Thursday, January 23, 2014

The ruthless and the Toothless: These are among the tracks I've added to AFOS rotation this month

'Lee! Rico! Youngblood! Find out where those drums are coming from!'
Ennio Morricone, "The Strength of the Righteous" (film version) (from The Untouchables; now playing during "AFOS Prime")

"I had an art director that I was working with and we kept looking at shadows. I got the idea that the shadows should be actually cast by the word. And the art director kept saying, 'It's boring,'" recalled Superman: The Movie title designer Richard Greenberg to Art of the Title about his noirish concept for the Untouchables opening titles. "Finally I just looked at him and said, 'It's supposed to be boring.' I wanted it to take its time."

"Boring"? Really? Because I've seen a few alternate Untouchables opening titles on the Internet that were made by Untouchables fans and are much more busy-looking than Greenberg's titles, and they just don't fit Brian De Palma's operatic crime flick like Greenberg's titles do. It's one of my favorite Greenberg intros, partly because of Greenberg's simple and elegant title design and the way it evokes the shadows of prison bars at the start of the sequence.

Here we see Frank Nitti threatening innocent lives late at night, or as George Zimmerman calls it, neighborhood watch.
(Photo source: Radiator Heaven)
But the main reason why those titles leave such an impact--without it, Greenberg's colleague might have been onto something about the titles being boring--is Ennio Morricone's propulsive "Strength of the Righteous." The main title theme, one of my favorite Morricone main title themes, establishes the steadfastness of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables while introducing another motif. The harmonica was the instrument of choice for Charles Bronson's vengeance-seeking protagonist Harmonica in the Morricone-scored Once Upon a Time in the West, but in The Untouchables, Il Maestro used the harmonica to represent one of the villains, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago, who's more menacing than Robert De Niro in the film and with much less dialogue too), the psychotic chief enforcer for ruthless Al Capone (De Niro).

"The fact that Morricone's main title music showcases Nitti's theme rather than Capone's hints at the fact that Ness can never truly confront Capone (in fact the two never met in real life)," wrote Geek magazine's Jeff Bond in the liner notes for La-La Land Records' 2012 expanded reissue of the Untouchables soundtrack, "and that his only physical satisfaction in taking down the crime lord is in executing Nitti."

La-La Land's 2012 reissue opens with the version of "The Strength of the Righteous" that's heard in the film--the major difference between the film version of "Strength" and the 1987 A&M Records version is that Nitti's harmonica motif begins at a much earlier point in the former--and that film version has finally been added to "AFOS Prime" rotation. The Untouchables may be as historically accurate as a Drunk History sketch (Nitti didn't die right after being thrown off a rooftop by Ness in 1930; he committed suicide in 1943), but elements like "Strength," Sean Connery's Oscar-winning performance and that classic "Odessa Steps"/baby carriage sequence Untouchables screenwriter David Mamet reportedly still despises are why, as ScreenCrush writer Damon Houx nicely puts it, the 1987 film forms with the 1976 Carrie and the 1996 Mission: Impossible "an interesting De Palma trilogy of 'fuck you, I can do mainstream better than anyone.'"

That LiveLinks commercial she appeared in left out the part where she says she's also into archery.
Howard Shore, "Barrels Out of Bond" and "The Forest River (Extended Version)" (from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; now playing during "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue")

The Hobbit remains the only J.R.R. Tolkien novel I've read. Back when I was a kid who watched the 1977 Rankin-Bass Hobbit repeatedly on VHS and wanted to see what Tolkien's original vision of the story was like in print, I dove into the Ballantine Books softcover edition of The Hobbit (the one with the cover artwork of Gandalf and his cohorts taking shelter in the nest of one of the giant eagles that rescued them), and I have to say: Did this light adventure novel about a treasure hunt really have to be stretched out into three 180-minute movies?

Sure, two movies would have been alright to tell Bilbo's journey on the big screen, but three? Padded out to nearly 180 minutes each? With no intermission (because this is a really annoying era of moviegoing where the studios no longer include intermissions--which were, long before I was born, actually a good idea that helped make some of the studios' most interminable epics less of a grueling experience for moviegoers--and now the fuckwads who creep into theaters these days with their smartphones left on think every single minute of the feature presentation is an intermission)?

Though The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a more enjoyable installment than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (the Phantom Menace of this franchise), Peter Jackson's Hobbit prequel trilogy has so far paled in comparison to his beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, which itself wasn't perfect (one of my favorite lines in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is "Don't worry. I saw the last Lord of the Rings. I won't have the movie end 17 times"), but it was a well-made trilogy, even though I'm not much of a sword-and-sorcery genre stan. One of the few additions Jackson has made to The Hobbit that actually works is the newly created character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf warrior who defies her dickish king's isolationism to help protect the dwarves and the inhabitants of Laketown from hordes of orcs. I like Lilly and the action heroine she plays in The Desolation of Smaug, even though Jackson and his credited co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have placed Tauriel at the center of a love triangle that wasn't in Tolkien's novel either, a blatant attempt to take the novel and Twilight it up for tweens who would most likely become bored with Bilbo's journey and would rather journey through the texts on the phones they've left on inside the theater.

If you're one of those moviegoers who kept checking your phones during The Desolation of Smaug's barrel escape sequence, just kill yourself. Right now. The barrel escape sequence, a moment where Tauriel gets to shine as an action heroine as she and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) take on the dwarves' orc enemies along the riverbanks, is one of the most entertaining action sequences of 2013. The sequence is also easily the biggest highlight of Howard Shore's Desolation of Smaug score. Shore gives the heroic theme he wrote for Tauriel its fullest statement in "The Forest River." ("Its elegance and avidity is balanced by a razor-sharp fierceness," said Lord of the Rings/Hobbit score music expert Doug Adams about Tauriel's theme.)

This is the moment where he stops being a Bombur-clat.
The elf guards aren't the only characters who get to shine during the sequence. The mute dwarf Bombur (Stephen Hunter), who, up until this sequence, has been a gluttonous buffoon, smashes his arms through the wine barrel he's escaping in and fights off the orcs with his weapons. The image of Bombur rolling around in his barrel has led, of course, to a bunch of artists' recreations on deviantART and Tumblr. 2013 was the year of rotund nobodies pulling a Sammo Hung and revealing themselves to be agile action heroes: Nick Frost's reserved ex-rugby player wiled out on hordes of alien robots in The World's End, and then Bombur finally made himself useful in The Desolation of Smaug.

'So if you are the big orc/We are the small axe/Ready to cut you down/To cut you down.'
(Photo source: TheRisingSoul)
Betta axe somebody
(Photo source: Strangely Charismatic)
Bombur's new workout plan
(Photo source: Just Jingles)
John Powell, "Test Drive" (from How to Train Your Dragon; now playing during "AFOS Prime" and "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round")

The first two trailers for How to Train Your Dragon 2 have gotten me really interested in the sequel. I didn't expect to see such a significant time jump between the Cartoon Network spinoff show Dragons and How to Train Your Dragon 2, so I was genuinely surprised when Hiccup (still voiced by Jay Baruchel) took off his helmet at the end of the teaser trailer and it turned out that his face has matured a lot since the events of Dragons (he has no acne though--the Vikings on Berk must be Proactiv customers). I like how the teaser trailer withheld that surprise and contained no voiceover narration prior to that, which mirrors the "show, don't tell" approach to storytelling that returning director Dean DeBlois and his fellow co-director Chris Sanders brought to much of the first How to Train Your Dragon. DeBlois and Sanders' decision to minimize dialogue--for instance, the dragons speak in a language called "Dragonese" in the Cressida Cowell novels that the films are based on, while DeBlois and Sanders removed their ability to speak--is one of many reasons why the first How to Train is my favorite DreamWorks Animation film.

Wow, I didn't expect Google's new driverless car to be capable of flight.
Also returning to the How to Train film series is Bourne trilogy composer John Powell, whose score for the first film did much of the narrative heavy lifting during Hiccup's dialogue-less training scenes with his dragon Toothless and was an excellent score from start to finish. (It's also a score I just never got around to purchasing--until now.) The teaser trailer doesn't feature music from Powell's score to the sequel; the music is actually an instrumental taken from an album by the trailer music production house Audiomachine. When we finally do get to hear Powell's sequel score, I won't be surprised if many of those cues are winners like the first film's "Test Drive."

'Despite what John Singleton tells you, Shaft is Richard Roundtree.'--Odienator
Johnny Pate, "El Jardia" (from Shaft in Africa; now playing during "AFOS Prime," "Beat Box" and "New Cue Revue")

I love this beat from the Shaft threequel, and so does J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, which sampled it for Ghostface Killah. The producing trio (by the way, the first half of the crew's name stands for "Just Undeniably Some of the Illest Composers Ever") also gave this same beat to Rick Ross to lay down his trademark grunts on it (however, those usual grunts of his are absent from his track). I wish more beatmakers would sample "El Jardia." Ruh!

'Dude, I can see my cottage from here.'
Trevor Jones, "Promontory" (from The Last of the Mohicans; now playing during "AFOS Prime")

Misspelled as "Promentory" on Morgan Creek Records' official Last of the Mohicans soundtrack album, "Promontory" accompanies the riveting and largely dialogue-less climax on the clifftop in Michael Mann's classic 1992 version of the James Fenimore Cooper novel ("It's not a very good book," said Mann at an American Cinemateque post-screening Q&A where he explained that he doesn't care for the novel's justification for the Native Americans' loss of their land). I'm afraid to watch the changes Mann has made to that climax because that action sequence was perfect, from the "Promontory" cue itself to the way the sound was edited to ratchet up the brutality and tension of the badass final confrontation between Chingachgook (the late Russell Means) and Magua (Wes Studi, who was robbed the following year when it was time for the Oscars, which gave only one nomination to the film, and that was for sound). The last time I watched that sequence in its entirety was 1999, when I rented the letterboxed VHS release, which didn't contain any of the changes Mann--who was never satisfied with the theatrical cut--made to his own film for a director's cut DVD that same year.

Mann apparently tweaked The Last of the Mohicans again for its Blu-ray release. Like George Lucas, Mann's a serial recutter, as Matt Zoller Seitz calls him. I wouldn't be surprised if he changed the color of the Chicago sky in the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Thief like Lucas did with the Bay Area sky for the DVD release of American Graffiti.

'Welcome to hell, motherfucker!'
A huge reason why "Promontory" is such a highlight of the Trevor Jones portion of the Mohicans score (when Jones became unavailable, Mann recruited Randy Edelman to finish the rest of the score) is Jones' arrangement of Dougie MacLean's "The Gael," a Scottish folk tune that wasn't written for the film and had originated from MacLean's 1990 album The Search. "The Gael," which is performed on the fiddle by an uncredited Alasdair Fraser during the Mohicans score, and the other instrumentals on MacLean's album were originally composed and commissioned for a Loch Ness Monster exhibit in Scotland. Like when Mann needle-dropped Moby's "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" for Al Pacino and Robert De Niro's final scene together in Heat (by the way, the reverb of the gunfire in that film is another example of Mann's amazing knack for sound design) or when Mann opened Public Enemies with Otis Taylor's "Ten Million Slaves" (what's a song about slaves crossing the Middle Passage doing in a gangster flick about John Dillinger?), this melody related to Nessie is a weird choice, especially for a movie about the French and Indian War, yet it somehow works.

The placement of "The Gael" in the unlikeliest of settings is the very reason why I restored "Promontory" to the "AFOS Prime" playlist after a long absence. I saw a former AFOS listener tweet about how perfect "Promontory" is as music while she gazed at Midwestern snowfall, and the tweet made me put "Promontory" back into rotation. "Promontory" is the Inception "BRAHM!" of the natural world. It makes anything dramatic.

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