Oscar Thoughts and Capsule Reviews…

I meant to write part of this post long ago…like the day after the Oscars, but life happened.  I’m getting deeper and deeper into that bottomless pit known as a dissertation and it is slowly taking over my life.  But before we get to some quick score reviews, I thought I’d try to wrap a bow on the whole Oscar thing.

I was shocked and pleased that The Social Network won the Oscar for best score. I honestly thought that it didn’t have a chance to win, that King’s Speech would probably win (though I still contend that Harry Potter and TDH, Part I was Desplat’s best score of last year), but just goes to show that sometimes voters do get things right.  Now, having had a chance to listen to John Powell’s How To Train Your Dragon, I wish to revisit my earlier comments that I made in the heat of the moment when the nominations came out.  While I still believe that both Black Swan and True Grit were cheated by the arcane rules of the Music division of the Academy, and both deserved a nomination due to their high quality.  I am no longer as upset by HTTYD‘s nomination.  It is, by all accounts, a good score, and had I seen the film, it might have squeaked into my Top 10 film scores of last year (maybe…).  Do I believe that it was Oscar worthy?  I’m not entirely sold, I think there are moments in it that are of the type that Oscar voters love: sweeping gestures, lush romanticism, etc.  Good, old-fashioned film music, with just enough new sounds and “ethnic” instruments to make it stand out.  And there is nothing wrong with that, I enjoy that, but I guess the more “academic” I get, the more I look for something really different, that challenges my expectations, or really makes me sit up and take notice.  For me, the scores that did that this year were The Social Network, Tron: Legacy, Black Swan, Inception, and True Grit.  All very different types of film music, but each did something that made it stand out in my mind.  Something that How To Train Your Dragon didn’t really do for me.  Even now as I write this, I’m trying to remember parts of the score, but for some reason the music for Avatar keeps popping in my head, a score that is similar in some respects.  But enough of that, onto some new scores.

Battle: Los Angeles (Brian Tyler) – This is the first new score of 2011 that I’ve listened to, and it was mainly due to seeing a theatrical trailer for the film.  I’ve never been all that familiar with Brian Tyler’s work, and I keep switching him around with Tyler Bates (whose work I am more familiar with and don’t hold in very high esteem).  After hearing this score, though, I will never again make that mistake.  The album kicks off with the “Battle Los Angeles Hymn,” which is a wonderful piece of music.  Yes, it falls squarely into such action/sci-fi/military movie clichés of having a piece with chorus that either celebrates the triumph of the human spirit (think the end of The Island among other films), or somehow depicts the military (think Crimson Tide).  This largely holds true for the rest of the score, there is nothing truly “new” here, but it does what it does exceedingly well and is truly fun to listen to.  There are some great action cues mixed in with more moving, solemn cues.  I have yet to see the movie, though from what I hear, it is a fairly standard, by the numbers alien invasion/war/action/special effects picture, but a fairly good one.  I think the score is better than just good, maybe not great, but throughly enjoyable – well worth a listen or two.

The Adjustment Bureau (Thomas Newman) – Adequate is the word that springs to mind with Newman’s score here.  It works well in the context of the film but doesn’t do a whole lot for me upon independent listening.  It bears Newman’s trademark minimalist tendencies, well-known from his American Beauty score, though he does seem that he’s trying out some new ideas and techniques: more electronics,  a bit of an ambient feel at times, and maybe a bit more of a pop sensibility.  On the whole, though, these just don’t seem to gel or coalesce in the larger scheme.  Overall, the album just feels a bit uneven and lacking in cohesion.  Also included on the album are two original songs recorded by former Verve frontman Richard Ashcraft and a remix of Sarah Vaughn’s recording of “Fever.”  These add some nice contrast to the proceedings, and “Future’s Bright” is used effectively in the film, though the lyrics are a bit on the nose.  There is, also, Newman’s distinctive dramatic cue that is “weighty” and features copious low timbres (think of the most dramatic moments in Shawshank Redemption or Finding Nemo…) and is featured at the height of the film.  For Adjustment Bureau, that moment happens during the cues “The Illusion of Free Will” and “Escher Loops.”  I’m not saying that this isn’t a good score or effort from Newman, I’m just saying that it is just lacking in certain elements that keep it from being great.  This is not unlike the film itself, which is quite good, but just doesn’t following the plot and story deep enough and in the third act devolves into a lengthy chase scene.  Recommended for Newman fans, but not a must buy.

Heavy Rain (Normand Corbeil) – This is a video game score from last year that I recently stumbled upon on iTunes.  Basically, I had just recently watched the 1995 film Screamers which Mr. Corbeil scored and wanted to check out the soundtrack.  After finding nothing under the title I entered the composer’s name into the iTunes store search engine and Heavy Rain was the only album listed.  I listened to the samples and decided to check out the full album.

I don’t review many video game scores here, though in the first year I did do some overviews of the Final Fantasy games, some classics from the 8 and 16-bit eras, but not too many recent titles (with the exceptions of Mass Effect, whose score I picked up on sale from Borders last year, and Bear McCreary’s Dark Void).  This is ostensibly for two reasons:  the most recent console I have is a PS2 plus I just don’t have time to play many video games anymore.  You know…that whole dissertation and PhD thing.  But I do try to keep up with the major titles released every year, and because of that I had at least heard of Heavy Rain.

For those not in the know, Heavy Rain is a noir-ish murder mystery in which the player investigates a serial murderer known as the “Oragami Killer,” named for the paper figures s/he leaves behind and who always strikes during periods of heavy rainfall which he uses to drown his/her victim.  The investigation uses four different characters and a unique control system that makes the game more akin to old school adventure games for the computer (like Grim Fandango or the Monkey Island games).  And I can’t really say more without spoiling things.

The score perfectly matches the atmosphere of the game from what I’ve seen in video clips.  Like most new games, it features a full orchestral soundtrack, and it sounds as if Corbeil was channeling a sort of ambient minimalism that one hears in many neo-noir films.  Specifically I’m thinking of David Julyan’s score for Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia.  Something like this can work great for a video game because so much is atmosphere and can be looped underneath with varying thickness (meaning the music engine can drop layers like strings, winds, etc., in and out depending on a player’s actions).

On the album, the cues are presented mainly as they relate to the game’s main characters (each of the four playable characters has a theme), though there are some specific cues for what I’m guessing are predefined moments in the game (“Before The Storm” for example).  The tense atmosphere is broken, though, for the action cues on the album, and these are much weaker than the other cues featured, but I understand that the game needs action to keep the player interested.

Anyway, it really is an interesting score and demonstrates just how sophisticated game scoring has become when compared to its brethren in film and television.  And more than that, it almost makes me wish that I had a PlayStation 3.  Anyone want to lend me $300?

Well, that’s it for now from Temp Track Plaza.  Hopefully I won’t wait so long between posts next time.

One Response to Oscar Thoughts and Capsule Reviews…

  1. Ben Hills says:

    I struggle to see how anyone could possibly say Inception is as you say, “different”. Granted, within the film, the score works brilliantly, and it does add to the film. But as a stand-alone piece of music, it is extremely average, and not really exceptional in any way. And I’m sorry, to say it’s different to other soundtracks is a bit ridiculous. It is right within Zimmer’s comfort zone, and it’s exactly the kind of sound that has dominated his scores over the last few years. He tries to say his music is innovative and groundbreaking, but to be honest, its a load of rubbish. He needs to step out of his comfort zone and explore truly innovative ideas. Have you listened to the Batman Begins or The Dark Knight scores? Zimmer employs exactly a very similar type of sound as he does in Inception. So different? No. It’s dissappointing, because all 3 of these films are up there in my all-time favourites, but the soundtracks don’t live up to it. They work within the film, but outside of the film, they are quite frankly, except for brief moments, boring. They are effective scores, but not exceptional.

    The standard “sound” of Zimmer soundtracks these days is to create an atmospheric sound, lacking thematic elements. Why I would usually quite enjoy this kind of music, it is much easier and less technically demanding to compose than for example, a John Williams heroic theme, such as Indiana Jones. I have learnt this first hand from improvising on the piano and doing some compositions of my own.

    Which is why How To Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) is so fantastic. I’ve haven’t heard any film score for a long time which is so brilliantly thematic. It employs brilliant melodic and rhythmic themes, and repeats and varies them throughout the score with precise and controlled skill.

    Technically, John Powell’s score is better than Zimmer’s Inception. Just listen to the two of them together and the difference in technical ability is obvious.

    HTTYD may be a more traditional sounding score, but its more different and exciting than Inception, which the sound of Zimmer sitting in his comfort zone, which he has produced over the last few years.

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