Monday, November 28, 2011


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 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 (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.