Score Reviews

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Carter Burwell (Review)

posted Nov 14, 2017, 3:35 PM by Kaya Savas

Every once in a while a film comes along that seems to effortlessly tell a story that hits hard and hits deep. In a sea of studio tentpoles at one end and supreme indie filmmakers trying very hard to make art at the other, we sometimes find a middle ground. A writer and director that crafts a story that seems so organic and so finely crafted without carrying any pretentiousness behind it. Martin McDonaugh gained notoriety for being a playwright, he then made a short film titled Six Shooter which went on to win an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. He followed that success with the insanely brilliant In Bruges, and following that came the sharp and witty Seven Psychopaths. His third feature is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and it’s his finest work to date. A huge part of the success of his filmmaking is also from his composer, Carter Burwell.

Carter Burwell has scored all three of McDonaugh’s feature films, and with Three Billboards he found a way to enhance the story to such a perfect unique place. By taking a Morricone-inspired approach, the score here is simple yet extremely effective in telling the story of Mildred and her anger-filled journey to make noise and find justice for her murdered daughter.

If you’ve never seen a McDonaugh film then you should definitely watch his others before jumping into this. His tone is usually described as “black comedy”, but his films emphasize drama heavily and they carry so much dramatic weight that it’s hard to see them as comedies. Yes there are funny moments, and these funny moments come from how brilliantly unique the characters are. They are more human moments rather than crafted comedic ones. The way Carter Burwell approaches this score was simple though. His score has two sides; an anger-filled march and then melancholic reflection. And the music is mostly focused on Mildred’s POV, even though the overall atmosphere for the score comments on everything happening in this town.

The sort of spaghetti western energy of the score is born from Mildred’s mission to call out the police and hopefully call attention to the case of her raped and murdered daughter, which has remained unsolved. The other side of the score is way more internal. It’s pure Burwell style in its approach of never commenting directly. Yes the tone is melancholic and a bit reserved, but theres some gentle beauty hiding in there. There are a few tender moments that show Mildred as the sweet and caring mother she is, and the score carries that in a subtle way even though we see her as this “take no shit” foul-mouthed warrior. The song choices also add so much depth to the film, they are very in sync with Burwell's tone. In fact the film ends with a song rather than score, and it works so perfectly. All of our characters end up redeeming themselves in some way in the end, and that truly is unique. This is a film with no "bad guy", every single character is flawed but they all go through their own hero's journeys. The score, while mainly commenting on Mildred's journey ends up being for every character in the film.

The theme of this movie is “anger begets more anger”, it’s a simple story that is just brilliantly executed. That masterful tone that the film achieves by balancing funny moments with truly emotional ones is all due to the score and choice of songs throughout. The final act and conclusion leaves an open-ended question to the audience very much like In Bruges, and we are left reflecting back on what we just experienced as an audience. Burwell’s score expertly paints us this story of pain and anger on the outside, with this raw helplessness on the inside that we’ve all felt when something truly makes us mad and we can’t do anything about it. The movie is pure McDonaugh and the score is pure Burwell. Their collaborative power is as strong Burwell's works with the Coen brothers. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is really just a film examining how we deal with anger and the frustration that brews from that, and the way Burwell’s score accents what’s onscreen is a perfect compliment to the narrative. This is such a fine example of filmmaking and score on the highest level.

Murder On The Orient Express by Patrick Doyle (Review)

posted Nov 14, 2017, 3:35 PM by Kaya Savas

Patrick Doyle and Kenneth Branagh go together like peas and carrots, so it’s always great to see such a top tier composer continuing a working relationship with a director that has spanned for decades. Murder On The Orient Express had lots of great promise with Branagh acting and directing, the classic Agatha Christie story, a crazy talented cast and of course Doyle doing the score. Unfortunately the adaptation falls short of presenting something truly engaging for an audience even though Doyle does his best to build atmosphere and intrigue.

The issue with Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express is that the audience really spends no time with any of the characters enough to care about the mystery. The entire focus of the film is really Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, and his journey from OCD detective to realizing the world isn’t as black and white as “good and bad”. The film opens in Jerusalem and Doyle’s music heavily comments on the location, almost too much. Yes, we are in the Middle East, but it hits us on the head a bit hard and we really don’t get the score’s true identity till the second act. The music is so large and so lush in the first act that it feels like it’s for a different movie altogether. In the second act we see the score shift into mystery mode, and it does a great job of building atmosphere and intrigue. Unfortunately the narrative unfolding onscreen is not terribly atmospheric or intriguing. The film fails to pull the audience in, and the score has a hard time finding any kind of emotional pull to make the story engaging. To give credit to Doyle, the film itself doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. At time the movie seems to only care about Hercule Poirot's arc, at times we are deep into finding motive, and then we bounce around from all the possible suspects in the train. Instead of feeling like an organic unraveling of a mystery, it almost feels like we are checking things off a shopping list. Since the film doesn't really focus on any one thing too well, we sort of get this generic narrative that doesn't give enough substance for the music to work off of.

While we have some subtle use of motifs throughout the score, nothing really creates the emotional weight that is needed. At no point in the score do you feel suspense or danger, there isn’t really a threat present. In fact all the steam from the narrative sort of falls flat after the actual murder happens. In the end it’s really gorgeous music and it’s wonderfully written, but the narrative it was written for is pretty empty. Patrick Doyle and Kenneth Branagh are always a great team, but this adaptation was pretty stale throughout, and no matter how much finesse Doyle put into the score it couldn’t really make it terribly compelling. From its out of place and stylistically different first act to its surface level structure, the score for Murder On The Orient Express is pretty to listen to but doesn’t carry much dramatic weight beyond hitting the standard beats of the story.

The Rendezvous by Austin Wintory (Review)

posted Nov 14, 2017, 3:34 PM by Kaya Savas

Austin Wintory reunites with Captain Abu Raed director Amin Matalqa on The Rendezvous, an old-fashioned adventure movie with romantic flair that’s very much in the vein of Indiana Jones. The plot is a bit whimsical in that we have a doctor and a government bureaucrat teaming together to solve the mysterious death of the doctor’s treasure-hunting brother, all the while being chased by a doomsday group who believe that they are in possession of a scroll that could bring the end of days. This all takes place in modern times by the way, so the old-fashioned approach doesn’t necessarily work with the modern day setting, but the whole thing is held together very nicely by Austin Wintory’s fantastic score.

Austin took a very classic approach to the score, and it truly does instill this old-fashioned adventure feel into the story. The score has large sweeping moments but can still be quite intimate. Also the music never comments too much on the film’s Middle East setting, meaning we don’t have a score filled with Middle Eastern sounds and styles. The score is more in the neighborhood of Bernard Herrmann’s North By Northwest, but of course done with that signature Austin Wintory style. The character moments all feel very genuine, but the score always seems to be a bit more grand and adventurous than what the story is. The moments that focus more on the fun chemistry of our two leads are where the score shines the most.

The Rendezvous is a breath of fresh air and truly a unique score and experience from Austin Wintory. This globe-trotting adventure movie with a hint of suspense and romance is an unexpected one, but the score Austin got to compose is pretty great. The limited budget, range of the actors and modern setting make it hard for everything to gel together evenly, but the score smoothes over the film’s bumps enough to make it a pretty enjoyable journey.

The Snowman by Marco Beltrami (Review)

posted Nov 7, 2017, 9:49 AM by Leo Mayr   [ updated Nov 15, 2017, 9:35 AM ]

The Snowman
isn't what I'd call a bad movie. It's a disappointing one. The trailers looked great, there was a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera but somewhere, somehow a lot went wrong. "Unfinished" is the word that comes to mind. There's clearly a lot of potential, but the final cut just feels rough and rushed, with the score by Marco Beltrami being the only sign that this is actually a finished film.

Beltrami delivers an effective score, that greatly enhances the film's suspenseful atmosphere and ties the narrative together with a simple yet memorable theme. The score is subtle but powerful, both emotional and unsettling. Beltrami delivers a tense and unique score with a lot of emotional weight and more than a few fantastic pieces. There's really nothing to complain about in terms of the music. However, on more than one occasion, the score seemed out of sync with what was happening on screen. As if the score was being used like library music, instead of being tailored to the scenes. And given the extensive behind the scenes drama on the production, it's hard to tell what went wrong.

The film had a lot of potential, and one can't help but wonder how much a few more months of production might have improved the movie. Marco Beltrami's score for the most part makes the experience feel more like a complete movie and adds a great deal to an otherwise flawed narrative. While The Snowman probably won't stay on people's minds for very long, fans of Beltrami's work should be well compensated by the gripping score. At least the album can't be dragged down by rushed editing...

Blue Planet II by Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea & David Fleming (Review)

posted Oct 30, 2017, 9:15 AM by Kaya Savas

When the musical duties for Planet Earth II fell on the laps of Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe through Bleeding Fingers Music, we were treated to some of the most gorgeous and emotionally fueled nature documentary scoring in the history of the genre. Hans Zimmer’s powerful theme provided an anchor point for the score to grow, and Jacob and Jasha then brought different corners of the earth to life musically. It was beautiful, it was staggering, it was brilliant and so very emotional. It was a wonderful example of image and sound working together.

With Blue Planet II you immediately feel all of what made Planet Earth II so great, but something definitely feels different. Rather than exploring corners of the Earth and finding individual moments, we rather feel that here everything is connected in a strong powerful way. Blue Planet II finds a central emotional narrative as the series explores the shallows and depths. In many ways it feels like a traditional narrative film score rather looking into different windows to see a new scene with each glance. And while the series will explore different areas of our natural aquatic world, Blue Planet II seems to have this deep old soul shining at the heart of it all.

The score is so immense, it’s so full of life and wonder yet so beautifully delicate at times. Water feels like the main character in this score, and not just say a glass of water but more like every body of water on the planet. That is what the music is carrying. As we explore the life existing in the water, we discover these flourishes and moments of raw beauty or intensity. The music moves like water too, it feels lush and carries weight but is very nimble. There are still moments where a certain animal will get its own unique motif to make it standout, but overall this musical body feels more like a single piece of fabric rather than a quilt made up of individual squares. The series is also another perfect example of the power of music and image working together.

Overall, Blue Planet II accomplishes another amazing feat of bringing the natural world to vivid life. The music is just as lush and awe-inspiring as the visuals that the BBC Earth team was able to capture. Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea and David Fleming were able to weave a beautiful score that was filled with beauty, energy, danger and awe. The music is so full of life, and it flows very much like water for a single narrative feel rather than a sequence of moments. Blue Planet II is some of the finest nature documentary scoring you’ll find.

Thor: Ragnarok by Mark Mothersbaugh (Review)

posted Oct 30, 2017, 9:14 AM by Kaya Savas

With Marvel embracing the glowing neon of nostalgia in Guardians Of The Galaxy, we see that now seeping into the universe of Thor. With Thor: Ragnarok gone are the days of muted grey and blues. Let’s get some synth and color! Marvel did their typical hiring of an unconventional director for one of their big-budget tentpoles, but it seems this time the leash was a bit longer. Taika Waititi is mostly known for indie comedies likes Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do In The Shadows. Here he brings the improv approach to Thor: Ragnarok where the film was shot mostly with improv acting (similar to Curb Your Enthusiasm). Coming in to score the synthy sc-fi action is Mark Mothersbaugh who was another unexpected creative choice. With Waititi behind the camera and Mothersbaugh in the composer’s chair, we finally have a Marvel movie with its own pretty unique personality.

Mark Mothersbaugh has dipped his feet into the action pool here and there, but usually with action-comedies like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie. Thor: Ragnarok definitely falls in the action-comedy genre. The interesting part of Mothersbaugh has always been his sound; coming from the band world with Devo he’s always given a unique twist to his scores. This particular score is a score with a lot of personality, and thankfully it doesn’t give us another dose of generic heroism. The score feels old fashioned, and not just because it blends in some retro synths. There’s something about how actively the music is working that just makes it feel old-fashioned, and in the best way possible. The music doesn’t feel like a blanket that was easily pulled over to make everything feel bold and heroic, it really feels tailored like a great-fitting suit. Structurally, everything is pretty sound with a great 3-act structure that is constantly elevated by the score’s personality. The simple story of Thor teaming with Hulk to stop the destruction of Asgard gives plenty of room for the characters to add a lot onscreen through their comedic interactions. And like most good comedy-action scoring, the score leaves the funny stuff to the actors. Throughout the running time of the story, the music helps keep the world feel real and engaging, and it's one the best strength's of Mothersbaugh's stylistic approach.

Some people might be getting tired of retro synth-based scores with the style making a very strong comeback in the past few years, but man does it make things great when the style is used by someone who knows how to handle them. Recently we’ve had full on synthetic scoring experiences such as with Blade Runner 2049 and Stranger Things, but this blending of orchestral gravitas with synth colors makes Thor: Ragnarok stand out as having a unique personality. Thor: Ragnarok is just pure fun. The music doesn’t comment on the improvised comedy that makes up the character interactions, instead it builds the world and makes it full of energetic life. This is a great sci-fi action score that gives Thor a fun personality, and in turn makes his past overly dramatic heroic adventures pretty forgettable.

Stranger Things 2 by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein (Review)

posted Oct 30, 2017, 9:14 AM by Kaya Savas

Even if you don’t watch Stranger Things, you know about Stranger Things. Th sci-fi series filled with nostalgic stylings returns for a second season, and so do composers Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein. The elitists of the soundtrack community came down hard on this synthwave score, criticizing it harshly. That always threw me off, because the score is one of the many reasons why this series is so great. For Season 2, Dixon and Stein refine the soundscape of Stranger Things for another fantastic journey.

The second season of Stranger Things is right alongside the first when it comes to the score. The music plays with a lot of really great textures, loops and atmospheres to build some really memorable moments. The score feels bright when it needs to like neon sparks igniting, and then can plunge us into uncertain darkness. There are moments of tranquil calmness in-between the action that allow the characters to take the spotlight. The music also seems to have more shape this season than the last one. And that’s a cool thing to see some progression and evolution to the sound. Let’s also remember that Dixon and Stein made their composing debut with Stranger Things. There is definitely an obvious maturity to the music in Season 2, the structure of the whole thing is tighter and more precise. Like with anything, aim gets better with practice. We can see their aim as storytellers a lot more focused here which shows that the score is not wholly reliant on its synth stylings.

Stranger Things: Season 2 is a more focused and more precise narrative with all the same feel and atmosphere of Season 1. Dixon and Stein bring their synthwave sounds to take us on another immersive journey to the upside-down. The music has wonderful moments of reflective tranquility, intense gritty textures and a sense of wonder that is still intact from Season 1. The music to Stranger Things is a giant piece of the puzzle that makes the show work, and it wouldn’t be Stranger Things without Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.

Thank You For You Service by Thomas Newman (Review)

posted Oct 30, 2017, 9:08 AM by Kaya Savas

War dramas are always interesting films because war is such a real part of our world, and we see this duty to tell the stories of real people who serve in them. Thank You For Your Service is the directorial debut of Jason Hall who is an actor and screenwriter whose most notable screenwriting effort is American Sniper. With Thank You For Your Service we see another examination of PTSD as soldiers must re-adapt to life back at home. The score comes to us from Thomas Newman, who approaches this story with a restrained approach that allows the music to work under the surface rather than over it.

The score for Thank You For Your Service is not your typical Thomas Newman score in that you won’t see him fully embracing his signature “isms” like he did on war films like Jarhead. This story is about the stress of war, and the score tries to work on a psychological level by being more atmospheric and ambient. The tone is somber and reflective, and it seems to find just the right balance of being present without overpowering. The musical colors and textures that Newman layers in work well, and the overall effect of the score works. It’s just that it seems the overall approach was to err on the side of caution rather than being a little bolder with melody. Since the music was written with a light-handed approach, and with short pieces that are meant to inject into moments rather than guide across the film, the score feels a tad flat. The narrative finds a really nice ending though and is able to close things in a satisfying manner.

Thank You For Your Service is a score that gets the job done by finding the right tone and going for a restrained approach. Thomas Newman doesn’t indulge himself in his usual signature sounds although the score itself is undeniably his voice. Thank You For Your Service is a respectful approach to telling real-life stories of soldiers struggling with PTSD. The score itself could have gone for some bolder choices to really tackle what PTSD is translated into music, but it chose to pinpoint on certain emotions and let those feelings ease into the scenes. The score is a solid effort even if there’s nothing remarkably original about or unique about it.

The Circle by Danny Elfman (Review)

posted Oct 23, 2017, 8:40 PM by Koray Savas

James Ponsoldt reunites with composer Danny Elfman for The Circle, a tech thriller that follows Emma Watson's character as she rises through the ranks of a bustling company, only to discover its intentions are much more sinister than they appear. There's a strong sense of satire in the film, but not in the traditional sense. The Circle here is an obvious nod to Apple, with its focus on technology, social media, and unique design aesthetics; and while the film raises the age old conflict of privacy and ethics when it comes to consumer products, it mostly knows what it is and plays the narrative straight.

Ponsoldt and Elfman last collaborated on 2015's The End Of The Line, which brought us one of the composer's more notably low-key and sparse efforts. The opposite approach is taken here, with Elfman fully embracing synth and electronics to fit in with the narrative, and turning that dial up to eleven. I give a lot of merit to the score due to the bold nature of Elfman's approach. Such a score might be commonplace for other composers, but with Elfman forgoing a lot of what he is traditionally known for and succeeding really well at it, adds more weight to the proceedings. 2017 is one of his best years in ages, and The Circle is truly a good score that uses electronics in a much brighter way than other composers would. He nails the corporate espionage aspect of the film, using the music to symbolize this powerful entity with a fake smile and an ulterior motive. It reminds me a lot of Valve's Portal games and how the music is used there. Rhythm and rising action reign supreme, creating a driving force in the music that propels the listener through the 41-minute runtime with ease.

The Circle is a joyride of electronics and pulsing rhythms. Danny Elfman brings life to the setting and narrative in the film through the duality of his score. Part high-octane thriller, part-"source music," the music here never tires or loses steam. It punches through with great force and colorful personality that is typically hard to find in the genre.

Tulip Fever by Danny Elfman (Review)

posted Oct 23, 2017, 8:09 PM by Koray Savas

Tulip Fever is Justin Chadwick's period piece about a painter commissioned to draw a portrait of a rich man's wife in 17th century Amsterdam. The film utilizes common archetypes: the painter falls in love with the girl, the powerful husband can't find out, someone else knows of the forbidden love, they hatch a plan to be together... there are no surprises. However, this is an atypical genre for Danny Elfman, who delivers a lush orchestral score that helps the film sell the emotion on screen.

The album opens with "Sophia's Theme," a lyrical piece with minimalistic structures, percussion, eloquent string writing, and touch of his traditional choir. It is a common thread weaved through the album that gives it a romantic anchor on which the rest of the score builds upon, though it lacks a strong melodic imprint that helps make the theme standout from the rest of the score. In this regard, the theme supports the backbone of Elfman's tone and mood, but never really shines on its own merits. Moreover, while the first third of the album sets up a rather light and frolicking affair, the music slowly develops into a richer and more intimate harmonic language. It truly is one of Elfman's most beautiful scores in many years. The way he devolves the bright nature of this budding love into something more sinister and dangerous gives the music dramatic flair and weight. It taps really well into the psyche of the characters and ties it directly into the narrative, creating a fulfilling listening experience. "The Grand Finale" is the highlight of the score, in which the culmination of the earlier elements come together into a grandiose climax. Elfman doesn't cut it off there, however, and gives the listen a well-timed denouement with "Happy Family" and a reprise of Sophia's Theme to send things off neatly.

Tulip Fever is a prime example of Danny Elfman adapting his style and sensibilities to a film's individualistic needs. While the music lacks the memorability of some of his greater scores, it brings forth a beauty and love that is not too often heard in his film music of late. There is a real sense of passion and care put into the development of this score, and it pays off splendidly in the end when it all comes together.

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