Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year


By Lars Trodson

Well, 2008 has come to a close and more than a few people have said this might have been the worst year ever. I don't necessarily buy into that -- perhaps it was just that we had a very, very bad year and it happened at a time when we are all tired, and beat up a little bit, and are looking forward to the future for respite from all the bleakness.

What 2008 also proved is that art sometimes needs a little conflict to thrive. There was a tremendous amount of art produced in 2008 -- and some of it even managed to get into the multiplex.

Maybe it proves a point. Remember the speech by Orson Welles at the end of "The Third Man" when he extolls the benefits of turmoil on art?

It goes like this:

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and what did that produce -- the cuckoo clock."

Never in a million years would we advocate for another 2008 in order to get a good movie or book, but what it does prove is the value of art, the comfort it can give us, and how it can symbolize our need to battle what is unpleasant around us.

There was certainly a lot of unpleasantness in 2008, but plenty of evidence of people fighting against it.

Here, then, is a wish for less ugliness in 2009, but for just as much effort, if not more, for people to try to eradicate it by producing something beautiful, something true.

Happy New Year from all of us at Roundtable Pictures.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nothing But Two Idiots


By Lars Trodson

There was a time, of course, when you could gleefully disagree with a critic on their assessment of a movie yet still respect their point of view.

I used to read Pauline Kael in 'The New Yorker' all the while howling at her narrowmindedness over some issues. But I also realized that she was teaching me quite a bit. She knew not only how to construct a review, but she also knew how to deconstruct a movie.

How times have changed.

I was home on vacation the other day when I watched a program called "At the Movies" with the reviewers Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz -- the latter whom I remember as a host of American Movie Classics. One of the movies they reviewed was something called "Nothing But The Truth", a movie that is loosely based on the Judith Miller case. Miller was a reporter for the New York Times who went to jail when she did not reveal her sources on some stories she wrote about the former CIA agent Valerie Plame. She later left the paper.

Anyway, as you can see from the clip linked below, both Bens recommend "Nothing But the Truth." Now, of course, when you say, as a critic, go see a movie, you're telling the public to pony up their ten bucks for the ticket and another 20 for snacks because you believe the thing is worth seeing. You are saying this is a satisfying thing, and that is generally works. You're asking for a commitment from the theater-goer, and you, as the critic, are saying they will not have wasted their money or their time.

And yet -- here's the kicker -- both of these critics say the final act of "Nothing But the Truth" is, and this is a quote, "cringe-inducing." That is to say it is a disaster. An absolute mess. So what Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz are saying to you is: Go spend your money, your time -- hell, even get a baby-sitter -- and what you'll get in return is a movie will utterly fall apart. Oh, you'll enjoy it for the first 100 minutes or so but the closing -- those final moments that should be among the most memorable of any movie you'll ever see, and the culmination of just why you have been in the theater for the past hour and a half -- well, it's terrible! It's awful!

This is of course beyond stupid. If a movie can't get itself together to give the audience a decent ending then it doesn't even deserve to get made. And if a movie critic is too flaccid to realize that an ending of a movie ought to be at least moderately satisfying in order to recommend it to the average movie-goer, then he doesn't deserve to be on the TV, or in the paper, or whatever. But of course these guys don't have to pay for anything, so why should they really care anyway?

Movie criticism is dying, and it's perishing for one reason. Critics, whether on the web or on the paper, have no idea how to dissect a movie. The general content of a movie review is this: It's great! Go see it! Or, it's terrible! But they can't tell you why any more either way. No wonder members of the movie review profession are panicking. We are getting to the point where we can say that critics are irrelevant not because we disagree with them, but rather because a good many of them no longer not only don't understand movies, they have no idea why we go to the movies.

To be clear, if any critic says go see a movie, even though the last 10 minutes are beyond stupid, then by any critical assessment they DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT.

Here's an analogy: If I offered you an exotic dish that I prepared but warned that, while delicious, it'd give you horrible stomach cramps just as you finished eating it, you'd not only decline the offer but you'd think I was an idiot.

Movies - even the movies of today - deserve better than these two dolts:

Here's the clip:

http://bventertainment.go.com/tv/buenavista/atm/


Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Critics Ignored, Caught Up, and Then Took Credit

New York Times

How Clint Eastwood Is Still Misunderstood

By Lars Trodson

Sometimes I get the feeling -- even if it’s the New York Times -- that reporters get about five minutes with their subjects. That was the sinking feeling I got when I read the “profile” of Clint Eastwood in last Sunday’s (Dec. 14) NYT’s Arts & Leisure section. It was written by Bruce Headlam, who wastes no time in larding the piece with unnecessary and cringe-inducing information because, as I said, I think he got five minutes with his subject.

The first paragraph:

“Being introduced to Clint Eastwood is something like seeing a California redwood for the first time. The difference is that this redwood, at the age of 78, reaches out to shake your hand with a firmness that still intimidates no matter how much time you spent preparing your grip (for the record: three days).”

Actually, the difference between Clint Eastwood and a redwood is that Eastwood is not a tree. But anyway, what a simp this writer is -- pumping his fists for three days hoping that Eastwood wouldn’t put the death grip on him. Oy.

Newspapers aren’t necessarily tanking just because the economy is bad. It’s flaccid prose like this that’s killing the medium.

But there’s more. The second graph of the piece starts like this: “He arrived at the interview at the Mission Ranch restaurant here as if he owned the place, and it didn’t make any difference that, in this case, he does.”

I have to say this, but even I think I could walk into a restaurant acting like I owned the place if I owned the place.

Are there no editors any more?

But the real grievance here is that while Clint Eastwood has had one of the most interesting and moving careers ever in the history in Hollywood, we get the Wikipedia version of his career. That’s fine for Wikipedia, but not for, as Dustin Hoffman once said in “All the President’s Men”, “the goddamn New York Times.” What we get in the NYT piece instead is a thumbnail rehash of a career trajectory that even the most casual viewer of “Access Hollywood” or reader of “People” magazine will have heard about before.

And that's the frustrating problem with newspapers: they are rarely ahead of the curve anymore. Here's what we get from the NYT about Eastwood's career: “Starting in the mid-1980s he began to change some minds by pushing the boundaries of his cowboys-and-cops image with films like ‘Honkytonk Man’ and ‘Tightrope.’” Wow wow wow.

The offense is not just the lazy prose, though; it’s that a writer for the New York Times, in a Sunday edition piece, didn’t even bother to pierce the cliches surrounding Eastwood’s career. Eastwood, after all, is now the owner of one of the most significant, impressive and moving careers in all of Hollywood’s history. But what the New York Times decided to give us was dreck. I don’t like dreck with my Sunday morning tea.

Let’s acknowledge this: Eastwood has always had a restless, boundless artistic temperament. Do you think that Sergio Leone, in his attempt to redefine what western’s could achieve, would have picked an empty-headed dolt? It is no accident, that of the untold numbers of spaghetti westerns made from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s there may be cult favorites -- but the classics belong to Eastwood. "Zapata", anyone?

If you believe even superficially that the Leone pictures are meditations on violence, then it is easy to see what led Eastwood to direct, as his first feature, case, “Play Misty for Me” (1971). If not an attempt to flesh out an idea that violence is the by-product of madness, then what is this picture? It certainly has its trendy violence, but it was no shoot-em-up, as he could have easily done. His character is a late night jazz DJ, for goodness sake.

There are real attempts at character development - including a sympathetic portrait by Jessica Walter of a woman who is demented and pathetic. It’s not a great film - but I hate to diminish it even in that way. It is safe to say that “Play Misty For Me” does signal that Eastwood was interested in the ramifications, and the complexity, of violence long before “Unforgiven.” He looks at this theme again in "The Outlaw Josey Wales" -- a film that I have not seen in the 30 years since its release, but I can still see scenes vividly in my mind.

Eastwood's career is old-fashioned in one respect: he emerged as a director in a time when your shortcomings were up there on the screen for all to see. Technology and a crew of 300 people can mask any director's inability get shot coverage the lead actor to cry, but 35 years ago, if you missed the shot or your actor couldn't cut it, you simply had to sigh and learn and move ahead.

That is what Eastwood did, and so we get the interesting failures. I remember distinctly that critical reception for “Tightrope” and “Honkytonk Man” and “Bronco Billy” was grudging. I can't sit through "White Hunter, Black Heart" or "Bird" -- but it is imperative for an artist to learn to grow.

Eastwood’s career certainly needed a jolt in the early 1990s. His career by this time had already been through it all -- huge hits, critical successes, audience adulation, phrases that had entered the lexicon and utter indifference. But no career can swoon forever and the decade previous to “Unforgiven” was distinctly undistinguished. It was 10 years of directing films called “The Rookie” (with Charlie Sheen), “Sudden Impact” and “Heartbreak Ridge.” The acting side was probably a little worse. So “Unforgiven” was just as much a reaction to market forces as it was a man who knew he had to muster all his artistic sensibilities - and all that he had learned -- to the forefront if he was going to be allowed to continue.

But Eastwood could make "Unforgiven" precisely because he had been allowed to make mistakes. He could also make it because he's obviously smart, and obviously different from the character so many of his movies have him out to be.

I remember quite distinctly a Merv Griffin show from the early 1970s when Eastwood was a guest along with the Maharishi Yogi, who was promoting (I think that is the right word) transcendental meditation, or TM. The Maharishi was decked out in a throne of flowers - as I recall - and when Eastwood came out he was handed one of those flowers.

He made a comment -- and I am going on memory here -- that maybe audiences would react differently to his movies if he took a flower out of his jacket instead of a gun. He mimed taking a flower out of a holster. This was right around the “Dirty Harry” era, and audiences back them were sophisticated enough to realize there was a difference between an artist and his art. So the audience laughed, and they got it.

So it must amuse Eastwood to read critics who believe he came into his own as an artist with "Unforgiven" only because that was when the critics themselves really began to notice he had matured.

Maybe critics today only need five minutes with their subjects. Why would you need more if you know all you're going to do is rehash the same old stories anyway?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A New Look For Roundtable Pictures


Click play to see our new logo in motion

By Lars Trodson

Movie studio logos have always moved, to some degree. MGM’s lion sat placidly inside his elaborate, Victorian crest, and then roared to announce the majesty of the picture we were about to see.

The Columbia Pictures lady (now a likeness of Annette Bening, from what I understand) carried a torch that crudely glowed in the early days. Now I guess her knee is a little more suggestively bent than it was back in the 1930s.

20th Century Fox had its moving searchlights, and the clouds behind the Paramount Pictures mountain moved gently in the western wind. Walt Disney had his magical castle.

Given that, it is not surprising that movie studio logos morphed into small pieces of animation. Mandalay’s jumping tiger. The winged horse that opened movies from the old TriStar Studios, and the much more elaborate mini-movie that became the Dreamworks SKG logo: the boy perched on a crescent moon who drops his fishing line into the water. That one really didn’t work because it tried too hard to be whimsical.

The other day I saw a film from Magnolia Pictures, and the logo looked like a watercolor of the flower. It seemed more appropriate for a self-published book of poems than a logo for a movie studio. But anyway.

These latter examples don’t seem to have the heft or the permanence of the logos of the old studios. I never could figure out just what that structure in the 20th Century Fox logo actually was, but I know it when I see it, and the graphic design gave the viewer the sense that there was some real craftsmanship in what we were about to see. MGM is of course a brand name synonomous with quality

The logos from the old studios transcend fads and seem to be impervious to changing tastes.

So that spirit was guiding us as we decided to look for a logo for Roundtable Pictures. I was doodling ideas here and there, wholly unsatisfied with anything that I came up with, when one day at work I scribbled a little doohickey on a piece of graph paper. It looked like a window fan, almost, but also, if you used your imagination, it resembled an abstract form of a table - the old roundtable where the knights sat at - but also with a little vigor to it.

I scanned in the drawing and sent it over to Mike Gillis, who then handed it off to our friend, the graphic artist Mark Dearborn, who, out of that scribble came back with what Mike and I both consider to be a lovely, wonderful logo for our little film company. When I first saw it I was completely taken aback, because I wanted something a little retro, something that would be in solidarity with the old line studios. But then I realized this sleek, modern look was exactly where we wanted to be. And should be. So thank you to Mark Dearborn for his work. You should hire him -- he can be reached at mdearborn615@gmail.com.

The first film that was adorned by the logo was “Elevation”, which was shown at the New Hampshire Film Festival to great acclaim, and has now been shipped off to festivals all over the country. We will of course let you know if anything breaks on that front.

We have begun pre-production on our next short, called “Your Bones By My Side”, which is a nifty little job we hope to finish in a few months. So you’ll see it there, too.

So, excuse us for showing off our shiny new logo. We’re proud of it, and we hope it and the movies attached to it will be some things you will remember.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Scaring Up Some News

By Mike Gillis

Since we're following a bit of a Halloween theme this week, we didn't want to let the festivities pass without a mention of our friend Jeff Palmer over at flicker pictures. Earlier this month, Jeff's screenplay, "The Sleeping Deep" took top honors for best screenplay at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Orgeon. Jeff is keeping his script close to the vest for now, but you can check out some excerpts and see some photos at Jeff's site. Congratulations and Yog-Sothoth! There's a story here in Foster's Daily Democrat.

Not in time for Halloween this year, but frightening nonetheless, is our friend Bill Bourdon's decision to sell his soul to get his latest project off the ground. Bill is looking for other souls to sell as his film, "No Sympathy for the Devil" fires up early next year. You can read about Bill's deal with the devil at the Boston Herald or at Bill's site.

Freddie Catalfo, whose short film "The Norman Rockwell Code," won some deserved praise a few years back, continues to move ahead with a feature-length version. A reading of the script is planned for this week.

Lastly, if you haven't seen the link at the top of the page to the Halloween party this Friday, please check it out now. In addition to music and food, some of Roundtable Pictures' films will be playing through the Witching Hour, including the award-winning short film, "The Listeners." See you there.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Prof: Less Gore is More with Horror Films


DURHAM, N.H. – With the approach of Halloween, those seeking a scary thrill might want to watch the classic horror movie “Psycho” instead of modern gore-filled slasher movies. When it comes to horror films, less gore is more, according to a cinematic studies expert at the University of New Hampshire.

Delia Konzett, assistant professor of English at UNH, says although horror films are still very popular, many of her students tell her that today’s horror films have lost their edge because they show too much gore. Instead, students say they are more frightened when the scariest moments take place partially off-screen, leaving what happens to the viewer's imagination.

“Classic horror/thriller films engage the viewers and their imaginations. Hitchcock was great at this and never underestimated the imagination of the typical moviegoer. His famous “Psycho” shower scene from 1960 did this in a masterly fashion. We never see the knife enter flesh; it's shown from various angles going through stabbing motions filmed in fast-paced and fragmented montage style that are alternated with close-ups of the shower and parts of Marion Crane's body and her face as she's screaming. These images are accompanied by stabbing sounds (knives plunged into juicy casaba melons were used for realistic sound effects) and Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable, expressionistic sound track with screeching staccato sounds mimicking stabbing sounds played by violins and other string instruments,” Konzett says.

“Even though we actually see only a small amount of blood (chocolate syrup going down the drain) and very little gore, if any, in this short two-minute scene, it has profoundly scared several generations of people, especially women, with many saying they are afraid to take showers for days. Very few horror scenes have had this kind of impact,” she says.

“Psycho” was ranked the No. 1 thriller by the American Film Institute on the 100th anniversary of the thriller in 2001, and the shower scene often is considered the most memorable scene in film history.

According to Konzett, Steven Spielberg's 1975 “Jaws” inspired a similar reaction with people worldwide afraid to enter the water for fear of shark attacks. Spielberg showed very little of the shark, but combined with a memorable soundtrack (by John Williams), the film engaged the viewer's imagination and has now become synonymous with lurking danger.

“Films such as ‘Psycho’ and ‘Jaws’ capture the helplessness of people, catching them when they are most vulnerable. This is why many decades later, they are still popular among the younger generation in spite of contemporary horror films that are more sensational and filled with blood and gore,” she says.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

'Elevation' in the News


In case you missed it, "Elevation" enjoyed a little ink today in Spotlight and Showcase magazines.

To check out Spotlight, click here:

To check out Showcase, click here:

Stay tuned for more updates on "Elevation."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sneak Peek at Our NHFF Posters

We thought we'd share two work-in-progress posters for our two New Hampshire Film Festival offerings this year. Watch these pages for more information soon on "Elevation" and "Home Away from Home," both of which will screen at the NHFF in October. For more on the festival, click here:







For more information on The Makem and Spain Brothers, visit makem.com.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

'Elevation' to screen at NHFF


Roundtable Pictures is proud to announce that its short film, “Elevation”, has been named an official selection of the 8th annual New Hampshire Film Festival.

Roundtable Pictures, based in Rollinsford, NH, was founded by filmmakers Mike Gillis and Lars Trodson in 2007. “Elevation” is the third film collaboration between Gillis and Trodson that has been selected as an official entry of the NHFF. Previous selections include “The Listeners”, which won Best Short Drama in 2005, and the ambitious musical comedy “A Bootful of Fish” in 2006.

The NHFF is scheduled to begin Oct. 16 at The Music Hall in Portsmouth.

“‘Elevation’ represents everything that Lars and I have tried to learn about filmmaking over the past three years. We wanted to create not only a great piece of cinema, but also we wanted to bring to life vivid characters with great dialogue,” said Gillis. “We wanted this to be as much about storytelling on film as it is about the characters within the movie itself, and it’s great to receive the validation from the NHFF that we succeeded on a very high level.”

“Elevation” stars Lisa Stathoplos and Gregg Trzaskowski, who starred in the Trodson scripted feature-length film “Family Trees” more than a decade ago. “Family Trees” was an official selection of the very first New Hampshire Film Expo ( as it was called then) back in 2001. Stathoplos and Trzaskowski are two of the region’s most highly respected actors, and they have each worked in film, television, commercials and stage for more than 20 years.

The film chronicles a brief but tense and revealing conversation between a worker named Scott (Trzaskowski) and his supervisor Natalie (Stathoplos) about whether or not Scott deserves a raise. The film raises emotional and even spiritual questions about the responsibilities we have to each other in and out of work.

“We’re especially proud of the selection by the NHFF because this film was made by four primary contributors. That is not a fictional number. This film was conceived, written, directed, acted, set-designed, costumed, financed and edited by four of us,” said Trodson. “To honor that process, we think we’ve done something unusual, but which is also a gesture of the true nature of independent film. While each of us made individual contributions, the credits at the end of the film simply read: ‘A film by Mike Gillis, Lisa Stathoplos, Lars Trodson and Gregg Trzaskowski.' That’s it.”

Trodson said “there was little point in parsing out individual credits, because if one of us was not able to put in an equal amount of time and effort to make the film, ‘Elevation’ wouldn’t have been made. We wanted to honor that.”

Gillis also pointed out that nothing in the film, from the sound design, to the artwork within the film itself, to the way the film was photographed (the camera never moves within a specific shot), to the content of the ending credits and even the font used for the titles, was left to chance.

“Everything here was thought through,” said Gillis, “And what we hope you see on screen is a film that, although brief, will give an audience the kind of emotional satisfaction that any real movie is supposed to provide.”

The dates and times of the 2008 New Hampshire Film Festival have not yet been announced.

Roundtable Pictures has started submitting "Elevation" to festivals worldwide.

Stay tuned for more on "Elevation."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Not a Gummer Yet


By Mike Gillis

Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." Depending on your take, it's remembered as one of Spielberg's best -- probably still his best, in my opinion -- or the film that redefined the contemporary movie-going experience as meaning little more than box-office take.

For me, it's commercial success doesn't undermine its dramatic success. "Jaws" still has a few lessons left to offer.

1. Wisdom can be overrated.
I find it reaffirming, sometimes aggravating and occasionally depressing that Spielberg made his masterpiece at 26 years old. We're often told that learning our craft takes time, lots of time, and filmmakers or writers mature over time. Certainly there are wisened old filmmakers and writers forever aiming for the swan song, the project that sums up and defines a life's work. But there is something to be said for youthful abandon, where the rules are both important as a guide and just as easily disregarded in the throes of creativity. "Jaws" remains a solid example of inspired filmmaking. I've not seen that kind of hardened inspiration since. No, not "Schindler's List" or "Saving Private Ryan."

2. A bad story can sink your ship
Although Spielberg's faux shark did sink, several times, it was more than a setpiece. The shark fit the story. That's not to say the book was a masterpiece, because it isn't, but its transformation to film made for strong drama under even direction. Without the architecture of a good, solid story, no movie can stay afloat for long.

3. Cast it or cast away
"Jaws" boasts solid performances across the board. Little needs to be said about the likes of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, but Spielberg was also able to create a convincing setting with local nonactors. Perhaps some of that is a bit hokey -- "A whaaaaat?" -- but we bought it. Don't populate a movie with actors. Populate it with people. Good actors, playing real people.

4. Sometimes a blockbuster is worth the ride
It's OK to have fun at the movies. Really. "Jaws" may be inexpensive by today's standards, but no small budget for its time. And that money bought the picture a memorable score and just enough gee-whiz props to take viewers on a rollercoaster of a movie. Not to mention the first three lessons.

So, happy anniversay "Jaws" and thanks for showing that movies can still have teeth.

Here's the original theatrical trailer:



Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back in Action


By Mike Gillis

It's been some time since we've posted -- nearly four months to the day -- and we thought it was time to get the ball rolling again. We can't promise daily dispatches at this point, but do hope to start posting again with more regularity soon.

And we haven't been idle. Roundtable has been hard at work on a few projects.

Look for two new films this summer from Roundtable. The first, a short, "Elevation," is a project we're very excited about. That film is in rehearsal and preproduction now and moves behind the camera next month. We'll post more about "Elevation" soon.

Also coming this summer is "Home Away from Home: The Makem and Spains Brothers Live in Butte, Montana," a concert film that chronicles the Makem and Spain Brothers' efforts to preserve a music tradition that seems to be disappearing by the day, as well as showcasing a spectacular live show. The film is in the throes of postproduction now and should be completed by August. Look for more information on that project here soon, as well.

We also hope to hop back in the saddle with reviews and commentary, if not frequently, at least occasionally. And we're always looking for contributions from you. Have something to say that seems right for these pages? Pass it along and we'll do our best to give you some space.

Thanks again for your patience and interest in Roundtable Pictures.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hey, Peter Travers, Include Me Out


By Lars Trodson

Peter Travers, the movie critic from Rolling Stone, lets you know, right at the start of his review of the movie “No Country For Old Men”, that if you don’t like the movie you’re an idiot. But don’t let me misinterpret his words. Here’s his first paragraph:

“Misguided souls will tell you that “No Country for Old Men” is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that isn't spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year's very best. Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, the film — a new career peak for the Coen brothers, who share writing and directing credits — is a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America's bloodlust for the easy fix. It's also as entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists. What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind?”

What do they they have to do with a life of the mind? I couldn’t tell you, because the movie certainly doesn’t tell me. So I’m in trouble. I did not like this movie. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it was all that great. I guess I won’t be invited over to Peter Travers’ house for an evening of drinking beers and watching “Cheaters.”

Travers has written a perfectly circuitous argument; it ends at the same point it begins. If you didn’t like the movie, you didn’t get it. And if you didn’t get it, you’re an elitist snob. I love the fact that Travers obviously does not want you to consider him an elitist, but yet he says if you don’t love the Coens’ new movie you must be part of the great unwashed crowd that went to see “Transformers.” Which seems to me the statement of an elitist. Hmmm. How do I get out of this argument?

Peter Travers is obviously also on a higher intellectual plane than the rest of us, because “No Country” only managed to be a medium-sized hit (it made about $60 million at the domestic box office.) This poor dumb country of ours is just too stupid to appreciate this genius. This is no country in which to be a real artist.

I found “No Country For Old Men” tedious, attenuated. It had flourishes of brilliance -- Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn being chased down the river by the dog, the coin toss in the lonely old gas station -- but for me the movie traveled down long and dusty roads in oceans of terminal silence, with characters that did not motivate me toward any kind of feeling.

I had gone in with high expectations - always a mistake - because there is not a performer in the movie I don’t like. I had just come to know Josh Brolin from his terrific performance in “American Gangster”, so I was looking forward to more work from him. Tommy Lee Jones? A thrilling actor. Javier Bardem is also turning into a favorite. Woody Harrelson can almost do no wrong. And I have long since wondered when American filmmakers would get back to the American west - the terrain that fueled so many of my favorite movies (“Junior Bonner”, “The Getaway”) of the 1970s.

The Coen brothers have made some of the great movies in the past 25 years. I loved “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “The Big Lebowski.” I wasn’t a huge fan of “Fargo”, but there is not a frame of “Miller’s Crossing” that is wrong. “Barton Fink” is fascinating to me, and I allow myself to be transported by the surreal whimsy of “The Hudsucker Proxy.” I love that movie.

But these attributes did not gel for me in “No Country For Old Men.” I do not know the Cormac McCarthy novel, so I don’t know if the movie sacrificed philosophy over plot, or plot over philosophy, because I didn’t get enough of either in the picture. Is “No Country For Old Men” trying to tell me that world is a ruthless place for people who get older? (Wow. This is deep, deep stuff that never occurred to me before. And how fascinating it must have been for Travers to find this out by watching the movie!) Does it mean to say that as mores and customs change, the world gets more confusing for the oldest generation? Is the Anton Ghigurh character -- played by Bardem -- a symbol of a kind of newer, modern, heartless violence? Is that opposed to the understandable, antique, more heartfelt violence of the past?

I was interested in Travers’ argument that the Coens could make a movie both intellectual and thrilling - it’s a thinking man’s noir, I guess. But check out the July 25, 2005 review of the novel in The New Yorker. The critic, James Wood, argues that while the book is entertaining, it doesn’t have very much interesting to say.

“McCarthy has never been much interested in consciousness and once declared that as far as he was concerned Henry James wasn’t literature. Alas, his new book, with its gleaming equipment of death, its mindless men and absent (but appropriately sentimentalized) women, its rigid, impacted prose, and its meaningless story, is perhaps the logical result of a literary hostility to Mind.”

Okay. Travers, in his quivering, arrogant review, is arguing that the movie version of McCarthy’s novel is precisely about “the life of the mind.” Wood went on to say in his review of the novel that the book was in fact “high-flown nonsense.” So who is right here? Travers, whose position is that the movie is a meditation on the meaning of life itself? Or Wood, who thinks of the novel as having an attribute he calls “metaphysical cheapness.”

And perhaps that’s why I was confused by the picture. It didn’t speak to me as a strict genre piece -- and I hope I am not a snob about movies -- nor did it have anything interesting to say. Or what it had to say didn’t enlist my attention.

And what about Bardem’s Academy Award-nominated performance? Is it “stupendous”, to use Travers’ description? I don’t know. He didn’t, and won’t, give me nightmares. Joe Pesci’s killer in “GoodFellas” gave me nightmares. So did Dean Stockwell as the Sandman in “Blue Velvet.” So does Norman Bates, and Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter.” But not this guy. I mean, haven’t I seen this kind of glassy-eyed, calm-demeanored killer in the movies before?

Does Brolin really -- I mean, really -- rip into his role “like a man possessed” as Peter Travers’ says? Is the performance really that exciting? I thought the performance was fine. Brolin had a quiet masculinity. His character seemed to be reasonably smart, reasonably decent, but it was not a performance that seared itself into my memory.

To me, the stylization of both the Coen’s vision (in this particular film) and Travers’ opinion of it dovetail perfectly at the end of Travers’ review in Rolling Stone. You know a debator is in trouble when they, in the end, have to fall back on the “I have seen the enemy, and it is us” argument. That’s exactly where Travers ends up:

“Not since Robert Altman merged with the short stories of Raymond Carver in “Short Cuts” have filmmakers and author fused with such devastating impact as the Coens and McCarthy. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. Recent movies about Iraq have pushed hard to show the growing dehumanization infecting our world. “No Country” doesn't have to preach or wave a flag — it carries in its bones the virus of what we've become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making.”

Oooh. I made this terrible world. We all did, you see, and the Coens’ are forcing us to watch the horror we have caused! Please. Leave me out of it. Think, for a second, of what this same argument sounds like when you transpose the plural to the singular: “‘No Country’ doesn’t have to preach or wave a flag - it carries in its bones the virus of what I’ve become. The Coens squeezed me without mercy in a vice of tension and suspense, and forced me to look into an abyss of my own making.”

Do you think anybody would write that about themselves? No, probably because they wouldn’t believe it and wouldn’t insult themselves that way. So please don’t insult me, thank you, or any of my friends. But because Travers has run out of things to say, he cloaks his ending in the royal “we.”

"No Country For Old Men” is highly stylized and maybe even beautiful, in parts, but it doesn’t have much more on its mind than entertainment. See you all at “Transformers 2.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thank You, Roy Scheider


By Lars Trodson

Roy Scheider starred in two bona fide American classics, “The French Connection” and “Jaws”, but it was not his presence that gave these pictures their stature. So, in a way, I start this essay seemingly negative, but only to make a point.

His acting in “Jaws” is far more substantial than it is in that esteemed New York crime flick, and he gave to his Chief Brody a nice, calm human element. He was also the actor who gave voice to a true American classic line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”, but it was his rendering of another line that I always thought was more enjoyable. At one point in “Jaws”, when it seemed the hunt for the shark was a futile venture, Quint (Robert Shaw) says to his hapless crew that they were going to head back into shore.

“Thank Christ,” says Brody, and he says it with such defiant joy that every time I hear it I burst out laughing. It’s also a line that I repeat to this day. Every chance I get to agree with something that someone says or does, I say, “Thank Christ.” This is how movies sometimes actually shape who we are.

I never actually thought his performance in “The French Connection” was all that great, but maybe that was because he was sitting next to an actor, Gene Hackman, who gave one of the truly flawless acting jobs in any American movie.

But Scheider, who died this week at the age of 75, made one great movie even greater than it might have been, and that was in 1980s “All That Jazz.”

In it he plays Joe Gideon, the director/choreographer based solely on the director of that film, Bob Fosse. I like to think of one scene in particular, and it is when, in a quiet and reflective moment, he gives a dancing lesson to his daughter, and they talk about their lives together, and separately, and girlfriends and love. And all through the conversation Scheider is dancing with his daughter and he offers, in a totally natural way, advice on the techniques on how to be a better dancer. It’s a thrilling, joyous scene, and it is so because the writing is quite beautiful, and Scheider’s performance matches every beautiful word with his every beautiful move.

I have no idea if Scheider had any training as a dancer, and he didn’t seem like he was built like one, but he gave to me, in the audience, the sense that he was a dancer to the very core of his being. And while Joe Gideon had trouble communicating with everyone in his life, he opened up in the dance studio, the place where you knew he felt most comfortable and honest and at home. That’s what he brought to that role and that movie. I adore that scene, and so many more in that movie. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for that role, but sometimes that accolade seems paltry to the actual achievement.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The musical ending, the death of Gideon, goes on too long, tipping ever so slightly what should have been an exuberant finale into something bordering on self-reverence. I know people who have seen the film will think that’s being too generous, but I can’t help it if the film works so well for me. It’s something I can watch over and over, and part of that unending enjoyment is watching Roy Scheider, in an atypical role, shining, shining not just like a movie star, but also like a very great actor.

It may not seem like much, as it is in the shadows of “Jaws” and “The French Connection”, because everyone this week has been focused on those two films. But those classics were made, and belong, to other people. “All That Jazz” is, finally, Scheider’s own, and he owns every bit of it. It is nice to give him that, and it is even nicer that Roy Scheider gave that to us. His performance is the kind of gift American movies bestow upon us every once in a while.

Thank Christ.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Long Live The Tudors

Henry VIII and clan seize the pop culture throne ... again


By Gina Carbone

There are a lot of big titles on my small bookshelf: “Crime and Punishment,” “Anna Karenina,” “Catch-22,” “Nine Stories,” even some holdouts from my Ayn Rand phase. Nestled around these classics — and the only thing as dog-eared as the Harry Potters — is “The Other Boleyn Girl.”

Written by British author Philippa Gregory and published in 2002, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is historical fiction told from the perspective of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, who was King Henry VIII’s mistress before ol’ Greensleeves got to him. It’s a shamelessly trashy little bodice-ripper — and inaccurate on many points of Tudor history. But I love it. Love it. Eat it right up within a weekend every time I find myself returning to it. What would Dostoyevsky think if he knew he was sharing shelf space with someone who writes dialogue like, “She’s a Boleyn and a Howard. Underneath the great name, we’re all bitches on heat”? (At least it sits next to “The Idiot.”)

“The Other Boleyn Girl” was wildly popular beyond my shelf and it sparked something of a cottage industry for Gregory. She continued Tudor-era historical fiction with “The Queen’s Fool,” “The Virgin’s Lover,” “The Constant Princess” and “The Boleyn Inheritance.” None of them were as good. None of them had the story of Henry overthrowing the Catholic Church so he could get busy with his famous multi-marriage career. None of them had the necessary mix of sex, sibling rivalry, treachery, witchcraft, danger, betrayal and head-chopping.

Which is why the film adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl” starring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana, opening Feb. 22, will clean up at the box office. Yes, that’s two Americans and an Aussie retelling England’s history but the Brits had their shot with a TV adaptation back in 2003. Now it’s our turn to do it the Hollywood way.

The Tudors are fascinating. They always have been and Hollywood has obligingly shown its favor over the years.

In 1939, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn got dramatic as Elizabeth I and her ambitious lover in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

In 1966, “A Man for All Seasons,” like “The Other Boleyn Girl,” approached the Tudors from the supporting side, focusing on Henry VIII's advisor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield).

In 1969, Genevieve Bujold wore the necklace with B for Boleyn in “Anne of a Thousand Days.”

In 1972, Vanessa Redgrave told the racy story of Elizabeth I’s cousin and chief rival “Mary, Queen of Scots.

More than 25 years later, in 1998, Shekhar Kapur brought the Tudors back to the Oscar table with a newcomer called Cate Blanchett as “Elizabeth.”

After that it was only a matter of keeping the ball in play. The Brits got back in the game in 2003 when Ray Winstone played a rough-tempered (think modern football hooligan) monarch in the “Henry VIII” miniseries co-starring Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn and a young Emily Blunt as his fifth wife (second beheaded), Catherine Howard.

In 2005 HBO produced Helen Mirren and a boatload of awards with its own miniseries, “Elizabeth I.” Suddenly the ante had been upped.

Last year Showtime — which is becoming the new HBO — launched “The Tudors,” a sexed-up MTV version of history starring hot young Irishman Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry and hot young Brit Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. It’s more “O.C.” than Merchant Ivory but it’s still popular in its second season and Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam add a touch of class.

But last year also gave us a major Tudor turkey — “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Shekhar Kapur’s disastrous follow-up to the 1998 masterpiece. Cate Blanchett may be the first woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar for playing the same character twice, but it wasn’t worth having to suffer through wooden, high-school level puffery from the normally fetching Clive Owen.

Soon “The Other Boleyn Girl” is heading to your local theater. Later this year filming should begin on another “Mary Queen of Scots,” this one starring Tudor veteran Scarlett Johansson (who is completely right as Mary Boleyn and completely wrong as Mary Stuart).

What’s the attraction with this little sliver of history? And why return to it now?

Well, from a dramatic standpoint, history doesn’t get much better. It all started with The War of the Roses between the Yorks and the Lancasters, which ended with Henry VII — the first Tudor — in power. Then HenryVIII (1491-1547) shows up and marries his dead brother’s widow. He has a daughter; dumps the wife and the Catholic Church in one fell swoop; marries a woman he later declares a witch and beheads but not before having another girl — conceived before the wedding; marries another young girl who has the son he wants, she dies, he has an arranged marriage to a foreign woman he finds repulsive and divorces within days; marries a teenager who cheats on him and he then beheads; then marries a woman who had been married twice before him and once again after he dies.

His son ends up dying as a teenager, leaving his first daughter — Bloody Mary — leading a Catholic rampage, only to be replaced by his unwanted second daughter Elizabeth, a Protestant who turns out to be the greatest monarch in the nation’s history.

On top of that is Elizabeth’s own decades-long pissing contest with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots — a more beautiful and passionate scandal-maker — which ends in Mary’s beheading. (They are the cover girls of “Great Feuds in History,” which also lives on my bookshelf.)

It’s the best soap opera ever and it’s true!

Why now? Because royals are hot business. Here in America we think paying kings and queens just to be kings and queens is silly, but we’ve been weaned on Disney princess films and we’re enraptured by the aristocracy.

When Princess Diana died in 1997 the entire world went into mourning, yet feverishly followed the gossip. When “Elizabeth” came along in 1998 it was devoured by an audience hungry for more real-life royal intrigue. The Windsors probably made it easier for “The Other Boleyn Girl” to get published and for “Elizabeth I” and “The Tudors” to get green lights. Each new story about Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Harry and Chelsea or any other randy royal makes the Tudors that much more marketable. It’s today’s headlines, but with the safe distance of history.

And I love it. Can’t get enough. A newcomer to my bookshelf is “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War That Saved England,” which was published in 2006. It’s no “In Cold Blood” but it keeps my Tudor fixation sated until “The Other Boleyn Girl” film comes out. If I’m lucky they’ll make a film version of “Spymaster” with Geoffrey Rush reprising his “Elizabeth” character. If I’m not, I’ll just reread the books. I have a shelf of them.

Gina Carbone likes how Henry VIII wanted a son to secure England but ended up with a daughter who outruled him and let the bloodline die. History is fun, kids.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

60 is the New 20

Hollywood’s age fixation is getting old

By Gina Carbone

A fourth “Rambo” just came out. It follows “Rocky Balboa,” which 61-year-old Sylvester Stallone released in 2006. In 2007, 52-year-old Bruce Willis found his fourth wind with “Live Free or Die Hard.” Later this year, 65-year-old Harrison Ford will crack his whip again for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Also a fourth movie.

These men should read the Bible more often -- three is a good number. Powerful number. Four is just one more. As in one more movie with past-their-prime actors reliving old glories. Fun for them, maybe, but what’s in it for us?

With an estimated budget of $24 million, “Rocky Balboa” went on to gross about $74 million stateside and a lot more overseas. The overseas angle is the only thing I can think of when I ask myself “Why another Rambo?” Stallone still has star power in this country but even more when you cross the border. The curiosity angle may movie some tickets, but are there that many die hard Rambo fans still kickin' around?

Maybe. Box Office Mojo asked its users, “What is your top choice to see this weekend (Jan. 25-27)?” The top choice, with 31.6 percent of 1,128 votes, was “Rambo.” “Cloverfield,” a repeat from the week before, was the closest second with only 16.5 percent. Only 5.1 percent of voters chose “Untraceable,” the mainstream new release starring Diane Lane, and 3.6 percent expressed interest in the spoof “Meet the Spartans.”

Huh.

Perhaps the baby boomers are speaking. Someone elevated “The Bucket List” to the top film at the box office for its opening weekend, No. 3 last time I checked. Star power still works, even when the storyline is depressing and the stars are both 70. Hollywood is traditionally youth-obsessed, but maybe now that the country is getting older we’re ready to watch our favorite celebrities battle our own issues.

Look at 66-year-old Julie Christie in “Away from Her,” a beautiful small film about Alzheimer’s effect on a marriage, as directed by 29-year-old Sarah Polley. Christie is a frontrunner for an Academy Award this year -- and, for once, it isn’t because she’s an icon. (Sorry, Ruby Dee, but your nomination was just for that.)

Looking back over 2007, many of the strongest performances can be credited to the geriatric crowd. Max von Sydow, 78, stole hearts in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Albert Finney, 71, was boss in “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” And nothing can touch the poetic sadness of Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook, 82, in “Into the Wild.”

Not everyone is on the “gray is the new black” trend. The top films of 2007 were “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third,” “Transformers” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” I don’t think we can credit Aunt May or Dumbledore for those blockbusters.

Mel Gibson already made his fourth “Lethal Weapon” 10 years ago -- when he was still in his 40s -- and Arnold Schwarzenegger is absent from the “Terminator” resurgence. He made “Terminator 3” back in 2003, when the 60-year-old governor was a frisky 56. Now there’s a new TV show, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” with a hot young female robot played by 26-year-old Summer Glau; plus the inevitable fourth film, “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins,” starring 33-year-old Christian Bale.

And the top TV show -- strike or no strike -- is “American Idol,” which has an age cap.

Still, it’s refreshing to see some wrinkles and slower gaits on the silver screen. Why older actors feel the need to show us they’re still action-ready is a mystery, especially when they all insist on adding “I’m getting too old for this.” (Hilarious stuff!) But it’s heartening to see names we thought were washed up under the tide of Zac Efron return for one last stand.

Over on the Internet Movie Database message boards, some 2008 “Rambo” fans discussed the lingering popularity of Sylvester Stallone:

First user: http://boxofficemojo.com. Top five people right now are

1. JJ Abrams
2. Matt Reeve
3. Will Smith
4. Russell Crowe
5. Sylvester Stallone

Second user: He was # 3 a few days ago

Third user: Wow! Who would have thought, in 2008, that Sylvester Stallone would be in the Top 5 of anything?? That's pretty cool.

Since there’s a fourth of everything these days, I’ll play fourth user: Pretty cool indeed. Show ’em how it’s done, old man.

Gina Carbone is technically in her early 30s but her mother said she was born about 40 years old, so that makes her slightly older than Jack and Morgan.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Party with us on Halloween

THANKS FOR COMING! PARTY WAS A SUCCESS!

Join us and Aaron Rohde Photography for a Halloween bash on October 31.



Directions:
From I95 take the Spaulding Turnpike/Rte. 16 exit (left handed exit) in Portsmouth. Continue on the Spaulding Turnpike through the Dover tolls and continue to Exit 8E (about 9.5 miles from Portsmouth). Merge onto Rte. 9 toward downtown Dover. Pass through several sets of lights. Take a left onto Main Street or Rte. 108 when you reach the end of Rte. 9. At the intersection of Central Ave. and Washington Streets, take a right onto Washington Street. Cross over the Cocheco River. The Picker Building is located by the river, directly behind Biddy Mulligan’s on your right. Parking is available on the street with access along the river, or in the lot behind the main mill building (turn right at the end of the building just before the covered bridge.

The Map:

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lou Reed Was Right: I Love You, Suzanne


By Lars Trodson

There is an astonishing, lovely, haunting shot in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and it is of Suzanne Pleshette in repose, smoking a cigarette, and she is listening as the brash Melanie Daniels talks on the phone.

Hitchcock’s color movies – particularly the ones he made in the 1960s – are unusually garish, and “The Birds” is no exception. It’s flat and ugly. But that one shot of Pleshette is like a painting, and its feeling is imbued in large part because of the power of an actress who could hold the screen without saying a word. That’s a beautiful shot, and Suzanne Pleshette is beautiful in it.

There is a lot of cruelty in Hitchcock’s films; I don’t break any new news by saying that. But what is particularly interesting about the emotional geography in “The Birds” is that almost from the beginning Hitchcock skews our emotional attachment away from the unsympathetic Tippi Hedren (her performance is not quite as bad as some people would make it out to be) to the much more human and endearing Annie, the schoolteacher played by Pleshette.

Hitchcock may have had his reasons for doing this, but he rarely parsed our affections away from his leading lady by the presence of another woman. But Hitchcock knew that even if the boorish Mitch, played by Rod Taylor, had broken up with Annie, we in the audience were not going to be quite so stupid.

Even Mitch’s daughter Cathy, played Veronica Cartwright, was clearly more enamored of Annie than she was of Miss Daniels.

The shot we’re talking about – the photography in “The Birds” was by Robert Burks, who was Hitchcock’s most frequent cinematographer from “Stranger’s on a Train” (1951) on – takes place early in the movie. Melanie Daniels has tracked Mitch down to the seaside village of Bodega Bay, and she is going to stay at Annie’s house for the night.

Melanie has to phone Mitch to let her know she’s staying there, and while she’s on the phone Hitchcock cuts to Annie, laying back in her chair, head tilted to the ceiling, her leg propped up, and she is in profile. The colors are muted, like an old faded postcard and the scene to me is slightly Victorian. I can see that shot right now, even though I haven’t watched the movie in years. We know that Annie’s heart is breaking as the new girlfriend talks to Mitch, and we feel for her. Her heavy pain is evident in that one shot. He gave her the movie right there and then. And we in the audience carry that emotion with us even after Hitchcock, as he is so willing to do, has Annie killed mid-way through the picture.

It’s sometimes the fate of a star of a picture to be overshadowed by an actor in a lesser part, and it may have been no trick to steal “The Birds” away from Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, but even so. Hitchcock knew what he had in Suzanne Pleshette, and even though she was never going to be the star of his movie, she gave it a very human, lovely tone that it would not have otherwise had.

And on the night after she died, I was listening to a radio talk show late at night, and I heard all these women call in, women who were undoubtedly the same age as Pleshette, and they had embraced her, and they were going to miss her because they knew what Hitchcock knew: Suzanne Pleshette was a keeper.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Beginning, and Then the End

Editor's note: "Family Trees" made its web debut here at roundtablepictures.com. See the picture below. Lars Trodson wrote and produced "Family Trees".


By Lars Trodson

The big lie, to me, was that you could finance the whole thing on your credit card. The truth of the matter is it was several credit cards, and if you don’t sell your movie you’re in debt for years.

But that was the excitement of the independent film movement in the mid-1990s. This was the era of “The Brothers McMullen” -- the Ed Burns film that was picked up and distributed by a major studio and grossed millions of dollars.

There was possibility in the air. If I remember correctly, and please forgive me because this was more than 10 years ago, there was an ad by a credit card company in movie trade journals that showed a picture of their card and called it “your movie studio.”

Sure.

I left my job at The Portsmouth Herald, where director Ralph Morang also worked, and decided to pursue this unlikely dream. We subscribed to the Sylvester Stallone philosophy, who said, when he wrote and made “Rocky”, that if he knew the obstacles ahead he never would have pursued the project.

So we simply plowed ahead. We had no money, but plenty of ambition and, I hope, some talent. When Gregg Trzaskowski and Lisa Stathoplos came on board, we felt the movie might indeed have a chance. I loved those two, as well as the other actors who came on board. The actors, every one of them, to a person, were not only talented, but lovely people as well. I think our shoot was a happy one.

When we started filming, it was a clear blue autumn in New Hampshire , and the tone was right, and we felt free working in New Hampshire because we were not encumbered by permits or red tape. We just set up our dollies in the middle of Market Square in Portsmouth and Ralph and the great Ron Wyman, our cinematographer, started to set up their shots.

We had a budget, but no money in the bank. I got money from all over the place. Ralph’s mother’s boyfriend was a huge help, a big believer, and passionate enough to keep us going. I got money over the bar one night in a tavern in Portsmouth and the guy said, “Don’t tell my wife.” I called my brother, and my parents, and then there were all those credit cards.

We shot the movie on 16mm film, and there was a guy at Kodak, his name was Paul Good, who had, in an unbelievable bit of coincidence, met my brother at a party in Rhode Island . I can’t remember the exchange exactly, but they were talking at the party, and Paul Good was talking to my brother Brad, and Brad said that his brother was making an independent film in New Hampshire . Paul said, I’m working with the guy in New Hampshire , and his name is Lars, And then Brad said “that’s my brother” -- and after that Paul was a huge help in getting us the film stock we needed at a price we could afford. He was a great guy.

Ralph’s assessment on how he came about to direct the movie is as simple as he said it. We had talked about movies here and there, and he came by the house one day and said he wanted to direct it, and I said OK. That was it, and he did a magnificent job. We had one major fight, right on the last weekend, about his staging of the final scene. I think the end result there is a little bit of a compromise on both our parts. But I think you will see his staging and the handling of the actors and the way they read their lines is accomplished and quite lovely.

I’m proud of the script, and didn’t realize until much later on how many parts for women I had written -- good, strong parts for people past the age of ingĂ©nues. Of course, that does not mean these women are not attractive or sexy -- I think all of them are -- and it’s nice to see these characters fleshed out by so many accomplished actors.

Our little crew was exceptional, and we were all bit by the fever of making an independent film in New Hampshire , which had not been done in some time. There was Vickie Brown and Eric Gleske and Sue Morse and Kem Taylor and a whole slew of people who gave their time and energy and talent to make this happen.

We submitted a trailer to the Independent Film Market in New York City in 1997, and we were accepted as a work in progress. We got a fair amount of press, and then a bunch of us went down and lobbied for the film.

There was, as incredible as it may seem now, some buzz about the film. These things are strange; there is a surreal aspect to it. Someone who I did not know at the festival said that Penguin Books wanted to talk to me about a novelization of the screenplay, but as far as I know that was just a weird thing to say. It certainly never happened.

The IFM lasts a week, and about half way through it, fueled by bouts of ale at McSorley’s, I had had enough, and said as much to some other filmmaker. I said, I don’t think I’m ever going to make another movie; I hate it. And then after that, for the rest of the week, I had some strange kind of “Bonfire of the Vanities” celebrity because I became known as the guy who didn’t want to make movies. One filmmaker said they would die if they didn’t make films. On the last night of the festival, when I repeated my desire for anonymity, a filmmaker fairly yelled at me by saying: “You can take that whole thing too far!” I said I wasn’t pretending, I didn’t want to do this shtick. I didn’t write another screenplay, by the way, for 10 years.

As I said, there was some interest in the film. I made contacts, but every time I called that person at this or that studio, they seemed to have left their job. I was asked to resend the video -- these were cassettes back in those days -- but nothing ever happened. I would make calls to people I had met, and it was always, “We’re going to get this thing bought, buddy!” but I never heard back. And then time, and life, intervened.

I look back on the movie now and have an incredible sense of pride about it. It’s beautifully done, and I know the acting is uneven, and so is the production, but with what we had we did a great job. And, we finished it, which is a lot more than people do sometimes.

It took my wife and me several years to pay off our debt on this thing, and then the old enthusiasm came back, slowly, and movies still hold their allure for me. Mike Gillis and I are enamored of the David Lynch school of filmmaking, and we hope to make a series of small, surreal, lovely little films with a minimum crew on little or no money. That’s the plan, anyway.

It’s funny how times change. Back then, I had to go to Boston every week and write a check to DuArt to get our developed film -- which lingers now in boxes in my attic -- and now we can store an entire film on tiny little video cassettes.

The medium may have changed, but that does not mean the desire, or the possibilities, do not loom as large as they did when we started “Family Trees”, more than a decade ago.

Family Trees -- web premiere

Note: "Family Trees" contains adult language. Because of the size of the file, and depending on your connection, you may experience a stall. If so, press pause and allow more of the film to load.

(Press play to begin)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Roots of the Whole Thing

Editor's note: "Family Trees" made its web debut here at roundtablepictures.com. Gregg Trzakowski starred in the film.


By Gregg Trzakowski

It has been a good ten years since we “wrapped” on the set of "Family Trees," finished filming. I must say right off that, I seem to recall only positive memories and wonder if there were in fact any negative ones.

The whole experience for me was both very positive and unusual. "Family Trees" was my first film experience, up to that point I had theater and on-camera experience through commercials and industrial video. Landing a lead role in a full-length feature was a great opportunity to work and learn on camera. According to memory, this was a collaborative effort; I would find out down the road that it doesn't always work this way. There were times when a shot or scene wasn't really coming together, then someone would come up with an idea and we’d try it. I credit both Lars and Ralph for being open to ideas and creating an atmosphere in which an actor felt safe in letting loose. If something didn't work we just tried it from a different approach, no harm done.

What made this special for me was the fact that we were all fairly green when it came to making films and consequently, we looked to each other to contribute what each could. Every member of the team was dedicated to telling the story, to serving the story first. Were mistakes made? Yes they were, however I think we all learned a great deal from those errors and exited the other end better at our respective jobs. I know I came out a better actor in the end.

In retrospect, the hardest part of making "Family Trees" was working around people’s day jobs.
"Family Trees" was filmed on weekends over a five month period. I do recall rehearsing the cabin scenes with Lisa (Stathoplos) and Ralph (Morang) when the three of us could get together during the week. Now that I think of it, we had shoot schedule and Ralph called to say we would be shooting the cabin scenes on the coming weekend. Now, according to the schedule it was to two weeks down the road. I panicked and told Ralph that I wasn’t one hundred percent ready. He assured me that if things didn’t gel we would re-shoot the scenes. I had the lines pretty well down and the rest was running on pure instinct, trusting Lisa and diving in head first. To this day, the cabin scenes are some of my favorite.

All things considered, I remain proud of the film we made. "Family Trees" is a story about real life, driven by characters who are not perfect or superhuman, yet extraordinary in their own way.

Please enjoy.