Patrick’s Top Five Random Music Moments in Film

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

In most films that aren’t musicals, the music is meant to bolster the action in a scene and add weight to it; occasionally though, there are moments in movies in which the music happens to be so powerful that it completely overwhelms the scene itself, and thus, the tail wags the dog.  These moments in which the action bolsters the music (and not the other way around) often come out of the blue and have little to no bearing on the plot, but they sure are entertaining.  Anyways, here’s my pick for the top five “Random Music Moments” in film.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ — ‘Wayne’s World’

Chances are if you’re a guy, more than once you’ve been in a car with your buddies, music blaring, singing along to your favorite tunes. 1992’s ‘Wayne’s World’ celebrates this beautifully as they perform a cappella to the latter half of Queen’s grandiose epic while driving through suburban Chicago.

‘Johnny B. Goode’ — ‘Back to the Future’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ox1pkvNHZko (Embedding disabled; I don’t know why – The Editor)

80’s teenager Marty McFly gets sent back through time to the 50’s and must help his parents fall in love, save his own existence, and find a way to get back to the future, but not before picking up the electric guitar and jamming to an old rock and roll staple.

‘Dueling Banjos’ — ‘Deliverance’

A chance encounter sparks an impromptu banjo-guitar duel between an inbred hillbilly and a southern city-boy; and people have never looked the same way at the banjo since.

‘Descent into Mystery’ — ‘Batman’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGAKYVGuPqE&hd=1 (Embedding disabled; what the frak? – The Editor)

Tim Burton’s music here is so sweeping, dark, and epic that you almost forget that Batman is just driving back home with his girlfriend.  It ties with the title track for the best part of this amazing score.

‘Ecstasy of Gold’ — ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PwpOmjAu1M (Embedding disabled; where is the logic in this? – The Editor)

The bandit Tuco, aka “The Ugly” has come across a thousand-grave-strong cemetery with a fortune buried in just one of them.  So he spends the next three minutes running through it, looking for the name of that single grave, accompanied by some of the most lively, dramatic, and powerful music of composer Ennio Morricone’s career.  This piece is so awesome and enduring, in fact, that Metallica has used it to open up their concerts for the past twenty-five years.

 

Classic Review: Once Upon A Time In The West

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Highly underrated, but a sure-fire masterpiece of a Western.

Review:  At some point in the latter half of the 90’s, I remember flipping through channels on the television before landing on Turner Classic Movies.  I didn’t know the movie they were showing, but I could tell by the dress and terrain that it had to be a Western.  As it happened, I had come in on one of the greatest Western finales ever shot.  The driving music, the stark imagery, the shootout (the Western climax is always a shootout, it seems).  As a child no older than eight, I was amazed and speechless.  Afterword I ran upstairs to my father, who I knew liked Westerns, and, describing the scene best I could, asked him what the name of the movie was.  He told me it was ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’.  As it turns out, he missed the mark but hit the tree.

The movie I saw that day was Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, the last “real” Western from the man behind the famous ‘Dollars’ Trilogy, of which ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ was the final installment.  I have to give my Dad credit for being close given my description as an inarticulate child.  Certainly, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ bears many of Leone’s spaghetti western trademarks (epic showdowns, nameless anti-heroes, operatic music from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and gritty violence).  And yet, looking a littler deeper, this film is actually a horse of a much different color.

The fundamental difference between ‘West’ and Leone’s earlier films is that, where as the ‘Dollars’ trilogy was a bit quirky and slightly ridiculous (a tone that works well for those movies, mind you) ‘West’ goes for a grander, dramatic approach.  It’s very serious in a way Leone’s prior films hadn’t been.  The story is as dark as any Western has ever been, a dark tale of greed, murder, and revenge; and yet it also celebrates the vibrancy, grandeur, and surprising complexity of the American West and its people.  The West was, in many ways, the last “final frontier” for civilization.  It was an untamed land, filled with danger and peril, and devoid of law and order.  On the other hand it was a rugged and pure place, devoid of the corruptions of the modern world.  One of the films themes, the coming of the railroad and thus, civilization, shows beautifully this conflict and tradeoff between the arrival of civilized-order and the loss of wild-innocence.

This theme of the dying west dovetails strangely well with the change in the Western film industry at the time of the film’s 1968 release.  Up to that point, Westerns had been relative juggernauts, both on television and film, despite their lack of historical accuracy and often-insensitive depictions of Native Americans and Mexicans.  By the late sixties, an increase in ethno-history, civil rights, and historical accuracy had begun to take their toll on the Classic Western’s credibility.  By the seventies, classic television Westerns went off the air, and Revisionist Westerns pictures, much more somber and realistic, were taking precedent at the box office.  These new approaches were intriguing and involving, and many of these Revisionist Westerns are outstanding films.  However, they do lack the pure, undiluted spirit of the earlier films.  In the West as well as in Western Films, a simple and pure world was traded for something less straightforward and less innocent.

Back to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, this film is one of the last to celebrate the Classic Western style, ironically directed by a man who was accused of ruining it with his earlier works.  The key to the Classic Western was the central theme of men, lone warriors, standing against something larger than themselves, the vast, untamed West.  Westerns are about the enduring human spirit against danger and evil.  ‘Once Upon a Time in The West’‘s multi-layered tale of a stranger seeking retribution, a cold-blooded killer, an outlaw framed for murder, and a widow caught in the crossfire shows the many ways this spirit is tested and eventually overcomes.  Thematically, this is one of the most powerful films, let alone Westerns, ever filmed.

In addition to the story, the actors in this film are just plain awesome, as is the music.  Henry Fonda as the film’s villain was a surprisingly brilliant casting choice, as was Jason Robards (a very under-appreciated actor) as a bandit with a heart of gold.  Charles Bronson adopts a role similar to the Man With No Name as a nameless, driven gunfighter, and he pulls it off well.  Claudia Cardinale, an Italian actress not too well-known in the States, delivers an especially moving performance as Jill, a widow who finds herself at the forefront of the film’s bloody tale.

Ennio Morricone has always been one of the best film composers ever, and, in no exaggeration, this is his best film score. His combination of electric guitars, harmonicas, operatic screaming and classical orchestration has never sounded more perfect than in this film. His ability to move from delicacy to driving power is nothing short of amazing. This score, worth owning independent of the film, is truly a masterpiece and adds brilliantly to this already stellar film.

‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s combination of story, acting, music, and style make it one of the best Westerns ever made and a wonderfully cathartic piece of story-telling. Though initially overlooked when first released, this film has grabbed people’s attention overtime, much the way it did for me as a child, and it is now revered as a classic. It’s worth watching for anyone who claims to be a fan of Westerns. I’m so very glad I was watching television that day…

MMM: Mansell’s Moon, Avatar Piano, Morricone’s Harmonica

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Our customary three today lean on the meditative side.

Clint Mansell’s score for ‘Moon’ is suitably futuristic, haunting, and introspective.  A great companion to a story about lunar monasticism.

Among the many disappointments I experienced with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ was James Horner’s score.  Now, the man can write music, there’s no doubt of that.  The problem is that musically as well as narratively, ‘Avatar’ is mostly unoriginal and unsatisfying.  However, the main theme is actually pretty good… in instrumental. On piano, the melody doesn’t get lost as easily as it does in the film’s actual score.

Ennio Morricone is a titan among giants, and his music for Sergio Leone’s underrated ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ stands out with the best of his work.  This string of three pieces, from the film’s sublime climax, is equal parts meditative, mournful, and terrifying.

MMM: The Hand of Fate, Blade Runner, The Trio

James here with Movie Music Mondays.

A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”

Stanley Kubrick

So say we all.


James Newton Howard’s collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan yielded some of my favorite film music, not the least of which being the theme from ‘Signs’, best exemplified in ‘The Hand of Fate, Part 2’, a piece better heard than described.


Vangelis’ score for the cult classic ‘Blade Runner’ is one of the most sought-after soundtracks among sci-fi enthusiasts. ‘Blade Runner Blues’ is a great, meditative piece that, in my mind, would communicate Philip K. Dick’s vision even without the music’s symbiotic relationship to this great film.


Ennio Morricone was a prolific film composer, and that’s a bit of an understatement. His best score, by most accounts, is ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, and my favorite track from it is ‘The Trio’.

Classic Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Violent, epic, touching, and even comical at times, this film is quite the ride.

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

Review:  Somewhere in the West lies buried an enormous sum in gold, and three men know about it.  Three violent, self-centered men, each of whom would just as soon kill the others if he had the chance.  The only problem is that no one quite knows exactly where this treasure is. Each man knows only a piece of the puzzle, forcing him to work with the others.  Thus begins a rampant odyssey as these men fight both the elements and each other in their search for gold.  Not only that, but the American Civil War is unfolding all around them, and more than once, they get caught in the crossfire.

This is the setting of one of the oddest, yet most well done westerns in existence.  Director Sergio Leone and crew take all the tropes about spaghetti westerns, twist them sideways, and stick them smack-dab in the middle of what should be a much more grandiose film.  So, yes, all those showdowns and shootouts and morally ambiguous characters are here; yes, Clint Eastwood is back as the Man with No Name one last time; and yes, all that crazy music and camera work is here.  It’s all been seen before, right?  Well, sort of, but when you throw large-scale Civil War battles and treasure hunts into the mix, this truly becomes a horse of a different color.

It’s a film that thrives on contrast and hyperbole, a western with a backdrop of war, and that’s what makes it so effective.  In the western, everything is comically exaggerated.  Gunslingers aren’t just good with their weapons, they’re gods literally capable of hitting targets a half-mile away.  Standoff’s aren’t just paced out, they’re dragged out for a full five minutes as tension sky-rockets.  The score isn’t just exciting and energetic, it’s an over-the-top bombastic joy ride, as composer Ennio Morricone mixes howls, yells, and screams along with his usual and diverse array of instruments in this iconic film score.

In the backdrop of the war, however, a near polar opposite is found.  Soldiers are shown realistically wounded, and a true sense of loss is felt as you see multitudes of dieing Union and Confederate men.  Rather than catering to one side or the other, the film shows the good and bad aspects of both factions, making it all the more saddening to see them fight.  Morricone provides his most touching pieces yet for these moments, combining trumpets, violins, and even human moans into truly moving music.

Complementing the story and music is the casting.  Clint Eastwood, in his final spaghetti western, delivers as the fast drawin’ and cigar chomping Man with No Name.  But in this movie, he’s known as The Good.  Lee Van Cleef returns this time as a most sinister and reprehensible killer (The Bad) and, in my opinion, one of the best screen villains of all time.  Newcomer Eli Wallach gives quite the performance as the sometimes-idiotic-sometimes-deadly outlaw, Tuco, (The Ugly).  Interestingly enough, it’s Tuco who steals the show.  He gets the most screen-time, the most lines, and the most back-story; and is arguably the most human of the three.  However, it’s Eastwood who is the most remembered of the three.  Something about the silent toughness that permeates his character wedged its way into the public consciousness, and to this day, he continues to influence the anti-heroes of film and television.

Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More are great spaghetti westerns, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is different.  Sure, it too is a fantastic Italian-made western.  Sure, it’s a great western in general.  But first and foremost, it is an outstanding film.  It transcends any and all classifications or genres and delivers one unique story, the effect, of which, would influence countless pictures to come.  Combining tragedy with action and comedy, it’s the sort of film a man like Quentin Tarantino would have made had he been making films in the sixties.  The film itself, vastly more than its prequels, has become a true classic.  Even people who’ve never seen the film know the name.  In short, it’s the best spaghetti western, it contends for the best western period, and it is without a doubt, one of the most entertaining movies ever made.  Even to people who are not fans of these kinds of movies, I encourage them to give it a watch.  I give this film my highest recommendation.

Classic Review: For A Few Dollars More

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Just look at the title—it’s more of what you want from your spaghetti westerns.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Review:  He’s back—the Man with no Name.  So are the sun-drenched Spanish deserts, trigger-happy gunslingers, close-ups, showdowns, and over-the-top Morricone music.  In short, everything that’s great about this little subset of the Western genre is here in fine form and is, in fact, better than in ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

The Man with No Name, again magnificently played by Clint Eastwood, has turned bounty hunter and now wanders the west, collecting buck for his bang on the various outlaws of the frontier.  When the opportunity to collect a fortune on the recently escaped, and certainly psychotic, bandit el Indio (Johnny Wels) arises, he sets out after him.

So has the Man in the Black, however.  A rogue colonel turned bounty killer, the Man in Black (known in the film as Colonel Mortimer and played by Lee Van Cleef), carries with him an arsenal of fire arms and is as deadly with any one of them as The Man with No Name.  He’s after Indio for his own reasons.  Inevitably, the two rivals meet up and are forced to work in an uneasy truce together to catch Indio and his gang.

I have to say that l found this film to possess a much stronger story than in the first movie.  Van Cleef and Eastwood have great chemistry together as competing gunslingers.  Even as they work together, they try their best to one-up each other while doing it.  The result is some very entertaining and amusing moments.  The filmmakers also went out of their way to cast the villain, el Indio, in a more sympathetic light.  A series of flashbacks and a key twist at the end make him more tragic rather than purely evil.  It adds a whole new layer to the Leone west, and it is a welcome addition.  Fans of ‘Fistful’ may notice that the Indio is played by the same actor who portrayed the ruthless Ramon from the first movie.  Although this is a bit confusing to people who are new to these films, these are, in fact, two different characters and should not be confused.

Ennio Morricone returns to score, delivering equally impressive yet also much livelier music this time around.  All the staples from the first film (the guitars, whistling, chanting, trumpets, etc.) are here, but he now introduces some new “twangy” instruments and increases the tempo for a more energetic affair.  To coincide with the deeper and more emotionally involving story, he also wrote very atmospheric and touching pieces which, when played during key scenes, really add to your concern for the story and investment in the characters.  One particular “chime” theme is quite moving.

Lastly, the famous cinematography is back.  The close-ups and the panoramas of desert wasteland are here, and they work as well as ever.  All of the ‘Dollars’ films were very impressively shot and, again, it really adds something special and unique to these movies.

‘For a Few Dollars More’ expounds and improves upon the template set by ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. Attacking on two fronts, it finds itself even more violent and yet also much more involving and moving than the first film.  Refining and bettering what made the first film so great, it is, quite simply, what a sequel ought to be.  In my opinion, it truly surpasses the original.

So it seems that we have a new winner for Best Spaghetti Western.  After all, this film pushed aside the legendary ‘Fistful’ to become the archetypical and bar-setting representative of its genre.  Right?  Wrong.  Just you wait…

Classic Review: A Fistful of Dollars

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary: (From the trailer) “A Fistful of Dollars is the first film of it’s kind, it won’t be the last.”

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

Review:  The desert sun shines high as a mysterious gunslinger (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a dusty border town torn apart by the power struggle between a band of bandits and a sheriff who, frankly, isn’t much better.  Driven by a vague morality and empowered by being “quick on the draw”, the mysterious gunslinger takes on both factions of the fight in a battered array of violence, deception, showdowns, and retribution.

While not the first “spaghetti western” (western films made by Italian production companies), this is the film that truly defined the genre.  Essentially a remake of the classic Akira Kurosawa samurai film, Yojimbo (itself based upon an earlier American novel), this movie transcends its influences to deliver a bold new take on the American West, one vastly different from American-made westerns.  Gone are the clean shaven, morally sound cowboys and their polar opposites found in the villains; gone are luscious and beautiful landscapes of the true American West; and gone are the traditionally orchestrated pieces, saloon piano music, and country-western “sing-a-long” tunes that guided heroes on romantic exploits.

Instead we are shown the West as imitated by the harsh, barren landscapes of the Spanish desert, filled with gunfighters, all seeking a profit, whose label as “good” or “bad” depends on little more than who they’re shooting at (and trust me, there is quite a bit of shooting).  It’s a grittier, more action filled affair.

Clint Eastwood’s performance fits this new atmosphere like a glove.  In his breakthrough role, he talks tough, plays rough, and looks intimidating as the “Man With No Name”, his appearance complete with the famous cigars and poncho.  Johnny Wels, as the rifle-toting main villain, Ramon, is quite memorable as well, despite the actor being relatively unknown to American audiences.

As a template for later spaghetti westerns, this movie, of course, features the famous (some would say infamous) spaghetti western music and cinematography, both of which have been satired and imitated over the years.  Composer Ennio Morricone delivers a fresh style for the score.  Combining Spanish-themed melodies, male chanters, whistling, electric guitars, and trumpet solos, as well as more traditional orchestration at times, Morricone creates a groundbreaking and surprisingly cohesive score, one that his later scores, and those of other Italian westerns, would draw from.

Then there is the camera work.  Most people are familiar with the famous “close-up” shots on the eyes during shootouts.  It’s become such a cliché and has been parodies so many times that most people don’t realize how affective it is when creating suspense.  Leone used a variety of shots, often alternating between close-ups and long-distance shots.  He used the contrast to build tension in many of the film’s scenes. In short, it works wonderfully and really adds a new dimension to the movie.

In conclusion, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is everything a spaghetti western ought to be.  Some would call it shallow, violent, and lacking in morality.  I call it refreshing, and so do quite a few other people.  This film not only defined its genre, but it influenced movie making as a whole.  Films as diverse as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Kill Bill’, draw influence from this film.  With such a unique style and influence, one would argue that this is the best of the spaghetti westerns.  Then the sequels came …