Film Archive for July, 2009

Canary and Around the Bay

I’ve been meaning to write about Alejandro Adams’ films Around the Bay and Canary for a while now, but kept getting distracted. Canary played yesterday at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival and has a screening coming up at Rooftop in NYC on August 7, so it seemed a good time to finally pull together my thoughts and write about both films. Canary is by far the harder of the two films, both to watch and write about, so I’ll start with Around the Bay, which Adams made first.
With Around the Bay, Adams made a quiet, affecting film about a small family: a father, so deeply wrapped up in his own inability to function that he almost completely ignores his young son, and the boy’s older half-sister, who’s been brought into the home after a long estrangement from her father to help care for him after their father’s girlfriend has enough and leaves. Around the Bay has a languid, deliberate pace and a certain emotional distance about it, and I pondered whether its coldness was, in part, intended to allow the audience to better empathize with the boy by immersing us in the emotional coldness he’s trying to survive.

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Out of the Frying Pan

There’s this piece in the New York Observer today speculating that Little, Brown delayed the release date of Julie Powell’s newest memoir to December so as not to bump against the upcoming release of the film Julie and Julia, which is based on Powell’s first memoir. Why? Well, because the movie includes Powell’s loving, supportive husband (played by Chris Messina), while the second book details Powell’s “insane, irresistible love affair with one of her close friends” and thus might make her appear a bit less … sympathetic.
Little, Brown denies that this is the reason they’ve delayed the book release to December. Powell’s publisher, Judy Clain, was quoted by the Observer as saying, “Honestly, the number of people who would have read the book and would have been bothered by it—I mean, in our dreams!” she said. “Anyway, it wouldn’t bother me. You don’t want people to be confused, but personally I think it just makes it a little more interesting and exciting and fun.”
Really. It makes it more “interesting, exciting and fun” that Julie Powell made a choice to screw around on her marriage with a close friend? Hoo-boy! I know there’s nothing I find more entertaining — not to mention sympathetic in a real-life character — than the betrayal of a marriage. That’s some fun and exciting stuff, there. Is it unreasonable to think that a lot of women might find Powell memorializing her affair in a book distasteful and less-than-sympathetic? Hey, I screwed around on my marriage, hurt my partner, and now I’d like to make some money off that choice by selling you a book about it! Uh huh.
Maybe a lot of folks will find that somehow bold and courageous. Whatever. I wasn’t terribly interested in this film to begin with other than for the sake of Meryl Streep’s and Amy Adams’ involvement. This doesn’t make me any more interested.

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Directed by David Yates

One of the complaints about the fanbase of a book (or book series) being adapted to film is that the fans can be a bit too obsessive when it comes to how their beloved reading material is translated to the big screen. So I’ll preface this review by noting that I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter book series and have read all of the books several times; I’ve taken my kids to every book-release party and early midnight Harry Potter screening. We even bought them over-priced (but very cool) wands when the last book came out. And I’ve liked all the Harry Potter films, even Goblet of Fire, which is the least-favorite Harry Potter film of most of the folks I know. Generally speaking, I like to think that I’ve been pretty open-minded concerning all the Harry Potter films. Until now.

Along with Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of my two favorite books in the series. This is the point at which things start to get darker and more serious. There’s more strategizing and philosophical struggling, as Voldemort and Harry each grow in power and move ever closer toward their inevitable final confrontation. Oh, sure, Harry, our boy wizard, with the help of his pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), has been battling Voldemort since he was just a little kid in Sorceror’s Stone, but it’s only after Goblet of Fire that nefarious plans of the evil wizard formerly known as Tom Riddle really start to come together in a way that leaves the wizarding and Muggle worlds hanging in the balance, with nothing but this flawed-but-brave, bespectacled boy and a handful of friends in the way of certain doom.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen hints of a dark side in Harry — a side foreshadowed when the Sorting Hat pondered placing him in Slytherin House rather than Gryffindor in the first book. Harry’s wand contains the twin of the phoenix feather in Voldemort’s wand. Harry holds grudges. He obsesses about his enemies, and questions the loyalty and motivations of his friends. He is, as Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) has noted repeatedly, not above lying or skirting the rules to get his way, and in Half-Blood Prince he blatantly cheats, using the scribbles in the margins of a used potions book to bolster his own grade and reputation in Potions class.

He’s even — and perhaps this is where he’s most like his father, who was in many ways not quite the hero Harry had always imagined him to be — not above using an unexplained spell in his mysterious potions book —  labeled only  “for enemies” — on one of his own enemies, without any idea what that spell might do. In the bok, Harry faces serious consequences for this choice and agonizes over it later; in the movie, it’s shoved aside and given nary a second thought. Huge mistake — Harry’s willingness to use this spell foreshadows the ruthlessness that will see him through the last book, and by positioning it as relatively unimportant here, a pivotal moment in Harry’s ethical development is cast aside as nothing but a minor plot point.

The Half-Blood Prince is where Draco Malfoy’s (Tom Felton) character gets a long-awaited pivotal turn.  Draco has been Harry’s nemesis at Hogwarts since day one, and the shift in his character arc is one of the most interesting things about Half-Blood Prince (and, later, in The Deathly Hallows). This is one thing the film gets right, and Felton does a great job conveying the conflict and anguish in Malfoy as he faces his greatest challenge: is he as evil as the father he’s tried so hard to live up to, as bad as everyone expects him to be? Or is there something within him that’s not yet beyond all hope?

Generally speaking, director David Yates (who also directed Order of the Phoenix) gets most of the character things right in Half-Blood Prince — this book is very heavy on the teenage angst stuff, and Yates does keep the focus mostly on the kids, which is as it should be. Harry, Ron and Hermione are who they should be at this point in the series: older, a bit wiser, but still kids and prone to crushes and grudges and peer pressure and occasionally caring more about the pretend battle of Quidditch than the very real, very adult war facing them. All three lead actors are solid, and one of the most enjoyable things about this series has been watching them grow and mature in their performances.

Yates gets the visual look right as well; the film looks fantastic, its gloomy, muted, grey-brown palette setting the tone of the decidely dark story. Everything looks forboding, cloaked in an aura of fear and growing despair. All things considered, this should be a great movie — there’s an excellent story to work from, characters we know well and love, a screenwriter and director who should know what they’re doing; we, like Harry at the beginning when Professor Dumblecore unexpectedly introduces him to apparating, should be able to just go along for the ride and enjoy — or at least accept — where it takes us. So it’s too bad that the flaws in the film keep it from being as good as it should be.

Unfortunately, this film is horribly weighed down by clunky, awkward pacing — surprising, given that the script is by Steve Kloves, who’s written every other Harry Potter screenplay except for Order of the Phoenix. There are times in the first two-thirds or so of the film where the story plods along so slowly that I grew impatient with it — enough so to have time to ponder whether someone who’s less familiar with the source material might enjoy it more for not knowing how much better and engaging it should be. There’s lots of material in the book to cull from, heaps of smaller conflicts that build up to a big, pivotal final battle scene, and the immense emotional release that should follow. Inexplicably, some of the most crucial moments from the last couple chapters of the book simply don’t make it into the movie at all.

Instead, Yates and Kloves give us another scene midway through the film that never happens in the book, and the ending of this scene kind of bugged the hell out of me, as it takes a considerable liberty that I was a bit surprised author JK Rowling would allow. But that was nothing compared to how I felt about the hugely anticlimatic finale, which left me staring dumbfounded at the screen thinking, “What the hell was THAT?” And I can’t tell you much more than that without giving away a huge spoiler, but the way Yates handles the film’s final moments changes the tone and tenor of the end of this story as it moves toward the final book in a way that surprised me — and not at all in a good way.

Look, there’s a lot to like in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The actors are all solid and I like all the main cast (well, with the exception of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore … I’ve never been head-over-heels about him), but the story as a whole feels oddly cobbled together, and the ending feels like they either ran out of money, time or both to do the scene as it should have been done. Yates could have excised that ill-advised mid-story scene entirely (it just feels like an excuse to give a certain actress more screen time, anyhow), tightened up a good 20 minutes of pacing elsewhere, and had the finale the story needs and deserves.

Instead, we’re left with this bleak, half-baked ending that left me sitting there with dashed expectations about the whole thing. It’s too bad, and it makes me worry about how the two-part adaptation of the series’ final book (in which there is a LOT of talking and walking around and hiding in forests from the bad guys) will be. Hopefully, Yates will get it together and pull of a better wrap-up with the last book than this half-hearted Half-Blood Prince. The magic, unfortunately, just isn’t completely there this time.

-by Kim Voynar

Psychographic Babble

I was just reading this piece on The Hollywood Reporter on studios taking film sites seriously, and this bit caught my eye:
The studios, which once regarded the sites and their scribes with a mixture of fear and disdain now incorporate into their publicity campaigns a wide swath of online writers repping demographics and psychographics far beyond the traditional fanboy hubs — everyone from faith-oriented mothers ( to senior citizens (
The niche model for film sites seems like it might eventually replace the old model of people looking to their local newspaper critics for movie recommendations. A lot of people certainly visit bigger, more general sites like Moviefone, but sites with more specialized content like CHUD, Bloody Disgusting, Reel Geezers and Movie Mom are serving more specific niche audiences, and I can see more people gravitating toward finding critical voices they relate to by looking to their own interests or niche demographic rather than where they live.
I don’t know if I’d call it a “trend” just yet. But Cinematical recently launched niche sites SciFiSquad and HorrorSquad. Seems like there might be better traffic over the long haul with this approach for niche markets with a fairly broad appeal: sci-fi and horror meet that mark, and there might be an opening for a really solid, very interactive film site for tweens and teens, with a mix of content written by kids and adults who can write for that market. And I suppose (she says grudgingly) that you could consider Mr. Skin to fall under the “niche film site” banner, although they don’t so much review as act as a virtual clearinghouse for naked body parts in movies.
Indie film and documentary have very finite glass traffic ceilings that are probably a bit lower — which isn’t to say they can’t be profitable, but I’ve found that, generally, traffic to indie sites and even stories about indie films tends to run significantly lower than mainstream fare and plateaus at a certain point that’s very hard to get past.
Just some random Thursday-night thoughts on the subject … what do you think? What other niche groups that might draw readership are being under-served right now? And do you think that this kind of “niche criticism” might replace geographic niche markets for film critics over time?

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Review: Brüno

Directed by Larry Charles

Note: This review contains mild spoilers.

Is Sacha Baron Cohen a comedian, an actor, a philosopher or a performance artist? I never much watched Da Ali G Show, but I thought Borat, Cohen’s previous film with director Larry Charles, was both broadly funny and narrowly insightful. The same is largely true of Brüno, protagonist of the duo’s latest film — though the buttons Cohen’s pushing here trigger such strong emotions that he risks isolating those who most need to look at what he’s showing, and preaching largely to the choir.

The character of Borat was (on the surface, at least) funny and bumbling in a way that allowed people to fearlessly and openly respond to his apparently broad cultural misconceptions with misconceptions of their own. As Borat, Cohen acted like a mirror, reflecting the hidden prejudices of those with whom he interacted. Borat’s examination of racism and jingoism in our culture was both hilariously funny and insightful, particularly with war in the Middle East and a country whose fears of terrorism are have been riding high for a few years now.

These days, gay rights and the ongoing battle between the religious right and their homosexual brethren has made homosexuality a key issue. So along comes Cohen with Brüno, a gay Austrian fashion host who’s lost his gig and is seeking a way back into the limelight. Brüno’s not just gay, he’s crazy gay. He’s the embodiment of every stereotype about gay people that every homophobe has ever had a nightmare about, all rolled up in a shiny bright package of skintight, well-packed leather pants and a tight-fitting t-shirt.

As Brüno, Cohen makes no attempt to soften the punches as he stares America’s homophobia right in the face and dares it to blink first. While Brüno’s completely outrageous and inappropriate in almost every conceivable way, there’s nothing superfluous in the way he’s refracting cultural mindsets and values back at us. And it’s not a pretty sight.

At times Brüno causes more cringing than outright laughter, as you watch things unfold and think, “Oh, no, he’s not gonna go there, is he?” And then he does (and God help me, the Gayby shirt IS funny, I can’t help it), and you laugh, and then he does it again, and you laugh, until the final bit, where you’re both laughing and wanting to cry at the same time.

Cohen is playing a game of cultural “chicken” with his targets, and I’d be surprised if he hasn’t had death threats. I also kind of expect that, should anyone ever actually try to take him out, Cohen would just shrug and take it as a sign that he’s doing something right.

From convincing celebrities to sit on the backs of Latino human “chairs,” to his adoption of OJ, an African baby, in a quest to acquire some Madonna-quality PR, to the horrific sequence of interviews with parents who think their toddlers are being considered for a photo shoot with Brüno’s new baby, Cohen hits it on the mark.

I’ve seen the parent interviews twice now, and I’m still not convinced they aren’t scripted. Or perhaps, I don’t want to be convinced they aren’t, because that would mean accepting that there are, in fact, parents of toddlers who would actually say “Sure, my kid LOVES playing with lit phosphorous!” or agree that their 30-pound toddler will lose 10 pounds in a week or undergo liposuction to get a part. I know there are, in fact, a plethora of stupid people in the world who nonetheless manage to reproduce and then fail to actually parent their offspring effectively, but sweet Jesus, these people cannot be for real.

Near the end there’s a big cage fight match, where Cohen’s new persona, “Straight Dave,” MCs a tough-guy cage fight of the sort frequented by guys with buzz cuts, bruised knuckles and missing teeth. Things go very, very differently from what the crowd was expecting, as Cohen riles the crowd up to a blood-thirsty, violent, hate-fueled anti-gay fervor before painting a target firmly on himself. Cohen is the ultimate emotional puppet master: He acts. They react. He asks, what do you really think, when you feel free to express it openly? They show him.

What Cohen captures in this film is an ugly look at what lies underneath our shiny, paid-for-on-credit, shallow American values. And while it’s funny, yes, it’s also dark and depressing as hell.

-by Kim Voynar

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon