Archive for December, 2015

I promise, the Top 10 is coming. Unfortunately, because I live in Salt Lake City, limited release films like The Revenant, Carol and Anomalisa are slow to trickle in, and it would be a dereliction of duties to crown the Best Films of The Year without having watched all of the major contenders.

That said, I *have* a Top 10 list, which could very well remain unchanged. And as is often the case, there were more great films this year than room at the inn.

Here at Wood’s Stock, we have a tradition of honoring an 11th best film of the year. This spot is traditionally reserved for a big-budget, major-studio-produced crowd pleaser that may not be up for any awards come February 28th, but was nonetheless a blast to watch.

This year, that film was…

henry-cavill-the-man-from-uncle-movie.jpg

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

In 2006, the stewards of the James Bond franchise released Casino Royale, starring a then-relatively-unknown Daniel Craig as a scowling, brooding, and occasionally bruised and bleeding take on the legacy character. It represented a seismic creative shift for the franchise, adopting a darker and focused tone as an antidote to the excessive camp and frivolity that defined the tail end of the Pierce Brosnan era.

But imagine, if you will, a parallel universe in which the makers of the Bond films creatively cleansed the franchise of its failings while still committing to the grinning, innuendo-soaked playfulness that traditionally defined the character.

That movie would be The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Set during the cold war, TMFUNCLE gives us con-man-turned-American-spy Napolean Solo (Henry Cavill) and Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) reluctantly forced to work together for the greater good by their respective governments.

It’s an unmistakably retro film, filled with exotic locales, fancy cars, beautiful women and booze-swilling men who crack wise and skulls in equal measure. But it’s also a film that is astutely self-aware, filled with breezy double entendres and a jazzy beat that practically stares at the camera to ask “Hey, isn’t this fun?”

Directed by Guy Ritchie, who injected a similar old-meets-new flavor into his Sherlock Holmes films, UNCLE is unafraid of keeping things lights, humming along as though its amusing itself.

The ensemble pops, aided by the gorgeous and effervescent Alicia Vikander, who adds a crucial woman’s touch to the proceedings, going toe-to-toe with her male costars. And with the exception of an over-boiled finale, the action scenes and set pieces are stellar, tightly choreographed and edited to maximum effect by Ritchie (a standout scene involves a boat chase and a cargo truck).

UNCLE is in good company this year, fun-wise, with Rogue Nation, the latest of Ethan Hunt’s impossible missions, but because of the effort and risk it takes to launch a new franchise, the edge goes to the new kid on the block. Sadly, with only $45 million in domestic revenue, it’s doubtful (but not impossible) that we’ll see the next adventure of Solo and Kuryakin.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The clock is winding down on 2015, which means the Internet is once again awash with “Best of” lists for everything from books to music to political gaffes.

Here at Wood’s Stock, we love movies (and as always, “we” = “I”) and the year was particularly rewarding. We’re hard at work sculpting away at our 10 Best Films of the Year list, but once again there remain great films and performances that can’t and don’t make the cut.

And so, here are but a few praiseworthy films that deserve recognition as 2015 draws to a close.

Konnikova-The-Stanford-Prison-Experiment-1200.jpg

Best Indie: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Dramatizing one of the most infamous studies in American academic history, The Stanford Prison Experiment chronicles the faux-prison created by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971.

Intended to run for two weeks, the experiment was shuttered after 6 days due to the psychological torture forced upon the student-prisoners by their authoritarian guards, who were their classmates, separated in their roles by little more than a coin toss.

The claustrophobic film, largely occupying a single hallway, is almost suffocating as the experiment continues and the conditions worsen. And of course it’s all true, creating a lingering sense of unease by showing humanity’s capacity for cruelty.

*For a double-header, pair TSPE with Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard.

WALK_INTL_1SHT_TSR_LK2_3DIMX3D_02.indd

Best Box Office Flop: The Walk

For the best movie about Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers, watch the 2008 documentary Man On Wire.

But for the *next* best movie about Philippe Petit, watch The Walk, which stars an almost too-charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the high wire artist in a film that is one part heist film, one part biopic and one part love letter to New York City.

The walk only made $10 million in the domestic box office. Global sales put that figure up over it’s reported $35 million budget, but not by enough to be considered a success. That’s a shame, as its dizzying effects and playful tone made for  one of the most enjoyable trips to the theater this year.

InsideOut556500e6a2be0-2040.0.jpg

Best Cartoon: Inside Out

If I were a less-cynical critic, Inside Out may have cracked the Top 10. But being the jaded curmudgeon that I am, the delightful Pixar creation about the inner emotions of an 11-year-old child gets an Honorable Mention.

On paper, the concept behind Inside Out sounds impossible to capture on screen. But the magicians at Pixar did what they do and created some of the liveliest and most memorable characters of the year in Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust AND BING BONG!, while also telling a meta-narrative story about how and why we feel the feels.

*Bonus: if you don’t love the volcano short paired with Inside Out then you have no soul.

Brooklyn-RDP

Best Rom-Com: Brooklyn

I’m cheating here, since Brooklyn is decidedly *not* a romantic comedy, but it’s the best* love story of the year (*that’s not in my Top 10).

Brooklyn is an immigrant’s tale, following an Irish import who meets an Italian and is forced to choose between her new life and her old. Primarily dramatic, Brooklyn has excellent levity, particularly in a dinner scene that pits Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) against the mouthy younger brother of her new boyfriend.

Where other Coming-To-America stories can be heaped in despair and sadness, Brooklyn makes a case for the seemingly-defunct American Dream. Sometimes it’s just nice to come out of a theater feeling good.

cdn.indiewire.comBest Documentary: The Wolfpack

In a small New York Apartment, five brothers and their sister have lived their lives effectively sealed away from the outside world. Their primary connection to society comes in the form of the movies they watch and exhaustively recreate using homemade costuming.

The Wolfpack is incredibly personal, zooming in on the experiences of a single family as their barriers begin to come down and The Wolfpack take tentative steps into the community. It’s profoundly bizarre, but the film refuses to pass judgement, instead treating its subjects as just another American family with its quirks.

*Other must-see docs: The Hunting Ground, Going Clear.

black-mass-johnny-depp.jpg

Best reminder that an actor can act: Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Since 2010, Johnny Depp’s starring roles have included The Tourist, the 4th Pirates movie, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and Mortdecai.

That’s a bad list. That’s a *very* bad list. He’s had a few supporting roles in decent films (Into the Woods) but as far as top billing, it’s a bad list.

But then he made the brilliant decision to star in Black Mass, playing true-life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.

And How! Depp has done plenty of disappearing acts in his career but his transformation into Bulger, complete with wispy white hair and dead grey eyes, is haunting and unsettling and full of the kind of onscreen magnetism that Depp hasn’t shown in years.

It’s a great performance in a film full of great performances that never quite synergises on the sum of its parts. That’s a shame, but Depp’s decision to take the role isn’t.

*Also in Black Mass, up-and-comer Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) whose career I am watching with great interest.

kingsmen.jpg

The 2015 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Released in February, director Matthew Vaughn released a movie about elite British spies that was violent, irreverent and completely insane. That film was Kingsman: The Secret Service, and this year’s winner of the Balls-T0-The-Wall award.

Both celebrating and skewering the James Bond spy-genre, Kingsman follows a young man recruited to a secret agency tasked with saving the world from a tech titan (Samuel L. Jackson with a list) who plans on hitting the reset button on planet Earth.

This is a movie in which our hero fights a woman whose legs are swords and is rewarded for his derring-do with a final frame sex joke involving a European princess. It also contains the most memorable scene of on-screen violence in 2015, involving Colin Firth in a bespoke suit, a church full of parishioners, and a frenetic camera that captures every geyser of blood and broken bone.

It’s juvenile and clever, shocking and absurd, unapologetically manic and an absolute blast to watch.

Read Full Post »

IMG_8562.JPG

The problem with being in a relationship with a blogger and ukulele player is that said person will inevitably pressure you into recording a duet for YouTube. It’s science, as unavoidable as gravity.

Especially when *you* are a telegenic bombshell with a voice like melted caramel, as is the case with Elizabeth, the hapless woman who has yet to realize she’s miles out of my league.

But her foolish life choices are our gain, as I was able to get her on camera for a mashup of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and We Three Kings, popularized by Barenaked Ladies and Sara McLachlan.

Here’s the video, and you can click over to my bancamp page for a free download. Happy Holidays.

Read Full Post »

will_smith.0.0.png

According to ‘Concussion,’ when real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) first decided to publish his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, he expected the National Football League to be relieved and take action against the degenerative disease driving so many of their retired players to depression, dementia and early deaths.

And when the NFL does what anyone would expect a billion-dollar corporation built on the backs of human crash test dummies to do — reject and ridicule Omalu’s findings — the good doctor is lovingly chided for his naivete.

“You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” he’s told by his mentor, played by Albert Brooks.

The exchange holds an interesting parallel to the movie itself, which is to be released on Christmas in what is, no doubt, a play at awards-season attention, but which coincidentally occurs at the zenith of the college football season, with the NFL’s super bowl just around the corner. Not only is Smith’s latest film competing with Star Wars for the eyeballs of film-goers, it also needs to convince football fans (of whom there are many) to pay the admission price and watch a movie about how their favorite sport is recklessly killing people.

It’s not easy task, but ‘Concussion’ handles the challenge with surprising grace. Smith is charming and heartbreaking as Omalu, an extensively educated Nigerian medical examiner whose own personal American Dream is slowly shattered by the ambivalence of our country’s institutions. His journey begins in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office, where the death of a former Steeler’s center collides with Omalu’s natural curiosity, creating the spark that ignites the doctor’s drive to discover the unseen malice that lie in the thousands of blows to the head that players experience during their careers.

Surrounding Smith are Brooks, Omalu’s guide and cheerleader, Alec Baldwin, a former NFL team doctor racked with guilt and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the love interest that helps humanize the lead character.

While directed and performed well, the segments of the film concerned with Omalu’s personal life are its weakest. ‘Concussion’ is at its best when it’s at its most outraged, describing the science behind CTE and tangentially showing the former players who are spiraling out of control. Each one of those deaths is a tragedy of its own, and in making extra room for an immigrant love story ‘Concussion’ does a slight disservice to the real lives lost that spurred Omalu’s work.

But the occasional flaws in the film are little in the face of its strengths, particularly the clarity of Omalu’s case against the league and the ugly but unsurprising steps the NFL took to avoid the blame when now-expendable players lose themselves in a fog of the mind. Far from giving the NFL a pass, ‘Concussion’ relentless points a finger at the league, but a more focused script may elevated the power of the story to a knockout blow.

Grade: B+

*Concussion opens nationwide on Friday, December 25.

 

Read Full Post »

yth.jpg

Not every great movie is beautiful and not every beautiful movie is great. But every so often, you get a movie that is both.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger in ‘Youth,’ a lilting, dream-like film directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Set at a posh resort in Switzerland, Ballinger’s retired composer/orchestra conductor traipses through a routine of massage, upscale dining, dips in the hot tub and discussions of prostate with his longtime friend Mick, a celebrated film director played by Harvey Keitel.

He’s a tortured man, facing his own mortality and desire to live out his days quietly under pressure from his daughter to reconcile his life as a husband and father and a nagging emissary from her majesty The Queen, who would like him to perform his most famous (and pedestrian?) work one last time.

Mirroring his story is that of Mick’s, who is crafting his “testament,” a screenplay that will define his career, but one which challenges him to craft a satisfying third act.

The parallels to old age are obvious, but rather than hide from the metaphor, Sorrentino injects fantasy and levity to challenge expectations.

That the director is an Italian is no coincidence, as the film is undeniably European, interspersing bits of quiet plot between pseudo-surrealist montages of life at the resort with metaphorical and philosophical discussion between the core cast.

There’s plenty of meat for the various actors to enjoy — a brief appearance by Jane Fonda and a subplot with Paul Dano are particularly great — but the best moments are reserved for Caine and Keitel, whose friendship speaks to the melancholy pain of memory.

Grade: A-

*‘Youth’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 25.

Read Full Post »

bigshottrailer

“The party is over”

That’s the expectation of on character near the end of “The Big Short,” a movie that tracks three independent teams of Wall Street outsiders who foresaw the housing market crash of 2007 that decimated the U.S. (and world) economy and bet big on a bursting bubble.

He’s referring, of course, to the big bankers, whose behavior leading up to the crash can be described in the nicest terms as negligent (but are more accurately described in less nice terms). The banks will be broken up, he says, and those responsible for cashing checks on the backs of millions of woefully ill-advised mortgages will be sent to jail.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, as hindsight and the film make abundantly clear, the big banks marched forward with the aid of a taxpayer-funded bailout, earning gargantuan bonuses for their chief executives while millions of American families lost their homes and livelihoods. The party, for the wrong people it would appear, was over.

It’s hard not to get angry while watching “The Big Short,” which deftly balances a frenzied excitement — akin to a subdued “Wolf of Wall Street” — while still possessing bucket loads of moral outrage. The outsiders who saw the disaster coming are mocked and ridiculed while shouting out to anyone who will listen the danger at the country’s doorstep.

And director Adam McKay, best known for low-brow comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, turns out to be an inspired choice. Any talk of adjustable interest rates and asset-backed securities is bound to glaze the eyes of casual film-goers, so McKay amps up the showmanship by having the film narrated by a smarmy, fourth-wall breaking Ryan Gosling, who occasionally delegates his explanatory duties to guest star cameos, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath giving an Econ 101 lesson on subprime mortgages.

It’s heady stuff, but rather than get lost in the weeds, McKay and “The Big Short” (rounded out by an incredible cast including Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale) keep things light and breezy, explaining just enough of the big picture to string together the insidious bread crumbs that led to financial catastrophe.

Grade: A-

*The Big Short opens nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

Read Full Post »

Xmas Final.jpg

Merry Xmas to all, and to all an extremely frustrating dive into split-screen editing!

But really though, making this video was a bit of a pain. I had all these lofty ambitions of shooting B-Roll of Christmas lights and Santas Claus and my dog running through the snow, but once I started toying around with the screen-in-screen nonsense I knew that my eyes were bigger than my stomach. Plus, we have no snow for Ghost to run through. Thanks Obama (note: I don’t actually think it’s Obama’s fault).

Ever since I started making these Ukulele covers FOUR YEARS AGO (tempis fugit) I’ve wanted to release a Christmas song. I came close a while back with Auld Lang Syne, but that didn’t turn out that well.

*Tangent* about a year after shooting that video I was at a party where this woman was talking about a New Year’s Eve where she went to a pig roast and there was this guy playing crappy ukulele songs.

Me: In Sugar House?

Her: Yup.

Me: Yeah…I was that guy.

*/Tangent*

Anyway, I grew up in the 90s so Blues Traveler is a thing for me (dat harmonica doe!) . That includes “Christmas,” their pan-holiday single from 1997.

I’ve been rocking out to this song every winter since I was in junior high school, and about a month ago started entertaining the idea of recording a One Wood Uke version.

I dig any time I get to harmonize with myself (it turns out I’m the perfect duet partner…for me) and Christmas has that in spades. I actually had to dial down the number of tracks since BT goes kind of crazy toward the end of the song and my limited editing ability couldn’t match it.

Enjoy! As always it’s available at my bandcamp site for a free download. No Xmas 2015 mix is complete without it!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »