Iconic film and TV soundtracks – an endangered species

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I grew up during a time when I took for granted that popular TV shows and movies would have memorable intro music or theme songs.

My particular favourite was the intro for The Six Million Dollar Man, composed by Oliver Nelson. Combined with clips of astronaut Steve Austin’s crash and transformation into a bionic man, along with the grim voiceover by his mentor Oscar Goldman, the entire package was thrilling and I never tired of sitting through it each week. At school, 8- and 9-year olds (myself included) would run around the playground in slow motion humming the tune as their personal background soundtrack. Another tune that gives me goosebumps to this day is the Hawaii Five-O opening theme, composed by Morton Stevens and performed by the famous instrumental rock band The Ventures. I can still recall the montage of surf waves, buildings and faces that was perfectly synced with the track, made so dynamic through zoom, jump cuts and shaky cam shots. And the theme music of the original Star Trek, composed by Alexander George and bonded with that opening monologue by William Shatner, is surely one of the most recognized around the world.

I discovered a few years ago while researching old TV tunes that Lalo Schifrin was the genius behind two other iconic intros – the Mission: Impossible theme which has been kept alive by the feature films over the years (loved the version that U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton concocted for the first movie in 1996) and the minimalist intro for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Schifrin also composed the original theme for Starsky and Hutch, but it was replaced from the 2nd season onwards by Tom Scott’s groovy synthesizer-based piece which is the version that pretty much everyone remembers.

Another favourite was M*A*S*H*, the tune became even more poignant for me when I discovered later that the accompanying theme song was titled Suicide is Painless. Of course, when it came to songs, it’s the happy ones that I would sing along with; and the two that lift my heart to this day are the intro songs of Happy Days and The Greatest American Hero.

There weren’t that many British shows that I watched, but of course the opening theme for Doctor Who remains well known to this day, with the show having been revived in 2005 and introduced to a whole new generation.

Later on in the 70’s as I got to around the age of 10, I started watching movies. This was mostly on grainy VHS and occasionally on TV – we didn’t have dedicated movie channels back then. And so it was that I came across the amazing Superman and Star Wars themes by John Williams, the quirky intro for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone, the playful Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini and of course, the theme for James Bond which has remained popular over the years even though it is built around the very dated surf rock sound of the 60’s. Many years later, as I watched other films from the 60’s and 70’s, I came across many more memorable themes such as Nino Rota’s evocative (and so Italian) soundtrack for The Godfather or Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score for The Magnificent Seven and John Williams’ scary score for Jaws. I think the last iconic theme from this era was John Williams’ signature tune for Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.

In comparison, the only contemporary TV show themes that I consider memorable or iconic are Mark Snow’s theme for The X-Files and Ramin Djawadi’s complex and multi-layered theme for Game of Thrones. Sure, I watch very little TV these days, but even when it comes to movies, I can’t think of anything memorable or instantly recognizable that has been written in the past decade. I would have to go back to 1993’s surprisingly mellow and evocative Jurassic Park theme by John Williams and James Horner’s work for Titanic; I think these are the last of the ‘classic film tunes’. Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings is also very good, but frankly I had to go online and search for the tune on YouTube because I couldn’t remember what it sounded like, just that I liked it a lot. I do have some personal favourites from recent years like Ramin Djawadi’s entire OST for Pacific Rim, or John Powell’s work for The Italian Job and The Bourne Identity both of which I have written about previously; but I doubt very much that you could classify these tunes as widely popular or iconic.

One of the reasons that the quality and distinctiveness of soundtracks has reduced over the years (especially in movies) is that film makers increasingly rely on existing pop and rock songs to fill out the film soundtrack. I call this lazy composing and have a real problem with it. It was innovative when the Bee Gees composed an entire album of hit songs for Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and nostalgic when Cameron Crowe injected a bunch of rock classics into Almost Famous in 2000 and of course, we all love director James Gunn’s mixtape selection for Guardians of the Galaxy. But now I feel that every movie (starting with the trailer) is using popular songs rather than coming up with catchy original compositions. How nice it would be to once again fall in love with a piece of music and have it stay with you for the rest of your life as a part of the memory of a beloved movie or TV show…


SPECTRE lacks the freshness of Casino Royale or Skyfall, but pretty good for the fourth entry in the Craig series

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SPECTRE’s opening set-piece instantly reminded me of Orson Welles’ brilliant 3 ½ minute single-take achievement in Touch of Evil. Unlike that 1958 classic, this 4 minute sequence is only appears to be a continuous tracking shot but in fact has a couple of carefully hidden transitions. Nevertheless, it is a richly mounted, incredibly detailed and meticulously choreographed sequence, consisting of 2000+ extras, all of whom stay in character even in wide and long shots.

Sam Smith’s new theme song Writing’s on the Wall is reasonably good when paired with the title sequence, but will not challenge my Top 3 favourites – Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill, Tina Turner’s Goldeneye and A-ha’s The Living Daylights; of course, Paul McCartney’s iconic Live and Let Die now probably transcends these mundane lists.

The overall story arc is simple enough to describe – Bond follows up on a tip to kill a man and then investigate the secret organization he works for. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a personal connection with the man who has been pulling the strings of globally organized crime over the years. The execution of this simple story is quite complex though and sometimes it’s tough to keep track of why exactly Bond is in a particular part of the world – Mexico, London, Rome, Austria and Morocco – except in order to set up a spectacular sequence in an exotic location!

And spectacular they are. Everything looks fabulous in this movie, including Bond in his perfectly fitting Tom Ford O’Connor suit (only about USD 4000 at Harrod’s). If indeed this is going to be his last Bond, then certainly Mr. Craig will be going out on a high, as he hardly seeming to have aged since Casino Royale nine years ago. Equally eye-catching are his co-star Léa Seydoux and his car, the Aston Martin DB10 prototype.

Product placement has been toned down, but just enough to allow the featured brands to run their own Bond-related promotions off-screen. Aston Martin and Omega are the two brands explicitly visible on-screen, but brands like Tom Ford, Sony phones and Belvedere Vodka are certainly riding on the association.

Throughout the film, there are echoes of the past for Bond loyalists to pick up on. The mountaintop Hoffler Klinik where Seydoux’ character Dr. Madeleine Swann works looked like Blofeld’s similarly placed allergy research institute in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond and Dr. Swann’s dinner date on the Oriental Desert Express is a nod to his and Vesper Lynd’s first meeting in Casino Royale.

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Later on, the fight sequence between Bond and Hinx (Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy) is reminiscent of the one between Sean Connery’s Bond and strongman Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love.

I get a bit worried with this new trend of referencing old events in franchise movies. JJ Abrams did it in Star Trek Into Darkness and it came off poorly in Terminator: Genisys. It’s a bit of a gimmick and seems like lazy writing to me. Or maybe it was just coincidence and I am looking too hard for such connections!

There is no femme fatale this time around unless you count Monica Belucci in a use-and-throw role who does not even have the good grace to get killed. I missed having a character like Famke Janssen’s unhinged Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye or Bérénice Marlohe’s stunning and tragic Séverine in Skyfall or even Caroline Munro’s irritating helicopter pilot Naomi from The Spy Who Loved Me (whose destruction I thoroughly enjoyed at the tender age of 9).

I should be writing more about Christoph Waltz’ performance; not only is he one of my top character actors, he is also a two-time Oscar winner and plays an iconic Bond villain – history was waiting to be made. However, he is strangely tame in the film; I actually thought he was more menacing with his shadowy presence in the trailers than he was when actually seen in the movie. I can understand that director Sam Mendes would not have wanted him to ham it up like previous Bond villains nor do a repeat of Waltz’ own tongue-in-cheek performance as SS Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Whatever the case, I felt that Javier Bardem’s Silva was far more menacing and disturbing in Skyfall.

I also missed Judi Dench. At the end of Skyfall, I very much welcomed Ralph Fiennes as the new M. His character Gareth Mallory had shown a certain spiritedness throughout the film which I thought would serve him well as the new boss of MI6. But in SPECTRE, Fiennes’ M is an emasculated leader, tagging along behind his new boss ‘C’ (played by Andrew Scott, last seen as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock) and mouthing pedantic phrases about democracy. Likewise, Naomie Harris, who made such an impression as field agent turned executive assistant in Skyfall, seemed to be missing her spark. I thought about this and realized that this is the truth of life in large corporations (even MI6), which is that even omni-powerful bosses have their own boss to be afraid of and the brightest of talent can eventually get ground down by the pressures of the job! Perhaps their seeming fatigue is a reflection of director Sam Mendes’ own state of mind, considering that he has been working on 2 consecutive Bond films for the better part of the last five years.

Looking back at all my comments, it may seem like I have a lot to quibble about, but it really is only quibbling. And that’s because Skyfall set up such high expectations, which were even further enhanced with that brilliant opening sequence. Thereafter, the film suffers a bit due to the long running time and a bit due to some lazy script writing and editing. But overall, it is a great-looking movie, featuring a lead actor absolutely in his element that ends with on a surprisingly noble and conventionally happy (but welcome) ending. Go see it! It may be the last time we’ll see Daniel Craig on screen as the iconic 007.

Guy Ritchie breathes new life into an old UNCLE

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It’s not easy to convert a popular ‘60s TV show into a successful movie or franchise. For every successful Mission: Impossible and Star Trek film, there are still-born attempts like Wild Wild West, Bewitched, The Saint, The Avengers (not the Marvel comics one!) and Get Smart. Although the trailer didn’t give me much hope, Guy Ritchie’s big-screen effort with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had me going Oliver Twist by the end and saying, “Please sir, I want some more.”

Anyone who has seen the trailer might think that this is another James Bond clone in a ‘60s setting. And they would be right, because the show concept was co-created by none other than Ian Fleming for MGM TV in 1963. Originally titled Ian Fleming’s Solo, it followed the template of his Bond stories with the names and nationalities changed – Napoleon Solo instead of James Bond and international spy organization U.N.C.L.E. instead of MI6. The show producers switched to a new title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. under legal action from the producers of Bond movie Goldfinger, as there was also a character called Mr. Solo in that movie. Clearly, Mr. Fleming wasn’t keeping track of what names he was using in which series! The show ran from 1964-68, and was a career launch pad for both its stars Peter Vaughn and David McCallum. It even inspired Stan Lee to create his own version of a spy organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics in 1965.

What has changed in this big-screen adaptation 50 years later? Well, for a start, the lead characters sure have become bigger. Compared to the suave and somewhat diminutive Peter Vaughn, CIA agent Napoleon Solo is now played by 6’1” Henry Cavill with his Superman muscles virtually bursting out of his impeccably tailored suit. Likewise, the character of Ilya Kuryakin has been completely recast with 6’5” Armie Hammer playing the Russian KGB agent in place of 5’7” floppy haired David McCallum.

The plot is fairly basic: In 1963, Nazi-era nuclear scientist turned American collaborator Udo Teller goes missing; he is presumed to be in the hands of Nazi sympathizers who are using his services to build their own private nuclear bomb. This is not welcome news to either the CIA or the KGB, so they bring together their two best operatives (Solo and Kuryakin) to find the missing scientist and put the bomb out of commission. To find the scientist, they enlist the help of his estranged daughter Gaby, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. She is the 2nd Swedish actress to feature prominently in a spy movie this summer, the other being Rebecca Fergusson in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The trio end up in Italy as guests of the wealthy and flamboyant Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra, who are suspected of using their shipping business as a cover for building the weapon. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely striking as the classy and ruthless femme fatale Victoria Vinciguerra. There is plenty of verbal repartee, humor and physical slapstick used as padding for the thin plot, but it all falls into place due to the charisma of the actors.

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Cinematographer John Mathieson is a purist and has done a great job of using older model lenses to mimic the 60s look, in spite of shooting on digital; surely credit also goes to the highly accomplished Arri Alexa XT digital cameras, which supposedly provide the same color/ tonal range as real film. This is what action movies would have looked like if Douglas Sirk had directed them! The only disappointment for me was the night time action scene in the Vinciguerra Shipyard, when the footage lost all texture and started looking like a home movie. For the most part, the color and opulence of the costumes and sets just pops off the screen. When combined with Daniel Pemberton’s playful and exotic European soundtrack, it makes for a very distinctive movie experience.

I also love the way Guy Ritchie visualizes his action set pieces; unlike a lot of other modern directors who shoot their action sequences in close-up and edit with fast cuts, Ritchie goes for frequent long-shots, with pan-and-zoom, giving viewers a very good perspective of where people are in relation to one another (something that would have been very useful in a movie like Pacific Rim!). I had noticed this style in that memorable forest shootout scene of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as well.

Sadly, the film has had a very soft launch across the world and I think it would take a financial miracle for Warner Bros. to greenlight a sequel.

And the most successful Bond movie ever is…

I woke up this morning to the news that Skyfall had broken the US record for the best opening weekend for a Bond film, with an estimated 3-day gross of $ 87.5 million. There has been a lot of talk in the past few days about how Daniel Craig is the most ‘bankable’ Bond ever, with his 3 films together heading for a global gross of $2 billion and a combined US gross exceeding $500 million, thereby exceeding the US earnings of Pierce Brosnan’s 4 films.

But of course, we all know that ticket prices have experienced significant inflation over the years. And therefore, shouldn’t the term ‘bankable’ or ‘successful’ refer to the Bond actor who has sold the most tickets?

So, I went to my trusty resource, boxofficemojo.com and checked their database for the number of tickets sold by each of the Bond movies…the caveat is that for old movies, they have this information only for the US, not the international box office.

I decided to look at both opening weekend tickets as well as total tickets sold during the entire theatrical run.

The site has been tracking opening weekends since the late ’70s, so I could look at information from Moonraker (1979) till Skyfall. And indeed, Skyfall is the opening weekend champ in terms of tickets sold, with 11.2 million tickets. The runners-up have been the last 3-4 Bond films with 7-9 million tickets sold on opening weekend. This is not very surprising, as the obsession to maximize opening weekend grosses by releasing movies ultra-wide is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the last 10-15 years. In the earlier days, studios were content to allow a film to ‘find its audience’ through word of mouth, frequently opening it in limited number of theaters in the big cities and then slowly expanding it out through the country. It was not uncommon for a successful film to be in theaters for close to a year, whereas these days most films open very big and then burn out relatively quickly in a matter of weeks.

So, rather than opening weekend data, I was much more interested in checking the total tickets sold through the entire theatrical run. And, going by that metric, the most successful Bond film in US box office history is Thunderball, with an estimated 74.8 million tickets sold through its run back from Christmas of 1965 through 1966. Its predecessor Goldfinger gets the silver medal with 66.3 million tickets sold from its Christmas launch in 1964. Of course, those were the heydays of movie going in the US, with very limited forms of alternate entertainment and also the height of the Cold War, making the Bond films extremely topical. The 3rd most successful Bond film is the follow-up to Thunderball, which is You Only Live Twice with 36 million tickets sold in 1967. Never again did Bond movies ever reach these heights; all the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig films so far have sold about 25 million tickets during their theatrical runs and perhaps Skyfall may get close to 30 million.

So, while I am a big fan of Daniel Craig, I would hesitate before naming him the most bankable Bond. I feel that statistically, the crown still belongs to good old Sean Connery.

One Skyfall to rule them all…

I have just come home from the premiere of Skyfall (Thank you Sony and AXN for the invitation!).

Well, it’s official as far as I am concerned…this is the best 007 film, period.

After the disaster that was Quantum of Solace, we can all be forgiven for setting our expectations a bit lower, but any which way one looks at it, Sam Mendes has just gone to the top of the Bond directors’ class. Mr. Mendes, I was ambivalent about American Beauty, but I loved Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. I can’t wait to see what you will do next.

Much of the credit must go to the script, which once again is from Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, but unlike the first two Craig films which were co-written by Paul Haggis (he of Crash and Million Dollar Baby fame), this one is co-written by John Logan, who has previously been Oscar-nominated for scripting Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and The Aviator and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. One can see strong elements of Gladiator in Skyfall, especially the conflict between the ‘hero making a comeback’ and his seemingly more powerful adversary. But the real trick is the way the script injects bits of playfulness into the story without making the scenes campy (yes, I am referring to those Roger Moore films!). And some of the playfulness comes from the most surprising quarter…none other than Bond villain Silva, played masterfully by Javier Bardem (3 Oscar nominations and 1 win so far; I wish he would get one more for this performance). Never have I seen a Bond villain make Bond uncomfortable in quite the manner that Silva was able to do in this film…and to get a laugh out of the audience while doing it too! On the flip side, this Bond villain also seemed to have the most depth and once again, no praise can be too great for Bardem’s performance in a role which always carries a risk of going over the top.

French TV actress Berenice Marlohe makes a fantastic addition to the Bond line of femme fatales, while Naomie Harris shows a lot of spunk as an MI6 agent. But ultimately the strongest female showing continues to come from Dame Judi Dench as M, this time having to also deal with the politics of having a new boss.

The message consistently delivered throughout the film is that “old can still be gold” and will easily resonate with anyone who belongs to my generation. Even the new Q, played by a young Ben Whishaw, appears comfortably old-fashioned in his sweater and mussed hair.

The only disappointment was the theme song by Adele. It sounded a lot better when I listened to the leaked clip on the internet than it actually did during the opening credits. Tina Turner’s Goldeneye still tops my list when it comes to Bond songs.

Overall, an outstanding start to the Fall blockbuster season and I can’t wait to see how the box office for this movie plays out over the next couple of months.