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Festive round-up

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: I’ve finished work, the fridge is well stocked with cheese, Chris Rea’s on his way home and there’s half of a new film by Zack Snyder on Netflix. It doesn’t get better than that, well until next week and the Cadbury Creme Eggs are out. While not all of the titles I cover in this round-up have a particularly festive theme, pour yourself a Bailey’s and grab a mince pie and if will soon seem like they are.

One of my childhood Christmas memories is of sitting on the sofa with my family watching a film and having to explain what was going on in it to my parents. I never understood why this was necessary, since they were watching it just as I was and I was a child and therefore how could I understand what was going on if they couldn’t. Well, obviously now I’m quite old I understand perfectly well why it was necessary and I wish my daughter was a bit older so she could have watched Snyder’s Rebel Moon with me and told me what was occurring, because I watched it on my own and didn’t have the first clue. Some attractive people kept appearing in what seemed like unrelated video game cut-scenes appearing in a random order and either fighting each other or being nice to each other and then it just ends and we have to wait four months for the second half. At least I don’t need to worry about forgetting what happened by the time I get to see the rest of it, because I’ve really got no idea what happened to begin with.

It took a while for him to find his feet as a film composer but I’ve quite liked some of Tom Holkenborg’s music over the last few years, all culminating in his spectacular score for Snyder’s Justice League where he pushed the excesses of his familiar style so far, it was difficult to not just get carried along for the ride. That familiar style returns for Rebel Moon – the opening cue is quite bland but in an inoffensive way, with its grand choir and orchestral murmurings of doom, and the next one features some really nice string writing – but that’s it, really, the rest of the album just a string of familiar tropes pasted together without seeming to have much new to offer. The action music – and there’s quite a lot of it – seems a shadow of the equivalent in Justice League, with only the bizarre Bollywood interjection in one of the cues having much life to it. The film – from what even my limited brain could gather – seemed to be one that could have supported a big, thematic score and it certainly didn’t get that, but in his defence it’s quite possible that Holkenborg did understand what was happening in it and that’s why I don’t understand the music any more than I understood the film.

Another recent Netflix release, Leave the World Behind, I did understand – all the way through to the last minute or so, at least. There’s an apocalyptic event – people’s phones stop working! – and everyone starts behaving precisely as we all would in such a situation, by arguing with each other and going to visit Kevin Bacon.

I think Mac Quayle’s score is really striking and effective. It’s piano-based with what sounds like a relatively small orchestra offering accompaniment – a jarring little phrase is thrown through so many variations, it’s hard to get out of your head after you listen to the album (or watch the film), and yes I’m going to dare to invoke the name of Bernard Herrmann in the context of a 2023 film score. Dotted between the ominous piano cues are ominous choppy string cues and these also make an impression. You don’t really hear film music as bold as this very much these days – not in mainstream Hollywood films, anyway – and it’s great to hear it here, even if admittedly it becomes a bit samey long before the album ends. Still – it’s a very tense score, Quayle does some interesting things, and it’s recommended.

Also interesting – and also recommended – is Martin Phipps’s music for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. Scott’s an odd one when it comes to music – at times his films have featured some of the most striking film music of the last few decades and at others they’ve had very bland accompaniment – put this one firmly into the “striking” category. Phipps uses what sound at times to be quite limited quantitative forces to create a huge sound qualitatively – the beautiful choral opening, the “epic dirge” if such a thing is possible of the second cue.

There are certainly echoes of Vangelis at times (the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself, after all) – the humming voices and throbbing electronics which lead the orchestra towards the end of “Toulon” are terrific, indeed the creative use of vocals throughout is just great (“Austerlitz Kyrie” is mesmerising). Alongside the heavy drama are some more comic passages, and I love that there is so much material with a lighter tone here. It’s not what you’d expect the score for an epic about Napoleon to sound like, and in a good way – it’s multi-faceted, the composer doing a lot of work to bring out many different sides to the man, and it’s a very nice, refreshingly breezy album to listen to.

Having reached an epiphany in my dotage I don’t tend to write about things I hate any more, but since it’s Christmas I can’t help but comment on Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, the music from the bizarrely well-received Apple tv set in the Godzilla “monsterverse”. I mean, it passes the time, but I don’t find its big conspiracy theory, dual-timeline storyline to be one in any way worth telling (surely people just want to see monsters destroying stuff, or each other!?)

But the music… my god, the music… it’s all electronic and that’s not necessarily a problem of course, but it seems to have no connection at all to anything that’s happening within the show for which it was written. It’s so small-scale, so abrasive and unpleasant, not telling us anything about the human characters, not offering any sense of scale or might to the monsters, it’s just kind of there being irritating, like your distant relative’s small child making an unannounced visit and then smearing bits of cranberry sauce on your walls on Boxing Day. With that, I wish you a very merry Christmas.

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  1. Mike Kwasniak (Reply) on Saturday 23 December, 2023 at 20:13

    Thank you James – I so enjoy your posts – and hope you have a hugely enjoyable Christmas!

    Mike Kwansiak