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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Score Season #62
by Richard Jack Smith

Below are more soundtrack reviews of recent and archival releases.

Bird of Paradise (Max Steiner, 1932) **** Most composers who seek to reconstitute Max Steiner's art of film scoring have been known to flounder. Consider Dora and the Lost City of Gold by John Debney and Germaine Franco. Despite well meaning melodies, their score ended up contaminated by homage and cliche. This inevitably led to much overthinking as well as constipated musical performances from the orchestra. Yet  Bird of Paradise remains pure and untainted. Why? Because the themes belong. They rarely overcrowd. Thus, enthusiasm was tempered by talent, good taste as well as discipline. So strings, woodwinds and other key instrumental groups define clear narrative branches. This way, the listener can navigate and if necessary retrace steps with ease. 

Goliath and the Vampires (Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, 1961) **** Through a minimum of gestures, composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino tracks monumental human concerns with the richness of Roman and Greek mythology. Such understated sensitivity checks potentially grand or overblown mannerisms via deeper layers of meaning and resonance. My favourite track has to be "Palace Dance," which unveils some beautiful sentiments. Elsewhere, the organ identifies Grim Reaper markings within angelic corridors. Also, the violin echoes a virgin's sweet embrace. Notably, harp glissandi impart a heart sinking tumult as one stepping into a forbidden zone. Overall, Goliath and the Vampires calmly wraps the listener in furs of icy dread. 

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (John Powell, 2019) ** Regarding How to Train Your Dragon and John Powell's supposed musical legacy, online critical groups have reached insane levels of praise. Frankly, I cannot equate what I'm reading with what I'm hearing. For instance, the Celtic influences were better expressed in Richard Band's Dragonworld. Admittedly, the charms behind Powell's first score in the franchise were short-lived, the novelty wearing off quickly. There's a reason for that. Rather than establishing his own musical identity, Powell feeds off the devices from better composers, such as Danny Elfman and John Williams. The latter's genius at creating themes has remained consistent. Although Powell's efforts to mimic his idol seem admirable, it's make or break time. In  How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, he safely dances around cliches. Consider "Furies in Love," a frantic medley which seems charming at first, then turns capricious and ugly. Those darn choirs -- such a distraction in the second movie and soundtrack -- return in their annoying masses. Such a Frankenstein monster disables mood in favour of spectacle and bizarre wish fulfillment. Apart from Dragonworld, key musical designations were ripped from BraveheartEdward ScissorhandsBatmanHookGladiatorAlexander NevskyCutthroat Island and Jack the Giant Slayer. Thematically, all three soundtracks felt sparse and forgettable. The architecture comes across as flimsy, the rhythms flighty and the delivery rather flat. 

Narc (Cliff Martinez, 2002) ** Although Cliff Martinez keeps  Narc uncomplicated, much depends upon interpretation and experience. Indeed, some will behold an atmospheric vibe because it will remind them of the disconnected ambience between strangers passing one another in the street. Then again, a more literal take might deem this simply noise, a cluster of unfinished ideas. How do I feel? Ultimately, the conceit lies with "Notice Anything Strange?" Here the suggestion of mood ends up unexplored, so there are incidental or random building blocks without a home. Occasionally, the films of Michael Mann will have this floating quality in the music, like a special moment waiting to gain definition. Yet director Joe Carnahan seems content merely to let Martinez's sound design meander without ambition or thought. Now there are exceptions. Consider how the detectives obsess over the case and "Let's Sit on the House" makes this tangible and relevant. In the end,  Narc misses the haunting final steps which allowed Traffic to move beyond droning into a realm approaching street wise solemnity.

Passenger 57 (Stanley Clarke, 1992) **** For a long time, I have admired the "Main Titles" theme in Stanley Clarke's Passenger 57. It's a catalyst for the primary villain and it sets up the rhythm of the film. However, record label Epic did not include this cue on the official soundtrack. So reviewing Clarke's work comes with a caveat: how to rate the album even though it's incomplete. Meanwhile, "Skyjack" comes across as captivating and mysterious. In many ways, Passenger 57 carries jazz in its DNA. For example, "Lookin' Good (Cutter's Theme)," "Lisa" and "Cruisin'" function as extended jazz compositions. As such, Gerald Albright's contributions on soprano and alto saxophones creates an atmosphere in sync with Paul Jackson Jr.'s guitar playing and the remaining soloists. Suspense remains a singular element as emphatic chords make "Big Fall" extremely memorable. Elsewhere, "Ferris Wheel" conveys frenzy like a track from Michael Kamen's Lethal Weapon saga. Wildly inventive and exciting, Passenger 57 succeeds in duality. It's a cool movie score and a compelling jazz album.

The Raven (Les Baxter, 1963) **** A pleasant anomaly, Les Baxter's The Raven might have music missing, yet the fun remains intact. From sinister chords to frivolous fanfares, Baxter plays to the insanity of each situation. It's a score simultaneously wacky as well as ultra serious... a difficult thing to balance. But then, Baxter was a connoisseur of the bizarre. Thus, spooky woodwinds and electronics seem as normal to him as green leaves on a tree. Adding to which, he's a master at conveying frantic movement on the screen, as evidenced by "The Duel Continues." 

The Trap (Ron Goodwin, 1966) **** Denying Machiavellian temptations, composer Ron Goodwin reinforces the reluctant hero. He refuses to summarise the music as joke or whim. Although dark clouds frequently rush in, he patiently awaits those shimmering forms which denote intelligence, subtlety and alacrity. I fancy there's a probing spirit, a childlike fascination with new places and characters. This makes scores such as Where Eagles DareBattle of BritainValhallaCandleshoe and The Trap refreshing and engaging. The melody completed, another movement can take shape... in our everyday adventures. 

Battle in Outer Space (Akira Ifukube, 1959) *** Time to rhyme:

Serving a slice of doom

Such music carries the boom.

A bar or two left for soul

Lest there be a gaping hole.


It's a little one note

Certainly far from rote.

Picture "The Heat Ray Gun"

Clashing chords a ray of sun.


"Lunar Landing" tied suspense to lonely breath

Awaiting news like Macbeth.

On a dominant key

Themes span familiar territory.


Buried (Victor Reyes, 2010) **** A poem:

Gosh that opener was blistering

Guess there's no sense in whispering.

It was explosive and tidy

Exposing musical ideas widely.


It settles for a beat or two

Allowing time for the other shoe.

Buried left me shocked

As Pandora's Box wasn't locked.


"Ssssnake!" was a tour de force

A track I shall happily endorse.

If you've ever known the fear

Please keep a loved one near.


Achieving a murderous tone

Without the aid of drone.

Sounds of the Middle East

Ripe for orchestral feast.


Only "In the Lap of the Mountain"

Distracts from this pleasing fountain.

A breathless, thriller score

Buried left me hungry for more.



Altered States (John Corigliano, 1980) ***** I hear lots of scary music, yet something about Altered States got to me: a genuine sense of malevolence. It's remarkable how composer John Corigliano manipulates specific instrumental colours then turns the psychedelic tables. This felt like aleatory made grand, nightmarish and visionary. For example, "Main Title and First Hallucination" offer a rousing display, gasping for air against forces seeking to drown the triumph. By contrast, "Love Theme" comes across as exquisite. For some, this will be an easier jumping off point than the horror. Yet even the romance was tinged by melancholy, the calm flute before the brassy first wave, perhaps? Either way, Altered States announces every intention dynamically. Meanwhile, "Second Hallucination" was pure battle music bred in the marshlands. Precise rows of impassioned notes clash against shrieking forces yet that's only a taster... the music caught in a duel where players swing and parry towards a mutually destructive climax. The wounds are visible, the themes unforgettable. Scores which evoke Orcish cry, primal fear, pure longing and dreaded damnation can leave the listener exhausted or worse. Nothing less than an event horizon, Altered States left me fascinated and moved. 


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