Mini Review: "The American"

September 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

If you happen to have two unique parents — in this case Fred Zinneman’s “The Day Of the Jackal” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” — and those two parents have a child, it would look like “The American.”

The child owes a debt to each parent, of course, but it is blessed with a personality all its own.

“The American” is a beautifully made film, made sturdy with old school craftsmanship. It’s got pleasures very few films offer up these days, including a pervasive and mesmerizing sense of place, and a quiet, haunted center, which is the presence of George Clooney.

See this film if you can.


‘Up In The Air’: Another Empty Balloon

December 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

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

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

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

As did Kendrick’s performance. The detail about the ponytail is maybe a minor one, but it’s telling. I think when critics latch on to something, they desperately want the audience to see the same thing. So, hence, Kendrick’s ponytail becomes a weapon of mass destruction. In order to bolster this argument of a ferocious performance, Manohla wants you to see something that simply is not there.

The beautiful thing here is that you don’t have to take my word for it. Just go see the movie, and then let me know the scene or, presumably, scenes, where Kendrick struts and jousts with such cutting authority.

Perhaps movie critics are even more detached than we’d like them to be, or perhaps they want to live in a world where they imagine they have more influence than they do. I think they think that if they tout Kendrick often enough, and she ends up winning an Oscar or Golden Globe, that they may have traded their diminishing readership for some kind of industrial influence.

But while I have no choice for any actor for a best supporting actress role nod, Kendrick, God bless her, decidedly is not it.

Because if these critics think that Natalie Keener, as played by Kendrick, is the living embodiment of the modern, heartless, striving executive, then they have not met one.

Kendrick is cast as a Cornell graduate who is a change agent in the business world. She may have some sharp dialogue to relate, but her shoulders are so narrow and her posture not autharatative enough, and her voice so small she is not going to intimidate anybody. It does not work – she is a child trying to impersonate an adult. This was not the right actress for this part.

Think of this: Would a “ferocious” executive start to screech uncontrollably in the lobby of a hotel after she gets an email from her boyfriend announcing their breakup? I’m not saying that even the most heartless executive would not be moved by the bust up of a relationship, but they would not wail about it in public. That scene was truly cringe-worthy, and off key.

“Up In The Air” also gets George Clooney’s big scene wrong. Clooney plays a professional henchman — he fires people no one else has the guts to. But after hooking up with equally manipulative Vera Farmiga in a hotel lounge, Clooney’s Ryan Bingham suddenly feels his pinched heart growing three times its normal size. And so, “Up In The Air” suddenly reverts to one of the schmaltziest of movie cliches — the hero suddenly foregoes his big career chance to go running into the arms of his true love.

This fantasy would have lost none of its power if Bingham had forced his way to the end of his speech in front of the business convention even after realizing his heart was no longer in it. It would have moved the arc of his story along, bridging the old guy with the emerging one. And then he could have run off to Farmiga. But by simply replaying an old rom-com trope, with Bingham implausibly walking away from the podium in front of a high-paying audience — the movie completely gives up its hip, modern cred.

Director Jason Reitman tried to make up for this by introducing a cold twist, but by the end its too late. The movie is a modern reworking of an old fantasy, that you can have your life and enjoy it, too.

The movie is too hip, however, to say that their characters can have it all, but in the end they don’t lose too much. Everything kind of pretty well works out.

What the hell good is that?

The Great Norman Corwin: An Interview

September 19, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

Here is a name that belongs to the great pantheon of 20th-century writers, and the name is Norman Corwin. Norman, which is what I was fortunate enough to call him during the years of our correspondence, was epic in his understanding of the human condition, and mathematical in his precise articulation of that condition. His words constructed human thought and behavior — both the good and the bad of it — and he dramatized it in such a way that he was able, as few artists are, to draw people together so they would empathize with their differences rather than be terrorized by them.

I am tempted to say that we need Norman Corwin the writer today more than ever, but we do have him, even though his creative years seem to be behind him. He’s 97 now. His works still live on, though, you just have to find them. He wrote in one of the most ephemeral forms of modern art — the radio drama — which is not heard so much any more. That is why his name is not mentioned with Hemingway or Faulkner or Lillian Hellman or Arthur Miller (or whomever you would place on your list of great 20th century writers). You can go into a bookstore and buy a new paperback of any one of those above-mentioned writers, but to access Norman’s work you’ll have to go to a cassette or CD, and it requires some work.

To cut to the chase before we backtrack a little: I was corresponding and talking to Norman in 2005 when I suggested to him an interview with John Lovering on WSCA-LP FM radio in Porsmouth, NH. WSCA is a low-powered FM station that got on the air due to the unquenchable energy of a local guy by the name of Tim Stone, and a few other people. I was on the original board to get the station started, but I really didn’t do that much. I think my greatest contribution was securing this interview with Norman.

John Lovering was the obvious choice to do the interview because he hosts a program dedicated to radio drama. When I told John I knew Norman, and thought that maybe we could do an interview, John was ecstatic, and Norman was equally happy to do it. The timing was also fortuitous, because George Clooney’sGood Night, and Good Luck” had just been released, and so had a documentary on Norman’s life. That documentary went on to win the Academy Award in that category that year. So Norman was enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Good for him.

It was in that rather heady atmosphere that Norman made himself available to John and I, and so we interviewed him on Oct. 12, 2005, in the cozy studio of WSCA. He was on the phone for an hour, and clear as a bell. I think John and I loved every minute of it.

Although Norman’s life would take a full biography to fully tell the story, the facts are these: He started as a newspaper man in the Boston area, and quickly caught the eye of a movie promotion executive in New York and off he went. This was in 1936, or thereabouts. By his late 20s, Norman was writing and producing his own stories on radio, one of which, “The Plot To Overthrow Christmas“, caught the attention of a young writer and reporter by the name of Edward R. Murrow. Murrow knocked on Norman’s apartment door in New York right after the broadcast, and the two became lifelong friends. That is the connection to the Clooney movie about Murrow. As Norman said to me once about Murrow in a phone call, “I mourn him to this day.” Murrow died in 1965.

Corwin wrote many casual masterpieces, but there are two he is rightfully remembered for: “On A Note of Triumph” and “We Hold These Truths.” These stories are about the fundamental decency of America, and about the tenets on which this decency is built, and they are relevant today. You should hear them, and they will each do much to restore your faith in what this country was, and is, and should be.

He knew everyone, from Orson Welles to President Franklin Roosevelt to William Shatner. His disciples are Studs Terkel and Ray Bradbury (Norman was referenced in a recent New York Times story about Bradbury) and Robert Altman. If you ever wonder why Woody Allen’s movies almost always have voiceover, tribute radio drama and Norman Corwin. Corwin was nominated for an Oscar in 1957 for best adapted screenplay for “Lust for Life,” which also earned a best actor nod for Kirk Douglas.

Here, then, is what may very well be one of the last full interviews Norman has given to date. Forget that he is 95 at the time — his father lived to be 110 and the last time I talked to his brother Emil he was 103. There is longevity, and the arc of history can be heard, in Norman’s voice. The first radio broadcast Norman ever heard was morse code, and that captured his imagination. He took those dots and dashes and transformed them into some of the most memorable sentences ever written by an American writer.

It is with great pleasure that we here at Roundtable Pictures can offer this interview with Norman Corwin. Enjoy his words and the sound of his voice. I hope the world welcomes him once again, as it always has.

(This file may take a few moments to load, depending on your connection.)

George Clooney as Mr. Roberts

June 22, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

As a fan of the movie “Mister Roberts“, it has been a happy shock to re-read the novel on which it is based. The original book, the one work by writer Thomas Heggen, was published in 1946, became a huge hit on stage with Henry Fonda, and was turned into the famous film in 1955. The cast is perfect, in its own way: Fonda as the beloved Lt (jg) Doug Roberts, Jack Lemmon as Ensign Frank Pulver, William Powell as Doc and James Cagney as the hated Captain.

Aside from Lemmon, the casting bears little resemblance to the characters described in the book. Roberts is 26 (Fonda was in his 40s), the Doc is 36 (Powell, in his final film appearance, was about 60) and Cagney was 55. The film works anyway, and it settles nicely in the minds of almost everyone who has seen it.

I read the book many years ago, but I had forgotten how lovely and mournful it is. The chapter when Mr. Roberts stands the late watch is, to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful chapters ever written in an American novel. It is regretful and nostalgic and touching, and I can’t remember reading anything quite like it.

There is also nothing like it in the movie, which is robust and fleshed out with slapstick humor, and the deep well of sadness that is inside Mr. Roberts is not explored (I have not read the stage version, which I hear is much different than the film).

It occurred to me, after I put the book down one night, that a faithful adaptation of the novel would be a perfect project for George Clooney and his Rat Pack pals. I think Clooney is a fine actor — they all are in those Ocean movies — but the films are much lighter than the actors in them. While Clooney is the same age as Fonda was in the 1955 film, he exudes that easy charm, but also he comes across as more whole, and sadder sometimes (see “Syriana.”)

That would be a dream project for those guys, and it would be good for them, and good for us, to take it up.

Speaking of dream movie projects, I decided on one more, this one never to be realized: Jackie Gleason as Nero Wolfe in a screen adaptation of any of the novels directed by Orson Welles. That would have been ideal.

If any one out there has a fantasy film project, post it here.

Buy it here:

Mister Roberts

The A-Listers

June 12, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

So here we are, contemplating the fact that the most popular movie George Clooney and his pals may ever make in their careers is a remake of some eye candy from 1960.

The original “Ocean’s 11” has always left me with the impression of a newly enameled appliance: a pink washing machine or a cherry colored washer-dryer. There is nothing terribly important about it, but you’re kind of happy that it is around. That’s because the parts — the Frank Sinatras, the Dean Martins, the Sammy Davises — work smoothly and get the job done.

Watching the original film actually is almost the same as doing your laundry: It smells nice, it’s easy, and when it’s over you can’t quite remember when you actually undertook the task.

In the 1960 film, the sets are gaudy, the dialogue impossible (I get the feeling none of the leading actors actually rehearsed the script), and the women are imposingly attractive. It was the appeal of the boys, the Rat Pack, that carried the day. All of them together turned “Ocean’s 11” into a hit and into the cultural touchstone it is today.

Now that Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle — not to mention a small army of other actors — have turned the “Ocean’s 11” movie into a modern franchise, it’s important to remember one thing.

For Sinatra, Martin, Davis and the others, “Ocean’s 11” was a bauble, a thing to ad-lib during concerts, record dates, nightclub appearances, TV shows and radio gigs. For the guys appearing in the “Ocean” movies today: it is, sadly, their main gig.

At the time Sinatra made “Ocean’s 11” he was universally recognized as the guiding force behind some of the most significant and ground-breaking popular musical recordings of the day. Sinatra’s influence was not posthumous; by the time Gay Talese wrote his article for ‘Esquire’ — which was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” — it was universally accepted that Sinatra had changed the tenor and import of popular music. This was six years after “Ocean’s 11.”

For Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, the same was also true: “Ocean’s 11” was a great vehicle to call attention to their day jobs, which was making records and performing in nightclubs. Dean Martin was a performer, and then a movie star.

When Matt Damon isn’t making an “Ocean” movie he’s…what? Making a “Bourne” movie?

Why is this so? Why do the remake in the first place? If Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Don Cheadle — as well as Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner, etc. — got together and said “let’s make a heist film and set it in Las Vegas”, all anyone would say is that they are following a grand movie tradition. Even if they were accused of ripping off “Ocean’s Eleven”, so what? At least, and this is most important, they would have created their own characters.

I thought the same thing as I watched, painfully, part of the remake of “The Pink Panther” with Steve Martin. Here we have, in our own generation, a truly gifted comedian and actor. Why couldn’t the creative minds active today create a character as unique to Martin as Clouseau was to Peter Sellers? Why does Martin only get the retread, when a generation ago Blake Edwards and the studio system allowed the writers to come up with a new movie character?

Cut back a few years and ask yourself the same thing about Samuel L. Jackson and his spin on “Shaft.” Jackson is one of the most charismatic movie stars working today and yet Richard Roundtree obviously worked in an era where he gets the original, and groundbreaking film, and our guy, our generation, gets the pallid remake.

Given that it wasn’t even technically a remake, why couldn’t the filmmakers and studio have enough confidence to say: Rather than remake “Shaft”, let’s create an entirely new private eye for Jackson and make a franchise out of that? But no. No confidence. No creativity. Only remakes and retreads and washouts.

I didn’t dislike either new “Ocean’s 11” films, but I won’t see the third, at least not in the theaters. These films are sleek and fashionable, but they don’t have the American sturdiness of the original. The Sinatra version may have been like doing your laundry, but the Clooney versions are like watching a DVD of you doing your laundry. It’s an echo — and that really shouldn’t be good enough for any of us.

Out of Order, Lost at Sea

June 11, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Mike Gillis

All the attention to “Ocean’s Thirteen” last week reminded me I was one of the few people to miss the first picture in the trilogy, “Ocean’s Eleven,” the 2001 loose remake of a hip 1960 outing of the same name. This weekend I had a chance to catch up, but not before accidentally renting “Ocean’s Twelve,” watching half of it and realizing I had missed the boat.

It’s a strange way to gauge a picture. Watching the second film first, I kept asking, of course, what the hell is going on? Will this make sense? That said, the film moves at a quick clip and boasts some solid performances by George Clooney, Elliott Gould, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, and even Brad Pitt. It picks up where the first film leaves off: Casino owner Terry Benedict (Garcia), who lost a hundred-and-some-odd million in an intricately plotted heist masterminded by huckster Danny Ocean (Clooney) and 10 accomplices in “Ocean’s Eleven”, hunts down the thieves in “Ocean’s Twelve”.

Before realizing my own timeline was off, I wondered if director Steven Soderbergh chose to throw the “Ocean’s Twelve” timeline into a blender, as he’s done with other pictures, beginning with Benedict’s retribution. In the film’s opening act, Benedict tracks down all eleven thieves at various locations across the globe and gives them a deadline to pay back his stolen millions.

I had to stop the DVD about an hour into the picture to tend to other matters. Later on, looking at the movie’s case, I realized I had mistakenly watched the second picture in the trilogy. Apart from feeling like an idiot, it was a curious exercise in how modern movies are assembled, particularly sequels, which aim to appeal to people who have not seen the previous installments. Although it appears critics were not at all pleased with “Ocean’s Twelve,” favoring the first — and rightly so — and the third, Soderbergh does weave an engaging tale that maintains interest, despite some missing back story, at least for an hour. After watching the first picture, I’m not sure Soderbergh misses any important character development, despite some marvelous setups of “Ocean’s Eleven,” and seems to manage some flourishes that stand alone in the second while contributing to the first. It’s a lot of fun, if not a little too proud of itself.

The problem is this: Now that I’ve gone back and watched the first Ocean’s, which I found to be one of the more clever and entertaining heist pictures I’ve seen, I’m less interested in watching the rest of “Ocean’s Twelve.” I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was pleased with how “Ocean’s Eleven” wraps up, and getting this witty crew back together, plus one new thief per picture, cheapens the first somehow. I don’t know.

Perhaps I should just skip it and move on to “Ocean’s Thirteen.” I’m sure Soderbergh will help me catch up.

Buy it here:

Ocean’s Eleven (Widescreen Edition)

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