Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Film Review: The Ugly Truth

The new romantic comedy The Ugly Truth is ugly all right, but there isn’t a whisper of truth anywhere in it. There isn’t a recognizable human being in sight either. Katherine Heigl plays an uptight, control-freak television producer who is in a losing battle with ratings on her morning show. Her boss then hires a crass, outspoken sexist host (Gerard Butler) of a local cable program called The Ugly Truth to spice up the show and jumpstart the numbers. Naturally, the two hate each other, until he starts giving her advice on how to date men (in particular a hunk next door who I could have sworn was gay). What we discover (to no one’s surprise) is that they are actually attracted to each other. He melts her cold heart while she uncovers a sensitive streak in her slobby star (who resembles an even lower-life Dane Cook).

One of the reasons why the romantic comedy was popular and fresh in the '30s and ‘40s was that sex was still something mysterious and suggestive. In Ernst Lubitsch pictures like The Shop Around the Corner, where James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan were also sparring partners, the writing was crisp and their hidden attraction had an erotic allure. The Ugly Truth resorts to a number of explicitly crass sex jokes so that, by the end, we can see that they are really nice and bland middle-class romantic partners. There are no erotic possibilities in the material because nothing is hidden.

Director Robert Luketic (Monster-In-Law) has all the subtlety of a chainsaw when it comes to presenting a gag. For example, the electric panties Heigl inadvertently wears to a business dinner end up lamely resembling the implausible orgasm gag in When Harry Met Sally. But perhaps the bigger mystery raised here is why does the beautiful Katherine Heigl always end up playing women who can’t get decent dates? In Knocked Up, Judd Apatow suggests that her only hope is in the chubby stoner Seth Rogan. Gerard Butler is an even worse choice because not only is he not funny, or charming, he’s barely able to create a believable character. (As with Tom Cruise’s equally baffling misogynist in Magnolia, you have to wonder how men will end up benefiting by their dating advice.) The Ugly Truth is about as fresh as an R-rated sit-com that’s been sitting way too long in moth balls.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sarah's Short Story

Given that it's such a slow day, I thought I'd share a video from last winter when I went to Marmora to present awards at their Literary Arts Festival. My young niece, Sarah, won First Prize for her short story, "Gunner, the Bunny Who Loves Winter." Since she was too shy to read it, I obliged. Here is the video evidence, shot by my cousin Katherine, that proves that there's another budding writer emerging in the family.

Friday, July 24, 2009

We'll Do it Live

Many are already familiar with Fox News's right-wing anchor Bill O'Reilly's bullying of guests. And it's not that I always disagree with certain issues he raises, but that he's untrustworthy, a blowhard ideologue who likes to intimidate his guests rather than interview them. But in this outtake clip, shot way back in his early days in the '80s (and surfaced a while back on YouTube) there are no guests yet to insult. There is only a lonely floor director present who's trying to get him to simply sign off the show. When O'Reilly doesn't comprehend that the teleprompter is telling him to "play out" the broadcast with a new song by Sting, he goes postal. Check this out: (Warning: Use headphones if you are in a place frequented by folks with sensitive ears.)

Not to leave well enough alone, some guy (with a gift for doing dance mixes) saw something of value in O'Reilly's tiny sample of anchor psychosis. He has taken his "Do it Live" rant and created what is perhaps a dance floor classic. This juicy bit of editing proves not only that just about ANYTHING can become music, but that Bill O'Reilly was maybe secretly, all along, a true rapper. Witness this gem (again with the same warning as above):

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Film Review: Bruno/Il Divo

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you can be violent and original in your work.”

- Gustave Flaubert.

I’m sure that Flaubert didn’t have someone like Sacha Baron Cohen in mind when he originally made those comments. Yet can we ever know who the real Sacha Baron Cohen is so that we would be sure that he is "regular and orderly" in his life? Flaubert's sentiments are absolutely pertinent to understanding this satiric shape-shifter who has made himself into an equal opportunity offender. In his new movie Bruno, Cohen ups the stakes with his audience. In doing so, he succeeds and fails in about equal measure. But it’s still a daringly provocative piece of work. Unlike in his last film Borat, Cohen doesn't offer the audience a comfort zone in which to enjoy the satire. In Borat, which was also directed by Larry Charles, Cohen played a genial naif, the inverse of the ugly American tourist abroad, a Kazakhstan journalist who comes to America and exposes its warts by revealing many of his own. For the most part, audiences responded favourably to this Kazakhstanian boob because they could take refuge in Borat’s naivety. But many, showing some of their own naivety, also assumed wrongly that the film was designed to make fun of American dumbness. Borat did more than that. It overturned our notion of what constitutes dumbness and prejudice by confronting us with the main character’s good intentions. Those intentions comically masked his odious views and outlandish behaviour. Bruno, though, doesn’t provide even that kind of safety valve because the character – a gay Austrian, fashion-obsessed celebrity seeker - is aggressively unpleasant.

After being fired as the host of his TV show, Bruno comes to America to seek success and celebrity in a country that always seems to crave it. Cohen’s style is continually confrontational, daring us to see what is real and what is fabricated. But rather than create a character for the audience to identify with (as he skewers homophobic attitudes and celebrity obsession), Cohen pushes the limits of tolerance that a liberal-minded audience might possess. He shakes our assurance and certainty in our liberal belief in same-sex equal rights. Unfortunately, Bruno ends up being too single-minded in its approach. The gags are also pretty much hit-and-miss. (One involving the ambushing of Presidential candidate Ron Paul comes dangerously close to the kind of smug grandstanding that Michael Moore gets lauded for doing.) But unlike Moore, who assumes the role of a trustworthy narrator by making himself (and his followers) politically and morally superior to the folks he’s attacking, Cohen is the untrustworthy narrator, one who becomes the target of everybody’s scorn. In Bruno, that attitude is quite evident in a hunting scene with a group of very manly hunters. When he taunts their heterosexuality by slyly coming on to them, he doesn’t make us laugh at the hunters’ homophobia; instead, we are appalled by Bruno’s candid desire to couple with them.

Although he’s British, Cohen’s style of comedy comes right out of the Jewish-American tradition which uses the art of disguise as a means to subvert cultural norms. Lenny Bruce pretty much pioneered this comic form on stage, as does Randy Newman in popular song. But Cohen most resembles the late Andy Kaufman, who also toyed with his audience by making himself the object of scorn. Bruno lacks the assured tone of Borat, however, so Cohen vainly repeats a number of plot motifs from the previous film. Nevertheless, Bruno is still a sharply controversial picture. Cohen pushes the viewer with outrageous and scatological routines while daring the audience to turn on him. Many have already begun to do so which means the picture is unlikely to be the hit that Borat was. However I laughed and gasped at much of his audacity. But I was equally appalled by what I found myself laughing at. Yet there’s something quite dangerous and deviously clever about having a University-educated Jewish comedian playing an obnoxiously gay Austrian celebrity diva. And what does this diva want from life? He just wants to be as famous as that other Austrian “superstar”: Adolph Hitler. Flaubert would gag.

In the past, whenever you attended films by Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, or Bergman, you at least felt that you were getting a fascinating and intriguing look through the window of a culture quite different from your own - whether the movies were good or bad. The cinematic language usually challenged your ability to “read” a film and respond to it. But one of the down sides of our current globalized economy is that many foreign-language films are now using very generic, familiar plots dressed up in cultural garb in order to be hits in North American markets. The success of Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, was certainly a product of this change. Although I mostly enjoyed the movie, my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by the box office calculations built into the story – and I’m not referring to the film's allusions to the Bollywood tradition. I’m speaking of an audience-pleasing component derived from the test market screenings that diluted the “realism” of the impoverished lifestyle of the characters in the story. Slumdog Millionaire, at times, felt as manufactured as the game show it was depicting.

The new Italian film, Il Divo is a much more problematic version of this dubious devolution of foreign-language movies. Based on the controversial career of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, the seven-time prime minister who preserved his power through corruption and murder, director Paolo Sorrentino’s operatic study is style that runs roughshod over its content. Borrowing from a number of visual stylists, including Scorsese and Tarantino, Sorrentino is so hot to show you how adept he is at moving a camera that he fails to signify anything with it. He introduces plenty of plot concerning the devious machinations of Andreotti’s hunger for power but we get no sense of how he built the alliances necessary to keep it. You can barely keep track of the conspiracies and double-dealings because of the constant dancing of the camera. Yet Sorrentino has to keep the camera moving because he doesn’t know how to dramatize the story he’s devised.

Much has been made of this award-winning film’s main performance by Toni Servillo, but it’s largely an actor’s stunt. Servillo plays Andreotti as a still, diminutive gnome, a cartoon Richard III floating in a sea of stylized chaos. (Il Divo is what Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Affair might have been if Tarantino had directed it.) Il Divo was one of the many colourful nicknames given to this puny worm but Sorrentino never gives his protagonist his due. He is so hungry to dazzle the audience with his pyrotechnics that his movie ends up eclipsing the power-hungry character at its core. Maybe Il Divo ends up feeling fraudulent and hollow because its director, starving for his own international recognition, ends up being as nakedly ambitious as his character.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

DVD Review: Beyond Rangoon/Two Lovers/Che (Part One and Two)

It’s taken almost 15 years but John Boorman’s sadly underrated and neglected drama Beyond Rangoon (1995) has finally been released on DVD. One of the riskiest pictures Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) has ever made, Beyond Rangoon is a potently absorbing piece of work. The story focuses on Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), an American nurse whose husband and son are murdered during a home invasion. In order to give herself time to heal, she agrees to accompany her sister (Frances McDormand) on a trip to Burma. Since they are making the trip in 1988, they encounter the rise of the democracy movement led by pacifist Aung San Suu Ko against the brutality of the military dictatorship under General Ne Win.

The daring in Boorman’s work here is the way he subtly illuminates how the Burmese uprising stirs Bowman out of the catatonic shock over her family’s murder. She not only rediscovers her calling as a nurse, but becomes politically motivated as well. When she makes herself a target for killing by the government, she simultaneously comes to terms with the intimate details of the deaths she's experienced closer to home. Bowman immediately wakes up to a fragile world where life and death have become delicately intertwined.

John Boorman has always been a humanist director, but sometimes he got caught up in the kind of New Age mysticism (The Emerald Forest) that inadvertently rendered his films as exercises in camp. In Beyond Rangoon, Boorman envisions the Burmese torpor as a fever dream where Bowman (along with the country) awakens into a spiritual affirmation that comes with a heavy price. Although many critics at the time complained that Boorman cast the Burmese revolution through the eyes of a Westerner, Beyond Rangoon does not cheapen their struggle by doing so. If anything, Boorman vividly shows us the full cost of the burgeoning idealism of the Burmese democracy movement. The picture couldn’t be timelier.

When I first saw James Gray’s 1994 crime film Little Odessa, I thought the director was terrified of light. Although it was an intelligent examination of a Russian hit man confronting his brother in Brighton Beach, I was amazed that any of the actors could see who they were talking to. There were moments when I felt the need of a flashlight just to follow what was going on. His 2000 film noir The Yards was marginally better, but Gray’s style continually suffered from a kind of heavy-spirited malaise that made his movies needlessly dense and turgid. However, in the superb We Own the Night (2007), he took that same malaise and finally located it in the characters rather imposing it onto the style of his films. In his latest picture, Two Lovers, Gray once again returns to his home turf of Brighton Beach, but with a whole new authority. Two Lovers is not only his best movie; it’s one of the strongest American films so far this year.

Based loosely on Dostoevsky’s White Nights, Two Lovers is about a paradoxical form of spiritual rejuvenation. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed young man who still lives with his Jewish family. Working in the garment trade, they want him to marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of family friends they also hope to merge with in their business. While Leonard is taken by Sandra’s desire for him, he simultaneously encounters Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a troubled neighbour who captivates him. He begins to fall in love with her although she is caught up in a turbulent relationship with a married man.

It’s no secret that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our most exciting actors. (He gave a perfectly modulated performance in Gray’s We Own the Night where he slowly evolved from a lively kid operating in the world of gangsters into a darkly moody man who had gone straight in his family of cops.) In Two Lovers, Phoenix takes us inside a loner who's torn by his desire for a love affair that's borne of longing with his ambivalent acceptance of a relationship that would offer him emotional stability. Phoenix is equally matched here by Paltrow playing one of her best roles in years. There's also some fine work by the lovely Vinessa Shaw, plus Isabella Rossellini as his concerned mother. Two Lovers provides the kind of wistful romanticism that lingers long into the night air.

I’m not sure why Steven Soderbergh decided to make a two-part epic study of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean doctor who helped Fidel Castro launch the 1959 Cuban Revolution and then died trying to ignite one in Bolvia in 1967. Judging from the 4 ½ hour cut I saw at the Toronto Film Festival, Soderbergh doesn't seem to know either. There’s certainly a compelling story to tell here but Steven Soderbergh’s vision is so amorphous that the picture evaporates as you watch it.

Michael Mann’s recent gangster film Public Enemies also evaporated because it had no point of view. In it, Mann failed dramatically to help us understand the life of John Dillinger and the era of the Depression-era bank robbers who captivated and scared many Americans. The picture became vague and indistinct as if he thought that it was hipper to eliminate the popular appeal of the gangster genre to make an Art Film. But Che (Part One & Two) is a different kind of problem. Soderbergh shrewdly chooses to avoid the complexities of Guevara’s life. It's as if he were afraid to alienate those who have romanticized him on T-shirts and posters, or possibly anger those who recognized Guevara's True Believer zeal. (That zeal today would have given the guerrilla a more fitting home in Al-Qaeda if Marxism hadn’t been his religion.) Leftist writer Paul Berman in Dissent perfectly caught the troubling personality of Che Guevara that Soderbergh avoids when he wrote:

"Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's 'labor camp' system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for 'two, three, many Vietnams,' he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: 'Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become …'— and so on. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy—a tragedy on the hugest scale."

None of these sharp, unsettling observations find a way into Soderbergh’s two films. He neutralizes the material instead thus leaving both pictures horribly inert and meaningless. Che (Part One) covers the Cuban Revolution which is inexplicably framed by Guevara’s 1964 speech before the United Nations where he attacked apartheid in South Africa and American imperialism abroad. But there is little point to providing this contrast since we never see how the fiery revolutionary evolved into the kind of political force that emanated danger as well as charm. (The picture also ignores Che's desire to have Cuba keep the Russian missiles in 1962 which would have undoubtedly led to a nuclear holocaust.) In Che (Part Two), Soderbergh follows Guevara's doomed campaign in Bolivia to spead revolution without examining how Che's adventurism contributed to his downfall. (His insensitivity to Bolivia's national pride even contributed to alienating the support of their Communist Party.)

Although Benicio de Toro, who plays Che, has the kind of smoldering personality to suggest the conflicting aspects of an ideologue, he’s directed to simply invoke the icon on the T-shirt. If Soderbergh had brought into his picture the more popular romantic view of Che, he would have at least made a movie with some point, or purpose (even if the details would be highly questionable). But in Che (Part One & Two), with his desire to walk the middle ground, Soderbergh chooses to pull his punches. In his hands, Che ends up a hollowed icon.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Links (or a shameful stab at self-promotion)

I promise not to make a habit of this. However students and folks at various lectures have asked me where they can locate information on my reviews and books.

For a collection of movie reviews written when I wrote for Boxoffice (1996-2007) and (briefly) The Globe and Mail (1998-2000) can be found at Rotten Tomatoes. They gather original reviews from critics across North America. It's a worthy and well-organized reference site. My reviews can be found at My Boxoffice reviews can also be read at The old CBC Radio reviews (1998-2005) some of you have requested are no longer available. They were published on their old website.

For those interested in my pieces for Metro Newspapers, their archive has a number of reviews that I've written since last September. If you go to and search my name, the list of pieces will appear.

While my latest book, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream, is heading for quick obscurity (if it hasn't already made the trip), I still believe it tells a familiar story using a pretty distinct focus. You can find reference to it here: -. Although it came out in January, the American publisher Greenwood-Praeger have done zilch to promote it. (Their marketing people even changed my title from Nowhere Land to Arificial Paradise because they thought "it would help sales." It's too bad they're not helping sales.) In truth, Praeger doesn't do trade books. Their stock-in-trade is University libraries. (It also didn't help that they were bought up by a bigger non-trade company ABC-Clio just as Artificial Paradise was coming out.) To be fair, they did do a handsome job of producing the book and they allowed me to go one hundred thousand words over what was intended. But none of that helps if no one knows it exists. However, one worthy soul, David Kidney, did review it for the online publication Green Man Review. David has reviewed all my books quite favourably, as well as intelligently. He persisted in getting a review copy from the publisher till they finally relented. His review can be found at:

You can also find a list of the other various books I've written at Speaking as a critic, I have no problem with people not liking any of my books. But some of the "critics" on these Amazon sites (especially those who "reviewed" Randy Newman's American Dreams) showed a startling inability to recognize that it was intended as a critical analysis of Newman's work. It would appear from their incoherent musings that they were hoping to find a book that merely lit incense sticks around their hero. Writers need to have a point of view. That's how and why their work gets published (at least for the moment). But I think since the Newman fans didn't know who I was, they could care less what I thought about his music, so they dismissed the book for what it wasn't rather than for what it was. Hence their curious scriblings which you can find here:

My favourite book to write (and the one written with the least distractions) was "Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica" for Continuum's "33 1/3" series. I highly recommend to fans of pop music to check out this series. Each book (or chap book, really) is about one significant record that moved the writer. Besides being an ideal series that introduces readers to a number of fascinating albums, most of them are perfect companions for those records. This one (about a completely uncompromising album) also drew surprisingly thoughtful and precise reviews on Amazon than the Newman one did. One guy even brings up some worthy criticisms that illustrates that he actually gets it. They can be found here The best and thorough review of Trout Mask is located at the Beefheart site Doc at the Radar Station:

Finally, producer John Corcelli and I have been hard at work on some new music documentaries at CBC Radio on Inside the Music. The series is called Revolutions Per Minute and last year we provided five programs on essential Canadian pop albums. They included The Band's Music From Big Pink, Joni Mitchell's Blue, Bruce Cockburn's Inner City Front, Daniel Lanois' Acadie and Broken Social Scene's You Forgot it in People. You can stream those programs at the site where Inside the Music has their program archives. Just enter here and follow the links to their archive. John and I have just finished two new Revolutions Per Minute docs on kd lang's Shadowland and Maestro Fresh-Wes's Symphony in Effect which will be aired this fall.

I think that is enough shilling for attention for today.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite R.I.P.

I'd like to pay tribute to the life of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite on the day after his passing. Like many others. I discovered him during his famous coverage of President Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963. It was the first time I ever truly watched one of his newscasts -- and it wasn't the last. JFK's death took place the day before my birthday party (which was cancelled) so I had plenty of time (plus interest) in following the news. Cronkite always brought an unassuming style and a keen insight to news broadcasting which immediately earned your trust and interest.

Here is his original JFK broadcast:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Coming Distractions

Since it's late Friday, I thought I'd keep this post simple. When I was working on "Artificial Paradise," I came across some movie trailers on YouTube. Only they weren't real trailers. They were carefully crafted movie coming attractions that totally misrepresented the pictures. "Mean Streets" becomes "Sesame Streets," for example, and 'A Hard Day's Night" becomes "A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead." In it, The Beatles are chased through the streets of London by the flesh-eating zombies of Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead." One of my favourites is one for Stanley Kubrick's stilted adaptation of Steven King's "The Shining." The faux trailor is called "Shining" - and it suggests a heart-warming father-son reconciliation drama possibly directed by Cameron Crowe.

Check it out here

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rogers World

You probably already realize that most companies are now out-sourcing their technical and customer service. They say it’s to save money, but the real reason for pairing away their knowledgeable and reliable staff is restructuring. In other words, they want to replace them with folks who know little and demand (and cost) less. If something isn’t working, they don’t look into the cause (because they wouldn’t really know where to start). Besides, when you do call for help, it’s likely no longer your own city that you’re calling. You might be phoning another province – or perhaps a call centre in some other country. By removing themselves from their customers, companies can abstain from active responsibility in maintaining their service while counting on your hard-earned bucks to survive. What we’re looking at is a survivalist economy rather than a pro-active and specialized one. Trust me. It spells disaster down the road. In time, the smart and talented people will be waiting in EI lines, while the compliant ones will be cueing up for plum jobs they never dreamed of having.

All of this brings me to Rogers Cable. A few years back, they introduced to those of us with digital service a feature called On Demand. On this channel was a library of movies, TV shows and specials that you could upload at your convenience to watch. Some cost money, but if you had the Movie Network, their films were free. It was a wonderful service for time-shifting and very simple to operate. And it was reliable most of the time.

Recently, they changed their On Demand software to a sexier looking system that can barely load up without multiple attempts. Once you do get on the “home page,” you’re confronted with loud coming attraction ads while trying to figure out where anything is. After you've uploaded your program, you will likely discover that the picture periodically “freezes” and breaks-up. One movie I tried to watch did it every three minutes.

In the past, if you phoned a tech, they would tell you what the problem was and when it might be fixed. Now they act and talk like managers. They tell you to re-start your digital box as if part of a company mantra. If that doesn’t work, they’ll book an appointment with another tech to come between 10am-6pm to look at it. Once they come, they’ll simply trade your Digital box for another one if they can’t locate the problem. In short, they never get at the problem on their end.

For those of you who do have On Demand, and have experienced this frustration, it may not be your problem. (It isn't being caused by interference from bad weather, either, as one friend assumed.) The simple answer may well be that they are now using cheaper, less effective software. I obviously don’t know this for certain. But since nobody you call has any answers besides their ability to book you a service appointment, I only know that nothing gets done to fix it. I’ve since stopped using On Demand.

Although I plan to contact the Movie Network to see if they care that their films are being badly served by On Demand, I do suggest to any of you experiencing this problem to continue to call Rogers and make them accountable for the service you are paying for. In our troubled economy, some companies try to count on your passivity because they know our expectations of better, qualified service are much less than it was in the past.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

It’s rare in the season of summer blockbusters that we get stories as magical and emotionally rich as “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” (Usually, it’s the bludgeoning assault of pictures like “Transformers,’ which are short on magic, big on noise and high on video-game technology.) Director David Yates (the BBC series “State of Play”), who also helmed the previous “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” elegantly weaves the special effects into the story so that the effects begin to re-earn their right to be called special. In the last adaptation, Yates competently pared down J.K. Rowling’s long, dense narrative. But, in doing so, he sacrificed the spectral beauty inherent in the tale in order to have the plot make sense. In this new picture, Yates is freer to allow the enchantment – and the dread – to bubble effortlessly out of the story. Although “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a much shorter book, the film feels beautifully layered and sumptuous with plot.

In this sixth adaptation, the young wizards, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and his best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are growing into their adolescence as well as becoming newly seasoned sorcerers. Like most periods of adolescence, though, theirs is fraught with turbulence, trauma and sexual desire. And it comes right at the moment when the dark spirit of Lord Voldemort, who Harry first encountered in Mike Newell’s rather shapeless adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” unleashes a team of Death Eaters into the London skies to dismantle the Millennium Bridge. It’s a signal that soon Hogwarts, where the young alchemists study every year, will be under the threat of destruction. To prevent this, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) employs Harry to dip into the school’s past to examine Voldemort’s own adolescence while studying there, in order to unravel the Dark Lord’s destructive plans.

If “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” doesn’t have the beautifully impassioned force of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Yates (with the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel) creates a dreamier tale told in nightshade. The atmosphere itself becomes quietly charged so that the actors can ignite the story. Daniel Radcliffe has - literally – grown into the role of Harry and his mission to reveal the underlying plans of his parents’ killer while tentatively uncovering his desire for Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) gives the character a vulnerability allowing Radcliffe to wistfully abandon Harry’s youthful innocence. But Harry isn’t the whole show. Emma Watson continues to be one of the most inventively understated young actresses on the screen. Hermione has always carried a torch for Ron, but Ron has been too dense to notice. When he gets caught up in the childish infatuations of the obsessive Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), Watson finds reserves of pain and rage that seem to age Hermione right before our eyes. (In this story, the primal emotions of growing up and the illusive world of magic become intertwined.) Rupert Grint’s droll impishness begins to truly have consequences here and Grint retains his clownishness while nurturing a growing awareness of his sudden appeal as a young man.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” also introduces a new character Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), as the new potions professor. If Imelda Staunton, as the authoritarian Dolores Umbridge, was the comic ace-in-the-hole in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Broadbent brings his appealing brand of tweedy charm to the picture. Unfortunately, the rest of the adult cast – including Alan Rickman’s gloomy and unnerving Snape, David Thewlis’ touching Remus Lupin and Maggie Smith’s stately Minerva McGonagall – make merely brief appearances. But that may be because “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is really about the young now making their passage into adulthood. Without assaulting the intelligence and temperament of the audience, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” casts its own lingering and alluring spell.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why a Blog? (or as Groucho once asked: Viaduct?)

First of all, this wasn’t my idea. You can thank (or blame) the Rebel Knitter who encouraged all of this by convincing me that I would enjoy the process. We’ll see.

Although, for the past thirty years, I’ve made my living as a writer/broadcaster and film critic, I began entertaining the notion of posting blogs after I started to disappear from the various venues where I used to ply my trade. Through posting, I figured that I could continue to write despite the unfortunate circumstances (and certain dubious individuals).

O.K. Here’s the deal. What I plan to do each week is continue to review movies (beginning tomorrow with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) on each Wednesday. I’ve decided to forgo doing the customary opening day review. Although Fridays have been – and continue to be – the rule, I thought by Wednesday many people might have already seen the picture. This allows for a quicker response to my blog.

On Tuesdays, I plan to do DVD reviews on new releases. Since I don’t have the luxury of getting free copies, I’ll concentrate on those films I saw during their theatrical run. The rest of the time I hope to cover a number of cultural and political topics that arouse interest. But be forewarned. I don’t come with any ideological bent. Nor do I want to turn the blog site into a Bill O’Reilly slug-fest. Instead of answering each of your responses individually, I’ll likely gather up the interesting ones and respond on one post. (Hey! I’d like to get outdoors this summer, too.)

Since I’m new at this, I have no idea yet about using visual aids to provide colour to the blogs, but I’m sure the Rebel Knitter will have some ideas. Some days, I may just draw your attention to the work of other scribes, or items that I think make for a compelling read. Throughout my career, as I ran into numerous roadblocks, I developed a termite approach to the trade. When I discovered knots in the wood, I simply moved elsewhere to places more accepting and interested in the kinds of things I do. With that in mind, I hope to find an agreeable following here.