Posts Tagged ‘music’

To begin with a disclosure: I’ve never seen any of the prior iterations of “A Star is Born.” I was aware that the film, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, was remade from earlier source material, but not the larger contours of the plot.

No matter. At every point the movie feels fresh, and comfortable in itself. It’s so effortlessly adapted to the modern era by first-time director Cooper, and so confidently led by Lady Gaga, that it has almost a fairy tale quality. If the new film is any indication of the previous works, then “A Star is Born” seems like just the kind of story destined to be retold by each new generation.

Cooper and Lady Gaga star as Jack and Ally, respectively. When we meet them, Jack is a world-famous and hard-drinking country musician at the height of his career, while Ally moonlights as a singer struggling to make inroads in the industry. They meet in the kind of starstruck coincidence that feels like it could maybe happen, but only seems to in the movies. Ally is then catapulted into the spotlight, first on tour with Jack and later through her own solo career.

That’s the setup, and it takes some time to get there, helped along by understated performances, light-touch narrative work and a killer soundtrack. But the real muscle of the movie is the implicit: watching how fame and fortune can consume individuals and the people in their orbit; and the way a couple can alternately support and injure each other as they collide throughout their shared lives.

Casting Lady Gaga in her acting debut adds an inspired meta element to Ally’s story of a woman trying to maintain authenticity in the whirlwind of explosive fame. And her pairing with Cooper produces an unexpected chemistry, with the actors easily selling the romance of two flawed individuals who try to, and occasionally succeed at, bringing out the best in each other.

For Cooper, who pulls double duty as star and director, the role is another successful test of his range, building on his dramatic turns in films like “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Sniper.” The central pairing does the heavy lifting, but the movie gets helpful assists from a supporting cast featuring Sam Elliot, Andrew Dice Clay and a refreshingly dramatic Dave Chappelle.

It’s a moving film, that starts quiet and builds to a powerful finish. Several of the attendees at my screening were left in tears, and the end credits were met with an ovation that practically begged for an encore.

Grade: A-

“A Star is Born” opens nationwide on Friday, October 5.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

With any luck, I’ll have the Top 10 completed by mid-January. “The Post” hits Salt Lake City on the 12th and, let’s be honest, I’m going to love it. How *much* I love it remains to be seen, but I can hardly put a list together without seeing the latest Spielberg film.

One thing I’ve already noticed from my shortlist is that 2017 did a great job of spreading the love throughout the year. Instead of the usual November-December cluster of quality, this year’s shortlist includes several early-summer releases and at least one that premiered back in February (hint, hint).

The popcorn fare was also better than usual. I already wrote in my honorable mentions how we got five legitimately great superhero flicks this year. Add to that a risky (read: polarizing) entry into the Star Wars franchise, another you’re-lying-if-you-say-you-didn’t-like-it Fast and Furious film, and a remake of “It” that, IMHO, outdoes the original.

But when looking back at the slate of mainstream, pair-it-with-a-coke, studio fare, there was one film that stood out for it’s thrills and chills. While not the best movie of the year, in an academic sense, it was definitely the most fun I had at the movies and that’s why this year’s Number 11 film is:

Baby Driver

Click on that embedded video, right now. Even if you’ve already seen the movie and especially if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch that clip, which is the 6-minute bank heist and car chase that cold opens Edgar Wright’s fantastic movie.

Wright, director of similar genre-blending pop culture staples like Shaun of The Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World puts his signature editing style to its maximum effect in Baby Driver. The film stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, a getaway criminal with tinnitus who relies on a steady soundtrack of music to drown out the ringing in his ears and who is forced to take less-than-legal jobs to pay down a debt. He meets a girl near the end of his indentured servitude, setting up the kind of “one last job” scenario familiar to heist movies, but deployed in a way that marries sound, sight and action choreography in a way that only Wright can.

The chase scenes are, quite simply, unparalleled and matched with a dynamite soundtrack and joyful performances by a crew of A-list actors (including Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal and Jamie Foxx) playing both into and against their stereotypes.

The one sour note, cosmic in nature, is the inclusion of Kevin Spacey as Baby’s puppet master. It’s a supporting role in the film’s goings-on, but nonetheless harder to stomach now that Spacey’s decades of predatory behavior off-screen has come to light. Perhaps future releases will swap Spacey out, George Lucas style, and I suppose some consolation can be found in that fact that [Spoiler Alert] Spacey’s character need not return for the sequel. I defer to everyone their own calculus on whether or not to watch films that feature terrible people, but for me, the talent and effort of the many other individuals involved in Baby Driver deserve to be celebrated.

Read Full Post »

popstar0003.jpg

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.

Read Full Post »

gr

*Note: portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

Director Jeremy Saulnier prefers no-frills violence, free of manicured choreography and unrealistic precision. In his films, like Blue Ruin and now Green Room, the characters are clumsy, prone to mistakes and victims to unpredictable chaos: like actual human beings.

In Green Room, an indie hardcore punk band is wrapping up a tour when they book a gig at a forested venue popular among the shaved-head-and-swastika-tattoo crowd. After their set, they witness an act of violence, triggering a chain of events that sees the band fighting for survival against a small army of aggressors led by a chillingly calm and sinister Patrick Stewart.

Lesser thespians playing against type might fall into mustache-twirling caricature. Perhaps the best treat of Green Room is watching the subdued Stewart, best known as the wise and pacifist  Jean-Luc Picard, icy cold and subdued as the shot-calling Darcy.

But Saulnier knows when to play, and when to hold, his Ace. Stewart makes a late entrance, after the already competent cast — including Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat and Ruin‘s Macon Blair — have set the stakes. The movie has a certain pulse to it, moving the action out, in and back out again of the titular green room, only to see its heroes encountering fresh hell at every turn.

After setting the chess board, every beat in Saulnier’s tight script feels natural and brutally real. But the film is also full of surprises, as Saulnier intentionally steers the action into seemingly predictable territory only to have a sly reversal tucked up his sleeve.

Grade: B+

*Green Room opens nationwide on Friday, April 29

Read Full Post »

everybody-wants-some-ping-pong.jpg

Director Richard Linklater has made a career out of under-spoken, meandering films that beautifully capture a romanticized version of normal people and their normal lives. The easy examples are Boyhood, Linklater’s painstaking 2014 opus that chronicled the slow aging of its protagonist and his family, and it’s sister project, the truly perfect Before trilogy, which checks in on lovers Jesse and Celine once each decade.

But even Linklater’s more commercial films hew to this theme. School of Rock, still Linklater’s most – and perhaps only – mainstream project, dials up the silly with Jack Black at its center, but gives equal time to an ensemble of unknown child actor-musicians. And Dazed and Confused, the 70’s-set godfather of the One Epic Night genre, is a sprawling mediation of young adulthood populated by a cast that has since matured to A-list status (chief among them a pre-fame Matthew McConaughey, waxing philosophical about life, man, and coining his “Alright, alright, alright” catchprase).

Which brings us to Everybody Wants Some!!, (yes, *two* exclamation points) the “spiritual sequel” to Dazed that easily delivers on the promise and expectations of its predecessor. Set at a Texas university and following the campus baseball team over a single weekend — that magical  Shangri-La after students have arrived for the fall but before classes have actually begun — Everybody riffs on brotherhood, identity, love, competition, and like, *life*, man, all while the surface motivations of the characters are to get druk, laid, and win baseball games.

While centered on Blake Jenner’s Jake, a wide-eyed freshman pitcher in awe of college living, the film is carried by its ensemble, with clear standouts in Willoughby  (Wyatt Russell in the McConaughey  role) and Finnegan (Glen Powell) a fast-talking, self-determined Adonis whose name is likely a reference to his role as a sympathetic Fagin to Jake’s Oliver Twist.

Everybody is happy to take its time, slowly pulling in more characters and ideas as the team makes its way from party to party, stopping for a discussion over a round of beers before making a wardrobe change and heading out again. At all points the plot is in no hurry to get anywhere, and once those stakes are set Linklater is able to breath his usual tricks into the script, coming at you sideways with poignant and effortless ruminations.

And perhaps the film’s greatest trick is the way its captures its period setting, not with flashy and obvious callbacks to days gone but by removing preoccupations. The effect is bolstered by a roving attention to 80s music — disco, punk and country make key appearances — and the film’s reliance on lesser-known talent, making it all the more believable that this story was set aside for three decades and only recently plucked from a shelf.

It’s a continuation of a great streak by Linklater, who has made a movie that anybody would want. I, for one, want some more.

Grade: A-

*Everybody Wants Some opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 22.

 

Read Full Post »

I participated in my first Ukulele competition, although “competition” in this case is a very loose term.

Little Logan Utah (population 49,000) decided to hold the Utah Ukulele Festival last month. As it turns out, it’s one of several “Utah” ukulele festivals held in the state, and would much more accurately have been labeled the Cache County Ukulele Festival.

Still, it was charming and exactly what I expected it would be. And since we were camping in the area already (more on that later) we decided to stop by.

The festival was mostly centered around an open mic competition, split into two age divisions of 14 and younger or 15 and older. There were also a few vendors, with both high- and low-end ukuleles for sale.

The kids’ division was a hoot, including two separate renditions of Jason Mraz’ “I’m Yours” in which the performers struggled over the syllabic gymnastics of removing “God” and “Damn” from the lyrics.

I performed “June Hymn” by the Decemberists. In the end I think I got demerits for not performing an original song but that was fine because the winner really did steal the show, playing a great tune about saying goodbye to her boyfriend.

Liz filmed my song, which you can watch above. I tried to crop it as best I could but unfortunately my girlfriend is that type of person who films vertically. We’ve talked about it. That, and her opinion of Tom Cruise, are the two most challenging divisions in our relationship.

11231796_10207402220392830_6618935713299194340_n

The festival came at the end of our trip, which started with a campout in Logan Canyon and a hike up to the wind caves. This was the first time we’ve attempted a Family Camping Trip and I’d say it was, overall a success, although some members of our group were less inclined toward the finer points of outdoor adventuring.

IMG_4753

We also took advantage of the trip to make a detour up to Bear Lake, where we paddled around and got some lunch at La Beau’s. Liz isn’t from Utah, so I explained to her that we are a La Beau’s family and will never, under any circumstances, eat at the Quick N Tasty, which is neither Quick nor Tasty.

Also, because it cracks me up, here’s a picture of Truman creepily staring at us through the tent screen like Paranormal Activity rather than go play in the great outdoors.

IMG_4762

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »