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Complete Series Reviews

Game of Thrones: The Complete Series

 

What makes a “great” television drama?  “Great” is a largely meaningless term.  There are dramas that are well written, but not particularly influential.  There are dramas that are influential, but not particularly well written.  Then there is the cream of the crop, the dramas that are both well written and influential.  While it is impossible to assess how influential a show will be two days after its series finale, I’m confident that Game of Thrones will fit squarely in the category of influential, but not particularly well written.

Was it well-written at times?  Absolutely – especially when it stuck closely to its source material, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  There were many times the writing was bad during the last two seasons, and there were times that the writing was as bad, if not worse, throughout the series.  Examples include Daenerys’ visit to Qarth, anything involving Ramsey Snow, violence against women that did not happen in the source material, the mustache-twirling villains of Craster’s Keep, Arya’s layover in Braavos, and Jaime’s misadventures in Dorne.  Theon Greyjoy, for instance, spent most of the series in a poorly written subplot, so his demise in the final season does not deeply resonate despite the fact that Alfie Allen has been in the main credits since the very first episode.

The rushed and sloppily written final two seasons may be the show’s most obvious writing failure at the moment, but let’s not forget that the show constantly underwhelmed in its depiction of one of the most compelling characters in the source material, Jon Snow.  While Kit Harrington’s portrayal of Snow has proven popular, the book version of Jon Snow is one of the smartest and emotionally complex characters in the entire series.  The show, on the other hand, often portrayed Snow as well-meaning, but dull and not very bright.

So yeah, Game of Thrones is flawed.  But it is also pushed the technical boundaries of the medium of television drama further than any series that came before. Game of Thrones has given us hundreds of unforgettable images, from the birth of the dragons to the knighting of Brienne of Tarth.  When I think of Game of Thrones, I won’t always think about how Daenerys’ heel turn at the end was sloppily written, but I will remember images, such as the one of Jon and Ygritte looking out from the top of The Wall.

I can reasonably predict that Game of Thrones will be more influential as a technical achievement than anything else.  The way it handled a sprawling story that took place over a decade, over two massive continents, with hundreds of characters will be a text that creators will look at when designing their own equally ambitious television series.  Game of Thrones proved that no series is “unfilmable,” and that may be its most important legacy.

I can’t quite “rank” Game of Thrones yet, but as of right now I would not put it in the same league as The Wire or Mad Men because of its inconsistent, and sometimes outright bad, writing.  A better comparison would be The West Wing.  The West Wing pushed the boundaries of technical achievement in television, not with dragons and white walkers, but by demonstrating a cinematic, “lived-in” feel that still resonates in the industry.  Like Game of Thrones, The West Wing is a rewarding show on the second or third viewing.  Also, like Game of Thrones, The West Wing suffered from poor writing, especially during its final seasons, which resulted in an ending that felt disappointing and failed to resonate as deeply as it could have.

In conclusion, Game of Thrones gets an A+ for technical achievement, but a C+ for writing.  That said, here are some of my favorite moments from Game of Thrones:

  • The Battle of Hardhome: A scene loaded with unforgettable images, not just the iconic “Night King raises the dead” scene.
  • Jon and Ygritte climb The Wall: One of the few times the show did justice to a Jon Snow plotline from the books.
  • Daenerys burns Astapor: This reads differently in retrospect – not so much a moment of triumph as an ominous harbinger of things to come.
  • The Hound eats your chicken: Game of Thrones could be really funny at times, especially when it partnered interesting characters together, like Arya and the Hound.
  • Arya reunites with Nymeria: the last two seasons were flawed, but Arya’s moment of clarity when reuniting with her lost direwolf was a highlight.
  • Tyrion’s “trial by combat” at the Vale: with great dialogue and our introduction to the Bronn/Tyrion friendship, this was an early highlight.
  • Oberyn Martell’s introduction: sometimes Game of Thrones brought in new characters slowly, sometimes it introduced them by showing you exactly who they were and what they were about.
  • “No true king ever needs to say, I am the king:” man, Charles Dance was great as Tywin Lannister, wasn’t he?
  • Battle at the Wall tracking shot: you know which one I’m talking about.
  • “And you will know the debt is paid:” anytime Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey shared a scene it was pure gold.

That’s a wrap on the final season of Game of Thrones!  Thanks for reading!

© 2019 D.G. McCabe

Categories
Movies

Us (2019)

Us (USA, 2019)

Directed by Jordan Peele

After I saw Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In” (2008), I would joke that the message of the film was that the real vampire was the vampire within.  That particular joke played not only upon the movie’s content, but on the type of Scandavian existential dread often found in the films of Ingmar Bergman.  Due respect to Mr. Bergman’s vision of God as a hideous spider in “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961) or Mr. Alfredson’s star crossed vampire, there is a new existential nightmare in the cinema canon, the “tethered” in Jordan Peele’s “Us.”

Many great horror movies lull the audience into a sense of comfort.  Peele certainly did that in 2017’s “Get Out.”  Us isn’t one of those films.  From the first frame, Peele brings the audience into a nightmare that doesn’t let up.  There are lulls in the action, but nothing long enough to give anyone the type of familiarity or comfort that one might feel when watching Psycho (1960) for the first time.  The viewer is allowed to catch their breath, but can never let go of that awful feeling that nothing is ever quite right.

To give away too many plot details of a suspense/thriller/horror film can inadvertently ruin the film.  I won’t do that in a short, initial review.  I can tell you that the cast is perfect, particularly, if Lupita Nyong’o isn’t a shoe-in for a Best Actress nod they should just cancel the Oscars next year.  The score is one of the best I’ve heard, up there with Metropolis (1927), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Fargo (1996).  Michael Abels creates the perfect complimentary sound to Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography – eerie when it needs to be and epic when it needs to be.  

After “Get Out” and its biting commentary on race relations in America, it wouldn’t be surprising if Peele created a companion piece.  “Get Out” is a great film in its own right, but in some ways the two films couldn’t be more different.   There are certain stylistic similarities, but “Get Out” satires monstrous elements of society, and overall, is a much funnier movie.  “Us” has its moments of humor, but it is a nightmarish meditation on the nature of evil in general.  In short, the monsters in”Get Out” were concrete, the monsters in “Us” are the wind.  

Which one is more horrifying?  It depends on your fears, and to some extent on your experience.  I’m going to watch “Get Out” again this weekend and think about how to answer that myself.

(C) 2019 D.G. McCabe  

Categories
Movies

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