Tag Archives: Michael Giacchino

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…

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Inside Out

Inside Out is beautiful.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

inside outI’ve sat here for the last three hours trying to figure out how to start this review.  See, Inside Out is a fantastic movie – that much is not up for debate.  It’s not only the best Pixar movie released this decade, it might genuinely be the best thing that they have ever done.  It’s certainly their most emotional and their most emotionally honest, no surprise given that the film’s director and main creative force is Up and Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter whose work is characterised by emotional honesty and an uncanny ability to zero in exactly on everyone’s weak-spots.  This is quite possibly the best film that I have seen all year, and if it hasn’t bested Mad Max: Fury Road then it is right up there.

It’s also a film that gains a lot of its power from my own emotional baggage.  This is a film that is fantastic as a movie in many objective ways, but it’s also a film that connected with me so thoroughly, so totally, and so attuned to myself that my opinions and thoughts on it are mostly informed by that fact.  In other words: this film is amazing by itself, but it is transcendental to me because of my various issues and experiences.  So, to properly explain that, I would have to talk about this film and myself in-depth for a very prolonged stretch of time: both no-nos in the world of film reviewing.

Therefore, you can expect this review to be much less in-depth, and much shorter, than my other animation reviews because I’m going to stick to surface-level criticism and analysis.  By which I mean, why the film is a fantastic film.  For those of you who do care about why I love the film as much as I do, there will be a spoiler-filled and very personal post on my own new website – callumpetch.com, tell your friends – later in the week where I will engage in all of the writer no-nos in an attempt to properly explain how the film connected with me and why I put it right up there with Fury Road.  That all OK?  If not, too bad, I’m the one writing this stuff.

So, Inside Out.  Now, normally when we label an animated feature as small-scale, what we mean is that the main cast is smaller than usual and that the stakes are slightly more personal than usual.  Look at something like Big Hero 6.  Most of that movie pivots around Hiro and Baymax, and the main stakes come from Hiro working through his grief.  However, the film still has a rather large secondary cast, the stakes outside of Hiro’s emotional state are much wider-reaching, and the film still has multiple large-scale action beats and setpieces.  In a way, Big Hero 6 is a small-scale film, but in many respects it’s not that much different from your standard big studio animated movies nowadays, that often trade more and more on bigness.

Not so with Inside Out.  Pete Docter’s newest masterpiece commits completely to that small-scale, utilising it to wrestle with big concepts and never once succumbing to the requirements of The Big Studio Animated Family Feature Factory.  Throughout Inside Out, the stakes remain deeply personal and the events on screen reflect it.  When 11 year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) finds herself uprooted without warning from her lovely home and life in Minnesota to inner-San Francisco by her parents, her emotions, led by Joy (Amy Poehler), try and help her adjust to this change.  Things swiftly go wrong, however, when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) accidentally turns a joyous core memory sad and, in the chaos, she and Joy are ejected from Riley’s headquarters with all of the core memories.  Dumped into Long-Term Memory, the pair have to make their way back whilst Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) attempt to perform damage control since Riley can no longer feel Joy or Sadness.

Essentially, the stakes are purely about whether Riley can avoid emotionally shutting down now that she’s been forced away by circumstances beyond her control from her enjoyable life.  There is no villain, no purposefully antagonistic force – one would think that Anger or Disgust would work to make Riley’s life hell but, in reality, they’re just trying their best to stand in for Joy – and there is no one major specific event that brings this issue to light.  It’s all the little things – the disappointment in a new house, the loneliness that comes from not knowing anyone, the discovery that your friends’ lives don’t stop once you leave them, finding out that your new nearby pizza place makes garbage food – that slowly break someone down as they struggle to adjust.  How someone who has spent most of the best moments of their life feeling happy struggles to understand that feeling sad and showing that you feel sad are not bad things.

Those are the stakes, that’s the scale, and Inside Out commits completely to them.  There’s no giant threatening outside force, there’s no big action-packed finale.  This is a quiet melancholy tale about emotional maturation, and specifically the emotional maturation of a young girl as represented via a look at her cute and often funny little emotions.  The film is funny – it has many gut-busters and ends on what will quite frankly be the funniest gag I see in any film this year – and it has many utterly inspired scenarios and usages for its central conceit of a glimpse into one’s brain, but it is primarily this low-key story about a serious subject and it never once contradicts or downplays that in favour of big setpiece sequences or excess melodrama.

Instead, the film hits upon something real and never loses sight of that kind of honesty.  It never pulls its punches, never sugarcoats anything, and that leads to some of the most emotionally affecting sequences in Pixar’s history.  Because they’re working so close to reality, and only very slightly dressing it up with distancing parallels – like how Monsters, Inc. uses monsters and scaring as a parallel for our natural resources, or (more relatedly) how Toy Story uses the toys we played with as a kid to look at growing up – there ends up being this unavoidable directness with how it handles these vital sequences, and the fact that it never plays a single one of these as anything other than these quiet moments of important realisation and self-improvement adds to that.  The most drastic action that Riley takes is still befitting that intimate feel, raising the stakes but not in an excessively dramatic way.

And that abounds throughout.  From the way that Joy and the others treat Sadness because they don’t understand her necessity, to the way that the film is always on Sadness’ side even when it’s mining her for quality jokes, to the way that the film keeps its focus locked firmly on Riley and her headspace – it only steps into the heads of other characters once during the movie itself, before using that idea during the credits for a series of rapid-fire gags to send the audience home happy – to the way that the film is able to take advantage of things like how Riley’s dreams are made but doesn’t outstay its welcome in them.  Every aspect of this film has clearly been carefully deliberated on to achieve that balance between realistic and distancing buffer, fun joy and heartbreaking sadness.  It’s a perfectly melancholy movie whose tight personal view is never once sacrificed for any reason.

That’s why Inside Out works.  There’s also some outstanding voice work – especially from Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith – some gorgeous animation, and another brilliant score by Michael Giacchino (who just always seems to create his best work when associated with Pixar), but those are really by-products of Pete Docter nailing that scale and tone.  By remaining small-scale throughout, by remaining openly emotional throughout, and by remaining honest and upfront about the subject that it is handling throughout (because it would have been so easy to put in some kind of antagonistic force in order dilute the emotional potency), he and the entire team at Pixar have created one truly mesmerising piece of cinema.

This is the kind of film that puts most grown-up dramas about emotional wellbeing to shame, this is the kind of film that proves what animation is capable of, this is either the best or the second-best film that I have seen all year.  Inside Out is not optional.  This is mandatory viewing.  Go and see this movie right the hell now.

Callum Petch is waking up feeling good and limber.  He now writes primarily for his own website, callumpetch.com.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland just doesn’t work.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

tomorrowlandDespite how I may come off on here and on my Twitter from time to time, I am actually rather much an optimist.  Oh sure, I have cynical and realist tendencies – I write for the Internet, for god’s sake, they’re kind of a pre-requisite – but deep down, I am very much an optimist.  I like to believe the best in people, I like to believe that bad people can change over time, that our planet is still salvageable, that one day we may end up living in some kind of wonderful progressive future of sunny optimism.  We might not get jetpacks, but things may be more or less sustainable.  And given the choice between excessively bleak and cynical verging-on-nihilist stories, or idealistic heart-warming tales of happiness and friendship, I will pick the latter almost every time.  In some ways, this makes me childishly naive and unprepared for reality, but what is our day-to-day existence without some semblance of hope?

I tell you all of this not because I enjoy over-sharing about myself on the Internet, but because I want you to know that I agree with almost everything that Tomorrowland is preaching.  That the future does not have to be set towards total annihilation through global warming or thermonuclear war or some kind of natural disaster, that optimism can triumph over cynicism, that those best qualified to save us from such catastrophes should be given free rein to set about doing so, that our obsession with violent destructive media that treats the apocalypse as nothing more than destruction porn is worrying and possibly sets back our willingness to take environmental threats seriously, that cancelling the Space program but keeping a nuclear weapons program going is inexplicable…  I agree with pretty much all of that!

It’s also why I am incredibly disappointed to have to tell you that Tomorrowland just straight up doesn’t work.

I’m not going to mince words or delay the reveal, folks, the reason why Tomorrowland just doesn’t work is because it’s not really a story.  Oh sure, the two problems that you were probably expecting to hear when the time inevitably came for the sentence “Brad Bird has made a bad movie” to be printed are also here.  The last third is a total mess of prior foreshadowing that gets no payoff, that sidelines our supposed lead character, Casey (Britt Robertson), almost totally, and contains random robot violence and explosions that feel almost completely at odds with the “positive thinking can change the future” message that the film had spent 90-odd minutes preaching beforehand – all things that reek of executive meddling wondering why a $180 million Summer blockbuster doesn’t have any action to sell people on and forcing substantial rewrites.  Meanwhile, co-writer Damon Lindelof’s grubby fingerprints are all over the abysmal pacing, structure, and plotting – no 2 hour movie should spend upwards of 70 minutes setting up its story – that kill almost any semblance of emotional depth and resonance.

Those are problems, but even if you stripped them out, this film would still not work.  See, the messages that Tomorrowland wishes to impart are great messages… it’s just that Brad Bird, who directed and co-wrote the story and screenplay, forgot to fashion them onto an actual, y’know, story.  This is the kind of film where characters will shout the film’s ideology back and forth at one another instead of actually performing actions that communicate them without incredibly clunky dialogue.  There are multiple instances where the film will stop, physically stop in its tracks, whilst a character stares just slightly off to the side of the camera and monologues about the righteous indignity that Brad Bird has against our collective cynical apathy.

That second paragraph in this review?  That is quite literally a 3 minute monologue that our nominal villain gives just before the really-quite-terrible whizz-bang action finale kicks off.  I half-expected Bird to just at one point walk on-screen, tell everyone to take 5, and finish the rest of it himself.  The cynical and optimist push-pull protagonist dynamic is the sole thing that Frank (George Clooney) and Casey’s relationship is built on, instead of it being only a part of two fully-rounded characters.  There are no real characters, no emotional stakes, just endless sermonising, that I agree with which is something I find incredibly annoying, about how awful cynicism is and how things need to change.

In fact, I take back my complaint about Lindelof’s “mystery box” storytelling.  He was only trying to hide the fact that there isn’t really a story to this movie, so let’s give him points for trying to make this an actual film instead of just an extended lecture from a High School principal about how very naughty we’ve all been.

Not to mention the times when its themes and ideas end up becoming contradictory for one reason or another.  Tomorrowland believes that our best and brightest should be given their own perfect utopian space to work unencumbered by politics and the law and such, where they are free to create anything they want.  Frank, however, was kicked out of Tomorrowland for… inventing something he shouldn’t have.  There’s a setpiece set in a geek and sci-fi nostalgia shop that’s run by a pair of robot villains (a wasted Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn) that insinuates that relaxing and regressing too much in nostalgia instead of thinking up bold new exciting futures is bad and a waste of potential.  Tomorrowland itself… is designed almost entirely like how people in the 60s thought our future would look like and shares influences with the area at various Disney parks.  The film keeps saying that positive thinking, non-violence, and forward-thinking will create a brighter future… but the finale boils it down to fighting robots and trying to destroy the one machine that is certainly going to kill the future.

What’s most frustrating about such massive systemic flaws is that I can see the film that Tomorrowland could and should have been poking through every now and again.  Specifically, the film looks outstanding.  I mean, of course it does, it’s Brad Bird!  The man has always been gifted visually, and I honestly would have been offended if the film didn’t look fantastic.  Besides, I’m a sucker for the visual designs of how people in the 50s and 60s thought the future would look.  There’s a lightness and optimism to the film’s visual palette, a sincerity and love that communicates the general messages of the film in a way that feels natural instead of via the tin-eared lecturing provided by the plotting and dialogue.

There’s also Britt Robertson’s fantastic performance as Casey.  Bird and Lindelof’s script doesn’t give Casey much of a character besides relentless and boundless optimism – this is a high schooler who sits through multiple lectures about how the world is doomed, is the only character who wants to ask the question of how we fix it, and leaves her lecturers speechless when she does, in case you want another indication of just how non-existent this film’s subtext is – but, dammit all, Robertson is going to try and imbue Casey with one, anyway!  It’s a relentless charm offensive, full of charisma, wonder, and a quiet insecurity and sadness, the kind of performance that normally leads to deserved stardom and a long and healthy career.  There are even points where she’s acting circles around George Clooney – who is often good, but feels more than a little miscast as the grumpy cynical member of the main cast that’s rounded out by Raffey Cassidy, as a pre-teen android called Athena, whose relationship with Frank is something I am not even going to touch with a ten-foot pole.

In all of Tomorrowland’s 130 minutes, there are precisely 5 of those where it works totally.  Casey sneaks off to a large open field in order to discover the world that appears when she touches the pin without any of the distractions and restrictions of reality.  So she touches the pin and is instantly dropped into the centre of Tomorrowland.  It is an utterly magical place, filled with pristine surfaces, bright cheery colours, beaming sunshine, skylines, jetpacks, flying cars, rocket ships with seats just for you.  Brad Bird demonstrates all of this in one shot, taking his time when following Casey through this utopia, letting that optimism sink in, as Michael Giacchino’s score emphasises the wonder that is adamant in Casey at this wondrous place.  For 5 glorious minutes, Bird stops shouting at the audience and just shows.  He visualises what our future could be like instead of lecturing us on it, and the sheer joy and childlike hope it features swelled my heart and almost moved me to tears.  It is magical.

But then it is cruelly cut short, the utopia fades away and Casey is left back in reality, waist deep in a swamp.  The pin was not a gateway to Tomorrowland, it was an advertisement for it, marketing for a utopia that exists but not in the way that it sold as.  Infected by cynicism, hopelessness, and a leader that would rather sermonise the people he was originally trying to save instead of actively going out of his way to save them.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for Tomorrowland, really.

Callum Petch can give you a kiss in the morning and a sweet apology.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!