Archive for the ‘music’ Category

You know its a good year for cinema when we have not one, but *two* musicals in the Top 10. And not one, or even two, but *three* exclamation points in the Top 10 titles. But even if you don’t share my love for the powers of song of punctuation, there’s a depth and range to the roster of 2016 films that can not be denied, and that made for an excellent 12 in front of screens big and small (but preferably big).

Without further ado, the Top 10 movies released this year were:

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10. Nocturnal Animals

There’s just something about a classic tale of revenge, and in “Nocturnal Animals” we get two, simultaneously. In the more traditional sense there is the story of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) who suffers an unspeakable tragedy and, with the help of a local lawman (the indispensable Michael Shannon), goes after those responsible. But Tony is actually is the main character in a novel by Edward Sheffield (also Jake Gyllenhaal) who has sent a manuscript of his work to his estranged ex-wife (Amy Adams).

“Animals” is easier to follow than that description suggests, but it is far from uncomplicated. Director Tom Ford is in no hurray to reveal the emotional manipulations at play, or to reveal explicitly the degree to which the two narratives should be viewed as connected. It’s a dark, violent and tragic story that leaves much to interpretation, with much to digest long after the credits roll.

 

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9. Hail, Caesar!

Whether it be “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men” or “Raising Arizona,” you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers film, and it’s never *not* enjoyable.

Still, the brothers have made something special with “Hail, Caesar!” a winking tribute-slash-mockery of the golden age of Hollywood, when dames were dames and everyone was looking over their shoulders for the communists lurking among them.

It may not be the same high-drama awards bait of the directing duo’s filmography, but good luck stopping yourself from rewinding whole scenes to watch them again, be it Channing Tatum leading a  tap dancing send-up of “South Pacific” or the exquisite wordplay of the “Would that it were so simple” sequence between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (whose character name is, brilliantly “Laurence Laurentz”).

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Part coming-of-age story and part Odd-couple comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the quirky and endearing New Zealand-set comedy adventure you had no idea you so desperately needed this year.

Foster child and misunderstood “bad egg” Ricky is taken in by warm-hearted Bella and her rough-around-the-edges husband Hec. And after a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings, Ricky and Hec find themselves the target of a national manhunt as they take to living in “the bush” and working to evade discovery by the authorities.

The chemistry between Ricky (Julian Dennison) and a delightfully crotchety Sam Neil is what makes the film work, as the hunt for the two runaways swells to surprising surreal levels. Keep an eye on director Taika Waititi, whose next project is the upcoming  superhero flick “Thor: Ragnarok.”

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7. Weiner

“Weiner” is the best political documentary ever made. Period. And it owes its alchemy to a fortuitous union of skill and circumstance, as a capable team of storytellers are given unprecedented access to their subject, who in turn manages to torpedo his entire life in front of the camera’s staring gaze.

Anthony Weiner clearly expected a different outcome when he granted the documentarians access, and for the first third you see the story that might have been: a down-but-not-out politician licks his wounds, gets back in the ring and defies expectations to become mayor of New York. But then another shoe drops, and another, and of course the audience knows that there are more waiting even after Weiner is forced to concede defeat.

But what really makes “Weiner” (the movie) something almost Shakespearean is the presence of long-suffering (and now ex-) wife Huma Abedin. An infamous introvert, she hovers at the edge of frame, her jaw set, tense, watching. When the inevitable occurs, it’s Abadin that keeps “Weiner” from being a punch line about a serial screw-up,  and instead a stinging portrait of a political family destroyed by poor judgement.

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6. Everybody Wants Some!!

In 1993, Richard Linklater made “Dazed and Confused,” an American Graffiti-esque film set in 1976 and following a sprawling cast of students celebrating the first night of summer.

Two decades later, Linklater has made his so-called “spiritual sequel,” which is set in 1980 and follows a college basketball team over the last weekend before fall semester starts.

Fans of Dazed will get exactly what they’re looking for, while newcomers will find an endearing and optimistic slice-of-life story about young adults in 1980s America. Like Linklater’s “Boyhood,” EWS is filled with small moments that find the dramatic beauty in humanity and average, everyday lives.

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5. The Lobster

And now for something completely different…”The Lobster” posits a world in which adults are not allowed to be single, to the extent that after losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is compelled to reside at a hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner or be turned into an animal of his choosing – in David’s case, the titular crustacean.

Split into two parts, The Lobster first looks at life within the hotel, with its bizarre customs, restrictions and pressures to find a soulmate at any cost. Then, after David flees, we see the other half of Lobster’s world, as our hero joins up with a nomadic gang of woods-dwelling fugitives who have one iron-clad rule: no coupling.

It’s bizarre, to say the least, and wonderful. With a cast of completely game actors (including Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly)  fully committed to the absurdities of the premise and its execution, Lobster builds on its dry, often dark, humor to an ending that is perfect and disturbingly outlandish.

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4. Moonlight

*The* Roger Ebert often described film as an “empathy machine,” and of all of this year’s movies that role of the cinema is best captured in “Moonlight,” which uses three actors in three time periods to tell the story of a man’s life.  As a child, Little is a soft-spoken boy neglected and demeaned by his substance-addicted mother and taken under the wing of the neighborhood dealer. As a teenager, Chiron is bullied and beaten by his peers and strains to find his place. And finally as a man, Black has adopted the career of his childhood mentor, but seeks out an old friend from his younger years.

It’s a moving, and at times haunting, portrait, and a showcase of diversity. But it’s also understated, and confident. It doesn’t shout “look at me!”  but still results in a film that is impossible to look away from.

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3. Hell or High Water

Too few films are set outside of America’s coastal cities, and fewer still depict the people who reside in America’s heartland as actual people and not flat caricatures.

In Hell or High Water, brothers Tanner and Toby are pressured into desperate measures by desperate times. Their family’s ranch, despite sitting atop an ocean of oil, has fallen into the clutches of predatory banking. To save it, they launch a scheme to rob the money to pay the mortgage from the same banking institutions that have left them in dire straits. On their heels is Marcus Hamilton, a beyond his years law enforcement man circling the drain before he’s shown the door.

The relationship between the brothers is rich, owing no small feat to the capabilities of Chris Pine and Ben Foster (one of the most underrated actors of his generation). They wear their reluctance on their tired faces, and brace themselves against a gathering storm closing in around them.

And while there’s an element of cat-and-mouse as they get closer to their coal, the story never dips into fantasy. It feels real at every turn: real people, pressured into real decisions by the all-too-familiar realities of American economics.

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2. Manchester by the Sea

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heartbreaking, profoundly sad story about loss and grief. It’s also beautiful and inspiring. After his brother dies, Lee (a phenomenal Casey Affleck) is called back to his childhood home and tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick (an also phenomenal Lucas Hedges). But returning home means confronting old demons, and Lee struggles to reconcile his loyalty to his family and his own compulsion to put distance between himself and his past.

Manchester is a master-class of “show don’t tell,” with Affleck in particularly conveying more with his gestures and expression than even the lengthiest monologue could manage. Many sequences are practically wordless, and the mood hangs heavy, despite being punctuated by frequent instances of warming humor.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is the type of film where the seems of movie-making disappear, and you forget for a moment that you’re watching fiction.

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1. La La Land

Through three films together, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have crafted a level of creative chemistry unparalleled in modern Hollywood. It helps that both actors are independently charming, but their combined effect is something akin to fireworks.

Take that element, and add it to the showmanship of a well-made musical production and what you have is cinematic magic.

Stone plays Mia, an aspiring but as-yet-unsuccessful actress whose day job is serving coffee on a studio backlot. Gosling plays Sebastian, or “Seb” for short, a jazz pianist and musical idealist who rejects the dilution of pop. They meet, over and over again under circumstances that are delightful,  before a romance eventually blossoms, and in each other they find creative inspirations and motivations that position them at the precipice of either realizing their dreams or falling in defeat.

All of which is set against a backdrop of song and dance numbers that  embrace the old-Hollywood legacy of “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story” albeit with a concertedly modern setting and style. But this is not simply a light and breezy affair, concerned only with vibrant colors and Joie de Vivre (both of which, it has in spades). “La La Land” climaxes on a forceful musical number by Stone, singing a tribute to “the ones who dream” and then, in its final moments, the film presents one last pièce de résistance sequence that dazzles you before punching you in the stomach, leaving you wide-eyed, out of breath, and looking to find where your jaw landed on the floor.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old (!!!) phenom behind 2014’s “Whiplash,” “La La Land” exudes the confidence of a veteran filmmaker. But think on this, Chazelle has directly exactly 2 feature films, and it’s all-but-assured that both will have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars when this year’s list is announced (and it’s looking entirely likely that La La Land will score the statuette come ceremony night). If I were to have a complaint about the otherwise perfect film, it would be the nagging knowledge that its director is two years older than myself, which has the unfortunately side effect of making you feel inferior before greatness.

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Laughing at the hollow excess of celebrity is always fun, and funner still when celebrities get in on the joke. That’s the comedy essence of ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,’ which takes the irreverent antics of The Lonely Island and expands their viral-video pattern to fit a feature-length mockumentary.

Andy Samberg stars as hip-hop musician Connor “4Real” Friel, an overt homage to Justin Bieber (whose documentary Never Say Never serves as a rough template for Never Stop Never Stopping) with a backstory akin to Justin Timberlake. Connor rose to fame as part of a boy-band trio Style Boyz, but has since surged as a solo act and is on the verge of launching his sophomore album and a new world tour.

The documentary style allows for winking testimonials by the likes of Usher, RZA and Carrie Underwood, who heap praise upon Connor’s career while making not-so-subtle digs at the vacuousness of America’s music industry. For example, Simon Cowell praises Connor’s decision to place a giant, LED-emblazoned, Daft Punk-esque helmet on the head of his DJ. A similar move, Cowell deadpans, would have allows Zayn to stay in One Direction for years.

There’s a lot of layers to that joke. And the level to which those layers amuse you is a decent litmus test for how much you’ll enjoy the film ‘Popstar,’ which zooms in on male genitalia for several minutes and which includes a song that likens passionate lovemaking to the military efficiency that resulted in Osama Bin Laden’s death.

That the film works at all is a credit to the charismatic charm of Samberg and his Lonely Island partners Akiva Schaffer and  Jorma Taccone. There’s also more celebrity cameos in this film than a Lakers playoff game, used in increasingly amusing ways that deepen the cynicism of a movie that mocks the cult of celebrity.

Grade: B+

*Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping opens nationwide on Friday, June 3.

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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.

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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!

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Pitch Perfect 2

As far as inevitable sequels go, the prospect of a second outing with the Barden Bellas seems like a pleasant, or at worst innocuous, idea.

The original Pitch Perfect, which leveraged intentional camp and toe-tapping pop songs to boost a story about rag-tag A Cappella singers, was a gonzo smash, extending far beyond its intended audience. It would seem like a relatively simple formula to follow but there’s the rub, as the script clings to the original with such ferocity that the sequel has little room to breathe, let alone sing.

After winning three consecutive national championships, the Bellas are riding high. But after a horribly ill-timed wardrobe malfunction at a presidential event shocks the nation, the Bellas are suspended from official A Cappella activities and barred from recruiting new members (all the Bellas are graduating seniors, because plot).

It looks like the end of the road for the group, except for an improbable loophole: should they succeed at winning the World Championships in Copenhagen, they’ll succeed at being reinstated. Unlikely, because as it is explained to them, Americans never win the worlds, because the world hates us.

That sets off the long and winding road to the competition and along the way they pick up a new Bella in the form of Hailee Steinfeld‘s Emily, the daughter of an alumna and therefore “legacy” Bella. The road is also filled with detours, as the threepete national champions are apparently so shaken from their fall from grace that it takes a series of failed side-performances and a mountain retreat in order to rediscover their “sound.”

Oh and Beca (Anna Kendrick) is distracted, having started a stressful and demanding internship at a recording studio that she keeps secret from her sisters for fear of looking unfocused.

Pitch Perfect 2 does many things right. Elizabeth Banks, who stepped in as director of the sequel, and once again deliver a series of knock-out one liners and Keegan Michael-Key brings a welcome mania to the role of Beca’s boss. The movie also wisely avoid the sequel pratfall of giving Beca and love interest Jesse (Skylar Astin) a slew of relationship drama, with the pair instead seeming as solid as ever.

The rest of the movie, however, could use some fine tuning. While there’s plenty to laugh at, long sequences drag on with only dull thuds and the entire proceedings reek of diminishing returns. First-time director Elizabeth Banks also shows her trepidation, relying on bulky transitions to move the plot along that would be much better left on the cutting room floor.

Pitch Perfect 2 is about 30 minutes too long, and yet despite its running time is able to introduce only a single new major character and sidelines the bulk of its returning cast. That’s because the film is so focused on replicating the winning ingredients of the first film — the Riff Off, the montage song, Bumper — that it ends up simultaneously overstuffed and hollow.

Outside the core triad of Beca, Fat Amy and Chloe I could not tell you the name of a single member of the Bellas, making the whole film feel like a modernized version of that dinner scene from The Hobbit.

When the final performance ends, there’s a sense of overdue relief. And because the Bellas now consist of a single Freshman student, it would take some major storytelling gymnastics to bring audiences back for a third, undesired, round.

Grade: B-

*Pitch Perfect 2 opens nationwide on Friday, May 15.

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10553410_10204449416380343_7121517607838412198_nAnyone want some free ukulele music for the new year?

I know I haven’t posted much by way of One Wood Uke lately, but some things just can’t be rushed. I actually started working on this song in September while I was busking at our local farmers market (I’m also drinking Kombucha while I type this — hipster overload!!!) but then I got busy with my new job and before I knew it, it was the holiday season.

Fire/Fear (by The Head and the Heart) just didn’t seem right for a Christmas release, with its pining lyrics and lilting mood, but it’s absolutely perfect for January, the worst month of the year.

I mean, right? I’ve lived most of my life in Utah where January is a seemingly interminable tedium of inversion-bogged, dreary lifelessness. It doesn’t help anything that it’s also my birth month, since birthdays fill me with a creeping dread of mortality and a sense of wasted potential. Time: that unstoppable monster that devours all things.

But even if you’re not, like me, in the throes of seasonal affective disorder, this song is still for you 🙂 Sure it’s about heartbreak, but it’s also about hope. Right? I don’t know. I just like it.

The other reason it took me until January is because when I left my old job in October, I left behind the company-issued MacBook that came with it. Now, I’m not an Apple absolutist like some, but my personal computer was a rather dismal Asus that I had purchased on the cheap in 2012 and barely used since then. It wasn’t up to the task.

But now I’m back on a MacBook and it feels (and hopefully sounds) so right!

As always, head on over to bandcamp for a free download of the song. And if you can tell me in the comments the two places where I messed up you get a special prize.

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*Portions of this review were first published during the 2014 Sundance Filme Festival

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Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring musician plinking away at his keyboard in a frustrated attempt to write a hit song. He feigns sincerity, but in his incessant appeals to social media and his inability to create even mainstream drudge it is clear that he is motivated by a pursuit of fame and not by any deeply-held artistic vision.

But in a bit of dumb luck, he crosses paths with a band fronted by Frank, an experimental musician whose face is perpetually obscured by a large paper-mâché head and for whom music is an end in itself.

Frank invites Jon into the band as keyboardist, whisking him away to a secluded cabin in Ireland to record the new album, despite a cold reception from the other members of the band, including Maggie Gylenhaal as a cold and volatile theremin player.

The film eventually strays from a story about a quirky Euro-band recording in Ireland to one about mental illness and expression with a backdrop at the South by Southwest festival. But the central question of the movie, “Who is Frank and why does he wear the head?” is left largely unanswered even as the band collapses and Frank’s mental state deteriorates. One would assume that if you cast Michael Fassbender in your movie and spend the whole movie hiding his face that you would’ve done so for a reason. Right?

Frank was a buzzy film at this year’s Sundance festival and certainly has it’s moments of charm. The actors commit fully to the gonzo setup, particularly Gylenhaal who is delightful while threatening to stab our protagonist and, later, making good on her threat.

But in this critic’s opinion, the film is one that perhaps had grand things to say if you could just hear them from underneath a muffled mass of paper mâché.

Grade: B-

*‘Frank’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, August 29.

 

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