Movie Perfection: Tiny Dancer

There are times in life where we’re presented with something so wonderful and perfect that all we can do is smile very widely in appreciation. We’re not trying to smile. It’s just comes naturally because of what is occurring.

From time to time, we experience that in a movie. I experienced that in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. I experienced it because of brilliant writing, from Crowe as a screenwriter. Just as importantly, I experienced it from another writer, Bernie Taupin. And from great performers in the movie. And from another great performer – Elton John, who sings Taupin’s words in one of my favorite movie scenes ever.

Almost Famous takes us on the journey of a teenage writer who lands a gig with Rolling Stone magazine. It’s autobiographical – director/writer Crowe had just that job before moving on to direct Say Anything and Jerry Maguire. 

In the film, we see this wide-eyed teenage kid William go from worshiping the records of Zeppelin and Dylan and Bowie to being a part of that world, following around a fictional band named Stillwater. And he meets Penny Lane, a “band aid” (not groupie, that’s insulting according to her), played by Kate Hudson who gives the best performance of her career.

Because of Crowe’s background, Almost Famous feels entirely authentic. We suspect that the good times and bad times we see behind the scenes of Stillwater’s concert tour is based on real-life experiences. And like Crowe’s greatest work, the writing is first-rate and emotionally satisfying.

The band is going through some rough times and on the verge of breaking up when the star of the band, guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) takes William to a high school party in Topeka, Kansas because he wants to hang with “real people”.

The scene at the party is fantastic. Russell drops a whole lot of acid, proclaims himself “a Golden God!” on top of the roof of the house of the party, and jumps into the pool, much to William’s chagrin.

The drama that we’ve seen in the past few minutes of the movie — the band breaking apart — leads the audience to believe the movie may go down a darker road. Russell and William are picked up from the out-of-the-way house party by the band and its tour bus. In the immediate scene following, we witness the band members, William, Penny Lane, and the hangers-on of the band all sitting uncomfortably on the bus heading to the next non-descript gig.

And, then one of the greatest scenes in recent film history unfolds. Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” starts to play over the scene. As an audience, we assume that it’s simply what we’re used to in movies — a song trying to dictate the tone of the scene. About a minute into the scene, one of the Stillwater band members begins to sing along to the track. We, as an audience, realize that everyone in that bus is also listening to the song. Within a few seconds, almost everyone on the bus is belting out Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s timeless classic. The final holdout is Russell, who finally gets a huge smile on his face and sings along with everyone else. All the drama we’ve witnessed in the last acts of the film is resolved. For all the drama these characters have between each other — music unites them.

As if the emotion of all that isn’t enough — the last part of the scene has William turning to Penny Lane. He’s frustrated with his writing assignment and his process of trying to interview the band. He expresses his thoughts to her: “I need to go home”. Penny looks at him, smiles widely, and replies: “You are home.”

William and the audience experience the same reaction at the same second: this is where William belongs. This is his destiny. And this is why Almost Famous is one of the best movies in recent memory. And this is why I can’t listen to “Tiny Dancer” without thinking of that scene.

And this is why that scene is Movie Perfection.

Oscar Predictions: Best Actor/Actress

As a continuation of my post from two days ago regarding Oscar predictions, here are my thoughts on who we will see nominated in the categories of Best Actor and Best Actress. As with my first, I will predict in four categories: Shoo-Ins, Strong Possibilities, Possible, and Long Shots.

BEST ACTOR

SHOO-INS

Daniel Day-Lewis is a lock for a nomination in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. He is considered by many to be the finest actor working today and with the awards attention that the film is bound to receive, it is unfathomable that he won’t be nominated. Interestingly, if Day-Lewis were to win the Oscar, he would set a record by being the only person to win Best Actor three times (he won in 1989 for My Left Foot and in 2007 for There Will Be Blood). Nine actors have won the award twice. Other than Day-Lewis, more recent ones include Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Nicholson.

The other shoo-in is Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, who gives possibly a career best performance. The Academy loves to reward a comeback and after Phoenix’s strange history since his last nomination for Walk the Line (including his bizarre documentary I’m Still Here and notorious appearance on David Letterman’s show), he’ll get noticed.

STRONG POSSIBILITIES

John Hawkes is a near shoo-in for his performance as a quadriplegic in The Sessions and Denzel Washington is said to give his one of best performances in the upcoming Flight.

POSSIBLE

This list is longer with a number of actors possibly filling that fifth slot. I’m convinced Hawkes will be nominated and I’m predicting Washington even though the film’s not out yet. Two possibles are for films no one’s seen yet but depending on reviews could get in: Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables and Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock. Bradley Cooper could certainly see his first nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, which has received fantastic buzz since its festival screenings. In Arbitrage, Richard Gere has gotten some of the best reviews of his career. He’s never been nominated before and the Academy may feel it’s time. Bill Murray playing President Franklin D. Roosevelt seems like an Oscar match, however the film’s buzz at festival screenings was mixed. The Austrian festival favorite Amour gave its lead Jean-Louis Trintignant fabolous reviews and it’s not too rare for the Academy to fill a slot with an actor in a foreign film (Benigni and Dujardin have won in recent times). And the extremely positive reaction to Argo could certainly propel Ben Affleck to his first acting nomination.

LONG SHOTS

So you get the idea that this field is extraordinarily crowded this year. There’s always the possibility of a long shot though and they are: Suraj Sharma for Life of Pi, Brad Pitt for Killing Them Softly, Jamie Foxx for Django Unchained, Jake Gyllenhall for End of Watch, and Matt Damon for Promised Land.

THE PREDICTIONS

Having said all that, I’m finding it very difficult to pick the fifth nominee. I could easily see it being Hopkins, Jackman, Cooper, Gere, Trintignant, or Affleck. If Washington somehow if left out, two of them could fill in. This list is very subject to change, but here goes:

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

John Hawkes, The Sessions

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Denzel Washington, Flight

BEST ACTRESS

Directly opposite from Best Actor, the field for Best Actress this year is one of the weakest in recent memory. Only ten actresses get mentioned here and half will get in. It’s been a pretty disappointing year for strong female roles.

SHOO-INS

Just one. Jennifer Lawrence will get her second nomination in three years and not for Hunger Games. Her performance in Silver Linings Playbook is getting raves and it doesn’t hurt that she headlined the aforementioned picture, which was one of the year’s biggest blockbusters.

STRONG POSSIBILITIES

Again, just one. Marion Cotillard won Best Actress in 2007 for La Vie En Rose and had a showcase role in Dark Knight Rises in the summer. Her foreign film Rust and Bone drew her great notices on the festival circuit.

POSSIBLE

I see three out of the next five getting in. No one’s seen Hitchcock, as I mentioned, but Helen Mirren is likely to be looked at for playing Hitchcock’s wife. Emmanuelle Riva got raves for Amour. Quvenzhane Wallis, a child actress, headlines the indie favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild. Naomi Watts is getting positive advance word for The Impossible. And Keira Knightly may be nominated for playing Anna Karenina, even though the film is said to be just OK.

LONG SHOTS

You can never totally count Meryl Streep out and her work in Hope Springs might get a look. The others are Judi Dench for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Mary Elizabeth Windstead in the indie Smashed.

THE PREDICTIONS

Lawrence and Cotillard are in. The others are tough to predict right now and I’m leaving Naomi Watts out at the moment, even though I believe she’s got an excellent shot.

Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Helen Mirren, Hitchcock

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

That’s all for now, folks! I’ll be back soon with predictions for Supporting Actor and Actress!

Purple Mile

An incredibly talented aspiring musician from the Midwest must deal with his dysfunctional family, an exciting yet slightly dangerous new love interest, and battle his competitors in the local music scene in order to break out and make it big.

That is the plot to 1984’s Purple Rain starring Prince.

It is also the plot to 2002’s 8 Mile starring Eminem.

Both of these films represent a career pinnacle for those artists. In 1984, Prince had released the soundtrack to Purple Rain, his fifth album. His previous album, 1999, gave him his first taste of major commercial success with the title track and Little Red Corvette. 

The movie and soundtrack brought him to the next level. Six of the nine songs on the album were hits: the title track, When Doves Cry, Take Me With U, The Beautiful Ones, Let’s Go Crazy, and I Would Die 4U. The film was a blockbuster and exposed Prince to a completely new audience.

In 2002, Eminem had released two hugely successful albums. That summer, he released his third, The Eminem Show, another hip hop classic. In November came 8 Mile, the film and soundtrack. The movie grossed $50 million dollars in its first weekend, blowing away industry expectations. 

Just like the song “Purple Rain” is considered by many to be Prince’s signature song, the anthem of 8 Mile “Lose Yourself” is considered to be Eminem’s signature tune.

What impresses me most about 8 Mile is that it probably would have been a hit simply by cashing in on Eminem’s enormous popularity at the time. The studio and Eminem aimed higher than that, however. It’s directed by Curtis Hanson, who had already made critical hits like L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. There is more talent behind the camera for 8 Mile than Purple Rain and it shows. Still, if you watch Eminem’s movie, it’s fair to call it “The Hip Hop Purple Rain” due to their many plot similarities.

Both movies represent the work of two of music’s greatest, most influential, and important artists of the last half century. Neither has gone on to do much in the film industry — Prince starred in and directed 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon and 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, which paled in comparison to his inaugural film. Eminem has played himself in Funny People and the TV show “Entourage”.

It’s their music that will put them in the pantheon of the greatest artists. However, both films are an integral part of their considerable legacies. It’s been ten years since 8 Mile has been released and today marks Eminem’s 40th birthday. His work and Prince’s work has and will continue to stand the test of time.

What Will Be Nominated for Oscars This Year?

This is the time of year when many movie pundits start making predictions on what will be nominated for the Oscars. We are officially in “Oscar season”. Why? This is when the movies that are typically given awards consideration are released – between the months of September and December. In general terms, the spring is when movies of all genres are released that aren’t considered Oscar contenders and there’s usually a giant release like this year’s Hunger Games. The summer is blockbuster season when studios release the movies they hope make a LOT of money. Kids are out of school, so this is when lots of superhero flicks, raunchy comedies, and franchise hopefuls come out.

We see that in the fall as well with some BIG releases, like Skyfall and The Hobbit. Autumn, however, is primarily awards season. There’s lots of film festivals, like Toronto, Telluride, and New York. This is where a lot of awards hopefuls screen first, which allows for critics to get the word out on whether it’s great or not. It’s when certain performances jump to the forefront of consideration.

Having said that, there are a few major awards contenders that no one has seen yet: Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, Hitchcock, Django Unchained, Promised Land, and The Hobbit. Just in the last week, advance word on films such as Lincoln and Flight has come out due to screenings done at the N.Y. Film Festival.

I follow the Oscar race very closely. Why? Because I’m a movie fanatic — haven’t you readers figured that out yet??

So, in the post, I am predicting what I believe will be nominated for Best Picture and Director. I will categorize the possible nominees by the following: Shoo-Ins, Strong Possibility, Possible, and Long Shots.

As the unseen films listed above start to gather buzz, the list will be updated in the future, but I am factoring these movies in now and what I think their chances currently are.

Here goes:

BEST PICTURE

This category has been the subject of some controversy among film buffs in the last four years. For decades and decades, the nominating process for Best Picture was simple. Five nominees. Every year. Simple right? Then in 2009, the Academy changed the rules. Now, there would be 10 nominated Pictures (even though every other category would remain 5).   Why the change? Many have speculated that 2008’s omission of The Dark Knight being nominated was a big factor. In that year, generally considered pretty weak for movies, Dark Knight won over critics and audiences in a way few movies do. Not often are the MASSIVE blockbusters such critical darlings too. Many pundits predicted the Academy would do something they normally don’t: nominate the movie that audiences seemed to like the best. They didn’t. So, the 10 movie format was done for 2009 and 2010. In 2011, the format changed again where the number of nominated Best Pictures can fall anywhere between 5 and 10 movies (once again, all other races stay at 5). Last year, nine movies were nominated. I read the guidelines for how Best Picture nominees are chosen now in the new format and got a headache. It’s something about combination of #1 votes and #2 votes and how many ballots the movie appears on. Bottom line? It’s a stupid process. The Academy should simply take it back to five.

Why? In broad terms, there are usually only up to 3 movies that really have a chance to WIN the award. In some years, it’s very easy to predict. Everyone knew Schindler’s List would win in 1993. Everyone knew Titanic would win in 1997. It is very rare that it’s a wide open race and by the time the Oscars air, the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards have already taken place and we have a general idea what and who is going to win… though upsets have happened, though relatively rarely. Also, it is well-known that the winner of Best Picture and Best Director usually match up. 62 out of 85 times as a matter of fact. More importantly, there has been precisely ONE time in the last EIGHTY years where the Director of the Best Picture winner was not nominated for Best Director. That would be in 1989 when Driving Miss Daisy won and its director Bruce Beresford didn’t get nominated. What does that all mean? It means if a movie gets a Best Picture nomination and the director isn’t nominated, that movie stands ZERO chance of winning Best Picture… or 1 out of 80 if you’re gonna be a stickler. Keeping it at five is clean and simple. But, it’s not that way so I have to predict accordingly:

SHOO-INS

Argo came out this weekend and was met with critical and audience acclaim. It also had a big opening weekend (it helps a movie get a nomination when it’s a hit). Why? More viewers tune in when they’ve seen the movies nominated. The 1998 telecast in which Titanic cleaned up is the most watched Oscars in history. Another highly rated telecast more than others? 2004 when Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won. Argo is not the type of hit those movies were, but I had to make that point somehow.

The other shoo-in? Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It’s not out yet, but early word is already out and it’s mostly quite positive. If Spielberg’s War Horse got nominated last year, which got a fairly lackluster reception from critics and audiences, there’s no way this won’t get nominated.

STRONG POSSIBILITIES

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is about as close to a shoo-in as it can be without me calling it that. The people who love it really love it. Anderson is considered by most, including me, to be one of the very greatest directors working today. The only reason I’m not calling it a total shoo-in is that I’ve seen it and know some critics are beginning to start a small backlash against it. It’s a tough film to categorize and there’s been a small amount of controversy with it due to its allusions to Scientology. Still, at the end of the day, it’s in.

Les Miserables looks like a movie built for Academy Awards. It’s from the director of The King’s Speech. It’s got an A list cast. It’s a musical. The only reason I’m not calling this a shoo-in? As I mentioned, no one’s seen it yet and it could be a critical and commercial flop. That seems highly unlikely though.

Silver Linings Playbook won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, arguably the most influential of all the festivals. It’s not out yet, but it’s said to be a real audience pleaser that’s gotten great reviews so far. The performances by a first-rate cast are said to be outstanding. It looks like it’s in.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi recently had festival screenings and the response was overwhelmingly positive. It’s based on a known best-seller and looks Academy friendly.

POSSIBLE

We’ll list the five that no one’s seen: Hitchcock, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hobbit, Promised Land and Django Unchained.

The Academy loves movies about making movies and Hitchcock centers on the making of 1960’s classic Psycho, with previous winner Anthony Hopkins playing Hitchcock and previous winner Helen Mirren as his dedicated wife, who contributed much more to Hitchcock’s films than most realize.

Zero Dark Thirty is about the manhunt to kill Osama Bin Laden and comes from Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, who won for that film in 2009.

The Hobbit? You’ve probably heard of it. Peter Jackson directs the adaptation of Tolkien. His three Lord of the Rings films all received nominations and third installment won.

Promised Land comes from Milk director Gus Van Sant, stars Matt Damon, and is a drama that challenges the fracking phenomenon going in the country. Sounds like something liberals could eat up.

Django Unchained comes from Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds were nominated and QT is widely considered in the very top tier of working directors whose films are Events.

Robert Zemeckis’s Flight screened at the NY Film Festival last week and is said to be great, even though a lot of the attention centered on Denzel Washington’s performance.

The Austrian film Amour won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival this year and is a critical favorite. Another critical hit that did very well on the art-house circuit is Beasts of the Southern Wild and the same can be said for Wes Anderon’s Moonrise Kingdom. 

Cloud Atlas is based on a best-seller and comes from the creators of The Matrix trilogy. It’s screened at festivals and seems to be one of those hate-it-or-love-it type of pictures.

The Impossible has received very positive notices on the festival circuit. It stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and takes place during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Sessions is another festival favorite, starring John Hawkes as a paraplegic who seeks out a sex therapist, played by Helen Hunt.

LONG SHOTS

Remember how mentioned the controversy about Dark Knight being the country’s favorite and yet it didn’t get nominated? Don’t count on Dark Knight Rises being nominated either, especially because its reviews weren’t nearly as rapturous as its predecessor. Same goes for The Avengers. And The Hunger Games. 

Skyfall is said to be one of the best Bond films ever, but it’s hard to see the Academy nominating it.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was an art-house and critical hit over the summer, but that’s probably not enough to make it a factor.

Anna Karenina reteams Atonement team of director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley but it hasn’t received the positive buzz that film did, which led to its nominations.

THE PREDICTIONS

Seeing that anywhere from five to ten films will get nominated and that nine did under the new format last year, I’m going with 8 Pictures getting the nod. They are:

ARGO

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

FLIGHT

LES MISERABLES

LIFE OF PI

LINCOLN

THE MASTER

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

BEST DIRECTOR

Now that I’ve explained the Pics being nominated, it’s safe to say that all five Directing nominees will be from those movies. That said, here’s the list on the four categories:

SHOO-INS

Ben Affleck for Argo, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master

STRONG POSSIBILITIES

Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, Ang Lee for Life of Pi.

POSSIBILE

Michael Haneke for Amour, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, Gus Van Sant for Promised Land, Sacha Gervasi for Hitchcock, Benh Zietlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Robert Zemeckis for Flight, Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom, and Peter Jackson for The Hobbit, and Quentin Tarantino for Django.

LONG SHOTS

Christopher Nolan for Dark Knight Rises, Sam Mendes for Skyfall, Joe Wright for Anna Karenina, Ben Lewin for The Sessions, Juan Antonio Bayona for The Impossible, Tom Twyker and Andy and Lana Wachowski for Cloud Atlas.

THE PREDICTIONS

Ben Affleck, Argo

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master

Tom Hooper, Les Miserables

Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln


So there you have it. My initial predictions for Picture and Director. The acting posts will be coming in the next couple of days, so stay tuned!

 

 

The Shelf

This is the DVD/Blu-Ray shelf that my roommate and I have featured in our palatial island estate. Six full shelves of movie after movie. It’s usually the first item that new guests notice when they visit us.

Any serious movie buff wants to have a kick-ass film collection and ours is pretty decent. Funny thing is, there’s always more that you want (that new Blu-Ray James Bond collection that just came out!?!?!) Whoever buys that for me is welcome to have my copies of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Casino Royale, and Quantum of Solace that I already have.

Alfred Hitchcock is my all-time favorite director, but right now I only have Strangers on Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Still need at least a half dozen more (Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and Dial M for Murder especially).

Still, we’ve got a lot – covered from About Schmidt to Zombieland. At this point, there’s six shelves. One is for odds and ends, like TV series, concerts, some Disney movies, etc…

One is all comedy. And there’s lots of dramas, action, sci-fi, drama, a row to two of westerns and classics and horror. It’s organized in only the way true movie nerds could do it — NOT alphabetical (don’t be ridiculous). Mostly by genre — westerns here, horror here, 80s comedy here, crime movies set in the past here, crime movies set in L.A. here, crime movies set in Boston here (I’m not kidding). Some organized by director, some by actor (Will Ferrell flicks together, for instance).

So, the question I get a lot from visitors is: Do you ever actually watch them? Of course. But, there’s about 75 of them I’ve never seen (I think we’re getting close to around 700 movies). Most of the unseen ones belong to my roommate and I purposely haven’t watched certain movies yet because I know someday I’ll be bored and say, “Hey, I finally wanna watch the Sherlock Holmes sequel or Robert Redford’s 1975 conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor.” A lot of times, I’ll just watch the extra features. I love making-ofs and gag reels and commentaries. Sometimes I just put a couple scenes on for background noise. And I also LOVE when visitors come over, are looking over the collection, and say they haven’t seen something that I love. Time to watch it! (or let them borrow it, which involves heavy legal paperwork and making them leave something valuable behind).

A final note about The Shelf: I’ve now had Blu-Ray for about three years. Is it better? Absolutely. Truth be told, though, I still buy regular DVDs too. For one thing, not QUITE everything is available on Blu Ray (though we’re getting there). New releases are pretty much always purchased on Blu Ray now. If I’m getting an action or sci-fi spectacle movie, it’s gonna be Blu Ray. Still, I could really care less whether The Campaign is purchased on Blu Ray or regular DVD. Or a drama like Gone Baby Gone or Capote. If I’m getting an old 70s action flick, I don’t really care. Blu-Rays are for your visually spectacular movies. However, at this point, the new release Blu-Rays are only a couple bucks more, so why not? 

Coming tomorrow: a look at movies likely to be nominated for Academy Awards this year.

The Rest of 2012

Here’s a primer for all you folks on movies coming out during the remainder of 2012 that I have an interest in and want to see, with brief descriptions.

This weekend saw the release of three movies that I’d like to see: first and foremost, Ben Affleck’s Argo, which is garnering considerable Oscar buzz. The horror flick Sinister with Ethan Hawke and crime comedy Seven Psychopaths both received very postive reviews as well.

October 19 sees the release of Paranormal Activity 4. I’ve been a fan of the first three to varying degrees and early reviews for this one are positive so far. Also, we see the limited release of The Sessions, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and Willam H. Macy. That one is receiving Oscar buzz for the performances.

On October 26, Cloud Atlas, from the makers of The Matrix trilogy is out. If you’ve seen the trailer, it looks trippy and has a great cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant.

November 2nd brings us Flight, starring Denzel Washington. It is director Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. This is the director that’s brought us Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump. Washington’s performance is already getting awards buzz. Also that weekend is Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph, which looks like a lot of fun.

On November 9th: Skyfall. ‘Nuff said, except the trade reviews are out today and I noticed The Hollywood Reporter already said it’s one of the best Bond films of all time. Cannot wait.

November 16th: Lincoln. Daniel-Day Lewis. Spielberg. Cannot. Wait.

November 21st: two movies getting considerable Oscar talk. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on the bestselling book and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, also based on a bestseller. Playbook has screened at various festivals and the performances of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro are said to be magnificent.

In limited release on November 23rd is Hitchcock, which is about the making of 1960’s classic Psycho. Anthony Hopkins plays the greatest filmmaker of all time. This movie was pushed up from 2013 so it would qualify for awards consideration (usually a good sign). November 30th brings us the crime thriller Killing Them Softly, with Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini. December 7th: Hyde Park on Hudson, which got mixed reviews on the festival circuit, but with Bill Murray playing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, I gotta see it.

December 14th brings the eagerly awaited The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which reunites director Peter Jackson with the written work of Tolkien. Worked out pretty well for those Lord of the Rings movies.

Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow directs Zero Dark Thirty, out December 19th about the manhunt to kill Osama Bin Laden. This one could be great.

December 21st: Judd Apatow’s latest comedy This Is 40, with Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprising their roles from Knocked Up; Tom Cruise’s latest action thriller Jack Reacher; and The Impossible, set during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which has received very positive early buzz.

My Christmas present this year: a new movie from Quentin Tarantino! Django Unchained with Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and all kinds of other awesome actors. I’ve yet to see a QT film that I didn’t LOVE, so this is at the top of my list, along with Skyfall and Lincoln.

December 25th also brings a massive Oscar contender: Les Miserables, with Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe from Oscar-winning King’s Speech director Tom Hooper.

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.