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 Jan√°cek. 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.