Friday, January 25, 2013

The Miserable

I'm catching up on writing some reviews of movies I've watched over the last few weeks, and I had deliberately been putting off reviewing LES MISERABLES as long as possible. I'm really the wrong person to be reviewing this. Although I'm a musician and I sing in a chorus, I am really not a fan of most musicals. So right off the bat this is a tough sell for me. But an article in today's USA Today (I'm travelling and that's the paper the hotel gets) has made me feel better about writing honestly about it. I had already read the blog review by Matt Walsh referenced in the article and had assumed that to be a minority opinion, but it seems we are not in the minority. (I do not agree with all of his criticisms.) The Miserable, in this case, are the audience.

The novel that this musical is based on is 1800 pages long. At some point I read a what must have been a children's condensed version of it (although I did not know that at the time) and I remember the story vividly as being about one central relationship: Jean Valjean and Jauvert. The rest of the characters are all ancillary, at least in my memory of the version I read.

This brings us to the problem with this musical. Not the movie, but the structure of the musical upon which it is based. Much of the musical is about the soggy, sagging, stodgy, stale, sappy pre-pubescent romance between two of these ancillary characters. This fits fine into a TWILIGHT film but really bogs down this musical.

And then there is the matter of the music itself. "I Dreamed a Dream" has to be one of the most putrid songs ever written. Most of the rest of the music is paint-by-the-numbers composition. Perhaps the only halfway decent song is "Master of the House," again using ancillary characters.

Then we get to the film adaptation of this musical that I already didn't like. I figured the casting of Hugh Jackman might be good enough to make up for the casting of Russell Crowe. I was wrong, Wolverine was just as bad of an actor as Gladiator. Jackman's singing isn't that good either. Crowe's singing is abysmal. And so is his acting in this film. It's as though both of them forgot that when you are singing you still have to act.

The younger parts have gone to pretty boys, who don't really add much to the film in any way. My absolute favorite parts of the film were with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter; the only two who understood just how badly this movie needed comic relief. (The rest of the film is as serious as seven heart attacks.) Unfortunately they are so different from anything else, they don't belong in this movie at all, but whatever movie they do belong in, that's the one I wish I had seen.

Then there's the matter of how the film was shot. Director Tom Hopper decided to break tradition and shot the songs with the actors singing live instead of to playback. Contrary to what we are usually told, the reason we usually shoot to playback is not really technical. Musicals are difficult no matter how you shoot them.

The real reason is that singing is really hard. Professionals singing in musicals perform each song once a night. When you are shooting a film, you can's ask a singer for dozens of takes in a row and expect that they will give a full performance. That's why it's easier to record the music separately from the picture. I do applaud the effort of doing it live. It must have been extremely difficult.

And I do think that this method is why Anne Hathaway will win an Oscar for her performance in this film. Her soliloquy is shot in one long closeup and her singing is real.. and therefore, so is her acting. In fact even the duets between the minor characters are much more emotional because they were shot this way. It has an immediacy that playback could not possibly have.

However, it's clear to me as a music editor that the big production numbers, including the one that opened the film, were not shot this way. And the mix-and-match approach is very distracting, when some characters sound great, and others sound like Russell Crowe.

If you took the time to read this review, thank you. You are one of only a few.


I don't want this to come off the wrong way; I think LINCOLN will probably sweep many of the Oscars, and I did enjoy the film. It is very well made, but I think this film version did not create a Lincoln that was a three-dimensional human being (and even more so his wife Mary Todd).

Even as a kid, I was obsessed with Lincoln. I'm not exactly an expert on him, but I know enough to judge that this film was more sanctified hero worship than reality. The cinematography, makeup, set design, and sound design were all outstanding and created a great mood for the film, but I would much rather have seen Lincoln as a fully complex character.

Normally I love John Williams' work, but I think the score had a lot to do with this. Lincoln always seemed the most real of the presidents to me, someone I could have a beer with in front of the fireplace. This Lincoln would make me afraid of getting dirt on the carpet. I know people are raving about the performances, but every time Daniel Day-Lewis spoke, all I could think about is the Hall of Presidents from Disney World and how the audience gasped when the robotic Lincoln actually took a step forward. People are more amazed that he looks like Lincoln than they are impressed with his acting, in my opinion.

But I still enjoyed the film. I just wish there were more to it. There are plenty of great documentaries about Lincoln and the Civil War if you want to learn more about him.


I never read THE LORAX. But the movie makes little sense. It seems that the Seuss estate has decided to make feature films out of the scant books that barely support a 30-minute cartoon, so the writers have to fill in a lot of missing material. I honestly don't have a problem with that, when it's done well. The problem is that the screenwriters were incapable of coming up with a structure and characters to support this film.

The story is non-linear, with some kid I don't know or care about trying to find out where trees went. Then we get an incredibly long backstory with a different through-character. I'm not sure why they didn't just start with that story and then follow his character forward. Perhaps that's the structure in the book? In either case, neither character is really strong or interesting enough to justify a film. The Lorax character is, especially with the  strong casting of Danny DeVito, but that's not where the story is. (Also well cast is Betty White, whose presence is wasted.)

It's weird watching such interesting animation only to have it on such a mundane story. And of course the film is a ecological cautionary tale, so if it had been told well, it could have been a much more important movie. Too bad.


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES continues my increasing dissatisfaction with our culture's obsession with comic book characters. Although parts of the film are quite good, the fact that people want to sit through a very long movie that takes itself way too seriously about a superhero says a lot more about the audience than it does about the filmmakers. There are so many intelligent movies that could be seen, yet audiences want this forgettable and predictable drivel.

I had put off seeing this movie as long as I could; living only a few miles from the scene of the Aurora shooting puts a pall over trying to enjoy a film with much violence in it as visceral entertainment.

There are a ton of problems with the script, the most obvious being that Batman has no real reason to trust Catwoman other than his Bat-boner and a need to create an act two for the script. (Imagine if he were smart and did not involve her? The movie would be over in 40 minutes, and probably would be a better film.) It's real hard to care about a Batman who is this stupid.

For me there will always be only one Batman: Adam West. I've been watching that series in reruns lately and I can't believe how much they got right half a century ago that they still get wrong today. It was a fun and deliberately campy show that worked on several more levels than these movies do.

I don't get the appeal of Anne Hathaway. To me she looks the sister you are nice to, only so you can get closer to her more attractive sibling. She's an excellent actress, but I honestly thought she looked more attractive in the Get Smart movie than here. And don't even think about comparing her to the 1960s Catwomen, Julie Newman or Eartha Kitt.

And then there's Bane, a character who whose face we never see but his voice is so loud it's painful. Why do I care about this guy? If I have to read a comic book as research before seeing the movie, your screenplay stinks. Start over.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


LIFE OF PI is one of those rare films that makes me excited about cinema all over again, as though I were watching THE WIZARD OF OZ again for the first time as a kid. I knew nothing about the film going in, and I think that's the way it should be, so I'm not going to attempt to summarize it, except to say that is one of the most gorgeously visual films I have seen. DO NOT WAIT to see this on video, see it on the big screen.

I am not a fan of 3D, and I did feel that much of the film was needlessly muddy with the glasses on, and that for the most part 3D did not add much past the title sequence. However I have not seen it in 2D to make a comparison.

The visual effects are truly astounding. For much of the film I thought the animals were real until it became clear that there was no possible way that these animals could have been trained to do much of what was in the film. There are only few brief shots in the film where the animals do not appear real. To warn animal lovers, there are scenes of animals in distress, but they are inherently tied to the nature of the story, and the animals are digital, not real.

It is also very rare to see a film which discusses theology and uses multinational and multicultural references in such a straightforward manner. This film is so much smarter than everything else in cinemas right now, it's a shame it is not being seen by more people. I was the only one on the theater at my screening. In many ways, this film is what CLOUD ATLAS (review here) aspired to be, but failed to bring to the screen.

Although to be fair, PI does not live up to one element of the hype: the movie does not prove or explain the existence of god. Of course, no movie (or book) could do that, unless you believe that god consists of the creative spirit of man. In that case, I have seen god this evening. And he is in fine form.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Who would have thought that Disney would make the best Pixar film this year (Wreck-It Ralph, reviewed here), and Pixar would make a lame Disney film like BRAVE. Just about everything is off in this film. The opening 8 minutes of the film are almost unwatchable, and include extraneous explanatory voiceover (that never returns) and a friggin' music montage. This starts the film off with horrible pacing. The cast is weak too, as a decision was made to make them Scottish for no apparent reason (it's a fantasy, why do they need accents?).

The film finally takes off about 40 minutes in but it is far too late. There is a cute Disney bear character that seems completely out of place in the film, and the lead girl never really gets to show off much authority, making her not that much more developed than Ariel or the other Disney princesses.

It's a shame, as it could have been a very good film.

Monday, January 14, 2013

CES Wrap-up

Hello Kitty Display at CES

I believe this is the 25th Anniversary of the first CES that I attended, give or take a year, and having missed a few along the way. It is getting increasingly difficult to make gigantic new technologies as exciting as they had been in the past, especially in this economy. It was however the largest show in history with over 150,000 attendees.

For the last two years, the big push was 3D TV, which has failed pretty miserably. This year the big push is Ultra HD, or as professionals call it, 4k, which has much higher resolution that HD. Again they may be jumping the gun on a technology, as HD still has not taken hold in the home, and a large number of people with HD sets are still watching SD signals. The price point for the UHD 4k is likely to be well over $10k, and will not matter much on screens smaller than 70", so I don't think we will see market penetration any time soon.

A bigger problem is content. There isn't any. And there are no providers for it. Since most viewing is now done through streaming, we are not likely to see UHD happen any time soon.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Another Birthday!

Another Birthday happened to me yesterday (January 4th), and this time it was a big one; I joined AARP. Some people write Christmas letters, some people write year-end blog posts; I generally write my reflections at Thanksgiving. However, this year I waited for my birthday, as it was such a big one.

In addition to the last digit on my age's odometer rolling over, yesterday was also the 8th anniversary of the day I awakened from a two-week coma. I have written about that a couple of times before on my blog here and again here, so I won't bore you. It is also the 20th anniversary of teaching my first class at the university level. (I taught my first section of 310/508 at USC in Spring, 1993.)

Overall it was a very good year for me. The highlight was undoubtedly when I won an Emmy for producing a documentary that aired on the local PBS station.  My fall semester teaching was one of the best I have ever had; it was an exceptionally good group of hardworking students. My move to Denver was a very good change for me, even though I took a huge pay cut to come here. I am the happiest I have been since before I moved to Los Angeles, which was exactly 27 years ago today. Having a perfectly suited wife and a loving dog help a lot. And living in a city that is truly beautiful makes a huge difference. That photo above is the view from our patio.

I got to return to some musical roots with a concert here featuring my good friend Ray Zepeda, which was an emotional highlight of the year for me. Unfortunately, there are still many unfinished things in my life right now, partly because this is the middle of an academic year. Hopefully I will have even more good news within a few months. But for now, I am very happy and thankful to be alive and to be where I am.

Oh, a few other landmarks. I passed 28,500 hits on my blog. I passed 2800 friends on Facebook. And I spent most of my evening thanking the 380+ friends who posted on my wall for my birthday. (Although I should wonder why the other 85% of you could not find the time to post!)

Thursday, January 03, 2013


HITCHCOCK has received a lot of negative reviews, so I was a little afraid to watch it. Long before I ever had thoughts of attending film school  I had seen every Hitchcock film, including the obscure silents (mostly thanks to the Brattle Street theater in Cambridge). I've read a ton about the man and his movies and he is undoubtedly one of the major reasons I went into film. I have read and written about PSYCHO, and my paper on the score to NORTH BY NORTHWEST (link here) is required reading at a number of schools. Having seen the rubber face and fat suit in the trailers, I assumed I would hate the film.

Boy, was I wrong.

At times the latex mask Anthony Hopkins wears is distracting, unfortunately the first scene in the movie is probably the worst. And the fat suit is a bit fat for Hitch at that time in his life. The problem is that his TV show has made his real image unforgettable, so no matter how good the makeup is, it's a distraction. In Oliver Stone's NIXON, they chose to use no makeup at all on Hopkins and let his acting convince people. That worked fine.

The second problem that many critics had was the choice to make Ed Gein a fantasy character in the film. This is definitely a little weird. Also the casting for Gein is off. He was not as dirty and unkempt as the movie makes him look. That's more of a conceit for the horror film versions of him. It is an odd choice to include him, but he is only in a few scenes, including a really lame dream sequence that Hitch himself would never have used as it is such a ridiculous cliché.

Nonetheless there is a lot to like about this film, directed by Sacha Gervasi, who directed the great documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil (reviewed here). Hopkins is great, as is Helen Mirren playing his wife Alma. Helen is a lot more attractive than the real person, but that I will forgive. Scarlett Johansson is well-cast as Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel is passable in her minor role as Vera Miles. Toni Collette is wasted as Hitch's secretary; the role must have been much larger at one point, otherwise I can't image why she did it.

Visual design is excellent, lots of nice period touches to the film. Sound work was very good as well. Danny Elfman and his music crew did a good job on the score. Apparently they were not allowed to use much from the original film, there are only a few short quotes from the score, and no images from the film. One of the best scenes in the film manages to be brilliant in the way that they avoid showing the film itself  and instead show Hitch and the audience's reaction to the shower scene. It's a wonderful acting moment for Hopkins.

I highly recommend the film!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Andrew Litton Joins the Colorado Symphony Orchestra

Andrew Litton has finally joined the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as regular conductor. We were lucky enough to get tickets to his New Year's eve concert last night. I'm happy to welcome a steady new conductor after two years of interim conductors, following the departure of Jeffrey Kahane. Kahane leaves pretty big shoes to fill. He was a fantastic conductor for the orchestra. We had seen Litton only once before, reviewed here.

The first thing I noticed last night is that Litton has reorganized the stage layout for the orchestra, splitting the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage. This is actually how I prefer things; Mahler specifically preferred it. However players tend to hate it, although they often hate anything that is new or different. In Litton's arrangement, he also moved the basses from audience right to left, and he split the timpani from the rest of the percussion section to the other corner to make room for the basses, essentially reversing their position. I would imagine this is the biggest weakness in this move. In a hall with an extremely wide stage, and poor acoustics on the stage, it is going to be very difficult to keep the orchestra together with the percussion split. I'm guessing he did this to keep the basses closer to the celli, who had swapped places with the second violins.

I would probably have left the basses and timpani where they are, and make the stings, from audience left to right: Violin 1, Viola, Celli, Violin 2. I know that's not a normal arrangement, but I think it would have its benefits, especially for the violas, who would still be between violins and celli.

I did not hear any problems with the orchestra staying together after the first eight bars of the evening, but it was a concert of simple music, mostly Johann Strauss Jr. The most complex piece they played was a movement of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #2; it is a Denver tradition on New Year's eve to feature a local high school player. The problems in that piece were mostly generated by a very nervous player, who managed to do a fine job nonetheless. Everything else in the evening sounded quite good.

I was a little surprised at the amount of talking by Litton. I actually think it's very important for the conductor to create a relationship with the audience, and introducing the works is a great way for people who are newer to the music to learn how to appreciate it. I did not know Litton did this, and it was mostly a pleasant surprise. Although if he wants to continue using a microphone, he is going to have to find better material than a lame joke about Levi Strauss being the lost brother of Johann.

Welcome to Colorado!