2019 Oscar Preview: Best Picture

Award season is almost at a close, and we’re only two weeks out from the 2019 Oscars.

Let’s start our preview with Best Picture.

Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

The conventional wisdom was that Black Panther would get a nomination, but nothing else.  Hollywood would pat itself on the back for honoring a tentpole superhero flick, and then promptly return to awarding films about fish “love.”  That was, of course, before Black Panther took top honors at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.  The SAG awards are the best predictive award show for the Oscars for a reason – the actors are by far the largest voting block in the Academy.  Additionally, the abandoned proposal for a “popular film” category means that the Academy is getting nervous about the lack of awards for true blockbusters over the last few years (Best Picture hasn’t gone to a move that’s made over $100 million domestically since 2012).  Conclusion: Black Panther is a contender.

Blackkklansman (Directed by Spike Lee)

The late career makeup award is a time-honored Oscar tradition.  Just think about Al Pacino winning Best Actor for 1992’s lackluster Scent of Woman instead of any role he had in the 1970’s.  Great directors are more likely to be snubbed than great actors, with heavyweights like Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley Kubrick never winning Best Director honors.  Blackkklansman is Spike Lee’s most commercially successful movie in a few years, and it has the added bonus of being some of his best work.  It feels like Lee could finally get that Best Director Oscar, but given the competition, Best Picture might be a stretch.  Conclusion: Blackkklansman is a borderline contender.

Bohemian Rhapsody (Directed by Bryan Singer, so says the credit)

An entertaining, yet ultimately paint-by-numbers rock and roll biopic, I’m surprised this one got nominated. The Golden Globes were overly generous to it, but the Globes mean exactly squat when predicting the Oscars. It’s simply not an Oscar caliber movie, and this is coming from someone who gave it a positive write up. Conclusion: Bohemian Rhapsody is a pretender.

The Favourite (Directed by Yorgos Lathimos)

This feels like the “actor’s movie” of the Best Picture selections. I mostly say that because it’s a period piece, and because it’s been winning a lot of individual acting hardware. That said, it didn’t win best ensemble at the SAG Awards, so I question whether it has enough umph to win the top prize. Besides, the Academy is rarely kind to comedies.  In the last fifty years, only six comedies have taken top honors (The Sting (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Forrest Gump (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Artist (2011), and Birdman (2014)).  Conclusion: The Favourite is a borderline contender.

Green Book (Directed by Peter Farrelly)

Green Book was an early favorite and checks most of the Oscar boxes. It’s a period piece, it has a strong cast, and it contains themes dealing with race relations in America. It’s also been a lightning rod for controversy. That, and it didn’t really resonate with critics or audiences. I think the voters end up putting the green book back on the shelf. Conclusion: Green Book is a pretender.

Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Roma is a heavyweight. Cuarón has created a neo-realist film that is comparable to the films of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Fredrico Fellini.  It’s beautifully shot, achingly sad, and not entirely without humor. Cuarón has been honored by the Academy for Best Director for Gravity (2013), a film that would have won Best Picture in almost any other year it was nominated.   All that being said, the Academy has never, not once, given Best Picture to a foreign language film.  Then again, there’s a first time for everything.  Conclusion: Roma is a contender.

A Star is Born (Directed by Bradley Cooper)

A Star is Born got a lot of early buzz, but that buzz has faded.  For award show purposes, A Star is Born is Bradley Cooper’s character.  The other nominees are Lady Gaga’s character.  I just don’t see this movie turning things around, and it’s telling that Cooper wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  A Star is Born was well received by critics and audiences, but not by award show voters.  Conclusion: A Star is Born is a pretender.

Vice (Directed by Adam McKay)

Critics didn’t like Vice, and neither did audiences.  That said, the movie is getting some love for Christian Bale’s transformation into Dick Cheney.  However, every year there’s a movie nominated for Best Picture on the strength of the lead actor’s performance and not much else.  A good example of this phenomenon is Phantom Thread (2017), from last year’s show.  Daniel Day-Lewis was great in it, but the movie was kind of dumb.  Vice is this year’s Phantom Thread.  Conclusion: Vice is a pretender.

Conclusion & Prediction

There you have it.  If this were back when only five movies could be nominated for Best Picture, you would have Black Panther, Blackkklansman, the Favourite, Roma, and probably A Star is Born.  I think it’s going to come down to Roma or Black Panther.

So, what is Hollywood more nervous about?  The Oscars losing value because of too many fish “love” movies winning, or not giving foreign language films enough support over the years?  All the gold in Fort Knox couldn’t rectify decades of awards for Hollywood movies over superior foreign films, especially during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s when the some of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema were coming out of France, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.  I don’t think this is a big concern for the folks in Hollywood.  Remember, with the exception of a dozen or so British movies and The Artist (2011), the Best Picture Oscar is best understood as the award for best American film as viewed with a short term evaluation.

Therefore, I predict that Black Panther will win Best Picture.  Wakanda Forever!

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Home Alone (1990)

Some movies you watch every year, or almost every year. Most of the time, these are holiday movies. Let’s face it, get yourself a successful holiday song or movie, and you’ll be rolling royalties until the cows come home. That’s all by way of saying that there are movies that I love – love – that I don’t watch once a year. These include classics like the Seventh Seal and blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet I find myself watching some movies once a year, every year. It makes we wonder if these movies are worth my time. One of the easier ones to answer that question for is Home Alone.

Home Alone is a great movie. It is not particularly influential. You won’t generally find it discussed among film students or academics. It isn’t made by a great director (although Chris Columbus is by no means a bad director), and it boasts no legendary movie stars. Macaulay Culkin may have been the most bankable child star since Shirley Temple, but he’s not exactly Robert Redford.

Then, is it a bold statement to say a film is a great one if it does not measure up to traditional great movie metrics? Look closer. Home Alone is a tightly shot and plotted film. The story connects with the audience, despite how absurd it seems to modern eyes. It’s not just holiday nostalgia either – I’m watching A Christmas Story as I type this. Talk about your meandering, nonsense film. People love it, but at some level, we all have to agree it’s a silly movie. We like silly movies, and that’s okay, by the way.

So if Home Alone isn’t a silly movie or a nostalgic movie, that’s fine. Sure. But a great movie? That’s a stretch, right? It’s like the time that I tried to convince a film buff that The Empire Strikes Back is a superior film to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. I mean, it is a superior film, but a film buff will never admit that – and neither, by the way, did the one I spoke to. By the way, the greatest science fiction/fantasy (i.e. speculative fiction) movie of all time is the Seventh Seal.

I digress. Greatly. Let’s talk about the holiday classic you came here to talk about. What’s great about Home Alone, first of all, is how it re-creates the insane family dynamics of the Holidays in the first act without making the movie “about that.” It sets the stage with very few interactions between the family characters, and does not leave Kevin’s point of view, for the most part. This centers the story on Kevin’s experience, but also believably creates a madhouse family reminiscent of Holiday classics like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The film doesn’t let up either. There are no wasted scenes – everything builds up to the next or develops the characters. The jokes are funny, the touching scenes are touching (e.g. the church scene), and the famous slapstick scenes in the third act live up to their reputation. It’s an efficient and effective movie. If that isn’t a great film, what is?

By the way, I partially take back what I said about A Christmas Story. That scene where Ralphie beats the living daylights out of that bully is pure gold.

D.G. McCabe; December 24, 2018

2018: A Noisy Year, and Time for Changes

I’ve been writing the same, tired “Year in Review” article for a few years now. With the exception of one particularly creative dive into Boethius, admittedly a deep track reference if there ever was one, these write ups have been unremarkable and, I confess, lazy.

I’ve been doing this blog for almost seven years now. I don’t think our pop culture discourse has ever been noisier. It also, has never been less creative.

I read the same article about the same movie probably four or five times, every time. The assessment of film has become of an inescapable groupthink, which more often than not settles on analysis that is an inch deep and a mile wide. This problem isn’t unique to film, it’s in writing about television, sports, politics, basically all of journalism. We’re drawn to the hot take, the short article, the snarky humor, the bland repetitive analysis.

So what does this have to do with the state of popular culture in 2018? After all, 2018 was the year that brought us the best superhero movie (Black Panther), the best series finale of a television show (The Americans), Spike Lee’s return to form (Blackkklansman), and Steven Spielberg’s return to blockbusters (Ready Player One). The year’s biggest movie, globally, was the culmination of a massive series of films the likes of which we haven’t seen before (Avengers: Infinity War). These are real achievements, but something about them feels hollow. That isn’t right.

Film is about images. Roger Ebert understood this and repeated it often. What is lacking from the conversation is how those images make us feel. What they mean. In the moment, and more importantly, in the next moment.

Everything isn’t meant to be compared to everything else before it. With so many legacy movies, series, and filmmakers out there, we’ve been obsessed with just that – legacy. Legacy before the ink of history is even dry. This constant comparison makes art disposable. The art isn’t appreciated for what it is, but for how it measures up to other art. This, in case I’m not being clear, is a bad thing.

You could write about Blackkklansman and compare it to Lee’s earlier work, or you can talk about how Lee uses the film as a sledgehammer to shake the audience out of complacency. You could knock Spielberg as overly nostalgic, or you could point out how he uses nostalgia as a tool to reveal the humanity of an artificial world in Ready Player One. Black Panther is many things to many people, but instead of writing about what everyone is talking about, you can look deeper and see how and why Ryan Coogler’s best shot is when Killmonger walks into the throne-room. Ignore the noise – what does art mean to YOU? That is what I’m to endeavor to answer in the future.

That brings me to what’s changing on this page going forward:

1) I’m not writing traditional reviews anymore. See a movie or show, or don’t. I’m going to be writing about my impressions beyond simply answering whether art is good or bad.

2) Historical context needs time to develop. A new rule: a film or series needs to be at least five years old to have its influence discussed, ten to be understood, thirty to be fully appreciated.

3) I’m changing up the format a bit and working on a few other changes. It’s time.

4) I’ll still do Game of Thrones and maybe other Power Rankings, but I’ll be more thoughtful about a character or group’s story in the broader context.

5) I’m going to write about more random topics. I like to do that.

Thanks for sticking with this experiment that I started in 2012. I’ll do my best to continue making it worthwhile.

D.G. McCabe

December 21, 2018

(C) 2018

The Other Side of the Wind (2018, Review)

Orson Welles directed a handful of the most influential and important films in history. Despite his personal and professional failings, of which there were many, Welles remains a great artist. We should give any work of his the benefit of the doubt.

I tried to do that. Really, I did. But The Other Side of the Wind is a train wreck.

It’s not without its charms. I thought it interesting how Welles makes fun of the pompous “cineasts” who follow Jake Hannaford (John Huston) around. It’s not without irony – those nerds are the primary reason people still care about Welles today. Even so, the movie overall is a slog to get through.

Let’s start with the obvious. This movie is essentially two hours of obnoxious people rambling about nothing intercut with scenes from what looks like a pretty crappy movie.

My biggest issue with the movie is that it’s basically a lesser version of 8 1/2 (1963). I don’t know if this was intentional, but the movie just isn’t funny enough to work as satire. It’s like Welles saw Fellini’s masterpiece and thought to himself, “I can do that!” [Ron Howard voice – he couldn’t.]

Then there’s the “Where’s Poochie?” quality. Ninety percent of the dialogue involves people talking about Hannaford. But Hannaford barely has any lines. We learn a lot about what the characters think of Hannaford, but little about the characters themselves.

I didn’t get a good sense of why these characters are so obsessed with Hannaford anyway. The only reason we know he’s a good or important director is because no one will shut up about it. The film within a film certainly doesn’t showcase the workings of a genius.

That brings me to the film within the film. Is it supposed to be a knockoff of risqué arthouse movies of the 60’s or part of the brief mainstream porno period of the 70’s? It certainly feels more like the latter, only weirder.

It’s not even a good example of film within a film. Take HBO’s “The Deuce.” The film within a film on the show, Red Hot, makes sense. We see why it’s good too, through the energy of the making-of scenes. We know Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and we understand her motivations and passions. We aren’t just made to think it’s good because the characters won’t stop talking about how good it is.

Maybe, maybe, if Welles supervised the final cut of The Other Side of the Wind, it wouldn’t be such a mess. Who knows? That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a bad movie.

You might like The Other Side of the Wind if you’re an Orson Welles completist. Otherwise, you can probably skip this one.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) (Review)

The rock and roll biopic is hard to pull off. For every Ray (2004) or Hard Day’s Night (1964) there are a dozen films like Jersey Boys (2014). Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the story of Queen, was an especially troubled production, with almost a decade mired in development hell. It’s no small success, therefore, that the movie is more on the “good” side of Rock and Roll movies than the “schlock” side.

Much like legendary French film Children of Paradise (1945), the story of Bohemian Rhapsody’s production is more interesting than the movie itself. The first director, Dexter Fletcher quit, only to be rehired when his replacement, Bryan Singer, was sacked. Sacha Baron Cohen was supposed to play Freddie Mercury, but left the project because of creative differences with David Fincher, who by the way, also left the project. Queen itself was unhappy with the first several scripts too – they wanted a Hard Day’s Night style family movie apparently and the studio wanted a raunchy, R rated retelling of the hard-partying life of Freddy Mercury. Somehow the final product achieved some balance of these two visions.

Bohemian Rhapsody is enjoyable enough, but it’s not a great film. Then Queen isn’t a “Great” band, are they? Music critics, after all, loathe Queen with a passion – so much so that the movie itself emphasizes the negative reviews. Case in point, New York Magazine’s clickbait hole Vulture recently ranked every member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Queen was ranked second to last, ahead of only recent “fan vote” winner Bon Jovi.

The most interesting thing about Queen, therefore, is how a band can be so beloved by fans but so despised by supposed experts. The movie does a solid job exploring this. It’s at its best when it explores the nuts and bolts of Queen’s creative process.

Rami Malek does a fine job capturing Mercury’s stage persona, which is no small task. Still, I felt that the parts that focused on Mercury rather than the band were the weaker parts of the movie. Maybe that was intentional. After all, Mercury needed Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon to become a superstar. Otherwise he was just an awkward kid with an incredible signing voice.

Much like its subject matter, the movie gets self indulgent. It recreates so many of Queen’s legendary performances that it feels at times more like a concert film than a biopic. I don’t know how one is to value that particular quality critically-speaking, but it makes the movie a lot of fun to watch.

Overall, you should go see Bohemian Rhapsody if you want to see a fun rock band movie and/or if you like Queen. Otherwise, if you’re a professional music critic, you probably won’t enjoy a movie about the Rock and Roll press’ favorite punching bag. Or you might like to give it Mystery Science Theater treatment. I can’t answer that for you.

(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Hamilton: Is it Really That Good?

After three years of waiting, I finally saw Hamilton this month. It was a touring production, sure, but that didn’t matter. It’s the pinnacle of the American musical art-form.

But it’s only been out for three years, you say? Perhaps it won’t age well, you predict? Can it really be that good?

Not all art ages well. The number of forgettable films that have won Oscars are the foremost example. Musical theater isn’t like that, however. A show has to be good enough to get on Broadway and stay there in order to get any accolades whatsoever. In other words, a musical has to be great already to stay in the conversation for more than a season.

That’s not to say some musicals don’t lose their luster over time. Tastes change and topics are no longer as relevant. While Rent seemed urgent in the 90’s and Oklahoma! was groundbreaking in the 40’s, the perception of those shows has changed over time.

Even so, to prove my point if you told a room full of musical theater scholars that Rent and Oklahoma! are two of the top ten musicals ever, few would disagree. Even musicals which lose their urgency or innovative feel with age don’t lose those aspects all that much.

Many the innovations of Hamilton might be so widely adapted that they disappear into commonplace like Oklahoma!, but its subject matter is practically evergreen. As long as there is an America, there will always be interest in the American Revolution.

That said, three years is more than enough time to assess Hamilton as one of the greatest musicals. But could it be the greatest? To assess that, you have to compare it to its fellow “greatest musicals.”

Before Oklahoma!, musicals didn’t exactly tell very robust stories. For example, Showboat is a series of vignettes, and Anything Goes! is a comic farce. Porgy and Bess is usually thought of as an opera. In any event the epic scale of Hamilton places it in a different category than early Broadway shows.

Most mid-century shows just aren’t as innovative as Hamilton, and many of the popular late-20th Century shows just don’t have its cultural impact. The 2000’s have been cluttered with jukebox musicals and adaptations of existing popular culture.

To cut to the chase, there are only a few shows with the scope, innovation, urgency, and quality of Hamilton: Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Les Miserables, and Rent.

We can eliminate Oklahoma! first. It is an important show with great songs. But let’s face it, it is a cheesy story.

Rent can be eliminated next. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rent, but it’s very much a creature of its time and place. Also the second act is kind of a mess.

It’s hard to rank Hamilton ahead of the last two, but they aren’t insurmountable obstacles. As great as West Side Story is, it suffers some of the same drawbacks as Rent. It isn’t as topical, but it is definitely a creature of the 1950’s in the same way that Rent is a creature of the 1990’s.

Les Miserables is based on what might be the greatest novel in the world, and that’s its greatest strength. How innovative is Les Mis, really, though? Its greatest innovative aspect is its success as an adaptation. Structurally and musically, it isn’t that distinguishable from other top musicals of its day, it’s just a better story. Besides, “One Day More” is basically “Tonight” from West Side Story.

Hamilton has a story anchored in history with staying power. It has great music, but also innovative music in how it blends new genres into the musical theater artform to tackle the scope of that story. Hip hop uses a lot of words, and you need those words to tell a story like Alexander Hamilton’s. Finally, it compares favorably with the other contenders for greatest musical.

So yes, Hamilton really is that good.

(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Most Popular Film: An Idea

Yesterday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a new Oscar category: Achievement in Popular Film. Many pixels have been broadcast on the pros and cons of this idea. If the Academy wants to go this route, there’s no think piece or celebrity rant that’s going to stop them. However, they should go all in with the idea. Here’s how:

1. “Nominate” the five highest grossing films of the previous year. For releases that straddle years, the Academy can institute a cut off of February 1. January and February are notoriously slow months at the movies anyway.

2. Allow the audience to vote during the show. Make it interactive!

3. Cut off the voting right before Best Director and announce the winner. This will isolate the “prestige” of the “big four” categories.

Thoughts?

(C) 2018 D. G. McCabe