Monday, November 29, 2010


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010


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

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

But fun anyway.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010


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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010


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

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

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

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


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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Red Shirley

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

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

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


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

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

I wasn't even halfway through yet.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 08, 2010


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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

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

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

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

Friday, November 05, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


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

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

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

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

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