Tag Archives: John Williams

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 7 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

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I first read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the latter days of 1999 after receiving it from my grandmother for Christmas that year. I was only 7 years old at the time, but I devoured it and was ready for more, so I was given Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban for my birthday just a few weeks later. When this movie adaptation was announced, I forced my grandmother to read the book so she could take me to the theater, and despite her initial reluctance, she loved it as well, and so we went to the theater together. While it will never capture the exact magic of the book series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remains one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen as well as one of the most important movies of my childhood.

10-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has grown up believing that his parents died in a car crash, which is why he lives with his terrible aunt, uncle, and cousin; he’s forced to wear his large cousin’s too-big hand-me-down clothes and sleeps in the cupboard under the stairs. His life is far from happy, but all of that changes when mysterious letters start arriving in strange ways, all addressed to him. Harry soon finds out that not only did his parents not die in a car crash, but that they were wizards who died protecting him from the most evil wizard of all time – and that Harry himself is a wizard too. He’s whisked away into a world that is entirely new to him and to a new magical school called Hogwarts, filled with friends, teachers, and danger.

It should be said right off the bat that the production team absolutely nailed the casting decisions; every single actor is perfectly placed in their role, and as a result, I find it difficult to imagine others playing these characters. The child actors – Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione – aren’t all-stars here, but they visually fit the descriptions and perform their parts believably. Yes, they’re children and make typical children mistakes, but they’re still charming and make you feel for them when they are emotional and worry for them when they are in danger, which is what really matters – that they make you care.

And of course the adults in the film are outstanding as well! Richard Harris is pitch perfect as Professor Dumbledore, completely capturing the “twinkle in the eye” aspect of the character as described in the book series. Though I did enjoy Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in later films after Harris passed away prior to the release of Chamber of Secrets, I think that Richard Harris more perfectly embodies the calm, wise old wizard demeanor. Maggie Smith as McGonagall is every bit as stern as her book counterpart, but at the same time she’s able to show the proper warmth and joy when she discovers Harry’s flying capabilities and concern while watching his first match against the rough-playing Slytherin team. Other admirable performances come from Alan Rickman as Snape – you can catch some subtle hints towards his characters’ eventual fate if you watch for it, but at the same time he appears just as loathsome and borderline evil as the children believe him to be – and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid – who, as Harry’s first real father figure is just as warm and gentle as you would expect him to be despite his size, and his constant refrain of “I shouldn’t have said that” shows both his loyalty to Dumbledore and his secrets as well as his dedication to the children and their safety.

The story, which is basically just a reiteration of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, isn’t overly complex, so the real focuses of this movie are the characters and world-building. Since Harry is just as new to the world of wizards and witches and magic as we are, we are able to witness everything through his eyes and experience things such as Platform 9 3/4, the magic feast in the Great Hall, and the moving staircases through his eyes. J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world is a wonder to behold in all of its details, but the addition of magic doesn’t take away the human lessons to be taken away here. In observing Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we learn about the importance of true friendship and sacrifice for the ones you love, as well as bravery in the face of danger and difficult choices. Additionally, Dumbledore teaches us the importance of living our lives rather than focusing on what could be (“It does not do to dwell on dreams, Harry, and forget to live”) and the power of true, pure love.

Though I won’t go on about it at length here, I have to at least mention John Williams absolutely incredible score for this movie (my review). It was the very first film soundtrack I ever owned, and it sparked a fascination with both film scores and John Williams that continues to this day. More than that, it taught me that instrumental music can still tell a story; when listening to “The Quidditch Match”, I can completely visualize every single action on screen based on the musical cues alone (and to this day, that is one of my top 5 favorite-scored scenes in all of moviedom). “Hedwig’s Theme” remains a classic to this day and is recognizable by those who have and haven’t seen the movies alike, and “Leaving Hogwarts” still causes me to shed a tear or two every time I hear it. This soundtrack is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t given it a listen before.

While this movie is definitely not the best in the series – or even second best, to be honest – it’s the one that means the most to me, and it’s the one that started it all; if Chris Columbus and company hadn’t gotten it right here, then Harry Potter may have continued on very differently and might not have become as successful as it ended up being. To that end, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is exactly the film that needed to be made at that time – it’s not only a great and accurate book-to-film adaptation, but it’s also full of the magic, wonder, and heart that inspired me as a child to seek true friendship, to be brave in the decisions I make, and to unselfishly love others.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: PG – for some scary moments and mild language

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 2 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

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My experience with Star Trek is limited, especially in regards to Classic Trek. In fact, JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot was my introduction to the franchise in any way, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I saw any Classic Trek at all. So when my friend TJ told me that he wanted to talk about Wrath of Khan when I asked him to be on my podcast, I did a tiny bit of research and preparation, but my goal was to view this as a non-Trekkie to see if it was not only a great Trek film but also, and more importantly, a great film as well, and whaddya know? It certainly is.

Following the events of the 1967 Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Space Seed”, in which Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) maroons Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán) and the remainder of his people on a planet as punishment for the attempted takeover of the USS EnterpriseWrath of Khan features an older, dissatisfied Kirk – now Admiral – joining his former crew on the Enterprise once again for a routine training mission. However, things become anything but routine when Khan is revealed to have returned, angrier than ever and prepared to do whatever it takes to seek vengeance against Admiral Kirk. Faced with a new adventure and tasked with protecting the lives of his crew, Kirk and company must find a way to defeat Khan before he unleashes a technology with the capability of destroying all life on any planet he chooses.

*mild spoilers ahead*

Even with my limited experience in the classic Trek universe, what I’ve found that I love about it most is that the sci-fi/adventure aspect is almost an afterthought; yes, there are cool spaceships and futuristic technologies, but the main focus in everything I’ve seen so far has been humans (or aliens) having human moments with each other while going through human experiences. The setting is merely a setting – the situations are universal. This movie deals with themes such as mortality, youth, sacrifice, and love vs. hate, and it deals with these themes better than many non-sci-fi movies.

That being said, the character with whom we identify the most is Admiral Kirk himself. He is profoundly human in that he is flawed. He features strong charisma and leadership capabilities, and his love and duty for his friends and crew are apparent, but he, like all of us, is often emotional and reactionary, which leads to mistakes. Thankfully, he learns from his mistakes throughout the course of the film through self-evaluation and through listening to the advice of his friends, and by the end he is a better man because of it. Spock, played by the iconic Leonard Nimoy, is merely the other side of the coin. To contrast with Kirk’s emotions, Spock makes decisions through logic and necessity, but he shows by the end of the film that logic is not always the antithesis of emotion – that sometimes the two go hand in hand because the logical thing to do is to make sacrifices for the ones you love.

Khan, on the other hand, features a personality similar to Kirk’s in that he is driven by emotion, but his emotions blind and deafen him to the warnings of his crew. Montalbán gives a great performance here – you can see the calculating look in his eyes as he decides what his next course of action will be, and his fits of passion are just as powerful as the moments when he menacingly whispers, showing his ability to control a situation when he has the advantage. He’s a fantastic villain in the sense that you know why he is doing what he’s doing, which is what you want when it comes to the antagonist – believable motivation.

Storytelling and characters aside, this is a sci-fi film, and those elements are done extremely well. For a film made in 1982, the graphics hold up surprisingly well, with a particular CGI sequence made by an early iteration of Pixar being a definite highlight. Another element of note is the space combat, with the idea by director Nicholas Meyer to approach it like a submarine battle proving to be an effective action sequence. And I can’t praise the score enough; composed by a young James Horner, the music switches from horror to sci-fi/adventure to drama with apparent ease, and the main theme is such an earworm (pun intended if you’ve seen the film) that I was whistling it for 20 minutes after watching for the first time because I couldn’t get it out of my head.

I could go on and on about this movie because it really is so much more than just a sci-fi flick, and the whole crew gives outstanding performances – including a young Kirstie Alley in her first feature film role. There are moments of pure joy as well as scenes that are sure to guarantee tears, and all the while it feels firmly like Star Trek. With strong themes and solid characters, The Wrath of Khan is a prime example of how prioritizing story and characters is the key to success in filmmaking, no matter the subject material at hand.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: PG – for violence and language


Top Ten Films of 2013

The delay in me typing this up comes from the fact that there are still a few major films from 2013 that I have yet to see – American HustleHerInside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wolf of Wall Street (though I’m thinking I won’t see the latter due to excessive sexual content). That being said, I wanted to go ahead and tackle what I have seen before too much of 2014 passes, so just know that, if I see these films and find them worthy of this list, I will update it and let you all know.

2013 was a pretty great year for me. I saw more films than ever before, largely due to my involvement in The MovieByte Podcast with my friend TJ. If I totaled everything correctly, I saw 40 new films this year in theaters, so this list is drawing from a pretty wide selection.

An important note: this is a list of favorite films, which may conflict with my ratings. My ratings are usually based on a combination of both quality and enjoyment, whereas this list will mostly be based on enjoyment with quality mixed in just a bit. Click on the titles to see my reviews for each film. With that said, let’s get started with number 10:

thor the dark world

Honorable Mention – Thor: The Dark World

After the mediocre first Thor film, I was hoping for a much better second film, which we thankfully got in Thor: The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth is an excellent Thor, made better by the fact that we’re not establishing an origin anymore. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki continues to impress as well, this time as an ally, bringing an interesting twist to the character and allowing for a fun and occasionally potent brother-to-brother relationship. Brian Tyler’s score is just as fun as the movie itself, and Christopher Eccleston’s villain Malekith is appropriately menacing, if a bit vague in intention.

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10. Frozen

I love Disney films, especially musical ones, because they remind me of my childhood, when The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast (my review), and Aladdin were supreme. Frozen reminds me of those 1990s Disney movies, but this time with a nice twist at the end – which I won’t spoil for you. The voice cast is incredible here, namely Kristen Bell as Anna and Josh Gad as Olaf the Snowman, with Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” set to be a surefire nominee for Best Original Song at this year’s Academy Awards – and, I’ll call it now, it’ll win too. The animation is beautiful, the story is touching, and you’ll walk out whistling the songs, wanting to watch it again and again.

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9. 12 Years a Slave

This film is difficult to rank because, while it’s certainly a 5-star film, it’s also difficult to watch. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve long years. The film covers his incredibly painful time spent on a plantation in Louisiana, where he meets good people, bad people, and fellow slaves who are also struggling for their lives. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths of slavery and how brutal the slave owners often were, making this film exceptionally powerful and a must-watch – if you can stomach it.

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8. Ender’s Game

I read Orson Scott Card’s classic book in anticipation of this film, so it was fresh on my mind when I walked into the theater. As expected, the book is much better and much of the content in the film is watered down, but that doesn’t stop the film from being pretty excellent on its own. For the most part, it keeps the themes of morality and unnecessary violence intact, and Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Ender does a fantastic job of capturing the character, from his calm control in stressful situations to his intense emotional outbursts upon the realizations of what has happened to him. The visuals in this movie are gorgeous, with scenes from the book, such as the armies in the Battle Room, flying right off the page in a great way.

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7. The Book Thief

I also read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief before seeing the film based on it, and many of my criticisms are the same as for Ender’s Game in regards to the watering down of content and such, but that doesn’t stop this film from being an emotional punch to the gut. Sophie Nélisse is outstanding as Liesel Meminger, as are her parents, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The period setting of the film is well-done, and John Williams delivers as intimate and beautiful a score as ever. Bring a box of tissues for this one…maybe two.

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6. Captain Phillips

In this film, Tom Hanks has the best performance of his life…for, what, the fifth time now? Man, he continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors out there. Captain Phillips tells the true story of how Somalian pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama but were thwarted by Captain Richard Phillips, who not only protected everyone on board with his actions but also offered himself as hostage to continue that protection. Barkhad Abdi plays the lead pirate, who isn’t portrayed as a bad guy but rather as a guy forced to do bad things due to unfortunate social circumstances. There isn’t a bad guy here, not really – at least, that’s not how the film portrays the pirates – but there is simply reality and suspense that rises from it. The long run-time never feels too long as you are caught up in the action from start to finish, and if Tom Hanks doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor, it’ll only be because he lost it to Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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5. Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson shines in this historical film about the making of the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins, based on the book series by P. L. Travers. Thompson’s portrayal of the stubborn author is both quirky and humorous, but it’s also heartbreaking in her remembrance of moments in her childhood that inspired her books. Colin Farrell plays her father in these flashbacks, juxtaposing a happy-go-lucky father with a down-on-his-luck drunkard, giving us insight into Mary Poppins and the Banks family that I was not previously familiar with. Tom Hanks plays an admirable Walt Disney, even if his performance doesn’t convince me enough that I am watching Walt himself rather than Hanks playing him. Still, the charm of the movie as a whole as well as Thompson’s performance knock this film out of the park. (You should probably bring tissues to this one as well.)

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4. Oblivion

I had a self-imposed boycott on Tom Cruise’s films for quite a long time, but since lifting it for 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review) he has quickly become one of my favorite actors. His performance here is great, as is Andrea Riseborough’s performance as his partner, but it’s the themes and questions raised by the film that bring Oblivion so far to the top of my list. Themes of asking questions, seeking answers, and the thirst for knowledge vs. the fear of knowledge are brought to the forefront, and, for some reason, it really resonated with me. The script is smart, Tom Cruise is as great as ever, and the score by M83 is energetic and fun, in the same vein as Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (my review), which was directed by the same man, Joseph Kosinski. This film not only shows off Tom Cruise’s continuing capabilities as an action star, but his talents as a dramatic actor as well.

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3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As far as book-to-film adaptations go, 2012’s The Hunger Games (my review) was one of the best I’d seen, but it still had problems. Director Gary Ross’ replacement by Francis Lawrence for the second film seemed worrying at first, but it seemed to pay off. Not only is Catching Fire a better film than the first one, but it’s also a better adaptation of its book counterpart, which is hard to believe. In fact, if I may be so bold, I think that I enjoyed the film more than the book, at least as far as the opening scenes involving the Victory Tour go, which I know is probably blasphemy. Jennifer Lawrence is surely one of the best actresses out there today as evidenced by her continued terrific performance as Katniss Everdeen. The stakes of this film are higher than in the first, and the character development is even better than the already-good character development of the first film. The shaky-cam is gone in favor of better choreographed action scenes, and, in fact, nearly every aspect of the first film is improved upon this time around. This is an excellent film whether you’ve read the books or not.

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2. Gravity

If you didn’t catch this film in theaters, I’m sorry. You missed out. Maybe they’ll bring it back for a few extra showings before the Academy Awards, in which case you should buy a ticket as soon as they’re available. Though this film is great all-around, from the performance of Sandra Bullock to the music by Steven Price to the brilliant visuals of space, the real thrill comes from the thrill of total immersion. You seem to experience everything that Bullock’s character experiences, from spinning around in the vacuum of space to the rush of being trapped in a shower of incoming deadly space debris. The theater experience makes an already-great film even better by involving the audience fully in the action and atmosphere – or lack thereof – of space.

The Way Way Back

1. The Way, Way Back

I love, love, love this film. Love it. I caught an early screening about a month before it reached theaters and subsequently paid to see it twice more. I purchased it on Blu-Ray the day it became available and have watched it three times more since then, and I have yet to tire of it. The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age film about Duncan, played by Liam James, who is the most perfectly, believably awkward person I’ve ever seen onscreen, which is exactly how his character should be. The growth of his character throughout the film is equally fun and touching, contrasted by Steve Carell’s portrayal of Duncan’s awful stepfather, a role refreshingly atypical of Carell’s usual fare. However, the standout performance in this film is that of Sam Rockwell as Owen, a local waterpark owner who befriends Duncan and helps him to make his summer one of the best of his life. Rockwell brings many laugh-out-loud moments, but he also brings the most poignant moments of the film. The moral is great, and the ride is a great one. I don’t think I could possibly over-recommend this movie.

Well, there you have it. Do you agree or disagree with my list? What were your favorite films of 2013? Sound off in the comments – I’d love to hear your opinions.

Here’s to 2014 – another great year for movies!

-Chad


The Book Thief (2013)

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More and more often, as books are being adapted into movies for the big screen, I find myself reading the books before I see the film, a habit that I had as a child but dropped as I grew older. When I read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief for the first time, I was completely absorbed; the writing was beautiful, the characters were fantastic, and the combination of setting and plot was heartbreaking. The end of the book destroyed me emotionally like no book has done in quite a long time…needless, to say, I had high hopes for the film adaptation. Could they successfully adapt such an incredible book into an at least decent film? The critical rating over on RottenTomatoes.com had me worried, but, rest assured, I can personally attest to the fact that this film is much better than the critics would have you believe.

The Book Thief begins in 1938 and tells the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), who, at the start of the film, is on a train to Molching, Germany with her younger brother and mother so that she may be fostered into the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, respectively) after the departure of her father. On the journey to Molching, however, her brother dies, and, at his funeral, Liesel finds a book, stealing it as a reminder of her brother, in spite of her inability to read. When she arrives at the Hubermanns’ house and her mother leaves, Hans begins to teach Liesel how to read, and she befriends a neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch). The Hubermanns lives change forever when a Jew, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), arrives on their doorstep, seeking protection based on a promise made by Hans to his deceased father. The rest of the film tells of the growing friendship between Max and Liesel, Liesel’s increasing thirst for reading, and the survival of a poor non-Nazi family living in the middle of Nazi Germany during World War II.

The first thing I should say is that, though this is far from being perfect, it’s a decent adaptation of Zusak’s original book; I literally saw the film on the same day I finished reading the book for the first time, so everything was fresh on my mind, and there weren’t any changes made that really upset me. The film’s greatest strength in translating from the book is its casting. Sophie Nélisse is brilliant as Liesel, bringing to the role the appropriate naivety and innocence to a girl of her age during this time, but she also brings out the fierceness and determination of the character, ensuring that she holds her own against an actor as established as Geoffrey Rush. Speaking of Mr. Rush, he settles into the role of Hans “Papa” Hubermann so effortlessly that you’ll want him to be your Papa from the moment he first speaks. He successfully communicates all the different personalities shown by Hans in the book, from the kind gentleness he shows Liesel when she first arrives, to the determination exuded upon the arrival of Max, and the remorse shown upon revealing what danger he has put his family in by standing up to the Nazis. Emily Watson as Rosa “Mama” Hubermann makes the character as mysteriously multi-faceted as she appears in the book as well, with her outwardly rough, coarse behavior making her rare moments of vulnerability and intimacy all the more poignant and emotional. Though these three are the shining stars in this film, honorable mention goes to Ben Schnetzer as Max and Nico Liersch as Rudy, both of whom give excellent performances too.

The critical consensus at RottenTomatoes states that the film plays it too safe with its Nazi Germany setting, which I actually agree with. I generally do my best to not judge a book-to-film adaptation based on its quality/accuracy in regards to the book, but this particular adaptation, despite being a great film overall, is definitely a bit too watered-down. Many of the darker aspects of the book, such as Rudy and Liesel stealing, Liesel’s relationship to the mayor’s wife, Rudy’s rebellion against the Hitler Youth program, and the Jews being marched through town to the Dachau concentration camp, are either barely touched on or simply skipped over, providing the film with what I would personally consider to be missed opportunities. For example, the Jews are actually marched through town once in the film, but it is never explicitly stated what the purpose or final destination is; yes, it is implied and should not be difficult to figure out given the context, but the scene is so brief and only happens once, so it is difficult to take away any real emotion from the scene as presented in the film. In contrast, though, there is one particular scene that stands out to me as being particularly powerful. Liesel is standing and singing with the choir at her school, and the music sounds lovely in their high, sweet voices. However, captions across the bottom of the screen reveal the anti-Jewish lyrics being sung, and the camera cuts to scenes of Nazis raiding Jewish homes and taking the families away. It’s a sobering scene, with the juxtaposition of the innocence of children and the realities of Nazism.

Another complaint I have about the film is that I worry that some aspects weren’t explained well enough for non-readers to understand, namely the inclusion of Death as Narrator, as he is in the book. The book is told entirely from his perspective, which is why it works so well; I mean, who better to tell a story that takes place in Germany during World War II than Death himself? But it doesn’t work so well in the movie because Death’s narration only interrupts the story two or three times throughout the course of the film, and I mean exactly that – interrupts. If the film had involved him more throughout, it might not have been as awkward, but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Despite the awkwardness, I liked Death’s voice (Roger Allam), a notion that gives me goosebumps – how profound that the voice of Death be pleasing to listen to?

The best translation from book to screen would definitely have to be the final fifteen minutes or so of the film. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but it’s safe to say that you would be wise to bring a box of tissues. The incredibly emotional ending from the book is kept intact in all the ways that matter, bringing the film to a satisfying and poignant close.

I learned at an early age that you can’t walk into a film adaptation of a book you love and expect the same experience – each is its own art form and therefore must be absorbed differently, without comparison to the other. However, you do have to at least consider how good an adaptation it is, which is why I talk so much about how the film compares to the book here. In any case, though it may seem like I didn’t like the film because it wasn’t as good as the book, I really did enjoy this film for what it was. On the whole, it is a pretty good adaptation, albeit a bit watered down one, but when aren’t film adaptations of books watered down in some regard? The important thing here is that the film’s heart is where it needs to be; the characters are genuine, there are many wonderfully touching moments, the characters are cast and portrayed well, and the instrumental score by John Williams is phenomenal…even at the ripe old age of 81, he continues to prove why he’s one of the best in the business. The Book Thief is good, solid filmmaking and has my full recommendation.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material


John Carter (2012) – Michael Giacchino

Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!
John Carter

I’ve made it clear in the past that Michael Giacchino is one of my favorite composers, and I might have even called him the best composer out there today; his ability to so effortlessly switch between genres is impressive, with him composing excellent scores for such contrasting films as Star Trek (my review), Up, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review). My recent obsession with all things John Carter/Barsoom-related has introduced me to Giacchino’s score for the 2012 Disney film for the first time. As expected, it’s wonderful.

The soundtrack opens with Giacchino’s beautiful, sweeping theme representing the world of Barsoom; after listening to it for the first time, I walked away whistling it. In the theme, he has managed to capture the majesty and splendor of the planet, both as described by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the original A Princess of Mars novel (my review) and as shown in the film adaptation, but it also embodies both the adventure at hand and the romance between Carter and Dejah Thoris. This quickly fades into something more ethereal and otherworldly, led by a solo voice and eerie strings, serving as a backdrop to the opening scene that describes the plight of the dying planet.

There is a lot of diversity found in this score, with Giacchino switching between a larger, more triumphant sound (“Carter They Come, Carter They Fall,” “The Prize is Barsoom”) and something that is more mysterious and appropriately unearthly (“The Temple of Issus,” “A Thern Warning”). He also makes heavy use of voice, with either the choir or a single voice making an appearance in just about every track. The dexterity of the human voice gives it the ability to fit right in with the “unearthly” style of music mentioned as well as with the more tender, intimate moments of the score, such as at the start of the track “A Change of Heart.” They even fit in perfectly during the more aggressive, war-like bits of music, such as in the latter half of the track “The Prize is Barsoom.”

The Tharks are an indigenous species on Barsoom, not human-like in appearance, and they are represented well here by heavy percussion with a sort of tribal, primitive sound to it. It’s appropriately aggressive, just like the Tharks themselves. Giacchino uses strings to great effect, with the bowed instruments often acting as the driving force beneath the rest of the orchestra, usually playing an ostinato eighth note line, occasionally interjecting with a quieter version of theme heard in the other instruments. The strings also have many beautiful moments on their own, playing soft, warm melodies that emphasize the beauty of the world and the tenderness shown between Carter and Dejah Thoris.

The original John Carter stories as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired many generations of scientists, writers, and even filmmakers. Among those was George Lucas, whose Star Wars saga borrows many elements of story and character from Burroughs’ work. It’s an ironic twist, then, for me to point out that there are parts of Giacchino’s score here that are reminiscent of John Williams’ score to Star Wars. No, nothing is ripped off, but there are certain points in the score when I can definitely hear the nod to Williams’ work, which is a nice touch that familiarizes the film a bit. You can even hear some of Giacchino’s Star Trek in here, though there’s nothing blatant enough to upset me. These three films all take place on foreign planets/in space, so the feel of them is similar (though Star Trek is definitely more sci-fi than the other two) and the music shares common elements of the genre.

Despite the fact that the film was not received very well, Giacchino’s score has received universal acclaim because, well, he’s awesome. With his score to John Carter, Giacchino has ventured into yet another new territory for him – that is, the territory of space fantasy – and has emerged victorious. His interpretation of John Carter’s Barsoom is on as grand a scale as the original book, but he also captures the more personal moments between our hero and Dejah Thoris. His ability to switch styles so quickly, from a majestic main theme to an aggressive percussion rhythm for the Tharks to ethereal strings/voices for the planet of Barsoom itself, makes the soundtrack just as epic as the film itself.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

1. “A Thern for the Worse” 7:38
2. “Get Carter” 4:25
3. “Gravity of the Situation” 1:20
4. “Thark Side of Barsoom” 2:55
5. “Sab Than Pursues Princess” 5:33
6. “The Temple of Issus” 3:24
7. “Zodanga Happened” 4:01
8. “The Blue Light Special” 4:11
9. “Carter They Come, Carter They Fall” 3:55
10. “A Change of Heart” 3:04
11. “A Thern Warning” 4:04
12. “The Second Biggest Apes I’ve Seen This Month” 2:35
13. “The Right of Challenge” 2:22
14. “The Prize Is Barsoom” 4:29
15. “The Fight for Helium” 4:22
16. “Not Quite Finished” 2:06
17. “Thernabout” 1:18
18. “Ten Bitter Years” 3:12
19. “John Carter of Mars” 8:53

Total Length: app. 75 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad

P.S. – Read my review of the film here!


John Carter (2012)

Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!
John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) and released by Disney, I became quite excited to see this film upon seeing the trailers, but I faltered when it was received poorly by critics and didn’t do well at the box office. Recently, however, I read Michael D. Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (my review), which talks about why the film failed the way it did, getting me re-interested in John Carter and leading me to read author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original book, A Princess of Mars (my review). All the while, I became more and more excited to see the film despite its negative reception – I wanted to see this world come to life! –  and, now that I’ve seen it…what’s wrong with everyone? What is there to dislike about this film?

Here is Disney’s official plot synopsis:

The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.

For the first half hour or so of the film, I was pretty skeptical. A confusing, not-from-the-book opening scene raises many questions right off the bat, and the first few minutes of the actual film are not much better. I began writing out a mental list of complaints, but I shoved that aside the farther I got into the film. Does it have its problems? Well, yeah, but every movie does. Does it deserve all of the negativity that it has received? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Stanton takes plenty of liberties with Burroughs’ world and characters, but, looking back, I understand the reasoning behind every single one of them. While the John Carter of A Princess of Mars is a good guy just because he is a good guy and there’s no questioning it (it works great in the book), the John Carter of the film has issues; he’s stubborn, he’s selfish, and even disrespectful at times. However, all of this builds and builds to give Carter the opportunity to be the good guy, bringing a character arc that is needed for film. It is a pleasure to watch Taylor Kitsch as John Carter of Earth discover the part of him that is actually John Carter of Mars, willing to fight and die for the good beings of Barsoom. The Dejah Thoris of the book is not a warrior, nor is she a scientist, but she is both in the film, giving her a more active role in the story and letting her be more than just the romantic damsel in distress (which, again, worked really well in the book). Lynn Collins plays the character with an appropriate amount of spirit and energy, capturing both the romantic side of the character that would be required of a Princess of Mars, but she also brings the new feisty side of the character necessitated by the script. The addition of the mysterious Therns to the film is a bit confusing at first, and certain story elements and characters are removed, but all of it comes out okay, working for the film’s good.

The scope of the film is just as large as that of the book, with the choice of filming in real locations rather than using a green screen being something that I think humanizes it a bit, making it more accessible to the viewers. Sure, the original story is meant to be “out there,” but it’s more the characters who inhabit the world and how they interact with each other that create the scope of the story, not the world itself. That being said, the visuals in the film are fantastic, from the look of the Tharks to the design of the airships to the wide expanses of desert mountains. Composer Michael Giacchino’s score to the film is appropriately reminiscent of John Williams’ original score to Star Wars without being a copy, and you can even hear a bit of his score to Star Trek (my review) every now and again, though I’m not holding that against him by any means. Giacchino keeps a perfect balance between bringing out the largeness and epicness of the adventure and capturing the intimate moments between characters, and his main theme is one of my favorites by him.

There are certainly aspects from the book that I think would have worked well for the film, namely the story being told from Carter’s perspective or the more episodic style of storytelling, but the absence of these elements didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film. In fact, the absence of these and other characters or story elements seen in the book helped to set the film apart as its own entity to be enjoyed. The important thing about this film is that it captures the heart of the source material without photocopying it from page to screen, and it does it in a way that is incredibly fun; the last half of the film, especially the few minutes just before the credits roll, are definitely my favorites. I should also mention that I liked Kitsch and Collins in the lead roles, but I also really liked Tars Tarkas as played by Willem Dafoe; he plays the character with a resolve that fits a character of his authority, but the compassionate side of the character also rings through, making him one of the best characters of the film. John Carter is not a perfect piece of cinema, but it’s good, old-fashioned storytelling at its best, with plenty of good humor, great action scenes, incredible special effects, and likable characters…and it’s certainly not deserving of all the negative criticism heaped upon it. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance! I beg you!

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of violence and action

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Michael Giacchino, here!


Monsters University (2013) – Randy Newman

monsters university

Randy Newman is back with Pixar for the first time since composing the score for Toy Story 3 back in 2010, which is great since he composed the score for the original film, Monsters, Inc. His score for that film had a jazz-oriented main theme that worked really well for it, and I was hoping for more of the same for Monsters University. While we definitely get “more of the same” here, it’s unfortunately not the “same” that I was hoping for.

The first half of this album or so fails to impress me at all. It sounds like nothing more than another Randy Newman score, which, unfortunately, isn’t much of a compliment. Don’t get me wrong – the sound of Randy Newman’s music very much IS Pixar, but a little variation would have been nice, or at least some more extensive reference to the original film’s score. We certainly do get some reference to the original score in the track “Field Trip,” where we hear the theme from “Enter the Heroes” as well as the chase theme from the first film, which can be heard in the Monsters, Inc. track “Mike’s In Trouble.” Anyways, I digress. I actually do have some good things to say about this score.

Newman did a good job of composing the Monsters University alma mater, which, in its slower instrumental form (as heard in “Goodbyes”), is slightly reminiscent of this theme from John Williams’ score to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – in a good way! Both themes have the same warmth to them. Also, despite my complaints regarding the lack of inclusion of themes from the original score, the quotes that were used were used well, bringing a smile to my face as soon as I heard them. Newman also utilizes what sounds like a marching band (specifically a drum line) to really bring the fact that this takes place at a college into focus, and it works wonderfully. As mentioned before, Newman’s music IS Pixar, or, at least, classic Pixar, so watching the film with his score playing in the background was like stepping back into my childhood. Also of note is the track titled “Roar,” credited to Axwell & Sebastian Ingrosso, which is a fun dance tune.

Randy Newman isn’t exactly the most “original” composer out there, as evidenced by the fact that much of this music sounds like his previous work; I can hear bits of Toy Story in “First Day at MU” and bits of A Bug’s Life (my review) in “Rise and Shine,” with several other similar instances popping up here and there. However, all of that is completely, perfectly okay compared to the opening of “Did You Do This?,” when he completely and blatantly rips off his own theme to A Bug’s Life. Make sure you click on both of those links because I want you to be as angry about it as I was when I first heard it…I probably shouldn’t have been driving at the time. Not even Hans Zimmer has been that blatant about borrowing from his previous work! …it frustrates me.

Maybe I’m being overly critical for something like this. Like I said, Newman’s score does a great job of bringing familiarity to the world presented in Monsters University, and despite that one HUGE problem and the score’s general tendency to be pretty forgettable, it’s a decent score overall. I have my qualms with it, but it serves its purpose just fine for the average listener and in the context of the film.

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

1. “Main Title” 0:52
2. “Young Michael” 3:58
3. “First Day at MU” 4:32
4. “Dean Hardscrabble” 3:19
5. “Sulley” 0:48
6. “Scare Pig” 2:00
7. “Wasted Potential” 1:16
8. “Oozma Kappa” 3:16
9. “Stinging Glow Urchin” 2:34
10. “Field Trip” 3:57
11. “Rise and Shine” 3:00
12. “The Library” 3:44
13. “Roar” (performed by Axwell & Sebastian Ingrosso) 2:55
14. “The Scare Games” 6:00
15. “Did You Do This?” 2:00
16. “Human World” 2:07
17. “The Big Scare” 3:02
18. “Goodbyes” 3:11
19. “Mike and Sulley” 1:12
20. “Monsters University” 1:34

Total Length: app. 56 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad

P.S. – Read my review of this film here!