Tag Archives: Star Wars

Rocks In The Attic #792: David Shire – ‘2010 – The Year We Make Contact (O.S.T.)’ (1984)

RITA#792“My God, it’s full of stars!”

With Doctor Sleep, the long-rumoured sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s This Shining, about to eventually open in cinemas, it feels like a good time to revisit that other sequel in the Kubrickiverse: 2010 – The Year We Make Contact, Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel to Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

Despite the strength of acting talent in front of the camera – Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren and Bob Balaban – and a great visionary team behind it, it seems like the film has been unfairly forgotten over time. Auteur theory is alive and well, with director Hyams also writing the script, producing the film and operating behind the camera as the cinematographer, leaving no doubt that this is his vision on screen (by way of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, of course).

RITA#792bThe music score, by David (brother of Talia) Shire is sublime, and the liner notes on the soundtrack LP go to great lengths to explain that it was recorded using the Synclavier II, the Yamaha DX-1 and the Roland Jupiter-8. It doesn’t sound too far from Matt Morton’s recent score to the fantastic Apollo 11 documentary; itself recorded entirely using synths only available in 1969.

We open in an extremely exposition-heavy (read: ‘talky’) first act of the film, with Roy Scheider still in his Aviators and short shorts from Jaws 2. Taking over the role from William Sylvester in 2001, Scheider plays Dr. Heywood Floyd, the head of the National Council for Astronautics, blamed for the failure of the Discovery One mission to Jupiter.

The Americans are in a race with the Russians to get a mission up to the abandoned Discovery spaceship, and Floyd is presented with the opportunity to get there first, onboard the Russian shuttle alongside two other Americans (played by Lithgow and Balaban). Scheider’s got such a great face, he should be immortalised on the side of Mount Rushmore.

RITA#792aThe production design on the film is superb, and it looks more like a sci-fi film from the latter end of the 1980s, or possibly the very early 1990s. Thankfully we don’t see much of Earth in the opening act – only a field of telescopes in the desert, a ridiculous clandestine meeting in front of the White House, and the gloomy interior of Floyd’s house (complete with pet dolphins – tut tut).

The rainbow-light design of the Russian spaceship is refreshing – after the used-future of Alien and the Star Wars films – and surprisingly doesn’t look as much like Super Mario’s Rainbow Road as you might expect. The only really hokey segments of the film are the voice messages to and from the mission. They might serve a narrative purpose, of course, but the treatment of the voices, processed with a warm reverb, doesn’t sound right – and in retrospect should have been handled differently.

The return of Dave Bowman, the missing astronaut from the first film, who turns up on his wife’s TV set back on Earth, is deliciously creepy, and starts a chain of events that take us all the way through to the finale of the film. Once we hear HAL-9000 again, it feels like the old team are back. By the way, when Amazon figures out how to program the voice of the Alexa home assistant with HAL’s passive tones, count me in. ‘Open the garage doors, HAL…’.

Unlike a lot of modern-day sci-fi, the film doesn’t get bogged down in explaining the technology of the future it presents, and instead it successfully jettisons many of the usual problems and anxieties about space. The astronauts go from ship to ship with ease, and aside from one white-knuckle moment when their ship enters Jupiter’s orbit, everything else works like clockwork.

2001 – A Space Odyssey raised a lot of questions about humanity, mankind, our past and our future. 2010  doesn’t go out of its way to answer those questions, but it does give us a sense of closure with the film’s final moments serving as a fitting bookend to the story.

Hit: Nova / New Worlds / Also Sprach Zarathustra

Hidden Gem: Earth / Space

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Original Cinema Lobby Card

 

Rocks In The Attic #741: John Williams – ‘Superman: The Movie (O.S.T.)’ (1978)

RITA#741“All those things I can do, all those powers, and I couldn’t even save him.”

With this line, delivered by a grieving Clark Kent near the end of the film’s weighty first act, the writers of Superman: The Movie clearly identify the character’s central flaw: that despite his super-powers, he’s unable to save everybody.

This paradox is echoed at the end of the film (in a scenario later lifted by The Dark Knight), where Superman is forced to decide between saving Lois Lane and saving everybody else. Only by interfering with human history – and thereby breaking his father’s golden rule – can he do both.

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Superman has no weaknesses, except his allergy to that pesky kryptonite, and so his inability to protect all innocent life becomes the character’s true Achilles’ heel. Richard Donner’s Superman makes a big deal out of this; it’s a film about the humanity of the character (with a painfully obvious subtext concerning the American dream). The comic-book superhero stuff is just dressing.

RITA#741aDonner’s film is so much better than recent efforts with the character, it almost seems an insult to compare it to them. After a long break following the woeful Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, we all narrowly escaped the ‘90s Tim Burton version starring Nicolas Cage before the property seemed to fall back into safe hands. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) was all set to be a masterpiece. The storyline (co-written by Singer, himself a huge fan of Donner’s version of Superman) did away with the third and fourth films, placing it directly after the respectable Superman II.

“Interesting,” we all thought. This could be something. The director of 1995’s The Usual Suspects had shown that he could direct comic-book superheroes with 2000’s X-Men (and its 2003 sequel). It was pitched to be a continuation of the Richard Donner / Richard Lester films. The opening credits even took the swooping, swooshing style of those earlier films, set to John Williams’ score. What could go wrong?

Well, sadly, everything.

RITA#741bAside from a forgetful cast, and a lacklustre script, the storyline involving ‘SuperBoy’ – the product of a romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane – was just unbearable. What did Singer expect to happen if the film had been more successful than it ultimately was? Was he thinking that the franchise would continue with ‘SuperBoy’, ‘SuperPrePubescent’, ‘SuperSulkyTeen’, ‘SuperSurreptitiousMasturbator’ and so on?

This storyline, more than anything in Singer’s film, killed the franchise yet again. We would have to wait another seven years for Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel to land. Again, it looked hopeful. I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) and so it looked like the franchise was safe in the hands of somebody who could do dark-DC well. Even better, the film was produced by Christopher Nolan who had done marvellous things with DC’s other flagship character, Batman, in the early 2000s. What could go wrong?

Again, sadly, everything.

Man Of Steel takes all the joy out of the character, and replaces it with a migraine. A bastard behind the eyes, as Withnail would put it. The only good thing about watching Man Of Steel is getting to the closing credits without slipping into a coma. The apple has fallen a long, long way from Richard Donner’s tree.

To be fair, I don’t mind 2016’s Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice – particularly the bit where the delightful Gal Gadot turns up to the Doomsday fight as Wonder Woman – but Superman is the least interesting character in a universe that is doing its best to ape Marvel’s successes.

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The final nail in the coffin – so far – was the return of Superman in 2017’s Justice League. This sludgefest of a film might have been better without Superman appearing, but it was already terrible without him. Moral of the story: if the actor playing Superman refuses to shave his (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) moustache off to complete re-shoots, for WHATEVER REASON, leading to uncanny valley CGI problems, then HE DOESN’T DESERVE TO PLAY SUPERMAN.

Of course, half of the magic from Richard Donner’s Superman comes from John Williams’ epic score. It’s possibly my favourite of his soundtracks – which all depends on which film I saw last: Superman, Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, or Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

There are many passages in both the main title theme, and the score overall, that almost bring a tear to my eye. The score is like a direct line to the nostalgia of my childhood; a magic button, composed by a magician himself.

Hit: Theme From Superman (Main Title)

Hidden Gem: The Fortress Of Solitude

Rocks In The Attic #731: John Williams – ‘Cavatina’ (1980)

RITA#731In 1977, one John Williams wrote and recorded the Cantina Band theme for Star Wars. In 1978, another John Williams recorded Cavatina, as the theme for The Deer Hunter.

The Deer Hunter’s Christopher Walken originally auditioned for the part of Star Wars’ Han Solo, before it went to Harrison Ford. Both films are about a bunch of plucky rebels fighting against an imperial oppressor. I can’t think of any more similarities, but I would like to see a cut of Star Wars with Cavatina playing in the Cantina sequence. Or even better, a cut of The Deer Hunter, with the Cantina Band theme playing over the deer-hunting scenes.

As much as I love the haunting brilliance of Cavatina, the stand-out track on this collection is a cover of the Beatles’ Because. Anybody who thinks that the Beatles didn’t progress throughout their career should listen to this. The fact that the melody of this song dripped out of the head of a 28-year old is just incredible.

Hit: Cavatina (Theme From The Deer Hunter)

Hidden Gem: Because

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Rocks In The Attic #709: John Williams – ‘Jurassic Park (O.S.T.)’ (1993)

RITA#709What does William’s score to 1993’s Jurassic Park have to do with Dies Irae, a latin hymn from the thirteenth century?

After watching the latest disappointing Jurassic Park sequel, it’s refreshing to wash my brain out with the score to Spielberg’s original film. At this point in his career, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Williams would be washed-up. Surely the composer of Jaws, Superman, the Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones trilogy – and many, many more – would have nothing left. Somebody that prolific can’t keep on being prolific, can they?

The answer seems to be a resounding Yes. Not only does Jurassic Park contain two distinctly memorable main themes – Theme From Jurassic Park and Journey To The Island – but the rest of the score is just as strong as his ‘70s and ‘80s output. But what’s all this about Gregorian Chant?

The answer is in a descending motif in the ancient hymn. For centuries, this doom-laden melody has been used as short-hand for evil or foreboding – Dies Irae itself translates to Day Of Wrath. A host of great composers have used the motif in their works – Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Holst, Liszt, Mahler and Rachmaninoff, to name but a few – but it’s its use in modern film soundtracks that interests me the most.

The tune is easiest to spot in the first few notes of The Shining’s opening Main Title, played by Wendy Carlos on the Moog Synthesiser. Here, the melody isn’t even disguised, it’s as clear as the day in which it’s used to soundtrack, as the Torrances drive up the mountain approaching the Overlook Hotel.

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Williams uses it to great effect in Jurassic Park, throughout the cues entitled Incident At Isla Nublar (from 3:32), and High Wire Stunts (from 0:00). But this isn’t the first time he’s referenced it. It can be found a couple of times in his iconic score to 1977’s Star Wars. Here it plays as the accompaniment immediately before Luke’s Force Theme rises up in The Burning Homestead (from 1:28), and is echoed in the doom-laden brass line (from 1:43) as Luke’s fate realigns.

And it’s not just John Williams sliding it into his scores, the musical equivalent of directors inserting the Wilhelm Scream into their sound mix. Other famous composers have “borrowed” the melody too. In 2001’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, Howard Shore uses it as the bassline thoughout the cue entitled Weathertop (from 0:18), as the Ringwraiths attack the Hobbits. Jerry Goldsmith utilises it in his 1982 score for Poltergeist, Hans Zimmer uses it briefly in 1994’s The Lion King, and Bernard Herrmann used it back in 1963 for Jason And The Argonauts. Unsurprisingly the tune also makes for good horror music fodder.

RITA#709aEven back in 1927, Gottfried Huppertz inserted the motif into his Dance Of Death cue for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (from 1:17) – confirming that the appropriation of Dies Irae in cinema is as old as cinema itself.

Interestingly, John Williams does something sneaky with Dies Irae in Jurassic Park. Usually the sequence of the first four notes in the motif is enough to suggest doom and despair, but Williams takes just the first three notes and does something unexpected with them. They serve as the starting point for the Jurassic Park’s main theme – as positive and upbeat a film theme as could be, even when played on a Melodica.

Hit: Theme From Jurassic Park

Hidden Gem: Dennis Steals The Embryo

Rocks In The Attic #617: John Barry – ‘Diamonds Are Forever (O.S.T.)’ (1971)

RITA#617Sean Connery is back! Shirley Bassey is back! Director Guy Hamilton is back! Everybody’s back!

Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli’s attempts to reproduce the success of 1964’s Goldfinger were thinly veiled. Get the original 007 back in the role, get Goldfinger’s director back, and the singer of its theme song. Get Richard Maibaum, the screenwriter of Goldfinger, to write the script, and instruct him to set most of the film in America, much like the 1964 film. Hell, even the subject matter of the film is similar – where the subject matter of Goldfinger deals with gold, Diamonds Are Forever deals with, erm, diamonds.

The only problem is that the film it isn’t anywhere near as good as Goldfinger. The plotting is messy, and the film feels a little lost at sea between the swing of the sixties, and the sleaze of the seventies. It’s lucky that the Bond producers were able to bring Connery back, as the film might have suffered more without his magnetic presence.

The previous Bond, George Lazenby, had been offered a contract for seven films but left after only one (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). In his place, the role almost went to American actor John Gavin – the heroic brother-in-law in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Gavin even signed a contract to play Bond, before the producers were able to lure Connery back, and Gavin was again set to play Bond in Live And Let Die before they changed their minds again and settled on Roger Moore.

Connery looks a little heavy this time around – and his ever-present hairpiece looks more obvious than it ever had, John Barry’s score comes a little too close to sounding like James Last in his attempts to replicate the lounge music of the Las Vegas setting, and Charles Gray’s portrayal of Ernst Stavro Blofeld loses all the menace that Donald Pleasance had brought to the role (admittedly this had been lost with Telly Savalas’ portrayal in OHMSS).

But I love Diamonds Are Forever regardless. It features my favourite Bond girl – the top-heavy Lana Wood – despite her role being very short and sweet. The theme song remains one of my favourites, and I was lucky enough to see Bassey perform it one year at Glastonbury in a medley of her Bond themes. Bond’s gadgets are reined in before the silliness of the Roger Moore era, and the film feels like one last hurrah for Connery’s 007 (although of course he would return to the role one more time in 1983’s Never Say Never Again).

The only drawback about the film is the stunt work, particularly in the mistakes they made with the Ford Mustang car chase. First of all, the thrilling police pursuit through the streets of Las Vegas is partly ruined by the fact that the sequence is clearly being watched by crowds of onlookers – as the producer’s were unable to close off the city’s streets from pedestrians.

RITA#617aSecondly, and most damning of all, the chase’s finale where Bond escapes the police by driving on two wheels through a tight alleyway was filmed incorrectly. They filmed the approach using two wheels on one side of the car, and filmed the shot of the car emerging from the alley on the opposite two wheels of the car. How terrible, and one wonders whether the continuity person – or in fact anybody working on this particular stunt – could ever hold their head high in Hollywood ever again. As a movie mistake, it’s up there with the Star Wars stormtrooper hitting his head on the Death Star doorway, or Charlton Heston supposedly wearing a wristwatch in Ben-Hur’s chariot race (an urban legend that has since been quashed).

Editors Bert Bates and John Holmes couldn’t have solved the mistake by reversing the film as both shots featured writing on buildings and advertisement hoardings, and so the only way out was a shot mid-alley which was made to look like Bond switched sides of the car mid-stunt. James Bond 007, licence to defy the laws of physics. As far as Bond mistakes go, this is even worse than choosing to soundtrack The Man With The Golden Gun’s barrel-roll stunt with a slide whistle.

RITA#617bDiamonds Are Fever’s lovable villains, the vaguely homosexual Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd deserve special mention, and not only for their great performance in the film as the murderous duo. Mr. Wint was played by actor Bruce Glover – father of Crispin ‘George McFly’ Glover – while Mr. Kidd was played by musician Putter Smith, bass player on sessions for, among others, Thelonius Monk, the Beach Boys and the Righteous Brothers.

Hit: Diamonds Are Forever (Main Title) – Shirley Bassey

Hidden Gem: 007 And Counting

Rocks In The Attic #597: Bill Conti – ‘For Your Eyes Only (O.S.T.)’ (1981)

RITA#597My childhood hero, the great Roger Moore died recently. My favourite Bond (it doesn’t matter who you think is the best, it’s the one you grew up with that counts) and one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever encountered. A true gentleman, Sir Roger devoted his retirement years as a UNICEF ambassador, and really deserved his Knighthood for his tireless work for the charity.

I was overjoyed to see a double-bill of The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only at my local cinema last week, shown as a tribute to Moore’s passing. It was a worldwide re-release, as far as I can tell, although I’m not entirely sure why those films were chosen. Spy, I understand, but I would have thought other Roger Moore films would have been a better draw-card than For Your Eyes Only. I can only presume that those two films are the ones Moore was personally most proud of?

(There’s a nice bit of serendipity in that at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me, the credits promised that ‘James Bond Will Return In For Your Eyes Only’. However, due to the success of Star Wars, it was decided to make Moonraker next, in 1979, before they got around to filming For Your Eyes Only in 1981. I’d like to think that this is just a coincidence, and that the two films were chosen for other, better reasons than a nice bit of circumstance.)

Watching Spy and Eyes on the big screen was a real treat as I’d seen neither at the cinema before – my Bond viewing started with two films, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again, in 1983 when I was five years old. I’ve seen a few of the earlier films on re-releases – Dr. No, Goldfinger and a scratchy print of Thunderball – so it was good to add a couple more Moores to the list.

For Your Eyes Only used to bore me as a kid. It had its moments, but it was such a step down from Moonraker in terms of the things that are important to a five-year old. Of course, I now love it for its bravery in trying to pull the character back closer to Ian Fleming’s template, and away from the more embarrassing moments of Moonraker.

One thing that really struck a chord with me when I saw it at the cinema was how European it feels. The locations are all on continental Europe, aside from some underwater filming in the Bahamas, doubling for Greece. It makes a nice change to the globe-trotting Moore’s Bond does in each of the four previous films.

The other thing I hadn’t noticed before was its structure. Watched back to back with The Spy Who Loved Me, it’s clear to see that in many ways it’s a remake of that earlier film, in that it tries to duplicate some of the elements which made Spy so successful. Both films start with Navy ships succumbing to peril, both have a strong female lead, and both feature England and Russia racing towards the same goal.

It was also quite eye-opening to see how much mansplaining Bond does to Carole Bouquet’s Melina. Even though she and her family are experts in underwater exploration, Bond feels the need to mansplain the technical risks of what they’re about to do. Given the term’s entry into the English language over the last five years or so, I might have to rewatch all of the Bond films to see how much mansplaining goes on (and I’m guessing it’s not a small amount).

In terms of music, For Your Eyes Only is another non-John Barry affair, who would return to score Moore’s two remaining Bond films after this one. I’ve already written about how terrible a non-Barry soundtrack can be, but I much prefer Bill Conti’s Eyes soundtrack to Hamlisch’s efforts on Spy.

If you ignore the fact that a lot of the score sounds like something you might hear on Conti’s soundtrack contributions to the Rocky films, it isn’t too bad. Those pumping horns definitely don’t sound like the kind of brass lines that John Barry would write. I’ve also written about how poorly I rate the film’s title theme, but at least it’s not Madonna.

The soundtrack also features one of those rare things – another proper song that isn’t the main title theme. These pop up from time to time on Bond soundtracks, and they’re always quite interesting. This time it’s Make It Last All Night, by Rage, which is used to soundtrack the pool party at the start of the film. It’s a nice bit of sleazy pop (and secretly, I prefer it to Sheena Easton’s bland title song).

I was lucky enough to meet Roger in 2008 at a book signing in Auckland, where he signed my copy of his autobiography. They say you should never meet your heroes, but I have no regrets. Thankfully, my wife was quick enough to film me shaking his hand on the way out. I try not to watch this video too often as it always puts such a huge smile on my face (and I don’t want to dilute that).

Hit: For Your Eyes Only – Sheena Easton

Hidden Gem: A Drive In The Country

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Rocks In The Attic #592: George Gershwin – ‘Manhattan (O.S.T.)’ (1979)

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I recently got to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan on the big screen – re-released and screened as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Autumn Classics programme.

Of the two most famous films of his ‘70s output – 1977’s Annie Hall and 1979’s Manhattan (the Rubber Soul / Revolver of Allen’s filmography) – I’ve always preferred Manhattan. While Annie Hall is undoubtedly a fantastic film, overshadowing Star Wars at the 1978 Academy Awards by winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Allen & Marshall Brickman) and Best Actress (Diane Keaton), it’s accolades also bring a lot of weight with it.

Manhattan, on the other hand, didn’t win a sausage at the 1980 Academy Awards – despite nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Mariel Hemingway) and Best Original Screenplay (Allen & Brickman again). Where Annie Hall is the quintessential Woody Allen film, and the progenitor of the modern romantic-comedy, it also suffers from being the most obvious, the one chosen as a life template by dilettante faux-bohemian women due to the kooky allure of Diane Keaton’s character.

Manhattan is the Woody Allen fan’s Woody Allen film. It’s shot in 2.35:1 widescreen black-and-white, which avoids the risk of any low-brow audience seeing it, and it’s also a much more low-key affair. The nature of the relationship between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s characters might be the narrative focus of Annie Hall, but in Manhattan this is merely a peripheral matter. Instead, the later film deals more with the threat of being alone in a city full of people. As a result, while the one-liners in Annie Hall may be funnier, the jokes in Manhattan have more weight.

While Annie Hall may serve as the template formula for the rom-coms of today’s cinema, it’s the overbearing melancholia of Manhattan that inspired perhaps the greatest film in the modern-day genre, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989).

Hit: Rhapsody In Blue

Hidden Gem: Mine