Film Essent Archive for June, 2009

LAFF 2009 Review: Ponyo

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Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is, very loosely, based upon the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Little Mermaid, but with some bizarre twists that mark it as a Miyazaki film. I’m a huge fan of Miyazaki’s work, but I’ve found in general that I very much prefer his films in the original Japanese with English subtitles than re-dubbed in English with American actors. There’s almost always something lost in the translation with Miyazaki’s films when they’re dubbed: cultural references lost, or the way in which particular characters say things, or the emphasis put on this or taken away from that.
I realize that American audiences often find subtitles difficult to swallow, and further realize that in trying to market Miyazaki’s films to younger audiences, studios are targeting a demographic that might not be able to read subtitles anyhow, so I appreciate the necessity of dubbing Miyazaki’s films for this market. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the end result, although I can hope that seeing dubbed Miyazaki might eventually serve as a gateway of sorts to encourage older kids and adults to explore Miyazaki’s work in the original Japanese.
Because I recognize that I have this preconceived prejudice against Miyazaki dubs, I’m not going to judge the film completely until I can see a subtitled version. This dubbed version, though, is the one that you and your kids are more likely to see, so it’s only fair that I share some thoughts about it.
Animation-wise, it’s as gorgeous as one would expect a Miyazaki film to be. I heard a lot of “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” from little voices around the Mann Village Theater during the closing night screening, and the adults around me seemed to be as delighted by it as the kids. As with much of Miyazaki’s work, there are some dark and scary moments, but I don’t think there’s anything in this film that’s too much for younger kids to handle (and certainly, there’s nothing that’s any scarier than the evil sea witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, who I thought was pretty terrifying).
Story-wise, I can’t say I liked Ponyo as much as my favorite Miyazaki films, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Tortoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, or even as much as Princess Minonoke and Spirited Away, which I rate very slightly below those. Ponyo for me falls below all those films in terms of story and even the animation itself, but it’s still so much better than just about any animated fare offered to families by anyone other than Pixar that I’d still recommend it.
Certainly I’ll want my own kids to see it, though I want them to see both the Americanized version and the Japanese dub. In the meantime, all this talk of Miyazaki makes me think the long holiday weekend might be a perfect time for a family Miyazaki marathon. Subtitled, of course.

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LAFF 2009 Review: Weather Girl

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If Weather Girl had been made by a big studio, someone would have had the bright idea to cast Kate Hudson in the lead role of the Sylvia, the “sassy” weather girl on a Seattle morning show who loses it on live television after learning her boyfriend Dale (Mark Harmon), the “talking haircut” who’s the host of the show, has been cheating on her with his co-host.
As it is, Weather Girl doesn’t aspire to be much more than a slight romantic comedy, but Tricia O’Kelley (who also produced) brings a sharp, biting edge to the somewhat predictable plot that keeps it from feeling too sappy. Sylvia moves in with younger brother Walt (Ryan Devlin) and soon finds herself attracted to Walt’s best friend, Byron (Patrick J. Adams), who lives across the hall but seems to be perpetually in Walt’s apartment. Byron’s younger than Sylvia, though, so even though there are sparks flying between them, she deems him unsuitable for anything beyond a sexual dalliance. This is fine with Byron at first, but … well, you can guess what happens once these kids start connecting.
Weather Girl is looking to explore larger issues around women past their early 30s begin to be perceived as running out of time, both in careers and relationships. Faced at the age of 35 with having completely start her life over at a time when YouTube has made her outburst about Dale’s affair fodder for public amusement and mockery (and, in the process, made a mockery of any serious job prospects for her), Sylvia’s at first at a complete loss for how to move forward. A date with a dorky accountant (Jon Cryer) pretty much lays out Sylvia’s situation: she’s past the age of being able to afford to be too picky, and her life has now been reduced to the possibility of considering a business-like relationship with guys like this. Or is it?
The script mostly skims the surface of these ideas, though, never quite delving deep enough to seriously explore these real issues in a comedic or ironic way, instead opting for the safer (though far less interesting) realm of the rom-com, where all life’s problems are resolved in 90 minutes or less. It’s fine for what it is, but there’s nothing terrifically compelling going on here; it’s not quite edgy enough to break any barriers as an indie-type film, not quite shiny enough to be a true Hollywood-style rom-com, which leaves me not quite sure how to classify it.
I’d have liked, honestly, to see the edge a mind like Tina Fey’s or Sarah Silverman’s might have put to this concept, but as a slight, moderately amusing rom-com, Weather Girl’s fair-to-partly cloudy.

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LAFF 2009 Review: Convention

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Documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack leads a team of filmmakers behind the scenes of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in his new film Convention. Although the convention was itself an historic occasion, ending with the first nomination of an African-American for the presidency of the United States by a major political party, this isn’t a documentary following Obama’s road to the White House, or even his road to the convention; rather, it’s a behind-the-scenes documentation of the vast amount of work and coordination it took the city of Denver to host this convention while assuring the safety and comfort of delegates, nominees and Denver residents.
With remarkable access behind-the-scenes (particularly given the security concerns), Schack and his team capture the human moments behind the convention machine: the young reporter assigned for her first-ever political beat to cover the convention; the editorial and writing staff of the Denver Post, working their asses off to capture this historic occasion happening in their own backyard while struggling to keep up with and compete against all the journalists from out-of-state; the city officials charged with organizing things at their end while coordinating with the team responsible for the convention itself, and a merry band of protesters there to remind those watching that the first step toward losing your freedoms is failing to use them.

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LAFF 2009 Review: Mid-August Lunch

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The delightful little Italian film Mid-August Lunch is exactly the sort of foreign film you might imagine an American studio eyeing for a remake with an amusingly befuddled Albert Brooks in the lead role. The film centers around Gianni, a middle-aged man with no job and seemingly little ambition, who lives with his elderly mother.
Gianni and his mother are in trouble with the fellow residents of their condominium complex over a pile of unpaid dues and shares of upkeep work, so when the building administrator offers to take care of some of their debt in exchange for Gianni caring for the administrator’s elderly mother for a few days while he goes on vacation, Gianni reluctantly agrees to have his endless days of sitting around doing nothing imposed upon. Before Gianni knows what’s happened, his apartment is full of little old ladies and his quiet life of relative leisure turned upside down by the demands of caring for them and mediating their quarrels.

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LAFF 2009 Review: West of Pluto

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West of Pluto, a look at the lives of suburban Quebecois teenagers by directing team Myriam Verreault and Henry Bernadet, might have been a rougher, edgier, take on the American Teen-style micro-examination of the lives, attitudes and behaviors of those curious creatures, adolescents.
Unfortunately, once it breaks away from the mockumentary style it begins with into attempting to construct an actual plot for the teens to follow, the film devolves into a not-terribly-interesting storyline that includes all the usual suspects of teen bad behavior: cruelty to peers, sibling battles, hormones, unrequited adolescent love, rudeness toward the ‘rents, and a birthday party that goes out of control. (In other words, everything we’ve seen teens do in just about every teen film ever made.)
Where are the parents of these teens? Certainly not particularly involved in the lives of their wayward offspring or much interested in doling out consequences for bad behavior, as we see them primarily as either ineffectually nagging, awkwardly trying to connect, or being yelled at and berated by their bratty teenagers. These kids don’t seem to have a lot of limits, or if they do they treat both the rules and their parents with utter disregard. They certainly wouldn’t survive long acting like that if they were living under my roof, as my oldest, now-grown daughter, could attest (and frequently does to her younger siblings when they toe the waters of mouthiness or disrespect).
At any rate, we meet this particular group of wayward youths as they awkwardly present class projects on things they’re passionate about, an eclectic mix ranging from the expected (music, dancing, skateboarding) to the quirky (a last-minute Ben Affleck substitution after another student “steals” a girl’s idea to talk about Matt Damon), to the geeky (Pluto, in particular its revoked planetary status). It’s actually a clever way to introduce us to the main characters we’ll be spending time with for the next 90 minutes or so, and it’s too bad the rest of the film doesn’t keep the same tone as the opening bit.

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LAFF Review: We Live in Public

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The other night I attended a LAFF screening of We Live in Public; I’d missed seeing it at previous fests and was determined to catch it this time. I was expecting a documentary mostly about internet mogul Josh Harris and his experiment living his life with his girlfriend completely online and how that tore their relationship apart. And it is partly about that, but it’s also about what made Harris the particular sort of crazy genius-visionary he is, his early understanding of how the internet would change all our lives, and the ways in which it’s good — and bad — that we live our lives now in a public space more than anyone could have imagined possible a few decades ago.

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This Space for Sale?

There’s been an interesting debate going on (some might say raging) around Facebook and Twitter today around film blog Slashfilm running a piece on Sam Mendes with a preamble noting that the post was “sponsored by” Focus Films. This post stirred a hell of a shitstorm up on Twitter and Facebook today, prompting Slashfilm to put up this post clarifying what exactly happened, and what their editorial policy generally is. A brief excerpt of the explanation:

Here are the basic facts: Focus Features purchased an advertising campaign on our site for “Away We Go.” This campaign encompassed elements of our site that are clearly separated from editorial content as advertising. We were not paid to write an editorial about “Away We Go,” but we agreed to support the advertiser by crafting an editorial relating to the director or stars of the film, provided we could exercise complete editorial control of the piece.

Did Slashfilm’s editors think they were walking a fine line ethically speaking? I’m going to give them the benefit of a doubt and venture that they were aware this could be a dicey issue, did what they thought was appropriate in ensuring they handled it properly, got a fair amount of negative feedback on that decision, and have reassessed. Nonetheless, the whole situation has raised some fascinating and serious ethical issues about the symbiotic nature of our business relationships with publicists and studios that bear consideration and discussion.
Should there always be an absolute church/state separation between film journalists and film sites, the studios whose films we write about, and the publicists who flit back and forth between both worlds? Is there a difference between “paid content” that’s clearly differentiated as being sponsored by a studio, as the Sam Mendes piece on Slashfilm was, versus an opinion piece like a review? Is there a difference between this and accepting ads from studios to run your site as a profitable business venture that allows you to pay your writers, versus writing content specifically paid for by a studio, whether or not your site’s policy is to maintain editorial control over such pieces?
And if we’re really being sticklers about the journalistic integrity issue, how do we differentiate, objectively, between accepting paid ads, writing paid content, and seeing the films we review at free screenings, having DVDs sent to us (free) for our review, and getting a stack of awards season screeners at the end of the year? What about set visits and junkets? Is our individual conviction that we will act with ethics and caution and write our honest opinion regardless of who’s footing the bill enough, or is the mere suggestion that we might be compromised enough to damage out integrity?
These are going to continue to be issues we face moving forward, as sites struggle to figure out how to keep operating and pay their writers to write the content they need to survive. You can’t pay a staff without some source of income, and the most likely source of income right now, at least until someone comes up with a better business model, is ad sales. Should movie sites be looking to sources other than the studios whose films we write about for their ad income? Coffee ads, perhaps, or condoms or tampons or frozen foods? I don’t think so — after all, haven’t print publications relied upon those same advertising dollars for years, without the suggestion that to do so indicated questionable ethics?
I’m not going to pretend to have the answers here. Hell, I barely have the questions, and I’m sure there are layers and layers of ethics around all this that we could unearth through more discussion. But I do think it’s a crucial issue for film journalists and film sites to be considering and debating and even heatedly arguing about, as we all try to figure out how to survive in this field.
I’d love to hear from other folks where they think the ethical lines in the sand lie. Bring it on.

**Hat tip to Devin Faraci, Drew McWeeny, Mark Bell, Todd Gilchrist, and others I’m no doubt overlooking for the many fascinating Tweets and Facebook updates that inspired this post.

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Christmas in July

I caught a preview of Disney’s A Christmas Carol, directed by Robert Zemeckis, on Monday, and it looks pretty amazing. The capture animation is getting better and better, and there is detail work in what we saw that’s pretty spectacular. Dickens’ source material is dark, and it looks like Disney’s not toning down that aspect of the story at all. Scrooge is menacing, the ghosts are scary, the palette is gloomy. Jim Carrey’s Scrooge and the ghosts, Gary Oldman’s playing a trifecta as Marley, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, and the whole thing just looks great, with even the 3-D effects seeming actually relevant rather than superfluous. My kids are going to be all over this one.
Disney is already marketing the hell out of this film, with a free (yes, free!) Christmas Carol Train Tour going on right now, perhaps coming to your town. The train tour gives you a sneak peek at the film, a behind-the-scenes look at how it was made, artifacts from the Charles Dickens museum, the opportunity to morph your own face, AND snow and carolers in July. Bah humbug, you say? Nah. If the finished film looks as good as the sneaks, it’s going to be a fun time.

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CineVegas Dispatch: Leaving Las Vegas

I’m finally home from Las Vegas. Apparently I need to sacrifice a goat on the alter of the travel gods or something, because once again my flight was delayed due to a mechanical problem, this time with the fuel gauge. They boarded the flight, we all buckled into our seats, eager and ready to get the hell out of Vegas, and then a couple guys in mechanic’s coveralls popped into the cockpit for a chat with the captain. When you see that, you have to figure they’re not just planning their next poker night or golf game while the plane’s held up at the gate, so folks around me started muttering about a flight delay, and one loudmouth genius in first class indignantly marched up to the cockpit demanding to be told what was going on, only to be quickly put in his place by a feisty flight attendant.

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CineVegas Award Winners

Easier with Practice Receives Grand Jury Prize
Godspeed and Etienne! Receive Special Jury Awards
All In: The Poker Movie Awarded Documentary Jury Award
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo Wins Special Documentary Jury Award
Full press release after the jump …

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CineVegas Dispatch: Parties, Gambling, Shows … Oh, and Movies

These folks at CineVegas sure know how to throw some parties. I’ve skipped out on most of the bigger shindigs, but did make it to late-night bowling the other night (awesome time, and, for the record, drunk film biz people bowling = much hilarity if you’re not drinking yourself) and to last night’s smaller party in the Kingpin Suite at the Palms, which was just crazy. Bowling lanes in the suite, two tables of distributors (and a few non-distributors who managed to get in on the games) playing poker, DJ cranking out the tunes, amazing views of Vegas and a bathroom bigger than most NYC apartments.
I heard they shut the party down at 5AM, and even then a group of folks headed downstairs to a bar to keep the party hopping. I hung out at the party for a while before heading downstairs to get in on a poker game at the casino (and also for the record, guys should never assume a chick doesn’t know how to play poker … though I do thank the drunken gentlemen playing at my table for their heavy alcohol consumption, generally poor betting decisions, and mistaken assumptions about my poker naivety).

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Seattle International Film Festival Award Winners

Full press release after the jump …

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CineVegas Dispatch: Redland

Director Asiel Norton’s first feature film, Redland, is the kind of film I go to festivals hoping to find: imaginative, lovely, and not quite like anything I’ve seen before. The film is about a family struggling to survive the Great Depression in a remote mountain cabin and the tragic aftermath of an affair the daughter, Mary Ann, has with a neighbor. The story itself is simple and not particularly unique — jealous, protective father; young lovers heedless of the consequences of their actions — but the way in which Norton tells his tale is unique and visually quite stunning.
Norton grew up on a remote mountaintop near where he shot the film, and he plays with and understands the light and shadow of his rural setting as a canvas for his story. There are shots in this film that are absolutely stunning, almost painterly in their beauty. Norton uses sepia tones that evoke Depression-era photographs like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” to set the tone of the time and place in which his story is set, evoking a sense of stark hopelessness, hunger and desperation amid the deceptively fertile forest setting; these shots tend to feel like those old photographs come to life — or, perhaps more accurately, as if we ourselves have stepped into that world.
When Norton’s exploring the love affair between Mary Ann and her lover, Charlie, he bathes his shots in golden rays of light as if the happiness the couple is carving out of these moments in an otherwise bleak and desperate existence fills them and spills out to color the world around them as they see it; by way of contrast, he uses shadows and noise to evoke uneasiness and tension in the films darker moments.

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CineVegas Dispatch: Vegas: Based on a True Story

This inhuman place makes human monsters. — Stephen King, The Shining
About halfway through Vegas: Based on a True Story, a film about two former heavy gamblers struggling to keep free of their addiction and make a decent life for their young son while continuing to live in a town where gambling is front and center, the above quote from The Shining popped into my head and stayed there.
Like The Shining, this is a story about a man with an addiction — and some underlying personality issues that his addictive behavior draws to the surface — and the way that monster within leads him to destroy himself and his family. The line between love and hate, security and utter ruin, is thinner than many of us might like to believe, and director Amir Naderi explores the dark spaces in between here, peeking through the lens of Las Vegas not just as the stereotypical glitzy destination for gamblers, pleasure seekers and lost souls, but as a place where people live and work and raise their families.

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CineVegas Dispatch: Saint John of Las Vegas

My trip to CineVegas almost got off to a very bad start on Wednesday when I got to the airport and belatedly realized that my driver license had expired two days earlier on my birthday. Oops. Fortunately, my oldest daughter was kind enough to drag herself out of bed at 6:30AM in response to my frantic phone call, pick up my passport from my house, and schlep it out to the airport for me in time for me to catch my flight, so all was well.
It’s my first time at CineVegas, and my first trip to Las Vegas at all, and I have to say, this is one fun festival. Given the many distractions Vegas has to offer, I’m pretty pleased with myself for catching four films so far (though I’ve still managed to make time for some Vegas-style fun as well). The fest opener was a curious film called Saint John of Las Vegas, the first feature by director Hue Rhodes, who also wrote the script.
While the rest of the fest takes place at the Palms Casino and Resort, the opener was held at Planet Hollywood and enthusiastically kicked off by Dennis Hopper, rising up from a stage trapdoor to the tune of “Born to Be Wild.” The theater at Planet Hollywood, according to the many large breasts on display on larger-than-life posters at the venue, normally hosts a burlesque show called Peepshow (which is apparently pretty popular, as we were unable to score tickets to it this weekend). There’s no shortage of scantily clad women here in Vegas, though, so I’m sure fest attendees inclined toward experiencing the fleshy, sexy side of Vegas won’t find it too hard to find other options.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook