Six Degrees of Everybody

Many of you have perhaps heard of the movie game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. It was invented several years ago. The concept is simple: name an actor and within six names and films these actors have appeared in, you can get to Kevin Bacon.

For example: let’s take a relatively new star like Jennifer Lawrence. Well, that’s easy because they were in X-Men: First Class together. OK, how about someone like Gene Wilder? Wilder was in Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty, who was in Reds with Jack Nicholson, who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon. Only two names in between.

Point is – for people like me (total movie nerd), the Kevin Bacon game isn’t too challenging. He’s worked with a lot of actors – Cruise, Nicholson, DeNiro, Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon, Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Meg Ryan, Gary Oldman, Demi Moore, Bill Murray, Matt Dillon, Steve Martin, John Candy, just to name a few.

So, a few years ago – my cousin and I invented a new movie game. Name two actors. In some cases – more like, two people that have been in movies or a movie (Hulk Hogan or Howard Stern or David Letterman aren’t exactly who you immediately think of when you think “thespian”). And like the Bacon game, you have to connect them with only six actors in between. We would drive each other nuts trying to stump each other and rarely did.

The rules are simple: no cheating. No using imdb.com or looking at their wikipedia filmography. It has to be off the top of your head.

If you’re a movie fanatic, it’s fun and even more fun to get people to try and stump me. I’ll give you a good example that might be played:

Connect John Wayne to Eminem…

And it goes like this:

John Wayne was in True Grit with Robert Duvall (1)

Robert Duvall was in The Godfather with Al Pacino (2)

Al Pacino was in Glengarry Glen Ross with Alec Baldwin (3)

Alec Baldwin was in The Getaway with Kim Basinger (4)

Kim Basinger was in 8 Mile with Eminem.

Four names! Think I’m cheating? Let’s do it again using all different actors and movies…

John Wayne was in The Shootist with Lauren Bacall (1)

Lauren Bacall was in Misery with Kathy Bates (2)

Kathy Bates was in The Waterboy with Adam Sandler (3)

Adam Sandler was in Funny People with Eminem.

Three names! I would certainly encourage discussion and comments on this newborn blog of mine, so feel free to challenge me should you wish. If you stump me, you get a free “The Todd Thatcher Movie Blog” t-shirt and beer cozy.

Movie Perfection: The Final Act of SEVEN

So now after my rambling first post, I felt it necessary to post something about a specific movie. This led me to start a category on this blog entitled “Movie Perfection” where I give examples of when a movie seems to do everything exactly right.

I didn’t have to think about it much for my first example and that would be the final act of David Fincher’s 1995 now-classic Seven. And, by final act, I’m referring to everything that happens the moment after a bloody Kevin Spacey shows up at the police station and turns himself in to Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman).

First, some context to younger readers who may not recall when Seven came out. The movie basically came out of nowhere upon its release. Its director, Fincher, had done one film: 1992’s Alien 3. At the time of that movie’s release, it was critically panned and considered a total inferior product to 1979’s Alien and 1986’s Aliens. Truth be told, it is a much inferior film than its two predecessors, but it’s actually a pretty decent movie if you ask me and it definitely showed that this first-time director had a lot of skill. Brad Pitt was a major movie star by this point and was coming off two giants hits in a row, 1994’s Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall. Morgan Freeman was fresh off Shawshank Redemption. The two leads alone made it a movie to go see, but it didn’t look a whole lot different than your run-of-the-mill serial killer procedural thriller (something like The Bone Collector or Taking Lives or Murder by Numbers that followed in later years and were heavily influenced by the movie I’m talking about).

And, for the first two-thirds of Seven, it is that procedural thriller. It’s just much better than most of the other ones. We get involved in the characters of Mills and Somerset. We are fascinated by this unseen killer who murders according to the Seven Deadly Sins. Most importantly, what sets Seven apart is the direction, its dark look that has been copied over and over since, and how far its willing to go to disturb us (when we discover the manner in which the prostitute was murdered in the S&M club… wow). In a movie that wasn’t as great, the final act would have found Mills and Somerset discovering some convenient clue that led them to the killer and taking him out before he achieves his ultimate goal of completing the seven murders.

However, that is not what screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker had in mind. In nearly all serial killer movies, there’s a “twist”. Usually that “twist” is not that shocking. Sometimes we see it coming a mile away. Sometimes we don’t, but even when we do discover it, it’s not  that shocking. When Kevin Spacey’s character walks into that police station and surrenders, it is truly SHOCKING (like Janet Leigh getting killed a half hour into Psycho SHOCKING). Like Charlton Heston seeing the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes SHOCKING. You don’t see it coming. You don’t understand. At all.

The other thing many younger viewers may not know is that the actor who played the serial killer character was kept completely under wraps before the film was released. Kevin Spacey, in 1995, was regarded as a terrific character actor who had been in a few movies. This was four years before he won an Oscar for American Beauty. It was before L.A. Confidential and Pay It Forward and The Negotiator. He was not a movie star yet. He was, though, coming fresh off another now-classic, The Usual Suspects. That movie was released one month before Seven. It was garnering him Oscar buzz, for which he would end up winning Best Supporting Actor for it that year.

So, when you saw Seven in the theater, not only were you shocked that the SERIAL KILLER WAS TURNING HIMSELF IN (?!?!?!), but equally shocked that the serial killer was Kevin Spacey!! I’ve figured out that by that point, I’d only seen him in three movies: 1992’s brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross, 1994’s comedy The Ref, and 1995’s monkeys-get-everyone-sick thriller Outbreak. To this day, I wish I’d seen Usual Suspects before Seven. I certainly knew who Spacey was at the time, but it would’ve been even cooler to watch Keyser Soze walk through that station.

When Spacey’s character appears, the movie rises to a different and greater level of accomplishment. As an audience, we are totally confused and absolutely on the edge of our seat as to what will happen next.

And… what happens next is all kinds of amazing. It starts with the car ride between the three characters to the location where the serial killer said they must go to solve the case. You’ve all seen the movie (and, by God, if you haven’t… WHY ARE YOU READING THIS???) – so I won’t recite lines, etc… But the dialogue is both tense, surprising, funny, and unsettling. We hear Spacey’s character present his case for why he’s done what he’s done. There are times during the scene when you think like Pitt’s character thinks – this guy’s just a complete wack job. What the hell kind of a brilliant scheme is he talking about that people will puzzle over? Yeah right…

When the characters reach their destination, I remember being literally hunched over in the theater. I simply had no idea what was going to happen next. How many times can you say that when watching a movie? Where you truly have no clue what is going to take place next and the suspense is killing you to find out?

The delivery truck driver. Oh, the delivery truck driver!! Remember watching that for the first time?? Edge-of-your-seat.

A box is delivered by the scared driver. What on Earth could possibly be in there??? That’s what Morgan Freeman is thinking too. He has no idea. WE HAVE NO IDEA!!

The conversation between Spacey and Pitt juxtaposed with Freeman opening the box. We figure out what’s in the box. We figure out that Spacey has fulfilled the sixth of the seven murders. Our heart breaks by the discovery of what that sixth murder is. It dawns on us that the seventh murder must come from Pitt’s character in order for Spacey’s wishes to come true. We see Pitt discover that his wife was pregnant, which leads to one of the most memorable moments in this film or any film… Spacey’s surprised reaction to Pitt’s reaction… “Oh, he didn’t know!”

At this moment, as an audience, we are practically drained from everything that’s occurred in the last three minutes. We know that by Pitt shooting Spacey, it gives the serial killer exactly what he truly wants. It completes his set of murders. It gives him a victory. At the same time, how can Pitt not just blast him in the head??? And he does, but just before Spacey closes his eyes with a serene look on his face. He’s accomplished his goal.

I’ve never seen a movie where you literally felt like you got punched in the gut when the credits start to roll. Except Seven. It’s an absolute masterful final act that catches us off-guard and makes us completely tense. We stay that way for about the last 30 minutes of the movie! When I saw Seven in a crowded theater, there were a lot of people who didn’t even move for several minutes when the credits started rolling. I don’t think they could. They were still trying to process what happened.

Since 1995, I’ve watched Seven a number of times. The emotions I’ve described in that final act? I still get them watching it today. It’s movie making at its highest level. Its most visceral level. Movie perfection.

My Love of Movies

Here’s the deal – I absolutely love movies. Everything about them. I love great movies. I love bad movies because they’re equally as fun to talk about. I love talking about actors and the choices they make. I love talking about directors and the arc of their careers. I love  talking about box office numbers and predicting which movies will do well and which won’t. I love guessing which movies and actors will get nominated for Academy Awards (they’ll be a lot of that on this blog, I suspect). I love finding some old 70s horror flick on Netflix I’d never heard of and deciding on a whim to watch it. And to this day, after seeing hundreds and hundreds of movies in the theater, I love when the trailers end, the movie chain promo is shown, and the lights go way down. I still get a smile on my face every time that happens. I am about to see something new. It may be good or may be bad. Every time, however, there’s the possibility. The possibility of seeing something great. Something that will stick with you and be the subject of future conversations with friends, families, co-workers, and complete strangers. Movies unite people. They divide people. Not like politics or religion, though, where people will get mad if you don’t agree with them. Disagreeing with people about whether Prometheus was good or bad is fun. It’s not emotional.

So how did I come to love movies so much? The simple answer is, I don’t know. Growing up, my movie watching habits were a lot like other kids, I suspect. The Disney animated movie here and there. The silly comedy. My parents weren’t particularly big movie watchers and still aren’t. My siblings are ten and seven years older than me, so the movies a little kid wanted to see probably weren’t what they wanted to see. What I remember about watching movies before about 10-11 years old isn’t very clear. Then around 5th grade (11 years old), my movie watching habits changed.

At a certain point in your life, your critical thinking skills come into effect. Approximately 5th grade was my time. I didn’t realize it fully then, but looking back, I went from simply watching a movie to actually thinking about it afterwards too. Around that time, I started to differentiate between saying, “That was really good!” to “That sucked!”

And then, for whatever reason, I became obsessed with movie reviews. Obsessed with the idea of reading what other people thought about movies. I watched Siskel&Ebert every week. I bought the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide, which is updated every year and provides short capsule reviews of literally every theatrical movie ever released. At that time, I was honestly more interested in reading reviews of movies than movies themselves. (Not normal-I know).

By the time I was 12, all that constant reading about movies and the ones that were supposed to be the “important ones” led me to actually watching a whole lot of them. I think my parents got the idea that it’s what I loved and I probably got away with watching a lot of movies most 12 years old weren’t watching (and most weren’t interested in too, I would guess).

At this time, I started writing my own movie reviews. Everything I’d watch, I’d write a review. I’d give it a grade on a “A” to “F” scale. Why? Because Entertainment Weekly did it that way and I preferred that to the four star system.

By the time I was 13, my reviews were being published in my hometown newspaper, The Fremont News-Messenger (as you all know, this newspaper is the pinnacle of serious entertainment criticism). Once a week, I’d go the movies – either in Fremont, Sandusky, or Toledo, watch that week’s big new release, and on Thursday, my review was in the paper. Hell, they even paid for me and a friend to go! My first review was The Sandlot and I gave it a “B”. It’s become a pretty major cult classic since then, but I’ve yet to see it again.

During that time period from about 11-14, I watched a LOT of movies. Not just through the newspaper gig, but on home video. I got introduced to Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Kubrick. I tried to watch The Exorcist at age 13 and couldn’t make it through it (crucifix stabbing scene). As a young teenager, I thought I understood these films on the level that my heroes like Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly did. Of course, I didn’t, but you couldn’t have told me that at that time.

Eventually, my love of movie critiquing waned. I haven’t been obsessed with reading movie reviews for a long, long time. In fact, I try to avoid it now. I like to walk into a film fresh now (for the most part). To be fair, I have a general idea of what the reviews are saying (RottenTomatoes has made that easy). I know that Argo is supposed to be great. I know Taken 2 is supposed to be a mediocre retread of the original.

I enjoy talking about movies. I enjoy hearing other peoples opinions. I enjoy ANTICIPATING movies. A classic example for me is when I saw Reservoir Dogs when it came out on home video in the spring of 1993. I knew very little about it, other than it had gotten good reviews. I absolutely fell in love with the movie the first time I saw it. I forced my cousin and my best friend to watch it immediately. They loved it too. This was right at the time I was writing reviews for everything I saw. I remember the last line of my (“A”) review: “I can’t wait to see what first-time director Quentin Tarantino does next.”

Of course, that movie was 1994’s Pulp Fiction. I’d never anticipated a movie so much in my life. And I haven’t since then, though there’s been others that have come close that I’ll talk about some day. The first time I saw Pulp, I went with my brother and my best friend. Opening weekend – October 1994 in Sandusky. After the brilliant opening scene in the coffee shop with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, the title credits started. “Misirlou” by surf God guitarist Dick Dale. In its bold and big yellow font, the title PULP FICTION came rising from the bottom of the movie screen.

I was in movie heaven, smiling from ear to ear. That movie holds a special place in my heart and always will. I normally list it behind only the first two Godfathers as my favorite movie.

Movies have that ability to take us into other worlds. To teach us. To shock us. Horrify us. Surprise us. Make us fall on the theater floor laughing (as I did when Jeff Daniels nails Lauren Holly with the snowball in Dumb and Dumber). Make us cry. Make us happy. Make us sad. Make us remember our past relationships. Make us appreciate the people we have in our lives. Movies can make us appreciate a cold winter day when the roads are practically shut down and we have nothing to do but put on that old favorite movie that we depend on to make us smile.

A final note for this first blog post that has gone MUCH longer than I thought it would. If you don’t love movies the way I do, you probably won’t like this blog (and you might not anyway, but that’s OK). I have certainly learned that, for many people, movies are simply a pleasant diversion from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But if you do love movies, I hope you enjoy this blog I decided to start on a whim.