Friday, June 29, 2007
By Lars Trodson
In one of the opening scenes in “Easy Rider”, Peter Fonda -- aka Captain America, aka Wyatt -- throws his wristwatch into the dirt. Then he and Dennis Hopper (Billy) speed off on their choppers, out onto the open road, out into an unsteady America, out into a place they or any of us, hardly, even really knows.
So begins the journey.
We get a glimpse of our emotional panorama in this remarkable film, in part because Fonda and Hopper played the two sides of our national coin: Fonda is the truly free one, and Hopper, while enjoying the trappings of an unfettered society, is still pretty much constitutionally and philosophically rooted in a more conservative age. He’s pretty uptight for a longhair. He seems to prefer his booze and cigarettes and easy women over the more modern pharmaceutical and societal choices.
“I gotta get out of here, man,” Hopper says to Fonda after they have spent some time at a commune.
“Hey, man,” says Fonda, “We’re eating their food.” It was a gesture to say they needed to show these people some respect.
It is while they are at the commune that Fonda says to the stranger they had picked up on the highway, played by that wily actor Luke Askew, that he is “hip to time, man.” I always thought it a mournful thing to say for the guy who threw away his watch.
So the journey continues.
Apparently made on a budget of about $400,000, I was struck, as I watched the movie the other night, just how reverent it really is toward our country, and this is because of the photography by Laszlo Kovacs. In the scene at the commune, just as they are about to say a secular prayer over the food they are about to eat, Kovacs takes his camera and takes the time to spin slowly around the room so that we get to see all the faces, the faces of these hippies, and you can see the faces of almost every type of person there: the defiant ones, and the frightened, and the carefree and the concerned, and the lost, and the faces of the children. It is truly a beautiful moment in film.
He also captures the mid-west landscape beautifully, the Indian burial grounds, Monument
Valley -- this is John Ford country -- the highways of an as-of-yet overdeveloped country. The country stores are still there. The little Mexican cantinas (which reminds us just how much of a cultural mixture our country has always been between what we consider American and Mexican. It has been blurred since the beginning.) There is the little farm they stop at to fix their bike. When Fonda and Hopper share a meal with their hosts, Fonda says to the farmer: “You should be proud. It isn’t every man who can make a living off the land. Doing his own thing in his own time.”
It’s a hippy line, but still a goddamn good one. And then they move on again.
It’s interesting, in a back story way, that when Fonda and Hopper and the rest talk about the film, they talk about how much they were aware of what a successful commercial venture this was going to be. They knew they would make their mark, and undoubtedly earn a bucket of cash. The film was nominated for two Oscars – one for the screenplay (credited to Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern), and one for Jack Nicholson. I wonder if these guys were disappointed when they lost, which would be an institutional reaction, one would think.
It doesn’t matter, though, because I think they made an honest film. Some of Fonda’s spiritual “live and let live” attitude doesn’t play so well today, but then we can always look to Hopper to give us some acerbic realism.
I looked at the cover of the DVD and was somewhat amused by my own warm reaction to the photo of Hopper and Fonda out on the road. It seems nostalgic and romantic to me, and I am continually surprised how much I like these guys. After all, they make their money at the beginning by selling a batch of cocaine (to a nameless cat in a Rolls Royce played by music producer Phil Spector). These are not my guys, but the screenplay is also savvy enough not to portray them as saintly.
When they are refused a room at a seedy roadside hotel, Hopper yells out after the owner has turned on the “NO Vacancy” sign: “Asshole!” That would have been enough justification for turning them away, I suppose. So it isn’t just a couple of carefree, harmless guys trying to make their way in the world. But the important question to ask is: Who among us is? Who wants to be treated badly for who people think we are, rather than what we actually might be?
So the journey gets complicated.
Nicholson plays the voice of the audience. He’s a lawyer, George Hanson (who does work for the ACLU) and a juicer, and he has some pull in the little community where Hopper and Fonda get tossed in jail. Nicholson is in the pokey, too, cooling his heels after a night of drinking -- not much different from the old Otis character on the Andy Griffith show. We can feel comfortable with this guy, even though he’s slightly off his rocker.
The scene in which he tells the bikers how the Venutians have quietly infiltrated our society is a riot -- even more so because at one point Nicholson obviously breaks character and bursts into laughter -- and later when he is murdered you feel cheated. The violence is unnecessary, as it always is. He was OK, that guy, just a little troubled. Who among us is not?
As the end of the movie came nearer I felt a little uneasy, even though I knew what was coming. It’s abrupt and sadistic -- this is not the ending of moralists, or free-thinkers, but the ending of people who feel despair over the kind of self-proclaimed freedom they are promoting. I don’t know if I like it. I wonder what our thoughts on the movie today would be if Billy and Captain America had lived, and I certainly wonder what effect it would have had on the box office at the time. Was it a reaffirmation to those who went to see the movie seeking comeuppance for these two bikers? Or was it a reaffirmation to the hippies themselves who always knew they would never be accepted? I imagine a little bit of both. The hippies faded away, but many of their ideals and habits remain, both good and bad, even in a society that strains to keep its conservative side its public-facing persona. Since the movie was filmed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the ending seems a logical extension of those two horrific events.
I think I might have tried to spare our fictional heroes in light of how many real ones were getting murdered. But I can’t make that decision now and what do I know, anyway? It does seem to fit into the context of how hopeful and bleak those times seem to us now.
The journey of Billy and Captain America ended, but the ambiguous, unanswered effects of its aftermath continue. And I guess that is a gift.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
By Lars Trodson
I recently watched a biography of Marlon Brando on Turner Classic Movies, and while it didn’t really break new ground, the documentary certainly reinforced the idea that Brando changed the landscape of movie acting. “Reacting instead of acting,” is how one participant put it. There was much discussion about “On the Waterfront”, and the scene in which Brando picks up Eva Marie Saint’s white glove and fits it on his own hand.
It is hard for someone from my generation to truly appreciate just how forceful Brando was because we can’t see his movies in their own time.
While it may seem a stretch to some, one small scene in a very famous movie -- a scene almost no one talks about in a film that people know intimately -- seems very close to the kind of realistic emotional power that Brando was so readily able to draw on. The movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life” and the actor in the scene is Jimmy Stewart.
Stewart became such a mannered and self-parodied actor -- particularly in the late phase in his career when I knew him as a working actor -- that it is sometimes easy to forget he was quite effortlessly natural through much of his long career; an actor of rare depth of emotion while projecting an endearing accessibility.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” has also become such a cultural icon it’s hard to fully recognize just how powerful and intricate the story is. Its impact, no one disputes, is made all the more real by an unusually perceptive portrait by Stewart in the role of George Bailey.
George is in real pain throughout much of his story; he’s anguished. This melancholy is not tedious because Stewart imbues his character with small, intimate moments that help connect us to George with our own emotions.
We have all known disappointment, but there is rarely a moment in American films when it is portrayed with such raw emotion. It is this tiny moment I want to talk about here; a moment that Brando himself undoubtedly would have been happy to pull off.
The scene comes when George is waiting for his brother Harry to come home on the train from college. The Bailey family, including Uncle Billy, is waiting on the platform. When Harry disembarks, everyone greets him with appropriate joy, in part because George now knows he will now be able to finally leave “the old Bailey Building and Loan” and start his life’s adventure.
As the little group gets ready to leave the station, Harry suddenly makes a major announcement. He is married. George is introduced to “the wife”, as Harry calls her, and after a moment’s hesitation, George hugs the newest member of his family. Then the crowd moves off, and George is left alone on the platform.
George is by himself, absorbed in the thought that Harry will not take over the Building and Loan, and he is left with the realization that his hopes of leaving Bedford Falls have been destroyed. There are no words.
Once we fully see George’s devastation, he then -- extraordinarily, in a moment of what I hesitate to call artistic courage, but if it is not that, then what is it? -- George turns away from the camera. George, enraged, disappointed - turns away from us, his audience, his supporters, and when he comes around we see, briefly, the same emotional destruction. George’s eyes (Stewart’s eyes) begin to dart frantically; he’s panicked. He knows he has to do what is right for Harry, and not for himself. So then, quite quickly, George’s face relaxes, a slight smile emerges, the frantic eyes relax, and a small, restricted smile emerges. Not a joyful smile, but a smile nonetheless. George sidles up to Harry’s new wife, and basically asks the questions that he knew the answer to. Will Harry’s new marriage take him away from Bedford Falls? He knows the answer, and your heart breaks for George.
In just a few seconds you have surprise, anger, confusion, fear, acceptance, joy, life.
I don’t dispute Brando’s supremacy. But his late speech in “On the Waterfront”, when he finally confronts his brother Charlie (how brothers can let people down is another theme here), is basically a speech about disappointment. And while Brando performed this feat aided by the words of writer Budd Schulberg, Stewart did it wordlessly, in a much shorter time, in a film not widely noted for realism.
The next time you watch "It's a Wonderful Life", and you wait for the final moments of life’s reaffirmation, it’s important to remember that this reaffirmation can only come after a series of setbacks and disappointments. The reason we still want to feel and accept this rejuvenation of George’s is not because of the big, showy scenes of obvious emotion. We appreciate it rather because of those small, deceptive moments: those quiet, inconsolable moments of pain that Stewart had the authority to show in small, excruciatingly private scenes.
It’s hard to believe that Brando did not take notice.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
By Lars Trodson
Moviemakers today have obviously decided they can’t compete with the mainstreaming of porn. They either try to compete directly -- see “9 Songs” or “Shortbus” -- or they go so completely tepid as to be the antithesis of sex appeal -- watch any Nancy Meyers movie and you’ll see what I mean. Ouch.
There is so little erotica in films today that anthropologists looking back at the mainstream Hollywood movies made in the past decade will think maybe the place was run by a bunch of eunuchs. It needs to be shaken out of its doldrums. Is there nothing writers and directors today can do with a Diane Lane or Kate Beckinsale or Jennifer Connelly or Rosario Dawson or Eva Mendes other than put them in some schmaltzy romantic comedy, or testosterone fueled action number or in a warmed over horror flick? Hey you guys making millions of dollars writing Batman and Superman and Silver Surfer movies -- you know, those movies with no real dialogue or character development? -- write these women the kind of parts that went to Faye Dunaway 35 years ago. Then you’ll really earn your money. Those women were knowing about their appeal, and they weren’t afraid of it.
Take a look at Natalie Wood in “Love With the Proper Stranger” and you’ll see just about the sexiest woman who ever lived.
Why are there no sexy, tough women in pictures today? The thing that Hollywood needs to remember is that it shouldn’t and can’t compete with these other outlets, the porn on the Internet and all that, and they shouldn’t worry about it, either. The kind of amazing appeal Hollywood women have always had is still desirable today, is still marketable today. Look at the way the music industry has marketed its stars, whether they be Shania Twain or Faith Hill or Fergie or Joss Stone or Beyonce. These women are strong and sexy and are out to get exactly what they want. And it looks like they do.
I don’t get the same impact with Cameron Diaz. And -- I know, I know, call me insane -- but there is something chilly about Halle Berry. I don’t think she could be any more beautiful, but why is it she leaves me adrift? I can’t get to her. You never felt that way about Marilyn Monroe or the early Lauren Bacall (still with us, God bless her). You went back to a Marilyn movie over and over through the years because you wanted to spend time with her, and even though she was up on the big screen she didn’t seem so far away.
When I watch Jennifer Connelly in a movie, they way her parts are written it seems like she’s sending me a postcard. Shirley MacLaine (just look at her in “The Apartment”) must only shake her head when she sees what is going on in movies today.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the major studios are simply a business line within some international conglomerate. They’re part of a music/television/DVD/cable/ communications firm and the people who run the studios don’t think of themselves as an extension of the incredible Hollywood legacy that precedes them. Their interests are multifold. They don’t see the heritage passed down from Theda Bara to Gloria Swanson to Barbara Stanwyck to Rita Hayworth to Lana Turner to Raquel Welch to Ann-Margaret to ….? What they should do is think of their particular aesthetic -- the Hollywood aesthetic -- as its own thing, not as anything that’s part of the dynamic marketing and communications pool that is our world today.
If they saw themselves that way -- just as the old studio moguls did, who saw themselves as being able to create something wholly outside what books and theater and radio had to offer -- then they might be able to see how they can access the kind of allure that people have always gone to the movies for.
It wasn’t that pictures weren’t bawdy, or even outright graphic (some of the pre-Code movies made in the late 1920s and early 30s can still shock, if only because you forget that Hollywood could be so untamed). The women were self-assured in their sexuality, and audiences, men and women, appreciated that.
You want to say to the people making movies today: You’re in God Damn Hollywood, for Christ sake, and your brand of sex appeal has nothing to do with explicitness. It was a brand of appeal that was based on illusion, yes, and beauty, yes, but also independence, intelligence and a certain kind of fearlessness.
Go for some old-fashioned erotica. Hey, Hollywood, may just find that audiences -- audiences now forsaking the movies -- will thank you for it by buying a fresh ticket.
Monday, June 25, 2007
By Mike Gillis
I'm one of the thousands of people who recently scored a sneak-peek of Michael Moore's upcoming documentary, "Sicko." I didn't receive an advance screening copy because The Weinstein Company wants to hear what a small New Hampshire daily newspaper has to say, but instead queued up with others to watch on YouTube. Before the film was removed from the popular video sharing site last week, several thousand people logged on to watch the film, which opens nationwide June 29.
I'm convinced the illicit release was no accident. Moore has said he has no issue with his films popping up online for download, as long as it's not for profit. He said last week he's not interested in pursuing those responsible for "leaking" the copy of "Sicko," in contrast to what the film's distributor said. Documentaries seldom enjoy a large audience -- Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" notwithstanding -- and a little prerelease publicity certainly will not harm "Sicko." The federal government's threat to charge Moore for traveling to Cuba while shooting the film doesn't hurt, either.
And if Moore wants to spark serious and widespread debate, as he has said, The Weinstein Company's exclusive movie rental deal with Blockbuster doesn't help. All the more reason to spread the word.
But I hope it's the film itself, and its sharp indictment of the American health care system, that merits mass attention.
Moore has never been lauded as objective. He inserts himself in his work and guides the narrative with heavy hands. But what documentary isn't subjective? A filmmaker's voice may be absent on the soundtrack, but still evident in the editing, the pacing, the selection of sound bites and images.
And Moore is up front. His interviews are as much about his questions as they are the answers. But it's wrong to fault him as sloppy and subjective. He is, after all, a storyteller, and what storyteller does not want to be heard?
I believe "Sicko" is Moore's best work to date. It's certainly the most meticulously crafted. But it's not an important film because of how deftly it's edited. It is a confrontation, and too few documentaries -- at least those with the kind of reach Moore's enjoy -- are willing to tackle complicated and contentious issues without fear of retribution, legal or otherwise. Of course, many important documentaries are never seen by more than a handful of people.
I can't say Moore's flattering portrayal of socialized medicine in Canada, France, Britain and Cuba is wholly accurate, but I will say it helps dispel some of the incessant criticism leveled by politicians and insurance companies here about the ills of health care outside of the United States. I'm sure there are critics all over the globe, but Moore underlines why socialized medicine elsewhere works well. It's compelling, not because health care seems so much better elsewhere, but because it so clearly states what's wrong with our system.
Nor is it partisan. Moore challenges Republicans and Democrats alike, including Hillary Clinton, which reportedly angered the Weinsteins. It certainly will not earn a seal of approval from the insurance and HMO industries. I read that Moore today plans on projecting the film's trailer on buildings adjacent to the headquarters of HMOs, insurance companies and hospitals in New York,
So what's wrong with stirring up some debate?
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Friday, June 22, 2007
By Lars Trodson
As a fan of the movie "Mister Roberts", it has been a happy shock to re-read the novel on which it is based. The original book, the one work by writer Thomas Heggen, was published in 1946, became a huge hit on stage with Henry Fonda, and was turned into the famous film in 1955. The cast is perfect, in its own way: Fonda as the beloved Lt (jg) Doug Roberts, Jack Lemmon as Ensign Frank Pulver, William Powell as Doc and James Cagney as the hated Captain.
Aside from Lemmon, the casting bears little resemblance to the characters described in the book. Roberts is 26 (Fonda was in his 40s), the Doc is 36 (Powell, in his final film appearance, was about 60) and Cagney was 55. The film works anyway, and it settles nicely in the minds of almost everyone who has seen it.
I read the book many years ago, but I had forgotten how lovely and mournful it is. The chapter when Mr. Roberts stands the late watch is, to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful chapters ever written in an American novel. It is regretful and nostalgic and touching, and I can't remember reading anything quite like it.
There is also nothing like it in the movie, which is robust and fleshed out with slapstick humor, and the deep well of sadness that is inside Mr. Roberts is not explored (I have not read the stage version, which I hear is much different than the film).
It occurred to me, after I put the book down one night, that a faithful adaptation of the novel would be a perfect project for George Clooney and his Rat Pack pals. I think Clooney is a fine actor -- they all are in those Ocean movies -- but the films are much lighter than the actors in them. While Clooney is the same age as Fonda was in the 1955 film, he exudes that easy charm, but also he comes across as more whole, and sadder sometimes (see "Syriana.")
That would be a dream project for those guys, and it would be good for them, and good for us, to take it up.
Speaking of dream movie projects, I decided on one more, this one never to be realized: Jackie Gleason as Nero Wolfe in a screen adaptation of any of the novels directed by Orson Welles. That would have been ideal.
If any one out there has a fantasy film project, post it here.
Buy it here:
Thursday, June 21, 2007
By Lars Trodson
I have been asking myself, since my days as a newspaper reporter and editor, what value there is in a story about a car accident or a house burning or the arrest of some idiot. I have never been able to get a satisfactory answer outside of the cliché: If it bleeds, it leads.
It is illustrative, perhaps, that as an editor who worked one Memorial Day weekend years ago, I made the decision not to lead the Monday holiday paper with a headline similar to one that I had read in my own paper, The Portsmouth Herald, the year before: “Two die in weekend collisions.” I went with a headline along the lines with “Weather shines on holiday travelers.” From a sales point of view, dumb.
My reasoning I think was sound. I was interested in the flipside of that original headline, because even thousands had traveled through New Hampshire safely. Isn’t that more to the point, or is it?
Both headlines are true. Undeniably, the deaths for the families involved is infinitely more important. But for everyone else? In the end, I still ask: what am I -- a person unconnected to those tragedies -- supposed too do with this news?
I asked myself that again when I woke up one fine morning a couple of weeks ago, and turned on the “Today” show. The lead story that day was of a teenager in the Midwest who had been abducted and killed. I sat and thought about this for a moment, shook my head, and wondered about the senselessness of the crime. But I also asked myself what I was going to do with the information. I couldn’t help. I couldn’t help. I also realized that I felt badly, and I went to work feeling slightly down, and also slightly helpless.
These news stories -- nine firemen dead in a conflagration just the other day, far away from where I live -- makes me feel the world is wobbly and tenuous. But I already knew that. It is not that these stories shouldn’t be told and, certainly, if someone goes missing , particularly a child, they serve a practical purpose in helping with a search.
But we are inundated with these stories, saturated with them -- they lead the nightly news, the morning news magazines, the tabloid shows, the local radio news minute -- and what they do is replace the art of actual reporting. They have pushed aside investigative news reports -- who has the time and money for that? An accident, a fire, a murder -- you can get all of that on the same day it happens. Trying to find out where our Vice President is, why that’ll take you a week. That’s a joke, but those things we really need to know take time to uncover, and they can be uncomfortable for the person doing the digging.
Does it make me callous or uncaring to think I don’t have to be aware of every tragedy happening in the world? Does it make me unfeeling to the needs of others? Should the family out in the Midwest even care what I think about what happened to them? But yet, after hearing details of this tragedy, I am affected. I then have to re-orient myself so I can enjoy a book, or a joke.
This is of course making me turn away from the very thing which should be a necessary part of life: the news. But the news keeps feeding me things that are incorrect, like knowing whether the candidates for President support gay marriage, or if they believe in evolution (thank you, Wolf Blitzer!).
I am fully aware the world is a terrible place. And to everyone who has ever experienced a tragedy, trust me when I say I understand and empathize with your pain. I also understand that anguish is universal -- and I wish it wasn’t so constant. I do. But even as tragedy happens, so do periods of enlightenment and goodness, and so do terribly important stories that need to be unearthed -- stories of injustice and corruption and malice. These we could and should hear more about.
Monday, June 18, 2007
By Lars Trodson
A week or so ago ABC had to apologize because it showed a picture of former Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry as it was teasing the story about the judge, Roy Pearson, who is suing a dry cleaner for $54 million for losing his pants.
"We are deeply sorry for this mistake," said ABC in a prepared statement.
While I am certain both Mayor Barry and Judge Pearson were discomfited by the wrong identification, the deeper, more grievous wound to the general public is the fact that ABC is devoting any of its precious news resources on the pants suit (oh, the wordplay abounds!) to begin with.
There's war, global instability and a U.S. Government that seems incapable of getting out of its own way -- while all the while news department budgets are gutted.
To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher in "Citizen Kane": It must be fun to run a news department.
The other sad thing is that these news departments on TV think they're hip for covering the Pearson story because it broke on the Internet. But the web users who heard this story first had long ago moved on as the TV people were just getting around to it.
Keep at it, you network boys and girls. You're killing us.
Friday, June 15, 2007
By Mike Gillis
A story in the New York Times today chronicles the curious trial involving Brooklyn Heights novelist Laura Albert and a film company looking to reclaim a cash advance. Albert writes under the pen name J.T. LeRoy, who for some time was thought to be a real man with a troubled and prurient past, and played by Albert's half sister, Savannah Knoop, during public appearances. At one point, NPR even interviewed LeRoy, passing him off as real. And LeRoy boasted friends in Hollywood's high places, including Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant and Madonna.
LeRoy's novel, "Sarah," about a 12-year-old boy who travels with his prostituting mother and was said to be closer to autobiography, was optioned by Antidote International Films in 2003. Antidote, however, wants its money back -- about $45,000 -- because J.T. LeRoy is a fake.
I can't say whether Albert's work is any good. I haven't read a stitch. It spans the spectrum of popular depravity -- kinky sex, prostitution, drug use and assorted fetishes -- so there's no doubt it reached a wide audience, including Hollywood.
But it's the showdown in court winning the attention now. The case seems "complicated" by Albert's own confused identity and difficult past.
The trial and intricate history Albert invented for her pseudonym may remind people of James Frey, whose "A Million Little Pieces" detailed a life of misadventures with drugs and run-ins with the law, but was later exposed as a creative smudging of the truth. Other works of nonfiction have been challenged in recent years, including by authors who enjoy some of the most respect, such as Stephen Ambrose.
But Albert's work is fiction. Numerous authors before Albert have turned to pen names, either while trying their hand at genre fiction that could sink their standing among the literati, or because they're too prolific and don't want to flood the market. The great crime writer Donald Westlake pens his grimmer work under the name Richard Stark. Everyone from Charlotte Brontë to Stephen King are in this company. So what's wrong with it? Anything?
Fiction, of course, is always grounded in some scrap of reality. It's most often the embellishment of the writer's personal experiences or observations. Even though Stephen King famously killed off his best know pseudonym, Richard Bachman, I'm not sure he ever went to the same elaborate lengths as Albert. More importantly, King was also writing under his own name. Albert seems to have had no desire to do so and would have likely been content to work behind the curtain indefinitely.
We turn to fiction for escape. But I'm baffled and intrigued by an author who works as hard at maintaining a fictional existence as she does her fiction. And why the story of a man whose mother was a traveling prostitute, a man who, as a child, watched her turn tricks, and who, as an adult, queried publishers from rest stops and hotels?
I wonder if Albert thought her own life was not interesting enough, although it sounds like ample fodder. I wonder if she was simply too scared to share her story. And, of course, I wonder if she simply enjoyed the game until outed.
But I also wonder why there is such an appetite for celebrity authors like LeRoy. Why is there such a hunger for authors whose misfortune is as bad or worse than what they write about? We have long been drawn to the secret lives of others, for sure. Perhaps that's all it is. In a time when secrets are so easily revealed on the web, when privacy is as fleeting as the click of cell phone camera, maybe there is a need to hide behind thick layers of fiction.
Don't we run the risk, though, of eventually losing the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction? Do we run the risk of not caring anymore?
Thursday, June 14, 2007
By Lars Trodson
One of the most painful aspects of listening to the radio or watching television news broadcasts is having to suffer through the unscripted banter of the on-air personalities. It's one thing to go along with the "bits" or "gags" that are the mainstay of morning radio "crews" -- usually two men and one woman whose on-air laughter is often like the sonic equivalent of spontaneous combustion. But when it comes time to fill a little air time off book, watch out. You sit in the car cringing.
This is no more apparent than on local TV news broadcasts. When it comes time to segue into another segment of the broadcast, your congenial hosts always start to oversmile. When one host must hand over the broadcast to another, the dialogue is invariably excruciating. This is no more apparent when the anchorperson either "thanks" or "blames" the meteorologist for the weather we're having.
(Break into scripted uproarious laughter here.)
Unbelievably, the one oasis in this on-screen torture is the Tucker Carlson/Willie Geist pairing on the MSNBC chat show "Tucker." It shouldn't necessarily work, but it seems to work like a charm - sort of like Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in "Papillon." Sometimes you can't explain things. There is a smoothness and ease to the on-air chat between these two TV personalities. Geist (son of a CBS newsman) has loosened Carlson up a bit - he's a little snarky, but not overly so, and he always has a retort to something Carlson says. It keeps Carlson on his game. And the main host has shed his stiffness, his proper Conservative attitude, and has become an entertaining interviewer (although he could widen his guest base), and he is learning to do something most interviewers never do, which is followup something stupid a guest has said with a challenge. He could do it more -- while others on TV could just start doing it.
Here's a kudo then to what I can only hope is a trend in TV chatter -- two hosts who seem to actually be listening to each other, and who don't get a deer-in-the-headlights look and start to offer leaden clichés as soon as the copy on the script in front of them runs out.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
By Lars Trodson
So here we are, contemplating the fact that the most popular movie George Clooney and his pals may ever make in their careers is a remake of some eye candy from 1960.
The original “Ocean’s 11” has always left me with the impression of a newly enameled appliance: a pink washing machine or a cherry colored washer-dryer. There is nothing terribly important about it, but you’re kind of happy that it is around. That’s because the parts -- the Frank Sinatras, the Dean Martins, the Sammy Davises -- work smoothly and get the job done.
Watching the original film actually is almost the same as doing your laundry: It smells nice, it’s easy, and when it’s over you can’t quite remember when you actually undertook the task.
In the 1960 film, the sets are gaudy, the dialogue impossible (I get the feeling none of the leading actors actually rehearsed the script), and the women are imposingly attractive. It was the appeal of the boys, the Rat Pack, that carried the day. All of them together turned “Ocean’s 11” into a hit and into the cultural touchstone it is today.
Now that Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle -- not to mention a small army of other actors -- have turned the “Ocean’s 11” movie into a modern franchise, it’s important to remember one thing.
For Sinatra, Martin, Davis and the others, “Ocean’s 11” was a bauble, a thing to ad-lib during concerts, record dates, nightclub appearances, TV shows and radio gigs. For the guys appearing in the “Ocean” movies today: it is, sadly, their main gig.
At the time Sinatra made “Ocean’s 11” he was universally recognized as the guiding force behind some of the most significant and ground-breaking popular musical recordings of the day. Sinatra’s influence was not posthumous; by the time Gay Talese wrote his article for ‘Esquire’ -- which was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” -- it was universally accepted that Sinatra had changed the tenor and import of popular music. This was six years after “Ocean’s 11.”
For Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, the same was also true: “Ocean’s 11” was a great vehicle to call attention to their day jobs, which was making records and performing in nightclubs. Dean Martin was a performer, and then a movie star.
When Matt Damon isn’t making an “Ocean” movie he’s…what? Making a “Bourne” movie?
Why is this so? Why do the remake in the first place? If Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Don Cheadle -- as well as Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner, etc. -- got together and said “let’s make a heist film and set it in Las Vegas”, all anyone would say is that they are following a grand movie tradition. Even if they were accused of ripping off “Ocean’s Eleven”, so what? At least, and this is most important, they would have created their own characters.
I thought the same thing as I watched, painfully, part of the remake of “The Pink Panther” with Steve Martin. Here we have, in our own generation, a truly gifted comedian and actor. Why couldn’t the creative minds active today create a character as unique to Martin as Clouseau was to Peter Sellers? Why does Martin only get the retread, when a generation ago Blake Edwards and the studio system allowed the writers to come up with a new movie character?
Cut back a few years and ask yourself the same thing about Samuel L. Jackson and his spin on “Shaft.” Jackson is one of the most charismatic movie stars working today and yet Richard Roundtree obviously worked in an era where he gets the original, and groundbreaking film, and our guy, our generation, gets the pallid remake.
Given that it wasn’t even technically a remake, why couldn’t the filmmakers and studio have enough confidence to say: Rather than remake “Shaft”, let’s create an entirely new private eye for Jackson and make a franchise out of that? But no. No confidence. No creativity. Only remakes and retreads and washouts.
I didn’t dislike either new “Ocean’s 11” films, but I won’t see the third, at least not in the theaters. These films are sleek and fashionable, but they don’t have the American sturdiness of the original. The Sinatra version may have been like doing your laundry, but the Clooney versions are like watching a DVD of you doing your laundry. It’s an echo -- and that really shouldn’t be good enough for any of us.
Monday, June 11, 2007
By Mike Gillis
All the attention to "Ocean's Thirteen" last week reminded me I was one of the few people to miss the first picture in the trilogy, "Ocean's Eleven," the 2001 loose remake of a hip 1960 outing of the same name. This weekend I had a chance to catch up, but not before accidentally renting "Ocean's Twelve," watching half of it and realizing I had missed the boat.
It's a strange way to gauge a picture. Watching the second film first, I kept asking, of course, what the hell is going on? Will this make sense? That said, the film moves at a quick clip and boasts some solid performances by George Clooney, Elliott Gould, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, and even Brad Pitt. It picks up where the first film leaves off: Casino owner Terry Benedict (Garcia), who lost a hundred-and-some-odd million in an intricately plotted heist masterminded by huckster Danny Ocean (Clooney) and 10 accomplices in "Ocean's Eleven", hunts down the thieves in "Ocean's Twelve".
Before realizing my own timeline was off, I wondered if director Steven Soderbergh chose to throw the "Ocean's Twelve" timeline into a blender, as he's done with other pictures, beginning with Benedict's retribution. In the film's opening act, Benedict tracks down all eleven thieves at various locations across the globe and gives them a deadline to pay back his stolen millions.
I had to stop the DVD about an hour into the picture to tend to other matters. Later on, looking at the movie's case, I realized I had mistakenly watched the second picture in the trilogy. Apart from feeling like an idiot, it was a curious exercise in how modern movies are assembled, particularly sequels, which aim to appeal to people who have not seen the previous installments. Although it appears critics were not at all pleased with "Ocean's Twelve," favoring the first -- and rightly so -- and the third, Soderbergh does weave an engaging tale that maintains interest, despite some missing back story, at least for an hour. After watching the first picture, I'm not sure Soderbergh misses any important character development, despite some marvelous setups of "Ocean's Eleven," and seems to manage some flourishes that stand alone in the second while contributing to the first. It's a lot of fun, if not a little too proud of itself.
The problem is this: Now that I've gone back and watched the first Ocean's, which I found to be one of the more clever and entertaining heist pictures I've seen, I'm less interested in watching the rest of "Ocean's Twelve." I'm not sure why. Perhaps I was pleased with how "Ocean's Eleven" wraps up, and getting this witty crew back together, plus one new thief per picture, cheapens the first somehow. I don't know.
Perhaps I should just skip it and move on to "Ocean's Thirteen." I'm sure Soderbergh will help me catch up.
Buy it here:
Ocean's Eleven (Widescreen Edition)
Thursday, June 7, 2007
By Lars Trodson
The Beatles are so formidable the chances are they'll still beat you at your own game. A case in point is Aimee Mann, a brilliant singer/songwriter. She recently wrote an essay for The New York Times celebrating the 40th birthday of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The Beatles reduced her to a little bit of babble not usual for a writer of Mann's clarity.
Mann starts out by saying she was incredibly moved, as an 8-year-old, by the music on the album. But then she goes on to say that she's, well, moved on. Paul's cheerfulness is a little off-putting, she believes. She thinks the lyrics lack emotional depth. She cites Fiona Apple and Eliott Smith as two artists who are better suited to satisfy her emotional and aesthetic needs.
Hmm. Yes, the old rap on Paul is that he's a cheerful bloke, but on this record he happened to contribute a little ditty called "She's Leaving Home", which is as emotionally resonant as it was 40 years ago. It also broke the boundaries as to what subjects are best suited to a pop song lessons still being learned by Apple and the tragic Smith. If this is the kind of song that only an 8-year-old is moved by well, that's one sophisticated little kid.
I am certain that there is no linear narrative to "A Day In the Life" but why does the song move me? Why am I driven to wonder who the man is that "blew his mind out in a car" because he hadn't noticed "the lights had changed"? And why am I still dazzled by John's writing the sheer poetry of it words that not only create memorable sing-a-long records but also ones that stick right with you? I can sing these songs in my head even though I
have not heard the record in its entirety in years.
They must have done something right.
I get a little tired, I suppose, of reading things that are supposed to be about one thing but then are more or less just about the writer. Aimee Mann wants us to know less about the power of this record and more about how she has outgrown this bit of pop whimsy.
Well, good for her. But I'm happy to lag behind, still marveling at the beauty of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", with the millions of other idiots.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
By Mike Gillis
I wonder if John Carpenter is hard up for cash. He's got to be. "Halloween" is the latest film from the director getting a 21st-century polish, this one courtesy of Rob Zombie. Other Carpenter films, all of them still contemporary, have already been remade for a younger audience, including "The Fog" and "Assault on Precinct 13". Plans are under way to remake several other Carpenter pictures, including his masterpiece, "The Thing," already a remake, "Escape from New York" and "Christine".
I don't understand the appetite for remakes, whether movies or TV shows. Are original ideas in such short supply? Why remake a masterpiece like Hitchcock's "Psycho" as Gus Van Zant did in 1998? Why remake "Halloween?"
I have to admit that Rob Zombie has an interesting style. All the more reason to avoid a remake, I would think. In interviews with various publications, Zombie insists the reason for the remake is that "Halloween's" sequels have so soiled the story that no one remembers the original. That's crap, of course, but it's also disingenuous. Malcolm McDowell, who stars as Dr. Loomis, recently revealed he's signed on for three Halloween pictures.
I doubt I'll get around to Zombie's version. I'll always remember Carpenter's version as a charged, atmospheric and largely bloodless horror picture with heart, made when the craft of moviemaking, and the ingenuity involved, still mattered, not so long ago. It's a lot easier, I suppose, to be called into Bob Weinstein's office and be offered a remake, as Zombie was. But where's the heart in that?
See the trailer for Zombie's remake:
Buy them here:
Halloween (Divimax 25th Anniversary Edition)
The Thing (Collector's Edition)
The Thing from Another World
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
By Mike Gillis
To be honest, I'm tired of hearing about David Mamet and his ear for dialogue. Yes, he can stuff a mean string of words into a character's mouth. I'm still convinced the 1992 film version of his play, "Glenngarry Glen Ross," is a damn fine action picture. Not because things blow up, people do. The dialogue is the action. Great stuff.
As a screenwriter he's hit or miss. Some of his best work, arguably, is collected in his infrequent teleplays for shows like "Hill Street Blues." Some of his screenplays, like "Ronin," are better only because of the director and cast, although that picture will be remembered for boasting one of the most gripping car chases on film, if not much else.
Nonetheless, I was looking forward recently to "Edmond," written by Mamet and based on one of his early plays, and directed by Stuart Gordon, whose "Re-Animator" is revered by horror aficionados everywhere, and rightly so. Gordon and Mamet worked together in theater, early in their careers, and Gordon, in 1974, produced the first performance of Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." For 20 years, Gordon had talked to Mamet about a film adaptation of "Edmond."
So what went wrong?
"Edmond" stars William H. Macy as the picture's namesake, a straight-laced and upstanding businessman and husband, who throws it all away one day in a soul-searching quest for hard answers. His journey leads him to a sexual underground where uninhibited exploration is encouraged. It also leads to murder and prison -- not to mention the intricacies of masculinity, a Mamet staple.
It's not a bad play, although far from Mamet's best. It does seem better suited to the big screen, but Gordon doesn't really get there. Sure some of Mamet's dark humor still works and the smart quips survive. The plays racial tension is oddly diminished, though, despite its overt vulgarity and eagerness to shock. The play is one of Mamet's most personal works, we're often told, written during a nasty divorce, but it's hard to see Edmond's genesis in pain and confusion here.
Gordon deserves credit for making the picture without studio help and not bowing to pressure to soften some of the language -- nine executive producers and several more producers are listed, suggesting how many donors were needed to get the project off the ground -- but he makes the mistake of infusing too much of his own dark genre humor into some of the picture's grimmer moments. Blood rains, as it does in "Re-Animator," for example. It's as if Gordon wakes up behind the camera, and wonders aloud how to shock without ... Karo syrup.
It's a risky and even daring role for Macy, but it's a shame that Gordon isn't willing to risk more. Like breathing new life into some tired words.
Glengarry Glen Ross