Thursday, June 27, 2013

You will believe a man can fly

It might just be the most daunting assignment a composer can take on.

The “Superman” franchise re-launch was the most anticipated event movie of the year with both DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures desperate to jump start a new film series to keep up (or at least get in the game) with the runaway success of rival Marvel Studios and Disney.

There was a lot riding on the success of this “Man of Steel”, and more so than any other comic book based event movie, the music is a critical part making that success happen. A “Superman” film score needs to be massive and epic and iconic. A “Superman” film score needs to convey suspense and wonder and bring excitement and energy to the action. A “Superman” score, above all else, has to convey emotion. There is tragedy in the story. There is romance. All of that has to be portrayed by the music the composer creates.
Oh, and the last composer why held the baton for the “Superman” franchise was someone by the name of John Williams. Talk about walking into an assignment with high expectations.
A “Superman” score has to make you believe a man can fly and Hans Zimmer’s “Man of Steel” soundtrack does that and all the above in a way that is spot on suitable for the approach the filmmakers have taken.
Comparisons to John William’s classic masterpiece are pointless. Hans Zimmer is not John Williams or Howard Shore. Richly developed themes and intricate constructions of musical counterpoints are not among his talents. Silver Age purists will never warm to Zimmer, but there is no denying this is a composer with rich talent and a unique sound merging Giorgio Moroder pop sensibilities and modern electronica with classic orchestral scoring.
The best way to experience Hans Zimmer’s “Man of Steel” is with the Limited Edition Deluxe Edition, a two disc album that arrives in a gorgeous metal case with a collector’s booklet of liner notes and stills from the film. Disc One is titled “Flight” and is the music from the film (of course, not all of it). Disc Two is called “Experiments from the Fortress of Solitude”, sort of a composer’s version of a sketchbook.
The album begins with “Look to the Stars”, a cue that starts out in a new age texture and gradually builds as Zimmer introduces his Superman motif before moving into a propulsive, suspense finish. Next up is “Oil Rig”, a brief but furious action cue featuring the much discussed army of drummers hired the composer to set the percussive tone for the soundtrack.

“Sent Here for a Reason” introduces the emotionally striking four not motif that slowly builds into the score’s main theme. It is a deceivingly effective melody hitting a perfect sweet spot to underscore the feelings of the characters, especially in the beautifully acted Smallville scenes anchored by the terrific Kevin Costner.
“Man of Steel” has already become infamous for the record-breaking, ear-splitting decibel level of the final act. The last forty-five minutes of “Man of Steel” are an over-directed frenzied mess repetitive scenes of noisy mayhem. Although it was impossible to hear much of Zimmer’s score during the deafening destruction, there is plenty of action music in “Man of Steel”. Some it is quite exciting such as “DNA” and “I Will Find Him”. But none of the action material in this soundtrack approaches the level of development heard in past Zimmer scores such as “The Peacekeeper” (1997), “King Arthur” (2004), or last year’s “The Dark Knight Rises”.

Perhaps inspired by the film and the more heartfelt aspects of the story, it is the emotional material where Zimmer hits it out of the park. His minimalist approach of allowing the themes to breathe with intimacy before slowly building them into Zimmer-esque crescendos works beautiful here.
“Goodbye My Son” is a wonderful, moving cue introducing a wordless vocal solo backed by a subtle choir. “Tornado” begins in action mode before transitioning into powerful moment of deep sentiment conveying tragic the loss of Jonathan Kent. “I Have So Many Questions” effectively scores Clark’s journey into the Fortress of Solitude, and at last Zimmer lets loose the full force of the soundtrack’s major themes in the soaring, inspirational full-bodied “Flight”.
Disc one wraps up with music from the final scene and credits, “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World”, a gorgeous reprise of the score’s main themes and highlights.
Bottom line, “Man of Steel” is a richly entertaining stand-alone listen soundtrack. It is a must own for Zimmer fans, soundtrack collectors, and just anyone who enjoyed the film.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Midnight topping

In the interest of full disclosure, it was all but a predetermined fact I was going going to like this book. Robert Silverberg is one of my favorite authors. I love the premise. It reminded me of one of my favorite novels as kid, "Logan's Run". I have a thing for the science fiction written in the era of 1967-1978. Oh, yeah, and I like sex too.

Like most dystopian works, "The World Inside" is very much a product of its time and in this case it is a good thing. Many of the thematic concerns that lead to the "vertical society" portrayed in the novel are as relevant as ever today, especially over population. While building towering skyscrapers that are several kilometers high and house over 800,000 people sounds like a possible solution to the problem of diminishing resources, the society in this novel creates a brand new set of ironic dilemmas. 

One of the more bizarre policies in this future world is mandatory breeding from the age of puberty, literally. Which makes no sense when you think about it. But these types of contradictions in this society, as well as the internal conflicts of the characters who begin to question the system, are what make this book such a riveting read.

This a fascinating vision of where the sexual revolution of 60s and 70s might have lead. People participate in a cultural ritual called "night walking". A person literally walks throughout the building in the middle night, going door to door to do some "topping". Yes, it is exactly what you think it is. Nobody in science fiction handles sexuality and eroticism with the expert touch possessed by Robert Silverberg. The author spent his early days working tirelessly in the sexy pulps of the late 50s and early 60s, cranking out a new 50,000 novel every two weeks. Having read many of them, I can tell you they are really good. Silverberg brings that same sense of pacing to this book.

But this is the post-pulp Sliverberg so we do get some of those soaring, lyrical, arty, Ellison-esque passages that will leave you breathless.

Bottom line, "The World Inside" is a fascinating, beautifully written, entertaining novel that showcases of the grand masters of modern science fiction and fantasy in top form.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Five best Hans Zimmer soundtracks ever

He arrived onto the A-list soundtrack scene by scoring two back to back Best Picture Oscar winners, “Rain Man” (1988) and “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989). His revolutionary score for Tony Scott’s “Crimson Tide” (1995) brought a fresh, new sound that caught the attention of film music fan Steven Spielberg, who hired him as the compose-in-chief at the newly formed Dreamworks Studio.

The already wildly popular composer broke through to a new level of stardom by scoring yet another Oscar winning film, “Gladiator” (2000). The “Gladiator” soundtrack was a huge hit and became the rare film score album to crossover into the mainstream and ever since Hans Zimmer has become the voice of the Hollywood blockbuster.
The talented Hans Zimmer is so popular and prolific you can even catch his name in the credits of television documentary shows such as The Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole” hosted by Morgan Freeman, one of the stars of Zimmer’s early breakout films, the Oscar winning film “Driving Miss Daisy”.
No living composer should ever be compared to John Williams, with the notable exception of Ennio Morricone. But in terms of popularity and omnipresence, what John Williams was to the late 1970s and early 80’s, Hans Zimmer is to the 2000s.
In anticipation of this month’s Zimmer scored “Man of Steel”, here is a list of the five best Hans Zimmer scores ever. Or at least the five favorite of this writer.

Remember the sensational trailer music from “Pearl Harbor” (2001) that sent even non-soundtrack fans scurrying to the internet to figure out “where is that music from?” That dramatic, soaring music was from “Journey to the Line” and is but a small part of one of a soundtrack that can only be described as a transporting experience.
“The Thin Red Line” does what only the absolute best of the best film scores can manage to achieve. It creates a detailed world, full of emotion and magic and mystery and danger and wonder, and the music takes the listener there, sending them on and a spiritual and emotional journey. This is music will make you experience deep emotions and reflections. It is a remarkable achievement in film music.
“The Thin Red Line” came out the same year as “Saving Private Ryan” and is in many ways the anti-Private Ryan. It is also arguably a better film, and a better score. This is Hans Zimmer’s masterpiece and his best score to date.

This underrated, sentimental gem was written by none other than J.J. Abrams. The film features understated direction by Mike Nichols, superb on location NYC cinematography, terrific work by Annette Bening and Harrison Ford, and a Fanning-esque performance by the young Mikki Allen. The movie also has a beautiful, wonderfully restrained, emotion-packed score by the composer best known his brooding soundscapes and thunderous crashes of testosterone.
“Regarding Henry” is a lost treasure of a soundtrack in the ever expanding Zimmer discography. This score is to Zimmer what “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” (1996) is to James Horner, or what “Stepmom” (1999) is to John Williams. Out of print but definitely worth tracking down and paying up for.

“The Peacemaker” takes the dramatic, brooding, testosterone-drenched style of scoring that Zimmer created with “The Crimson Tide” (1995) and would return to in “Gladiator” (2000), but takes it to a whole new level of artistry.
This soundtrack has the vibe of an old school noir-era action score, but performed with the modern sensibilities of Zimmer and his thunderous, haunting gestures mixed with lots of minor keys amid booming male choirs and ethereal female vocal solos. It is a wickedly and relentlessly entertaining score that never fails to engage. The only flaw—the soundtrack album is way too short, missing nearly half the music from the film.

Hyped endlessly for over two years, mainly by way of a knockout trailer using Zimmer’s majestic music from “The Thin Red Line”, critics were salivating to take down “Pearl Harbor” long before its arrival in theaters. The truth is the film works well as a big budget epic, mushy soap opera and all three of the leads, especially Kate Beckinsale are fine.
Hans Zimmer reportedly struggled for months to find the right theme for “Pearl Harbor”. His efforts paid off in spades. The centerpiece of the score is a gorgeous, haunting, melancholy, wonderfully sentimental John Barry style love theme. It is a magnificent theme and works as a perfect bridge toward the score action cues and melodramatic (in a good way) material.

Hans Zimmer’s “King Arthur” score exudes excitement and emotion, breathing life into nearly every scene it touches. “Woad to Ruin” and “Hold the Ice” contain some of the best action cues of Zimmer’s illustrious career. Other Highlights of this crisply produced and thoroughly entertaining soundtrack include “Tell Me Now (What You See)” performed by Moya Brennan (sister of Enya). This beautiful melody serves as the love theme in “King Arthur” and is one of Hans Zimmer’s best overall love themes.
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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Wes Jackson vs. The Arrogant Prick

A popular scene from my novel "Action Figure" that has a tie-in to "Man of Steel"...sort of.  Hope you enjoy it.

A chapter excerpt from the avant-garde action adventure novel Action Figure.
Warning: Adult Language,Violence, and Mature Situations.

An arrogant looking prick of a villain was lurching over the woman in the driveway. 
As he whined on, there was something about the harsh, shrill, nasal tone of his voice that made my skin crawl with irritation. His stocky form was clad in a polo shirt and a pair of dress slacks. 
My blood began to boil as I watched him loom in closer to the woman, like some kind of lecherous, deviant, preppy thug. The woman tried stand her ground and give it right back.
“Get the fuck out of here now Nester, or you’re going have a real problem,” she said as she matched the prick shout for shout. 
Despite the woman’s strength of will, this jagoff was not going away that easy. 
As I rounded the corner of the house and approach the scene, I could see the murderous rage in his squinty eyes. 
“Oh, is that right bitch?” Nester the Arrogant Prick said as he lumbered in even closer to the woman. His body language threatened violence at any moment. “And who’s going to give me trouble, huh? You?” 
“No … that would be me,” I roared from across the driveway as I exploded onto the scene. 
I stopped about three feet away and stood in a statuesque “relaxed” muscular pose. I stared into the Arrogant Prick’s squinty eyes. I could see the sweetness of fear. Already the battle was mine. 
The Arrogant Prick ran to his car in a mad panic and popped his trunk open. Oh god not another hand gun. But instead, he came charging back toward me with a different weapon of choice—a golf club. 
He lunged toward me like a raving freak and let a wild a roundhouse swing slice through the air. He cackled out loud with a fuck you laugh of feigned superiority. “I got you now mother fucker. I’m going to make you wish you minded your own business.”
The Arrogant Prick’s eyes moved down toward my right hand. There was a mocking smirk on face. He laughed out loud. 
I looked down. I was still clutching the Superman action figure in my right hand. 
“What you going to do? Beat me up with your cute little toy,” he said in the mocking tone of fake baby language. 
“It is not a toy,” I said in my best Bull Mongoni base. “It’s a collectible action figure.” 
“What the fuck did you say?” the Arrogant Prick said as he cut loose another practice swing. 
The club sliced through the air only inches away from my face. I dared not flinch. 
“It is not a toy.” I said. “It’s a collectible Superman Kingdom Come action figure. And yes, I am going to beat you up with my action figure.” 
The now not so confident cackling laughter of Nester the Arrogant Prick filled the air before trailing off. This obnoxious asswipe was clearly thrown off by my searing confidence. 
An eternal moment of dense silence followed. I could feel every neuron receptor firing to life deep inside the core of my flesh. I took a second to relish the surge of euphoric adrenaline bathing over me. I was truly going to enjoy destroying this despicable fiend. 
I stared down my enemy. There was only one alpha male gorilla standing in this driveway, and it sure the hell was not this golf club swinging asshole standing before me. 
The Arrogant Prick pulled back his right elbow, squeezed the golf club with both his hands, and began to cock back in preparation for a mighty hack. 
It was a blow intended to decapitate me. But then something strange happened … something wonderful. Time seemed to slow down around me. I thought about how great athletes often talk about being in the zone, about how they see the playing field so clearly when the game slows down around them. I was in my zone now—the zone of revenge and redemption—the zone of rebirth and renewal. 
The Arrogant Prick’s motions were so deliberate, clumsy, and slow. There was an infinite span of micro-seconds for me to choose the moment of my counter blow. I launched myself forward while he was in the midst of setting up for the swing. 
With my left arm I grabbed him by the collar of his polo shirt to hold my target steady. I took my right hand and drove the action figureup into his beak of a nose. 
There was an explosion of blood. 
The golf club dropped to the ground as Nester the Arrogant Prick staggered toward his ragtop with the vanity plate that read "player". Next to it on the right bumper was an NRA shield. 
"You haven’t heard the last of this," he whimpered as he stumbled into his car and drove away. "I’ll kill you Christine. I’ll kill you both." 
The sound of his winding engine trailed off as my conquered enemy sped away down Tabitha Drive. 
I looked down at the Superman Kingdom Come action figure in my hand. Despite the assault, despite being descended upon by forces of evil, despite the fact that the plastic casing was smashed and dented—the action figure itself was still fully intact. 
As a matter of fact, it had never looked better. 
It was perfect. Wes jackson 5—fate 0.
Copyright 2008, 2013 James J. Caterino
All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 14, 2013

'Man of Steel' saved by its heart

Man of Steel” arrives into the summer blockbuster with more fanfare than the last son of Krypton himself. The history of the character’s demise as a film series following the outstanding “SupermanII” (1981) and the various attempts to revive it have been well documented (remember Nick Cage as Supeman in a Tim Burton version?). Suffice to say, Warner Bros. and DC Comics have an awful lot riding on this film.

And what is the verdict?
“Man of Steel” is a difficult film to review because the stuff that is good about this film, is fantastic. On the flip side, the failures of the movie are made that much more frustrating because they keep the movie from soaring into greatness and becoming the classic it should have been.

The first twenty minutes of the film are absolutely dazzling. Russell Crowe brings his heavy weight presence to film as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El and anchors every scene he is in with his trademark charisma. This is the best origin of Superman segment ever put on film and the Krypton in this film feels like a real world, and a really cool one to boot. One of the best scenes here, and in the movie, features a “Avatar” type flying beast.
When Superman arrives on earth and the second act begins, this is where the film really shines. The scenes of Superman growing up as Clark Kent are beautifully handled and contain just the right amount of realism. Diane Lane is absolutely wonderful as Clarke’s earth mother Martha Kent. But the real standout here, and in the he film as a whole, is Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent.
Costner is fantastic and and exudes such wisdom and warmth in every scene he is in. There are many moments in this film where you will have a lump in your throat and Kevin Costner is in almost every one of them.
Amy Adams shines as well and brings a depth to Lois Lane that will surprise and move you. The emotional and sexual chemistry between her and Henry Cavill is off the charts. If only this film had more of those magical moments between Lois and Superman. If only the film had spent more time on Smallville and character.
Which brings us to where the film falters, in the third act.
Everyone likes action. Everyone one wants to see Superman face off against General Zod and his super-hot second in command Faora. And “Man of Steel” does have some exciting action sequences backed by amazing (if overly noisy) special effects. The problem here is two-fold. One is the pacing. Action always works better when properly paced with character. The other, and more pressing, is the lack of variety in the fight scenes. The last hour of the film often feels like one long repetitive action sequence. You can only watch a building blow up and collapse so many times.

Still, in the end, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams save the day and the film. It is heart and character, deafening explosions, that make “Man of Steel” soar in the end.
Bottom line: Outstanding performances, especially by Kevin Costner, and some great character moments help save this film from a loud, repetitive third act. In the end, people, not explosions, are what matter most in “Man of Steel”.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Warp speed scoring

Michael Giacchino embarked on a monumental challenge in 2009 when he took on the task of scoring J.J. Abrams reboot of “Star Trek”. The musical legacy of “Star Trek” goes back through four decades of memorable soundtracks, legendary composers, and instantly recognized themes and melodies that have been ingrained into the pop culture fabric.

Both J.J. Abrams and his composer hit it out of the park as “Star Trek” (2009) became a critical and popular smash that hit a sweet spot managing to satisfy both long-time fans and mainstream moviegoers. The soundtrack represented another major accomplishment in the meteoric rise of “Lost”composer Michael Giacchino, a phenomenal talent who has become the modern day heir apparent to the kind of rousing genre scoring established by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner in the post “Star Wars” symphonic revival.
It could even be argued that “Star Trek” (2009) is the fourth greatest “Star Trek” film score of all time after Jerry Goldsmith’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) and “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989), and James Horner’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” (1982).
So like the film itself, when “Star Trek Into Darkness” blasted into theaters, there were enormous expectations for Giacchino’s score.
The album for “Star Trek Into Darkness” opens with “Logos/Pranking the Natives”, a brief teaser of the wonderful main theme followed by a wickedly exciting action cue that conjures of up memories of some of the best action music from the classic series as well as Giacchino’s Goldsmith influenced action material from “Lost”.
Giacchino cranks it up even further in “Spock Drops, Kirk Jumps”, a brief cue that has terrific Doomsday-esque feel about it, a homage to the classic episode “The Doomday Machine” scored by Sol Kaplan.

Track three “Sub Prime Directive” is a magnificent cue where the composer gets to let loose and unleash a full-bodied, thunderous performance of the main theme it its full glory. The score seamlessly downshifts into the melodic “London Calling”, a beautifully understated cue with a classical feel. Next the composer does what he does best, he makes us feel with “Meld-Merized”, music that played during one scenes key emotional scenes.”
The "Kronos Quartet” is a wild, choir based action track that is reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Ghost and the Darkness” (1996) as well as Michael Giacchino’s masterwork for “John Carter” (2012).
“Star Trek Into Darkness” never fails to entertain, and always keeps the listener emotionally engaged in the mysterious and exciting “Brigadoom”, the rousing “Ship to Ship”, and pulse-pounding action/suspense track “Earthbound and Down”.
The pivotal “Warp Core Values” is a wonderfully dramatic, emotion packed gem that leads to the beautiful, tear inducing “Buying the Space Farm”. Michael Giacchino composes the best sad music of any composer since Georges Delerue.
The album continues to deliver more dramatic excitement with the rousing “San Fran Hustle” before taking the listener to an emotionally satisfying finale in “Kirk Enterprises” and a reprise of “Star Trek Main Theme”.
There is nothing in this score as emotionally powerful as “Labor of Love” or “End Credits” from the first film and the soundtrack is more of collection of cues (and outstanding ones), then a cohesive work like the Williams/Goldsmith/Horner classics or Giacchino’s own “John Carter” and even his first “Star Trek”. But bottom line, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is an outstanding album of entertaining film music and a must own for “Star Trek” fans and soundtrack lovers.

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Muscle, mayhem, and box office magic

“The Fast and Furious” franchise has managed to defy every expectation and break every rule.
Since when does a movie series continue to get better and better with each entry yet alone achieve a new creative and critical peak in number six? When does a movie featuring fetishistic portrayals of muscle cars and muscled up men and women cross into the mainstream attracting a strong diversified fan base including women and even high-brow intellectual critics?

“Fast & Furious 6” has managed to all that and more as the wildly entertaining action flick starring the electrifying Vin Diesel anchoring a charismatic cast co-stars has racked up a staggering $146,340,000 at the box office in North America in eight days and mind-blowing $405,740,000 world-wide. Oh, and along the way, the expertly marketed movie has managed to win over critics garnering a “certified fresh” Rotten Tomatoes rating of 72% (as of this writing). Even the normally cynical crew at “What The Flick” on You Tube gave it a raving 8.0 out of 10.
“Fast & Furious 6” is this year’s “The Avengers”.
Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan know exactly what they have in this franchise and along with producer/star Vin Diesel have created and developed a mystique, and even a saga- like feel to what began as a B-movie late summer throw away back in 2001 and was essentially “Point Break” (1991) with cars instead of surf boards.
Jam-packed with riveting action set pieces and colorful characters, “Fast & Furious 6” moves at an exhilarating pace as it takes us on a lurid thrill ride that features knockout physics defying stunt sequences, character driven humor—not one, but two—brutal and yet erotic girl on girl fights between Michelle Rodriguez and real life bad ass Gina Carano, and the first ever cinematic flying head butt. Yes, a flying head butt.
“Fast & Furious 6” is such a confident film, as are all of the actors in their respective characters. Even the critics who praise the movie somehow feel obligated to take shots at the actors for fear of not looking critic enough I guess. But the acting in “Fast & Furious 6” is spot on genre acting at its finest. Even amid all the outrageous mayhem and crazy action, thanks to the cast, these are characters we care about and root for.

In many ways this is a throwback film to the kind of movies Jerry Bruckheimer used to make in the mid 90’s with the likes of “The Rock” and “Con Air”. Action movies featuring charismatic stars that find the elusive sweet spot by delivering an over the top, ridiculous piece of wild entertainment without ever crossing the line into parody or camp.

Bottom line, “Fast & Furious 6” is a wickedly entertaining, wild thrill ride packed with humor and action. It is the ultimate A-list summer junk movie that will leave you euphoric, exhilarated, and wanting to come back for more.
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