Score Reviews

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Pacific Rim: Uprising by Lorne Balfe (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:45 PM by Kaya Savas

Sometimes movies are just meant to provide an escape, and Pacific Rim was that escape. The Guillermo Del Toro film was an over the top celebration of the Kaiju film genre. We’ve seen a resurgence of Kaiju films most notably with the newest incarnation of Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island and of course Pacific Rim which was actually released a whole year before the new Godzilla. For that film we got an extremely entertaining score from Ramin Djawadi. This time around, we get some Balfe goodness as Lorne takes over and continues the melodic action extravaganza. Pacific Rim: Uprising sees the feature directing debut of Steven S. DeKnight who has a list of credits serving as an executive producer and writer on several TV series.

This score is just pure clean action writing with a bit of a retro vibe. The reason why I love Lorne so much is that he did another over the top action film called Geostorm, and that had a wholly different sound than this. Sure there’s definitely more substance and style to a Pacific Rim movie than the mostly empty Geostorm, but it does show that action scores can have personalities too and it's not all just "modern bombast". By embracing some retro synths and having those over some great thematic and melodic structures, we get some really entertaining action tracks.

The central motif is this sort of otherworldly theme that you hear right at the start of track 1. To say it feels “alien” wouldn’t do it enough justice as it feels a bit more unique than just “alien-sounding”. Anyway, Lorne pollinates the score with that motif, and it’s not your typical big bold action movie theme so it gives everything a fresh feel. Ramin’s original theme gets a cameo with the “Go Big Or Go Extinct (Remix)” track, so when you feel like Iron Man is making an appearance, it’s just Ramin’s theme from the original saying “hi”. There’s actually some other really interesting elements to the score as we get into the 2nd and 3rd acts. The track “Obsidian Fury” even has a few moments that reminded me of John Powell. But overall, Lorne is really putting so many textures into this score to make it feel dynamic, colorful and propulsive. The 7-minute track titled “Shatterdome Attacked” is just impressive writing from start to finish, it keeps everything moving and never feels redundant or boring. The conclusion finally gives us some well-deserved heroism once the day is saved.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is a refreshing take on action escapism. Lorne Balfe challenges himself to find new textures and colors to give us something that is extremely entertaining but never feels old or dated. Lorne’s use of retro synth sounds, mixed with orchestra, and structured around rhythmic percussion are the heart of the score. The central motif goes against the grain and isn’t a big heroic anthem, which gives the film a unique feel even though we’ve seen giant sci-fi creatures battle it out onscreen many times before. Also, Lorne didn’t create a big theme that he could fall back on and rely on to craft that gravitas, all that comes from the well-structured action writing throughout. While character development isn’t the reason you come to see Pacific Rim: Uprising, Lorne managed to weave in some human emotion into the story as well. The end result is something that actually feels like both a breath of fresh air and an evolution in Lorne’s action writing, which is unexpected from a sequel to Pacific Rim. Lorne's versatile action writing certainly bodes well for any future action assignments.

Tomb Raider by Tom Holkenborg (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:40 PM by Kaya Savas

While Tom Holkenborg’s score to Mad Max: Fury Road has gotten him the most attention, it’s important to realize just how versatile he is. Tomb Raider sees him tackling a very character-driven adventure flick to a pretty well-known franchise. Very much how the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films were echoes of the older iteration of the games; this new Tomb Raider tries to be closer to the newer vision of the games. Holkenborg delivers his signature bold sound with some heart behind it for a pretty thrilling adventure score.

Tomb Raider starts off sounding something more along the lines of Harry Gregson-Williams before Holkenborg’s signature style kicks into gear. The score does a great job of reflecting Lara Croft as a woman of adventure; the music is bold and strong but with an elegance and beauty to it. When we get into some high-octane action the music embraces that signature percussion that you might recognize from Mad Max: Fury Road, and overall the score blends electronic textures with the lushness of the orchestra quite well.

The music has a weight to it, and more importantly there’s an emotional weight to it. We feel Lara Croft in the score and we feel her journey. Her relationship with her father is a key emotional pull in the story and the score reflects on that beautifully throughout. In fact, Lara’s theme is essentially her memory of her father that she carries with her. You can feel it in those moments, and when it’s unleashed in an action track like “Never Give Up” it can give some serious goosebumps. You won’t be humming the theme after the movie, it definitely doesn’t turn Lara into a superhero, and that’s why it works. There’s a lot of humanity in Lara’s music that then gets adapted into the action.

Tomb Raider continues the quest to try and make a decent movie based on a video game, and while director Roar Uthaug and composer Tom Holkenborg may not bring us a game changer, there is still much to enjoy here. Tomb Raider’s score is a finely executed piece of character-based action writing. Having Lara Croft be such a huge part of the score makes the action set pieces work that much better, because the music becomes more than just “action music” and we have a little more substance behind it.

Red Sparrow by James Newton Howard (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:39 PM by Kaya Savas

Ever since director Francis Lawrence worked with James Newton Howard on I Am Legend, he has used James as his go-to composer on Water For Elephants, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts 1 & 2 and now with Red Sparrow. Red Sparrow is a spy thriller that follows a prima ballerina who ends up in Sparrow School after a career-ending injury. There she learns to use her mind and body as a weapon and emerges as one of the most dangerous Sparrows the program has created. The score by James Newton Howard is a wonderfully crafted and moody thriller score that embraces the main character’s ballerina roots.

We all know how melodic and bold James Newton Howard can be, which is why this very subtle and nuanced score is a fantastic examination of Howard’s skills as a meticulous storyteller. The score acts as an amazing portrait of Dominic Egorova, which is Jennifer Lawrence’s character. While the score’s style and substance has hints of ballet infused into it, it’s definitely drowning in a moody thriller. It’s a perfect embodiment of Egorova’s character. This powerful and elegant woman is thrust into world of espionage and the score is a beautiful fleshing out of her character.

The music does a lot of atmospheric building as well. Deep full-bodied strings with some light accents from woodwinds make up the majority of the score’s structure, and the way Howard lays out his motifs is something only a composer of his ability can accomplish. The score always suggests something is under the surface. The whole narrative is nuanced, seductive and extremely elegant. The music adds so much in a way that only James Newton Howard can.

Howard essentially wrote a ballet overture and then broke it down into a beautifully nuanced thriller score, the result is something that feels so personal and unique to the character at the heart of the story. The music captivates you and washes over you with its tone and atmosphere. The way the score builds the narrative captivates you, and you feel everything swelling and growing underneath as you move towards the climax of the story. Red Sparrow may not have much of an emotional hook, but it’s still a very captivating and engrossing score from James Newton Howard.

Marcella by Lorne Balfe (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:39 PM by Kaya Savas

Lorne Balfe continues to be present in every genre and medium, displaying his amazing versatility as a storyteller. Marcella may be something that isn’t on your radar if you’re living in the United States as I am. The British crime noir detective series follows Marcella Backland as a former London detective who is asked to come back on an unsolved serial killer case. She juggles the weight of returning to her life of investigating crime with her home life as well after her husband leaves her and takes custody of their children. The score is equal parts character portrait and a modern noir thriller. There is a lot here stylistically that we don’t hear much from Lorne in his film scores, and the result is something rather dynamic and effective.

Lorne scores Marcella with a very somber and empty feel. The score does a beautiful job of shaping her character for the audience. You don’t need any words to feel the emptiness and pain in Marcella’s life. We then have this gritty and textural side to the score that creeps in and does a wonderful job at creating dissonance and uneasiness. There’s a coldness to this dissonant side of the music that effectively creates tension. However, we aren’t getting the dreaded “ominious tones” that plague most TV crime dramas. The score here is textural and rhythmic, so we always have a shape to the music. As a whole we are simply following Marcella’s melancholic motif as it weaves through the darkness. It’s a score that grips you and gives you enough of a reason to care about our central character that when the music gets intense it has a great dramatic effect.

Marcella is a wonderful character portrait score built in a world of textural darkness. The music is able to build a modern noir that has a big human presence, and that’s the reason why it stands out a bit more. The show can be categorized as a detective crime thriller, but the show is named after the main character, so it needs to be about her. Thankfully the score is about her, and the way Lorne places her within this world is an impressive delight.

Annihilation by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:39 PM by Kaya Savas

Alex Garland’s fascination with science fiction has yielded great screenplays such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd. Garland’s itch for directing led him to make his directorial debut with Ex Machina, which was an impressive debut by any standard. While Ex Machina had its flaws, it was still a very captivating science fiction story with some horror elements. For that film, Garland enlisted Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow for the score. Annihilation continues the tone and style of Garland’s visual language along with the tonal and textural approach of Salisbury and Barrow.

Annihilation is a very precisely constructed score made up of tones, textures, some haunting female vocals and an occasional strumming of an acoustic guitar. In that respect the sound becomes very unique. We have electronic elements, human elements and acoustic elements all working together to create an atmosphere of the unknown. The score mimics shapelessness and the undefined with superb precision while still providing structure for long tracks that fill the space. There is a haunting nature to the whole thing, but the music works on this great psychological level of making you feel intrigued yet unsure at the same time. The approach reminded me slightly of Akira Yamaoka’s approach to the Silent Hill scores, but of course there’s nothing harshly industrial here. Annihilation’s sonic palette creates these colder and shimmery metallic tones rather than anything harsh and crunchy. If the score has a weak spot its that the resolution doesn’t quite feel like a resolution but more of a tapering off. While the acoustic guitar does provide a bookended closure by being in track 1 and the last track before the credits, there still seems to be something missing that gives us emotional resolution.

Annihilation is a much more daring and more complex experience when compared to Ex Machina. The way Salisbury and Barrow have expertly created an atmosphere of the unknown adds so much atmosphere to this experience. It would have been nice to feel more of a character journey in the music, but I guess it works for what it was designed for. By creating cold and shimmery tones that work on a psychological level; the score becomes enchanting yet unnerving all at the same time. Hopefully this working relationship with director Alex Garland continues as it’ll be interesting see how Salisbury and Barrow’s sound evolves further.

Death Wish by Ludwig Göransson (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:38 PM by Kaya Savas

Ludwig Göransson follows up his fantastic score to Black Panther with Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish. The score for this one is pretty much a surface level score, but Göransson’s talents and ability to create fantastic textures make this a fully functional thriller.

There isn’t too much to analyze with Death Wish. The story is a pure pulpy revenge action-thriller starring Bruce Willis. The music here is meant to evoke a certain tone and add lots of propulsive motion to the narrative. Tone is definitely a big part of this score. Göransson treats everything as organically as he can. The score keeps a serious and dark feel throughout that is evoked through the electronic textures and strings.

The music broods and bubbles under the surface, very much like watching a pot of water slowly rise to a rolling boil. Structurally, everything moves with ease and the score does a great job of building suspense with a few moments where the score opens up for some action. We resolve the whole thing with a dissonant piano that plays over the end credits.

In the end this is a fully serviceable and functional thriller score, but like the movie itself it doesn’t do too much to become unique or do something new. Göransson is probably one of the most talented young composers working today and that’s been evident across all his music. But you can definitely tell that the inspiration flows more freely when he works with a director like Ryan Coogler vs Eli Roth. Death Wish isn’t a wholly original and inspiring piece of cinema so I’m sure we’re getting Göransson in autopilot mode here. However, this wouldn’t have been as engaging or functional if it were in the hands of someone else. Göransson still makes this worth taking a look at.

Early Man by Harry Gregson-Williams & Tom Howe (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:38 PM by Kaya Savas

Aardman and Harry Gregson-Williams go a long way back, so it was great to see him back for an Aardman film along with co-composer Tom Howe. Harry co-scored Chicken Run with John Powell, and after that did Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas. We saw Theodore Shapiro tackle The Pirates! and Ilan Eshkeri score Shaun The Sheep Movie. For Early Man, Harry co-composed with the wonderfully talented Tom Howe. Tom has scored a lot of UK television, and recently has worked with Rupert Gregson-Williams on Wonder Woman and The Legend Of Tarzan. For Early Man we get a wonderfully Aardman-feeling score that definitely carries elements from both Harry and Tom.

Early Man is just a pleasantly fun score with a lot of heart behind it. The story follows a primitive Stone Age tribe who must defend their land from bronze-using invaders by competing in a football (soccer for us Americans) match. “Dug’s Theme” is the first track we hear, and it sets the groundwork for the heart and soul of the score since Dug is the heart and soul of the story. Strangely there is a bit of an Americana feeling to Dug’s theme, but it works very well to bring that warmth in. And it's only strange in observation given how very British this film.

The main body of the score has some of those quirks and personality traits that you’d come to expect from an Aardman film. Tribal percussion along with primitive chanting pop up here and there to add fun flavors. The use of a referee whistle is a particularly fun touch given that a football match is a key part of the plot.

While these quirky touches pop up here and there, this is mostly a traditionally lush orchestral score that carries the audience with a lot of emotion and character growth. The way the music builds up the football match and the quest that our protagonists must set out on to save their land is felt in every note. When we reach that inventible conclusion when the day is saved, we feel the score open up in such a great fashion that it may even shed a tear or two.

Early Man is as much fun as it is a beautiful score. Harry and Tom have managed to infuse the narrative with so much character and heart that it’s impossible to resist the effect the music will have on you. You’ll have so much fun and will be rooting for Dug and his friends to save the day from start to finish. All the tiny quirks and touches give the music a personality and make it unique to this movie. It was surprising to find the music has a heavy dose of Americana in it, Dug’s theme especially. Sometimes I pictured a soaring camera shot over the great wild west, but it works so well to bring that warmth and heart into the film. Early Man is such a near-perfect animation score from start to finish.

The Alienist by Rupert Gregson-Williams (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:37 PM by Kaya Savas

The Alienist follows a criminal psychologist who is conducting an investigation on a series of murders on boy prostitutes in 1896 New York City. The score comes to us from Rupert Gregson-Williams who is delivering a lot of great work recently. The Alienist is no exception, the score is a wonderfully crafted dramatic thriller with a style that makes it stand out.

Rupert does a wonderful job of setting up a feel and tone for 1896 New York. The Celtic touch to the music is just enough to give it a personality to start, and then using those same instruments we are plunged into the darkness. The score is actually incredibly effective structurally. The music will grip you very tightly. The use of deep cello notes create such an effective sense of danger and dread. The gentle plucking of a banjo can be used very effectively to create even more uneasiness and tension. Throw in some rhythmic hits, claps and taps and you get tracks that build with incredible precision. The overall effect is something that is always sonically pleasing to the ear but always creates this unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach. If there is anything lacking it’s probably a sense of character progression, there is a bit of a human void in all of it. With a pretty great ensemble cast we never feel too much character presence in the music. In the end though, the stylistic and melodic approach of the score are so strong that it carries the weight of the series with ease.

The Alienist could have easily been a boring and droning score, but with Rupert Gregson-Williams at the helm we instead get something that has much more impact. Devising a Celtic thriller score that is pure suspense was a great approach for this story. The way the instruments were used were wholly effective in making you feel uneasy while still retaining a unique stylistic feel. The Alienist is definitely worth the price of admission to hear another side of Rupert Gregson-Williams that many may not be familiar with.

The Shape Of Water by Alexandre Desplat (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:37 PM by Kaya Savas

The Shape Of Water brought Alexandre Desplat his second Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, and this review is coming after that win. Now, The Shape Of Water was a beautiful film with a score that added much to make the film feel like this darkly romantic fairytale. The way Desplat approached the score worked really well overall to help Guillermo Del Toro execute his vision.

Our main character is Elisa Esposito played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins and she is mute in this film, in fact our creature is also void of speaking. So, much of the emotion doesn’t come from spoken language for these characters, it’s all about the acting and of course the music. Desplat’s score utilizes flutes to create an airy and floaty world of water. The French-inspired stylings for the more upbeat opening that pretty much takes us into Elisa’s head use flutes to give a floating feeling. When we go into the depths of the research facility, the music gets a bit more ominous but we still have flutes playing a huge part of that. The music that accompanies these more darker and mysterious moments, as well as the antagonist played by Michael Shannon, does a great job of creating that eerie atmosphere. In fact this is where the score shines the most. Desplat’s ability to create this sense of darkness with just a hint of romanticism still baked in is the heart of this film.

The score works rather effortlessly in providing a tone and feel for the movie. I think many people who have played the video game BioShock may see some similarities in style here. Desplat’s score is definitely in no way like Garry Schyman’s, but the use of some old timey songs to give this a retro feel and the underwater world of Rapture definitely feels a lot like the production design of The Shape Of Water. The Shape Of Water embraces French music too to add to the romance of the story and for Sally Hawkin’s character. At times that works, but it may lay on the French stylings a bit too thick at times. So much so we forget this film takes place in Baltimore. I’m from Maryland and I forgot this movie is supposed to take place in Baltimore. And yes Desplat is from France, but that doesn’t mean the accordion is used in every piece of music he writes. In this case it almost feels like Del Toro hired Desplat to add that French touch, but at times I wanted the music to veer away from it because it felt a bit out of place.

Alexandre Desplat composed a really wonderful score here. While there are moments that don’t make the music flow and connect cohesively as well as they should, the end result is a beautifully unique sound for a beautifully unique fairytale love story. There’s secret government labs, there’s a very wet and metallic production design, characters that pull you in and feel part of this world, and a score that makes the story come to life.

The Cloverfield Paradox by Bear McCreary (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:27 AM by Leo Mayr

The Cloverfield Paradox
is the third in a series of loosely connected science fiction movies produced by JJ Abrams. Arguably the weakest of the three, Paradox still manages to have some fun with the genre, largely thanks to Bear McCreary’s fantastic score. At some point during production, the film was aquired by Netflix and released straight to their service, skipping a theatrical release alltogether. Yet, by the high quality of the special effects and orchestral score, you can still tell that it was initially made for cinemas. 

Having scored 10 Cloverfield Lane, McCreary’s involvement here doesn't come as a surprise. Similarily, his approach shouldn’t surprise you, as it is very much remniscient of his previous work on the franchise. There are no themes being reused, but the style does feel quite familiar, even though you can tell right away, that instead of the claustrophobic bunker in Lane, we’re now aboard a large space station.
The score’s main theme is quite simple, but implemented well enough to stick in your head, and there’s a fantastic emotional theme that pops up from time to time, giving the music a somewhat basic sense of development. McCreary handles the suspenseful moments as well as could be expected, and manages to have a lot of fun with the films’s rather lengthy action scenes. Due to the popularity of the "trapped in space" genre, there are no major surprises to be found, but it's still fun to see different takes on what's essentially the same kind of movie. Everything about Bear McCreary's score is executed nicely, and the whole thing just does not feel like a straight-to-Netflix production. 

While The Cloverfield Paradox may not be as great as the previous films, it does manage to further explore the world these movies share. McCreaey delivers a fun “trapped in space” score that really makes the experience worthwhile.

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