Film Essent 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.

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Kudos

The Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, of which I used to be a member, has awarded its annual Tilghman award this year to two Oklahomans: Brian Hearn, Oklahoma City Museum of Art film program curator, and Clark Wiens, president of the nonprofit foundation that operates the Circle Cinema in Tulsa. I don’t know Clark Wiens, but I do know Brian Hearn; I was thrilled to hear the OFCC had given him this award, and I had to give him a few props here.
Brian, both in his capacity as the film program curator for the museum and in his work for the deadCenter Film Festival, has done more to bring independent film to Oklahoma City in the past 14 years than just about anyone I know. It is largely because of him that people in my hometown have access every year now to hundreds of screenings, and in large part due to his contribution that deadCenter Film Festival is growing each year. When Brian and I were growing up in Oklahoma City, our access to independent and foreign films was practically non-existent. Today, because of him, young people interested in film have a place to explore it.
While I write about and critique the work that other people do, Brian is out there finding ways to showcase that work, to bring great films to our hometown. And if you believe, as I do, that art in general and film in particular can help shape a culture, then the work he’s doing is incalculably important to the culture of Oklahoma City and the people who live there. I’m humbled by his contribution, and thank him for doing what he does. Congrats to both Brian and Clark, and to OFCC for recognizing the hard work of the folks who help bring the films to the people.
(Full press release after the jump …)

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Paparazzi Ethics 101

This Vanity Fair article on the paparazzi team who got the final shot of Michael Jackson as he was dying (already dead?) in an ambulance gives quite a peek at what goes on in the minds of people who stalk celebs for a living. On the one hand, the piece is interesting in that it reveals something about the elusive singer’s relationship with his most devoted fans — mostly young, European women who, according to Ben Evenstad, co-founder of National Photo Group, “… would follow him all over the world. If he went to Ireland, France, Bahrain, Neverland, they were there. The same individuals. Nobody else had what he had.”
But it also reveals something of the mindset it takes to stalk celebrities for a living. Chris Weiss, who snagged the “money shot” of Jackson in the ambulance, talks in the interview about how when he was pressing his camera lens against the ambulance window as it pulled up to UCLA Medical Center, frantically snapping without knowing what was actually going on inside, Jackson’s bodyguards were practically begging him to stop: “Weiss saw a look on the guards’ faces that made him believe something was really wrong: “They were being aggressive, but it was remorseful aggressiveness. ‘Please guys, please just stop.’ They kept saying ‘please.’””
And yet, despite knowing that something serious and personally devastating to Jackson’s family — especially his young children — was obviously going on, that this was more than Jackson’s typical medical histrionics, he kept snapping away. And when National realized that Weiss had gotten a clear shot of Jackson with an oxygen mask covering his face while an EMT worked on him — either the last shot of Jackson alive, or the first of him dead — they quickly sold it to the highest bidder, OK! magazine.
What’s interesting to me about this piece is the ambivalence with which these guys talk about taking and selling this picture. There seems to be very little remorse there over the ethics of the picture itself or what they do for a living, and their regret around Jackson actually dying seems to be more about them and how they no longer have him as interesting prey to stalk than anything else. Here’s my favorite quote from the piece: ““This is what hit me halfway through the night: What do I do now? Chase fucking Zac Efron around?,” Evenstad asks. “What is the point?”
What’s the point, indeed?

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Jon + Kate = Great? Really?

From the David Carr story about Bonnie Fuller being hired as EIC of hollywoodlife.com:
“Celebrities come from such a much broader spectrum,” she said. “My audience is just as interested in Sarah Palin as they are in Miley Cyrus. We have a celebrity president and reality stars like Jon and Kate have been one of the most important stories of the year. It’s not just about movie stars anymore.”:

Okay, I don’t completely disagree with her assertion that “celebrity” means something different now than it used to. Reality-based programming and more outlets in which to create celebrity has made it possible for anyone from chefs to nannies to poker players to game show contestants to become famous. But Jon and Kate Plus 8? A dysfunctional couple now getting a divorce, and their pack of kids who are probably going to need any money they actually get out of their childhoods being eviscerated on television to pay for years of therapy … THIS is the new thing to somehow admire, or even gawk at?
Heaven help us.

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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

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Girl Power

kim_and_meg.jpgMy oldest daughter Meg scored some free tickets to the Demi Lovato concert the other night, so I grudgingly went along with her so we could take her two younger sisters to the show. I don’t recall, back when I was a preteen or young teen myself, there being much in the way of musical acts for kids our age. When I was 9-12 I was spending most of my time riding my horse or reading books; even when I got a little older, the music my friends and I listened to on our spiffy portable radios (complete with cassette deck!) while we were sunbathing ourselves into early skin cancer and wrinkles was your basic Top 40 fare: Journey, Michael Jackson, Billy Squier, early Madonna, Duran Duran. These days, though, it seems there’s more and more kids singing on the radio just for kids, thanks largely to Disney and its Radio Disney enterprise.
The show opened with another Disney property, all-girl band KSM, whose cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” is all over Radio Disney these days. I was fully prepared to roll my eyes over this one, but I have to say, Meg and I were both duly impressed by these girls. The lead singer has a powerful voice, and all the girls play their own instruments, and do so quite well — in fact, they were so good that Meg and I were speculating that they must be older girls, in their early 20s perhaps, who happen to look really young. So I did a little research and, surprisingly, they really are teenagers. Huh.

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Circus

Reading Christopher Bram’s Lives of the Circus Animals right now … it’s about the theater world, but much of it applies to the film business as well. It’s a good read and I’m enjoying the intertwined plot, for all that it feels a bit contrived, but I’m finding the character of Kenneth Prager, the theater critic, to be very maudlin, both in his own self-awareness and self-criticism of the role he plays and his assessment of the other players — a playwright, his therapist, other “lesser” critics (a stab at old versus new media?). Kind of depressing.

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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 (MovieMom.com) to senior citizens (ReelGeezers.com).
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

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“I went through my Twitter feed recently, muting anybody talking about politics. I’ve just had enough. My attitude is to always be encouraging, be as positive and as constructive as possible. People are too quick to form an opinion and to judge. It’s a scramble up the hill to the moral high ground isn’t it?”

“It’s quite weird going from never having been interviewed before to being interviewed 500 times. Suddenly people are writing down what you’re saying, they’re recording it and putting online. We lucked out with Down Terrace because people were really kind about it – it was a first film and low budget, we felt we’d been given the benefit of the doubt. With Kill List, I thought critically we were gonna get really fucked. But it didn’t happen. It’s a very weird film, you know. And it’s a mean film, it’s much meaner than most movies are. I watch a lot of modern horror movies and they’re scary, but they’re not mean like that.”
~ Ben Wheatley

“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray