Friday, December 31, 2010

NYE with the CSO

Happy New Year to everyone! We celebrated by going to the Colorado Symphony's annual New Year's Eve concert. It was fun, as always, with a few changes to their typical program.

The opener was a waltz by Ernő Dohnányi from The Veil of Perretti. I was hoping it was from later in his career, which was more interesting, but this is clearly a Strauss knock-off. This was followed by the orchestral version of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #2, which is not my favorite Liszt. At this point I was a little annoying by Scott O'Neill's conduction, which managed to be both simple and confusing at the same time. The orchestra did not seem together. There were also clearly a lot of subs in the orchestra for the holiday.

This was followed by the final movement of the Chopin Piano Concerto #1, which is a strange choice for a single movement. It's the least interesting movement in that concerto, and probably the least interesting of the finales from his concerti. It was played by Christina Lan, who played nicely, but not fantastically.

The first great performance of the evening came from associate concertmaster Claude Simm, who played the Monti Czardas stunningly, particularly the harmonics. He's an incredibly talented musician.

The second half of the concert brought out all the old Strauss chestnuts which were well-appreciated by the audience. O'Neill did his best conducting of the night on The Blue Danube, which has to be one of the most perfectly constructed compositions of all time. It's a wonderful way to ring in the new year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is a fantastic documentary now running on PBS (and available for free viewing on the American Masters web site). Gould was perhaps one of the most important performers of the 20th century. In addition to being one of the most brilliant and original pianists of all time, he also understood media better than anyone else in his time, and on top of that, is one of the most eccentric personalities in music.

Even if you have never heard his music, he is a fascinating character. A recluse and a hypochondriac who was borderline personality disorder, he was one of the most popular classical soloists in the 50s, yet, in mid-career, he decided that he would be better off never performing publicly again. Instead, he decided to communicate with his audience only through recordings. The movie only scratches the surface of his bizarre personality and unique beliefs about art and audiences. Of course I also highly recommend 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which present even more strange elements of his personality.

On the other hand, one of the reasons that Genius Within is so interesting is that it breaks many of the myths about Gould. It was forever thought that he might be gay and in the closet, or perhaps even in denial, or perhaps might have been completely asexual, but a biography in 2007 revealed that he had had a long term love affair with the wife of a famous composer/performer, and out of respect, no one ever discussed it publicly. She is interviewed in this film. It is also revealed that many of his eccentricities were exaggerated to create publicity for him. Nonetheless, they all do seem to have originated in fact, and did get worse as he aged, dying young at age 50.

If you have even a passing interesting in the subject, watch this, it's great.

Monday, December 27, 2010

THE FIGHTER

Finally, a well-reviewed drama that actually lives up to the hype: THE FIGHTER.

They got the script right and really focused on the characters and their relationships. The acting was excellent all around, most notably Marc Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and, it pains me to say it, Christian Bale. I am not at all a fan of boxing, but this film is more about the characters than the fights, and at times it reminded me in a good way of RAGING BULL. Even Mickey O'Keefe, who plays himself in the film, is quite good.

It's interesting to see films that are shot in Boston (in this case Lowell) with people trying to do the accents. It's hit or miss. Even in THE TOWN, Ben Affleck forgot to do his own natural Boston accent on a few lines in the film. For the most part the major players get it right in this movie, although some of the sisters sound (and look) like they just moved there from New Jersey.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

TRUE GRIT

When I heard that the Coens were remaking TRUE GRIT, I wondered why. Not that the original is perfect, in fact, the performances have dated badly. Instead, I wondered what about this story attracted the Coens, and what they possibly thought they could do to make it interesting or relevant.

Well, I was right, they really didn't do much with it. Jeff Bridges growls his way through the film, having played a much more interesting drunk last year in CRAZY HEART, but does not instill much more character than the wooden John Wayne did. The girl fares much better, although the character is still fairly one dimensional. Matt Damon brings a little more to his character, but in the end, it's basically a remake of a not terribly interesting film in the first place.

The final scenes in particular really ruin the mood of the piece. The overall pacing seems a little odd as well; it seems to jump to a conclusion much too quickly.

The film's technical aspects are quite good, but cinematography, music and sound are not enough to make this movie memorable.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Going to THE TOWN

There are a lot of reasons that I really wanted to like THE TOWN, not the least of them being that the town in this case was my hometown of Boston (well, Charlestown, but close enough). They did make excellent use of the city as a location and photographed it beautifully. The movie has a great cast, well directed by Ben Affleck, and there are individual scenes that are very well written. Affleck himself has a great monologue early in the film. The first act of the film is very involving, but the plot meanders too much, takes too long to get where it's going, and ultimately falls apart in the third act.

The single biggest problem in the film is that all of the characters are unlikeable. I kept rooting for the lead characters, a group of bank robbers led by Affleck's character, to get caught. The most sympathetic character in the film is the girl who is a victim of the robbers. He ends up dating her, which should have made him sympathetic as he softened, but instead, she disappears from the movie in the second act and their relationship is never really fleshed out. As a result, there is no emotional payoff in the final scenes.

It's too bad, the movie had a lot going for it, and a few simple script changes early on could really have made the film a lot better.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

BLACK SWAN

In a year with a movie like BLACK SWAN, why are people even talking about movies like SOCIAL NETWORK or 127 HOURS? This film is a million times more intelligent than any of the other film I've seen so far this year. Of course, it's much more of an art film than a traditional narrative, which inherently is going to be much more interesting than a talkie drama.

The film is very stylish and the acting is fantastic (except for Winona Ryder, who seems to have wandered onto the wrong set). I expect there will be quite a few nominations for the film. It's a little tough to write much more about the film without ruining it, so I'll just say that if you have liked Aronofsky's other films, you will probably like this as well.

The film also has outstanding sound design. And you can't go wrong ripping off Tchaikovsky as the score for your film. Nice work.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

ARMY OF DARKNESS

Finally got around to watching the third film in the EVIL DEAD series. I liked this a lot more than the other two, mostly because it's much more of an action film that the previous two, and most of the gore is gone. The comedy makes more sense, although the number of Three Stooges references was way over the top. Just about everything about the film has raised the bar significantly over the previous two films. It is a bit weird after the first two films seeing Bruce Campbell in scenes with other real actors. They do make him look quite bad by comparison.

Clearly the movie was very influential on many other films. It was fun, but bogged down in the third act. It would be interesting to see what another director might do with this franchise. Although the movie ends quite stupidly, it's hard to imagine a fourth movie picking up where this one ends.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

TOY STORY 3

Dear Pixar -

You owe me a box of Kleenex.

TOY STORY 3 might not be quite the home run as its two predecessors, or several other Pixar films, but it is a worthy ending to the trilogy. Most of the old friends return, and a few new ones are added, most notably Barbie and a metrosexual Ken. The animation is amazing; almost too good at times. I felt like I was watching live action with a few animated characters.

The story, like the first sequel, revisits the themes from the first film, but for the most part puts new spins on things. The first act starts off quite promisingly. However, the film has its weaknesses, particularly in the early second act, when the plot becomes too predictable and take too long to reunite Woody with the rest of the gang.

But the last act of the film really gels with all the characters.

Perhaps even more amazing is the short DAY & NIGHT which preceded it. A real throwback to an earlier style, I would love to see more of this type of creative storytelling animation from Pixar in the future.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

TCHAIKOVSKY

The Colorado Symphony gave a nice performance of some Tchaikovsky works this evening. Three standards that we've all heard many times before. Four selections from the Nutcracker were a nice way to open the evening, although only our make it a bit unsatisfying, and the orchestra was not always together. Peter Oundjian was the guest conductor; it was the second time we saw his this season. My first review was no so good. You can read it here.

The second piece on the program was the Piano Concerto Number 2. The Bb concerto is so well known that it is overplayed (we've seen it at least three times). Comparatively, this makes #2 underplayed. It's not a great piece of music. The harmonies rely heavily on the cliche of ascending diminished chords played very heavily. Time has not been as good to this piece as #1. Stephen Hough played very emotionally, and quite well on the intimate, quiet parts, but he pummeled the piano with his fists on the runs far too much.

By far, the highlight of the evening was the Symphony #5. This is another overplayed piece, but I have to say it was conducted and played so well that it made me rethink my criticisms of the conductor. He managed to conduct very emotionally and freely, yet kept the orchestra together at all times. Everyone played well, but the horn solo was outstanding.

This was our last concert until New Year's Eve. Our last one was Halloween. I look forward to New Year's!

Friday, December 03, 2010

HEREAFTER

For the first hour of HEREAFTER, Clint had be transfixed. Inter-cutting three stories, one French, one British, and one American, made the movie fascinating. Much of the plot was told through subtext, and the characters drew me in. Two of the three stories used actors unknown to American audiences, which made it seem real, even though the film is obviously a fantasy.

But then, at the halfway point, the film falls apart completely. I'm convinced that there is a way to cut out half an hour , restructure the movie, and make it a million times better (although there would still be literally no ending to the film). Halfway through, the film becomes about Matt Damon and Ron Howard's daughter. She overacts, as she always has, and the dialogue goes into very long, slow expository mode to tell the audience everything that had already been told through plot and action in the last half hour. It's like a different director took over at this point. Or maybe Clint just couldn't bear to cut his friend Ron's daughter out of the movie.

The French story is interesting and well acted, and the British story is even better. The film opens with a big FX sequence from the French story, which is dramatic, but I think it would have opened better with the British story, which is much more emotional, and would have built nicely to a climax with the intro to the French story. The American story needs to be cut way down, with Bryce Howard all but eliminated, and a better plot device needs to be contrived for the three stories to intertwine.

Even with all this, the movie is essentially lacking a third act, with no resolution to anything. This is without a doubt one of the most unsatisfying films I have ever seen. It's a shame, I'm a big fan of Eastwood, but he blew it on this one. I almost wonder if he took this crappy script only as an excuse to shoot in three cities in three countries as a paid vacation, as Woody Allen has been doing the past few films.

Skip it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

127 HOURS

127 HOURS is neither as good as I had hoped nor as gross as I had heard.

SPOILERS!!!

I'm assuming anyone reading this knows what the movie is about and how it ends.

Reputedly there were many screenings, including industry screenings, where people passed out. I have no idea why. The dismemberment scene is not anywhere near as graphic as I had expected. Any of the SAW movies are far more graphic. And as a major copout, there is a rock and roll song playing through the whole thing, which pretty much sucks any effectiveness out of the scene.

But there are other problems with the film as well. I really feel like I learned nothing about the character during the film. Who was he? Where was he from? What did he do for a living? Was he divorced? Kids? I have no idea. The flashbacks/fantasies were vague and confusing. To be frank, the main character comes off like a bit of a douchebag until he gets trapped. And then I only feel sorry for him because he's trapped.

When a movie is weak, I tend to get distracted by the technical. The makeup was terrible. And inconsistent. I never felt like he was near death. I never felt that he needed to amputate his arm because it looked fine. His girlfriend in the flashback was supposed to look like she had been crying but she looked like she had two black eyes.

There were good things; the cinematography was excellent. and much of the sound design was very good. Franco did not impress me with as much range as I would expected from such a dynamic role, though.

When I heard that Danny Boyle was doing the film, I was very excited that his version might actually be worth watching. But now I wonder if another director might have brought more meaning to the film.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

DESPICABLE ME

I'm so sorry that the name of my yet-to-be published autobiography has been stolen.

Nonetheless, this is a cute family diversion. It's quite predictable, but there are enough gags to keep the viewer entertained, and I suspect that kids love it. The voice casting was quite good and added a lot to the characters. The animation was not quite as good as some of the other films of the year.

But fun anyway.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A BOY AND HIS DRAGON

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is an excellent family film. In fact, it's an excellent film for everyone. I had my doubts at first, the opening 20 minutes or so are pretty weak, but stick with it. Once it becomes the story of a dragon warming up to a human, it becomes much more endearing.

The characters are pretty good and develop well throughout, and the animation is very good. A lot of nice details on hair and skin. The voice casting is pretty good for the major characters. Randy Thom's sound design is excellent as always. John Powell's score adds tremendous depth.

Perhaps the only thing missing was that extra layer for adults that the Pixar films always seem to have. But that's not a necessity for a film to be good. There's a lot in this film for kids, and plenty enough for adults to enjoy.

INCEPTION

INCEPTION is one of those movies that is bullet-proof to criticism. If I say I don't like it, fans will respond that I didn't understand the complicated storyline, or complain that I don't like intellectual films (was this really one?) or that I'm too impatient to sit through a 2 1/2 hour film (none of which are really true). Actually I was never really bored in the movie, which I guess is a compliment, but I certainly don't get what all the hoopla is all about.

For a movie that was supposed to be really well written, I have no idea who any of the characters were or why I should care about them. And just because something is complicated to the point of confusion, that does not make it "art." It just makes it confusing. Even for all the layers to the story, I was never really surprised by anything that happened, even though I felt like there were about two too many layers.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is outstanding. One of the best looking and sounding movies I've seen in a long time. Leo is definitely becoming a very good actor, and it's hard to fault the other performances as one-dimensional when that's the way they were written. I wish there had been just a little bit of depth to Marion Cotillard's character, that would have made all the difference in the world.

I enjoyed the film, but that's about it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

For all its flaws, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a movie that is hard to turn away from. It is a very good movie, but not a great one. They almost bend over backwards to give you things to NOT like about this movie, most notably the choice of characters, who are not in any way sympathetic. I also usually don't like movies that are all talk and no action, but this one, written by Aaron Sorkin and lifted mostly from testimony of two lawsuits about the founding of Facebook, flies by so quickly that there is no time to stop to think about anything. I think that's a good thing, because there is not really that much substance to the movie, other than to point out that arrogant people are annoying. I kinda knew that already.

I also know plenty of people like the characters in this movie, so it wasn't really that surprising. Maybe I'm too close because of my relationship with MIT, my love for technology, or my addiction to Facebook. In fact it may be my remembrances of similar people that I have met that make the movie less interesting to me.

Also, the movie did not at all change my opinion of Facebook in any way. Much like the movie, I still love Facebook, despite all its flaws.

There is a lot that's very good about the movie. It will be interesting to see how much the film stands up at awards time. A lot of the technical work was exceptional, and the acting was very, very good. I suspect it will still do well.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

SWEETGRASS

SWEETGRASS is one of those unique documentaries that is goes beyond simply being a doc and becomes an art film in itself. This is not a film for everyone. There is very little dialogue in the film and almost no music. Three is no voiceover and there are no title cards to explain what's going on to the audience. It's 100 minutes of sheep farming, much of it in real time.

Nonetheless, it is still a very interesting film. There's something hypnotic about seeing the sheep. The pacing though reminds me a bit of some of Andy Warhol's deliberately real-time films. Even if you have the patience to sit through that (and I do), there are still problems with the film. As an animal lover, there were several moments that were disturbing to me, even though the film probably accurately portrays sheep farming. (They also never show their slaughter, just their shearing, but there is always that undercurrent of knowing where they will end up.)

The biggest problem comes late in the film when it finally becomes about the people and not the sheep. One of the farmers has a mental breakdown. The problem is that we were never properly introduced to this character, he just comes out of nowhere, so it's tough to care about - or even follow - what's going on.

Nonetheless I would recommend it, but only to the right audience. If it sounds interesting to you, that might be you!

DESERT OF FORBIDDEN ART

DESERT OF FORBIDDEN ART is a great documentary about lost art in Uzbekistan. It's a pretty amazing story of art that was saved by a collector and housed in a museum in the middle of nowhere. Even today the art is still in danger of being lost as the country does not have the money to support the museum, so the story is still not over. Several of my former students worked on the film, including the co-director Tchavdar Georgiev, the sound editor Adam King and mixer Joe Dzuban. Everything about the film is very interesting. Unfortunately there are lengthy interviews that need subtitling, which makes the pace of the film seem to slow down in parts (even though the interviews are fascinating). If you are interested in 20th century art, I highly recommend the film.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Red Shirley

RED SHIRLEY is a nice short documentary made by Lou Reed about his 100 year-old cousin who emigrated to the US from Poland during the Nazi era, and wound up becoming an important part of the labor movement. She's a fascinating character, but Lou gives himself too much screen time, and annoyingly interrupts her repeatedly as she talks. The film is very well shot and definitely worth a viewing if you are interested in this part of American history.

On the same bill was another short, a French fictional film LES COMPLICES, also about an older woman. This is the type of film that gives festivals a bad name. It was a complete mess, badly directed, overacted, pompous and self-conscious. Because the two other films on the bill were documentaries, I think most of the audience thought this film was also a doc, but it wasn't, which really gives it no excuse for the lazy filmmaking of having the main character sit in front of the camera and talk directly to the audience through most of the film.

The third film on the program was a short doc I worked on called DEL:100, about another 100 year-old woman from Colorado who wound up becoming an important journalist. Since I worked on the film I won't review this one.

Echotone

I'm a big fan of documentaries. In any documentary, editing is perhaps the most important part of the film. Typically an enormous amount of footage is shot and it is not until the editing process that the story takes shape. The best documentaries I have seen are the best edited films.

I went into Echotone, a film about the struggling music scene in Austin, with a great desire to like it. Unfortunately, it is a very weak film on many levels. Without a doubt, the biggest weakness is the editing. The film completely lacks any structure or pacing. At one point I looked at my watch thinking that they had listed the running time inaccurately; clearly I had been there more than 88 minutes.

I wasn't even halfway through yet.

The film is clearly intended for an audience that is decades younger than I am. There is not a single musical act in the film that I would pay to see or hear. Only one of the characters is remotely sympathetic; the rest are self-absorbed a-holes who think much more of themselves than their music is actually worth. However, the characters are edited so badly that it's hard to follow any of their individual story lines, so maybe this is a misrepresentation of them. It's hard to tell.

The director of the film is listed as one of the editors. In general, I think this is a really bad decision. I think the editor on a doc works best when they come in with no preconceived notions about the characters. I suspect that the director understood these characters much better because he spent so much personal time with them, but that does not translate to the movie. A new view on the material would have brought a lot to the film.

The final major problem with the film is the sound. Although the venue was clearly playing the film too soft, even with the level low it was clear that the sound was terrible. I was suprised to see a production sound crew listed in the credits. It sounded like all the material came from the internal mike on a cheap video camera. Sometimes this is adequate for interviews if the shot is a close-up, but for a concert film, the music sounded awful. There were times where they were showing an entire band on stage with the brass playing and all you could hear was guitar. This is not going to encourage anyone to buy albums.

It's a shame, the actual subject matter was quite interesting (how the economy and city development have changed the market for live music in Austin). I'd still like to see that movie.

Monday, November 08, 2010

WASTE LAND

WASTE LAND is a great documentary about the Brazilian artist Vic Muniz's project to make works of art of out materials taken from the world's largest landfill near Rio.

There are several layers of interest to this film. The first is his artistic method, which was to photograph the people who work at the dump, then recreate those images in very large form using garbage, then photographing the large works and selling the photos to provide charity relief to the workers at the landfill.

The next layer includes the stories of the workers themselves, who all seem surprisingly happy to be working at a dump, picking out recyclables all day long. There are some real interesting characters here. Some of them are very intelligent, and their self-education came literally from reading books that they find in the trash. ( I never expected trash men to be quoting Nietzsche, Machiavelli, or Sun Tzu.)

Finally there is the bizarre effect that the making of the artworks and the film have upon the workers. I'm not going to say any more here, because this film really needs to be seen. The biggest problem with the film is that it takes too long to get to the interesting characters; they spend more time than is necessary setting it up with the artist. But stick around until the end, it is very interesting.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fantastic documentary about the underground graffiti street art movement in the 90s and 00s. It's a weird film to describe. Thierry Guetta owned a clothing store in L.A. and was a video enthusiast who constantly shot his life. He happened to cross paths with some LA street artists and began shooting them. Eventually this led to an introduction to the now legendary street artist Banksy, and somehow he got permission to shoot him. Somehow at some point it became clear that Guetta was not really a filmmaker and Banksy decided to turn the film around, and reedit Guetta's material into a film about him.

The film is much more interesting than that description. It's a film about the very nature of art, and ultimately it unmasks the tenuous relationship to traditional art that street artists have. Their art is ultimately very derivative, yet the best of those artists (like Banksy) somehow manage to be creative and original even when ripping off other famous artists. Banksy comes off as very smart and funny (although he did direct and edit the film) and clearly he has one point of view of Guetta.

In the end the film is fascinating and I highly recommend it, but be prepared for a very strange trip. It's not at all what you expect.

Friday, November 05, 2010

STEAM OF LIFE

Truth is stranger than fiction, and that's why I like documentaries. I like foreign films because they frequently show us cultures that we would rarely see if it were not for their films.

STEAM OF LIFE is an absolutely fantastic film that happens to be both a doc and a foreign film. It's a tough film to recommend a film because is so different from what American audiences are used to seeing. It's a Finnish film. In fact it's hard to even describe, as its' really about... life itself.

Ostensibly, it's a film about saunas. But really, it's about the intimate bonding that happens when men share time in a sauna. I don't think there is an American parallel to this. Maybe the closest is the male bonding that happens when men get drunk together. But it's tough to recommend a film in which almost every shot of every scene there are naked (and very unattractive) men sitting together. (Seriously, where are the hot hunks? These guys are all old, flabby, or skinny as a rail.) And not much else happens. There's no action, it's just guys sitting around naked, and talking. Yet the stories so fascinating that they really draw you in. Some of the men speak so poetically you almost think it was scripted, but it's not, they are just being very honest about their life experiences.

The film is also extraordinarily well shot, especially when you consider how limited the choices must have been for sticking a camera in a sauna.

If you get the chance to see this film, I highly recommend it. You will be moved. I have a feeling that I will be thinking about these characters for a very long time.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

THE OATH

THE OATH is a documentary about two people. One, Abu Jandal, is a former bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden. The other, Salim Hamdan, is his brother-in-law, who was held in Guantanamo, was tortured, and brought a suit against the US government that went to the Supreme court (and which he won). However, the government then passed a new law allowing them to charge him on much vaguer charges retroactively.

This is a complex and difficult film to watch for a number of reasons. The problem with the film is that it is really two completely different stories that have been lumped together as though they are one. I would have preferred to see just one of the stories. The story of the brother-in-law is interesting in its own way, but since that subject was in prison and refused interviews, there's no way to make a movie about him. So it really would have made a lot more sense to make the movie about one character, Abu Jandal.

The first section of the film is really fascinating, in which he talks to younger people about the ideology of hating and killing innocent Americans. I actually felt nauseated while watching this. It's really frightening to know that this is going on. I really wish the whole documentary had been about this subject. Of course most American would never want to watch it, and some would be outraged that he has been given a platform to espouse his beliefs. But to me the fact that this is a story that has never been told in American cinema is exactly the reason to show it.

He is a fascinating character who is clearly in love with being on camera. He plays off his fame through association with Bin Laden. At the same time there are the obvious questions as to why he is being so pubic, and even why he is still alive if he was part of the group that worked towards 9/11. He not only evades those questions, he acts outraged that they were even asked of him.

He also has incredibly cute children. This dichotomy drives an interesting character, but ultimately the film falls apart as it goes nowhere with him and shifts to the brother-in-law story, which is more dramatic and has a better story arc, but all happens of-screen. This makes the audience feel unfulfilled. I recommend the film anyway simply on the subject matter, but the film stops far short of being complete.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

EVIL DEAD II

Well, for Halloween we watched the sequel, EVIL DEAD II, which was neither as good as I hoped, nor as bad as I'd feared after reviewing the first one. I can see why this film is popular with film students, the camerawork is amazing, but when the script and acting are terrible, who cares? There are several great set pieces, but I'd seen all of them as clips out of context over the years. Now I know why. The stuff in between them, where actors actually have dialogue, is really bad.

Like the first film, it looks like they were learning as they went along. The film seems to get better towards the end, but then, just as you're starting to get interested, it halts. They really have a problem with pacing in the film. They don't seem to understand that horror works best when it slowly builds to a climax. There's too much gore early on, leaving you nowhere to go in subsequent scenes.

The humor works, for the most part, and I wish there were more of it. But the thing I like least about horror films is the gore, and this has too much of it, and not all of it is funny or even gross-out funny.

I hope ARMY OF DARKNESS is better.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Psyched about PSYCHO with Live Orchestra!

(SPOILERS!!!)

PSYCHO
is one of my favorite movies of all time by one of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, and is one of my favorite films score by one of my favorite film composers, Bernard Herrmann. And it was one of a small number of films that motivated me to get into the film industry and film music specifically.

I've seen the film numerous times. I remember the first time I saw it in high school, on WSBK in Boston. I saw it again in a film class at MIT, for the first time on the big screen. And it is a different film on the big screen; as Goddard says, films on TV *are* TV. A simple close-up of a police officer wearing sunglasses becomes much more intimidating on the big screen.

I saw it again when the DVD came out, and once again with my wife a few years ago on Halloween. It is one of those rares films that stands up to many viewings. Just about everything about the film is perfect. The story by Robert Bloch, the script and dialogue by Joe Stefano, Hitch's brilliant direction, the art direction, and of course the score.

It was tonight that I saw it first with a large audience with the Colorado Symphony here at Boettcher Hall. People laughed in all the right places, where humor was intended. People also were clearly shocked at (SPOILER!!!) Arbogast's death. I had forgotten that this was a surprise. It was also clear that some people did not know the ending. I remember that naivete the first time I saw it. It's a very different film when you don't know what's coming.

The editing is excellent. One of the reasons the shower sequence is so effective is that the jump cuts come from out of nowhere. The rest of the movie uses a lot of master shots and long takes, and traditional coverage. Also the editing on Arbogast’s murder is very effective. Hitch threw out Saul Bass’s storyboards for that sequence because he felt that cutting to his feet walking up the stairs would tell the audience that something was going to happen. He wanted to catch them by surprise on this murder. And it worked!

I’ve heard people complain about the optical shot in that sequence looking phony. To me, I don’t think that’s supposed to look realistic. It’s supposed to represent Arbogast’s physical disorientation as he falls down the stairs. Like Scotty’s POV of the stairs in VERTIGO, it’s his psychological mood.


There’s a lot of great acting in the movie. If anyone doubts that, go watch Gus Van Sant’s awful remake. Anne Heche does not understand the character at all. Janet Leigh understood that she needed to care about Norman to make the characters interesting. Heche reacts like Norman is a nutbar from the minute she sees him. It telegraphs the ending of the film halfway through.

Hitch always told actors he would only direct them if they did not bring enough, brought too much, or needed help finding motivation for doing something at a specific moment that he had requested. When he had great actors (like Tony Perkins) he probably had to do almost nothing. In my limited experience, I always felt the right casting made the director’s job easy.

The movie was projected on a giant video screen above the orchestra. The resolution was excellent. I'm not sure why, but they screened it in the wrong format. They screened it at 1.66 when it was shot at 1.33.

Perhaps my expectations were too high with a live orchestra; perhaps it's because I know the score inside out, but the orchestra's performance was lackluster. This score is one of the most contemporary scores ever written, it should NOT sound musical or melodic. Remember, both Hitch and the studio were shocked when Herrmann announced that he was doing an all-string score. At that time, an all-string score was used for a love story, like "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" or "Theme from a Summer Place."

This is practically a master class on string writing. I remember seeing a performance of a suite from the film and remarking how physical an act it is to play this difficult music correctly. In the film, every tempo seems rushed and uncomfortable. It's supposed to do that. The music should not sound pretty, it should be grating. And the orchestra tonight did not understand that. Of course there is only the conductor to blame.

Also, there were no program notes about the film, music or composer… at all. Lame.

Nonetheless, it was fun to see it with a full house and a live orchestra.

Friday, October 29, 2010

EYES WITHOUT A FACE

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les yeux sans visage) is a French horror film from 1959. It showed up as a Netflix suggestion when I was searching for scary movies to watch for Halloween. Turns out it was a good suggestion, it's much more in the vein of what I enjoy than most horror films.

This is without a doubt one of the strangest films I've ever seen. The plot centers around a reconstructive surgeon who is obsessed with fixing his daughter after a car wreck destroys her face.

Most of it is much more of a thriller than a horror film. Parts of it seem more like an art film. The visual design is great, and very creepy. Marice Jarre's score is great as well, and the fact that little music is used adds the effectiveness of the film. In fact it seems that this film may have influenced 60s filmmakers from Rod Serling's TWILIGHT ZONE to Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (which I am psyched to see tomorrow night with live orchestra), as well as Kubrick/Spielberg’s later EYES WIDE SHUT.

One of the strange things about the film is its restraint in the first third. They never show the girl's disfigured face. But then they suddenly show, in gruesome detail, a face removal operation for a transplant. The scene is strangely staged like a medical documentary. With no music, it's surprisingly lifelike, although the incision and blood effects are weak, it's clear they were going for reality, and not the kind of gore we saw last night in EVIL DEAD.

The acting runs the gamut. Much of it is quite good, including the doctor and his daughter (the actresses' real face is never seen, yet she is truly creepy).

The other thing that is strange about this film is that it’s no longer science fiction, it’s actually medically possible to performa a face transplant. In fact I watched an interview over the summer with a face transplant recipient on ABC over the summer, and I remember remarking to my wife that it was like something out of a horror movie. Turns out it actually was. It’s adds another layer of weirdness to watching the film.

I would recommend this to fans of thrillers and foreign art films. It's very eerie and many of the visual images will stick with you.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE EVIL DEAD

I had seen THE EVIL DEAD before, based on the fact that film students go apeshit over the camerawork. I remember hating it the first time around, although honestly I remembered almost nothing about it, I'm pretty sure that I slept through most of it. But even most of the people who like it admit that the sequels are much better, and although I've seen parts of the sequels, I've never seen the whole films, and I felt like I should see the first one again to give the sequels a fair chance.

I suspect I was wrong, I didn't need to see this cliche-ridden film again. For the most part, it is terrible. There are moments of brilliance, mostly in the camerawork, but unlike last night's zombie film SHAUN OF THE DEAD, this film did not understand that most basic part of film-making: if you care about the characters, you won't notice the problems. The characters are completely undefined. Bruce Campbell is the only actor who rises above the material, everyone else, well, they deserved to die, although I wish it was a lot faster.

The amount of gore in the movie is way over the top, but not into parody range yet. The best sequences in the film are full of tension; the worst are full of blood. The film is an awful lot like the weaker entries in the FRIDAY THE 13th series, it's kids alone in a cabin getting killed off one by one.

I do have to admire Raimi for making the film, he basically sold the film based on a short he made in college and deliberately made it as a genre film to make money and prove that he could be successful. He also directed the camera well, but not much more. It looks like a 70s student film. Brilliant in parts, terrible for the most part. But clearly this guy had a future.

EVIL DEAD II will likely be Sunday night. I'm sure you're all dying for my review.

I'm hoping the sequels are a lot better.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

SHAUN OF THE DEAD

Horror films may not be my favorite genre, but there are still some great ones. Often they work best when they change up the genre, and comedy is a good way to watch a horror film but not take it too seriously. SHAUN OF THE DEAD surprised me by being more than a comedy. One of the nice parts is that they took the first 20 minutes of the film to establish character before making it a zombie movie. That character setup pays off several times in the film with emotionally dramatic scenes that work very well. The acting is quite good, the comic parts are hilarious, but the payoffs are really the dramatic moments. If you haven't seen this zombie film, I recommend it. Nice sound design, too.

Monday, October 25, 2010

THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE

Continuing with our Halloween creep-fest, I found THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE on Netflix for tonight. I really liked the Guillermo del Toro films I had previously seen, especially El Orfanato and Pan's Labyrinth. This film is a bizarre amalgamation of those two. It takes place in an orphanage in Franco's Spain, with a lot of echos of both those films (although this film is from 2001, so the echos are the other way around).

Del Toro is a great visual director, and does very well with the ghost story aspect. There is one crap-your-pants "boo" in the film that is very effective. The characters are interesting, the acting is good, for the most part (again, it's the children that stand out), and there's some nice sound design and music. The story is a little too predictable in part, but the execution is excellent. It's pretty creepy, but certainly not a horror film. I would however recommend it to people who liked Pan's Labyrinth but have not yet seen this.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

My wife found this creepy Swedish Vampire film and we watched it tonight on Netflix as part of our festival of scary movies. The movie has a lot going for it, including some of the best child acting I've ever seen. It's one of the most realistic depictions of 12 year-olds I've seen, which is interesting, considering that one of them is a vampire. It's also a very moody film.

Unfortunately the film has problems. It's paced poorly, and the ancillary characters (the adults) are one-dimensional. There's a lame subplot where one of them gets bitten and becomes a vampire; everything about this plot is far below the quality of the rest of the movie. It could easily have been excised to make it better.

But for a Halloween film, it's a lot better than most.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

SLAVA II: RETURN OF THE RUSKIES

Alexander Polianichko led the CSO in week two of Slavic-themed concerts with an all Russian program featuring the CSO Chorus.

The evening began with a piece I love to hear, the "Procession of the Nobles" by Rimsky-Korsakov. The brass and percussion sounded great. The chorus was gorgeous; I had never heard the choral version of this piece. This was followed by the Aria from Aleko by Rachmaninov. I had never heard this piece before but it was quite nice, and featured bass Jordan Bisch, who had a full basso sound that easily filled the hall.

The first half ended with the Suite from Swan Lake, which was of course an orchestral showpiece. It was here that conductor Alexander Polianichko got to show off his chops. He got a great performance out of the orchestra without having to do much as a conductor.

The second half was equally exciting. Borodin's “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor were luscious with the chorus. Mussorgsky's “Coronation Scene” from Boris Godunov was another fine performance although marred by problematic playback of pre-recorded bells.

The finale of the evening was another Tchaikovsky showpiece, the 1812 Overture. Unfortunately I've been spoiled by hearing this live at the Esplanade with fireworks and cannons. Yet I had never heard the chorale version, and hearing the voices in person made it a very special night.

It's nice to have the orchestra back, but I'd love to have a regular conductor instead of the revolving door on the guests. The house was much better this week, mostly full on the lower lever, and the liner notes were much better than the previous week.

Friday, October 22, 2010

ZOMBIELAND

Starting off the Halloween season, ZOMBIELAND was a good choice. I'm not a fan of horror films in general, and for the love of me I don't get the fascination with zombies, vampires and werewolves, but Zombieland did not take itself seriously and that made it an enjoyable viewing. Jesse Eisenberg is quite good, although he does come off as a Michael Cera clone at times. Woody Harrelson is crazy as always. Bill Murray was great. It's a fun but completely forgettable film.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

HACHI: A DOG'S TALE

Directed by Lasse Halleström (My Life as a Dog, Chocolat, Gilbert Grape, Cider House Rules), and starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen (three Oscar nominations), one has to wonder why the film HACHI: A DOG'S TALE was not released theatrically in the US. In other territories, the film did extremely well. Although the reviews in the US were not overwhelming, audience response was great. Yet the film was not released and wound up premiering on the Hallmark channel, a fate worse than death for a feature film. (In fact, Hallmark played it only once!)

The film certainly has problems. It's an adaptation of a true story, but in a very non-real way. The real story takes place in Japan in the 20s, and this version takes place in the US in the recent past. But the basic story, about a dog's love for his man is so wonderful, that I forgive the license they took with the story. The bigger problem is the fact that there really is no second act to the film. There is a long first act and a predictable second act. Nonetheless, if you are an animal lover like me, you will end up a blubbering mess by the end of the film. It's a truly wonderful story, with great performances by both leads. Jason Alexander is also in the film, although miscast in a tiny role as the train station manager.

The real stars of the film are the dogs who play Hachi at various points in his life. The dog is truly emotive throughout the film, a testament to the director's fine work. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's score also supported the film quite well.

Hachi the dog, is still well known in Japan, in fact, there is still a statue dedicated to him in Tokyo. Hopefully this film will be relased on video soon so that other animal lovers in the US can see it and enjoy the film without the constant commercial interruptions of the Hallmark channel.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

SLAVA!

The Colorado Symphony performed a a concert of music by Slavic composers tonight, titling the concert SLAVA! This was the first concert of our season package. The program was a bit odd. It opened with the Marche Slave of Tchaikovsky, which is really more of a showstopper than an overture. The orchestra played very emotionally despite lackluster conducting by guest Peter Oundjian, who was strangely unemotional.

This was followed by the Concerto #1 for Piano, Trumpet & Strings by Shostakovitch. More of an intellectual piece, it was still quite enjoyable. I liked the trumpet part a lot, played by Justin Bartels, principal with the orchestra. The piano was played by Lise de la Salle, who was also quite good.The balance was a bit off, the piano could have used a little amplification in that muddy hall, but the trumpet sounded great.

After a very, very long intermission, the next piece was Taras Bulba by Janácek. This was a strange piece to place on a long program, but one that is underplayed. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was clear Oundjian enjoyed conducting this a lot more than the previous two pieces. The concert ended with the Cappricio Espagnol of Rimsky-Korsakov. Played beautifully by the orchestra, particularly the violin solo by Yumi Hwang-Williams.

One of the reasons there was a smooth transition for me when I moved here was the presence of Steven Ledbetter's excellent program notes. Steve had done the program notes for the Boston Symphony for many years and I remembered his writing quite well. He is probably the one of the most well known music writers in the country. For completely inexplicable reasons, the orchestra's publicity department decided to "go in a different direction" this year, even though Jeffrey Kahane had specifically requested Steven's notes. I hate to obsess on the program notes, but this is really symptomatic of the terrible series of changes the orchestra has gone through this year. The first mistake was completely screwing up the subscribers' ticket renewals, resulting in all kinds of terrible publicity for the orchestra (which I wrote about here).

The new writer did not take the time to explain who Taras Bulba was, so the conductor had to do it from the stage, which was a bit embarrassing, as Oundjian made it look like a heroic tale of Cossacks raping and killing Poles. (Because of the theme of the concert, there were a lot of Slavs in the audience, I don't think that went over too well.) The new notes did not even mention the Cappricio, as if it were some kind of mistake or late addition (it was not). As both a season ticket holder and a donor to the orchestra, I am quite let down by the decision to let Steve go.

The hall was, at best, one-third full, which makes it difficult for me to believe their publicity department when they claim that they had the most successful subscriber campaign ever.

I'm looking forward to the orchestra choosing a new regular conductor.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

For the Bible Tells Me So

For the Bible Tells Me So is a very important documentary about gay children coming out to their parents. It is particularly timely right now, as the country increasingly becomes divisive, and gay teens are desperate enough to commit suicide. There are a lot of great interviews, including Dick Gephardt and his daughter.

I can't imagine how difficult it is to grow up gay in this country. But this film gives an idea of what gay teens have to deal with. It does an excellent job of dissecting the biblical arguments against homosexuality, and gives a lot of interviews with religious people about the subject. Bishop Desmond Tutu is among those interviewed.

I highly recommend the film.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

THE PALM BEACH STORY

Continuing to catch up on Preston Sturges films I have not seen, last night I watched THE PALM BEACH STORY. There's a lot of great stuff in the film,but it's nowhere near one of his best films. The cast is great, Joel McCrea as Tom Jeffers , the wonderful Claudette Colbert as his wife Gerry, Rudy Vallee as John D. Hackensacker the third, and Mary Astor as Princess Centimillia, all form a wonderful foursome in the third act of the film. Alas, it takes too long to get there. (Plus you've got to love the character names, one of whom is simply "The Weenie King.")

The plot is not one of his best. Colbert's character decides to divorce her husband to allow him a chance to succeed as a businessman (this part is hard to swallow) so she takes a train to Palm Beach, where, she's been told, it's easy to get a quickie divorce. The first act flies by quite well. In fact, the opening three minutes of main title sequence as so brilliant I would say that to this day it is still one of the best main titles of all time. If you can watch the first three minutes and not want to watch the rest of the film immediately, something is wrong with you. Ironically, the events in the sequence are not mentioned again until the last few seconds of the film.

The second act of the film is where it really bogs down. On the train, Colbert runs into a group of drunken hunters. Sturges' relationship with slapstick is always hit or miss; it's his wordplay and his characters that are his strength. Watching a group of men fire rifles at crackers being tossed by the black bartender on the train is almost painful. In fact, the stereotype of the bartender is indeed painful to watch. Even worse, in the end credits, the character is simply "Colored Bartender," and, like a dog, the actor is given only a one word name for his credit: Snowflake. (Ugh.) His real name was Fred Toones.

The third act redeems itself nicely with a bit of a screwball plot twist and, as always, Sturges' brilliant dialogue. There are so many great lines, it's almost impossible to pick favorites. But here are a few:

Tom Jeffers: So this fellow gave you the look?
Gerry Jeffers: At his age it was more of a blink.

Tom Jeffers: Seven hundred dollars! And sex didn't even enter into it, I suppose?
Gerry Jeffers: Sex always has something to do with it, dear.

Gerry Jeffers: Anyway, men don't get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.

J. D. Hackensacker III: Chivalry is not only dead, it's decomposed.

Wienie King: Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That's hard to say with false teeth!

John D. Hackensacker III: That's one of the tragedies of this life - that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous.

Princess Centimillia: You will care for me, though. I grow on people. Like moss.

John D. Hackensacker III: Do you happen to remember how much tip I gave the taxi driver?
Gerry Jeffers: Well, I didn't see the coin, but from his face, I think it was ten cents.
John D. Hackensacker III: Tipping is un-American.

If you're Sturges fan, you need to see this film.

Friday, October 01, 2010

KING OF KONG

Darth Vader. Blofeld. Hannibal Lecter.

Add to that list of famous movie villains a new name: Billy Mitchell. Except, this time, it's not a work of fiction, he is from the documentary KING OF KONG. Of course, even documentaries take a point of view, so it may be a one-sided story, but in the context of the film, he is indeed a completely revolting snake oil salesman who claims to hold the world record for Donkey Kong.

I never played Donkey Kong, but I played a lot of other video games in the early 80s when I was at MIT. I understand the obsession that these games breed. I played Defender, Galaga, Joust, Centipede, and numerous other games. In grad school I became obsessed with Tetris and Dark Castle on the Mac. When I started actually working for a living, it became impossible to waste time on video games and I stopped.

A few years ago I decided that I would try to get more in touch with the video game generation and I bought an XBox. I quickly found the only game I had even a remote interest in was the MLB Baseball game. But not having played any video games for over a decade, I was routinely losing to children and it was very frustrating. It reminded me that one of the things I hated about video games was that no matter how good you are, in the end, you finish by losing the game.

So when I came out of my coma after a lengthy illness, one of the first things that I decided was that I was not going to waste another valuable moment of my life doing something that I did not enjoy, and playing video games was one of those things. After I returned from the hospital, I threw my XBox into the trash can.

This meant that I went into viewing this film with a lot of my own personal back-story, even though I never played Kong. Honestly, I expected the movie to be a lot like TREKKIES, which was filled with lovable losers, social rejects, and eccentric weirdos. Although that is certainly true to some extent, the characters are much more like pro athletes than the rejects I expected. The real hero of the film (the way that events are presented) is Steve Wiebe (rhymes with bee-bee), a former baseball and basketball player who is a junior high science teacher with a loving wife and two kids.

Early in the film there is a reference to a game venue in New Hampshire called the FUNSPOT. I actually had to stop watching because instantaneously a huge flood of memories came back to me. Even though it was clearly a new sign, I knew immediately that this was in Weirs Beach on Lake Winnipesaukee. When I was in elementary school, my parents had a summer cabin close enough to Weirs Beach that we frequently visited there. Our cabin was far enough away from everything else that I was constantly bored and would beg my parents to take me to the Funspot so that I would have something to do. Of course, at that time there were no video games (although at home we had Pong), at the Funspot I played mostly pinball, Skee-ball, "the claw," and miniature golf. It was about as much fun as I could have at that age.

Strangely, I had not thought about the great times we had there in ages. Even weirder, I had just written about my father because of a newspaper article about them, and on Facebook had mentioned my mother because of the anniversary of her death. In fact, these are some of the last memories I have of my parents together before my mother died, and certainly some of the happiest. So a movie that already had personal meaning to me suddenly became much more personal. Imagine my surprise when the second act of the film returns to that venue for a lengthy competition. It was really weird to watch.

In any case, Mitchell becomes an easy villain because he relies on fame that is 25 years old when he set a Donkey Kong record, and then repeatedly refuses to participate in a live contest, yet continues to claim championship. It's very easy to hate him. In fact, if you type "Billy Mitchell" into the Google search, predictive text assumes you are going to search for "Billy Mitchell is a Douchebag." (I wish I were making this up.) As easy it is to hate him, it's just as easy to like Weibe, who clearly charms his junior high school students as the guy next door.

This is one of those documentaries, that, like SPELLBOUND, is fascinating no matter how little of an interest you have in the subject matter. I highly recommend this to all.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ron Burgundy

Catching up on some comedies I missed, I'm reminded at how good Will Ferrell is as an actor. He really carries a lot of this movie, much of it improvised, I expect. The whole film is well cast, although Steve Carrell is underutilized. Otherwise the film has enough laugh-out-loud moments to justify the rental cost.

The script is actually pretty good, there is an actual story arc (more than I can say for some of the other comedies I've recently seen). Christina Applegate is also good in her role, which is a little surprising considering how weak she has been in other films.

I'm not sure why the film is not out on BluRay. Not that it matters much with a film shot like this, but it's still a much better looking format than DVD.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE was a pleasant surprise in several ways. Thirty minutes into the film I was almost ready to give up. I don't expect much from a comedy, only a laugh now and then. It wasn't happening. However, it turns out that I was wrong, it wasn't so much a comedy as a dramedy. It gets better as it goes along. There aren't that many big laughs, but the characters do get more interesting. At first I was turned off by the one-dimensional characters, but Rob Corddry especially gives a great performance, which I did not at all expect. John Cusack is always good and Clark Duke was also good in his role.

The script has a lot of funny references to other time-travel movies, most notably BACK TO THE FUTURE, including a recurring cameo by Crispin Glover. It's a smarter movie than it seems at first, and in the end enjoyable. Definitely more of a guy movie though.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I CAN AND I WILL





Dad in rear center. Coaches Frank Defelice and Dick Lynch in rear with him. Front left is Mike Lynch, now sportscaster in Boston on WCVB.Right is co-captain James Carone. (1970)


The Salem News recently ran an article about my father, who passed away eight years ago but is still remembered in the area quite well:

http://www.salemnews.com/multimedia/x955425801/Best-of-the-Best

Coincidentally to that article running, I had just found a web site about Swampscott High School football run by head coach Stephen Dembowski with most of the pictures in that article:

http://www.eteamz.com/swampscottfootball/index.cfm?

I was water-boy when he was at SHS. I was in elementary and junior high school, and was usually in the locker room for Dad's speeches. Even when he left for Bishop Fenwick, I was often there for the speeches as well. They played on Sundays so I was able to be an assistant trainer for the team early in high school until I became too busy in our band.

His speeches were very motivational. I wish I had inherited some of those skills. Dad had a way of making a performance out of every speech, where he would start small and personal, and slowly get bigger and bigger until reached a fiery climax, riling up the team and sending them charging out to field feeling like they were Titans who could beat anybody.

I don't remember the text of a lot of the speeches but I do remember a couple of things he said. One I remember very well because I was there when he wrote it. Dad was a very popular public speaker at conventions, athletic conferences and football camps. Sometimes he would bring me along, especially at summer camps. One summer we went to a camp, I can't remember which one, and I can't remember how old I was either. I think I was probably about 10 years old.

Anyway, he had a speech prepared, and it was to be given at an outdoor stage, and we walked in and above the stage were written the words I CAN AND I WILL in huge block letters. I have no idea whether this was the title of a play that was going to be put on there, or whether it was just a motivational phrase someone at the camp came up with, and I know my dad had no idea either, but when he saw it, he looked at me, said "I'm giving a whole different speech." He walked on stage and improvised one of the most exciting and motivational speeches I had ever seen, ending with those words in a big climax, and convincing the kids listening that they could do anything. (I can't watch the movie EMPIRE STRIKES BACK without thinking of that speech when Yoda tells Luke "Do, or do not. There is no 'try.'") Dad's speech worked so well that I CAN AND I WILL became a catch phrase for him and he used it many times subsequently in other speeches. I said those words many times to myself when I was recovering form a life-threatening illness a few years ago.

Years later, when I went to MIT, I took some filmmaking classes with Ricky Leacock, a noted documentary filmmaker. I decided to make docs about the two most influential men in my life, Herb Pomeroy (whom I have written about before here) and my dad. I have them on VHS somewhere. Maybe I can transfer them to disc and post portions of them on my blog. Anyway, in fall of 1984 when he was back at SHS, I got some footage of one of Dad's speeches. He said two things in the speech that I will always remember. One was "I CAN AND I WILL." The other was:

"I know why your parents love you, because I do too."


.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

CSO Donor Concert



My wife and I donate a minuscule amount of money to the Colorado Symphony, and this year they had what they called the “First Annual Donor Concert,” which was a potpourri of favorites that will be played during the season. I think the concert was somewhat of an apology to fans of the orchestra for the incredible shoddy treatment that happened to subscribers during the transition to a new publicity firm. The president of the orchestra claimed that this was the most successful donor campaign ever, as well as the most successful subscriber season, although I really find that hard to believe.

When I looked at the list of pieces, my first thought was that these were all very, very familiar pieces, and that might result in a dull concert. Conductor Douglas Boyd stated that they had almost no rehearsal time (he had flown in that afternoon), but it sure did not show in their performance. It turned out to be one of the most exciting concerts I’ve heard. Although some of the pieces I had heard many times in person (I’m almost sick of Berlioz at this point), there were several pieces I know very well but had never heard in person.

Also, I had forgotten how much I missed the sound of the orchestra. It’s been almost four months since I heard the CSO and two months since the NY Phil concerts we heard. The opening notes of "Die Zauberflöte" sent chills down my spine just hearing the orchestra. The orchestra had a couple of rough patches early on in the concert, but all was quickly forgiven.

No matter how many times I hear Beethoven’s Fifth, it still moves me. The tempo was bit fast, but it was a great performance.

One of the highlights of the night was hearing the new principal flautist on “Afternoon of a Faun.” Debussy was brilliantly inventive not only harmonically but orchestrationally. The instant she began playing there was a gorgeous sound from the orchestra, which grew throughout the piece. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard this piece in person either, even though it is one of my favorites.

Perhaps the most peculiar mood change came with a speedy transition from “Greensleeves” to Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance.” Both pieces were very well played, but the programming sounded like someone changing stations on the radio.

The second highlight of the evening was the Finale from The Firebird. I’ve played this piece before, in Carnegie Hall, no less, but I don’t think I’ve heard it in person. Like the Debussy, this is an orchestrational showpiece, and brilliantly performed by the orchestra. I’ll say it again, this is one of the best orchestras in the country. The crowd went crazy, and I think everyone who left the hall left excited to hear the upcoming season. I know I am. Alas, our first tickets are not for another month. I’ll be waiting.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rockies Win 9th in a Row

But they are still 3rd in the divisional and WC races, 3.5 games back in each. Ubaldo pitched well, giving up only 1 run in 6 innings, but did not get the win.

Nonetheless a sellout crowd of 48,000 went crazy all night long supporting their home team. THe Rockies sold over 7600 walk-up tickets.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA

THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA is a good documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, who released the top secret "Pentagon Papers" that ultimately led to the end of the Viet Nam war, as well as indirectly leading to Nixon's resignation. It's suprisingly timely with the release of the WikiLeak documents, which parallel the case in that the release of government documents is illegal, yet one could argue that their release is more important than the secrets that are being kept.

It's a good film but it does bog down a bit in the middle. It is completely one-sided with Ellsberg narrating the film, and the re-enactments are a bit on the cheesy side. Yet, it's an important story in American history. Worth watching if you are a fan of history.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

OUTRAGE

OUTRAGE should probably have been titled OUT RAGE, as it is a documentary about the outing of gay politicians. I have to admit that I was surprised at how much new material there is in this film. I follow politics to some extent but there is a lot in this film that I had no idea about. There are a lot of great interviews with gay writers and some with politicians as well. Even though the film is now a year old, it still is very relevant to current issues (sadly) about homophobia in our culture. The film is very well edited by my friend Doug Blush.

It's difficult for me to imagine how a gay man could be actively homophobic, but the movie makes a case that much of the anti-gay legislation of the last decade is actually the result of gay politicians who are afraid to come out of the closet. I'm sure many of them told themselves that an anti-gay constitutional amendment would never pass (and it did indeed fail) but by supporting it, they gave credence to homophobic arguments. Thankfully, Proposition 8 has been overturned in California. But as we approach the 2012 election, expect gay marriage to be a major issue again.

I very strongly recommend this movie to anyone who is interested in these issues.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A SINGLE MAN

Finally got around to seeing the moody film A SINGLE MAN. I can see why some people did not like it; the film has almost no plot or action in it, yet I found it involving. It's a beautiful film, with rich, gorgeous cinematography and art direction, and a very nice score. There's a nice use of color in the film.

The acting is quite good and everyone is well cast. However, the last third of the film seems to meander a bit aimlessly even though the plot and action finally pick up. The ending is very unsatisfying; I almost wish nothing had happened at the end instead of trying to give a it a finale that seems meaningless.

Nonetheless, worth a viewing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

After watching the excellent documentary THEY CAME TO PLAY, directed by Romanian filmmaker Alex Rotaru, I decided it was time to catch up on Romanian filmmaking by watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. I had heard a lot of great things about the film, and I had loved the previous two Romanian films I had seen, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest (previously reviewed on my blog).

Alas, 4 Months is nowhere near as good as either of those films. There is very little character development n the film; so little in fact that the film feels improvised, and not in a good, in a way that makes the film ramble pointlessly between scenes.

I did appreciate the cinematic choice of shooting almost every scene in one long continuous take. For a film about time, this seems like an appropriate choice. The problem is that it is very difficult to care about anyone in the film.

SPOILERS!!!

The woman who is pregnant is not the through-character, but you would think that you would care about a young woman desperately in need of an abortion. But there is no attempt to make her sympathetic, in fact, she continually lies throughout the film and digs her own hole deeper and deeper. And there is never an explanation of backstory. Where is the father? Were they unable to get contraception? Why has she chosen abortion?

The main character, her friend, is slightly more sympathetic in that she is at least trying to help, but she makes some terrible choices, and ends up making her own life miserable as a result. I don't have a problem with a movie being a downer. Mr. Lazarescu is perhaps the most depressing film I've ever seen. The difference is that I cared about the characters in that film. In this one, they make annoying choices that create their own problems. It's hard to care about them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rockies Beat Dodgers 5-3


A little on the warm side, but otherwise another gorgeous night at Coors for the Rockies, with a 5-3 victory over the Dodgers. The Rockies are still a long shot in the wild card hunt, but they are clearly trying hard. Tonight they played quite well. Chacin went 7 strong innings and gave up one run. The other two runs were from Street, who came into the 9th in a non-save but gave up the runs.

Helton and CarGo each hit home runs. Cargo also got a triple. The crowd was of 45,000 was strong, especially when booing Manny. It was almost like being in Boston again (towards the end).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

THEY CAME TO PLAY

I have previously written about my musical mentor, Herb Pomeroy, in my blog, most notably here. Herb surprised me by being a fan of amateur sports. He had that in common with my father, who loved high school sports more than anything. Herb conducted the band I was in at MIT in addition to being a full-time faculty member at Berklee College of music (where I also studied with him). He remarked more than once that although he loved teaching at Berklee, in some ways he enjoyed conducting the MIT band more, because the musicians there were doing it solely for the love of the music.

I thought of this many times while watching the outstanding documentary THEY CAME TO PLAY. The film is about the Van Cliburn competition; no, not the famous one, the Amateur Competition for people over 35 years old. Anyone who has had a professional music career is ineligible for the competition. Many of the competitors are people who gave up music early in life, only to return to it later. Many of them also have excelled in other fields from medicine to business to professional sports.

I must admit that I am biased about this film. The director, Alex Rotaru, was a student of mine over a decade ago at USC, where he took my film music class. I'd like to think that class had some influence on his appreciation for music.

The film is a bit similar to Jeff Blitz's brilliant documentary SPELLBOUND about a spelling competition. Any competition-based doc is bound to be compared to that film, but it is indeed a compliment. THEY CAME TO PLAY is most similar in that it really focusses quite well on the characters - and I mean, it, they really are CHARACTERS in the movie. There are competitors from all over the world, all walks of life, men and women, all races. They will make you laugh and care about them.

The film is extremely well-edited and structured. It is well shot (although the projection I saw looked like a DVD and not HD resolution). In fact the only criticisms I would have are completely technical, things like mike noise were intrusive in the interviews. Otherwise the film is very involving and moving. The audience I was with (maybe 20 people at the screening) laughed in all the right places, and applauded several times for performances. It is quite a film.

If you are at all a fan of classical music, this film will speak to you. The sheer joy of loving music shines through this film at every moment. You will be moved by these people and their love of playing. Please look for screenings, buy the DVD when it is released, or watch for the film on TV, it's likely to end up on PBS or some other venue.

You can get more info here:

http://www.theycametoplay.com/


.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

MOTHER

Based on a number of comments I read on Facebook, I decided to watch the Korean film MOTHER on BluRay. The film is the story of a mother's love for her son, and how she will do anything to protect him. The son in the story is a mentally-challenged young man who has been accused of murdering a young girl. The mother is forced to become a detective to find out who killed her.

This is an extraordinarily well made film on every level. The cinematography is gorgeous, and perfectly suited to the film's story. There's a lot about the film that feels Hitchcockian as well. There's not much score, but what's there is very effective.

The acting is outstanding. The woman who plays the mother covers a very full range of emotions, and the young man is very convincing as well, without becoming the typical Hollywood cliche of mentally challenged (Rain Man, Forest Gump).

I highly recommend this film.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

20,000 Served!


Thursday was the 4th Anniversary of my starting this blog. A week ago today, a reader in France who looked at my post about the Wilhelm Scream became the 20,000th person to visit. I never thought that would happen. But it has, just before I return to school tomorrow for meetings, with classes starting a week from tomorrow.

I hope I haven't bored the crap out of too many of you.The map above shows the location of the last 100 visitors. Looks like a well-rounded group.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rockies Lose in Extra Innings




I did not want to spoil it, but before tonight, I had been to 9 Rockies games in the regular season and they won them all. In fact, if you add the two pre-season games, I was undefeated in 11 games (although one ended in a tie).

It had to happen eventually, but I did not expect it tonight. The Rockies played fairly well, with a huge home run by Todd Helton and two fantastic outfield assists from CarGo. And three errors from the Brewers. They should have won.

But they did not. Mostly due to a poor outing by Huston Street in the tenth, who had difficulty getting the outs. He took the 5-4 loss.

At this point it looks extremely unlikely that the Rockies will go to post season. There are just too many teams fighting it out fot the wild card who are above them right now. It's too bad, they should have been a much better team this year.

It was, nonetheless, a gorgeous night for a game. 39,000 fans agreed.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

WERNER HERZOG

Ever since I saw Siskel & Ebert review FITZCARRALDO and BURDEN OF DREAMS (the documentary about the making of the film), they have been on my list of films to see. It took 20 years, but I finally fulfilled that, after seeing an episode of BOONDOCKS featuring Herzog as himself reminded me. Since then, there is a third film I had added to that list, Mein liebster Feind, Herzog's documentary about star Klaus Kinski after he died.

Unfortunately neither of the first two films had aged well. Fitzcarrado is much too long and takes itself way too seriously. The script is very weak. Although the characters are inherently interesting because they are all crazy, they all lack any range or development and are one-dimensional. The plot is very predictable except for the ending which makes no sense at all and is completely illogical and unbelievable. Kinski is a great actor but chews the scenery in several scenes, including the ending. I'd really like to see the aborted film with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger. Robards looks much more believable.

Burden (directed by Les Blank) is interesting in that it shows the making of the film, but Herzog comes off terribly, monologizing to the camera about insanely unrelated issues. He directs like a tyrant, and when he finally does one smart thing in the film (shooting with a mock-up instead of a real boat) he declares it cannot be good because the actors are not "real." You almost hope the film fails after seeing this doc.

Herzog redeems himself with age in Fiend. He doesn't even look like the same person. He seems to have gained a sense of humor, and freely discusses his plot to kill Kinski. Some of the footage in this film is from Burden; one must wonder why it wasn't in that film, it's better than anything in it. It shows the real Kinski, going crazy over craft services. Of the three films, this is by far the most watchable, but only if you have seen enough films by the two stars, Kinski and Herzog.

All three are worth watching, by Fiend is by far the best of the three.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, the sequel to the Swedish film THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a vastly inferior film to the original. Stuck in the middle of a trilogy, it has all the problems of a sequel plus the problems of the prequel to the finale.

Although there are some nice plot ideas, there is almost no character or character development in the film. It's hard to talk about any of this without giving away surprises (that aren't very surprising) but suffice it to say that none of the character relationships are fleshed out, and in fact some of them make no sense.

There is an unfortunate influence of American films, in terms of both the generic score and the absurd obligatory car chase in the middle of the film (with only ancillary characters included). I'm sure some of this comes from the book. Another problem is that the two major characters are never in the same scene until the end of the film. In the first film, they rewrote the book to give them reasons to be together. In this one, there are large leaps in plot that make no sense.

The first half hour of the film has no structure and is needlessly repetitive of the first film. The last half hour is cliched, predictable and anti-climactic, while still feeling like there is no ending. There are clearly deliberate loose ends to give them something to do in the final film.

I haven't read the books, but I've been told that book two was by far the worst and book three by far the best, so it's probably worth seeing for the finale. But not worth seeing on the big screen.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

ARTS & CRAFTS!

Please watch this hilarious video from the director of THE HEBREW HAMMER. I would love to take credit for the sound effects, but all I did was mix it. Don't forget to vote FUNNY after you watch it! To vote, click on the FUNNY OR DIE logo on the bottom, or watch it directly on their page with the link below the video.



http://FunnyOrDie.com/m/4fom

Thursday, July 29, 2010

BRANFORD MARSALIS & THE NEW YORK PHIL

I worked with Branford Marsalis on a couple of TV projects, and I learned that he is a very driven man, one who wants to prove that he can do anything. Tonight he stretched boundaries by performing two orchestral pieces for alto saxophone. Tenor is his normal horn; I'd never heard him play alto before. The two pieces were the Glazunov concerto and a rarely-heard Sonata by Schulhoff.

Branford's playing from a technical standpoint was impeccable. He really learned these pieces perfectly, which is a necessity for a crossover artist who wishes to prove that he is capable in a different idiom. His tone quality was perfect, like a fine aged wine.

However, both pieces lack drama, and neither inspired the emotional playing that makes Branford such a good musician. The Glazunov in particular is a very dry piece that is more intellectual than emotional. The Schulhoff is a jazzy piece, but the orchestra had problems. The orchestration is weird enough; a small brass section, drum kit, two(?) basses, and a large woodwind section do not really blend well.

To make things worse, this small orchestra stayed in the basic large orchestra seating, which put the brass about 75' from the soloist. They never seemed together. They also never really got into the swing very well. The drummer did not help. Neither did the acoustics. Yesterday we sat quite close, but today we were further back, and the orchestra was still quite dry. The tent is open behind the orchestra, and of course there is no back to the tent either (so that people on the lawn can see and hear). There is a simple fix for this; the Boston Symphony has done this for at least three decades at the Esplanade: add reverb. It might seem like an odd idea, but without it, an orchestra does not seem like an orchestra. There is amplification, although I think it is underutilized, so it would be easy to add some concert hall to the sound of the orchestra.

Nonetheless, Branford sounded great, and the crowd very much enjoyed his playing.

Things changed drastically after the intermission. Conductor Andrey Boreyko led the orchestra quite well in the two suites from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. The entire performance was fantastic. Boreyko is a very emotional conductor and drew the best out of the orchestra. The encore, from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, was just as good, and a highlight of the evening.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

NEW YORK PHIL

To continue our anniversary celebration, my wife and I saw the New York Phil conducted by Bram Tovey tonight, whom I have reviewed twice before, conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. He was much better tonight. I'm not sure if he was simply in a better mood (he was quite funny) or if he likes Vail, or the NY Phil better, or if he's more comfortable with a smaller crowd, but he seemed much more at ease and more emotionally connected with the operatic excerpts performed tonight.

The star of the night though was lyric soprano Nicole Cabell (originally from Panorama City, CA), whose voice was delicious. She sang numerous arias, including Mozart, Donizetti and Puccini, all with perfect tone and pitch and a gorgeous fluidity. She also used a nice dynamic range that went from the intimate to the back of the hall.

The orchestra played nicely, particularly on the finale from Massenet's LE CID. Much of this music was new to me, as was the venue. The tent is not as good as Aspen's acoustically, but we were seated quite close and it felt very personal.


Last night we went to a chamber music concert that was equally appealing. It was a trio with Zuill Bailey on cello, Orion Weiss on piano, and Anne Akiko Meyers on violin. The cellist was very emotional, although he had pitch problems on his high string in some of the songs he played by Brahms and Mendlessohn. But overall he played very well.

They also played a ragtime piece by Paul Schoenfield that I had never heard before. It was quite a nice piece. The major piece of the evening was a trio by Tchaikovsky that I had never heard before. It was longer than I expected but everyone played quite well on it, particularly the pianist.

So far the trip has been great. Tomorrow we will see one more concert, then head home.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

Thanks to Netflix instant, I could see the original Swedish film before the American remake screws things up.

I have not read the book (my wife has) but I've heard a lot of good things about it. Even with a 2 1/2 hour movie, it's pretty clear that there is a lot left out in the film. For the most part, it flows well, but it's also clear that the many members of the family are not very well fleshed out in the film and that there are things missing. However there is only one ellipse near the end of the film that is disturbing, but I can overlook that in the long run. It's hard to say much more without blowing any surprises.

The cast is excellent, and the characters are complex and clearly there is more to come in the sequels. I would recommend the film for fans of the genre.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I don't get it.

I went to look at the reviews of Vicky Cristina Barcelona after finally seeing it, trying to figure out what I missed. Apparently what I missed is that the film is a comedy.

Where's the funny?

The script is really weak (I don't understand all the nominations and awards it got). The acting is quite good, and it's beautifully shot, but that's about all I can say for it. The characters do not at all seem real and seem to have no motivations for doing anything they choose to do in the movie. It also has perhaps the least satisfying ending of any Woody Allen film, although to be honest the film lost me long before that point.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rockies Win 6th in a Row!


The Colorado Rockies won their 6th straight game tonight against the San Diego Padres, who are in 1st place, but now only by a game, with one more game against the Rox tomorrow before the All-Star break.

Hammel pitched 6.1 innings and gave up only 2 runs. Belisle, Beimel and Street were all perfect in relief. LeBlanc pitched well for the Padres, but gave up 3 home runs, which accounted for all 4 Rockies runs. CarGo and Mora each had one homer, with the other from Eldred, whom I saw hit a towering homer in spring training, and again tonight left no doubt about his power when he launched the ball into right field.

It was a gorgeous night for a ball game, with 45,000 attending, including a record 10,000 tickets in walk-up sales.

The Rockies seem to be doing very well. Tomorrow if they win, they will go to the All-Star break tied for first place. That would make for a nice break!