Friday, January 31, 2014

2013 Best Score Oscar Musings - Saving Mr. Banks By Thomas Newman

JohnnyTwoToes tells us why this score by Thomas Newman deserves an Oscar

Not surprising, 2013's Oscars for Best Music are full of omissions and nominees that are curious, to say the least. For Best Original Score, Thomas Newman's wonderful score for Saving Mr. Banks is my pick for the best of the year, followed by Steven Price's terrific score for 2013's best film, Gravity. The other nominees are Alexandre Desplat's score for Philomena, William Butler and Owen Pallett for Her and John Williams with his 49th nomination (yes, you read that correctly) for The Book Thief

I read that Thomas Newman has been nominated, including this year for Saving Mr. Banks, twelve times. It is time for Mr. Newman to take home an Oscar. Saving Mr. Banks is a joyous and heartfelt score from Newman and has track after track of toe tappingly gorgeous music. The fact the the Academy could only find it in their "wisdom" to nominate the film for ONE Academy Award (score only) bodes well for Mr. Newman since the Academy likes to spread around the Oscars for an array of films. 

Steven Price is new and has many more great scores ahead of him, but if he should win that would be a good thing, too. The scores for Philomena, Her and The Book Thief are great scores, too but it is time for Newman's time in the sun. 

Saving Mr. Banks is the true story of a two week visit by P.L. Travers to see Uncle Walt Disney, who wanted to purchase the rights for Mary Poppins and make it into a film. The film takes place in 1961 as Ms. Travers book royalties are dwindling, she is coaxed to California to visit Uncle Walt. She is a prickly woman and as my research into her background has shown, she was a very troubled woman who dealt with her demons all of her life until her death in 1996. 

Thomas Newman - SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) Soundtrack Suite from Score Guy on Vimeo.

Newman's score is a scant thirty eight minutes but the album is a double disc collector's item with songs from the film of Mary Poppins included as they appeared in Saving Mr. Banks. Newman's score starts from the very first track with 'Traves Goff' and as soon as it starts your heart will soar. Newman repeats the piano motif later in 'Beverly Hills Hotel' and 'Ginty, My Love' but slight changes keep it fresh, every time. 'Walking Bus' and especially 'Mr. Disney' are tracks Uncle Walt would enjoy himself and have a Midwestern feel to them with strings and woodwinds floating about. 'Uncle Albert' is warm track from the floating to the sublime. 'Jollification' is old school Newman with mandolin and orchestra impeccably timed together. Since Saving Mr. Banks has some flashback scenes that recall P.L. Travers childhood with her father who was a loving father but an extremely heavy drinker, 'Celtic Soul' has the emotional sadness of longing for happier times; a beautiful track. 'A Foul Fowl' is Mr. Newman himself on piano and the orchestra playing back-up and 'Mrs. P. L. Travers' is a swanky track with more piano from Newman and a mix of guitars and horns. You can almost feel the culture shock as Ms. Travers first arrives as glitzy California overwhelms her country upbringing. 'Laying Eggs, 'Worn To Tissue' and 'Whiskey' are all pretty tracks with a full orchestra and Newman's wonderful piano peppered throughout. 

The remainder of the album is an eclectic mix of joy and sadness which nobody can do as well as Thomas Newman. From the bouncy 'Impertinant Man' to the subtle in 'To My Mother', 'Westerly Weather', 'Spit Spot', 'Penguins', 'Pears' , 'Maypole' 'Forgiveness' and 'The Magic Kingdom'. Newman rebounds with the joyous in 'Ginty, My Love' and the final end theme aptly titled, 'Saving Mr. Banks'. 

As I have stated, the other nominees have composed great scores and are deserving of nominations, but Thomas Newman seems to hit a home run with each score he does. His music is filled with good cheer and is composed by a man who, you can tell, loves what he does. His joy of composing permeates his music and HOPEFULLY this will be his year to take home the Oscar. He' s earned it.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Gorillaz - Gorillaz (2001)

Truly (indeed) One of the Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

According to their original press info, it read something on these lines "Gorillaz is a new band consisting of Murdoc (“a snaggle-toothed Svengali”), 2D (“a sweetheart with a blank sheet of paper where his mind should be”), Russel (“a hip-hop hard man from the US of A”) and Noodle (“a 10-year-old Asian axe princess”). This press kit along with their debut self titled album Gorillaz (2001) contained a publicity photo, but it was just a cartoon drawing of the so called band members.

In reality, this alternative trip hop virtual band (if you still don't know) was/is a side project from English Alternative Britpop band Blur’s frontman Damon Albarn. Joining Albarn were comic book artist Jamie Hewlett (Tank GirlMiho Hatori (of the Shibuya-kei, indie rock Japanese band Cibo Matto),  rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien, TinaWeymouth (of Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club), and acclaimed hip hop producer Daniel M. Nakamura better known as Dan the Automator (the man behind Dr. Octagon and Deltron 3030). This diverse group of musicians and artists hid behind the Gorillaz name and joined forces to make one of the 2001’s most interesting debut side projects that went to sell over ten million copies worldwide and earning them an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Most Successful Virtual Band ever.

Their first single, the global super hit “Clint Eastwood” has to be one of the coolest songs that was released that year. In fact, Rolling Stone magazine still considers it one of the 100 best songs of the 2000s. This great track features a laid-back, electronic reggae-inspired piano-and-bass dub loop, Albarn’s sleepy vocals, and some colorful rapping from Del Tha Funky Homosapien complemented by Hewlett’s wonderful (and hugely popular) animated music video. Another highlight of this album is the smooth “Tomorrow Comes Today”, a sly track that combines hip-hop drums with an easy-going harmonica loop.

Not all of the songs on “Gorillaz” are as laid-back as these two singles (“Punk”, for example, is like a long-lost classic), but the overall vibe here is pretty mellow. Albarn handles the mellow angle pretty well, primarily because his British drawl makes him sound disinterested and detached even when he tries to sound aggressive.

Sadly, like most side projects and multi-artist collaborations, this one also suffers from several lackluster tracks and a few style combinations that just don’t work. Of the 15 tracks here (17 if you count the “hidden” remixes”) only a handful are worth repeated listens. As much filler as there is, though, the stronger tracks like their third single "Rock the house" make up for the weaker ones. Nonetheless, as a album listed in the book "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die", this album is a must for every audiophile if not a regular music fan!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The World's End (2013)

JohnnyTwoToes finds this to be the weakest of the Cornetto trilogy

Edgar Wright is a talented writer and director and with Simon Pegg as a co-writer of The World's End (TWE), one would think the final film of the Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright "The Three Flavors Cornetto" trilogy could do no wrong. After a very well done first and second act, the final act is a complete breakdown of an otherwise clever and funny film. 

Simon Pegg is Gary King, a 40ish adult who has never grown up and still laments the final boys night out in his hometown, in which he and his five best friends ran the table of twelve pubs on the Golden Mile; drinking ale in all the twelve pubs over a mile. Now, in present day, Gary, who is in what appears to be a rehab facility, still wants to go back and finish what they never did. Only problem now is the others are all grown up, mostly married with children and are career minded individuals; read responsible adults. 

Even Andy, (Nick Frost) has given up all alcoholic beverages. Still, King looks up all of the old buddies and somehow convinces them to meet back at their home town and finish the Golden Mile. None of them still thinks very highly of Gary but for the sake of the plot they all end up in Newton Haven for the pub crawl. About halfway through a discovery is made of the town which leaves our heroes fighting for survival.....and yes, this still tries to remain a comedy, for the most part. 

I loved Shaun Of The Dead and enjoyed Hot Fuzz even more and Simon Pegg has mega star written all over him. He was terrific in the first two films playing the button down, responsible adult to Nick Frost's simpler slacker alter ego. Now, the two have flipped personas and Gary is the mess and Andy (Frost) is the responsible one. Pegg was born to play Gary and I mean that in the best possible sense, too. 

Gary is a mess. Disheveled and unkempt, he has made a life of nothing but living to excess. Overindulged in drugs, alcohol and sex, King is still 18 at heart. He is vulgar, insensitive, selfishly narcissistic but determined that THIS night will be the best damn night EVER, or at least die trying. Dressed all in black and adorned with enough jewelry to start a pawn shop, Pegg nails it as Gary and should be considered for an Oscar. He starts the film out with some history behind he and his mates at a support group meeting and from there on Pegg is in full offence mode. Nothing is sacred and everything is fair game. Pegg chews up scene after scene, spitting, spewing and guzzling enough ale to sideline a horse as well as waxing on about how this is the life. 

He induces most of the laughs in TWE, but to be fair the rest of the cast in addition to Pegg and Frost, are terrific as well and the casting is PERFECT. You have Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman (both in at least one or both of the previously mention films of this trilogy) with Eddie Marsan and the positively gorgeous Rosamund Pike as Freeman's sister. They are all excellent and have some very funny lines as well. 

Where the film goes wrong is in the third act. The film's third act is not a question of the subject matter, rather how is was handled. The film loses a lot of the humor and settles into another chase picture churned out from the assembly line of predictable films institute. What started out as a refreshing and observant comedy about boys becoming men and life's responsibility turns out to be a breakdown of ideas and the final few scenes are so poorly done I was kind of angry. Angry that so much had been done right that to squander the end with bad writing and poor direction was really a buzz kill. Still, TWE has a great first two acts and Steven Price's score (hot off of composing the score to Gravity) are raucous fun. 

Is TWE worth watching; yes and no. I suppose there is enough here to garner a single viewing, but I have watched Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz numerous times and enjoy them every time. They are both THAT well written, directed and acted. TWE is maybe worth one and then done, as they say. The World's End will only make you want to re-watch the first two with fond regards. The World's End-**1/2 out of 4

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Taking a Impromptu Break

Lost in Technical Difficulties

Its been a week since the last post. Its quite probable you suspect that the Websnacker Blog is somewhat suffering from a lack of interest by yours truly (or the contributors). You are wrong. If something is to blame, its been problems with Google Blogger, the blogging suite this blog runs on! After a week of intermittent logouts, missing drafts and other misadventures, it is back to normal or so it seems. Lets give it a day more and blog posts will start again.

In all honesty, the last 2 months have been physically, financially and emotionally taxing! With so many and varied interests (and commitments) - mainly to do with work, travel and family, the Websnacker has indeed been super busy. However, with a full new year (OK 11 months) ahead of us, rest assured that you can expect a lot more from the Websnacker and the blogging crew in the days to come! Thanks again for all the love and support! 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Wolverine (2013)

JohnnyTwoToes complains that this was a movie half done

Hugh Jackman reprises his role as the title character in James Mangold's The Wolverine (2013), a decent if not great movie that suffers from far too much stuffing. I say stuffing as this is a film with way too many characters and not enough story behind them. Less would have been A LOT more.

The film picks up the Wolverine as he is in a hole about thirty feet under ground in a Japanese World War II POW camp, right when the Americans drop the Atomic bomb on Nagasaki. He saves one of the Japanese commanders, Yashida, from the blast and years later Yashida, now a billionaire business man wants to return the favor to the Wolverine. He offers a chance to make Wolverine human, again with out the steel bladed knuckles. Wolverine refuses, but then becomes involved with a series of contrived plot mechanisms that only seem to exist so there is plenty of Jackman snarling, growling, scowling and looking like he is ready to cough up a hairball. 

The Wolverine seems to have a lot going on with at least six different characters that are not very interesting and are not given a lot to do. There is the daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the street urchin turned half daughter, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), the son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), the nefarious assistant, Viper (Svetlana Khodachenkova), the Ninja assassin/protector Harada (Will Yun Lee) and Noburo (Brain Tee). I know I am forgetting at least one or two more characters that seem to come and go with little explanation or development. 

Of all of these characters I would have dropped all of them except Viper, Yukio and Yashida. I would even drop Yashida if it weren't for the fact that he is the main character behind most of the film's action. There are Ninjas, Yakuza and all matter of street thugs that seem to pop up only to be quickly dispatched. None of the characters seem to have a lot to say to each other and there are long periods where not much happens at all. 

I don't mind a film that has lots of characters as long as it makes good use of them. Here they seem to exist to simply slow the story down with contrived plot devices like an insipid fight on top of a bullet train in Japan. It looks cheaply done in a studio. I know people will burn up my e-mail saying that I need to go easy because this is based on a comic book and is not real, blah, blah, blah. I KNOW this is fantasy and all that but I still would like to see something rooted in reality and not look like it was slapped together. For me, that helps sell the story and gets me invested in the characters. 

Now, I will say some of the action is well done, and Jackman is a fine actor who sells it very well. But the script written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank does very little with the lead and lets the rest languish with boring, underdeveloped characters and stale plot devices. Still, there is some fun to be had with some of the action and there are some humorous lines, mostly delivered with dead pan seriousness by Wolverine. Marco Beltrami's score ramps up the action and the cinematography is beautiful as it makes good use of the Japanese locations. But as a whole, The Wolverine is overloaded and seems to sputter along to an almost laughable climax. Some will say I have been too hard on this film but, I have to call it like I see it. Save your money and see another Hugh Jackman film which is one of 2013's best films, Prisoners. The Wolverine-**1/2 out of 4

Monday, January 6, 2014

Gravity (2013) - Reviewing 2013's Best Movies

JohnnyTwoToes praises the superlative Space Masterpiece by Alfonso Cuaron

Not since Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff has there been a more convincingly effective scifi film about space and the true dangers of space travel than in Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece, Gravity. The film has been praised by just about everybody that has seen it, as one of, if not the very best film of 2013. It is definitely in the top five of my list. 

Gravity tells a rather simple story of a group of astronauts in space repairing their shuttle when to their horror a Russian satellite showers space debris on them while they are out of the shuttle (in space literally). The Russians have apparently shot one of their own satellites out of the cosmos because it has stopped working. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) becomes unattached from the shuttle and the commander named Matt Kowlaski tries to get her back to the shuttle. There is more to the story but I will not ruin it for viewers who are yet to see this gem. So, the less you know the better. 

Gravity is told in real time at 90 minutes, because that is the amount of time it takes for the space station (shuttle) and the space debris to orbit the Earth. As most people know there is virtually no sound in space and, as the film opens we are told it can be as cold as minus 158 degrees below zero (or even worse). Most of the rest of the film for the most part is as scientifically accurate as director Cuaron can make it. Sound is muffled since there is virtually no sound in space (because there is noty oxygen). Some of the sounds in the film were added to give the film some scope, but VERY few. 

Cauron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber have gone to great pains to make Gravity as authentic as possible and it shows. Gravity is a film that I watched with my mouth open through a great number of scenes. It is shockingly terrifying in its story and you will be stunned that anyone could make it through this scenario and keep their wits about them. Most of us (most definitely myself included) would be in panic mode. But Gravity shows that the astronauts are well trained and expect the very worst, but hope for the best. 

The script by Alfonso and his son Jonas Cuaron is a thoughtful one. The characters are not superheroes but real people and whatever issues they have within their own lives is played out very subtlety and is never overdone. The acting and writing are simpatico in Gravity which gives the story more potency and Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone gives an Oscar caliber performance. She is a strong woman but is not above showing her frailty, and George Clooney provides some swagger as the commander of the shuttle.

And this brings me to the fantastic score by Steven Price. English composer, Price provides an elegantly powerful score that is mostly electronic but it is one worthy of an Oscar. I put the "but" in there because the Academy seems to frown on scores that are mostly electronic opting for the big, sweeping Orchestral soundtracks (I love all kinds). The last score to win the Oscar was Vangelis for Chariots of Fire from 1981 (unless someone knows something different). Mr. Price is a relative newcomer to scoring big feature films but his score is simply beautiful. It is music that you can listen to even without the film and is worth purchasing from any retailer that has it. 

Gravity has generated a lot of Oscar buzz and with good reason. It is a fantastic film that will leave you in awe both technically and as entertainment. I spent most of the time with my hand over my mouth or wincing, seeing how far the film would push the viewer into watching and it is a literal, edge of your seat thriller. Hopefully, the Academy will see it the same way next March (Oscar night). Gravity-**** out of four

Friday, January 3, 2014

Friday Flashback - Hits from the 80s & 90s - Part 1

Forgotten Gems from the 80s and 90s

Its Friday and the first post for 2014. What better way than listening to some great forgotten pop rock tracks from the 80s and 90s featuring Bruce Cockburn, Del Amitri, Big Dish, Geneva and more!

This is also a fulfillment of a long pending promise (to many reader requests) to repost all deleted music blog posts. Its a start of sorts but this is a promise the Websnacker intends to completely fulfill! Now, lets get back to the music..

Bruce Cockburn - If I Had a Rocket Launcher (4:59) 
Big Dish - Miss America (3:56) 
Geneva - If You Have To Go (4:07)
Jimmy Davis & Junction - Kick The Wall (3:38) 
Eddie and the Tide - One in a Million (4:07) 
Eight Seconds - Kiss You (When It's Dangerous) (4:05) 
La Marca - Hold on Blue Eyes (The Wraith Soundtrack) (4:01)
Del Amitri - Buttons On My Clothes (4:05)

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