2015 Oscar Nominations – Snap Reactions

Here are my initial thoughts on this morning’s announcement:

  • I wonder if American Sniper would have gotten its nominations if it had been released in, say, April.  I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on its merits, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of buzz from the other award groups (the HFP shut it out of the Golden Globes).
  • Ditto the Lego Movie, on the opposite.  If it were an April release instead of a January/February release, that’s how it gets nominated.
  • Selma was shut out of the acting and directing categories.  Again, I haven’t seen it yet, but this seems odd given the accolades it’s getting (it’s astronomical on Rotten Tomatoes), this puzzles me.  The Academy hasn’t lost its taste for portrayals of historical figures (see well deserved nominations for Redmayne and Cumberbatch).
  • The Best Actor category is wide-wide open.
  • Best Picture is an interesting one this year, but Boyhood has a ton of momentum.

Anyway with the Golden Globes behind us, the next real Oscar bell-weather is the SAG awards on the 25th.  We should get some information as to potential winners then.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week – NES Games

And so it’s come to this – Video Game Preservation week.  Video games have come a long way throughout their history and now run the gamut from mildly amusing time wasters (see Saga, Candy Crush) to epic visual experiences with the production values of Hollywood movies.

Are video games an artform worthy of preservation?  For the next seven days, I’ll be publishing articles that justify a resounding “yes” as an answer to that question.  Today, we’re going to start with this:

The beloved Nintendo Entertainment System.  Behold its glory.  Many of us have fond memories of spending hours of our youth playing video games on this guy, but were those games art worthy of preservation?  Yes they are – and here are five reasons why:

1)The NES and the Video Game Renaissance

The NES saved the very concept of video games from oblivion.

In the 1970’s, video game consoles first found their way into our living rooms.  There wasn’t a lot you could do with the technology at the time, but Missile Command, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and other arcade favorites were there.  Unfortunately, so were hundreds of awful games.  The final nail in the coffin of this era of gaming was the ET game for Atari 2600 in 1982 – millions of which were buried in the middle of the desert (or so the legends say).

Nintendo saved video games by maintaining strict quality controls, pioneering character based gaming, and marketing itself, at least at first, as an “entertainment system” and not as a “video game console.”  Operating in a commercial vacuum didn’t hurt either.

Now that we made the case for the machine, let’s look at some of the games:

2) Storytelling – The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Crystalis

We have started to expect plot and character development in our video games, but when we first experienced these concepts, it was absolutely incredible.  The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy have become video game phenomenon with every additional version, but I think it was little-known Crystalis that may have had the best story of any NES game.

3) Social Experiences – Blades of Steel, Tecmo Super Bowl, Super Mario Brothers 3

Early video games had two player modes, but they were too limited and repetitive to provide much re-play value after a few sittings.  Several NES games changed this dynamic.  I think the best part about Super Mario 3 was the cooperative two player mode, and Tecmo Super Bowl allowed us to play through a real NFL season for the first time.  Blades of Steel wasn’t as complex as those games, but it was just as much fun.

4) Insane Difficulty – Mega Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Contra

We’ve gotten away from intense and unfair difficulty in video games, but this makes these old NES games all the more interesting to me.  I’m not saying we should bring back ridiculously hard obstacles (the TMNT water level, having to fight Elec Man for the second time, or having to use the Konami Code just to get to level 2), but these games have their own special place in video game history.

5)  Creativity – Metroid, Punch-Out, Kirby’s Adventure

More quality control meant that the NES could push the envelope on creativity, as developers were no longer encourages to just churn out crap.  Metroid could have been a lot less interesting, Punch-Out a lot less colorful, and Kirby’s Adventure could have phoned it in as one of the last games on the NES.  Fortunately, none of these things happened.

There are dozens of classic games that I didn’t mention here, all worthy of preservation for their own reasons.  What do you think?

(c) 2014 D. G. McCabe

New Look, New Name, Same Blog

Grand Canyon

Dear Loyal Readers,

As a quick matter of business, I’ve updated the title, address, and look of my blog.

As you can see the new address is http://www.dgmccabe.com/ .  The new title is my name.  The new look is optimized for your mobile devices.

So say goodbye to Grandcanyonscope.  Grandcanyonscope.com will still link to this site until February 15th, when I’ll let the domain expire.  That should give you enough time to update your favorites in your browsers.

Oh and guest posts will still be welcome, and will be marked as appropriate to attribute them to their authors.

Changes Coming!

Hi Everyone,

So you’ll notice a couple of changes coming to the blog.  First, I’m dropping the “Cinema” from the title, since we’ve expanded into television discussions.  I’m also looking at some new themes to shake things up.  Keep checking back for more updates!

– D.G. McCabe

Robert J. Flaherty and Dziga Vertov – The Rise of the Documentary

Robert J. Flaherty has often been called “the father of the documentary.”  Indeed his “Nanook of the North” (1922) is the first full length film that we would recognize today as a documentary.  Flaherty’s tale of an Inuit hunter whom he calls “Nanook” (that was not his real name), was presented to audiences as a window into the day to day lives of the Inuit people during the early 20th Century.

While the resulting film greatly impacted the history of the motion picture, Flaherty’s work contained various elements of fiction.  Many of the Inuit in his film were carefully cast by Flaherty (for example, Nanook’s “wives” were actually Flaherty’s girlfriends), and many of the scenes were carefully staged by Flaherty.  For instance, the Inuit of the time used rifles, but Flaherty insisted that they use spears like their ancestors did.

Flaherty’s staging of large portions of his first film can be excused to a certain extent.  What he was attempting had not been done before and he was largely making it up as he went along.  The casting and staging didn’t end with his first film, however, as many of his later films (Moana (1926), Man of Aran (1934), Louisiana Story (1948)) also contain scripted elements.

Despite the fictionalized elements of his films, Flaherty is still often referred to as “the father of the documentary.”  What he is, however, is the father of a certain kind of documentary, one in which a filmmaker uses carefully chosen subject and re-enactments in order to tell a story or make an argument.  Most political editorial documentaries, such as the films of Michael Moore, and non-fiction cable television programming can be traced back to Flaherty’s work.  But what of the filmmakers of the “cinema verite” documentary – the field in which the camera captures only reality and the filmmaker entirely separates himself from that reality?  Who can their films be traced back to?

The answer I believe is the work of Dziga Vertov, most notably 1929’s “Man with a Movie Camera.”  In the introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera,” Vertov describes his work as an experiment to separate the elements of theater and literature from the artform of film.  Instead of using a script and actors, he filmed “a day in the life of a Russian city” over three years in three different cities.  The result is innovative if only for its shot selection, but I would take that a step further.

Man with a Movie Camera has a single subject, a day in the life of a Russian city, but no story about the people of urban Russia and no particular argument for the audience.  Vertov addresses this subject through the eyes of his camera alone, using editing techniques and various shots to bring the viewer into the bustling life of urban Russia in the late 1920’s.  What the viewer sees is the truth of the city through Vertov’s camera, and they are free to draw their own ideas from what they are seeing.  Vertov, however, has no agenda except to present what he sees and convey to the audience how it feels to see what he sees through shot selection and editing.

Should the documentary filmmaker manipulate his subjects to make his point or tell his story?  Or does she stay entirely apart from her subject and allow the language of film alone (shot selection, editing, etc.) to convey what she is experiencing to the audience?  Both forms of documentary have value.  There are some true stories that would be impossible to tell without some form of reenactment.  Likewise, if a documentarian wants to present an argument, he or she has to film his or her documentary in the most persuasive way possible.  But if the documentarian’s goal is not to tell a story or persuade, but to find truth, it would follow that he or she would have a closer muse in Vertov than Flaherty.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

The Great Oscar Re-Do (Part 2: 1951-1975)

Here’s Part 2 of Cinema Grandcanyonscope’s Great Oscar Re-Do:

1951 – Winner: “An American in Paris;” Should Have Won: “An American in Paris.”  1951 was a competition between An American in Paris and A Streetcar Named Desire, and it’s close enough that I wouldn’t be able to argue with either result.

1952 – Winner: “The Greatest Show on Earth;” Should Have Won: “Singin’ in the Rain”  This is often listed at the top of the list of greatest Oscar snubs, especially considering when most people imagine a Western, they are imagining High Noon.  Still, it is Singin’ in the Rain that has stood the test of time from 1952 rather than either of these films.

1953 – Winner: “From Here to Eternity;” Should Have Won: “Tokyo Story.”  From Here to Eternity was the best American film of 1953, and I had difficulty bumping it from its perch.  It is high entertainment, but Tokyo Story is high art.

1954 – Winner: “On the Waterfront;” Should Have Won: “Seven Samurai.”  This one stings a bit, and “Rear Window” came out in the same year as well.  “On the Waterfront” is one of the greatest American films by any estimation, but Seven Samurai is a far more important film.

1955 – Winner: “Marty;” Should Have Won: “Pather Panchali.”  Ernest Borgnine’s greatest performance deserves the recognition it received, but Pather Panchali is the milestone that marks the start of a truly world cinema.

1956 – Winner: “Around the World in Eighty Days;” Should Have Won: “The Searchers.”  What many consider John Ford’s greatest work is meditation on the destructive power of vengeance where the supposed hero and supposed villain are basically the same character.

1957 – Winner: “The Bridge on the River Kwai;” Should Have Won: “The Seventh Seal.” Some years had an embarrassment of riches.  The Bridge of the River Kwai is one of Lean’s finest films, but it is flawed in ways that The Seventh Seal isn’t.

1958 – Winner: “Gigi;” Should Have Won: “Vertigo.”  Vertigo is now considered by some polls to be the greatest film of all time, but it was actually a commercial flop when it come out.  That is probably the reason it did not win Best Picture in 1958.

1959 – Winner: “Ben-Hur;” Should Have Won: “Ben-Hur.”  While it’s true that Ben-Hur has been surpassed in the epic genre and in some respects it hasn’t aged well, it won everything in sight in 1959 for good reason.

1960 – Winner: “The Apartment;” Should Have Won: “Breathless.”  Oh 1960, what to do with you?  Billy Wilder’s greatest film (The Apartment), Kubrick’s first great epic (Spartacus), Hitchcock’s most popular film (Psycho), or the French Citizen Kane (Breathless)?  L’Avenntura, and La Dolce Vita also came out that year.  In final analysis, the French New Wave changed everything in cinema as an artform and Breathless is a worthy representative from that movement.

1961 – Winner: “West Side Story;” Should Have Won: “West Side Story.”  West Side Story has had so much praise lavished upon it that I won’t repeat that here, except to say that I recently watched it and I still can’t get Bernstein’s score out of my head.

1962 – Winner: “Lawrence of Arabia;” Should Have Won: “Lawrence of Arabia.”  Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence blows out a match and the scene transitions to the sun rising over the desert, and to cinema’s greatest adventure.

1963 – Winner: “Tom Jones;” Should Have Won: “8 1/2.”  8 1/2 is the greatest movie about the art of making movies.

1964 – Winner: “My Fair Lady;” Should Have Won: “A Hard Day’s Night.”  I pose the following – the Academy picked the wrong musical in 1964.

1965 – Winner: “The Sound of Music;” Should Have Won: “The Sound of Music.” I pose the following – the Academy picked the right musical in 1965.

1966 – Winner: “A Man for All Seasons;” Should Have Won: “Persona.”  Bergman once said of Persona, “Today I feel that in Persona, and later in Cries and Whispers, I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”

1967 – Winner: “In the Heat of the Night;” Should Have Won: “In the Heat of the Night.”  It must have been tough awarding a primarily American award in the 1960’s when so many great and influential foreign films were coming out.  Still, In the Heat of the Night is an important American film and deserves its spot here.

1968 – Winner: “Oliver!;” Should Have Won: “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  This one is hard to imagine, but the Academy loved musicals in the 1960’s since so many of the older voters were nostalgic for the “Golden Age” of musicals earlier in the century.  If movies like Oliver! were the past, movies like 2001 were the future.

1969 – Winner: “Midnight Cowboy;” Should Have Won: “Midnight Cowboy.”  Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider were the harbingers of the New Hollywood, and either could be considered best picture of 1969, so I’ll defer to the Academy.

1970 – Winner: “Patton;” Should Have Won: “Patton.”  I almost put “MASH” here, but Patton is a good choice too.

1971 – Winner: “The French Connection;” Should Have Won: “The French Connection.”  The French Connection is the epitome of early 1970’s action cinema.

1972 – Winner: “The Godfather;” Should Have Won: “The Godfather.”  The greatest American film.

1973 – Winner: “The Sting;” Should Have Won: “Day for Night.”  Day for Night actually did win Best Foreign Film in 1973.  The Sting is a fun movie with great actors, but Day for Night is the last of the great French New Wave masterpieces and may be Truffaut’s greatest film.

1974 – Winner: “The Godfather, Part II.”  Should Have Won: “The Godfather, Part II.”  I’ve heard some arguments for Chinatown but none that have really convinced me.

1975 – Winner: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest;” Should Have Won: “Jaws.”  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won everything there was to win in 1975, but Jaws changed everything about the film industry.  Also I find that Jaws has aged better.

Now we’re rolling.  Stay tuned for Part 3!

(c) D.G. McCabe

Star Wars: In Defense of Episode I

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

(1999, George Lucas, USA)

After having my flight canceled, spending an unexpected evening in Charlotte, NC, and basically heading straight from the airport to work yesterday, I’m back from Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, FL.  In celebration of the Celebration, I’m writing a six part series on the Star Wars movies, in episodic order.  This means starting with the much maligned Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (“TPM”).

The recent release of TPM in 3D gave movie critics an opportunity to practice their favorite bloodsport – dumping on a blockbuster.  Not just any blockbuster mind you, one of the most heavily criticized films ever made.  The criticism is so prevalent in our culture that we tend to forget there’s a movie under there at all.

Does anyone like TPM? I, for one, would argue that no movie makes the kind of king’s ransom at the box office that TPM did ($1B worldwide, $474M) without someone liking it.  If no one liked it, would people get dressed up as characters from it at a four day convention?  I mean c’mon people, I even saw someone in a Jar Jar costume!

Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that TPM is a good movie and I probably never will.   I’ll never forget when I first saw it how cartoonish it seemed compared to the Original Trilogy.  But I don’t remember hating it, and I don’t remember joining the chorus of critics of it until much later.

TPM doesn’t stand alone as an individual movie – but it never was intended to.  It’s a piece of a massive mythology that contains five other movies, dozens of books, video games, comic books, and a fantastic animated television series (The Clone Wars).  TPM was charged with setting the groundwork for that entire endeavor, while still being an entertaining film.  We all know to what extent it failed to do so, but here are some places where it succeeded:

1. The Jedi are friggin’ awesome.

The first thing that TPM establishes is that the Jedi are the supreme warriors of the galaxy.  Not in the way that the original Star Wars does (as legend), but by actually showing off their skills to the audience.

2. The Jedi are really, really patient.

I know, I know, Jar Jar (Ahmed Best) is really annoying.  The thing is though that the Jedi seem to agree.  Obi-Wan (Ewen McGregor) is shooting him dirty looks the entire movie, for example.  Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson), however, is patient with this creature, and treats him with respect despite his annoyance and obliviousness to his own stupidity.

3. Some things that seemed stupid when they were introduced in TPM are okay when explained later.

Anakin’s immaculate conception.  The boring senate scenes.  Midichorlians.  When we first saw TPM these things drove us crazy.  But, it turns out that all of these items lay the groundwork for the intricate web that the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is weaving in his ruthless rise to power.  The Emperor knew of Anakin because his master had been experimenting with the Dark Side of the Force to create life (and maybe others like Anakin, who knows).   At the same time, it is made clear that the Midichorlians aren’t the Force itself, but mircrobes that are particularly sensitive to the Force.  Even the boring Senate scenes are more interesting when we know exactly what is going on (the Emperor’s rise to power).

4. Qui-Gon Jin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) are great characters

Despite the focus on the disappointing or stereotypical characters, TPM actually does introduce some great characters to the Star Wars mythology.  The returning characters (The Emperor, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker)) don’t miss a step either.

Conclusion

TPM does not stand on its own merits, but that doesn’t make it a worthless film.  True, TPM is only enjoyable if you know what’s going on around it and you can immediately watch two more movies that will clear up inconsistencies and provide context.  The problem is that none of this other information was available when TPM came out – thus the thrashing that it received from critics and fans.  While I would start with the original Star Wars (I can’t get into calling it A New Hope, sorry) when introducing the story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, I also think that age and context have redeemed TPM to a certain extent.

(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe