6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village

Here is an excerpt from “6 Degrees of Film” due out in February 2012

Recently, I have come across several people (ages 13-30) that know absolutely nothing about “old movies” or “old people’s films”. They don’t know who Paul Newman is or who Greta Garbo was, or for that matter, much of the history of early film and the historical events that surrounded the production of films. This, I suppose, can all be written off as a generational thing, where young people always say that the past is dead and boring.

But in retrospect, I believe it goes deeper than that. Our culture has become so focused on instantaneous communication that those people who are growing up immersed in modern culture cannot identify with a past that seems to them to be stilted and boring. That is the impression that kids convey regarding the golden age of film. And it is far from the truth.

The reality is that motion pictures represented a “cutting edge” technology 100 years ago when film was in its infancy. And the types of films that were created, the silent masterpieces and the Hollywood spectacles, were a vital link from the past to the present.

That is the purpose of this book. We need to study the films of the past and to look at them in a different light. Marshall McLuhan theorized that we are marching backwards into the future by looking only at the world behind us. That is true in some cases but if we look at the past on film, we may get a glimpse of where we are going.

People are always looking for a window into the future, and in films, the future reality changes on celluloid from moment to moment. That is the ever present allure of film. It is an art form that can make a statement 50 years into the future and remain relevant for future generations to discover and to discuss.

The proof that films can transcend time is found in movies made almost 100 years ago. Silent films made in the ‘20’s with Harold Lloyd are uproariously funny today. .People idolized “movie stars” as much or more then stars of today who are fanatically scrutinized. Obsessive fans are nothing new.

The films of the depression and the dust bowl created art on celluloid that is amazingly relevant today. Films developed into different “genres” during cultural shifts and varying trends in the population. Screwball comedies were one genre born out of the depression era, gangster films were another. Science-fiction films were prominent in the fifties era of the cold war –light romantic comedies were also popular. Westerns and war movies were always popular! The films of the forties captured the spirit of wartime America and the beginning of the Cold War. The 50’s genres that were science-fiction and light comedy were paralleled with Cold War politics and the spectre of nuclear war.

The politics of the day were incorporated into the films of the era they represented. For example, corruption in government was a popular theme in the thirties during the depression and similar anti-government sentiment is still found in the twenty-first century.

The 60’s gave us anti-war films that are prescient today.

Starting around 1975, the modern era of Hollywood Blockbusters and independent films started to emerge. And the 1980’s may arguably be the greatest decade in film.

The importance of film in the global village is ever more apparent. And as we go forward, we can assess how the past 100 years of film impact our lives today.

Tower Heist: Capsule Review

Another message movie for our times. This movie starts out with some wonderful character development, especially with the supporting cast of Tea Leoni. We don’t really see as much of her as we should, but then, we don’t see a lot of people in the disjointed plot where the set-up is laid out in the first thirty or forty minutes.
This homage to “the little guy” who was kicked around by Wall Street is held together by Ben Stiller. He is the glue around which Eddie Murphy and Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda and others spin an essentially funny story about the desperation born of our failure to see the system of greed and corporation represented by “The Man” (in this case: Alan Alda as Bernie Madoff) for what he really is.
This is a message movie wrapped in a comedy. The message is fleeting but the comedy is good enough to hold us in our seats to see how it all turns out. That is enough to ask for in this thin movie season…

The Big Year: Capsule Review

The Big Year:

A pretty good film. Owen Wilson was surprisingly effective in the role of an experienced birder (they don’t like to be called bird-watchers) who is being challenged by two other men to sight & record the most birds in one calendar year.

Steve Martin is the elder of the trio, and his newer, gentler form of laid back comedy gives his performance a kind of sweetness that is sometimes lacking in his roles. Jack Black is also able to shine as the younger man who is seemingly lost and floundering at times.

The narration provided by Black’s character is a bit confusing as it trails off at some point. But it doesn’t overly detract and the film has a beautiful photographic feel in the ebbs and flows of the progress of the three birders as we trail them through the scenic vistas of the Americas to watch the rarest species in their native habitats.

Two things stand out. The first is that this source of material is, if nothing else, refreshingly different. We see some plots that begin with science fiction PLUS werewolves PLUS a car chase PLUS a vampire….you get the drift. You don’t see any films dealing with serious Audubon enthusiasts and that, in itself is refreshing.
The second point being that Comedy is hard, yet this is a light-hearted attempt at laughs and the reviews don’t give the material credit. It’s a sweet film at times with a message of redemption in seeking what we believe to be the most important things in life. And that happens to be a good message for our times.

The Guard: A blundering Columbo of Ireland

The Guard –See it if not for any other reason but to experience the quirky comedic pairing of Brendan Gleeson with Don Cheadle. This film lays it on the line in some respects. The type of dialogue that takes this film from average to exceptional is found in Gleeson’s dry, acerbic asides delivered at appropriate intervals to all and sundry. No-one escapes his dissection, not the big-city Irish police force, the Americans, the black race, women, -he’s an equal opportunity offender and it shows.

At times, the writers can’t help interjecting some too-clever asides into the dialogue. For instance, there’s a funny riff about what Billy Jo McCallister threw off the Tallahatchee Bridge that is funny but perhaps a bit forced.

One of the funnier scenes that draws a good picture of Gleeson’s character comes with his refusal to look at Cheadle’s pictures of his new baby. His nonchalant arrogance and indifference to the basic tenets of polite society plus the trail of bad vibes he leaves behind him with each verbal gaffe is priceless. In some weird fashion, he represents a kind of blundering Columbo of Ireland. Definitely this film is one that stands out and is highly recommended viewing.

Capsule Reviews

Larry Crowne: Not a very good movie. Sometimes a great notion, such as trying to relate to “the little guy” and his problems with down-sizing and losing his job and being a loser and finding uplifting meaning in education and salvation through teaching and mentoring and friendship, blah, blah….oh well, only that’s not what we’re getting from this movie.

What you see is a lukewarm attempt to tell the story of a downsized Willy Loman and we end up with a rather plebian tale of a man who meets a boozy teacher and develops a crush on her. That is the end game for this. ‘Nough said.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Brings back memories of my childhood. Going to an “Ape-arama” event where you got free bananas and could get in free if you wore a gorilla suit. That was the level of intelligentsia that surrounded the Planet of the Apes movies the first time around.

But this one looked to be pretty good. But …..nope, it turned out, it’s not. It was very disappointing, in fact. The pacing was terrible and we were left with some pretty big holes in the plot that you could just drive a truck right through. It is not to be recommended.

Zookeeper is for kids. But Kevin James is funny enough to play it for a few laughs. This is the same plot as Dr Doolittle or Francis joins the Navy, for that matter, but there are no bad scenes if you want to take the kids for some escapist fun.

Cowboys and Aliens: This could be called: Everything but the kitchen sink movie. Shamelessly, Hollywood has thrown out there every conceivable vehicle for a hit in order to avoid the failure of its summer movie season.
It has it all, cowboys & Indians, ghosts & aliens, supernatural events, a touch of Avatar thrown in, rising from the dead, Indiana Jones & Harrison Ford, Race relations, coming of age sub-plot, romance with a pretty girl/a dead girl/an alien girl-flashbacks…

Thank God for Harrison Ford. He carries the movie in several scenes where he simultaneously is tasked at being the pivotal force in the film for a): a coming of age story with a young child who must learn to be a man; b) a sub-plot with an Indian ranch-hand who looks up to him as he must learn to overcome the bigotry and hatred of the white man against the Indian; c) the sub-plot where he is the big-wheel Rancher who has to “settle a score” with the character played by action figure James Bond (I mean Daniel Craig).

There is a love interest for Craig that doubles as the alien supernatural plot, and in case we’ve missed something, there’s a dog and some romantic flashbacks thrown in for good measure. Shameless summer fun, I guess is what you might call this. It looked a bit suspect to me, but it turned out to be an entertaining film, which was the whole point. So I would definitely say you might go see this film if you have no expectations or illusions as to what Hollywood is about in the making of it….Enjoy! (After all, the business of intellectual enlightenment and the world of intelligentsia is not the playground of Hollywood movie producers, right?)

Midnight in Paris: Not his very best work, but his best in a long time. Owen Wilson is game to take on the Woody Allen character and he does a very credible job as the lovably goofy hero who is swept away by the romance of a period long gone in time. The drama revolves around a present day Allen character and the interactions he has with the various characters of Paris of the 1920’s.

The Killer Elite was Better than expected. I have not been an aficionado of action packed films starring Jason Statham but instead have been a big fan of Clive Owen. This movie is a remake that veers wildly from the original starring James Caan. In this instance, the degree of separation varies much more than 6 Degrees!

In this, the bad guys are the ones we somehow find ourselves rooting for. In the conventional action plot, we are supposed to root for the ones who are trying to figure out who the bad guys are. In this, we are supposed to follow the mysterious team of assassins who are doing the killing. The film has much more in common with the plot of “Munich”. The plot is similar at times and the screenplay could be a variation of less than 6 degrees on that common theme.

Through the twists and turns, one refreshing plot point of note is that the film is set in 1980. In some recent films, it can make one wonder, in this world of high-tech that is getting ever and ever more specialized to the nth degree, if the plot is irrelevant to the gadgets and wizardry of the special effects show being presented to the audience.

Yet this movie is set in a period where we are just beginning to realize the world is connected by electronic devices that make up the global village. Therefore, the plot must move forward with a series of actual meetings and verbal confrontations via phone and through the photographic lens, not by holographic illusion and extra-sensory perceptions.

This makes it somehow all the more believable and all the more human. One aside is that the character of Danni, played by Statham, is quite the Aussie mumbler whilst the character of Owen speaks with true clarity and succinct menace. The two somehow manage to balance the interaction well enough and apart from a few tired plot devices common to all action sequences, the aura of what is old is new again works for this piece,

The original film, by the way was made in 1975 by the director Sam Peckinpah . As stated earlier, not much of that plot is recreated in the new film.

Moneyball: was about ½ hour too long. It is a movie about baseball and beliefs. The belief is that this new way of playing baseball was being crafted by the GM of one California baseball team. The type of sports-based movie like this is one where the old standby applies: It’s gotta have “heart”. The heart of this is in the character of Billie Beane, the charismatic General Manager of the Oakland A’s.

Brad Pitt has to make us believe and to empathize with the character. He has been a bad-boy on screen and never needed to play the “grown-up” in the film. His has always been the ingénues role where he could roam out of the depth that is always needed to convey serious emotions that can wrench an audience and that can at times rivet their attention.

In this he does have to carry the whole film with his character’s ability to persuade others to buy into the new way of putting together a team to play baseball. It is off to a slow start in this movie and also with any connection with his character, but in the end, we are persuaded. Pitt’s coming of age film gives his face in moments an almost eerily similarity to Robert Redford-they could be clones-but his is a face that wears the years lightly and to that end, we feel the magnetism of a charming rogue in his character.

The Big Year:
A pretty good film Owen Wilson was surprisingly effective in the role of an experienced birder (they don’t like to be called bird-watchers) who is being challenged by two other men to sight the most birds in one calendar year.

Steve Martin is the eldest of the trio, and his newer, gentler form of laid back comedy gives his performance a kind of sweetness that is sometimes lacking in his past roles. Jack Black is also able to shine as the younger man who is seemingly lost and floundering at times, yet he is in some ways the most grounded of the three. He serves as narrator and this part comes through a bit confusing in the first half of the film.

The narration trails off at times but the film has a beautiful photographic feel seen in the ebbs and flows of the three birders as we trail them through the varied scenic vistas.

Two things stand out. The first is that this source of material is, if nothing else, refreshingly different. The other is that, as we’ve heard many times before: Comedy is hard. And this is a light-hearted attempt at humor, therefore the reviews don’t give the material credit. It’s a sweet film at times with a message of redemption in seeking what we believe to be the most important things in life. In the end, it’s a good message for our times.

"Must-see" Retrospectives for actors: Keanu Reeves

With the death of Elizabeth Taylor comes the inevitable list of retrospective works. There are some actors that deserve a second look at their entire body of work and Taylor certainly deserves a thorough review. And it follows that some other actors of note also deserve a second look.

AMC recently went through a list of the “best of” films of Keanu Reeves. I’ve always felt he was an actor in the same category as Clint Eastwood. They are the “misunderstood” types of action heroes who never get much recognition for under-performing. In Reeves case, he started as a type of Independent actor who gradually drifted towards the more lucrative and popular action roles.

Some of his best films are listed on AMC and the ones they recommend are some of his best. But 6 Degrees of Film often looks for the smaller films or less popular works that are, in some cases, much better than the standard pabulum that Hollywood likes to turn out. Here are a few of Keanu Reeves films that are part of any “must-see” retrospective of his work:

“River’s Edge”: Based on a true story, this 1986 film features Reeves along with Crispin Glover as one of a group of high-school friends who become accessories to a murder that one of them has committed. The plot revolves around the callous regard for the brutal crime and the indifference that some of the group convey towards a horrific crime.

“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”: A 1989 light comedy about a pair of high-school slackers who travel through time meeting historical figures with a kind of joie-de’vivre and carefree attitude that is summed up in the tag line they use, “Excellent!”

“Tune in Tomorrow”: A 1990 light comedy starring Keanu Reeves with Barbara Hershey and the great Peter Falk in a nostalgic film set in the fifties in the age of radio. The film focuses on the May-December romance between Reeves and Hershey and also the coming-of-age for Reeves and his growing affection for the eccentric character played by Peter Falk. This is an often overlooked film with some nice comic touches.

“Speed”: This was a breakthrough role for Reeves and for Sandra Bullock. This 1994 film was strictly an Action-Adventure flick with no pretense of logic or deep thought. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable, if exhausting, way to spend a few hours and has some memorable and often-copied action sequences in it.

“The Matrix”: This is one that Keanu Reeves is probably most associated with and it is an interesting script on many levels. The plot of this 1999 film begins with Reeves living in some distant future where the virtual world basically exists as a cover for a bleak reality that actually exists outside of the matrix. The convoluted plot is plausible enough to interest generations of “gamers” and action-adventure fans with a series of martial-arts fights that defy gravity. The plot is so original and the idea so entertaining that it works in spite of the complicated twists and turns. The two sequels are truly forgettable, but the original is worth viewing.

There are other Reeves films that are worth a second look. “My Own Private Idaho” is an early independent film from Gus Van Sant, “I Love You to Death” is a funny, black comedy with Reeves in a small, but pivotal supporting role. And the action-adventure film, “Street Kings” with Reeves and the very talented Forest Whitaker as corrupt cops is much better than most shoot-em-up buddy cop films.

Also, “A Scanner Darkly”, an animated film based on a story by Philip K. Dick, is worth checking out simply to view a film in a different type of genre-the animated film uses the live actors in a technique called “Rotoscope” where the movie was filmed digitally and then animated using this process (Some big College words: Interpolated Rotoscope) over the original footage to give it a unique new look.

Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Movie Star

Elizabeth Taylor truly was the last movie star. Her star burned brightly for so long and her legacy remains not only the celluloid classics but the fiery brilliance of the star system that ended with her death. She reveled in her role as a “movie star.” And from a very young age she worked at the image she projected. She was raised in the Hollywood studio system and she lived her life as a star of the Hollywood screen.

Some of the movies that are mentioned in connection with Taylor are true classics. “National Velvet” was certainly an early foreshadowing of her great screen presence. It was not only her exceptional beauty but the quality of breathy eagerness and the energy and excitement in her voice when she spoke of the Piebald horse she rode that belies the notion that it was only her looks that led her to great heights.

Elizabeth Taylor had “it”, that indefinable something that makes up the batter equaling a movie star. When asked to name her greatest works, almost everyone mentions “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Place in the Sun.” These are very good movies, but in my opinion, probably not her best.

She was, as another critic pointed out, probably at her best in “National Velvet” as a young, untrained actress. Her later films that would definitely be on my “must see” list for any Elizabeth Taylor retrospective would include:

“Ivanhoe”: She plays a young Jewish girl who is enamored with the knight Ivanhoe, played by Robert Taylor. She is filmed all in white at one point and the camera truly falls in love with her presence. She is never lovelier as a young ingénue than in this film,

“Cleopatra”: This film was so controversial at the time. This early sixties film had cost over-runs and scandals and affairs attached to it that gave it an instant notoriety. It is a rather campy film in a Cecil B. DeMille-style kind of way. But ironically, the early scenes between Taylor and Rex Harrison have a kind of humor and chemistry that is lost in the later love scenes between her and Richard Burton

“The Taming of the Shrew”: This is, in my opinion, the best of the Taylor-Burton collaborations. Richard Burton’s stage presence and Shakespearean training lend itself to this production directed by Franco Zefferelli. The costumes and cinematography are unique to the era and there is a touch of humor that is somehow lacking in many of their other collaborations.

“Father of the Bride”: Elizabeth Taylor is showcased as the young bride playing alongside the great and incomparable Spencer Tracy. The pairing of the two was well played here and there is also a lightheartedness to this fifties film that waxes nostalgic and wears rather well in the modern era.