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Josh Reviews Score: A Film Music Documentary

I love movies, and I love movie scores.  I’m not sure when I first started to realize that a part of what I loved about movies was their score; and that, beyond that, it was in fact the score that was a critical element of those movies I loved.  It probably began with the Star Trek movies.  I watched those movies over and over, and I soon realized that part of what gave those movies their own distinct identities was the different-style scores written by different composers.  The scores for all six original Star Trek movies (by Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Leonard Rosenman, and Cliff Eidelman) are all amazing, but with very different-style scores, each of which are so distinct but all successful in their own way.  Whatever the origin, I have for years been fascinated with movie scores, and I have many great movie soundtracks on my ipod that I listen to all the time.  I love and am intrigued by movie scores.

Matt Schrader’s wonderful documentary Score: A Film Music Documentary is a fantastic dive into the art of creating film scores.  This film will work for those who know little about this aspect of movie-making, with wonderful sequences that explain the many different steps in creating and recording a score, as well as cleverly put-together explorations of just why great movie scores work as well as they do.  The film will also be a delight for those who already love film scores, showcasing a wonderful array of the many men and women who toil to create this art.

The film contains a wealth of interviews, highlighting an incredible array of talented film score composers.  This isn’t a documentary that only focuses on the most super-famous film composers: John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann.  Those giants get their due, of course, but Mr. Schrader has created a film that gives lovely spotlights to a staggering array of talented composers, names well-known to film fans like myself but not to the average movie-goer, including: Danny Elfman (the film spotlights his work on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, and the original Tim Burton Batman), Thomas Newman (the film spotlights his work on The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, and Finding Dory) Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy), Alexandre Desplat (Moonrise Kingdom, Argo), John Debney (Sin City, Spy Kids, and many wonderful scores for episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Brian Tyler (whose work I first discovered on Sci-Fi’s underrated Children of Dune mini-series — a score that I know many of you know and love without knowing it, because several tracks are often used … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Justice League!

Warner Brothers and DC’s new film, Justice League, is a milestone in their efforts to chase after the achievements of Marvel’s cinematic universe.  But whereas Marvel’s last decade-worth of films has seen a remarkably cohesive, gradual unfolding and expansion of a universe’s worth of characters and story-lines, DC/Warners’ efforts have been, well, let’s say a little more stumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was enormously successful, critically and commercially, but those films were a self-contained series.  Once that wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises, DC/Warners began working to create their own interconnected cinematic universe.  Green Lantern failed, but Man of Steel seemed like a stronger first step, though that film was not quite the smash DC/Warners was likely hoping for, and it met with a mixed reaction from fans and critics.  (Overall I enjoy the film and I like a lot of the visual choices that Zack Snyder and his team made, though the film is undermined by several critical story-choices that don’t work and an ill-conceived ending.)  Whereas Marvel introduced its heroes gradually, though their own solo films, DC/Warners moved to jump-start their shared super-hero universe with 2016’s Batman v. Superman, which was intended to lead into the first part of a two-part Justice League film.  But while it made money, Batman v. Superman was roundly (and accurately) criticized for being an overly-long, overly-dour mess with an incoherent plot and flat characters.  (The extended version actually improves upon many of the film’s flaws, but not nearly enough to consider the film “good.”).  Suicide Squad was supposed to be a hip, fun shot-in-the-arm for DC/Warners’ super-hero film series, but I thought it was even worse than Batman v. Superman.  Only Wonder Woman was a true success, telling a fun, solid story with real characters that connected with the fans.

With their films failing to connect with audiences, DC/Warners began to curtail their ambitious plans that were laid out back in 2014.  Suddenly the two-part Justice League epic became a single film; who knows if we will ever see a sequel, or whether any of the other promised solo films (a Flash film, a Cyborg film, another try at Green Lantern, a solo Batman film starring Ben Affleck, a Man of Steel 2) will ever actually come to be.

Meanwhile, following Batman v. Superman’s critical drubbing, reports came out about efforts to rework and reshape Justice League, in an attempt to inject some of the lightness and optimism that has proven so successful with the Marvel films.  (The degree to which Zack Snyder, who directed Man of Steel, Batman and Superman, and Justice League, was on board with these changes is somewhat … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 13): Mission: Impossible (1996)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

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Mission: Impossible is probably the Brian De Palma film that I have seen the most over the years.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s damn good, fiercely entertaining and a heck of a lot of fun.  It’s funny to think that Brian De Palma was involved in a “franchise” film, but the marvelous thing about Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible film series is the way that Mr. Cruise has embraced the idea of working with a variety of filmmakers, each with very strong, singular styles, thus giving each M:I film a very distinct feel.  These films are far more different from one another than any other film series I can think of.  I don’t know if that was Mr. Cruise (and his co-producer, Paula Wagner)’s idea right from the beginning, but I love the way it has turned out.  With the fifth Mission: Impossible installment opening this weekend, it seemed perfect for me to take this opportunity to post my thoughts on my recent re-watch of the film that kicked off the series.

I never watched much of the original Mission: Impossible TV show, so even when I first saw this film back in 1996, I wasn’t going in with any pre-conceived notions of what Mission: Impossible was all about.  (So I wasn’t bothered by, say, what a fan of the TV show might see as a sacrilegious treatment, here in the film, of the character of Jim Phelps!) I have always judged these films purely on their strengths and weaknesses as films. And I think Mission: Impossible is pretty strong!

As I commented in my review of Carlito’s Way, it’s clear that Mr. De Palma can achieve tremendous heights when working from a great script.  And Mission: Impossible has a very solid script, one filled with twists and turns and a story that is engaging and exciting while managing to maintain a fairly light, frothy tone.  The screenplay is by David Koepp (who also wrote the great script for Carlito’s Way) and Robert Towne, with a story by Mr. Koepp and Steve Zaillian (another great screenwriter, who wrote films such as Schindler’s List and Moneyball and Gangs of New York and Clear and Present Danger), and having such strong writers in the mix has again proven here to be an important foundation upon which Mr. De Palma can bring his particular cinematic eye and stylistic flourishes.

Perhaps because he knew that he was involved in a big-budget film intended to appeal … [continued]

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“I am the Night” — Music From Batman: The Animated Series!

I can’t believe that Batman: The Animated Series is over twenty years old.  Oy vey, that means I am getting pretty old myself!  I immediately loved Bruce Timm’s animated Batman series, and as a kid I watched and re-watched those episodes incessantly.  To this day, I think that Batman: The Animated Series remains the finest on-screen depiction of Batman, and so many of the show’s versions of Batman’s familiar supporting cast and cadre of villains still stand as the most iconic, most definitive version of those characters.

One of the many ways in which Batman: The Animated Series excelled was in its gorgeous music.  Overseen by Shirley Walker, each episode of the series had its own fully-original, scored-by-an-orhcestra soundtrack.  The music of the series was so rich and expressive and memorable.  It was a HUGE element of the series’ success.

Back in 2009, I was delighted by La-La Land Record’s 4-disc CD collection of music from the series.  Click here to read my thoughts on that release.  The CD set was labeled “volume 1,” leading me to hope that a “volume 2” would be on its way.  Sure enough, last year La-La Land released volume 2, and I must say I think this collection is even stronger than the first.

Disc One — This first disc begins with music from “Beware the Gray Ghost,” the wonderful episode in which 1960’s Batman Adam West portrays Simon Trent, an actor who years earlier played a Batman-like TV superhero “The Gray Ghost,” who inspired Bruce Wayne as a boy.  I love how the peppy “Gray Ghost” TV theme heard in track 2 turns forlorn and mournful when we catch up with washed-up actor Simon Trent in the present day.  This theme becomes a haunting motif that runs through the rest of the episode.  The two-parter “The Cat and the Claw” (which, although it was the fifteenth episode made was actually the first episode aired — I remember watching it that first night!) begins with a great four-and-a-half minute-long piece of music (track 13) that scores the depiction of Batman and Catwoman’s first encounter.  It’s a great piece of music that introduces the show’s playful Catwoman theme.  In track 33 on the disc, which contains music from the Scarecrow episode “Nothing to Fear,” it’s interesting to hear Shirley Walker quote Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from Tim Burton’s Batman movie.  Then, a little later in that episode, in track 37 we hear the Elfman Batman theme transition into the Batman: The Animated Series Batman theme, which is very cool!  The disc concludes with music from “Heart of Ice,” one of the finest episodes of the entire series (it was written by Paul Dini, … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Danny Elfman’s Newly-Released Complete Soundtrack to Batman (1989)!

Last month, La-La Land Records released a limited edition 2-CD set containing the complete score to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), composed by Danny Elfman.

As I’ve written before here on the site, I’m a bit of a nut for movie soundtracks, and I love it when we’re blessed by the release of a great score in its complete, unedited form.  And Danny Elfman’s score for Batman is a real winner.

As I recall, Mr. Elfman’s score was widely praised, and with great justification, when Batman was first released back in 1989.  Mr. Elfman’s spooky, mysterious score and sweeping, iconic themes were as much a part of the film’s over-all success as was Tim Burton’s direction and Anton Furst’s marvelously creepy, decayed production design.  It’s great fun getting to listen to the complete score, start-to-finish, on this new CD.

Modern super-hero movie scores could learn a thing or two from Mr. Elfman’s work on Batman.  Recent successful super-hero films — from the latest incarnations of Batman (Batman Begins & The Dark Knight) to Marvel’s recent successes (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc.) — have had passable scores, but none of those films has had a really great, hummable theme for their central character.  I think that’s an unconscionable failing for a super-hero movie.  Contrast that with John Williams’ iconic Superman theme, as well as with Mr. Elfman’s magnificent Batman theme created for this film, and I think my point is clear.

Mr. Elfman wastes no time introducing his Batman theme to the audience, as it plays over the film’s opening credits (and the slow build-up to the reveal of the bat-emblem) in what is presented on CD as track 1, “Main Title.”  As Jeff Bond notes in the wonderful liner notes included with the CD set: As the camera prowls the stone environment, Elfman develops a propulsive march from his Batman theme, driven by snares and trumpets punding out a rapid 7/8 rhythm before giving way to a more drifting, supernatural treatment for strings and pipe organ. This Batman theme is instantly memorable, and it is one of Mr. Elfman’s greatest achievements with this score.

Another stand-out from the score is track 5, “Shootout,” a lengthy arrangement that plays over Jack Napier’s confrontation with Batman and the police in Axis Chemicals.  Mr. Elfman uses the repetition of what Mr. Bond describes as a churning, low rhythmic figure from double basses to drive the action and build the suspense of the sequence, all the while wonderfully weaving the Batman theme in and out of the action.

Track 18, “Descent into Mystery,” is probably my favorite piece of the score.  As Batman drives Vicki Vale back to the … [continued]

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The Sounds of Gotham City — Music from Batman: The Animated Series!

In 1992, the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series premiered on Fox.  To this day, despite some mighty competition from the last two live-action Batman movies (especially the magnificent The Dark Knight), this show still stands as my favorite non-comic book depiction of Batman, the one that is most true to the character I have always pictured in my head.  Gorgeous animation combined with terrific stories that played Batman serious and scary made the show a knock-out right from the beginning (and ensured that the episodes would be as strong upon repeated viewings over 15 years later as they were when the show first launched).

But when considering all of the elements that made Batman: The Animated Series such a terrific success, we would be remiss in neglecting to mention the magnificent music.  In support of this point, La-La Land Records has recently released a phenomenal two-CD collection of the soundtrack from the show.  Unlike most cartoons of the time, which relied on a lot of recycled music, each episode of Batman: TAS had its own original score, performed by an orchestra.  The music was masterminded by Shirley Walker, ably assisted by a team that included Lolita Ritmanis and Michael McCuiston (all three of whom have a lot of work represented on this new CD collection).  Like the very best film score, the music from Batman: TAS was a critical element in creating the over-all tone of the piece, and it is strong enough to be tremendously enjoyable when listened to on its own.

The CD begins with a presentation of the Batman: TAS main title theme, which was composed by Danny Elfman (creating an interesting and catchy variation on his theme from Tim Burton’s Batman).  We are then presented with music from eleven notable episodes from the series’ early run.  

I am not a musician, so writing about music doesn’t come easily for me, but let me try to share how much I enjoyed listening to these CDs.  What is incredible is the way each episode has its own unique themes, composed to reflect the action and the characters (heroic and villainous) featured in that particular show.

Right away a stand-out is the work on the series’ first episode, “On Leather Wings,” in which Batman is blamed for crimes committed by a mysterious and monstrous Man-Bat creature.  The Batman: The Animated Series theme is wondrously woven in to the adventurous, exciting score that the conveys the energy and action of Batman’s vertiginous mid-air battle with the Man-Bat while establishing the series’ dark, brooding tone.

Other stand-outs for me include the creepy, almost child-like theme for Harvey Dent, tracking his descent into madness as he becomes the creature … [continued]