Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

Rocks In The Attic #774: Dave Grusin – ‘The Goonies (O.S.T.)’ (1985)

RITA#774I sometimes worry that my kids are watching the wrong kind of films. They seem to exist purely on a diet of animated films – which isn’t that bad considering how well made the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks films are – but those films are always very full-on, very colourful and not exactly subtle.

I fear that when their tastes develop, they won’t appreciate nuance. Or that they won’t understand the joy of a perfectly composed camera shot. But most of all, I worry that they’ll find live-action films boring. It’s a fear that’s probably shared by lots of cinephile parents: have animated films turned my children into ADD viewers?

RITA#774aMy kids are a range of ages – seven, six and four at the time of writing – so it’s hard to judge what’s appropriate for them. They’ve seen – and love – the first Star Wars film (by that, I mean Episode IV, not Episode I – I’m not an animal). My wife’s also shown them a few live-action classics like Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. I’m just eager to show them all of the films I was watching at their age. I tried them on Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie about six months ago and it was “too scary” for the eldest and the youngest. Middle-child seems to be unaffected by anything she sees.

I saw Return Of The Jedi and Octopussy at the cinema when I was weeks away from turning five (and Never Say Never Again a few months later in that most Bondiest of years), and had been watching recent films of the same ilk – For Your Eyes Only, The Empire Strikes Back – on video at home, yet here’s my 7-year old saying that a 40-year old superhero film is too frightening.

My almost-desperate need for them to like Bond films led me to showing them a couple of exciting moments from a few films – the Lotus Esprit driving off the dock in The Spy Who Loved Me, and the AMC Hornet barrel-roll in The Man With The Golden Gun ­– but none of them seemed to show any interest. My middle-child has been saying ‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’ to me in recent weeks, so perhaps there is some hope…

RITA#774bI recently showed them The Goonies, another Richard Donner film, and an evergreen favourite of mine since its release. It’s now generally accepted as a classic ‘80s kids film, but I don’t seem to remember it having such universal acclaim when I was growing up. The only people who liked it were myself and other weird non-sporty kids who liked action and sci-fi films. I never heard girls discussing The Goonies. They talked a lot about Bros and New Kids On The Block maybe, but never Back To The Future or Explorers. Maybe I was talking to the wrong girls.

I had better luck with The Goonies. My eldest – the scaredy-cat of the three – thought parts were too frightening, and watched half of it from behind the couch. The youngest fell apart at the scene where Sloth is introduced to Chunk, and didn’t watch any more. Middle child – again – loved every minute. I think she might end up being my cinema-buddy when she’s older.

The Goonies – alongside Back To The Future – might just be the most Spielbergian of the films the wunderkind is involved in but didn’t direct. In more recent times he’s lent his name to the likes of Super 8, but that film felt like a cheap attempt at capturing the spirit of Donner’s 1985 film: all style, no substance. Of course, Stranger Things owes more than a little to this film – although the ‘boys on BMXs investigating a mystery in small-town America’ trope is really only apparent in the first season.

RITA#774cI saw The Goonies at a midnight screening at Glastonbury one year with my wife. Three things stuck in my mind about the experience. Firstly, a drunk guy casually asked a girl if he could sit in the empty camping chair next to hers. She said that no, he couldn’t sit in her friend’s chair, and loudly proclaimed as he walked away, ‘What a loser; did he think all these chairs were just put here?” Secondly, as the Walsh father is about to sign the house over in the film, one clever guy in the audience shouted out ‘CHECK YOUR POCKETS!’ to a huge laugh. The drunk guy from earlier then repeated it, to little response. Yes, drunk, stupid and also a joke thief. The third and final take-out from the screening is that due to sound issues on the quite scratchy print, the dialogue wasn’t fully audible. As a result, the worse thing happened. My wife, who had never seen the film before, dismissed it as a bad film. She’s since watched it at home on her own and loved it – although due to her bad memory – she now can’t remember either watching it or praising it.

Listening to Dave Grusin’s fabulous score to the film, I’m really quite glad that it wasn’t composed by John Williams or any other Spielberg alumn like Alan Silvestri. I love both those guys, but Grusin’s score has such a childlike quality to it that would be hard to find in another composer. A Williams or Silvestri score to The Goonies would of course be excellent in their own right, but I’m just glad Donner and Spielberg chose Dave Grusin for this particular project. And given the connection to John Williams through Spielberg, it was that nice that he references Williams’ Superman: The Movie theme in the sequence on board the pirate ship.

This copy is from Varèse Sarabande’s 2018 first pressing of Grusin’s full score, on ‘Willy’s Gold’ double-vinyl (no. 477 of 750).

HEY YOU GUYYYYYYYYYYSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hit: Fratelli Chase

Hidden Gem: The Fighting Fratellis, Sloth’s Choice And Ultimate Booby Trap

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Rocks In The Attic #687: John Williams – ‘1941 (O.S.T.)’ (1979)

RITA#687You can sometimes find out more about a person’s failures as you can from their successes. Wunderkind director Steven Spielberg has had far more hits than misses, but the few occasions where he has missed the mark are very interesting.

His first failure came with 1941, his attempt at screwball comedy and a universally agreed thirty-five million dollar waste of time and effort. It’s difficult to put a finger on why it’s such a bad film – because there’s nothing redeemable about it. A weak link might be easy to spot, but when everything is egregiously bad, from the script to the performances to the music, it makes for a drastically awful film. Of course, all of this is amplified because it follows Spielberg’s huge mainstream successes, first with Jaws in 1975, and followed with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in 1977. If it hadn’t been bundled with such anticipation, and if they hadn’t spent the GDP of a small South American country on it, it might have stood a chance.

Looking back, it seems that Spielberg might be as ashamed of his portrayal of the Japanese in this film, as he is of the film’s critical and commercial failure. It’s widely been surmised that one of Spielberg’s motives for making Schindler’s List (1993) was in reparation for the way in which he had portrayed the Nazis as comedic fodder in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989). In 1941, we see the start of that light-hearted characterisation, with the invading Japanese armed forces played for laughs opposite Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.

The musical score for 1941, composed by Spielberg alumni John Williams, is just as forgettable as the rest of the film, which is strange considering how the pairing usually produces gold. Spielberg, ever the amiable collaborator, has repeatedly stated in interviews that The March From 1941 is his favourite of Williams’ marches. This is extremely strange when you realise that the main title themes of Williams’ Superman: The Movie and Indiana Jones scores are both marches, and really there’s nothing better in all of cinema.

I recently saw the excellent HBO documentary Spielberg (2017) – a two and a half hour journey through the life and career of the director. Unsurprisingly, the film focuses on his successes and merely brushes over his failures. Of the latter, 1941 gets the most airtime for being his first disappointment, but later failures are mainly ignored.

RITA#687aHis first failure to me, long before I racked up the courage to watch 1941, was Always, an overly-sentimental (even for Spielberg’s standards) romantic drama from 1989 starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman. I saw this film at the cinema with my parents, at the Odeon West End in Leicester Square during our annual family trip to London. Coming straight after Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Empire Of The Sun – both of which I’d also seen at the cinema (I didn’t get to see The Color Purple until much later due to its adult nature), it really came as a shock. Everything I had seen by Spielberg up to that point had been a classic. What the hell was this schlocky mess?

Unsurprisingly, Susan Lacy’s Spielberg documentary doesn’t even mention Always. It also quickly skips over Hook – a later disappointment from 1991, which Spielberg has all but since disowned – and completely ignores The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), the sequel he said he would never make, and 2004’s The Terminal. In fact, The Terminal is such a bad film, that it’s a wonder he didn’t try to take his name off it.

The one interesting exclusion from the documentary is 2011’s The Adventures Of Tintin. While this may not have been the runaway commercial success it should have been, it’s still a great family film and a much stronger piece of work than 2016’s The BFG, itself a box-office disappointment yet referenced many times in Lacy’s film.

Hit: The March From 1941

Hidden Gem: The Invasion

Rocks In The Attic #646: John Williams – ‘Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom’ (1984)

RITA#646The other night, after a hard week at work, I sat down to watch Kingsman: The Golden Circle with my wife. I wasn’t expecting much – I hadn’t heard good things – but I wasn’t prepared for how stunningly average it was. Would I say it is a bad film? No, not really. It was technically well made, by a more than competent director (Matthew Vaughn), but it was instantly forgettable.

When I grew up through the 1980s, there seemed to be fantastic genre films coming out all the time, dotted with the occasional howler (Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Jaws IV: The Revenge – possibly anything with “IV” in the title, although Rocky IV was a banger). These days, the howlers are relatively easy to avoid. Production of big marquee films tends to be spread across multiple studios sharing the risk of a multi-million dollar budget, and as a result they don’t seem to let a franchise die at the hands of a bad script or a deluded director.

Hollywood’s destructive habit in the last decade is movie-making by numbers; a manifesto of mediocrity. The sheer amount of unremarkable genre films it has produced is testament to the absence of risk that directors and producers are willing to take in order to make something that stands out.

I remember reading an interview with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige back in 2009, where he outlined his plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). His strategy of an overloaded release schedule – 4 or 5 films a year – seemed too good to be true. That’ll never happen, I thought. But it now feels like there’s a new Marvel film out every other month.

The other unbelievable aspect of his strategy was talk of bringing Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk together for an Avengers movie. That will definitely never happen, I thought. The Hulk and Iron Man had been revitalised in film by Marvel already, and I just couldn’t see Robert Downey Jr. and Ed Norton sharing a film together with whatever big names they had lined up to play Captain America and Thor. In a way I was right, as they eventually replaced Norton with a different (cheaper?) actor in Mark Ruffalo, but Feige’s vision ultimately proved true. Ensemble genre films are a dime a dozen these days, and it’s rare for a superhero film to be limited to only one or two key roles. This week saw the release of the trailer for the third (?) Avengers film, introducing the Guardians Of The Galaxy into the earth-bound world of the Avengers. Around and around it goes. Pop will eat itself.

But when Feige sits down in his old age – in his superhero-sized mansion – and tells his privileged grandchildren about his life’s work, how will he feel? For the – by my count – seventeen (!) MCU films that have seen the light of day since 2008, I can really only put my finger on one or two that I would hold up as being great films. Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012) stand head and shoulders above the rest, and while there have been great moments among the others, in general they’re all junk; popcorn escapism for the masses.

The rot set in early on, with 2010’s Iron Man 2. How could they get the sequel so wrong, when they got the first Iron Man so right? I spoke to a fan of the series upon its release, and he couldn’t see any difference between the two. That’s the problem with casual film viewers. They just want what they expect, and they’ll happily visit the cinema every time for that hit of familiarity – Coca-cola in their veins, popcorn in their arteries, and the anticipation of safe storytelling that’s not going to push any boundaries and make them feel uncomfortable. Narrative left-turns in cinema these days are met with whispered conversations in the dark as couples explain to each other what is happening on screen.

Marvel’s now-misguided strategy to steady the ship was to deliver a third iteration in the Iron Man series (2013) which was so incredibly poor, that they should have developed a new category at the Academy Awards to recognise it. ‘And the ‘Best Mediocre Picture’ Oscar goes to…’

If Marvel’s attempts at serious filmmaking are to be laughed at, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to think of their rivals’ efforts at DC. Christopher Nolan reinvigorated the modern superhero film with Batman Begins in 2005, and so you’d think his successors might have learnt a thing or two from him. But as soon as he stepped away from the director’s chair, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) kicked off with one of the dullest superhero films ever committed to celluloid (Man Of Steel, 2013).

Where Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) was a glorious piece of wondrous entertainment, setting a high bar that wasn’t really challenged until Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel is a turgid mess. I seem to remember a fight sequence at the end that lasted around three hours. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and I secretly hoped that mankind would have been wiped off the screen just so that it would have put me out of my misery.

I might have watched Donner’s Superman and Richard Lester’s Superman II close to a hundred times each. I wouldn’t watch Man Of Steel again if my life depended on it.

Which brings me to Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. Now, Steven Spielberg knew how to make a good genre film back in the ‘80s. Easily the weakest of the original trilogy – although not according to my old buddy Quentin Tarantino, who sees it as the strongest of the three – it’s still an infinitely more enjoyable film than the unremarkable dross dealt out to us by Hollywood in the twenty-first century.

Hit: Anything Goes

Hidden Gem: Finale And End Credits

Rocks In The Attic #630: Krzysztof Komeda – ‘Rosemary’s Baby (O.S.T.)’ (1968)

tp0004c_SP_DPGate_CoverThere’s a moment in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby where, during what we’re initially led to believe is a dream sequence, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is raped by an unseen person while the residents of her apartment complex look on, naked. As the camera pans across the small crowd, from left to right, we spot Rosemary’s husband, Guy.

‘She’s awake, she sees,’ he says to their neighbour Minnie.

‘She don’t see,’ Minnie replies.

‘THIS IS NO DREAM! THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!’ shouts Rosemary.

This small exchange is one of the most horrifying moments in American cinema. The prospect of being targeted by a Satanic cult is one thing; the realisation that your husband and protector might be part of the conspiracy is even more shocking.

RITA#630b.jpgIt provokes the same gut-wrenching sense of doom as the final moments of Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982), in which Tom Atkins’ character screams down the phone to the television company, pleading with them to not play the commercial that is going to cause so much carnage.

This is when horror really connects; when it really matters. Hollywood loves jump-scare horror, because it sells tickets, but psychological horror is far more effective. The truly disturbing thing about Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) isn’t the shower scene, it’s the thought that one day you might stay at the seemingly benign Bates Motel; and no matter what precautions you take, that nice motel manager you just met always has a key to your room.

RITA#630aSpielberg’s Jaws (1975) – often derided when labelled as a horror film – is just as shocking as Polanski and Hitchcock’s work. What could be more horrific than the thought, just the lingering idea, that a killer shark might be circling in the gloomy darkness beneath you as you swim? It plants a seed, just like the prospect of Norman Bates making plans behind closed doors.

Released in June 1968, Rosemary’s Baby is an oddity for the horror genre. It’s an urban horror, taking part in a metropolitan area (New York) as opposed to the conventional rural- or suburban-set horror. The lighting of the film also goes against type. This isn’t a film of shadow and darkness; much of the picture takes place during the daytime, and in the scenes that do take place after the sun has set, most shots are well lit. This isn’t the kind of film where evil lurks in the shadows; instead it exists in plain sight where you’d least expect it.

Komeda’s score is the strongest indicator that the film rightfully belongs in the horror genre. The location, the cast and the script might all scream drama – or at most, thriller – but the music is right out of a haunted house. Most unnerving is Mia Farrow’s lullaby over the waltzing opening titles; an ominous foreboding of innocence corrupted.

The film left a sour taste in popular culture. Not only are there the obvious parallels with the murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, a year later at the hands of the satanic Manson cult, but the final shot foreshadows yet another tragedy.

RITA#630c.jpgThe film’s end credits roll over a high crane shot looking down at Rosemary’s apartment complex, the Bramford. In reality, the location is the Dakota complex in Manhattan, which was used for external shots only. Well-known as the residence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1973 onwards, the Dakota’s architecture looks well-suited as the location of a film about devil worship in New York City. As the camera pans down, the final frame of the film shows two people walking into the building’s south entrance, the same archway through which Lennon was walking as he was gunned down by his assassin, Mark Chapman, in December 1980.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Furnishing The Apartment

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Rocks In The Attic #548: Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – ‘Stranger Things Volume One (O.S.T.)’ (2016)

rita548Clearly the pop-culture TV phenomenon of 2016, Stranger Things landed in July through Netflix – with all eight episodes released concurrently, providing the perfect opportunity to binge-watch. The show is steeped in nostalgia, tailor-made for somebody my age, taking its cues from science-fiction films of the 1980s, most notably the works of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Richard Donner, Joe Dante, Stephen King and Robert Zemeckis. It’s almost as if the kids from Stephen King’s It met up with Richard Donner’s Goonies and fell into a Carpenteresque, Spielbergian sci-fi horror.

On paper, that all sounds amazing, but the thing that clinched it for me is the heavily John Carpenter influenced soundtrack – all moody synths and drum loops – which really helps to place the show in the 1980s. I’ve written about John Carpenter’s soundtracks twice before – I’m a big fan – and this soundtrack stands up with the best of his work, but also touches on the likes of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream among others. Composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein are half of Austin-based synth pioneers Survive, a band I really need to check out. Stein and Dixon were brought on board after the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, used a Survive song in the mock trailer they created to pitch the show to Netflix. They were hired when the show was green-lit, with early demos influencing the casting process by being played over the actors’ audition tapes.

Season two of Stranger Things is planned to air some time in 2017, with the main cast fleshed out by the addition of ‘80s stalwart Paul Reiser and chief-Goonie Sean Astin.

Hit: Stranger Things

Hidden Gem: Kids

Rocks In The Attic #437: Jerry Goldsmith – ‘Poltergeist (O.S.T.)’ (1982)

RITA#437It was Halloween last weekend, which meant, living in the New Zealand, the sight of young children dressed in vaguely scary clothes in broad daylight. There’s something about living the southern hemisphere, celebrating Halloween just as spring is turning into summer that just removes any aspect of horror from the proceedings. Trick or treat, you say? Ah, I know you, you’re the kid who lives four doors down.

Poltergeist is an odd film. Essentially a big-budget horror from one of the studios (MGM / UA), in response to the wealth of independent horror that had crossed over into the mainstream in the prior decade, the film feels less like a horror, more like a family-friendly adventure film.

Listed as directed by Tobe Hooper, the film stinks of the touch of Steven Spielberg – the listed writer and producer of the film – but most likely the director by proxy. At the time, Spielberg had a clause in his contract forbidding him to direct another film while he was making E.T., so rather than a genuinely scary film about spirits attacking a family, we get something that could almost be happening on the same plot of suburbia as E.T. It’s almost impossible to consider that the “director” of this went from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to this fluff in eight years.

The music also stinks of Spielberg. It might not be John Williams, but it’s Jerry Goldsmith doing his best John Williams impression at least.  I can’t imagine Williams writing anything as whimsical as Carol Ann’s Theme but the rest of the soundtrack’s cues for the film’s more exciting moments could definitely have sprung from his baton.

As a sidenote, for the last three years I’ve also been celebrating Guy Fawkes in broad daylight with my kids. Again, fireworks and sparklers also don’t have that same effect in the glare of the early evening sun.

Hit: Carol Anne’s Theme

Hidden Gem: The Light

Rocks In The Attic #436: Various Artists – ‘Rushmore’ (1999)

RITA#436One of my favourite films of all time, and I finally have the soundtrack on vinyl. Up to now, only the lesser Wes Anderson films have been granted a soundtrack release on vinyl – the Moonrise Kingdom 10” from Record Store Day’s Black Friday a few years ago, and The Darjeeling Limited from Record Store Day earlier this year.

Don’t get me wrong, the soundtracks to Anderson’s films are always universally awesome; it’s just that the later films themselves aren’t a shade on his early films. From The Darjeeling Limited onwards, he’s been repeating himself, with nothing that fans of his early work haven’t seen before. And those weighty Oscar nominations for The Grand Budapest Hotel don’t mean a thing – only that the Academy are consistently terrible at recognising talent early on. Just like Scorsese’s The Departed, The Grand Budapest Hotel is far from being Wes Anderson’s finest achievement.

So back to Rushmore. In 1999, I finished University and moved back into my parents’ house. Due to the nightly boredom of living with my parents again, I joined a video shop – and without a car I used to walk the three miles there and back whenever I wanted to visit the shop. One of the first films I rented was Rushmore. I was an instant Wes Anderson fan from that moment on. His brand of whimsy, teenage rebellion and school-notebook perspective on life really struck a chord with me.

Part of the reason those early Wes Anderson films work so well are the scores by Mark Mothersbaugh. From Bottle Rocket through to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Mothersbaugh has been an integral component of Anderson’s work, offering a surprising range of musical styles that you’d never expect from the lead singer of Devo. From Fantastic Mr. Fox onwards, Anderson has turned to Alexandre Desplat as a composer; and while there’s nothing wrong with Desplat’s soundtracks, a Wes Anderson film without Mark Mothersbaugh is to me like a Spielberg film without John Williams.

Hit: Ooh La La – The Faces

Hidden Gem: Making Time – Creation