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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!

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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!


Lincoln (2012) – John Williams

Long-time Spielberg collaborator John Williams has a history of composing some of the most iconic scores in film history; Star WarsRaiders of the Lost ArkJawsSupermanE.T. the Extra-TerrestrialJurassic Park, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were all brought to life by his incredible music. In his old age, Williams has slowed down a bit, but his scores to the 2011 films War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin were just as excellent as always. With War Horse, he took a more minimal approach than he typically has in the past, relying on gorgeous strings and warm brass to bring a feeling of intimacy to the film that fit the tone of the film. He uses this same approach with Lincoln, and the result is breathtaking.

The music in Lincoln perfectly embodies the American spirit. There is grandeur, there is majesty, there is conflict and resolution, there is emotion…Williams has captured it all. Much of this album is more solo-oriented, which helps with that intimacy that I mentioned before. The first track, “The People’s House,” opens with a single clarinet melody, low and calm, evoking visions of long hours spent in the Oval Office making decisions for the better of the country. Throughout the soundtrack, we are treated to solos from clarinet (“The People’s House,” “Equality Under the Law”), trumpet (“The Purpose of the Amendment,” “The American Process”), horn (“The Southern Delegation and the Dream,” “Father and Son”), and piano (“The Blue and Grey,” “Remembering Willie”). Each solo instrument brings forth a different emotion, enabling Williams to exploit these associations to accentuate the feelings in a particular scene. These emotions are made even more powerful once the solo instrument is joined by the full orchestra; the strings bring a warmth that reminds me of family and responsibility.

“The Blue and Grey” (obviously referring to the uniform of the Confederate Army) is a somber sort of track that hints at the tension between the Union and the Confederacy, while “With Malice Toward None” conveys Lincoln’s sense of duty to his country. “Father and Son” goes on to highlight Lincoln’s tentative relationship with his son in the midst of his presidential responsibilities, a sentiment that is continued in “Remembering Willie,” a terribly emotional track that echoes the grief felt by a distraught mother and her empathetic husband. “Appomattox, April 9, 1865” captures a grand moment in history with the timidity appropriate for such a solemn occasion, and it also expertly uses a choir to represent the almost spiritual element of the occasion.

Just on a quick aside, there is a short motive heard throughout the film that sounds nearly identical to a similar motive from Randy Newman’s score to the Disney/Pixar film A Bug’s Life. Compare this from “The American Process” to this excerpt from “Flik Leaves” on the soundtrack album for A Bug’s Life. Also, considering the fact that Abraham Lincoln is buried in Illinois, I thought it to be a nice touch that this score was appropriately recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I could go on and on and on some more about this soundtrack, but I digress. It should be obvious that I think quite highly of Mr. Williams and his music for Lincoln. I think that it perfectly represents all of the complicated aspects of one of America’s most celebrated presidents: his dedication to his country, his love for his family, his moral dilemma in doing the right thing. John Williams’ score to Lincoln is film scoring at its very finest, proving that, even at 83, he’s still got it.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

1. “The People’s House” 3:43
2. “The Purpose of the Amendment” 3:07
3. “Getting Out the Vote” 2:49
4. “The American Process” 3:57
5. “The Blue and Grey” 3:00
6. “With Malice Toward None” 1:51
7. “Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom” 2:17
8. “The Southern Delegation and the Dream” 4:43
9. “Father and Son” 1:42
10. “The Race to the House” 2:42
11. “Equality Under the Law” 3:12
12. “Freedom’s Call” 6:08
13. “Elegy” 2:35
14. “Remembering Willie” 1:51
15. “Appomattox, April 9, 1865” 2:38
16. “The Peterson House and Finale” 11:00
17. “With Malice Toward None (Piano Solo)” 1:31

Total Length: app. 59 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad

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


The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – John Williams

2011 was a great year because, after a four-year wait, we got not one but two new film scores by John Williams. The first of these was The Adventures of Tintin, which, along with Williams’ score to War Horse, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

While War Horse‘s score was decidedly more dramatic, The Adventures of Tintin‘s score is whimsical and fun, as well as quite reminiscent – in a good way – of Williams’ earlier scores. For example, “The Secret of the Scrolls” features a mysterious theme that reminds me of both “The Map Room” from the original Raiders of the Lost Ark score and the latter portion of “Diagon Alley and the Gringotts Vault” from Williams’ score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; all three have a simplicity to them that promotes thought and emanates a sense of wonder and magic.

The title track, “The Adventures of Tintin”, is catchy and sleuthy…at least, that’s the way I hear it. It’s heavily influenced by jazz, which is a bit different from the typical John Williams stuff but entirely welcome and refreshing. In contrast with this new style, Williams returns in full force with his leitmotifs – a musical phrase that represents a specific character/event/place; there are specific themes written for Snowy, the Thompsons, and other characters, including Tintin, but my favorite has to be the leitmotif representing Captain Haddock. First introduced in “Captain Haddock Takes the Oars”, Haddock’s theme begins as a sloppy, drunken low wind melody, but it transforms along with the character into something sturdy and impressive, as heard in “The Clash of the Cranes”.

Williams combines all of these elements – jazz, simplicity, references, and leitmotifs – to create something adventurous in the old-fashioned sense of the word and, overall, truly amazing. Despite the fact that it’s an animated film, The Adventures of Tintin boasts a score that could make just about any action/adventure film jealous. Though its themes may not be as instantly iconic as those now associated with Star WarsIndiana Jones, or Superman, it takes turns in paying homage to each of these classic film scores in a way that is fresh and new. At 80 years old, John Williams has “still got it”.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

1. “The Adventures of Tintin” 3:07
2. “Snowy’s Theme” 2:09
3. “The Secret of the Scrolls” 3:12
4. “Introducing the Thompsons and Snowy’s Chase” 4:08
5. “Marlinspike Hall” 3:58
6. “Escape from the Karaboudjan” 3:20
7. “Sir Francis and the Unicorn” 5:05
8. “Captain Haddock Takes the Oars” 2:17
9. “Red Rackham’s Curse and the Treasure” 6:10
10. “Capturing Mr. Silk” 2:57
11. “The Flight to Bagghar” 3:33
12. “The Milanese Nightingale” 1:29
13. “Presenting Bianca Castafiore” 3:27
14. “The Pursuit of the Falcon” 5:43
15. “The Captain’s Counsel” 2:10
16. “The Clash of the Cranes” 3:48
17. “The Return to Marlinspike Hall and Finale” 5:51
18. “The Adventure Continues” 2:58

Total Length: app. 66 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad

P.S. – I didn’t want to taint the body of the review with something like this, but I have to mention it: there is a moment in “Presenting Bianca Castafiore/Renee Fleming” when the soprano hits a high sustained note and breaks glass…loudly…ON THE ALBUM. And I absolutely despise it.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) – John Williams

This soundtrack is near and dear to my heart for multiple reasons. For starters, it’s the first film soundtrack I ever owned. Also, Harry Potter played a very large part in my childhood and shaping me to be the person I am today, so John Williams’ score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone occasionally leaves me emotional.

John Williams is phenomenal. He has composed the most iconic film themes of all time, including (but not limited to) JawsSupermanStar Wars, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. His score to this film is not an exception: “Hedwig’s Theme” is the maintheme that everyone associates with Harry Potter, forcing the three composers who followed Williams in scoring the Harry Potter films to utilize it in their own scores.

The best way I can possibly describe this score is “magical”…I’m sorry, but it just is.It’s one of the few scores that I can sit down and listen to from start to finish and be able to play through the film in my head, from “The Arrival of Baby Harry” all the way to “Leaving Hogwarts”. This is especially easy to do since much of the score is timed with specific key moments in the film itself. A prime example of this is the track “The Quidditch Match”, in which you are able to hear the exact moment when the quaffle is tossed into the air to start the game, or when Quirrell starts cursing Harry’s broom, or when Harry nearly swallows the golden snitch. Williams is a master of this.

I have zero criticism for this score, possibly because I’m biased, but that’s okay with me. “Entry Into the Great Hall and The Banquet” will always present a magical moment to me, “The Face of Voldemort” will always bring a chill down my spine, and “Leaving Hogwarts” still brings tears to my eyes…especially when it was used in the closing moments of the final film of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Pt. 2 (Williams’ score for this first movie was sampled throughout the final one…a nice touch by composer Alexandre Desplat).

Overall, this score is the best and I love John Williams.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

1. “Prologue”  2:12

2. “Harry’s Wondrous World”  5:21

3. “The Arrival of Baby Harry”  4:25

4. “Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts”  3:23

5. “Diagon Alley and the Gringotts Vault”  4:06

6. “Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters and the Journey to Hogwarts”  3 3:14

7. “Entry into the Great Hall and the Banquet”  3:42

8. “Mr. Longbottom Flies”  3:35

9.” Hogwarts Forever! and the Moving Stairs”  3:47

10. “The Norwegian Ridgeback and a Change of Season”  2:47

11. “The Quidditch Match”  8:29

12. “Christmas at Hogwarts”  2:56

13. “The Invisibility Cloak and the Library Scene”  3:16

14. “Fluffy’s Harp”  2:39

15. “In the Devil’s Snare and the Flying Keys”  2:21

16. “The Chess Game”  3:49

17. “The Face of Voldemort”  6:10

18. “Leaving Hogwarts”  2:14

19. “Hedwig’s Theme”  5:11

Total Length: app. 74 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad