Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rush (2013)

JohnnyTwoToes loves the rush and so will you!

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I have never been a big car racing fan, but after viewing Ron Howard's Rush, I need to take a gander at it because this adrenaline fueled Formula One film is amazing from start to finish. 

Rush tells the true story of the intense rivalry in the mid 1970's between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt, the British superstar and Niki Lauda from Austria. Hunt with his brash playboy good looks, had talent for driving to match his personality. Niki Lauda was far more serious and his personality was as smooth as sandpaper. Lauda certainly did not make many friends, at first. Lauda had an intelligence for even creating his own car to make it lighter, faster and meaner. Hunt was not a dummy but spent most of his time off the track boozing and carousing with the females. They were from different backgrounds but one thing they had in common was their love to race and stare death in the face. 

Rush is a technical masterpiece. The racing sequences seem to be as real as anything I have ever seen on film. Director Howard has tight shots of pistons pumping, helmet cams, tires smoking going at speeds that would make us reach for the barf bag. But writer Peter Morgan and Howard have dug deep into the psyche of the two drivers. Lauda, from a wealthy business family angered he did not come into the family business, takes a loan out, finds a crew with an okay car and a sponsor who needs a driver and some cash. He works his way up to Formula 1 racing and succeeds. Hunt is in full self destruction mode with booze, drugs and women but when it comes to racing he does not know the words 'slow down'. Hunt is fully aware of himself as a person and a driver and makes no apologies for it, but when Lauda arrives, Hunt knows he had better get his game face on. 

Daniel Bruhl plays Lauda, whom they ineffectually refer to as 'The Rat' because of his unlikable personality and his overbite, but Lauda is publicly unaffected. Privately, he stews about it. "Happiness is the enemy," He tells his new bride, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). "Once you have found happiness, you lose". Credit Morgan's script bristles with heart, intelligence and knowledge of the racing world but how men react to each other in competition, even at their darkest hour. 

The acting is first rate with both Bruhl as Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as Hunt delivering stellar performances. Their characters have real depth and we care about what happens to them, despite their flaws as people. They don't like each other but have a mutual respect for one another. They sustain each other on and off the track both professionally and personally. The supporting cast is equally effective with Olivia Wilde as Hunt's wife who quickly tires of his shenanigans and Alexandra Maria Lara who shines as Niki Lauda's wife. She seems to understand him the best and loves him anyway, even when times are their worst. Pierfrancesco Favino is great as legendary driver, Clay Regazzoni, Lauda's teammate. They don't like each other much either, but they do grow to become friends, anyway and Hans Zimmer's score is first rate, worth purchasing. It sounds different than his previous scores which seemed to repeat themselves. This score by Zimmer is fresh and exciting and keeps us invested in the action and the characters. 

Ron Howard (who is directing Hemsworth in the upcoming Moby Dick film, Hearts of The Sea) shows us why he is one of Hollywood's finest directors. Rush is exhilarating, intelligent and bold fun from start to finish and why this did not get more Academy attention last year is beyond me. Yes, Rush is THAT good. Rush-**** out of 4

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pacific Heights 1990 Film Score - Hans Zimmer

JohnnyTwoToes recalls one of the early 90s' most notable film scores

1990's Tenant from Hell Thriller Pacific Heights is not one that most people remember as a 90s' classic. This underrated mystery starring Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, Mathew Modine & directed by the Oscar winning John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) only received a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences when it was released. 

This film however marked the debut of Michael Keaton into the foray of 'the villain' realm as up until this point he had played likable buffoons and all around good guys and German-born Composer Hans Zimmer moving into new musical territory. 

Zimmer scored a slew of big films in the late 80's and early 1990 and garnered a lot of attention including Oscar nominations with scores for Rainman, Black Rain (two of my personal favorites), Driving Miss Daisy, Bird On A Wire and Days of Thunder. Pacific Heights was an under-the-radar film and the score that was released is in four movements from Varese Sarabande. 

As the film is structured, so is the score. Movement one starts with a mysterious crescendo of chords and that blossom into a bouncy piece featuring saxophonist Gene Cipriano and vocalist Carmen Twilley. Uses of the Zimmer staple percussion, an added mandolin played by Jim Matheos and lovely piano work by Mike Lang (who has worked with John Carpenter on some of his scores) make the first movement a fitting start; creepy and unnerving. Walt Fowler adds some nourish tones with his muted trumpet for the end of Movement One into Movement Two and throughout, while Chuck Domanico has some cool bass sprinkled in as well. Movement Two starts with Lang's soft piano as the music gives way to Zimmer's more acoustical side with some woodwinds and some additional horns conducted by Shirley Walker

Pacific Heights continues to combine all of these elements throughout the entire album. It is constructed as a film only here, it is without the visuals. Zimmer shows his diverse side in Movement Three with a nod to the far east with the introduction to the film's wise character, Toshio Watanabe played by the always reliable Mako, who is the first one to really suspect Mr. Hayes is trouble. Zimmer really cuts it loose for Movements Three and Four as the heroes really begin to uncover what Hayes is all about. The score does not follow a specific pattern but, therein is its charm. As in the film, the score slows up to allow us to soak up the beautiful and quiet moments but Zimmer, who can do action as well as anyone can, knows when to ramp up the action. 

In Movement Four Zimmer's score has a theme, so to speak, of determination for our heroes, as they uncover more plans of the evil Hayes. When Zimmer punches it, the score is frightful and chilling and one of his better scores. It is a nice mix of electronics mostly with some orchestral arrangements and the other players, here really compliment this score and enhance a familiar but effective film.

If you want piece of 90's film scores with elements of power electronics and modern classical, this is the original motion picture soundtrack that you must be listening to. Besides, Hans Zimmer currently in the limelight  again for his Interstellar score never disappoints.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

JohnnyTwoToes recommends this flawed but entertaining reboot!

Godzilla has had probably more sequels, prequels, reboots than just about any franchise in film history. Let's just say it has had more tweaks, adjustments and face lifts than Donatella Versace. Some have been campy, some trashy, some trashy fun but none as visually awe inspiring than Gareth Edwards latest 2014 incarnation, Godzilla

This time, the film takes off with quite a bang as a nuclear scientist (Bryan Cranston) arrives at his workplace, a Japanese nuclear power plant, that has spawned a power plant meltdown. What has caused this? No one knows, but it is such a disaster that Cranston's character spends the next fifteen years trying to find out what REALLY caused the meltdown. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has moved on with his life, into San Francisco with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their young son. Needless to say, all hell is about to break loose with worldwide implications. 

Gareth Edwards who had only directed the independent film, Monsters, has been charged with a tall task (no pun intended). Reviving a franchise whose recent track record has met with limited success. Mostly because the films focused more on the monsters than on the people that are affected by them. The monsters are pretty standard characters. They are huge, lumbering and oafish. They are loud, screech a lot and generally are awoken not in the best of moods. 

Edwards has done something as a director that makes this Godzilla a film worth viewing. He focuses on the characters more than the monsters. I mean, we all pretty much know what to expect from the monsters. The human elements of this Godzilla are worth watching. Kind of, anyway. Cranston will put the hooks into you but he is surprisingly not in the film for very long. The remainder of this Godzilla focuses on Ford, his wife and they are really not anywhere as intoxicating as Cranston's character. Ken Watanabe is a scientist who has been studying this for many years and he spends most of his screen time looking like a deer in the headlights. He does what the character requires and sells his character, but nothing that is memorable. Which brings me to Taylor-Johnson and Olsen. They, again, do what is required to sell their characters but they come across as so uninteresting that I had a hard time fearing for their safety as characters. They are a little too bland for my tastes, but what sells this Godzilla is the visual feast that Edwards has created. There is no shortage of eye popping visuals and the personal stories, although they are underwritten with homogenized characters, are ENOUGH to sell the action. 

The action here is tremendously staged and the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is worthy of an Oscar nod. Yes, it is that good. I have heard people complaining about the score by Alexandre Desplat which I found to be curious. It is a fine score and worth purchasing. Will he be remembered for this score in particular? Probably not, but it is an excellent score with a full orchestra that has been peppered with a sparse but effective compilation of electronics. 

This edition of Godzilla is not 100% great especially Godzilla's screentime but it is worth viewing and most people will agree that, this time around Edwards has created a bleak world where our own devices can kill or create our greatest enemies. This is the best Godzilla they have ever created and the look of the film is tremendous, I just wish the script by Max Borenstein was a little more meaty and that the lead characters had some more angles to them. The acting is efficient enough so you can believe the story on face value but in the sequel (yes, there is a sequel and Edwards, for the moment, is returning as director) I would like to see some more dimensions to the characters. I mean, if they want us to believe in the story and invest our time and money into this then make it worth our while, too. 

Still, I don't want to downplay this film too much. Godzilla knows what it is and has a fun way of telling us. It does not take itself too seriously, so we can sit back and enjoy ourselves. The sequel is coming, for the moment, tentatively in 2018. Godzilla-*** out of 4

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Beck - Midnite Vultures (1999)

A memorable mix of funk rock, R&B with an alt rock twang

In spite of a Grammy award for the Best Alternative Music AlbumBek David Campbell aka Beck's 1998 release Mutations, was little more than a side project, apparently finished in 14 days – an album to keep the fans content while he was busy working on the proper follow-up to the critically adored Odelay (1996). So, on his 1999 seventh album effort, Midnite Vultures, Beck took his musical playfulness and experimentation to a whole new realm. 

Midnite Vultures is a cut-and-paste alt rock blend of 70s funk, 80s hip-hop, 70s R&B and 80s dance music. If Rick James and Kraftwerk had made an album that was produced by the Beastie Boys and engineered by Prince, the result would have sounded a lot like this. For an album that's mostly about sex, Midnite Vultures oozes sexiness all throughout. Just as Beck takes a unique approach to his music, on this album he takes a unique view of sex and what is considered sexy. 

At various times, Beck is both admiring and parodying the likes of Prince, Rick James, and Barry White. Just look at the album's horns-and-bass opener, "Sexx Laws" The chorus finds Beck singing "I want to defy/ The logic of all sex laws/ Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists/ I'll let you be my chaperone/ At the halfway home." On "Nicotine and Gravy," Beck's narrator tells a potential conquest that he'll "leave graffiti where you've never been kissed." The song bounces and oozes along on a drum and bass groove until it gets to the snake-charming synth break in the middle. Never before has the line "Her left eye is lazy" sounded more seductive. "Mixed Bizness" is the best funk number on Midnite Vultures, and finds Beck singing that he'll "make all the lesbians scream." 

"Get Real Paid," a warped little '80s techno number, features the line "Thursday night, I think I'm pregnant again" followed by the line "Touch my ass if you're qualified." Needless to say, we're not dealing with your basic "Oooh baby I want you so bad" lyrics here. The rolling, twangy "Peaches and Cream" is one of the wilder sexcapades on Midnite Vultures, as Beck sings "You look good in that sweater/ And that aluminum crutch/ I'm gonna let you down easy/ I've got the delicate touch." Other lyrics include "We're on the good ship menage a trois" and "You make a garbage man scream.

Beck's most blatant parody of the sex music genre is the hilarious "Debra,". It's the wickedly funny story of a guy who picks up a girl at JC Penney and takes her for a ride in his Hyundai, all sung in the most sincere Prince-like falsetto. Simply brilliant. 

For most artists, albums like Mellow Gold (1994) and Odelay would be considered as creative highpoints. But for Beck, after listening to this 'album of the year' Grammy nominated album, it appears that those albums were just the beginning, he exceeds even your highest expectations.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Utah Saints - Two (2000)

Vintage Slice of Techno from the late 90s

Here’s another dance album from the early 2000's from another electronic techno British duo who took a while to make their sophomore CD. The Utah Saints, however, took an extra long time – almost 8 years from 1992 to be precise to release their second album - incidentally titled Two in 2000 and their third album even after 14 years is still in the works!! 

Those of you who have now probably crossed middle age might remember the last self -titled Utah Saints debut album. It’s the one that spawned the club rave hit “Something Good” thanks to a well-placed Kate Bush sample. Kate Bush is nowhere to be found on Two, but Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame appears on two tracks (“Sun” and “Punk Club”). His contribution sounds like little more than a rambling answering machine message that the band then cut up and turned into a vocal track. Chuck D of Public Enemy fame also appears on Two, providing a little muscle to the pounding beats of the appropriately titled “Power to the Beats.” 

On Two, the Utah Saints duo Jez Willis and Tim Garbutt sound like a electronica techno band that’s been around for a long, long time but hasn’t stopped recording. There are tracks here that represent all phases of the last 2 decades of electronic music. You can hear the influence of everyone from Fatboy Slim to the Crystal Method to the Propellerheads to Daft Punk on this disc, which actually sounds more like a mediocre techno outfit’s “Greatest Hits” compilation than one band’s current release. Still, this is an authentic vintage slice of the late 90s music that every techno fan must listen to! 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Entertaining Big-Budget Superhero flick, JohnnyTwoToes gives you the details

Captain America - The Winter Soldier is a rousing adventure flick with loads of great action scenes and Chris Evans in top form really coming into his own as an actor. Seen in a good film earlier this year, Snowpiercer and the Marvel films, Evans has an All American quality which is quite winning and it comes through on screen. I was not a fan of his, based on his earlier films which were mostly garbage, but I have become a fan and here he is the star and is having a great time. You can tell, too and that makes Captain America such a fun time. 

Sure the plot is ridiculous (global domination, anyone?) but it exists solely as a set piece for very extravagant action in which there are fights in elevators, on planes, trains and automobiles, oh me, oh my. Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Natasha Romanoff A.K.A. The Black Widow as does Coby Smulders as Maria Hill, last seen in The Avengers. Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury and a pleasing addition of Robert Redford (Yes, THAT Robert Redford) as Alexander Pierce. Anthony Mackie is terrific as the latest edition hero named Falcon or otherwise as Sam Wilson. 

I liked the first Captain America and REALLY loved this second film. It is wall to wall action but there are characters that have depth to them and are multi-dimensional so the action means something. We care what happens to them, quite simply. Directing duo Anthony and Joe Russo have made this film even more exciting and interesting than its predecessor and script writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have written an intelligent script that deals with the trappings of ultimate power and how the future could be shaped by those who wield that power; good or evil. It is an intelligent script but has a lot of humor, too, to keep you smiling. 

Not to be disappointed for film score fans, Henry Jackman's score is equally robust and elevates the action effectively and you will hardly know that this film is a good, solid two hours and sixteen minutes long with at least two additional scenes during the end credits. I truly thought seeing Robert Redford, who is in his mid 70's, in a Marvel comic book film was a complete joy for me. He is a fine actor and everyone in this film does a fine job of selling this plot, no matter how many times we see a global domination plot used. Here, it is fresh, exciting, fun from start to finish and worth viewing on DVD besides the film score is also a good buy. Captain America The Winter Soldier-****

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

JohnnyTwoToes reviews one of the best biographies in recent times 

Saving Mr. Banks tells the true story of two weeks in 1961 when Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers met in Beverly Hills to discuss the rights to Ms. Travers wonderful book. Now there have been a number of liberties taken by director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith BUT the gist of the story is true. In actual reality, when Pamela (P.L. Travers) came to Los Angeles to meet with Mr. Disney, the Sherman Brothers song team and scriptwriter, Don DaGradi, she had already signed over the rights but was still hammering out the details of the script. When Saving Mr. Banks opens, she has yet to sign anything over. Her dwindling residuals from all of her books have put her into a tough position so that she HAS to do something. The rest of the film is how it happened. 

Most of Saving Mr. Banks is primarily based on eyewitness account, and personal correspondence between Travers and Disney via phone or letters. Her driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti) is fictional, as Travers had several different drivers while she was in America, but one man named Bill Dover, a storyboard editor, was her assigned primary companion while she was in California. Having covered these details, I can simply say Saving Mr. Banks is a total delight. 

Emma Thompson as the prickly P. L. Travers, has the right amount of negative passion that we can understand her concerns. Thompson'a performance is Oscar worthy (although Saving Mr. Banks was nominated for Best Score, ONLY) as she precariously balances herself between a nervous breakdown and trying to make a film she can live with. Her life is seen as flashbacks with her loving father and a mother who loves her, but knows or at least suspects Pamela loves her dad more. Her father was Travers Goff, a banker with a penchant for booze and a man whose head is in the clouds; a dreamer. 

Colin Farrell is Travers at a young age. Handsome and very doting on his girls, he is a consummate screw up who is always being let go for any number of reasons. Farrell's work here, is the best of his career and to me, that is saying something. He is a fine and underused actor. Which brings me to Tom Hanks ( in real life Hanks is a distant relative to Walt Disney) as Mr. Walt Disney. So many people have said that, upon seeing this film, he was a liar and a bully. I don't know what film they watched, but I saw a kind generous business man who wanted to bring a classic book to the big screen. Ms. Travers had problems with just about EVERY detail that Disney wanted to include in the film, "No animation, no color red", were two of the most stringent demands that Ms. Travers had. "That dreadful Dick Van Dyke will not do", Pamela spits out upon her first sit down with the Sherman Brothers and DaGradi. "But he is a classic', the three chime in. Pamela laughs, "No, don't be ridiculous. Olivier is a classic. Guiness is a classic. Mr. Van Dyke is MOST CERTAINLY NOT a classic. He won't do at all." Walt is concerned but he feels he is charming enough to convince Pamela otherwise. Hanks shows why he is at the top of the Hollywood elites in acting. His performance is real and sincere down to Mr. Disney's mannerisms and how he even stood in a room. Hanks is simply wonderful; kind and genuine. 

The supporting cast of Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, B.J. Novak and Jason Scwartzman as the Sherman Brothers, Ruth Wilson as Travers' long suffering wife, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths (as Aunt Ellie who was the inspiration of the character, Mary Poppins) and Kathy Baker as Mr. Disney's associate are all terrific and enhance this film even more. Director Hancock and the script writing team have made a film filled with good cheer (despite some of the tragic elements that shaped Pamela's life) and a lot of heart. The film deals with life, loss and how it affects us through our childhood and even into our adult years and it does it with poignant grace. It will make you laugh and cry and you will never watch Mary Poppins with the same eyes when you see Saving Mr. Banks. The fact that Saving Mr. Banks was not nominated for anything EXCEPT Thomas Newman's tremendous score (and it did not even win that) is mind blowing. How could they not see this was one of the best films of 2013? It is! There were ludicrous statements made that Hanks had already been nominated enough but that apparently did not stop them from nominating Meryl Streep for the 18th time. 

For whatever the reason, Saving Mr. Banks is a delicious treat for the entire family and it will run the gambit with your emotions, but you will love every minute of it. This is a truly great film. Saving Mr. Banks-**** out of 4

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