Saturday, April 13, 2013
Monday, November 19, 2012
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Yes, I am posting after over a year. Speaks volumes about my schedule, I guess! Hehe.
Presented in my comeback post is a series of spontaneous thoughts about John Williams’ wonderful, thematically rich score to Steven Spielberg’s latest film – an adaptation of Herge’s famous Tintin comic books, which I had the privilege to watch in exquisite 3D today. As an avid fan of the books, TV series, director and composer, there’s no way I could gonna miss on this one (many thanks to my wonderful parents for this, without whose support it wouldn’t have been possible). While the film itself is an excellent action/adventure flick expertly combining The Secret Of The Unicorn with the events of Crab With The Golden Claws while faithfully retaining the spirit of Herge’s classics at its heart, equally appreciable are the so-called “technical” aspects like the animation, cinematography, art direction, vocal performances… and the score.
NOTE: Spoilers ahead.
Collaborations between Williams and Spielberg are legendary, beginning with the critically acclaimed score to Jaws in 1975 and followed up with classics like the Indiana Jones series, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and the recent War Of The Worlds. Their latest collaboration would be Williams’ first score for a full fledged animated film, and as an enthusiast of that area, my interest was certainly built up even more. As someone who’s held Ray Parker’s dynamic main theme to the Ellipse animated series as a definitive theme for Tintin since childhood, I was certainly hoping that Williams would come up with something equally memorable and powerful for Spielberg’s film. The Adventures Of Tintin, which plays over the charmingly animated opening titles sequence, therefore certainly came as a mixed surprise. Far from a heroic or adventurous fanfare, we have a quirky, playful piece featuring woodwinds, harpsichord and tubular bells playing both themes for the titular character in a rather unconventional way that is a bit slow to grow, but immediately appreciable in its unique orchestral palette.
It is in union with the visuals that the significance of this decision displays its perfect aptness. Tintin’s theme is a catchy motif first introduced on clarinets and then bursting forth on brass in various points of action and adventure. The theme itself isn’t really developed much further, just like its character in this movie and the comics; he is essentially our guide and active narrator through the events, and that’s what the theme does – propel us forth through the adventure and boost its strength. The “B” portion of the theme (a signature of the maestro) also shows up separately during scenes of stealth or action, but neither of these is the driving them of the movie. That position is held by the ten-note theme representing the Unicorn, the majestic ship once commanded by Sir Francis Haddock, which held the treasure everybody is after in this film. It plays on suspenseful, mellow horns whenever it is referenced, whether in the form of the three miniature models holding the scrolls or when the ship itself is hinted at in some form.
Deliciously haunting through the first half, it gains its first full-on performance on the massive orchestra during a spectacular flashback sequence of Sir Francis and his crew engaging in battle against Red Rackham’s pirates in the stormy seas. I truly got chills when the theme raged into presence as the two ships crash into each other, the occupants of the enemy vessel leaping into the other in full onslaught. The theme is played in destructive mode in Red Rackham’s Curse And The Treasure as Sir Francis blows up the ship rather than let her fall into the slimy hands of the pirates. Perhaps the most well-developed theme is that representing the famous Captain Haddock, here in his introductory phases; the conflicted oboe tune represents his struggle with alcoholism and lack of focus and confidence. It receives performances of comic heroism during the events of the frentic Flight To Bagghar, and eventually reaches a sober zenith in the noble Captain’s Counsel as he bucks up the hopeless Tintin. When I first read of the book to be adapted, the sequence I was most looking forward to was undoubtedly the aforementioned sea battle, and here we also get two exquisite swashbuckling pirate themes from Williams – one representing the diabolical Red Rackham himself, and the other frequenting in swordfight scenes, before representing the “thirst of adventure” in general in The Adventure Continues.
The main villain of the film, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (a fairly minor character in the original comic), is initially given a menacing, vaguely Mid-Eastern nine-note motif during the scenes of Tintin and Haddock’s escape from the Karaboudjan, which is eventually replaced by Red Rackham’s theme in the final confrontation as Sakharine is revealed to be the descendant of the sinister pirate. Then there’s Snowy’s Theme, a refreshingly light-spirited and fast paced tune on strings and flute which perfectly fits Tintin’s hyperactive and cute companion as he faithfully accompanies him in the adventures. The two bumbling detectives, Thomson and Thompson, are given an aptly lazy clarinet theme that accompanies their sloppy efforts to chase the pickpocket, whoops, I mean kleptomaniac Mr. Silk. This wealth of themes, no less than the fabulous treasure of the Unicorn, is an absolute delight as it unfolds through the events of the film and each of them aptly interacts with the others as the circumstances unfold.
Whether it is in suspenseful cues like Marlinspike Hall or the ones featuring tooth-and-claw action music like Sir Francis And The Unicorn, never does Williams miss a single hit on time – the latter track even featuring several orchestral hits in rapid sync with sword clashes as Red Rackham’s and Sir Francis’ (a variant of the former) themes furiously battle each other with their respective characters. Notable is the liberal use of energetic woodwinds in tracks like Flight To Bagghar and fast-paced action material like Pursuit Of The Falcon and Clash Of The Cranes, though Williams takes care to never let them overpower the onscreen visuals. Some portions where the music takes a more prominent position are the aforementioned pirate sequences and portions of Escape From The Karaboudjan, especially the terrifying dissonant crescendo as the treacherous first-mate Alan steers the ship to crush what he thinks is Tintin and Haddock’s boat. Comic cues like Introducing The Thompsons and Snowy’s Chase and Capturing Mr. Silk are a delight in their respective scenes. The summary and union of this wealth of themes in Return To Marlinspike Hall and Finale is truly wonderful as well. While the official album is missing some interesting cues (including the scenes of Tintin first meeting the captain and their hijacking of the Portuguese seaplane), it is relatively well presented.
Although Spielberg’s upcoming film War Horse seems like a stronger contender at the Oscars next year, inevitably in the score department as well (also delivered by Williams), I do hope the score for The Adventures Of Tintin gets due recognition eventually because while not really something groundbreaking, it’s a refreshing return to Williams’ earlier action/adventure scores that turned many of us into his fans, and is undoubtedly one of the finest and most entertaining scores of this year so far, while effectively enhancing the already great film it accompanies. And how can it not be even more special when you finally get a refreshing new drink of your favourite composer’s material after a drought of three long years? Top quality material as far as I am concerned; highly recommended.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Being a fan of video games, I’ll be among the first to stress how important music is in the game, as it is in films. From the catchy analog chip-processed tunes of Game Boy and Sega console games (I think the ant-lion boss sequence from Sonic The Hedgehog 2 of Game Gear featured some truly remarkable scoring) to Bobby Prince’s incredible MIDI scores to DOS games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, and now to full-on orchestral scores to highly advanced games by many well-known film composers like Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer, video game music has shown tremendous evolution, something which never fails to awe me. It’s now a distinct genre in itself with live concerts being performed, and official soundtrack albums being released so that the era of having to resort to crappy game rips to obtain the music is over.
It’s important to mention how many individual composers got their break through the video game music career. A great example would be Michael Giacchino (who won the Oscar this year for Up), whose Medal Of Honor scores are considered to be among the finest game scores ever, which helped him get his break into Hollywood film scoring. James Hannigan surpassed Nicholas Hooper’s Harry Potter film scores with his amazing, full-on orchestral scores to the fifth and sixth games, incorporating John Williams’ Hedwig’s theme brilliantly (sadly omitted from the digital soundtracks due to licensing issues). Martin O’ Donnell and Michael Salvatori produced some stunning material for Microsoft’s Halo games. There are so many examples to list, I could go on and on.
But firstly, someone who deserves special mention is composer Jesper Kyd. Most well known today for his award-winning scores to the Assassin’s Creed games, he is also famous for scoring the four Hitman games by Eidos Interactive. The games involve the player as a cloned assassin only named as Mr. 47, with a mysterious past and a connection with a dark Agency, carrying out various hits as stealthily as possible while evading guards and witnesses. The moral fibre of the games is usually cleverly maintained to some extent because the targets are usually high-profile criminals, mafia bosses, smugglers etc. One thing which fascinated me about these games is the many number of ways in which a mission can be accomplished, and having the choice of doing it both stealthily, or just dash in with guns blazing and massacre everyone in the level. Everything is accompanied by Jesper’s threatening, suspenseful music which is usually electronic/orchestral in nature.
The first game is a little too simplistic with some edgy controls, while the games 3 and 4 venture into seriously dark and bloody territory which I’m not really fond of. However, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is one of my all-time favourite games and, in my opinion, the best of the series so far. Although not as sophisticated with the arsenal, maps and AI as the later games, it’s still a wonderful experience with enough thrills and tough missions that would require ample practice, and very good graphics. The violence is quite kept in control and the bridge between darkness and suitability for most people is well made. Most importantly, it possibly features the best story in the series so far with a very satisfying and powerful ending. The full synopsis of the story can be easily found online, but in this post I’ll mainly be dealing with the salient material and its connection to the music.
NOTE: Spoilers ahead.
The story of Hitman 2 begins with Agent 47 retreating to a church in Sicily to seek peace. During his time in the church, he works as a gardener for the priest, Father Vittorio. 47 views Father Vittorio as his best friend and mentor, attending regular confessions to admit his sins. The priest understands that 47 has killed many but believes the man is decent at heart. Now, it wouldn’t exactly be an action/stealth game with a storyline so simple, would it? Perhaps to signify this, Jesper Kyd’s Main Title theme, instead of the electronica-laden tracks of the other games, begins with a large Gregorian male choir doing a majestic chant, soon joined by full orchestra – staccato strings supporting and brass blaring to play what could easily be a piece for a medieval war film. As a fitting companion to the superior storyline, a lot of the soundtrack features similar grand orchestral pieces, while maintaining the tradition of the Hitman music by incorporating some electronica-driven ambient material too. Jesper Kyd states in an interview –
“After the electronic-driven score for Hitman: Codename 47, the orchestral Hitman 2: Silent Assassin score was a new direction for the sound of Hitman, although there are still a few purely electronic tracks in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin.”
Shortly after meeting the priest and the player learning the controls, 47 enters the church’s confession booth to admit his sins. Here a new three-note motif is introduced for 47, played by trumpet and a restrained flute, gradually incorporating more of the orchestra. The track, titled Waiting For Action, is followed by a full-fledged dramatic track based on the same motif titled Action Begins, as Father Vittorio is kidnapped by the Italian Mafia and 47 discovers the ransom note left by them. The track is simultaneously exciting and tragic – with strings playing emotional counter melodies as horns blare and snare rhythms drive the music forward. This is the same track which plays in the next level (Anathema) as 47 ventures into the Villa of the Don responsible for the abduction and kills him, but is unable to find Vittorio. I didn’t notice this track much in the other levels, so I guess this represents 47 taking revenge on Vittorio’s immediate kidnappers.
After reading the ransom note, 47 decides to contact his old Agency again and take their help in finding Vittorio. He knows this is a deal which works for both sides – he’ll have to go back to his dark ways from which he had been running so far. But his respect for his friend Vittorio and determination to find him at all costs, striking down every obstacle and leaving a trail of dead enemies in his wake, propels him to finally make this hard decision. The emotion behind this is what is captured in the following track – 47 Makes A Decision, quite possibly the best track of the soundtrack. Beginning with low strings on percussive beats, a French horn plays notes of both tragedy and vigour with determination as eventually the string section joins in – a part which never fails to give me the shivers. The track eventually rises to a grand heroic crescendo with full orchestra, literally shouting “Behold, the hero has returned!”. This portion is particularly fun when it plays alongside 47 causing great massacres in various levels. The usage of this track in the final scene and end credits as 47 leaves Father Vittorio and the Gontranno church behind to go back to his old ways, realizing that’s the life which was always meant for him, is another truly inspired decision.
47’s missions in this game take him to various countries around the globe, and most of them have their own suitable theme music to provide an authentic feel to the locations. The missions in Russia feature well-composed, catchy martial marches in the tracks 47 In St. Petersburg and Trouble In Russia, as 47 disguises himself as a Russian soldier to assassinate enemy military generals. A clever play on these motifs is done in the track The Setup, as 47 returns to St. Petersburg towards the end of the game, only to discover that the mission is a trap set up by the mastermind behind everything, Sergei Zavorotko.
It’s remarkable how Jesper Kyd brings a truly authentic feel to the levels’ musical scores even with these highly Westernized tracks – Japanese Mansion, with its banging ethnic percussion and flutes joined by a huge orchestra, was stuck in my head for weeks after completing the missions to infiltrate Hayamoto’s ninja-infested castle. Japanese Snow Castle, with the Westernized Eastern motifs on brass, brings back memories of the treacherous trek through the snowy valley surrounding the location, infested with highly alert guards and deadly snipers.
The action then moves onto Malaysia, where 47 is supposed to take down an enemy systems hacker named Charlie Sidjan. Curiously, the Malaysian missions do not have any specific theme music of their own, and most of the music is a mixture of the previously mentioned tracks or the ambient material. A new track named The Penthouse does appear during the final of the levels, playing during 47’s encounter with dangerous women in Charlie Sidjan’s penthouse. The track is a highly tense action track, featuring high strings screeching out notes of danger and dread as eerie blasts from the brass highlight it. The level itself is a fairly easy one, but the track reappears during another highly tense moment in the Setup level, as 47 sneaks up from behind to take down his evil clone, Mr. 17, in the embassy building, before making a narrow escape.
The following missions in Nuristan feature appropriate Middle-Eastern influenced orchestral melodies in the track Desert Sun and Arabian Dance. The missions in India are underscored by the tracks Streets Of India and Mission In India. Being an Indian myself, I couldn’t help but notice that the music doesn’t really sound Indian, and feels much more similar to Mideastern material. There’s a tabla on high reverb with strings playing the aforementioned melody over it, but neither the rhythms nor the melody sound close to Indian music to me. I wish some more research had gone into Indian music for this one. Nevertheless, this isn’t a big complaint and the tracks work great both in the gameplay and as standalone music.
Moving past the thrilling Return To St. Petersburg mission, 47 discovers that he’s been betrayed and returns to Gontranno, only to find the place in a much more sinister situation than we remember. The lively animals are gone and underneath the dark and rainy sky, Sergei’s henchmen circle the church like jackals as Sergei himself holds Father Vittorio hostage in the confession booth. In the inevitable final battle that follows, the track End Boss provides an apt musical backdrop – a very un-melodic and wild track with eerie string ostinatos and dissonant brass bursts building the tension in the ugly situation. There’s no heroic resolve – as 47 finally disposes of each of the armed goons and takes down Sergei, the ambient music takes over, followed by a reprise of Waiting For Action as 47 talks to the injured Father Vittorio about leaving Gontranno. Taking the cross Father Vittorio gives him, 47 walks out of the church – now littered with the bodies of slain enemies. Stopping at the broken door, he stops and presents a dramatic monologue –
“Always knew I didn't belong in this world. I wasn't made for this. But I'll never forget- those who betrayed me, and those who never failed my trust. I'll be carrying nothing from Gontranno but this lesson: never trust anyone and rely on your instincts. Forget the past. I'll never find peace here. So, I'll seek justice for myself. I'll choose the truth I like.”
The second decision is made; he hangs the cross on one of the splinters of the door, he pulls out his good ol’ hardballers and walks out into the fog to seek his destiny. And, apt to the situation, 47 Makes A Decision plays for a final time as the credits roll over the still gently swinging cross.
The score to Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is one of my favourite modern video game scores and goes on to show how much the genre has evolved lately. The majestic orchestral cues work extremely well within the game and are also great as a standalone listening experience. I personally feel this is both the best game and the best music score of the series so far, and truly worth checking out. The soundtrack was originally released on iTunes after the game’s release, and later released by La-La Land Records as a 2 CD set along with the soundtrack of the first Hitman game. The soundtrack also features the electronic ambient tracks which play throughout suspenseful situations in the game. I really recommend this one to fans of scores and orchestral music alike.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Thursday, February 18, 2010
I admit I’m not the biggest score of soundtracks for horror films, except some of the classics such as Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic score to The Omen. I also haven’t yet heard Kilar’s score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is widely considered one of the best horror scores of all time, and a big influence for the one I’m currently talking about. However, I am a big fan of Danny Elfman and his work on Tim Burton’s classic Sleepy Hollow. I don’t know whether I will be watching this new werewolf flick anytime soon or not, but I was definitely eager to hear what Danny would come up with a film so suited to his style of scoring. Like others, I was sorely disappointed when suddenly it was announced back in early November that due to the trouble-laden post production phase of the film’s cuts, Elfman’s score had been chosen to be replaced by a new one by electronica-based composer Paul Haslinger. Although I’m not familiar with Paul’s works, the description of this new score did not sound right to me at all. Thankfully, due to an unnatural turn of events, Elfman’s score was reinstated back in the film in January, and a score CD is due to be released on the 23rd this month by Varese Sarabande. It’s already out on iTunes, which is the version I’m talking about right now.
Elfman whips up a wonderfully dark, delicious and threatening score that is as creepy as Benicio Del Toro’s werewolf makeup in the film. The opening Wolf Suite (split into two tracks), consists of low, uneasily propulsive string ostinatos supported by dark piano chords, before the main “wolf” theme erupts – a supremely creepy cello theme that has “horror” written all over it. The music alternates between highs and lows through great performances by the orchestra, never letting go of that aura of horror and creepiness. There are softer, more solemn moments such as in The Funeral and The Healing Montage, as well as a wonderful string-based montage cue in The Traveling Montage. Danny delivers his classic adrenaline-fueled action music in tracks like Gypsy Massacre and Country Carnage. The album’s dramatic material begins its ascent from the First Transformation track, gradually rising to its climax in The Finale. The furious action music then calms down to reprise the sinister main theme one last time in Wolf Wild #2. The album presentation is excellent, delivering a coherent listening experience of 66 minutes in crisp, clear sound quality. I’m eager to get the physical CD once it’s released in stores here in India.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians – The Lightning Thief (Christophe Beck)
The only work of Beck I liked was his lovely emotional score for the TV series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. His other works tended to be too contemporary and electronic/synth-based for my tastes. That aside, I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me this score to the new Christopher Columbus movie was by the same man who scored the Pink Panther movies. The score caught me totally by surprise here – a grand, sweepingly epic orchestral score that I’d expect someone like Edward Shearmur or Joel McNeely to write. The main theme is fairly simple and sparingly but aptly used. The highlight here is the lush, rich orchestration and sweeping action/adventure music, the kind I’m ever so partial to. Tracks like The Hydra, Fighting Luke and Mount Olympus are my favourites here, highlights in an album that offers around an hour of pure, magnificent, coherent orchestral goodness. Thumbs up to Mr. Beck for this fun-filled ride, and hope to hear this side of him more often.