6 Degrees: March Notes on Film

Final post-mortem on the Oscars:

A few weOscar Selfie pixeks ago  I was discussing the poor quality of the recent Oscar shows with an old friend. We both remember the glamour and the excitement generated from past shows. There were not only glamourous stars and tributes to movie-making, but there was humor and elements of spontaneity that have been noticeably absent in recent years.
And the decision to ditch the clips of famous films makes the whole thing unwatchable. The original idea of the Academy was to create an awards show to congratulate the film-making community. If you take the original premise away, the program becomes one long, boring and pointless TV pilot.The recommended way to watch the program now would be to tape it and fast-forward to any possible outlet of originality. This year it was Lady Gaga’s impressive performance which occurred far too late in the broadcast to save the viewer from total boredom.
And then there are the films. The nominated films  are a big part of the problem. I’ve written at length on the problems Hollywood films are facing. And, I might add, they are doing a terrible job of adjusting to Global Film trends.
Fortunately, the award season is winding to a close. Here’s a short list of the winners from the past year:

The British version of the Academy is BAFTA: Boyhood won Best Picture..
Eddie Redmayne & Julianne Moore also won for Best Actor & Actress, respectively.
Rising star category!: Jack O’Connell (A nice touch-the Academy might take note…)

GOLDEN GLOBES: Boyhood-Best Drama/ The Grand Budapest Hotel-Best Musical OR Comedy
Eddie Redmayne & Julianne Moore-Best Actor & Actress

OSCARS: Birdman-Best Picture
Redmayne & Moore again.

Birdmn 2014

DIRECTORS GUILD: Outstanding Directorial Achievement: Alejandro G Inarritu: Birdman

Screen Actors Guild or SAG: Birdman

WRITERS GUILD: The Grand Budapest Hotel won for Original Screenplay

Grand Budapest 2014

RAZZIES (WORST FILM): Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas

Birdman and Boyhood took home the bulk of the awards. They were both artistic and slightly indie in tone. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was definitely an indie film. Most of the artistic community voted for Grand Budapest, and deservedly so. The film almost plays out like a giant storyboard for artists.


6 Degrees of Film
6 Degrees of Film

Best websites & Blogs on film: Part I

One of the hardest facts for film critics to face is the brutal reality that we cannot possibly screen and review the myriad number of movies that are released and circulating. Therefore, at some point we have to “let go”. In other words, let some other critic or writer take over the job. At least, in part, if you are honest.

In my humble opinion, there are far too many websites out there that purport to write about film, and few of them are worth your time. The criteria I look for, as a writer and as a film critic, in assessing the merits of a film blog or website are as follows

*Does the critic write knowledgeably on the subject of film? Is the writing clear and coherent?
*Does the writer have working knowledge of the history of film? Do they understand the genre they are writing about?
* Does the writer understand the source material? If it is a book, do they define the boundaries without simply repeating notes of the synopsis?
*Do they review the content of the film, or simply type data points or box office stats?
*Is the writing compelling and interesting enough to read? With or without the pictures?

With that criteria in mind, I’ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite places to go online to find out about movies I’m interested in seeing. Some of them are very slick and much lighter in content and tone. Others are more in depth and feature longer reads. It depends on your mood and how much time you have, of course, and I’ve also included some lesser known sites from my favorite colleagues. They are not all large scale online operations, but it’s good to mix it up and all these sites have some stand-out features to recommend them. They are:

1) Roger Ebert at rogerebert.com. Ebert’s widow, Chaz, does a great job managing this site!
2) The Guardian at theguardian.com/film
3) Salty Popcorn. My colleague Jason King has a fun and informative site at saltypopcorn.com.au
4) 6 Degrees of Film & 6 Degrees of Film @the Movies on Flipboard at sixdegreesoffilm.com
5) Self-styled Siren at selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com
6) Film Comment at filmcomment.com
7) Film Quarterly at filmquarterly.org
8) John Schwab’s My Film Journal at my-filmjournal.blogspot.ca
9) Some Came Running at somecamerunning.typepad.com
10) NPR-National Public Radio Film reviews at npr.org/movie-reviews


Stay tuned for Part II with more recommended film sites for movie buffs. Some of my favorite places to find out about movies come from less well-known writers and critics who love movies and love to write about them. My list of film websites continues in Part II.

Kingsman: The Secret Service review

ThiKingsman 2015s is a lighter and fairly forgettable film for a younger audience. It’s too violent in spots but not half bad….Samuel L. Jackson tries to add a twist to his role of evil villain by adding a lisp to the character. For the most part, it doesn’t quite pan out.

There’s one funny bit with a McDonald’s burger being served to the snobby and upper crust Englishman Harry Hart, played by Colin Firth. Firth is at his ironic best as the suave and debonair version of James Bond as Mentor. Taron Egerton as “Eggsy” is quite unmemorable as the young protégé of the Kingsman Hart .

The story revolves around a group of young recruits, including Eggsy (Egerton), being trained to become spies as they ultimately narrow the field down to the one who will become the exceptional Kingsman (or woman). The film has its moments. What it lacks in plot it more than compensates for with CGI plus over the top violence.

It would be a fun date movie for a younger crowd who decided to settle for action over romance. Not a must-see but entertaining enough if you’re in the mood for some lighter fare with a slight helping of gore.

The Birth of a Nation and Black History Month

The Birth of a Nation 1915 2015The masterful camerawork and the brilliant direction of D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation the first blockbuster movie. It was for many years the highest grossing film in Hollywood until  the advent of sound and films like Gone with the Wind made this film appear obsolete.

The Birth of a Nation has long been viewed as a dated and deeply flawed cinematic masterpiece. D W Griffith and his cameraman, G.W. Billy Bitzer, made film history with the techniques they established. But the subject matter has long been viewed as openly racist. Yet how ironic that the debut of this film, 100 years ago this month, coincides with our celebration of Black History Month.

Black History Month is a celebration to be marked with pride. It’s one way we as Americans can say: We have come so far. Therefore, a film that glamorizes the Ku Klux Klan and demonizes the enslaved race of black men and women is a film that is no longer seen to be “in vogue.” Instead, we try and focus on more positive things such as the fact that 12 Years a Slave was the winner of Best Picture in 2014.

While it’s true that there are still barriers to keep people of color from being acknowledged on par with their white colleagues, we at least have made note of the discrepancies rather than simply sweeping the evidence under the carpet. Women are still, to a large degree, second class citizens in Hollywood’s upper echelons. That fact has been noted, along with the percentage of white, older, male members of the Academy of Motion Pictures that votes.
All these things still give us hope and cause to celebrate. The actual birth of the nation that we now live in took longer than we would have liked to end the shameful practice of slavery, but the Civil Rights Movement, the election of Barack Obama, and recent films like Selma and 12 Years a Slave, are celebrations and reminders for our society about how far we have come.

Some of the best films about race in America and the Civil Rights Movement have been directed by African-Americans. I consider John Singleton, director of Boys n the Hood from 1991 and Rosewood in 1997 to be superior to Spike Lee, but both are acclaimed for their work. Spike Lee is perhaps most famous for Do the Right Thing, yet he also did an excellent job with Malcolm X in 1992 which starred Denzel Washington.

Other outstanding films dealing with Civil Rights are Mississippi Burning, starring Alec Baldwin as an attorney working with the widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The film focused on the true story of the determined efforts of Evers’ widow to re-open the case and bring his killer, Byron De La Beckwith, to trial almost thirty years after the crime had been committed.

Ghosts of Mississippi, directed by Rob Reiner and released in 1996, was another very good film with Willem Dafoe highlighting the true account of three Freedom Riders killed by Klan members while attempting to organize AfricanAmericans in a small town in Mississippi in the early sixties. Dafoe plays one of the FBI agents sent down from Washington to investigate the disappearance of the young men.

Steven Spielberg has a great movie, not well known, called Amistad, released in 1997, which deals with another true story. The story is not about the Civil Rights movement but it deals with African Americans on board a slave ship called the Amistad. The film centers around the actual trial held in 1839 to determine if the men who had mutinied on board the ship were free men or slaves.

Rosewood, from 1997, and directed by John Singleton, starred Don Cheadle and was based on another real-life event centering around a small town in Florida where the African-American population was completely wiped out in 1923.

There are a few very good films on Nelson Mandela, one being the 2013 Mandela: Long walk to Freedom. But to glean some understanding of the scope of the Civil Rights Movement in our own country, the acclaimed documentary, Eyes on the Prize, released in 1987, is the gold standard by which all other films are held. This 14 hour documentary takes you from the beginning of the movement, with Rosa Parks and the quiet and determined actions of an entire generation of young men and women of color, then on to the triumphs and charismatic leadership of  Martin Luther King which ended with the ultimate tragedy of his death.

All of these films are testaments to Hollywood and independent filmmakers who were determined to make us open our eyes to a subject we still grapple with in the modern era. It’s a fitting tribute to end Black History Month with a nod to some of our great films and filmmakers who have also grappled with the subject of race in America.

Bringing Up Oscar by Debra Ann Pawlak-A Book Review

I have nothing but praise for the amazing amount of research in Debra Pawlak’s book, Bringing Up Oscar. She has a wonderful ability to bring the stories of Hollywood legends to life. Her accounts from her blog of early silent stars like Mary Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle were detailed and fascinating portrayals that humanized the stilted celluloid figures we had come to know.

Having read Ms. Pawlak’s blogs on early Hollywood, the book strikes a similar tone, yet lacks the concise bite and flavor that a shortened blog piece conveys. Somehow the flow is not as cohesive or immediate as the blog accounts, but the information imparted is still fascinating to read.

The book begins with an interesting account of the meeting and concept behind the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The first ceremony and the events leading up to it are all part of a fascinating narrative thread which underscores the theme of Oscar and the events surrounding its creation.

But the scope of the larger story often bites off more than it can chew. It almost calls for a two or three book series. The book runs 348 pages and is filled with the background and life stories of all 36 founding Academy members.

As a side note, it’s telling that the original group of founders was made up of 34 white males and just 2 women. (Mary Pickford being one of them). Debra Pawlak’s great strength as a writer lies in her ability to take these stories of long-gone executives and lifeless names on a plaque and to bring them back to life with accounts of their exploits and very human foibles.

Her storytelling abilities make the characters come alive. But my wish is that the book would have narrowed the scope and told the accounts in perhaps more manageable chunks of text. There are so many gems and tidbits buried in paragraphs full of exposition about the circumstances leading up to the meat of the matter, whether it be Irving Thalberg’s weak heart or Mary Pickford’s fatal attraction to Douglas Fairbanks, all of these tales are told within the longer expansive story of the formation of Hollywood itself.

Some editing with sub-heads may have been needed, but one suggestions to readers which was helpful to me was to read the story as it was intended. That is, to read the Preface, which lists all 36 founding members, and then to read through the book and simply find the material surrounding each member which is featured within the chapter listings.

Bringing Up Oscar is a valuable treasure trove of material, but like any good treasure hunt, you must find the treasure buried within. Ms. Pawlak is one of the best of the best researchers who writes about early Hollywood history. For those who love film, and those who love a challenge, take up the book and find the treasures buried inside.