Sunday, February 26, 2012


IDES OF MARCH was a complete letdown after watching MARGIN CALL (click for review)  the night before. MARGIN did not win the Spirit for original screenplay as I had hoped (that went to 50/50, which I have not viewed yet), but it did win the Robert Altman award for ensemble cast.  IDES is nominated for the Oscar for adapted screenplay, and I have liked Clooney's directorial work before, and it had a great cast, so I had high hopes for it.

Strangely, the writing is the weakest thing in the movie, most notably the character played by Evan Rachel Wood (who does not help things by giving a very flat performance). I'm not going to discuss the plot much more because what little there is all depends on one soap-opera twist. MARGIN was a smart script that relied on the audience to really care about the economics and the politics of the situation. IDES go straight for the low-brow in its storyline. A good cast is wasted here.

Quite the letdown.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


MARGIN CALL is unquestionably one of the best films of the year, yet no one has heard of it. The film is nominated for two Spirit awards tonight, including best first feature, and one Oscar nomination tomorrow for original screenplay. I hope it does well, it is one of the smartest movies I've seen in a long time, with an absolutely fantastic cast: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci... even Demi Moore is quite good. I have no idea how this film flew under the radar. The cinematography and sound are quite good as well, although the screener disc seemed to have some color timing issues.

The writing reminded me of David Mamet, but in a good way, and the subject is incredibly important, the events leading up to the banking meltdown. Ironically, this is probably what turned off audiences, you must have a rudimentary understanding of the mortgage collapse to understand the film. Also it is an extremely talky film, and much of the talk is about numbers.

But I highly recommend the film, which can be found at Redbox or Netflix DVD.

Friday, February 24, 2012


HARRY POTTER 7 is the last in a very, very long series of children's films about witches or some such thing. I really don't remember most of the films, in fact, I'm not even sure I saw all of them (although I think I did). The film really ought to come with a recap at the beginning to remind us old farts who the characters are and what the hell is going on. Also, as with the last film, the cinematography is incredibly dark and it's hard to see what they are doing.

J.K. Rowling does know how to write a good story, even though I don't think there is a single element in the series that is original, but the way she handles them is quite good. Most of the first half of this film is very well-paced (after a couple of long expository dialogue scenes), but the second half seemed interminable. At some point I really stopped caring whether or not they killed off Harry as long as they finished the frigging movie.

Well, at least the series is finally over.


I have not read the novel TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, nor have I seen the well-loved Alec Guinness version (why isn't this on Netflix?), but this movie is a rather dull and and un-involving version of a complex cold war spy story. It's odd that it is so boring as I expected to like it a lot, like THE CONSTANT GARDENER, which is a nice adaptation. Gary Oldman is quite good in the role of Smiley, but frankly he does not have a lot to do in the movie. It's kind of a master class in understatement, a big departure for the guy who appeared to be born to play Sirius Black, and whose overacting in LOST IN SPACE almost killed his career.

It's rather long and confusing, but it is very well shot and the sound design is excellent. I do like the fact that there are a lot of scenes with little to no dialogue, that is inherently interesting to me. But I can't recommend this movie, even as a rental.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


IRON LADY is the story of Margaret Thatcher. I was a little afraid to see it because I had heard so many good things about Meryl Streep's performance, but I hear that about every movie she's in, and I thought the star power might harm the movie.

I was wrong, Streep is the best thing about the movie, and she falls into character so invisibly that it is not at all distracting. Her makeup is excellent as well. In fact, the whole cast is outstanding, including Jim Broadbent as her husband, and the actors playing the younger versions of the couple.

Strangely, the script is the biggest weakness of the film. If this had been an HBO movie, it would probably be sweeping the Emmys, but on the big screen, this small of a script falls quite flat. A huge percentage of the movie uses the terrible framing device of an elderly Margaret Thatcher meandering about her apartment mumbling to herself. This is about as non-cinematic as you can get. I was shocked to see that it was not based on a play, as I assumed all of the lazy writing had been done to economize a live production. Instead we get A-list talent in production value that seems appropriate for a high-school play.

Given all that happened in her life, it would have been nice to open up the film to a few exteriors and let some of the actual history happen visibly, rather than in a few flashing news clips flying by. The rest of the country's history seems invisible as well, and her relationship with Reagan is hardly mentioned except for one quick image of them dancing, and a short scene with an actor who looks nothing like Al Haig. An occasional subtitle with a year attached might have been nice as well as Americans don't know much of her history within Britain.

Nonetheless it is still a must-see for the acting.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


BEING ELMO is a nice little documentary about the man behind the mask who created the current incarnation of Elmo. It's a really fascinating look at how a relatively poor kid from Baltimore moved up the ladder of success at puppetry to become one of the most famous characters in the world.

It's a feel-good story and a very well-made film, until the final third, where it starts to bog down with just too much saccharine. That section probably could have been better edited. But otherwise I highly recommend this film.


FLOWERS OF WAR is the third film I saw this year that I would call a "hybrid foreign film." What I mean is that is is for all intents and purposes a foreign film, except for American involvement that got it made.

I recently reviewed SARAH'S KEY here, which is half in English, and half in German. It stars Kristen Scott Thomas in the English language story. I know the book is in English, but that part is in France, should it be in French? Or if we are going to concede that to English, shouldn't the whole movie be in English, and maybe broaden the appeal of the film to more mainstream audiences? It is a peculiar hybrid, and I'm pretty sure that's one reason the film just didn't work.

I also reviewed IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY here, which is completely in Bosnian languages with Bosnian actors. Of the three films, this one works by far the best, and part of it is the reality that choice provides. The "hybrid" here is that director Angela Jolie is a big-name American actress, and without her involvement, the film probably would not have been made and certainly would not have gotten what attention it has.

FLOWERS tells the story of the rape of Nanking through the eyes of a western visitor, Christian Bale, who impersonates a priest in an attempt to protect himself, a group of schoolchildren, and some prostitutes in Nanking. Like Sarah's Key, the part of the film that does not work is everything related to Christian Bale's character. Oddly most of the characters just happen to speak English so many scenes are without subtitles, yet others have them. It is very distracting.

Also oddly, Bale is terrible in this film. This is without a doubt the worst acting he has ever done. It's amazing how good he has been in some films, but this film looks like it was without a director. Also, although there is some violence, the film is less graphic than the Bosnian film, when the actual rape of the city was one of the worst events in all of history. I can't really recommend this film.

I would have to hope that this hybrid thing is just a phase and that we go back to letting foreign films be foreign films.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

George Harrison: Living in the Material World  is an outstanding documentary by Martin Scorsese, mostly about the post-Beatle years of the singer/songwriter. I thought I knew a pretty good amount about him, but almost everything in this film was a revelation. The film spends a lot of time on his life and personality away from music, which is a nice departure from previous films. It also has a ton of archival footage that I had never seen, and even more new interview footage with many people who knew and worked with him.

Even for the passing fan of the music, this film is a must-see. Nice work to everyone who worked on it!

Monday, February 13, 2012


PINA is a fantastic documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch. I'm note exactly a huge fan of dance (although I think I've seen three ballets int he last year), but this kept my interest throughout. Director Wim Wenders struck a nice balance with only a little real documentary footage and tons of spectacular dance. I would kill to see her production of Le Sacre du Primtempts in person.

Pina clearly understood that great dance has elements of many other arts. Her musical choices cover the gamut but are all terrific. The dance is very modern, more like studied movement than traditional dance. The dancers are all actors creating strong drama, and the sound design is very strong and clearly integrated into the performance. (The sound design in the movie was exceptional as well!)

We saw the movie in 3D and as far as I could tell all it did was make an already dark stage even darker. The background is black already so there is little depth to begin with; this movie in particular seems like the silliest use of 3D I've seen yet.

Other than that I highly recommend the film. But see it in 2D and save the extra five dollars.


SARAH'S KEY is based on the novel of the same name, which was quite popular, although this movie did not get much of a release. It is mostly foreign-language, which probably did not help. I did not read the book, but it seemed watching it that the German WWII story was much more interesting than the contemporary story that is intercut. My wife tells me that the book suffered from the same problem, including the fact that the last 15 minutes or so of the movie are terrible. However, there's enough of interest to people who like the WWII era that it is probably worth a rental.


CIRCUMSTANCE is a peculiar film. I knew very little about it going in. The DVD rental box does not mention that it is a foreign film, that it is not in English, or that it is about a lesbian couple in Iran. I knew that it was a Middle Eastern coming-of-age story, but you would not know that from the box. I'm not sure what they think they are hiding, do they think renters won't notice these things when they happen on screen?

Of course all of those elements interest me, because I like learning about cultures that are foreign to my experience. However, I felt this film did not do a particularly good job of making me feel how difficult it must be to be gay in Iran. I was actually shocked at how little supervision the two teen girls get, how much trouble they could get into without being jailed (or worse), and how easy it was for them to have a lesbian relationship with no one noticing.

The movie certainly did not make much of an attempt to let me get to know these characters or the culture they were in. I honestly feel like I could not describe these characters outside of physical attributes or the fact that they were in love. They also aren't terribly sympathetic as they are both goof-offs who party too much.

It's a shame, I think the film was a wasted opportunity to help Americans understand Middle Eastern life.


THE SKIN I LIVE IN is undoubtedly one of the strangest and most disturbing films I have ever seen. It is very different from Almodovar's past films and not at all what I expected, although I have to admit that I really liked it a lot. Most critics are calling it a thriller, but it's really more in the mentality of a horror film. It reminded me a lot of the relatively obscure French horror film EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, my review here). Both deal with crazy, obsessed doctors performing unwanted plastic surgery on a kidnap victim, and both have characters who were badly burned in car crashes.

This is also clearly influenced by one of my favorite films, Vertigo, in the main character's clear attempt to recreate a love that has been lost to death. Add to that the usual sexual identity questions in Almodovar's films, and you have one of the weirdest films you will ever see. It is definitely NOT a film for everyone. Fans of the romance in Almodovar's other films will probably puke watching this film. But I did enjoy the psychological elements quite a bit. Audiences are very divided on the film, although yesterday it won the BAFTA award (British Academy) for Best Foreign Language film.

The film does have its problems. The narrative structure is quite messy. It's adapted from a novel, and I'm guessing all the explanatory dialogue and flashbacks worked a lot better in the novel than they do in the movie. There's a lot that happened before the movie begins. Much of that is explained in dialogue in the first third of the film. That was already starting to feel a little tedious, but then the film suddenly does a very lengthy SIX YEARS EARLIER flashback sequence that completely interrupts the flow of the film and makes you wonder who all these new characters are and what they have to do with the plot. Yes, there's a reason they tell the story that way, it has one of the all-time great plot twists, but I suspect that there was a better way to keep that surprise without the narrative interruptions.

Nonetheless I would recommend this film, particularly to fans of psycho-sexual thrillers and subtle horror films. This one will stick in my subconscious for a long, long time.


Sunday, February 12, 2012


IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY is a difficult film to watch for a lot of reasons. It's about one of the most violent wars in recent history, and director Angelina Jolie makes no attempt to disguise the violence.

The Bosnian war was also one of the most convoluted because of all the different parties involved. This makes for tough viewing for an American audience because it's hard to tell what's going on, and who is on what side. The film does a pretty good job of explaining who is who, but if you stop paying attention for a second you can miss something important. There is a bizarre forbidden love story that is involving, but ultimately in the end it is an incredibly depressing film.

Yet I still found it interesting. It is not at all what one would expect from Jolie, and the acting all across the board is fantastic. Worth watching for that alone.


THE WAY is a nice film starring Martin Sheen, directed by his son Emilio Estevez. Estevez also has a small part in the film but is almost unrecognizable. The film is not without problems, it is long, slow, and predictable, but the journey is worth it nonetheless because of Sheen's performance as a man whose son died trying to make a long pilgrimage. It's a shame that this film did not see a better release, and that Sheen is so overlooked as an actor. Which brings me to another brief review of another Sheen film.

STELLA DAYS is a very small Irish film that has not found release yet in the US. Sheen plays a very different character in this one, an Irish priest who is upset that he was passed over for a transfer to the Vatican from his rural Irish village. So he decides to turn part of his church into a movie theater. It's so small it feels like an old-fashioned TV movie, but again Sheen's acting makes it worth a viewing.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


THE MUPPETS was a blast! Granted much of my enjoyment came from having flashbacks to the old TV show, which I watched for its full run from 1976 - 1981. This movie really captured the fun spirit of the old show in a great way. I have to really credit Jason Seigel for making a movie that is family-friendly and true to the characters while still opening them up to a whole new generation of fans, and making it fun for audiences of all ages. The songs were great. This is another film that if you missed it, be sure to see it!


MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL is quite a breath of fresh air, especially after the last episode in the series (review here). Who would have thought that the fourth in the series would turn out to be not only the best in the series, but one of the best films of 2011? Especially considering that it is director Brad Bird's first live-action feature, and the two screenwriters were predominantly TV writers before this. Such a peculiar pedigree has brought new life to the series.

The film is true to the TV series in that it is much more of a thriller than an action film, although all of the action sequences are spectacular. There are two reasons they work so well. One is that every beat in every sequence is tied to the plot, and is not just some goofy throw-away gag (as has become the trend in other action films). The other reason is that many of the stunts are real, or at least appear real, in that the actual laws of physics are being followed. I'm really sick of action films where people and objects seem to ignore gravity, and all the action sequences are go highly CGI'ed that nothing seems real.

Oh, and the sound design was great!

If you ignored this movie because you didn't like the previous films in the series, please take the time to see it!

Thursday, February 09, 2012


AN AFRICAN ELECTION is a fascinating documentary about the 2008 presidential election in Ghana.

It's always interesting to see a foreign culture, but this film in particular shows a few things that we Americans take for granted. These people line up at 4AM to stand in line for 10 hours in the hot sun just to cast their vote. And when they finish, they don't go home, they stay there to watch the votes get counted, as the crowd chants the count along with the election commission.

That's a far cry from the Republican presidential primary this week in Colorado, where turnout was less that 10%, even though you could mail in the ballot.

It's very heartening to see a country where people truly believe in their government and take an active role in it. Even some of the people who appear uneducated have strong opinions about how government exists to provide health, education and food to the people.

It turns out that the contest is indeed contested, and there are plenty of parallels to the American election of 2000. I highly recommend this doc.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Sibelius at the CSO

Nineteen year-old violinist Caroline Goulding gave an amazing performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto to an appreciative audience last Saturday at Beottcher Hall with the Colorado Symphony. Alas the previous night had a rare cancellation due to the foot of snow that fell that day. It's a shame, this young lady has a huge future ahead of her and I'm sure the crowd would have loved to hear her. I hope she gets the chance to return to Colorado soon!

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Pirates 4) was not a film I looked forward to seeing.

After less than stellar outing with Pirates 2 (reviewed here) and Pirates 3 (reviewed here), I had given up on the series. But for awards consideration I need to watch a lot of films, and this was one of them.

I have to say it was a pleasant surprise. It did not take itself too seriously, and it was a complete departure from the last film, bringing back Penélope Cruz as the love interest, and introducing Rob Marshall as director. The film did not overstay its welcome, either, like the last entry, which was almost unwatchably long.

Supposedly Johnny Depp took a lot more control over this film, including finding the source material that was adapted. It worked. Although the film was considered a letdown in the US (not sure how $240M is a letdown), the film made over a billion dollars worldwide, so it's likely we will see a Pirates 5. I can only hope they find equally interesting material.


HANNA is a film I wanted to like. It started off promisingly, with a young girl raised in the woods trained as a survivalist. The first forty minutes or so are quite engaging, as we get a fantastic performance by Irish newcomer Saoirse Ronan, who at age 17 steals to movie completely.

Unfortunately once she decides to go to the big city, it becomes just another dumb action film, full of huge leaps of faith that I was unable to make. The rest of the casting is terrible. Eric Banna is completely unbelievable as a CIA assassin, and the film grinds to a halt whenever he returns to it. Even Cate Blanchett is terrible as the CIA (or whatever) chief who must find them both.

It's too bad, the film had promise, and the sound design was excellent.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Battle of Warsaw 1920

Battle of Warsaw 1920 is a fantastic Polish film about the Polish war after the completion of WWI left the country independent. The film looks and sounds fantastic, and the main characters create an involving love story as the backdrop to the war. The lead actress is exceptional, she goes from cabaret singer to nurse to manning a machine gun over the course of the film, and makes it completely believable.

The only problem with the film is that to Americans who know nothing of this era, it is quite confusing. It's hard to tell who is Polish and who is Russian if you are not paying attention. But I do strongly recommend this film if you get a chance to see it. Apparently it's the first Polish film shot in 3D, although I saw it in 2D, the battle scenes probably look stunning with the added depth.


I can see why DRIVE was essentially overlooked by the academy (although the Sound Editing nomination was very well deserved!).

The first half of the film is very involving. There is very little dialogue, yet a lot of tension. Ryan Gosling gives an intense but internal performance as a driver for both the movies and for robberies. But halfway through the film, it completely falls apart. The one thing that made me interested in this character was his relationship with his neighbor and her daughter.


Halfway through, the film stops being an interesting character study and becomes just another dumb, violent Hollywood heist film. When he brutally kills a pursuer in front of his neighbor, who is the only other interesting character in the film, he essentially kills his relationship with her and writes her out of the movie. (We never see her son again, who was supposedly the motivating factor for everything that happens in the film.)

It's odd, since the first half of the film is so well-written, it's like another writer took over halfway through and started making up dumb dialog to put into Albert Brooks' and Ron Perlman's mouths. Yes, they both do a good job with what they have, but Brooks is nowhere near Oscar-worthy in the film. Gosling is, he gives a layered performance, but I think the only thing good about Brooks is that his character is so different from anything else he ever played that people were shocked he has range.

But the film did sound fantastic!

Thursday, February 02, 2012


TREE OF LIFE made me feel like I just sat through an all-day screening of 310s.  What a colossal, pretentious POS. I can't believe someone green-lighted a film where they said "we are going to inter-cut the creation of the universe with some mundane guy's life."

"And then we are going to butcher famous classical works by editing them to this picture.

I was shocked to realize it was only 2:20. It felt like the longest three and a half hours of my life. Yet it was nowhere near that long.

Yet I do feel the need to shout out to the sound crew. It did indeed sound (and look) spectacular. What a huge waste of resources.


Yesterday I watched two movies featuring fighting robots.




I would really never like to see a movie about fighting robots again.

Although to be honest, both films were better than I expected. TRANSFORMERS was much better than the last film, mostly thanks to the action sequences. Unfortunately there's a lot more movie than just stuff blowing up. Nice work on the sound by many of my friends including former USC student Erik Aadahl, who was Supervising Sound Editor.

REAL STEELE is truly the Rock 'em Sock 'em come to life. It's an incredibly stupid concept salvaged by good acting and a surprisingly good script. Also the sound design was amazing in every scene.

Neither of these films are films I would normally recommend, but for students of film sound, these are both worth seeing in a good screening environment.

RANGO, PUSS, in BOOTS, and CARS, too!

RANGO is a strange but enjoyable animated film. It is not a perfect script, especially in the first act, but once it gets moving in the second act it really gels. The voice casting is exceptional, and if you are a fan of film, you will enjoy all the allusions to famous movies, most noticeably the Sergio Leone films I love so much, and CHINATOWN. And a few others thrown in.

Also a shout-out to my former student Addison Teague who was the Supervising Sound Editor, the sound design was spectacular. As was the animation.

Over the last three days I have watched eight movies. That's what happens at awards time. I will try to review most of them, but I make no guarantees. Last night one of the ones I watched was PUSS IN BOOTS.

Although there was a lot to enjoy, there was also a lot to snooze through. I think the major problem is that although this is a funny (and well cast) character, he is essentially a second-banana, and his character (and this story) is not enough to flesh out a feature film. When the film is good, it's very good, but the back-story flashbacks were terrible. Ans the ancillary characters were terrible. Humpty Dumpty was terribly conceived, and Jack and Jill were completely wasted. It's an interesting study in contrasts with RANGO, which stands up much better.

I am one of the few people who will publicly admit to disliking CARS. (Click to see my review of the original.)

I don't get it. I *love* the other Pixar films, like TOY STORY, which reminded me of my own imaginative childhood where I gave all my toys personalities. Except the cars. Cars are cars. YOU drive them. They don't have a personality of their own.

The sequel is a colossal misfire. Like Puss, Tow Mater is not a lead character. I guess I can understand the desire to dumb things down for the NASCAR audience, but it sure didn't work for me. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


RISE of the PLANET OF THE APES was a complete surprise to me.

I so detested the Tim Burton film that I could not bring myself to watch another talking monkey film until I had to. As it turned out, they don't talk until the end, and even then, only a few syllables.

This is one of the best-written films of the year. Like WAR HORSE, the animals carry this movie, and for long stretches at a time, it is pure visual storytelling with no dialogue. The visual effects are astoundingly good and almost invisible except for the fact that I know they could not possibly have trained apes to do most of what they do in the film. The animal performances are amazing. Andy Serkis probably did deserve an Oscar nomination for his unique work in the film, but I doubt most Oscar voters saw the film or understood that the basis of Cesar's performance was a human actor.

If you avoided this film. I would recommend you see it. One of the best films of the year. And outstanding sound work by my good friend Chuck Michael!