Friday, January 31, 2014


I am WAY behind on reviewing movies I have been watching for awards season, so I will try to catch up by reviewing some of them this weekend.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM is one of the five nominees for the Oscar for best doc. It was also nominated for the Spirit Award.

Also nominated for the Oscar are The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, and The Square. (Click for my reviews on the one I have seen.) Also nominated for the Spirit Award are The Act of Killing, After Tiller, Gideon's Army, and The Square.

It's a crowded field. A couple of other great docs were overlooked but nominated for the IDA Documentary award, Blackfish and Stories We Tell. Some of these films are now on Netflix and other rental services. If you like docs, this a great set this year.

Full disclosure, I know three people who worked on 20 FEET. One is Supervising Editor Doug Blush, who went to film school with me, and the other two are former students, Kevin Klauber and Josh Wilkinson.

I liked this film a lot. It's about backup singers, the unheralded heroes of contemporary pop music. Their voices often outshine the lead singers that they are behind, but they do not get the glory. And in some cases they even cover lead singing for others who cannot do it themselves but they don't get credit at all. As a musician, the film is a fantastic look at some of these individuals.

It is extremely well edited and sounds great, and the song choices are really appropriate. Perhaps my only concern was that archival footage did not seem to be identified as such. (What year was that David Byrne footage from? And the Bowie footage?) This might make a it a little confusing if you don't recognize some of the bigger names immediately. Otherwise it is an outstanding piece of filmmaking.

I'm not going to try to guess who will win the awards, especially since there are several I haven't seen.

Friday, January 03, 2014


I like HER. It's a strange and unique film, part science fiction, but mostly an interesting character study. The film takes place in an apparently near future, in which a computer program similar to Siri has gained sentience and has a relationship with her owner, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The computer voice is played by Scarlett Johannson (who never appears in the film). The brilliant script was written  by Spike Jonze, who also directed. The entire cast is fabulous, including Amy Adams and Chris Pratt.

But it's really the screenplay that is the strength. It's a very thoughtful film that discusses man's relationship with technology in a very intelligent way. To say much more would induce too many spoilers, so I will leave it at that. Watch the film if you get the chance.

Thursday, January 02, 2014


ALL IS LOST is the type of film I root for. Visual storytelling at its finest, with almost no dialogue, and only one actor on camera in the entire film. Robert Redford took a huge chance by agreeing to appear in this film. The film is beautiful visually and it is really refreshing to see a film that tells the audience what is going on visually, rather than having people sit around and talk about it.

However, the film has problems. The biggest problem is the choice to exclude any personal information about the lead character. The movie begins in medias res, with him alone and on a boat that is already damaged. Because we have NO backstory at all, it's very hard to have sympathy for this character. Who is he? Why is he alone? Why is he on a boat off Sumatra if he is American? Not having answers to these questions results in speculation. Is he extremely wealthy? (Probably, from the fact that he has his own yacht, and that really doesn't make him too sympathetic.) Is he unmarried, with no kids? Does he not care if he is going to die? Why isn't he a better seaman? There are multiple points at which is seems like he makes strange choices.

I have to go into SPOILER mode for the rest of this review.

It's impossible to see this movie and not compare it to CAST AWAY. It may be a flawed film, but there were a lot of nice things about that. One was that we get backstory on the character, and (at the end) we get some resolution when he is saved. In ALL IS LOST, we get nothing before and nothing after.

Then we get to Redford's performance. Although it is getting rave reviews, there are a lot of choices for him where he chooses to have no emotional reaction AT ALL to anything that is going on. We just watch him do stuff for much of the film. It's a great moment when, an hour into the film, he finally shows some desperation and aggravation. I wish we had more of that.

There's also the issue of dialog. Not everyone talks to themselves, but I do, a lot, and especially when I am alone. I'm not saying he needs to have soccer ball to talk to, but it seems odd that he never gets discouraged and says "OH CRAP" or anything at all. In fact, even when boats pass him by, he does not yell. This doesn't make any sense at all. To compare it to yet another castaway movie, LIFE OF PI is full of believable dialog when the character is talking to himself, and it makes the character more human and accessible.

Another problem I had was the music. It sounds like something Vangelis would have written for a film 20 years ago. It did not move me at all. And worst of all, it ends WITH A SONG. I would be hard pressed to think of a more inappropriate film for a song.

ALL IS LOST is not completely lost at sea; it's worth watching just for the incredible sound design, but it is a deeply flawed film.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

NYE with the CSO

As usual, we celebrated New Year's Eve with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under the baton of resident conductor Scott O'Neill, conducting their annual NIGHT IN VIENNA concert. Overall, we had a great time, but there were a few glitches in the evening. The temperature in the hall was crazy hot when we walked in, which made it a bit uncomfortable even into the second half of the program. If you want your audience to fall asleep, turn up the heat. The hall did have a very good audience, which is always good to see.

There were several favorites in the first half of the program, and a few surprises. It was nice to think outside the box this year and include some non-Viennese music, but some of the choices were questionable in the second half.

The first half featured three of those out-of-the-box choices with a guest soprano, Christie Hageman, singing waltzes from Puccini, Gounod, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. These were a nice change of pace.

The first half of the concert was extremely short, under half an hour, which was a little disappointing. The intermission was longer than the first half of the concert.

The second half of the concert had more material, but some of the choices were not ideal. It was a poor choice to have two extremely short excerpts played out of context. The Boccherini minuet flew by so quickly it hardly existed, and even worse, playing only a short section of Mahler's first symphony (not even the entire 2nd movement) made little sense at all.

Things got worse when Ms. Hageman rejoined for two more contemporary pieces. Moon River is indeed a beautiful waltz, but this arrangement was terrible. Henry Mancini understood perfectly how this song had to work in the movie, and deliberately wrote a very simple melody for an actress who is not a singer. He orchestrated it in the simplest of terms, with Audrey Hepburn's untrained voice accompanied by guitar strums and some quiet strings that sneak in after the first few lines. The song is written for a voice that is to be almost sotto voce, with no vibrato. To move this into an operatic soprano, and have it explode in a huge orchestral climax at the end completely kills what the song is all about.

I'll Be Seeing You is also a beautiful song, most remembered for performances by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, so again the operatic voice was not an appropriate choice, and the arrangement couldn't really decide what it wanted to be. I thought I heard a muted jazz trumpet playing on one chorus but it was completely obliterated by over-orchestration.

What I did not list yet were the Viennese classics interspersed throughout the program, which were the highlights of the evening. The symphony's performance of the Pizzicato Polka was probably the best playing of the evening, and it is an underplayed piece. The evening ended as always with a performance of the Blue Danube and Radetzky March. Except for a few hiccups in programming, it was an exceptionally good way to ring in the New Year!

Here's hoping to a great 2014 for the symphony!