Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Monkey King 2 (2016)


After watching The Monkey King I was very curious to see how the sequel played out. While I did enjoy the first film overall, it had a few detriments that kept me from getting completely pulled in. But this film actually picks up what I think is the most interesting part of the story, the actual Journey to the West. This stage of the journey gives Sun Wukong new allies and enemies to encounter. He progresses away from selfish actions and toward something more enlightened. At least that is the theory, let’s see if the sequel gets it right.


When we last left Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok) Buddha had trapped him inside a mountain. Five hundred years have passed and a young monk Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng) releases Wukong in a bid to get away from a massive hungry tiger. Wukong bursts free and helps Sanzang with his tiger problem and even with a little dragon problem. Before Wukong can go his merry way, a golden circlet wraps around his head, and Sanzang has the power to make it tighten. Wukong is deeply offended by this, but it turns out that the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chen) feels that Wukong must help Sanzang reach his final goal – to journey to the Thunder Monastery in the far west and obtain holy scriptures. If Wukong can keep Sanzang alive and help him reach the goal he will have atoned for his rampage in the previous film.

Wukong accepts his fate, and it’s a good thing too. Soon the pair run into a bizarre pig man named Bajie (Xiaoshenyang) and his simple minded but strong companion Sha (Him Law) who has the ability to turn into sand. At first these two are a nuisance, but they turn into trusty companions (except when Bajie lets his lust or his belly get the better of him). As the heroes travel they find themselves in a land gripped by a demonic menace. Lady White Bone (Gong Li) has been abducting children and using their essence to keep herself young and full of magic power. If she gets her claws on Sanzang she will be able to achieve immortality. Soon she weaves a dangerous set of traps for the companions. It climaxes in a battle of good against evil, selflessness against selfishness and Wukong flying around the screen and kicking all kinds of undead butt.

Good Points:
  • Kwok and Li are excellent in the roles
  • Christopher Young’s score is top notch
  • Location and sets are impressive

Bad Points:
  • The fast pace compromises character development
  • When the movie goes full CG spectacle it isn’t as engaging
  • Those not familiar with the story may be confused by certain motivations


In a lot of ways The Monkey King 2 improves on many of issues I had in the first film. The acting is more uniform all the way around. The sets, location shooting and costumes are all impressive. Gong Li makes for an alluring and diabolical antagonist. The quick pace keeps everything moving. But it also ends up sacrificing character development and some of the key moments have less weight and power because of it. Well worth checking out if you enjoyed the first film and are looking for a big budget spectacle.

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

In Depth Review

Oh it is ON!
I was first introduced to Journey to the West by a children’s picture book way back in 1989. My sister picked it up because she loves animals, and the picture of a monkey wielding a staff against a monster on the cover caught her attention. The book was actually part of a series that covered the entire saga of Sun Wukong. This book just explored Wukong’s encounter with the Yellow Robe Monster. We were fascinated by the monkey, his companions and the adventures they had while facing the demon. I don’t remember if it was the book or some other reason, but we called him The Golden Monkey.

We encountered Wukong a few years later at my grandmother’s house. She had a local station that showed Chinese programming. One day while we were flipping channels there was The Golden Monkey, his pig buddy and the monk – full live action and getting into all kinds of adventures. My grandmother was probably concerned that her grandkids were watching this bizarre looking and unsubtitled series (they must have had a marathon on, because we watched it for a few hours). My grandmother would ask me about it years later if we remembered that monkey man show in Chinese.

I’m not sure why these memories came back to me nearly a decade later, but they did. Now I had the internet at my disposal, so I was able to look up The Golden Monkey, find out he was in an ancient Chinese saga called Journey to the West and found out how influential the whole thing was. The series my sister and I caught was actually made in 1986 and is considered a classic of Chinese television.

"If you just shaved once in a while you'd look a
little less intimidating."
All this to say that The Monkey King 2 gets to the part of the story I find most interesting. It is the many trials of a heroic band as they cross the land to an objective. In this case, you could compare the saga of Journey to the West with Lord of the Rings. But the story of Sun Wukong and the monk Sanzang is rooted in Buddhist philosophy and teachings. It has much more in common with myth cycles and fables. Characters like Bajie the pig man are around to show how lust and gluttony are fast tracks to trouble. But Wukong and Sanzang themselves are characters that make mistakes and we learn that listening and tolerance are just as important as heroics and bravery.

Wukong is less overt in his exuberance in The Monkey King 2. Part of it comes down to Aaron Kwok’s performance. Donnie Yen played Wukong almost like a hyper and spoiled child, which fit that stage of the character. Kwok plays Wukong as more of a surly teenager. He wants his freedom but he’s tied to his “father” until the completion of the journey. So Wukong can be crabby, sulky and snarky. But he is still the fearless and strong warrior. He has the ability to see through most demon disguises and this does come in handy. Wukong’s knowledge and skill turn him into a kind of big brother figure to the two other protectors: Bajie and Sha. Kwok does a good job working all these elements into his performance, while including monkey like movements and facial expressions. It is a less overt performance, and the makeup has been changed so he looks much less creepy than the previous film. Kwok does a great job and it really helps the film.

She just loves essence of holy monk.
Opposing him is one of the most talented Chinese actresses, Gong Li. She steps into the role of one of the most memorable antagonists in Journey to the West: The White Bone Demon. She is at both seductive and disturbing. Li plays up the cool arrogance and the fierce desire of the character. But there is also a tragic element to White Bone Demon’s story that Li gets to explore too. There are some really great scenes between Li and Shaofeng when demon and monk discuss compassion. It makes for a different type of villain in the film compared to the ambitious demon Kwok played in the earlier film. While Li isn’t the only antagonist in The Monkey King 2 she is certainly the most memorable.

To be honest the whole cast really does a fine job. Xiaoshenyang and Law provide some genuine chuckles as the supporting heroes. Bajie is quite a character, vain of his pig looks, not particularly brave, and a bit greedy. Xiaoshenyang gives us all this personality in the first few minutes of meeting him and manages to make the Pig Man likable even if he is kind of creepy looking. Law plays the simple-minded sand-demon-monk well. He often takes instructions literally, and seems at a loss when Wukong isn’t around. But he’s loyal and brave to a fault, and you like the big lug even if he looks lost without a map for most of the film.

The lone monk? Not for long.
Shaofeng is very good in the role of Tang Sanzang the noble monk on the quest for the Holy Scriptures. In some ways it is a one-note character, all nobility and naiveté. But Shaofeng imbues the character with real feeling and compassion. This is key in his interactions with Wukong and White Bone Demon. As the film’s conflicts merge together it is that compassion that causes problems for the heroes. Shaofeng sells it and makes his actions at the end of the film resonate.

Visually the film is a big improvement over the previous one. The Monkey King 2 goes for more location and set based shooting. There are some big green screen moments, particularly the epic battle between Wukong and White Bone Demon. But in many cases the computer visuals are used to fill in around and behind the sets to give everything a larger scope. This film takes place on earth, so we get more location shooting as well, and this goes a long way to adding a bit of realism to the fantastic events playing out. You know right from the start when the giant white tiger attacks Sanzang, that the CG has improved a great deal. The tiger doesn’t look completely real, but it looks much better than some of the scenes in The Monkey King.

Maybe if you don't look at them, they go away.
Costumes and make-up are excellent as well. As I mentioned earlier, Sun Wukong looks a bit less uncanny in this film. Kwok’s more human performance helps, but he looks less simian in this film and less distracting. The makeup for Bajie is a bit too realistic looking at times, but it kind of fits that character. He keeps going on about how handsome he is, but that piggy face doesn’t convince. Then there are White Bone Demon’s three minions. Each is a female form fused with an animal: bat, snake and boar. The results are a fusion of creepy and sexy – just like their mistress.

Sound work is solid as well. The film has less huge epic moments of grandeur for sure. But instead we get more immersive sound effects as the heroes travel and encounter different climates, land and people. You feel the chill from that cold mountain wind at the end of the film for sure. The big battle scenes have plenty of power and punch as martial arts are deployed and magic is thrown about.

When it comes to the music the production team turned to Christopher Young to follow up on his wonderful score to The Monkey King 2. Much like the films, the score is a bit different from the previous one. There is a bit less bombast and more color in the score. There are new themes for nearly all the new characters, and they fit them very well. White Bone Demon has a creepy seductive theme. The two new monk companions have a light hearted but action oriented theme. Sanzang has a contemplative theme that edges into heartfelt to mirror his compassion. Even the white dragon horse has a bold theme of heroism. Not much of the old music is carried over in this new score. Sun Wukong’s theme gets modified a bit but has the same essential sound. It’s less brash this time, but still ready for action. One of my favorite tracks is the bat demon battle. Young uses echoing electric guitars in the track to mimic the echolocation as well as just make the music bad ass. As you can see Young really put thought into the score and its motifs and as a stand along listening experience the score is just as good as the first.

The White Bone Demon conducts Chris Young's score.
However it is used in the film kind of strangely. I doubt anyone not really familiar with the score outside of the film would even notice (so like 1% of the world’s sane population) but the score seems to be edited in wherever the editors felt it would work best. So you have some moments of the White Dragon Horse music when he isn’t even in the story yet. Or you have music from the Heaven against Hell battle from The Monkey King blasting during the final battle between Wukong and The White Bone Demon. You could explain that away as a mirror to the good vs evil battle in the first film, but Young wrote some really great action music for The Monkey King 2 that didn’t get used. What you hear in the film works fine, but I do wonder how much better it might have been if the score had been used as intended.

"I'm telling you get a cool hat. Chicks dig cool hats."
My biggest issues with the film center around the pacing and the fact that a much longer work is forced into a two-hour time frame. The pacing is brisk and that keeps everything engaging for sure. But at the same time some of the impacts between the characters would have great power on the viewer if we spent more time with them. One of the central conflicts of The Monkey King 2 is that people don’t listen to each other and always assume they know better than others. For this conflict to really work, we need to ensure the relationships are built up. So when characters feel betrayed by the other, we empathize. But things move so quickly we never see that camaraderie build up. One minute Sun Wukong and his two monk companions don’t trust each other. The next Bajie and Sha are talking about how much they look up to Wukong and how they are helpless without him. Wukong and Sanzang don’t start off on the right foot. The film spends a little more time building their relationship, but it isn’t quite enough to convince when they “betray” each other.

The film does assume you know the story well enough that you can fill in the blanks. While it isn’t as choppy as The Monkey King the film still jumps from event to event with very little down time. You feel like this was a longer story condensed down, and it makes you wonder what a careful and full telling of the story would be like.

Ready to smite more evil!
This isn’t enough to really hurt the enjoyment of the film. As a whole the script to The Monkey King 2 is much more fluid and links together better than the previous version. The use of multiple antagonists as well as the betrayal moment gives the characters plenty to deal with. The adventures and perils they face are varied and fun. The ending goes for huge scope, but handles it a bit better than the clunky battle in the previous film. I’m still not a fan of watching CG characters fighting other CG characters for minutes on end, but that is hardly a problem that only impacts these movies. I also like how the film goes for its visual style of big and bold and keeps to it. It feels like a mythical magical land but there is a bit more dirt and blood in this film, grounding it a bit more compared the colorful exuberance of the previous film.

The Monkey King 2 is well worth watching, especially if you enjoyed the previous film. But if you were like me, and found the first film lacking, I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. The saga will conclude in The Monkey King 3, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the films conclude this particular Journey to the West.

"Who has a piggy snout, two thumbs and loves to dance?
This guy!"

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Crimson Peak (2015)


The trailers for Crimson Peak caught my interest. It looked like a visual feast with a heavy lean on gothic style. And it was directed by Guillermo del Toro. While his movies don’t always land for me, I always appreciate his visual and his boldness in going full bore for the type of movie he is trying to make. I was hoping this film would be a little better than Pacific Rim. Let’s see what happened.


Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is feeling trapped in her life as a secretary for her industrialist father. She is an aspiring novelist, but since this is the 1800s that profession is frowned upon for proper young ladies. Edith meets a handsome baronet from England who dreams of making his fortune using a unique steam powered machine. He is a fiery dreamer named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and with his taciturn sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) they are seeking capital for their venture.

Edith’s father turns Thomas down, but she falls for the dashing young man and hurries off to England as his new bride. Once they get to the ancient mansion, Edith finds that things are much different then she realized. The old house is literally falling apart. Lucille goes from taciturn to downright disturbing. And then there are the ghosts – vividly, horrifically bloody ghosts. And when Edith hears that the area is called Crimson Peak she recalls a message from a spectral form of her mother warning her against visiting this evil place. Will Edith be able to unravel the mysteries of Crimson Peak or is she already ensnared in a deadly trap?

Good Points:
  • Amazing atmospheric visuals and style
  • Excellent acting by the entire cast
  • As sense of fun and energy to the whole film

Bad Points:
  • The visual style of the ghosts doesn’t quite fit with the film
  • Some may find the focus on gothic romance to be annoying
  • The storyline borrows from many classic tales so it may be overly familiar to some viewers


If you are looking for a fun throwback to the Hammer style horror films then you’ll enjoy Del Toro’s energetic effort to capture that type of film. With a focus on gothic romance, a dash of visceral violence and some impressive visual design the movie aims high and nearly hits all the points.

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

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Friday, February 16, 2018

And Then this Happened... In the Name of the King

So I'm giving you fair warning here, you don't want to confuse In the Name of the King with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Both are fantasy adventures, but one is a triumphant conclusion to one of the best film trilogies. The other is awkwardly hilarious start to one of the less notable fantasy trilogies out there. But hey, they can't all be winners right?

Now when you think of casting a king, who pops to mind? I bet the name Burt Reynolds didn't pop into your brain. I bet the Stay Puff marshmallow man would pop in there before Burt Reynolds. But hey, that never stopped director Uwe Boll from making all kinds of strange casting decisions. This may be one of his most unintentionally hilarious. But I figure it would make for some great captioning. So here you go.

And then this happened...

Monday, February 12, 2018

Top Ten - Film Score Experiences of 2017

So each year the community over at votes on their favorite scores for the year. It is great to read all the top ten nominations from everyone (and the spirited defense of certain scores). At the end of January one brave member of the community tabulates all the nominations and declares the top ten scores of the year. I have to say that every year those folks pick some excellent music. I wouldn't have discovered some of the scores I enjoy today without those competitions.

I don't usually participate in the voting, since I focus on older scores and collecting work from Jerry Goldsmith or golden age film music. But this year a few of the scoreboarders from the forum asked me to post a top ten list of my favorite film score related experiences of the year. Another scoreboarder had done something similar and it was a great read, so I figured I'd try my hand at it this year.

So better late then never, here are my top ten Film Score Experiences of 2017.

10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Alexandre Desplat (2017)

So Desplat finally did it. He gave me a score that I really enjoyed. I’ve always appreciated his stuff but I had a hard time connecting to it. But with Valarian he just hit all the sweet spots of action, adventure and themes. The score feels fun, and there is a lot of energy to it. Once you put it in film order it gets even better, and is one I’ve come back to quite a few times over the year.

9. The Neon Demon – Cliff Martinez (2016)

This one uses 80s style synths, but has this darker and moodier overtone to it. It gets dreamy sometimes, but in an uncanny nightmare kind of way. It is less active than Nerve but I still listened to this one almost as many times. I love the way it twists and turns into the dark edges. And yeah it provided further 80s cyberpunk feeling and was perfect listening while I was reading some William Gibson earlier this year. I’m not the biggest Martinez fan, but this one just clicked with me.

8. Once Upon a Time in the West – Ennio Moricone (1968)

This one always came up when people talked about Morricone’s work in the Western genre. So I finally decided to give it a try and wow it really is top notch. I might even like it a little more than The Good, The Bad and the Ugly which held my top spot for his Western scores. Love all the themes in this score and they get some really great renditions. I try to pick up at least one Morricone score a year and I’m glad this was the one I grabbed.

7. Star Trek TNG – The Ron Jones Project Vol 1 – Ron Jones (1987/2010)

I got into a full-blown Star Trek mode midway through the year. I picked up the first disc of Ron Jones music from The Next Generation. And it was really entertaining stuff. The Naked Now feels like an interpretation of the TOS style of music and is a lot of fun. But the highlight of the disc is the music for Where No One Has Gone Before. Jones uses a lot of Goldsmith’s style in this one and it really works. Listened to this one a lot over the year and enjoyed it a little more each time.

6. Priest – Christopher Young (2011)

Man Christopher Young… the guy is just plain amazing. Each time I pick up one of his scores I’m impressed all over again. I had listened to it quite a few times on YouTube when I was writing some horror/adventure fiction and loved it. But hearing it on my headphones and then on the full surround system was such a treat. Young balances the horror with the adventure vibe and does it in a modern style – but still manages to keep it from getting droning or boring. This score just clicks everything I love about Young’s work. After listening to this score in full I easily put him as one of my favorite composers.

5. War for the Planet of the Apes – Michael Giacchino (2017)

Yeah I love me some Giacchino. Of the six scores of his I purchased in 2017 I have to say that this one was my favorite (still need to pick up Coco). The way it works in the film is just about perfect. As a solo listening experience I love the way it starts off as an atonal atmospheric mood of building tension. Then it evolves into a true journey that matches Caesar’s. The Morricone nods, the finale cues, just about everything is a truly fitting conclusion to the trilogy. You can tell Giacchino was inspired by this story, and I really can’t wait for further collaborations with Reeves. I wrote a whole blog on the scores to the films here.

4. Superman – John Williams (1978/2000)

This was a huge hole in my John Williams collection. I broke down and picked up the Rhino version of the score. Holy CRAP was this something else. It hits all the nostalgia buttons for me, but there is also this sweeping grandeur that Williams just nails. Of course the main march is excellent. But I also love his Krypton theme and the music used for the Smallville sequences. The love theme is a classic. The only weak part is the music for the comical villains. As a whole Superman is a powerhouse and I’m so happy to have it in my collection. It confirms my love for the late 70s and early 80s of Williams work.

3. Nerve – Rob Simonsen (2016)

I’m a child of the 1980s so it goes without saying that I love 80s style synth scores. When I heard samples from Simonsen’s score on Erik’s radio show Cinematic Sound Radio I put this on my “to buy” list. Picking Nerve up was well worth it. I listened to this score many times over the year. It put me deep into cyberpunk 80s mode and inspired some short fiction writing too. I even like the song that uses the main theme as its tune. It is easy to recommend this score to fans of this eclectic style of music.

2. Thriller (rerecording) – Jerry Goldsmith (1960/2017)

I discovered this television series about six or seven years ago. It is a fun bit of classic television with some creepy stories, some entertaining performances (I’m looking at you Shatner) and of course great music by Morton Stevens and Jerry Goldsmith. These guys did so much with such a limited budget for this show. And Goldsmith really cut his teeth developing his thriller and horror styling. You can hear so many little hints that would lead to The Omen, Poltergeist and Gremlins in here. Tadlow’s impressive rerecording really brings out the best out of these excellent selections from the series. The final composite end titles suite is almost worth the price of purchase alone. For a Goldsmith fan is an easy purchase.

1. Ben Hur (rerecording) – Miklos Rozsa (1959/2017)

This is one of my favorite scores of all time. When I returned to film score collecting in 2005 (and found Filmtracks at the same time) this was one of the first scores I added to my collection. I picked up the Rhino edition that extended over two CDs and still didn’t include all the music from Miklos Rozsa’s score. I listened to Ben Hur a lot back in those days and got very familiar with it. I fell in love with Rozsa’s epic style because of it. When Tadlow announced a full rerecording of Ben Hur I was ecstatic. Each time I've picked up one of their rerecording it has been a wonder to explore. To hear this full score in wonderful sound quality is really an amazing treat. Listening to this on my full surround set up was just sublime (and I’m sure the neighbors appreciated it too).

Honorable Mentions:

This year I picked up more then a few jazz based scores. I enjoyed all of them and they all got multiple listens. For the 1960s style of spy flavored jazz I enjoyed the duo of Our Man Fint and In Like Flint by Goldsmith. Followed by the wonferfully fun The Man Who Knew too Little by Young which has more than a share of Mancini in it. I also picked up The Russia House which is a much darker take on the jazz sound, a bit noire and bit more thriller. Excellent score by Goldsmith. Then you have Sneakers which is a Horner score I’ve had on my list for years. It is an excellent example of his 90s thriller style and includes some jazzy elements to it, as well as some excellent darker material.

A couple of recent scores really impressed me. Doctor Strange by Giacchino was a blast and would have probably made my top ten if War for the Planet of the Apes hadn’t been so darn good. It is an excellent superhero score and those last two tracks are gold. I also enjoyed The Last Jedi quite a bit. I think I need to give it some more time, maybe hear it in context of the film again. But it just wasn’t quite good enough to crack the top ten of my list. Superman and E.T. eclipsed it easily.

Another rerecording that I picked up was Distant Worlds: The Music of Final Fantasy Vol 1. Wow was this a lot of fun. I’m familiar with the music from some of the games, but to hear it presented with a full orchestra and with such enthusiasm was a treat. I’ve got the next volumes on my list to pick up at some point.

Picked up a few older scores that I’ve had my eye on for some time. The Last Valley by Barry was one I was waiting for a reissue on. I finally was able to pick it up and really loved it. Feels like an extension of The Lion in Winter but with a bit more melodic sorrow in it. Picked up Capricorn One by Goldsmith as well. This has to be his prototypical thriller score. So many great elements in it and it makes for an exciting and tense listening experience. When E.T. got its expanded treatment I had to grab it. Not only did it have the wonderful 1980s album presentation, but the sound quality was amazing. Finally I did a little tour through my collection at the start of the year picking a single score from each letter of alphabet. When I got to Q I realized I didn’t have anything! I remedied that with Quigley Down Under, and wow was that a treat and a half. Poledouris gives us a wonderful rollicking main theme for this Western and as a whole the score it just a lot of fun.

And just to prove that I’m not all scores and no songs, I did pick up the album to Streets of Fire a wonderfully cheesy 1980s noire/action/musical movie type thing that has some really fun songs in it. I mean if you love rockin’ early 80s style with lyrics by Jim Steinman. I also got Songs in the Key of MST which is a collection of many of the host segment songs from my favorite television show Mystery Science Theater 3000. I was worth it for Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas and Toobular Boobular Joy alone.

Well that was my best of the year. Hope you enjoyed the read and looking forward the new experiences in film scores for 2018.