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.