Tuesday, December 31, 2013


FROZEN is a great Disney film for kids that fools you into thinking it is going to be your typical Princess movie but pays off in a big way. The film has two strong female character, along with some great animation and songs.

I had heard so many good things about this film that I have to admit I was a little let down by the fact that the film is not really for adult audiences as much as it is for young children. I think they could have made it more in the Pixar style with more for adults. (For instance, the film's mix features the music far more than the sound effects, which harks back to Disney movies pre-Pixar.)

But that's a small criticism. This is one of the smarter films out there.


The end of the film completely turns the typical Disney princess film upside down, which made me quite happy. The stereotype is broken. Long live the new princess!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

O Coen Brothers, Where Art Thou?

Do yourself a favor, and watch A MIGHTY WIND again, rather than watching INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, an epic fail of a movie. Everything about the film is terrible, starting with the title. (OK, quick, write the title down without misspelling it.) Followed by a completely forgettable cast, except for John Goodman, who is the most sympathetic human in the film). Add to that the fact that the characters are all despicable, and the music is (I think) deliberately terrible to show how insipid folk music is, and it's the longest two hours of my life I've ever spent. That includes being in a coma.

What happened to the geniuses who gave us A SERIOUS MAN? This is a sad excuse for a movie. And if you are an animal lover, you will be very upset about the treatment of two cats in the film. It's really sad when I care more about a cat than I do about the main character, or anyone else in the film.

Monday, December 23, 2013



While it isn't exactly a competition, it is awards season, and these two films are topping a number of lists.  I happened to see them on back to back nights, so I will cover them in one review.

I really enjoyed AMERICAN HUSTLE a lot, so don't take this the wrong way, but this movie is seriously overrated. Although it was a lot of fun, and there are some really good performances in it, the film is completely lacking in originality. Making a movie about ABSCAM is kinda like making a movie about the hostage crisis (ARGO). There are numerous plot, character, and visual references to GOODFELLAS and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and Chistian Bale's performance is really little more than warmed-over De Niro, which makes De Niro's appearance a lot less powerful than it should have been. 

That said, both of the main actresses in the film, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, deserve nominations for their work, as well as the production designers, and the makeup and wardrobe designers. But the film is pretty forgettable. It's only been 48 hours since I saw it, and I had to look up who some of the actors were.

12 YEARS A SLAVE, however, I think will stick with me for a long while. It's not a perfect movie either, but I think it's a far more original and stylish piece of filmmaking. Steve McQueen has a number of nice directorial touches that underline the incredible performances in the film, starting with the second scene in the film. Just about every actor in the film is extremely well cast, with the exception of Brad Pitt, but hey, he slept with the producer to get the job, so he earned it. 

One thing I thought I would never say in my life: Hans Zimmer deserves a nomination for the score, which is unique and appropriately dissonant for the film. 

It's one of those films that will stick with you for a while, and may even be worth watching again in the near future. I don't say that about very many films. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is a long title for a HBO documentary about the legendary comedienne, who is almost completely forgotten by contemporary audiences, even though she was hugely influential on generations of performers. This film does a good job of placing her in time as an important storyteller and sublime political satirist. It is odd seeing (and mostly hearing) bits of her routines, though, as much of it has not really aged well. We have such different expectations of a comedian's performance, I doubt that younger audiences would get her at all today.

Some of her best material isn't even remotely funny, like her song that is a tribute to "Abraham, Martin, and John," the three victims of assassins, two of whom she had known personally. It is pretty amazing what she managed to sneak onto TV in her few performances in the 60s and 70s. Thank goodness for The Smothers Brothers and a few other shows that invited her on, regardless of her peculiar look and performance style, so we have at least a few images of her at work.

Whoopi does a pretty good job of keeping her own personality from overrunning the documentary (except maybe in the title), and has a nice lineup of academics to help frame Moms' work historically and philosophically. In addition, virtually every important black comedian who was alive when Moms was working is interviewed, and they give very smart analysis of why her work was so monumental at that time. Moms was one of the few women working in comedy at the time, one of the few black comedians to make it into prime time (and had 20 comedy albums in her career), and was also a lesbian, making it even harder for her to the type of attention that typical women performers needs to be successful. (I think they could have further explored how that helped create her onstage persona.)

This is definitely worth viewing.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Stories We Tell

STORIES WE TELL is one of those movies where, the less you know about it, the better. The only thing I knew about this documentary before seeing it is that it was directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who is probably best known for her role in the film THE SWEET HEREAFTER. I did not know that she came from a family of artists and actors. The fact that it was directed by an actor might have put me off initially for fear that this was a vanity project, but if anything, it is the opposite of that.

The film is nominated for an International Documentary Association Award, a Film Independent Spirit Award, and has made the short list of 15 Oscar films that will be eligible in the documentary category. If you like documentaries, I recommend you see this without reading any more. If you have not seen it, be aware that there be SPOILERS!!! below.

Ms. Polley uses the film to tell the story of her family. The process is very interesting as she tells it in a Rashomon-like manner, allowing multiple viewpoints of specific events even when they conflict with each other. Some of the subject matter is intensely personal to her and I am frankly shocked that she got so much on camera from family members and friends about such intimate details. There are a couple of confusing moments where she leaps back in time and then forward again, but otherwise the filmmaking style is excellent.

The film makes extensive use of recreations, which I normally detest, but in this case it makes a lot of sense. There is a tremendous amount of real footage of her mother and other people on what appears to be Super 8 and 16mm, and the recreations are intermingled in an incredibly seamless fashion. I suspected they were recreations but she herself reveals this to the audience at the end of the film by showing the current family members alongside the actors who recreated the flashbacks in earlier scenes. This use of recreations is masterful, as it ties in well with one theme of the movie, that we can never know the empirical truth, instead, we only have the stories we tell ourselves about what might have happened. In essence, even a documentary can never tell you with 100% certainty what happened.

It's a very smart film, and I highly recommend it. Oh, and it also is very moving emotionally.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Documentary Roundup I: THE SQUARE and THE ACT OF KILLING

Film Independent announced their Spirit Award nominees today, including their nominees for Best Documentary. Two of these were also nominated for Independent Documentary Association Awards: The Square and The Act of Killing.

The Square is an excellent documentary about the recent history of the uprising in Egypt, as seen mostly through a single location, Cairo's Tahrir Square, where many of the important events occurred.

If you think you learned anything about the uprising from the American media, you probably didn't, even if you watched some of the interviews Jon Stewart did. This film carefully documents the ups and downs of an uprising that took more than a year. The director, Jehane Noujaim, was repeatedly arrested and mistreated for attempting to cover the events. The fact that the film was made at all is an amazing act of courage. The film is only 95 minutes long, I actually wish they had given the US the longer release, as sometimes it is a bit confusing, since we know so little about the situation.

If you have more than a passing interest in this important event in world history, I strongly recommend you watch the film.

The Act of Killing is one of the strangest films I have ever seen in my life.

It's almost impossible to describe this film, and in many ways it is better to know very little about it before seeing it. If you do not know much about what is going on in Egypt, you probably know almost nothing about Indonesia, where this film was shot. In the film, director Joshua Oppenheimer's subject is a man, Anwar Congo, who single-handedly killed hundreds of Indonesian Communists during a purge almost forty years ago. Today he is considered a hero by many in his own country, which is proudly run by self-described "gangsters."

There are many layers to this film. There is the influence of American film on this gangsters, who grew up watching and worshipping gangsters in American films. Seeing this, the director offers them the opportunity to reenact their killings for the camera. Yes, you read that right, the director of the documentary asked his subject, a  mass murderer, to reenact his killings for the camera. As the film-within-the-film progresses, things become increasingly surreal. They shoot one scene like a 1930s film. Another becomes a lavish musical sequence. One of his cohorts dresses as a woman for much of the shooting.

This would be comical if it were not so darkly disturbing. I do think the film has one nearly-fatal flaw, the middle third of the film bogs down by showing too much of the same subject. In fact, I almost stopped watching, as Anwar seemed almost impossible to crack as a subject. Yet, the film redeems itself in the last 20 minutes with some of the best documentary footage I have ever seen. A huge portion of the filmmakers are credited as Anonymous, including a co-director, as their lives are in danger for releasing the footage in this manner.

I highly recommend the film.

Also nominated for the Spirit Award is Gideon's Army, reviewed here. Also nominated for the IDA award is Blackfish, reviewed here. Next week, the Academy will announce the "shortlist" of fifteen films still under consideration for the Oscar (out of 151 documentaries submitted).

Monday, November 25, 2013

American Masters: Jimi Hendrix

American Masters recently ran a two-hour documentary about the genius guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Hear My Train A Comin'.

The full video can be seen here:


I'm not the perfect audience for this film. I worked on an unauthorized TV movie a while back so I know quite a bit about him. That movie was fatally flawed from conception (unauthorized meant we couldn't use any of his music), but nonetheless I had to learn a lot about his playing to try and make it look like an actor who could not read music, sing, or play the guitar (and who was not left-handed) was Jimi Hendrix. 

This documentary suffers from some of the same problems we had. Hendrix's family is fractured and very litigious. As a result, many aspects of his life are completely ignored in the film, probably for fear of legal action. Virtually nothing about his life prior to the Experience, and surprisingly little about his last few months. Very little mention of drug use. 

I do suppose that for people who knew very little about him that this film is a nice way to get introduced to his life, but for me, there was very little new information. Some of the interviews were a little awkward and may not have deserved the screen time that they got, where other important people seemed left out of the film entirely. 

Nonetheless, I'm sure many people will enjoy this film. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


BLACKFISH is an extremely important documentary about the animal abuse occurring at SeaWorld and other marine mammal parks. It is the vein of THE COVE, which I reviewed here. Like that film, this one is extremely difficult to watch as an animal lover, but it is important to see what is going on. Be aware that there are multiple scenes involving animals in physical pain. The film is available on DVD/Bluray.

I remember going to SeaWorld when I was very young, again as a teenager, and a third time as an adult. It never occurred to me how badly these animals were being treated, or how inappropriate it is for animals this large to be kept in such small tanks. They are great propagandists at making the animals look like they are enjoying themselves. But the truth is much more horrific; three trainers have been killed by whales, and almost certainly because they cannot maintain healthy behaviour in the parks.

The film ends with a statement that SeaWorld is appealing a decision against it which has forced them to limit interactions between the trainers and the whales. Ironically, this was forced on them to protect the humans. It does nothing to protect the whales. Yesterday that appeal went to the court. There is a strong possibility that the court will overturn the ruling, which had given OSHA the authority to protect the trainers. That authority is a huge precedent, meaning that OSHA could attempt to protect other workers in entertainment fields (such as the NFL) if the ruling stands.

Regardless of whether that ruling stands, the country needs stronger laws to protect animal rights. If you can watch this film without crying multiple times, you are completely heartless.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gideon's Army

Gideon's Army is an HBO documentary about the court-appointed defense lawyers who are the backbone of the American legal system. I was surprised to learn that court-appointed lawyers were not required in all cases until a Supreme Court decision in the 1960s (explaining the Gideon in the title). It's hard to imagine what life must have been like for a poor person accused of a crime before that landmark decision.

The movie follows three southern defenders and documents the difficulties of their lives, including the fact they they carry too many cases at a time, are grossly underfunded, and often their own clients undermine themselves. Nonetheless two of the three deal with specific cases on camera that show that they are brilliant lawyers. One of them has the names of clients tattooed to his back if he loses their case. There are people who are really committed to doing the right thing under the law.

Awards season is nearing, and it seems that this may be a top contender already. Highly recommended viewing.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bride of Frankenstein LIVE!

Zombies Overtake the CSO
Last night the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed Franz Waxman's brilliant score to James Whale film BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN live while screening the movie. There were a mix of plusses and minuses with the presentation. I have written before about the terribly small screens that they use for their movie screenings. They need to rent a large screen if they are going to do this again. The screens are embarrassingly small. The cinematography and sets in this beautiful film deserve more respect than they are getting here.

In addition, the audio quality on the dialogue from this 1935 film is terrible, and the live orchestra constantly overwhelmed the dialogue. As far as I could see, the conductor was not wearing headphones and was even attempting to respect the dialogue in the film.

On the plus side, it was a very fun night. Many of the musicians came in costume and stumbled through the audience to take the stage as zombie performers. This is exactly the type of thing that could reach out to a younger audience. Unfortunately, turnout for the event was terrible. It's a shame, there is such a thrill hearing a live orchestra with a movie.

The orchestra's performance was very good overall, but the overture was played terribly, as though they had not rehearsed it. I was afraid the rest of the concert would be as bad, but I was wrong. I'm not sure who was conducting, but there did not appear to be any attempt to keep the music in perfect sync with the picture; much of it was late compared to the original tracks (which I know quite well). In addition, there were many places where a bigger musical performance would have been more dramatic, and I don't believe I ever saw the conductor attempt to get interpretation out of the orchestra. He worked like a human metronome.

The film holds up as a black comedy extremely well. I have no idea how many times I have seen this film, but this may have been the first time on a large screen. Not only are the sets and camera moves amazing, but for 1935, the visual effects are stunning (most notably the mini-humans the Dr. Pretorius created). But what amazed me most about seeing the film on a bigger screen was Karloff's incredible performance. Even though he only has a few words of dialogue, he managed to evoke incredible pathos for a monster that kills several people in the opening of the movie. This is particularly true in the scenes with the blind man. He manages to take a creature that could have been extremely simple and instead weaves moral and emotional complexity into him. My wife and I still argue about whether or not this film is a comedy; to me it clearly plays some elements for comedy, but at the same time is successful at making you feel empathy. The creature is certainly a tragic character, and like all the films, it does not end well for him.

I hope the orchestra manages to be able to do more live screenings, and get a better audience, and I hope that they are able to step up the presentation aspects to a more professional level.

League of Denial

League of Denial is a documentary about concussions in the NFL. It was originally shot for ESPN, but since the NFL allows ESPN to run Monday Night Football, they pressured ESPN to drop the doc, which is highly critical of how the league has handled the issue. Thankfully Frontline picked it up to run on PBS. It can be viewed in its entirety on their web site here:


Or on YouTube at the link at the top.

They are correct to criticize the NFL, as they had done nothing but threaten litigation against anyone who made a claim to the NFL. There is a now a significant body of evidence that blows to the head in football are at least as bad as in boxing, and that it can affect high school players (and probably even younger). The film does an excellent job of supporting these facts with extensive interviews. (Yesterday it was announced that Brett Favre turned down an offer to return to the NFL because of memory issues; he did not want to risk making them worse.)

It is appalling that a billion dollar industry cannot support their retired players, and is unwilling to look at protecting the current players. The league is compared to the tobacco industry, which knew about the health dangers of smoking, but deliberately buried the scientific evidence so that it could continue to make money from killing people.

As a sports fan, I can understand the desire to keep the NFL in existence, but it does seem like we need to make better choices for kids who choose to play this sport. The NFL, college, and high school football are much rougher sports than when I was growing up, and if modifications are not made to play style and equipment, the NFL will be on the receiving end of a string of class-action lawsuits.

This doc is well worth viewing.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Russian Invasion

Natasha Paremski
This weekend the Russians invaded Boettcher Hall with the Colorado Symphony, featuring guest artist Natasha Paremski (originally from Moscow), and led by Bulgarian conductor Rossen Milanov.

It was also the 8th Annual Zombie Crawl. I'm always surprised that the Symphony does not leap on the opportunity to tie into this by having a Halloween-themed concert with Night on Bald Mountain, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, etc., or maybe excerpts from famous horror movie scores. If orchestras do not start thinking outside the box, they are not going continue to have audiences.

That said, this week's house was pretty full. Every year their Russian night does well. The evening opened with a piece by Prokofiev that I had never heard before, Russian Overture. I like Prokofiev a lot but this piece was forgettable and annoying in parts.

The evening then proceeded to the Rachmaninoff Concerto #2 as played by Paremski. The orchestra sounded fantastic, and she played well, but Denver has been spoiled by repeated  performances by Olga Kern, who has made the concerti her own.  Paremski did not play an encore even though the audience did not stop applauding.

After intermission, the highlight of the evening was the Little Russian Symphony (#2) of Tchaikovsky. I have always liked this piece, even though it is the least developed of his symphonies. (That's why 4-6 get played the most.)

It was an enjoyable evening, played extremely well by the orchestra.

I did not write a review, but we also saw the ballet Giselle the previous weekend. I'm not that knowledgable about dance, but this is probably the ballet I enjoyed the least since my wife and I started going. Musically, it sounded like watered-down Tchaikovsky, and dance-wise, the group did not seem as well synchronized as they had in the past. I am looking forward to seeing Cinderella in the spring.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Branford Marsalis and the Colorado Symphony

Branford opened the Colorado Symphony's season with conductor Andrew Litton tonight. I was not as excited as I should have been for the concert, not because I do not like Branford (we worked together on several projects), but because I'm not a huge fan of the Glazunov Concerto, which we hear him play three years ago in Vail with the NY Phil (reviewed here). Branford once again played perfectly; his Classical sound and vibrato are really sounding exceptional. Perhaps I am getting used to the piece but I enjoyed it a lot more tonight.

Context is also different, as tonight his second piece was a mini-concerto from John Williams based on the music from Catch Me If You Can.  This is one of my favorite Williams scores of recent years, and one I thought deserved a lot more recognition than it got. The piece really features three instruments, not just sax, it also features vibraphone heavily, as well as jazz bass (which was completely lost in the acoustics of the hall tonight). The vibes part is at least as challenging and as featured as the sax, so I found it odd that they did not feature the names of the other two in the program. It was a great piece. I'm a little sorry that Branford did not do an encore, but it was a bit of a long program.

The evening had opened with Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor, a piece which was saved by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. (Borodin was a scientist by trade and wrote music solely for pleasure.) After intermission, the orchestra played the Symphony #10 of Shostakovich. I've always felt his best symphonies are the multiples of five (kind of like the good Star Trek films are the even-numbered one). I hadn't heard this one in a while. It has moments of bombast, but since Stalin had died when he started writing this one, it also has a lot of depth in the first movement that otherwise may have been edited out to keep the Communist party happy. I do still enjoy this work quite a bit. But it did make for a long evening. The orchestra played extremely well, especially the percussion section, and Litton really is an outstanding conductor. He gets the best from the orchestra, just like his predecessor, Jeffrey Kahane.

I do look forward to our next concert in a few weeks.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Last night Stephen Colbert did a nice interview of Billie Jean King to promote her biography on American Masters. Stephen is about the same age as me and referred to many of the same memories I had, including being so young that there was no choice but to root for Bobbie Riggs (I mean, at that age, boys have no use for girls at all, what with the cooties and everything) and not being allowed to watch their match because it was past our bedtime. 

A lot of those memories were rekindled in a very good TV movie about the film in 2001, When Billie Beat Bobbi.

Tonight PBS aired the 90-minute episode, which was quite good, which can also be viewed online here.  Billie is a fascinating character not only because of what she did for sports, for tennis and for women's rights, but what she did for gay rights as well (even though she was forced out of the closet). She had nothing but challenges throughout her life, and she showed a lot of courage by choosing to come out publicly when she did. The story is very well covered in this film, although some of the recreations are a little hokey, especially as they are intercut with real footage as though they were part of a real sequence. 

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Side By Side: Film vs. Digital

SIDE BY SIDE is a documentary produced by Keanu Reeves about the differences between shooting on film and shooting digital formats. After touring the festival circuit, the 53 minute film aired on PBS and can be watched online: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365069419/

Keanu is also the interviewer and narrator. Don't let that put you off, this is a very good and interesting film. It's also well-balanced. There are plenty of old school folks who argue that film will always be better for various reasons, as well as a lot of other people who like digital a lot. The cast of interviewees is the a-list of directors and cinematographers in the current cinema, so there is a huge wealth of information here.

If you are at all interested in the differences and how filmmakers perceive them, this is worth the time invested.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is an HBO documentary about the Russian group. It's quite good. It is a Russian film with American subtitles in most scenes, although a couple of people speak English. It is a very well edited and structured film.

Pussy Riot is of course the Russian performance art group (not really a band) who staged guerrilla performances to protest Putin's government. Unfortunately, they crossed the line when they chose to perform in an Orthodox church and were arrested. The film picks up after their arrest and follows them through the end of their trial. They do a nice job in the film discussing the backgrounds of the three who were arrested.

One thing that is not approached in the film is the rest of the group. There were four at the performance where they were arrested, and eight at the previous performance, and others who helped them write the songs and plan the performances. None of that is touched on in the film, probably because some are in hiding and apparently have fled Russia for fear of arrest.

Nonetheless, if you have even a passing interest in the subject, I would highly recommend watching the film. Although there is no original footage of the three arrested group members, the film includes plenty of interviews with relatives and a good amount of historical perspective, along with footage from the trial. If for nothing else, the closing statements of the three group members are worth listening to. It will remind you of the real definition of freedom.

Thursday, August 01, 2013


ETHEL is a documentary about one of the least popular members of the Kennedy family, directed by her daughter Rory. I have to admit I did not want to watch the film because I thought it would be too one-sided a view of her.

I was wrong, this is quite a good film. However, it is good mostly because the title is inaccurate, it is not really about Ethel as a central character. Although she is an interview subject, she is not very open, so her daughter is forced  to focus the movie on other things, and ultimately the film is much more about Bobby than anyone else. Which is a very good thing.

Although some of the interviews of other family members are good, the thing that really saves the film is a wealth of home movies and other historical footage. It seems like the Kennedy family somehow always had the best photographers in the world following them around 24/7. And the footage of Bobby is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I  honestly think we will never see a politician like him again; one who is really in politics for all the right reasons, and who really cares about all his fellow people.

This movie is definitely worth viewing.

Friday, July 26, 2013


Gil Shaham awaits Maestro Tovey's Downbeat
The orchestral series presented by the Bravo Vail music festival concluded tonight on a high note, with an absolutely fantastic concert by the NY Phil and Bramwell Tovey conducting.

The concert opened with John Adams' piece A Short Ride in a Fast Machine,  a piece we have heard several times performed live. It's more than 25 years old now, but I remember when it was a new, fresh and exciting piece for orchestra. Tovey gave a nice reading tonight, and props to the percussionist who quickly recovered when the top of his mallet fell off while playing the incessant, metronome-like wood block part in the piece.

This was followed up with the incredible Gil Shaham, whom we heard two years ago at Vail, and whom we saw perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl only two weeks before we moved to Colorado (review here). He must be one of the happiest people on the planet, he is ALWAYS smiling, and who can blame him, the venue and crowd were perfect tonight! He played beautifully as always, with a rich and luscious tone, particularly in the low register.

But the real highlight of the evening was the near-centenary performance of Holst's The Planets, one of the truly great orchestral showpieces, and one of the pieces that made me want to be a composer. No matter how many times I hear it, I hear new things in it, and tonight was no exception. Seeing it live really made me notice how brilliant the writing for harp and timpani are. And although "Mars, the Bringer of War" gets most of the attention, all of the movements are brilliant in their own way.

This was a great way to finish our season in Vail before returning home for my step-mother's funeral. Bram Tovey even re-tweeted my photo from the concert. I just hope he doesn't read all of my reviews, including last night's!

Barber in the Chapel

Barber in the Chapel
Yesterday when I woke up, I learned that my step-mother had died a few hours earlier. Coincidentally, the Jasper String Quartet had planned on playing the Barber Adagio for Strings (known to the unrefined as "The Theme from Platoon.") The free concert was in the Vail Interfaith Chapel, only a few steps away from the hotel we are staying at. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to reflect on Pat's passing. The quartet played it extremely well. (We had heard them play it last year in a similar concert, reviewed here.) It must be difficult to play a piece like that frequently yet keep the emotional level so high. Thank you for your professionalism.

The concert appears to have programmed alphabetically, following Barber with Bartok, which was an interesting choice given their playing of Webern just a few nights earlier (and reviewed here). To me, Bartok's challenges to tonality are far more interesting than the mathematical approach taken by Webern, and it was a pleasure to hear the String Quartet #5 played so well. There were even a few welcome moments of musical humor in the piece, including the ending. It was a smart compositional move, to reward the audience with a light-hearted moment after a piece that can be challenging to the audience.

It was a nice way to remember Pat.

Bramwell Tovey and the NY Phil in Vail

Rain cannot dampen the enthusiasm for the NY Phil
The penultimate orchestral concert of the Bravo Vail music festival was last night, featuring a group of works conducted by Bram Tovey, who is consistently one of the best conductors we see (having reviewed him several times before at Vail and the Hollywood Bowl; you can read those reviews here). The concert was delayed about 15 minutes due to a sudden heavy rain, but picked up well.

Tovey began with four dances from Copland's Rodeo, which was quite a nice way to start his part of the program. As expected, the orchestra played extremely well, although I think the acoustics of the Ford Amphitheater could still use a little more help from sound reinforcement; there is always a lack of low end, and some reverb would help as well. With no back wall on the stage, there is almost no reflected sound.

Tovey had thankfully remained silent until this point but when he lets loose, it is with full diarrhea of the mouth. The next piece was his own composition, so I will excuse him for talking about it. The Lincoln Tunnel Cabaret was a highlight of the evening, both in terms of its jazz-inflected composition, and its featuring of the Joseph Alessi as trombone soloist for the piece, which was essentially a trombone concerto.

The piece was an interesting composition yet also managed to play like a set of technical highlights for trombone. Alessi showed incredible control on a long series of lip trills, as well as perfect sound and intonation at both extremes of the register. He even threw in a few multiphonics at the end.

After intermission, Tovey spent what felt like half an hour discussing the Dvořák Symphony #8. It is indeed a great piece but I doubt anyone in the audience learned anything from his rambling analysis of it.

Another unexpected highlight of the evening came in the encore, the Hungarian Dance #5 of Brahms. This is really a conductor's showpiece, with a zillion pauses and tempo changes, and Tovey milked it for all it was worth, but in a good way. It was a great way to end the evening.

Tonight, the orchestral closer, The Planets, along with Gil Shaham playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

MANHUNT: The Search for Bin Laden

MANHUNT: The Search for Bin Laden is an HBO documentary covering (basically) the same story that ZERO DARK THIRTY did, except in this case it is a well made and believable film. ZERO DARK THIRTY was a terrible film (you can read my review here), but MANHUNT is quite good. It's nice to hear the story of the women CIA analysts directly from them rather than a fictional and completely unrealistic hollywood portrayal. These women are real heroes, and they had to put up with a lot of crap from their male counterparts at the CIA.

MANHUNT is not without flaws. It's a bit long, and the opening half hour or so would probably be very confusing if I did not already know much of the story from other sources. But it is definitely worth viewing, and a good addition to the documentaries about 9/11 and its aftermath.

Broadway in Vail

Last night we attended the Broadway concert as part of our subscription the Bravo Vail music festival. This was the concert that I was least interested in, even though it was performed by the NY Philharmonic. However, I was pleasantly surprised by it. The theme was love songs on Broadway, and there was a nice mix of Gershwin, Bernstein, Berlin and others.

Conductor Ted Sperling may not have gotten the most emotional readings out of the orchestra, but they did improve as the evening went on, and he performed a number of pieces himself on piano. He sang quite well on two of them, most notably on "The Begat," from Finnian's Rainbow, with brilliant lyrics by Yip Harburg, best known for the lyrics to The Wizard of Oz songs.

The evening featured two singers, playing "the boy and the girl" throughout the evening. Betsy Wolfe stole the show repeatedly with a fantastic voice, most notably on "Getting Married" from Sondheim's Company, which I was surprised to learn that she had never sung before. It's a real tongue-twister, and not only did she sing it flawlessly, she acted it brilliantly.

Andrew Samonsky was the weakest part of the show. His voice never seemed quite right for the part, right out of the gate when he opened the show with "Something's Coming." His voice is thin and too much or a head voice for a romantic lead. He did get better as the night went along, I'm not sure if the keys were too high for him, or if sound reinforcement helped him with a little EQ. But his reads were never very emotional, especially on "It Never Entered My Mind," which Frank Sinatra introduced on film in Higher and Higher. If you are going to tackle a song like that, you had better put your heart into it and show some vulnerability.

There was a nice balance of old standards and lesser-known material, including a nice sing by Pasek & Paul from the off-Broadway musical adaptation of Dogfight. A real nice find. Several highlights were at the end of the show, including "Come Rain or Come Shine" by Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer, and the encore medley. It was quite an enjoyable evening.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All the President's Men Revisited

Catching up on some documentaries, I started with All the President's Men Revisited, which aired earlier this year on Discovery. (My DVRs are full of stuff I never get around to watching.)

Perhaps because I grew up in this era, I did not feel as though I learned much new about this subject. One problem is that Robert Redford produced and narrated, which I think forced them to talk way too much about the movie and not as much about the actual events. The first half hour or so included virtually no interesting information about the events, although I'm sure it was necessary since the younger generation probable knows very little about Watergate. I do feel the presence of Redford and Dustin Hoffman made it feel like they were giving themselves credit instead of the real-life Woodward and Bernstein (who can also be annoying in their own way).

Perhaps the most interesting section is at the end, when they speculate on whether this story could break the same way today, and whether journalists could have the same effect, essentially toppling an entire administation. With the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and increased presidential powers, it seems unlikely that we will ever see something like this again. Which is a sad reflection on both journalism and our society.

Webern and Beethoven

The View at Brush Creek Pavilion
We have officially started our week of summer vacation with our annual trek to Vail for the Bravo Vail music festival. This week began with two free concerts by the Jasper String Quartet, both featuring the works of Beethoven and Webern, an incredibly peculiar pairing.

On Monday night at the Brush Creek Pavilion in Eagle, they played two pieces by Webern and a quartet by Beethoven. The Webern pairings were a nice contrast to each other, with the "Langsamer Satz," written as a student in the typical late 19th century Romantic mold, contrasting the dodecaphonic "Five Movements," written only four years later in 1909. Unfortunately, the quartet played these in the worst possible programming. Instead of playing them in chronological order to show the composer's development, they started with the twelve-tone piece.

OK, I thought, take the medicine now and get the spoonful of sugar with the Beethoven later. As a composer, I understand the importance of this compositional style as an intellectual exercise. I also understand that as a performer, you get a unique knowledge of the music with practice that makes it much more enjoyable to perform than it would ever be to listen to as an average audience member.

Here's where they made their bad programming mistake; they started with the twelve-tone piece, then after playing the Romanic piece, the announced they were going to play the twelve-tone piece AGAIN. Needless to say, this did not go over well. Rather than creating a familiarity with the music (that they thought would make it more listenable to the audience), it backfired, and the familiarity bred contempt. I felt like a child being punished for saying I did not like my vegetables, and was forced to have eat second serving of brussels sprouts. (For the record, I like sprouts. A lot more than Webern.)

And by the way, I have written twelve-tone pieces. I would never force an audience to sit through them. And certainly not TWICE IN A ROW.

They redeemed themselves by playing Beethoven's Quartet in C-minor, #4, Opus 18, which was a lovely way to end the concert, and had a lot more in common with the earlier Webern piece. Perhaps the best part about this performance was the way it contrasted with the concert the next day.

On Tuesday, the Jasper Quartet performed a second free concert at the Vail Interfaith Chapel, only a few steps away from the center of Vail Village. Their choice was the Beethoven String Quartet in C#-minor, Opus 131. It could not possibly be more different that Opus 18 we heard the night before. The C-minor was written when he was fairly young in 1800, and the C#-minor was written when he was mostly deaf in 1826. The C-minor follows the Classical mold for a string quartet very closely. Perhaps the only real oddity is that it has no slow movement, instead it has both a scherzo and a minuet.

The fact that the entire concert on Tuesday consisted of a single quartet should tell you how different the C#-minor is. Beethoven threw out the Classical model almost completely, and used seven movements instead of four. In addition, they are played without pause, so it does not feel like seven movements, it feels like one, large, 40-minute piece of music.

Even describing it as seven movements feels odd to me, one movement has five or six tempo changes in it, so that movement alone makes it feel even more episodic. But regardless of structure, this piece really pushes the boundaries as Beethoven shows how important it is to be able to develop your themes at great length.

This piece showed the incredible mastery of the string players' performance skills (so did the Webern the previous night). Perhaps the only problems I heard were intonation from the first violin in a couple of spots, but the amazing thing is how they rode all the tempo changes, many of them feeling rubato, as though they were four instruments all being played by one mind. This was the second year in a row we were lucky enough to see the Jasper Quartet. I hope they become regulars here.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dallas Symphony in Vail

Dallas Symphony Rehearses in Vail

Last night the Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival opened with an excellent concert featuring a jazz sextet performing jazz classics and backed the full Dallas Symphony Orchestra. 

This concert brought back a lot of memories. Conductor Jeff Tyzik was the lead trumpet player when Chuck Mangione toured with full orchestra after the success of "Feels So Good" in 1978.  I remember seeing him play several times live. And featured soloist Byron Stripling played with the Rochester Jazz Band at the same concert where I played with the MIT Festival Jazz ensemble under Herb Pomeroy, at the Notre Dame Festival. Stripling's playing was the highlight of that 1983 concert, and it was perhaps the first night I realized I would never be a good enough player to be a professional performer. He blew me away. 

He did again last night with several other great performers, including Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and soprano trombone (basically a slide trumpet), Jeff Clayton on sax, Dave Mancini on drums, and Kenny Walker on bass. Stripling and Gordon were the standout performers of the night, both of them singing as well as playing. Tyzik's arrangements of jazz classics were quite good harmonically (although the string were frequently lost as they were voiced too low to be heard over the winds). The best tunes of the night were"West End Blues," "Night in Tunisia,"  and "St. James Infirmary Blues." 

This morning we were invited to an open rehearsal of what was billed as a tribute to Arthur Fielder and John Williams. The Williams material was quite fun. Hearing "Annakin's Theme" followed by "The Imperial March" showed how brilliant a composer Williams is, reverse-engineering a theme for the prequel character that is far better than anything in the movie itself deserves. And the march never fails to give me goosebumps. Following that with "Schindler's List" never fails to evoke a tear, and shows the huge range of ability Williams has as a composer. 

All in all, a worthwhile trip!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

56 Up

56 up is the eight movie in what may be the most famous documentary series in film history, directed by Michael Apted. Roger Ebert referred to the series as the most important in history, and he may be right.  The series has followed the same group of individuals every seven years since they were seven years old. It's an interesting experiment, but the biggest change in the last seen years is the proliferation of reality series, which has watered down the importance of the series somewhat. In addition, instead of the camera being cinema verité, showing only what happens, over the course of the films, the films themselves have affected the subjects. Also, many of the subjects complain that they have not been fairly represented in the films, and Apted himself has admitted that he has previously shaped the footage fill a narrative that he predicted. In fact, the whole thesis of the series was originally to show that where you are at age seven is where you will be for the rest of your life. The series has actually proven the opposite.

Perhaps the most extreme example of how the movie is being used by the subject, rather than the other way around, is one subject who had not participated since 21, but decided to come back only to whore his band's most recent album. He complained that he left because he did not like the audience reaction to one of his comments at age 21, but now comes back wanting audience reaction. I think the point of the series is lost here, and I probably would have cut his footage out; it clearly does not belong.

Apted also puts himself in the footage far too much. There are too many questions, rather than simply showing the subjects doing what they do, and there are too many scenes that are clearly setups (including arranging for travel so the subjects can meet relatives other subjects that they have not seen). Nonetheless, after watching the first couple of films, almost anyone will be hooked. I do look forward each time a new film is released; it's like getting a home video from distant family that you haven't seen in years.

The films are likely to get more difficult over the upcoming years. Watching people we met at age seven go through the aging process is likely to be painful (having watched my own family members go through it).  Also, since the subjects are 6 years older than me, each time a film comes out, they are at the place in time that I will be when the next film comes out, so it's a bit of a crystal ball as well. Yet I still look forward to the next film.

One final note, the audio on the DVD I purchased has pops and clicks all over it. There are no scratches on the disc, and no video problems. If I didn't know better, I'd think the tracks were analog and played back on a machine that was not properly grounded and had constant static throughout. That's a real letdown.

Monday, June 17, 2013


My aura really lights up the stage at the Denver Film Society
I was lucky enough to be invited to speak after a screening of the Italian horror film BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO at the Denver Film Society on Friday night. The film is much more of a psychological thriller than than a horror film, and it is much more of an art film than either of those.

The film does have a lot going for it. Lead Toby Jones (most well-known for playing Capote in the film INFAMOUS, reviewed here) does a great job as a British sound editor who has been asked to come to Italy to create sound design for an ultra-violent (and sexist) horror film in the style of Dario Argento. He demonstrates the obsessive and personal nature of the art.

And the fact that it is about sound at all is a big plus. The sound design for the film (as well as the film-within-the-film) are fascinating. And it's a trip down memory lane for sound geeks like myself. The script and art direction are extremely faithful to both both the time period (late 70s) and the craft. It was nice seeing someone build an actual tape loop again. And using (real) tape delay instead of digital. And the appearance Nagra IV-S, a peculiar homage to inventor Stefan Kudelski, who passed away last year. The film truly brought back a flood of personal memories. It also references a lot of great other sound films, from THE CONVERSATION to BLOWOUT.

The film falls apart badly in the third act. When they finally cut to the end credits, the person sitting behind us said, "I could tell it was going to be one of those films where there is no ending, and you just pray that they cut to the credits." He was right, the film loses all sense of plot and pacing in the last half hour and becomes much too artsy for its own good. Also for what plot there is, it's predictable. There were a ton of great setups that were never followed up on.

Still, if you are a fan of the genre, sub-genre, or even just a sound geek like myself, I highly recommend the film.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

What's Up? Doc at 85!

Last night we had the pleasure of hearing Doc Severinsen perform with the CSO and his Latin quartet (Doc has lived in Mexico since 2006). Doc was a huge influence on me musically, I probably saw him first on THE TONIGHT SHOW not long after I took up the trumpet as a kid, and after Maynard Ferguson, he was probably the trumpet player I most emulated through junior high and high school, and a motivator for me to want to be a better lead trumpet player. In fact, at one point I thought my career would be as a lead trumpet player, only to find that in the 1980s there were not that many big band jobs.

I've seen him play live a few times, most memorably  the first time I saw him, which was only days after I moved to California in 1986. The Tonight Show Band played at the NAJE conference in Anaheim, and I remember my first time driving California freeways to hear him. He and the band were fantastic as always. About that time the band released two great CDs as well.

I had assumed Doc was in his 70s when we got the tickets for last night, and when he took the stage  he was full of life and played extremely well; I was surprised to discover that his is 85! He still has a huge, fat sound on the instrument, and hit plenty of high notes, although probably not as consistently as he did 30 - 40 years ago, but at age 85 he is still very impressive.

Also impressive is his backup band, including Charlie Bisharat on electric fiddle, Latin guitarist and musical director Gil Gutiérrez, bassist Kevin Thomas, and  Cuban drummer Jimmy Branly, who played both trap set and cajon at the same time. The band had a blast.

The range of musical choices was a little limited. I most enjoyed the two Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli pieces, which were the ones most outside the Latin idiom of the night. Otherwise I got tired of the Spanish phrygian mode pretty quickly. However the playing was all outstanding and clearly the crowd enjoyed it.

Last week we saw the Bugs Bunny at the Symphony Concert for the third time in five years. (We had subscriber tickets that we needed to use by the end of the season, and this was one of the last concerts.) It's definitely getting a little old and could use some new material. (They made significant changes between the first and second time we saw it, and have announced that there will be more changes next year.) But it did give me a nice title for the Doc review above.

That's it for the CSO's regular season this year. We will probably try to catch a summer concert.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


It's hard to imagine that THE RITE OF SPRING is 100 years old today. No matter how many times I hear it, I am still moved by its modernity. I know it's a bit of a cliché to say this, but I don't think there has been a lot done in tonal music that wasn't done by Stravinsky in this 1913 work. 

The piece was performed Saturday night at the Colorado Symphony, where Andrew Litton conducted Stravinsky's masterpiece. I have remarked many times at how happy I am with the CSO, but this particular piece is quite a challenge, with its peculiar and huge orchestration. My own standards are pretty high, as this was one of the first pieces I heard the Boston Symphony play live, and I had to learn it for one of my undergraduate conducting classes. I was not  let down Saturday, the CSO played it impeccably. 

By the way, the stories of riots at the premiere are probably grossly exaggerated. There are no contemporaneous reports of riots, the only articles mentioning riots are from decades later. There were walkouts, and there were people talking, but that wasn't that atypical for the era and locale. And Nijinsky's choreography might have accounted for the walkouts as much as the music. 

The concert Saturday opened with a piece by Kodály, the Dances of Galánta, which ends with a nice orchestral climax, beautifully played by the orcheatra. The second piece was a welcome performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto #22; not my favorite of Mozart, but it is clear that guest soloist (and returning conductor) Jeffrey Kahane loves him some Mozart.  When Kahane left, I was very worried for the future of the orchestra, but they are in fine hands with Litton, and it was a pleasure to see the two of them work together. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the house for the concert, and assumed that it was because of Kahane's return, and that it was the last concert of the season. I expected people to leave at intermission with the notoriously difficult Stravinsky to follow, it is not a huge fan favorite even today, but I was gratified to see that Colorado audiences can enjoy modern music. 

That is 100 years old. 

Not only did they stay, but after a world-class performance of the piece, the audience gave a five-minute standing ovation. Aside from one (tiny) missed trumpet note (sorry Justin) I think the performance was spotless. It's a long, difficult piece for huge orchestra, with strange instruments, playing in weird manners and ranges, odd meters and polyrhythms and polytonality. It's a recipe for disaster for most orchestras to even think of programming it. But I consider myself lucky to have been in the audience. They played it extraordinarily well. 

And it was a fitting homage to Stravinsky  that 100 years later, his music is still being played with freshness. And still moving audiences. 

Monday, May 13, 2013


BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is a great film by Steven Soderbergh about the legendary entertainer Liberace. The film airs May 27th on HBO.

The film is not without problems; the first act has some clunky dialog exposition, and the last hour overstays its welcome by at least ten minutes, but for a low budget biopic, it is pretty extraordinary. I find it fascinating that after BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN won a mountain of awards, EVERY studio rejected this film as a theatrical release as being "too gay," even with multiple Oscar winners attached, including Soderbergh directing, Michael Douglas as Liberace (in a fantastic performance) and Matt Damon as his young lover (in an ever better performance). This has Emmy written all over it. Also outstanding is Debbie Reynolds, who is unrecognizable as Liberace's Polish mother. Rob Lowe is also very good as their plastic surgeon.

The art direction, sets, makeup and wardrobe are all amazing. The film is a period feast for the eyes. And Marvin Hamlisch's score is perfect for the film.

It is a bit surprising how graphic the sex in the film is. There are numerous open-mouth kisses between the two leads (I did not expect this from big stars) and a few other explicit scenes (Damon mounting Douglas from behind must have made for an uncomfortable shooting day for both of them). Douglas is also pretty courageous to show his aging body on screen for a good amount of time.

I highly recommend the film.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


As I sit and watch the events in Boston, I cannot help but think about THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, the Ken Burns documentary that played last week on PBS (and is available for free viewing online). The film was nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award as well as the International Documentary Association's Award. And I think it was a better film that the one that won the Oscar this year.

In 1989, the New York police announced, and national media broadcast, the fact that they had captured a gang of young men who had raped a woman in Central Park. It's odd; if the police say it, and the media broadcast it, people assume it to be true, even though none of the facts in the case made any sense, including the fact that none of their DNA matched the DNA recovered.

Why were they convicted? They confessed. Why would someone confess to a crime they did not do? Because they were teenagers, they didn't know any better. Because their parents told them do whatever it takes for the police to let you go. Because they were tortured. The film does not use the word torture, but that's essentially what happened. These kids were picked up late at night, already exhausted, and questioned for 24-30 continuous hours, given no food, no water, no bathroom breaks, no opportunity to move around. After that much physical exhaustion, hunger and dehydration, anyone will say anything. (Their false confessions point out how useless torture is.)

This week we watched the media repeatedly release false information about the bombers. This only makes me question whether they finally have the correct people. They might, and hopefully they do, but police have been known to make mistakes, and they might have the wrong person (although extremely unlikely after the lengthy pursuit). It's a shame that this doubt will always linger, but one only has to look at the NY Post and CNN this week for how much false information floats around, and how people will believe anything they see on TV. I honestly got more credible reports from my Facebook feed than I did from the national media.

In any case, the film is worth viewing. These kids spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit, and if they had been adults, they would have gotten the death penalty.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


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. Quvenzhané 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.


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.