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Latest reviews of new albums:
Soul Snatcher
  • Composed by Joe Hisaishi
  • Universal / 79m

I often write about soundtrack albums from films I haven’t seen and offer a cursory plot description as an introduction – often I know broadly what the film is about but sometimes I have to look it up. Not knowing anything about Soul Snatcher, this time I will just copy and paste the plot description from Wikipedia: The impoverished scholar Wang Zijin (Chen Linong) went to Beijing to take the exam and was stared at by Bai Shisan (Li Xian), the little magical fox who took the dan. As long as Wang Zijin is killed and the dan is taken, he can be promoted to spiritual immortal. But did not want to take Dan Road, one person and one fox became the best friends. After going through all risks, what choice should Bai Shishan make? I do hope that clears things up.

Film music prospects don’t get much more salivating in 2021 than the great Joe Hisaishi getting to score a “Chinese fantasy epic” (as the film is usually described, when something more succinct than the Wikipedia plot synopsis is required). Hisaishi’s distinctive orchestral but fundamentally pop-based music is often epic, and the thought of him doing a big action-packed, multi-thematic score like The Monkey King was one I was really looking forward to.

Joe Hisaishi

The score he’s written – which, obviously, is for the film that actually exists rather than the one I imagine it to be in my head – isn’t really like that, though. It opens with a pretty earnest theme in “The Fox and the Scholar” before the track turns to some percussive action, but that doesn’t serve as a springboard for the score, which is generally very light-hearted.

There’s what sounds like a training montage type cue in “The Beginning of the Journey”, but then in the next cue (“Finding My Clamen”) we get to what the bulk of the score actually sounds like, which is light and fluffy mickey-mousing based on Chinese-sounding melodies. A comic melody keeps cropping up over and over again – to the point it gets a little grating – all through the very lengthy album; and there’s too much pretty dull suspense music, which might serve a purpose in the album listening experience if what was around it was all big and epic, but it isn’t.

There is some action now and again, but don’t expect a lot. In fact, only expect four tracks, about ten minutes between them. “Battle with the Frog Monster” in the middle of the album is pretty dense, heavily percussive and at times exciting, if a little unfocused; the brief “Truth” highlights some massive-sounding drums; and late on, “The Furious Showdown” lives up to its name and is (by far) the score’s best track, with manic action music for the full orchestra doing everything you want it to; “A Real Immortal Fox” continues in that vein but with perhaps a more epic tinge to it. “The Bardo World” isn’t action as such, but it’s quite spirited adventure music with some urgent, dramatic string writing which is maybe what I was hoping/expecting a lot more of the score to sound like.

Surprisingly, it’s the more tender moments of the score which prove to be its greatest asset. The gentle “A Quiet Town” with its strings and piano is typical Hisaishi; a gorgeously sweet melody emerges in the second half of “Looking for Brother Daoran” which is really great; there’s some beautiful, expressive writing for clarinet in the wonderful “Yinglian”, later reprised in an orchestral pop instrumental in “Promise” which is lovely and again in “Death of Yinglian”, surprisingly (purely based on the title) a fairly straight reprise without much added emotion; finally, there’s a surprising touch of film noir in “Proposal”, with its smokey trumpet solo.

Those pieces make the album worth hearing, but it’s not the side of Hisaishi that one might have expected to come out quite so prominently in a movie like this. The album is at least twice as long as it needs to be and suffers greatly as a result, with all the noodling and mickey-mousing just not working at all for me. For all the genuinely good moments, the whole thing just doesn’t gel together as a cohesive work and frankly is a bit of a slog to get through, even with the lovely interludes when things get dialled back.

Rating: **

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  1. Regis (Reply) on Saturday 27 February, 2021 at 23:43

    Perhaps a bit off topic to the review itself, but i just wanted to say that James Hannigan’s spectacular Harry Potter game soundtracks are once again available to listen officially after years of being delisted. They are quite something, and you should definitely give them a spin (or a review). They are on Spotify/Deezer/Apple Music/etc. as “EA Music Composer Series: James Hannigan, Vol. 1/2”. Not sure why they are named as such, since they are basically Half-Blood Prince/Order of The Phoenix in their entirety.

  2. Felix (Reply) on Wednesday 3 March, 2021 at 19:28

    @ Regis: Thanks for the info, I’ve been looking for these albums. They are indeed fantastic, but I couldn’t find them anywhere anymore. Truly terrible way to treat these albums by EA or whoever owns the rights to them.