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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Monday, January 25, 2016

Nicholas Hooper -- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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7/10

Nicholas Hooper sticks out like a sore thumb in the Harry Potter film composer rogues gallery, and the two scores Hooper composed for Harry Potter stick out like sore thumbs in his discography. Hooper's catalogue , excluding the two Potter soundtracks, is abundant with work for small and TV films, and nature documentaries. However his music does fit the Harry Potter films it soundtracks...but the soundtrack albums don't quite hit the mark.
His first, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix follows a confusing tracklist order, and lacks cohesion and drive. His second, for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, thankfully appears in mostly the order it does on film. However, rather unfortunately, this score is even less propulsive than the one Hooper wrote for Order of the Phoenix. This isn't Hooper's fault, though. By it's nature, Half-Blood Prince is meant to be a breather, a chance for Harry and Dumbledore to do a little detective work, and for the students to fall in and out of love. Hooper gets to illustrate his adoration for the harp and acoustic guitar in the film's more romantic moments, particularly in "Harry & Hermoine" and "When Harry Kissed Ginny." Unfortunately, most of the rest of the music here is incidental background music meant to back the characters as they talk and hang out...except when the film concerns itself with Dumbledore.
Order of the Phoenix's soundtrack proved that when called to the task, Nicholas Hooper can write some incredibly powerful music. During Half-Blood Prince's few scenes of dramatic intensity (By the way, I enjoy the film a lot, it is great at what it does, there just isn't a ton of action), Hooper shines. For a climactic scene that showcases Dumbledore's full strength, in an incredible, fiery rescue of a hopeless Harry, Hooper re-interprets his "Possession" theme from Order of the Phoenix as a stirring display of stunning power.
(Also, you should probably go see this movie if you haven't. It's pretty good.)
However, the film's most powerful moment, and Hooper's masterwork comes after "Inferi in the Firestorm." "Dumbledore's Farewell," an intensely moving string and choral piece is one of the most powerful pieces of music I have ever heard. It is so powerful, that in the eighth and final Harry Potter film, which features an excellent score by Alexandre Desplat, the producers entered a re-mixed version of Hooper's music in the place of Desplat's for the scene that is literally the crux of all eight films. That was a Harry Potter joke. Also, there are spoilers in this review...if you haven't seen the movies yet, what's is up with you? Are you a kid who wasn't alive when they were released? Do you hate joy?

So it's a familiar line to the review I just published for Order of the Phoenix's soundtrack. The standout cuts are incredible, heart-smashing pieces of music. The rest is enjoyable, but better suited for the background. The fact that the tracks are in film order is a boon to this soundtrack over Order of the Phoenix's, but the even more subdued tone is not. The end.

2009 New Line Records
1. Opening 2:53
2. In Noctem 2:00
3. The Story Begins 2:05
4. Ginny 1:30
5. Snape & the Unbreakable Vow 2:50
6. Wizard Wheezes 1:42
7. Dumbledore's Speech 1:31
8. Living Death 1:55
9. Into the Pensieve 1:45
10. The Book 1:44
11. Ron's Victory 1:44
12. Harry & Hermione 2:52
13. School! 1:05
14. Malfoy's Mission 2:53
15. The Slug Party 2:11
16. Into the Rushes 2:33
17. Farewell Aragog 2:08
18. Dumbledore's Foreboding 1:18
19. Of Love & War 1:17
20. When Ginny Kissed Harry 2:38
21. Slughorn's Confession 3:33
22. Journey to the Cave 3:08
23. The Drink of Despair 2:44
24. Inferi in the Firestorm 1:53
25. The Killing of Dumbledore 3:34
26. Dumbledore's Farewell 2:22
27. The Friends 2:00
28. The Weasley Stomp 2:51

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nicholas Hooper -- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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7/10

In strange irony, despite all of the praise I give maestro John Williams, I own every Harry Potter soundtrack except for the three he composed. It's not that I don't think they are up to par with the rest of his oeuvre, but rather I don't really have much of an emotional connection with those first three Harry Potter films...they are kids movies, and when they were released, I was no longer a kid. I didn't take much interest in the films until the characters reached their teenage years (uh...that sounded improper...sorry...I mean because I can relate more to being a teenager than a child...er...leave me alone!), and my Harry Potter soundtrack collection reflects that.
Speaking of awkward, Patrick Doyle received the rather unenviable task of immediately following Williams, by soundtracking the fourth Harry Potter film when Williams was too busy with the third Star Wars prequel and myriad other projects. Doyle bowed out after that one effort, and the task of composing music for the fifth film fell to relative unknown, Nicholas Hooper. This composer choice seemed to take many soundtrack fans aback. "Almost any composer available would have thrown themselves at this project, and you got this guy?"
However, while watching the film, it is clear that Hooper is up to the task. The fifth Harry Potter film marks a harsh transition from the carefree magic of the first four films, to the dark, frightening new reality of the latter four. Trifling concerns like "Who will win the house cup this year?" are forgotten for more serious questions like, "Am I and all of my friends going to die?" Hooper's score follows suit. In my opinion, Hooper's work fits this movie to a T. Also, I don't know what "to a T" means, I've just heard it all my life and am parroting it.
Hooper's score is dark and brooding, just like the film, as Harry finds himself alienated, disbelieved, and persecuted. Much of Order of the Phoenix is a mental and spiritual battle for Harry more than a physical one, so the soundtrack is populated with quiet strings and subtle electronic ambient textures. However, there's a hope brewing beneath the surface which is at times given a chance to explode.
Phoenix's soundtrack album begins with the raucous "Fireworks," which features a boisterous string section that experiences a surprise rendezvous with some loudly distorted electric guitar halfway through. "Fireworks," showcasing new sounds, but not immediately focusing on the bleak tone, is a pretty brilliant piece to open up the album. Another moment of intense, yet hopeful emotion comes in track ten, "A Journey to Hogwarts," featured during a segue where Harry confesses his anger and confusion to his uncle and confidant, Sirius Black, then returns to school from Christmas break. Hooper works his way from more quiet sounds to clashing strings and woodwinds that build and blossom into a powerfully optimistic statement. He does something similar in the final track, "Loved Ones and Leaving," which brings to mind fraternal unity in the face of darkness. However, the centerpiece for this album, and perhaps for the musical journey of the Harry Potter films in general, is track seven, "Possession."
I'll be honest. I am a film snob. I have a minor in film theory (only because my college didn't offer a major), have seen more European art films than I can remember, have dissected most of Hitchcock's films shot for shot, and have even pretended to like The English Patient when I was in high school. With that said, one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema comes near the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I should also add a second preface: JK Rowling's Harry Potter books don't rank too terribly high on my favorites list. I don't have some kind of Harry Potter bias fueling this statement. I enjoy the films enough to have an emotional connection to the last few, but the wizard's duel and Voldemort's subsequent possession of and exorcism from Harry Potter in the Order of the Phoenix grips my psyche just as strongly as the last shot of Vertigo, Winter Light's pastor deciding to hold service in an empty cathedral, and "No. I am your father." The combination of Harry suddenly becoming a peon in his own series, then having all of his flaws and mistakes shoved in his face as his body and mind are violated, then being brought back from the brink by what 1 Corinthians 13 tells us is God is too much for my soul to bear, and has reduced me to tears 100% of the times I have witnessed it. Hooper soundtracks this scene with miraculous perfection, tense strings reaching a tempo and pattern that brings to mind a trial, as Harry is shown how much he is like Voldemort, then a building and rising to an almost unbearably moving climax as, guided by the words of his mentor, Dumbledore, Harry focuses on the ways he is not. Here is the scene. Turn it up.

The other piece of significant music here is a tinkly bells and string theme for Professor Umbridge, one of the most unpleasant characters in the series. The piece, fitting for the character, is also unpleasant to listen to. And since I've gotten the good stuff out of the way, I'll get to the bad.
As much as this soundtrack works to back the film, on its own, in between the standouts, it isn't very engaging. A major chunk of its runtime is filled with quiet, short pieces lacking in unity. The album would at least have a feeling of emotional cohesion if it was tracked chronologically, but the order chosen here is a head-scratcher.
In the film, Hooper weaves hints of the "Possession" theme throughout the film, so that when he gives the full statement in the actual possession scene, there is a feeling of catharsis. That buildup does not exist on the soundtrack album, though, as the statements that hint at the theme often come after its track seven arrival. I don't understand why the album iss tracked this way.
So what you get here are some lovely, powerful pieces, surrounded by some music that is not bad, but rather unremarkable in comparison, though if all this music were ordered as it were in the film, it would at least hold the listeners attention. As it is, a great score for the film is just an okay soundtrack on disc.

2007 Warner Bros
1. Fireworks 1:49
2. Professor Umbridge 2:35
3. Another Story 2:41
4. Dementors in the Underpass 1:45
5. Dumbledore's Army 2:42
6. The Hall of Prophecies 4:27
7. Possession 3:20
8. The Room of Requirement 6:09
9. The Kiss 1:56
10. A Journey to Hogwarts 2:54
11. The Sirius Deception 2:36
12. Death of Sirius 3:58
13. Umbridge Spoils a Beautiful Morning 2:39
14. Darkness Takes Over 2:58
15. The Ministry of Magic 2:48
16. The Sacking of Trelawney 2:15
17. Flight of the Order of the Phoenix 1:34
18. Loved Ones and Leaving 3:15

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Nicsperiment and David Bowie

Sunday I went for a drive. I tuned my radio to the college alternative station at which I DJ'd more than 11 years ago.
David Bowie playing. David Bowie playing again.
The young DJ came on, and announced that in honor of David Bowie's recent death, she was going to play David Bowie's music all morning. She then described how she cried when she heard Bowie had died, as the man's music meant so much to her.
Hmm...I thought. We don't I care this much?
After all, the guy basically invented entire genres right? He fought against the stuffy norm right? I mean, I feel sad in that basic, distant, "It's sad when anybody dies" vein, but nothing beyond that.
Then I realized: My parents' generation experienced Bowie's peak creative years firsthand. Conversely, the kids of today have the entire breadth of Bowie's work laid before them, essentially curated by time.
They have that.
But here is the Bowie I grew up with.

Yeah...so...how about those Yankees?

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Nicsperiment's End of Winter Break Movie and TV Show Season Mini-Reviews

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I don't know if this has just been an exceptionally strong fall and early winter for movies and TV, or if I have just gotten soft. I generally enjoyed most of the media I experienced over the past few months. Here are mini-reviews of everything I can recall watching. Same rules as always...two sentences apiece..."sentences" in the realm of The Nicsperiment being a relative term, of course.

The Babadook -- 10/10
I've been craving a great horror film for a long time, and this year I got two. The Babadook isn't just terrifying, it's a psychological journey that isn't afraid to go in unexpected directions in its exploration of the power of grief.

Creed -- 9/10
Woah, where did this come from? Rocky Balboa itself was a miracle, but to come back to the series again, nine years later, and create something almost on par with the original is unbelievable--but somehow this movie really does exist!

Doctor Who: Series Nine -- 7/10
I wish I felt more excited about this season of television, which is consistent, featuring none of the high or lows of Series Eight. It just kind of happens, and doesn't totally feel like Doctor Who, with its weird guitar-playing straight at the camera asides--wish I could work up the want to watch that Christmas Special that's been sitting in my DVD queue.

Fargo: Season Two -- 9/10
I'm about as close to giving this glorious season of television a ten as I can without giving it a ten because I feel like I need to give it a little bit of emotional distance before I can tell if it is indeed perfect...I dare you to count the prepositions in this sentence. I can say that Fargo: Season Two is really, really, really, really good, with the script, acting, marquee movie production quality, and sense of moral confusion all lofting it high into the upper echelon of modern television.

The Good Dinosaur -- 8/10
Outside a little silliness, this is far closer to classic Pixar greatness than it's been given credit for, with an excellent arc for its main character, and a believable and moving friendship at its center. I don't have a second sentence.

Hannibal: Season Three -- 8/10
The first third of the season is visually gorgeous but takes its beauty for granted with its strange glacial pace. Then it gets way too campy in the middle, like Adam West Batman campy, then plays to all of its strengths to close itself out (forever) in strange and brutal and perfect fashion.

Homeland: Season Four -- 8/10
Few shows can get away with completely blowing up their main premise, and then improving. This show has needed a shot in the arm since its first season ended, and season four gives it--even if it is a tad bit uneven at times, it never ceases to be thrilling and suspenseful (and true to Carrie Mathison).

It Follows -- 9/10
I haven't seen a movie this scary since The Descent. Great concept, great execution, thousands of memorable images, and a great film, regardless of genre (and the STD-metaphor interpretation some are giving The Follower is far too simplistic: there is far more depth there).

The Peanuts Movie -- 8/10
This film, essentially a collection of vignettes based on a 65-year old comic strip, tied together only by Charlie Brown's crush on the little red-haired girl, should not work. That it does is a testament to the timelessness of Charles M Schulz characters, and also to the filmmakers' understanding of how to utilize them.

South Park: Season Nineteen -- 9/10
Season-long continuity and consistently pointed satire make for one of the best seasons the show has ever done, though they really wussed out on the ending. The show has always excelled at not picking a side, but they built this year up to the point that not landing anywhere at the end is actually a bit infuriating.

Spectre -- 7/10
People can say what they want about this latest James Bond film stumbling a bit because it goes back to basics, but I am more bothered by the fact that its action scenes are a little ill-conceived. There's nothing as exciting as the foot chase in Casino Royale, or the insane opening chase of Skyfall (which, while enjoyable, is itself just James Bond = Batman), but the movie is still fun.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- 9/10
Sure it hits some of the same beats as A New Hope, but with its new characters, use of old characters, action, set design, creature design, cinematography, acting, a new score by this dude named John Williams, sound effects, special effects, mysteries, and possibilities, who cares--it's two hours you can watch again and again just like A New Hope, all of the kids watching it in the theater are going ape for it, just like A New Hope, and my own kid just told me, after watching it in the theater for the second time (after begging to go again) that it is his favorite movie ever, just like I said when I was a kid after watching A New Hope--so some similarities? Yes, it is similarly awesome.

Unfriended -- 7/10
This nearly made for a great horror movie trilogy with It Follow and The Babadook, but the end is just a little too over the top. The concept may get just a bit static at times, but no one can argue against its originality--bonus, the moral outrage (of folks saying they are good people, when they are most certainly not good people is awesome.

You're the Worst: Season Two -- 9/10
Shelving the comedy just a bit to focus on drama--Gretchen's battle against depression--ends up paying dividends for You're the Worst. In the end, I can't say that this season is weaker or any less true to the characters than the first, and I could probably marathon the whole thing again as soon as I click "Publish."

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Monday, January 04, 2016

My 2015 Booklist

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One of my favorite elements of 2015 (and as it's over, and I see where it went and how positive the outcome for me was personally, there will probably be a lot of elements I will look back toward fondly, or at the least, put on rose-colored glasses for...this parenthetical went long...sorry) is that I finally was able to return to recreational reading. That element had been missing for the past couple years of my life (2013 and 2014 were reading wastelands), but thankfully returned for 2015. This list may not be as massive as some of mine in the past, but that brevity is a little deceiving--several of these tomes are 1000+pagers. Here's the list, with a brief comment for each work.
Chrono Trigger -- Williams (Boss Fight Books was one of my most enjoyable 2015 discoveries. The kickstarter-funded publishing house releases personal, yet academic studies of classic video games. That said, while I am glad that this exploration of Chrono Trigger by Michael P Williams exists, and the thrill of reading a piece such as this is strong in the beginning, I wish Williams could have made the personal elements he weaves into the book more universal, and I REALLY wish he could have delved deeper into other elements of the game (music, character design, etc.) instead of devoting the entire middle-third of the book to a drawn out, tired, and grasping-at-straws gender studies lecture.
The Stand -- King (The first third (this is apparently a very fraction-heavy list) is a thrilling and horrifying apocalyptic tale, the second is an enjoyable character study, but the third is some hokey, literally deus ex machina goofiness. Why is it so difficult for King to end a book properly? I know he can do it, but he doesn't do it here. Still, it's literally the journey that makes this book worth reading.)
The Most Dangerous Animal of All -- Stewart/Mustafa (Gary Stewart's autobiography, focusing on his abandonment as an infant by a mentally disturbed California father on the steps of a Louisiana apartment, is enthralling and shows a ton of heart. However, Stewart's attempt to identify his father as the Zodiac Killer doesn't quite hold water. The book would have easily worked without the latter element.)
Bible Adventures -- Durham (The second Boss Fight Books game I read this year was extremely satisfying. Gabe Durham (who also happens to run Boss Fight Books) interrogates the tricky lines between faith, commerce, and art deftly, while also throwing in a heaping dose of 80's/90's Christian kid nostalgia in his exploration of the creation of the bizarre Bible Adventures Nintendo game. A real winner, just as the previous sentence was a real mouthful!)
The Name of the Wind -- Rothfuss (My cousin Lauren told me I had to read this book, and my cousin Lauren is wise because I haven't been sucked into a fantasy world like this since I first picked up The Hobbit. Patrick Rothfuss' writing is so engaging and satisfying, the pages fly by.)
A Wizard of Earthsea -- Le Guin (The Name of the Wind put me in such a big fantasy mood, I figured I'd finally tackle this book that's been hovering on my horizon for so long. Ursula Le Guin's classic fantasy novel is short, but incredibly dense, The ending may be predictable to today's seasoned reader (or at least to me), but that doesn't make it any less badass.)
Slog's Dad -- Almond w/ Art by McKean (Emotionally moving and original mix of traditional and graphic novel artforms.)
Anathem -- Stephenson (Ugh. I love Snow Crash, but Neal Stephenson lost me with this one. This is 1000 pages that could have been cut down to 300, bloated like a year-old floating corpse the sharks have somehow neglected. The worst part is, when he finally gets to the cool parts you have been waiting for, he describes them in such a tedious fashion, I just wanted to get to them over with. One of the largest reading wastes of time in my life, considering the hours I put into it.)
Ready Player One -- Cline (Yeah, it's not the greatest writing, but this story about a fictional virtual reality universe is fun to read. The accusation that the book is nothing but nostalgia doesn't quite ring true either, considering some of the sections referencing extremely obscure games are still enjoyable to read.)
The Graveyard Book -- Gaiman (How is this guy so good? His plots and characters are almost always great, but he also knows how to end things so well...and emotionally connect with the reader, to boot. In this case, he makes a book written for children into a classic epic. Just nuts.)
The Haunting of Hill House -- Jackson (This book seems strange by today's standards. Sometimes the focus seems to be more on humor than horror. Then the horror is more psychological and individualized than threatening to the reader. Not sure how I feel about the whole thing, but there are some bang up passages, ie, "Whose hand was I holding?")
The Jungle Book -- Kipling (Gaiman inspired me to go back to a sweet illustrated version of Kipling's classic I hadn't touched in 16 years. The diversity and originality of Kipling's writing is still stunning. So many other works have derived from this.)
The Killer Inside Me -- Thompson (It came to my attention that Springsteen's "My Best Was Never Good Enough" was inspired by this old 50's crime novel, so I had to check it out. It's from the POV of a sociopath...but it makes him sympathetic...or maybe pitiable is the correct term. Either way, that's quite a feat of empathy)
Rabbit at Rest -- Updike (I'm gonna miss Harry Angstrom. Updike's signature character has proven through four novels, spanning forty years, that he isn't that great of a human being, but still, he is more identifiably human than almost any character in almost anything else I've  ever read.)