Saturday, February 15, 2014


I've fallen embarrassingly behind on writing film reviews this year. I'll try to catch up.

NEBRASKA is a tough film. It's gotten a lot of awards attention, so much that there has been a bit of a backlash from people claiming it is too slow or too depressing. It is definitely a slowly paced film, but that's actually one of the things I like about it. It is a tough watch though as most of the characters do not have a lot of redeeming qualities.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is all the attention Bruce Dern is getting as Best Actor. He is not the lead character in the film. The lead is the through character played by Will Forte, who is quite good in the film. (He's known for comedy, so this film is a real departure for him. You might know him as Jenna's transvestite boyfriend on 30 ROCK or from numerous appearances on CONAN as their crazy version of Ted Turner.)

Bruce Dern is quite good but his role does not show a lot of range. There's a lot more required from the other characters in the film. I have to admit that I liked the film but I don't think it's the year's best, or even Alexander Payne's best work. A lot of the acting is very flat, as though he cast non-actors in the parts. I expected more of the film.


My biggest problem was that I didn't understand why Will Forte's character cared about patching things up with his father. They never showed the father to have any positive characteristics. That, and it seemed quite a stretch that they would go on this road trip at all. But I suspended my disbelief for that.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Britten and the Colorado Symphony

Chee-Yun on Violin
The Colorado Symphony had an excellent program last night under conductor Peter Oundjian, opening with one of my favorite pieces, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote this music for a short educational film for children that has long since been forgotten. Many composers would have written throwaway music for such an assignment, but Britten writes some brilliant music here. 

It was very entertaining seeing it performed live; I had always wanted to, but it hardly ever gets played. I think there is a perception that it is "children's music," but it is far from it. With the film's voiceover removed, it is a great example for students of all ages, I recommend the piece in my classes for people who want to learn to recognize all the instruments of the orchestra. 

This was immediately followed by the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, performed by Chee-Yun, whom I had never heard before. Her performance was so stellar that the audience did something I have never seen at the Colorado Symphony; a standing ovation after the first movement. This is a piece we have heard live numerous times, but she played it like it was new. 

The concert closed with the Dvorak Symphony #7, a crowd favorite, especially for the third movement.  It was a really nice concert with a great program. Unfortunately we will not be back for a while due to other commitments. 

Best Actress

This is not normally a category I write about, but I happened to see several of the films that are nominated in rapid succession, so I'll write a group review here.

GRAVITY is one of the best films I have seen this year. There's so much good about it from a technical level it's overwhelming. The visual effects are outstanding. And they are used in a unique way to allow for what appear to be extremely long camera takes. The sound design is unique. It uses Dolby's new multichannel system Atmos in a way that is unlike any other film.

And there are many things about it that make it an anti-Hollywood film. Not many films will have only two characters, with one of them alone for most of the film. I know, ALL IS LOST (click for my review) did it this year, but in a much less interesting fashion. The writing in this film is superb and gives us enough back-story to care about the main character. In other ways, the film is a very Hollywood film, it is a nail-biter almost continuously. And the cast is A-list.

But what struck me most about the film is Sandra Bullock's performance. It really holds the film together. And, as an actress, it is a real challenge to work alone much of the time, with little to no dialog. There's one scene with George Clooney where he gives a monologue to her. Don't watch him. Watch her. Her reaction is priceless. When I saw the film, I thought, there's no way she will not will Best Actress. I liked the film so much I took my wife to see it only a few days later. It's very rare that I will sit through a film twice. And it was just as effective the second time.

My one big criticism of the film was George Clooney's part. He's just too perfect. He needed more back-story and some flaws to make him more believable. Also, there's a major plot point that does not make a lot of scientific sense, but I understand why the filmmakers did it. (Neil Degrasse Tyson points out a number of inaccuracies in the film, but most of them I can gloss over because they are minor to the movie. This one is a major plot point.)

PHILOMENA is a great film about a real woman who searched for her son after giving him up for adoption. The real centerpiece of the story is Judi Dench's performance in the title role. She does a stretch here, playing someone of less than average intelligence. That's more of a challenge than you would think; it's easy to dumb down a character to the point where it looks like you are making fun of her. She's not, she respects this character and makes her sympathetic in the way that only a great actress could. Emotionally, the film is very satisfying. Worth watching.

BLUE JASMINE is Woody Allen's entry this year. For a man with so many problems in his personal life, he seems to write consistently interesting characters for women. Cate Blanchett does give a truly amazing performance in the film, but it's one of those films where I never forgot she was acting, which is of course a distraction from the actual movie. I occasionally have this problem with Meryl Streep, who is nominated for that wacky comedy August:Osage County, which I have not seen yet.

The rest of this film is not terribly well written (both Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale play completely one-dimensional characters).

But it is worth watching for Cate's unique performance, which must have been very difficult. She is essentially playing two characters, one before and one after a nervous breakdown. The film is edited non-linearly, inter-cutting both timelines, but in reality they probably shot the "pre" material first (in NY) and the "post" material second (in SF) so it may not have been as challenging as it appears in the film. Nonetheless, she does play crazy very convincingly.

One weird thing, the audience I saw this with laughed at her throughout the film. I did not find the film to be a comedy. At all. I found her character pathetic and felt sorry for her.

I thought I had reviewed AMERICAN HUSTLE but I guess I didn't. Although I found the film entertaining, I did not think anything about the film was Oscar-caliber, except maybe Production Design, Costume Design, and Hair/Makeup. I found Christian Bale's performance so over the top that it was not just distracting, it was annoying. He seemed to be doing De Niro for much of the film, and then the real De Niro shows up and blows his performance away without doing much at all. A nice lesson in simplicity. Both women in the film are good, including Amy Adams, who is nominated for Best Actress, but I don't think either should (or will) win.

I also found it annoying that they clearly fictionalized so much of the story. Why even bother saying it was based on a true story?

I think Cate Blanchett is not going to be beaten, but I have to say it was a very strong year for women. And I'm glad to see so many strong roles being written for women. GRAVITY in particular could easily have been written for a male lead, and I'm sure some Hollywood folk recommended that to make the film more "believable" or make it so more people could "identify" with the main character. The fact that it's a woman character only makes the film stronger for me.