Tag Archives: John Williams

2016 in Review: A Soundtrack

10-cloverfield-lane-jukebox

It’s been a while since we did a review of the year’s soundtracks, so we drafted in frequent collaborator Tony Black – and head honcho at the TV and film music podcast Between The Notes – who put down his microphone in favour of writing down his thoughts on the top soundtracks of 2016. Plenty to consider before you vote in this year’s Failed Critics Awards.

Let’s be honest, it’s not been a great year at the movies has it, 2016? Not if you’re a major blockbuster at least. Oddly enough though, the same can’t quite be said for the scores to many of those films, dodgy or otherwise. David Ayer, Zack Snyder or even Scott Derrickson may have let you down, but Michael Giacchino, Clint Mansell or Cliff Martinez have been right on the money with their orchestral scores to some of this year’s most disappointing or divisive pictures.

Here are five scores to the biggest (and not necessarily best) movies that have troubled your multiplex that I consider to be composers close to the top of their respective games:


5 – THE WITCH (Mark Korven)

Just like you probably hadn’t heard of The Witch before early this year, chances are you won’t have heard of Canadian composer Mark Korven. He’s a new kid on the block. Much like how Robert Eggers wowed us with his debut feature, Korven backs him up with a score that drips remote, screeching, primeval terror and the coldness of the austere Puritan setting in which Eggers tells his chilling tale. It’s not Sunday afternoon easy listening, but it’s one of the best horror/chiller scores in years.

Standout track: Caleb’s Seduction


4 – STAR TREK BEYOND (Michael Giacchino)

The new master and heir apparent to John Williams; it’s rare Michael Giacchino has a bad year. After a stonking 2015 scoring a raft of average movies with stunning music, he delivers this year both with Doctor Strange and even more so Star Trek Beyond. It’s his third score for the JJ Abrams spearheaded revival of the classic TV score and it’s possibly his best yet, a heady mixture of iconic, reworked themes with powerful, thrilling brass and an elegant sense of galactic scope. Plus you’ll always have a good laugh at the wonderful puns that litter the names of his cues, as if you needed more of a reason to listen!

Standout track: Night on the Yorktown


3 – 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (Bear McCreary)

You’ve heard Bear McCreary, even if you don’t know his name. Trust me. He scored the excellent Battlestar Galactica remake and it’s his music that forms the memorable title track to The Walking Dead. He’s been much more television based (and continues to be) but in scoring the underrated, Hitchcockian sequel to secret blockbuster Cloverfield, he truly advances to the big leagues with a score one parts mythic, and two parts a gorgeous mesh of dark thriller & Jerry Goldsmith-esque creeping mystique. Even if you don’t love 10 Cloverfield Lane (and you should), it would be a surprise if you don’t end up a little in love with how it sounds by the end.

Standout track: Michelle


2 – THE NEON DEMON (Cliff Martinez)

Following previous partnerships with Nicolas Winding Refn on films such as Drive or Only God Forgives, Cliff Martinez perhaps reaches amongst the peak of his accomplishments with his remarkable and unique work on The Neon Demon. Now, not everyone took to Winding Refn’s garish horror about the fashion industry, but Martinez’s music drips with substance. It often sounds like diamonds falling onto a cold floor, infused with a sense of warped, pulsing disco, underlain with painful violins capturing the tragedy of Elle Fanning’s main character. It’s a stunning piece of work, and remarkable for the fact the standout piece, ‘The Demon Dance’, is a contributing from Julian Winding, the directors brother. If it’s not being played in clubs forevermore, it’ll be a travesty.

Standout track: The Demon Dance


1 – HIGH-RISE (Clint Mansell)

There’s a strong argument that Clint Mansell is the greatest composer on this list discussed today and, after listening to his score for High-Rise, it’s hard to provide a counterpoint. Ben Wheatley’s absurdist, neo-capitalist, period masterpiece and searing critique on Thatcherism may both be the greatest film of 2016 but also have a score to match. Mansell belies his roots as a Midlander growing up in the gaudy, concrete monstrosities of the 60’s & 70’s to deliver an operatic and creeping piece which matches Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s commentary. It’s full of brash violins, strong towering themes and an underpinning of controlled mayhem which Mansell explodes outward for effect at just the right moments. Of all these pieces, it’s the score that can be most listened to and enjoyed in isolation. Even in Mansell’s glittering career it’s a standout, possibly career best piece of work.

Standout track: The World Beyond the High Rise


In terms of honourable mentions, a shout out again to Giacchino for Doctor Strange, to Henry Jackman for The Birth of a Nation, the great John Williams for The BFG, Johann Johannson for Arrival, John Ottman for X-Men Apocalypse, Abel Korzeniowski for Nocturnal Animals and John Powell/David Buckley’s collaboration on Jason Bourne. There are more I’ve missed, undoubtedly, from even the honourable mentions, let alone the best of list.

So take a moment to remember than even in a hellish political year, or a largely average one for movies on the screen, the composers behind the music are still delivering work you’ll be listening to for years to come. 2016 does have one saving grace, after all…

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

My love affair with Star Wars began in 1997 when they were re-released in to cinemas for the 20th anniversary of A New Hope hitting the silver screen. I was 10 or 11 and had not seen them on television before – or at least not to my recollection.

Sure, I’d seen other big action films before. I had certainly seen Jaws and Jurassic Park – and I am sure that I had seen Apollo 13 too. All great, but nothing blew me away quite like Star Wars.

When ‘A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away’ hit the screen, followed by the fanfare, opening crawl and shots of spaceships in battle, I was overawed and in love straight away.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no geek or nerd, and you won’t find me at Comic-Con or bidding on eBay for the mint condition collectable of ‘second alien from the right in the Mos Eisley Cantina’. But if there are two things I’m obsessed with, then it’s football and Star Wars. That’s in spite of the prequels trying to dampen my love for them.

So, when Disney bought the rights from George Lucas and announced a new trilogy plus spinoffs, bidding to build a Star Wars version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my excitement was tempered by trepidation. Would this be another Gungan filled Phantom Menace, or a return to form?

I’m happy to say it was the latter; a fun film that just felt like Star Wars. There were no trade disputes or convoluted issues in the senate hall. It was fun, it was exciting, it was intriguing, it was emotional, it was laugh out loud funny and it was dark.

Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2D2, C3PO and The Millennium Falcon all return to the franchise along with a number of background and secondary characters, giving call backs to the original trilogy (not much, if anything, from the prequels found its way to this to this corner of the galaxy) making certain that you are in Star Wars territory.

In fact, Han and Chewie are their usual, roguish, all-action selves. You can’t help but love the pair and feel a twinge of joy and nostalgia most of the time that they are on the screen.

However, it’s the new cast members that steal the show. This was John Boyega and Daisy Ridley’s big screen debut – arguably Adam Driver’s as well – and they perform admirably. Certainly adapting to and growing into their roles, as the reluctant heroes Finn and Rey, and the villainous Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is dark. Really dark. Darker than the darkside dark; conflicted and irrational. You get this real sense of menace from him. Although Snokes (his ‘boss’) lacked that and one of the downsides was his CGI appearance – not to give too much away, as I’m sure there’s more to come.

The Tarkin, to Ren’s Vader, was played by Domhall Gleeson. A small role performed well – again, hopefully there’s more to come in subsequent films.

It was as though Ridley and Boyega had to come out of this on top. One minor gripe from me: Their thick British and American accents respectively did grate a little bit.

Other than that though, they were both excellent. Especially when you consider it was two relative unknowns taking over the reins in cinema’s biggest franchise. I’ve no doubt big things await the pair.

Finally, Oscar Isaac was great in the limited role he was given as an X-Wing pilot and modern-day Han Solo, Poe Dameron. Charming, funny and adventurous; it will be good to see an expanded role for the Resistance’s best pilot in future films.

The action was as you would expect: Fast paced and fun, with jokes aplenty (more than any of the originals). Whereas the comedy in the prequels fell flat, this hit all of the right notes. And, of course, John Williams scores the film perfectly.

JJ Abrams has proven that he was the right choice for director. He rebooted Star Trek well enough for the big screen – although Into Darkness had its problems – and was trusted with this. He put the right team around him and successfully pulled it off.

I’m sure the film has its faults. Maybe once I calm down I’ll notice them? Still, it was a joy to watch and left me with a smile on my face, but still wanting more.

It’s not the best Star Wars film, but it is better than any of the prequels by some way and I think it is as good as Return of the Jedi, if not better.

A Decade In Film: The Eighties – 1981

A series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema and choose their favourite films from each year of that decade.

Matt Lambourne has lucked out with arguably the most entertaining, balls-to-the-wall decade of all. This week he takes us through his choices for 1981.

5. Condorman

Condorman“Have you seen this report on this Condorman? He is an AMATEUR, do you hear? He is NOT an agent of the CIA! He is a WRITER OF COMIC BOOKS!”

Every so often, a movie comes to the fore that is so inherently bad, that it ends up being brilliant. There are a few that I particularly enjoy as guilty pleasures, such as Streetfighter and perhaps more recently Iron Sky. However the original film from my childhood that falls into this category is ‘Condorman’.

The plot surrounds comic book writer, Woody (Michael Crawford), who insists that all his creations must be able to perform their talents in real-life before he commits them to paper. However he is struggling to legitimise his latest creation, a flying crime-fighter called Condorman – as depicted in the opening scene where he fails to fly with mechanical wings from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Hilarity prevails as Woody bumbles his way into the affairs of the CIA & KGB as he pushes the real-life boundaries of his Condorman creation too far, posing as the former’s newest top agent. The action is awkward, yet stupidly funny, imagine Jason Bourne played by Basil Fawlty and you have a good idea of where this ends up.

The movie is anything but cold-war espionage coolness personified; after all it is a Disney movie. However the cast somewhat legitimises the erratic nature of the subject matter with the late Oliver Reed playing the leading bad-guy as Krokov the KGB operative and the lovely Barbara Carrera (Never Say Never Again) as the film’s love interest. It also adds some entertaining action set-pieces and a very cool car-pursuit scene featuring a fleet of souped-up Porsche 911’s that even the Fast & The Furious would be envious. Condorman’s own vehicle would impress even Bruce Wayne!

It goes without saying that this film gets nowhere near the IMDB top 250, it even has a 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However it does hold a cult status amongst fans that keeps interest in the franchise alive and an updated version beckons as part of Disney’s new vision for the future. I personally, cannot wait!

4. Escape From New York

escape from new york“When I get back, I’m going to kill you”

Painted in the doldrums of a decaying future, revolutionists have hijacked Air Force One and crashed landed the jet into Manhattan Island. The island is now an impregnable fortress used to house all of America’s most dangerous criminals. The US authorities, unable to send in a mass force for fear of endangering the captive president’s life can only rely on one man.. Snake Plissken.

The role of Snake goes to Kurt Russell, who really shakes off his image as a pretty faced child actor as the down and dirty, super cool and unflappable ex-Special Forces operative. This movie is also a continuation of a mini love-affair between actor and the film’s director John Carpenter, the likes of which weren’t again seen until Tim Burton got his hands on Johnny Depp!

Escape from New York is all atmosphere. The film is shot entirely during the night time and danger lurks around every corner of the rotten Metropolis. It very much reminds me of the nihilist future as depicted in 1979’s ‘The Warriors’ and continued later this decade in ‘The Running Man’. The action is far from snappy, it’s somewhat clumsy and lacks finesse. But the slick nature of the characters, such as Isaac Hayes as the Prison Boss ‘The Duke’ allows you to really take in a rough 90min action ride.

Other notable performances come in the form of Western star Lee Van Cleef as the slimy police boss ‘Hauk’ and Adrienne Barbeau as the most distracting on screen cleavage for the whole year! It’s not hard to see why John Carpenter put a ring on it.

The Snake Plissken role sets a good model for movie anti-heroes, smooth lines, tough and fearless but ultimately doing bad things for good causes. The soundtrack adds to the dystopia portrayed nicely and encapsulates the period of time well.

The franchise spawned 2 sequels much further down the line, both with much bigger budgets, however Escape from New York delivers an unintended grittiness that can only be enforced by a lack of funds and ultimately delivers a much darker tone to the movie.

3. An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London“Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! Kill yourself, David, before you kill others”

Thoroughly British in it’s almost slapstick delivery, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ has everything, from awkward and uneasy comedy to brutal gore-scenes for hardened fans of the genre.

The film follows David (David Naughton), an American tourist who survives a Wolf attack that kills his best friend. Oddly some of the films most curious moments come from scenes were his dead friend re-visits him as a Zombie to warn him of his impending transformation into a Werewolf and that the bloodline must end for his victims to rest in peace.

Naturally, David does not take heed of the warnings, unsure of if his friend’s visits are a figment of his imagination or indeed the truth. Eventually the beast is unleashed upon London town and makes for a wonderfully cold trail of death that is uncompromising in its lack of fan-fare.

The whole movie is shot on location in the UK and I most admit that I find that the UK movie industry just does these movies far better than our Hollywood counter-parts, see ‘28 Days Later’ as an example. There is something far more sinister about the Middlesex moors and the cold, wet alleys of London than the steamy neon nightlife of New York for example.

No, AWIL does not over-complicate, it removes any unnecessary dramatics and creates frightening scenes of bloodlust, yet somehow you still feel charmed by our leading man. In a decade dominated by American Horror, this film collected an Oscar for it’s gruesome use of make-up and shows one of the most painful looking transformation scenes that I can recall. It’s very much a genre-defining classic and a must see for all horror fans.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark“I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am”

It goes without saying that Raiders could easily have been my #1 pick for 1981. Harrison Ford became probably the biggest Box Office star over a 5-year period in which everything LucasArts and Steven Spielberg churned out turned to absolute gold.

Ford plays the whip-wielding Indiana Jones, archeological & occult expert who is sent on a mission to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant before it falls into the hands of Nazi Germany. I should not need to go into itty-bitty details about the plot; we’ve all seen at least one Indiana Jones movie. Partly this misses out on #1 movie for 1981 mostly because it’s not actually my favourite film from the original trilogy.

Alas, however Raiders is a magnificent piece of action-adventure cinema. Shot in many luscious and beautifully exotic locations, it’s oh so easy on the eye. Ford brings charisma to the Indiana Jones character in equal measure as he did Han Solo, perhaps even more so.

The film is renowned for some of its action set pieces, such as the rolling bolder booby trap during the opening sequence and the hilarious standoff between Indy and the Sword wielding Egyptian soldier. It’s a great story of exciting action, peril in abundance and a story of good vs. evil, as the Nazis are ever willing to take up the bad guy role.

The now famous John Williams assortment is the final piece of the jigsaw although he sadly lost out to Vangelis’ score for Chariots of Fire in the Oscar prizes. The movie however did collect 4 Oscars and cemented the credentials of Spielberg and Lucas, setting up a golden area for the two during the early 80’s, as well as spearheading Harrison Ford for a career beyond StarWars.

Raiders takes its place high amongst its peers on the IMDB top 100 as one of the most memorable and fun movies of the decade.

1. Das Boot

Das Boot“Cheeks together, balls in their hands and belief in the Fuhrer in their eyes. They’ll calm down soon enough..”

It goes without saying that ‘Das Boot’ is one of the toughest watches of any film I’ve ever happily enjoyed watching. For starters, I am reviewing the extended version of an already epically long movie, weighing in at over 3 hours which for any film is a tough ask! However being a sub-titled movie it requires a certain dedication that adds to the viewing experience as you are slowly sucked into the despair felt throughout the movie.

The movie follows a German U-Boat crew who depart on a mission to intercept Allied convoys across an already faltering and mis-directed Axis line of blockades in the Mid-Atlantic. As the film begins we find the fledgling crew celebrating in a debauched leaving party, seemingly unaware of the miserable existence that awaits them under the Ocean’s surface. However, Ship Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) is starkly aware of the dangers that await his inexperienced crew.

The movie quickly plunges from indulgence to desperation as our crew is continually faced with overwhelming odds against the Royal Navy and mis-direction from their superiors. Gradually the viewer is proverbially grabbed by the throat and dragged into a nerve-wracking journey of strained human relationships and the mental breakdown of a threat that you can often only hear, but rarely see.

Prochnow is superb as the battle-weary Captain and director Wolfgang Petersen makes so much from so little real-estate in the claustrophobic metal tube. This would be regarded as Petersen’s 1st great work and perhaps his best ever before eventually working on more mainstream titles such as The Neverending Story, Troy and The Perfect Storm.

However it really is ‘Das Boot’ that delivers his most heavyweight punch and sets the benchmark high for other great Submarine movies that followed, such as Hunt For Red October and K-19: The Widowmaker. The movie ends on the most sombre of moments. After suffering heavy damage and effectively been sunk, the crew manage to revive the crippled boat and reach sanctum at La Spezia port, only to be attacked and destroyed by an Allied Air-Raid as they leave the ship.

The credits roll as the Captain lives just long enough to watch his boat sink at port and keel over and die with the rest of his crew. Like any good war movie, Das Boot reminds you at all times during war just when you think there is light at the end of the tunnel, all hope is brutally snatched away.

Das Boot is not just a great Submarine movie, it’s a fantastic movie in it’s own right which rightfully takes it’s place amongst the IMDB Top 100 and is my movie of 1981.

See the five films Matt picked for 1980 or check out the full A Decade in Film series so far.