Wednesday, 30 January 2013

John Carter, Warlord Of Mars


John Carter, Warlord Of Mars
by Various Artists and Writers
Marvel ISBN: 978-0785159902

When I was about ten years of age I used to love going into science fiction book and comic shops like my all-time favourite shop Dark They Were And Golden Eyed (which sadly didn’t survive into much of the 1980s), Eye In The Pyramid (ditto) and Forbidden Planet... and peering intently at all the books and comics I couldn’t afford. Among all the Doc Savage, Flash Gordon and Conan books and comics were the John Carter tales and I especially used to like the prominently displayed covers of Marvel’s late 1970s run of John Carter, Warlord Of Mars.

I never caught up to the comics at that point but I did, very slowly, put together a library of the US paperback reprints of the series, over time, and thrilled over Edgar Rice Burroughs tales of, initially, a gentleman of Virginia who finds himself thrust into a Barsoomian (aka Martian) world of red men and women, giant four-armed green Tharks, great white apes and many other fantastical elements which brought a similar kind of thrill as those early 1930s Flash Gordon serials I used to watch when I was a kid. I even remember going into a specialist shop in Southend for a copy of The Chessmen Of Mars and getting into a discussion with the know-it-all store owner there who pointed out to me that having written all those stories of Tarzan The Ape Man over the length of his career, Burroughs had never once gone to visit Africa, where Tarzan made his home. I, of course, then felt it beneficial to myself to point out to the store owner that, yes, that was true, and with all those John Carter novels under his belt, Burroughs never once bothered to visit Mars either.

Yeah, I could be a bit sharp when I wanted. It was all said in fun though.

I’ve always loved the John Carter novels and the character’s obsessive love for his Martian wife is something I find admirable and has instilled in me a good sense of loyalty and appreciation of the fairer sex. This is a good thing.

It wasn’t until the early nineties that I finally caught up, properly, with the 1970s Marvel Comics. I had fallen prey to RSI aka Repetitive Strain Injury not too long after starting full-time employment. I don’t expect anyone who has not suffered from this condition to sympathise or to even understand it. I didn’t even take it seriously myself until it, practically overnight, knocked out the strength and ability for me to use both arms for a good few months. At this point I decided to start reading comics again and, frankly, it was a choice made of necessity. Hardbacks were more expensive in those days and paperbacks were something I just couldn’t keep open and practically read in the condition I found myself in for a while. Comics could just be opened flat so, it was at this stage of my life, that I started travelling around the comic fairs again and scouring London for various surviving comic shops. Over the space of a year I managed to put together a full run of the entire 28 issue series of the John Carter, Warlord Of Mars comic, plus the three “annual sized” issues they put out. And they were great.

Just recently, Marvel have reprinted these as a single volume hardback, presumably to tie in with the movie version of John Carter (reviewed here) and it was something I really wanted to revisit in this format, rather than pull out all the back issues and look at them printed on the cheap 1970s paper which suffered from dot gain and other issues at the time. However, the tome in question was very expensive and I ummed and ahhhed over it for a while... until my brilliant girlfriend came to my rescue and purchased said tome for me as a Christmas present. What a gal!

And it’s a really special and beautiful volume, too, it has to be said, The paper stock it’s printed on does absolute justice, probably for the first time ever, in capturing the truly beautiful artwork of the amazing artists, such as Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, and Dave Cockrum, who worked on this series. Heck, there’s even a guest issue or two by a young Frank Miller... those were the days. Seeing these fabulous illustrations printed on a stock which finally brings out the details of the inking and colours of the issues is something of a revelation and reminded me of just why I loved reading these comics twenty odd years ago.

The stories told in these pages take place, according to writer Marv Wolfman (one of a few writers in the series) between two paragraphs in Chapter 27 of Burrough’s first John Carter novel, A Princess Of Mars (originally titled Under The Moons Of Mars on first publication) and the love of the writers working on this for the original material is self evident as soon as you start reading it, as narrated by John Carter himself.

There are always going to be one or two things about the Martian series that modern ideas of censorship won’t allow contemporary translators and explorers of Burrough’s books do right (the first book was written 101 years ago at time of writing this article), such as the fact that Martian men and women really don’t go in much for wearing clothes, but what the writers and artists here were able to get right, they did... for the most part... I think Frank Miller may have screwed up on some of the Barsoomian beasts and the addition of a shipboard “computer” on one of the sail-barges in one of the later issues shows the influence of the then current movie blockbuster Star Wars on the comic more than Burroughs, but without that first Star Wars movie coming out, to be fair, it’s doubtful that Marvel would have bothered buying the rights to these characters in the first place, is my guess.

The book gets the tone of the John Carter character just right... he is forever going on, issue after issue, about his lovely wife, the incomparable Dejah Thoris and he acts as a gentleman, where possible, throughout the entire run, as oppose to the lovable rogue he was portrayed as in the recent movie version (I’ve not seen the low budget movie version before that one yet, featuring ex-porn actress Traci Lords, although I hear its relationship to the actual source material is tenuous at best). The artwork is also, for the most part, totally reflective of the descriptions found in Burrough’s original stories and with little, throw away references to later characters in Burrough’s stories, such as Carter’s future son Carthoris and Ras Thavas - The Master Mind Of Mars, the comics come alive in much the same way that the classic stories do. They are definitely not disrespectful of the original material and equally as entertaining.

If you’re a fan of Burrough’s original ten novels (and the collected short stories) about life on Barsoom then you will certainly find a lot to admire and enthuse over in this hardback reprint, which lovingly reprints the entire 28 issue run plus the three annuals. And if you don’t know the character of John Carter very well, and want to dip your toes into the Martian landscape, then these are definitely the next best thing to the original stories that you could read to give you a flavour of the sprit of adventure and sense of honour imbued in the character. A general, all round recommendation from me on this one... and with much thanks to my gal friend!

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Last Stand

Last Man Standing

The Last Stand
USA 2013
Directed by Jee-woon Kim
Playing at cinemas now.

When an escaped prisoner is on the lam, his team ride into town to make sure that nothing can stop him going through the place which is the only town in between him and his escape route to the Mexican border.

But the sleepy town in question’s sheriff has other ideas...

Yeah, you guessed it. Jee-woon Kim, the South Korean director who gave us such films as the original version of A Tale Of Two Sisters and his rip-roaring tribute to the spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad, The Weird (reviewed here) has delivered us yet another “western-dressed-up-in-action-movie-clothing”. This time, however, it’s more like one of those 1950s John Wayne westerns where the sheriff is protecting the town from attack by the inevitable “bad guys”.

I’ve talked about this on here before, I think, but Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s my belief, is one of the few modern movie actors who brings exactly the same “larger than life” star quality to contemporary cinema that such actors as John Wayne and Errol Flynn used to bring with them. Toting all that baggage around isn’t always what’s good for the film, and sometimes they are just playing the same old variations of themselves, but their personality is so engaging that what they did bring to their pictures was worth it’s weight in gold at the box office. And Schwarzenegger’s role of Sheriff Ray Owens in The Last Stand is just the kind of part that calls for that easy. laid back style of acting blended with larger than life personality and the governator definitely delivers in spades here.

Now, talking of box office, it’s beyond amazing to me that this movie seems to have bombed in America... I don’t know why because I thought it was really great fun. Yes it’s cosy and comfy and formulaic and, maybe, a throwback to some of the action fests of the 1980s... but this really isn’t a bad thing and the “old school” oater plot combined with “action scenes on acid” direction from Kim, makes for a considerably entertaining time at the local cinema and, just in case some of the contemporary movie audiences these days have possibly forgotten this... art can also be entertainment and popcorn fodder like this one still requires a large amount of skill behind and in front of the camera... and if you like action movies or old westerns, then you might want to give this one a chance.

The performances are standout with some great “old friends” of cinema doing a fine job in terms of making it all look easy. Forest Whitaker is fantastic, as is Luis Guzmán (wearing a cowboy hat, no less, to really push the point home) and I have no idea who Johnny Knoxville is, but he’s a fun watch in this. You also have young Jamie Alexander from Thor doing a brilliant job as the main female lead and, of course, the always watchable Peter Stormare playing the principal, villain’s henchman. And, as one last nod to the film’s status as a western, you have an excellent, stand out cameo from one of cinema’s greatest character actors, Harry Dean Stanton. This is a good cast of people who make the thinly drawn characters easy to believe in.

And when I say thinly drawn characters, yeah that could be a negative in many movies, but here it works okay because the film is really well written (in some ways) and the clichéd set of protagonists (and antagonists) who populate this movie are so familiar to audiences these days, that with just a few broad sketches, you can reliably fill in all the blanks and it’s like you’ve been living with these people for years.

So stereotypes? Yeah.

But lovable stereotypes who you believe in and don’t want to see come to any harm... which obviously helps a lot in your emotional investment in the movie.

Now, on the whole, the editing during the action sequences is blistering but comprehensible... save for one sequence when I knew that one of the main characters had gotten blown up and killed but... he then turns up 5 minutes later unharmed. This is because I’d not been able to keep up with decoding the shots fast enough and got confused with which car had been hit with a rocket launcher. Maybe the next time I see it, which will be on DVD from whatever high street store sale is left standing by the end of the year, what with HMV in the way it is now, I’ll be able to decipher that stuff easier. It is just one little sequence in a movie full of absolutely wonderful action editing though, so maybe it’s not the editor’s fault and maybe not enough coverage was shot to be able to fix it in editing.

Either way, it’s a minor grumble for a film full of well edited action sequences which are violent, no doubt about it, but also have a certain sense of humour about them. I don’t know if it’s strictly right or morally cool to laugh when somebody is blown apart before your eyes and the arms land on a couple of people, causing them inconvenience, but it got a big laugh out of the audience I was watching it with and the tone of the piece tells you not to take the bloody, visceral nature of the on screen shenanigans too seriously.

Similarly, the dialogue is quite corny and clichéd throughout a lot of the film (although I wonder if I would have perceived it as such if I was watching it in Korean with English subtitles) but big Arnie and the gang play it with a knowing wink and despite there being some dialogue that may make a younger, more serious audience wince, the tone is pitch perfect and plays more as a parody than a series of clunky lines. You know the game the movie makers are playing with you here, and feel invited to join in, rather than alienated.

All in all, I thought this film was very well handled, hugely enjoyable and Schwarzenegger proves that he’s still as watchable and reliable as he always has been. It definitely deserves to do better than it is fairing at the box office at present and I’m hoping that, when the time comes for the DVD release, people will start to generate some good word of mouth on this little, action gem.

Hopefully Arnie will be back!

Saturday, 26 January 2013


Midas, A Hatter

1964 UK
Directed by Guy Hamilton
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

Now it’s interesting because, although this is one of the most popular and beloved movies in the entire EON Bond series, I’ve never really had what you could call a natural affinity with Goldfinger. I do, as a rule, find director Hamilton’s Sean Connery edition Bonds to be a lot less quality than the other Connery films in the sequence, although I believe his first Roger Moore is probably the stand out for that particular actor’s era of Bond.

So for me, Goldfinger is the Bond film that “isn’t as bad as Diamonds Are Forever” but, even though I don’t naturally gravitate towards this one if I want to watch a random Bond film, I have to say that it’s still a lot of fun and a real corker in some respects.

There’s a big difference with the Bond character in this one because, even though he was shown to make the occasional mistake in the previous two movies (no honestly, he was), he did have the reputation of being a bit of an unstoppable hero with almost superhuman attributes by the time of this third installment (always a danger with regularly occurring characters... although they’re often popular just because of these kinds of qualities).

Hamilton, at least, tries to humanise Bond a little more in this one by having him kinda accidentally scraping by as opposed to owning the confrontations he’s in... even while his “laugh along, over the top” elements are still being showcased to the hilt in this one. Even his most successful encounter, for instance, during a fight scene in the pre-credits sequence, has Bond accidentally put himself in harms way by tossing the bad guy directly in the vicinity of Bond’s own shoulder-holstered weapon... all the better to kill him with. It’s a tribute to Connery’s “physical” acting that Bond’s brain can be seen working overtime when he realises his error, to quickly solve the solution with a bit of electric shock treatment involving a bath. That he uses a very similar method to take care of the main henchman of the movie, Oddjob (he of the lethal hat), at the end of the film may, or may not, have been a cynical, deliberate choice.

All the way through the movie, Bond seems to get overtrumped by the story’s main antagonist, except for the two scenes where he takes on Goldfinger at the start - one involves a card game and the other involves a very enjoyable golf game with some quite sparkling dialogue (Goldfinger seems to get all the best lines in this movie). For example, Bond gets himself caught, then he almost gets lasered to death, then he gets shipped out, escapes and sends out a vital message to save the world, only to get himself caught again and the message not reach its recipients. He seems completely powerless for most of the film (he doesn’t even know how to defuse the bomb near the end of the movie when he’s finally got a clear run at it) and the only reason Goldfinger doesn’t get away with his cunning scheme is because Bond, and he possibly doesn’t even realise this himself, has charmed the pants (and knickers) off of Pussy Galore, as played by Honor Blackman... a character who was definitely a lesbian in the book.

There are some interesting things of note in Goldfinger too. The character only referred to as Solo in the film, one of Goldfinger’s gangster “customers”, was based on the character Napoleon Solo in the original novel and Ian Fleming did spend quite some time, before he was pulled off of it, developing the original idea for the TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. They obviously kept at least one of Fleming’s contributions in the character name.

Future producer and legal whizz Michael G. Wilson, from what I remember when I saw him talking about Bond at the NFT ten or more years ago, doubled for Oddjob in the shots where Oddjob is driving one of the gangsters to his “pressing engagement”... on his school/college vacation or something, I believe, when filming was taking place for these scenes.

Desmond Llewellyn’s Q character is probably the most significant “changed” character here because this is his second appearance and director Guy Hamilton helped him out with more of a brief for the character... the fact that he’s not exactly fond of Bond because 007 is always going out and breaking his expensive new gadgets is an attitude that Llewellyn really plays out well and would stay with the character for a long time... apart from when it seemed to do a 180 degree turn from time to time, in movies like Octopussy, for example.

Another memorable and noteworthy feature of the film is John Barry’s second Bond score and a wonderful score it is too. I remember going to Barry’s first live concert in many decades (that’d be the one that over-ran for about three hours and left us all stranded in London with no underground at 2am in the morning) and Michael Caine got up on stage and told us about the time he shared a flat with Barry. He was kept awake all night by Barry’s constant plinking away on a piano and the tune he was hearing being worked out was the main theme from Goldfinger... nice story that.

I also remember that producer Saltsman didn’t particularly like the score... although I think I’ve read a lot over the years about Saltzman’s bad call on musical matters (wait until we get to Live And Let Die). Regardless, the score in the film is an absolute classic, full of those gorgeous, wailing brass hits and peppered with metallic percussion shots whenever anything particularly “golden” happens. It’s so influential that, when Barry’s work on the score for The Incredibles was rejected, they got the brilliant composer and musical chameleon Michael Giachinno to write a score very reminiscent of his early Bond scores with some of that movie’s great musical moments relating to specific cues from Goldfinger which must, I believe, have been present on the temp track to the film in it’s early life. Dawn Raid At Fort Knox from the Goldfinger score, for example, has a very prominent “substitute track” in The Incredibles, amongst many others. Presumably, by this point, Barry no longer sounded, or more likely, was no longer willing to sound, like his younger self. Either way, it just goes to show the quality of the music and may help to explain why the original soundtrack album reached number one in the Billboard charts in the USA at the time, and why it stayed in the charts for 70 weeks!

Gert Frobe is, as you would expect, quite excellent in the title role and there are stand out performances from all the cast while Connery smoothly demonstrates Bond’s expertise in a wide area of interests, as is shown in his dinner scene with M in the movie, where he demonstrates his knowledge of wines... although his taste is perhaps called into suspicion a little earlier in the film, where he pointedly equates serving a bottle of champagne unchilled as being similar to listening to The Beatles without earphones. I bet that’s one line of dialogue the writers wished they hadn’t put in on reflection.

Okay... so Goldfinger isn’t one of my personal favourite Bond films, but it is still one of the best. Not a bad one to use as a jumping on point if you’ve never seen a Bond film before, although I’d personally recommend From Russia With Love as a virgin watch if you’ve not seen any of these movies as yet.

EON James Bond Movie Reviews on NUTS4R2

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Bones Are Forever

The Bone Ranger

Bones Are Forever
by Kathy Reichs
William Heinemann 
ISBN: 13: 978-0434021130

And here we go again.

Another year, another of Kathy Reichs much loved Temperence Brennan novels.

I explained, in my review of Patricia Cornwell’s The Bone Bed, right here, the trappings of my Christmas ritualistic relationship with that author’s work. Well for most years, this ritual is indulged twice at Christmas, once with the new Cornwell book and then followed up with the latest helping of Reichs. So this year was no different from most years.

I mentioned in my review of the previous Brennan novel that, although I thought people had judged that one fairly harshly, I was not in agreement that it was particularly badly written (I think, one could never level that kind of complete towards the lovely and very talented Kathy Reichs), but it is getting to the point where, perhaps, the writing is a bit more formulaic than is helpful and that last one, Flash And Bones (reviewed here), was easily my least favourite.

Due, perhaps, to its changing locations and sense of a bigger canvass than the last one, Bones Are Forever is a much more entertaining novel than the last... though nowhere near my favourite of these particular books. Kathy’s dialogue, as usual, just sings off the page... it’s an effortless and customarily humorous outlook on a life filled with bleakness and it’s to Reichs’ credit that she can have us jumping into Brennan’s head as she discovers the remains of various dead babies and the bleakness that brings with it, while still having us laughing out loud at Tempe’s quirky outlook on life and the way she interacts with her colleagues, peers and various ex-lovers.

The characters are quickly drawn but are, perhaps, a tad too sketchy for my liking although, to be fair, we’ve been living with some of these characters for quite a long time so we are already bringing a lot of their personal histories with us to the novel. If the plot seems a little too sketchy and thin in places, the strength of the short, punchy, dialogue keeps us on a one to one basis with the inhabitants of the book to the point where it almost gets to feeling you are tagging along with a family member.

For all the good things, though, it does suffer in comparison with the last couple of Scarpetta novels which, generally, feel  like they’ve got a little more weight behind them. The breeziness of the character’s main narrative could, perhaps, be toned down a little on certain occasions, to give the events of the novel a more luxurious pacing and give a sharper edge to some of the more serious issues residing in the book.

Reichs, once again, makes use of the old pulp writing trick of ending every chapter with a miniature cliffhanger (usually involving the discovery of a new slant on the evidence or something similar) which won’t be explained until the next chapter... I’m not knocking it, it works for me, although I will say that sometimes I would welcome a break from that kind of routine... just once in a while. But I’m not complaining here, there aren’t that many writers who could pull off Reichs’ structural tricks with the same dexterity which she employs here. She’s got a definite gift for this style of writing.

Ultimately, Bones Are Forever, which seems to have a bit of a clunky title until you realise, later on in the book, that the bizarre Ian Fleming reference is actually pertinent to part of the plot, is another satisfying read from one of the absolute greats of modern crime fiction. Not in my top ten of her books but certainly a more filling word-snack than last years fun but less tasty Flash And Bones. Easily a recommended read for the loyal fans of both this writer and the more substantial, quite different, book incarnation of her Temperence Brennan character. I look forward to indulging myself in the annual ritual, once again, come December 2013.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Django Unchained

Strange Fruit, 
Underneath The Django Tree

Django Unchained
USA 2012
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Playing at cinemas now.

In the words of Colonel Hans Landa, the main antagonist of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is... "not too terrible."

That is to say...

I quite like the movies of Quentin Tarantino as a rule. Not too sure about the personality of the director himself but, while the films can, it has to be said, be a little hit and miss in some areas, they’re usually worth watching at some level, at least, and certainly Django Unchained flourishes at a certain level here. It’s no coincidence I use the word “level”, either, because most Tarantino films exist for a certain section of the audience (and I include myself in that particular section) as more of a giant game/puzzle than an actual movie. They are just an audio/visual hit list of famous (and some not so famous) movie references and the thrill and wonder of seeing a fresh movie from this director can primarily be seen at the “game level” as a half decent pub quiz loaded with film questions. And that’s often where the pleasures of these particular movies best exist.

Django Unchained is no exception and as soon as the movie started to the strains of the title song of the original Sergio Corbucci Django movie, I was sent immediately into “game mode” and, sure enough, like many Tarantino films before this one, more than half the movie seems to play out to cuts from old CD soundtracks in my personal library... including, of course, many much loved spaghetti western scores.

It’s not quite the spaghetti western movie everyone was expecting it to be, however, and right from just the movie’s title and poster campaign, which uses the typography from the original 1966 Django movie (and many rip off sequels, no doubt), Tarantino seems to announce that “the game” is afoot.

Lets have a look at this for a second...

A film which is actually only half spaghetti western in its make-up (but that half was pretty good) is called Django Unchained, uses the same kind of typography as the original Django, uses one of the original title song recordings (from the English language version of the film), uses a heck of a lot of spaghetti western iconography in it (and therefore also the trailer) and even goes so far as to cast Franco Nero, the original Django, in a cameo scene and give him a joke line about how you pronounce the name Django... well you kinda expect this to be a continuation or possibly a remake of the very first Django movie, right?

Nope. Against all those expectations, Django Unchained is not a continuation of either Django or Django Strikes Again (the two “official” Franco Nero Django movies) or even Takashi Miike’s recent Sukiyaki Western Django (which featured Tarantino as one of the main characters) however, I’m onto Tarantino’s game here. And this is how it starts, I believe...

When Kill Bill was released, the Japanese edition had several more gory sections in it (plus some alternate shots) and some extra shenanigans involving the final fate of one of the characters that was curiously absent from the US and International print of the movie. Why was this? Well... many people say that he didn’t want any extra censorship issues... to which I say, “Nah... he would have had those issues if the extra footage was included or not”. Tarantino’s game here is he, as a die hard movie buff, knows that a lot of the various exploitation movies from the 60s, 70s and 80s had a lot “harder” cuts in Japan than they did in their international versions. Hammer films famously had extra gore in their Japanese versions, for example. Fans of various movies would then have to jump through hoops to get the extended, harder editions of their movies and this is probably something that someone like Tarantino would feel a certain sense of nostalgia for. So he went ahead and created his own “Japanese edition” for the Japanese market, so fans could go nuts hearing about it and going out of their way to get hold of copies (I remember the feeding frenzy at the time of the Japanese DVD release to get certain editions of these movies).


When the original Corbucci movie Django came out in 1966, it was almost as big, in fact I think it was bigger, than Sergio Leone’s famous first movies in the Western genre which he reinvented and reinvigorated with his personal stylistic flourishes. Django was big and everyone wanted in. Many “unofficial” sequels and prequels were quickly released onto an unsuspecting market, almost all of which had nothing to do with the original production team. Added to this were many movies which just took the name, Django, and just retitled the original film so it had Django in the title... whether there was any character who vaguely answered to that name in the movie or not. In terms of unofficial Django movies all released in a period of only a few years... I think we’re talking literally hundreds. The Sabata and Sartana films also, I believe, spawned many unofficial sequels in much the same manner (if I’m inaccurate on that point, keep watching the comments section for this article as I’m sure I know one guy who will jump in and correct me).

So really, what I’m saying is... Tarantino probably never wanted to make a Django movie in the first place... his game was he wanted to make another of those “fake Django” movies and unleash that onto an unsuspecting audience. That, I believe is what happened here.

Now, anyone expecting a full on spaghetti western here is going to be mistaken. True, there are a lot of the trappings of those movies in here... enough to make the first half of the movie Tarantino’s “mini-spaghetti” and on many levels that works really well. There are some great moments in here. Some of them even seem like they originated in this movie... I think... yeah, I’m sure some of those sequences are less referential than others but, who cares, the script on this one sings along and is a joy, in the hands (or mouths) of some of the actors, to behold. And, as I made clear earlier, it’s nice to play “spot the reference” with these movies anyway...I loved seeing a training montage shot to the strains of Riz Ortolani’s score for Day Of Anger, for example, although I didn’t quite see how the context of that sequence related to the original movie as no betrayal or rivalry is evident in this movie as that use of music might suggest. The relationship between the two lead protagonists in Django Unchained are not like that of Giuliano Gemma and Lee Van Cleef in that earlier movie.

There are a lot of moments in this film that, I dunno, don’t quite make sense in internal logic (as is often the way with a Tarantino movie) but are fun little moments to pick out anyway. For example, the snowbound landscapes from the first half of the movie where Django pairs up with a German bounty hunter are obviously quite referential to another of Sergio Corbucci’s key westerns, The Great Silence... but Morricone’s score from that movie seems curiously absent from these sequences and whereas the “bounty killer” in The Great Silence was played by a steely eyed, Klaus Kinski as a brutal antagonist, the German bounty killer in Django Unchained is played with much gusto and charm by the inimitable Christoph Waltz who is similarly steely in certain scenes but who is definitely one of “the good guys” when it comes to this movie.

And as he did with the role of Hans Landa in the earlier Tarantino movie Inglorious Basterds, Christoph Waltz quite literally waltzes off with all the scenes he’s in... as interesting as Jamie Foxx and his colleagues may be to some movie viewers (I’ve not actually seen Jamie Foxx in anything other than in a role in the Robin Williams vehicle Toys, and I don’t remember him in it... but I know he’s quite well thought of), it is always Christoph Waltz who you can’t help but watch in these scenes and when he is absent from certain portions of the film... that’s when things get a bit dull in places.

Leonardo Di Caprio, is another actor I’ve not seen in much and, although I can see that he’s an absolutely brilliant actor, I’m not the biggest fan of him and find him quite a boring actor on some levels myself. Unfortunately for me, and possibly the movie, he is also playing a quite unsympathetic racist and exploiter of his fellow man and, this coupled with his general drab personality, means that some scenes tended to drag for me.

In fact, the whole second half of the picture seems to drag in a fair few places and, although that might have been the intention, it really didn’t do much for me. And I like films with more talking and less action in them, quite often.

It’s been said that film making, and I think we’re just talking about the stereotypical view of US film making here, I suspect... is all about cause and effect. It’s often frowned upon or seen as something to not do to have scenes which don’t add anything to the general narrative thrust of the picture and it’s not a prescription I would prescribe to personally, when talking about movies in general. Early on in his career, Tarantino was praised for making films which had no extra fat and which told a story where every scene shown mattered,,, that’s hardly the case with the films we see by him now and the quirky indulgence of a director to take as many tangents as he or she wants from the storyline is always fine by me. That’s all part of the art of movies... as long as you remember the trick is to not be too boring. Django Unchained could, in my opinion, have done with a lot of trimming to get the running time down and to eradicate various scenes which dragged. In fact, I’d have removed great sections of the last third if it had been me.

But of course, it’s not me, it’s Tarantino... and he should be allowed, as an artist (and he is an artist and a damn good one sometimes) to be free to put exactly what he wants on the screen for the audience. Just as it’s the right of that audience to reject, accept, enjoy or hate what is up on the screen in front of them. Django Unchained, for me, was a movie that was just a little too long and not quite oiled enough to be as vastly entertaining as his great movies like Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill and Jackie brown. 

Unlike those movies just mentioned, the movie strains to become something more than the sum of it’s celluloid drenched, movie referencing, post-modernistic parts... but you know what?

That doesn’t matter either because it’s still worth watching.

Fans of the specific movie genres referenced in this film are going to have fun spotting and hearing the references... and even people who don’t know or don’t catch the references should have fun too. And after all, good or bad, films like this one are always worth taking a look at so you can have some kind of opinion on them, right?

Django Unchained is playing at assorted cinemas and flea pits across the UK now. Check it out if you have the time.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

From Russia With Love

Russian Around

From Russia With Love
1963 UK
Directed by Terence Young
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

Okay... so following fast on the heels of Dr. No came the movie adaptation of the book that preceeded it. This, of course, created some weird continuity problems for the series (see my review of Dr. No here) but From Russia With Love is, as far as I’m concerned, the movie where the producers and director hit the ground running and made the quintessential Bond film which was the template for pretty much most of the rest of the series. I don’t quite think it’s the best Bond film ever (I reserve that for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)... but I do think it’s the best of the Connery Bond’s and, therefore, the second best movie in the entire series.

The film opens with the same gun-barrel shot (which, incidentally, featured stuntman Bob Simmons until they reshot it properly with Connery, for a later film) and then it goes into the first of the regular elements of the Bond films, the pre-credits sequence. Dr. No didn’t have one, of course, and it’s down to the idea of über-editor Peter Hunt, who decided to move it there from within the main body of the film and use it as a prelude/teaser. This helped define the shape of all other Bond movies that came after it.  This particular teaser also has the “shock” of having the audience see the Bond character die within the first few minutes although, unlike many other similar sequences where the character appears to have died before the main credits, that tension is lifted before the credits actually start.

Then it goes into the credits which are quite different from the opening of Dr. No and really set the tone for the title sequences which came after them, by having all the information involve a scantily clad, young lady with names and job titles projected on to her. The sequence doesn’t feature a title song (that would finally come with Goldfinger) but it does follow the tune of the Bond song used for the film and, although not used in the titles, the famous Matt Monroe performed song From Russia With Love must be one of the few times that a Bond song is heard in the film more than once... here it’s heard both as source music, on the radio when Bond is on the river with the original Bond girl Silvia Trench, and also over the end credits of the movie.

The music is also interesting in the credits because John Barry’s first proper Bond score, his excellent pre-credits music aside, starts off with a phrase before going into the main From Russia With Love theme which would come to be one of three main musical statements that people would associate with the character. Known, pretty much, as the "Bond Is Back" melody, this doesn’t actually appear in too many movies but it was always used in trailers and adverts for TV screenings for decades and is a significant piece of music for all Bond fans... and instantly recognisable. So recognisable, in fact, that David Arnold re-used it for Pierce Brosnan’s opening scene in Tomorrow Never Dies. This is not the only significant bit of Bond music Barry wrote for the series... more on that a little later in this review.

Now about that sequence with Eunace Gayson reprising her role of the original Dr. No Bond girl Sylvia Trench... this was supposed to be a regularly occurring set of sequences in the series as it progressed but, unfortunately, this is the last time that character and actress appeared in the Bond movies. Such a shame because I really think she adds a missing part of Bond’s character which is absent in later movies. She made the character a little more human when it comes to loyalties to women. Also in this scene you get to see Bond’s Bentley from the novels, for the first and, I think, the last time in the movies. After this movie, the cars became just another gadget from Q branch, which I’m not knocking but which I don’t, looking at the track record of the movies, think is a necessary component. Okay, so he has a Bondmobile but they are rarely gadgeted up and, when they are, a big thing is made of them... which works really well but, I don’t see it as a necessary ingredient. The gadgets are more the thing, I think...

And talking of gadgets... here you have the return of Boothroyd from Q branch, but this time played by the series regular Desmond Llewelyn in a role he would seriously make his own until his last appearance in the role in The World Is Not Enough. Also, he gives 007 what is really the first Bond gadget, which is an attache case which is quite heavily and usefully “weaponised” as they say today. I remember seeing this in the cinema in the early seventies and really getting into the idea of the briefcase... even more so when the film was televised and was accompanied by some great illustrations of how the case worked in TV Times in the early seventies.

So what regular features do we have so far, debuting in From Russia With Love? Well we have the John Barry score, we have a hit song (albeit not played over the titles yet), we have a title sequence which is very indicative of the way the future title sequences would go, we have Q and his gadgets... it’s all pretty much there now as far as the Bond formula goes. We also have a continuation of the kind of one-liners which would come to be a trademark of the Bond character which Connery and director Terence Young had started slipping in on the Dr. No shoot, and this really does cement the character in place for the remainder of the films in the “still going strong” series.

Robert Shaw plays Red Grant who, unlike the book, is never referred to as “Red” in the movie, which is an acknowledgement of his bright red hair. For the film the producers decided to go with a shock of bright blonde hair and Shaw is such a brilliant and cold actor when he wants to be, that he makes for one of the greatest villains in the Bond series, even though he only says his first actual lines more than three quarters of the way throughout the film... his presence is felt all the way through, however. This “hard man with a shock of white/blonde hair” is something which would be taken and come back to again and again in the Bond series... I’ll try to remember to point it out when I review them.

There are also some little oddities such as the main villains being SPECTRE again. They were SMERSH in the novels but, in a bit of early "PCness", the producers decided to let Russia off the hook, so the main villains in the movies for a while are SPECTRE (they even make a reference in this movie about their operative Dr. No) even though they only appeared in the book Thunderball (and get a mention again in the original novel of The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the most interesting novels in the series). Blofeld is only seen as hands and the actor responsible for Blofelds hands (but not voice) got to play the character twice (the only actor to do so, I believe)... here, and again in Thunderball (he also played a main character, Professor Dent, in Dr. No).

Another oddity occurs in the appearance of a famous film star, by way of a billboard poster from which one of Bond and Kerim’s foes tries to escape, via a trapdoor in the film star’s mouth. In the original novel the film star depicted on the poster is Marilyn Monroe... perhaps one of the reasons why President John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love within his top ten favourite novels. For the movie, however, the poster for another Broccoli/Saltzman/EON production is used, Call Me Bwana, with Anita Eckberg being the lady on the poster. Personally I’d have preferred Marilyn but since she’d died the year before, one can understand the film-makers reluctance to use her here.

The casting is great too... I’ve already mentioned Shaw as Grant but you also have Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya playing Rosa Klebb, with her venomous knife-shoe (which is the death of Bond in the original novel... again, see my review of Dr. No here). And Armendáriz as Kerim Bay has got to be one of the most likeable Bond characters ever put on film... apparently the actor struck up a good friendship with Bond creator Ian Fleming on set.

And then, as I said earlier, you have the first full John Barry Bond score (apart from a couple of places during a helicopter crash and a series of colliding boats where Monty Norman’s Dr. No score is tracked in) and this definitely sets the tone for the films to come. It also features his other big melodic contribution to the Bond series for the first time, in a piece which makes its initial appearance in a gun battle in a gypsy camp and which is then reprised when Bond stages a raid to get a Lektor decoding machine. The is Barry’s “007 theme” (as opposed to Monty Norman’s James Bond theme) and it’s a key theme for those early Bond films, a fan favourite and it was used by Barry in no less than five Bond films; From Russia With Love, Thunderball (and he really goes to town with some interesting progressions and variants on it in this one), You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever and, in it’s most diluted form, in terms of tension and orchestration, in Moonraker. Barry really owns the “sound of Bond” with this score, as he did for all his subsequent scoring adventures in the world of 007 over the years, of which he scored ten (not including his contribution to Dr. No).

From Russia With Love was one of the more gruelling shoots of the early Bonds with the production plagued by near lethal accidents (the director was stuck under the sea in a crashed helicopter on location and had to be pulled from the wreckage before he drowned), tragedies (Pedro Armendáriz who plays Kerim Bay was rushed through his scenes when he was found to have incurable cancer and, as soon as his scenes were finished, he checked into a hospital and shot himself) and various problems and days called off etc. This didn’t stop with the shooting either, and Peter Hunt had to get very creative in the editing room, even using a mask of an actress over herself to create a new shot and then running another shot both forwards and backwards to fill in holes in coverage which were there. The film also ran over budget, which was already twice the budget of Terence Young’s earlier hit, Dr. No.

Bearing in mind the lengths that the film-makers went to, to lick this movie into shape by the time of their release deadline, it’s a real wonder that From Russia With Love turned out to be an absolute classic in the James Bond cannon. Completely entertaining and still pushing that hardened edge to the Bond character which got lost along the way, some way in to Roger Moore’s run with the character. If you want to watch a really great Sean Connery James Bond film... it’s this one.

EON James Bond Movie Reviews on NUTS4R2

Monday, 14 January 2013

Jack Reacher

Reacher Feature

Jack Reacher
USA 2012
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Playing at cinemas now.

Well this was a lot better than I was expecting.

I’m not the biggest Tom Cruise fan although, to be fair, I did think he was pretty great in Minority Report. I’m not indifferent to him for any particular reason (although I think scientology is probably a bad thing to be involved with and that may tint things a little for me) but because he just doesn’t usually make the kind of films that are a blip on my radar. Consequently, I haven’t seen that much of his work although, I will add to that to say that, whenever I have seen him on film, he usually comes across as a more than credible, perhaps even great, actor. So I have no doubt he’s eminently watchable in whatever movie I would choose to see him in.

Jack Reacher is, again, a movie which probably would have not made it onto my radar except, I always take my folks to the cinema on my birthday and, frankly, there was nothing else of even the remotest interest being shown at my local on the day of said occasion, which we hadn’t already seen. Having said that, I’m very glad I took a chance on this movie... and here’s why.

Jack Reacher is not the high octane, modern action thriller you would expect from all the hype and advertising. It’s a little better than that, for the most part, although there are some action scenes for the sake of action scenes which do seem plugged in to just hit a peak with the audience at various points... but even those are tastefully done to the point where the action never really becomes dull or boring.

What you have here, instead, is a more old school approach to a film that slots into the term “action thriller” with a much more “what it says on the tin” attitude than you would normally hope for. It takes it’s time to build up character and plot points, for a start. One character, who is just a lead into an action scene and then becomes a link to the next puzzle piece has far more screen time than you would expect her to, for example, and turns up a few more times than is necessary compared to the way most modern films would short cut past those scenes and just have her as a quick, verbal link to move things on.

Another thing I will say about this film, and you may think I’m a looney making this comparison, is that Jack Reacher felt to me, at times, very Hitchockian in its execution. There is some interesting stuff happening and there are some camera angles, for instance, like a birds eye view of a character walking into an establishing shot cut in amongst the rest of the footage, which is exactly what Hitch would have done. In some ways, this movie feels like somebody asked Hitchcock to make a slick, fast paced, 2012 high testosterone action movie... and Hitch failed and instead delivered something way more interesting.

The picture opens with a, perhaps clichéd at first, sniper sequence.... you know the old chestnut where a killer sets up his kit, moves in position and you start tracking what the killer is tracking through this gun site. Well this is a pretty good set up in this one, as it happens, because you start seeing potential targets over a leisurely amount of time, and you start trying to put their stories together in your head as the site pauses on them, moves on, moves back to them etc, before finishing with them and moving on to the next person. It’s a little bit like Rear Window where James Stewart is staring out of the window with his binoculars at the apartment building opposite and you try to figure out which characters are going to be important to the story. Once you figure out who you think the target is, though, the rug is pulled from you and, without spoiling the sequence for you, the rug is pulled in an unexpected manner and, although the reason for what happens is blatantly apparent to the audience right from the offset, an hour or more before the main protagonists seem to know what’s going on, it’s a little unexpected and becomes quite poignant in a little “flashback” scene illustrating something the title character is explaining later on in the film and he begins to put all the stories of the people in the opening sequence together for you.

Tom Cruise plays Reacher as a confident superman of a person... A modern day Doc Savage in a world he has chosen to drop out of but has to “ride into town and clean the place up”... yeah, you got it, Jack Reacher is very much a western dressed in action-thriller clothing but then again, half the films made these days share similar tropes to the movie western so this is not a criticism of the film. Cruise’s Reacher is under control most of the time and the only thing I will be slightly critical of, and Alan Ladd had the same problem back in the day, is that for someone who has so much physical presence (and the way Cruise plays him, he does), Cruise seems a little too short for the role. It’s the first time I’ve noticed that in his films, it’s never made a difference before... but something made me notice that in this one. That being said, though, Cruise makes the character work for him and you can’t fault the actor for making a very good job of a likeable, confident character (although, I’ve not read the book this was based on so I can’t tell if the character as portrayed here is true to the book, I’m afraid. Sorry).

At the end of the day, Jack Reacher is a really well put together film and it’s one that I think a lot of audiences, even the youngsters, will appreciate. It’s not something I could watch over and over through the years but I did really enjoy it and would welcome a sequel if it does the business at the box office. Very much something I would recommend if you like a bit of proper sleuthing tied-in to your action movie.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Top 40 Soundtrack CD releases of 2012

Well, here I am again with another run down of what I personally consider to be the best film related album releases of the year just gone. I use the word film related because, as you’ll see if you read further, not all the coolest gems released this year were actually used in the movie they were intended for.

As you can guess from the fact that this yearly article seems to be gaining another ten spots every year I do it, the market is nearly saturated now with even more really great soundtrack restorations from some great little labels. This has been pretty hard on the wallets of even the most seasoned of collectors, let alone casual non-collector buyers like myself, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if the bottom drops out now, before too long. At least, that’s what I think may happen, anyway.

Whatever happens though, I know one thing... we’ve never had it so good in terms of great releases in a single year. In fact, we’ve had it so good that I’ve included a section right at the end here of “honourable mentions” where you will find the titles of almost another 40 of this years score releases just listed because, not ten years ago when releases were slightly slimmer than they have been the last few years, any or all of these could easily have made it into the top ten.

Finally, I’ve put a small section in right at the end for a couple of scores that really disappointed me and which I thought might have pushed the boat out a little further than they did. I feel these were wasted opportunities.

So, if you enjoy a nice piece of scoring, settle down to read my round up of what I consider to be the best releases in a year which seemed to have two main themes or biases running through it, as you’ll discover the further you read - I think 2012 will definitely be remembered in soundtrack circles as both the year of the “rejected score” (this year really reached its zenith in that respect when an album containing not one but two unused scores for The Last Hard Men, by Rosenman and Goldsmith, was released) and, of course, the year of Star Trek... enjoy.

40. The Expendables 2 by Brian Tyler (Silva Screen)
Okay, so The Expendables 2 (movie reviewed here) was a much more entertaining movie than the first film and, likewise, Brian Tyler’s score is at once more rhythmic and captivating than his previous effort for the franchise (although that was a rock solid and robust piece of scoring too). I’ve started getting into this composer much more over the last couple of years and this album release continues my relationship with his music in a positive light.

39. The Woman In Black by Marco Beltrami (Silva Screen)
Beltrami is another of the “younger guns” of modern film score composing that I’m willing to consider more as I get older. This is exactly the kind of atonal dominated score, pitched against some softer melodies, you would expect to get for a horror movie, but that’s okay because it’s competent, appropriate and does its job effectively. A good listen. My review of the film itself can be found here.

38. Dracula 3D by Claudio Simonetti (Deep Red)
It’s nice to have any new film from Dario Argento and, though I despair that this movie will never get a cinema release in this country, this doesn’t stop me from celebrating the fact that it’s, once again, composed by Goblin’s figurehead member Claudio Simonetti. It’s a great little score and will appeal to most fans of Simonetti’s work (but hey, I even liked his score for The Cardplayer, so take what I’m saying with a pinch of garlic, maybe). There’s what sounds like some nice theremin components (don’t know for sure if an actual theremin was used on this album but he’s certainly trying to make it sound like there was) and also a punchy, if somewhat obvious in its lyrical content, “Dracula song”. As an extra bonus, aside from the snazzy 3D lenticular cover, the CD has a free DVD of an old set of Simonetti videos of his Argento re-orchestrations and remixes (including the rap versions... yeah). On second thoughts... that last may not be much of a bonus after all.

37. The Sword And The Sorcerer by David Whitaker (BSX)
Well this was an interesting surprise. I have no other full scores (to my knowledge) by Hammer composer David Whitaker, so I thought I’d better grab this one as it’s a movie I remember from my teenage years. I nearly missed how good this one is the first time I played it because I was busy with something else and just didn’t pay it enough attention. However, I tried it again a month or two ago and realised how brilliant it is. This really is a rousing, old school score in the style of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Errol Flynn romps and listening to this rich album, your buckles will truly be swashed!

36. Alfred Hitchcock Hour Vol 3 by Various 
(Varese Sarabande Club)
Following on from the previous year’s releases of Bernard Herrmann scores for the TV show The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, this third volume release proves almost as essential with composers such as Lyn Murray, Lalo Schifrin and Leonard Rosenman contributing to scores in a variety of styles.

35. The Dark Knight Rises by Hans Zimmer (Watertower)
For the third part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (movie reviewed here), James Newton Howard, co-composer of the previous two scores, dropped himself out of the mix and Zimmer goes it alone. This isn’t a bad score though and, while not as good as the music in the previous movie, certainly manages to follow in its footsteps in a way which is both appropriate to the story and in a way which ties the films together thematically. Zimmer seems to have been getting a lot better at movie music over the last five years or so and this one doesn’t let the side down.

34. The Bourne Legacy by James Newton Howard 
(Varese Sarabande)
And talking of James Newton Howard, his score for the new Bourne movie (reviewed here) is a nice match for the legacy left by John Powells scores from the earlier movies. Howard re-uses parts of Powell’s leitmotif as starting blocks for some of the scoring on this and it all makes for an exciting listen... perhaps a little better than the movie that inspired it.

33. The Amazing Spider-Man by James Horner (Sony Music Classical)
Okay, so I am still not sure what to make of Horner after all these years. I used to love him when he first started out, before I realised how much... um... borrowing was going on. And before each album essentially became a repeat of the last one. The new Spider-Man movie (reviewed here) surprised me in that not a lot of the music was familiar to me and I thought it a pretty groovy listen... even the bit which somehow jumped out at me as being from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan but, oh well, that’s showbiz I guess.

32. Sherlock Series 1 - David Arnold and Michael Price (Silva Screen)
Arnold and Price’s scores for the two Sherlock TV series were both released within a month or so of each other at the start of 2012. This first album is a lot more engaging than the second, continuing all the main themes and variations that I wanted to hear (including the action music which was artfully alluded to in the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Snowmen.  For reviews of the individual episodes of Sherlock, click on the index at the top right of this page and go to the TV section.

31. Haywire by David Holmes (Silva Screen)
David Holmes score for Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (movie reviewed here) is a curious blend of elements. At once evocative of jazz and laid back at its own pace, it also simultaneously manages to be great action/chase music... which is a bizarre combination of mellow, soothing orchestration and pulse-pounding tension. I have no idea why this score and the subsequent album release works so well... it just does.

30. Planet Of The Apes by Danny Elfman 
(La La Land) Expanded 3 Disc Edition
Well, when everyone heard that the talented Danny Elfman would be taking on the “reimagining” of Planet Of The Apes, everybody (myself included) assumed it would be unmemorable in comparison to the original, groundbreaking Jerry Goldsmith score for the first on-screen incarnation. Everybody was wrong and this fully expanded three disc edition of the score really shows up just how great it was (although still not a patch on Jerry’s).

29. The Shadow by Jerry Goldsmith (Intrada) Expanded 2 Disc Edition
I’m always a sucker for a good bit of Goldsmith and his score for The Shadow, which utilises some electronics alongside the orchestra (like he did in such classic scores as Supergirl) is a haunting vision of 1930s New York. There’s a little bit of the feel and atmosphere of Elfman’s music to Burton’s first Batman movie lurking within the heart of this score, which is unsurprising for the time, but Goldsmith manages to still do his own thing and it’s a catchy, fun ride. This expanded edition makes it even catchier and even more fun!

28. It's Alive by Bernard Herrmann (Film Score Monthly)
Film Score Monthly finally makes available, Bernard Herrmann’s Moog-tinted score for the Larry Cohen classic about a killer baby with very big teeth and a healthy appetite. Weird and disturbing in Herrmann’s choice of orchestration, as you would expect from this particular artist. There is no way on earth you could ever mistake this kind of sound with any other composer. A very welcome addition to anybody’s soundtrack library.

27. Le Pistole Non Discutono 
(aka Pistols Don’t Argue aka Guns Don’t Argue) 
by Ennio Morricone (GDM)
Morricone’s score for the Spaghetti Western Guns Don’t Argue is a welcome disc for any lover of the “Morricone sound”. Most people will have the song from this score, Lonesome Billy, laying about on some Morricone compilation or other, but it’s good to finally have a decent edition of the score it came from available for a limited time.

26. The Sweeney by Lorne Balfe (Rhino)
I don’t exactly know who Lorne Balfe is but he certainly succeeds in out-Zimmering Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises with this one. If you appreciate Zimmer’s Herrmannesque repeat motifs, layered with a jagged sense of gritty texture, then you’ll love what Balfe does here with this score. Very dark, very propulsive and, ultimately, very listenable. I’ll have to keep an ear out for this composer in the future. Movie reviewed here.

25. Dredd 3D by Paul Leonard-Morgan (Fontana)
Again, another composer I know nothing about, this score has one foot in the clean urban electronica of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and one foot in the gritty, disordered, audio sleaze of modern scoring. Sometimes there’s a main theme which kind of gets in the way when it’s used in the film itself (reviewed here) but it certainly makes for a nice listen. Just not as good a listen as the next entry...

24. Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega City One 
by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (Invada)
Ok, so remember back in the intro where I said that one of the themes to this year’s soundtrack releases was rejected and unused scores? Well this album of electronic music, which can be found in the shelves of the larger record stores in their pop music section, is actually the rejected score for Dredd 3D (and it beat the actual score release to the movie, and the movie itself for that matter, by a few months). This one really is in full-on, early 80s John Carpenter mode, so if you’re a fan of those scores like The Fog, Dark Star and the aforementioned Escape From New York, then there’s a good chance that this could be your kind of thing. Nice album release decision.

23. Los Angeles, 1937 (Chinatown rejected score) by Philip Lambro (Perseverence)
Okay... so here we have quite a legendary rejected score... this time to Chinatown. Up until now, even the name of the composer who Goldsmith replaced was in some debate, until fairly recently. The label who put out the CD aren't even allowed to name the fact that it's the rejected score to Chinatown on the actual cover. This CD of the rejected score by Philip Lambro, which also includes a few of his other musical pieces, (which helped get him the gig) is a great piece of scoring and not, in tone, dissimilar to what Goldsmith ended up composing for some sequences. Some brilliant atonal sections too.

22. Die Hard With A Vengeance by Michael Kamen 
(La La Land) Expanded 2 Disc Edition
Finally we have a full and expanded release of a score that everyone bought back in the day, spent ages trying to find their favourite cues, and then got angry when said cues weren’t on the original release. This movie score, whether the composer liked it or not, is all about his brilliant orchestrations of the American Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and this 2 disc version of the album finally lets you hear those. La La Land had already released a greatly expanded version of the original Die Hard a year or two ago and Varese Sarabande Club had followed suit a couple of months before this release with a two disc, expanded edition of Die Hard 2: Die Harder (which almost made it into this list)... for Die Hard soundtrack fans, this was the year when John McClane Came Marching Home.

21. King Kong by John Barry 
(Film Score Monthly) Expanded 2 Disc Edition
So Film Score Monthly’s penultimate release  in the marketplace is an expanded, proper edition of John Barry’s score for the 1976 remake of King Kong. Excellent stuff here for Barry fans, full of sweeping, lush, romantic themes before Barry started overworking them (hey, that’s just my opinion, leave me alone). Could possibly have done without some of the native percussion music but, otherwise a sound listen.

20. Moonrise Kingdom by Alexander Desplat (Commercial Marketing)
If it wasn’t for the fact that this was a various artists compilation album with only 5 tracks full of Desplat’s gorgeous score on it (possibly all he composed for the movie which is reviewed here?) then this would undoubtedly have beat out the next entry and placed a lot higher. As it was this album has possibly the best cue of all year... the tone of the film leans heavily on an old, narrated recording of Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra and about halfway through the end credits, which is the final track on this album, Desplat’s brilliant cue The Heroic Weather gets a similar narrative deconstruction... and it’s brilliant.

19. John Carter by Michael Giacchino (Disney)
This film was not the absolute best adaptation there could be of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels A Princess Of Mars and The Gods Of Mars (the first two novels in his Barsoomian chronicles) but it was certainly a fun, well made, science fantasy epic in keeping with the spirit of the novels (if not the main protagonist) and it really didn’t deserve to flop like it did. However, because it did flop, I’m guessing a lot of people didn’t get to hear Giachino’s wonderful, lush score. This is the highest entry for any soundtrack to a brand new movie this year... which means that it gets my “Number One Score Of The Year Award”, if such a thing existed. Movie reviewed here. 

18. The Last Man On Earth by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter 
(Monstrous Movie Music)
One of the great modern soundtrack labels, Monstrous Movie Music are pretty much the only soundtrack label who specialise purely in releasing scores from old 1950s/60s US monster infested B-movies... and the film scoring community is all the richer for it. They actually had a number of great releases out this year (see my honourable mentions section... but they were The Brain From Planet Arous/Teenage Monster, Destination Moon, Kronos/The Cosmic Man, Missile To The Moon/Frankenstein's Daughter and Rocketship XM) and in any other year I can imagine they might have all been present in my top 40... there just wasn’t enough room to fit them all in this year. Sawtell and Shefter’s score to The Last Man On Earth, the first of four movie adaptations to date of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, is a real ear opener for me. I usually like a bit of S and S composition but the rawness and power of some of these cues, especially those “backed up” with choral “overlays”, make for a very rich listen. They only pressed a thousand of these just recently, so miss it at your peril.  I review the film here. 

17. Star Trek: First Contact by Jerry and Joel Goldsmith 
(GNP Crescendo) Expanded edition
Well GNP Crescendo surprised everyone by jumping onto the “expanded Star Trek” bandwagon and releasing the first album they’ve released in years (then did it again several months later with an expanded edition of Star Trek: Generations). The late, great Jerry Goldsmith delivers a fantastic score for the second of The Next Generation movies (and that crew’s best movie), drawing on both his original Star Trek The Motion Picture theme (which had already become the standard by now for both crews) and also his Klingon music from the first and fifth Star Trek movies, but used this time as a more heroic theme to accompany Worf. He is aided in some cues by his son, Joel, who sadly died last year. Some really beautiful pieces here.

16. X2: X-Men United by John Ottman (La La Land) 2 Disc Expanded
Wow. This was a surprise. La La Land’s release of an expanded score to the second X-Men movie reminded me of why I’d wanted the soundtrack so much when the original album came out (which, as so often the case, neglected to include the best cues from the movie). This is a score which really benefits from an expansion as all the different elements seem to make more sense over a larger time frame... and it’s finally got that opening kick-ass White House invasion choral music everybody wanted the first time around.

15. The Fog by John Carpenter (Silva Screen)
John Carpenter’s classic, scary, haunting and occasionally jump-out-of-your-skin disturbing score to his best movie gets “another” 2 disc expansion but unlike the last time this happened, this one gets it right with the original scoring sessions finally on here, as well as the original album released. High pitched, almost subliminal electronics will grate away at your mind while the various percussion and effects will remind you why this picture scared you in the first place.

14. 7 Cadaveri Per Scotland Yard by Piero Piccioni (Quartet)
The composer of such groovy ass scores as The Tenth Victim and Le Streghe gets his score for a Paul Naschy movie released in what is only the second new score devoted to this label's “continuing” music for Paul Naschy movies, since they launched the idea with Howl Of The Devil. As you might expect, Piccioni’s score of sinister crime filtered through sexy sixties/seventies style jazz makes this one of the most fun releases of the year. Really glad I jumped on this one and also looking forward to acquiring a “review copy” of the film at some point from the usual suspects.

13. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country by Cliff Eidelman 
(Intrada) 2 Disc Expanded
Back in 1991, when I first heard this score, I was really taken by it. It was sweeping and moody and I even didn’t mind the “homage” to Gustav Holst’s Mars, Bringer Of War nestled not so subtly within it’s brooding intensity. Cliff Eidelman would obviously be the next Johnny Williams... or so I thought. These days, I still havent heard anything else by him or knowingly seen any other movie he scored. What happened? This score is brilliant. And, of course, this new expanded edition is even more welcome.

12. Batman Forever by Elliot Goldenthal (La La Land) 2 Disc Expanded
What a terrible, terrible Batman movie this was (followed by an even worse sequel) and what a brilliant, amazing bit of scoring to accompany this bat-wreck. Goldenthal’s unusual orchestrations and metallic percussions twisting furiously around fast paced, hopped up jazz noodlings have always made this a winning soundtrack. This expanded edition extends the win for you.

11. Star Trek The Motion Picture by Jerry Goldsmith 
(La La Land) 3 Disc Expanded
Another Trek dream comes true as Goldsmith's original Star Trek score gets the full-on, deluxe expanded treatment from La La Land. Over three hours of music including the complete score as heard in the movie, the original album, outtakes, alternatives, oddities and, of course, a musical instrument called the “blaster beam” which is supposed to be able to make a woman spontaneously orgasm when she hears it for sustained lengths. One of the all-time greats sounds the best it ever has.

10. The Robe by Alfred Newman (La La Land) 2 Disc Expanded
I may not be the religious type but I’m a sucker for old school Hollywood biblical epics from time to time and this movie is curiously cynical in tone (see my review here). The music on this one, a new discovery for me, is lush and romantic and sounds suitably big for when you’re in the mood to blast that kind of stuff out yer speakers. Definitely one which will get a lot of plays over the years.

9. Wolfen (unused score) by Craig Safan (Intrada)
Less than a year after they finally released James Horner’s score for Wolfen on CD, Intrada made available Safan’s rejected score for the movie (a casualty of the project shifting through various executives hands, from what I can make out... they lost the director in the deal too). I’ve not actually seen this movie yet myself (yeah, I know, don’t worry... it’s in the pile) but as much as I liked Horner’s score for the finished product, I like Safan’s rejected score more. It’s a lot more subtle than Horner’s version and has a vague sense of dread and unease about it. I don’t know how appropriate each score is to the movie, but I’d recommend picking this one up before it’s too late if you are into horror movie music.

8. The Long Goodbye by Johnny Williams (Quartet) Expanded
This expanded edition of what is, essentially, the same song/tune treated in various ways, hasn’t been far from my ears since Quartet released it earlier in the year. It’s got to be one of the catchiest tunes (and sets of lyrics for that matter) going and it will stay in your head long after you finish playing it. An absolutely astonishing inclusion is an eight minute plus ad-lib rehearsal version with Clydie King constantly chatting and jumping in and missing her cues as she accompanies the piano. Absolutely riveting track which I can’t do without.

7. North By Northwest by Bernard Herrmann (Intrada)
Well, I certainly didn’t expect to be buying this album again for a fifth time. All time classic Herrmann score makes it’s remastered STEREO debut from the original sessions. One of those incessant bits of Herrmann repeat scores that grabs you by your collar and shakes you around a bit until you appreciate the composer’s genius. This sounds pretty amazing for a 1959 recording.

6. La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown) by Ennio Morricone 
(GDM) Expanded and complete
Morricone’s classic Spaghetti Western score is expanded once again... which means I have to buy it all over again. At least, unlike the previous Japanese expansion, the end titles weren’t missed off this time. It’s all in stereo and the restored few seconds of unbelievable intro on Seconda Caccia is actually something I’m really pleased to have restored, even if those few seconds are the only new material on the album. Those opening guitars as “the mob” hunt down Cuchillo are just amazing. I ummed and ahhed about picking up what is my fourth or fifth edition of this score for months... but am now really pleased I did. One of the all time great Spaghetti Western scores. Read my review of the movie here. 

5. Casino Royale by Burt Bacharach 
(Quartet) 2 Disc Expanded
This (yet another) expanded edition of the 1967 comedy indulgence, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Bond movies, is pretty much the definitive edition. It comes in a little box with a couple of beautiful booklets and the, pretty much, complete score to the movie this time around. If you want a fun listen... this is it.

4. Ben Hur: The Complete Collection by Miklos Rozsa 
(Film Score Monthly) Expanded 5 Disc Edition
Yeah, you read that right. It said five discs. Five! I thought the former, expanded 2 disc edition from Rhino was amazing enough (and complete). This brilliant remastered and represented edition of Rozsa’s classic score is an amazing achievement and it also contains, aside from the complete score, various out-takes and alternate versions plus some compilation cover albums from the time of the film’s release by some famous conductors which lend the score a different sound and actually, and I find this surprising myself, enrichen the whole Ben Hur musical experience. Set your stereo for ramming speed!

3. Conan The Barbarian by Basil Poledouris 
(Intrada) Expanded 3 disc edition
This is a truly incredible score and I’ll grudgingly admit that this is probably going to be the best presentation of it we’re going to get now. If you’ve never heard it before... it’s easily up there in the top five all time greatest scores, along with the likes of Ben Hur, Vertigo, The Empire Strikes Back and The Magnificent Seven. Any other time it would probably make my number one spot but my favourite track got kinda screwed up in the mastering (I reckon) and the other track I was desperate to hear got treated like source music and moved out of sequence. Still a welcome presentation, however.

2. Star Trek: The Original Series by various composers 
(La La Land) 15 Discs Complete Scores
Wow. Since this came out right at the end of the year (arrived over here a few days after Christmas) I’m still trying to work my way through these very familiar compositions by the likes of Alexander Courage and Gerald Fried (among many) which make up all the music and library cues from the original Star Trek TV show from the sixties. Some amazing stuff full of nostalgic deja vu. This should have been this years number one spot and any other year it probably would have been except... this next album was released.

1. Condorman by Henry Mancini (Intrada)
Blimey. I can’t tell you how many years I’ve personally been waiting for somebody, anybody, to release the score to Condorman. Oh wait, yes I can. I saw it at the cinema on its initial release and came out humming two of the main themes back in 1981. So that means I was waiting for this particular “Holy Grail” for 31 years. If you live anywhere in England and you heard a big, long echoey “Woohoooooo” lasting 5 minutes a few months ago, then that was me reading Intrada’s announcement of this release. Loads of fun and catchy comedy/action cues and easily the greatest score release of the year. Catch this one before it becomes extinct.

Honourable Mentions
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Henry Jackman
L'Assassino E' Al Telefono by Stelvio Cipriani
Battlestar Galactica Vols 3 and 4 by Stu Phillips
Black Sabbath (US score) by Les Baxter
Body Heat by John Barry
The Brain From Planet Arous/Teenage Monster by Walter Greene
Charade by Henry Mancini (expanded)
A Comedy Of Terrors by Les Baxter
Destination Moon by Leith Stevens
Die Hard 2: Die Harder by Michael Kamen (expanded)
Enemy Mine by Maurice Jarre
High Plains Drifter (including used and unused scores) by Dee Barton
The Hobbit by Howard Shore
I Married A Monster From Outer Space (various artists)
L'Isola Degli Uomini Pesce (Island Of The Fishmen) by Luciano Michelini
Kronos/The Cosmic Man by Sawtell and Shefter
King Kong Lives by John Scott
The Last Hard Men (rejected scores) by Leonard Rosenman and Jerry Goldsmith
The Masque Of The Red Death by David Lee
Men In Black 3 by Danny Elfman
Missile To The Moon/Frankenstein's Daughter by Nicholas Carras
Moon 44 by Joel Goldsmith
The Phantom by David Newman (expanded)
The Raven by Lucas Vidal
The Raven/An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe by Les Baxter
Resident Evil: Retribution by TomandAndy
Rocketship XM by Ferde Grofé
Silent Hill: Revelation by Jeff Danna/Akira Yamaoka
Sinister by Christopher Young
Sherlock Series 2 by David Arnold and Michael Price
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home by Leonard Rosenman (expanded)
Star Trek VII: Generations by Dennis McArthy (expanded)
2 Days In The Valley (rejected score) by Jerry Goldsmith
War Of The Worlds/When Worlds Collide by Leith Stevens

My two biggest disappointments this year were Thomas Newman’s Skyfall and Marc Streitenfeld’s Prometheus. Tommy Newmans Skyfall is not a terrible Bond album, but it was hampered by not having a strong theme to build on and the percussion heavy style of the composer made it feel a little like “Snicket,  Lemony Snicket’s, Series Of Unremarkable Bond Moments”. It’s sure to grow on me over the years but I think the composer could have made it a bit more striking (which just goes to show how “political” the oscars are, when something like this gets a nomination for best score).

Ditto for Streitenfeld’s Prometheus. All the Alien movies, whether they were any good or not, had a truly great score. Heck, even the appalling Alien Vs Predator: Requiem had a brilliant Brian Tyler score on it (the only thing about that movie that was any good) and I would have expected a score which claims to have connective tissue with the Alien movies to be a lot stronger than this. Even the acquisition, rearrangement and placement of part of Goldsmith’s score for the original Alien made no sense within the context of its use. But I’ll give it another go later in the year.

My two reissue disappointments were the absolutely essential scores by John Barry for The Quiller Memorandum and Jerry Goldsmith for Chinatown. Both cornerstones of anyone’s soundtrack library, these reissues featured no new music or alternatives and were pretty much straight re-pressings. Which is a great shame as I suspect most of the target audience for these two particular titles already had them.