Three Reviews for your Weekend

Borders is having this 30% off DVD/CD clearance sale, and me being the savvy shopper I am couldn’t resist when I was there last Saturday.  After quickly scooping up the 3-Disc Criterion Collection set of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for under $40 I went over to the “Soundtracks” section and looked for the magical red stickers that indicated instant savings.

I ended up buying three scores for around $10 a pop, two films and one video game: Michael Giacchino’s Speed Racer, James Newton Howard’s Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton, and the score for the XBox360 game Mass Effect.  Disclaimer right now, of the three scores, I’ve actually only ever seen Michael Clayton, and I don’t even own a XBox360 (or a PS3 for that matter…or a Blu-Ray player, being a poor grad student sucks some days).   So here are some impressions after listening to these scores off and on this past week.

Speed Racer

So I’ll just say this, I think Michael Giacchino is one of the best young composers working in Hollywood today.  Between his work on The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Lost, the man has shown a wide range of skills and ability.  And if there is a knock against his Speed Racer score its that it sounds like all three of those scores thrown into a blender set to puree.  I hear bits and pieces of his previous work, but really, I don’t care!  As long as I’m hearing Michael Giacchino and not Danny Elfman or John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, I’m pretty content with a composer stealing from himself.  Hell, Beethoven did it, Mozart did it, Mahler did without even hiding it! And if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for Hollywood.

A lot of Giacchino’s work is hallmarked by his use of percussion, especially drumkit and mallets, giving his work a jazz/rock infused style, which is showcased in many cues on Speed Racer.  I can only assume that these cuts (given the titles and what I figure is the film’s plot) are mostly used for the racing sequences.  But he also shows his more tender side (which can be heard in many of Lost‘s death/reflection scenes) with cues like “Racing’s in Our Blood,” which almost rips off the “Life and Death” theme and music from Lost.

The last thing about the score is that, yes, he does incorporate the classic “Go Speed Racer Go!” theme song from the old cartoon.  Somewhat akin to Michael Kamen’s usage of Beethoven Nine, Finlandia, and ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’ for the Die Hard films, or even the usage of ‘Brazil’ in Brazil (see how I tied that in!), he weaves it into a few of the cues.   But Giacchino makes much more sparring use of the theme as opposed to Kamen’s more complete incorporation.  All in all, if I had to give a rating, I would give it about a 8/10.  Not ground breaking, but very enjoyable and listenable.

Michael Clayton

James Newton Howard’s Michael Clayton score is a harder nut for me to crack.  I’m not really as that familiar with his work as I should be, outside of his collaboration with Hans Zimmer on the new Batman scores.  Though after listening to Clayton (which comes in between the two Christopher Nolan helmed Batman films), I am starting to hear where the two composers start and stop on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

As with many composers these days, Howard makes great use out of studio/computer effects, blending them with more traditional orchestral elements.  Unlike Giacchino’s almost completely in-studio approach, but with a fresh take on the orchestra, Howard blends a sparse string section (with a few winds, I believe…I’m working from memory mostly) with electronic effects that creates a surreal audio accompaniment to a film whose promotional poster was an out-of-focus head shot of star George Clooney with the text “The Truth Can Be Adjusted” covering most of his face.

When I first saw this film, I must admit I wasn’t very struck by the score, in fact I remember thinking “Where is the music?”  Which is why I was surprised when it was nominated for an Oscar (though, I must admit my ears, in the past year, have become much more acute than they were a year ago).  But, after listening to the score, I finally get it.  Watching the movie, I had an almost constant sense of unease, almost, to overuse a word, surreal feeling.  I couldn’t quite pin down what was causing it, but I now realize it was the score.  Bravo, Mr. Howard.

Listening, though, it reminded me at times of a score which, to my knowledge, has yet to have a proper CD release: Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson’s Resident Evil score.  Say what you will about the film or the games, Beltrami and Manson crafted a hell of an eerie score for the film that far surpassed the film in quality.  Final score: 9/10, great atmospheric score that sets the tone for this surreal film.

Mass Effect

Outside of the Final Fantasy games, I haven’t payed much attention video game music, largely due to the fact that I’ve haven’t been a huge gamer, console or PC, since high school.  Mass Effect is a game I would like to play, though, given what I’ve read about its plot (I love sci-fi).  The score is credited to four people: Jack Wall (Lead Composer), Sam Hulick (co-composer), and additional music by Richard Jacques and David Kates.  Jack Wall I’ve actually heard of due to a NPR interview/story on video game music concerts.  What I can hear of his and his team’s efforts on Mass Effect, he should have a bright future (lest we forget that many VG composers have crossed over into film and tv, and many continue to work in the industry, Michael Giacchino being a prime example).

By Wall’s own admission, he was trying to tap into classic sci-fi scores like Blade Runner (Vangelis) and Dune (Toto???).  Without actually having played the game, I feel very ill-equipped to discuss it at length, but I found the music very effective in portraying mood and setting, very key for video game scores.  While I can point to similarities in some cues (‘Battle at Eden Prime’ to the Blade Runner end credits and “The Normandy’ to the aforementioned Resident Evil film score) I found the overall work to be quite good.  I can only hope to one day play the game.  Final score: 6.5/10.

Well, there you have it, my listening for the week.  And yes, I would consider all three scores superior to Tyler Bates’ Watchmen.

2 thoughts on “Three Reviews for your Weekend

  1. I have copies of both Speed Racer and Michael Clayton but I have yet to fully listen to either.

    I think you would like James Newtown Howard’s music a lot. His best scores tend to be for M. Night Shyamalan’s films. The Sixth Sense is good but I much prefer both Unbreakable and Signs. King Kong is good enough for the little time he had to do it. Waterworld is all out ridiculous, over-the-top fun (one of my personal favorites, actually) and Wyatt Earp is pretty good, too. I just recently heard his score for Defiance and it’s quite good (see my: “How to Win the Best Original Score Oscar” though).

    As far as the passages in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight written by James Newton Howard, any passage where the melody is harmonized pianistically, that’s most likely him.

    1. I’ve never been a big fan of Shayamalan’s films, but I’ll check out Howard’s scores on your recommendation, mein Herr.

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