Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Direct-to-DVD: The Real Hollywood Slum?

By Mike Gillis

So, "Slumdog Millionaire" has swept the Oscars. The bucket load of gold is no real surprise: It's rags to riches story, set in the slums of Mumbai, is an efficient and heart-felt tale that transcends geography and undeniably stirred strong emotions. Notwithstanding the controversy about whether the film glosses over the depth of real-world Mumbai squalor and poverty, I thought "Slumdog Millionaire" was a rare gem for 2008, and solidifies my admiration for the refreshingly versatile director Danny Boyle.

I did think "The Wrestler" was a better movie, but that's not the point.

In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, I noted with interest the marketing campaign for "Slumdog Millionaire" largely ignored the movie and zeroed in on the difficulty of distribution. It seems there was a well-orchestrated effort to compare the movie's story with that of its filmmakers. In the film, Jamal (Dev Patal) overcomes great odds and not a little abuse to ... well, I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it. For weeks, I've been reading about how Slumdog and Danny Boyle overcame the odds and not a little abuse before finding its way to cinemas and Oscar gold. Many accounts point out, with horror, that Slumdog almost found itself in the dustheap of direct-to-DVD until Fox Searchlight funded a daring rescue at the last minute.

That got me to thinking about how many films aren't so lucky. How many films over the last decade were scooped up at Sundance or elsewhere, only to get lost in the shuffle of theatrical distribution and promotion, finding a lifeline only on DVD or cable. It goes without saying that many movies that do hit the big screen deserving of Oscar recognition are ignored.

I wondered, does the system work? Did Slumdog have its day because someone, somewhere in the post-creative process, corrected a course of bad or ill-informed decisions?

I don't know, of course. What I can do, I thought, is consider other films rescued from obscurity in the nick of time. But I can't find any. I see plenty of lists of undistributed films -- which is a separate discussion -- but no "could-have-been-a-contender" movies doomed to DVD. I'd love to hear from others who know of some.

There's no doubt the direct-to-DVD market is growing -- it seems it's the only fiscally sensible way for studios to churn out a medicocre sequel these days -- along with, surprisingly, the DVD market.

To me, though, it underlines how movie-viewing habits and expectations have changed. I'm a broken record when I sound off about movies as disposable entertainment so I'll spare you.

So, I'm looking for some help. Do you have a list or can you pass on a movie that deserved a theatrical release, but went straight to DVD or obscurity?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Oscars Are Here! Yawn.

By Lars Trodson


The reason the Oscars recede each year in the public consciousness has nothing to with the award itself, really, or if the winning movies were hits or misses. It has to do with the way movies are marketed, and the ubiquity of our movie stars.

The Oscars are unimportant today because the formula for success has been inverted. In decades past, it was the movies that stuck around your neighborhood theater for weeks if not months at a time. The movie was your primary connection to the movie star. Now the movie is like a by-product of stardom.

As the movie itself fades, the stars themselves seem to never get off the stage. By the time the Oscars are broadcast we’ve forgotten the movies and we’re also bored to tears with everyone in the audience at the Kodak Theater. That’s a recipe for irrelevance.

My One Prediction

Without having seen the film (it simply does not interest me) I don’t think Kate Winslet will win an Academy Award tonight for “The Reader.” This is based on wholly unscientific research: there are YouTube parodies out there. I don’t think the folks in Hollywood are going to honor something that has been so stingingly and wonderfully mocked.

And, plus, the producer and director had to release a statement defending the film.

Not good.

If I were Kate Winslet, I’d be heading in tonight’s ceremony with trepidation. If she loses, it might be because she pumped too hard for the Oscar for a role that people ultimately were uncomfortable rewarding. If she wins, it won’t be for one of her universally well-liked roles, but rather it will be for one that, well, people didn’t see or really care about.

Here’s one of the parodies:

Gratuitous Coen Brothers Critique

Last year I only had to laugh when the Coens were honored with the top Oscars, because I think even they must admit in their quiet moments that their movies are a put on. I don’t mean to say they are a joke that people can get. I mean to say that each year they put out a cinematic version of a pet rock or a Chia Pet, and there are enough frightened intellectuals out there who say, “How cool is that!”, and there are enough people too unhip not to want to be in on this so-called joke, so they also say, “How cool is that!” The Coens, meanwhile, must laugh everytime someone writes them a check.

I imagine them writing the screenplay for “Miller’s Crossing” and cackling hysterically every time they wrote the phrase, “And you gave me the high hat!” while at the same marvelling they were being paid to write, “high hat!”

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis will be the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award this evening. I looked Lewis up on Imdb.com and was surprised to learn that he had never even been nominated for an Oscar. I say I was surprised because it did not seem unreasonable that Lewis would have been nominated for something, at some time. But no.

He did legitimately lose out once: He deserved to be nominated, and to win, for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The King of Comedy”, Martin Scorcese’s great movie from 1982. Lewis played a pompous talk show host named Jerry Langford, who is later kidnapped by Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) and the whacked Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard.

The scene where Pupkin and his would-be girlfriend (Diahanne Abbott) show up at Langford's house is one of the classic cringe-inducing scenes of all-time, and Lewis makes it work. This was a great performance undeservedly overlooked.

Here’s that scene:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Swimming Upstream: The Obstacles of Adapting a Short Story Into A Feature Film

"’I'm swimming across the county,’ Ned said.
‘Why, I didn't know one could,’ exclaimed Mrs. Halloran.”

-- From John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

By Lars Trodson

It is tempting to begin this column by saying -- no, by declaring -- that adapting a short story into a feature length film has proved to be a far less successful enterprise than adapting a novel to the same form.

But then, one must admit, that the ratio of failure to success for each medium is not the same. There are more successful novel adaptations only because more famous novels get adapted into movies. How many famous short stories are there anyway?

The question emerged because of the successful screen adaptation of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” which was written in 1921 by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is not exactly the poster boy for successful film adaptations.

But this film, directed by the great David Fincher, has garnered 13 Oscar nominations and favorable press. Just three years ago, “Brokeback Mountain” was also deemed a very successful film adaptation of a short story.

But I thought I would take the occasion to consider one of the most ambitious, if less known, short story adaptations that I can think of: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, which was made into a feature of the same name in 1968. “The Swimmer” was never the success of these later films, but it had neither a groundbreaking, controversial subject, or breathtaking special effects, to capture the imagination of audiences. All it had was its own little self.

It is justly famous because Cheever was never better at navigating the emotional and physical terrain of the confused, sullen, angry and successful young men of post-World War II suburbia -- the guys who knew how to make money, but never knew how to manage their lives after they got out of the military.

The premise may be uncomplicated but it is hardly simple. The prose is as lovely as anything anyone ever wrote. The plot is this: Neddy Merrill, a card-carrying member of the Greenwich/New Canaan/Westport, Connecticut upper-middle class, is attending a pool party on a Sunday afternoon when he suddenly realizes he could, pool by backyard pool, swim home. That’s it.

By reading the story we’re treated to art. The loveliest thing about literature is that it is available to us anywhere, at any time. If you wanted to look at Picasso’s “Guernica”, you’d have to travel to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid to see it. But if you want to be in the company of the great art of a writer, all you need is the book. It can be a photocopy of the story, in a paperback, in hardcover, or a bootleg copy on the internet and it does not matter. If the words are Cheever’s, or any writer’s, for that matter -- then you get the actual art, not a facsimile. That is the beauty of literature. The version you have in your hand is the real thing.

The story begins very much like other Cheever stories, with characters lingering over the effects of too much gin:

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. ‘I drank too much,’ said Donald Westerhazy. ‘We all drank too much,’ said Lucinda Merrill. ‘It must have been the wine,’ said Helen Westerhazy. ‘I drank too much of that claret.’

The original New Yorker story was only 13 pages long. But someone thought it would make a movie. Director Frank Perry, and his screenwriter wife, Eleanor Perry, had to thread this dreamlike narrative into more than 90 minutes of cohesive cinema -- and then have it distributed by Paramount Pictures to a mass audience.

I don’t think the filmmakers compromised -- “The Swimmer” is an odd short story and an even stranger film. Not surprisingly, the results have been argued over. The film is actively disliked, but is championed by some. I think it’s partially great -- but part of my affection for it is rooted in the fact that it is very much a film of its time: the girls look as though they all come from southern California and there is too much soft-focus photography. So you can enjoy the film as much as an artifact as you can for its emotions and perceptions. Ultimately, though, I do not think it works. If most of its charms today emanate from its dated cinematic vocabulary, it’s not hard to see why audiences rejected it when these techniques were getting a bit commonplace.

In the film, Ned Merrill is played by Burt Lancaster. In the beginning, Merrill shows up in the only costume he will have the for the next 90 minutes -- his bathing suit. Lancaster is amazingly fit -- he was 55 when he made the film and had been a star for 20 years -- but he just glides right along. Ned stops by the Westerhazys pool. They are all (except Ned) nursing hangovers.

Each of the party guests is given an opportunity to use Cheever’s line about having too much to drink. It is as though Eleanor Perry had to disgorge herself of this ringing thought and move on. It is here at the Westerhazy’s that Ned Merrill looks out over the green Connecticut canopy and decides he should swim home.

Where is Ned’s wife Lucinda in these opening scenes of the film? In the story, she’s the one who claims to have drunk too much claret.

Her appearance at the beginning of the story is a reminder of the kind of cruel conviviality that can exist among small circles of friends. Neddy and Lucinda are estranged or divorced, but by attending a pool party in the story means she could be taunting him, flirting with him, or be indifferent to him. Whatever the interpretation, she’s got enough confidence in her stature among her neighbors to show up at a party that may also be attended by her ex-husband.

In the film, however, she never appears at all. She is more dreamlike, more of a memory. That was a smart choice by the Perrys -- film is more literal so you need to take every opportunity to be enigmatic. There are snide remarks and looks askance when Neddy Merrill mentions Lucinda in the movie -- reactions we never read about in the story. That’s an example when the filmmakers expertly dramatized some of the internal feelings of Cheever’s characters.

What they can never do is dramatize Cheever’s prose. This is not a criticism. Very, very few filmmakers have successfully translated the fluidity of a writer’s thoughts onto the screen, no matter the audacity, the budget, or the imagination of the director or cinematographer. Even Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was willing to go as far as any “mainstream” filmmaker in terms of graphic depictions -- pornographers have nothing on him -- could never quite capture the irredeemable cruelty of the Marquis De Sade when Pasolini made “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma.

Pasolini may have come close, but Frank Perry was no Pasolini. Perry was too careful as a director, too precise -- a little too squarely...intellectual; no successful director should ever be too much of any of those. Perry was the director of “Mommie Dearest” (1981) and that was all veneer. There was too much shampoo and floor wax in that picture to make it the horror movie it should have been. Pasolini could have made a great version of that story.

In “The Swimmer”, as in his other other pictures, Perry took more care in casting the women than the men -- the women in the film actually look and speak like bored, rich, New York wives. The men all look too old, too out of place, too boorish, too flaccid to be captains of industry. The only who is not any of these is Lancaster, but he’s still a mistake.

Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, gave good credit where credit is due when he reviewed the movie (an added in his appreciation for Cheever’s story) in the May 16, 1968 edition of the paper:

“The result is an uneven, patchy kind of movie, occasionally gross and mawkish, and one that I happened to like very much. I like the Perrys for having liked [the story], and I like Burt Lancaster, who is essentially miscast in the title role, for having wanted to do it. Without his interest, the film probably would never have been made.”

Even here, Canby is implicitly acknowledging the obstacles of adapting a short story into film. Part of the joy of reading a short story is the idea that you have received just enough information: that the writer knew not to stretch the story or the characters any further. Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” would be excruciating if it were any longer. So to expand it may be self-defeating.

Here is how Cheever described Ned Merrill, who is no longer young:

He might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one...

Here is how Vincent Canby of The New York Times describes Lancaster as Merrill:

“He does have the physique of the aging athlete who has kept his form, if not the youthful texture of his skin.”

Lancaster -- the human being, the actor -- is in excellent physical shape in the movie (he moves like the trapeze artist he once was). But Lancaster was not a subtle actor, to say the least. Canby has one of the best descriptions of Lancaster I’ve ever read. This is from the review:

“However, try as he might, [Lancaster] simply can’t project Neddy Merrill’s vulnerability as a foolish, ridiculous WASP. When Lancaster, who has the dignity of a peasant, attempts manic intensity, it comes across as vigor.”

Even though the filmmakers understood Lancaster’s appeal, it was obvious even they did not quite believe audiences would believe him as a kid who summered in the Hamptons. A long sequence in the movie has Neddy Merill meet up (at poolside) with Julie (Janet Landgard), a young woman who used to be his children’s babysitter. Merrill invites her on his improbable journey, during which they share secrets. Julie asks Ned where he met his wife. Neddy tells her that he met Lucinda on a boat, while he was in “steerage.” It’s a stupid detail because it denies the origins of Cheever’s story. The people he’s writing about in “The Swimmer” didn’t travel in steerage. But the filmmakers had to overcompensate for the fact that everyone knew Lancaster wasn’t born on Fifth Avenue (in fact he was born in Harlem).

So the Perrys have an actor who is incapable of projecting inner turmoil or mystery. But this is what the role required most - in a medium unable to capture the minutiae of thought that can be caught by the written word. Put these two together and the obstacles of adapting the short story begin to mount.

Here’s how Cheever describes Ned diving into a pool:

He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb -- he never used the ladder -- and started across the lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home.

In the movie, all Ned does is dive into the pool and swim. It’s a nice, shallow dive, but it tells us nothing about his character, whereas Cheever offers us his entire life in a paragraph.

What is less detailed are Ned’s troubles. This is exactly what should be less explicit in short story such as this. They’re only whispered, hinted at. Sometimes, when the mood is right, the lack of detail in a story makes it easier for us readers to project our own anxieties onto the character. Is what is bothering Ned the same thing that is bothering me? Some indiscretion at the office? Some financial impropriety? Has a friend not called back? What is it that is bothering him? By not knowing, sometimes the anxiety can grow. Here is how Cheever shades Ned’s life when he goes swimming at the home of a couple that likes to swim nude:

He left his trunks at the deep end, walked to the shallow end, and swam this stretch. As he was pulling himself out of the water he heard Mrs. Halloran say, "We've been terribly sorry to bear about all your misfortunes, Neddy."

"My misfortunes?" Ned asked. "I don't know what you mean."

"Why, we heard that you'd sold the house and that your poor children . . . “

"I don't recall having sold the house," Ned said, "and the girls are at home."

"Yes," Mrs. Halloran sighed. "Yes . . . "

Ned’s troubles are much more explicit in the film. That is the burden of filling out 90 minutes - a timeframe the writer never intended to fulfill. From the beginning of the movie there is the hint that Ned’s a fantasist, a narcissist. But as he begins his journey home, portaging from pool to pool, the surrealism of the story takes on the timbre of a dark, more explicit adult fairy tale. He has that disturbing encounter with a young woman who used to babysit his children. A dry pool that requires no more than a few lines in the story now becomes a mythological, allegorical encounter with a little boy who is all alone. Neither of these characters are in the story - and what this means is that the Perrys begin to physicalize Ned’s turmoil. They also have him speak too much plot and faux poetry.

It is in these moments when the seams of the movie begin to stretch and burst.

But in one interesting way the film successfully dramatizes what Cheever only sketches. In both the film and the story the weather seems to indicate that more time than simply an afternoon has passed. It is a symptom of Ned’s madness in both pieces. From the story:

The rain had cooled the air and he shivered. The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.


Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind. Who would be burning wood at this time of year?

In the film, the characters remark on the changing weather. At one point, Ned looks at a denuded tree and wonders what happened. He hugs himself to keep the cold at bay. The leaves begin to blow. The skins of rain that fall are cold and shivery. The change of weather feels as mysterious and unexplainable as the zodiac itself.

One other thing that the film does extremely well is chart the difference in Ned’s relationships. As the weather changes, so do his relationships. People are warn and sunny at first “Neddy!” they cry -- “How nice to see you!” But the terrain shifts; the people Ned meets over time become indifferent, and then hostile. The people mirror the weather, and it is one thing I like very much about the film.

And of course it all must end. The crucial difference between a short story and a feature film is that 85 minutes worth of cinematic drama must end in a climax -- particularly in 1968 when studios were not yet so inclined toward the ambiguous ending. A story can end much more sublimely.

Therefore everything that was even hinted at in the story must become more explicit in the movie to wrench some sort of emotional response.

In the story, Ned walks into the pool owned by Shirley Abbott, who may have been his lover at one point. Cheever cuts right through it:

"What do you want?" she asked.

“I'm swimming across the county."

"Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”

The same exchange occurs in the movie, but yet there is so much more. There is grappling and disrobing in the pool. There is Ned beseeching the heavens. There is Shirley (played by Janice Rule) shrieking that any passion she expressed during their affair was a lie! Lie! There is talk, yelling and more talk. It is during these scenes that Canby’s observations about Lancaster are especially true: the actor doesn’t seem so much anguished as he does putting on his game face for a marathon.

And we realize that it is futile to try to yank this surreal fable into the realm of the real.

The reason we feel anything after reading the story is because of our delicate empathy: we understood why Ned felt like doing something irrational. We understood why he wanted to deny anything terrible that had ever happened. We understood the impulse to run away, to hide. We know what it is like to get old, to be beat up, to have the summer end, and to return to a place where no one wants you. At the end of the story, Ned is home. It would be foolish to quote too much:

The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys' for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn't they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home?

All that has come before yields fluidly to the end. Thank you, John Cheever.

At this point in the film, however, the location photography suddenly yields to flat, painfully obvious studio shots. As Ned walks up to his house, the foliage looks fake. The lighting unreal. Just as everything before was too consciously literary for us to enjoy as a movie, the conclusion was too cinematic for us to us to suspend disbelief. In the end, “The Swimmer” failed to spark the audience’s imagination in the way Cheever managed to do in 13 pages.

Film has never been very good at expressing inner emotions -- and that is probably because perceptive actors and perceptive scripts rarely converge. I think of Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night”; of Charlie Chaplin at the end of “City Lights”; of Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby” -- sometimes, in the movies, you can really see the whole person.

And its even harder to see the real person in a film when the writer of the story the movie is based on never intended you to do so in the first place.

Maybe the filmmakers of the first movie we mentioned, “Benjamin Button”, weren’t really interested in showing the deepest thoughts of the title character. Maybe someone realized that the miracle of today’s special effects would make the movie possible - even exciting, in a digital way. They could put Brad Pitt’s head, swarthed in makeup, on top of another person’s body and no one would notice. I bet, deep in the bowels of Hollywood, that was what motivated the financing of “Benjamin Button.” Not the need to explore the journey of this curious man.

I do know the water in “The Swimmer” was real, and so was the desire of the filmmakers to produce something that audiences would think was real. The Perrys, in all of their films, tried to convey something true. That they often didn’t achieve their goals had more to do with the limitations of their talent and the medium they chose for their art rather than their source material.

Their choice of material was often impeccable, as it was in “The Swimmer.”

Cheever’s story, after all, glides through the imagination like a silverfish. But the Perrys movie is like a bad uncle. He’s the guy who, having had too much too drink last night, decides to do a cannonball in the kid’s end of the pool. You’ll be sure to notice it -- you may even appreciate how audacious the move is -- but you’ll also realize immediately that it probably wasn’t a good idea.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ernest Hemingway: A Touch Of Class, A Touch Of Beauty

By Lars Trodson

Whatever mysterious reason there is that moves people to read a particular writer has certainly taken hold of me these past few weeks. I’ve been reading Ernest Hemingway. I read “A Moveable Feast”, which I wouldn’t think is one of his more popular works, and then I read “Death In the Afternoon”, which is about bullfighting. I read a paperback of “Across the River and Into the Trees”, which was both interesting and interminable.

I would unthinkingly say that I have no interest in bullfighting, but I have read “Death In the Afternoon” more than once, if only as a study in journalism. I feel the book to be true. And it stays true to Hemingway’s maxim that work, hard work, and writing, and writing what you know about is the credo to live by. Hemingway always says that if you want to write well you can’t talk about it you just have to do it. He also had the unwavering belief that good writing would last, and in that at least he might have been right.

I know that Hemingway is known as much for his carousing and drinking and fishing and other aspects of his out-sized life, but in the between all of that he obviously had to sit down and write because his output was immense. So he was true to his word that writing was the most important thing.

I have this copy of “Death In the Afternoon” -- the pages are musty and smell of ink. It’s a Collier edition, published in 1938, and anyway it’s just a good sturdy old book. And I finished the book and it doesn’t ruin anything to quote the end of it, and I do so because it is a lesson to anyone, including myself, who wants to write.

It has that odd mixture of the personal, the esoteric, and the universal that made Hemingway unique. He was never embarrassed about his writing. So for the sake of beauty, and the cadence of language, here is the end of “Death In the Afternoon.” I found it oddly in sync with our times, as it talks about change, and the loss that change brings.

A lot of people think Hemingway is a brute, but if you believe that, listen. This is the last page of “Death In the Afternoon”:

“What else should it contain about a country you love very much? Rafael says things are very changed and he won’t go to Pamplona any more. La Libertad I find is getting like Le Temps. It is no longer the paper where you could put a notice and know the pickpocket would see it now that Republicans are all respectable and Pamplona is changed, of course, but not as much as we are older. I found that if you took a drink that it got very much the same as always. I know that things change now and I do not care. It’s all been changed for me. Let it all change. We’ll all be gone before it’s changed too much and if no deluge comes when we are gone it still will rain in summer in the north and hawks will nest in the Cathedral at Santiago and La Granja, where we practiced with the cape on the long gravelled paths between the shadows, it makes no difference if the fountains play or not. We never will ride back from Toledo in the dark, washing the dust out with Fundador, nor will there be that week of what happened in the night in that July in Madrid. We’ve seen it all go and we’ll watch it go again. The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it’s made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it. No. It is not enough of a book, but still there were a few things to be said. There were a few practical things to be said.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Strangest Movie Costume Ever

I was reading that "The Silver Chalice" -- an early movie (1955) of Paul Newman's that he publicly disowned -- is now out on DVD. I remember seeing it on TV years ago, and while I remember almost nothing of the movie itself, the costume that Jack Palance wore had me mesmerized.

Just what is that pattern supposed to be, anyway? What would your friends say if YOU wore something like that?

You can check it out here:


-- Lars Trodson

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An Appreciation: Playwright Robert Anderson

Playwright Robert Anderson died Monday from complications of Alzheimer's disease at the age of 91. For an appreciation, click here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hilary Duff: The New Faye Dunaway?

By Lars Trodson

In one of our most recent essays we mused about how fleeting stardom has turned out to be, even for those stars we thought would live in the minds of the public forever. Our example was Clark Gable, but Hilary Duff helped illustrate our point. According to the tabloids, Faye Dunaway had a slightly acerbic reaction to the notion of Miss Duff taking on the role of Bonnie in a remake of the classic “Bonnie and Clyde” -- which was released in 1967.

According to gossip columnist Michael Musto of the Village Voice, there was the following exchange: “Faye recently mouthed off on the upcoming remake of Bonnie and Clyde, which costars the Duse of the nail salon crowd, Duff. As the Joan Crawford impersonator opined, "Couldn't they at least cast a real actress?" “Ouch-a-ma-goucha. No wilting flower, Duff shot right back, "I think that my fans that are going to see the movie don't even know who Dunaway is. I think it was a little unnecessary, but I might be mad if I looked like that now, too."

Ahh, the confidence of a 21-year-old celebrity.

But the problem is, Duff is almost certainly correct. I wonder how many 21 year olds do know who Faye Dunaway is. A sense of tradition, which was once so important in the theatrical arts, seems to have been lost. Of course, another question arises: if Dunaway, an Oscar winner with a resume that includes several movies now considered classics, is a has-been, and worthy of neglect and contempt, where does anyone think Duff will be in 40 years?

After all, when Dunaway was in her prime, she was making originals. Duff, at 21, is already appearing in remakes. Because of that, she shouldn't pity Dunaway. Duff should stand in awe of Dunaway's accomplishments, and realize with fear that the spotlight has a tendency to turn away from everyone, eventually, even the young and the beautiful. It even turns away from people who have dome some worthwhile things.

Musto's column is here: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/dailymusto/archives/2009/02/catfight_alert.php

Friday, February 6, 2009

Who Owns An Idea?

By Lars Trodson

As we contemplate the curious province of the hit movie "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" (a laboriously unfunny title for a comedy, by the way), let us remember the strange year of 1988, something of a milestone in American cinema.

There was a 12 month period there when Hollywood unleashed five movies -- that's right, five -- all with the exact same body/personality swap premise.

They were: “Big” (1988); “Vice Versa” (1988); “18 Again!” (1988); “Like Father, Like Son” (1988) and “Dream A Little Dream” (which was actually released in 1989, and featured Corey Feldman switching bodies with Jason Robards).

"Big", of course, we all remember, but the others are probably available only at your specialty movie store.

Now, if you have five movies in which the plot is the same, who owns the idea? It's a twisting, frustrating question, because what all this really boils down to is artistic sensibility and execution. I remember very specifically that "Big" was released late in the body-swapping cycle and people were fretting that audiences were tired of the concept. But "Big" is a beautiful movie, with touching, perceptive performances, and that was why it was such a hit and the others are not remembered.

(There will be more to come on this topic from us here.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Actor In Highest Grossing Movie Of All Time Turns 107

By Lars Trodson

I had not seen “Gone With the Wind” since college, and so I rented it a few weeks back and watched it all including the “Overture” and the “Entr’Acte” -- which is “comedical” for intermission.

Audiences 70 years ago had time for all that, when today we barely have time even for the movie itself. What is the average movie length today, 88 minutes, something like that? Including credits. But GWTW takes its leisurely time at 224 minutes.

The movie is interesting as spectacle, and hard to appreciate as entertainment. I found myself looking at the costumes, and marveling at the accents. Leslie Howard, God bless him, barely tries to hide his deep English tones, and Vivien Leigh has occasional trouble hiding hers. In one scene I was looking at Olivia De Havilland’s dress, and was wondering how long it must have taken the costume department to make it. It was beautiful.

Clark Gable, who was born on Feb. 1, 1901, has no accent at all. He just has that voice, and good for him for not even attempting a southern accent. He was born in Ohio.

I think I rented the movie because an actor who played in an early scene had just died -- he was 90, or more -- and I realized that DeHavilland may very well be the last one, aside from some children who were in the movie. After all, GWTW -- perhaps the earliest movie ever to be known just as an acronym- is now officially 70 years old.

And Clark Gable would have been 107 this year, but as it was he only lived to be 59. I wonder how many kids know him today. While he was in one of the most famous Technicolor movies of all time, it doesn’t seem like he made many color movies at all, and there really isn’t any place to show them now. He died when Hollywood was about to make the transition from black and white to color.

I would have argued not so long ago that movie stardom was probably the most durable stardom of all, but I’m not so sure any more. How many people today look at Chaplin? Or listen to Bing Crosby? Bob Hope, who died only a few years ago, seems to be receding into the past. How could a guy like Gable compete?

One of the problems is that so many movies are being remade, we don’t have to know the originals -- we don’t have to be introduced to those stars. For a new generation, Inspector Clouseau belongs to Steven Martin and not to Peter Sellers, so why rent “A Shot In the Dark”? Did I read somewhere they were remaking “The Wizard of Oz”?

It’s too bad because movies -- right up until the 80s - gave you a sense of what the world looked and sounded like. You can look at a movie like Gable’s “The Hucksters” and get a feel for the mid-1940s. You can see the west dying right before your eyes in “The Misfits”, which was made in 1960 and was Gable’s last film. If you watch that movie you can see Marilyn Monroe, and she’ll break your heart.

So we here at Roundtable Pictures always try to honor the past. We’re indebted to it.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Gable, and congratulations for starring in the movie that Imdb.com has identified as the number one grossing movie of all time.

Here’s the list (check out how many Disney pictures there are here):


And here’s a clip from a forgotten movie that shows just how popular Gable once was:

Will The Real Mall Cop Please Stand Up -- If Possible

Seems there is some speculation out there about who deserves credit for unleashing the unexpected box-office smash, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Visit Defamer and the Sun Times for the scoop, which mentions our friend Freddie Catalfo, whose screenplay "Mall Cop" has earned a host of awards.

-- Mike Gillis


You can also find an update in Foster's Daily Democrat here:


And more updates here:

The Portsmouth Herald

The Wrap

The Boston Herald

New York Magazine

Stay tuned to Roundtable Pictures for updates on the swirling controversy.

See the trailer for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" below:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Based On A True Story: Real-Life Portrayals Now A Way To Oscar Glory

By Lars Trodson

This year, two actors have been nominated in the lead role category for playing real people: Frank Langella as President Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in “Milk,” and one actor in the supporting category, Josh Brolin as Dan White, also in "Milk." This follows an interesting trend in the movies of the past decade or so -- where the portrayals of historic figures has often paved the way toward Oscar gold.

Are we getting to the point in history when we only recognize good acting when we think we know the person on which the character is based? Or is it getting harder to recognize just good old plain acting when the character is wholly fictional?

Well, the facts don't lie. You decide:

In the past nine years (since 2000), here's a tally of Oscar winning roles based on real people: Julia Roberts has won for “Erin Brockovich”; Marcia Gay Harden for playing painter Lee Krasner in “Pollock”; Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote”; Forrest Whittaker won top brass for portraying Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”; Helen Mirren for “The Queen”; Cate Blanchett for playing Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” (who was also nominated for playing “Bob Dylan” in “I’m Not There”; Marion Cotillard for “La Vie En Rose” -- playing Edith Piaf; Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”; Jim Broadbent as John Bayley in “Iris”; Adrian Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in “The Pianist”; Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster”; Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” and Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Those are some of the winners.

How about nominations? Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock (who was also nominated as the real-life Gene Kranz in “Apollo 13” in 1995); Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, And Good Luck”; Catherine Keener as Harper Lee in “Capote”; Will Smith as Muhammed Ali; Russell Crowe as John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”; Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda”; Johnny Depp as writer Sir James Matthew Barrie in “Finding Neverland” and Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.”

There have also been nominations for playing real-life people that no one has ever heard of, such as Paul Giamatti playing Joe Gould in “Cinderella Man” and Judi Dench in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” -- they certainly qualify, but it's also not quite the same thing.

That’s between the years 2000 and now. I randomly picked 1940-1949 to see if there was a similar pattern. Not even close to the numbers of more recent years:

Raymond Massey was nominated for best actor in 1940 for the lead role in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”; Gary Cooper for “Sergeant York” (1941 -- won); Teresa Wright for playing Mrs. Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees”; Greer Garson for “Madame Curie” (1943); Cornel Wilde as Chopin in “A Song To Remember”; Larry Parks in “The Jolson Story” (1946); Edmund Gwynn in “Miracle on 34th St.” (1947 -- won playing Santa Claus -- ha ha); and Ingrid Bergman for “Joan of Arc” (1948).

Some of these portrayals are of people in such a distant past one could hardly expect them to be historically or physically accurate, of course. (The same can be said of some of the more modern roles, too. Who knows how James Barrie -- Depp’s role -- really sounded or acted?) But I also did a quick search from 1930 -- 1939 (Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; Paul Muni as Emile Zola) and then again from 1960 -- 1969 (Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt; Debbie Reynolds as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”; Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker) and found the same sparse sprinkling of historic portrayals among the nominations. In the 1960s there were probably fewer historic portrayals than any other decade, it seems. During these two decades, anyone hardly ever won for playing real people, by the way.

It’s hard to say what this means. I thought Sean Penn was at his loosest, charming best in “Milk”, so it could be that these real-life roles are a terrific source of inspiration. Or it could be that we don’t trust our judgment any more over what is an honest, naturally felt portrayal unless we have some idea of the real-life story behind it.

It may be no coincidence that this age of reality movie portraits more or less coincides with the era of the memoir -- both real and fake. Writers now seem to always choose writing an autobiography when fictionalized accounts would once do.

And it is no secret that some writers have written fiction but were successful in passing the writing off as fact. It is as though no one is any longer convinced that readers -- or viewers -- will "believe" a story unless we are told they're true.

Monday, February 2, 2009

SUPER BOWL XLIII: Bodies Mangled, Punches Thrown. Welcome To The Ads!

By Lars Trodson

When inspiration fails, forget about the punch line, just go for the punch. That seemed to be the message all throughout Super Bowl XLIII -- but not on the field. No, the real violence, and by far the most distasteful, was in the ads shown throughout the night. The game was just good old-fashioned football, the ads were just old-fashioned disasters.

How about the first Bud Light ad when the guy was thrown out of the top floor of the building? Hilarious! How about the little furry animal getting punched in that resume builder ad? Ha! How about that fella getting hit by a bus? Woo! Too much! The endless stream of kicks, hits and punches made the Three Stooges look like Jacques Tati.

There isn't anything wrong with this kind of slapstick, of course, but it seemed as though the creative well had run dry. By the end of the night, I was even tired of the clydesdales.

Best trick of the night? Miller's one second ads.

Better luck next year, folks.

Here's a rundown of which ads the Huffington Post thought the best: