Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve with the Colorado Symphony!




For the fourth year in a row, my wife and I have enjoyed New Year's Eve with the symphony. It's a great way to ring in the new year, and the orchestra sounded great as always. Every year the theme has been Vienna, but this year there was an emphasis on Mozart in the first half. It was a nice departure. Also different this year was the choice to use vocal soloists, which was a nice addition. There was a slight pandering to the audience with the Toy Symphony and a few other goofy choices, although they were still quite enjoyable.

And for the fourth year in a row, we loved it!

Friday, December 30, 2011

BUGS BUNNY AT THE SYMPHONY (redux)


BUGS BUNNY AT THE SYMPHONY (redux) is our second visit to see this show. The first time was at the Hollywood Bowl three years ago, at which they announced that they were retiring the show for a year to re-conceive it. The show had been on for 19 years, so it was time for a break, although it was a blast to see it at the bowl because so many of the cartoons take place there.

Tonight was performed on New Year's Eve's Eve, to a large crowd in Denver with the Colorado Symphony. The show was just as enjoyable as before, although I'm sorry they did not show ONE FROGGY EVENING. Like before, only about half the show is live orchestra, the rest is the original cartoons with the original performances of the music. Perhaps the highlight of this live performance was a Road Runner cartoon, which showed off the orchestra's incredible abilities. Carl Stalling was insane, that's all I have to say.

The lowlight of the evening were three pieces for Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo and the Flintstones. The Tom & Jerry short probably would have been OK if we had not just seen two VERY similar (and much better) Bugs Bunny cartoons. The other two montages were clearly aimed at the youngest audience members. I have to admit it was great to see so many kids laughing at the WB cartoons decades after I discovered them, which was already decades after they were made. If you get a chance, see this show. You will love it!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE DESCENDANTS

THE DESCENDANTS is quite a fine film from director Alexander Payne, whose film SIDEWAYS is one of my favorites.

The film is extremely well written and full of real complex characters and emotions. I like going in to a film knowing nothing about it, and the film was full of interesting but believable plot turns. Clooney gives perhaps his best performance yet. The rest of the cast are relative unknowns and are all stellar.

Highly recommended.

THE HELP

I saw THE HELP last summer but neglected to review it. To be honest I was afraid to write a negative review. The truth is it is certainly watchable and has some great performances, but overall it is a forgettable film, which is kind of surprising, considering the subject matter. Very little about the film rang true to me, it seemed contrived an manipulative, and a very Hollywood, sanitized version of how difficult it must have been to grow up black in the south, working for white families.

I'd love to see a real, personal film about this topic some day, written by someone who really experienced it from the black people's side of the story.

Monday, December 26, 2011

LOTUS EATERS

LOTUS EATERS is the longest 75 minutes of my life.

The term refers to hedonists. The self-indulgence shown by the characters in this film is outdone only by the self-indulgence of the filmmaking. The characters are so despicable that I would have preferred they all be killed by a bomb 15 minutes into the film. This would not only have been a more satisfying ending, but staring at a black screen for another hour would have been better than watching this drivel. I have no idea how or why it got into the respectable Tribecca Fest.

The characters are a bunch of teenagers who do drugs and have sex all the time. Yeah, I've never seen that before in a film. The characters never  go to work, but they also do not appear to be rich. They seem to have no life commitments other than getting stoned and partying. These are people that I do not now nor have I ever had anything in common with. Even when I was young, I never lived like this. Granted, I knew people who were rich and people who partied. Some of them I cared about for various reasons, but this film does not take even a moment to make the audience care about the characters.

The film encapsulates just about everything I hate about cliched independent films. God knows I love black and white photography, but it's hard to imagine a film for which it is less appropriate. The characters already look enough alike; remove hair, skin, and clothing tones, and it makes them all interchangeable.

The soundtrack is a complete mess. It's like something Charles Manson would have put together as a mix tape to seduce a French whore.

In case you haven't figure it out, I do not recommend this film. Unless you are trying to get rid of company.




Friday, December 23, 2011

THE GUARD

THE GUARD is a very well written and well acted cop comedy from Ireland. Brendan Gleeson has a field day playing an eccentric older cop who has to deal with a young new partner and an FBI agent played by Don Cheadle. All of the performances are quite good, and the writing is spectacular for the characters. The movie occasionally gets a little self-referential (one character makes a reference to Ned Kelley, which was written by John Michael McDonagh, the director of the film), but it doesn't hit you over the head.

I would not be surprised if Gleeson pulls a nomination for his performance, assuming enough people saw the film. Also the art direction and wardrobe were appropriately hilarious. It's a very smart yet moving film. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

ALBERT NOBBS



ALBERT NOBBS is a fine film starring Glenn Close as a woman who choses to live her life as a man. Early WOM on the movie was that Close would be a sure thing as an Oscar nominee. She is quite good in the film, but the film does have flaws, and enough of them that the movie may get overlooked for awards.

The story is pretty straightforward, which may be part of the problem. To spice it up, there is a secondary story that is pretty much unrelated to the main characters, and it just slows the film down and makes it lose focus. The acting in the main story is outstanding, but the script is really weakened when it veers from those characters.

Most of the actors are very well cast, especially Janet McTeer, whom I think gives a better performance than Close. Brendan Gleeson is always reliable as well. Mia Wasikowska has a tough time with a simple role in the secondary story that is not very well fleshed out.

Close co-wrote the screenplay, but all this does is put more of the blame on her for the structural weaknesses, again implying she will not get nominated. The film was based on a play she had done, which in turn was based on a short story.

Even with this weakness, I did find the film worth my viewing time, and I would recommend it to people who find the subject interesting. It's not exactly a story you are going to see every day. I just wish the audience had gotten to know the characters a little better.

Friday, December 02, 2011

MONEYBALL


I am a huge baseball fan, and a pretty big stats geek, so I read the book MONEYBALL when it came out with great interest. It's a great non-fiction book about the 2002 Oakland A's and their fantastic run, thanks mostly to a new interpretation of selecting players based on some fundamental changes in statistics. Those stats had been proposed much earlier by Bill James, but no one took him seriously because he was not a player. The book is really a fantastic read, but I had no idea how they would make it into a movie. It had failure written all over it. Baseball movies almost always tank. And to make it even less interesting, it's about baseball statistics.

For the most part, some good writing manages to fix all of those problems with very smart characters and dialog. I think it also helps that with THE SOCIAL NETWORK, geeks are pretty much box office heroes now.

All of the acting is excellent. Brad Pitt is surprisingly believable as Billy Beene, and most of the ballplayers have at least a passing resemblance to their real-world counterpart. Perhaps the best performance comes from Christ Pratt as Scott Hatteberg.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the film is the ending.

SPOILERS!!!

It's hard to make a sports movie (or a sports season) where the team you are rooting for loses the last game of the season. But they did a good job making the final act exciting. My real problem comes after that, when they insist on going into the fact that Beene turns down a $12M contract to become Boston's general manager, rather than focussing on the fact that Beene had found the perfect place to be, where he could spend time with his daughter. Sometimes money isn't the only thing, even when it's in the title of the movie.

Monday, November 28, 2011

WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY





WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY is a great 4-hour documentary covering the career of Woody Allen. If you have even a passing interest in his films or his career, their is a wealth of information here. Very well directed and edited, the film gave me a lot of new information that I did not know about Woody, even though I have followed his career pretty closely since I was a kid. The film does pretty much skip the Soon-Yi topic, but it does at least mention it and he talks about his relationship with Mia. But since Woody was a willing participant in the film, it's easy to excuse this one lacking area. Director Robert Weide of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM does a nice job; perhaps his earlier doc on the Marx Brothers (The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell) helped prepare for this film.

It's on PBS, and on their web site.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

J EDGAR


J EDGAR is Clint Eastwood's movie about Hoover, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the former head of the FBI.

The movie is somewhat of a mess, with huge, huge problems, yet I still found it an interesting watch. The casting of Leo is perhaps the film's biggest problem; he just doesn't have the chops to pull off a performance with such complex requirements. He has to play Hoover over a period of almost 50 years, and he is not good at playing much older than he is in real life. This is also a scripting problem; the movie constantly cuts back and forth between old Hoover dictating his memoirs and young Hoover as memories. This is a very awkward structure that makes the film feel even longer than its two and a half hour running time.

In addition, I have no idea what accent DiCaprio was trying to do. At first it sounded southern, then it seemed to slowly migrate to the northeast. (Hoover spent his whole life in the DC area, he did not have much of a regional accent.) It's also odd that his mother has an English accent even though in real life she was Swedish-American.

Adding insult to injury, Leo's aging makeup is distractingly terrible. Both he and Armie Hammer have makeup so bad they look like they should be in a Star Wars film. Naomi Watts, on the other hand, aged gracefully, although her character could easily have been eliminated from the movie.

I rarely mention the cinematography in a film, but this film looked terrible. Some scenes were so dark I couldn't tell which characters were in them. There were also some historical incongruities in the music used.

Yet I did still like the film. At about the halfway point, my wife and I took a break from watching the screener disc and walked the dog. This turned out to be fortuitous, as the cool aired woke me up enough to pay attention for the rest of the film. I've always felt that movies that are much over two hours should have an intermission in them. In reality, this movie could have easily had a good half hour excised from the first half and it would be a much better film. But the intermission worked well.

The second half flows a lot more smoothly. Watts' character is mostly absent, and much more focus goes into specific cases (notably the Lindbergh kidnapping), and into his relationship with the Armie Hammer character. This part of the story is inherently the most interesting as it has never been told before. Hammer gives another Oscar-worthy performance (last year he was the Winklevii in THE SOCIAL NETWORK). His presence alone is enough reason to watch the whole film.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

THE TINIEST PLACE



THE TINIEST PLACE (trailer) 


THE TINIEST PLACE (El Lugar Mas Pequeño) is a documentary about a tiny area of El Salvador. It is a peculiar film in both its subject and the approach to covering it. The film does not use the traditional documentary technique of on-camera interviews. Instead, the film uses voiceover interviews with the subjects, while the visual images show them taking part in their normal daily lives, and reveal the natural setting. In some ways this film is similar to fellow IDA nominee NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, in that it uses gorgeous cinematography to establish a basis of beauty for the location, yet at the same time it must deal with the atrocities that occurred there.

Although I liked this film a lot and I would recommend it, I do have reservations about the filmmaking style. Those who know me, know that I have a basic problem with voiceover to begin with, as the incessant drone eventually becomes boring and the audience tends to tune it out. This is definitely true in this film. In addition, it creates a complete disconnect between what we are seeing and what we are hearing when the speaker is never allowed to speak onscreen. In fact, it seems downright disrespectful to the subjects that they were never given the opportunity to speak onscreen. In addition, I'm not completely convinced that the people we are hearing are the ones we are looking at. It would be nice to know if this had been completely manipulated. (Are the voiceover interviews actually actors?)

Obviously filmmakers don't really think about international audiences when making their films, but that creates two problems for the American viewer. The first is that I know so little about the Salvadoran war that I really needed a lot more backstory to have a complete understanding of this film.

Secondly, getting back to the incessant voiceover, I normally love it when the audio and the video are supplying different but related streams of information. However, since I don't speak Spanish and I am a very slow reader (I'm dyslexic), my eyes were pretty much glued to the bottom eight of the screen to read the subtitles throughout this film, which meant that I lost a lot of the visual beauty the film was intended to convey.

Nonetheless it is a beautiful documentary about a slice of life I knew nothing about. It left me wanting more.


How to Die in Oregon

How to Die in Oregon

How to Die in Oregon is an HBO documentary about the "Death with Dignity" law in that state. Unfortunately this territory has been covered quite a bit in recent years in film, including HBO's recent film on Dr. Kevorkian. If this movie had been made three or four years earlier, it would have been ground-breaking, but now, it just seems a little on the long side. I also had some problems with the film's structure. 

The film opens nicely with a very moving scene of a man taking his medications to die with his family, and speaking quite well about why this was the right choice for him. Unfortunately, the film meanders quite a bit in its remaining time. There is one main story about a woman who is going through liver cancer that feels like it takes up a third of the running time of the film, but it is mostly stacked in the last half, which makes the film seem like it grinds to a halt after so many shorter interviews. She should have been introduced early on, with her story better interspersed throughout. 

Also there is not much representation of an opposing viewpoint. There is only one man (who is also dying) who speaks against it, but he gets two very short clips, and his argument is incoherent and not based on the usual moral grounds. His clip is also late in the film, long after most audience members would have already decided that the film is on the side of assisted death. If this film really wanted to convince nay-sayers, they needed to address the philosophical arguments as well. 

However, this film is still worth watching if you have any interest in this subject.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nostalgia for the Light

Nostalgia for the Light (Trailer) 

Nostalgia for the Light is that rare hybrid, the documentary art film. It's very difficult to summarize what this film is about, other than to say it is about a specific location: the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is two miles high and so dry that it is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Although part of the film is about astronomy, it is also about the history of the location, which includes the fact that it was a mass grave for Pinochet. 

This is an incredibly beautiful film. Gorgeous cinematography. But it is also extremely slowly paced, and certainly not what most Americans expect from a film, eve a documentary. There is almost no plot or action. There are interviews with people associated with the place, but most of them do not really build towards anything. It is however an excellent film, and I highly recommend it. 

Better this World

Better this World
(link to trailer)

Better this World is an amazing documentary about two young men who begin as political activists and transition into domestic terrorists by building explosives to be used at the Republican National Convention. As much of a slam-dunk as this case may seem, especially in post-Patriot act America, the story is much more complex. Rather than ruin any of it for you, I would ask that you watch the film knowing as little as possible about the case. The film is extraordinarily well made and you will be sucked into the story very quickly. It is very well edited. 

My only real criticism is that they rely heavily on recreations. I don't mind the voiceover of some of their statements being read by actors, but the end credits reveal a long list of recreation actors, when I was not aware that there were extensive scenes that were not real. It makes me wonder what was real and what was a recreation, and therefore how real the recreations were. 

Nonetheless, I highly recommend the film to documentary fans, and to people who are interested in political activism. There are some bizarre parallels to what is going on with Occupy Wall Street. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

General Butt Naked

Unfortunately, this is not a comedy.

General Butt Naked 

The Redemption of General Butt Naked is the title of a documentary about a crazy warlord who admits to being responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 people during Liberia's civil war. The "Butt Naked" refers to the training technique he used of having his warriors fight carrying weapons (swords and guns) but wearing no clothing. It would be comical if it were not about mass murder. But the general has recanted his past and has become a preacher who travels the country attempting to personally make up for his past mistakes to the families of his victims.

This is one of those subjects that you would think would be a slam dunk for a filmmaker. Unfortunately, this film is long, poorly edited, and poorly structured. They did get on film his apologies to the survivors of his attacks, including a young girl who was blinded as a baby, and these scenes are very moving, but it's a shame that as a whole the film does not stand up as well as a few individual scenes. It's definitely worth watching for these short scenes though.

Blogging, in General

If you are a loyal reader of this blog, you will notice that I cut my posting to almost nothing. There's a reason for this.

There are no loyal readers of my blog. There are two sources I use to see statistics of my blog hits. They are so appalling I am not going to post them in public. Even worse, I can see how long people stay on my blog before moving to another page. The answer is so short that I can clearly see that most people who come here do not read anything beyond the tittle of the blog post and then move on to another page. And I can see where they come from and where they go to in many cases. The vast majority of the people who come here, do so by accident, searching for something else, and leave immediately when they see it is not what they are looking for.

Originally I set up this blog as a way to connect with students, so most of my posts were about film, music and audio. But that did not work at all. So I started writing about the things I enjoy, including baseball. I got a lot of complaints from people that they don't want to read about baseball. So this past season, I made a decision that I would post no more than once a month about baseball, sort of a monthly update on my favorite teams, which are now the Rockies and the Red Sox, with a little of the LA teams thrown in for good measure.

At the end of April, the Rockies looked good, but something just didn't feel right to me about the team and I didn't feel like writing about them. Furthermore, no one seemed to notice that I had stopped writing about baseball (after many posts in March from Spring Training), so it seemed a good time to give up for a while. I intended to follow up later in the season, but with both the Rockies and the Red Sox imploding, and the Dodgers and Angels having their own problems, it seemed like it was unnecessary.

So I intended to pick up again when the symphony started their annual season. Although very few  people read my music reviews, I did feel that I was serving a purpose by writing about the Colorado Symphony, since no one else was. As a subscriber to their concert series, and (very small) donor, I feel like I have a right to talk about them, especially since it seemed clear that there were problems at the symphony.

However, in May, I sang with the chorus in one of their concerts, making me one of them. In fact I got insider information long before the general public, which made it feel wrong to be posting about them. I support all of the personnel changes they have made, and I sincerely hope for the best, but I do still fear the worst for the future of the orchestra. I may try to write some pure reviews of their concerts without going into an analysis of their financial status.

The one thing that has been fairly popular on my blog has been movie reviews. With awards season having started, I will start writing reviews again. The IDA Documentary awards have their ballot due this week, so expect to see at least one or two reviews a day of documentary films this week.

And please leave a comment if you feel that any of this is worthwhile. If I get no response, I may just stop entirely. This is more time-consuming than it seems, and I really hate writing, so I'm not going to continue unless people really want me to.

Friday, July 29, 2011

NY Phil Finale at Vail

Badly stitched in a free iPhone app, but you get the idea
Click image to see larger version











It was a great night to see the NY Phil off from their visit to Vail. They finished their week with a night dedicated to Broadway. The weakest part of the program was a medley of Broadway hits in the second half. The rest of the concert was quite nice. Titled “New York and Paris,” it opened with a Military March by Saint-Saëns that I had never heard. A nice piece, brassier than one would expect from the composer.

The highlight of the first half was a performance of the Ravel Concerto in G by French Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. They made a big deal out of the fact that he was playing a new Yamaha piano, but it was much too bright in the midrange, I would have preferred to hear it on a Steinway. But the performance was quite nice. This is the third time I have heard this piece live though, so I was looking forward to the evening’s finale, Gershwin’s suite from Porgy and Bess, which he titled Catfish Row.

This was really wonderful to hear. It’s possibly the only Gershwin orchestral piece I had never heard live, and it was as moving and exciting as I had hoped. He did a nice job with the orchestration, something he is often criticized for. One can only imagine what would have happened if he had lived a full life. It was a nice finale to the series as well. After two quick encores, the festival was over, and now I have to wait a year to hear them again.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

NY Phil Plays Russian Composers

NY Phil gets a Standing “O” at Vail!
The New York Philharmonic took the stage again tonight in Vail to play some great Russian music. The show’s highlight was a performance of the overplayed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1, although tonight featured a nice interpretation by Kirill Gerstein, who avoided the bombastic nature of the first movement and instead focussed on the subtlety of the second and third movements, playing quite beautifully. He also played a nice encore of Russian-American George Gerwhin’s “Embraceable You.” (Gershwin’s Concerto in F had been commissioned for the NY Phil.)

Conductor Bramwell Tovey has grown on me. The first two appearances I saw at the Hollywood Bowl did not wow me, but he has been much better at the Vail festival. He conducted quite beautifully on Khatchaturian’s Waltz from Masquerade Suite, knowing when to step aside and let the orchestra lead. The Glazunov Concert Waltz #2 was also quite nice.

The program finale was Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. This was not a worthy finale for this concert, it might have been nicer to finish with the concerto. But that is a minor quibble. The thrill of hearing this orchestra in one of the most beautiful settings in the world makes it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NY Phil at Vail

This is the second consecutive year that we have come up to Vail to see the NY Phil. And today we celebrate our third anniversary of our move to Denver. This is a nice way to celebrate.

It was a nice concert. Starting with the Roman Carnival Overture of Berlioz, and moving to the Walton Violin Concerto, played with relish by Gil Shaham. He is very entertaining to watch and a very talented performer. The piece was much more interesting that I expected, as I’m not a huge fan of Walton. The piece had a lot of energy and rhythm; at one point I thought Shaham might start dancing!

But the real reason to show up was the performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. This has always been one of my favorite pieces, and Ravel’s orchestration is amazing. (Who else would double tuba with harp?) We heard sections last week with the CSO. It was great to hear the full piece tonight, but I have to say the the Colorado Symphony’s percussion section was much better. They did have the advantage of performing in a concert hall, where this performance was outdoors. It’s always odd to hear an orchestra with no reverb, it really points out all the smallest problems when the instruments are right in your face.

But it was a lot of fun. We will be back tomorrow.

Friday, July 22, 2011

SUMMER CSO

I have been neglecting my blogging duties this summer. I will try to catch up on a few things I forgot to cover, starting tonight with the Russian Masterworks program at Boettcher hall, conducted by Scott O'Neill.

This was an absolutely fantastic program of 14 short works by Russian composers. All I could keep thinking throughout the concert was that those Russians were some badass orchestrators. The orchestra sounded great as always, but I always feel that O'Neill holds back as a conductor. Of course  the "Great Gate of Kiev" is a piece I have heard performed numerous times, including live with fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl, so everything since then feels like a letdown. (We will be seeing it yet again next week.) The best thing about this concert is that there was a very healthy audience. This is the first time the orchestra has done a real summer season; I hope they continue.

Two weeks ago we went to the Mozart concert in Arvada, another concert in their series. The Arvada venue is horrible. O'Neill did a nice job with this concert, but it was all pieces that we had heard during their regular season in Boettcher. I'm not sure why they did this concert again, especially in a crappy outdoor venue that is small and has horrible acoustics. It's also about 50 feet from a main street with lots of traffic noise. It was nice however to hear A Little Night Music.

The last concert of the regular season that we attended was one I was in, so I did not review it. I sand in the chorus for two short Wagner excerpts. It was fun, and I hope to have the time to do that more frequently, but their rehearsal schedule is crazy. The rest of the concert was opera without the staging, which is pretty boring to watch, although they had a good house at that concert as well.

That's it for summer with the CSO, for us at least, we will see them again in September.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A FILM UNFINISHED

A FILM UNFINISHED is a documentary about a propaganda film created by the Nazis but until recently had not been seen.

The footage from the Nazi film was all shot inside the Warsaw ghetto. Some of it showed the reality of the poverty and starvation that was going on, while other footage is completely staged to reinforce the stereotype of wealthy Jews. The film was never completed and was in storage for decades, and even when it was uncovered, no one really knew what it was, until some researchers started putting the pieces together.

The biggest piece of information was a journal from a Jewish leader at the time who corroborated that much of the footage was staged. There is also an interview with one of the cameramen, as well as new footage of ghetto survivors watching the film. Amazingly, they recognize some of the people in the film.

This is a very difficult film to watch. Although I knew life in the ghetto was bad, I had no idea how bad the starvation was. But on a deeper level, this film points out how easy it is to manipulate an image to tell the story you want to tell. The Nazi propaganda machine is infamous, but I have to worry just how much of what we see today is equally propagandist. I suggest it is much, much worse than most people realize. It's depressing to see what happened to these people.

The film is available on Netflix.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

It might be a strange choice, but one of the gifts my wife bought me for our anniversary was a copy of THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, a hard-to-find Preston Sturges film which I had wanted to see ever since I heard the name of the lead character was Kockenlocker.

This is not the funniest of Sturges' films, but in many ways, it is the most interesting. Writing a movie about a woman getting knocked up by a serviceman about to leave could very well have been career suicide during the Hays' Code era. And it almost was for Sturges, the film was not released for two years, and after its successful release was pulled. To this day, it is still hard to find on DVD. The fluency with which Sturges writes around the code for the majority of the movie only adds to his brilliance as a writer.

Sturges is an exceptionally strong writer for female characters. The two most interesting characters in the film are played by young women. Betty Hutton was only 22 when shot the film, but gives a great performance. But my favorite scene in the film belongs to Eddie Bracken, who has a great monolog telling Hutton's character why he has loved her his whole life. As in Sturges' other films, the dramatic scenes are as powerful as the comic ones.

Highly recommended for fans of Sturges.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Becoming Chaz

This is a tough review to write because the documentary BECOMING CHAZ has many layers. Ostensibly it is about transgenderism, but in reality there are many different subjects rolled into one. The subject, Chaz Bono, is the child of a very famous celebrity (Cher). Cher is surprisingly uncomfortable with the life that Chaz has chosen. In fact, to get her "top" surgery (having her breasts removed), Chaz has to borrow money from a friend. It's pretty shocking that Cher would not pay for it. In the interview with Cher that is in the film, she is very uncomfortable talking about Chaz. If Cher had been more open, you could probably have made the whole film about their relationship. As it is, there is so little that it is frustrating that we do not learn more.

Chaz is also a producer on the documentary, which means that it is likely one-sided, although to be honest, he left in a lot of material that is critical of him. But it may have been his choice to leave mother issues out of the movie as much as possible.

Then there is the issue of his partner, Jennifer. She is a lesbian who became involved with Chaz when she was still a woman, and is trying to stay with him through the transition. She's a graduate student and an alcoholic who falls off the wagon during the course of filming. Again, this could be the subject of a whole movie. This is probably the part of the movie that is most explored, but still I don't feel like I got to know her or their relationship very well.

Chaz touches briefly on her own substance abuse problems but never ties it in to her gender issues or to Jennifer's substance abuse. Another missed opportunity.

What the movie does best is explain Chaz's early life and the decision to change gender. It shows us a lot of what she goes through during the change. This is really interesting and informative to someone who is outside that community, although after this movie was released, Chaz appeared on David Letterman, and gave a more succinct version of the explanations.

For all its flaws, I do think this film is important and fascinating to watch. It is frustrating that there are so many dead ends in the subplots. Chaz never explains how he supports himself and his girlfriend. They seem to live a very nice life, yet he needs to borrow money for surgery. Simple details like this make it tough to want to care about these characters. (And his girlfriend is not very sympathetic to begin with.) It seems as though the film tries to bite off much more than it can chew. But do watch it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kahane Returns to the CSO

Conductor Jeffrey Kahane made a return to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra last night as guest conductor on a program of American works, starting with Copland's Appalachian Spring. The instant he dropped the downbeat, I remembered how much I missed him as a conductor. The enthusiasm he projects, along with his technical excellence in conducting, make him light years above the series of guests that have conducted over the last year. The Copland was entertaining as always, but somehow he always inspires the orchestra to reach new emotional heights on their performances.

The program included two works by living composers, a rarity for any large orchestra, and particularly rare for the CSO. I suspect Kahane's presence inspired this edgy program. Following the Copland was a world premiere, a Piano Concerto by Kenji Bunch, performed by his wife, Monica Ohuchi. In my opinion, this was the highlight of the evening, a surprising accomplishment considering they were followed by Bela Fleck.

For the first 20 seconds of Bunch's Concerto, I was worried that this was going to be another piece of forgettable minimalism that would keep me looking at my watch, but when the piano finally entered - in the wrong key, a half step above the base set by the orchestra - it suddenly became very interesting. Some might criticize the fact that stylistically the piece was all over the map, showing influences from minimalism, poly-tonality, jazz, impressionism, film scores, and Latin music, but personally I enjoyed the unpredictable nature of these contrasting styles.

If there were any criticism, it is that the piece is often over-orchestrated (a common problem when young composers suddenly get to write for 100 people), to the point that the piece was not a Concerto for Piano as labelled, but a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. For large sections, the piano was almost inaudible and was more of an orchestral color. Still I enjoyed the piece, particularly the Latin-tinged third movement, and Ohuchi's playing was incredibly beautiful throughout, but especially in the second movement. In fact I knew from her first entrance, one, simple, repeated note, that she was a wonderfully sensitive performer.

After intermission, the second contemporary work was a Triple Concerto by Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer, who co-composed the piece, on which they played banjo, tabla, and bass respectively. I had no idea what to expect on this; Fleck and his group the Flecktones are world-renowned performers with a huge cult following, but in a style uniquely their own. It was hard to imagine how that would blend with a traditional orchestra, not to mention the odd concept of a triple concerto for three such disparate instruments.

Nonetheless, it was an amazing piece of music. Fleck began by stating the first theme on unaccompanied banjo, and played it so perfectly he made it look easy, even though it was a crazy difficult theme. The first movement was structured around this brief theme, and featured the three instruments in a nice balance, especially the bass, which was played quite lyrically. There was also a bluegrass-tinged theme, which worked quite well with the orchestra. Unlike the piano concerto, this was clearly a feature for the soloists and not the orchestra as a whole.

The most memorable section of the piece was an extended cadenza in the second movement by the tabla. Zakir Hussain showed an incredible mastery of the instrument, playing with both rhythmic precision and emotional depth. One of the reasons I enjoy Kahane's conducting so much is his incredible joy for music. During the tabla solo, Kahane was as attentive as any audience member and all smiles throughout. He was clearly having a great time. The whole piece was quite good; Fleck is an amazing musician (he is currently performer-in-residence at Berklee).

The night ended on a strange note, Gershwin's American in Paris, which might have functioned better as an overture rather than a closer, but still it was a great performance by a conductor who really understands the jazzy influence Gershwin had on the orchestra. The concert ran a little on the long side, but it was well worth it. It was a very full house, and I'm always happy to see that!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Perlman & Mozart

Last night Itzhak Perlman appeared with the CSO for a one-night only event featuring Associate Conductor Scott O'Neil conducting a very conservative program of a Weber Overture, Schumann's 4th Symphony, and three pieces by Mozart.

The first half of the program was completely uneventful. The Schumann would have been better if the Scherzo had actually been taken at a scherzo tempo instead of a waltz tempo. I understand that O'Neil is well liked by the musicians, but his conducting is not very complex. He uses his left hand far too much for tempo and rarely indicates interpretation.

Perlman's presence made a huge difference in the second half. His sound is amazing, especially on this low string. It was a little bit of a letdown to hear only Mozart, it owuld have been nice to hear him interpret a Romantic piece as well, but he did play beautifully. If I had to find a criticism, it seemed like his intonation was inconsistent. Boettcher hall has very strange acoustics and I wonder how well he could hear himself. The seating is in the round, so there are no walls reflecting sound back to him. He should have been able to hear the strings directly behind him so it's likely that his own sound was the problem.

The Mozart pieces were quite nice. The house was full, and the audience was very appreciative. However, having seen Yoyo Ma the year prior on the same stage, there's no question that Ma is the more engaging performer. Perlman was clearly enjoying himself, but Ma was clearly full of love for the music on a level I have rarely seen.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Public Speaking

PUBLIC SPEAKING is an HBO portrait of the brilliant and witty writer Fran Lebovitz directed by Martin Scorcese. I wouldn't call it a documentary, it's sort of a cross between a one-woman show and My Dinner With Scorsese, although he barely speaks. A real documentary would have asked a woman who spends much of her time talking about gender identity and gay rights to talk about her own sexuality.

She's very smart and funny, so the film stands up well with just her, even though she is so opinionated she will eventually rub you the wrong way with something she says. The film would probably work better at an hour length, rather than an hour and twenty minutes. Still, it's worth watching. It did made me miss New York.

Friday, April 22, 2011

THE TWO ESCOBARS

The two Zimbalists who directed the documentary THE TWO ESCOBARS came to UC Denver in February to talk about their film, but alas I missed it, as I had another commitment that night. So I rented it via Netflix.

It's a fascinating story about Pablo and Andrés Escobar (unrelated), the Colombian drug kingpin and Colombian soccer star respectively. It's one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" films which would be completely unbelievable if it were not actually true.

In the end, the film works, mostly due to the story. The film-making technique actually gets in the way. The whole style of the film pretty clearly wishes it could have been an episode of the History Channel series GANGLAND. The visual style and the musical styles are almost identical. I'm not sure why they felt the need to make the style more important than the substance. When the story is this good, just let it tell itself.

The film also could use a good editor. Structurally, the film seems like it is about to end about 2/3rds of the way through but then keeps going on forever. It switches from gangster story to sports melodrama with no transition or explanation. I'm guessing that since the movie wound up on ESPN, they were pressured to overplay the sports aspect of the story. It's a good sports story, but this lengthy structure just doesn't work. It's at least 15 minutes too long, and it certainly feels odd to follow Pablo through most of the film and then suddenly switch gears to Andrés.

Nonetheless the real story is so interesting the film is worth watching.

Monday, April 18, 2011

HOT FUZZ

Obviously I am catching up on missed films seeing HOT FUZZ years after it came out. From the gang that brought is SHAUN OF THE DEAD. This film is certainly flawed, the second act is about an hour long, and basically one long lull before the storm of the final act, which completely redeems the film by kicking major ass. The film works best when it is a parody of American cop buddy/action films. Unfortunately they fill out the second act with a parody of slasher films, which has been done a zillion times, and much better, not even counting the SCREAM movies.

The one thing that stands out about both this and SHAUN is that these guys can really write a screenplay. Even if you took the jokes out (and there are not nearly enough until the final act), this film would be a completely coherent story. Also the guys can act too, although that was more obvious in SHAUN. But the real reason to watch this film is the last 30 minutes, which is friggin' brilliant.

Great stuff.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

NAB 2011



I have to rethink my plans to visit NAB on the last day. For years I would go in Sunday and leave Tuesday, which meant I had to deal with the crowd on opening day. Thursday is the only day that fits into my current schedule, so the last two years I've gone for the last day. Last year it seemed like a smart move, it is definitely the slowest day at the show, but partly because the show wraps at 2PM so most people go on days where they can see more. I'm pretty good at getting through a show quickly, but a half day may be too short.

This year was not at all impressive even though crowds were reported to break the 92,000 mark, up quite a bit from last year. The show itself did not seem as huge as previous years. Most of the south and north halls held very little of interest.

The layout of the show seems to be less and less organized each year. Avid was on the upper layer of the south hall. Audio was was all over the place. It was almost impossible to avoid having to go to every hall.

There was not a lot in terms of new announcements. TV manufacturers are still pushing 3D TV but there were no innovations as far as I could see. Avid barely represented Digi at all, they had one C|24 on display. The biggest announcement came from someone who was not even exhibiting: Apple. Final Cut X will be only $299. There will no longer be a difference between the Pro and Express versions. But then, no one was showing it, it's vaporware until June at the earliest.

I did have fun as always, but I hope next year shows off more innovation. I may have to skip a class to next year, and avoid being there only on the last day.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

BEST WORST MOVIE

How did I miss this film? It's a documentary from 2009 about the cult following that the terrible film TROLL 2 has amassed in the two decades since it premiered. This is definitely one of the most interesting documentaries I have ever seen, and it's about the movie biz!

Like most good documentaries, this one is filled with characters and takes many bizarre twists and turns. The film is made by one of the child actors in the film now that he has grown up and become a filmmaker. It centers mostly on a dentist from Alabama who had starred in the original film and now finds himself in the bizarre predicament of having made one movie: the worst movie in history, according to its ranking on the IMDB at the time the documentary was made.

The two filmmakers were Italian and apparently still think the film is quite good even though they attend fan events which rip the film to shreds.

This film is so interesting that I watched all the DVD extras immediately afterward. Many of the deleted scenes contain nuggets of gold as priceless as what is in the movie.

Perhaps the most distressing thing is that it reminded me of many of the films I have worked on.

I highly recommend this move for fans of film and film students.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

7 MLB Games in 5 Days



Seven games in five days. Ten different teams in five different stadiums. I'm pretty sure this is the record for me.

Tuesday was my second consecutive day-night doubleheader on consecutive days. I am exhausted, but it was fun.

The day began with the Cubs at the Dodgers. The Dodgers looked much better, mostly due to the fact that they had Chad Billingsly pitch six excellent shut-out innings. The offense was still weak, they scored only one run, in the fifth, until the 10th inning when they scored a game ending run. This was probably the game I saw that was most like a real game, although the Dodgers did not start many of their projected starters.

Ryan Dempster pitched well for the Cubs, allowing only the one run, and the Cubs looked better than I imagined now with Pinella retired. But I think this more more a case of two good but well-matched teams, rather than two excellent teams playing one another. I don't see either of the teams in it for the long haul.



My last game was the Angels playing the Royals in Surprise. This was a letdown, especially after the Dodger game. The Angels played mostly scrubs, and I don't know why. Usually by this point in spring training the teams are starting to look like the real thing. Starter Tyler Chatwood made a good case for making the team. He gave up 3 runs in the first two innings but then settled down to look good for the remainder of his 5 innings pitched.

Former Rockie Jeff Francis did not look so good, giving up 6 runs in his innings (although only 3 earned, the Royals had a whopping five errors in the evening). He threw a lot of pitches. Unfortunately I do not think he will ever be the pitcher he once was.

Offensively the Angels were on fire, scoring 14 runs off 15 hits, although only 8 of the runs were earned.

A little math tells me that this is my sixth trip to spring training in eight years. It's still a lot of fun, but it has changed since I started coming in 2004. It's much more mainstream. It was a lot easier (and cheaper) to get great seats when I first started coming, and easier to find a good hotel room. The parks have changes, several have been rebuilt and are much larger now, which makes it less like spring training. But it's still a lot of fun, and I expect to be back whenever I can.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

D'backs Beat Dodgers




It was perhaps the coldest spring training game in recent memory, with the temperature starting at 50 and dropping rapidly with damp wind. Not your typical Phoenix evening. But the Dodgers and D'backs put on a good show.

I do feel a bit sorry for the Dodgers. I was a season ticket holder when I lived in LA and a big fan. But when they picked up Manny Ramirez I began losing faith quickly. As a Red Sox fan by birth, I knew Manny was a clown and an embarrassment to the sport. Things got worse when he got caught in LA taking girly steroids. And even worse when he made it clear he wanted to leave... again, and went to the White Sox.

I had really looked forward to watching the kids mature, but when Manny left, the team's owners decided to divorce and that meant no more money would go into the team. They have not made any significant pickups since. And many of the \ kids have turned out to be busts. Russell Martin is gone, Broxton has been demoted, Kemp seems more concerned with Rheanna than with hitting, and even Clay Kershaw looked weak tonight.

Kershaw has actually had a very good spring, but tonight he gave up 8 hits and 2 walks in 5 innings. He did give up only 2 runs, but he still got the loss with the D'backs winning 3-0. Ian Kennedy walked 3 but otherwise gave up only 3 hits and no runs in 5.1 innings.

The Dodgers will have a pretty good rotation, but with Manny gone, there is no heart to their batting order, and you can't win when you don't score runs.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rockies Rained Out



I was excited to see the Rockies play the Giants today in Scottsdale, with Lincecum starting for the Giants. But for the second year in a row my trip to the Giants' park was marred by bad weather. This time the game was called after only 3 innings. Lincecum gave up 5 runs in those inning,s leaving th ball over the plate far too frequently.

Matt Reynolds had a perfect game going for three innings with a number of fly balls, but the game was called when the rain started getting hard.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Angels @ Rockies


Today was the battle of the potential fifth starters as the Rockies hosted the Angels at their new ballpark.

This is the first time I have been to Salt Fields Park at Talking Stick. It's a nice park, but like the Dodgers new park, this is on the big side for a spring training field. In fact it was designed by the same architects. There was a sellout crowd of 12,209 people to see the game today, so obviously they are doing something right. Getting in and out was fairly easy, lots of $5 parking. Food choices are OK. Seats are almost all in the sun, but today was overcast and a cool 71, lower than normal for this time of year in Phoenix.

The game itself was weird. The Rockies started out playing quite well with Rogers pitching 5 strong innings. But as a potential starter, he was left in for the top of the 6th, and could not get an out, giving up all six runs to the Angels. Franklin Morales pitched poorly for the second day in a row and blew the hold.

Rockies offense also looked good at first, with most of the projected opening day lineup starting. Tulo went 3 for 3 with 2 home runs, one being a three-run homer to take an early lead in the top of the first inning.

For the Angels, Palmer pitched poorly and gave up 6 runs as well, making only 4 innings. The rest of the relief pitchers for both teams did pretty well, keeping the score tied at 6 through the tenth inning, when the game was called.

In a spring training oddity, Mike Scoscia was ejected for arguing a scoring play at the plate.

It was a nice day for a game, and a lot of fun, although I'd like to see the Rockies win a game while I am in town!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rox Get Hammered by Reds



Three costly errors combined with poor pitching cost the Rockies their game today against the split squad Cincinnati Reds. The Rockies lost by a score of 10-3, but only four of the Reds' runs were earned. One was due to a throwing error by pitcher John Maine, who showed terrible control issues in 3 innings pitched. He gave up only two walks but had many 3-ball counts in the 17 batters faced in three innings.

Today did not look good for the Rockies. Herrera allowed two runs on a fielding error, and Spilborghs allowed another. They had 8 hits but a meager 3 runs. The Reds, on the other hand, scored ten runs with only ten hits.

One would expect problems in spring training, except that most of the position players today were possible starters for the season, and defense has always been stressed by manager Jim Tracy, especially in spring.

Houston Street had the one good inning as pitcher, but his setup man Franklin Morales gave up three hits and two earned runs in his one inning of work, leaving another question mark in the bullpen.

SPRING TRAINING BEGINS


My 2011 spring training began tonight with a rather uninteresting game between the Texas Rangers and the Cleveland Indians in Goodyear. I arrived in Phoenix late this afternoon, and this was the only night game, so I went, but it was not really a game I was interested in. Both teams have good but not great potential and the game was lacking in star quality. I’ll be back in Goodyear tomorrow for my first Rockies game this year against the Reds. I hope that is more eventful.

Cleveland won, 12-6, but I left before it became a complete runaway.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

EASY A

EASY A is a pleasant comic remake of THE SCARLETT LETTER in a contemporary high school setting. The script is pretty smart and the cast helps raise the material to a new level. Emma Stone, Thomas Haden Chruch, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci... this is not your average dumb high school comedy. There's really a lot to like in this film. Recommended.

Friday, March 11, 2011

CSO

Due to a bizarre scheduling fluke, my wife and I wound up seeing three of our seven subscription concerts in the last 14 days (plus a night at the ballet). I have to say that was pushing it a bit. I love the symphony but I am getting over a bad cold and could have stood a night off. So perhaps that colored my view of tonight's concert.

It was strange programming. The night began with Haydn's 25th Symphony. You don't get a lot of early Classical music with the larger symphonies, and there's a reason, it just doesn't fill the hall well. The orchestra sounded OK, but it's not a brilliant work like some of the later symphonies.

That was followed by Liszt's Piano Concerto #1. Although I love the chromatic motif that opens the piece, it does seem a bit short and underdeveloped after hearing brilliant performances of Ravel and of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto over the last two weeks. The 23 year-old Joseph Moog made his North American debut with the piece and did quite well, but was not amazing. Again, he gets the short end of the stick following two phenomenal soloists in previous weeks.

Instead of having one major work, the concert had four shorter works, which leaves me a little unfulfilled. After intermission the highlight of the evening was Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. The orchestra played their finest on this piece. Guest conductor Gilbert Varga did a great job with this piece.

The evening ended with Richard Strauss's Death & Transfiguration which had the weakest performance of the evening. Harmonically it is the most complex piece and the intonation was weak throughout. The strings were pretty consistent but the winds were all over the place. This is not Strauss's best work, although the section that John Williams stole for the love theme from Superman is pretty interesting. Strauss was an interesting character as he began writing in the late Romantic era but did not die until 1949 (there are color films of him conducting his own works), but his style never really changed. In his own life, he went from cutting-edge to passé. Unlike some of his other tone poems, this one is lacking.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST

What a complete mess THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST is.

After the first film, which is quite good, and the second film, which was passable, I was hoping the finale to the trilogy would be a lot better. But strangely, there is almost no action in this film. Seriously, almost every scene in the 2 1/2 hours of the film consists of people sitting indoors and talking. The script is terrible and the structure is worse, and it is terribly shot. I realize they were stuck with the source material, which has a labyrinthine plot, but there should have been some way to clean up the first hour of the movie.

Much of the movie's action takes place off-screen, including what should be the climax of the film at the very end. In fact, if she had actually kicked a hornets' nest, that would have been more action than is actually in the film! What little action there is, is horribly staged and poorly edited.

The basic structure of the film would have been a lot better if the film had opened with the beginning of the trial sequence, which is the last hour of the film. Then they could have brought in the back-story as flashbacks during the questioning. At least this way there would be drama at the front of the film, and the audience would feel the tension of the clock ticking, knowing that they need to save her before the trial is over. Instead we just keep looking at the clock wondering when this movie will be over.

This is perhaps the first foreign film where I look forward to the American remake. They can actually fix this and make a good movie out of it.

Monday, March 07, 2011

GASLAND

This Oscar-nominated documentary sickened and angered me. It's pretty hard to believe T-Boone Picken's claim that fracking is perfectly safe. The evidence in the film is overwhelming. It's almost like he didn't watch the movie because he already convinced himself otherwise. It's equally hard to believe that we have let government oversight of water and air lapse so badly. I wonder what it will take for the pendulum to swing back to the correct direction. Near extinction of the human race?

This movie should be required viewing. I was particularly proud of our Congressperson Diana DeGette, who really stuck it to the oil & gas industry people in questioning them.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

TCHAIKOVSKY VIOLIN CONCERTO

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra billed tonight's concert as the "Hannu Linto Debut" for the Finnish conductor. However, the show was completely stolen by guest violinist Vadim Gluzman, who played the Tchaikovsky with great relish that was contagious to the audience and the conductor.

The first movement was so good that he got a (partial) standing ovation between movements. If he had not signaled people to sit down, there may never have been a second movement. The slow movement was not as memorable, but he played the third movement faster than anyone I have ever heard before, and he played it flawlessly. If there were any criticism, it's that he did not look at the conductor enough to stay in tempo with the orchestra.

The evening opened with a nice read of Liszt's Les Preludes, a nice feature for the orchestra. The conductor Linto gave a very sensitive reading, although he is a bit overly mannered. There are rumors the CSO is thinking of hiring him, I hope not.

The evening closed with Sibelius Symphony #1. Not his best work, it's clearly influenced by Tchaikovsky, which may be why they put it on the program with the violin concerto. Alas it was merely a letdown after the fantastic soloist.

The evening is quite memorable, and I keep thinking how lucky we are to hear such great soloists here on a regular basis.

Friday, March 04, 2011

SCOTT PILGRIM

Ok, I take back what I said about all superhero films sucking. SCOTT PILGRIM totally rocked. I was completely surprised as I knew almost nothing about the film before I watched it. This is the best comic book movie since GHOSTWORLD. This film is very inventive in storytelling and visual style. I'm sorry I didn't see it before awards season. I do like Michael Cera and much of the cast was very good.

Nice work.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

ROMEO & JULIET

Tonight we were lucky enough to see the Colorado Ballet's performance of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet. The performance was outstanding.

I've only heard the Suite form and never seen the entire ballet. It's interesting seeing it the the dance, the way it was intended. They found a lot of humor in it, which I did not expect at all,and it points out how happy the music is.

The dancers were excellent, particularly Juliet. She made even the most difficult moves look completely natural, particularly in the final scenes where she must dance while unconscious. I'm ashamed to admit that I thought of Weekend at Bernie's during this touching sequence. The entire finale was very moving. The orchestra was very good, although the strings needed to tune a little better at the top. The brass and percussion sounded fantastic.

It is a long night though. They started late, and have two long intermissions, so it's three hours. However, see it while you can.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

LEON FLEISHER AND THE CSO

We finally returned to Boettcher for our first concert of the new year, and heard a wonderful concert. It opened with the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy. This piece featured the Colorado Symphony's new flautist, who had given some brief comments before the concert about getting her start as a flautist with donated instruments. Her playing was quite beautiful, and it's nice hearing this gorgeously orchestrated piece in person.

The highlight of the night followed, with 82 year-old pianist Leon Fleisher playing the Concerto for the Left Hand by Ravel. Ravel makes a nice companion piece to Debussy. This is a piece I had never heard live before, and I have to say it was enthralling. The opening of the piece is much more dissonant than most Ravel, and builds to a huge orchestral climax, leaving only the piano to state a very major-key theme. I can't help but think that the opening is meant to represent the loss of the right arm, and the piano solo is a way of saying "everything is going to be all right." It's a wonderful piece, but very bizarre seeing someone play with only one hand.

The finale of the evening was the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. The performance was indeed fantastic, especially the percussion section (although the bass trombone was so loud it sounded like contrapuntal flatulence; the second violins could not keep a straight face during this section). I'm pretty sick of this piece, it was WAY overplayed by American orchestras, and in the last three years, I've heard three different orchestras play it.

Nonetheless, it was a rousing finale to an excellent concert.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

THE LOSERS

With a title like THE LOSERS, you can be assured that the film does indeed suck ass. I can't remember the last time I saw a film this bad. There is zero character. And I mean zero. I swear I could not tell them apart even though they are different races and different genders. The plot is completely incoherent. The production value put it at the level of a bad episode of CSI: Miami.

Everyone looks like someone else. There's a guy who looks like that guy from Everybody Loves Raymond who appears to be in charge. There's another guy who looks like the fourth Ghostbuster. You know, the black one. And there's a guy who looks like Cuba Gooding Jr., and a woman who looks like she might be related to Will Smith. There's also an Asian guy who never talks, and a white guy who's a geek because he uses computers. That's it, I just gave you all the character development. Now you don't need to watch this.

The biggest name in the cast is Jason Patrick. Wow. And even he looks like he's pretending to be Warren Beatty in BUGSY. He's so bad it makes it almost worth watching his scenes as an acting lesson in what not to do.

But no, it's not worth watching, even for that.

GET LOW

GET LOW is a nice little movie directed by my former classmate Aaron Schneider. There's a nice article in Entertainment Weekly explaining how the film got made, mostly due to Bill Murray committing to a minor role. The cast is stellar, especially Robert Duvall.

The story is extremely simple, and old hermit decides to throw his own funeral before he dies. If there's any weakness to the movie, it's that this simple premise doesn't really stretch to the running time of the film. But I'd still recommend it based solely on the performances.

Nice work.

Monday, February 14, 2011

LET ME IN

It's tough to review a movie that's a remake when you've seen the original only a few months prior. However, LET ME IN is a very good American remake of the Swedish horror film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. For an American film, it is surprisingly restrained, which I appreciate. I prefer thrillers to gore, and this film lives up to that (although not as much so as the original).

Like the original, the film has an excellent child cast, although the lead girl in the original is superior, but the lead boy in this version is better. Elias Koteas is good in a role that didn't really exist in the original but is apparently in the book. Richard Jenkins is excellent (as always) in the ambiguous role of the girl's "helper." The visual look mimics the faded Kodachrome look of the original, placing it perfectly in the early 80s. Michael Giacchino's score is pretty effective but far more overstated than the subdued original.

Definitely a recommend for horror fans.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

HARRY POTTER and the DEATHLY HALLOWS

I am not a fan of the series, in fact I've forgotten what happened in most of them (they really need a recap at the beginning of the film for people over 25), but I have to admit that HARRY POTTER and the DEATHLY HALLOWS is a pretty good film. It's an extended chase sequence, which is inherently entertaining, and the characters are developing nicely. And I have to admit I was strangely moved by a minor character in the film.

The screener DVD sent out is incredibly dark, so dark it was hard to see what was going on at times. I suspect it looked better in the theater and will look good on BluRay, but they really need to time it for DVD before sending it out for consideration.

The film did sound great and as always Desplat did a great job on the score, raising the production value of the film considerably.

Friday, February 11, 2011

INSIDE JOB

INSIDE JOB is an excellent explanation of what went wrong with the financial system and why there is a worldwide financial crisis. It does a good job explaining the history leading up to it and points out that not only were there warning signs, there were plenty of experts telling us about the warning signs. The film is very professionally made, perhaps a little too smooth for its own good. It would have been enough just to explain what happened, but in the last 20 minutes there's a little too much time on the soapbox repeating the flaws, extrapolating them to unrelated issues and trying to stir the pot for more reform. I certainly agree that reform and regulation is necessary, but I don't need a shot of the statue of liberty telling me that.

But I still highly recommend the film.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

THE ILLUSIONIST

Jacques Tati is my favorite filmmaker, so the idea of making a lost screenplay of his is very appealing to me. Perhaps I set my expectations too high, but THE ILLUSIONIST doesn't belong in his oeuvre.

At first thought the idea of resuscitating M. Hulot as an animated character might seem appealing, but the truth is that much of Tati's charm comes in the performance, and putting the filter of animation on him only makes him more distant.

There are a few nice homages to the master, like naming the character Tatischeff, Tati's original family name (although why isn't he Hulot?) and many visual references to previous films, not to mention many plot elements similar to other films (perhaps too many).

Then there's the bizarre moment where the Tatischeff meanders into a screening of MON ONCLE, seeing the actual live action film on the screen. This really defines this film as nothing but a pale imitation of the real deal.

Some elements work better than others, but the idea of a magician entertaining in animation is kind of dumb. It's not a trick when it's animated. But the relationship between the older Tati and the younger woman is sweet, even if the ending is far too depressing. Tati's films always ended on a up note, even when he didn't get the girl.

I suppose it's still a must-see for fan's of Tati, though.

TANGLED

TANGLED is a nice Disney film that is unfortunately flawed in several obvious ways.

I did not see the 3D version of the film, but even in 2D the 3D animation just looked odd for a Disney princess film and did not seem to fit. I also found the anime eyes on the princess to be a quite a distraction from the style of animation on the other human characters. In fact overall the animation seemed unfinished. The reported budget on the film was over $200 million dollars so I don't know why the animation would have so many rough edges.

The film has a great plot, and the songs are good but not great. I'm not sure why it got a song nomination for "I See the Light," there are a couple of better songs in the film, and that's probably the most forgettable song in it.

Still, I have to recommend the film with its flaws, as the plot and characters are still involving.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

CATFISH

Some movies are best seen without knowing anything about them. CATFISH is one of them. Even the title itself is a red herring (if you'll pardon the pun).

It's a documentary in which two filmmakers start shooting the photographer who shares a studio with them. Then about a third of the way in, the plot takes a surprising twist. At this point, I will say no more, other than:

VERY VAGUE SPOILER!!!

This is a WAY more interesting view of the online experience than SOCIAL NETWORK.

I very highly recommend the film. It's on video now.

BIUTIFUL

BIUTIFUL is a great film, but a very hard sell. It's 2.5 hours long, and one of the most depressing films I've ever seen,and I've seen a lot of depressing films. The film is a co-production from Mexico, takes place in Spain and has a Chinese subplot. This is not exactly popcorn fare for most Americans.

But Javier Bardem is, as always, fantastic, as is the rest of the cast. Like many European films, it does not hit every nail on the head repeatedly or even explain everything. Several of the scenes are completely surreal, although you may not notice unless you are paying attention.

If you like foreign films, this is a nice catch. It's in a few theaters, so see it while it's still there.

Monday, February 07, 2011

STEP UP 3

STEP UP 3 is by far the best of the three films. John Chu is really developing as a director. Unfortunately, the first act is so poorly written that I doubt many people will make it through the whole film. The film has its share of weaknesses. Shot for 3D, the 2D version of the film looks like all the backgrounds are green screen plates, although they probably are not. Most of the dance sequences are clearly shot on a soundstage, and the lighting is bright and flat, which probably makes the 3D look better. In fact this is one of those rare films that probably looked better in 3D, although some of the shots were clearly gimmicky, with things (and people) flying towards the camera.

Much of the film feels like a slightly better episode of Degrassi or Melrose Place, but the dance sequences really rise above the mediocrity of the script. If you like dance, you might enjoy fast-forwarding to the dance sequences in this film.

COUNTRY STRONG

COUNTRY STRONG is a country musical drama with a weird cast. Gwyneth Paltrow is actually pretty good as the washed-up alcoholic singer trying to revive her career. Her acting carries much of the film, and her singing is more than passable. Tim McCraw as her husband/manager is also good, although it's odd that he's in a non-singing role in a musical.

The big problems with the film are the script, which is cliched and predictable, and Garrett Hedlund who plays the young lover and country singer. Strangely, he is not a country singer but has the most on camera time. He does not have the range as an actor to rise above the mediocre script.

It's a shame, a better script with the better cast members would have really raised this movie above the level of forgettable. The film barely got a release and almost no publicity.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

BURLESQUE

At one point while watching BURLESQUE, I stopped to think, which would be the worse version of hell, having to see this movie again, or having to see BABIES again?I'm going to have to go with BABIES as the worse hell.

Although everything about BURLESQUE was putrid, there were a couple of musical sequences that were watchable. In fact it's everything BUT the music that makes this movie a colossal misfire. Seriously, you get Christina Aguilera, who has a voice that can make the walls shake, and you wait until AN HOUR into the film to let her sing? She really can't dance for shit, and we have to watch her dance for an hour?

Then there's the plot point that they all lip sync except for our heroine, who wants to really sing. This is a major mistake in a movie because in a film musical, THEY ALL LIP SYNCH EVERYTHING. It only draws attention to the fact that they are lip synching in scenes where they are not supposed to be lip synching!

And the basic premise is just weird. We're supposed to believe that in present day, there's a burlesque house on Sunset Blvd? And it's popular? And men spend money to see women lip sync with their clothes on??? The movie should have either been a period piece, or been in Vegas, or both. And even then, they should have shown some naked women for the unfortunate hetero guys in the audience. It could have been the perfect sequel (or prequel) to SHOWGIRLS.

The movie could have been a good half-hour shorter by cutting out the so-bad-it's-cringe-inducing dialogue. And much of the cast is outright terrible, including all the male leads in the film, except of course for Stanley Tucci, who steals every moment he is in.

But there were a few decent musical numbers, including Cher's song, which was so good it was completely out of place with the rest of the film. But not enough to make me ever sit through this again.

Friday, February 04, 2011

THE KING'S SPEECH

THE KING'S SPEECH has quickly moved BLACK SWAN down a notch from my favorite film of the year. It's hard to compare them, as BLACK SWAN is an art film with no real plot, and KING'S SPEECH is all plot and very straightforward. Yet at the same time, it's the most "Hollywood" film of the year.

I think the script and performances in in SPEECH were fantastic. The writing was strong, and the cast was excellent, although I kept expecting someone to call Derek Jacobi "Clau-Clau-Claudius," or to go looking for Prince Albert in the bathroom so they could say he was "in the can."

It's a very British film, and Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush gave Oscar-caliber performances. It will be interesting to see how many awards it takes, and whether that helps more Americans see it. Perhaps the only weak element in the film is the casting of Winston Churchill. It's always hard to play an icon, and the weakest choice is to do an impression. But every other element of the film was quite strong.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

I never thought that a documentary about the band RUSH would keep my attention, but this is a surprisingly good rock doc. It's nowhere near as good as last year's ANVIL, but it is a well made film. It never really occurred to me that the band had been around for so long with the original members intact. That's one part of what makes it interesting. The three performers also make for very interesting interviews as well. I really did not know much about the band members so it was certainly informative.

If there's anything wrong with the film, it's the lack of conflict. If this film is indeed accurate, this may be the most boring backstage life ever had by a major rock band. There were no fights and the three Canadians seemed to lead surprisingly straight lives while touring.

Nonetheless it's an interesting film.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

TRON : LEGACY

It would take a lot of time to list all the reasons that this movie sucked, more time than it is worth or I am willing to give it. But suffice it to say that there is a reason Disney had made sure the original is not available. It's not just because the original sucked, it's because after 25 years, the new movie has exactly the same problems as the original, plus all the problems inherent in 3D.

I never saw the original when it came out, even though I'm a complete geek. The reviews were terrible. That took away any desire to see it. I saw it on DVD a few years ago. Indeed, the reviews were correct.

I have to admit that when the first teaser trailer for the sequel came out, I thought they might have gotten it right this time. After all, the concept was kinda cool. But the execution on the original had no story and forgettable characters. Well, nothing has changed. The original was famous for visual effects that, at the time, were breathtaking (and are now laughable).

There's an inherent problem pacing almost the entire movie in the grid. The grid is interesting only in small doses. Otherwise, it's so limited visually that it gets boring fast.

The sequel's plot is terrible. Its needlessly complicated yet at the same time boring. Very little is clearly explained. And I don't understand why they would want two Jeff Bridges in the movie. Why would one of his programs look like him, and not all of them? Wouldn't it have been more interesting to have another actor play Clu?

There's very little reason to care about characters when they are computer programs who don't exist in real life. Who cares when they die? I certainly don't.

Then there's the 3D thing. At no time in the movie did I see anything that looked 3D. The image is so dark I could hardly tell who was in the shot half the time. Occasionally I noticed that some images did not converge properly and looked blurry. That's the closest I got to seeing 3D.

This movie is a colossal misfire. In 25 years we'll remember it for one thing. Visual effects that, at the time, were impressive, but will soon be dated.