6 Degrees News: April 2010: Books about Film

Some of the 6 Degrees of Film ideas directly link the films of the present with films of the past. But other degrees link the ever-evolving IDEA of film with the future of media and movie-making. Two books about Hollywood are highly recommended for all 6 Degree followers: One book that speaks to this is a new book about the real “Hollywood numbers”. “The Hollywood Economist”, by Edward Jay Epstein chronicles the interesting fact that box-office profits are a marginal amount of the vast money-making machine of Hollywood. The REAL profits are found in deals for DVR’s and overseas distribution plus the marketing rights for blockbuster film products. It’s a dirty little secret about modern-moviemaking.

The other book is “Hellraisers” about the hard-drinking and sometimes darkly comic lives of four of Hollywood’s great actors of the latter part of the twentieth century.
Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Richard Harris & Oliver Reed are chronicled in this book. Peter O’Toole is a particular favorite in 6 Degrees films so this is a must-read for all film buffs!

Nothing really jumps out in terms of New Releases this month other than “Date Night” with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell.
Movie fanatics (one step of obsessive-compulsive from movie BUFFS) take note: This month Turner Classic features Gene Kelly’s famous dance with the cartoon mouse in MGM Parade (set to TIVO as its shown sporadically throughout the month). One of the great character actors, Patrick McGoohan (star of the classic “The Prisoner” series), stars in “The Quare Fellow” on April 10th.
Those who love comedy will love the unforgettable scene where Cary Grant smash-faces Katherine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story”.
Bad B Alert! Looks like “Reveille with Beverly” & Eve Knew Her Apples” rival “Hot Tub Time Machine” for the honor of best/worst film titles. (Followers of the blog can pick from the list of our favorite Bad-B’s of all time! On the last day of April, TCM will show “Beach Blanket Bingo” PLUS a William Shatner film from 1965 so the “deliciously awful” hits just keep on coming!

Grumpy Critics review:Kick ass cinema featuring pabulum and dribble

A friend of mine told me recently that her adult son liked to see movies where the fight scenes looked “real.” And for that reason, he would not see “Avatar.” This is a valid argument perhaps, however it is certainly not the only reason I would choose not to see “Avatar.”

If I believe that the world in which the aliens live is a viable and realistic depiction of an alien life-force, I would go see “Avatar.” If I believe that the dialogue between the main characters is witty and realistic and engaging, I would go see any movie.

If I believe that I will learn something or become engaged in an emotion and/or cathartic moment of cinematic magic, I will see a film. Movies are meant to be viewed and reviewed by all different types of people. Some movies are not “my cup of tea” but I know they are valid and have merit.

Other films I love and realize they are not viewed in the same light by many other people. The same is true for all art forms, including paintings and literature. But the criteria for movie-going cannot be narrowed to a bias that some of another generation can reduce to “kick-ass” cinema, as I call it. “Kick-ass cinema” can be defined as a type of film where the predominant emotion is one of elation when the hero “kicks-ass” against the protagonist and the entire film-making experience is cathartic only for those who view life through a very narrow window.

This is not really a new problem for film-makers and there are a number of films that have been made from the post-WWII generation through today catering to the “kick-ass” audience. However, the types of films that have lingered in the highest-grossing list and the ones that have earned sequels in the past ten to twenty years represent the “dumbing-down’ of a large portion of the movie-going audience.
To be fair, films like Titanic & Avatar don’t really figure in this category. But films like “Fast & Furious”, Transformers and other mindless high-speed car chase action films are fast becoming the sure-fire hits for Hollywood studios. These films are the counter-point to the small, independent pictures that have been made in the U.S. and abroad since the ‘60’s.

The breakdown of the old Hollywood studio system did spawn independent and foreign films that make us think. But the “kick-ass” brand of film-making makes money and that is why they are here to stay. At some point in our lives, as we age, we start to ask ourselves how much money we want to spend to be entertained by the same mindless pap that is being paraded on screen and masquerades for “entertainment?” Speaking for myself, this is a nasty apocalyptic thought. Even the notion of having to waste two or more hours sitting through this type of dribble has made the very thought of becoming a film critic akin to someone condemned to a torture chamber.

One of the most satisfying addendums I have seen in recent times comes in one of my least favorite movie guides, “Entertainment Weekly.” In the sidebar, there is a list where the highest-grossing films of all times are adjusted for inflation, and the list begins to look quite different. (“Gone with the Wind” comes out on top, I do believe!)

So the good news is that there are still great films being made, even in Hollywood. But the demand is high for pabulum and dribble being churned out of Hollywood simply to generate revenue, and that is all we may eventually get. Imagination and originality in plots and content are all that should be asked for in good film-making. It’s not too much to ask and we should all demand more of it in the days and decades to come.

Capsule Review: The Wolfman

I like “old school” movies such as these because if you go to see a movie about werewolves, you would expect blood and gore. And this picture delivers that. Anthony Hopkins and Benecio del Toro are good in their parts. Hopkins reminds me a bit of the old Boris Karloff who would behave in horror films the way he was expected to behave. He was there to deliver a “menacing persona” that would encompass a whole spectrum of horror we had come to expect from his presence in a movie.

In this case, Hopkins doesn’t even have to extend himself much to allow us to identify him with the menacing persona. He delivers it in his voice. The plot is pretty standard as wolfman plots go, but my one big complaint was the fact that the character del Toro played was supposed to be an actor. That footage must have ended up on the cutting room floor as we never see him, save for one brief flash, acting. But the idea would have been interesting enough to further the characters development and was instead, simply thrown out as an interesting aside to his character.

The movie is fairly forgettable, but there are worst wolfman movies out there. Unfortunately, I don’t have to guess because I have seen a few of them! The movie is a good popcorn movie for Friday night horror but not worth the trip to the cinema.

Oscar Night Review

My final analysis of the Academy Awards show was that it was okay. Anyone who reads my blog would not be surprised by that opinion, as I’m usually not enamored with all things Hollywood –at least not in the last few decades.

I think there were some good things about the Oscar show. Number One: they chose Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, who were very funny together. Number Two: they chose not to “high-brow” the affair because no one likes to see a bunch of pretentious pseudo-intellectual “Hollywood elite” types trying to appear sophisticated, glamorous and “above it all” when the rest of America knows they are not!

But they opened the show with this cheesy act from Neil Patrick Harris that was pretty cringe-worthy. And their list of presenters was, for the most part, boring. They did not use enough past Oscar winners nor the “up and comers” of the acting world. They did use a lot of very young people in a fairly shameless ploy to boost ratings.

And in that same vein, they bottom-loaded all of the final significant awards into the last ten minutes of the evening, which simply made it look inept. And they also chose to use “testimonials” to the best actors/actresses which could have been left out, in my opinion because everyone in that audience should know if the actors in question are good to work with, and if they aren’t, it just looks awkward.

But one of my biggest beefs is the fact that we are in the 21st Century and the show looks a lot like a holdout from a bygone era. The glitz and glamour are not as believable when there is so much more to the film industry in the modern era. The age of computer imaging and video games and the type of sophisticated special effects used in modern films were barely acknowledged. There was little mention of the separate awards show they hold for the scientific and technical awards.

James Cameron has invented a new method of film-making and George Lucas and others have initiated many breakthroughs in the way we see things on film. NONE of this was mentioned….at all. And there should be new categories to acknowledge this and it should be brought to the public’s attention.

Plus the global village that we live in is still fairly compartmentalized in one or two categories of short films and the foreign film category. Even though “Slumdog Millionaire” won so many of the awards last year, it was treated as if none of that had ever happened. The encapsulated world of Hollywood elites still appears to be fairly homogenized. (barring a few obligatory jokes about Jews in Hollywood). The only nod to the changing of the guard was the fact that Barbara Streisand gave the Best Director award to a woman for the first time. And the black actress who won the Best Supporting award acknowledged Hattie McDaniels and all of the women of color who had come before her.

If Hollywood and film-making are a large part of the American “persona” and this show is one of our best chances to advertise our unique and diverse American way of life, then why don’t they pull out all the stops on these occasions? Instead, the powers that be in Hollywood present a timid and tepid kind of tribute to films the way they’ve always been done before. Not that there is a need for pornography or new age philosophy, but there should be an acknowledgement of INNOVATION. To my mind, THAT was “the stuff that dreams are made of” that Bogart spoke of so long ago.

Great Films of the Decade past and into the 21st Century

Having spent the last month going through many different lists that tout the great films of the decade and the year past, I couldn’t find one list that I could agree with. There are some films of the last decade that I liked very much, but the standard “top ten” list of movies do not seem to fit the bill as well. Things are not so simple anymore.

It seems appropriate in a time when the Academy Awards has also expanded their list of best film nominees to broaden the focus when discussing the top films of the last decade. The film list represents not only top films, but the latest trends in movie-going and the wave of the future as we are now into the second decade of the 21st Century.

I was at first dismayed when I thought about some of the films that had been named because, frankly, not a huge list came to mind that were just that good. But after careful consideration, there is a pattern of movie-making that focuses in the direction of a massive tsunami of change in the world around us where we are communicating electronically and connecting digitally in ways we never have before.

Film has a way of bringing these trends into focus and we need to stop and reflect before condemning the changing world that we now live in. That is my take on the state of film-making.

Some of the best movies made now are often made for children. When we pause to reflect, hasn’t Disney studios made cutting edge technology films since the 1940’s? So it goes that Pixar and Lucasfilms, plus the new 3-D technology in “Avatar” are going to literally change the way we see movies.

Another trend that is here to stay is Netflix. There is a tendency I have to categorize films that look interesting as “Netflix-worthy” (kind of like ‘sponge-worthy’ in the Seinfeld vernacular).There are some films that will be seen only on the Internet and there will be more changes when we are able to instantly download films to our television sets. This will make the art of fast-forward, rewind into a new technology in and of itself.

To reiterate, I have been surprised at the great amount of imagination and innovation that is displayed in children’s films. “Horton hears a Who” was a recent example. All of the Harry Potter films would make the list for some of the best movies of the last decade. They also combine the time-honored tradition of books to film, with the highly-anticipated sequels springing out of each new release of Harry Potter.

Documentaries are finding a niche and achieving the type of fame and respect they have never seen before. One of the best films I have ever seen was a documentary made in the last ten years. “The Fog of War” was an extraordinary statement and a great and masterful use of documentary stock footage, the stationary voice of Robert McNamara and the innovative score by Phillip Glass. This was all that was needed to bring together what was, to my mind, one of the most riveting indictments of war ever made.

Michael Moore was one of the reasons that documentaries have achieved a place of prominence in the last ten years. His films have had compelling and controversial messages but he has used humor to soften the blow with each film he has made. So, too has Morgan Spurlock entered the pop culture with the phrase “Supersize Me.” The most extraordinary success of all came with Al Gore narrating “An Inconvenient Truth.” These people and their uniquely focused messages have all helped to put documentaries on the map as a respected and viable genre of film that is here to stay.

More and more audiences are “crossing over” to other types of media. Adults will see Harry Potter films, young people go to see documentaries that are “hip” and everyone will go see the smaller, low-budget films that get good word-of-mouth promotion. This guarantees studio bosses that there is no such thing as a “sure thing” in movie-making parlance.

Graphic Novels are another phenomenon. ‘Sin City” & “300” were huge hits. The comic-book genre is also firmly entrenched in pop movie-going culture as we have had two series of Batman plus sequels within the last twenty years.

Independent films are still a growing market, and with the success of the Sundance Festival and cable television promoting the Sundance Channel Independent films, there is more an air of mainstream respectability and less the aura of “avant-garde” surrounding these films.

Fantasy is ever popular with the success of the afore-mentioned Harry Potter and the phenomenal “Lord of the Rings” series. Star Wars is another brand that has spawned not only Lucasfilms, but Industrial Light & Magic, which has helped to change the way the next generation views film.

Comedy will always prevail and some of the biggest success surrounds director Judd Apatow and his comedies like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” with Steve Carrell. Funny is funny and though the films are raunchy at times, audiences will always flock to see funnymen. Will Farrell has starred in some of the highest grossing films of the last decade. You can’t knock success, and personally, I find Will Farrell hilarious.

Old Favorites are still with us. Clint Eastwood is a venerable icon and he has had success with his directing skill for films such as “Flags of our Fathers” and his acting in “Gran Torino.” Mel Gibson made movies and controversy in the past decade, but none more so than his huge hit, “The Passion of the Christ.” This film stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy from Jewish groups and many other religious groups that supported the film in droves. This has spawned another sub-set genre of religious films such as the “Left Behind” series and others.

Great directors continued to make great films. Spielberg did “Munich”, one of the best movies of the past decade, and Scorcese made two others, “The Aviator” and “The Departed.”

Foreign films have always been a separate but equal category for some American audiences that have admired French and Italian cinema, but little else in the way of foreign film-making. But the Global village has expanded in the last ten years and we have been able to see not only foreign films of Europe and Australia, but also films from Russia, China, India, and the Middle East. The huge success of Bollywood in India culminated in one of the top films of the decade, “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Another phenomenon has been video games. The advent of “gaming” gives us a huge, young audience of viewers that are looking for action films and for realistic fights and with the new audiences and younger generations we are seeing a demand for a different type of film that looks like the video game landscape that a generation has inhabited.
And with the sophistication of a younger audience so accustomed to the small gestures and nuances that sometimes escape a less media-savvy older crowd, films have changed in subtle ways to embrace a younger generation.

The schism occurs when listening to the uninformed among the younger crowd who, on the one hand don’t know (or care) about older films or actors like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando that represented the cutting edge of sophisticated style and method acting.
Yet on the other hand, this group of new movie-goers demand realistic filmscapes and subtlety in filmmaking that is at times lost on older crowds. Often the two styles are at odds.

One of the last phenomena is “The Matrix.” The popularity of this movie would never have come about in a different time and place. But the context of a world of virtual reality does give this apocalyptic tale a kind of mystic symbolism that is lost in the two pathetically bad sequels. Keanu Reeves in a way represents a type of acting style that Clint Eastwood had embraced decades ago. There is a sparse and a kind of spare irony that is sometimes found in his cadence that tags him as “wooden”, a charge that Eastwood often faced.

The actors that have emerged in this past decade are from many different countries, in accord with our new Global reality, but all convey talent as real as any to be found in the Golden Age of Film.

Of course, De Niro and Nicholson still reign supreme in the Hollywood hierarchy. But also we now see actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Benecio del Toro, Clive Owen and Leonardo de Caprio. All of these men have established themselves with distinction over the past decade as the elite of actors working in film today.

If pressed, the list I would give of some of the top films of the past decade would include:

(Without ranking in terms of popularity or box office proceeds!)

1. Harry Potter Films series
2. The Matrix
3. Cinderella Man
4. Munich
5. Pixar Films/Lucasfilm/Industrial Light & Magic
6. Waltzing with Bashir/Through a Scanner Darkly
7. 300/Sin City
8. The Aviator/The Departed
9. Closer/King Arthur
10. 40 Year Old Virgin
11. Slumdog Millionaire
12. Flags of our Fathers
13. There will be Blood
14. No Country for Old Men

Great Directors of the past decade and the 21st Century:

Scorcese, Spielberg, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Ang Lee, Judd Apatow, Clint Eastwood,
Frank Miller,

Capsule Review: Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson brings an edge to the character in this film that I don’t see in a lot of younger actors working in action or adventure movies. I remember seeing him in “The Bounty” many years ago with this beautiful face and a type of personality and edge to his portrayal of Mr. Christian that was not altogether likeable or endearing.

This same edge works in the craggier and much older face of the darker Mel Gibson. In some ways, it suits his personality to have the lines and wrinkles whereas before he simply looked too beautiful and too perfect for this world. In this film, we see elements of the older film noir detective stories that were boiler-plate studio fare in the forties and fifties. The wonderful Robert Ryan was a perfect match for the world-weary cop role and he had the craggy face that fit the bill. Here we see Mel Gibson grown into a new age Robert Ryan and the odd thing is he slips seamlessly into the role.

In watching this film, the plot of D.O.A. comes to mind. A cop who truly has “nothing to lose” finds it easier to search for the truth. This film suits Gibson as there is no female lead and no distraction from the focus of a very convoluted and at times, hard to follow storyline. (It is said to be diluted from a 6-part BBC series).

The focus of the film is one where corrupt characters float in and out of the frames, dead bodies are shown popping up in the opening frame and there is no truly “good guy.” That gives you some of the basic elements of film noir and if you liked some of the great ones like “The Big Sleep”, you should find this offering to be right on target.

Capsule Review: It’s Complicated

It’s Complicated

This is not a complicated film. This film is really a homage to the films we once saw in the thirties and forties. They are not complicated plots, but they were meant to showcase the talents of a huge studio stable full of talented actors and actresses. Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, Doris Day and Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart all starred in light, frothy comedies designed to show off their innate charms and acting chops.

In Hollywood these days there is less of a brilliant showcase of talent, but every once in a great while, the film studios do trot out a simple comedy to spotlight extraordinary talent. In recent years, Robert De Niro was featured in “Meet the Parents,” And in this instance, Alec Baldwin gets a well-deserved chance to shine as the narcissistic lothario who is imbued with an overabundance of charm and libido and an underdeveloped conscience. This is the part he plays to perfection each week on “30 Rock” and this is what he does best. Here, he gets his chance to strut his stuff against the great Meryl Streep. And together, they do not disappoint.