to Ennio Morricone, John Williams and even Bill Conti’s work on The Right Stuff. The score is primarily orchestral and performed with energy by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Myung is Sharon Apple's "manager" in more ways
than one.
Of course the pop songs performed by Sharon Apple are the highlight, with Kanno using several different artists to perform for the virtual idol and provide a wide spread of styles and flavors. The main theme for the series has to be the song Voices. This was a song the character Myung sung in her youth, but has turned her back on. It appears several times as other characters mention it. There’s a great orchestral version of the song, an a cappella version, and a full ballad version of the song. It is one of Kanno’s best songs and well worth checking out.

Since this was an early anime release, it was made when anime companies were experimenting with translating the J-pop into English. The English dub for Macross Plus features an English version of Voices, performed by Michelle Flynn. She does a fine job and her vocal style is very similar to Akino Arai. The rest of the English dub is pretty hit and miss. It’s kind of odd, because many of these performers would go on to do some great work for future projects like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. But here, there are some very stilted deliveries, flat performances and some odd acting choices. There are a few comical (not intentional) moments. The script isn’t terribly complicated, so you can go with Japanese with subtitles for this one. Of the cast, I think Lee Stone (which was a pseudonym for actor Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame) as Isamu does the best job channeling his inner Tom Cruise.

One of the images that always comes to mind
when I think of this series.
So the script to Macross Plus is the major weak point. It is Top Gun with a virtual idol mixed in with transforming fighter planes. But while the Tom Cruise flick focused on how awesome the jets were and how awesome Tom Cruise was, Macross Plus goes for a soapy route. The love triangle is played to the hilt, with Guld, Isamu and Myung all fighting their inner demons, their mixed up past and their desires. It actually gives the three characters a bit more dimension that Maverick and Iceman ever really got. But it also lays it on a bit thick at times. Both Guld and Isamu are some of the most unprofessional pilots I’ve ever seen, even for test pilots. Myung fares a bit better, with her desires being channeled into Sharon Apple, who takes those desires and actualizes them. 

Sharon Apple takes the whole thing to a new level, she’s a newborn whose entire psyche is based on a damaged woman’s. She has nearly godlike powers and doesn’t feel she needs to hold back when trying to achieve her ultimate goal – to provide Isamu with the ultimate experience. In other words, try her darnedest to kill him in front of Myung. You know how those virtual idols are. 

A rescue attempt is about go horribly wrong.
There is an interesting theme about technology running through the whole series. Both of the new mecha fighters are cutting edge weapons. The one Isamu is piloting is faster and more maneuverable than the current design. But it still relies on a pilot to get the job done. The other fighter that Guld is flying is tied directly to his brain. He doesn't actually have controls in front of him, but uses his mind as the interface. It can react as as quickly as Guld can think. But as the series continues we learn of another fighter the Macross government is working on, one with an advanced AI that doesn't require a pilot at all. This "Ghost Fighter" becomes a nemesis for the Guld and Isamu. And it mirrors Sharon Apple, an advanced AI who wants to take over Myung's duties to "her men". Of course Sharon takes control of the Ghost Fighter and that turns into the grand battle in the final episode. While the story isn’t anything terribly new, there is enough of it to flesh out four episodes each running about 40 minutes or so, and to give us some wonderful animated sequences.

This cityscape is familiar to all fans of the Macross
(and Robotech) series.
Directors Shoji Kawamori and Shinichiro Watanabe do a great job keeping the story trucking along for that entire series. There is a nice balance of action, drama and eye candy in each episode. The only episode that bogs down a little bit is the third one. It is mostly set up for the final episode. This episode is the most soapy of the episodes in Macross Plus, and it is light on action. But the fourth episode more than makes up for it pushing the action to 11 and having Sharon Apple take center stage. Watanabe would go on to work on Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo ( both featuring music by Yoko Kanno). Kawamori would continue work in the Macross universe as well as create the fantasy saga Vision of Escaflowne and Aquarion (both also featuring music by Yoko Kanno). As you can see Macross Plus served as a springboard to several careers. In that way it a milestone for Japanese animation. But it is also a entertaining series worth checking out. Just make sure that Sharon Apple doesn’t come out of your screen and start singing… you’ll be in real trouble .

But wait! Where is Sharon Apple in this review? I suspect she needed a rogues' gallery of her own.

"I'll be waiting to give you the Ultimate experience." 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fugitive Alien (1987) – MST3K Review

The fearsome Wolf Raiders are attacking earth and making a real mess of things. The most fearsome is Ken (Tatsuya Azuma), who can toss humans around like they are sock monkeys and manages to scowl pretty good even with this goofy clown wig/helmet on. But it all goes wrong when a little human boy named Ken appears and Ken (the Starwolf) can’t shoot him. His fellow Starwolf mocks him and then takes aim a little Ken. Big Ken tries to stop him and blammo Ken has killed one of his own.

The supreme leader of the Raiders won’t stand for this and declares Ken a fugitive. After a daring escape from the raiders Ken is adrift in space. He is rescued by the crew of the Bacchus III. Captain Joe (Jo Shishido) sees that Ken may be able to help them in more ways then one, but the untrusting Rocky (Choei Takahashi) is just waiting for Ken to screw up. What adventures and excitement will our Fugitive Alien experience this week… I mean, this time, because this is not, I repeat, is not a movie made up of a bunch of episodes from a Japanese weekly series.

Movie Review:
Fugitive Alien is a “movie” made up of a bunch of episodes from a Japanese weekly series called Star Wolf (Sutaurufu). Star Wolf was made back in 1978, which should tell you just what the series was going for – Star Wars. The opening scenes with the Raiders attacking earth, the ships look suspiciously like the X-wing fighter Luke Skywalker uses to blow up the Death Star. And while the show was obviously inspired by the recent success of Mr. Lucas’ opus, there are a lot of other inspirations going around.

Bacchus III, the booziest ship
in the cosmos.
Anime like Space Battleship Yamato (aka Star Blazers) had been providing Japanese viewers with space opera adventures since 1974. So it makes sense that Star Wolf feels a lot like a live action anime series, more often than not. Captain Joe is typical of the rough and ready commander type. Ken is typical of the misunderstood, but brave and strong hero type. Even Tammy (Miyuki Tanigawa) is cheerful and perky and plays the token girl in the all male crew.

The acting and the camerawork in Fugitive Alien  follow suit. Most of the parts are played pretty broadly, with the exception being the evil leader of the wolf raiders who shows no emotions when he orders the death of hundreds. But everyone else is over the top and having a good time. The camera work uses bursts of quick editing, as well as multiple zooms so you can see every pore on a persons’ face – a technique very popular in anime in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

But some of the adventures reminded me strongly of the original series of Star Trek, especially the story arc on the alien world where negotiations are taking place between Captain Joe and a miniature leader dressed like a Mongol warlord. But most of the space battles, Ken’s daring escapes and the crew’s ability to work together reminds me strongly of space opera anime series like Macross (or Robotech if you prefer) or Outlaw Star.

Don't let the red clown wig fool
you, Ken will shoot first.
I’ve made this sound pretty good so far, but just like anime, there are some amazingly bizarre and goofy touches in this series that make it ripe for riffing. The first thing you see is the Wolf Raiders, supposedly fearsome invaders, except for the small fact that they are wearing helmet with bright read clown wigs attached to the inside of them. I don’t care how much destruction and carnage you create, if you’re dressed like that people are going to laugh. Then you get odd things like Ken’s explosive buttons on his jumpsuit, or the whole scene with Rocky and the forklift. You can’t help but ask questions. Why is the leader of the Wolf Raiders made up like a kabuki actor? Why does Ken’s old fiancĂ© have long blonde hair, even though she’s obviously Japanese? What is hidden inside Captain Joe’s huge, huge cheeks?

But the real culprit here is whoever decided to make a buck off of this series, because it was old by the time 1987 rolled around. Star Wars was long over and considered un-cool (although Star Trek had a pretty solid following thanks to the success of The Next Generation series). They took a dozen episodes or so, edited them down in a bare bones fashion and slapped a ridiculous dub track to create Fugitive Alien.

As you may have guessed the final product makes very little sense. Some scenes flow better than others, and the whole opening with Ken actually establishes him pretty well. But the horrible editing, the amazing lame voice acting pretty much turns what could have been a fun television series into one of the most astoundingly bizarre sci-fi “movies” out there. It’s little wonder that Joel and the bots tackled this movie, not just once, but twice!

Episode Review:  
"Yes! A leatherette jumpsuit!"
Yep, you read that right. Fugitive Alien was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the cable access season and then again on Comedy Central during season three. I’ve never seen the cable access season, and frankly I’ve heard they aren’t nearly as good as the later work. I’ll take the cast and crew’s word on it. Instead I’ll focus on their Season Three effort.

Sandy Frank was the man behind the plan of grabbing Japanese imports and repackaging them for the American market. He did this with the Gamera films as well as the turning the Gatchaman anime into Battle of the Planets in the late ‘70s. So what he’s done here with Fugitive Alien really comes as no surprise. It’s also no surprise that Joel and bots tackle it, since they were on a roll with Sandy Frank’s work in season three (tacking the Gamera films as well as a couple other television series turned into movies including Time of the Apes and Mighty Jack).

But this stuff is riffing gold! The Japanese style combined with the goofy voice acting and horrendous dubbing just keeps on delivering and delivering material for the boys to comment on.

In the opening scenes of Fugitive Alien when big Ken can’t shoot little Ken, Joel and the bots just assume everyone in the movie is named Ken. This creates a whole bunch of silly jokes and provides a running theme that pops up when you least expect it.

Tammy doubts the veracity of
Captain Joe's cheeks.
While Ken is on screen for most of the film, the character that generates the most laughs is Captain Joe. His huge cheeks, his blustery demeanor and his bizarre voice over actor just make him a perfect target. You could argue that the episode is at its best when Captain Joe is on the screen. Combined with the goofy vinyl outfits the crew wears Joel dubs them “Captain Gerbil and the Leatherettes”.

But the riffers also get a lot of mileage out of the overall style of the movie. As I mentioned there are a lot of quick edits and zooms (sometimes in combination). The boys will add all kinds of sound effects to these moments, especially the surprised gasp, or a simple “huh?” They also pick up on some of the bizarre music choices used in the film. Again I’m not sure if this is something the American distributor added in postproduction, or if this is original to the series, but you’ve got some great stuff here. 

When an oddly twanging piece kicks in as we see the majestic Bacchus III in dry doc, Tom asks if “Ma and Pa Kettle have boarded the ship.” But one of the most classic scenes from this episode is when an overtly brassy piece kicks in during infamous Forklift incident. The boys concoct a song to go along with the tune and sing it. That moment alone is worth seeking out this episode. And when the piece is used later the boys adapt their lyrics to suite the scene.

Fugitive Alien is also an episode filled with references to previous MST3K episodes. So long time viewers will get a kick out of mentions of characters, situations and even riffs from Pod People, Lost Continent, Cave Dwellers and more.

I’m going to stop here, because there are so many great moments and little humorous bits that I could comment forever on this episode. So lets just get to the host segment break down.

The episode opens with Joel pretending he’s a farmer and the bots are his animals. Has Joel lost his mind already? For the invention exchange the mad scientists create a device that delivers all your ear, nose and throat drops at once. Frank demonstrates and nearly drowns. Joel shows off his “musical chair” a lounger that doubles as a xylophone. Then Jack Perkins shows up to introduce the film (and never leaves the Mad Scientists alone for the rest of the episode). At the first break, Joel and bots are inspired by the Wolf Raiders goofy helmets to make their own. When they boys are back after the next round of movie, Joel is Captain Joe and the bots are terrified. At the next break Joel and bots attempt to break down the screenplay of the “film” using Syd Field’s screenplay technique (a book I used in University!). At the end of the film Joel shows off his explosive buttons on his jumpsuit. And back in Deep 13 the mad scientists have had enough of Jack Perkins and prepare to finish him off.

Joel channels his inner Captain
Joe. The bots look on in horror.
For me this is one of the best episodes of the entire series. The movie’s a hoot, the riffing is top notch and packed with laughs. Following this up with  Star Force: Fugitive Alien 2 or Time of the Apes and you've got a great one two punch of MST3K gold. In my opinion Season Three does not get better than this. It also earns its place in my top ten favorite episodes of all time. 

I give it five exploding jumpsuit buttons out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXIV.