Friday, September 28, 2007

Take Three: 'Eastern Promises'

Editor's note: Take Three is a occasional feature at Roundtable Pictures in which Gina Carbone, Mike Gillis and Lars Trodson review the same current film.

Bloody Well Done

'Eastern Promises' continues David Cronenberg's man-tasticly violent partnership with Viggo Mortensen

By Gina Carbone

Much was made of the “Reservoir Dogs” look-away. How Quentin Tarantino moved the camera to the left while Mr. Blonde cut the cop’s ear off, forcing us to imagine the blood, the pain, the carnage, while we just hear the screams.

David Cronenberg is no such tease. He’ll show us the blood -- oh yes, he would’ve given us a close-up of that ear and followed its progress to the floor. In “Eastern Promises” he has two men’s throats slit -- one in jagged amateurish chops like Junior slicing Mom’s burnt Christmas roast, the other a long swift cut that momentarily leaves the wound bloodless, tilting the gaping head back like the open mouth of a Muppet. Canada’s horror maestro may have graduated into classy A-list Oscar bait, but he’s still not above a good knife in the eye. Squish! All the better that the knife be wielded by a naked man covered in tattoos and, by this time, blood and bruises. Masculinity on display in all its raw, slippery power.

What can he say -- the man has a history of violence. And he’s getting better. There’s nothing subtle about blood, yet Cronenberg has shown fluency in the nuances of human behavior and how to surprise viewers long after surprises are expected. “Eastern Promises” is another story of good men who aren’t all good (or strong) and bad men who aren’t all bad (or weak) and the women who get screwed in the mix. It’s set in London, concerns Russians and stars an American, an Australian, a Frenchman, an Irishwoman and a man born in East Prussia, which is now Russia, so … close enough.

The title could cover a dozen meanings, one being the promises told to poor young Eastern girls about a better life in the West. Tatiana is one of those girls and the story begins in the dark in the rain (get used to that) as the pregnant, drugged up 14-year-old faints, gives birth and dies in a hospital. Her sole possession seems to be a Russian diary, which ends up in the hands of Anna (Naomi Watts), a well-meaning midwife who wants to help the baby find its living relatives.

She follows the diary’s trail to a restaurant run by sly, charismatic Russian mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his simple, arrogant son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). An alternate title could’ve been “The Driver” since the main character -- besides Anna -- is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a smart Siberian thug who works with the father and son and repeats “I’m just the driver” as an excuse for staying out of conflict. (Doesn’t work -- that nude scene? You might’ve heard of it since Mortensen’s ballsy four-minute blood-bath is already earning a cine-reputation to rival the “Dogs” ear.)

All of that plot is just brush strokes. There’s much more to Anna’s story -- like why she’s staying with her beleaguered mom and protective but casually racist uncle. A lot more to Semyon than the kind grandfather act. More to Kirill -- like the unforgivable name he’s called, worse than rapist, murderer, drug dealer, thief, sex trafficker. And, as you might guess, a lot more to Nikolai than driver. Like, Wolverine-worthy hair.

Mortensen and Cronenberg had their first pairing in 2005 with the subtle character study “A History of Violence.” Critics lathered the film, director and actors in praise. Fine, deserved, but better to have saved the real cinematic kudos for “Eastern Promises,” which is not only also an intriguing character study but a cultural think-piece and enjoyable mob thriller. There isn’t a weak link in the egalitarian cast -- no distractingly bad accents, no showboats -- and Steven Knight’s script is sharp and deep enough to reward them all.

For all his three-dimensional humanism, it’s clear Cronenberg likes his men to get their hands dirty and enjoys watching small-boned women dish out sass. In short, everyone in a Cronenberg film has to have the same kind of balls he does or they won’t make it out alive. Sounds like a bloody good plan from here.

Gina Carbone still thinks of Viggo as “the blouse man” from “A Walk on the Moon.”

Too Many Promises Broken, With Some Beautifully Fulfilled

By Lars Trodson

David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” is so deeply satisfying, so emotionally rich, that watching it is almost like reading a novel. The story is sumptuous both verbally and visually. Bursts of action are set against much slower, meticulously crafted scenes of such quiet conversation and facial expression that viewers will feel as though they have spent time with real people, in a real place.

“This is not our world,” says the mother of the young woman at the heart of this mystery. “We’re ordinary people.” And that’s what the best movies do: they take us ordinary people into places where we would not ordinarily go. And that is what this movie does so astonishingly well.

There isn’t a move, a verbal inflection, or a shot out of place. Once in a while we get to see a movie that a director or writer has been leading up to his entire career, and this may very well be that movie for David Cronenberg. It would be no shame if he didn’t top it, but it will be thrilling to watch his work continue to evolve.

The setting of “Eastern Promises” is London, but this London is a dark and closeted place, and it is home to a Russian crime family. These are cruel people, transplanted by choice or by birth or by the long arm of international law, but the story here is not about political or social corruption, it’s about moral rot, and it is about the bright spots of redemption that sometimes come with these stories.

At its center are four actors who embody their characters so beautifully that they effortlessly (for us, the watchers) guide us into their milieu, a setting at once unsettling and familiar, and they are the tour guides we need. These are not characters, not symbols, not icons, but rather people functioning the best way they know how, even if their function in life is to be horrifying and disgusting. The actors are Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl. All are exemplary, trading in the surest of performances that are so complementary to Cronenberg’s sure-handed direction.

The story is a simple one, thank goodness. At the outset we witness a mob hit, a disconcertingly difficult and bloody killing, and suddenly we switch to a local pharmacy where a glassy-eyed girl wanders up to the prescription counter. We know something is wrong, and the pharmacist says he cannot give her methadone without the necessary papers. But she is hemorrhaging blood, and the next thing we know we are at the hospital where nurse Anna (Watts) is part of the medical team trying to save her. It turns out she’s pregnant. The young mother dies, her name is Tatania and she’s Russian, but the baby survives. The only momento left behind of this horror is a diary, written in Russian by Tatania, which tells the story on which all of the following events hinge. Anna’s instinct is to find a home for the baby. There is almost nothing more powerful or determined than when a mother (even if not biological) wants to protect a child. Remember that.

Anna, although obviously English, turns out to be of Russian descent. She lives with her English mother (Sinead Cusack, in a vivid performance), and her decrepit uncle Stepan (played by the acclaimed director Jerzy Skolimoski), who is Russian and, in the throes of end-life depression, drinks too much and feigns bravado by claiming to have once been in the KGB.

It is Stepan who at first refuses to read the diary because it was taken off a dead person. But Anna fans through the little book to see if she can find a clue to Tatania’s story, and finds a card from a place called the Trans-Siberian Restaurant. Out of curiosity and naiveté, she locates the restaurant – an upscale place that seems to cater wholly to a Russian clientèle – and meets the silkily ugly Semyon, played by Armin-Muhller Stahl. He not only owns the place but happens to head up the local chapter of the crime family. We quickly understand he has some connection to Tatania and her pregnancy and death.

That’s enough plot.

So many movies today seem excruciatingly unimaginative -- in their characterizations, in the writing, in the plot, in the settings, in the photography -- that the attention to life in this Russian enclave in London seems not only exotic but vivid. Cronenberg flawlessly integrates images of food and dress and the sounds of music and language and violence, so much so that we feel as though we’ve wandered into this place. Just one detail seems perfect: most actors playing characters who are asked to speak a foreign language almost always do so haltingly. They only speak three or four words in the non-native tongue at a time, giving you the feeling they are feeling their way through the language. Not so here; all the actors speaking Russian seem to do so instinctively, and it strips away the idea that we are seeing actors you are somewhat familiar with playing such unfamiliar roles.

For his part, Mortensen may have finally found the role that separates him once and for all from Aragorn, the part he so memorably played in “The Lord of the Rings” series. In “Eastern Promises” he plays Nikolai, the chauffeur to the family headed up by Semyon and his psychotic son, Kirill (Cassel, whom you may remember from the idiotic Jennifer Aniston movie, “Derailed”). In this film, Mortensen looks like a cross between classic Kirk Douglas and early Mickey Rourke -- not bad role models at all. Mortensen has a sleek, elegant physique, and he exudes calm and the kind of sharp, feline reactive nature you’d expect to see in a criminal who is comfortable being just that.

Throughout the picture he wears a puckish, almost surly pout, and you can read that as either being disinterested or disgusted by what he sees and does. Actors very, very rarely control themselves the way Mortensen does here, and what he has done, finally, is create one of those masterful movie performances that are sure to wander through your mind long after the film has finished.

There has been a lot of talk about Mortensen’s naked fight scene in the Turkish bath, and it has unfortunately been described in the most lurid terms -- as though the sheer audacity of it was the only point. This is the crudest reading of the scene; if you do not find yourself squirming while watching it -- which is exactly what violence in movies is supposed to do -- then you are inured to the empathetic unpleasantness that such scenes are meant to convey. It’s a set piece, to be sure, but one wholly in keeping with the design and mood of the picture; it plays out organically and it is memorable not only because of the staging but because we know such a guy would find himself in precisely that kind of predicament.

The power of this scene is also a testimony to the craft of film editing (by Ronald Sanders, who also did Cronenberg’s “History of Violence” and “Spider”), and throughout the picture the editing is superlative. Scenes that are contemplative flow sweetly, and the expositions in violence are jarring -- without using the hyperactive jump-cutting so popular today. Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky obviously talked about how camera angles can enhance a mood, as opposed to how a roving camera can be a showcase in and of itself. Suschitzky captures the brutality of the violence, but his camera also turns warm and inviting in those scenes that require such a mood. There are parties at the Trans-Siberian restaurant that convey lovingly the creepily loving atmosphere in which they take place.

Naomi Watts doesn’t need my confirmation as a great screen actress. Here, she is beautiful without being ostentatiously so (unlike her friend and fellow Australian Nicole Kidman, who apparently was weirdly sexed up in the recent “The Invasion”), and her quiet performance very early on exudes the toughness she is required to show more explicitly later in the film. Her nurse Anna is both frightened and determined.

So much of the film’s emotion is played out in the facial expressions of the actors. Cronenberg and Suschitzky don’t get too close, which is exactly why movies of this caliber need to be seen on the big screen. When Semyon nonchalantly starts to ask Anna personal questions, such as where she lives and works, the camera focuses on the questioner -- in this case Armin Mueller-Stahl -- and we see the malevolent intent in his pursed lips and cold eyes. It is only after these odd questions that Cronenberg cuts back to Watts’ Anna, and her face is slightly contorted to show the creeping unease we all are feeling. How satisfying is it to have an actor portraying exactly the same emotions the audience is feeling, and how wonderful for a director to explore those feelings. Film students should take note. Film editing can deftly and beautifully add to the experience, and here everything is working to complement not just the mood but the story.

One last note on Vincent Cassel (son of actor Jean-Pierre Cassel). His Kirill is a sociopath and pedophile, and nothing in his performance makes us like him, or empathize with him. What we do understand, however, is his rage and his self-loathing. I won’t, and wouldn’t, say this was enough to make us forgive what he does. But what we do know at the end of the movie is that we have met Kirill, and we do not want to see him again.

Cronenberg, however, is another story. We do want to see his name on a marquee again, and we will. It is thrilling to watch an artist mature, and while some of his movies have been baffling (“Naked Lunch”, “Crash” -- not the recent Oscar winner) he has almost always been interesting.

In a strange way, “Eastern Promises” reminded me of the two late movies by John Huston: “Prizzi’s Honor” and “The Dead.” Nothing in those two movies even remotely resembles the content of “Eastern Promises”, but in those films Huston seemed to allow decades of filmmaking just to naturally take over, and we saw a showboating director relax enough to trust his instincts and let the more humanistic and easy rhythms of his craft take over.

In “Eastern Promises” -- aided, I should say, by a lovely script by Steve Knight (who penned the great Stephen Frears’ highly praised “Dirty Pretty Things”) -- Cronenberg takes the invaluable lessons he has learned in 30 years of low-budget and genre filmmaking and alchemizes them into the kind of supremely felt movie experience that is not only exhilarating but quietly profound.

Truth and Dare

By Mike Gillis

“Eastern Promises” is a dare.

It’s a dare from director David Cronenberg to tour an uncomfortable realm of violence, head on and far from the beaten path. But it’s also Cronenberg daring himself to use some of his best if not slightly shopworn tools to deeply ponder the riddle of violence.

He succeeds, almost completely, and marvelously.

“Eastern Promises” hurls us immediately into a London we don’t know, where the Russian mob rules. It is an instantly convincing setting, buoyed by Cronenberg’s decision to exclude most of the familiar London we know exists outside this little but harshly structured world.

It soars, though, thanks to stunning performances from its principal actors: Viggo Mortensen as a Russian mobster with his share of secrets; Naomi Watts as a London-born nurse who delivers the baby of a dead Russian prostitute, which propels the story; Vincent Cassel as the son of Russian mob kingpin Seymon, played with superb restraint by Armin Mueller-Stahl; and supporting roles from Sinead Cusack as the nurse’s mother; and director Jerzy Skolimowski as the nurse’s Russian uncle, Stepan.

Cronenberg has built a career exploring the history of violence, and its uneasy relationship with good, evil and sex. He’s not afraid to spill blood, copious amounts, to get to the point.

And he spills blood in “Eastern Promises,” by the gallon and mostly by the rough edge of a blade. But the lingering violence -- a few moments more on a knife to the eye than most can stomach -- is tempered with some remarkable flourishes of restraint. For instance, the diary found on the dead mother by Watts’ character, is heard in scattered voiceovers, sometimes blending with another character reading it aloud. Its the horrific account of a 14-year-old prostitute, which spill some mob family secrets. It would have been easy for Cronenberg to use flashbacks to tell this story, but hearing it read or narrated, and repeating the names of characters we already know, is more disturbing than what Cronenberg is able to show us elsewhere. It is the perfect balance.

Much has been said about a bath house fight scene in which Mortensen bares all. It would be a shame if the scene is remembered only for that detail. It should stand out as the best example of Cronenberg’s skill at peeling back preconceptions of movie violence and finding the heft of real-world horror. It is one of the most tense fight scenes I have ever seen.

Cronenberg takes two missteps. Both involve throat slashings. His intent, I’m sure, is to demonstrate the physical difficulty of such a primitive act of violence. The first victim’s throat is sawed more than cut, which strives for realism, but actually misses an opportunity to explore the true wreckage of violence. Cronenberg shoots both scenes straight-on, and lingers there, not so much for effect, it seems, but to relish in the effect. Cutting to the side, or back and forth for reaction, would have even prolonged an already horrible moment. The second slashing is worse; Cronenberg has his victim open his scarf and jacket for us so we're able to clearly see the delayed effect of a precision cut.

Those are small gripes, though.

The picture's violence is necessary, a setting itself. “Eastern Promises” reminded me of the filmmaking of the 70s and 50s, where story and characters are interwoven into a rich tapestry of smart plot with plenty of threads to explore.

It’s Cronenberg’s best to date.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Oh My Stars, Fading Quickly, Quickly Fading

By Lars Trodson

There are now two Britney Spears crying on the Internet. One is the real one, who seems to have broken down in front of the ever-present paparazzi, and who can blame her? The other Britney, of course, is the YouTube phenom Chris Crocker, whose tearful plea to leave Britney alone is a sensation.

It may have been a generational thing, but I didn’t quite get the attraction of the Crocker video. But when I saw him interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel he was quite funny and together, and I had a little bit more appreciation of Crocker’s particular performance art. But still I thought it pretty slim stuff.

I am personally beginning to get queasy about the real Britney. There is no entertainment in her predicament, even though I have no idea how much of this she has courted or how much of it is due to the drastic and ugly tenor of celebrity watching that has bloomed in the past few years.

Either way it is a depressing sight. As someone who couldn’t hum or even name a Britney song I’m beginning to get nervous for her. The implorations of Chris Crocker to leave her alone have some heft, completely aside its appeal as a comic rant.

This may be the logical conclusion to a career that had no real personal direction. I can imagine Miss Spears was the product of a massive think-tank, which directed and created her every move, whether it was in song or dance or photographs. The same could be said for the old studio stars, but those folks came from the farm or from a rambunctious and ethnic Brooklyn, or the circus troupe, and they had inner lives before they were molded into movie icons. Britney Spears was molded before she had that inner gyroscope in place.

If I never cared really whether Britney Spears succeeded or not, I find myself in the position of not wanting her to crack up. I want her to be healthy, and perhaps if she can let go of the limelight for a while then maybe the limelight will also let go of her.

I think the first movie book I ever really paid attention to was named, simply, “The Stars”, by Richard Schickel, and I still have it. When I pulled it out not so long ago I was surprised to find how much it had informed my thinking about the movies and movie stars in general. It’s a beautifully written book, but its tone is one of deep and empathetic nostalgia, and I’ve never been able to shake it in the 30 years since I first read it.

“It is a regrettable fact of life that we here in America have produced few heroes,” begins an essay called “Five Heroes.” While I would disagree with the blandness of that statement, I think it is true that we often feel as though we have too few heroes to turn to at any given time. It certainly seems that way today. It must of course be disconcerting to all those little girls who dressed like Britney and followed her every move to find themselves, just a few years later, to see their hero reduced to fodder, while they themselves look at how their own lives are beginning to turn out.

The five heroes in Schickel’s book are Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. At the time the book was published, in 1962, the only one of those five still alive was Stewart. But all of them are gone now.

I’m not sure that any of them, any longer, have cultural resonance outside their position as iconic movie stars, but that was not the position they held when they were alive and helping the country through both a horrible economic depression and a brutal world war.

Schickel offers all of them polished portraits, and he allows the stars to even take themselves down a bit. He quotes Gable as saying: “You know, this King stuff is pure bullshit. I eat and sleep and go to the bathroom just like everyone else. There’s no special light that shines on me that makes me a star. I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio.” Such modesty seems almost -- in the age of almost aggressive self-promotion -- shall I say it? Heroic?

The last portrait is of Jimmy Stewart -- who as far as I know was never billed that way in the movies -- and at the end of the essay Schickel has this to say: “His best work may still lie ahead of him and that, somehow, is reassuring. There are precious few male stars of his generation left. He may well, in fact, be the last of the great men.” It wasn’t true that Stewart’s best work was ahead of him. He made overblown and super-saturated color comedies in the 1960s, and his career was essentially over by the 1970s. And he wasn’t the last of the great men (and women, think Meryl, think Jane, think Shirley -- not to mention Kate Winslet and Blanchette) in movies.

Schickel ends his book on notes that are both prophetic and wrong-headed. The last person he writes about is Elizabeth Taylor, and he calls that piece “The Last Star.” That of course is completely wrong. A magazine article published about Clint Eastwood right after “Unforgiven” came out (in 1993) had exactly that same headline for him. And I think we have some radiant stars today. Many in fact -- many of whom are waiting for good scripts.

On the last two pages of “The Stars”, there is a picture of a young Charlie Chaplin looking out at the sea, and another of James Mason, at the conclusion of 1954’s “A Star Is Born”, wading into the sea to commit suicide. Images both whimsical and sad.

“Perhaps the symbols are too obvious,” writes Schickel. Yes and no.

“There will be, doom-sayers to the contrary, at least another 50 years of stars. Individuals will dominate the screen as dictatorially as any in the past. They will attain those heights of celebrity which, in our democratic fashion, we so mightily deprecate and envy.”

These words came true. They are especially honest today.

And so are these: “But these stars will not be stars of the movies alone. They will exercise their talents (or, if they have none, their primal appeals) in a wide variety of media.” Unbelievably true. But then Schickel says that stars will go on to be “masters of their own fate and, with the studio system virtually destroyed, it will be less possible to fabricate a personality for a beautiful dope.”

We know this is no longer true. Personalities, from reality TV to shock-jock radio sidekicks, are fabricated all the time. But the point is that they come and go, and they come and go, and then they simply go.

Schickel quotes Buddy Adler (a film producer at 20th Century Fox, who made “From Here To Eternity”, among many others) who predicted correctly that Hollywood deals in illusion, but “when the Elizabeth Taylors and Marilyn Monroes start to think and want to live normal lives like everyone else, soon we won’t have anything left to sell.”

Neither Taylor nor Monroe ever lived anything remotely close to living a normal everyday life. It took another generation to achieve that de-evolution. And while it may be that the movie stars of today have precious little illusion to sell, that is hardly the point: we still want to buy. We still want movie stars, even if it is just to enjoy them purely for the fact that they are stars and offer us no illusion whatsoever.

But if they are to last? Well.

“There will, in the future, be fewer of them,” Schickel writes of movie stars in general, “But they will continue to exist.” Exist, yes, but what is their duration? We may have another 50 more years of stars, but will we have stars that last 50 years?

I don’t think so, but that is because the stars of today both trade in illusion while also engaging in the non-stop grist mill that keeps them before our eyes. You need a presence not only on the big screen, but the small screen, and the computer monitor, and the cell phone, and the CD and as the head of a clothing line. That’s why the burnout is so distressingly massive. They crawl around us all the time: the only illusion now is that they are ubiquitous.

The last line of the book is this: “We need them.” That’s what Schickel believes of us and the stars themselves. Yes. But, believing in that, if they are to survive there has to be a return of the elusive illusion.

So I say to Britney, and all the other quickly fading stars so gruesomely hanging on to the last shreds of fame and glamour, go home. Come back not when we are ready for you, but rather when you are ready for us. Then we’ll be happy to let you capture our hearts again as we want, and need, to do. Chris Crocker -- who is a shadow of the Britney who is just a shadow of herself -- will have long come and gone by then.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Jason Bourne Kills Off More Than the Bad Guys

By Lars Trodson

I went to see “The Bourne Ultimatum” this past weekend and loved it. Absolutely thought it was great. For a movie that moves that fast, you never lose your place, which is testament to the director (Paul Greengrass), even thought the script is really nothing more than one long chase scene.

And while it was enjoyable to the end, I also wondered, as the credits rolled, if the film also signaled the demise of the mystery movie as we once knew it. “The Bourne Ultimatum” is kinetic, it’s exciting, it has great locations (although the various international cities we zoom through are not really used to the best effect), and the acting is tight and lean. But it starts off running, and never lets up. Is this the new whodunit?

I happen to be reading a Nero Wolfe book. That venerable detective, by extreme contrast to Bourne, never leaves his brownstone in New York City. He reads books. He tends to his orchids twice a day and eats grand meals prepared by Fritz Brenner, the cook of the house. The most exciting thing he does is take the in-house elevator. It’s Archie Goodwin, his trusted right hand man, who leaves the house, but the errand is usually simply to question someone. Goodwin rarely draws a gun, although occasionally he has to punch someone. Occasionally. There is some fairly amusing banter between Goodwin and Wolfe, and once in a while a detective, maybe Inspector Cramer, from the New York City police department shows up.

Not exciting, but highly enjoyable. No one has ever adapted Nero Wolfe to the screen with any success, and the chances of that happening now are probably, well, zip. My point is, after watching “The Bourne Ultimatum”, is that the old-style detective whodunit, about the guy who pieces together a mystery all on his own, through his wiles, is not meant for this age any more.

There have been several adaptations of Nero Wolfe. I remember William Conrad took a chance on the character in the 1970s, and I remember the characterization was demeaning and insipid. In the 1990s, he was played by Maury Chaykin, and Goodwin was played by Timothy Hutton, which was pretty good casting. That didn’t last long, either. I think there was an attempt at a movie series back in the 1940s. I once had a fantasy that Orson Welles should have directed a Nero Wolfe picture with Jackie Gleason. Wolfe, you see, is obese.

But his books continue to sell, as do countless others by mystery writers who have created memorable detectives. Just read the crime novel section in The New York Times Book Review every Sunday and you’ll see a plethora of new books, with enduring detectives, solving crimes to great praise by the resident critics.

It seems to me that almost none of these books -- which were once great fodder for the screen -- get adapted any more.

The question would be “why?” But even though these characters have been modernized -- they suffer from addictions, self-doubt, punishing personal lives -- they still more or less go about solving crimes the way Sherlock Holmes did -- through the delicate if unexciting art of detecting.

Bourne eradicates all that. As does such fare as the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker “Rush Hour” movies. These are essentially whodunits, at their core, anyway, but they are so revved up you hardly think of them that way. (They are also pretty terrible movies.)

I can’t think of a movie modeled after the old “Murder On the Orient Express” variety that has been released in recent years. There is the odd police crime picture, of course, but those are crime dramas, not whodunits.

TV was -- and is -- a different matter, but it is recreating itself in such a way that the old style has been pushed out.

When I was growing up, detective series populated TV. There was the NBC Mystery Movie omnibus, “Columbo”, “McMillan and Wife”, “Banacek” -- and others. There was “Barnaby Jones” (good God), “Mannix”, “Cannon”, “Mission Impossible” -- you name it. There are still detective shows on TV -- of course “Law & Order” is one (and the elegant exception to this rule), but also the CSI franchise, as well as “NCIS.” But these shows for the most part are amped up through another kind of special effect -- the viscera of the human body -- that gives it its own modern stamp, and one that removes it far enough from the old model.

And they are so cluttered with characters, there is little room for one to stand out as a full-bodied person.

This is following a pattern. Jason Bourne is more of a symbol than a character, more movie star than everyman. The older detectives were very much human (think Spenser) -- more clever and handsome than the rest of us -- but still very much human.

I still think, if done correctly, we could have a new “Thin Man”-type series, an actor like Kevin Kline comes to mind, but of course it would take a writer and a producer with some guts to put it out there. But I’m certain, with Jason Bourne, all-muscled out and removing himself from impossible car wrecks, is the future. Entertaining, to be sure, but without that old individual panache.

Monday, September 24, 2007

How to Disarm a Box-Office Bomb

By Mike Gillis

I'm among the majority of movie-goers who skipped "Grindhouse" at the theater earlier this year. I happen to enjoy much of the work of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez but suppose at the time just didn't feel like sitting through three-plus hours of grindhouse homage. It's just as much fun assembling a grindhouse lineup at home, without having to succumb to a hip, clever tribute to justify the wasted hours.

That said, I have been looking forward to wasting a few hours at home with "Grindhouse" courtesy of my local Blockbuster, which I did over the weekend. My disappointment was immediate.

No, the picture isn't that bad -- at least the picture I saw. You see, The Weinstein Co., in a shameless but admittedly practical attempt to chart a course out of a box-office black hole, only released "Death Proof," Tarantino's contribution to "Grindhouse." "Planet Terror" won't hit the rental shelves for another month.

tracie_thoms8I find it a bit ironic that Tarantino and Rodriguez lobbied hard -- and successfully -- to have the films released together, along with a handful of fake movie trailers (which, to be honest, are what I really wanted to see. Sadly, they are not included on the "Death Proof" DVD.) Of course, the original pitch called for Tarantino's and Rodriguez's pictures to clock in at an hour each, which along with the trailers, tallied up at a little over two hours total. Neither director was able to pare back his picture.

So the idea of paying tribute to grindhouse cinema, of which brevity is a virtue, is already out the window. And what do get on DVD? An extended and unrated cut.

I'm not sure what was added to "Death Proof" for DVD since I missed the theatrical run. I guess I'm being punished for missing it while being teased into seeing something a little different -- a tradeoff for not having all of "Grindhouse" to watch on one DVD. And if I want some extra features -- a documentary, the film's original trailer or even some mindless featurettes -- I can buy the two-disc special edition.

And I'm sure the full "Grindhouse" theatrical and expanded edition will be out just in time for Christmas.

You may think a similar strategy worked for Peter Jackson and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but the multiple edition DVDs followed the release of each picture, years apart, and offered two takes on each picture -- a bare-bones theatrical edition and a special, extended edition with lots more footage. That made sense and, I have to admit, for better home viewing and a rich experience at the theater.

So what about "Death Proof"? It's not a bad picture. It's thick with Tarantino-speak: Lots of people bantering about the banal, the philosophical, sex, drugs, popular culture -- occasionally all at the same time. There's a grisly car wreck and, to balance, a few genuinely touching moments.

But this isn't "Pulp Fiction" and it certainly isn't "Kill Bill."

20070708_220004death-proof-Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a pleasant and charming psychopath whose rigged stunt car is 'death proof,' he states. What he neglects to tell the unfortunate female victims who hop in for a ride is the car's protection doesn't extend to the passenger's seat.

I do like the way Tarantino twists the familiar plot on his head, giving the women a chance to exact some serious revenge, breaking some of the rules of earlier grindhouse pictures, but ignoring the fact that a host of later genre pictures have already been there.

And there are some very fine performances. Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier and Vanessa Ferlito soar in this picture. Who doesn't? Well, Tarantino needs to stop pretending he can act. He's awful. So is his buddy, Eli Roth, who shows up for a good 10 minutes. Perhaps one of the most jolting casting decisions is Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman who plays herself. She's given a prominent role in a group of four friends, but it's too obvious she was cast for her dexterity, not acting chops.

Then there's Kurt Russell. Russell is versatile, wonderful actor, who I enjoy in almost everything. I did with "Death Proof", too, but I don't think I was meant too. There is nothing to Stuntman Mike. No edge. No depth. No sense. No Snake Plissken. I recall reading Tarantino had written the role for Mickey Rourke, and I can't help but wonder if it would have been a better picture for it.

Of course, I also wonder if I would have enjoyed the picture more had it been the second act of "Grindhouse," not an overlong B-movie that aims to be A-list.

I guess I'll never know.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Great Norman Corwin: An Interview

By Lars Trodson

Here is a name that belongs to the great pantheon of 20th-century writers, and the name is Norman Corwin. Norman, which is what I was fortunate enough to call him during the years of our correspondence, was epic in his understanding of the human condition, and mathematical in his precise articulation of that condition. His words constructed human thought and behavior -- both the good and the bad of it -- and he dramatized it in such a way that he was able, as few artists are, to draw people together so they would empathize with their differences rather than be terrorized by them.

I am tempted to say that we need Norman Corwin the writer today more than ever, but we do have him, even though his creative years seem to be behind him. He's 97 now. His works still live on, though, you just have to find them. He wrote in one of the most ephemeral forms of modern art -- the radio drama -- which is not heard so much any more. That is why his name is not mentioned with Hemingway or Faulkner or Lillian Hellman or Arthur Miller (or whomever you would place on your list of great 20th century writers). You can go into a bookstore and buy a new paperback of any one of those above-mentioned writers, but to access Norman's work you'll have to go to a cassette or CD, and it requires some work.

To cut to the chase before we backtrack a little: I was corresponding and talking to Norman in 2005 when I suggested to him an interview with John Lovering on WSCA-LP FM radio in Porsmouth, NH. WSCA is a low-powered FM station that got on the air due to the unquenchable energy of a local guy by the name of Tim Stone, and a few other people. I was on the original board to get the station started, but I really didn't do that much. I think my greatest contribution was securing this interview with Norman.

John Lovering was the obvious choice to do the interview because he hosts a program dedicated to radio drama. When I told John I knew Norman, and thought that maybe we could do an interview, John was ecstatic, and Norman was equally happy to do it. The timing was also fortuitous, because George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" had just been released, and so had a documentary on Norman's life. That documentary went on to win the Academy Award in that category that year. So Norman was enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Good for him.

It was in that rather heady atmosphere that Norman made himself available to John and I, and so we interviewed him on Oct. 12, 2005, in the cozy studio of WSCA. He was on the phone for an hour, and clear as a bell. I think John and I loved every minute of it.

Although Norman's life would take a full biography to fully tell the story, the facts are these: He started as a newspaper man in the Boston area, and quickly caught the eye of a movie promotion executive in New York and off he went. This was in 1936, or thereabouts. By his late 20s, Norman was writing and producing his own stories on radio, one of which, "The Plot To Overthrow Christmas", caught the attention of a young writer and reporter by the name of Edward R. Murrow. Murrow knocked on Norman's apartment door in New York right after the broadcast, and the two became lifelong friends. That is the connection to the Clooney movie about Murrow. As Norman said to me once about Murrow in a phone call, "I mourn him to this day." Murrow died in 1965.

Corwin wrote many casual masterpieces, but there are two he is rightfully remembered for: "On A Note of Triumph" and "We Hold These Truths." These stories are about the fundamental decency of America, and about the tenets on which this decency is built, and they are relevant today. You should hear them, and they will each do much to restore your faith in what this country was, and is, and should be.

He knew everyone, from Orson Welles to President Franklin Roosevelt to William Shatner. His disciples are Studs Terkel and Ray Bradbury (Norman was referenced in a recent New York Times story about Bradbury) and Robert Altman. If you ever wonder why Woody Allen's movies almost always have voiceover, tribute radio drama and Norman Corwin. Corwin was nominated for an Oscar in 1957 for best adapted screenplay for "Lust for Life," which also earned a best actor nod for Kirk Douglas.

Here, then, is what may very well be one of the last full interviews Norman has given to date. Forget that he is 95 at the time -- his father lived to be 110 and the last time I talked to his brother Emil he was 103. There is longevity, and the arc of history can be heard, in Norman's voice. The first radio broadcast Norman ever heard was morse code, and that captured his imagination. He took those dots and dashes and transformed them into some of the most memorable sentences ever written by an American writer.

It is with great pleasure that we here at Roundtable Pictures can offer this interview with Norman Corwin. Enjoy his words and the sound of his voice. I hope the world welcomes him once again, as it always has.

(This file may take a few moments to load, depending on your connection.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

DVD of the Week: "Knife in the Water"

By Mike Gillis

Directors who navigate early success over troubled waters -- Steven Spielberg with "Jaws" and Phillip Noyce with "Dead Calm," for example -- are rare. Waterborne productions are hard on cast and crew, and for fledgling directors, such films can jackknife a career. (Has anyone heard much from Kevin Reynolds since "Waterworld?")

That makes Roman Polanski’s first feature film, "Knife in the Water," so much more impressive.

Polanski would move on to helm masterpieces like "Rosemary’s Baby" (1968), "Chinatown" (1974) and "The Pianist" (2002), but in many ways, "Knife in the Water" remains his best.

On a trim budget with three little or unknown actors, Polanski’s nautical thriller about a squabbling married couple who pick up a hitchhiker and invite him sailing is a stark and tense dissection of jealousy.

The three set sail in the couple’s small yacht on a cold and desolate Polish lake. The husband, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), is a cocky sportswriter who brings the young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) on board to unsettle his peeved wife (Jolanta Umecka).

Instead, the wife, Krystyna, is merely accommodating, if not disinterested. The two men begin vying for her attention. Her husband boasts often of his own proficiency at sea. The young hitchhiker has only his good looks to flash and an uncanny affinity for a switchblade he carries at all times.

When Andrzej begins to treat his guest as a subordinate, the relationship begins to sour and grow reckless.

Although Polanski carefully frames each shot to build tension, he doesn’t anticipate the conclusion prematurely. If you have never seen "Knife in the Water," the ending is a remarkable and unexpected twist.

Polanski is always at his best when navigating the tattered fringes of relationships. Without set pieces or melodrama -- not to mention a rigorous shoot that involved strapping crew to the side of the boat -- the director captured what remains his most intense psychological thriller. By the way, the new digital transfer from Criterion is gorgeous.

"Knife in the Water" was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Fellini’s "."

Included on a second DVD are eight of Polanski’s short films.

The DVD also includes an insightful video interview with Polanski and co-screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski; a collection of rare publicity and production stills; and an English subtitle translation by Polanski.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this review appeared in Foster's Sunday Citizen.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

I Can't Believe My Eyes

By Lars Trodson
Let's say you're a kid living in the Bronx 45 years ago. One Saturday you decide to go down to Yankee Stadium to see your hero, Mickey Mantle. You bring your glove and a baseball that maybe he'll sign in case you meet him during batting practice.

In fact, that's exactly what happens, and you ride home clutching your newly signed ball as though it is some historic thing, and indeed it is. You show the ball to your friends while sitting on your stoop, and they all hold it, they all read it, they wish they had one themselves.

Years later it sits on a shelf in your office, or in your den at home, and you still tell the story about how you met Mickey Mantle, although the name is beginning not to mean as much any more.

The above story is a fiction only in the idea that I don't personally know anyone this happened to, but you can imagine that it played out, in one form or another, with one baseball player or another, with an uncountable number of kids.

The point of the autograph in the story, of course, was something more than just having a collectible; it was proof positive that you had met the man. It was not just: you got Mickey Mantle's autograph -- it was: "You met him? You shook his hand? What was he like?" That was the very point of it all.
Now, of course, having an autographed baseball or football or hockey puck is not an indication at all that you met the person who signed it. It may mean that you spent an hour in line and shelled out some big bucks to impersonally meet your hero, or it may mean you bought the thing as part of a gift set on some shopping television show. The item itself may not mean anything personal to you all, other than it holds the slight notion that your hero once held it, if only to sign it, so he could make a little money.

Not a very personal story at all. I was thinking about all this when I was looking at the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. This is quite a leap, I know, also given that the cover is a photo of 50 Cent and Kanye West. On the cover, two of hip hops mightiest stars are face to face, staring each other down - a symbol for the fact that each is releasing their latest CD on the same day, Sept. 11, and there was a lot of ego involved concerning who would outsell the other. (It's my understanding West won that battle.)

But I also thought the picture was meaningless. I didn't think for a second that 50 Cent or Kanye were actually staring each other down, because I thought the prospects of them being in the same studio together was nil, and that this was just another Photoshopped image, which I regard as "fake news." I hate these doctored pcitures because they negate the idea of having a record of something that actually happened -- just like an autographed ball used to be record of some meeting taking place. But now it has been replaced by this hyper-unreality.

However, I opened the magazine and there, on the Letters page, was a sidebar titled Editor's Notes, with the following headline: "This Is Not Photoshopped."

The Note acknowledges how easy it is to disbelieve your eyes today: "In an age of photographic fakes, Kanye wants the world to know that he and 50 stood side by side for this cover." The photographer, Albert Watson, is quoted: "I feel like it should say, 'This is not Photoshopped.' This is real. It's a moment."

I would agree, but wonder then why Watson shot the two with a white background, negating any real need, artistically, for them to be in the same room. If this was hip hop history, then it could not have been acknowledged with a lamer picture.

But more significantly was the magazine's decision to announce to the world that its cover was a genuine photograph. Years ago we wouldn't have even thought about it, but now we can take nothing we see on paper as fact.

Perhaps news and entertainment magazines will start a trend. Instead of identifying an image as a "Photo Illustration", we should probably start seeing something along the lines of "Unretouched photo" or "Has not been altered" at the bottom of the pics, just so we can start believing our eyes again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

One Day In the Life of Movie Ads: June 8, 1968

By Lars Trodson

It’s no secret that movie posters aren’t much fun any more. Very rarely are startling, stylized graphics employed to evoke the mood of the story. More often than not a one sheet is just the bodies or faces of the movie stars Photoshopped together to give the appearance they are in the same room together. Sometimes the faces of the actors have been so smoothed out they barely look like themselves.

It wasn’t always the case. The other day I happened to come across a box of old newspapers from my aunt’s house -- I was cleaning out her house after she died a few years ago -- and decided to look through it for the first time. I don’t know why they were saved, for the most part they just seemed ordinary. Although there were a couple papers chronicling the death of Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy’s travails at Chappaquidick.

It was in one of these papers, the Burlington Free Press, from June 8, 1968, that I came across a full page of movie ads, the kind of which you certainly don’t see any more. The front page was all about Sen. Kennedy’s assassination in California. I hadn’t heard of most of the movies, even though some of them had big stars. One was “Counterpoint”, starring Charlton Heston and Maximillian Schell -- obscure to me -- and some others.

But they sure are fun. The tagline for “Counterpoint” is” “Action awaits at trigger point!” And the ads flaunt that the picture is “In Color.” I looked up the film in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, and it was described like this: “Absurd WW2 melodrama about symphony conductor captured by Nazi general, forced to put on private concert; Heston looks comfortable because he doesn’t have to change facial expressions while conducting.” One and a half stars.

There’s a fun ad for two Disney films: “Monkeys, Go Home” and “The Happiest Millionaire.” I saw that the “Monkeys” picture featured Yvette Mimeux, who I had a huge crush on as a kid. That was playing at the Mt. View Drive In Theatre on Rte. 2 in Winooski, VT. The ads promise Two Disney Blockbusters, with an endorsement from Good Housekeeping that promises a “…zinging, heel-thumping musical made of the magical stuff of ‘Mary Poppins’.” This was for “The Happiest Millionaire”, starring Fred MacMurray and Greer Garson. “Mary Poppins” -- I don’t think so.

Maltin’s book describes that movie this way: “Lively but overlong and uninvolving Disney musical (the last film he personally oversaw) about Philadelphia household of eccentric millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray). Lightly entertaining. Originally tradescreened at 164 minutes.”

I guess, at 2 ½ hours, no one wanted to mess with old Walt’s vision of this masterpiece.

There’s an Elvis movie, “Easy Come, Easy Go”, which titillates the audience with the idea of a “scuba-divin’…singin’…and swingin’…” Elvis. That film also featured Dodie Marshall, Pat Priest (you may remember her from “The Munsters”) and Elsa Manchester!

There are a couple of films suggested for “mature audiences.” Sure. That’s a surefire teenaged crowd lure if there ever was one. The first here is “The Sweet Ride”, featuring the debut of Jacqueline Bissett. “Hear those bikes? Somebody musta opened the zoo” says one of the movies multiple taglines. The film also features Bob Denver. I’d love to see that one.

And how about “Maryjane”? Directed by Maury Dexter (never heard of him), it features the singing star Fabian and a bunch of also-rans. Love the come-on, though: “Anyone for pot? 5 high school kids smoked it…See the shocking effects.” There is a picture of a young woman writhing in ecstasy, or maybe fear, in the poster.

One thing I noticed. The State Theatre in Burlington was showing “The Graduate” and it noted that it was suspending matinees on Saturday and Sunday “In respect for Robert F. Kennedy.” I thought that was honorable, and suddenly realized that just yesterday, Sept. 11, nobody, outside of the places where the attacks took place, seemed to stop at all. Business just went on mostly as usual. I wondered why our leaders did not call for a national moment of silence in the morning at the times the planes hit. But they didn’t.

It isn’t just the movies, or their ads, that have changed.


Click on any of the poster images for a larger view.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It’s Time for Adults to Take Back the Multiplex

By Lars Trodson

Hey, you, the people who are my age (47), go to the movies. Don’t wait for the DVD, don’t wait for On Demand. Don’t wait for it to come to your cell phone. Because our friend Gina Carbone is right. Content, or the lack of it, is what is going to kill the movies, and unless the spate of adult-themed movies that are coming out this fall get some traction at the box office, we’re doomed to remakes of remakes of remakes -- such as the upcoming “Hulk” franchise with Edward Norton, or the Ben Stiller remake of “The Heartbreak Kid.” Please, let us help the madness to stop.

My call to action is an unlikely villain: Rob Zombie’s version of “Halloween”, which I squirmed through this past weekend. As a real fan of the original, and as someone who thinks that Zombie is an interesting talent with some interesting ideas, I sat through that thing looking at it as though it was some strange artifact from another planet. Half re-imagining, half outright copy, I didn’t know what to think of it. “I’ve seen this movie before,” I wrote in my notes as it came to its desultory conclusion. It wasn’t that it was just witless, it had no real creativity at all. I think I could watch and appreciate John Carpenter’s version at any age -- I think I could look at it fondly when I’m 60 -- but this version, with its crude dialogue, overt and aggressive teenage sexuality, is something I will never go near again. This movie was not made for me, I’m certain the filmmakers don’t even want me to see it, and I’ll honor that by turning my attention to where it belongs: which is the rarefied universe of adult-themed films.

I’m not a snob about movies. I’ll see almost anything, and I pretty much have. Anyone with any movie going history my age will not be shocked or upset by anything we see on the screen if it has some creativity to it, or if it makes us connect emotionally. But when movies start to reject the very notion of that maturity, well, then, maybe it’s time to say goodbye to all that.

These movies with serious themes need champions, and those champions should be those of us who have ceded the seats in the multiplex to the kids who treat and expect movies to tossed away artifacts with no more meaning than a trinket you get in a McDonald’s Happy Meal bag. The occasional art-house hit like “Little Miss Sunshine” isn’t really enough to dispel the notion that our movie culture has been hijacked by less inspired fare.

No more.

I was thinking of this after poring through the Arts & Leisure section of this past Sunday’s New York Times. It was a compendium of films that will be released this fall, and the array of themes and stories these movies offer is glorious. There’s something out there for all of us who are willing to grab a little energy for a matinée or a Saturday night. Our pop culture has been so long dominated by kids, many of whom showed tremendous promise -- and not just actors but also the directors and writers -- but who now have settled into the mode of seeking the franchise film, or the blockbuster, that we now have to sift through the rubble to see the films made by the old pros. That is, if they even get to a theater near you.

The media needs to help out, too. As much as I admire The New York Times and its writers, the lede piece in the Sunday section was a long article on Jodie Foster, titled “Forever Jodie, Forever a Pro”, which ended up actually being a long column by Manohla Dargis, riffing on her thoughts about the actress. It didn’t help much. Then there was a teaser out front accompanying a picture of the actor Steve Carrell. “TYPE CASTING” is the head, with the little lede-in that went as follows: “Steve Carrell stars in a bittersweet comedy that doesn’t dispel his reputation for playing nice.” Great. I’m sure this is just what the producers wanted to hear about Carrell, who can be seen for free on TV each week in “The Office”, after his gargantuan “Evan Almighty” tanked at the box office this past year.

Also, our local papers, local papers everywhere, have to start writing or featuring stories about these movies in order to give them some heft for local audiences. Our local papers don’t have to keep thinking of themselves as copies of “People” magazine in order to tell the world they’re hip. They’ve completely lost the younger audience; they should cater to an audience that’s looking to the paper as a reflection of themselves. After all, if they keep it up, these younger people will settle into middle age sooner than they think, and they’ll be happy to have a publication reflecting these values. There is a way to survive.

Sooner than that, however, we see that Robert Redford has a new political drama coming out called “Lions for Lambs” that actually identifies one lead political character, played by Tom Cruise, as a Republican -- eradicating, at least with one film - the recent tendency not to affiliate fictional characters with an actual political party.

Francis Ford Coppola, the winemaker, also has a new film coming out. “Youth Without Youth” is the title, and it appears to have autobiographical elements. Coppola is an artistic hero of mine, and I want to be able to support the creator of so many films that are important to me to show that he’s still relevant to my life.

Julie Taymor has a kaleidoscopic film coming out based on Beatles music, the name of which comes from a John Lennon tune, “Across the Universe.” Taymor is a fascinating director, see her “Titus”, and if we challenge ourselves to see her film maybe she won’t have to wait years in between.

Benicio Del Toro (a personal favorite of Miss Carbone’s) has a new film with Halle Berry -- a movie star that’s quite beautiful but too remote and chilly for me to get to -- with the provocative title “Things We Lost In the Fire” by a Danish filmmaker named Susanne Bier. I don’t know who Ms. Bier is, but it is time for those of us who appreciate film acting at its highest level to catapult Del Toro into the front ranks of our movie stars. And if he gets there, he might just decide not to take that newfound stardom only to turn it into a chance to play the latest Batman villain.

And just to round out our short and highly incomplete list, we should pay some heed to Sean Penn’s latest directorial effort, “Into the Wild.” Penn is, as they say, the foremost actor of his (my) generation, but his efforts as a director have been tough going. No humor. Too self-indulgent and important, but this one apparently has a performance by a young actor, Emile Hirsche, in which Mr. Penn seemed to find the old-fashioned fire and craftsmanship. So we can kill two birds with one stone on that one.

There are many, many more -- and very many with an international flair with stars we recognize, if that’s what makes you comfortable, as it does me, sometimes. And if we stumble across a newcomer whom we want to follow, that’s our bonus.

These films can and will have a life if those of us old enough to appreciate the full experience of going to the movie theater start going again.

So, to adopt an old phrase that some of us will recognize, this is a revolution that will not be televised. It’ll be at the multiplex, exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Internet Will Be The Death Of Cinema. Not.

By Gina Carbone

Remember when video “killed” the radio star? Well, Ridley Scott thinks the Web is killing movies. He’s wrong, too, and doesn’t even have a catchy song to back him up.

"People sit there watching a movie on a tiny screen,” Scott said during the Venice Film Festival, where he showed off a remastered version of “Blade Runner.” “You can't beat it, you've got to join it and deal with it and also get competitive with it. But we try to do films which are in support of cinema, in a large room with good sound and a big picture. … I'm sure we're on a losing wicket, but we're fighting technology. While it has been wonderful in many aspects, it also has some big negative downsides."

Every so often Chicken Little takes spirit form and enters the brain of a public figure. From talking pictures to Technicolor to television to home video to the Internet, cinema should’ve croaked 10-times over by now. But, to paraphrase "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," not only is it not dead yet, it might even feel happy.

The summer of 2007 had the highest box office take ever — around $4.15 billion — topping 2004's record of $3.95 billion and rising from the ashes of 2005 and 2006 when everyone and his cousin said movies were all but dead.

Considering 2004 was the summer of sequels (“Spider-Man 2,” “Shrek 2,” “The Bourne Supremacy”) and 2007 was the summer of threequels ("Spider-Man 3," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Shrek the Third," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") it speaks to the unoriginality of Hollywood, the low expectations of the public and our bovine acceptance of rising ticket prices. People will stand in line for hours and pay through the nose to see good movies — or ones they hope to be good — in a theater, surrounded by fellow fans. Turn your nose up, cine-snobs, but the nerds who flocked to "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" are going to help fund Warner Independent's more artsy fare, like "December Boys" (which also stars Daniel Radcliffe).

This summer may not have had a slew of original films, but word-of-mouth prom queen "Knocked Up" showed big names, big money and big branding aren’t necessary to pry Average Viewer off the couch. No one wants to be left out of the conversation — watercolor gossip won't wait for Netflix. Look what happened in 2004 with "Napoleon Dynamite." Seems like everyone under 35 somehow found it, watched it, quoted it, memorized it and threw themselves at whatever merchandise marketers could create in time to capture the zeitgeist. (Do you have anything with "Vote for Pedro" on it? Own up!) By the time it came out on DVD it was almost passé. Its moment had come and gone.

But viewing habits are changing. No question. Ridley Scott's comments on the Internet and movie-going ran in The Scotsman, and reader comments gave some reasons for the change:

"I think you'll find that the cost of the cinema is killing off the big screen experience," writes Dave from Barra. "Few weeks ago, took the family to an Odeon cinema (we were on the mainland). I was flabergasted at the price I paid (not wanting to dissapoint the kids, I paid). Basically, it was enough to rent several films, put part payment toward a dvd player and home cinema system and enough left over for a bag of popcorn or two."

Writes Silence of the Yamz,
"There is no doubt that downloading and illegal copying is denting the trade, but that doesnt change the fact that the Hollywood product is mostly rehashed remakes and pointless sequels."

Adds TimW1234, "The movies I will see
on the big screen are the IMAX 3D ones, especially the latest Harry Potter movie. You cannot get that experience at home. More and more movies are being re-released in IMAX and modern digital technology has really given a second-life to some of the classics from the 70s, 80s, and 90s."

Says David Burness, "I adore the cinema experience. I attend frequently. But over the past couple of years I've had Moulin Rouge with crap sound - a musical really aught to have good sound: Birth projected at the ceiling and not at the scree
n: The Departed at the wrong aspect ratio - and after the third complaint I had to leave. The modern multiplex is not a nice place to see films. The death of cinema is often predicted, but its the incompetence of projectionists which is a threat. And rubbishy stories. And films being exhibited by companies who clearly don't love the medium but just see a way of hawking popcorn and nachos at top dollar."

According to tapper, the reason to stay home is much simpler. "no for me its ignorant folk behind you stic
king their feet up on the back of your seat or the one next to you. I got sick of it and dont go now."

Netflix is often cited as a prime cinema-slayer, as well as Blockbuster and the "on demand" features that let you watch any number of titles at the click of a remote. But one of the more hidden dangers to the movie-going experience is the quality of modern television. It's trite, but true: We are in another golden age and you don't have to subscribe to HBO to enjoy it (of course, you should rent all the HBO and Showtime shows later). If the networks could get their acts together enough to stop the repeats, long hiatuses and trigger-happy cancellations, they might be a real threat to big-screen cinema. But TV can't get out of its own way.

For new media, the issue is presentation: Tiny screens (compared to film and TV, anyway) on computers, cell phones and other wireless devices make for poor viewing. Are you really going to watch "Schindler's List" on your phone?

Right now original Internet content is hardly a threat to cinema. I don't know that anyone has turned to his or her spouse with "Honey, let's stay home and watch YouTube tonight." We like our Web clips fast and fun. We'll watch Miss South Carolina Teen USA flub her answer over and over — we're mean-spirited by nature — but only in soundbite gasps. We're game for that and TV and cinemas and video games and more. That's the beauty of this entertain-me culture — we'll make time for all of our distractions.

But the Web, like all smart technology, will adapt. At some point our computers are going to speak to our TVs. Between that and the idea of simultaneous film/DVD releases, Ridley Scott might have a point. (If I could log on to Netflix right now, click on “The Brave One” and have it immediately beam down cable lines to my television, I'd probably go to the local theaters three or four times a year, max, just for the epics.)

I just spent a week visiting my father and two brothers. They were tethered to their souped-up cell phones and palm pilots and Xbox. When a special sports game wasn’t being shown on one of the five million channels on my dad’s flat-screen TV, he set up his laptop and they hovered around the computer screen. They looked silly and maybe lost some eyesight, but they got to watch their game. Instant gratification.

Still, we’re a family of pop culture junkies, and when “The Blues Brothers” isn’t playing on TV — like it was during my visit — we get off our tushes and head to the theater. My brothers have taken their sons to almost every kids’ movie. When it’s too hot or too cold to do things outside, we go to the movies. When we have no idea what to do after a meal, we go to the movies. When there’s actually something decent to see, we go to the movies.

During this vacation I had the ultimate cinematic experience: IMAX. My father, stepmother and I saw three IMAX films in a row: "Coral Reef Adventure", "Dinosaurs Alive" and "The Alps." Breathtaking. And scary as hell. I winced and gasped watching John Harlin slip and slide down the impossibly steep north face of Eiger. I wouldn't have been awed watching that on the screen I'm looking at now. I wouldn’t have felt anything. I want to feel something and I'll chase that feeling anywhere. Until a medium is invented to match the emotional ride of cinema, Ridley Scott can sleep easy.

Gina Carbone is the features editor for Seacoast Media Group and film critic for Spotlight magazine in Portsmouth, NH.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Audience With God

By Mike Gillis

One of the most jarring documentaries I've seen in recent years is "Deliver Us From Evil," which documents a horrific sex abuse case involving Catholic priest Oliver O'Grady. O'Grady had been identified as a pedophile in the earliest days of ministry but was allowed to preach -- and abuse -- for decades before being stripped of his collar.

The film is a deft example of letting a story unfold on its own. "Deliver Us From Evil" avoids narration and artificial cues to unfurl this damning account of clergy sexual abuse, more vividly than any newspaper article or TV news clip.

Religion, of course, is often fodder for the documentary. The audience is already polarized, and if the filmmaker is able to tell a story without succumbing to righteous commentary, the result is often two films. Take "Jesus Camp," for example. That film documents a resurgence in Evangelical Christian summer camp for kids. Happy campers are taught to tap the power of God and told to take back the country for Christ. I was stunned, and even angry, to see what these kids are subjected to. I realize, however, that someone on the other side of the fence sees a completely different film, one that showcases Christian summer camp in all its glory.

Now we can all look forward to a new documentary, regardless of faith, that is certain to appeal to the movie lover in all of us -- and with God's blessing.

Premiering soon is "Audience of One", a documentary that details, in apparently painstaking detail, a Pentecostal pastor's quest to make the most expensive and glorious film of all time. Better yet, he set out to retell Star Wars for Christians. The reverend, Richard Gazowsky, who heads up the San Francisco-based Voice of Pentecost Church, explains at one point he hopes to make either the most successful film of all time or this biggest, most glorious failure. To do so, he convinces his parishioners to donate heaps of cash to fund the picture, tapping them also as cast and crew.

The trailer, which you can watch below, is no less intriguing.

The picture, directed by Mike Jacobs, has been well received at festivals thus far, and scooped up the Special Audience Award at SXSW in Austin.

"Audience of One" is on my short list this year, not only because it reminds me of little masterpieces of filmmaking train wrecks like "American Movie" and "Lost in La Mancha." I suspect it will also shed light on the power of movies and the meaning of faith. Let's face it, not all preaching encourages the faithful to pursue noble causes -- Westboro Baptist Church, for example. So one has to ask, is Gazowsky's mission from God a simple, harmless but expensive exercise to test faith or the mad vision of a lunatic?

I hope to find out.

See the trailer for "Audience of One" below: