Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Streep & Streep: Which Of Her Movies This Year Is Actually The More Honest Portrayal of Middle Aged Love?

By Lars Trodson

An online movie critic described a recent Meryl Streep movie as "refreshingly mature, funny and endearing with a terrific cast and razor sharp dialogue. Meryl Streep sizzles in a sexy, bold and honest performance. It’s an intelligent American romcom with a very French sensibility."

I realized this could have been either Meryl Streep movie released in 2009: "Julie & Julia" or "It's Complicated", although the critic was describing the latter.

The movies bear more similarities than featuring Ms. Streep. Both films were written and directed by women: "Julie & Julia" is a Nora Ephron film and "It's Complicated" is by Nancy Meyers. Both lead characters are foodies: Julia is of course Julia Child and Jane Adler in "It's Complicated" runs a bakery and she seduces her men partly through her work in the kitchen.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Is 'Avatar' Our 'Titanic'?

Is the little handmade film with real people finally a thing of the past?

By Lars Trodson

The question about whether James Cameron's "Avatar" is the future of movies shouldn't be framed in terms of its technical achievements but in terms of what audiences will now expect in order to be entertained.

Are the only movies that will truly transport an audience are those made by thousands of people with a $300 million pricetag?

Critics are hailing "Avatar" as not only a great entertainment but the very future of the medium. The idea behind this prophesy is a little demented. They're all saying that with enough money, time and computer technicians, you can create a similar movie. No, no -- you NEED to create a similar movie. Otherwise you'll just have made a little talky thing with people moping about. And no one will care.

Which means that the technicians may finally have won.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

'The Family Stone': Overlooked Christmas Gem

By Lars Trodson

There is nothing quite so satisfying as a great holiday film, and that's due to the fact that there are so few of them. There have been only two films added to the list of classic holiday films in almost 30 years. One is "A Christmas Story" (1983) and the other is the strangely overlooked "The Family Stone" (2005). This movie can easily be added to those that we cheerfully call "perennial favorites", and if you haven't seen it, you should.

Part of the problem may be the title, which, alas, means nothing. There's no indicator that it's a holiday movie. It's frustratingly bland, but the movie itself a lovely, screamingly retro holiday fantasy that adheres to the conventions of the genre while also giving it some real humanity.

That's the key to any real holiday classic: it's got to have the right mix of reality and fantasy. The apex of this recipe is, I think, "Miracle On 34th Street" (1947), which works whether you believe the Edmund Gwynn character is really Kris Kringle or not.

But there can be fantasy of another type, too, which means it only has to be a beautiful dream.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Up In The Air': Another Empty Balloon

By Lars Trodson

In Manohla Dargis’s review of “Up In The Air” she has this to say about actress Anna Kendrick, who plays a supposedly cutthroat young executive named Natalie Keener: “The ferocious Ms. Kendrick, her ponytail swinging like an ax, grabs every scene she’s in, which works for her go-getter (go-get-him) character... She’s a monster for our times: a presumed human-resources expert who, having come of age in front of a computer, has no grasp of the human.”

The critics have been falling all over themselves about Kendrick, and this adulation was sanctioned this week by a Golden Globe nomination for the young actress.

Now, I defy anyone who has yet to see this movie to find a scene, any scene, any moment, any second, where Ms. Kendrick’s ponytail swings like an ax. It does not happen -- in fact, it mostly hangs limp.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Quentin Tarantino Talks Up Our Oscar Pick

Mr. Tarantino picks his top 8 films for 2009, and agrees with us on what the best American made movie of the year might be.
Oscar voters, take note.

Click here for Quentin Tarantino's Oscar picks:

-- LT

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Clash Of The Remakes: Do We Need Another 'Excalibur'?

By Mike Gillis

We've commented before on the growing and aggravating trend in Hollywood to remake perfectly good movies, sometimes for no other reason than to shift from black and white to color ("Psycho?"). Movies from a few years to a few deacdes old now get the makeover regularly.

Two recent entries into what I like to call the repeat genre remind me how barren the well of creativity in Hollywood has become. What's more, both remakes are themselves based on works hundreds of years old. And in both cases, I suspect, they serve no other purpose but to road test new and improved digital effects.

Bryan Singer, who leveraged the critical success of "The Usual Suspects" to carve out a career as a mediocre, big budget director, is now tackling a remake of John Boorman's "Excalibur."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Werner Herzog's 'Bad Lieutenant' is a Train Wreck Worth Watching

By Mike Gillis

There is a scene late in Wernor Herzog's ode to anarchy, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" where bad New Orleans Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) interrogates an old, wheelchair-bound woman and her hairdresser at a rest home. McDonagh is looking for the hairdresser's grandson, a witness to the execution of a Senegalese family. McDonagh reaches down and rips out the oxygen tubes from the old woman's nose and keeps her gasping until her hairdresser spills the beans. Once the oxygen is restored the abuse doesn't stop. McDonagh begins a rant about the old woman and her oxygen tank being the reason the country is falling apart, suggesting she's wasting her children's inheritance to selfishly prolong her frailty.

It's a senseless berating, but offers a rickety framework to a movie that clearly intends to defy meaning: Once the body unravels, nothing holds it together well, so what's the point? The old woman's oxygen is no different than the cocaine and heroin McDonagh snorts, first to mask back pain, but ultimately to dodge the harsh reality of mortality. McDonagh finds solace with drugs, a prostitute (Eva Mendes), abuse of power and ego. He uses everyone around him: his father and stepmother, his peers, drug dealers. It's all reckless.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Worst Films Of The 00's

I'm not sure someone like Paris Hilton should be included on this list, because she is not an actor and the things she appears in are not films. But it's dispiriting to see so many terrific actors -- Nicolas Cage, Eddie Murphy, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc. -- appearing here.

Perhaps this is an indication of just how brutal the Hollywood system has become for actors in the past 10 years or so. It is not coincidental that this list is chock full of talented American actors, while the "Best Of" lists compiled by critics all over the world include so few American movies.

-- LT

Friday, December 4, 2009

The A.V. Club Posts Its Top 50 Of The Past Decade

Here is a list that is more accessible -- and wildly different -- than either The New Yorker or TIFF. 

-- LT

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The New Yorker Also Announces Its Top 10 Of The Decade

These films are probably very beautiful, but did many of them play outside New York?

The New Yorker announces best films of the decade

-- LT

The Decade's Top Ten, According To The Folks At The Toronto International Film Festival

Wow. This is a list sure to start a debate, particularly among the extraordinarily few people that must have seen all the chosen films. The list is so obscure it elicits a kind of awe, actually.


-- LT

Monday, November 30, 2009

Nominate, And Choose, J.J. Abrams' “Star Trek” for Best Picture

By Lars Trodson

The Academy Awards situation is rapidly and predictably reaching what we will call the “Dark Knight Dilemma.” The dilemma can be described this way: how does the Academy recognize the most popular films of the year even if the top movie critics in the country disagree mightily with the public.

“The Dark Knight”, of course, is the Batman sequel that broke box office records two years ago but was generally shut out at awards time (Heath Ledger notwithstanding). The low-grossing and utterly laughable “No Country For Old Men” won the big awards that year, a decision that history will no doubt regard in the same vein as rewarding “Forrest Gump”, “Chariots of Fire” and “Shakespeare In Love.” The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences knows that it has to start finding a way to recognize those films that make $300 million at the box office but are generally realized to be lacking in the artistic department.

Friday, November 27, 2009

'A Christmas Carol' Dubbed: Is It Still Jim Carrey?

Question No. 1: I was watching a French-language trailer for the new "A Christmas Carol" the other day, and while I can't be positive (someone may enlighten me), it didn't sound like Jim Carrey voicing the now French-speaking Scrooge. Yet as the credits rolled, in French, Jim Carrey was listed as the star.

If there is no actual Jim Carrey on film, and if the voice is not his in any of the dubbed versions of the film (say for the version in Greece), what actually is it that "stars" Jim Carrey? Some of the physical movements of the character? Maybe the way he flies through the sky while riding an outsized candle-snuffer?

It certainly made sense when you had a film with a real actor. I mean, if you went to see Jerry Lewis in "The Nutty Professor" in France, it was still Jerry Lewis, no matter what the actor's name was that did the French dubbing. But this seems a little on the fringe. What do you think?

Question No. 2: Does the poster for the new Sandra Bullock film "The Blind Side" make her look like a Hobbitt?

 -- LT

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Dehumanization Of Movies: Scrooge Was Always Into Numbers, But Now He's Made Of Them

By Lars Trodson

Is it possible to adapt yet another version of Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" without having read the book?

There are so many versions of this story -- starring everything from Barbie to animals to Muppets to Mr. Magoo -- yet all remain so faithful to the same template that it is not unreasonable to ask if filmmaker Robert Zemeckis even cracked open this modest ghost tale to make his digitized 3-D version of the story.

He may have read it, but his inspiration -- for the screenplay and not the look of the film -- appears to be other filmed versions of the story. Zemeckis even yanked, for no apparent reason, a reference from a lovely little 1935 English version of the story called "Scrooge" into his own. It's at the beginning of both films when a butcher throws out a chicken leg to some hungry kids.

In Zemeckis' version I think the butcher has the voice of Bob Hoskins (who also later voices old Fezziwig, alive again!). There's no specific reference to this butcher in the Dickens' text, but given that Zemeckis and his animators copied the shape of the window directly from the 1935 version (and also made it a basement window, as does the 1935 film) seems to indicate a preference for filmic sources rather than written ones.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Note of Thanks from Bill Gold

I always said that I was lucky to go to work everyday working in the movie business. I didn't make the movies, of course, but I was often responsible for the first impression of a film people were about to see. I was fortunate to be associated with so many famous films, to be sure, but I loved the movies and the filmmakers I worked with - the famous ones and the not so famous. I think that was one of the reasons I had such a long career. I admire people who make movies, and I'm a movie fan. I am grateful for the fact that so many creative people put their trust in me to connect the audience with their films.

I am also gratified by the reception my work has received over the years, and the recent attention given to it by the story on Roundtable Pictures (written so artfully by Lars Trodson). The comments I've received personally and on the website have meant a great deal to me. Thank you all to everyone who took the time to write.

For the next few months I'll be busy working on a book that will illustrate many of the posters I designed during my days at Warner Bros. and BG Charles and Bill Gold Advertising. There are more than 2,000 posters in a 63 year career, including versions people have never seen. The evolution of these designs is as fascinating as the making of the movies themselves. Each poster has an interesting story. I know these images are important to many of you, and they mean a great deal to me, so I think the story is worth telling. The book is scheduled to be published in late 2010.

Thank you again for taking the time to appreciate the work I've helped create.

All the best to everyone,

Bill Gold

Monday, November 9, 2009

Film New Hampshire announces upcoming screenings of our work

Click on the link below for the story on Roundtable Pictures screening its latest film, "Tuesday Morning," our Doritos ad, and our award-winning film "The Listeners" at the Red Door in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

New Hampshire-based Roundtable Pictures debuts new film and Doritos ad

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Check Out Our Doritos Ad

Mike Gillis and I had been talking about our next film -- one we hoped to start filming around Christmas -- when we also started to explore the idea of creating advertisements. There is, obviously, a real craft and art to making a great ad, and there is a kind of storytelling discipline to it that we find appealing.

One day, during these discussions, Mike sent me a link to a contest, www.crashthesuperbowl.com, which was sponsored by Doritos and offered a million dollar prize. It seemed like the right thing to do, so I came up with a script, Mike started to talk to technicians and sound people, and we explored a few casting ideas. We immediately came up with a few names of guys we knew were funny, but not actors, and said let's just move right ahead. So we asked Scott Bourget, who is the CFO of the company I work for; Mark Dearborn, who is a graphic designer and who created the gorgeous Roundtable Pictures logo, and Chris Curtis, who is an actor and film programmer, and who also starred in our earlier short film, "A Bootful of Fish." They all said yes.

Mike talked to Jonathon Millman, who had shot our films "The Listeners" (2005) and "A Bootful of Fish" (2006), and Jonathon helped assemble guys like Sean Mitchell, who let us use his digital camera; Stan Barker, who did the sound, and Jason Santo, who brought his light kit, and Dave Langley and a whole crew of other people who filled up a beautiful house in Dover, NH for an entire day one Sunday.

The shoot was fun -- continuing the Roundtable ethos that you can try to create something worthwhile and also have a good time. We were supported by the fact that we had three great actors play the girlfriends, Angel Smith, Adrienne Montezonis and Dianna Larocque. They were all great.

Mike and I spent a couple of nights editing, and Mike picked out the music from the toolkit supplied by Doritos. He made sure the "Doritos crunch" was used properly, and he and I had a little celebration when we uploaded the video at his house one night.

Check out our ad by clicking the image below (click "skip intro" on the splash page to jump straight to the ad). If you want to look at others, visit www.crashthesuperbowl.com. To see what others have said about it, you can look it up under the title, "The Main Ingredient", or by director, which is Roundtablepictures. If you are sampling "all" videos, it's number 1496. Post a comment if you so choose.



Monday, October 26, 2009

The Gold Standard: Roundtable Pictures Interviews Legendary Movie Poster Designer Bill Gold

In a career spanning more than 60 years and more than 2,000 movie poster creations, Gold led the way in how the world sees the movies

Classics include "Casablanca", "My Fair Lady", "The Exorcist" and "Unforgiven"

By Lars Trodson

Bill Gold had a dilemma.

The dilemma wasn't due to the fact that he had a poster to design for a major Clint Eastwood movie that would be released in 1988. He had designed posters for Eastwood before. In fact Gold had designed posters for every Eastwood movie dating back to "Dirty Harry." The dilemma also wasn't that he had too few ideas for the poster, or too many.

The dilemma was this: the poster was for the movie, "Bird", which Eastwood had directed. It told the story of Charlie Parker -- a drug addicted jazz musician. Only the studio, Warner Bros., didn't really want a poster that suggested that the movie was about a drug addicted jazz musician. That wouldn't sell to a broad audience. What to do?

What you do is what Bill Gold suggests. His idea prevailed -- just as they have during a remarkable career designing movie posters for such diverse directors as Arthur Penn, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Mike Nichols, and Ridley Scott and many, many more. The sheer volume of Gold's work over 60 years -- for movies as diverse as "A Clockwork Orange" to the first theatrical "Get Smart" movie called "The Nude Bomb" -- is staggering.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Original Grindhouse War Movie: Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘Inglorious Bastards'

By Lars Trodson

The biggest difference between Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglourious Basterds” and Enzo G. Castellari’s “The Inglorious Bastards” is not the fact that there is almost no similarity between the stories of the two movies. The real difference is that there is not one sentimental frame in Castellari’s version - human beings are dispatched with remarkable efficiency and frequency with not one iota of regret.

Tanrantino’s film, on the other hand, is steeped in sentimentality -- he’s got nostalgia for grindhouse films, the the films of World War II, the old glamour of Hollywood, for the earlier version of the film he remade, for old-time villains and cinematic heroes and for the women who sometimes love them. His “Inglourious Basterds” is really a nostalgia trip.

Castellari’s 1978 film is an opera of carnage. None of the violence is terribly explicit -- you won’t find the sickening realism of “Saving Private Ryan” here. But scores and scores and scores of people are killed during 99 minutes, including (spoiler alert!) some of the lead characters. But, honestly, Castellari wasn’t much interested in having you care about these people anyway.

It’s all about the explosions and the gunfire.

Castellari’s film is so defiantly unsentimental that the only character that expresses any criticism of warfare is a German soldier named Adolf Sachs (Raimond Harmstorf) who decides to throw his lot in with the Americans.

Sachs is also at the center of a remarkable, and brutal, misunderstanding that actually sets the plot in motion. This occurs almost halfway through the film. It’s an ingenious twist, and one that would be heartbreaking if Castellari and screenwriters Sandro Continenza and Sergio Grieco gave the audience a second to consider the implications of the event, but they don’t.

The plot is reminiscent of “The Dirty Dozen.” A ragtag group of soldiers who are about to be court martialed are being transported to either prison or the gallows. But unlike “The Dirty Dozen” they aren’t recruited for a mission that would, if completed, gain them salvation. Their convoy is attacked by the Germans on the way to the clink and everyone guarding them is killed. The bad-boy soldiers escape and they take it upon themselves to join the war again.

Their ultimate challenge comes about solely due to the turnabout with Sachs, the German soldier that was captured by the Americans and who joined their group.

The film isn’t as delirious as one would hope it to be. It’s a fairly conventional actioner, with few of the lurid touches you’d get in a real whacked out European film by someone like Jesus Franco. The cinematography (by Giovanni Bergamini) is solid, and the acting is uniformly lacking. It’s shot in the typical way of a film that was always meant to be dubbed, with the camera moving away from faces as they speak so the audience wouldn’t get too caught up in the idea that the mouth wasn’t forming the words you actually hear.

The only adjective I can find for the special effects is “cute” -- the destroyed buildings and bridges and trains are straight out of tiny-town -- miniature recreations that look small despite the best effort to disguise them. But the production also features real tanks and trains and jeeps, which is nice and retro.

There is also a very mini Steve McQueen-like motorcycle jump that is, well, cute.

The climax features a runaway train and a secret German weapon that must be deactivated. None of the plans laid out by the Bastards goes particularly well.

The cast includes the rock-like Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson and an actor named Peter Hooten who supplies, improbably, the only love interest the film has.

A genuine curiosity is the Americanized name of the film. In one of the odd and mysterious ways that language sometimes works, the two perjorative words in the title -- “inglorious” and “bastards” -- somehow, when taken together, conjure up an image of heroism, which is exactly what the film meant to convey. That may be coolest thing about it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Ken Burns Effect: Can't We Get a Joke Once In A While?

By Lars Trodson

I tried. I really, really tried to watch Ken Burns' latest documentary on PBS. But I can't. I'm all for being serious, but over 12 hours I need to laugh -- I'll even take a chuckle -- once in a while.

Ken Burns is a beautiful filmmaker and an undeniably articulate writer. There's no question. But ever since I was introduced to him through "The Civil War" series years ago, and then through "Baseball", and "Jazz" (and others) and now with "The National Parks: America's Best Idea", I have more frequently begun to ask myself why the guy has to take everything so seriously. Not everything in life is weighted with meaning and metaphor and deep insight into the human condition.

I understand completely that there is nothing funny about war, which Burns has examined twice, but -- and thank goodness for it -- funny things do happen in wartime. Even when life seems to be crushingly horrific, funny things can happen. But not in a Ken Burns documentary.

I happen to think baseball is one of the most whimsical and fleet-footed of all games, but not according to Burns. It was only frought with money and race and labor issues. I loved a lot of that series, but I thought: Couldn't he have devoted a half hour one night to some funny stuff?

How about jazz? Jazz can be humorous, lyrical, light - but can you name me three moments of downright laugh out loud moments in Burns' "Jazz?" Why not? Has nothing funny happened in the jazz world in the past 90 years? Was Jack Johnson's life all misery and pain and controversy?

I'm not sure that the National Parks systems is the best subject to begin turning on the laughtrack, but there must be something in that history to lighten the load. I'm going to give the series another go, and maybe I'm wrong. But so far it has been the same approach as before -- stunningly beautiful pictures and archival footage, voiceover narration by Tom Hanks, and the plink-plink of folk music in the background as we are tutored. So I'm having a hard time of it.

Ken Burns is almost certainly on to another project. I applaud him, and look forward to whatever he has to say next. But as he's writing his next script, I only ask him to take a moment and try to give his audience a break from the sobriety of life, and remember that there can be a telling detail about America and her history wrapped inside a good old-fashioned joke.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Is Godard's "Contempt" Relevant Today? Is Godard?

By Lars Trodson

In the 30-minute discussion that takes place at the heart of Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt", the characters played by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot talk about the following:

The future, the past, love, the meaning of love, sex, art, sex in art, family, lying, money, commerce, happiness, fame, contentment, dinner, appearances, illusion, reality, jealousy, truth, infidelity, movies, career, marriage, divorce, sanity, insanity -- and perception.

At one moment, Piccoli -- who plays a screenwriter -- slaps Bardot (she plays a typist) - so there is violence, too.

In other words, just about every subject the movies have ever tackled is presented in one circular, fascinating and maddening discussion by two unhappy people.

It's fitting, because no doubt Godard thought of his film as a kind of coda. He was summing up. At the end of the film, Godard has the words "Take Care" and "Farewell" (adieu) written across the screen, and almost certainly these words were being spoken by Godard to the essence of film -- a message to cinema itself -- rather than to the characters in the movie that were about to die.

Godard's film is literally about the death of cinema, a curious approach considering the man is still making films almost 50 years later. Maybe "Contempt" -- the French title is "Le mepris" -- was all a lark. I suppose in my younger years I would have fallen in love with this conceit -- the romanticism and the purity of it. Godard would be right because he is a genius. That is the romance of the young. We must all die before we get old and corrupt.

But such concessions don't come so easily any more -- if only because enjoyment from the movies comes in so many forms, including the commercial and the ludicrous.

Godard's movie, released in 1963, is based on the premise that the movies had promised us something -- that they started pure and somehow lost their way. Who were these owners of early cinema that sold it to the bankers and the bean counters? There isn't anything in the historical record to support that. We can appreciate and even admire the earliest film shot by Edison, or the Lumieres or Georges Melies. The films are simple and certainly beautiful, but that doesn't mean their only reason for existing was as art. No -- these were businessmen, too. It is a self-reverential and a certain kind of mythologizing to say that commercialism wrecked the movies. This is a platform supported by movie reviewers who see 200 movies a year and never pay for a single one. They have time to consider such abstract arguments. The rest of us, we pay our ten bucks and want to be entertained.

I'll be more honest than the critics who say that "Contempt" is a masterpiece. That most of the reviews of the movie mention how long that middle scene lasts, just as I did, means that at some point they looked at their watch as the thing played out. I did.

Since the 1960s Godard has been arguing that cinema was coming to an end, and by the time "Weekend" rolled around in 1967, he was giving way to any sense of formalism or rules. More recently, he has been shooting digitally and his films receive a limited release, at least outside Europe. They seem to be very personal endeavors, which is fitting. I haven't seen them.

He may have been, and may be continuing to be, fighting against American capitalism, and if that's his battle, fine. But what, really, is the battle Godard is fighting in "Contempt"? The same fight Peckinpah fought? And Welles? The one against the philistines with the check? Perhaps -- but if you have a grand vision, and Godard certainly had one, no one has yet figured out how to film that for free. Particularly if you put movie stars in your movies, which Godard was wont to do. This is rebellion?

Maybe in the last 40 years Godard has put his own money into his pictures, and then it would be hard to argue the point. He can do whatever he wants. But with "Contempt" it seems like a peculiar argument. What does it mean to take a check from producer Joe Levine, and then make a movie contemptuous of the check from a guy like Joe Levine?

Everybody -- including the gods that the characters in "Contempt" rail against -- has a boss. This includes filmmakers. If you don't like it, go stick a camera on a tripod, film yourself musing in a chair, and post it on YouTube.

From what I understand, "Contempt" starts out with a scene of Bardot nude in a bed because Levine wanted the great BB in the nude. Godard, who could rise to a challenge when he felt like it, turned the scene into something both sensual and contemplative. Bardot asks Picolli questions about her body, and how her husband likes specific bodily parts. After she asks about her kneecaps and breasts, Piccoli says:

"I love you totally, tenderly, tragically." Piccoli, who plays a screenwriter Paul Javal, could very well be talking about the movies, and in this movie in particular.

The scene then jumps to a decrepit movie studio where the crass, manipulative movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) comes out of a door and says, "Only yesterday there were kings here! Real human beings!" And he is referring to the gladiator epics that were made at the Cinecitta studio in the late 1950s and early 60s, when Italian cinema was in decline, but Godard may also be referring to the ghosts of the filmmakers who have come before.

Later, as Prokosch watches in dismay the dailies from the film version of Homer's "Odyssey" that he is producing with Fritz Lang as director, he says, "I like gods. I like them very much." But he hates the film he is producing, and yet he writes another check, almost as though he is a slave to the art he is trying in vain to protest.

To help punch up the project, Prokosch tries to hire Javal, but Javal is ambivalent. Prokosch invites everyone back to his villa for a drink after the screening. Lang says "Include me out" -- resurrecting the famous line by Samuel Goldwyn. Their initial discussions at the villa, and the perceived liaison that Javal has with Prokosch's assistant (Giorgia Moll), leads to the discussion at the middle of the film between Bardot and Piccoli.

Bardot's appearance in the film seems to lay somewhere in the twilight between commerce and art. She is named Camille, after one of the most famous French characters in literature. The original Camille (which was written by Dumas fils) must choose tragically between love and obligation, even as she is dying.

Bardot -- who turned 75 on Sept. 28 -- had a reputation of living exactly as she pleased. Not only was she obviously beautiful, she was a free spirit, and came to physically embody the national symbol of France. The idea that Bardot was in any way a Camille-like character was silly, and maybe that was the joke. Maybe.

In the sequence in their apartment, as Javal and Camille muse about the various aspects of life, Bardot dons a black wig, an act reminiscent of Welles cutting off Rita Hayworth's long red hair for "The Lady From Shanghai." The conversation they have -- even though it is archetypal - can be fun and inventive.

"Why so thoughtful?" Javal asks Camille at one point.

"Because I'm thinking of something," she responds.

But Camille's dilemma is simply personal. While it may be important to her, the only aspect of her life we are exposed to is her marriage to Javal. The problems the marriage is undergoing are only alluded to, and so we're not terribly invested in them. There's nothing more important than that, and so the conflict, if one even wants to call it that, is mild.

That Godard made the decision to spend so much time with these two shallow people -- as opposed to Prokasch and Fritz Lang, who seem to have so much to say -- means that Godard ultimately made the decision to make an intellectual point with his film rather than make any attempt to move his audience emotionally. He later took this attitude to near perfection in "La Chinois", which is almost all treatise and no cinema -- outside of his devotion to bold color schemes.

If I want to be indoctrinated, maybe I'd be better off forgoing the cinema and reading Mao's Little Red Book.

Some poetry does sneak through the proceedings in "Contempt." In the closing scenes, played out against a magnificent Mediterranean backdrop, Prokosch says "When it comes to making movies, dreams aren't enough." I took a rather workman-like message from that beautiful line: you not only have to dream a movie, you actually have to make it, or else it just stays a dream.

At the end of the movie, Bardot is sunbathing on the roof, and she is no longer as naked as she was in the beginning in the movie. Her ass is covered by a book, which may be one of the most whimsical bits of censorship in movie history.

There is more discussion and some angst, and Prokosch and Camille end up together in a little Alpha Romeo. They fill up at the local Mobil gas station and then Jerry and Camille crash into the oil truck and die. Godard has a thing about big oil (check out the famous opening in "Weekend"), but, really, is that the best he can do?

Here, at the end of the movie, I wrote in my notes: "Godard kills the muse and the money." What? He even had me fooled for a while, but probably I was just tired.

"I hate you because you're incapable of moving me," Camille says to Javal. I'm certain that Godard was also addressing the movie community -- to the David Leans and the Carroll Reeds and John Fords and George Cukors -- the men who he thinks destroyed the pure promise of the movies.

The problem is that in Godard's determination to please himself, and to satisfy the critics who were on his side, he failed to move too many other people, really, after "Breathless." And, frankly, there is real poetry in Reed and Cukor and Ford and Lean. If you look up Godard on IMDb, the movie that he is first identified with is "A bout de souffle" ("Breathless") -- what does that say?

Perhaps I came to Godard too late, but I don't feel like making excuses. Maybe I should have watched him in my twenties., when I saw "La Jetee" and "Celine and Julie Go Boating." But, truth be told, those were tough going, even when I was young.

I guess the next time I'm feeling continental I'll rent a Truffaut. I can watch "Day for Night" endlessly, and it has the added bonus of not making me feel so stupid if I decide to drink a Coke.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Lost Book On Constitutional Law Saved By Google Library Project

By Lars Trodson

I've been to Connecticut twice for different reasons in the past month, and during one of the trips I took a ride through Willimantic, which is where I spent some time when I was a kid. My mother grew up in a big old Victorian house on Church Street in that city, and lived with her grandmother Harriet Bass Fenton. I knew my Grandma Fenton -- she died in 1968 at the age of 93. I found her cane once and she rewarded me with a nickle. Her husband, my great grandfather, ran a company in Willimantic called the Windham Silk Co.

Robert Fenton had a brother, Horace Jewell Fenton. Both Robert and Horace seemed to know what they wanted to do when they were quite young. I have one letter written by each of them on the same day in 1887, and Robert writes about how they were building a new school in the town where they were living then, Saccarappa, Maine (now Westbrook). He later became an engineer and helped build the original pier at Old Orchard Beach. I have a scrapbook of his photos from that project.

Brother Horace writes that he can't wait to put his boat in the water, and he later had a career in the Navy. We always knew he wrote a law book that was once taught at The Naval Academy, but I had never seen it.

But I've seen it now, thanks to Google Library.

Here's the book:


Pretty cool.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Surprising Lesson Of Both "The Wizard Of Oz" And "Eyes Wide Shut"

By Lars Trodson

Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" is 10 years old this year, and "The Wizard Of Oz" turns 70.

Both movies (and the source materials) have been over-analyzed, to be sure. Oz is really a parable about the capitalist system. "Eyes Wide Shut" is awash in symbols of the Illuminati.

Or not.

There's been endless commentary about the connection both movies share: "Eyes Wide Shut" has abundant references to places over and under the rainbow. Anybody who finds themselves in uncharted territory, whether it be physical or mental, they are apt to say: "We're not in Kansas any more."

Neither is just a movie any more, either.

Kubrick never lived to hear the debate over his final film. I find quite a bit of the movie fascinating, and it marks a return to actors giving emotional and layered performances (for the most part) that Kubrick later seemed to abandon.

Nicole Kidman is wonderful, if a little uneven. The great Vinessa Shaw is both mysterious and comforting (she's one of the few actresses able to convey different emotions at once), Marie Richardson is touching as the tortured daughter of one of Cruise's patients -- they are all excellent.

You already know about the actors in "The Wizard of Oz."

Both stories involve a journey. The central characters (Dorothy and Dr. William Harford) are lost, and are trying to find something they feel is missing. Both movies are dreams, both movies are nightmares.

I think most dreams -- even those dreams that turn bad -- are eventually about the same thing: they are trying to remind us, or get us back to, the place where we feel most safe. Nightmares come when that journey is blocked. When we can't get back, or don't know how to get back. And so it is with both pictures. Dorothy and Harford are trying to get back.

So there is one thing that is always overlooked in this debate.

While the "Oz" ending is heartfelt and warm, and the "Eyes Wide Shut" ending is crude and clinical, both films, surprisingly, remind us of the exact same thing:

There's no place like home.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Werner Herzog Wants To Talk Shop, Without The Mumbo-Jumbo

From Filmmaker Magazine:

WERNER HERZOG'S ROGUE FILM SCHOOL: "'The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry. For those who are pilgrims. For those who can tell a story to four-year-old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within. For those who have a dream. — Werner Herzog

That's the mission statement of Werner Herzog's new Rogue Film School. Click here for more info. The first seminar takes place in L.A. January 8 - 10, and the application deadline is November 13. There is a seminar fee of $1,450. Details can be found throughout the site, including several fantastic directives on the "About" page. Examples:

The Rogue Film School will not teach anything technical related to film-making. For this purpose, please enroll at your local film school.

The Rogue Film School is about a way of life. It is about a climate, the excitement that makes film possible. It will be about poetry, films, music, images, literature.

Excerpts of films will be discussed, which could include your submitted films; they may be shown and discussed as well. Depending on the materials, the attention will revolve around essential questions: how does music function in film? How do you narrate a story? (This will certainly depart from the brainless teachings of three-act-screenplays). How do you sensitize an audience? How is space created and understood by an audience? How do you produce and edit a film? How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth?

Related, but more practical subjects, will be the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance.

Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mini Movie Reviews: "Surveillance" and "Choke"

By Lars Trodson


Directed by Jennifer Lynch and written by Lynch and Kent Harper

I like to feel tense and ill-at-ease at the movies. It's fun to be in the movie theater and feel dread - you know the lights are going to come on.

Jennifer Lynch's "Surveillance" certainly was creepy -- up until the end, which was mundane. I guess the question I would like to ask a director like Jennifer Lynch - who has adopted many of her father David's visual tics but little of his sense of the mystical or sublime -- is what it is exactly she wants us to feel when we leave a movie like "Surveillance"?

In the end it is hardly anything more than a slasher film. It wants to be a little bit like "The Twilight Zone" -- but without Rod Serling's sense of wonder. Because "Surveillance" doesn't end with a continuation of the unknown, or surrealism, is simply drills down to a couple of serial killers bellowing wildly. You know the type, two crazy outlaws so much in love they need to kill people.

It's been done at least since "Bonnie and Clyde." So what is the point, exactly? "Bonnie and Clyde" was as much about movie style as it was about rebellion - the zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Terrence Malick's "Badlands" was about loneliness and alienation. Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" was about thick moral decay, as much as I dislike that movie.

"Surveillance" is about technique. Pretty good technique, no doubt, but again -- after being creeped out, which is fine, what am I supposed to do with all the carnage Jennifer Lynch has left behind?


Directed and written by Clark Gregg, from a book by Chuck Palahniuk.

Maintaining a consistent tone is one of the most difficult things to achieve in the movies, and "Choke" aced that test. It is the sweetest movie ever made about some of the most dysfunctional folks you're ever going to meet.

Everyone in the movie is an unholy mess. They cheat, they lie, they have addictions, they're needy, they can't hold a job - the list continues. But with an expert cast of actors, Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Joel Grey (!), Viola Harris, and so many more, and with a great script, the film is a continued surprise because it doesn't annoy you, it delights you.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Two Articles On The State Of Films Today

There is a lot of conversation about what is happening to movies today -- the state they're in, the flagging interest of the public, the reliance on opening weekend receipts for success.

Here are two articles, one that address the current state of independent movies and the other on how to perhaps change the atmosphere on how movies are being made.

A good conversation starter, anyway:

This is from The Wrap:


This is from Ann Thompson's blog, Thompson On Hollywood:


-- LT

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New York Times Book Review Sparks Interest in ... Physicist?

It has been a long time since a review in the Book Review actually made me want to go out and buy a book with a topic way outside my conventional sphere of interests.

But a review of the newly published "The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom" (Basic Books), made me want to do just that. I had never heard of Dirac, and so it was a pleasure to be introduced to him and to want to learn more.

The review is by Louisa Gilder, and it is perceptively -- even movingly -- written. She was clearly inspired to match the way the book made her feel.

We're going to review the book once we're done with it, but read this great review, and get "The Strangest Man" if you feel you want to know more about the mystical Paul Dirac.

Here's the link:


-- LT

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pure Genius: "Sorority Row" Turns R Rating Into Marketing Opportunity

I was listening to the car radio the other day when an ad for the new movie "Sorority Row" came on. The body copy of the ad was OK, but at the end of the ad, which is usually the part when they mention the MPAA rating, something really caught my attention.

Usually the end of such an ad is filler. "Rated PG for blah blah blah..."

But then I heard the following: "'Sorority Row' is rated R for strong bloody violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and partying."

Bloody violence? Nudity? Partying?

That's not a restriction, that's a come-on. If "Sorority Row" is not the number one movie overall, or at least among its intended youth demographic, it wasn't for lack of trying.

In my line of work, which is marketing, you take a challenge, turn it into an opportunity and go for it. That's what they did here.

"Sorority Row" from Summit Entertainment opens today.

-- LT

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Thoughts on Arthur C. Clarke's 'The Sentinel' And It's Origins for Kubrick's '2001'

By Lars Trodson

Speaking of "Two Lovers", the character played by the excellent Joaquin Phoenix has a poster of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in his bedroom. One presumes the poster is something left over from his childhood, and provides another hint of what kind of person Leonard Kraditor is, or was. Not everyone is attuned to the charms of Kubrick's peculiar masterpiece.

Mike Gillis -- who directs our films here at Roundtable Pictures -- and I talked briefly about Kubrick just this weekend, and we were talking about "A Clockwork Orange", and the general consensus was that "A Clockwork Orange" was either great or terrible. Who knows, really. I've seen the thing four or five times myself and I can't quite figure it out. At the very least it's fascinating.

It's like any Kubrick film: you enter his universe and you're at his mercy.

I was lucky that I got an introduction to Kubrick at an early age, when my father took my brother and me to "2001" when it opened at the old Cinerama Theater on Hope Street in Providence in 1968. I remember there were hippies in the lobby. Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design were right down the street.

From the first frame to the last I was entranced, and still remember the experience of watching the film for the first time. Everything about it was simply fascinating -- from the apes to the technology to the music to Captain Bowman's hallucinogenic trip home through the energy fields -- something in my house we used to call the "storm of colors."

I used to think that's what the filmmakers must have called it, but it seems like that term was ours alone. I like it. You remember: Bowman is in the pod after he has shut down HAL and he flies through space and his trip is both spiritual and spatial. The "slit screen" effect, as it was called, put laser-like fields of color at the top and bottom of the screen. When Kubrick cut to Bowman, sometimes his eyes changed color. We used to call that the "storm of colors."

Arthur C. Clarke was Kubrick's collaborator on this film, and I had never read the story on which the movie was based: a very short story called "The Sentinel" that was published in 1950.

I happened to have a paperback called "The Making of Kubrick's 2001" -- an anthology edited by Jerome Agel and published by Signet in 1970. The book is its own kind of trip -- far out and spacey and probably already two years behind the times when it was published -- but it contains a series of articles about the movie and interviews with the writers and also Kubrick that are interesting. We learn that the movie was originally called "Journey Beyond the Stars", which sounds incredibly 1950s sci-fi conventional.

It also has a reprint of Clarke's "The Sentinel", which I had never read. The story begins like this: "The next time you see the full moon high in the south, look carefully at its right hand edge and let your eye travel upward along the curve of the disk. Round about two o'clock you will notice a small, dark oval: anyone with normal eyesight can find it quite easily. It is the great walled plain, one of the finest on the Moon, known as the Mare Crisium - the Sea of Crises."

That's a great beginning. What I found remarkable about this story is that Clarke adopts the tone of an enthusiastic, yet studied travel writer. The narrator is a geologist, but you utterly believe, from the first words on, that he has actually been to the moon -- the narrator knew its contours and personality and faults and pleasures.

The Mare Crisium is where the narrator finds the sentinel of the title. He believes it is some kind of device left by a long-ago civilization to send out messages about what is happening on the earth. The sentinel is the precursor of the obelisk in "2001", and it is about the only element of the story used in the film. In truth, Clarke's sentinel looks or behaves nothing like the black slab found in the film.

What I think Kubrick took away from the story was how natural Clarke made space travel feel -- and that is exactly what Kubrick and Clarke achieved in the film. When I was a kid in 1968 looking at that amazing film, it made space travel seem like the most natural thing in the world. Even though, at the time, no one had yet been to the moon.

Here is more from the story:

"I said just now that there was nothing exciting about lunar exploration, but of course that isn't true. One could never grow tired of those incredible mountains, so much more rugged than the hills of the Earth. We never knew, as we rounded the capes and promontories of that vanished sea, what new splendors would be revealed to us. The whole southern curve of the Mare Crisium is a vast delta where a score of rivers once found their way into the ocean, fed perhaps by the torrential rains that must have lashed the mountains in the brief volcanic age when the Moon was young."

This sounds like travel writing, but it was written almost 20 years before anyone had stepped foot on the surface of the moon.

In the story Carke casually mentions the remnants of exotic fauna found on the moon, and the dried up beds of old rivers and seas, but what drives the narrative is a seemingly innocuous, yet ominous, observation. The narrator is making the very English breakfast of eggs and sausage when he looks out the window of his "pressurized tractor", as Clarke describes their vehicle. He mentions that on the moon there is "no loss of detail with distance" when you are looking at things. There is "none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth."

The narrator continues, and this is the important part:

"I was turning away when my eye caught a metallic glitter high on the ridge of a great promontory thrusting out into the sea thirty miles to the west. It was a dimensionless point of light, as if a star had been clawed from the sky by one of those cruel peaks, and I imagined that some smooth rock surface was catching the sunlight and heliographing it straight into my eyes. Such things were not uncommon."

But of course it was uncommon. He saw something glitter. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, declares he's going to check out the promontory where he saw the reflection, and a fellow astronaut named Garnett volunteers to go with him.

The gravity-free atmosphere of the moon makes their climb up the 10,000 foot mountain relatively easy, but they are both convinced their trek will be fruitless. The Moon, then as now, has not produced revolutionary findings.

Except it was not a fragmented piece of sharp rock that produced the glitter. When he reaches the ridge where he saw the light, the narrator writes: "Probably no emotion at all filled my mind in those first few seconds. Then I felt a great lifting of my heart, and a strange, inexpressible joy. For I loved the Moon, and now I knew that the creeping moss of Aristarchus and Eratosthenes was not the only life she had brought forth in her youth. There had, after all, been a lunar civilization - and I was the first to find it. That I had come perhaps a hundred million years too late did not distress me: it was enough to have come at all."

He loved the Moon, the narrator says, and one of the feelings that you get when you watch "2001" is that the filmmakers, if not necessarily the people in the film itself, love the Moon, and are in love with the idea of space travel and the possibility that it affords. The possibility of adventure and discovery is what drives the short story "The Sentinel", and also "2001." Both were created when such flights could propel the imagination.

As much as "A Clockwork Orange" -- which was made three years after "2001" -- is much more pessimistic than the Anthony Burgess novel, "2001" is much more hopeful than the end of Clarke's short story. "The Sentinel" ends without much hope for Man, but is filled with the possibility that we can still be saved by some extraterrestial lifeforce.

Kubrick took the opposite view. Humankind, in the movie, is both destructor and savior. In that way Kubrick created one of his most hopeful stories. He is saying that no matter what damage we may have done, we may return, reborn, full of life, filled with hope.

In that way, Kubrick and Clarke together created a world that may be historically eight years in the past, but is defiantly hopeful for our future.

First Peek at New, Improved 'At the Movies'

First Peek at New, Improved 'At the Movies': "They're serious. They're grown-ups. They wear black jackets and they use big words. If you missed the Sept. 5 debut of its post Lyons/Mankiewicz resurrection, Buena Vista Entertainment has rolled out an online look at the updated, No Bens At the Movies reboot.

The sentiment expressed by At the Movies' official website is clearly, You know those two boneheads we hired to replace Ebert and Roeper? Don't worry, we canned 'em. The site's main page now features a dauntingly somber photo of critics A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, alongside a video preview trumpeting 'serious reviews, by serious journalists.' It's a big ol' slap in the face to Ben and Mank, but it gets the point across -- Buena Vista screwed up by hiring The Legacy and the Chucklehead, and now they desperately hope to repair the damage by replacing them with, well, actual film critics.

The clips of new reviews are like a big, frosty glass of water after enduring the Bens' desert of stupid. In one clip, Phillips and Scott actually engage in -- gasp! -- thoughtful deliberation about the tone of Big Fan, with Phillips telling the unimpressed Scott that he misreads the black comedy as a naturalistic drama. Watching smart critics say smart things, on subjects in which they're actually knowledgeable makes one nostalgic for the days when Siskel and Ebert were a weekly must-see.

Continue reading First Peek at New, Improved 'At the Movies'

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Joaquin Phoenix in "Two Lovers": A Masterful, Beautiful Performance

By Lars Trodson

Just when you think movie acting has gone all slick and slack on you, something comes along that gives you faith.

The actor is Joaquin Phoenix, and he apparently isn't acting any more. So maybe his performance in "Two Lovers" will stack up as one of the most poignant swan songs in movie history. Say it isn't so.

You need to pick up "Two Lovers", if you have not already, and simply enjoy the craft of a guy who is at the top of his game. Everyone else in it is great, too, including Vinessa Shaw, who seems both fragile and strong at the same time, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who seems fresh and unaffected here.

But it is Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, a mixed-up, depressed, quiet young man with an artistic bent who hits the right notes at the very beginning of this pitch-perfect film and never wavers.

It's a little film, produced by Marc Cuban's 2929 Productions, and I had never heard of it. It was released in 2008, and I wondered who had beat out Phoenix for an Oscar nomination. I googled who was nominated for Best Actor Oscars last year -- Richard Jenkins, Frank Langella, Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn -- and I hate to say it but the one we could have lost there was Pitt.

But that would have put the number of great actors in very small films at four, though -- and I think the Academy was taking some heat for ignoring "The Dark Knight" -- a real blockbuster. So, the thinking might have been that putting Phoenix into the lineup just would not have been good business. Or maybe no one even bothered to see the film.

It's nice to say that Phoenix turns in a performance that is artful. From the first haunting images of the film (photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay) to the last shot of two awkward lovers hugging during a New Year's Eve party, Phoenix etches a portrait of a person you seem to understand by the end of the film.

You may think the title, "Two Lovers", is obvious, but Leonard literally has two lovers. This didn't seem to be out of sync with reality at all. Leonard is a depressive, he's suicidal -- (at the beginning of the movie he jumps into Sheepshead Bay and later says to his mom, "I fell into the bay."), and he's back sleeping in his old bedroom. But he's a charmer with killer good looks.

I've known people like this, and you probably have, too -- some guy down at the local bar who is a bit of a loser and stone cold addict, but both women and men like him -- no, love him! -- and his bad habits never really seem to catch up with him until the very end.

That's Leonard. He's a mess, but so are the people around him -- except his parents.

This is one of the rare films that takes the time to allow the lead characters have a relationship with their parents that isn't one based on destruction. Leonard lives in Brooklyn, and his parents (played by Isabella Rossellini, still stunning, and Moni Moshonov) are both European emigres who own a dry cleaning shop where Leonard is working part time.

The parents are about to sell their shop to the Cohens, who arrive at the Kraditors apartment to celebrate the merger. The atmosphere of the apartment is palpably New York outer-borough, beautifully Jewish, without any hint of caricature or stereotype -- the details of this life are lovingly displayed.

The Cohens bring their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) along. Sandra had seen Leonard in the shop and wanted to meet him.

The Cohens also want Leonard to photograph their son's upcoming bar mitzvah in black and white. Sandra and Leonard click -- you like her immediately - but then crazy-ass Michelle comes into his life. Michelle is played by Paltrow.

I don't think Paltrow has ever looked more beautiful, but her character's got some problems. She leans on Leonard, who is a solid friend.

The beauty of Phoenix's performance is that he is put through a series of humiliating episodes, and painful encounters, and he never loses his dignity or sense of self. And he always has something wry -- but not writerly or over-poetic -- to say. (The script is by director James Gray and Ric Menello.)

We're not going to give away too many details. But rent "Two Lovers", and enjoy the performances, and particularly revel in the work of Joaquin Phoenix.

I was wondering why Phoenix gave up films, but maybe decided to go off and do his rap act after he realized that if he could turn in work this good and no one ending up giving a damn, then it would be better to quit.

But we give a damn, and maybe if you see the movie, you will, too. But give it a try.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thanks a Lot, William Safire

By Lars Trodson

Ann Coulter is running a series of columns titled "Liberal lies about national health care." On YouTube there is a video called "Dumb-ass John Kerry admits Barack Obama is a liar." A posting on www.glennbeck.com asks: "Obama is a charming liar?"

I googled a two-word phrase "politicians liars" and came up with 10,200,000 responses. There were book titles such as "Big Fat Liars: How Politicians, Corporations, and the Media use Science and Statistics To Manipulate the Public" and of course Al Franken's book, "Lies, And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." (There is a website called frankenlies.com.) David Corn of The Nation published a book called "The Lies of George W. Bush" in 2003.

Something faint was stirring in my memory. What I was thinking about was a column by William Safire that caused a bit of a stir years ago. I googled the phrase "William Safire congenital liar" and came up with what I was looking for. The column started out with this paragraph: "Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar."

He was talking about Hilary Clinton. The column, titled "Blizzard of Lies", was published Jan. 8, 1996. This caused a bit of a scandal at the time -- on his wikipedia page this column was said to have caused a "mild tempest."

However, I'm beginning to think this was a watershed event in political and social discourse. It made the accusation "liar" acceptable, and people have been having their sweet time with it ever since.

Prior to that, the word liar was used only in the most extreme circumstances -- and you had better be sure you were right if you used it. It was the strongest accusation you could make against anyone.

Before Jan. 8, 1996, politicians danced around the word. In political debates a candidate would be asked, in so many words, "Is your opponent lying about your record?" And the response was almost always something like, "Well, I don't think he has his facts straight" or a version of that. No one -- at least on the national level -- called anyone a liar.

Now, you could tell they wanted to use the word. And I may have even thought --- "don't beat around the bus -- call the guy a liar." It would have felt much more satisfying, and maybe closer to the truth.

You can imagine Safire coming to that very same conclusion as he began writing his column. He's a man of words: he could have called Clinton a prevaricator, cheat, con artist, deceiver, deluder, dissimulator, equivocator, fabler, fabricator, fabulist, false witness, falsifier, fibber, maligner, misleader, perjurer, phony, promoter, storyteller or trickster.

But, no.

Ahh, it must have felt good. It certainly gave Safire some juice. There was a public debate on whether Safire had crossed a line. President Clinton said if he hadn't been president he would have punched Safire in the nose. MediaMatters called the column "headline making."

So, as you listen and read your favorite pundits and thinkers and they accuse so-and-so of being a liar or a teller of lies, we can thank our learned friend, Mr. William Safire, a weaver of memorable and undeniably influential phrases.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Two Hours of Great Cinema, 32 Minutes of Not-So-Great Cinema

Roundtable Pictures Solves the Mystery Behind the Spelling of the Movie

By Lars Trodson

I was thinking back on all of Quentin Tarantino's movies and wondering if he had ever filmed a big crowd scene like the one that ends his "Inglourious Basterds." It seems to me, looking back on everything from "Reservoir Dogs" to "Death Proof" that Tarantino pretty much keeps the number of people he puts in a scene down to a manageable few.

That could account for what happens at the conclusion of "Basterds." The ending takes place in a crowded theater lobby -- which in certain shots doesn't look so crowded at all -- and in the auditorium of the theater. But with so many people to suddenly account for in his film -- the Nazi high command, including Hitler, as well as the remaining "basterds" of the title -- Tarantino literally looks lost. He moves from person to person, scene to scene, set to set, but nothing fits together particularly well. And while a couple of moments may be a bit shocking, in the end it all seems so delirious you wonder what his point was.

It turns out that for all the violence and sinisterism in his movies, Tarantino is -- surprise! -- not an action director.

The other problem here is how Tarantino fashioned the end of his script. In terms of suspense, Tarantino makes a choice that is not so much quirky or unexpected, but simply odd.

The movie is called "Inglourious Basterds" and you are given to think that they are the heroes of the film. Their big job is to kill the members of the Nazi high command -- this is not only their purpose and their pleasure, but also the climax of the film. But this goes awry and the Basterds are pretty much taken out of the hunt at the very end. They're not only not the heroes, they're pretty much held captive during the explosive ending.

It's left to the beautiful Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, who has great range and is tough and touching) and her lover Marcel to actually pull off the plan. The funny thing is, we're probably more emotionally connected with Shosanna than any specific member of the Basterds crew that we probably care more about her success in killing Hitler (and Landa, who killed her family) than we do theirs, but Tarantino throws in this switch so late in the game it's tough to shift your emotional focus to her.

If I can make a comparison, it would be this: Let's say we spent two hours watching the members of "The Dirty Dozen" get trained and prepped for their big mission (the entire premise of "Basterds" is taken straight out of the "Dirty Dozen" playbook, right down to collecting members of the Nazi command at a swanky function), and just minutes before the big plan was to begin John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas and Jim Brown and Charlie Bronson all got captured and suddenly actors you had never really seen before had to carry out the plan. That's about (not quite, but about) what happens here.

The other thing is that the sets for the interior of the cinema where the ending takes place look really bad. If this was a conscious aesthetic choice I'm not sure what it means. But the balconies and the stairwell and the curving hallways of this place look cheap and badly painted. It looks like plaster of paris and balsa wood, and it feels like their set designer might have had to shove off to another project while these scenes were being filmed.

It seems like we had left off a Hollywood film with a high sheen and sense of design and landed in one of Tarantino's beloved grindhouse flicks. That may have been the point, but it felt jarring to me.

I think the first two hours of this film are wonderfully written and beautifully acted by the principals (except for Brad Pitt and "Hostel" director Eli Roth), and the scenes bring back the leisurely yet pleasurable pace often found in "Jackie Brown." And Tarantino brings off some great set pieces - the opening scene especially. In this scene the notorious Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) finds a Jewish family hiding out in a farmhouse. It's amazingly tense and moody, and beautifully shot and edited. This is really old school Hollywood filmmaking here -- you can just see that Tarantino really felt this one. Landa's scene with Shosanna eating strudel is also terrific, and so is the long scene in the basement bar where we meet the beautiful double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, smart and old school movie star gorgeous) and some of the Basterds who are trying to pass themselves off as German soldiers (how they get caught is a neat touch).

There's some real tension in all of those scenes, yet again they are all chamber pieces.

After the first scene introducing us to Landa, we meet the Basterds in what surely must be the most aborted "let's introduce the major characters of the movie" scene ever produced.

It's reminiscent of the yard scenes in "The Dirty Dozen", which I am sure is deliberate, but aside from Roth -- who is known as The Bear Jew, and some guy named Hugo Stiglitz (in another set taken right out of "The Dirty Dozen") -- you have absolutely no idea who the other Basterds are, or even what their names are. To shy away from characterizations, even of the smallest parts, is not the Tarantino we know.

This film has gotten mixed reviews, but the film itself is mixed. The first two hours are great cinema, just pure examples of a talented writer and director finding a new color, but the end gets pretty well jumbled up.

A few critics have wondered what has happened to Tarantino, but that just seems silly. The guy has only made six feature films, and I think each one before this is great. It may be heresy for me to say I like "Jackie Brown" better than "Pulp Fiction", but that's really only because I don't care for the Bruce Willis section of that movie. It's still masterful stuff, but I didn't quite get that boxing part, and the revenge on the hillbillies part. "Jackie Brown" is joyous, though, and "Kill Bill" -- all of it -- is executed without a hitch. There's nothing wrong with that two-part picture. "Reservoir Dogs" is a heist classic. I liked "Death Proof" -- it wasn't trying to be anything more than what it was, which was a Saturday afternoon popcorn flick.

Part of the problem with "Basterds" may be this is another classic example of a director not able to pull off his lifelong dream project. Martin Scorsese spent years trying to make "Gangs of New York" and that was mixed. Richard Attenborough said he was born to direct the life of Charlie Chaplin and he turned it into a mess. Richard Pryor poured his life into "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling." Maybe these dream projects are better left on the shelf.

I think what will come out of this experience for Tarantino is he will simply have more assurance as a director and writer. My guess -- my prediction -- is that his next film will be the best one he has ever done.

(P.S.: My take on the much-debated deliberately misspelled title is this. The words "inglourious basterds" are etched into the butt end of Lt. Aldo Raine's service rifle, which we see only partially and fleetingly in one scene. In fact, the typeface we see in the opening titles is the same script we see on the rifle. So it's Aldo Raine's name for his group, and his spelling of it. Lt Aldo Raine (an homage to the late actor Aldo Ray) - played by Pitt - is a part Apache hillbilly from Tennessee who, in the 1940s, might not have had the best education. His attempt to write those two words could reasonably come out like that.So that, we feel, is why the movie is spelled like it is.)