Soundtrack Review: Casino Royale

Composed by: David Arnold

Conducted by: Nicholas Dodd

After numerous complaints from James Bond fans regarding Die Another Day, the producers spent a couple extra years on the next film, ultimately deciding to go with a reboot that toned down the camp elements. Martin Campbell, director of the well-loved Goldeneye, came on to create this more realistic take on 007. Pierce Brosnan’s suave character was replaced with a more hard-edged and less quippy performance by Daniel Craig. Casino Royale is probably my favorite James Bond movie. I didn’t think I could ever be so engrossed by watching people play cards.

Coming over from the Brosnan years was David Arnold. His score for Casino Royale proves to be noticeably different from his previous scores, especially Die Another Day. For the third time he was allowed to help create the title song, and the result is one of the best Bond songs yet, and my favorite. Sung by Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” is relentlessly energetic with awesome bad-ass lyrics. Unlike most of the previous songs, it doesn’t talk about romance or sleaze, but focuses on the dangerous life of a secret agent. Unfortunately, some legal issues prevented this wonderful piece of music from getting on album, and its absence is very frustrating since the CD now lacks its appropriate opener. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Die Another Day

Composed by: David Arnold

Conducted by: Nicholas Dodd

After a good start in 1995 with Goldeneye, the James Bond movies starring Pierce Brosnan would lose their steam in 2002’a Die Another Day. Released on the 40th anniversary of the franchise, it met with commercial success, but was panned by critics and most Bond fans for heightening the levels of camp and throwing in a lot of CGI. The lousiness of the critical reception caused the producers to create a serious reboot in Casino Royale.

Also receiving some criticism was the music. Despite his proven successes with “Surrender” and “The World is Not Enough”, David Arnold had no involvement with this flick’s opening number. One of the worst atrocities of the film is the opening song “Die Anther Day” performed by Madonna. It’s the worst song ever to grace the main titles of a Bond flick. It’s greatest sin is the lack of an actual melody to incorporate into the score. It is instead a bunch of repetitive electronics frequently interrupted by distortions. The lyrics themselves are heavily auto-tuned and pretty atrocious. The song appears to be about shutting down your body and denying sex, with a random utterance of “Sigmund Freud” that has no place in any Bond song. Making matters worse is that the album version runs about five minutes long. Amazingly, the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra managed to make a cool instrumental of this song, so check that out. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: The World is Not Enough

Composed by: David Arnold

Conducted by: Nicholas Dodd

The World is Not Enough is generally considered to be a flawed gem. It has a pretty good and unique storyline, but thanks to some questionable choices (Denise Richards as a twenty-something nuclear physicist in hot pants is the film’s greatest error) a good number of fans don’t care much for it. Thanks to the smashing success of his music for Tomorrow Never Dies, David Arnold returned. After a great score for the aforementioned film, David Arnold was officially the new musician for James Bond, and was the first after John Barry to actually get to a second outing.

This time Arnold was able to provide the opening title song, which of course shares its title with the movie. It’s a good song, and weaves in a bit of the James Bond theme at the end. Usually only three notes, the “not enough” portion of the song, is used frequently, with the following melody distinguishing its use in certain scenes. There’s a romantic version that soars in Snow Business” which regrettably was only available via David Arnold’s website instead of the actual album. It is present on piano in “Christmas in Turkey”. There’s an action variation that is introduced in “Come in, 007, Your Time is Up” and more notably in “Ice Bandits”. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Tomorrow Never Dies

Composed by: David Arnold

Conducted by: Nicholas Dodd

After the critical failure of Eric Serra’s Goldeneye score, the producers brought in David Arnold, who had just released his James Bond tribute Shaken Not Stirred, a collection of title songs and a few instrumentals redone by artists (regrettably this was in the 90s). John Barry was impressed with some of the re-orchestrations Arnold did for the songs and recommended him. This turned out to a popular choice with Bond fans, and Arnold has the second most Bond scores under his belt.

David Arnold has been lauded for his ability to pay homage to John Barry while having his own style. Tomorrow Never Dies is singled out for its successful merging of orchestral and electronic elements. Arnold has received criticism for scoring most of the action cues with loud, multi-layered music, whereas most previous composers would take a more restrained approach, often leaving scenes unscored so that the sound effects could take over or to build suspense. This criticism of Arnold is true to a point. Some of the more basic fist fights could do with less noise instead of being scored like climatic battles. But at least his music is highly enjoyable. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Goldeneye

Composed by: Eric Serra

Conducted by: Erica Serra & John Altman

After a six-year hiatus, the James Bond franchise was revived with Pierce Brosnan in the lead role. Goldeneye centers on radical Russians plotting to use an orbiting pulse weapon for their own evil ends, with James Bond of course trying to stop them. It was a tremendous hit, and spawned a famously successful video game spin-off. John Barry unfortunately declined to return, and French song-writer and musician Eric Serra took over.

This is one of the most infamous movie scores in history, mainly because it’s a James Bond score. Almost entirely gone are the lush romantic themes and the jazzy orchestral style associated with the series. Instead there is a load of electronics interspersed by odd choral bursts and a cold, mechanical gong (which does sound pretty cool). While failing to fit in with the James Bond franchise, this style of music does convey the atmosphere of a collapsed Soviet Union. There are purely orchestral moments, but not very often and never to the depth of Serra’s predecessor John Barry or successor David Arnold. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Licence to Kill

Composed and Conducted by: Michael Kamen

After cold war thrillers and super-weapon plots, James Bond took a break to battle criminals in Licence to Kill. After drug lord Sanchez (played by Robert Davi), feeds Bond’s CIA friend Felix Leiter to the sharks, 007 goes on a hunt for revenge. A radical, dark departure, the movie did not necessarily bomb, but underperformed in America. Not helping was some tough summer competition from Batman and the latest installments of Star Trek and Indiana Jones. The James Bond series would go hiatus for six years, the longest break between entries it would ever experience, while the producers at Eon tried to take a step back and figure out a way to rejuvenate the franchise.

John Barry was going to score Licence to Kill, but had to step out due to throat surgery. Stepping in was Michael Kamen, who had scored many of the latest big-hit action films such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. The result is far from satisfying. Continue reading

Film Review: Shin Godzilla

The people at Toho Studios ended their third run of Godzilla films (the Shinsei series) with the ludicrous 50th anniversary bash Godzilla: Final Wars. Deciding to take a break from the Godzilla series for a while, mainly due to declining public interest, any notions of returning to the franchise were probably put on the backburner once the American Legendary Studios started production on their own film. With the 2014 Godzilla revitalizing interest in Japan, a new film was put into production. It is a delight to see that Toho has brought back one of my favorite franchises. The American film was enjoyable and had some awesome moments, but attempts to hold back on showing Godzilla and focus on an uninteresting human made for a frustrating experience. Shin Godzilla is a reboot, with no connections to any of the other films. In fact, it is the first Toho Godzilla movie to not be in continuity with the 1954 original.

The movie has two directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with the latter focusing more on the special effects end. Both also worked on the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I have never seen but now have a bit of interest in after seeing this movie. While the first Godzilla film was made as a response to the atomic bombs and some disastrous side effects of nuclear testing, this film is more interested in responding to the political and global reactions to the 3/11 earthquake and the Fukushima incident. The movie has a lot of political characters, and shows in-depth their discussions and response to the Godzilla threat. This is the part which may turn off American viewers. Though having little knowledge of how the Japanese government works, I personally was fascinated. Shin Godzilla acknowledges that the Japanese Self-Defense Force has never actually had to defend its shores, so this is their trial by fire. The Japanese characters make cynical, snide remarks about the UN and American foreign policy. But with all the boardroom meetings and discussions on geopolitics, I doubt that this is the type of movie you want to bring kids to, as there are lots of scenes of people talking in rooms or hallways. There seems to be aspects of satire to the political scenes, especially when the military is handicapped by an indecisive Prime Minister. The audience I saw it with actually chuckled at a lot of the lines.

One pleasing aspect is that the film involves the entire world. One of the problems with the Godzilla series has always been that the many world powers seem uninterested in the destructive behemoths assailing Japan. Sure, there were exceptions, such as the occasional American member of G-Force in the 90s films, but otherwise it seemed that Japan was always on its own, while the military superpowers of America and Russia seemed too lazy to at least send an aerial strike or naval bombardment. Here the whole world is invested in what is happening, naturally scared of what Godzilla can do once he’s through with Japan. The Americans even send in a bomber strike in one scene after the Japanese SDF fails. A warning to American viewers, there are some critical comments made towards the United States, especially in how it tries to intervene in Japanese affairs. One of the messages of the movie is that Japan needs to lead the fight in her own battles, instead of relying on America or the UN to bail them out. As one character says, must Japan always be “post-war”, a glorified American protectorate?

There are dozens of characters, so very few get fleshed out. Almost all their dialogue is on the current political climate or Godzilla. Most are just the various government officials, but there is an independent group led by the male lead that features some quirky people. The male lead is the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, played by Hiroki Hasegawa (I had to look up his actual position, since it was difficult to keep up with all the roles). He is a competent character frustrated with the red tape and bureaucracy, so he forms his own team to find a way to defeat Godzilla. He doesn’t show too much emotion, but it’s effective when he does. American viewers will take a special interest in the US ambassador, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara). She’s a Japanese-American diplomat amusingly played by a Japanese actress who had to learn English for her role. Seeing someone have trouble saying English lines while proclaiming her ambition to be president is certainly bizarre, and makes one realize how American actors probably sound weird when they speak non-English languages. Her character arc sees her torn between serving the United States and trying to help her grandmother’s country avert further disaster. In general the characters actually affect the plot. That’s another recurring problem with a good chunk of the Godzilla movies, where humans will go through personal drama or learn things about the monsters, but only a handful of them will actually affect the outcome in any meaningful way (except accidentally reviving or creating Godzilla’s opponent of the week).

This is a very different Godzilla film. It certainly feels larger, has a much more serious tone, and shows much deeper thinking in its plot. But nothing feels more different that the main attraction: Godzilla. Anno and Higuchi did something that’s actually hard to do with Godzilla: make him creepy. As can be seen from the trailers, this Godzilla looks nightmarish and zombielike, not a giant dinosaur who can looks like a natural animal and can be quite loveable.  He certainly looks like the unethical creation of mankind’s folly. His origin is related to nuclear energy, but he is something different than what we’re used to. I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but this Godzilla is full of surprises that come out of left-field. His first appearance is sure to bewilder viewers, and his abilities are altered in some rather unique ways. I think Godzilla didn’t really have too much screentime, like in the 2014 American version, but here the scenes don’t cut away when something interesting is about to happen. The camera stays focused on Godzilla when he does something. Also of note is that this is the biggest Godzilla. After the Americans expanded his height to 355 feet, Toho felt the need to one-up them. This Godzilla is 387 feet tall.

Shin Godzilla is a great reboot, full of interesting themes, human characters that feel integral to the plot, and a bold and different take on the big G himself. Rewatchability might be difficult, because of all the political scenes and the action’s reliance on unexpected occurrences. This is certainly one of the best Godzilla films in terms of actually being a well-made movie, not merely for its entertainment value like most films in the franchise. One concern I have is how the sequels will play out. Godzilla is so monstrous and powerful in this film that I don’t see how any other monster could be a credible threat, and I don’t think he will be kept as the primary antagonist.

Rating: 8/10

Soundtrack Review: The Living Daylights

Composed and Conducted by: John Barry

When Roger Moore finally left the 007 series, a confusing search ensued for the new James Bond. Timothy Dalton was chosen first, but a television series he was working on prevented him from accepting the role. Pierce Brosnan was then hired, but the producers of the TV show he was on decided that they could attract higher ratings now that he had been announced as James Bond. By the time Brosnan was forced from the film, Timothy Dalton was easily available. The Living Daylights presented a more realistic and less comedic Bond, with less one-liners and no super-weapons. However, the villains are still use the oft-repeated plot of starting a world war, this time through the Russian-Mujaheddin War in Afghanistan.

This would be John Barry’s last 007 film, and it’s a fitting exit for him. This time there are no less than three songs that provide themes for the film. “The Living Daylights”, sung by the Swedish band a-ha, is a very exciting opener, trying to emulate the success of Duran Duran’s “View to a Kill”. I think I like Duran Duran’s song better, but this is still a cool piece. Although the main tune was provided by John Barry, he only uses it three times throughout the entire score, its most well known appearance being “Hercules Takes Off”. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: A View to a Kill

Composed and Conducted by: John Barry

A View to a Kill marks the last appearance of Roger Moore as James Bond and is considered his worst film by many. Personally, I think it’s an alright movie. Roger Moore was definitely too old, but it’s no worse or sillier than Moonraker or Man with the Golden Gun. Christopher Walken and Grace Jones play weird, entertaining villains Max Zorin and May Day and the plot and many of the action scenes are enjoyable.

After being forced to use more of the James Bond theme and play to general expectations in Octopussy, John Barry was able to do more of what he wanted, creating another unique musical entry. The title song this time around is “View to a Kill”, an energetic 80s pop number by Duran Duran. After a string of love ballads it’s a nice, refreshing change of pace. Despite its high energy and electronic blasts, Barry prefers to use it in a softer, romantic manner when using its tune in the score. Despite numerous references, only two of them make it onto album, the tracks “Bond Meets Stacy” and “Wine with Stacy”. These tracks virtually play out the same, with the latter being a little deeper in sound. One of the most frustrating aspects of the album, which never got an extended release thanks to unavailable tapes, is that many interesting variations of the themes are missing. The most egregious example is a dramatic version often known as “Fanfare”. Also missing is a variation where a saxophone comes in to play a few notes. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Octopussy

Composed and Conducted by: John Barry

Following the more down-to-earth For Your Eyes Only, the James Bond franchise went back to an over-the-top state, though not on the level of Moonraker. Also once again, a now-outdated score was followed by the return of John Barry. With Sean Connery competing with his non-MGM Bond film Never Say Never Again, the producers were determined to establish that only their Bond was the real deal, so they helped Barry out with his tax problems and got their chief composer back for good.

John Barry did not have as much freedom as with his other scores, as the producers insisted that he use the James Bond theme more often to drive home the point that Octopussy was a real 007 film. Barry had taken to using the famed musical piece less and less, more interested in creating new themes and motifs. While this made many of his scores very distinct from each other, it’s nice to have the theme back in all its glory. In fact, it graces many of the best action and suspense cues, with “Bond Look Alike” being its best usage in Octopussy (what an absurd title. It even appears on the track listing several times since it’s the main girl’s name!). Continue reading