Friday, March 20, 2015

In the Ear of Carpenter: The John Carpenter Soundtracks Ranked (Happy 4th Anniversary)

Well fuck me.  I really fucking fucked this up guys.  I completely missed the 4 year anniversary of this blog thing on March 1st.  So in order to make it up to you I’m gonna do something a little different.  Instead of the usual round of sexy thrillers I’m gonna rank the John Carpenter soundtracks (a buddy of mine actually suggested it so full credit goes to him, you know who you are). 

Image result for john carpenter synthOne weird caveat to note before we begin is Carpenter didn’t score all of his films.  The Thing, Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, The Ward and the handful of TV movies he did (except Body Bags) all bear someone else’s music.  But just to throw a monkey wrench in here I’ll unofficially include the features (not numbered but still mixed in) so you know where I would rank them.  And what the hell, Halloween II and III will be included too because even though Carpenter didn’t direct those he still scored them.  I know the TV movies are getting left out in the cold on this but it wouldn’t have been much of a contest anyway.  The soundtrack to Elvis would definitely get my number one spot between those.

Ok, without further ado, here a goes:

(Starman (1984)- Generic and uninteresting.  It sounds like a really shitty B movie soundtrack.)

16. Village of the Damned (1995)- One of Carpenter’s worst films (I really need to see it again though, it’s been a long time) and the soundtrack isn’t so good either.  The synth string work tries to get you excited but is tiresome and fails.

15. Ghosts of Mars (2001)- Dreadful.  Generally speaking I don’t like Carpenter’s guitar based soundtracks as much as his synth ones and he goes for full on metal music here (not that I’m against metal by the way).  He even calls in Anthrax, Steve Vai and Buckethead to employ his magically dexterous fingers to glide through the trite score.  The only reason this ranks above Village of the Damned is because Village’s is so boring.  Ghosts at least has a hint of something happening, some direction.  I guess I just don’t agree with that direction.

(The Ward (2010)- Nothing too interesting going on here but you can hear small flashes of Carpenter’s earlier style.  I’ll give Mark Kilian credit for trying to incorporate the Carpenter sound with his own but it doesn’t quite work.  And that woman’s incessant “la la”-ing is irritating as hell.)

(Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)- It’s pretty ‘n all but standard fare.)

14. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)-  Aside from the main theme that’s all guitar-ed out there actually is a bunch of synth on here.  But it’s uninspired with not a lot to sink your teeth into.  The movie as a whole is underrated but the music doesn’t help my case very much.

13. Vampires (1998)- Another underrated Carpenter picture in my opinion, but once again the soundtrack sure ain’t.  It’s hard rockin’ with a country edge at times and not nearly as good as Escape from L.A.’s attempts at some of the same material.  If he really wanted this to be like a western he should’ve scored it more that way.

12. Dark Star (1974)- There are glimmers of what was to come but he hadn’t quite gotten there yet.  A little interesting but overall not very.

11. The Fog (1980)- It’s a not as good Halloween soundtrack. More ambient and droning sounding.  It’s less definitive which means it’s more forgettable.

10. Halloween II (1981)- Same shit as the first but the arrangements are worse.

9. Prince of Darkness (1987)- Not bad atmosphere with some religious touches like the choir-esque synth and organ. But overall it comes off as leftovers touched up and reworked slightly from his previous film, Big Trouble in Little China.

8. They Live (1988)- Everyone agrees that this is one of Carpenter’s finest films but I never found the music to be all that great.  It’s kinda boring and just plods along.  The military tinge to it works well enough but doesn’t offer any memorable themes.

7. Halloween III (1982)- Even though it’s yet more of the same shit it’s done better than II but still not as good as the first time around.

(The Thing (1982)- I tried to find out why Carpenter didn’t score this one but couldn’t find any explanation really.  Maybe it was because he was doing the soundtrack to Halloween III that year and didn’t have time to score his own feature?  Kind of a weak theory but I have no fuckin’ clue.  Anyway, it worked out ‘cause Ennio Morricone mimicked Carpenter’s sound so faithfully that it’s seamless.  Apparently Carpenter had no input either and just went with whatever Morricone came up with.  In fact it’s weird to think what this picture would sound like without Morricone’s music.  Would a genuine Carpenter soundtrack have been better?  Who knows?  Strange.)

6. Escape From L.A. (1996)- The nu metaly/industrial sound that’s going on here is actually a lot of fun.  More than anything this music sounds like it doesn’t give a fuck and that’s what makes it so appealing.  Sometimes it’s 007 influenced, sometimes it’s western influenced, it’s all over the goddamn place.  There’s something for everyone. 

5. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)- There’s really only one piece, the main theme, but it’s fuckin’ strong as shit. (fun fact: Carpenter modeled this one after Led Zep’s “The Immigrant Song” and the theme from Dirty Harry by Lalo Schifrin) 

4. Christine (1983)- It’s a little unfair because of all of the 50’s pop tunes on this but hey, that’s just the way it goes.  The selection of hits is phenomenal and even manages to sound eerie in the context of the film.  But even if I were ranking this soundtrack purely on Carpenter’s original pieces it would still come in this high.  It’s like if The Fog and Halloween soundtracks had a baby.  There are some tremendous themes here.

3. Halloween (1978)- Classic.  Every note is instantly recallable and downright creepy.

2. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)- Not only does this one sport the usual dark ambient tracks but also totally synthed out 80’s pop.  Carpenter himself even sings the title track!  This soundtrack is also an important nod to the future because Carpenter would eventually ease off his trusty synth after They Live and turn to the guitar as a showcase instrument more (starting proper with In the Mouth of Madness).  But this is the beautiful blend of both instruments.  They come together like Jack Burton and Wang Chi (Jack being the guitar and Wang the synth) to fight the three storms and Lo Pan.  The great inclusion of Asian sounding themes and simulated instrumentation further adds to the east meets west motif.  I can see this being incredible cheesy for a lot of folks but I love the shit out of it. 

1. Escape From New York (1981)- Everything from the cocksure swagger of the title theme to the Duke’s disco inspired jam to the chaotic dash across the 69th street bridge, it’s all fantastic music.  Everything about it works incredibly well.  Carpenter has a sparseness to his style that you can hear on all of his soundtracks but it’s the most effective here.  There are several layers of synth on each track but each one has plenty of breathing room.  He manages to always keep things tense and extremely exciting.  This is Carpenter’s finest work musically in my opinion.  I dare you to put this shit on and not get pumped the fuck up.  If you didn’t feel like watching the movie before, you will.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mish Mash 8 (Domestic Disturbance, The Muse Cameos, Restraint in Action Extravaganzas, Edward Furlong Sings)

Domestic Disturbance

Image result for domestic disturbanceDomestic Disturbance is an unexceptional thriller about stepdad (Vince Vaughn (Be Cool)) vs original dad (John Travolta (Be Cool)).  The son caught in the middle witnesses stepdad kill Steve Buscemi (Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams) but, of course, no one believes him.  So there’s a bit of cat and mouse and a bit of The Stepfather.

I bring this one up for two reasons.  First is that I never realized how long Vince Vaughn’s dramatic acting stretch was.  I think it’s safe to say we all think of him as a dude who does only comedies but that’s not the way he started out.  He did Swingers as a one off comedy role in ’96 but then dove into The Lost World right after that in ‘97.  He continued to take serious roles until 2001 when he did Made and he pretty much hasn’t looked back since.  The one real exception is Domestic Disturbance which he also did in 2001.  So this is kind of a farewell performance for the ac-tor Vince Vaughn.  (Just a side note, I’m really curious about how he’s gonna be in the next True Detective, will he play it straight or not?  Can’t wait for it)

Second is the baseball catch scene.  The son and stepdad are just throwin’ the old horsehide around on a sunny day in the backyard, but what makes this scene so funny is that they’re being total dicks to each other the whole time.  The son is throwing the ball all over the place making Vince run after it and in turn Vince throws it really hard back hurting the son’s hand.  And the line Vince delivers to cap this all off is “now come on turn the ball loose, you throw like shit, let’s go”. 

Unfortunately the whole movie isn’t as good as this scene but it’s still fun to watch.  Mainly because the villainous stepdad is built up to be this menacing threat but all he does is bumble around and sloppily murder people.

The Muse Cameos

Image result for the muse 1999A lot of the celebrity cameos in Albert Brooks’ The Muse remarkably still hold up today.  You got Jeff Bridges, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and I’ll even throw in Wolfgang Puck.  Rob Reiner’s pushing it though.  Strangely the script that Brooks is writing in the movie about a wacky Jim Carrey comedy set in an aquarium also still holds up.  Mr. Popper’s Penguins could’ve easily been only one scene in Brooks’ film.

One more thing on this, the celebrities that made an appearance must like Albert Brooks because they make themselves kinda look like fools kowtowing to this nut job woman (Sharon Stone).  The one I’m most surprised to see is James Cameron.  This was after Titanic too which makes his presence even more shocking.  In real life he doesn’t seem like he has a huge sense of humor, especially about himself. 

Restraint in Action Extravaganzas

Image result for die hard rooftopRecently I reupped on Die Hard and Aliens and I never realized before how restrained they are in their setups.  You don’t see a single damn alien until an hour in with Aliens and it’s also forty five minutes into Die Hard before the first big fire fight.  These movies take their time in building tension and suspense and holy shit is it effective.

Now I’m not saying that all action films should follow this approach.  Take Terminator 2 for example, that one opens with a future war battle scene.  Or even Out for Justice which starts with Seagal throwing some asshole through a fucking windshield.  Those pictures are not about restraint and that’s cool too.

Image result for aliens 1986 fightAll I’m saying is some movies we think of as action extravaganzas don’t really get to the extravaganza part until much later than you think.  They properly set shit up and make you care about the characters and appreciate the situation at hand.  You’re so engrossed that you don’t realize you haven’t seen one single solitary alien and you’re almost halfway through the thing.  That takes control and confidence in your piece.       

Edward Furlong Sings

Did you guys know that after Edward Furlong hit it big with T2 he tried his hand at singing?  I didn’t either.  Check out this cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange”:

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

Image result for the count of monte cristo 2002
This is a damn good one with all sorts of nice touches.  The story is enormous spanning like fifteen years or some shit.  Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel (Highwaymen, G.I. Jane)) is betrayed by his best friend Mondego (Guy Pearce (Ravenous, Prometheus)) who tips off the authorities about some bullshit crime Dantes committed.  He’s then imprisoned at the Chateau d’If which is located far off on a tiny island like Alcatraz.  There he learns book smarts and how to fight from a wise old prisoner (Richard Harris (Unforgiven, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)).  The sage also tells Dantes about a hidden treasure that’s located somewhere on the island of Monte Cristo.  Dantes escapes, finds the treasure and enacts his revenge against Mondego and everyone else who wronged him.

Man, it’s a larger than life tale and so beautifully constructed.  You have a happy man who gets everything dear to him stripped away which backs him into a corner.  He’s down but not out.  And holy shit does he come back with a vengeance.  He tears everyone a new asshole.

Image result for the count of monte cristo 2002There are a bunch of versions out there but it’s hard to imagine topping this latest one.  The acting is good, the pacing is great, the cinematography is beautiful and the directing is steady as a rock.  So it’s pretty weird that Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, One Eight Seven) directed this.  This one doesn’t have his usual mark of muddy storytelling or bad performances out of his actors.  It’s like really well made actually.  I haven’t seen all of his films but I have seen half of them and this is by far his best.

Yea I know they changed things around a bit from the book so it’s not the most faithful adaptation.  But it works regardless.  The back stabbing best friend was a badass twist in particular.  It perfectly fits the high drama of the rest of the plot.    

Guys I’m tellin’ you, if you like pictures that are just oozing with adventure like Raiders and The Princess Bride (ok, it’s not as good as either one of those but you get my point) then you can’t go wrong with this well executed timeless piece.