Thursday, August 30, 2007

Diana On The Beach


By Lars Trodson

I remember the moment when my wife came in the TV room and told me that Princess Diana died. For whatever reason -- in a gesture I cannot remember doing either before or since -- I slapped both my hands over my eyes, and shook my head. "What?" I said. "That doesn't make any sense." And the reason I said that was because just a few days before I had seen a little article in a tabloid about Frank Sinatra, and I marveled at the idea that Sinatra was still alive, and now he had outlived Diana.

I was not a person who really paid any attention to the Royals. I was unaware that she had actually gotten divorced from Prince Charles, for instance. I saw her in magazines and on TV, and was captivated by her beauty, which seemed to improve exponentially every year. But I wasn't immersed in the details. I watched the boys grow up.

I think part of my detachment was that in one magazine I had seen a picture of Diana and her kids playing at the beach. The three of them were in the water, and off to the right you saw a small army of photographers. It was an oddly creepy, assaultive sight, and I wondered who in the hell would be so interested in all these pictures of Diana ­ given that all those guys were also more or less getting the same shot.

It was a revealing photograph. In most instances of course we only see the picture of the celebrity, and we forget that there is actually a human being on the other side taking the picture. In the case of many celebrities, there are many photographers. I can't imagine what it must be like to be Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt when they are together and how the paparazzi must swarm.

It must be suffocating.

But I guess in my own way that is why I try not to star gaze too much. I know these celebrities -- even the vast majority that I have no interest in -- are trailed by amateur video bloggers and photogs and all the others who hang on to the fringe of stardom. If I'm the guy buying any one of the glossy celebrity magazines I know I'm opting into the culture that came of age when Diana was on the beach. And I don't like it very much, but that's just me.

Now, of course, death isn't even able to afford some of these people any rest. I have this photograph of Marilyn Monroe in my house that was taken in 1953 and she looks both beautiful and frightened at the same time, and maybe that was how she was. But in the 45 years since she has died, she's still being picked over and analyzed and picked apart, and sometimes you just want to say, Christ almighty, can't we leave her alone?

And I think that same way about Diana sometimes. When I see a new book, or
TV special, or article, I wonder if she at last couldn't get any rest. If it wasn't time to simply leave her alone.

That, of course, is never going to happen, just as it didn't happen when she was alive. Because now, when I see a picture of her, just as I did recently when I saw a lovely photograph of her sitting way out on the end of diving board of a yacht, I know she's not alone; her solitude was an illusion. We were on the beach, too, on the shore, looking out, looking on, looking in.


Monday, August 27, 2007

What You See Is Not What You Get


By Mike Gillis

You've probably seen only a handful, if any, "red-band" trailers at the theater. The previews that precede most movies typically begin with a green screen that cite a picture's rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, but add it's OK to watch the trailer, approved for all audiences.

Red-band trailers begin with a red screen and warn the upcoming preview is approved for restricted audiences only -- anyone under 17 should cover their eyes and ears. Why? Red-band trailers don't have to skimp on the gore, the sex or the language. In essence, they better represent the R- or NC-17-rated picture advertised.

I can recall seeing only one of these trailers at the theater -- I don't remember for what picture -- and perhaps a few more on video. They were not widely seen, until recently.

As it turns out, red-band trailers are popping up all over the web, used to reach wider and often niche audiences.

Miramax has added a "red-band" trailer at its site for the upcoming Coen Brothers picture, "No Country for Old Men". It's the perfect example of what "red-band" trailers do: It ups the violence quotient and gives us a more accurate look at what to expect from the latest Cohens offering. Certainly it's not about the blood, but the Coens aren't known for pulling punches in their darkest offerings -- "Blood Simple", "Barton Fink" and even "Fargo," for example.

Trailers are a hot commodity on the web for one reason: They can fuel substantial buzz. Many genre pictures in recent years -- action, crime, sci-fi and horror -- have been touted before release with red-band trailers, as studios recognize the core audience wants a sample of what earned the picture its R-rating: language, violence, sex.

But other less commercial pictures have used the red-band trailer to help better illustrate a message. For instance, a red-band trailer for Michael Winterbottom's pseudo-documentary, "The Road to Guantanamo," lets us know that the director's take on torture at Guantanamo Bay isn't for the whole family.

Which makes me wonder why you'd want to release a scrubbed-clean preview for a film like "Slither" -- whose red-band trailer was a hit on the web -- before a screening of, say "King Kong". Trailers are designed to attract people to a movie and age isn't a factor, which is why most R-rated films are promoted with previews approved for all ages. What other purpose is there for releasing a trailer for a film that boasts horrific violence or copious sex, but still suitable for all ages?

In the end it likely matters little. How many times have you been disappointed after watching a movie whose trailer was so much better?

Here's a link to some recent red-band trailers: Click here.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Do Newspapers Need Local Film Critics?


By Gina Carbone

The American Journalism Review thinks I’m outdated. I agree. There’s an article in the August/September issue called “The End of the Affair: Squeezed for Profits, newspapers send their staff film critics packing. Is this sound cost-cutting or a missed opportunity?”

I’m not a full-time critic. It’s a dream job. Literally. No one should ever do more than fantasize about getting paid just for that, it’s simply unfair to the rest of the world. Since December of 2000 I have written one film review a week for Spotlight, the arts and entertainment magazine of Seacoast Media Group in Portsmouth, N.H. I pay for my own tickets — no studio screenings here. I write on my own time (weekends) and, as a salaried employee, no longer get paid extra for the result. (I used to get overtime.) So no one will save money by dumping me. But should they anyway? The question comes down to what’s the best use of resources for space-and-cash-strapped newspapers, which are quickly being killed by the Web.

Smart papers are examining every aspect of the process from the newsroom to advertising, circulation and production. What do newspapers — as a whole, including the paper’s online presence — do that no one else can? How can they best stay relevant? What are the jobs to be done?

Visit RottenTomatoes. There are hundreds of national critics linking there, including me and everyone from the Philadelphia Inquirer to Flipside Movie Emporium. Back in 2005 the webmasters stopped allowing new critics to post — there were just too many of us. And there are more on blogs like MySpace and respected movie sites like the Internet Movie Database.

Why should papers spend money on something they can grab from the ether? If they had extra cash, sure, splurge on a local voice. But when the eye is so fixed on the bottomline, and they have to subscribe to wire services anyway, it makes sense to ditch the extra expense and just run Roger Ebert or the Associated Press.

Will Average Reader really care? It’s not like a review of a local restaurant or a local band’s CD that someone in Dallas wouldn’t have a clue about. Something hyperlocal. That’s the new buzz word and the main way newspapers are justifying their existence: giving readers things they can’t get anywhere else.

For some papers, hyperlocal means redistributing critics into positions where they write about local film festivals, local filmmakers or just local arts in general. Other papers interpret hyperlocal to include local film critics, arguing they DO provide something readers can’t get anywhere else — a local perspective. Does a New York Times critic share the same sensibilities of a southern Maine film fan?

There are arguments for this side. If a local reviewer manages to develop a loyal following, a paper might be wise to focus some branding around that person, gaining revenue from the makings of a local expert. Critics interact with their readers, often getting “you’re right” “you suck” responses, plus questions such as “who was that one guy in that one film?” Ebert has Answer Man, but chances are your e-mail to his address will enter the same black hole major corporations use when you call for customer service. Contacting a local critic is another story. You’re likely to find a real human being. They may not have the resources of a Roger Ebert, but they are likely to know more about what’s available in your area and give you the time of day. You might even see them around town (so you can berate them in person).

Whether newspapers should retain local critics or not, what’s definite is the one-review-a-week model is dead. It’s still the model we’re using at Spotlight magazine — one they’ve been using since long before my ugly mug showed up. Since small markets don’t have screenings or full-time critics, it’s a luxury just to have us wasting ink. If we want to stick around and prove our worth, we’re going to have to branch out beyond the one “Superbad” review that hits newsstands a week after the film was released. We need same-day review postings on our Web sites — at the very least — plus film- and other entertainment-related features beyond simple criticism. (God willing, they’ll include content every other paper isn’t already writing about.) We need movie times and reviews sent to cell phones and e-mails. Live chats. Actively courting real-time feedback from readers, making it easy for them to connect with other local entertainment junkies. Keep the conversation going 24-hours a day, if desired, with the paper’s critic serving as chaperone.

Movies aren’t dying. Appetite for all entertainment is only growing with each new tech-savvy generation. People love knowing about the Nicoles and Britneys, whether they admit it or not. One of my new addictions is Dlisted.com, which doesn’t do any of its own reporting. It’s just some snarky blogger posting hilariously nasty comments about the celeb news of the day with links to where the gossip came from. Cheapest thing in the world to produce and it has people across the world visiting every day with the frequency of tooth-brushing.

Newspapers can’t ignore that, they just have to decide the best way to cover that world with the resources at hand. Some reviewers, frustrated with the state of the media, are taking the Net by the reins. As Douglas McLennan — founding editor of ArtsJournal.com, a Seattle-based digest of arts journalism — said in the AJR piece, "The better critics are peeling off and going their own way. Four years ago there were very few arts blogs. Today there is an explosion of them, and some have enormous audiences. They're not going to just go away."

Arts blogs like this one are a way for film buffs to find a larger audience than the regional reach of a newspaper, plus be free from the thumb of the paper’s owners.

I missed the last episode of “Lost” this past season, but read most of the post-show comments on Entertainment Weekly’s site, including the online-only missive by EW’s “Lost” expert, Jeff “Doc” Jensen. His one critique was overwhelmed with hundreds upon hundreds of comments within the hour it was posted. I can’t tell you how jealous (and impressed) I was. He said he would post more later, and when he missed his own deadline fans like me went after him. We wanted his opinion. We were cultured students happy to debate with each other, but with one eye on the door waiting for the professor to return.

If newspapers want to survive, they need to find ways to be just as indispensable as Doc Jensen and my daily Dlisted fix. If that means dumping my reviews, so be it. I’m willing to evolve too.

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


Sunday, August 19, 2007

San Francisco's Carlotta: Her Spirit Still Lives


By Lars Trodson

The Styles section of the Sunday edition of The New York Times this week has a brief profile of the writer Armistead Maupin, and it was interesting to hear him say, when people ask him how much San Francisco has changed in the 30-plus years since he arrived, that it has not changed that much. I liked that.

I love that city, and during a recent trip I went around and took pictures of signs and other small things that can sometimes go unnoticed, and it seemed as though there was quite a bit of architecture and other identifying places in the city that had not changed much.

I also tried to trace some of the scenes from "Bullitt" and "Vertigo", but I wasn't very successful at that. San Francisco has been the setting of some great movies, including, "D.O.A." (the 1949 version), "The Lady From Shanghai", "Dirty Harry" -- which remains amazingly chilling and exciting to this day -- and of course the recent "Zodiac." (Vote for Downey Jr.!) Mr. Maupin makes a brief appearance in that latter film -- at least in name only -- which only emphasizes what a fixture he is in that town.

The Times profile of Maupin slightly meanders, but it sketches out the similarities between the writer and the protagonist of his latest novel, "Michael Tolliver Lives." The lead character Tolliver has a younger partner, as apparently Maupin does. They both drive a hybrid car, a Toyota Prius, which the article points out has a "bossy G.P.S. he calls Carlotta."

Leave it to a writer of Maupin's humor, one that is also imbued with a San Franciscan sensibility, to name a "bossy" G.P.S. system Carlotta. This was the name, after all, of the spirit that supposedly overtakes Kim Novak's character, Madeleine Elster, in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." It is also this same spirit, Carlotta, that -- and I have to use this word, I suppose, that drives Jimmy Stewart's hapless cop to his eventual madness.

Anyway, Maupin's Carlotta was a neat little homage, and since the Times didn't make the connection, I thought it shouldn't go unnoticed.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Stop Time, Change Directors?


By Mike Gillis

I'm not sure when I first stumbled upon Nicholson Baker's "The Fermata", a pulp-novel premise dressed up as literature, but I do recall enjoying it quite a bit. It's a sordid little tale about a thirty-something temp worker who can stop time at will and often satisfies an urge to undress women in stasis. This guilty pleasure of a book is a bit more complicated and the protagonist avoids using his temporal control for evil gain.

No summary of a Nicholson novel -- or essay -- does the work justice. Baker's prose is the real joy. It's simply among the best contemporary examples of the craft. Baker also has a gift of exploring the human psyche in very frank, simple and revelatory ways, often spending pages of exquisite exposition on otherwise banal matters.

Baker has long been one of my favorite modern writers but I've wondered how well any of his works would translate to film.

It seems we may soon find out.

Author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, who penned a script for the "The Fermata" some years back, was recently quoted as saying advances in special effects, particularly those used in Robert Zemeckis's upcoming "Beowulf," may convince the director the time is right to set up a lens for Baker's book.

Although "The Fermata" is arguably the most "filmable" of Baker's ouevre, I'm skeptical Zemeckis. I just can't picture Tom Hanks in the lead, undressing still-life women and having his way. It's no secret I'm not a fan of the actor, who in the past wins too much praise for "daring" roles that are actually no risk to his career at all. ("Philadelphia" anyone?)

Perhaps I'm one of a handful of people who despise that Zemeckis and Hanks abomination, "Forrest Gump". So be it. But there's no way that formula -- and formulaic approach -- will help serve "The Fermata".

I'm not sure how Zemeckis ended up with the project, but it likely had something to do with the book's time on the bestseller list and the rave reviews that excused its cheap sci-fi set-up. Perhaps the director saw that reaction as a way to make a quasi sci-fi picture with some built-in critic proofing. Who knows.

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

In the mean time, I'll be waiting anxiously for Baker's next book.

***

See a 1994 interview with Baker on the Charlie Rose Show here:



Thursday, August 16, 2007

The American Idol


By Lars Trodson

I pulled into the driveway on a bight summer afternoon, and I know the driver’s side window was down because my brother Craig came up to the car and he said that Elvis Presley had died. I have no idea what my response was, but I don’t think it was very dramatic. Elvis, at 42, was from an entirely different era. I was listening at the time to Ten Year’s After and Van Morrison and John McLaughlin and Roy Buchanan. I can’t remember who was on the radio in 1977, but it wasn’t Elvis Presley.

Elvis was, after all, my father’s guy. They were about the same age, and even though Elvis had a couple of hits as late as 1970, he seemed a relic. I think the only songs I heard with any regularity were “Hound Dog”, "Jailhouse Rock” and “In the Ghetto.” My reaction to his death came out of the arrogance of youth, and also the reaction of a kid flush with the knowledge that he was about to head off to college, and leave everything he knew behind. The past was the past, man.

I remember no other discussion after that. I do remember, however, the television coverage, and the accolades, and the outpouring of grief. I think, not long after, that a tabloid magazine had a picture of Elvis in his coffin on the cover. That grief I couldn’t access -- not the way I could for John Lennon just a mere three years later -- but the spectacle was interesting enough.

I remember two things: visiting Graceland and the time I saw Elvis in concert at the Providence Civic Center in 1974. The tickets for that concert were $10 and I went with a childhood friend by the name of Rod Zolmian.

We had seats way up and before the concert -- my parents were also there, somewhere -- we saw all the women and men. All dressed up. This was like a Vegas show. Everybody’s hair was perfect -- all slicked back and in these pink bouffants, and the dresses were flowing. The ladies seemed to me jovial, they laughed easily, and this was a generation that didn’t feel guilty about their drinking or their 100 millimeter cigarettes. These were the men who had come out of World War II, or Korea, or who had perhaps not returned from Vietnam very long before.

I think I know who Elvis was to them: an American kid, polite, but freewheeling, impossibly handsome, loaded with talent. He was the jukebox and the hamburger joint and the drive-in, and he was a long way away from the madness of America in 1974. So it was a happy time at the Providence Civic Center, and even though, at 14, I didn’t understand the phenomenon, I could certainly feel the vibe inside the hall.

A comedian opened for Elvis, and he told a joke I remember. It went something like, “Why is it when you get up to adjust the antenna on your TV set the picture always clears up?” Big laugh. It was that kind of humor, and naturally the references belong to another era entirely. But it must have been a pretty good gig, opening for Elvis.

The band assembled, and “Thus Spake Zarathustra” echoed through the auditorium and Elvis came out in his white spangled jumpsuit. I can imagine the applause was thunderous. He then did this: he strummed his guitar, waited a beat, and said: “That’s all. Thank you very much.” Everyone laughed, and the mood was easy and cool, and then Elvis cruised through his set. He read the words to “My Way” off a sheet of paper. He did a medley of his hits. And then it was over, and I think my parents gave us a ride home.

For years I had the ticket stub to that concert, and I even wrote on the back the date and locale of the concert, but the last time I looked for it in the box I had it in it was gone. I may have showed it to someone, and didn’t put it back. I don’t know. But I wish I had it.

I can only say the music at that concert didn’t come across in the same way that I hear it now. I thought it was a synthetic thing, but now when I hear those old rock and roll hits, I hear something authentic and wonderful. The music seems to me something I like to call as having the sound and feel of things dug out of the earth. Those old songs of Elvis, and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis don’t sound so much composed as they feel like something plucked out of the air. They were cobbled together from the sounds they all heard in small rooms, and back alleys and barrooms, train stations and hotel lobbies, in jail, at parades, and on the street late at night, and church, and at outdoor revival meetings, and during the shouting matches between two drunk lovers. I don’t hear any of that today, not so much. As I write this I’m listening to a CD called “Cash Sings Cash” and I’m reminded of that all over again.

And of course when I hear the music, I think of that young man whose life turned out so weirdly wrong. You do want to ask Elvis, “What happened? What were you so sad about? What made you do that to yourself?”

I also laugh at how I thought Elvis was a relic. I’m now five years older than he ever got to be, and I hope I have not yet entered into some late-life decrepitude.

Elvis certainly hasn’t. A couple of years ago I was in Memphis, and our little group went over to the Sun Studios, and then to Graceland. It was a beautiful southern day, and we had traveled over the Mississippi River and into the state of Mississippi and through miles and miles of the kind of goddamn poverty you feel should no longer exist, and then we drove over to Graceland. I suppose we did that as a tonic to what we had just seen.

There were crowds of people flowing in and out of Graceland. The house had just been sold to a private company, and the “Today” show was going to do a story the next morning with Priscilla Presley, and we watched a little bit of that in the hotel room.

But outside Graceland -- we didn’t want to get on one of the buses to get inside -- we looked at the house and lawn, which had patches of brown, and mostly we read some of the uncountable number of inscriptions on the wall in front of the house. I was surprised, in a way, that the house was so accessible. It was right on the main drag, and it really wasn’t all that far from the street.

But mostly I remember what people had written: “We love you, Elvis.” “In our hearts forever.” “You’re the king.” And on and on. Many of the inscriptions were brand new.

I popped open my cell phone and called my parents. My father answered and I said, “Dad, you’ll never guess where I am.” He asked, and I said, “In front of Graceland.” And the reaction on the other end of the line was one of a 70-year old guy who -- and this is the magic of the whole thing, really -- was suddenly just as young as Elvis was in his burning prime.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Celebrating the Outsiders


By Lars Trodson

"The Wizard of Oz" was released 68 years ago today, in the middle of one of the most storied years in movie history. By all accounts, the movie did well on each coast, but as it moved into the heartland it faded fast and was not a financial success its first time out.

The movie was directed by Victor Fleming, who certainly must be one of the most anonymous directors of all time despite having helmed this picture, as well as "Gone With the Wind" the same year. I'd be hardpressed, without looking it up, to name another movie the guy directed.

No matter. If neither film is directed with anything you could call the "Fleming style", it does seem to me that both films are imbued with a deep humanity; there is room enough in each -- while acknowledging the limitations that stereotyping required back then -- for the misfits and the lowlifes and the miscreants and the people on the fringe. Each film, "Oz" and "Wind", is a panorama of outsiders trying to work their way back in, and for that reason alone I always thought that Fleming had a generous artistic heart.

It's funny about "The Wizard of Oz." While I certainly was enchanted by the movie as a child, it more deeply affects me when I see it as an adult. I'm particularly fond of the moment when Dorothy says to the Cowardly Lion that she's going to miss him most of all. You're not supposed to pick favorites, but she did all right to tell him that, in front of the others, because he deserved it. And I think the small, unvarnished scene when she wakes up at the farm, surrounded by all those characters, is the perfect coda to the film.

There are few actors left from either film. I believe there are still some of the actors who played some of the Munchkins still alive, and Olivia de Havilland, from "Gone with the Wind" is still with us. "Wind" of course was pretty much hailed as an instant classic ­ a term I don't like -- but "Oz" took a little longer to make its way into our consciousness. Now its more firmly affixed there than its more gargantuan Fleming partner, mostly because the misfits and goofballs in the movie have decent hearts, just as we hope we do ourselves.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Promise from David Cronenberg

Update, 9/28/07
Read the Roundtable Pictures review here:

By Mike Gillis

Even David Cronenberg's earliest, most visceral and admittedly sloppy works -- "Shivers," "Rabid," "The Brood," "Scanners" -- shed more light on the human condition than shed blood. They are consumed by wild exploration of the borders between psychology, technology and anatomy, a theme the director continues to probe to this day.

Cronenberg, who was quickly labeled a horror director and penned off in that stable for many years, easily and almost effortlessly transcends genre trappings. "Videodrome," despite initial marketing as a horror movie of the week, remains a literate, sexual and uneasy take on thought control in popular culture.

Cronenberg found commercial success with his remake of "The Fly," which despite a modestly bigger budget and some star power (Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis), again revisits the messy merger of body and science. Cronenberg actually scored an earlier hit with "The Dead Zone," the second-best Stephen King adaptation ("The Shawshank Redemption" being the first), which led to all kinds of offers from Hollywood, including, most inexplicably, "Flashdance." I recall Cronenberg explaining in an interview he told his agent at the time, the infamous Dawn Steele, that she would never thank him for taking the project, despite her insistence. "I will destroy this," I recall him saying to Steele.

The director enjoyed substantial critical success with "Dead Ringers," in which Jeremy Irons plays twin brothers, both gynecologists, whose fates are hopelessly sealed by biological predestination. It's been called one of Cronenberg's most pessimistic works, but it's also one of his most Hitchcockian -- not to compare the two directors -- and operates from within an almost noirish framework. A perfect vehicle for a picture that also probes sexual jealousy and drug addiction.

Then there's "Crash," based on the peculiar but fascinating book of the same name by J.G. Ballard, which imagines a group of fetishists who sexualize car crashes. The film, which Ted Turner refused to release while he owned New Line Entertainment, was lost theatrically in the NC-17 black hole. It's an odd failure for Cronenberg. The material seems tailor-made for the director, yet he can't push his picture far enough. It's shocking and unsettling, to be sure, but one wonders if there's simply too much left to explore.

In recent years, Cronenberg has pursued similar themes, even more assuredly. "Spider" remains an underrated masterpiece, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, which delicately and meticulously dissects the machinery of an unraveling mind.

"A History of Violence" deserved an Oscar. Although it earned a nomination for William Hurt in the supporting role and for its screenplay, it's director -- the whole picture -- deserved the recognition. I defy you to find five better films from 2005. (The film did rack up numerous awards elsewhere.)

And so, that's my long-winded way of saying I'm looking forward to Cronenberg's next picture, "Eastern Promises" due next month, and in typical Cronenberg style, without much fanfare. The film reunites Cronenberg with Viggo Mortensen, who starred in "A History of Violence."

Here's a look at the film's trailer:



Monday, August 13, 2007

Vote for Robert Downey Jr.


By Lars Trodson

Last year I wrote a review of “Bobby” for The Wire in Portsmouth that singled out Shia LeBeouf, saying essentially that it was exactly the kind of performance that members of the Academy should honor for a Best Supporting actor nod. He didn’t get it, and I think maybe it was for a couple of reasons. One, the movie was not a success, either at the box office or, two, in the fundamentals of storytelling. It was too bad, but no tragedy, because clearly the young actor is headed toward good, if not great things.

Now we come to this year, and we do have a bona fida contender for a Best Supporting Actor in Robert Downey Jr., who plays the newspaper reporter Paul Avery in David Fincher’s “Zodiac”, which came out earlier this year. It did not set the box office on fire.

I rented “Zodiac” and watched it twice, back to back, on a day that was much too beautiful to be inside, but there it is. It’s about two hours and 40 minutes long. I have a couple of quibbles about the film (what was the deal with the Animal Crackers?), and I have very real issues about the way the Jake Gyllenhall character was handled (more on these later), but to me the film was Fincher’s most assured and unsettling work to date -- despite “Se7en” -- and the depiction in such a non-cliché way of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s felt truer than if we had seen a bunch of hippies hanging around Haight-Ashbury.

It was also the best newspaper movie since “All the President’s Men.” It must have been hard for any actor or director not to succumb making media people out to be a bunch of buffoons, but they resisted and we have a better movie for it.

Especially Downey, who of course has in the past been a bit of a player in the tabloid scene, who plays a San Francisco Chronicle police reporter. Downey’s presence in the tabloids doesn’t make him any different than a lot of other serious actors, whether it’s Robert Mitchum or Nick Nolte or anybody else. Because these actors, once they overcome their demons, will win out because have real talent to fall back on. It is exactly the reason why I think a Lindsay Lohan will make it and a Britney Spears probably will not.

Back to Downey. I remember Geraldine Chaplin saying, in an interview published when the Richard Attenborough biopic “Chaplin” was coming out, that Downey had more talent than she had previously seen -- something like that -- and that he had captured the spirit of her father.

I didn’t believe it. If there was any actor, ever, that seemed doomed to an interpretation by another actor, it would be someone like Chaplin. He was -- oh no -- a genius, and a very troubled person.

I am just old enough to remember a time when there was a lot of dead space on the TV grid. Saturday nights and Sunday mornings on your low wattage UHF stations were once filled with all kinds of odd programming -- films that had lapsed into the public domain, Bowery Boys movies, the Sherlock Holmes serials, and Chaplin films. It seems incredible to me that black and white silent films would have a place on broadcast television, but back then it wasn’t so strange. I watched the Chaplin shorts. So I knew a little bit about Chaplin -- and I read about him as much as I could, including his mammoth, unreliable autobiography. He was also alive when I was a kid, so he had not quite lapsed into the past.

My first viewings of “The Gold Rush” and “City Lights” also remain indelible moments in my movie-going history, and I still think that “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Limelight” are great films, as is “The Great Dictator.” These are films that to me were unfairly maligned because there were critics, such as James Agee, who didn’t think Chaplin could write dialogue. I disagree, but anyway that’s just me.

So, when I read Geraldine Chaplin’s comments, and having seen such movies as Dick Van Dyke in “The Comic”, I was certainly prepared for the worst -- up to and including knowing that Richard Attenborough was not a director of any kind of delicate sensibility.

But, Jesus, when I saw Downey move in that picture, and his spot on English accent, and the recreation of some of the Chaplin bits, I was mesmerized and forgave almost everything about the movie except the truly idiot explanation of the origins of Chaplin’s disturbing sexual habits.

So, after that, Downey was the man to watch, and watch I did, even through the non-descript entertainments, and his unhappy choices of playing articulate and attractive junkies. He seemed incapable of landing a role that matched his talents.

In that way his role in “Zodiac” is not much of a departure. The reporter Paul Avery, who was a real life guy who reported on the Zodiac killings in the Bay Area for the San Francisco Chronicle during the very late 1960s and into the 70s.

I would bet -- and this is important -- that the character of Avery wasn’t all that enticing as written on the page. It’s a largely reactive role. Reporters in real life don’t often crack the big case, or hunt down killers in back alleys brandishing a gun. Avery does none of that here, of course, and as the case of the Zodiac killer recedes further into history, Avery becomes more and more dissolute, and we last see him sucking on a filterless Camel and breathing bottled oxygen.

But the elegant line readings that Downey brings to this role are really something to savor. He imbues his character with a rich humor, slightly condescending (Avery is a talented writer and reporter and he knows it), and the brief scene in which Avery, in his crime reporter mode, interviews a cop is one of the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a movie (I did a fair bit of that in my day, so I kind of know about it).

Downey is charming. In an utterly toss-away moment, he is called into an editorial meeting, and his jaunty “Very well” response had me laughing out loud. It is impossible to describe, because it is the actor carrying this off; no interpretation of mine could do it justice.

That he shines in a role that is surrounded by actors given far more meatier parts is testimony to Downey’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Mark Ruffalo as Det. Dave Toschi of the San Francisco PD (apparently the real-life inspiration for Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”, as well as Harry Callahan in “Dirty Harry” -- the latter of which I don’t see, but …), is quiet; he murmurs and his sly jokes back up on you. After a screening for San Francisco dignitaries of “Dirty Harry”, which Toschi attends, some smart ass yells out, “Hey, Toschi, Dirty Harry did a better job on your case than you did,” Toschi responds, not looking at his heckler, “Yeah, without worrying about due process.” And you have the feeling the real-life Toschi said it just like that. Ruffalo is wonderful throughout, but the screenwriter James Vanderbilt on occasion does dumb things, like giving Toschi a small crutch in his craving for Animal Crackers. It may be based on real life, but it’s such a stupid gag the filmmakers simply drop it before you get too tired of it.

Jake Gyllenhall has a ridiculous role, made murky by some script choices and, I think, directorial choices. He plays a goofy, single-father cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith, who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac case. Graysmith seems to have some weird understanding of the killer, and it is unclear whether Fincher or the script is throwing out some red herrings here as to who the actual killer is. It’s an unfortunate distraction (as are some of the other non-descript departures in logic in the script), because it doesn’t, in the end, add to the tension or the mystery; it’s just an unnecessary diversion. The Graysmith character is also depicted as a nuisance in the newsroom -- not unlike Jimmy Olson at the Daily Planet -- and an extremely inattentive husband (to Chloe Sevigny) and distracted father.

Graysmith went on to write two books about the Zodiac killer, one of which formed the basis of this film. Toschi is retired, and Avery died in 2000. The prime suspect in the killings, Arthur Leigh Allen, chillingly played by actor John Carroll Lynch, who also deserves an Oscar nod for his bizarre and detailed performance, also died. The case is still open in two counties, but not in San Francisco.

This is a film rich in the kind of funky, detailed performances, both small and large, that you associate with the Godfather films. Downey here is our Robert Duvall, our Tom Hagen, bringing depth and nuance to a character not richly drawn on the page.

“Zodiac” was not a box office success, so it will be easy, in the end-of-year onslaught of Oscar contenders, to forget about Downey and Lynch. Academy members, if they haven’t seen “Zodiac”, should check it out, and check off Downey’s name for a supporting actor Oscar, because a more finely observed portrait, etched in so little time, will be hard to come by this year.

***

Watch the trailer for "Zodiac" here:



A Little Glimpse into the Welcoming Past


By Lars Trodson

When I was a kid I never watched The Wonderful World of Disney. I always watched the Jackie Gleason Show. I loved the announcer, and the look of the camera flying low over Miami Beach, and then there were the girls surrounded by chiffon announcing the names of Art Carney and the June Taylor Dancers. The entire feel and look of the show seemed to me something out of a different era -- a more glamorous, timeless era than my own -- and that is what I loved the most about it, I think.

I was a kid afraid of my own time. When I was very young, the brother of one of our friends in the neighborhood was killed in Vietnam, and I remember the women in the neighborhood bringing over food and other stuff, and it was a very scary thing to me. After that, I was sort of hyper-aware of the war. It was always on TV, or on the cover of Life or Look or Newsweek or Time and some of the pictures were very frightening to me. I had images of these soldiers -- the Vietnamese -- marching down my street. I hated that war and almost everything about it.

In an effort to escape, I sort of attached myself to the 1940s. It was an odd time to think of as tranquil, of course, but I saw nothing but elegance and courtesy through the photos I looked at and the movies I watched. This was a fiction, of course, but a useful one to me, because my own time seemed anything but elegant. So retreat I did into the glamour of an earlier time.

One of the ways available to me to do that was through the Merv Griffin Show. In the 1970s, a great many of the major stars from the 1930s and 1940s were not only still alive, they were still very much in the public eye, and I could see them every afternoon. It is where I first heard Orson Welles’ voice, and I saw him do a magic trick that didn’t work. I listened to Bette Davis tell stories. Merv said: “There will never be another Bette Davis.” And she said something like: “Oh my dear, thank God for that.” The audience laughed. It was all scripted. I listened to the anecdotes of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and any number of other people. They all seemed enormously entertaining and authentic.

I knew that many of these stars had not only lived through war, their war, but had also fought in it. So their very presence was a comfort to me, because I felt if they could have gotten through the awfulness of World War II, then we all could get through the awfulness of Vietnam, too.

So I never looked at the guests on Merv as simply a parade of has-beens from a black and white era with some funny stories to tell, I looked at those old actors as symbols of resilience and fortitude and resourcefulness. Watching Merv’s show was one of the little ways in which I coped. It seemed like such a well-ordered and polite world. He would joke with the trumpet player – I forget the guy’s name -- as he introduced the band.

Is all this putting too much weight on a simple talk show? I suppose. But it seemed important to me at the time. And then of course you grow up, and that war ended, and so many of the people that I had acquainted myself with through books and movies left the scene, and Merv retreated to his businesses -- his hotels and the like -- and you saw him every once in a while.

He was the “Wheel of Fortune” guy, the inventor of “Jeopardy”, and because he stayed the same for so long, the way in which Johnny Carson stayed the same for so long, we didn’t think of Merv as being vulnerable to age or time.

Now, the era I longed for as a child, those silky 1940s, are retreating even further into the past, and I don’t have much use for them now -- as a comfort zone or as anything else. And even the era in which Merv reigned supreme, the 1970s, has gone through a couple of periods of acute nostalgia already and so it, too, is becoming less relevant and is becoming more silent with each passing year. So we are left with the ever-changing present.

Merv, in the end, seemed like an affable, decent man. You did not hear bad things about him, which is something. And his chatfest was a brief respite from the craziness of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to have those little memories, those happy memories of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Myrna Loy and Joan Blondell, memories that are better to have than of gunfights in the streets of Saigon, well, for that I will of course always be grateful.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Get a Look at Lars and his Girl


Lars Trodson wondered in this space a few weeks back if the release of "Lars and the Real Girl" will find him at the butt-end of a running joke. While we wait to find out, here's a look at the first trailer for the film, which is slated for release in October.

In the mean time, the picture, starring Ryan Gosling, has picked up some early good buzz.




Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Liberty Under Attack


By Mike Gillis

The new teaser poster for "Cloverfield," the top-secret movie project from J.J. Abrams, has been circulating for a few weeks. As a piece of premature promotion, it's not that impressive. (See our earlier take on "Cloverfield.")

What is it with blockbusters all wanting a piece of the Statue of Liberty? The teaser trailer for "Cloverfield" features a quick shot of the head of the statue rolling down a New York street.

But who is shocked or even offended at the sight of a defiled Ms. Liberty these days? After all, she's fallen victim to a host of sinister plots over the course of cinematic history.

Certainly the statue has figured into some finer cinematic moments, such as Hitchcock's "Saboteur," and even as a sign of hope in Charlie Chaplin's "The Immigrant."

But it's more often been a target of the blockbuster.

Here are some other clips and movie posters featuring the Statue of Liberty.

"Escape from New York"
























"Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins"

























"The Day After Tomorrow"























"United 93"























"Planet of the Apes"
















"Saboteur"



























For more on the Statue of Liberty in popular culture, see this page:

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Setting Sayles


By Mike Gillis

There's a pretty decent primer of the films of John Sayles over at Cinematical. If you're not familiar with Sayles's work, it's as good an introduction as any. I'd add "Passion Fish," "Matewan," "Sunshine State" and the gorgeous "The Secret of Roan Inish" to the list. That's almost the entire catalog, I suppose.

I've long been an admirer of Sayles, who pens very tight, often small character studies.

It's pretty well known that Sayles, who is as independent as they come when directing his own material, also operates as a Hollywood script doctor, and is credited and uncredited for such movies as "Mimic," "Apollo 13," "The Quick and the Dead," "TheClan of the Cave Bear," "Jurassic Park IV," and. Sayles uses the cash from those gigs to help bankroll his own features. Sayles has been following that recipe since his first film, "Return of the Secaucus 7," which he shored up with $30,000 tucked away from writing Roger Corman pictures. Sayles also wrote three cult-favorite little B-pictures, "Pirahna," "Alligator" and "The Howling."

I have to admit I was disappointed with "Silver City," Sayles's last film, which was an uncharacteristically weak story and surprisingly miscast and even poorly acted.

I'm holding out hope for "Honeydripper."

See a rough-cut clip from "Honeydripper" below:




Irish Music Legend Tommy Makem Dies


Tommy Makem, known as the "godfather of Irish music," died Aug. 8 in Dover, NH.

Here's a story in The Irish Times.

See additional, comprehensive coverage here, including a video tribute prepared by Roundtable Pictures.

-- Mike Gillis

Read more here:




Friday, August 3, 2007

The Palmstone, Part 4


Thanks for joining us for Part 4, the final act, of "The Palmstone" an original radio drama written and directed by Lars Trodson and performed by The Radio Players of the Seacoast.

The Palmstone Part 4 aired live here on August 3, 2007, but you can catch an encore now. Simply press the "play" button below and the show will begin. Be sure to check out all four parts of "The Palmstone."

This exclusive production is available only at www.roundtablepictures.com.


(This may take a few moments to load, depending on your connection. If you experience difficulty, press pause and allow more time for show to load.)

For Part 1, click here:

For Part 2, click here:

For Part 3, click here:

For more on The Palmstone, click here:

Credits:

Cast
Tim Robinson: Alexander Blok
Kristan Raymond Robinson: Cynthia Blok
Nicole Sugana Fuller: Tamara Blok
Don Kerr: Willie:
Tom Clark: Captain Chacksfield
Gregg Trzaskowski: Mr. Lucci
Ralph Morang: The Actor
Susan Morse: The Cop

Producer: Tom Daly
Music and sound effects: Chris Decato
Written and Directed by Lars Trodson
Recorded at Crooked Cove

Thanks to Greg Westley
Our appreciation to Rick Agran

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Palmstone, Part 3


Thanks for joining us for Part 3 of "The Palmstone," an original radio drama written and directed by Lars Trodson and performed by The Radio Players of the Seacoast.

The Palmstone Part 3 aired live here on August 2, 2007, but you can catch an encore now. Simply press the "play" button below and the show will begin. Be sure to check out all four parts of "The Palmstone."

This exclusive production is available only at www.roundtablepictures.com.


(This may take a few moments to load, depending on your connection. If you experience difficulty, press pause and allow more time for show to load.)

For Part 4, click here:

For Part 1, click here:

For Part 2, click here:

For more on The Palmstone, click here:

Credits:

Cast
Tim Robinson: Alexander Blok
Kristan Raymond Robinson: Cynthia Blok
Nicole Sugana Fuller: Tamara Blok
Don Kerr: Willie
Tom Clark: Captain Chacksfield
Gregg Trzaskowski: Mr. Lucci
Ralph Morang: The Actor
Susan Morse: The Cop

Producer: Tom Daly
Music and sound effects: Chris Decato
Written and Directed by Lars Trodson
Recorded at Crooked Cove

Thanks to Greg Westley
Our appreciation to Rick Agran

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Palmstone, Part 2


Thanks for joining us for Part 2 of "The Palmstone," an original radio drama written and directed by Lars Trodson and performed by The Radio Players of the Seacoast.

The Palmstone Part 2 aired live here on August 1, 2007, but you can catch an encore now. Simply press the "play" button below and the show will begin. Be sure to check out all four parts of "The Palmstone."


(This may take a few moments to load, depending on your connection. If you experience difficulty, press pause and allow more time for show to load.)


Fore Part 3, click here:

For Part 1, click here:

For more on The Palmstone, click here:

Credits:

Cast
Tim Robinson: Alexander Blok
Kristan Raymond Robinson: Cynthia Blok
Nicole Sugana Fuller: Tamara Blok
Don Kerr: Willie
Tom Clark: Captain Chacksfield
Gregg Trzaskowski: Mr. Lucci
Ralph Morang: The Actor
Susan Morse: The Cop

Producer: Tom Daly
Music and sound effects: Chris Decato
Written and Directed by Lars Trodson
Recorded at Crooked Cove

Thanks to Greg Westley
Our appreciation to Rick Agran

Thank You

Just a minute before "The Palmstone" went on the air last night, Mike Gillis and I were talking on the phone and we said to each other, well, if the only people who tune in to the broadcast are my parents we still would have succeeded. That's what we said, but of course we didn't quite believe it. Nor did we really want it to be true.

At any rate, we needn't have worried. More than 400 people clicked on right after 8 p.m. eastern time and listened to the radio play, and more have been clicking on since the file went up.

We wanted to thank you all for taking the time to listen to the first installment, and hope you will return for the remaining chapters. We think you'll be rewarded if you listen all the way through -- and we're certainly proud of this play. If you think you know anybody who will enjoy the broadcast, please tell them about it.

This is the first piece that we have created to go up on our site, but more will be coming. Two short films, "The Listeners" and "A Bootful of Fish" will be debuting soon, and we'd like to hear your feedback on those endeavors as well. We'll be shooting another film in the fall and that film will debut on the site, as well.

So, enjoy the rest of "The Palmstone", and we thank you all once again for logging on and listening to our little show.

-- Lars Trodson

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