Iron Man (2008)

Composed by Ramin Djawadi

It’s always interesting to go back to the origins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was an incredible risk to attempt to web various superhero series together into a narrative web. Phase one of the MCU proved a success because Marvel took their time introducing and developing their cast of superheroes. At the time many of the film rights for top draws such as Spider-Man and the X-Men were exclusively owned by various studios, so Marvel and Paramount (the latter later replaced, of course, by Disney) had to try to get audiences invested in characters that didn’t have the same hold on the popular consciousness. Among these was Iron Man, a billionaire tech genius who wears various suits of power armor. The film was surprisingly great and helped usher in the height of the superhero film craze.

Before going further into the armored avengers first outing, I should give a general overview of the MCU’s music. For a series that prided itself on interconnecting all its characters and films, it did a startling poor job at ensuring the characters’ themes carried over into each other’s films. Iron Man himself changed composers every film and each refused to use his predecessor’s material. Sometimes this resulted in a much better theme (Iron Man 3), but could also see wonderful identities thrown to the wayside (a great example is Brian Tyler’s refusal to use Patrick Doyle’s highly acclaimed themes from Thor in that character’s first sequel). The only identity to consistently crop up between composers was the Avengers theme. Overall, the musical landscape of the MCU is a startling failure, its greatest failure even during its golden years. Continue reading

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Composed by Ennio Morricone

The third of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is the most widely praised and famous of the three. Leone really established himself as one of the greatest directors of all time with this one. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly sees three morally questionable gunslingers pursue a cache of treasure buried in a graveyard. Clint Eastwood is back as the mysterious Man with No Name (called Blondie here), who is the Good only in comparison to the other two characters. Lee Van Cleef portrays the Bad (Angel Eyes), a hired killer who actually disappears for large parts of the movie. Eli Wallach is the real star of the show, portraying the Ugly (Tuco). Tuco is an eccentric criminal and the only one who gets much backstory. Complicating their rivalry is the American Civil War. They not only have to contend with each other, but artillery bombardments, hellish prisoner-of-war camps, and even a full-fledged battle. The movie’s status as a defining western is further served by Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. Since this is the first Leone-Morricone collaboration I’m covering, I should point out that they were literally classmates as kids.

The main theme for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of those musical pieces that has engrained itself in popular consciousness. It’s often used for comedic purposes and callbacks characters in a film have a face-off (though in the movie the climatic duel is actually scored by a whole other piece). The main motif consists of a fast five-note ditty followed by four descending notes. Morricone puts it through a seemingly endless series of instrumentation. The five notes were deliberately modeled on a coyote howl, which is why it so effectively brings to mind a desolate western wilderness. There is also a b-section which comes out when Morricone needs to add on the energy and epicness. Continue reading

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Spider-Man: No Way Home is the only Hollywood blockbuster this year to have actually made a solid profit. There are many factors, ranging from a Christmas-time release to the noticeable lack of unnecessary and sanctimonious political and social statements in cast and crew interviews. The largest factor, however, is the premise in which a tear in the multiverse allows Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men, as well as many of their villains, to come in for a crossover extravaganza. This all comes about when Peter Parker (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Tom Holland one), having been outed as Spider-Man by Mysterio, tries to convince Dr. Strange to cast a spell that will re-conceal his identity. This will help his friends and family, who are also struggling with the fallout of his identity reveal. Of course something goes wrong and various villains enter the universe. Now Spidey and pals need to gather the villains so they can be sent back to their proper universes. Things get even more complicated as events unfold. In the midst of a creatively floundering Marvel Cinematic Universe, this movie was a shining star. The film is full of logical head scratchers and some inconsistencies in how certain villains from the Garfield and Maguire movies are portrayed. But the end result corrects some of the issues with the latest Spider-Man iteration. No Way Home remembers that Spider-Man works best when Peter Parker’s non-superhero life suffers from his heroics.

The crossover nature of the film sparked much interest in Giacchino’s score. Many were hoping for references to Danny Elfman, James Horner, and perhaps Hans Zimmer’s contributions to the Spider-Man films. There are references to all three composers, but they are surprisingly sparse and several don’t make it onto album. Fortunately Giacchino is a master in his own right and brings several retuning and new themes to the table. This is perhaps the most consistent of the MCU scores in terms of linking to other films. First onto the old themes, which people were more excited to hear. “Shield of Pain” is the one that will generate the most nostalgia buzz. James Horner’s Spider-Man theme appears at the 1:12 mark while Danny Elfman’s Responsibility theme comes in right afterwards. Giacchino does not reference Elfman’s actual main Spider-Man theme, opting to use his Responsibility theme in the aforementioned moment and in one unreleased cue. It should be noted that many of Elfman’s mannerisms are carried over to Giacchino’s own Spider-Man theme. These include urban percussion and more gloriously the ascending choir that graced the final swinging scenes of the first two Sam Raimi films. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

Composed by Harry-Gregson Williams

In the wake of Lord of the Rings’ smashing transition to the big screen, Disney and Walden Media sought to capitalize with its own adapted fantasy series. They naturally chose that other famous British fantasy series Chronicles of Narnia, written by Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien’s contemporary and friend C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia are really children’s books, but that didn’t stop the producers and director Adam Adamson from trying to replicate the scale of Lord of the Rings. They even got the same special effects group. The series fizzled out with only three of seven books adapted, but its opener, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is a fine and quite faithful film. The plot is that four British children are evacuated to the countryside during the London Blitz of 1940. In their temporary home they find a magical wardrobe that takes them to the realm of Narnia, a place full of mythological races and talking animals. It’s under eternal winter thanks to the rule of the White Witch (wonderfully played by Tilda Swinton), and Christmas isn’t allowed! It turns out that they have been chosen by allegorical Jesus figure and lion Aslan (Liam Neeson) to liberate the realm.

With Howard Shore having delivered a suitably epic and heavily thematic masterpiece for Lord of the Rings, film music fans wondered how Narnia would fare in the soundtrack department. Director Adam Adamson chose Harry Gregson-Williams (they previously collaborated on the Shrek franchise). The end result was underwhelming for many. Criticisms have ranged from inappropriate electronic and synthetic elements to less defined themes to sub-par sound mixing. Praise was directed towards the score’s last act where Aslan’s theme starts to take a prominent spot. The earlier tracks tend to get more criticism, especially the involvement of Lisbeth Scott. A vocalist, she has featured in numerous films and written many songs. In addition to lending her voice to “Evacuating London” and “From Western Woods to Beaversdam,” she also worked with Gregson-Williams on the song “Where,” which incorporates pieces of the score. Many criticized her involvement as it made pieces of the score sound like New Age dance music. In Gregson-Williams’ defense, the Narnia books don’t have the epic scale and depth of Lord of the Rings, so even though he could have imbued a bit more magic in places, it’s unfair to criticize him for not delivering a massive fantasy score. Still the criticisms have some merit, particularly in the definition of the themes. Continue reading

Home Alone (1990)

Composed by John Williams

Acclaimed comedy writer John Hughes cooked up, with director Chris Columbus, the Christmas classic Home Alone. The premise is that child Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) wishes his family, which to be honest is full of jerks, would disappear. As it happens he and his extended family are supposed to fly to France for a Christmas vacation, but a series of mix-ups and coincidences sees them accidentally leave him behind. Kevin at first enjoys being free to do whatever he wants, but in time comes to miss his family. Worse, a pair of burglars, (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), have their eyes set on his house and frightening Old Many Marley is also around. The movie is pretty good, but achieves its high status thanks to a hilarious final sequence where Kevin defends his home with a set of traps. Home Alone’s plot would be impossible today with the advance of cellphones and other forms of communication so the movie is a bit of a time capsule as well. It also sports one of the best holiday scores from none other than John Williams.

It was actually supposed to be Bruce Broughton, who has written music for many children’s and family films, but it didn’t work out thanks to scheduling issues. Columbus approached John Williams on a whim, as the composer had never really stepped into working on family or comedy fare. To his surprise Williams jumped at the chance. The end result is a fantastic holiday score, in fact the only full-fledged Christmas soundtrack I can listen to repeatedly. The music has a magical, whimsical quality and presages Williams’ tenure on Harry Potter. He makes extensive use of celeste, chimes, xylophone, synthetic versions of the aforementioned instruments, and mischievous woodwinds. Home Alone is a great film elevated even further by an unexpected Williams score. Some cues would be right at home in a fantasy adventure or historical drama. Continue reading

Transformers (2007)

Composed by Steve Jablonsky

Michael Bay entered Hollywood’s search for pre-existing material (comic books, old television shows, and action figures) to bring to the big screen. He was to direct the first live-action film based on the line of Transformers toys, good and evil robots that can into  vehicles, although animals and weapons are not out of the question. The film itself is inspired by the beloved animated series from the 80s, featuring Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, and the All-Spark, one of the many items of power battled over by the noble Autobots and the sinister Decepticons. The movie see Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) buy a new yellow car in hopes of impressing and wooing hot girl Mikaela (Megan Fox). It turns out to be Autobot Bumblebee, who is racing against the Decepticons to recover a map to the life-giving All-Spark. Gradually more Transformers, as well as a governmental organization, show up and set the stage for a final destructive battle.

Unfortunately, as the budget for the fascinating special effects did not allow for too much screen time for the Transformers, Michael Bay ended up focusing on a wide range of human characters, many of who could have been cut from the film with ease considering the final product runs two and a half hours long. Despite the typical overbearing action and special effects, as well as a generous helping of stupid and/or juvenile humor and characters, the film actually isn’t too bad, a decent fun adventure with its good moments (the sequels are another story). One recurring Michael Bay touch is the Media Ventures score with ostinato rhythms, heroic anthems, and choral chants to make everything feel more epic. Steve Jablonsky, who after a fairly original score for Steamboy has found his talents relegated to mimicking previous Media Ventures scores, got the job with predictable but not bad results. Continue reading

Dune (2021)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

The third, latest live-action adaptation of Dune (a great sci-fi novel written by Frank Herbert back in the 60s) has been eagerly expected amongst nerds. Reception of the various adaptations have been mixed, as the book is actually quite hard to translate to film. David Lynch’s 1984 film failed to adequately convey the complex workings of Frank Herbert’s fictional universe to casual audiences. A 2000 TV mini-series with more time to work with did a better job, but necessarily sported a smaller budget. Dennis Villeneuve seeks to strike the right balance by splitting the story over two big budget films. The first part is visually stunning and quite faithful though missing a couple pieces of worldbuilding from the novel (such as why everybody fights with swords instead of guns). The movie also ends rather abruptly, despite closing with an important development in the main protagonist’s character. For the most part, however, my criticisms are more small quibbles, save one element: Hans Zimmer’s score. Zimmer professed great enthusiasm for scoring Dune, to the point that he chose it over frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. He is also a big fan of the book, so this was a passion project for him. The end result is a score that is so focused on ambience and industrial noise that, if not for the film’s incredible visuals and strong performances, would have nearly stripped it of emotion.

It would be wise to attempt a basic summary of the story itself. While there are battles, the emphasis of the story is on politics, religion, and psychological conflict. The basic story is that the desert planet of Arrakis supplies a star-spanning human empire with spice. This spice has many purposes, enabling some humans to gain incredible abilities, and whoever controls the spice can control the course of the empire while making immense profits. As a result various powerful aristocratic houses strive to gain control over its collection and distribution. The Emperor hands the planet over to the House Atreides. The villainous House Harkonnen, however, makes a power play. Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica (a Bene Gesserit who can manipulate others through the use of her voice), find themselves seeking refuge with Arrakis’ desert-dwelling Fremen. Paul takes advantage of a prophecy to set himself up as a messiah figure and vie with other powerful figures for control of the empire. Continue reading

No Time to Die (2021)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond came to a close with No Time To Die. The film was supposed to come out two years ago, but thanks to the lockdowns and restrictions it has taken two years to finally see the light of day. Ironically the movie concerns a manufactured virus, albeit a much deadlier one that can be designed to target certain genetics. Was the wait worth it? Well, not really. Like its predecessor, Spectre, it starts off strong and gradually flounders under the weight of current movie franchise trends and clichés. Bond is caught up in weepy melodrama, most of the action is pedestrian, and we once again have to endure uncovered secret pasts about established characters. The movie also relies on audiences watching Craig’s entire run instead of just offering a self-contained thrill ride. Hopefully with Craig’s departure we can finally get more standalone Bond films. Hans Zimmer came on board for music and thanks to a heavily delayed release had two extra years to fine tune his score, so perhaps he would succeed on his front.

The song this time around is Billie Eilish’s “No Time to Die” (placed at the end of the album). It’s got the right tone and even hints of the James Bond theme, but Eilish sings like she’s drowsy so a lot of the lyrics are very hard to distinguish. It also lacks a particularly strong melody. After the last two films the composer finally has a chance to incorporate it into the score. However, thanks to the aforementioned lack of strong melody, Zimmer’s incorporation of it is piecemeal and often not very distinguishable despite adding further emotional punch to moments such as the end of “Matera,” the middle of “Lovely to See You Again,” and pieces of “Home” and “Final Ascent.” To be fair to the composer he had no hand in crafting the song and thus did not ensure that he had a more identifiable theme to work with. In terms of other new themes the only one I could really pick out was a motif for the new villain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). It’s too simple to really make a strong impression and is more of an ambient soundscape as heard in the opening act of “What Have You Done” and “Lovely to See You Again.” Continue reading

Lost: The Last Episodes (2010)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

After releasing music from only the first three quarters of Lost’s final season, Varese Sarabande quickly followed up with the last album. The Last Episodes album also contains two discs. The first contains an hour of material from the three pre-finale episodes, while the second is a full disc that focuses on the series finale itself. This album is a wonderful capstone to ten discs of music. It gets all of the major themes and motifs together for a rousing finale while still introducing a couple new melodies. I’ve already discussed my general feelings on the last season in my last review but I will reiterate that the last episodes of Lost contain a lot of engrossing material, but also a few unfortunate issues that are common throughout the finales of serialized television shows, especially in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. Of course, regardless of any of the episodes’ quality, Giacchino delivers perhaps his best work.

Before getting into a fuller rundown, I’ll quickly review each section of the soundtrack. The first comes for “The Candidate,” one of my favorite episodes of the last season. It’s an action-packed episode full of gunfights and ticking time elements. As a result Giacchino really lets loose with this one, right out of the gate in “Cage Crashers.” There are a couple emotional pieces from the flash-sideways in “Shephard’s Why” and “Flew the Coop,” but the music from the episode is mostly concentrated into two lengthy action cues: “Sub-Primed” and SS Lost-Tanic.” Continue reading

Lost: The Final Season (2010)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Lost’s final season was entertaining and in some ways emotionally satisfying. However it failed to provide a cohesive explanation for all of the show’s mysteries. It was evident that the writers and producers did not a hundred percent know what they were building. The on-island stuff, despite some ridiculousness, is very engaging, but the new flash-sideways are a sore point for me (more on that in a couple paragraphs). Any flaws in the season were helped by Giacchino’s wonderful score. After focusing more of his creative energies on major motion pictures in 2009, he came back with a vengeance, capping off his television masterpiece with suitably amped up material. While the story was not resolved to viewers’ satisfaction, Giacchino successfully weaved all of his thematic material for an epic conclusion. Almost every theme of note appears across the four discs (the outlier is the Freighter theme from Season Four, which did have a brief iteration in the series finale but not on disc; same for the heartwarming Rose and Bernard theme).

The release of music for season six was both surprisingly extensive yet also confusing. The Season Six soundtrack itself only contains material from the first 13 episodes (12 if you count the first two as one like the album booklet). This was soon followed by a limited “Lost: The Last Episodes” release. However Varese Sarabande, the record label, neglected to clearly state that there would be two double-disc albums and many buyers were legitimately concerned that an abundance of great material would not be released. Not helping is the presence of two “bonus tracks” on the first set. These include “The Hole Shebang” and “Moving On,” the action and emotional climaxes of the series finale. Varese Sarabande likely intended these for those who would not buy the limited edition Last Episodes release. This is curious thinking as anybody who picks up the first album would likely be familiar with the show’s music and not be worried about shelling out more money for the epic conclusion. I will not be covering the two bonus cues until my review for the Last Episodes album. As always there will likely be spoilers. Continue reading