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

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

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

Black Panther (2018): T’Challa’s Character Arc

Instead of writing a traditional review of Black Panther, I’m going to dive right into some analysis.  Before I get into spoilers, here’s a link to the trailer for the movie:

A good amount of pixels have been spent praising Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in Black Panther.  Killmonger is one of the most interesting characters in any Marvel film, and Michael B. Jordan is one of the finest actors working today.  One of the things I like the most about Black Panther, however, is that the compelling antagonist doesn’t overshadow the protagonist like it does in numerous other superhero movies (e.g. The Dark Knight (2008); Spiderman: Homecoming (2017); Batman (1989); Superman II (1980)).  T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) journey is every bit as interesting as Killmonger’s.

On the surface, Wakanda is a utopia, but below the surface lies a troubling adherence to traditions that cause most of the problems in the movie.  To move forward, Wakanda needs a leader who will dispense with tradition when those traditions no longer make sense.  T’Challa becomes that leader by the end of the movie, but it takes some work to get there.

In Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa dips his toes into breaking with tradition.  At the beginning of Civil War, he has already taken on the role of the Black Panther even though his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), is still alive.  He makes alliances with outsiders in Civil War, but notably, this is done to bring his father’s murderer to justice.  In other words, the alliances are meant to temporary at first.  The fact that T’Challa extends these relationships beyond their initial purpose shows that he has some flexibility as a character.

During the first part of Black Panther, we see T’Challa largely following in his father’s footsteps.  He performs in the same rituals as his father did, and fails to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice just like his father did before him.  This makes sense.  T’Challa has been raised to continue on a thousand-year old tradition.  Breaking with that tradition does not come easily to him.

What T’Challa learns, however, is that being flexible with tradition bears fruit, while following established protocol for no other reason than “this is how it’s done” leads to problems.  He spares M’Baku (Winston Duke) in trial by combat, which leads to an alliance later.  In contrast, when he fails to question whether trial by combat is such a great idea to begin with, he temporarily loses his throne to Killmonger.

The turning point for T’Challa is during his second visit to the ancestral plane.  While he is angry at his father for abandoning his nephew (Killmonger) on the streets of Oakland, when he tells the previous kings that they were “all wrong,” he isn’t doing so out of anger.  T’Challa realizes in that moment that following the old way, with its isolationism, trial by combat, and rejection of outsiders has failed in its essential purpose.  While these conventions were established to keep Wakanda safe, they have instead made it vulnerable.

Had Wakanda not kept the tradition of trial by combat alive, Killmonger would have not ascended to the throne.  If T’Chaka had just taken his nephew in as a child in the first place instead of rejecting him as an outsider, there would have been no Killmonger.  If Wakanda hadn’t kept itself isolated, and helped the peoples of the African diaspora throughout history, there would have not have been anyone like Killmonger.  T’Challa realizes all of this before the end of the movie, seeks to learn from the mistakes of the past, and plans to build a better future.

This is for the best.  An isolated Wakanda will do no one any good once Thanos comes around in May.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Full Analysis Part 2

Since I wrote Part One of my analysis of The Last Jedi, I have done two things.  First, I saw the film a second time.  Second, I re-watched Rashomon (1950).  This has sharpened my view of the movie.  While I initially lauded it as a masterpiece, I’ve dialed that back some.  It is still a very, very good movie, probably the third best Star Wars movie.  But it is an imperfect film, so calling it an unequivocal masterpiece is misleading.

None of The Last Jedi’s flaws particularly bother me, but that does not mean they aren’t present.  Most feel nit-picky to me.  One example is how the film hand-waves away several of the science fiction elements.  Star Wars has never been science fiction – its proper genre is fantasy.  Still, it made some viewers wonder why, for example, a hyper-drive collision hadn’t been used more frequently if it could destroy several ships at once.

The one problem that’s hard to explain away has to do with the characterization of Luke Skywalker.  The film doesn’t do a great job of explaining why Luke wouldn’t have tried to deal with Kylo Ren before going into exile.  The closest to a reason that we get from him is when he tells Rey, “What do you expect me to do? Grab a laser sword and take on the entire First Order by myself?”  Luke has concluded that trying to deal with his nephew would lead to nothing but certain doom.  But why?

I didn’t need to know exactly what happened that made him so jaded – the failure of everything he had fought for was enough of a reason for me.  I also can excuse a lack of exposition in an already jam-packed film.  The counter-argument is that this isn’t Snoke we’re talking about – a character who we didn’t really need a backstory beyond “stock dark-side villain.”  Luke Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars saga and a film should describe his motivations clearly enough that everyone understands them.  If The Last Jedi did not universally accomplish this clarity, that is a flaw.  But how serious of a flaw is it?

Compare, if you will, The Last Jedi to a nearly flawless film, Rashomon.  Rashomon may be known for its unforgettable images and non-linear storytelling, but at its base it is an extremely well constructed film.  Akira Kurosawa gives us just enough plot and characterization to accomplish his storytelling goals, nothing more.  This limits distraction and allows the audience to be fully immersed in four different versions of the same story.  For example, the audience doesn’t even suspend its disbelief to question why everyone in the story takes a medium speaking for a dead samurai seriously.

The Last Jedi is a well made film, but it is not economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  One could argue that The Last Jedi needed to walk a tightrope between viewer reactions ranging from “this is like the boring, blah, blah, blah from the prequels,” and “we demand more world-building.”  That equates the amount of backstory with economy, but less backstory doesn’t cause a movie to be economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  You need enough backstory to keep the audience from questioning the movie in the middle of the experience, and The Last Jedi does not do this for a good chunk of its audience.

Kathleen Kennedy and her team at Disney are terrified of the prequels, and with good reason.  The first two are bad movies, full stop.  The third is okay, but still disappointing, and not a good enough film in its own right to overcome the problems of the Episodes I and II.  I can understand erring towards annoying the “we demand more world-building” people by cutting exposition, but sometimes you need backstory to make sure that your story is universally understood enough to keep its audience immersed in it.  A more economical movie would understand this – and to some extent this is a problem in the Force Awakens too.  We shouldn’t need to read a tie-in book to know what the difference between the New Republic and the Resistance, for example.

That brings me to why the lack of backstory in The Last Jedi isn’t a fatal flaw in the same way that the flaws of Episode I and II destroy those movies.  The information that The Force Awakens leaves out is available in tie-in books.  If we didn’t know about that information then, we know it now.  The Last Jedi will get its share of tie-ins too, which will fill in some of the missing worldbuilding and potentially clarify Luke’s characterization to viewers who wanted more information.

If this is Disney’s scheme to sell more books, comics, and video games,  so be it – film has always been a commercial artform.  But this isn’t a problem in the Original Trilogy and that made plenty of tie-in loot.  If it is going to be Disney’s strategy going forward to play loose with economical storytelling in order to sell side-content, this will prevent its films from being great movies like Rashomon.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe