Sunday, February 24, 2013

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, and BEST PICTURE


There are a few movies I still haven't reviewed, including two Best Picture nominees that I loved, so I will try to get this done before the show starts!
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is one of the best films of the year. Extremely well written, acted and directed, and deserves all the nominations it got. It's nice to see a film with unique, believable complex characters interacting in unpredictable ways. I loved Jennifer Lawrence in WINTER'S BONE and was thrilled to see her performance here. I was very surprised to learn her acting technique, although I had suspected parts were improvised as they seemed so "in the moment."

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a low-budget indy that was fantastic. I love to see stories told about people I would never have met otherwise. Documentaries and foreign films tend to do this, and America it seems to be only the independents who will take chances on stories that are different. This film had its own challenges, but the acting is so wonderful that you can ignore the rough edges. QuvenzhanĂ© Wallis will probably not win, but it's hard to imagine acting at her age, and even harder when the script is this demanding, and the shooting process so awkwardly low budget.

If I had to pick, LIFE OF PI (reviewed here) is my runaway favorite film of the year, and probably many years, as it is such a unique accomplishment. AMOUR (reviewed here) is also excellent, but too dark for the Oscar.

ARGO (reviewed here) will probably win, it has the momentum, and with Ben Affleck strangely missing from the directing nominees, it seems like voters will chose the film instead. Also, it's a film about a film saving the country from war, an excuse for the academy to feel good about itself. As much as I enjoyed it as a good popcorn movie, all four of the aforementioned films were far better.

I was not overwhelmed by DJANGO (reviewed here).  LINCOLN (reviewed here) was solid old-fashioned moviemaking, but not worth a BP Oscar (although it may win some tech awards).

I hated LES MIZ (reviewed here) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (reviewed here). I know I'm in the minority on the last one, but it is really crappy moviemaking, regardless of the political context.

I won't hold my breath, but I would love to see PI win, or even SILVER LININGS or BEASTS, but I think it will be ARGO.

Visual Effects

I did not yet review several of the films nominated for Visual Effects.

I did review THE HOBBIT here.

And my choice for winner, LIFE OF PI, here.

AVENGERS is yet another stupid superhero movie that has one of the most extended actions sequences ever committed to film. It's still a stupid movie. I enjoyed the first IRON MAN film (but not the sequel, reviewed here), but both HULK movies sucked (reviewed here), and I skipped THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA because they both looked unwatchable. Apparently you needed to see them to understand this mess of a movie because I had no idea what was going on most of the time.

In terms of effects, the film sounded great (nominated for a Golden Reel), and looked great most of the time, but there were enough goofy, unrealistic moments to make it more cartoonish than it probably meant to be.


PROMETHEUS had an awful lot of problems, a lot of them generated by director Ridley Scott's silly interaction with the media when the film was in early stages. He flirted with the fact that the end of the film may make some vague reference to being a prequel to ALIEN.

Unfortunately the film is much more than a prequel, it is a virtual remake of ALIEN, except with less logic, less interesting characters, and, for the most part, forgettable acting. There are some nice moments in the film, but none of them are resolved, it is clear he had hoped this film would set up different offshoot of sequels, but the movie tanked, so that won't happen. The film did look and sound great (nominated for the Golden Reel), though.



SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN was one of the worst films of the year. The script is abysmal and lacks structure. The whole film seems like a trailer for a miniseries that I would not want to watch. And the acting is truly horrible, most especially Charlize Theron, who has given Oscar-caliber performances elsewhere, but here seems to be channeling the cartoonish performance of Cruella deVille. The visual effects ranged from stunning to laughable, so I'm not sure how it got a nomination.

Without question the Visual Effects award belongs to LIFE OF PI, which puts a live action boy on a boat with digital animals, who are completely realistic through almost all of the film. Only a handful of shots use real animals. And even fewer shots look digital. It's an absolutely stunning achievement. And it sounded great too. The film won two Golden Reel Awards, and Ang Lee was very gracious in accepting his Filmmaker Award at the Golden Reels this year. It couldn't have gone to a nicer guy for a better body of work.

A Few More Docs

I forgot to mention a few other documentaries earlier.

LAST CALL AT THE OASIS won the Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Award in the documentary category, and was supervised by my former student Peter Brown (who won two more Golden Reels for GAME OF THRONES). The film is directed by Jessica Yu, who won the Oscar for Doc Short in 1996, and is voiced by Erin Brockovich. (As my father would say proudly, SHE'S A POLLACK!!!)

The film is about an incredibly important subject, and one that I frequently bring up, only for people to dismiss me.

We are running out of clean water.

Right here in the USA.

The Colorado River is now a trickle compared to what it was only a few decades ago. If you want to know what the US will be like in a few decades, look at India.

This is a very good film, although the filmmaking style borders on propaganda, there is a lot of science to back it up. It's on Amazon Instant, and I believe on Youtube.

EDIT: From today's NY TIMES.



JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (also nominated for the Golden Reel) is a fantastic film about a sushi chef in Japan who is at the height of the art form.

DO NOT SEE THE FILM ON AN EMPTY STOMACH!!!

Eat sushi beforehand. The filmmaking is very good, and the subject is a very interesting character. Highly recommended, and it's on Netflix.

Finally, MARLEY, also nominated for the Golden Reel (and a BAFTA), covers the late life of the musician. I was quite let down by this film. I really like the subject, but the film had the bizarre combination of running way too long yet still only scratching the surface of his life. I never felt like I got to know him (like I did Jiro in the above film). It's too bad. But if you are a fan, it is probably worth watching anyway. It's also on Netflix.



Saturday, February 23, 2013

Foreign Film Roundup

Billy Wilder once told his cinematographer "Be sure to get a few shots out of focus; I want to win the Oscar for best Foreign Film." The reference is a little dated, but I do think the Academy still has a stereotype of what a great Foreign film is. It must be really depressing. (Same with documentary, the only uplifting film was SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN, reviewed here.) 

I have only seen two of the films nominated for the Oscar for Foreign Film this year, though, WAR WITCH and AMOUR

WAR WITCH is what I referred to as a "hybrid" foreign film last year. It is a Canadian film, in French, shot in the Congo by a Canadian director (whose parents emigrated from Vietnam) and taking place in a fictional country in central Africa. The film has been nominated for the Oscar and the Spirit award. 

The film is not without flaws. The first half of the film takes itself as seriously as a heart attack without taking much time to explain what is going on or why we should care about specific characters. It definitely has the feel of a "war is bad" film. The film covers two years in the life of a young girl who is forced into war at age 12. It picks up significantly halfway through when she falls in love and gets married. And the final act of the film is quite moving. 

But the real story in this film is the young actress Rachel Mwanza, now 16, who grew up on the streets of Kinshasa, Congo, having been abandoned by her parents. Director Kim Nguyen saw her in a documentary and cast her in the film, even though she was illiterate. Much like the young star of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (which I still need to review), this film is really carried by her amazing performance, and it is worth watching for that. 

Although AMOUR is in French, takes place in France, and uses a predominantly French cast and crew, the film was the Austrian submission for the Oscar (presumably because writer/director Michael Haneke is Austrian), making it another hybrid nominee. Today it won the Spirit Award for International film. 

This is without a doubt one of the most depressing films I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot. The title of "Love" refers to the bond between an aging and ailing couple, but the film deals more with the difficulties of aging and the decisions that must be made. The film is beautifully shot, and very European in style, using virtually no music (and all of it is source music) and extremely simple sound design. It is an extremely moving film but this film is not for everyone. 

In addition to the Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film, the film has several other nominations, including Best Picture (very unlikely it will win), Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Actress for Emmanuelle Riva, who is outstanding (although lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is equally good). Of these two films, this one is far superior. 

I did see France's submission for the Oscar, which was not nominated, THE INTOUCHABLES, a comic drama based on the true story of a wealthy paraplegic and the young ruffian he hires to take care of him. The film has some nice moments, but it was a little saccharine for my taste. 

I also saw RUST AND BONE, another French hybrid (with Belgium) which was nominated for the Spirit award. A nice cast, including Marion Cotillard and good direction made it an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable film. It did win the Motion Picture Sound Editors GOLDEN REEL. (INTOUCHABLES was also nominated,  along with AMOUR). 

I do find more and more as I age that I enjoy the foreign films and documentaries more than the American fiction films. 

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE and FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS

In an attempt to catch up on some last minute viewing before the Spirit awards today and the Oscars tomorrow, last night I watched these two documentaries on Nextflix. I have always loved documentaries, and spent my undergraduate years making them with Ricky Leacock at MIT. There was a bumper crop this year.

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE was nominated for the Oscar and the Spirit award, and came highly recommended to me, but I was very letdown by the filmmaking. The film is about the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s. The opening ten minutes was actually so bad I stopped watching and switched to the other film, then went back to it. The whole first 30 minutes is very uneven. I'm not sure who the audience for the film is, gay, straight, young, or old, but to me the opening did not inform me of anything I didn't already know from numerous other films, and from having lived through the 80s. The tone was actually very angry, which does not work in the long run.

However, the film gets much better. But the film is still too long, mostly because of a lot of redundancy, and worse, most of the great scenes are news clips that I have seen before. There is not a ton of new material in the film. I would love to have seen contemporary interviews with some of the people involved.

FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS was also nominated for the Oscar. Again, I was let down. The monotonous voice-over by the director made it very hard to watch. I hate it when filmmakers make themselves the star of their own documentary, and in this case, he should have recast himself. Certainly the American version of the film would have been much better if his narration had been translated and performed by an actor instead of having to hear him while reading subtitles. And it probably would get the film out to a broader audience. About the only good thing about the film is that we see what it is like to live as a Palestinian  which is missing from most Western films.

I previously reviewed SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN here, and  INVISIBLE WAR here. (I did not see THE GATEKEEPERS, the remaining Oscar nominee.) Nor have I yet seen CENTRAL PARK FIVE, which was nominated for the Spirit award, and the IDA Doc award. To me, INVISIBLE was by far the best of the ones I have seen.

Congratulations to INVISIBLE WAR, which won the Spirit today, and the IDA award in December  and good luck at the Oscars tomorrow!

Friday, February 22, 2013

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN


SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is a great documentary. The less you know about it going in, the better the viewing experience will probably be for you. So stop reading here and rent the movie at Redbox. The film is about a musician from the 60s whose music had unintended consequences on Apartheid.



To discuss the film I have to give away a few things.

The surprise in the film was not that much of a surprise for me. They talk about looking for this musician. Well, if they don't find him, there's no movie, so I was not at all surprised that he was still around. Also, just based on the early comments about him in the film, I fully expected that when we found him, he would be mentally ill.

The biggest weakness in the film is that I still feel like I am searching for him. It's a very interesting story, but I really learned almost nothing about him as a human being. I think whatever his mental illness is, it made it impossible for the filmmakers to get close enough to him for the audience to learn about what happened to his career. It's a shame, as I feel like I only got about 1% of the real story.

Nonetheless, that 1% is very interesting and worth watching.

SKYFALL

I have been so overwhelmed with watching movies for the past few weeks that I have not had time to review them. I'm going to try to catch up over the next few days.

SKYFALL is the best Bond movie in ages. It has a smart script, great direction, and outstanding technical work from everyone involved. It is definitely the best-sounding Bond movie, period. Nice work by Per Hallberg, Karen Baker, Scott Millan and Greg Russell. The score by Thomas Newman was great too.

The best part for me was the fact that the movie went where the previous ones avoided; Bond's personal past before he was in the service. It is not explained in detail, but we get enough of a peek that we are interested in seeing where the future films will go. The script was a lot more complex than most action films for this reason.

Nice work.




Friday, February 15, 2013

Byron "Bob" Foucht, RIP



I am very sorry to report that I heard the bad news that Byron "Bob" Foucht passed away. After my father, who passed away in 2002 (a few musings about him here and here), and jazz legend Herb Pomeroy, who passed away in 2007 (a few musings about him here), Mr. Foucht was probably the most important male role model in my life. He started giving me trumpet lessons when I was ten years old, and continued as band and jazz band conductor through high school. He gave me my first opportunity to conduct when he was on medical leave and he allowed me to rehearse the jazz band for a few weeks. He also gave me my first opportunity to arrange, when I wrote some brief adaptations for the marching and jazz bands. He also motivated me to organize my first small group jazz band for a local event. He was always very supportive of my love of music. He had a great sense of humor and was a truly good human being, and I will miss him terribly. 

Mr. Foucht was the high school marching band director, so he had a close relationship with my father, who was the football coach in the town for many years. They worked together on and off the field. At the height of the team's success, the games were a well-oiled machine. My father really felt that everyone involved with the game was important. In addition to the cheerleaders, we also had a drill team the performed at each game, and the band. (My father was the coach, one sister was a cheerleader, one was on the drill team, and I was in the band, so we had all the bases covered.) Mr. Foucht was very good to do as much as possible with the very small resources that the team had in such a small town. I believe there was one year where we had less than 20 people total in the marching band. Rather than being an embarrassment to the town, we were still an important addition to the Saturday spectacle of the football games. 

He kept in touch when I was in college, and he was kind enough to show up last September when the alley next to the football field was named after my father. I had no idea that would be the last time I would see him, as he seemed in fine form and very youthful in demeanor. I did not realize he was 75 years old at the time. I am very happy that we were able to reconnect on Facebook, but I am very sorry that I will not be able to see the latest animal videos that he liked to share with his friends.

He will be missed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

DJANGO

DJANGO UNCHAINED is typical Tarantino. A movie which might have been great, but instead falters throughout and is only entertaining instead of thoughtful. I really try to like his films, but he gives me way too many reasons to stop caring about his characters. Shooting the head off a horse in the opening scene doesn't help.

Technically the film is quite brilliant. The cinematography, editing and sound work are all amazing. And much of the plot is original. The acting is top-notch, until, at the most important point in the film, Tarantino injects his own horrible acting into the film, as though Jar Jar Binks had suddenly wandered onto the set and had a pivotal role.

The ending is far too violent for my taste. The more I see violence glorified in film, the more ashamed I am to work in this industry. I understand it was a difficult time in American history, but I really never liked Peckinpah's use of ultra-violence as cinematic ballet either. I hope this is the last of Tarantino's violence. He clearly is a talented filmmaker, who could do a lot more with his characters and a lot less with squibs.

Monday, February 04, 2013

FLIGHT Crashes and Burns

FLIGHT never really takes off after the crash sequence in the first act of the film. In fact, the opening sequence pretty much sums up how incompetent a movie this is. Zemeckis's idea of an adult scene is to make the woman naked, and frame it so her head is cut off in most of the scene. This is not some throwaway character, she winds up being a turning point in the denouement, and this is as complicated as her character gets.

Denzel is a fine actor but is wasted on this maudlin one-dimensional script. He plays a functional drunk passably, but the real gold standard for movie drunks will always be Jack Lemon in THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES. LEAVING LAS VEGAS is also very good, but the book is much better, and is really an autobiography of a suicidal alcoholic. This movie clearly does not understand the disease as well. But a much bigger issue is the lack of depth in the writing. Everyone is one-dimensional; the religious co-pilot, the recovering girlfriend who appears and disappears for no apparent reason in the screenplay, the uncaring lawyer. These are all cliches. And why bring up religion at all unless you are really going to discuss it, as LIFE OF PI (review here)  did?

The crash sequence is done very well, and the sound design is excellent. But otherwise, this is a made-for-tv quality film.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Frankenweenie and the Animated Features


This has been a banner year for animation. Just consider the five Oscar nominees:

Brave (review here) 
Frankenweenie
ParaNorman (review here)
Pirates: Band of Misfits
Wreck-it Ralph (review here)

And these two films which did not even make the cut:
Rise of the Guardians (review here)
A Cat in Paris

Here are a few brief reviews to fill in the gaps on the others I have seen:

If you are an animal lover, be prepared to cry... twice... in FRANKENWEENIE. Perhaps Tim Burton's best movie in many years. The character are great,and the visual style is perfectly appropriate for the subject matter, with lots of hidden in-jokes for adults and move lovers. I really loved this film, and it really shows the soft side of Burton. Most years this would be a sure thing for an Oscar. But against PARANORMAN and WRECK-IT RALPH (which won the Annie award last night), it will be a tough field.

PIRATES is a tough film to review because the standards set by Aardman are so high that every feature they have made has been a letdown compared to their early shorts (Wallace & Gromit, Creature Comfort). It's a shame, the shorts really show a sign of adult intelligence, whereas PIRATES is strictly for the kids. I think Rise of the Guardians should have been nominated in its place.

A CAT IN PARIS is a beautiful, traditionally animated French film with a nice story that is clearly for kids. The only think I did not like was some of the voice casting in the American translation, some of them seemed to go for a cartoon sound when it was unnecessary. Also, the film is short, barely an hour, although it would have been tough to stretch out the plot much more.

At least three of the five nominees are great films, deserving of the award.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Bolero

Karen Gomyo

The Colorado Symphony had an interesting concert this evening which began with the challenging Harmonielehre by John Adams. Challenging for the orchestra; it truly is a showpiece, but it is even more challenging for the audience. There were numerous parts worth recognizing, but the most amazing to me was the trumpet part, a long series of long tones in the high register, played pianissimo and muted. I have no idea how Justin Bartels found space to breathe without passing out.

The orchestra had bad news this week when the president resigned under mysterious circumstances, presumably because tickets sales were much lower than projected for the first half of the season. Unfortunately, at times like this, playing contemporary music only hurts the orchestra, and therefore the music as well. The house was not good for this concert. It's a shame, as this piece was interesting but complex, and the second half of the program was truly crowd-pleasing.

After a very long intermission, conductor Peter Oundjian brought out guest Karen Gomyo for the Symphonie Espagnol of Lalo. She played beautifully and deserved the standing ovation that the audience gave her. Even more amazingly, the orchestra was fantastic on the other orchestral showpiece of the evening, Ravel's Bolero. I don't believe I have heard this piece live before, and it was interesting to see the melody passed from instrument to instrument. For some reason I had always thought it was an alto sax, but it is a tenor and soprano.

If there is any criticism for the evening, it is that the final chorus was not as climactic as I have heard it before on recordings. In fact the trombone glissandi were barely audible. But that's one tiny criticism of an otherwise fantastic night. I sincerely hope that there are not any more financial issues troubling this world-class orchestra!