RIP John Barry

Good film music enhances movie scenes. Great film music takes a good, bad or indifferent scene and lifts it into the stratosphere. Really great film music does that and is also enchanting to listen to in any context. By that measure, John Barry is one of the best film composers ever.

He might have lacked some of their complexity, but in emotional and melodic terms he is very much on a par with the greatest film composers of all time, including Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, and Bernard Herrmann — and their music charted much less frequently. John Barry could write a complex, soaring pop hit that might make Burt Bacharach jealous. He wasn’t afraid to be over-the-top when the job called for and embraced a certain level of kitsch where appropriate. He didn’t over-value subtlety.

Mr. Barry died yesterday in New York from a heart attack at age 77, not super young but another twenty or thirty years of his presence on the planet would have been nice, too. Even today, when many young film viewers are only barely aware that some guy named Sean Connery once played James Bond, if I ask almost anyone to think of “spy music,” they’re probably going to think of either the actual music from the early James Bond films or music heavily influenced by it. That’s just scratching the surface.

Barry evoked beauty, longing and mystery for all kinds of films. His 111 composing credits included Oscar-winning scores for “Out of Africa,” “Born Free,” the colonial war classic “Zulu,” his groundbreaking combination of scoring and music supervision on “Midnight Cowboy,” the cult fantasy-romance, “Somewhere in Time,” a now very obscure 1972 live-action musical version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and Richard Lester’s masterpiece, “The Knack and How to Get It.” Other scores include “Dances With Wolves,” “The Lion in Winter,” and the three movies that starred Michael Caine as anti-Bond workaday spook, Harry Palmer. Barry had the spy market cornered, and he was one very cool cat.

If you’ve never heard his fascinating and funny 2004 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross where he discusses “million dollar Mickey Mouse music,” now’s a good time. As you can always bet on, there’s much more at MUBI and be sure to check out this anecdote from Sir Michael about being present at the creation of a pop masterpiece. After the flip, just a few somewhat random clips of some of Barry’s best.

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A chat with Greg Nicotero, make-up and effects wizard of “The Walking Dead”

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With 124 make-up credits and 64 effects credits to his name so far, Greg Nicotero is one of the busiest and most respected make-up and effects professionals in Hollywood. Originally inspired to take up special effects after seeing “Jaws,” he broke into the business working for the legendary gore-effects maestro Tom Savini on zombie-master George Romero’s 1985 splatter opus, “Day of the Dead. ”

A few years later, Nicotero had decamped from Romero’s Pittsburgh’s to show-biz’s Los Angeles and formed the multi-award winning KNB Efx Group with friends Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger. Aside from his intimate involvement in such effects heavy films as “Sin City,” “Kill Bill,” “Minority Report,” “Serenity,” “Spiderman 3” and, yes, “Ray,” Nicotero has also branched out into directing, helming the second unit on Frank Darabont’s “The Mist” and making his own short subject, a funny and endearing homage to several generations of classic movie monsters, “United Monster Talent Agency.”

When I met with Nicotero and last Summer’s Comic-Con, however, it was to promote the already highly buzzed new AMC series, “The Walking Dead,” which reunites Nicotero with writer-director Darabont in an adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s Eisner Award-winning comic book series. Premiering Halloween night, the show will be taking a more dramatic look at the cannibal zombie mythos originally created by George Romero in his 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” combining slow-moving zombies with the kind of in-depth characterization and complex yarn-spinning that’s making the onetime “vast wasteland” of television into something more like the last refuge of classical storytelling.

There’s only one problem. I’m kind of scared to actually watch the thing. You see, much as I admire the craft of someone like Greg Nicotero, I’m not exactly the usual gorehound media-fan for whom the more, and more realistic, cinematic gore he can create, the better. There was no point in hiding it.

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New “Avatar” trailer and a big marketing push

Yes, the new trailer for James Cameron’s long awaited 3-D CGI laden extravaganza, “Avatar,” is out, it’s longish for a trailer (3.5 minutes) and it’s got more plot details. (H/t Drew McWeeny)

Fox is also in the process of making a big deal by showing the trailer in front of what probably actually is the largest live crowd ever to see a trailer on apparently the largest video screen extant by showing it at the new 800,000 seat Cowboy Stadium in Texas on November 1st before the Cowboys play the Seattle Seahawks. It will also be broadcast to millions more on Fox NFL Sunday and bolstered by commercials for the movie during the game.

As for my reaction: I don’t know where the music is from, but I hope it’s not the actual soundtrack because I think it’s awful. The plot strikes me as an space opera variation on “Dances with Wolves,” but that could work — or not. Also, I’m not hugely impressed with the CGI look, but who knows how I’ll feel about it when I see it properly. Time will tell.

  

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