June 26, 2011
Action, Adventure, Film
1933, 2005, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis, Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, CGI, Evan Parke, Fay Wray, Film, film music, Howard Shore, Jack Black, James Newton Howard, Jamie Bell, Jessica Lange, King Kong, Kyle Chandler, Lady in the Water, Lord of the Rings, Max Steiner, movies, Naomi Watts, Oscars, Peter Jackson, picture, poster, review, score, soundtrack, Thomas Kretschmann, Venture, Werner Herzog, WETA
How do you go about trying to top the greatest film of your career? Never mind that said film only won 11 Oscars, made over $1 billion worldwide and is already considered one of the masterpieces of cinema. And yet after taking the world by storm, Peter Jackson turned to revive a failed project from his pre-“Lord of the Rings,” namely a remake of the film that he had seen at the age of nine and that inspired him to make movies in the first place. The 1933 version of “King Kong” starring Fay Wray was revolutionary in its own right, completely changed the face of cinema’s visual effects and offers one of the most iconic scenes ever committed to film. A rather faithful tribute to that classic escapist adventure, Jackson’s take bloats the tale to epic levels, constantly pushing the envelope of digital technology and recreating the world’s favourite 25-foot gorilla and the world he inhabits one pixel at a time.
At the height of the great depression, megalomaniac movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) charts an expedition to an uncharted and deserted island to film an adventure romp. Chased out of New York by the studio executives and the police, Denham and his mismatched crew chart course for Skull Island, this last blank space on the map on a rusty old ship named the “Venture”. Last minute cast member is fledgling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) who jumps at a chance to work with writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, looking dishevelled as usual). A love affair soon blossoms between the pair. Against all odds, Denham finds the island and the crew go ashore but soon find that it’s not so deserted after all. Prehistoric natives manage to capture Ann and in a Temple-of-Doomesque ritual offer her to the beast of the jungle – the giant gorilla of the title. Not content with leaving her at the mercy of this monster, Jack leads a company to bring her back, encountering all the creatures of the island that include dinosaurs and some very nasty creepy-crawlies. From an excellent opening montage of 30s New York to the drama on the ship, the film starts very promisingly. Indeed, by allowing over an hour of running time before Skull Island even shows on the horizon, Jackson gives himself a great opportunity for character building, humour and atmosphere. The Venture’s crew are a shady lot: Thomas Kretschmann’s Captain Engelhorn, Andy Serkis as Lumpy the cook, Evan Parke and Jamie Bell as a great mentor/student duo. There’s also an excellent turn by Kyle Chandler as lead actor Bruce Baxter. Indeed the opening act is full five star material.
However, as much as Jackson can showcase his talents at the beginning, most of Kong’s most interesting aspects are sidelined come the jungles of Skull Island. The director has decided on all-out action here but as the creatures and corpses pile up, the film’s flaws become more and more, and painfully obvious: The over-reliance on CGI yields some badly rendered shots (remember that this film won an Oscar for visual effects), the sheer number of VFX shots clearly just too much for the usually excellent Weta Digital. Far more problematic is the running time. Like one of Carl Denham’s safari pictures, the film simply goes on for a few reels too many. The middle section in particular sags under its own flab and even come the climatic Empire State sequence, the aeroplanes circle one time more than necessary. Drawn out like this, there will come a moment when every viewer realises the nonsense of what is essentially a love story between a woman and a gorilla. At that point, either nervous laughter or hysterical giggles will be inevitable. It’s a tricky situation because Jackson is clearly a geek in love with his material but unlike “Rings” he has let the fanboy within get carried away. It’s a huge shame because there’s so much to like about this version of “King Kong.”
Such as? Kong himself is well done, with motion-capture courtesy of Andy “Gollum” Serkis and great effects work, though it’s a fine line between human and animal emotion. The live-actors do well too. Naomi Watts, a worthy successor to Fay Wray and Jessica Lange. Jack Black too is clearly having a ball as the crazed Denham, a great tribute to directors like Werner Herzog. It is a pity that most of the great supporting cast aren’t given as much exposition later on. The scenes in New York also benefit from awesome production values and the “look” of the picture, dinosaur stampedes aside, is fantastic. In the end it’s just not enough.
At the eleventh hour, Howard Shore’s score was rejected and James Newton Howard was drafted in as a replacement with literally weeks to write a score to a three-hour film. The reasons will probably remain forever in the secrets vault of Hollywood and while Shore probably wrote great music, Howard’s replacement is amazing, especially considering the time constraints. Famously, the composer never met the director until the film’s premiere, the pair conversing through video chat, one in Los Angeles, the other in New Zealand. Though he cannot quite rival grand master Max Steiner’s epic score, Howard’s score overflows with character, providing a relatively straight action score. The music’s main themes are presented at the outset and crop up again repeatedly. Highlights include “Defeat is always momentary” which plays to Denham and “It’s in the subtext” which is a slowly building suspense cue that plays over Anne and Jack’s first kiss. The motif for Kong is a brass pattern, heard primarily in “King Kong” and again in “Something Monstrous…” The climatic cues “Beauty killed the beast” are simply numbered with haunting female vocals almost equalling Howard’s career high-point “Lady in the Water.” While it’s regrettable that Shore’s music was rejected, Howard’s score is among the best of 2005 though the Oscar remains elusive for the composer.
If only Jackson had been able to maintain the thrills and suspense of that first, sublime hour, this could have been a truly great film. As it stands, this “King Kong” is overlong and will remain a mixed bag for viewers.
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June 18, 2011
Action, Film, Sci-Fi
Basic Instinct, Basil Poledouris, Casper Van Dien, Clancy Brown, Conan the Barbarian, Denise Richards, Dennis Muren, Film, film music, ILM, Jake Busey, Jerry Goldsmith, Jurassic Park, Klaus Kinski, Klendathu, Michael Ironside, movies, Neil Patrick Harris, Oscars, Patrick Muldoon, Paul Verhoeven, Phil Tippett, picture, poster, review, Robert Heinlein, Robocop, score, soundtrack, Star Wars, Starship Troopers, Titanic, Werner Herzog, Wyoming
“Starship Troopers” is extremely difficult to judge and depending on your social and political views, or your ability to tolerate gratuitous violence and kitsch dialogue, it may well be judged as a masterpiece or alternatively as one of the greatest jokes Hollywood has ever afforded itself. Polarising audiences and critics upon release, it remains divisive and for director Paul Verhoeven (who was already on his way down his career ladder throughout the 90s) it effectively marked the demise of a career. Those expecting a space opera in a grand, Lucasian style will be alienated by the jarring socio-satyrical elements and while Verhoeven fans will find his flowing narration correct and present, even they cannot eschew the film’s very rough edges. Consider yourself warned.
Loosely adapted from Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel of the same name, “Starship Troopers” takes place in a futuristic world where human civilisation continually ventures into space, colonising solar system after solar system. Threatened by arachnid-type aliens from the planet of Klendathu, the humans declare war on the primitive bugs, intent on wiping them out in a final-solution style operation. Entire action sequences as well as punctuations of recruitment videos play like fast-food military propaganda to appeal to the masses of youths who can sign up to become “citizens,” a more privileged class of people than the ordinary civilians. Joining up for entirely different reasons is Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), namely to follow his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards). Also joining up are Dizzy (Dina Meyer) and Zander (Patrick Muldoon) who have the hots for one member of the couple, as well as Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) who joins an intelligence division. After an intense training boot-camp the troupe are dropped on Klendathu, in the middle of the inter-galactic conflict. Naturally, E.T. turns out to be far more intelligent and far less friendly than originally thought and the military mission quickly turns into a desperate struggle for survival. Jake Busey, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside also star.
There is no one moment in the entirety of the film’s running time that escapes controversy. We are made acutely aware of the parallels humanity’s expansion into space as a superpower and similar enterprises on our home soil. On the one hand, such a vision of the future may be terrifyingly realistic (cynics in particular will have a field day here) and takes on a rather frightening form when applied to the American dream of liberty, on the other hand Verhoeven’s depiction of humans as Third Reich emissaries is painful and irritatingly crude. What will ultimately sink the film for many viewers is the duality created out of these satyrical undercurrents. Verhoeven can’t decide if he’s making a straight action picture or something with more far-reaching implications is clumsy, leaving the end product tangled and confusing. This latter point is certainly strengthened by the extremely clunky dialogue and wooden acting by the entire ensemble that all point to cheap, B-movie rather than something with a serious message, regardless of any satyrical statement. Often, the film veers dangerously close to farcical and laughable, understandably going over the edge for some viewers.
It’s quite possible that your relationship with “Starship Troopers” bears resemblance to that of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Be that as it may, looking past the plot or its message and focusing purely on the technical side of things, viewers will find much more to universally enjoy. Verhoeven’s sense for flowing narration within individual scenes remains second to none, even if the dialogue is tosh, harking back to the days of “Basic Instinct” and “Robocop.” All the action is clearly and consistently choreographed, avoiding the confused “shake” that permeates so many post-Private-Ryan action. And finally, the visual effects are absolutely top-drawer, quite rightly nominated for an Academy Award though its loss to “Titanic” is hard to dispute. Nevertheless the bugs, including the climatic “brain-bug” are excellently rendered by Phil Tippett (ironically nominated against his “Jurassic Park” collaborator Dennis Muren) and Co. at ILM. The actual planet is rooted in reality, shot in Wyoming, but the bugs fit in almost flawlessly. As far as alien world’s go, the look is not unlike the original “Star Wars” and equally realistic.
Paul Verhoeven regularly collaborated with both masters Basil Poledouris and Jerry Goldsmith but for “Starship Troopers,” the former was first choice. Poldouris’ score plays mainly to the über-patriotic elements of the story with muscular brass and percussion, explored primarily in the heroic “Klendathu Drop” for the troop deployment and “Fed Net March” which plays to the propaganda video sequences. Amidst the frenetic action, there is little room for respite but Poledouris finds a beautiful lament in “Dizzy’s Funeral.” The rest of a disappointingly short album presentation is ballsy and militaristic but in the end, Poledouris can’t quite return to the brutal form of his “Conan the Barbarian” masterpiece. In retrospect, Poledouris probably fulfilled Verhoeven’s brief but it would nevertheless have been interesting to see what Goldsmith might have conjured for the project.
As was originally the concept behind “Star Trek,” sci-fi can be a great platform for socio-political comment. Undoubtedly, Verhoeven both succeeds and fails at this task. “Starship Troopers” will make a mark on you but if that be scarring or insightful will depend largely on the individual viewer. A middle-of-the-road rating tries to take account both sides of the story but realistically, any rating from one through five could be successfully be argued for.
Do you consider Paul Verhoeven’s film a masterpiece or trash? Why not leave a comment with your opinion – all feedback is appreciated! Also please follow me on Twitter. Shanx!
September 16, 2010
Bruce Broughton, Contact, Doug Adams, Event, Fellowship of the Ring, film music, Howard Shore, International Film Music Symposium, John Barry, John Williams, Johnny Depp, King Kong, Klaus Badelt, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Rescue Dawn, Richard Zemeckis, Rick Porras, Signing, The Extra Man, Troy, Werner Herzog
For the second year running some of the most renowned names in Film Music have descended on the classical music capital of the world to share their experiences and provide insights into their industry. And let those who would have thought that last year’s line-up of star guests (John Barry and Bruce Broughton no less) would be hard to top, fear not for the “FIMU” team have managed to attract even bigger stars this time round. Three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes as well as four Grammys are things most mortals couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams. Not so for Howard Shore whose scores to “The Lord of the Rings” epic fantasy trilogy stand at the heart of the Symposium’s attraction. In addition German composer Klaus Badelt, LotR producer Rick Porras and journalist Doug Adams will contribute to the celebrations for an increasingly popular slice of the film and music business.
My decision to register for and attend the Symposium was spontaneous at the very least. As it turned out, it became a post-exam pat on the back. So I took the train from Zurich to Vienna in the hope of seeing some the people who write such wonderful music and maybe grabbing a few autographs as well. Being prepared, I brought along some CDs by those artists, just waiting to be signed.
8:05 am. After a short train and foot journey and firmly clutching my bag containing those all important CDs I stand at Anton-Webern Platz 1, home of the Arts University. Registration is quick and simple: My name is ticked off and I am presented with my copy of the Symposium programme. The hall is quite empty but over the next hour it is filled with a very healthy number of students, composers and enthusiasts like me.
9:00 am. The excitement in the room is audible. Klaus Badelt has just poked his nose around the door and after a quick introduction by organisers Claudia Walkensteiner-Preschl, Dr. Gerold Gruber and Dr. Sandra Tomek he takes to the stage to rapturous applause. Despite having composed through the night and having a piano nearby to deal with any musical inklings that might pop up throughout the day he is animated and in good spirits. After some initial mic problems he begins to explain what exactly makes his composing process as well as composer/director relationships tick. Jokes and anecdotes abound about “Pirates of the Caribbean” but more importantly about Vietnam film “Rescue Dawn” and director Werner Herzog. He plays its opening scene and main titles, once without any musical soundtrack, once with. What a difference! The pictures may tell us a thousand words but without music a whole other level of emotional connection is lost on the audience. “The opening sequence,” he says “I always write towards the end of the process because only then do I know what I really want to say about the project.” In this case the title music foreshadows the main character. Very interestingly he shows a similar example where music was written and then removed by the composer, greatly adding to the scene’s power. Finally, just to please us fans, he plays the closing moments from “Pirates”, Johnny Depp showing once again why he was perfect for Jack Sparrow! It’s an hour that goes by way too quickly and to more applause Klaus makes way for Rick Porras who is already waiting in the wings.
10:00 am. For the rest of you, Rick Porras was a long-time associate of Bob Zemeckis before spending seven years of his life in New Zealand as Co-producer on “Lord of the Rings” – in fact he and his family liked it so much they decided to relocate permanently. Once the applause dies down Rick apologises for his Californian accent before illustrating several aspects of a film’s musical identity from a production point of view. Like Badelt he relies on audio-visual examples. He talks about Alan Silvestri’s brilliant integration of score with Zemeckis’ choice of source cues to give older audience members feelings of nostalgia for a particular time of their lives. A similar theme is the focus of the opening moments of “Contact”, Zemeckis taking the idea of radio waves in space as a platform to launch a medley of classic songs as we track out through the solar system. Moving on, he turns to LotR. Thus we are allowed to see part of the Moria and Khazad-Dum sequence from “Fellowship of the Ring” in story-board and pre-viz form next to the finished product. The application of this ‘animatic’ allowed for incredible savings in both time and money for a production that was, let’s face it, bigger than anything that had ever been undertaken. It’s so incredibly fascinating that this hour too passes without anyone noticing.
11:00 am. For the duration of a 15 minute break, some of us take advantage of Rick Porras being around for an early, private autographing session. Rick is very open and friendly, kindly answering all our requests and questions. He even asks a girl to send him a copy of the thesis she wrote on the music of LotR. Only on the reasons for Howard Shore’s score for “King Kong” being rejected he won’t elaborate. He did mention “Troy” before in relation to rejected scores but he is well aware of how touchy a subject it is for the studios. Still, one autograph down, three to go and I’m certainly not complaining!
11:10 am. The time has finally come to welcome Howard Shore and Doug Adams. Their time on the stage is conducted in an interview-style dialogue. Howard looks tired (jet-lagged more precisely) but he answers every question with great depth in his usual comfortably slow manner. It’s an atmosphere similar to a John Willams interview – one really gets the feel not only that one is in the presence of a true maestro but that here is one of that rare breed of traditional composers who need no fancy computers but only pencil and paper to write truly awesome music. Doug Adams goes along well with this, his questions are thought through and allow Shore to develop an answer and really say something worth while. A hiccup on the technological side of things means we can’t sample the Shire theme so an audience member whistles it instead. I also notice that Klaus Badelt has popped back in to listen. After some well-phrased and some not-so-well-phrased audience questions for Howard, it is up to Doug Adams to present us with the book he has spent several years working on. Unfortunately we won’t be able to buy it just yet but to compensate they give us order slips. It’s an expensive treat but a treat it will be: Beautifully bound and illustrated it looks fantastic and if Adams’ linear notes on the “Complete Recordings” soundtracks are anything to go by, the writing and thematic analysis will be of the highest order.
12:00 pm. The first part of the symposium is already over except for the autograph session. We all wait patiently in line with our CD inserts at the ready and hoping for a quick browse of the sample books available. It’s a long wait until I get to the front of the queue but am at least able to begin a lively discussion with a fellow fan on, well, film music. Someone (not me) who forgot to bring something signable decides to get his MacBook Pro signed instead. Its value probably trebled. Finally it’s my turn: Doug Adams, Howard Shore, avoid Rick Porras, Klaus Badelt. In that order. Badelt and Porras are both very chatty, Klaus is glad I liked his newest score “The Extra Man”. Howard Shore on the other hand is polite if a little distant. One gets the feeling he doesn’t particularly like PR exercises like this. Not that it matters, that signature (with golden marker and all…) looks fantastic. He must have practised that S. The last people in line are rushed through as the celebrities must rush away to a press conference for the gala concert on the 16th.
12:45 pm. At this point I leave the Symposium. Several workshops take place in the afternoon as well as a presentation of Austrian Film Music. Unfortunately I only have two days in Vienna and I want to see the city as well but I am really very glad I came.
In summation I can only say I hope a tradition has been started here and that the Symposium will become an annual event for many years to come. It’s a really great way to learn about film music and the processes involved. But it’s also great fun to meet with some of the people who write the great music I listen to. So, perhaps most importantly, it’s an event which takes place this side of the Atlantic, creating an industry event, something for European fans to enjoy, something that has really been lacking up to now. I wish could come back next year.