Score Reviews

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Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 by Tyler Bates (Review)

posted Apr 21, 2017, 12:41 PM by Kaya Savas

Tyler Bates continues his collaboration with director James Gunn for Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2. The first film was a test to see if Marvel could launch lesser known back-catalogue characters into something big, and they succeeded. Guardians Of The Galaxy’s humor and retro vibe struck a chord with audiences and now they’re back for a second film with a third on the way. Tyler Bates’ first score was a pleasant surprise by approaching the adventure score with classic orchestral sensibilities. Bates gave us a score infused with thrills, fun, heroism and romanticism that made for a good time. That continues here, but thankfully the score feels a bit more fleshed out with some interesting characteristics.

More or less, the first Guardians score was pleasant and inoffensive orchestral action. Nothing about the score though made it feel unique or bold. The main theme felt like an echo of Silvestri’s Avengers theme, and that doesn't change here. But what does change is that the music here feels more at home and feels like it’s more comfortable with the characters and tone of the movie. I’d be willing to bet that Marvel erred on the side of caution when launching Guardians the first time to make sure everything was played safe. Here you can feel Bates being more of himself and his sound. There’s also a lot more character development and emotional arcs that seemed absent from the first movie. The use of chorus is great and gives the whole narrative this grand operatic feel. As we move through the story and build up to the climax and resolution, it was great to hear some great thematic structure and momentum that built to actual payoffs. The score has a surprising amount of heart as it does action, and by the time everything wraps up you feel you got to experience a score built for these characters.

Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 is definitely an improvement over the first score in terms of the music feeling a lot less generic than the previous outing. The main theme is still a very generic sounding heroic theme, but the way its varied and used throughout this time feels a little more unique since the narrative is stronger this time around. Fun action moments build towards emotional payoffs, and even though the score is stylistically very familiar it still exudes Tyler Bates’ sensibilities as a storyteller for another enjoyable journey.

Beauty & The Beast by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice (Review)

posted Apr 21, 2017, 12:40 PM by Kaya Savas

Beauty And The Beast is one of those iconic films that defined the era known as the Disney Renaissance period. In terms of classic Disney films, the movie has always been one of the strongest in terms of story and music. For those like me whose childhood included cracking open that white plastic clamshell VHS case and popping this tale as old as time in the VCR, the prospect of a live-action retelling really hit the nostalgia button. So here we are now, in the Disney era that may be known as the Live-Action Renaissance? Whatever your opinion of the recent trend of Disney’s aim to remake all their classic animation films as live-action films, you can’t deny that it gives a chance for a whole new generation to experience these movies and for filmmakers to creatively rework the stories. And so far they have been extremely successful, both creatively and financially.

So does Beauty & The Beast work in the live-action format as well as Cinderella or The Jungle Book did? As a whole, yes, the film is wonderfully inspired and the production value is truly something. Alan Menken got to expand the fantastic score and songs that he and Howard Ashman brought to us many years ago, and while everything is lacking any kind of new vision it all ends up being pretty much what you’d want from a re-telling.

Musically of course the score and songs are beefed up and fleshed out a bit more. I personally enjoyed hearing a score that was able to work more over the span of 2 hours versus 80 minutes. That iconic prologue lovingly based off of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival Of The Animals gets a great new arrangement and it sounds great. It immediately transports you. And the body of the score itself is lush and robust as we navigate through the narrative and encounter old and new songs. Legendary lyricist Tim Rice stepped in to help Alan Menken with the new songs in place of the late Howard Ashman.

The songs are as vibrant and bright as ever with the new cast giving it their all to put the original soul into them. One could complain that the new cast is just doing their best impersonations of the old cast without bringing anything new to the table (except Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth), but I found a new and different life behind the whole package especially with the new songs which are actually really great. Songs like "Days In The Sun" and "Evermore" shine a light onto characters that didn't really get to express their inner monologues in the original animated version.

Overall, this new take on Beauty & The Beast doesn't aim to replace the original but merely expand and lovingly re-tell it on a much larger scale. Some things work and some things feel a little flat, but the whole package is engaging and will grasp you. The music works so well with the visuals and Alan Menken’s expanded approach to the score as well as re-arranging of old songs breathes not necessarily new life but a different life into it. The new pieces fit seamlessly into the narrative and add a much welcomed spotlight onto characters that took a backseat in the original to keep the focus on Belle’s story with the short running time. Now that Disney has remade a truly full-fledged musical from its classic animated catalogue, it’ll be interesting to see how they approach others like Aladdin and The Lion King in the future.

CHiPs by Fil Eisler (Review)

posted Apr 21, 2017, 12:40 PM by Kaya Savas

In the continuing tradition of adapting classic TV series into movies, we have CHiPs directed, produced and starring Dax Shepherd. The movie essentially takes the idea of the TV series but turns it into the R-rated comedy that seems to be standard studio fare these days. Thankfully composer Fil Eisler tried to stay away from the studio rock sound that has defined many action-comedy scores lately.

While you may expect the score here to be the standard rock-based R-rated action-comedy sound, it really does try to stay away from it as much as it can. Fil has attempted to give CHiPs a modern feel with some old soul. The music stylings are more along funk and soul than rock. The action set pieces add some orchestral flair but still keep everything in the same world. Some themes are established early for our protagonists and antagonists so you’ll never feel lost during the narrative. And of course Fil pays homage with some reference to the original CHiPs theme. In the end this is a solid and fun ride from a film that you wouldn’t expect any flair or character from. The music definitely sets an established tone and style, and the whole journey is well structured. Nothing terribly awe-inspiring, but the music serves its purpose here. ChiPs is a lot of fun even if you didn't find the movie to be a slam dunk.

Fil Eisler had a lot of fun letting lose on this score. The funk and soul sounds of the score do a great job of giving everything a fun vibe while the action scenes are taken a bit more seriously in tone. It all works very well in the end even though the film and music are void of anything groundbreaking. This is just a solid score that works on the surface level and delivers on the fun factor.

Sherlock: Series 4 by David Arnold & Michael Price (Review)

posted Apr 19, 2017, 7:15 AM by Leo Mayr   [ updated Apr 21, 2017, 12:46 PM by Kaya Savas ]

returns for a fourth season, and with it, composers David Arnold and Michael Price. After two strong seasons, the series has slowly shifted the focus more and more towards character driven stories, as opposed to the traditional mystery solving you'd expect from a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, leading to a couple of rather disappointing episodes. The fourth season sees an at least partly return to form, both in the episodes and the music.

By now, the show's musical identity has been well established, so there's not a whole lot in the fourth season that'll surprise you. The main theme has remained intact, as has the instrumentation and style, with the score still faintly echoing Hans Zimmer's work on the Guy Ritchie adaptations. With the shift towards stories centered around the main characters, the score was able to focus more on the emotional side of things. While there are no groundbreaking moments of emotional storytelling, the duo of composers has been able to create a lot of engaging music. The occasional murder mysteries bring out a darker, suspenseful side of the score, and while there's not a lot of music that'll stick in your head after watching an episode, the score is executed flawlessly, with stunning moments of tension and beautiful emotional pieces, as well as a few bursts of intense action. There are a few electronic textures hidden throughout the score, but by far not as noticeably as in the third season. 

Sherlock: Series 4 sees a return to form for composers David Arnold and Michael Price. The score features a lot of wonderful moments, even though you probably won't notice or remember a lot of them while watching the episodes. After a weak third season, the duo of composers deliver an engaging score that more than makes up for the mistakes of the past.

The Zookeeper's Wife by Harry Gregson-Williams (Review)

posted Mar 24, 2017, 2:47 PM by Kaya Savas   [ updated Mar 24, 2017, 3:08 PM ]

In Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, we follow the story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński. The couple who were the account keepers of the Warsaw Zoo were integral in saving hundreds of Jews during the German invasion of Poland in Word War II. The movie itself is based on the non-fiction book from Diane Ackerman who wrote it based off the unpublished diary of Antonina. The score sees Harry Gregson-Williams providing quite a stirring musical narrative that captures the core emotional journey of the story very well.

I've always found Harry to have this way of scoring tragic situations with just the right touch of melancholy, with the music hinting at a loss of innocence yet still keeping that innocence in arm's reach. It feels like beauty but with a curtain pulled over it. I think Harry captured that same tone in "Evacuating London" from Narnia and even parts of Kingdom Of Heaven or even Spy Game. The opening track gives us the central theme that surfaces here and there, but the body of the score does its best to remain true to the organic emotions of the story without overdoing it. That “touch of melancholy” is absolutely essentially, especially in a PG-13 Hollywood movie about WW2. A lot of the criticism about the film is that its too shiny and sort of cleaned from the true horrors of the war. I can see that being a valid argument, but also can see it as the film trying to focus on the human story at the center of it vs being about the horrors of war. The movie is not trying to directly aim at devaluing the atrocities that happened. If you focus on the story and what the music is doing, that is what is echoed. The score paints these moments of humanity that seem to resonate deep with a very subtle approach, and of course in Harry’s signature style.

Harry has acted as a mentor to the very talented Stephanie Economou over the past few years, and here she wrote additional music as well as provided vocals as she has in the past. In the entirety of the score there is sadness and beauty wrapped up together, innocence masked by tragedy. It never feels like crying out. Look at the vocals in track 8, a traditional Passover Seder vocal actually performed by Shira Haas' character in the film and compare it to something like the way John Williams used vocals in Munich, which was to echo pure pain in a full-on lament. Both very effective, both adapting to different stories with different focuses. But it shows that the aim of The Zookeeper's Wife wasn't to shine a light on the horrors, but keep focus on the inspiring qualities of the story. The score works towards a really powerful conclusion to the final act in the 7.5min track “Jan Returns”. Everything comes together and feels like that curtain covering innocence and tragedy is lifted.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an intimate and emotional score that tries to find moments of humanity and bring those to life without ever being melodramatic, and succeeds in doing so. Harry’s talents for scoring tragedy while still retaining a sense of beauty and innocence is on full display here. The score and film itself may have a glossy finish that shines too bright in some instances, but overall everything here works to leave a lasting impact. The theme itself is wonderful and the way the score works towards its emotionally resonating conclusion reflects Harry’s talents as a veteran storyteller. The Zookeeper’s Wife is something that should resonate deeply if you’re looking for a story focusing on the good of humanity more so than the bad.

Veeram - Macbeth by Jeff Rona (Review)

posted Mar 24, 2017, 12:32 PM by Kaya Savas

Jeff Rona enters uncharted territory by scoring Veeram, an Indian historical epic that is an adaption of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The film incorporates other areas of Indian history while weaving together a fantastic grand scale fictional epic. Jeff Rona was sought out by the film’s producers for his work on God Of War III. They purposefully hired Jeff to bring an American perspective to the film and make the music more universal. The resulting score is something that captures the grand epic scale while still fleshing out the characters and emotional arcs.

What really makes this score successful is the full embrace of theme and variation. The score is built on a few key themes plus lots of melodic structure. While we have the thundering drums and masculine brass that evokes the feel of something like Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator, the score feels tied directly to the characters and place. Jeff didn’t use too many native Indian instruments, but just a few to give the score some uniqueness and an inner voice. The music has two sides as well; one more masculine and the other more feminine. There is this duality in tone that weaves together and works extremely well that all builds towards a fantastic climax. Everything comes to a satisfying conclusion that ties many of the arcs together. The original song that Jeff wrote along with Kari Kimmel who performs it is also included. The song adds a sense of romanticism to the entire journey and gives it a nice finish as is customary in Indian cinema.

Veeram was a challenging prospect, but Jeff was able to craft a supremely engaging score that felt part of the story’s fabric. With the movie being shot (not dubbed) in 3 languages, the score had to go through some changes to accommodate dialogue scenes being slightly different. But in the end, the music prospered to deliver an old fashioned action epic that feels it was born from the late 90’s or early 2000’s. And that is a sincere compliment. Big theme, character-focused melodic arcs and a narrative structure that all carries you along for this thundering adventure with many intricate layers.

Power Rangers by Brian Tyler (Review)

posted Mar 13, 2017, 4:19 PM by Kaya Savas

The history of Saban’s Power Rangers franchise is a long one. It became one of the most popular children’s live-action series and spawned tons of spin-off series and even movies throughout the 90’s. Disney snatched up the rights to Power Rangers and after 7 years of holding onto it finally let it go back to Saban. Saban now is trying to reboot the Power Rangers for a modern audience. In the age of ensemble heroes dominating the box office, Saban hired ensemble action composer extraordinaire Brian Tyler for the job. Brian has a successful track record of composing action films with ensemble casts such as The Fast & The Furious Franchise and Avengers: Age Of Ultron. And as cheesy as the original series and movies were, this Power Rangers is surprisingly a great all-around action score if you can ignore the temp track hangover that clearly lingers throughout.

Ok, listen up. Power Rangers is not the next cinematic masterpiece, I mean have you seen any of the original series or movies? It’s also not breaking new ground, it’s simply content in becoming part of the ensemble action mold. This is your typical origin story of a group of high schoolers who find themselves infused with powers that unite them to become a force to stop an evil sorceress hellbent on finding a crystal to become all powerful and whatnot. So the approach was simply to look at a PG-13 action-packed franchise that has big mechanical battles and earned billions in the box office and pretty much do that. That franchise was Transformers.

Brian’s score is all sorts of fun, with a great theme that is undoubtedly a Brian Tyler theme. The body of the score is made up of a lot of synth and is more so accented by the orchestra versus something like Iron Man 3 which was very orchestral. And while the core thematics of the score are pure Tyler, the overall architecture does feel familiar. You’ll notice the music borrowing elements heavily from scores like Transformers and TRON: Legacy. Without a doubt, with Saban entering the big-budget epic movie space for the first time you can bet they wanted to play it safe. I’m sure Brian Tyler had a hell of a time navigating a heavily temped movie that was built off of Steve Jablonsky and Daft Punk. But here’s the deal, the score totally works and is actually very entertaining even if it's not wholly unique. The pulsing percussions and strings with that broad heroic build laid over it is something that made the track “Arrival To Earth” from the first Transformers feel so epic. That technique is used here to create a sense of awe and emotional gravitas. Once the action gets a bit more kinetic, that’s when the score’s true identity shines and you can feel something unique to Power Rangers emerge. And as for the iconic “Go Go Power Rangers!”? Brian saves it for a climactic moment right before battle in track 14, “Let’s Ride”. It’s then saved for the very end during the credits. If you’re looking for a modern action score that has a theme, melodic structures and rhythm then Power Rangers should delight as long as you don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.

Power Rangers is a solid action experience. Brian Tyler gives the iconic heroes a modern feel that brings energy, force, gravitas and heroism. While there is clearly some heavy use of temp music that Brian had to follow, he still manages to let his theme come alive as he would in his own style. The score has lots of Brian Tyler moments for sure as well as Transformers and TRON: Legacy moments, but it all works. There are truly some cool ways that the music utilizes some of those retro synth loops. And the slow build moments of heroism work just as well as the kinetic action scenes where Brian’s true style shines. This is a score (and movie) that is trying very hard to be relevant among a crowded slate of action ensemble franchises. In fact, this whole experience feels a lot more inspired than the last Transformers score. And while it doesn't reinvent the wheel by any means, it’s still quite a fun and cool score that I can see some young tween getting hooked on after seeing the movie.

Kong: Skull Island by Henry Jackman (Review)

posted Feb 28, 2017, 3:58 PM by Kaya Savas

Kong: Skull Island is the latest attempt at reviving the classic ape into cinemas, this time as part of Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse. Kong: Skull Island is completely unrelated to Peter Jackson’s mammoth remake, and instead serves as an entry meant to follow 2014’s Godzilla. Yes, a Godzilla vs. King Kong is coming, so hold on to your hats. For this incarnation of Kong, the story follows a secret organization called Monarch that hires a group to lead an expedition to an uncharted island in hopes of uncovering a new species. The movie takes place towards the end of the Vietnam War. Henry Jackman was brought on and was simply a perfect fit here for the score. His love for both traditional and non-traditional elements let him have lots of fun with this one. The score is a fun-filled adventure score with lots of scope, gravitas, and momentum along with a psychedelic 70’s vibe.

Henry Jackman does quite an admirable job at building scope and gravitas while still giving this score a sense of adventure and excitement. Henry’s theme for Kong is right in line with the way Max Steiner approached the character. A big lumbering descending motif signals strength and doom. And while there is plenty of peril and destruction in this film, the score fleshes out the island as well as the other not so friendly creatures on it. We get a sense of mystery and intrigue that reminded me of Jerry Goldsmith’s Congo that is then infused with the testosterone that Alan Silvestri brought to Predator. But the way Henry approaches it is very much his own, the score has a heartbeat behind it. We get traditional orchestral flourishes for big action with rich electronic textures to create suspense for the quieter scenes. The score is not meant as a character study, but surprisingly there’s an emotional current that carries you through the narrative. Kong and the human characters are detailed enough through the music to add an emotional grab, but it’s really the atmosphere and tone of the score that grabs you more and doesn't let go. The action set pieces are also expertly constructed, with the music doing some heavy lifting. While the inclusion of some easily placed “Braaaammmmsss” might overshadow some of the more interesting textures of this score, everything shines as a whole.

Henry Jackman’s Kong: Skull Island is full of energy and life, and does a fantastic job of crafting a wild ride filled with personality. The score packs a lot including rich orchestral flourishes, pulsing action strings, primitive percussion, grandiose chorus, 70’s rock guitars, electronic suspense textures and an emotional pull to make you invested in the journey. The score calls back to all the best qualities of action/adventure scores like Congo and Predator while doing it in Henry’s unique voice as a composer. And while it might sound like the score has a lot going on, it all works and it’s a fine-tuned machine that rarely stumbles.

Logan by Marco Beltrami (Review)

posted Feb 28, 2017, 3:58 PM by Kaya Savas

As we conclude Wolverine’s story arc in Logan, James Mangold re-teams with composer Marco Beltrami to give Logan the closure the character deserves. The entire film set out to defy genre and studio tentpole expectations, including the early hiring of composer Cliff Martinez. Mangold, in his effort to try something new thought an electronic composer like Cliff would break the mold only to figure out that he wanted to backtrack on that decision and go back to his regular collaborator, Marco. Marco jumped on the project and was given direction to stay away from big orchestra, big melodies and anything conventional. The finished product is a subtle and intimate score that keeps its modern feel by embracing a rough and gritty approach while still embracing a western feel and emotional undercurrent.

The score in itself is a testament of Marco to work with very strict direction and how he and Buck Sanders can manipulate sounds to craft a unique soundscape. And while the film and score succeed as a whole, there are moments that probably could have used some of that conventional stuff that James Mangold was so hellbent on not having. The sparse and melancholic tone of the score is perfect for Logan’s character and the build to the climax, but what was lost in the film and the score itself was the bond between Logan and Laura we were supposed to be witnessing. By keeping everything about the score low-key, the score misses opportunities to really push the emotional connection between the characters. Which is a shame, because Mangold and Beltrami embraced melodic arcs in the fantastic score to 3:10 To Yuma, which has a climax that really gave you goosebumps. Here, almost all the work is left to the actors, and thank goodness the acting in the film is top-notch because they rarely get help from the score and editing to make those emotional beats hit. So in the end, the score here fulfills its duty to give Logan some sort of sonic landscape, but if the goal of it was to find more subtle emotions then it falls a tad short.

Directors don’t need to be afraid of melody. It’s possible to create sparse, intimate and gritty music that can defy genre expectations yet still be melodic and thematic. Look at anything that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have composed. Logan’s score is an overall success, but not without feeling a little barebones when it comes to character development and an emotional payoff. The film’s strengths are in the acting and the writing, but in an effort to be “unconventional” Mangold directed Beltrami to avoid melody and orchestra. The result is a unique score that blends modern harshness with western flavors to paint an old and tired character about to finish his journey. The style works incredibly well for the action scenes without a doubt. The action felt very visceral and intimate without ever needing to be grandiose. It’s just in the character and emotional arc department that could have used a little more melody and personality. Overall Logan as a film and a score is a great closing chapter to Wolverine’s story that dared to do something different for the sake of story over spectacle.

Get Out by Michael Abels (Review)

posted Feb 28, 2017, 3:58 PM by Kaya Savas

It seems counterintuitive at first, but the more you think about it the more it makes sense that a comedy writer would fit in well with the horror genre. Both comedy and horror are about focusing on extremes and the contrasting small details that lead up to those extremes. Setting up the punchline to a joke or a physical gag is not too different than building suspense to a jump scare or a shocking moment. For Get Out not only does Jordan Peele make his debut as a director, but accomplished composer Michael Abels makes his debut as a film composer. The score for Get Out does so much by staying incredibly simple. The resulting effect is a horror score that manages to tell a story just as well as it builds suspense and terror.

Usually any great horror movie has a deep mystery behind it that is slowly revealed as the main character goes through his or her journey. Here we follow Chris, who meets his girlfriend’s family for the first time at their estate. The film explores different aspects of genres as it blends horror scares with comedic tension relief moments intertwined with a social commentary. Abels gives the music a very organic and human feel by utilizing mainly acoustic instruments. The score really only features a string orchestra, harp and tuned metal percussion. There are some electronic textures but they are really used sparingly. The use of the African vocals (spoken in Swahili) were meant to comment on the plot but ended up giving the score a spooky human touch. All in all, the score never resorts to cliched horror tropes to startle or create uneasiness. It really is Abel’s talents as a musician and composer that allowed the score to be a core element of the storytelling process. The score on its own is made up of some decent length tracks, but also some short ones. Never at all does the score feel choppy or intrusive, instead it only is used when the scene needs it. If only a 40-second cue is needed to highlight a moment, that’s all that’s used. If there’s a 3-minute scene that needs score all the way through to build tension, that’s what’s used. In the end, the score’s meticulous attention to detail and craft are so impressive that it’s hard to believe that Michael Abels has never scored a film before.

There’s so much to enjoy in Michael Abels’ Get Out. The score in itself is a near perfect horror/thriller score that ignores all the cliches and tropes of the genre while still being extremely effective. With Peele as a first time director and Abels as a first time film composer, the two managed to take so much experience from their other projects and apply it on this canvas for a truly fresh perspective. The score for Get Out feels like you are slowly peeling an onion only to uncover raw meat in the center. The score is an expertly crafted horror score that keeps you hooked and surprised because it never does what you expect it to. There’s no gimmicks or tricks here, just well-executed storytelling from start to finish that embraces the genre.

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