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 CuarĂ³n, 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.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

NYE with the CSO

As usual, we celebrated New Year's Eve with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under the baton of resident conductor Scott O'Neill, conducting their annual NIGHT IN VIENNA concert. Overall, we had a great time, but there were a few glitches in the evening. The temperature in the hall was crazy hot when we walked in, which made it a bit uncomfortable even into the second half of the program. If you want your audience to fall asleep, turn up the heat. The hall did have a very good audience, which is always good to see.

There were several favorites in the first half of the program, and a few surprises. It was nice to think outside the box this year and include some non-Viennese music, but some of the choices were questionable in the second half.

The first half featured three of those out-of-the-box choices with a guest soprano, Christie Hageman, singing waltzes from Puccini, Gounod, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. These were a nice change of pace.

The first half of the concert was extremely short, under half an hour, which was a little disappointing. The intermission was longer than the first half of the concert.

The second half of the concert had more material, but some of the choices were not ideal. It was a poor choice to have two extremely short excerpts played out of context. The Boccherini minuet flew by so quickly it hardly existed, and even worse, playing only a short section of Mahler's first symphony (not even the entire 2nd movement) made little sense at all.

Things got worse when Ms. Hageman rejoined for two more contemporary pieces. Moon River is indeed a beautiful waltz, but this arrangement was terrible. Henry Mancini understood perfectly how this song had to work in the movie, and deliberately wrote a very simple melody for an actress who is not a singer. He orchestrated it in the simplest of terms, with Audrey Hepburn's untrained voice accompanied by guitar strums and some quiet strings that sneak in after the first few lines. The song is written for a voice that is to be almost sotto voce, with no vibrato. To move this into an operatic soprano, and have it explode in a huge orchestral climax at the end completely kills what the song is all about.

I'll Be Seeing You is also a beautiful song, most remembered for performances by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, so again the operatic voice was not an appropriate choice, and the arrangement couldn't really decide what it wanted to be. I thought I heard a muted jazz trumpet playing on one chorus but it was completely obliterated by over-orchestration.

What I did not list yet were the Viennese classics interspersed throughout the program, which were the highlights of the evening. The symphony's performance of the Pizzicato Polka was probably the best playing of the evening, and it is an underplayed piece. The evening ended as always with a performance of the Blue Danube and Radetzky March. Except for a few hiccups in programming, it was an exceptionally good way to ring in the New Year!

Here's hoping to a great 2014 for the symphony!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


FROZEN is a great Disney film for kids that fools you into thinking it is going to be your typical Princess movie but pays off in a big way. The film has two strong female character, along with some great animation and songs.

I had heard so many good things about this film that I have to admit I was a little let down by the fact that the film is not really for adult audiences as much as it is for young children. I think they could have made it more in the Pixar style with more for adults. (For instance, the film's mix features the music far more than the sound effects, which harks back to Disney movies pre-Pixar.)

But that's a small criticism. This is one of the smarter films out there.


The end of the film completely turns the typical Disney princess film upside down, which made me quite happy. The stereotype is broken. Long live the new princess!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

O Coen Brothers, Where Art Thou?

Do yourself a favor, and watch A MIGHTY WIND again, rather than watching INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, an epic fail of a movie. Everything about the film is terrible, starting with the title. (OK, quick, write the title down without misspelling it.) Followed by a completely forgettable cast, except for John Goodman, who is the most sympathetic human in the film). Add to that the fact that the characters are all despicable, and the music is (I think) deliberately terrible to show how insipid folk music is, and it's the longest two hours of my life I've ever spent. That includes being in a coma.

What happened to the geniuses who gave us A SERIOUS MAN? This is a sad excuse for a movie. And if you are an animal lover, you will be very upset about the treatment of two cats in the film. It's really sad when I care more about a cat than I do about the main character, or anyone else in the film.

Monday, December 23, 2013



While it isn't exactly a competition, it is awards season, and these two films are topping a number of lists.  I happened to see them on back to back nights, so I will cover them in one review.

I really enjoyed AMERICAN HUSTLE a lot, so don't take this the wrong way, but this movie is seriously overrated. Although it was a lot of fun, and there are some really good performances in it, the film is completely lacking in originality. Making a movie about ABSCAM is kinda like making a movie about the hostage crisis (ARGO). There are numerous plot, character, and visual references to GOODFELLAS and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and Chistian Bale's performance is really little more than warmed-over De Niro, which makes De Niro's appearance a lot less powerful than it should have been. 

That said, both of the main actresses in the film, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, deserve nominations for their work, as well as the production designers, and the makeup and wardrobe designers. But the film is pretty forgettable. It's only been 48 hours since I saw it, and I had to look up who some of the actors were.

12 YEARS A SLAVE, however, I think will stick with me for a long while. It's not a perfect movie either, but I think it's a far more original and stylish piece of filmmaking. Steve McQueen has a number of nice directorial touches that underline the incredible performances in the film, starting with the second scene in the film. Just about every actor in the film is extremely well cast, with the exception of Brad Pitt, but hey, he slept with the producer to get the job, so he earned it. 

One thing I thought I would never say in my life: Hans Zimmer deserves a nomination for the score, which is unique and appropriately dissonant for the film. 

It's one of those films that will stick with you for a while, and may even be worth watching again in the near future. I don't say that about very many films. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is a long title for a HBO documentary about the legendary comedienne, who is almost completely forgotten by contemporary audiences, even though she was hugely influential on generations of performers. This film does a good job of placing her in time as an important storyteller and sublime political satirist. It is odd seeing (and mostly hearing) bits of her routines, though, as much of it has not really aged well. We have such different expectations of a comedian's performance, I doubt that younger audiences would get her at all today.

Some of her best material isn't even remotely funny, like her song that is a tribute to "Abraham, Martin, and John," the three victims of assassins, two of whom she had known personally. It is pretty amazing what she managed to sneak onto TV in her few performances in the 60s and 70s. Thank goodness for The Smothers Brothers and a few other shows that invited her on, regardless of her peculiar look and performance style, so we have at least a few images of her at work.

Whoopi does a pretty good job of keeping her own personality from overrunning the documentary (except maybe in the title), and has a nice lineup of academics to help frame Moms' work historically and philosophically. In addition, virtually every important black comedian who was alive when Moms was working is interviewed, and they give very smart analysis of why her work was so monumental at that time. Moms was one of the few women working in comedy at the time, one of the few black comedians to make it into prime time (and had 20 comedy albums in her career), and was also a lesbian, making it even harder for her to the type of attention that typical women performers needs to be successful. (I think they could have further explored how that helped create her onstage persona.)

This is definitely worth viewing.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Stories We Tell

STORIES WE TELL is one of those movies where, the less you know about it, the better. The only thing I knew about this documentary before seeing it is that it was directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who is probably best known for her role in the film THE SWEET HEREAFTER. I did not know that she came from a family of artists and actors. The fact that it was directed by an actor might have put me off initially for fear that this was a vanity project, but if anything, it is the opposite of that.

The film is nominated for an International Documentary Association Award, a Film Independent Spirit Award, and has made the short list of 15 Oscar films that will be eligible in the documentary category. If you like documentaries, I recommend you see this without reading any more. If you have not seen it, be aware that there be SPOILERS!!! below.

Ms. Polley uses the film to tell the story of her family. The process is very interesting as she tells it in a Rashomon-like manner, allowing multiple viewpoints of specific events even when they conflict with each other. Some of the subject matter is intensely personal to her and I am frankly shocked that she got so much on camera from family members and friends about such intimate details. There are a couple of confusing moments where she leaps back in time and then forward again, but otherwise the filmmaking style is excellent.

The film makes extensive use of recreations, which I normally detest, but in this case it makes a lot of sense. There is a tremendous amount of real footage of her mother and other people on what appears to be Super 8 and 16mm, and the recreations are intermingled in an incredibly seamless fashion. I suspected they were recreations but she herself reveals this to the audience at the end of the film by showing the current family members alongside the actors who recreated the flashbacks in earlier scenes. This use of recreations is masterful, as it ties in well with one theme of the movie, that we can never know the empirical truth, instead, we only have the stories we tell ourselves about what might have happened. In essence, even a documentary can never tell you with 100% certainty what happened.

It's a very smart film, and I highly recommend it. Oh, and it also is very moving emotionally.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Documentary Roundup I: THE SQUARE and THE ACT OF KILLING

Film Independent announced their Spirit Award nominees today, including their nominees for Best Documentary. Two of these were also nominated for Independent Documentary Association Awards: The Square and The Act of Killing.

The Square is an excellent documentary about the recent history of the uprising in Egypt, as seen mostly through a single location, Cairo's Tahrir Square, where many of the important events occurred.

If you think you learned anything about the uprising from the American media, you probably didn't, even if you watched some of the interviews Jon Stewart did. This film carefully documents the ups and downs of an uprising that took more than a year. The director, Jehane Noujaim, was repeatedly arrested and mistreated for attempting to cover the events. The fact that the film was made at all is an amazing act of courage. The film is only 95 minutes long, I actually wish they had given the US the longer release, as sometimes it is a bit confusing, since we know so little about the situation.

If you have more than a passing interest in this important event in world history, I strongly recommend you watch the film.

The Act of Killing is one of the strangest films I have ever seen in my life.

It's almost impossible to describe this film, and in many ways it is better to know very little about it before seeing it. If you do not know much about what is going on in Egypt, you probably know almost nothing about Indonesia, where this film was shot. In the film, director Joshua Oppenheimer's subject is a man, Anwar Congo, who single-handedly killed hundreds of Indonesian Communists during a purge almost forty years ago. Today he is considered a hero by many in his own country, which is proudly run by self-described "gangsters."

There are many layers to this film. There is the influence of American film on this gangsters, who grew up watching and worshipping gangsters in American films. Seeing this, the director offers them the opportunity to reenact their killings for the camera. Yes, you read that right, the director of the documentary asked his subject, a  mass murderer, to reenact his killings for the camera. As the film-within-the-film progresses, things become increasingly surreal. They shoot one scene like a 1930s film. Another becomes a lavish musical sequence. One of his cohorts dresses as a woman for much of the shooting.

This would be comical if it were not so darkly disturbing. I do think the film has one nearly-fatal flaw, the middle third of the film bogs down by showing too much of the same subject. In fact, I almost stopped watching, as Anwar seemed almost impossible to crack as a subject. Yet, the film redeems itself in the last 20 minutes with some of the best documentary footage I have ever seen. A huge portion of the filmmakers are credited as Anonymous, including a co-director, as their lives are in danger for releasing the footage in this manner.

I highly recommend the film.

Also nominated for the Spirit Award is Gideon's Army, reviewed here. Also nominated for the IDA award is Blackfish, reviewed here. Next week, the Academy will announce the "shortlist" of fifteen films still under consideration for the Oscar (out of 151 documentaries submitted).