Friday, August 18, 2017

You Only Live Twice (1967)


Sean Connery was back as James for the fifth time in 1967. Spy-mania had gripped the world and you could even argue that the popularity of the genre had already reached saturation point. But things were only going to get more intense, because not only did producers have to worry about making a good movie, they had direction competition, from another film featuring James Bond! It was the first time Bond vs. Bond happened in the theaters, and it wasn’t the last.


Super British secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is given his most impossible mission yet. After a space capsule form the United States disappears in orbit, the Americans start shouting at the Russians convinced it is foul play. But British intelligence believes that the source of the trouble is in Japan. So Bond is dispatched to do some digging and find out what is going on.

Turns out the diabolical leader of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) has created a monstrous space capsule of his own that can capture smaller capsules and bring them to earth. His goal is to start World War III and then take over the planet in the aftermath. Bond finds himself in constant peril as Blofeld’s minions attack in cars, helicopters and even as mobs of dock workers. Luckily Bond has the entire Japanese secret service on their side. That means ninjas… lots and lots of ninjas. Will Bond save the day, or will he find out what the proverb You Only Live Twice really means?

Good Points:
  • Some gorgeous location shooting in Japan
  • One of the most amazing sets ever used in a Bond film
  • A beautiful song and score composed by John Barry
Bad Points:
  • Is all spectacle and not much substance
  • Sean Connery is a bit flat in his portrayal of Bond
  • For being an iconic villain Blofeld doesn’t do too much

Every time I watch this film, I always hope I’ll like it more than I do. But in the end, I’m entertained, but also a little bored by it. As visually impressive as the film can be, it just lacks urgency. It reaches for some impressive set pieces, but all the connective tissue just never really clicks. When is all is said and done this is probably the weakest of the Connery Bonds of the 60s, but it is still a good time.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into orbit.
When you take a look at the James Bond films featuring Sean Conner in the 1960s you see a trend. Dr. No starts out as a fairly low-key affair. It is certainly a thriller, and a well made one too. But the blockbuster status that transformed the series with Goldfinger isn’t really apparent. By the time you reach 1967 and You Only Live Twice everything has changed. James Bond isn’t the only game in town, every studio in the world has gone spy crazy. The market was so saturated with spy films that there were actually two James Bond movies due for release in 1967. That’s right, the crazy Casino Royale featuring Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and Orson Welles was in direct completion with the Sean Connery and company with their take 007.I think it is important to understand the world You Only Live Twice debuted in, because it really explains why the movie is the way it is.

Banzai! It is raining ninjas!
So this film is the fifth of the official franchise. It had an established base to start with, including the cast, much of the crew and all the expectations that go along with a James Bond film. In an effort to stand out from the crowd of imitators and the direct completion from Casino Royale, the creators of You Only Live Twice decided that visual spectacle was going to be the main attribute that distinguished them from the pack. Thunderball was a massive success, and it had featured some really impressive visuals, especially that underwater battle scene between two armies. The creative team decided to up the stakes even higher. The final battle here would be massive, and it would explode against one of the most impressive film sets ever crafted for James Bond film.

Secret lair on a rare ninja-free day.
Production designer Ken Adam returned to work on this movie, after giving the series his distinctive stamp way back in Dr. No. This time he outdid himself. He created a massive secret lair inside a volcano, complete with working doors, helipad, rocket gantry, monorail and plenty of room for extras to run around and get thrown over railings. The set became iconic, not just to the 007 series, but also to film in general. Anytime you had a mad super-genius in a lair of any kind, chances are it would look uncannily like the volcano lair form You Only Live Twice.

7... thousand samurai at Himeji castle.
In addition to the amazing sets constructed for the film, you also get some really impressive location shooting. The film takes place almost entirely in Japan. It is the first time in the series that James Bond has journeyed to the Far East, and the producers wanted to make sure that the audience understood that this production wasn’t faking any of it. In some ways, this turns the movie into a travel log for Japan. You get to see the brilliant neon of Tokyo, the grungy docks of Kobe, a flyby Tokyo tower, the grand castle of Himeji and of course the lovely volcanic islands and beaches.

"Can you explain why there is no color in this room?"
There is a strange thing that occurs in You Only Live Twice that makes it a little less visually dynamic than other films in the franchise. With all the metal, concrete and volcanic rock in the film, the actual color pallet of the movie tends to be rather drab. Even the costumes trend towards grey, white or black. Blofeld’s henchmen stand out so well because of their primary colored outfits, but they are the exception to the rule. It is strange because Japan is bursting with color and yet the film doesn’t really capture that too much. I do wonder if the crew knew that Casino Royale was going for a more colorful psychedelic feel, and decided to go against the grain in that case.

Yeah I don't think Connery feels like he is flying.
The visual effects in the film are pretty impressive for the time. This movie probably has the most special effects of all the 1960s Bond films. You’ve got plenty of action in space, with lots of rockets hurtling through the atmosphere. They do a pretty good job capturing those moments. Some of the rear projection is a bit dodgy, but that has always been a problem with these older films.

The sound effects work is solid for its time. You get the typical gunshots and squealing tires during car chases. But this film features a full-blown helicopter battle, a full-blown ninja attack and rockets taking off. The sound supports the action pretty well and certainly keeps up with the more spectacular moments.

Wedding March for Bond? John Barry is there.
Once again John Barrpy composes the film’s score. He wrote the song You Only Live Twice and Nancy Sinatra provides a lovely rendition of the song for the opening and ending titles. Barry uses the theme throughout the film. It works as a great romantic piece for the three ladies that Bond encounters. But Barry also uses the tune to support some of the travelogue moments, capturing the setting sun over the islands, or boldly erupting as the neon flashes in Tokyo. He even gives us a brassy rendition during the Kobe dock fight. You get a rendition of the classic 007 theme that is primarily used in these 60’s Connery films, and was introduced in From Russia with Love. This time it is given a full workout during the Little Nellie sequence, much more spry and fun than the slow version used during the underwater battles in Thunderball. The famous James Bond theme gets very little air time in this film. It shows up a few times, but is understated. Its biggest performances are for the gunbarrel and finale sequences. Last but not least is a nice tense theme for the space sequences. It is a slow piece that builds in tension as it moves along. It adds weight to the visual effects of those scenes. Barry’s score this time around is less brassy and bold. It has many lovely restatements of the main theme, and really focuses on that as its main identity. It works great in the film, but it lacks the diversity that would come in the next score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Relaxed, or just kind of bored?
By the time You Only Live Twice rolled into production Sean Connery was pretty tired of the character and the celebrity it had brought him. Filming Thunderball had been tough, with fans crashing the production and creating issues where he was staying in the Bahamas. Filming You Only Live Twice was even more trying. It got so bad that Connery would be mobbed if he so much as showed his face outside his hotel. I have to say, you can tell in his performance in this film. He seems less engaged in the part. He does fine in some key scenes like when Aki is murdered. But other times he feels a little flat, especially in the big final battle scene at the end of the film, where Bond becomes more of a spectator (like us) to all the mayhem around him. His performance in Diamonds are Forever is much worse (he really didn’t want to do that film at all). But you can tell Connery just isn’t having fun in the part any more.

"No seriously" [snicker] "It looks really good on you
Bond-san." [snicker]
Luckily the supporting cast is solid. Tetsuro Tanba is excellent as the Japanese spymaster, Tiger Tanaka, who helps Bond on his mission. He has an authoritative but warm demeanor. I bet you could have made a whole series of Japanese spy films featuring Tiger and they would have been great. I also really like Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki. She is a spy working for Tanaka and helps Bond out a few times with her skilled driving and great sense of timing. It’s a shame she is killed off halfway through the film. Kissy Suzuki is very cute (or kawai if you prefer), but her character doesn’t have too much to do in the film. Supposedly Kissy couldn’t speak much English and her accent was very thick, so she is dubbed for the entirety of the film. I should also note that Charles Grey shows up as Bond’s English contact in Tokyo. It’s a fun performance with Grey playing the proper British gent who is about to go native. Grey would appear in the Bond series again in Diamonds are Forever in a much different role - but oddly, almost the same performance.

And now a big hand for our supporting villains!
Opposing Bond is a set of baddies that features one of the most memorable villains of the entire franchise. But first let’s talk about the supporting evildoers. Teru Shimada plays Osato who runs the company front for Blofeld. It’s a lightly written part, but Shimada handles it well. Karin Dor is his sexy assistant, with a voluptuous figure and red hair. She seduces and then tries to kill Bond. She’s good too, but I always get the feeling that producers were trying to give us another Fiona Volpe from Thunderball. But Volpe’s character had way more impact to the plot and Luciana Paluzzi had more to work with. But really when you are talking about You Only Live Twice you can only be talking about one villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, portrayed by Donald Pleasence.

"Oh I assure you, I'm evil."
Now we’ve seen Blofeld’s hand and cat all the way back in From Russia with Love, but this is our first glimpse of the man. Pleasence gives us a calm, cold and creepy mastermind. His scarred face and gentle voice are a great contrast, and it is easy to see how he became iconic as he sits there stroking his evil cat and plotting World War III. But that said, his outfit and attitude are really very close Dr. No, and that does make him a little less distinctive in the villain department. I actually really like Telly Savalas take on the character in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, more urbane, less creepy and just as calculating.

The rest of the London crew are back. M (Bernard Lee) has a couple short scenes to set up the plot. Moneypenny (Louis Maxwell) flirts a bit with Bond. But it is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) that gets a bit more to do here. His whole scene with Little Nellie is very amusing. He’s just as exasperated with Bond as usual, and once again he is forced to into the field to do his job. I say!

Yeah, this scene isn't in the book.
So there are some minor issues here and there, but why don’t I like this movie more? I mean it is James Bond and Japan – two great tastes that should go great together, right? Well the main issue with the film is the story and the over the top spectacle unleashed on the viewers. You Only Live Twice is based on the novel by Ian Fleming, but only in the loosest sense of the word. The novel takes place in Japan, Tiger Tanaka is in it, and Blofeld is behind the evil plot. But there are no rockets, no volcano lairs, no ninjas, no helicopter battles, and no Sumo wrestlers. It is actually a very dark book, focusing on death and how that locks Bond and Blofeld together. The book actually occurs shortly after the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so James Bond is an angry man, and that anger drives him. It’s not the kind of story to adapt at this point in the 1960s, and I can understand why the producers went in a totally different direction with the plot.

Turning Japanese? I really don't think so.
They brought in Roald Dahl (yes that Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach fame) to come up with something a bit different. And yeah, I think he went there and more. Spectacle is the name of the game here and Dahl embraces the idea. He has rockets gobbling up other rockets. He has James Bond die, come back to life, turn Japanese and get married. He throws in buckets of ninjas attacking a volcano lair full of guys with machine guns. Yeah Cold War paranoia is the source of the tension in the plot, but that is about the most realistic thing in the film.

"They are not grey pajamas, Bond-san. Ninjas. We
are ninjas! Don't ruin this for me!"
Here’s the thing, Thunderball went about as over the top as I think the 1960s series should have gone. The pool full or sharks and the ship that transformed into a speedboat were fun and kind of silly, but the whole film was build on legitimate tension and thrills. You Only Live Twice actually takes the comic book mold from Goldfinger and ramps it all up to 11. Bond is once again invincible, always right and pretty much a one man wrecking crew… until he needs to get saved by a squad of ninjas or Aki. The movie is going for silly fun, and while it seems like it worked overall, the movie gets really close to parody mode. The thing is, I don’t think Connery is suited for that kind of approach to the character. Connery can do humor, and his dry wit works really well. But with his underplayed performance You Only Live Twice kinda falls flat. Give Roger Moore a similar script in The Spy Who Loved Me and suddenly you have one of the best James Bond films of the franchise.

Look at the girl, not the sumo butts.
Director Lewis Gilbert does a solid job with the film. The actions scenes are well filmed. As crazy as the ninja attack on the compound gets, we never lose track of where all the key characters are. But I actually like the one on one battle with Bond and the massive thug in Osato’s office. It feels brutal and Bond is outmatched physically, so he has to use some makeshift weapons to get out of it. Yeah it is an obvious nod to Oddjob’s final duel in Goldfinger, but it works almost as well.

This was a massive production with a lot riding on it. Gilbert keeps the whole thing together and coherent. Gilbert would do such a good job he would be invited back to helm The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. So they obviously liked what he brought to the table.

Even a mediocre film won't kill Bond, James Bond.
Unfortunately I always find You Only Live Twice to be one the Bond film from the 60s that I most often forget about. This is strange since so many iconic things happen in this film. Blofeld and the volcano lair are pretty much in every James Bond spoof after 1967. But I also run into casual fans of Bond who think all that happens in Goldfinger. In any case, the movie has its moments, and it shows us how HUGE James Bond had become by this point. But it also shows us how tired the concept was getting. In the end You Only Live Twice won the battle against Casino Royale. But all the other ripoffs like Danger Death Ray, In Like Flint, and even Operation Double 007 came out the same year. It was time for something different. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was just that.

"James, you're not doing the Moonwalk right."

"I can't teach you how to Moonwalk, but have you tried to
do the Timewarp... again?"
"007, your dancing is abysmal. We are going to work on
your Lambada skills."
Little Nellie is ready to dance with some big helicopters.
I always wondered. Is the cat evil too?
"Yes you've come to the right man. I can teach you some
excellent disco movies. I am Pleasance and I am funky."
White bikini is standard volcano climbing gear. Get
with it Bond!
Disco inferno? It was bound to happen I suppose.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

And Then This Happened... You Only Live Twice

Being a tourist can be a lot of fun. You get to see new sights, meeting interesting people and sample the local cuisine. Maybe if you're lucky you learn a bit about the culture and history of the place you visit. And Japan is full of all kinds of things to see and do.

But when you carry a license to kill, and Q is the one doing all your packing, well these little trips can turn out a bit dicey. You end up going to some of the worst places in the country. I mean who wants to actually tour Bloefeld's secret mountain lair. The stupid thing is going to blow up eventually, right?

I think they are on to you James.  In any case, time for another caption from the film You Only Live Twice.

And then this happened...

Friday, August 11, 2017

Score Sample: You Only Live Twice (1967)

When comes to the James Bond films of the 1960s, you can count on one name - Barry, John Barry. He was involved with the scores to all the official James Bond films up to The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. He would return to the franchise after that film off and on. But lets be hones here, when you think of James Bond music, you think of John Barry's brassy, bold, jazzy style. He created some amazing scores in the late 60s for the series and these tend to be my favorites from that era of the franchise.

The score to You Only Live Twice not only has a great main theme (and theme song sung my Nancy Sinatra) but it also has some excellent supporting themes to back it up. Since the film takes place in Japan, you get a solid dose of interesting instrumentation, as well as some asian sounding style thrown into the mix. But where Thunderball went bold and brassy with its sound, You Only Live Twice went for a more lush and romantic sound. I better stop here, or this will go from a Score Sample post to a Movie Music Musing post.

In today's sample, you get the music that is used whenever we enter space in the film. Barry creates a tense motif that builds in tension as the small capsules are helplessly engulfed by the monstrous creation the villain sends up after them. Barry does a great job at creating incoming dread and increasing it as the track goes along. I love how the trumpets almost sound like they are screaming for help at the end of the cue followed by that timpani roll. So enjoy the Capsule in Space track from You Only Live Twice composed by John Barry.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Movie Musing: Going Ape for a Trilogy

With War for the Planet of the Apes we have one of the best film trilogies since The Lord of the Rings completed back in 2003. I know, I was just as surprised as you. If you look back at series that hit the three film mark you are hard pressed to find any that didn’t have at least a single dud in that chain.

Starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes these films have all had solid to excellent scripts. They created interesting and engaging characters and they have build up each other. I would even argue that the films actually got better as they went along. I loved how Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raised the stakes for the humans, as well as the apes. But the stakes were intertwined in a way that created drama and conflict that you were invested in. War for the Planet of the Apes did the same thing, but it went further, putting Caesar’s very soul at the heart of the film. It is an impressive achievement, and one that I would never have called back in 2011 when the series started.

I wanted to take a look at the various elements that made this series work so well. It isn’t quite a top ten list, because I’m not sure any one element outshines the other. But it is fascinating to see how they all worked together to create one of the best trilogies of film in modern times.

1.  Reworking the older films that had issues, instead of trying to remake what many feel is a classic.
Taking matters into his own hands.
  • This is something that I believe most studios really need to consider. Stop trying to remake and reboot films that are good. Look at the ones that had potential but fell short. Most people will say that Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction films of the 1960s, and some will even put it on a list of best science fiction films of all time. Fox made a wise decision to look at Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and rework the ideas presented in that film. It was a good move because people are less familiar with that movie, and it contains plenty of really intriguing ideas and moments that the new trilogy could develop in interesting ways. The most important element from that film (as well as Battle for the Planet of the Apes) is the character of Caesar.
2. Willingness to focus on the apes as the central characters

Sharing the story.
  • Rise did start with James Franco’s character as our main protagonist, but Caesar gets plenty of screen time and his story is just as important to the film. I’d say they share the film. But starting with Dawn, Caesar takes center stage, and with him the rest of the apes civilization. The creators could have tried to shoehorn a human into the main plot to act as an audience surrogate, but they resisted. Instead, human interactions are used to compare and contrast with the apes. There are key human characters in Dawn and War, but they never take the spotlight away form Caesar or his people. It was a bold decision, but one that put faith in the audience as well as the ability of the visuals to allow the audience to relate to the apes.
3.  Utilizing impressive visuals but keeping them in service of the story and characters
Road rage!
  • One of the main reasons it was a good time to revisit the Planet of the Apes franchise is that special effects technology is to the point where realistic ape characters can be created using state of the art technology. These movies share the same source material with the 70s films, but visually are very different. These apes look like actual apes, not people with ape heads. I’m not slighting the 60s and 70s films. They look very good for the makeup available at the time. But they create a more alien looking view of the apes. The current trilogy feels more grounded in what we understand as reality. But it isn’t just the impressive special effects, but the overall visual tone of the films. Director Matt Reeves gives Dawn and War a grim feeling that fits this view of one world dying and a new one beginning. It gives the new trilogy a cohesive feeling that was lacking in the earlier series. Finally these films have impressive visuals, but all of them are in service to the story and characters. There is very little visual showboating here. Yes you are blown away by some action sequences, but everything feels like it pushes the story forward, or is part of the themes of the series.
4.  Impeccable cast willing to commit to roles and stories
Kobe shows his laughing face... scary.
  • Even when you have all the wonderful special effects in the world at your side, if you don’t have a cast that is willing and able to pull off the characters you’ll be in trouble. Luckily each film is blessed with some outstanding performances. The highlight is Andy Serkis, who gives us a Caesar that is relatable, admirable and yet flawed. It is a great character, and Serkis steps up to the challenge of not only delivering such a nuanced performance over all three films, but doing so with so few words. Body language and eyes are the key elements for all the ape performers, and we get so many good ones. Karin Konoval as Maurice is pitch perfect in her role. Steve Zahn as Bad Ape in War provides just the right amount of eccentricity and levity to the dark film. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the powerhouse performance that Toby Kebbell unleashed as the conflicted Koba in Dawn. These performances make us believe in the apes as characters, and why we get so attached to their story as it continues.
5.  Allowing the music to have emotional weight in the film.
Caesar doubts the veracity of your claim.
  • There is a trend in “serious” Hollywood films today that film music should not call any attention to itself. It shouldn’t be emotional. It shouldn’t do anything but just kind of sit there in the background, droning away because we need a score of some kind and we don’t want the audience to feel manipulated. I wish I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not. Now you could argue if these three films are “serious” or not, but I think we could have easily ended up with a low key droning score on these. The filmmakers decided to actually allow the music to be heard and to carry emotions. The two composers who worked on the series, Patrick Doyle and Michael Giacchino, were allowed to build scores that were heard clearly in the film. The music took on additional importance for Dawn and War where so many of the characters are not speaking actual words, but expressing feelings with their eyes and body language. The music does some heavy lifting in these films. It gives us a wonderful theme for the Apes (and Caesar) that carries over the two movies and showcases the strength of those characters. Understanding how powerful and effective the music needed to be in these films was vital and it pleases me to read so many reviews of War that say how effective Giacchino’s score is in context. Check out some samples of the scores here.
6.  Understanding pacing and atmosphere to build tension.
A shaky truce is about to go south.
  • How easy would it have been to go the standard blockbuster route with these new apes films? Very easy indeed. Even with a title like War for the Planet of the Apes, the action sequences are restrained. Instead the films focus on building atmosphere and tension, so that when the big set pieces arrive, they have impact. Rise of the Planet of the Apes almost feels like a medical drama for the first half of the film, but it earns the climactic battle on the Golden Gate bridge. Dawn did up the action quotient, but did so by having the big sequences pull the characters in various directions emotionally and us right along with it. Those scenes in Dawn are nerve-racking because we are invested in Caesar’s dilemma and Koba’s conflict. War opens with a terrifying action sequence and then proceeds to go into tension building mode as the stakes get raised to almost unbearable levels. The final climax feels earned and cathartic when it hits. And because of the well-written scripts, the climax fits not just the film, but the whole trilogy as well.
7.  Tying all three scripts together.
Apes using eagle vision?
  • I’m not sure if the overarching story for these three films was written at once, or if Dawn and War were written with close attention paid to the previous installments of the current series. In any case the scripts of these three films builds on each other. This is actually something that franchise stories not based on existing material run into problems with. Too many times we have sequels that seem to exist in a vacuum with only passing attention paid to the earlier installments (especially in horror series). But these films tell a continuous story, with Caesar as our central character. Dawn could not work without the events of Rise. War would not play out as it does without the story told in Dawn. Care was taken with these scripts and you can tell.
8.  Providing nods to the older series.
Maurice and Nova are both call back names.
  • Even while these films forge their own path, they also take the time to provide nods to the films of the 1960s and 70s. I think Rise went a little too far with it. But the other two films don’t call attention to the references, but work them organically with the story. Someone who isn’t familiar with the older films will not feel like they are missing anything when they meet characters named Cornelius or Nova. But those who are familiar with the older movies will find an added layer to these films to enjoy. The new series doesn’t mock the older one (yeah I’m looking at you 2010 Clash of the Titans), but respects it for what it did and how it inspired these new films.
9.  Keeping to the grey zone.
It is the end of the world, and the colonel doesn't feel fine.
  • One of the elements I really like about this series is that there are no good guys and bad guys. There are protagonists and antagonists. We understand the motivation of nearly all the characters in these films, and while we may not agree with them, we can empathize with them. James Franco’s character in Rise is not a mad scientist, but a man who cares deeply about his father and Caesar. His actions eventually doom the human race, but they were done to help humankind. But at the same time his is rash and bit selfish, flaws that allow events to spiral out of his control. This continues into Dawn where the humans and apes have members that are filled with fear and hate. It is those individuals who drive the action of the story into darker and darker levels. It is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. You can see how it is all going wrong, no matter what everyone tries to do. The tension from that conflict is still one of the best in the series. War presents us with a human faction that seems to be evil on the surface. But the more we learn about them and the reasons why the Colonel is pushing the attack so hard, we realize that the stakes for humanity have never been higher. We can empathize with the man, even as he does horrible things to Caesar and his people. In the end, we cheer for the apes, because they are oppressed. Caesar is the one that tries to maintain peace and is willing to open a helping hand to humanity. But like many leaders before him, he is constantly challenged. Sometimes it is by humans, sometimes it is by his own people and finally it is by his own emotions.
10.  Committing to the tone.
The quality of mercy...
  • Now I’m going to sound like a bit of hypocrite here. I have lamented in the past about all the Hollywood blockbusters that were so dire and dower in tone after The Dark Knight became a huge hit. Rise came out right when that was still in full swing, and it was one of the reasons I missed the film in theaters. But I think the difference here is that the Planet of the Apes series as a whole has always had a very serious feel to it. They aren’t fun movies, but they are engaging movies. This new series falls into that same tone. We are dealing with the end of the human race after all. But I think the creators did such a good job balancing the tone just right. All three films have characters you can relate to, and hope for. They aren’t relentlessly depressing and dower just because they are trying to be cool. They are dealing with grim situations and the characters are reacting the best way they can. It feels right and earned. The creators never cheapen it by overplaying the mood, or trying to cut it with comic relief. Now War does contain the character of Bad Ape, who does bring some chuckles to the dark film. But his character has a tragic story, and even though his reactions can bring a smile or a laugh, we also feel bad for the guy. He is only reacting that way because of what happened to him before Caesar and his crew run into him. It is a dangerous character to introduce in that kind of film, but he is played and written perfectly. The tone was preserved and it delivers the impact it needs to. And as I mentioned above, the films could have veered off into pure action spectacle or gotten really ridiculous as they went along. But they stayed committed to the dark tone. It is an impressive feat that all three films are still engaging to watch and rewatch, even with such dark subject matter at the heart.

So those are my 10 reasons why this film trilogy is the best trilogy of films since Lord of the Rings. Did I miss something you think makes these work? Or do you have another trilogy that you think works just as well, or even better? Leave a comment and I’ll be sure respond (even to you Twilight fans out there).

Caesar in search for the dish best served cold.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Movie Music Musing: Rise of the Composers of the Apes

As a fan of film music I love it when a film series manages to create wonderful and engaging music with each installment. It is a rare thing, but us film score fans celebrate when it happens… usually by buying another special edition CD. But I digress.

The rebooted Planet of the Apes films that started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, have some pretty great music to go along with them. Two of my favorite composers worked on these movies, and I figured it was time to share some of the interesting work they composed for the three films.

Patrick Doyle conducts.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was directed by Rupert Wyatt with music composed by Patrick Doyle. This was a little strange because I always associate Doyle with his work for Kenneth Branagh. His scores for Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations are some of my favorite pieces from that type of film. But Doyle is a skilled composer and over the years he has provided excellent scores for animated films, military dramas and fantasy films. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the composer, except that it would probably be lush with lots of great melodic pieces and some real power in the orchestra.

And that is where things went totally different from what we all expected. Doyle’s score actually had a very modern blockbuster sound, like something that would come out of Hans Zimmer’s composing studio. It was aggressive, heavy of the drums and repeating motifs. You could still hear some of Doyle’s style in there, but it really seemed like he was asked to ape the modern blockbuster trends that were making Transformers scores popular.

Doyle later confirmed that this was the case. He was restricted to a particular sound, and did his best to work within it. The result is that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an interesting and effective modern score. Doyle’s style gives it different flavor, and when he is able to go grand and lush he does so with skill. But I still feel like Doyle is held back a little on this score, as solid as it is.

Here is a good action piece for when Caesar and his apes attempt to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Doyle gives it a propulsive modern feel, but the tension works very well.

For the majestic side, here if the final track from the album, Ceasar’s Home where Caesar climbs to the top of the trees with his followers and looks out over the city. Doyle builds the track with power and beauty that matches the victorious feeling the scene.


When Matt Reeves took over directorial duties for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes he brought over the composer who had supported him on his previous two films: Michael Giacchino. This film was going to have a few issues that the previous one didn’t have. There were large portions of the film with no audible dialogue, as the apes converse using gestures and glances. In these cases Giacchino was going to not just support but craft the emotion  of these scenes with his music.

Giacchino has really gone ape!
Now, I’m a big fan of Giacchino. He is one of my favorite composers working today, so yeah I’m a little biased to liking these scores and all the interesting things he tries. Luckily he was not tied to studio demands that the score sound modern. Instead Giacchino was able to actually make some musical nods to Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking score from the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. Giacchino used creative percussion, unique wind instruments and gave the whole score a much more primal and discordant feel. This means that the score can sound a little less approachable than Doyle’s effort. But I think it gives Dawn the right score for its darker tone.

Dawn actually ends up having two themes that evolve and battle throughout the score. The martial one for Koba, the human hating ape, gets some real highlights. The massive Gorilla Warfare track follows Koba’s attack on the human compound in San Francisco. It is an aggressive track that builds, batters and decimates the listener, all the while using Koba’s theme as the driving engine, even deconstructing it at times. The wailing choral voices as Koba commandeers an armored vehicle are especially chilling.

One of the most impressive pieces is what I like to think of as the Apes Hope theme. This one carries into the next score as well, but we get a wonderful presentation of it early in the score with The Great Ape Processional. It is a simple tune, but one that proves to be very malleable over the tow movies, sounding triumphant, contemplative and even tragic as the movies progress.  And yes, Giacchino goes ape with his primate puns for the titles. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

Giacchino and Reeves consult in
a hidden location.
War for the Planet ofthe Apes gave Giacchino a chance to expand on his themes and concepts he created in Dawn. While there are still moments of primal drumming and dark underscore bubbling with tension, there are also more new themes that really get a full workout in the score. Because of this War is actually a more vibrant score even if the movie is much darker.

Giacchino keeps the Goldsmithian touches with unique percussion and wind instruments, but they are less discordant in this score. As the ape’s civilization grows, so does the score. There are a lot of great moments in the music, but I really like the new theme for the hunt that Giacchino introduces. It is used several times as Caesar and his crew of apes track down the Colonel. It has a Morricone western feel to it. The theme works like gangbusters in the film, and The Posse Polanaise showcases it as a type of march at the end of the track.

Perhaps the most memorable moment in the film and the score is the finale. Caesar tragedy comes full circle, and for all that he has sacrificed and suffered his people have a new home. Paradise Found gives us the Apes Hope theme from Dawn and gives us a wonderful triumphant and yet sad version of the theme. Giacchino builds the score along with the scene as two apes discuss the future, and it ends the score in a satisfying way.

While part of me wishes that Doyle or Giacchino had been brought in from the start and had been able to develop themes and ideas over the course of all three films, the other half of my brain says, “Shut up! You got three great scores with three great movies.” Of the three, I think War may be my favorite. I love the variety Giacchino brings to it, and how he weaves and explores the ideas he crafted in the previous score. But that said, all three are worthy albums for anyone who enjoys the more primal side of film scores. Combined with Goldsmith’s masterpiece for Planet of the Apes and you have one hell of a playlist.

Bonus track, The Hunt from Goldsmith’s primal score.