Grumpy Old Critic on War Horse

My father became very jaded about movies in his later life. He seemed to think there was nothing new under the sun and that the best movies made were already completed by 1939. I hope I don’t go that far (although he could have been right), but there is a tendency for us old folk to get jaded about these young whippersnappers and their confounded new-fangled way of doing things.

Hence the term: “Grumpy Old Critics”

There’s something so bothersome in films and some of the clichés. One of them is the dog and cat metaphors. We always know there is evil lurking when the obligatory scene of the dead pet-be it dog or cat-is shown to the audience to let us know to beware.

Just once, just once, I ask, will they let the poor dumb G-Damn animal LIVE till the end of the film?! The latest I speak of, lest I spoil anyone’s shock and horror, is found in the film, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

The film is quite good, and yet they felt the need to broadcast the evildoer’s intentions with the death of a domestic animal. There are so many things in this film that I did NOT see coming, but that was not one of them…

“War Horse” was painful to watch for several reasons. I drank too much liquid and really was in pain. There was a child in a stroller, a toddler, behind me that was sobbing and that child really should not have been in the picture.

I also feel something for those of us who are animal lovers to the point of being dotty. I am one of those nuts. And after seeing Old Yeller die, and Bambi’s mother, and the Yearling die, and all the animals in “Dances with Wolves” go, then you become not hard-hearted but instead completely unable to watch another innocent animal suffer. Not to spoil the film, (don’t read this if you haven’t seen War Horse and think the ending must be secret), but I’m very glad the animal does not die.

However, I am beginning to think that there is no situation where an innocent child or animal is abused or treated cruelly that can be spinned in a positive light. In other words, I’ve seen two movies for younger audiences that I couldn’t possibly recommend for children. (Hugo was the other one.)

Adults such as myself have a hard time with sappy animal films. But those who are not yet fully developed emotionally probably shouldn’t see this film. It’s about war and death and violence and suffering. Yet there’s a beautiful animal in the midst and a plucky young kid right out of “National Velvet” who believes in him.

So…..I just can’t resign myself to believe this is a good children’s movie.

Capsule Review: Hugo – a film by Martin Scorcese

My thoughts on this film revolve around the marketing of it. For someone who rails constantly against the “new-fangled” commercialism of film criticism and the emphasis on numbers and placement of advertising, this is extraordinary.
Imagine my excitement, as a bona-fide “film nerd” and one who has used the man in the moon shot of the spaceship through the eye of the moon-man as a central graphic for my blog, “6 Degrees of Film”, upon hearing that Scorcese was doing a movie about George Melies!
Well, I do agree with the critics that say that the photography is wonderful. It is a children’s film not necessarily for a child. It is a film for film buffs, but not that I can tell, any other type of viewing audience. These days, where people are looking for “the next new thing” with Avatar and many wonderful independent film-makers turning out small gems, this film doesn’t feel like it really has a target audience.
There is a justifiable criticism that I’ve read that states that once the “secret” is out, about half-way through the movie, then the rest of the film leaves you squirming at times in your seat.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the overall concept of this film. It does feel like a homage that is perhaps thirty years? too late to be relevant. George Melies was a pioneer in the art of film-making and perhaps a documentary that gave him much needed credit for his work is justified.
But a full-length motion picture with a plot straight out of Disney a la 1962 would not be my first choice.

Excerpt from 6 Degrees: Due out in February 2012!

“Hugo” is the new Scorcese film that is, in part, about some of the early work of filmmaker Georges Melies….his “moonshot” showing the man on the moon with a spaceship through his eye is one of the graphics from “6 Degrees of Film!”….So, what’s old is new again! Author’s Note
Here’s part of Chapter One:

There are a myriad number of books and film classes documenting the exact origins of film. The earliest films consisted of simple reels of people engaged in a kiss or a physical activity. The first films, silent moving pictures, evolved from the existing technology. Some of the first films at the beginning of the twentieth-century dealt with the future and science-fiction, which continues to hold great fascination for audiences. These films showed what the future might look like and this has always been one of the vital factors in film-making. The depiction of events outside of the reality of everyday life turned film into art.

Early films such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Battleship Potemkin” are of note as they depicted social issues that also entertained mass audiences.

Film was and is entertainment for the masses. If you want to learn, you read. If you want an experience, you go to the
movies. The act of going to the movies was marketed to the masses at the turn of the twentieth century. Nickelodeons were invented for the express purpose of driving in large crowds of people. The “art” of motion pictures consisted of short reels of flickering images.

The “blockbusters” of the day had titles like, “The Great Train Robbery” where a man turned to the audience with a gun and fired it for no apparent reason other than to create a stir.

Thomas Edison and the Mass Marketing of Movies

Films had begun at the turn of the century and had generally been regarded as a commodity to be turned out. In much the same way that auto parts manufacturing interested Henry Ford, Thomas Edison became immersed in the wholesale marketing of film to the masses.

Thomas Edison was one of the first mass marketers of film. Although he wasn’t strictly interested in the art of motion pictures, he did know how to turn a buck. There were other pioneers more interested in the “art” of film like George Melies, a Frenchman who created some of the first “science-fiction” films at the turn of the century. But he was not a businessman, and he didn’t understand how to gain control of the small, artistic films he created. That is a lesson that Edison understood. And in the end, Mass Marketing has always been an integral part of Hollywood and film-making in general.

But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the only entertainment for poor people often was nickelodeons. Poor immigrants were patrons of early cinema as they could learn about American life and values plus learn English from the subtitles!

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.