Monday, August 20, 2012

No More Stunt Acting, Please

By Lars Trodson

One of the problems mainstream movies have today is that they often have the production values of an old-style TV movie. I’m talking about straight ahead dramas or comedies  –  not movies that require extraterrestrial landscapes or large-scale detonations. I was reminded of this when I watched “Hope Springs.”

This is a film with two legitimate movie stars and one very popular actor trying to become one: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell. But it looks like it was shot on the back lot of an old studio. There are hardly any other people in the film besides the stars (one very short scene with Elizabeth Shue notwithstanding) and the entire enterprise looks decidedly unlived in.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sexually Confused Cop Triumphs Over Megalomaniacal Newspaper Tycoon

By Lars Trodson

There's been a lot of chatter about "Citizen Kane" being knocked off the No. 1 perch in Sight & Sound's poll of the best movies ever made, a survey the British-based magazine publishes just once a decade.

"Kane" had held the top position for 40 years, unrivaled, but this year Sight & Sound asked a total of 846 critics to arrive at their verdict, a much wider net cast than ever before. While I don't know the demographics, I suspect the end result of this year's poll has as much to do with a lower age of the average reviewer as it does with the films themselves.

Let's face it: a lot of the things in Orson Welles' first film are hopelessly out of date. The film is in black and white. It's about a newspaper tycoon. Newspapers!  And this is a film decidedly lacking in any kind of sex. Oh, sure, Charles Foster Kane gets himself a mistress and even puts her up in a fancy apartment. But there is nothing sexy about Kane - either the man or the movie.

"Vertigo", on the other hand! Wow! The only thing it has on its mind is sex! "Vertigo" -- for all its flaws -- just seems more modern. Charles Foster Kane exhibits old fashioned fits of jealousy. He may even have a screw loose. But James Stewart's Scotty Ferguson is a real head case, as they would have said back in San Francisco in 1958. Man, he's gone.

But what are the virtues and drawbacks of each film?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Mad Men Of Madison Avenue Get Wobblier

By Lars Trodson

The 17 Emmy nominations given to “Mad Men” for it’s fifth season is a gift from the television gods. This is a show that has only been around for five short seasons (13 episodes a year) and it derailed almost completely in the middle of the fourth season after a wobbly third. We won’t go into the fifth season here because a lot of you are probably waiting to see it on DVD. I hope the Emmy nods gives a kick to the writers, because they need it.

The second half of the 1960s was bad enough without these people ruining it all over again.

This is not, by the way, a good show to watch on DVD. There’s too much human rot and soullessness to take in all at once. Back-to-back viewings (as I’ve done) also highlight the shows flaws, which primarily have to do with a lack of definition for any of the main characters and a grave inconsistency in tone.

I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that Don Draper has no character, that even he doesn’t know who he is. Maybe so, but the scene in which a prostitute slaps him during sex came so far out of left field it was almost laughable. What were we supposed to think? That Draper hates himself? Well, almost everything written about his character before showed that he was in fact quite self-satisfied -- even self-loving. This was an act of desperation by a writer that didn’t know where to go. I don’t think old Don has been slapped since.

Who is Peggy Olson anyway? A woman wrestling with her religion, or is she a bohemian wild child who’s not afraid to strip in front of a co-worker whom she obviously dislikes? In real life we can be many things, of course, but the problem here is that this is fiction. We need a center, and Peggy has no center. One minute she’s taking charge, and the next she’s quivering in the corner. Or she’s sleeping with a guy from the bar, or with Duck. That nascent hippy party that she went to in the village was so weirdly staged that it didn’t look too much different than anything Maynard G. Krebs might have gone to.

The only two characters that seemed remotely made of flesh and bone were Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway Harris. But the writers committed an act of murder on Roger Sterling in the fourth season that was so awful that it should go down in the annals of character butchery. Roger is certainly a cad, he’s worse than that. He’s also a drunk. But he also seemed fearless. So when the writers had him hide out in a hotel after the Lucky Strike account dropped him you actually didn’t feel bad for Roger Sterling, you felt bad for the actor, the great John Slattery, who had to have known he was being knifed in the front.

Just as Roger is going through his paroxysms of self-doubt, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) all of sudden decides to sop drinking and become a philosopher. He’s writing down his thoughts in a notebook! Like an artist in a cold garret, punishing himself for his dream.

Nothing about Don Draper seems terribly deep, and I’m afraid that this isn’t helped by the fact that Hamm is an actor of modest talent. I’m being kind. He has about two expressions, one of which is pulling his bottom lip inward as though he’s about to cry. Don Draper musing is not something I want to spend a lot of time listening to.
Thank God for Christina Hendricks, and I don’t mean that in a cheap way. She’s managed to hold on to her dignity, even after marrying that idiot. In the episode where the management team of Sterling Cooper decides to break off on its own, Joan hadn’t been around for a while. When the larcenists realize they don’t know where anything in the office is located, Roger calls Joan.

A few moments later, Joan comes swinging into the office. I actually cheered. But by then I knew the love affair was almost over.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Montgomery Clift: Twelve Minutes of Genius

By Lars Trodson

Montgomery Clift was nominated for four Oscars in a career spanning just 17 films in about 15 years. He never won. He was up for a Best Actor Academy Award in what is perhaps his greatest role, Robert E. Lee Prewitt in “From Here To Eternity,” but he lost out to William Holden in “Stalag 17.” If you have to lose, it might as well be for a good reason. It’s hard to argue with how the voters went that year.

Clift is not really remembered today. His movies are too melodramatic and almost all were in filmed black and white. A disfiguring car accident in 1956 left him broken. He was also a tortured gay man in 1950s Hollywood. Nothing, not even the pursuit of art, can balance out a life that seems so unbearable. On screen, Clift always seems a little sad, a little lost. He looks frail and his voice halts; his eyes always seem skittish, as though he is casing out the landscape for demons.

He was, in his youth, uncommonly handsome. His female costars always said that they had a desire to protect him — to keep him out of harm’s way. His great friend was Elizabeth Taylor and even her formidable personality and will to live could not ultimately stop Clift from destroying himself. You get the feeling that if Elizabeth Taylor couldn't save him, no one could.

His last two movies, the John Huston-directed “Freud,” and the forgotten “The Defector," were not memorable or well-received. But just prior to those two films, even in his shattered state, Clift had one last moment of greatness. A heart-breaking moment of beauty.

The movie was “Judgment At Nuremberg” (1961), which tells the story of one of the trials that were held in Germany after World War II to prosecute Third Reich officials for war crimes. Clift played a mentally challenged young man named Rudolph Petersen, a survivor of a concentration camp who was sterilized by Nazi doctors.

In his one scene, Clift is on the witness stand. It’s impssible to separate his performance from the reality of his own life, but the magnificent power of what he put into this portrait cannot be denied. The man on the stand is sweating and his hands are shaking. He seems unable to sit still. He grips the arms of the witness block, as though he is physically trying to hold himself together. His searching eyes seem totally hollowed out, white and frightened. At first, he is fairly calm throughout the questioning by the American attorney who is prosecuting the German officials (played by Richard Widmark). This American attorney is on his side. In this scene Widmark is warm, caring and gentle.

But then the German defense lawyer, played by Maximillian Schell (in an Oscar winning performance) tears into Clift. The tortured actor flails against the questioning with a haunting, plaintive voice. He tries to explain what has happened to him amidst the brutal questioning.

I was sterilized, says Rudolph Peterson. “Since that day I am half of what I have ever been,” he shouts at the German defense attorney. Even though he is talking about his sterilization, one can’t wonder if Clift is raging against the car accident and the drug and alcohol abuse that completely changed his life and career.

And then Peterson takes out a picture of his mother, who the Nazis claimed was feeble-minded and was, therefore, the reason for his sterilization. He holds the picture out for everyone to see, at Schell, at the judge (played by Spencer Tracy), at Widmark. All the other actors seem gentle then, almost overwhelmed at the sight of this actor, this man, this brittle man and actor, putting forth everything he's got, for the screen.

Clift, in this scene, is noble — an almost impossible feat for any actor to achieve. He is playing a small man, a small, helpless man, and all he is asking for is a little dignity, a little compassion — he wants these things, which shouldn't be so hard to come by for anybody. The scene is almost unendurable because of the stunning rawness of Montgomery Clift's performance.

Clift was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Rudolph Peterson. He lost out, for the last time, to George Chakiris from "West Side Story." You can justify the earlier Oscar loss to William Holden, but the Academy was oblivious on this one.

Five years later, in 1966, Montgomery Clift died at the age of 45. News reports said he was found lying on his bed, both hands clenched into fists.

Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" ( and "Tide Turning." (

Saturday, June 2, 2012

What Happened to "Last Tango In Paris"?

By Lars Trodson

Among the cluster of truly memorable, dynamic and stylistically innovative films released in 1971-'72 — including "Straw Dogs," "The French Connection," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Godfather," "SweetSweetback's Bad Assss Song,"  "Carnal Knowledge" and "Shaft" — none has reached the age of 40 as sadly as "Last Tango In Paris."

It's bad for almost any film to reach middle age. Time is the enemy of most art, but this movie seems particularly wounded and spent. It's images, more than most films, have gotten encrusted by true events, and its style has curdled because of changing attitudes, changing tastes, and because the movie has had more than its share of bad luck.

Part of that bad luck comes in the form of what initially may have seen like a blessing. It's the only movie — the only one — that has a print review almost as famous as the movie itself. The review, of course, was written by Pauline Kael, who at the time reigned not only over The New Yorker, but over all other film reviewers.

And there are the stars, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Schneider never came close to the notoriety she received from "Last Tango", and for Brando it was the last gasp of greatness. After that, he retreated into cameos and pieces of fluff - which no one can blame him for. He was one artist who had given enough, and it would have been churlish to ask for more. But he also suffered through some devastating personal tragedies at the end of his life. The movie's director, Bernardo Bertolucci, seems almost like the forgotten man now.

"The movie breakthrough has finally come," Kael famously proclaimed on Oct. 28, 1972. The review was reprinted in other publications sometimes in its entirety. When the movie was released it was given an 'X" rating (immediately appropriated by the porn industry, which morphed it into 'XXX.")

Monday, April 30, 2012

Five Times Nick Nolte Was Screwed Out Of An Oscar Nomination

By Lars Trodson

Nick Nolte has been nominated for an Oscar three times. Paul Newman, God bless him, was nominated nine times. One may have been the bigger movie star, but who was the better actor? Nolte was most recently nominated for "Warrior,"which I don't know anything about, so whether he deserved his nomination or not, I can't say.

His Oscar nods came for "The Prince Of Tides" (1991 — and meh), "Affliction" (1997 — great) and the aforementioned "Warrior" (for Best Supporting Actor, 2011 — ?).

But here's five films he should have been nominated for, and at least one for which he should have taken home the prize.

"New York Stories" — 1989 — "Life Lessons" segment directed by Martin Scorsese. It's extremely hard for actors to do certain things on film, and one of them is to come across as a technically adept painter. In this one, Nolte plays an artist, tagged as a genius, named Lionel Dobie. He moves around the canvas like a true painter, and he's also, of course, utterly convincing as a tortured genius.

"Q & A" —1990, directed by Sidney Lumet. Notle plays a psychotic, sexually repressed NYC cop in this underrated, intriguing thriller. Very strange role for Nolte, who is one of the most chameleon-like actors ever. His physique seems to change with certain roles, and in this one he's thick, with slicked-back black hair.

"The Thin Red Line" — 1998, directed by Terrence Malick. This is the one Nolte should have bagged the big prize for (Best Supporting Actor). Nolte plays Lt. Col. Gordon Tall, and if there ever was a picture of frustrated ambition this is it — look at the image at the top of the story. In the scene where he's trying to convince his company commander, Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) to charge up the hill (the film takes place on Gaudalcanal), and his order is refused, Nolte rubs his head and his voice is almost strangled with emotion. It's a beautifully sustained performance, and one that was improbably, sadly overlooked by members of the Academy.

"The Good Thief" — 2003, Neil Jordan. Nolte takes the baroque lines of this compelling little movie and gives them a rhythm all his own. All of a sudden he's not someone from Oklahoma (Nolte was born there), but a hybrid European. He plays a drug-addicted thief, Bob Montagnet, who's got some troubles. This is more of a tone poem than anything
else, and Nolte is its warm heart.

"Paris, Je' taime" — 2006, segment "Parc Monceau" directed by Alfonso Cuaron. A small gem. Nolte gives a humane, plaintive performance in a short film that has a lovely little twist.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Providence, RI, circa 1975

This is a real treat, especially if you know Providence, RI. This is Super 8 film I shot probably around 1975. The old train station had been more or less abandoned by then - it's now the site of the Capital Grille and all the other restaurants. The Paris Theater, a movie theater, showed "the finest is all male adult entertainment" - you can only see part of the old marquee. There's the Old Stone Bank, back when it was a bank, and the Hospital Trust building, which still stands, of course. It's safe to say, though, that this Providence just simply doesn't exist any more.
-- Lars Trodson

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Unexpected Power Of Silence

By Lars Trodson

About halfway through Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” he does something so basic, so fundamental, that it almost seems revolutionary. What does he do? He takes a few seconds, no more than five, to enjoy a moment of silence.

That’s right. No dialogue. No explosions. No engines revving. It’s just a simple pan shot over the Hawaiian landscape and the Pacific Ocean, and all you hear is the breeze as the characters in the movie stand there appreciating nature. In the context of today’s moviemaking it almost seemed -- should I even say it? -- brave.

It wasn’t always this rare. I watched “The Bridge On the River Kwai” recently. That’s about as big as a movie can get, and even in the midst of an enormous amount of action and talk and scenery, David Lean took a few moments to shoot a scene at sunset where the two main characters stand in quiet to assess what they have just been through.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, there’s almost 10 minutes where not a word is spoken. Jimmy Stewart is simply following Kim Novak through San Francisco.

It’s a powerful thing, silence, and can be just as dramatic as any dialogue, car chase or spaceships flying through the universe. Dramatists once understood its appeal, and its mystery. But it’s become anathema to filmmakers, which is of course too bad.

Peace and quiet is something we all crave, and we probably should try to enjoy it while we can.

Take a look at this New York Times article here:

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Super 8 Snowstorm

In the summer of 1969, my parents bought a Hanimex Super 8 camera to record the first year of my sister's life. It was, or at least it seemed to us, the very latest in modern technology - even though you couldn't record any sound. You bought the film at the camera store -- you remember those -- and we dropped the film off at Star Market in East Providence to get it developed. The film came in three minute rolls, encased in a small black cassette. It took a few days and then you went back to the supermarket to pick it up. We had a Bell & Howell projector, and we'd set it up and watch the movies that we shot.

We got a little better at it, and I don't remember our parents ever telling us not to shoot this, or don't do that -- in terms of wasting film - so we pretty much shot whatever we wanted.

I'm guessing this film is from 1972 or 1973. There is a shot with my sister in it -- she's wearing the red and white coat -- and she doesn't look more than 2 or 3 years old so the year seems about right.

It seems very quaint and cosy to me. The look of the cars. The umbrella the woman is carrying as she walks down the street. The ancient snow plows. It has gone from being a contemporary glimpse into the world to a snapshot of a time that seems long ago now.

The background music is courtesy of Mr. Dean Martin.

-- Lars Trodson