Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My top ten James Horner scores

James Horner tribute (1953-2015)

Music is the most mysterious of all art forms to me. I know how to write creatively. I understand the process of creating imagery to tell a story or convey an emotion. The mechanics of directing are something that anyone with enough motivation can learn. But music—how it is created and where it comes from—I have no idea. It is the closest thing to magic that exists in this universe.

It is no exaggeration to say that right alongside John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, I have spent more time immersed in the music of James Horner than any other musical artist of any genre or format. The profound impact of his music cannot be overstated.  To me, the most vital aspect of any piece of music, is that it must make me feel. It must engage my emotions and take me on a sonic journey, deep within myself. In this regard, James Horner was as good as anybody who ever picked up a baton or sat in front of the keyboard.

Here are ten of my favorite James Horner scores of all time, both epic and intimate, spanning the decades of his amazing (and sadly cut way too short) career. No analysis will be offered. That can come later. Right now, it is just time to listen and enjoy and feel.

The Mask of Zorro


To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday



The Missing 

The Journey Of Natty Gann


Deep Impact

Batteries Not Included

Thursday, June 18, 2015

'Jurassic World', the soundtrack review

Composer Michael Giacchino is having one of those years. He is having a James Horner 1995 year. He is having a Jerry Goldsmith 1982 or 1985 year. He is having a John Williams 1977 or 1993 or 2002 year. Michael Giacchino is having an MVP season and right now he is the best film composer in the world not named John Williams.

After giving us the best score of 2014 (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), Giacchino started out 2015 with perhaps his greatest masterpiece to date, “Jupiter Ascending”. Then he took his “Super 8” sense of wonder to next level with a gorgeous score for “Tomorrowland”.  And now he has topped the romanticism of “John Carter” and the action/suspense music from “Star Trek” and “Land of the Lost” with a soaring, action-packed, immensely entertaining soundtrack for “Jurassic World”.

Even in the midst of this intense, prolific MVP year where we will see as many as six new films with scores by Giacchino, it is nice to know the composer has maintained his quirky sense of humor by continuing his unique tradition of naming cues with jokey titles filled with bad puns.

The soundtrack album opens with “Bury the Hatchling”, a “Lost” style scary suspense cue deftly incorporating John William’s  brass licks and a haunting chorus. Next the composer introduces us to his B theme, “The Family That Strays Together”, a beautiful melody very much in the mode of the theme for Alice (Elle Fanning’s character) in “Super 8”. Next, the composer continues to stoke the mood and build atmosphere with a bold and brilliant statement of the classic John Williams theme in “Welcome to Jurassic World”.

Then, the ever improving, super-talented composer puts on a confident display of his own main theme in “As the Jurassic World Turns”. And good god what a theme it is! The is the Giacchino theme those of us who grew up on John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith/James Horner have been waiting for; a soaring, elegant, powerful, moving, emotion-packed, fully-developed composition that moves and twists and turns and flies and inspires and makes you feel. Then the composer seamlessly transitions back into William’s theme and ends the cue with a bang.

These first four cues alone are more great music then we get on almost any other new soundtrack these days.

And it just keeps getting better as the composer antes up the colorful excitement in pulse pounding action cues such as “Clearly His First Rodeo”, and the wickedly entertaining suspense track turned thunderous action blast, “Indominus Rex”.

“Gyrosphere of Influence” is a creative and playful rendition of the main theme before transitioning into a haunting suspense cue. “Pavane for a Dead Apatosaurus” is the emotional music for the moving scene where Owen and Claire come upon an injured Apatosaurus. “Fits and Jumpstarts’ is a beautiful statement of the B “Family” theme before morphing in a jaunty action track “The Dimorphordan Shuffle”.

The soundtrack continues to build propulsive momentum on both a visceral and emotional level. Giacchino has now elevated his craftsmanship where he knows how to finish a soundtrack in much the same way as Williams or Horner, by carefully building toward an orgasmic musical crescendo that restates all of the scores main themes and motifs and ends the soundtrack on a soaring emotional high.

Bottom line: Michael Giacchino has once again delivered big time. “Jurassic World” is an absolute joy for soundtrack fans and worthy addition to the “Jurassic Park” musical legacy. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

‘Jurassic World’ is exhilarating summer fun

There is a great moment toward the end of the second act in “Jurassic World” where obsessive corporate operations manager Claire Dearing (played by the wonderful Bryce Dallas Howard) comes upon animal trainer Owen Grady (played by the red hot Chris Pratt) who is tending to an injured brontosaurus. For the first time the uptight corporate cold Claire realizes what Owen has been trying to tell her. These are not assets. These are live animals; living, breathing creatures with needs, and instincts, and desires, and yes, feelings. It is a moving scene and a tremendous character moment. It also illustrates why “Jurassic World” works so well. This is a great summer popcorn movie that is also a smart summer movie. It has action—great action. But it also has heart.

One of the movie’s promos said, “Steven wanted to make a movie about our relationship with animals today.” The Jurassic Park movies have all, to a certain extent, contained subtext about humans exploiting nature and animals for profit and greed. These were the major themes in Michael Crichton’s masterful novel. But “Jurassic World” is the first movie to really deal with these issues (and have a strong opinion on them) since the original classic film, and it gives the movie a welcome added layer to what otherwise could just be an exercise in special effects.

“Jurassic World” takes place some twenty years after the original park created by John Hammond in the first movie. A team of scientists and suits have taken his ideas and shrewdly expanded them, creating the mother lode of all theme parks. The resort in “Jurassic World” is part Epcot, part Universal Studios, and part African Safari. And it is a triumph in movie production design down to the last detail. The truth is, this is a place a lot of people would want to visit and to paraphrase John Hammond’s lawyer from the original, “they will pay us and they will pay us a lot of money. Whatever we ask them to…”

In a particularly snarky review session on YouTube’s What the Flick, the increasingly cynical bunch there bitched and moaned how “Jurassic World” is bogus and could never exist because there is no way anyone would ever try to build a dinosaur theme park after the events in 1993.

I mean are you serious? What world are these people (the film critics at What the Flick) living in? That is like saying all offshore drilling stopped after the BP disaster in 2010. In the real world, humans will do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING if there is profit involved. And when millions (and potentially billions) of dollars are at stake, someone will try and do it no matter how dangerous or morally dubious, because humans are stupid and greedy.

Another asinine criticism of “Jurassic World” is that somehow it is a failure because it is not as good as the original “Jurassic Park” or “Jaws”. Now if Spielberg himself had returned to the chair, (especially in the wake of “Mad Max: Fury Road”), I can kind of understand that comparison. That is one of the reasons so many people were down on “The Lost World”. Outside of the brilliantly choreographed action sequences, it felt like Spielberg directing on auto pilot.

But “Jurassic World” was not directed by Steven Spielberg. It was directed by Colin Trevorrow whose only previous feature film directing credit is the micro-budget “Safety Not Guaranteed”. And you know what? He does a helluva good job. The action sequences are choppy as they are for any non-Hong Kong director not named Spielberg, Cameron, or Miller. But the action is well-staged, and at times, wickedly suspenseful.

“Jurassic World” has a very Spielberg-esque story about family at its heart, best represented by the character arc of the Bryce Dallas Howard character Claire Dearing. But let’s cut to the chase. The real reason people pay to go to “Jurassic Park” movies is the same reason they pay to go to the theme park in the movie—to see dinosaurs. And the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World” are spectacular. They are fierce and majestic and cuddly and sinister and scary and very real. But the best part is this. Unlike the sequels, the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World” are treated with respect—both as animals and as characters. There is a moment toward the end in the finale where a character from the first movie emerges and it is a pure stand up and cheer movie magic moment.

It was a wise decision to use John William’s iconic theme music in this movie. It was an equally smart idea to hire Michael Giacchino to compose the “Jurassic World” score. He is the John Williams of today and his music for this film is filled with exciting action cues and he has composed a wonderful “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” styled sweeping main theme.

Bottom line: Ignore the grouchy cynics. “Jurassic World” is great summer entertainment and a worthwhile sequel to the original 1993 Spielberg directed classic.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

‘SpaceCamp’ soundtrack soars

“SpaceCamp” stands out as one of the most ill-timed movie releases in history. Opening to empty theaters on June 6, 1986 in the wake of the Challenger tragedy, it was filled with good intentions. The movie almost plays like a public relations piece, desperate to inject an Apollo-like romanticism into a shuttle program that never did generate even a fraction of the wide-spread enthusiasm once held for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

Despite the presence of the always electrifying Kate Capshaw and a shuttle full of talented young actors, (including Tate Donavan, Lea Thompson, and Kelly Preston), the movie plays like a mediocre ABC After School Special, (and was actually produced by ABC Films). The film vanished from theaters in a week and has rarely been seen since.

It seems almost inconceivable today that such a minor movie such as this would be lucky enough to get John Williams for a composer. But not only did the producers mange to snag the maestro, they got him during a major William’s drought. This was the composer’s only film score during the period of 1985-86.

One of the casualties of the film flopping so badly was the lack of a widely released commercial soundtrack. I remember running to record stores (they still existed at that time) desperately trying to find the John Williams music. But there was none to be had for reasons I am still not clear about. So along with the movie, William’s score disappeared, never to be heard again for over two decades save for an impossible to find Japanese 1000 CD limited edition printing. Thankfully, in 2010 Intrada Records came to the rescue with a beautifully engineered, pristine edition containing nearly fifty minutes of this masterful score.

To put it simply, “SpaceCamp” is another masterpiece from John Williams.

This is a soaring, magical, musical tapestry of wonder and imagination brimming with color, and adventure, and heartfelt emotion. From the opening notes of “Main Title”, this score takes us to another world and sends the listener into a wondrous journey of imagination. Forget about the tepid wanna-be After School Special this music was attached to. John Williams was scoring something else here. Some movie that was never made, but I’d give anything to see. This could be the lost soundtrack from a sequel to “Close Encounters” or “E.T.”

There is no filler music on this soundtrack. Always the impeccable craftsman, John Williams makes every note count. He does more than compose great music. He tells us a story. And he always entertains us. Here, he even gives us a super cool 80s style pop arrangement of the wonderful main theme in track 2, "Training Montage". Track 6, “In Orbit”, is an emotional powerhouse that will bring tears to anyone’s eyes who has a beating pulse. This is John Williams at his most moving and spiritual.

Bottom line: “SpaceCamp” is a pure joy. This is vintage John Williams at the peak of his post “E.T.” 80s blockbuster style and an absolute must own for anyone who appreciates great music packed with colorful adventure and soaring emotion.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

‘Poltergeist’ (1982): The novelization

My novelization binge continues with “Poltergeist” written by James Kahn, one of the all-time best at this particular specialty, with “Return of the Jedi” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” among his credits.

Erase all thoughts about the insipid, half-baked, cynical cash grab bastardization “remake” currently infesting movie theaters around the world. I am talking here about the Steven Spielberg produced/Toby Hooper directed classic from the fabled summer of 1982. Ahhhh….to have been there back on June 4th 1982 and witnessed this spellbinding horror film when it first opened—it was an exhilarating experience that I will never forget.

And given the visual nature of the picture, the outstanding (and nuanced) performances, the special effects (which still look fantastic and resonate today)—not to mention an absolutely monumental musical score by Jerry Goldsmith—attempting to turn the cinematic experience of “Poltergeist” into a workable and exciting novel would seem to be a futile, if not downright impossible task.

And yet, author James Kahn (working from a screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor), has done just that.

I have three tests that a novelization must pass to be considered a success. One, it has to effectively create the world of the movie using prose. Do I feel like I am in the universe of the movie?  Two, it has to add to the story. Is there backstory and character insights that can only be gotten from an effectively written novel? Three, it has to capture the essence of the movie—the heart and soul of the film if you will. In this case, does the novelization capture the horror and spirituality and sense of wonder of the movie?

I am happy to report that James Kahn’s novelization of “Poltergeist” knocks it out of the park on all three accounts. Reading this book is like living inside the world of the film. We get some great character insights, especially when it comes to Tangina (“Children, Children”) and the paranormal investigators, most notably Doctor Lesh. Although there is no way to duplicate with words the soul-stirring combination of the movie’s visuals coupled with Jerry Goldsmith’s powerhouse soundtrack, this novel has a sense of wonder and is downright scary! Even the show-stopper set pieces such as the “Stairway of Souls” and “Into the Light” are effectively rendered in this thrilling novelization.

Bottom line: “Poltergeist” is a rousing novelization that effectively captures the other-worldly horror and wonderment of the classic 1982 film. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

'Final Destination 3': The novelization

James Wong and Glen Morgan wrote some of the greatest “X-Files” and “Millenium” episodes and do a bang up job with this spooky, supernatural slasher film. But here is a case where the novelization does not just compliment the movie—it surpasses it—by a lot. And keep in mind I really like this movie.

Christa Faust’s adaption is full of rich characterizations, insightful narrative, revealing interior monologues, and even some really emotional scenes. Everything in this book just feels right and rings true. If this were separated from the movie and released and marketed by a major publishing company as a young adult horror novel, it would garner rave reviews and be a smash success. What the author has done here is astounding. She has taken a routine novelization assignment and turned it into a riveting piece of literary fiction drenched with atmosphere and packed with suspense.

A knockout out book that ranks alongside Orson Scott Card's "The Abyss" and Alan Dean Foster's "Aliens" as one of the best novelizations I have read.

'Willow' (1988): The novelization

Vivid, fully realized novelization of the 1988 Ron Howard directed, George Lucas produced film. Both the movie and this book were ahead of its time and would far be more appreciated today in the post "Lord of the Rings”/”Harry Potter” era of the 2000s. Back in 1988 fantasy as a genre (especially in movies) was deader than disco.

The writing by Wayland Drew is outstanding. He does not merely write out the script in prose form, but creates an actual fantasy novel complete with detailed world building, interior dialogues, sharp points of view, and fleshed out characters. The action, suspense, heroic fantasy, and sense of wonder from the movie are all there, but Drew always adds more texture, making full use of the prose format. Wayland Drew also wrote the novelization for the 1987 film “Batteries Not Included” (which I have sitting on my shelf and will check out next).

Bottom line: one of the better novelizations I have read and highly recommended for fans of the movie or anyone who likes the “The Hobbit”.