Monday, March 30, 2009

The Roots of Danny Fisher

In his review of the new movie "12 Rounds", Boston Herald critic Stephen Schaefer writes that the main character's name, Danny Fisher (played by John Cena), is "a tribute to Elvis Presley's Danny Fisher in the New Orlean's-set 'King Creole..."

That may be true, but just to complete the record, Presley's Danny Fisher is based on the character created by Harold Robbins in his beautifully written "A Stone For Danny Fisher." This was Robbins' first novel, I believe, and is probably autobiographical. How a novel that takes places in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago ends up in Louisiana is anybody's guess, but that's what happened.

I read somewhere that Robbins had aspirations to be what can lazily be called "literary" but when "Danny Fisher" didn't sell, he went off and wrote the potboilers he later became so famous for. ("The Carpetbaggers", "The Betsy" and the like.)

There's no shame in that. Robbins sold millions of books which were made into blockbuster films and he made a lot of money.

But if you're curious, go online and find yourself a copy of "A Stone For Danny Fisher", and you will be treated to an unexpected gem that has, to my mind, one of the most beautiful titles ever.

-- Lars Trodson

Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Praise Of Larry Fine: Sean Penn May Finally Give The Greatest Stooge His Due

By Lars Trodson

If you don’t believe that Sean Penn is one of the best, and also the most perceptive and smartest actors of his generation, then you can put that doubt to rest with the recent announcement that he will play Larry Fine in the upcoming Farrelly Brothers picture about the Three Stooges.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Wasn’t Larry the perennial second banana? Isn’t Curly the recognized genius of the group? Wouldn’t Moe be the largest, most important role? Then why would Sean Penn play Larry?

Because Larry Fine has always been the most interesting Stooge. He’s the gentlest and the true surrealist of the threesome. He may have also been the most frustrated and saddest of the trio. That makes for an interesting character to play.

I read once that Norman Maurer, who was married to Moe’s daughter and directed the comedy group’s later feature films, wanted to put Larry more in the center of the action, but Moe refused. It is true Larry almost never -- perhaps never -- had a short revolve around him. Moe and the other Howard brothers, either Jerome or Shemp, hogged the camera.

So there Larry was, trapped in the body of a stooge, assuredly denied work anywhere else, with a boss who wouldn’t bother to give him the good shift once in a while.

No matter. In almost every one of the shorts they ever made all you need to do is look off to the side of the frame. There you’ll see Larry and what he’s doing will almost always give you a smile, if not an outright laugh. He has a great, effusive sense of surprise in the lilt of his voice, and he has the body movement of a true clown. His slight, almost imperceptible comic gestures are close to the kind of movement you see in the best clowns, whether its from Chaplin or Catinflas or Marcel Marceau.

Now, now, now, before anybody goes ballistic and thinks I’m comparing Larry Fine to three of the great clowns of the 20th century, I’m not. Only, come to think of it, maybe I am, and why the hell not? That could in fact one of the great robberies of all time. Did Moe steal Larry away from their fans in order to keep himself and Curly in the spotlight? If he had been given the stage, would Larry have knocked us out with what he could do? Would we remember the Stooges not for Curly but instead for Larry? And what would The Three Stooges look like if the writers and directors had been inspired by Larry’s talent?

Who knows? But even posing the question makes Larry an intriguing choice for Penn to play.

When I was in middle school -- this is the early 1970s -- The Three Stooges were on for an hour every afternoon on Channel 38 out of Boston. I also have the slightest flickering memories of them before that -- I thought I might have seen a show of theirs, but YouTube makes me think I had seen a color commercial they had shot for Simonize car wax in the 1960s. I think I saw that, because by the time I saw reruns of the shorts when I was in my early teens, I had already been exposed to them, somewhere.

At any rate, in one of the shorts Larry did a little reaction to an empty shoebox that once in a while I repeat, even when (most of the time) there is no one around to enjoy my clowning. I first saw that little dance more than 35 years ago. So Larry was always my favorite. I was always looking at him. He was the most interesting. And I have a natural disposition to side with the underdog -- to root for the guy who is always chosen last for the team -- when in fact he probably should have been chosen first.

So I’m not saying that Sean Penn will put Larry Fine front and center. What his casting really means is that you won’t any longer be able to set him aside.

Here’s the article from Variety announcing the casting, which is fascinating:

And here’s a clip that gives a pretty good illustration of what I mean about Larry’s delicacy. Just look at Larry’s physical reactions, and the way he moves his hands and arms -- and his expressions. He’s a dancer! There was a great actor there.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Micro Review of “Rachel Getting Married”, And Journalists Get Portrayed Badly (Once Again) in “Miracle At St. Anna”

By Lars Trodson

Very rarely do you get to compliment a director for achieving his goals, but hats off to Jonathan Demme, who last year told MTV News the following about “Rachel Getting Married”: One of the challenges was not trying to make it too entertaining,” Demme said.

Well done, old man! Mission very accomplished.

A Page of Dialogue From “Miracle at St. Anna”

Hollywood may be past the point of redemption when it comes to portraying journalists accurately on the screen. It could be that the denizens of Tinsel Town have every right to dislike journalists; they may see them as either sychophantic or nasty, perhaps both. Whatever the reason, journalists almost always come off badly -- as people, as professionals -- and rarely if ever does an actor or director get the details right. An exception was David Fincher and Robert Downey Jr. in “Zodiac.”

Spike Lee added his name to a list of directors offering up simply awful portrayals of journalists in his recent “Miracle at St. Anna.”

For your pleasure, I offer you some dialogue between the hard-boiled Det. Ricci (John Turturro) and cub reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Not only is it non-sensical, with painfully out-of-date references, but the Boyle character starts his first day on the job trying to bribe a cop.

To set it up, early in the picture there is a murder, and young Boyle arrives at the crime scene late, after all the other journalists and most of the police have gone away.

Boyle: I got lost.

Ricci: Coming here? You better find another way for a dollar to change pockets.

Boyle: This is my first day on the job as a reporter.

Ricci: Probably your last. Welcome to New York. You can be like Gov. Rockefeller, come and go at the same time.

Boyle: Can you give me some kind of angle on this?

Ricci: All I can give you is an empty feeling, kid. The perp’s over at Bellevue - 8th floor peanut gallery. The victim’s deader than yesterday’s beer. I heard he wasn’t that special even when he was breathing.

Boyle: My next job is going to be stuffing ballot boxes on Staten Island.

Ricci: Remind me to vote. I live there. Most cops do. Go home, kid, and don’t stop for bread.

Boyle: Come on, Detective. How about giving me something I can work here? Can I give you a tip on a hot horse? I’ll play Santa at the next PAL Christmas gig. I’ll pay Hong Kong Sue over on Forty-Deuce who’ll blow your noodle like Satchmo. How about I put a story in your pocket - good cop helps poor kids. You’ll get three months of Saturdays out of it. How about it? I can’t go back to scratchin’ out obits.

Sure you can, kid. Now beat it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Last House On the Left. Effective? Yes. Important? No.

By Lars Trodson

I’m not sure where the notion that the original “The Last House On the Left” is an important document. It’s been described that way. I think it’s an effective, grisly piece of cinema, but really, the writing is crappy and the acting is, across the board, not much better. It has no technique. So: important? Why?

We’ve kind of gotten to the point where effective PR has allowed almost anyone, anywhere, describe themselves as a pioneer of whatever field they happened to be in if they happened to do it before 1980.

I suppose “The Last House On the Left” (from 1972) has the courage of its convictions, but that’s really more a function of luck than artistic vision. I am sure that Alfred Hitchcock would have tortured Marion Crane in “Psycho” (1960) longer and more lovingly than he did if the censors had allowed it. But they wouldn’t and so he, and every other filmmaker, had to wait for loosening rules and expanding horizons for the opportunity to bring explicit violence to the screen.

So I think Wes Craven just had an opportunity and being a talented guy he pulled it off. When a critic like Roger Ebert says that the original “Last House” knocked back audiences “on their psychic heels” I think that has more to do with the attenuated scenes of awful violence than it does with any kind of insight as to why human beings can be so dreadful.

But by 1972 audiences also had already seen “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Get Carter” and “The Wild Bunch.” Sex magazines and movies were moving above-ground, too, and movie-goers in certain neighborhoods could already have seen Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job” and Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising.” This doesn’t even cover the many examples of their counter-cultural counterpart, the drug movie. Witness “The Trip” and “Easy Rider” and your other biker movies and you have the sense that both audiences and filmmakers were ready to take all of this a step further.

So Wes Craven took all the hard-earned controversy of these films and piggy-backed on it. Good for him. But he didn’t pioneer anything. He didn’t invent a genre, and he didn’t change the face of the movies.

Now that “Last House” has been remade -- it was just released on Friday the 13th, there is once again an attempt to elevate its lowly intentions by constantly mentioning that the movie is based on the same 13th century Swedish poem that Ingmar Bergman based “The Virgin Spring” on. I suppose this is supposed to give the movie some sort of pedigree. But what does it mean and what does it matter? Will it make you feel any better?

I was never opposed to slasher movies, or torture porn, or whatever you want to call it. Movie violence doesn’t bother me, but over the course of the past few years I’ve been less and less interested in it. I admired Rob Zombie’s first two films but did not understand his “Halloween” reboot. I thought both “Hostel” movies beyond idiotic, especially the idea of Eli Roth’s parents (in the special features) offering some bubblegum-card reasoning why watching torture has always been part of entertainment. That was pretty comical.

And then I watched a movie called “Wolf Creek”, which, to me, was unrelentingly brutal. There was a scene where the murderer shoots one of the girls by the side of the road. I can hardly remember the circumstances, but it was at that moment I wondered why I, or anyone else, would consider this kind of thing entertainment. I felt repulsed and saddened at the same time -- people really have been taken to the side of a road somewhere and shot, and think for a second about the real horror and senselessness of that. Where is the entertainment in that?

I have seen enough of this kind of violence for one lifetime, and I don’t want to see it any more.


For the record, here’s the old Swedish ballad that Bergman used as his inspiration for “The Virgin Spring.”

In the end, you will see, the avenging parents let one of the murderers live, so he could help the grieving father build a church over the space where the young girls were murdered.

Pehr Tyrsson's daughters in Vänge
Their forest was cold

They slept a sleep too long

While the leaves appear on the trees

The youngest one woke up first

Their forest...

And so she woke up the others.

While the leaves...

- Then they sat up on their beds.
So they braided each other's locks.

So they put on their silken clothes.

So they went to the church.

But when they came to the pastures of Vänge
They met three herdsmen
- Either you will be the wives of herdsmen

Or would you lose your young lives?
- We do not want to be the wives of herdsmen.
We would rather lose our young lives.

They cut off their heads on a log of birch.

And so three wells appeared.

The bodies were buried in the mud.

The clothes were carried to the village.

When they came to the estate of Vänge,
Lady Karin met them outdoors
-And would you buy silken robes

That nine maidens have knitted and stitched?

Untie your sacks and let me see,

Maybe I will know all three of them Lady Karin beat herself on the chest,
She went up to Pehr Tyreson

- There are three herdsmen on our courtyard,

They have slain our daughters.
Pehr Tyrsson grasped his sword,
He slew the two eldest ones.

The third one he let live
Until he could ask him:
- What is your father's name?

What is your mother's name?

- Our father is Pehr Tyrsson in Vänge;

Our mother is Lady Karin in Skränge

Per Tyrson goes to the smithy
He had iron crafted around his waist
- What shall we do for our sins?

- We shall build a church of lime and stone.
- The church will be named Kerna

We are fain to build it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jim Bellows, Newspaperman

I went to a writing conference in Hartford about 10 years ago and had a long, funny and immensely satisfying conversation with Jim Bellows, the newspaper editor who died last week.

At the end of it he handed me two business cards. One had his contact information, and the other simply said, in a tiny, tiny font: "Bullshit."

-- Lars Trodson

Friday, March 13, 2009

Oscar Bait: Could Little Gold Man Lead Not To The Best Roles But To Franchise Oblivion?

By Lars Trodson

OK, so the Academy Awards have always been about commerce. No question. They were born out of a desire to give films -- the poor cousin to theater and opera -- a little sense of dignity, a little boost to the box office.

So little Oscar was meant to add a little prestige, and so he did. Over time, the Oscars, to some degree, became synonymous with quality. That was good PR. Of course, the track record is actually spotty -- but it is not as miserable as a lot of people would have you believe. There are very few performances or pictures that absolutely did not deserve to be nominated, or win.

Even if we disagree with who or what actually won the thing, there may be a general sense of agreement that the nominated films or performances were at least noteworthy. That sense of commonality often gets lost in the Oscar debate. The nominations are generally fair (outside of the song and documentary feature categories, which is another column). With nominations limited to only five in each category (it wasn’t always so -- the world has become quite anal in the past 50 years), there are bound to be disagreements who was left out, but often there is agreement that the nominees were worthy.

And that meant getting nominated for an Oscar indicated you were good at your craft. And so, in turn, if you were nominated -- or won -- you were subsequently offered the best scripts. This was true whether you were an actor, a director, or cinematographer. You got the prestige scripts.

Now, however, you get the comic book franchise.

Fifty years ago if you were Jack Lemmon, an Oscar lead to “The Apartment” or “Some Like It Hot” or “”The Days of Wine and Roses.” If you were Sidney Poitier an Oscar paved the way for an unbroken string of critical and audience favorites. Look at your history: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Faye Dunaway, Marlon Brando -- or a director like Jonathan Demme or ...well, name a person. An Oscar can boost a career for five full years.


Just this week it was announced that Mickey Rourke, fresh off his Oscar nomination from “The Wrestler” -- had signed on to “Iron Man 2.”

I’m not sure a role in a tentpole movie already stuffed with stars is the right way to go.

Just a few years ago, Thomas Haden Church co-starred in “Sideways” and revived his career with an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

He parlayed that success into a role in “Spider-Man 3”, in which, as memory recalls, he played a pile of sand.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Redemptive Power Of The Theater: Simon Russell Beale, Ethan Hawke, Rebecca Hall and Sinead Cusack Bring Us To Life

By Lars Trodson

Here was, on the stage, a genuine movie star, or at least as close of an approximation of one gets to a movie star these days, and his name was Ethan Hawke. Hawke barely seems to register on the screen, his performances at their best and worst are banal, which is a miserable fate for a screen actor. Hawke also causes paroxysms of fury by writing novels; the condemnation comes streaming down from the ranks of those who believe that kind of thing is best left to the professionals, whoever those professionals may be.

But there he was, surrounded by the artfully decrepit interior of the Harvey Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, barefoot and strumming a guitar. This was in Shakespeare’s extravaganza known as “The Winter’s Tale”, which, if records were kept of such things, must have been written in haste or on a bet. Shakespeare threw everything into this weird play except character development, but there are plenty of jokes.

Some of these jokes are said by Autolycus, played by Hawke, in a fey, lovely, and easy-going turn in the Sam Mendes production of this play which just closed on March 8 in Brooklyn.

If Hawke’s performance is a cobbling together of mannerisms, that is not his fault. It is faint criticism to call an actor in “The Winter’s Tale” unfocused, because the same criticism that Ezra Pound leveled at James Joyce’s “Ulysses” -- that there was no need for a new style for each chapter -- could be used to describe each act of this vaudeville. It’s a tragedy and then a comedy and then a fantasy and then a ghost story. “Oh, what the hell,” Shakespeare probably said when writing it. “I’m being paid good money and I need a new bed!”

So Hawke, strumming a guitar with authority and grace, comes strolling out on the Harvey's beautiful wood stage and one might think that New York theater audiences would apply the same snobbishness to Hawke being on the stage as literary critics did to Hawke writing his books. But no. He had them right away, and as well he should. He was acting Shakespeare, and he was great.

This was in the second half. In the first, we had been introduced to Simon Russell Beale, as Leontes, King of Sicilia and the radiant Sinead Cusack as Paulina.

Sinead Cusack should easily command the same concoction of worldwide respect and sensual appeal that her contemporary Helen Mirren receives, but Cusack has not had the same kind of commercial movie success that Mirren has had. You may know her as Naomi Watts’ mother in “Eastern Promises”, and a few of us were lucky enough to have caught her in John Boorman’s Irish mystery “The Tiger’s Tale” at the New Hampshire Film Festival last October, which as far as I know was not released in this country. But she is an inspiring actor, a great actor, and she brought to the stage the kind of grace and loveliness that only the truly great can bring. You can imagine that Sinead Cusack would invite audience fervor no matter what age she happened to appear in.

This production of "The Winter's Tale" is part of a project called "The Bridge Project", which is providing an opportunity for audiences to see the stage work of both American and English actors. So this production, which was lyrical but minor, was playing in repertory with Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" and the actors were able to play parts in both plays that demonstrated their range. The project is a co-production of The Old Vic (headed up by Kevin Spacey), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Neal Street Productions. The two plays were directed by Mendes and the Chekhov play was newly adapted by Tom Stoppard, who added his contrarian flair to the English translation of Chekhov's lines.

There is a scene in "The Cherry Orchard" when Simon Russell Beale is attempting to express his affection for Ranevskaya (played by Cusack), the eternally grieving owner of the cherry orchard that soon must be sold to pay off old debts. Cusack, as Ranevskaya, looks so deeply and understandingly into Beale's eyes that I wondered if they were in love in real life. (Cusack is married to Jeremy Irons.) It was heartbreaking to watch, and I was later moved when she talked about the memories she had of the house they would soon have to abandon.

My friend Mike Keating, who wrote so well about Joe Strummer here on Roundtable Pictures last year, has been talking about Simon Russell Beale for years. He kept saying I needed to see him, and when I witnessed Beale's fussy, fuzzed, and fritzed out Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" I had that rare reaction that I was watching an actor trying to figure out his way through a part. What this means is that I thought I saw someone who was truly confused, as opposed to someone who was playing someone who was confused. It was laugh-out loud funny. And I loved Beale's head-scratchy, hand-gesturing interpretation precisely because it seemed so un-king-like. It may not have been what Shakespeare wanted, but it suits these modern times.

What Mike and I marveled at were seeing actors able to memorize and then embody two different characters in utterly different plays just hours apart. We saw "The Winter's Tale" at a 2 p.m. matinee and then "The Cherry Orchard" later at 7:30 p.m. I'm not saying that Beale was stretched too much between his interpretation of Leontes and Lopakhin, the successful businessman in the Chekhov play. But what was evident was the depth of feeling that he brought to the stage, and how he, and Cusack, and Hawke and all the other actors in "The Cherry Orchard" were able to bring the play to its undeniably emotional conclusion.

One other actor deserves mention here, and that is Rebecca Hall. She was the Vicky in "Vicky Christina Barcelona." Her power is undeniable. There is a scene in "The Winter's Tale" when she defends herself against the charges of adultery that have been lodged against her by Leontes that is unbearable to watch because you are watching a tortured human being expose her soul.

Imagine an actor speaking the lines of Shakespeare that makes you forget you are hearing the measured beats of poetry and convince you that are hearing the thoughts of a tortured human being. That was Rebecca Hall. And then she was the dedicated and unwanted Varya in "The Cherry Orchard." She was transformed from the sexually desired queen Hermione to the homely, unprepossessing housekeeper in Chekhov's play in just hours. And she was beautiful as both.

The redemptive power of the theater is in full swing. Actors dissatisfied with the emptiness of film scripts are returning to the stage. Stage actors like Beale seem content not to make the leap to movie screen. We seem to have entered a new age when actors can once again claim the moniker of "Broadway actor" or "stage actor." Think Kristin Chenoweth, or Nathan Lane or Patti LuPone or Norbert Leo Butz -- or Simon Russell Beale.

The entertainment business landscape is also changing. Tentpole movies thrive because they appeal to the movie geek who appreciates only the spectacle and none of the nuance that film used to provide.

And independent movies fail because they rarely -- really quite rarely -- capture the delicacy and revelatory power of human emotion that is ostensibly their reason for existing in the first place. Instead we get quirkiness that is supposed to be translatable to our everyday lives. Instead we see movies that have nothing to offer except the underdeveloped sensibility of the moviemaker, and that has increasingly felt utterly unsatisfying.

Just as we are trying to return to the produce of the family farm, or the hospitality of the local store, or the charms of the low-powered FM radio station in our neighborhoods, the theater may reveal to us the charms of just why we wanted to be entertained in the first place.

Entertainment is meant to deliver us from our daily travails, but it is also meant to make our imaginations percolate. The movies, to a very large extant, have made us stop thinking, and their influence islimited almost exclusively to the two hours we spend watching the movie in the theater or in front of the DVD. They have no life almost at all beyond that.


Mike Keating and I, as well as the other theater-goers who left the Harvey Theater on that unseasonably warm late winter night, continued to talk about the plays, and the actors. I was thinking about Sinead Cusack and Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke, and of course Rebecca Hall, and I remembered that at the end of "The Cherry Orchard" a bubble of sadness leapt up out of my chest and into my throat because I felt slightly wounded, just as the very real human beings before me had meant me to feel.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

It’s OK to Hit a Girl? Yes!

‘Watchmen’ offers lesson in equal (ass kicking) rights

By Gina Carbone

Watchmen” was written in the 1980s but it just hit the silver screen on March 6, 2009.

And when I say “hit,” I mean it. Punches, kicks to the gut. Men on women. Women on men. Equal opportunity smackdowns.

Sounds like progress to me.

Time was –- actually, time still mostly is -– a man couldn’t hit a woman without being the lowest of the low. Verboten. You never hit a woman! It’s shorthand for “real bastard.”

But why? Is it a size thing? If so, then it should be verboten to hit little Rorschach. He’s just a slip of a thing, but he’s also a masked superhero and the main “Watchmen” badass who breaks the hands of a man least three times his size.

Is it a caveman thing? Men traditionally hunt, women gather. They are tough and strong, women are nurturing and need protection.

Like “Taken.” “Taken” plays into that 100 percent. The kick ass father who must find his helpless virginal teenage daughter, who has been abducted into the foreign slave trade. Hits every “oh no they DI’INT” button.

There seems to be another one coming out. “The Last House on the Left,” a remake of the 1972 film which was itself a remake of “The Virgin Spring,” is about two female friends who are kidnapped and raped by a prison escapee and his crew. One of the girls finds her way back to her parents, but her attackers also take shelter there. At least in this one, the daughter may be attacked, but I think the mom gets to fight for her too.

We love watching the underdog, the little guy, fight back. And we certainly have enough “girl power” films out there like “Charlie’s Angels” or “Kill Bill” where gorgeous ladies get tough.

But you don’t often see a fair, realistic man-on-woman fight. It’s usually played up in one side’s favor -- the bastard beating a helpless, innocent woman; the tough chick knocking out a whole slew of bad men who never saw it comin’.

In “Watchmen” a female superhero punches a man -- a big strapping man -- so hard he falls over. Since he’s trying to put a move on her, we cheer. But then he gets up. And hits her, punches her, knocks her over and bends her over for an attempted rape. It’s brutal and pretty shocking. (Especially since the two apparently, uh, make up later.) We don’t often see a man hit a woman like he’d hit another man. Of course, we also don’t often see a man try to rape another man when he’s done hitting -- except maybe in prison.

Later, the woman’s daughter is shown fighting off a dozen guys, alongside a fellow (male) superhero. Sure, she’s a hot chick wearing a stupid skimpy outfit, but her partner is also hot and wearing an equally stupid outfit -- it just happens to cover more flesh. (We do see his ass later.) Toward the end of the film, she gets a solid kick to the gut from a former (male) friend.

No one is holding back. And it’s OK. Doesn’t make it fun to watch, but if two consenting adults want to kick the crap out of each other, who are we to deny them their joy?

As long as it’s a fair fight. I’ve read about guys who’ve silently suffered as their girlfriends/wives hit them. Some women are really strong. And crazy. And know how to throw things hard. That doesn’t mean they should get away with it.

But some men are too embarrassed or ashamed to speak out when they’ve been abused by a woman. Makes them seem weak. Their friends would look down on them. But what’s the alternative? Hit back? That’s verboten!

On film, it’s turned into comedy. Angry wife throws plate at bewildered husband. Hits his head. He says “oww!” We laugh.

In my world, the man either picks up another plate and throws it back or calls the cops on her. Probably the latter is the best move but not as satisfying. Then again, “The War of the Roses” is my favorite romantic comedy.

Gina Carbone may be twisted, but she’s willing to open the door for anyone and doesn’t get huffy when men want to be chivalrous. She can be reached at

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Crying Bachelor: A Tragedy In One Act

By Lars Trodson

I laughed and laughed.

That was my reaction every time I saw the Bachelor, Jason Mesnick, "cry." I put the cry in quotes because I simply didn't believe it. I didn't see any actual tears, and I thought the "anguish" that spread across his face like a black cloud was not cued by any human emotion but rather by the camera that was in front of his face.

The crying is, however, an apparently effective strategy, which is this: if Jason acted as though he himself was so destroyed by the thought of breaking up with a woman, then maybe the woman will go easy on him, maybe even take pity on him, and thus spare him the wrath he might quite rightly deserve. It's a great self-preservation strategy.

So that was what I thought was happening. Oh, poor Jason! He's really hurting! How can anyone be mad at him. It may have worked on all of the Bachelorettes, but not for the rest of the world.

I had not seen an episode of "The Bachelor" in years, and had watched none of the previous episodes of this installment, so I didn't have any opinion on this particular guy.

But almost immediately I thought old Jason was a manipulative, creepy jerk. Every kiss he laid on one of the women seemed too "actorly" -- as though he wasn't really engaged in a gesture of affection or even love. Rather it looked as though it was an act meant to project an outward image to the TV audience: look how passionate I am, how sensual, sexual. It made me cringe. Every sentence he uttered seemed like it came from a self-help book. He wasn't soulful. He was a gym-toned ball of id.

And so when he went to the balcony and put his head down in "anguish" after he let the first Bachelorette go -- the one he eventually hooked back up with -- I threw my head back and laughed. No wonder every American male in every sitcom is portrayed as an airhead or an incompetent boob. No wonder we're looked upon as self-centered mama's boys. No wonder we're --

Hey, wait a minute. This is not really so funny after all.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Box-Office Bonanza or Movie Misery?

By Mike Gillis

The New York Times recently reported the recession isn't hobbling Hollywood. Ticket sales in 2008 reached $1.7 billion, an increase of 17.5 percent. The Times points out that the up tic is not only the result of higher ticket prices, but matched by a comparable jump in attendance.

Social "experts" suggest the reason is simple: In tough times, people like to hunker down in dark places and forget their troubles.

That may be true, if a little too simplistic, but I'm sure people are looking for less expensive entertainment these days. A trip to the movies, sans the concession stand, is still cheaper than a night on the town, a sporting event or a live show. It may not be as cheap as a DVD rental or TV, but it's still a better way to get out and enjoy some company and a movie.

Still, those numbers don't really reflect a sea change in what people are choosing to watch. Although some smaller venues and art houses are reporting increases as well, most of the money is being shelled out for familiar fare. Superhero movies are doing well. Comedies seem bullet-proof: Consider the success of "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail" or the inexplicably flush-with-cash "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Perhaps the best example of people continuing to turn to the tried-and-true staples of the multiplex is the mystifying success of "Friday the 13th," which opened at nearly $50 million in its first week, making it the highest-grossing opening weekend for a horror film. Forget that the latest incarnation of that hoary series is a remake of the original 1980 picture that spawned more than a dozen sequels.

One of the first films I saw in the theater was the original "Friday the 13th." (I won't talk about how a 12-year-old boy was able to effortlessly file into the theater to see an R-rated movie rife with sex and violence). I will say this about the experience: Remembering how the packed theater as it shook from the scares, actually rumbled during the final jump, made me appreciate the power of cinema. It reminded me of why I wanted to make movies. I later graduated from "Friday the 13th" and recognized there were a host of reasons why I wanted to make movies, but I never forgot about the visceral power of cinema because of those early experiences with bad movies.

I've never liked to dwell on the box office. Over the last two decades, box office receipts have dominated discussions about movies. People are often more likely to decide to see a film based on its box-office take or anticipated box-office success. So, if we're here talking about the box office, and how attendance is up, I hope there's a chance that these new and larger audiences will search for more, beyond the borders of the multiplex, and help keep movies diverse and entertaining.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cheever Reconsidered

By Lars Trodson

I wouldn't pretend even for a second to know more about John Cheever than one of his biographers -- or even the editors of The New York Times. But it seems that the title of an article about Cheever that appeared in Sunday's NYT's Magazine got it exactly backwards. It seems appropriate to bring this up because we just happened to write about Cheever here just a few days ago.

"The First Suburbanite", as the piece is called, was written by Charles McGrath and a welcome attempt to keep Cheever relevant. But I don't think Cheever was the first suburbanite -- rather, he was most definitively the last.

The suburbs -- is the term really used at all, any more? -- were once a fascinating place because they were built and then populated by the men and women who were -- as John Kennedy said in his inaugural address -- “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage...”

They were renewing America in ways they saw fit -- rejecting the family farm, embracing a computerization of the workplace and the home, and informed by a daily philosophy fueled by capitalism and upward trajectory.

But it was never enough. Cheever’s people coped with this place, in part, by alcohol and flights of fancy. They couldn’t flee to France, so they retreated inside themselves, and they hurt themselves.

Now, today, the upward trajectory of Americans have led them to flee not the cities and the farms, but the suburbs - back to the cities, and some respects, back to the family farm. Suburbia has long been chronicled as a place of lurking and ever-present horrors, so, as a place, as a state of mind, it might not have anything left to say.

Here is the article on John Cheever, who can give you a detailed glimpse into post-war 20th Century America, if you so choose: