Tuesday, August 15, 2017

And Then This Happened... You Only Live Twice

Being a tourist can be a lot of fun. You get to see new sights, meeting interesting people and sample the local cuisine. Maybe if you're lucky you learn a bit about the culture and history of the place you visit. And Japan is full of all kinds of things to see and do.

But when you carry a license to kill, and Q is the one doing all your packing, well these little trips can turn out a bit dicey. You end up going to some of the worst places in the country. I mean who wants to actually tour Bloefeld's secret mountain lair. The stupid thing is going to blow up eventually, right?

I think they are on to you James.  In any case, time for another caption from the film You Only Live Twice.

And then this happened...


Friday, August 11, 2017

Score Sample: You Only Live Twice (1967)

When comes to the James Bond films of the 1960s, you can count on one name - Barry, John Barry. He was involved with the scores to all the official James Bond films up to The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. He would return to the franchise after that film off and on. But lets be hones here, when you think of James Bond music, you think of John Barry's brassy, bold, jazzy style. He created some amazing scores in the late 60s for the series and these tend to be my favorites from that era of the franchise.

The score to You Only Live Twice not only has a great main theme (and theme song sung my Nancy Sinatra) but it also has some excellent supporting themes to back it up. Since the film takes place in Japan, you get a solid dose of interesting instrumentation, as well as some asian sounding style thrown into the mix. But where Thunderball went bold and brassy with its sound, You Only Live Twice went for a more lush and romantic sound. I better stop here, or this will go from a Score Sample post to a Movie Music Musing post.

In today's sample, you get the music that is used whenever we enter space in the film. Barry creates a tense motif that builds in tension as the small capsules are helplessly engulfed by the monstrous creation the villain sends up after them. Barry does a great job at creating incoming dread and increasing it as the track goes along. I love how the trumpets almost sound like they are screaming for help at the end of the cue followed by that timpani roll. So enjoy the Capsule in Space track from You Only Live Twice composed by John Barry.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Movie Musing: Going Ape for a Trilogy

With War for the Planet of the Apes we have one of the best film trilogies since The Lord of the Rings completed back in 2003. I know, I was just as surprised as you. If you look back at series that hit the three film mark you are hard pressed to find any that didn’t have at least a single dud in that chain.

Starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes these films have all had solid to excellent scripts. They created interesting and engaging characters and they have build up each other. I would even argue that the films actually got better as they went along. I loved how Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raised the stakes for the humans, as well as the apes. But the stakes were intertwined in a way that created drama and conflict that you were invested in. War for the Planet of the Apes did the same thing, but it went further, putting Caesar’s very soul at the heart of the film. It is an impressive achievement, and one that I would never have called back in 2011 when the series started.

I wanted to take a look at the various elements that made this series work so well. It isn’t quite a top ten list, because I’m not sure any one element outshines the other. But it is fascinating to see how they all worked together to create one of the best trilogies of film in modern times.

1.  Reworking the older films that had issues, instead of trying to remake what many feel is a classic.
Taking matters into his own hands.
  • This is something that I believe most studios really need to consider. Stop trying to remake and reboot films that are good. Look at the ones that had potential but fell short. Most people will say that Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction films of the 1960s, and some will even put it on a list of best science fiction films of all time. Fox made a wise decision to look at Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and rework the ideas presented in that film. It was a good move because people are less familiar with that movie, and it contains plenty of really intriguing ideas and moments that the new trilogy could develop in interesting ways. The most important element from that film (as well as Battle for the Planet of the Apes) is the character of Caesar.
2. Willingness to focus on the apes as the central characters

Sharing the story.
  • Rise did start with James Franco’s character as our main protagonist, but Caesar gets plenty of screen time and his story is just as important to the film. I’d say they share the film. But starting with Dawn, Caesar takes center stage, and with him the rest of the apes civilization. The creators could have tried to shoehorn a human into the main plot to act as an audience surrogate, but they resisted. Instead, human interactions are used to compare and contrast with the apes. There are key human characters in Dawn and War, but they never take the spotlight away form Caesar or his people. It was a bold decision, but one that put faith in the audience as well as the ability of the visuals to allow the audience to relate to the apes.
3.  Utilizing impressive visuals but keeping them in service of the story and characters
Road rage!
  • One of the main reasons it was a good time to revisit the Planet of the Apes franchise is that special effects technology is to the point where realistic ape characters can be created using state of the art technology. These movies share the same source material with the 70s films, but visually are very different. These apes look like actual apes, not people with ape heads. I’m not slighting the 60s and 70s films. They look very good for the makeup available at the time. But they create a more alien looking view of the apes. The current trilogy feels more grounded in what we understand as reality. But it isn’t just the impressive special effects, but the overall visual tone of the films. Director Matt Reeves gives Dawn and War a grim feeling that fits this view of one world dying and a new one beginning. It gives the new trilogy a cohesive feeling that was lacking in the earlier series. Finally these films have impressive visuals, but all of them are in service to the story and characters. There is very little visual showboating here. Yes you are blown away by some action sequences, but everything feels like it pushes the story forward, or is part of the themes of the series.
4.  Impeccable cast willing to commit to roles and stories
Kobe shows his laughing face... scary.
  • Even when you have all the wonderful special effects in the world at your side, if you don’t have a cast that is willing and able to pull off the characters you’ll be in trouble. Luckily each film is blessed with some outstanding performances. The highlight is Andy Serkis, who gives us a Caesar that is relatable, admirable and yet flawed. It is a great character, and Serkis steps up to the challenge of not only delivering such a nuanced performance over all three films, but doing so with so few words. Body language and eyes are the key elements for all the ape performers, and we get so many good ones. Karin Konoval as Maurice is pitch perfect in her role. Steve Zahn as Bad Ape in War provides just the right amount of eccentricity and levity to the dark film. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the powerhouse performance that Toby Kebbell unleashed as the conflicted Koba in Dawn. These performances make us believe in the apes as characters, and why we get so attached to their story as it continues.
5.  Allowing the music to have emotional weight in the film.
Caesar doubts the veracity of your claim.
  • There is a trend in “serious” Hollywood films today that film music should not call any attention to itself. It shouldn’t be emotional. It shouldn’t do anything but just kind of sit there in the background, droning away because we need a score of some kind and we don’t want the audience to feel manipulated. I wish I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not. Now you could argue if these three films are “serious” or not, but I think we could have easily ended up with a low key droning score on these. The filmmakers decided to actually allow the music to be heard and to carry emotions. The two composers who worked on the series, Patrick Doyle and Michael Giacchino, were allowed to build scores that were heard clearly in the film. The music took on additional importance for Dawn and War where so many of the characters are not speaking actual words, but expressing feelings with their eyes and body language. The music does some heavy lifting in these films. It gives us a wonderful theme for the Apes (and Caesar) that carries over the two movies and showcases the strength of those characters. Understanding how powerful and effective the music needed to be in these films was vital and it pleases me to read so many reviews of War that say how effective Giacchino’s score is in context. Check out some samples of the scores here.
6.  Understanding pacing and atmosphere to build tension.
A shaky truce is about to go south.
  • How easy would it have been to go the standard blockbuster route with these new apes films? Very easy indeed. Even with a title like War for the Planet of the Apes, the action sequences are restrained. Instead the films focus on building atmosphere and tension, so that when the big set pieces arrive, they have impact. Rise of the Planet of the Apes almost feels like a medical drama for the first half of the film, but it earns the climactic battle on the Golden Gate bridge. Dawn did up the action quotient, but did so by having the big sequences pull the characters in various directions emotionally and us right along with it. Those scenes in Dawn are nerve-racking because we are invested in Caesar’s dilemma and Koba’s conflict. War opens with a terrifying action sequence and then proceeds to go into tension building mode as the stakes get raised to almost unbearable levels. The final climax feels earned and cathartic when it hits. And because of the well-written scripts, the climax fits not just the film, but the whole trilogy as well.
7.  Tying all three scripts together.
Apes using eagle vision?
  • I’m not sure if the overarching story for these three films was written at once, or if Dawn and War were written with close attention paid to the previous installments of the current series. In any case the scripts of these three films builds on each other. This is actually something that franchise stories not based on existing material run into problems with. Too many times we have sequels that seem to exist in a vacuum with only passing attention paid to the earlier installments (especially in horror series). But these films tell a continuous story, with Caesar as our central character. Dawn could not work without the events of Rise. War would not play out as it does without the story told in Dawn. Care was taken with these scripts and you can tell.
8.  Providing nods to the older series.
Maurice and Nova are both call back names.
  • Even while these films forge their own path, they also take the time to provide nods to the films of the 1960s and 70s. I think Rise went a little too far with it. But the other two films don’t call attention to the references, but work them organically with the story. Someone who isn’t familiar with the older films will not feel like they are missing anything when they meet characters named Cornelius or Nova. But those who are familiar with the older movies will find an added layer to these films to enjoy. The new series doesn’t mock the older one (yeah I’m looking at you 2010 Clash of the Titans), but respects it for what it did and how it inspired these new films.
9.  Keeping to the grey zone.
It is the end of the world, and the colonel doesn't feel fine.
  • One of the elements I really like about this series is that there are no good guys and bad guys. There are protagonists and antagonists. We understand the motivation of nearly all the characters in these films, and while we may not agree with them, we can empathize with them. James Franco’s character in Rise is not a mad scientist, but a man who cares deeply about his father and Caesar. His actions eventually doom the human race, but they were done to help humankind. But at the same time his is rash and bit selfish, flaws that allow events to spiral out of his control. This continues into Dawn where the humans and apes have members that are filled with fear and hate. It is those individuals who drive the action of the story into darker and darker levels. It is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. You can see how it is all going wrong, no matter what everyone tries to do. The tension from that conflict is still one of the best in the series. War presents us with a human faction that seems to be evil on the surface. But the more we learn about them and the reasons why the Colonel is pushing the attack so hard, we realize that the stakes for humanity have never been higher. We can empathize with the man, even as he does horrible things to Caesar and his people. In the end, we cheer for the apes, because they are oppressed. Caesar is the one that tries to maintain peace and is willing to open a helping hand to humanity. But like many leaders before him, he is constantly challenged. Sometimes it is by humans, sometimes it is by his own people and finally it is by his own emotions.
10.  Committing to the tone.
The quality of mercy...
  • Now I’m going to sound like a bit of hypocrite here. I have lamented in the past about all the Hollywood blockbusters that were so dire and dower in tone after The Dark Knight became a huge hit. Rise came out right when that was still in full swing, and it was one of the reasons I missed the film in theaters. But I think the difference here is that the Planet of the Apes series as a whole has always had a very serious feel to it. They aren’t fun movies, but they are engaging movies. This new series falls into that same tone. We are dealing with the end of the human race after all. But I think the creators did such a good job balancing the tone just right. All three films have characters you can relate to, and hope for. They aren’t relentlessly depressing and dower just because they are trying to be cool. They are dealing with grim situations and the characters are reacting the best way they can. It feels right and earned. The creators never cheapen it by overplaying the mood, or trying to cut it with comic relief. Now War does contain the character of Bad Ape, who does bring some chuckles to the dark film. But his character has a tragic story, and even though his reactions can bring a smile or a laugh, we also feel bad for the guy. He is only reacting that way because of what happened to him before Caesar and his crew run into him. It is a dangerous character to introduce in that kind of film, but he is played and written perfectly. The tone was preserved and it delivers the impact it needs to. And as I mentioned above, the films could have veered off into pure action spectacle or gotten really ridiculous as they went along. But they stayed committed to the dark tone. It is an impressive feat that all three films are still engaging to watch and rewatch, even with such dark subject matter at the heart.

So those are my 10 reasons why this film trilogy is the best trilogy of films since Lord of the Rings. Did I miss something you think makes these work? Or do you have another trilogy that you think works just as well, or even better? Leave a comment and I’ll be sure respond (even to you Twilight fans out there).

Caesar in search for the dish best served cold.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Movie Music Musing: Rise of the Composers of the Apes

As a fan of film music I love it when a film series manages to create wonderful and engaging music with each installment. It is a rare thing, but us film score fans celebrate when it happens… usually by buying another special edition CD. But I digress.

The rebooted Planet of the Apes films that started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, have some pretty great music to go along with them. Two of my favorite composers worked on these movies, and I figured it was time to share some of the interesting work they composed for the three films.

Patrick Doyle conducts.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was directed by Rupert Wyatt with music composed by Patrick Doyle. This was a little strange because I always associate Doyle with his work for Kenneth Branagh. His scores for Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations are some of my favorite pieces from that type of film. But Doyle is a skilled composer and over the years he has provided excellent scores for animated films, military dramas and fantasy films. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the composer, except that it would probably be lush with lots of great melodic pieces and some real power in the orchestra.

And that is where things went totally different from what we all expected. Doyle’s score actually had a very modern blockbuster sound, like something that would come out of Hans Zimmer’s composing studio. It was aggressive, heavy of the drums and repeating motifs. You could still hear some of Doyle’s style in there, but it really seemed like he was asked to ape the modern blockbuster trends that were making Transformers scores popular.

Doyle later confirmed that this was the case. He was restricted to a particular sound, and did his best to work within it. The result is that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an interesting and effective modern score. Doyle’s style gives it different flavor, and when he is able to go grand and lush he does so with skill. But I still feel like Doyle is held back a little on this score, as solid as it is.

Here is a good action piece for when Caesar and his apes attempt to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Doyle gives it a propulsive modern feel, but the tension works very well.


For the majestic side, here if the final track from the album, Ceasar’s Home where Caesar climbs to the top of the trees with his followers and looks out over the city. Doyle builds the track with power and beauty that matches the victorious feeling the scene.

 

When Matt Reeves took over directorial duties for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes he brought over the composer who had supported him on his previous two films: Michael Giacchino. This film was going to have a few issues that the previous one didn’t have. There were large portions of the film with no audible dialogue, as the apes converse using gestures and glances. In these cases Giacchino was going to not just support but craft the emotion  of these scenes with his music.

Giacchino has really gone ape!
Now, I’m a big fan of Giacchino. He is one of my favorite composers working today, so yeah I’m a little biased to liking these scores and all the interesting things he tries. Luckily he was not tied to studio demands that the score sound modern. Instead Giacchino was able to actually make some musical nods to Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking score from the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. Giacchino used creative percussion, unique wind instruments and gave the whole score a much more primal and discordant feel. This means that the score can sound a little less approachable than Doyle’s effort. But I think it gives Dawn the right score for its darker tone.

Dawn actually ends up having two themes that evolve and battle throughout the score. The martial one for Koba, the human hating ape, gets some real highlights. The massive Gorilla Warfare track follows Koba’s attack on the human compound in San Francisco. It is an aggressive track that builds, batters and decimates the listener, all the while using Koba’s theme as the driving engine, even deconstructing it at times. The wailing choral voices as Koba commandeers an armored vehicle are especially chilling.


One of the most impressive pieces is what I like to think of as the Apes Hope theme. This one carries into the next score as well, but we get a wonderful presentation of it early in the score with The Great Ape Processional. It is a simple tune, but one that proves to be very malleable over the tow movies, sounding triumphant, contemplative and even tragic as the movies progress.  And yes, Giacchino goes ape with his primate puns for the titles. That’s just the kind of guy he is.



Giacchino and Reeves consult in
a hidden location.
War for the Planet ofthe Apes gave Giacchino a chance to expand on his themes and concepts he created in Dawn. While there are still moments of primal drumming and dark underscore bubbling with tension, there are also more new themes that really get a full workout in the score. Because of this War is actually a more vibrant score even if the movie is much darker.

Giacchino keeps the Goldsmithian touches with unique percussion and wind instruments, but they are less discordant in this score. As the ape’s civilization grows, so does the score. There are a lot of great moments in the music, but I really like the new theme for the hunt that Giacchino introduces. It is used several times as Caesar and his crew of apes track down the Colonel. It has a Morricone western feel to it. The theme works like gangbusters in the film, and The Posse Polanaise showcases it as a type of march at the end of the track.


Perhaps the most memorable moment in the film and the score is the finale. Caesar tragedy comes full circle, and for all that he has sacrificed and suffered his people have a new home. Paradise Found gives us the Apes Hope theme from Dawn and gives us a wonderful triumphant and yet sad version of the theme. Giacchino builds the score along with the scene as two apes discuss the future, and it ends the score in a satisfying way.


While part of me wishes that Doyle or Giacchino had been brought in from the start and had been able to develop themes and ideas over the course of all three films, the other half of my brain says, “Shut up! You got three great scores with three great movies.” Of the three, I think War may be my favorite. I love the variety Giacchino brings to it, and how he weaves and explores the ideas he crafted in the previous score. But that said, all three are worthy albums for anyone who enjoys the more primal side of film scores. Combined with Goldsmith’s masterpiece for Planet of the Apes and you have one hell of a playlist.

Bonus track, The Hunt from Goldsmith’s primal score.




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Introduction:

With Rise of the Planet of the Apes I wasn’t expecting anything special. I was just hoping we’d get something competent and entertaining. But the movie surprised me with a thought provoking story and engaging characters. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes repeated the trend, going deeper into the downfall of human civilization and the dominance of the apes. With the third film I was hoping we’d get a solid resolution to the story. What we got was something special indeed.

Summary:

After the events of the previous film, a military force lead by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) arrives in the Muir Woods to hunt down and kill Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his nascent civilization of apes. These trained soldiers are wrecking havoc, and there are even traitors to the apes cause. Those that used to follow Koba have now become minions to the Colonel’s forces. After a night raid devastates Caesar deeply, he makes a fateful decision.

He sends his people on an exodus from the woods to a new paradise beyond the desert. He will hunt down the Colonel and try to stop the man from following the apes. Caesar isn’t alone. Trusty friends Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) join him. Along the way they encounter a little mute girl (Amiah Miller) and a bizarre chimp named Bad Ape (Steven Zahn). As they close in on their target, they learn more about the Colonel and what drives his desperation. But things go horribly wrong and Caesar realizes that this War for the Planet of the Apes may end with the destruction of both species before it is all over.

Good Points:
  • Amazing visuals bring the apes to life and create intense set pieces
  • Brings the story of Caesar to a powerful conclusion
  • Builds on the thought provoking themes from the previous two films

Bad Points:
  • Looking for wall-to-wall action, you’ll be disappointed
  • Looking for a little hope for humanity in this film, look elsewhere
  • A few script conveniences and clich├ęs may distract from the overall impact

Overall:

I’m not usually a fan of dark apocalyptic films, but these three Planetof the Apes films are the exception to the rule. This installment of the series does a wonderful job on building on previous events and evolving the character of Caesar. Andy Serkis once again delivers an amazing and powerful performance as Caesar. This character is the glue that holds the series together. Harrelson does a great job as the antagonist whose desperations is palatable, and horrific. This is a dark film that forces us to face some dire things. But in the end there is hope, and it brings this wonderful trilogy to a satisfying conclusion… for the apes.

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

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


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