Trumbo

Trumbo

23 years after his death, Dalton Trumbo (“Johnny Got His Gun”) remains among the best-known screenwriters of all time. Ironically, that’s largely because much of his best work was done in secret. Jailed in 1950 and then blacklisted for his refusal to discuss his constitutionally protected membership in the Communist Party, Trumbo survived by writing prodigiously, using pseudonyms and “fronts” until 1960, when director Otto Preminger and actor-producer Kirk Douglas openly placed his name in the credits for “Exodus” and “Spartacus” and sounded the first death knell of the Hollywood blacklist.

Drawn partly from a play by the writer’s son, Christopher Trumbo, and featured on PBS’s “American Masters,” this documentary combines interviews with Trumbo’s family and friends, including stars Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman, and dramatic interpretations of his writing by a long list of acting heavyweights such as Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland. On the down side, director Peter Askin plays up Trumbo’s heroism while playing down his political extremism and indulges in some pretentious and annoying cinematic tics, including shooting the actors looking on pensively while their occasionally overdone readings play on the soundtrack. Still, when Askin captures the writer’s unsentimental and often humorous essence — as in Nathan Lane’s wry reading of an ingenious letter to the teenage Christopher Trumbo on the joys of masturbation and Paul Giamatti’s testy renditions of Trumbo’s broadsides at his local phone company — this is a highly engaging summary of the life and work of a singular figure in mid-century movie history.

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TCA Tour, Day 2: “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”

Back in January, I covered Starz’s panel on their upcoming series, “Spartacus,” and at that time, I freely acknowledged that I didn’t personally have much to say about the show because there wasn’t anything to see. I mean, nothing. All we had to work with were the assurances of the executive producers that it was going to be a hell of a show, which I responded to thusly:

Executive producer Rob Tapert describes it as “our reinterpretation of the famous Stanley Kubrick movie,” calling it “a hard-core, testosterone-driven action drama unlike anything on television right now” and “a totally R-rated, hard, hard show that still has all the things that you need in storylines but that delivers the action component that theatrical audiences expect from their entertainment.” Sounds great…but it would sound a lot more impressive if they actually had anything at all to show us or, indeed, had even cast Spartacus yet.

Well, it’s over six months later, and the premiere is “Spartacus” is still another six months away, but at least we’re finally making some headway. Hell, just hiring some actors would’ve been forward motion from where we were last time, but we actually got to see a clip from the show…and, better yet, it was a kick-ass, completely unedited version that had never been screened for anyone else. So suck it, Comic-Con!

First and foremost, Spartacus will be played by Andy Whitfield, an actor who’s virtually unknown outside of his native Australia (and, to look at his paltry list of credits, possibly isn’t even known very well when he’s at home), with Lucy Lawless and John Hannah playing the owners of a gladiator camp, and Peter Mensah serving as Doctore, a trainer of gladiators.

As you may already know, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is going to have a very unique look for television, though it’s similar in appearance and tone, not to mention subject matter, to a certain numerically-named film, a fact which executive producer Rob Tapert tackled headlong.

“Yes, ‘300’ had a particular look and style,” Tapert admitted. “Zack Snyder brought that hyper-realistic style to a period piece, you know. Certainly, ‘Sin City’ prior to that had been all digital backgrounds, and there’s other shows currently on television that have digital background, from ‘Blue’s Clues’ all the way through to ‘Sanctuary.’ So what ‘300’ did so well was make a great deal of money so everyone said, ‘Hey, the audience will accept that,’ and equally the drama played. So it was very easy to point to something and say, well, it worked in that style. Plus, having a digital environment and not having to have ultra-realistic backdrops and an arena like in ‘300,’ or in, like, ‘Gladiator,’ it allowed us to actually bring this to the screen. There was no way to do it without having the artifice, so to speak.”

As Tapert noted last year, this is a reinterpretation of the classic story presented within the 1960 Kubrick film, but there is most definitely a tribute to the man who played that version of Spartacus. At least, I think it’s a tribute.

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