Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith

The Star Trek Next Generation films had an inglorious end with Star Trek Nemesis. The movie sees Shinzon, a Romulan attempt to clone Captain Picard, take over the Romulan Empire, an intergalactic power that has common ancestry with the Vulcans. He claims to want to affect peace between the Empire and the Federation, but soon is shown to have vengeful and ulterior motives. The movie has a very generic and non-unique plot, essentially being a rip-off of Wrath of Khan (just like Into Darkness a decade later) but without a previously established villain. Star Trek in general was approaching the end of its resurgent run and this film killed the film series until the 2009 reboot. In addition to just not being a good film, it was foolishly released in between a James Bond film and the second installment of the red-hot Lord of the Rings trilogy, severely reducing its box-office take. While many have rightfully criticized the recent run of Star Trek films and TV shows, Nemesis surprisingly exhibits many of the problems that have plagued New Trek, from emphasizing action to completely misunderstanding the themes and characters of the franchise. For example, it turned the famously diplomatic Picard into an action hero, walking down hallways and mowing down aliens whilst dual-wielding laser guns. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith has also received its fair share of criticism.

Nemesis was the last Star Trek outing for Jerry Goldsmith, who would succumb to cancer a couple years later. The score is considered to be Goldsmith’s weakest offering, a disappointing conclusion to his association with the franchise. Indeed this score does seem to be less innovative, opting for more standard sci-fi action fare. This does reflect the film, which puts too much emphasis on action scenes (admittedly the lengthy space battle is neat, it’s just that audience investment is derailed by the plot). The complete score actually exceeds the space of one disc, a rarity in the pre-2009 film franchise. For those who find the score to be an average output from Goldsmith, this can be viewed as a slog. So how do I rate the last and most criticized Goldsmith Star Trek score? Continue reading

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

Naturally, after the surprising smashing success of Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney went head  with a sequel. Actually they went for a full trilogy, with the second and third installments to be released in close proximity in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Dead Man’s Chest sees Will and Elizabeth’s marriage ruined by the arrival of Thomas Beckett and the East India Trading Company. Beckett has them arrested for conspiring with pirates, but offers freedom if Will can get Jack Sparrow’s magic compass. Sparrow himself is targeted by the monstrous Davy Jones (played by British national treasure Bill Nighy), the ferryman of souls lost at sea. If Sparrow does not hand himself and his soul over at the right time, Jones’ pet Kraken will hunt him down. To save himself, Sparrow determines to find the heart of Davy Jones, locked in a chest, and use it to gain the upper hand. What ensues is a series of shifting alliances and double crosses. Dead Man’s Chest is a fun film, but doesn’t stand too well on its own as it’s almost all build-up for an epic third entry. This time Hans Zimmer officially took over scoring duties and would have a much more amenable schedule to work with.

Zimmer created his score with the help of the Media Ventures gang and once again he came under fire from critics from failing to utilize a period-appropriate sound. Another hurdle was on the thematic front. Zimmer wanted to develop more original themes, but the first score was so popular that he had to reference that one as well. Zimmer largely is able to develop a cohesive thematic framework, though there are perhaps too many themes and motifs for certain aspects. The album starts with three thematic suites, covering most of the new themes and motifs. These make for a mostly engaging album-opener, turning several cues from the film into expanded album editions. Continue reading

Star Trek: Insurrection (1999)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith

After witnessing a cinematic showdown with the Borg in First Contact, audiences were let down by Insurrection. The plot of Insurrection revolves around an idyllic village where the human-like inhabitants are blessed with perfect health and, as it turns out, extended lifespans. Working with the alien So’na, a Federation admiral plans to relocate the people so they can tap into the planet’s properties and extend its gifts to its own citizens. Not happy with this forcible removal of people from their homes, Picard and the rest of the Next Generation characters defy authority and seek to protect the villagers while uncovering a conspiracy. If this sounds like a run-of-the-mill episode from the series, then you’ve figured out one of the issues audiences had with the film. Worse, this film came out at the same time the Federation was locked in a galaxy-spanning war with the Dominion on Deep Space Nine. Why the famed Enterprise would focus its efforts on a few hundred villagers instead of fighting on the front lines is anybody’s guess. Also, the moral messaging of the film is undone by plot holes and the ongoing context of the Dominion War. It’s perhaps the dullest and most uninteresting film of the entire franchise, though one would not guess it if he or she were to first listen to Goldsmith’s exciting score.

Goldsmith’s work on Insurrection is not as, how shall I put it, innovative as his previous forays into the series. The plot doesn’t have as much alien elements to work with. However he still takes out the electronics for some unique atmospheric segments. For the most part the score is traditionally orchestral. The primary theme is the Insurrection motif, which usually appears as a rising four-note action signature. In some of its lengthier iterations it almost sounds like Goldsmith’s main theme form The Mummy (which came out the same year). This motif appears in just about every action cue, to the point that it will definitely stick in the listener’s mind. It’s introduced in the midst of the Alexander Courage fanfare at the opening. It frequently appears in counterpoint with a piano rhythm motif that represents the suspense and action. These two motifs are good, but are perhaps repeated too much, producing a potentially tiring listen. Continue reading

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Composed by Klaus Badelt and the Media Ventures gang

Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the wonderful ride at Disneyworld, is one of the best adventure films I have ever seen, with a lot of wit and good action, not to mention Johnny Depp’s awesome performance as Captain Jack Sparrow (which would unfortunately pigeonhole him into playing off-kilter characters for years). The plot sees Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of a governor in the Caribbean, come in possession of a medallion found on castaway boy Will Turner (who grows up to be played by Orlando Bloom). Will Turner grows up to be a blacksmith with a secret love for the upper-class Elizabeth. The pirates, of the ship Black Pearl attack their island town and abscond with the girl and the medallion. Will Turner finds himself partnering with the strange pirate Jack Sparrow and his colorful cast of associates to rescue Elizabeth. It also turns out that the pirates, led by Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, are cursed by Aztec gold. The film was a massive success and its soundtrack was certainly popular. When I had just started getting into film music I adored this soundtrack, but with more knowledge it’s proven to be a technically troubling, though still entertaining, product.

Originally director Gore Verbinski was going to have his pal Alan Silvestri write the score. But just a couple of weeks before the film was to be wrapped up, producer Jerry Bruckheimer threw in a monkey wrench by throwing out Silvestri’s music and hiring Hans Zimmer and his Media Ventures to once again produce a loud summer action blockbuster soundtrack. With barely any time, Hans Zimmer created a set of main themes overnight and had Klaus Badelt head the scoring duties, so basically Zimmer is really the mastermind of the whole soundtrack. Badelt would not do most of the work, as he would have over ten other composers help score the film. The result is a fun yet vastly overrated score that has unjustly been lodged in the public mind as an equal to John Williams’ Star Wars and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings. Continue reading

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith and Joel Goldsmith

First Contact is considered to be the only truly good film starring the Next Generation cast. The plot sees the Borg mount another assault on earth. This time Starfleet is able to destroy the Borg Cube, but Picard learns that it sent out a time machine. Following it back in time, he learns that the Borg seek to prevent earth from contacting alien life and thus eliminate Starfleet as a threat in the present. The Borg overrun part of the Enterprise and the two sides have a series of fights. On the character side of things Picard’s PTSD from his previous experience with the Borg starts to cloud his judgment as he focuses on personal vengeance. I have some issues with the movie, particularly with how it portrays earth’s first contact with an alien species, but it’s definitely the best of the four TNG films. One thing that definitely works in its favor is the permanent return of Goldsmith to the franchise. The composer would score this and the next two films.

The greatest positive of Goldsmith’s longer tenure is the cohesion of the themes. Now every film would have his Star Trek theme. He would actually use it less, preferring to focus on his newer material. There’s not much in the way of new variations of the theme, but this is more than made up for by both new and other returning themes. Of the new themes, the most memorable one is the First Contact theme. It’s a lovely optimistic melody, symbolizing humankind’s ascent to the stars. Doubtlessly not wanting to simply rehash the main theme again, Goldsmith lets this theme grace the opening credits in “Main Title” (0:38). As with the main theme Goldsmith doesn’t reference it that much, but when he does it’s to great effect. Most of its iterations conclude with a familiar motif. It’s the Quest theme from Final Frontier. Recognizing its reliable flexibility, Goldsmith began to frequently pull it out in his TNG scores. One of its main uses is as an ender for the First Contact theme, where its statements are tied together by two extra notes (2:29 in “Main Title”). Finishing up the heroes’ side of things is the Klingon theme. Though the Klingons are not present as a faction in the story, Goldsmith is still able to bring back this popular melody to represent the race’s sole representative, famed character Worf. One might find it odd that one member of the Enterprise gets a theme and the others don’t, but Goldsmith’s melody is so good that listeners won’t care. It helps that as a warrior in a more action-oriented Star Trek film, Worf is constantly called upon so the theme’s inclusion is appropriate. Continue reading

The Room (2003)

The Room (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Album by Tommy Wiseau,  Mladen Milicevic | Spotify

Composed by: Mladen Milicevic

Ah, The Room. It’s one of the most recognized bad films, hitting that sweet spot where it’s so weird and terrible that it becomes an ironically hilarious viewing pleasure. It was directed and produced by Tommy Wisseau, a long-haired man of ambiguous European ancestry who wanted to pour out his passion and life experiences through a cinematic vanity project. He also of course gave himself the lead role, resulting in one of the worst starring performances of cinematic history. The Room is about an all-around good guy, Johnny, who’s engaged to a woman named Lisa. Lisa decides she doesn’t really love him and carries on an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark. Aside from this plot, the movie is a collection of random scenes, characters, and plot points that will baffle first time viewers. Some of the other memorable characters include Lisa’s perpetually frowning mother Claudia, contradictory psychologist Peter, and Denny, a grown man who’s creepily presented like a teenager. The Room was a box office dud that was released without notice, but years later was discovered by a wider audience. It has since become a cult classic, with Tommy Wisseau making bank off of its infamy through special screenings and some merchandise. Among the merchandise is the soundtrack, a collection of songs as well as the musical score from Mladen Milicevic. The movie is bad, but does the music actually have merit?

Mladen Milicevic is a Yugoslavian composer (a fact which can only add fuel to the theory that Wisseau immigrated from a repressive Soviet republic). Based on my research he appears to be a highly academic artist and has won prizes in European circles. He has pursued studies into how neuroscience relates to music. Milicevic’s score for The Room is actually quite dark. One track in particular, “Life,” sounds like eerie underscore from a horror film. The fact that Milicevic’s score is earnestly dramatic ensures that its implementation alongside a hilariously bad film creates further ironic enjoyment. He obviously didn’t have a massive orchestra at his disposal, not that one needs one for an intimate drama. The music is mostly orchestrated on piano, woodwinds, and strings, with some percussion and electronics mixed in for what are supposed to be the tense moments. Despite his limited tools and the film he was scoring, Milicevic did a competent and sometimes interesting job. One of the selling points of The Room is that Wisseau actually had a competent crew around him and sometimes their efforts manage to reveal themselves in spite of the domineering insanity coming from the director/producer/lead actor. Continue reading

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Composed by Dennis McCarthy

Though the original cast had their full ensemble send-off with Undiscovered Country, Paramount still wanted more Star Trek movies and would get them with the Next Generation cast. In 1994 Star Trek: The Next Generation finally wrapped up so it was time to get Captain Picard, Data, Worf, and the rest of the gang onto the big screen. Generations, coming out later in the same year, would be a passing of the torch, with a plot that would literally enable Kirk and Picard to meet. Soran, a human-like alien with an incredible lifespan, is attempting to enter an otherworldly plane called the Nexus. By forcing it open he would endanger space and time. Picard, reeling from the deaths of his brother and nephew, tries to stop him. Also, Data installs an emotion chip and goes wacky while some Klingon villains from the show get involved. It’s not the best film, with some questionable plot holes. The long-awaited team-up between Kirk and Picard occurs far too late, leaving no time for them to play off each other with their combined experiences as captain of the Enterprise.

One reason for Generations’ writing flaws can be chalked up to an unwise production schedule. The film was written by Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga, both seasoned writers of the TNG show. They had already spent much of their creative energies on the show’s season finale and did not have time to flesh out and fine-tune the movie script. The director himself, David Carson, was a veteran of the show, having written some of its most acclaimed episodes. Interestingly the choice of composer was also a carryover from the series. Dennis McCarthy was the primary composer of all the 80s and 90s Trek shows. To be honest I never found his television work all that stellar. The few pieces that I can remember are those that are reused constantly through hundreds of episodes. Film score reviewers also seem to find his sole film outing to be underwhelming so I was interested to explore this score further and see if such criticisms have merit. Continue reading

Glory (1989)

Composed by James Horner

Edward Zwick’s 1989 historical drama Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments of the Civil War. It might be the best Civil War film out there, with the emotional hook of seeing blacks overcome prejudice by proving themselves men through military service. The battle scenes are among the most accurate in Civil War films (thanks to the director’s careful attempts to select extras and reenactors that look like actual soldiers). This film is also held up by some top-notch acting from the likes of Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and a wide range of talent. It definitely put a lot of eyes on Denzel Washington and got him an Academy Award. It’s not entirely accurate, as most of the characters are fictional. In fact the 54th Massachusetts was mostly made up of free Northern blacks, but the movie put in a lot of ex-slaves both for dramatic effect and to represent the wide spectrum of the 200,000 black Americans who fought in the war. Another strong aspect of the film is James Horner’s score.

James Horner’s music for Glory is both highly reverential and deeply emotional. The music is dominated by sweeping strings, military drumbeats, and bugles and trumpets for more dramatic military scenery. Of great importance to the score is the Boys Choir of Harlem. It was traditional for composers to seek out highly respected English boy choirs, but Horner believed this film should have an American one. The kids got a paid air ride to California to work on the music and reportedly their scoring sessions with Horner left many of the crew members (including director Zwick) in tears. Horner implements the choir frequently, usually to underscore the noble purpose of the 54th, but also to give “Charging Fort Wagner” a climatic, epic feel. Horner incorporates pieces of period music, usually in the form of fife-and-drum marches. Reviewers have pointed out, sometimes in an accusatory manner, that Horner borrowed classical pieces of music for this score. However, Horner infuses his recreations of classic music with so much of his voice and passion that they still stand out on their own merit. I’ll get to these as I run through the themes and album. The commercial album is a tight 42 minutes. There is some missing material, but most of it is source music and the original compositions are already well represented on album. There also isn’t much in the way of action music which is actually standard for many modern war films but is different for Horner, who would later give the likes of Windtalkers and Enemy at the Gates lengthy and melodramatic action pieces. Continue reading

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Composed by Cliff Eidelman

After The Final Frontier shook confidence in the Star Trek franchise, Nicholas Meyer, director of Wrath of Khan, returned to give the original cast a fitting send-off. Undiscovered Country seeks to explain how the Federation and Klingon Empire made peace before the Next Generation TV series. Thus it serves as a prequel of sorts for the 90s Star Trek shows. For some reason this movie doesn’t get as much attention. It was well received at the time and is still highly regarded by those who remember it. In fact it’s considered one of the best films (my personal third favorite). The movie’s plot is a reflection of the end of the Cold War, down to a moderate Klingon sporting the name Gorkon (as in Gorbachev, get it?). After a Chernobyl-like disaster, the Klingon Empire is pressured to finally seek peaceful relations with the Federation. The peace talks are undone, however, when the Klingon ambassador is assassinated. Kirk, who retains an intense hatred of the classic antagonists, makes a convenient target to frame for the assassination. It’s up to him and the rest of the Enterprise crew to uncover the conspiracy to derail the peace talks.

Instead of bringing back Goldsmith or Horner, Meyer planned to have Gustav Holst’s Planets rearranged and used as the score, akin to Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It turned out that the rights to Holst’s music were quite pricey. Meyer ended up hiring the 26 year old Cliff Eidelman based off a submission he sent in. The young composer was ecstatic at the chance to do a Star Trek score. Meyer instructed him to look to Holst for inspiration but otherwise Eidelman had a massive chance to do his own thing and make his mark. His music is distinctively darker, though there are a few nods to established conventions such as spiritual Vulcan material and a nautical theme for the Enterprise. The most obvious reference to Holst is the dark rhythmic action and suspense. These quite intentionally bring to mind “Mars, Bringer of War.” Continue reading

Carlito’s Way (1993)

Carlito's Way - Music

Composed by Patrick Doyle

Carlito’s Way is a crime drama based on a novel. This Brian De Palma film stars Al Pacino as Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican gangster in 1970s New York who, after being freed early from prison by lawyer Dave Kleinfield (Sean Penn) attempts to go straight. His plan is to run a nightclub until he has enough money to move to the Caribbean, but of course he finds himself being sucked back into the criminal life by both old and new acquaintances. Carlito’s Way may be my favorite Al Pacino vehicle. The main character is both really cool and very sympathetic at the same time. Despite being a crime drama, the movie offers a lot of entertaining thrills. It also offers a robust orchestral score from Patrick Doyle. A lot of these types of films have heavily restrained scores or like to rely on preexisting songs.

Much of the music in the film is diagetic material, songs played in Carlito’s nightclub or on the streets. The score still has a strong presence, though, prioritizing strings and piano to underscore the romantic and tragic plot elements. The Varese Sarabande album is a concise 41-minute listening experience. In contrast to all the upbeat club music, the opening “Carlito’s Way” presents a very sad string-based melody, started by what I consider to be Carlito’s primary motif. It’s unapologetically melancholy tone underpins Carlito’s desire to break free of the gangster culture and start a legitimate life. Doyle continues his slow but dramatic scoring style with “Carlito and Gail.” This is more of Doyle’s sad strings and piano. Around 2:30 the track takes a flighty transition into a more happy and hopeful piano-and-string melody. The piano closes things out on its own. Continue reading