Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Hobbit

The Hobbit was quite a surprise for me. Indeed I am thrilled that they sent out screener discs so that I did not have to watch it in the headache-inducing 3D or the 48 frame version. (Although I would be interested in seeing some clips in 48.) What surprised me is how much action they managed to fit into the film, and how that kept the film's three-hour running time at a comfortable length. I had expected that a lengthy film covering the first third of a brief children's book would be padded to an uncomfortable extent. But I am happily wrong, the film is quite entertaining.

The cast helps a lot; Martin Freeman is excellent as the young Bilbo Baggins, and all of the other returning cast members from the other Lord of the Ring movies are excellent, especially Ian McKellan as Gandolf. The sound design and music were very good as well. Some of the visual effects were astounding, especially the character animation for Gollum.

My to my surprise, I recommend the film!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty comes from director Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film The Hurt Locker may have won many accolades  but I did not like it very much (reviewed briefly here). I'm sorry to say I liked this film even less.

It's really a matter of character. I don't mean to say these characters do not show development. (They don't.) I mean they don't show character AT ALL. The main character, please, someone tell me one thing about her that I did not know before the movie began. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she obsessed with killing Bin Laden?

The movie also has tremendous pacing problems. The opening 30 minutes of the movie show extensive torture sequences in an attempt to gain information. The whole movie covers more than a decade of time, and it is really jumpy in its pacing. I really think the opening is a red herring. The movie is not at all about torture, even though all of the recent publicity has been about Senators complaining that it glorifies torture, followed by the CIA's bizarre backpedaling in which they admitted that there was torture but that it did not directly result in the capture of Bin Laden. All of this overreaction is the result of what could have been a five minute scene of torture.

Then there is the believability of the main character. When I asked my wife the actresses' name when she appeared at the beginning of the movie, I swear she said "Jessica Shit Stain." Obviously I misheard Jessica Chastain,  who was so good in The Help (reviewed briefly here). I can't blame her for not having a character to play here, she certainly does her best to bring the film above the lackluster script. But her character seems to have an endless supply of hair-care products and makeup even though she is in a war zone for (apparently) a decade, and that haircut would never last there. Watching the great documentary The Invisible War (review here) a few days before this didn't help. Comparing her to real women who had spent time in a war zone, she is nothing like them.

The final 30 minutes of the movie are the best, and it is essentially a completely different movie, which could have been entitled "Killing Bin Laden." Let's face it, how do you screw up that part of the movie? This was the easy part, and it's the only interesting part. Note that the characters are all new, are never introduced, and never given any character. But we all want to see UBL die, so we get excited.

Strangely, after the success of Hurt Locker, you would except a decent budget on this film, but it looked and sounded like a low budget film even though the reputed budget was $20-40M. Parts of the movie are so dark I could not see what was going on, including much of the final 30 minutes. Helicopter footage looked like it might have been CGI, perhaps deliberately underexposed to hide the phoniness? The end result is that it looks like a student film trying to pull off day for night.

I have loved every score Alexandre Despat had written, until I heard this one. There is very little music until the final sequence, but then suddenly we are hammered over the head with full melodrama, sounding much like it had been temped with Hans Zimmer.

The middle 90 minutes or so of the movie are the worst part. There is a recurring image of Chastian writing the number of days on the glass wall of her boss's office. I felt like this was happening in real time. (Also, if she wanted her boss to read it, she should have written the numbers backwards; would have been a nicer visual image to see his POV with the number written over her face. But I digress.) This whole movie is a mess.

I'm afraid I can't recommend this film.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph is the second animated surprise of the week, following my earlier review of ParaNorman.  It's a clever idea, worthy of Pixar (even though it is a Disney release, John Lasseter exec produced). The casting is excellent, especially Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk. It's got a nice moral and a happy ending, as one would expect (is that a spoiler?). The animation is very clever as it manages to pay homage to the 8-bit history it references while still remaining contemporary 3D for contemporary audiences. The story line has a lot of nice touches to it, a few of them were actually surprises to me, which is always nice.

Nice sound work by Gary Rydstrom, Dave Fluhr and Gary Rizzo.

I highly recommend the film for all ages!

Sunday, December 23, 2012


THE INVISIBLE WAR is an extremely important documentary film that every American should see. It covers the difficult topic of sexual assault in the military. The film does an excellent job of exploring the history of women in the military and previous scandals such as Tailhook, while showing the horrifying statistics for women in the last decade. It's really shocking just how bad it is. And the government spokespeople represented in the film do not seem to make anything better.

The film is so good at explaining its case that after the Secretary of Defense saw the film, he changed the long-standing policies of the military to take decisions on prosecution out of the hands of the commanding officers, who had been notoriously protective of their own men. Since then, legislation has been passed which continues the move forward to allow victims a fair chance to be heard.

The film is extremely well-edited by my former classmate Doug Blush and my former student Derek Boonstra. The opening of the film is particularly effective. If there were any weakness in the film, it is that they interview a couple of men who were victims of sexual assault, even though that is very common as well. I'm guessing it was difficult to find men who were willing to go on camera.

The film has won numerous accolades, including the IDA award for best documentary feature and is on the short list for the Oscar. Please see this film.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson's new comic coming-of-age story (co-written with Roman Coppola). I was very pleasantly surprised by the film. Anderson has been hit-or-miss for me, with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Bottle Rocket as highlights, and Aquatic Life as an absolute low-light. I have mixed feelings about Tennenbaums, it's overrated in my opinion.

Probably the biggest valid complaint I hear about his movies, even the good ones, is that his characters tend to be caricatures and not well fleshed out. However, in a 90-minute comedy, I think it's OK that peripheral characters are somewhat cardboard. The important thing in this film is that the two main characters, two outcast 12 year-olds, have a believable love story. It's been a long time since I saw a child's love story presented so honestly on the screen (in spite of the fact that much of the film is farcical). And as my wife pointed out, kids tend to see adults as archetypes rather than individuals.

It is a bit unsatisfying that several big names are virtually unused in their parts. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and even narrator Bob Balaban barely get screen time to justify their parts. The one adult who really brings a lot to his character is Bruce Willis, who tends to be at his best when giving subdued performances like this one. Ed Norton is perhaps a little too restrained throughout the film.

Also great use of music by Alexandre Desplat (and Benjamin Britten).

Nonetheless, this is one of the best films of the year that I have seen so far.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina  is a problematic story in that there are no sympathetic characters. All of the characters are sleazy at best, and revolting at worst. I had to be dragged into seeing yet another adaptation. The film opens by peeling back the fourth wall and engaging the actors entering their stage roles. I thought this was interesting, and then it became a theme in the film. Each scene the transition includes the actors leaving the stage and reentering new scenery. This was cleaver at first but quickly began stepping on its own feet as the self-reflexivity seemed to have no point other than to be clever.

Karenina herself goes though so many personal changes, it's not possible to bring it off believably in a two hour movie. At some point her flip-flops just come off as a crazy person and not someone I really care about. Keira Knightly is not a strong enough actress to pull it off. Some of the other roles fare better, particularly Jude Law as her husband.

I like movie adaptations that take chances; Ian McKellan's Richard III and Julie Taymor's Titus come to mind, but this film never rises above its source material. Tom Stoppard's screenplay is like reading the Cliff notes to the novel, there is no real substance to it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


ParaNorman is a surprisingly good family film. I did not know what to expect going in to it, but it is quite an intelligent and moving film about a kid who sees dead people. There's a nice moral to the story, which makes it appropriate for kids, yet there is enough going on for adults to keep them interested too. There are ghosts, witches, zombies and monsters in the film, which some people might think is inappropriate for kids, but kids love to be scared, and in the end [SPOILER!] everything is explained in a way that will make kids feel fine.

The cast is fantastic, especially the child actors. The animation is also interesting; the film was shot stop-motion using a Canon 5D, but it does not look cheap at all, it's actually beautifully done.

There is one throw-away line at the end of the film that  [SPOILER!] reveals one of the characters to be gay. It's a silly joke; I think we are way past the point where it's funny to find out a character is gay, but it seems to have ticked off a lot of viewers who think mention of sexuality is inappropriate in a children's film. I don't think it's inappropriate. They don't mention sex at all; one of the characters mentions having a boyfriend. That's it. I'm not sure how that can get people upset. (The character, by the way, is a self-centered moron. That's more offensive than being gay.)

I do recommend this film highly, I think most people will like it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


CLOUD ATLAS is a peculiar and unique film. Although I enjoyed watching it, I think the narrative structure was so confusing that it made it almost impossible to appreciate, as I spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out what was going on. In addition, the stunt casting of having each actor play six roles was far more distracting than it was helpful. I don't think anyone ever postulated that when people reincarnate, they keep the same looks as their previous life. Seeing Halle Berry in whiteface and a man dressed as a woman were particularly interruptive to the flow of the film. Some of the makeup looked like rubber masks (although some of it was also outstanding).

I look forward to an extended cut on BluRay as it is likely that would answer a lot of my questions. I have not read the book, but I did notice in reviews that the book has a palindromic structure, in which each of the six stories begins in consecutive order but finishes backwards. (A mirror fugue, if you will, to keep the musical metaphor of the title piece, A Cloud Atlas Sextet.) I think this structure would have suited the film better, as all of the intercutting seemed forced, particularly at the end, where they felt the need to make all the stories climax together in an intercut frenzy. In fact this probably would have played better as a miniseries.

It's kind of hard to "spoil" the film with any plot reveals, but I did want to mention one bothersome moment. Someone shoots a dog. Both the dog and its owner are not integral to the story at all, and it's a particularly disturbing display of pointless violence. I'm sure the reason that it was placed in the script was to show what a bad guy the character is, but we already knew that as we had seen him kill and try to kill people. I almost turned the movie off at this point. I deliberately decided to wait a few days to write my review, as I thought that the complex story layers might make more sense as I went back to them in my head, but instead, I found myself bothered by this disturbing image more than I thought about anything else. If you are an animal lover, you may not want to watch this film.

The six stories vary drastically in their interest. I found the comic episode that takes place in current day to be the most interesting. Some of the others are less successful, particularly one spoken in some type of Pigeon English but is not subtitled. It's almost impossible to follow. However I still enjoyed the film as a whole.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


RISE OF THE GUARDIANS is a great family film that is entertaining, funny, and moving. I'm not sure why this film has not done a lot better at the box office, as it is a great holiday film. They probably should have put the word "Christmas" in the title. The voice cast is all very good, especially Alec Baldwin as a bizarre form of Santa who appears to be from the Russian mob. The character animation is also excellent, with each character having its own style. I particularly liked Sandman, who doesn't talk, but is a memorable character nonetheless. The score by Alexandre Desplat, and and the sound design by Richard King and mix by Andy Nelson and Jim Bolt were also an important part of the success of the film. There's enough going on for adults that they will enjoy the film, but the heartwarming story is appropriate for kids as well.

Check it out while you can.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

All Beethoven, All the Time!

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra played a nice concert of Beethoven standards last night under popular guest conductor Douglas Boyd. It was also the "Parade of the Lights" night downtown, so the house had a pretty good crowd, which is always good to see.

The evening opened with the Overture to his only opera, Fidelio. Beethoven had a lot of problems with this opera, and especially the overture. Like many others, I prefer the overture titled Leonore #3, but this performance was nice. The orchestra for the evening seemed to be of a slightly scaled-down size from what one might expect.

The second piece and perhaps the highlight of the evening was the Piano Concerto #3 with guest Lise de la Salle (pictured above). I swear I heard some wrong notes in her playing, but her passion certainly came through in the music, especially in the second movement, which she began sotto voce, which was quite effective.

After another lengthy intermission, the final was the Symphony #6. Although I feel this is one of those pieces I could listen to an infinite number of times, I did get the feeling from the concert that these pieces had been overplayed. It would have been nice to include something less familiar to the audience but that's a tough call on a Beethoven-only night. There are a few other overtures but other than Egmont they are not very well known because they are not as interesting musically. Perhaps de la Salle could have played a movement from a lesser known piano piece as a encore. (She did not play an encore at all.)

Boyd introduced the Pastorale by saying that it was a North American premiere for an alternate ending to the second movement, but the difference was so slight as to be instantly forgettable. Overall the piece was well-played. Both the concerto and the symphony seemed to have rushed tempos throughout, perhaps just to be different, or perhaps trying to use Beethoven's own metronome markings, which many have assumed to be "speed limits" rather than actual suggestions. The only time in the evening I felt the orchestra breakdown was at the end of the last movement, which was unfortunately the end of the evening, ending on a bit of a down note. However, my wife and I still had a great time, and I always leave looking forward to our next concert. Unfortunately, that is not until February.