Friday, February 24, 2017

2017 Documentaries

Here is my take on the Documentary Features nominated for the major awards this year, starting with the five films nominated for the Oscar. It was another truly outstanding year for documentaries!

OJ: Made in America is probably the best documentary series on TV in ages. We watched the entire series in a few nights. The runtime without commercials is a little under 8 hours. At the end of 8 hours, I actually felt like I could watch more. The later part of his life is not covered as fully as I had hoped. This film won the IDA Documentary Feature award, beating several other excellent contenders.

Four of the five Oscar nominees deal with racial issues in some way. Three of the five nominees for the Documentary Feature Oscar deal with African-American relations in the US. OJ deals with it quite well, I believe all of Part II (if I remember correctly) was about setting the racial tone in Los Angeles when the first trial happened. If you only saw part one, you should really watch the entire series. It's online at ESPN: 

However, I find it odd that this is nominated for the Oscar when it was a TV series. I know it is legal by their rules, but voters are supposed to vote ONLY on the part that was theatrically released, which was Part I. In some ways this gives it an unfair advantage as no other nominees had the scope of a miniseries. On the other hand, I think the association with television might turn off AMPAS voters.

Side note, I cannot bring myself to watch the miniseries based on the trial. I tried but I could not watch it as entertainment. I lived through a lot of it in Los Angeles, and even stopped working to watch the Bronco chase. Some things just don't work as entertainment.

13th was nominated for the IDA Doc award and is nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award in addition to the Oscar. It's available on Netflix. It's a doc produced by Ava DuVernay about the American prison system and the racism inherent in the system. It's a brilliant documentary, and may very well win the Oscar and/or Spirit award. I'm not sure it is my favorite doc of the year; I felt the filmmaking was a little too choppy on some of the issues, but I certainly recommend viewing it. It's on Netflix at:

I am not Your Negro was also nominated for the IDA Doc award and is nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award in addition to the Oscar. I found this film very interesting and it holds up better than I expected, based on the fact that is adapted from an unpublished manuscript (which I believe was very short) by James Baldwin. It makes very effective use of stock footage to bring the story to life. If there is any criticism, it is that the movie feels smaller in scope than some of the other nominees. I do not believe it is easily available for viewing.

Life, Animated is about a young man with autism who discovers that he can communicate using dialog from Disney films. It;s a fantastic film and completely worthy to be in this group.

The fifth Oscar nominee was Fire at Sea, which was also nominated for the IDA Doc award. I found this film to be one of the most powerful of the year. It's a very well made documentary that, for the most part, lets the story tell itself. To me, this is a more interesting way to structure a documentary than through voiceover. The film is about a small island which acts as a welcome port for refugees fleeing from all over Africa and the Middle East. This should really be required viewing for people who think we should be closing borders to immigrants. It can be rented on YouTube or iTunes:

Here are a few other documentaries that were not nominated for the Oscar, but for other awards.

Cameraperson was nominated for both the Spirit Award and the IDA Doc Award. Describing it makes it sound a lot worse than it is. It's basically a doc cinematographer's reel. But the work is indeed outstanding, and very well edited. In fact, it contains footage from some of the other nominees this year. It's on Amazon Prime: 

Sonita was nominated for the Spirit Award. It is an excellent doc about a 14 year-old girl who is an Iranian refugee in Afghanistan who is about to be sold into marriage, but she takes a huge chance and decides to write and perform a rap about her dilemma. It's amazing that she managed to pull it off. Although some sections appear to be staged for the camera, it is still an outstanding film. I don't think there is currently any way to see the film in the US.

Under the Sun is a very strange movie. I really liked it a lot because it is original. While making propaganda for the North Korean government, the filmmakers manage to also make their own film by leaving the camera running between takes. As a filmmaker, this feels odd, as they were lying to the subjects, yet at the same time, it is a rare look into North Korea that most Americans would never otherwise know. This was also one of my favorite films of the year. It can be rented on Youtube:

Weiner was nominated for the IDA Doc award. It's what you would expect, a documentary about Anthony Weiner. I am amazed at how much footage they got and how open he and especially his wife were on camera. This is probably the least moving of e the docs I have listed here, but it is still worth a watch. It's available on ShowTime and for purchase on a few sites.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The American Dream

I am second-generation American.

I'm the youngest in my generation, and both my parents were the youngest in their generations. My grandparents were born in the 1880s and emigrated to America in the early years of the 20th century.

My father's parents were illiterate immigrants from Poland. They never learned to speak English or to read or write any language. They came over dirt poor. My father was born in a tenement in Boston. His father worked his ass off in a factory and, after a few years, saved enough money to buy a small farm in Acton, Mass., where my father grew up. My father was the first person in his family to go to college. He eventually got a doctorate in education.

My mother's parents were from Ireland. They were in better shape when they came to America. They were better educated, there were many teachers in the family, and my mother's father was a skilled carpenter. However, it was still difficult for immigrants to find work, regardless of schooling, skill or experience. It has never been easy for immigrants in America. It has always meant hard work.

This country was built by and on the backs of immigrants. I don't understand how we went from a melting pot to an immigration ban in one century. It certainly does not make America look good. People do not come to America for a free ride. They come here because they are out of options and they believe in The American Dream. The REAL American Dream, not the dream to win the lottery; they believe The Dream that if they work hard enough, one day, they may help create a better world for their children, and their children's children. I have many students who are immigrants or children of immigrants. In them, I see the same hope that my Polish and Irish grandparents had when they moved to America. And, like my father, many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They love their adopted homeland of America, and just like my grandparents, they love the things that make this country great, especially the freedoms afforded us by the Constitution.

I haven't posted on my blog in a long time, but I felt this is important.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Accidental Bernstein Festival

Over the course of the last three weekends, my wife and I had a sort of accidental festival of Leonard Bernstein's music, culminating with the Colorado Symphony's live orchestral performance of West Side Story, accompanying the projected film version.

Two weekends ago, the Colorado Ballet performed several short works, including Bernstein's ballet sketches Fancy Free. I had wanted to see this for a long time. I'm a huge fan of Bernstein as a composer. (I can only imagine what American music would be like if Bernstein had committed himself fulltime as a composer, instead of spending the majority of his later life as a conductor.) Bernstein, more than anyone, was successful at merging jazz and classical music, as well as merging art music with popular music. Fancy Free, like many of his works, is just too short, so much so that it is unsatisfying. It seems like a great set of ideas that he never had time to fully develop. I can see why he was talked into taking this short ballet about three sailors on shore leave, and adapting it into the musical On the Town. That movie is fun, but it is not the development of these ideas that I wanted to see.

Also on that program were two other short works, one a brief scene accompanied by a Bach Violin Concerto. It was almost as though the group were still warming up during this opening piece. The second piece on the program was outstanding, a piece title In Pieces, with music by Poul Ruders. But both the Ruders and the Bernstein were worth seeing.

Last week, the Colorado Symphony started a series called The American Festival, featuring modern works by American composers. (We will be at the second concert in the series next week.) The major reason I was interested in this concert was that they were playing Bernstein's Second Symphony (which is really a concerto for piano). Like Fancy Free, it is short. It is, however, a major work aesthetically, and very complex. I had never heard it before and immediately I went to the library to check out the score. The orchestra played extremely well, and soloist William Wolfram fluidly played very difficult passages in many different genres (including some jazz sections). This piece must have required a tremendous amount of rehearsal.

I like the direction that conductor Andrew Litton is taking the orchestra, including concerts like this that are pure art music. The other two pieces on the program were by contemporary composer Kevin Puts, Two Mountain Scenes, and his Clarinet Concerto, featuring Bill Jackson. Both were lovely pieces, and the Clarinet concerto was played very well.

Last night our accidental festival ended with West Side Story. The screening had an excellent turnout. I had never seen the film with an audience before, and it was pretty amazing seeing the audience react to the movie. There are some things about the film that have dated, most obviously the casting of non-Latinos as Puerto Rican (in brown makeup). Also, the very highly stylized production is more reminiscent of Broadway staging than it is realistic, and I think most contemporary moviegoers would be put off by that. However, the power of the story and the music is still overwhelming. I could hear numerous people in the audience crying during "Somewhere." (Ironic, as the stage version has the song sung by an offstage voice (the Greek Chorus effect), whereas in the movie is was moved onstage to be sung as a duet.) One of the biggest changes in the movie adaptation turned out to be the most moving moment emotionally.

The CSO played it with a full orchestra. Due to the fact that Bernstein was overbooked,  he did not do the orchestrations for any version of the musical. The Broadway version used a small pit orchestra with some nice additions (bass sax, 5 percussionists, etc.), and Bernstein probably had the most involvement with that version. Reputedly, Bernstein HATED the movie orchestrations, which more than tripled the size of the orchestra, and took some weird chances like using FIVE baritone saxes in some sections. The version played last night was somewhere in between. It was indeed a huge orchestra, but it seemed much more in line with what Bernstein had wanted.

The CSO played the music extremely well, and it is very demanding. The brass and percussion sections are especially challenged by the writing.

I should mention the oddity that Bernstein himself was incapable of creating a defining version of his own work. His late recording of the entire piece replaced the musical theater voices with opera singers (something he had apparently wanted from the start) but it really a travesty, as the main voices are both completely miscast. In addition, if you watch the video about the recording of the piece, it's pretty difficult to view. People who think that the movie Whiplash was not realistic have obviously never performed under a diva like Bernstein.

I have to mention the problems with last night's screening. Remember, I have worked as a music editor for decades, working with the best musicians in Hollywood, recording complex scores for film and television. The CSO seriously needs to rethink the method that they are using to project films in Boettcher. These tickets are not cheap, and the audience deserves a much better movie-going experience.

The screens are very small, and are very, very far from the audience. So far, that even with our excellent seats, the entire movie was clearly five or six frames out of sync for the viewing audience. This completely destroys the illusion that the people onscreen are singing when they are out of sync for the entire movie. This would be fixed by using a large single screen above the orchestra. The image is just too far away and too small to show the movie the proper respect that it deserves. (I know, Boettcher is a theater in the round, so going to a single screen would eliminate 75% of the available seats, but the audience deserves better.)

In addition to the sync problem with the vocals, there were also sync problems with the orchestra. This is some of the most complex orchestral music ever written, and trying to play it AT ALL would be a challenge for most orchestras. But trying to play it with a click track (especially with an orchestra that is not used to using a metronome in performance) made it tough in parts. For the most part, the orchestra was in sync with itself, but rarely were they in sync with the vocals. Other than more rehearsals, I'm not sure how that could be fixed.

Finally, the live mix was terrible. Every time I have seen a movie in Boettcher done with live orchestra, it has been impossible to hear the dialog from the film. In this case, that means the vocals were completely drowned out, and the lyrics in this film deserve to be heard. "Officer Krupke" should have gotten plenty of laughs from the audience, but it did not, apparently because the audience could not hear the lyrics.

I do love the CSO, but I really wish they would give the movies the respect that they deserve.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably noticed that I have not been writing much lately. I have been ignoring most of the concerts we go to, and I don't think I wrote a single movie review during awards season. This was a deliberate choice to see if anyone noticed. No one noticed. This does not suprise me, this blog averages about 1-2 hits per day, and most of those are hit and run (they stay for less than half a second before going somewhere else). So this is the last of my experiments to see if I should close up this blog. I'm leaning towards hanging it up, as clearly this is not making a difference, other than chewing up valuable time in my life. I do not enjoy writing, and I think of my blog as yet another chore that I have to do. It would be a relief to know that I don't have to do this any more.

Friday, October 10, 2014


I've followed the Prop 8 case closely, having lived in California for 22 years. Even with a pretty complete knowledge of the sequence of events, I have to say that THE CASE AGAINST 8 is one of the best documentaries I have seen, period. Not only is it a very well-made film (expertly edited by Kate Amend), it is also very entertaining, with humor and pathos. Bring your handkerchiefs. The film has a lot of nice details that I did not know about the case, including some real shockers. It also does a great job of showing to gay couples throughout their journey to help make sure that gay marriage becomes (and stays) legal in California. It's an incredible story, and one that everyone should see.

I have been remiss on my blog for the past few months, but with screening season upon us, I do expect to get a lot more reviews up here soon.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bartok and Reich

Donovan Pavilion, Vail
Today is the first anniversary of the death of my stepmother, Pat. I was informed of her death last year while we were in Vail for the music festival, and that day I walked across the street to listen to a performance of the Barber Adagio for Strings. The first concert we went to this year with NY Phil also played the piece, in honor of Lorin Maazel. My wife also lost her grandmother this year, and the same day the NY Phil played the Adagio would have been her 101st Birthday. Sunday is also the anniversary of our move to Denver, so it has been an emotional week for us.

This concert was Monday night. It featured two pieces for keyboards and percussion by 20th century composers, Béla Bartók and Steven Reich. The venue is beautiful, but they need to turn off the air conditioning during a quiet performance; most of the Bartok was overwhelmed by the fan noise. I had not heard the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion before, But I have always liked Bartók's approach to composition, and this piece was quite nice. Both pianists, Anne-Marie McDermott (who is also music director for the Bravo Vail series), Gilles Vonsattel had their hands full and played quite well. Third Coast Percussion was featured on both pieces.

The Reich piece was very well received, his Sextet for two keyboards and percussion. The piece made use of four percussionists, playing vibraphones, marimbas, crotales and various other percussion. Perhaps the most interesting orchestration in the piece was the use of bowed vibraphone, which gave a very eerie sound to the piece. (The player could have used more rosin, though, it lost volume as the piece progressed.)

I've always felt that Reich is everything that most people wish Philip Glass could be. His music is much more coherent and has a better overall arch to it, and his orchestration is at least interesting, which is more than I can say for Glass. The only thing I did not care for in this piece was the use of synthesizers, which seemed to wish that they were a horn and a tuba. (Why not just get the real thing?) Other than that, it was a very interesting piece from start to finish, and the crowd enjoyed it.

The whole concert was under an hour long (excluding an insanely long break between the two pieces). It might have been nice to open with some short fanfare so that people feel like they got a full concert out of the program. Otherwise, this was a nice way for us to finish our stay in Vail, and I look forward to next year.

Monday, July 21, 2014

NY Phil in Vail

Photo from earlier this year with the Dallas Symphony

Rachel and I made our annual trip to Vail to see the NY Phil at the Bravo Vail music festival. This year is a little more difficult for me as it brings up some memories. Last year while we were at the festival, I awoke one morning to find a message that my stepmother Pat had died. (We are now only a few days shy or the anniversary.) I decided to go to the chamber concert that was playing across the street from where we were staying, and they happened to be playing the Barber Adagio for Strings. (Review here.)

This year our first concert was the first that the NY Phil had played since the death of their previous conductor Lorin Maazel. Conductor Alan Gilbert opened the concert (after the "Star-Spangled Banner") with an unscheduled memorial reading of the Barber Adagio, which brought back a lot of memories.

That concert was on the 18th. In addition to being my sister's birthday, the 18th was usually a day we would plan on being in Michigan for my wife's grandmother's birthday. Last year she celebrated her 100th birthday, but she then passed away in January. So the date, and the Adagio, brought back memories of two loved ones that we have lost over the last year.

We had planned on being in Vail on the 18th because we really wanted to see the NY Phil, and in years past it has been difficult to get here with the travel to Michigan. This year we wanted to be sure to be here to see the concert with Midori which had been scheduled for the 18th. Unfortunately, she is pregnant and her doctors advised against late-term travel for her. This required a program change. Instead of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, we got Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto played by Yefim Bronfman. A bit of a letdown, but a good concert nonetheless. Bronfman played well, but a little more sloppily than one might expect from him. He had already agreed to play the First and Fifth Concerti the next night, so I'm sure he had his hands full rehearsing.

The highlight of the Friday concert was an excellent read of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. I've never seen Gilbert conduct in person before, but I really liked him. He is not as flamboyant as some conductors at his level, but he gets a great performance out of the orchestra.

Saturday's concert was all Beethoven. The Overture to Fidelio opened the concert. As a trumpet player, I'm more fond of the other Leonore Overtures.  This was followed by the two piano concerti. The First Concerto is not the most interesting work by Beethoven, with the exception of the lengthy cadenza. Finishing the concert with the Emperor Concerto was a smart move, yet at the same time, the orchestra looked a bit bored playing so much Beethoven over two nights. They looked a lot more alive on Sunday night. Bronfman really brought it for the Fifth, though, and it was a nice finish to the evening.

Sunday the orchestra played one of the most difficult concerts I have ever seen and it reminded me why the NY Phil is the NY Phil. Very few conductors would have opened a concert with not one but TWO of the most difficult orchestral showpieces in the repertoire, Strauss's Don Juan followed immediately by Till Eulenspiegel. The horn section must hate Gilbert for putting these two back to back. The orchestra played extremely well, especially on Till Eulenspiegel.

This was followed by the Oboe Concerto of Christopher Rouse. I was extremely impressed with this work. It is very modern, but it is also much more listenable than a lot of contemporary works. There seemed to be jazz influence not only in the orchestration (harmon mutes featured in the trumpets) but also in the harmonic structure of the opening chord, which is a recurring harmonic structure in the piece. I liked it a lot. The soloist, Liang Wang, had a beautiful tone quality, and certainly knew how to make it look like a difficult piece. Phrases were all very long, and I had wondered if he were using circular breathing to complete some of them, but it was difficult to tell. He did look close to passing out a couple of times.

Sunday's program ended with a fantastic reading of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture. This performance reminded me of why we come to their concerts. They were fantastic, and it was obvious that the orchestra was having a great time playing the piece. As an encore, they performed Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, another orchestral showpiece, resulting in one hell of a program for the night!

We will be seeing one more concert at the Bravo Vail festival, but not the NY Phil, it will be a chamber concert featuring works by Bartok and S. Reich, both of which I am excited to see.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Beethoven and Gershwin

Last night we attended our last Colorado Symphony concert of the regular season. It was an interesting lineup, starting with the Beethoven Triple Concerto and ending with conductor Andrew Litton's arrangement of songs from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

The triple concerto is a bit of an oddity and is rarely performed. Even though it is part of Beethoven's middle period, having been composed after the third symphony and the third piano concerto, it is more representative of an earlier style and is not one of his best works. Of course, with Beethoven, the bar is very high, yet I can't help feeling this work seems more appropriate for Michael Haydn or another Classical composer. Even the orchestration is more reminiscent of a concerto grosso than a concerto, using three soloists (not unlike the Brandenburg Concerti). The winds are grouped in twos, with no clarinets or trombones. The piano part is simple compared to his piano concerti and sonatas.

The performance featured three regulars of the orchestra, conductor Andrew Litton at the piano, concertmistress Yumi Hwang-Williams on violin, and principal cellist Silver Ainomae. I do not like the sound of the piano with the sounding board removed, and I do not like looking at the back of the pianist while performing, which is how Litton set up to conduct and perform. I also have to say the group was a little sloppy on tempi and could have used a conductor for the piece. Especially in the first movement, the violin and cello had some intonation issues as well. However, the final two movements were played very well. All told though, the piece is not particularly memorable.

The second half of the evening was quite a change, featuring Litton's adaptation of Porgy and Bess. I have to admit I was skeptical about hearing this version featuring chorus. The original opera is bloated and pretentious. Gershwin himself cut 45 minutes from it before it opened. The story it is based on is melodramatic and full of clichés and stereotypes. Gershwin's only foray into opera, it was widely considered a flop in its original version. Perhaps the only reason that it has survived is that it is full of incredible songs. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's version will always be the best to me, but there are many other fine interpretations, including the one by Miles Davis and Gil Evans.

Over the years many, changes have been made to the show, replacing the recitative with dialogue, abbreviating it even further, giving the title character crutches instead of a "goat cart" (what were the writers thinking when they put the lead actor on wheels?), even changing it to a happy ending. None of these have worked. Two orchestral suites have been popular, including Gershwin's own Catfish Row. It seemed to me that all possible permutations had been tried, including lifting the songs and playing them in an orchestral "pops" version, which I have heard several times and always been let down by. When I heard that Litton had arranged it for chorus, I thought it would be a similar schmaltzy style.

I was wrong. This is without a doubt, the best way to see this opera. Litton's version is an hour long and retains all the songs, with soloists singing in front of the orchestra. All of the great musical moments are still there, in close to their original form, with the horrible plot removed almost entirely. I suspect most of the audience had no idea how dark and depressing the storyline really is, instead focussing on all the great songs. It always struck me that the only well-developed character in the story is Sportin' life, who is supposed to be a supporting character. Porgy is barely in the opera compared to other characters, and in this version, you really can see that Sportin' Life and Bess would have been a much better story.

The four soloists were all excellent. Howard Haskin gave the best performance as Sportin' Life, although his breathing choices were odd at times. Janice Chandler-Eteme was outstanding as Bess. Karen Slack Blackwell was excellent as Serena, although underutilized. Gordon Hawkins was very good as Porgy, but also underutilized.

However, I strongly recommend checking out this version. It was a great way to end the season!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Elgar and Prokofiev

Paul Watkins plays Elgar with the CSO
Tonight's Colorado Symphony concert included three firsts. The evening opened with a new arrangement of selections from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. This is an expanded version of what is usually played as an orchestral suite, arranged by conductor Andrew Litton. It was a nice set, played very well. The Colorado Ballet had performed the piece in 2012 (click to see my review), but it is nice to see it performed as concert music.

The second first of the night was Paul Watkins performing the Elgar Cello Concerto for the first time in the US. It's nice to hear something else played on the cello other than the Dvorak. Unfortunately the Elgar is not quite as melodic a piece. Watkins played well, although he seemed to have a little trouble on his high string. Not only did it sound a little flat but the tone quality did not project well.

The highlight of the evening was the Colorado premiere of a piece that originally dates back to the 20s; Prokofiev's Symphony #4. Parts of it were extracted from a ballet that he wrote in 1929 and were expanded into a symphony for the Boston Symphony. Years later, the composer revisited it and write an expanded version, which is what was performed tonight. I have to say I liked it quite a bit, even though it did remind me of several other works by the composer, including Peter and the Wolf. Also, earlier this year we saw an excellent production of his Cinderella with the Colorado Ballet, and parts of it reminded me of that.

Conductor Andrew Litton made a point of asking the audience not to leave at intermission, which I thought was odd, they must have had an exodus last night, but it appeared that most people stayed. However, a handful of people walked out between the third and fourth movements, an odd choice to make it so close to the end and then leave early. Also the piece is mostly Romantic, it's not that weird or dissonant that I would have expected it to drive people out of the hall.

Classical music is in a strange place. I'm sick of hearing the same pieces performed over and over again, yet there is a lot of new music that is crap (in my opinion). They really need to figure out how to get audiences involved in orchestral music again.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Sound and Music Awards - MPSE, CAS and OSCARS

GRAVITY (click film titles for my reviews) won the CAS Award for Sound Mixing, and the MPSE Golden Reel Award for Sound Effects and Foley editing, and it's tough to think any other film will win the Oscar in either the Sound Editing or Mixing category. The use of Dolby Atmos in the film (mixed by Skip Lievsay, CAS, Niv Adiri and Christopher Benstead and sound editing supervised by Benstead), was groundbreaking and extremely well done.

Also nominated in Sound Editing were ALL IS LOST, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, THE HOBBIT and LONE SURVIVOR. They all sounded excellent. (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS won the MPSE Award for Dialog/ADR Editing).

Somehow I skipped reviews on two of them, so here are thumbnails.

I liked both HOBBIT movies more than I expected. This one definitely gets off to a very slow start, but at about the half-hour mark the action picks up, and Peter Jackson may be our best action director at this point in time. The sound design was very good although I suspect several of the other films were much more challenging, since they take place in the real world. I did not see this in Atmos, so I don't know how well that aspect was used.

I liked LONE SURVIVOR as well, although I have mixed feelings about the glorification of the violent subject matter. This movie was one of the most violent films I have ever seen, and although that is probably an accurate depiction of war, the manner in which it is presented does at times seem to glorify it as a visceral event for the viewers rather than making it just seem repulsive. I also do not like the fact that they monkeyed around quite a bit with the actual events, it seemed unnecessary. One thing that was exceptional was the sound mix. It really did make me feel like I was on the battlefield, which is difficult to do without just making the movie seem painfully loud all the time.

IRON MAN 3 was also nominated for the CAS award. I liked this film a lot more than the second in the series, and the sound design was excellent for a very busy film. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was also nominated.

FROZEN won the CAS Award for Sound Mixing in an animated film. It beat THE CROODS, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY and DESPICABLE ME 2. CROODS was a bit crude of a film for my taste and MONSTER U did not live up to the Pixar standards IMHO, but I enjoyed DESPICABLE 2 as much as I did the first film. They all sounded great. I did not see WALKING WITH DINOSAURS.

FROZEN also won the MPSE Award for Music Editing in a Musical Feature. Also nominated were two excellent concert documentaries, JUSTIN BIEBER'S BELIEVE and METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER. The doc footage in the Justin Beiber film was actually quite good and made the movie watchable.

THE GREAT GATSBY won the MPSE Award for Music Editing in a Feature Film. I was surprised to enjoy this film quite a bit. I had expected that the anachronistic music would kill the film for me. Baz Luhrmann's over-the-top style seemed to match the life of excess that Gatsby lived, and the cast was excellent. Leonardo DiCaprio was great in the lead and Tobey Maguire was good casting as the everyman Nick Carraway.

Also nominated in that category were a couple of other films that had good use of music. MANDELA is nominated for the Oscar for Best Song (I think FROZEN will win, although I also liked the song from DESPICABLE ME 2. The song from HER was forgettable, and the song from MANDELA was not a large contributor to the success of the film or its music IMHO.). As much as I love Idris Elba, he was not well cast as Nelson Mandela. We know he was a quiet man of small stature, and to me, Elba was never shot to look small and never resembled Mandela. WORLD WAR Z was a surprisingly good film. I generally don't like straight-forward zombie films, but this was well-paced, until the ending. I did feel that there were too many leaps in logic in the last third of the film for me to buy everything. But I did like the score.

I cannot make a judgement about the Oscar for Music because I did not see enough of the films.

THE GRANDMASTER won the MPSE Award for Sound Editing in a Foreign-Language film. The film was beautifully shot and sounded great, but not nearly as good as some of Wong Kar-wai's other films. This film tried to bite off too much by trying to tell an entire life story against a backdrop of change in history, politics and war. I would have been happier with a much smaller film. I cannot make an Oscar judgement in this category. There are two nominees that I have screeners for but have not seen yet. Shame on me for falling so far behind this year.

Best Picture

We finally watched DALLAS BUYERS CLUB on Amazon streaming. It is indeed one of the best films of the year, with fantastic performances all around. Yesterday Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Spirit Awards for their performances in this film, both richly deserved. It is a very well made film (brilliantly edited). Jennifer Garner is also very good in a smaller role. There are some rough edges in the production design (anachronisms) that were probably due to the very low budget of the film, but otherwise this is a worthy contender for best picture.

I have seen all of the other films nominated except WOLF OF WALL STREET. They did not send screeners to the sound guilds. I had hoped to catch a screening while I was in LA, but at three hours in length, I just could not fit it into any of my trips.

Click for my reviews of GRAVITY and PHILOMENA here, HER here, NEBRASKA here, and AMERICAN HUSTLE and 12 YEARS A SLAVE here.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, due mostly to the documentary-style direction of Paul Greengrass. It also had outstanding editing and sound work, as well as excellent performances by many first-time film actors. However I do not believe it is in serious contention.

At this point it seems like a two-horse race between GRAVITY and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  I think GRAVITY is likely to get director for Alfonso Cuarón, as the film pushes limits in a way no other film ever has (including its use of Dolby Atmos for the sound mix). I suspect that means a lot of voters choose 12 YEARS as best picture. It's hard to argue with that choice. It is definitely one of the, if not the, best film of the year.

More Docs

I finally watched the two remaining nominees for the Documentary Feature Oscar. Previously I reviewed 20 FEET FROM STARDOM (click to see the reviews), which won the Film Independent Spirit award yesterday, as well as THE SQUARE (which won the IDA Documentary Award) and THE ACT OF KILLING.

CUTIE AND THE BOXER is a fantastic documentary about a married couple who are elderly Japanese artists living in New York City. It's a wonderful character study, and it is extremely well directed. There are several sequences in the film that could be removed in their entirety and play as a short documentary or as a short art film. It is beautifully photographed and brilliantly edited. I'm surprised this was not nominated for more of the other major documentary awards (although it did won a directing award at Sundance and was nominated for DGA award). I highly recommend the film, which is available on Netflix streaming. In fact, four of the five nominees are on Netflix. The fifth, 20 Feet from Stardom, is on Amazon streaming.

The final film is DIRTY WARS. I'm not really going to discuss the political content of the film, which is completely worthwhile of the intensive scrutiny that a feature-length documentary could offer. Instead, I'm going to say that this is one of the worst-made films I have seen all year and I have no idea how this piece of crap got nominated for an Oscar. I am always wary when someone puts himself in front of the camera to be the star of the movie, especially when the movie is not about them. This film comes off like poorly made propaganda, and not a documentary, even if its heart is in the right place.

The film is based on a book, which to me says that much of the footage is probably comprise of staged recreations of what he had written about earlier. (I'd love to know if that is not the case.) The writer not only put himself in front of the camera, he also reads the voiceover, which is a huge mistake. The text of the film is hurt by his flat, somnambulistic reading. I kept imagining how much better the film would have been with another voiceover artist, even the guy from FRONTLINE would have injected more interest into the subject matter. Also, the film could easily have at least a half hour cut out of it and would have been far more effective.

So clearly it's not my choice or prediction for the Oscar. Of the other films, I have to say (as mentioned in my other reviews) that this was a fantastic year for documentaries and I find it hard to pick a favorite. I will be rooting for my friends who worked on 20 FEET, but I would not be upset if three of the other films won. Congratulations to them all!

Saturday, February 15, 2014


I've fallen embarrassingly behind on writing film reviews this year. I'll try to catch up.

NEBRASKA is a tough film. It's gotten a lot of awards attention, so much that there has been a bit of a backlash from people claiming it is too slow or too depressing. It is definitely a slowly paced film, but that's actually one of the things I like about it. It is a tough watch though as most of the characters do not have a lot of redeeming qualities.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is all the attention Bruce Dern is getting as Best Actor. He is not the lead character in the film. The lead is the through character played by Will Forte, who is quite good in the film. (He's known for comedy, so this film is a real departure for him. You might know him as Jenna's transvestite boyfriend on 30 ROCK or from numerous appearances on CONAN as their crazy version of Ted Turner.)

Bruce Dern is quite good but his role does not show a lot of range. There's a lot more required from the other characters in the film. I have to admit that I liked the film but I don't think it's the year's best, or even Alexander Payne's best work. A lot of the acting is very flat, as though he cast non-actors in the parts. I expected more of the film.


My biggest problem was that I didn't understand why Will Forte's character cared about patching things up with his father. They never showed the father to have any positive characteristics. That, and it seemed quite a stretch that they would go on this road trip at all. But I suspended my disbelief for that.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Britten and the Colorado Symphony

Chee-Yun on Violin
The Colorado Symphony had an excellent program last night under conductor Peter Oundjian, opening with one of my favorite pieces, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote this music for a short educational film for children that has long since been forgotten. Many composers would have written throwaway music for such an assignment, but Britten writes some brilliant music here. 

It was very entertaining seeing it performed live; I had always wanted to, but it hardly ever gets played. I think there is a perception that it is "children's music," but it is far from it. With the film's voiceover removed, it is a great example for students of all ages, I recommend the piece in my classes for people who want to learn to recognize all the instruments of the orchestra. 

This was immediately followed by the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, performed by Chee-Yun, whom I had never heard before. Her performance was so stellar that the audience did something I have never seen at the Colorado Symphony; a standing ovation after the first movement. This is a piece we have heard live numerous times, but she played it like it was new. 

The concert closed with the Dvorak Symphony #7, a crowd favorite, especially for the third movement.  It was a really nice concert with a great program. Unfortunately we will not be back for a while due to other commitments. 

Best Actress

This is not normally a category I write about, but I happened to see several of the films that are nominated in rapid succession, so I'll write a group review here.

GRAVITY is one of the best films I have seen this year. There's so much good about it from a technical level it's overwhelming. The visual effects are outstanding. And they are used in a unique way to allow for what appear to be extremely long camera takes. The sound design is unique. It uses Dolby's new multichannel system Atmos in a way that is unlike any other film.

And there are many things about it that make it an anti-Hollywood film. Not many films will have only two characters, with one of them alone for most of the film. I know, ALL IS LOST (click for my review) did it this year, but in a much less interesting fashion. The writing in this film is superb and gives us enough back-story to care about the main character. In other ways, the film is a very Hollywood film, it is a nail-biter almost continuously. And the cast is A-list.

But what struck me most about the film is Sandra Bullock's performance. It really holds the film together. And, as an actress, it is a real challenge to work alone much of the time, with little to no dialog. There's one scene with George Clooney where he gives a monologue to her. Don't watch him. Watch her. Her reaction is priceless. When I saw the film, I thought, there's no way she will not will Best Actress. I liked the film so much I took my wife to see it only a few days later. It's very rare that I will sit through a film twice. And it was just as effective the second time.

My one big criticism of the film was George Clooney's part. He's just too perfect. He needed more back-story and some flaws to make him more believable. Also, there's a major plot point that does not make a lot of scientific sense, but I understand why the filmmakers did it. (Neil Degrasse Tyson points out a number of inaccuracies in the film, but most of them I can gloss over because they are minor to the movie. This one is a major plot point.)

PHILOMENA is a great film about a real woman who searched for her son after giving him up for adoption. The real centerpiece of the story is Judi Dench's performance in the title role. She does a stretch here, playing someone of less than average intelligence. That's more of a challenge than you would think; it's easy to dumb down a character to the point where it looks like you are making fun of her. She's not, she respects this character and makes her sympathetic in the way that only a great actress could. Emotionally, the film is very satisfying. Worth watching.

BLUE JASMINE is Woody Allen's entry this year. For a man with so many problems in his personal life, he seems to write consistently interesting characters for women. Cate Blanchett does give a truly amazing performance in the film, but it's one of those films where I never forgot she was acting, which is of course a distraction from the actual movie. I occasionally have this problem with Meryl Streep, who is nominated for that wacky comedy August:Osage County, which I have not seen yet.

The rest of this film is not terribly well written (both Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale play completely one-dimensional characters).

But it is worth watching for Cate's unique performance, which must have been very difficult. She is essentially playing two characters, one before and one after a nervous breakdown. The film is edited non-linearly, inter-cutting both timelines, but in reality they probably shot the "pre" material first (in NY) and the "post" material second (in SF) so it may not have been as challenging as it appears in the film. Nonetheless, she does play crazy very convincingly.

One weird thing, the audience I saw this with laughed at her throughout the film. I did not find the film to be a comedy. At all. I found her character pathetic and felt sorry for her.

I thought I had reviewed AMERICAN HUSTLE but I guess I didn't. Although I found the film entertaining, I did not think anything about the film was Oscar-caliber, except maybe Production Design, Costume Design, and Hair/Makeup. I found Christian Bale's performance so over the top that it was not just distracting, it was annoying. He seemed to be doing De Niro for much of the film, and then the real De Niro shows up and blows his performance away without doing much at all. A nice lesson in simplicity. Both women in the film are good, including Amy Adams, who is nominated for Best Actress, but I don't think either should (or will) win.

I also found it annoying that they clearly fictionalized so much of the story. Why even bother saying it was based on a true story?

I think Cate Blanchett is not going to be beaten, but I have to say it was a very strong year for women. And I'm glad to see so many strong roles being written for women. GRAVITY in particular could easily have been written for a male lead, and I'm sure some Hollywood folk recommended that to make the film more "believable" or make it so more people could "identify" with the main character. The fact that it's a woman character only makes the film stronger for me.

Friday, January 31, 2014


I am WAY behind on reviewing movies I have been watching for awards season, so I will try to catch up by reviewing some of them this weekend.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM is one of the five nominees for the Oscar for best doc. It was also nominated for the Spirit Award.

Also nominated for the Oscar are The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, and The Square. (Click for my reviews on the one I have seen.) Also nominated for the Spirit Award are The Act of Killing, After Tiller, Gideon's Army, and The Square.

It's a crowded field. A couple of other great docs were overlooked but nominated for the IDA Documentary award, Blackfish and Stories We Tell. Some of these films are now on Netflix and other rental services. If you like docs, this a great set this year.

Full disclosure, I know three people who worked on 20 FEET. One is Supervising Editor Doug Blush, who went to film school with me, and the other two are former students, Kevin Klauber and Josh Wilkinson.

I liked this film a lot. It's about backup singers, the unheralded heroes of contemporary pop music. Their voices often outshine the lead singers that they are behind, but they do not get the glory. And in some cases they even cover lead singing for others who cannot do it themselves but they don't get credit at all. As a musician, the film is a fantastic look at some of these individuals.

It is extremely well edited and sounds great, and the song choices are really appropriate. Perhaps my only concern was that archival footage did not seem to be identified as such. (What year was that David Byrne footage from? And the Bowie footage?) This might make a it a little confusing if you don't recognize some of the bigger names immediately. Otherwise it is an outstanding piece of filmmaking.

I'm not going to try to guess who will win the awards, especially since there are several I haven't seen.

Friday, January 03, 2014


I like HER. It's a strange and unique film, part science fiction, but mostly an interesting character study. The film takes place in an apparently near future, in which a computer program similar to Siri has gained sentience and has a relationship with her owner, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The computer voice is played by Scarlett Johannson (who never appears in the film). The brilliant script was written  by Spike Jonze, who also directed. The entire cast is fabulous, including Amy Adams and Chris Pratt.

But it's really the screenplay that is the strength. It's a very thoughtful film that discusses man's relationship with technology in a very intelligent way. To say much more would induce too many spoilers, so I will leave it at that. Watch the film if you get the chance.

Thursday, January 02, 2014


ALL IS LOST is the type of film I root for. Visual storytelling at its finest, with almost no dialogue, and only one actor on camera in the entire film. Robert Redford took a huge chance by agreeing to appear in this film. The film is beautiful visually and it is really refreshing to see a film that tells the audience what is going on visually, rather than having people sit around and talk about it.

However, the film has problems. The biggest problem is the choice to exclude any personal information about the lead character. The movie begins in medias res, with him alone and on a boat that is already damaged. Because we have NO backstory at all, it's very hard to have sympathy for this character. Who is he? Why is he alone? Why is he on a boat off Sumatra if he is American? Not having answers to these questions results in speculation. Is he extremely wealthy? (Probably, from the fact that he has his own yacht, and that really doesn't make him too sympathetic.) Is he unmarried, with no kids? Does he not care if he is going to die? Why isn't he a better seaman? There are multiple points at which is seems like he makes strange choices.

I have to go into SPOILER mode for the rest of this review.

It's impossible to see this movie and not compare it to CAST AWAY. It may be a flawed film, but there were a lot of nice things about that. One was that we get backstory on the character, and (at the end) we get some resolution when he is saved. In ALL IS LOST, we get nothing before and nothing after.

Then we get to Redford's performance. Although it is getting rave reviews, there are a lot of choices for him where he chooses to have no emotional reaction AT ALL to anything that is going on. We just watch him do stuff for much of the film. It's a great moment when, an hour into the film, he finally shows some desperation and aggravation. I wish we had more of that.

There's also the issue of dialog. Not everyone talks to themselves, but I do, a lot, and especially when I am alone. I'm not saying he needs to have soccer ball to talk to, but it seems odd that he never gets discouraged and says "OH CRAP" or anything at all. In fact, even when boats pass him by, he does not yell. This doesn't make any sense at all. To compare it to yet another castaway movie, LIFE OF PI is full of believable dialog when the character is talking to himself, and it makes the character more human and accessible.

Another problem I had was the music. It sounds like something Vangelis would have written for a film 20 years ago. It did not move me at all. And worst of all, it ends WITH A SONG. I would be hard pressed to think of a more inappropriate film for a song.

ALL IS LOST is not completely lost at sea; it's worth watching just for the incredible sound design, but it is a deeply flawed film.