Category Archives: Commentary

Dispatches from the Frozen Land: What’s To Be Done?

Otto von Bismarck never actually said that oft-attributed phrase “laws are like sausages,” but I’m sure someone, at some point, said that about showbiz.  It doesn’t have to be that way, it shouldn’t be that way, plenty of us thought it wasn’t that way anymore, but here we are.  I feel like a vile, mocking voice out of the past is screaming, “See, look, for all your thoughts of progress my horrors are still with you.”

I’m not naive enough to think that harassment, exploitation, and abuse were exorcised from the makings of movies – there has been plenty of evidence to the contrary.  What strikes me this week is the prevalence, and the shrugging in the face of that prevalence, of grotesque behavior at the highest levels of Hollywood.   If one of the top producers in the business has been getting away with this filth for this long, what else is going on that hasn’t been reported yet?

It brings me to question what’s to be done, not just with the people responsible, that’s obvious (or at least should be obvious), but what’s to be done with the art?  We could gather a bunch of Miramax DVD’s and burn them in the town square for all to see.   We’d be creating one heck of a bonfire, to potentially no end except for momentary catharsis and permanent air pollution.  Besides, film is a collaborative artform.  Should the hundreds of people who worked on these films be punished for the actions of one of the lead producers?

I think we can separate art from its process by placing it in context.  Once we start censoring and boycotting any artistic expression, that’s the beginning of the end.  That seems easy, but it’s not.  Lauding the art and ignoring the process enables that process.  After all, that’s why Weinstein got away with it for so long.  If his movies had failed fewer people would have put up with his criminal behavior.

So what can be done? First, the industry needs to shine light on other abusers and scumbags.  Second, the industry needs to deny short-term rewards to these people.  This is easier said than done.

The first depends on people working in an industry where the most vulnerable are the least free to speak out.  “You’ll never work in this town again” is a real threat in Hollywood.  The second depends on audiences, critics, and awarding organizations knowing about the behavior and punishing it by staying away.  This is problematic because it potentially punishes a lot of hard-working cinematographers, makeup artists, set designers, etc. who may have had nothing to do with the actions of an actor/director/producer.  Action needs to be taken before these productions start, not long afterwards.

I’m encouraged by the voices that have been out there this past week, but the pressure needs to be kept up.  Things can change, but if we lose focus, that’s how the status quo resumes.  With that, I hope this past week is the start of something big, rather than a blip on the radar.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 150th Birthday, Canada!

As someone who grew up around Buffalo, New York, I’ve been long aware that July 1st is Canada Day, the day that Canadians celebrate the Constitution Act of 1867, which created the Dominion of Canada, a semi-autonomous colony of the British Empire.  While it would take a few more laws to create a fully independent Canada, the last being the Constitution Act of 1982, Canada Day is celebrated as the de-facto independence day of Canada.

Wait!  1867?  That was 150 years ago!  Happy sesquicentennial Canada!  To celebrate further, let’s point out some well-known, and not so well-known, Canadian pop culture facts.

Music

Well Known: Many popular musicians are Canadian.  In fact, by percentage of population, you are far more likely to become a famous musician if you are born north of the border than if you are born in the U.S.A. (pun intended).  Just ask Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Celine Dion, or for better or (mostly) worse, Justin Bieber.

Not So Well Known: 35% of all music played on Canadian radio stations must be Canadian Content, or “CanCon.”  For a primer on the bizarre world of CanCon, here’s an article from “the Ringer:” Strange Brew: The Weirdest Canadian Pop Music From the ’90s and ’00s.

Movies

Well Known: Dozens of popular American films have been shot in Canada, especially Toronto.  Recently I even caught a movie actually set in Toronto, “What If?” with Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, and Adam Driver:

Not So Well Known: There is a unique Canadian film industry that stands apart from Hollywood.  Every ten years, the Toronto International Film Festival makes an all time, top ten list of Canadian films.  The most recent list can be found on Wikipedia here.

Television

Well Known:  Well, Fargo is shot in Calgary, so there’s that.  And no, St. Cloud, Minnesota does not look anything like Calgary.  Think college town, not city-city.

Not So Well Known: When I was a kid there was a show I used to watch on CBC (we got CBC in Western New York) called “The Raccoons.”  It was set in Western Canada and followed the adventures of Bert Raccoon and his friends.  Here, it’s on YouTube:

Anyway that’s what I have on Canada.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

2017 Oscar Preview

Alas for the days when I could do an Oscar preview week.  Unfortunately, this year I haven’t been paying much attention.  This is probably due to the fact that I haven’t seen a single Best Picture nominee, so I’m really in no place to comment on the merits of the nominated films.  All I can really do for a “preview” is recap the guild awards and make guesses.

Visual Effects

“The Jungle Book” won the Visual Effects Society Award.  While this hasn’t always been the best predictor of the Visual Effects Oscar, I guess it’s the best I can do, since the only nominee I’ve seen was “Rogue One,” and, while its effects were great, they were also pretty standard-issue “Star Wars” effects, which are not very exciting at this point.

Screenwriting

I can’t read the tea leaves using the Guild awards here.  “Arrival” and “Moonlight” won the Writer’s Guild Awards, but for some reason the WGA thinks that “Moonlight” is an original screenplay and the Academy thinks it’s an adapted screenplay.  It’s safe to say that one of them will win for Adapted Screenplay.  As for Original Screenplay, I’ll just go with this year’s “probably will win a bunch of awards” movie – “La La Land.”

Supporting Actor/Actress

You usually can’t go wrong with using the SAG Awards as a barometer for picking the Oscars.  Actors are the largest voting block after all, so their opinion carries the most weight.  This usually holds true more-so for supporting roles than lead roles I think. Although I could be wrong – I say that just because I can think of a few SAG/Oscar differences for lead roles off the top of my head but not for supporting roles.  You (probably) can expect Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Viola Davis (finally, for “Fences”) to add Oscar-Winner to their resumes.

Lead Actor/Actress

Emma Stone has been consistently cleaning up for her role in “La La Land.”  The safe money is on her.  How does she lose?  Only if there is a significant hype-related backlash against “La La Land” (perhaps prompted by Aziz Ansari style criticism of the movie).

La-La Land Interrogation (SNL)

If Stone loses, the Best Actress race is wide open.

As for Lead Actor, the SAG Awards honored Denzel Washington for his performance in “Fences.”  This might be a matter of Casey Affleck (“Manchseter by the Sea”) and Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”) cancelling each other out.  A third Oscar for Washington would certainly be earned, however.

Best Director

Damien Chazelle will probably win if “La La Land” cleans up as expected.  If not, then I have no idea how to call this one.  No one is an established auteur this year like Spielberg or Scorsese, so there’s no default “if X doesn’t win, Y will win.”

Best Picture

“La La Land” will probably win.  First, it’s been winning a lot.  Second, it’s made a solid amount of money at the box office ($135M and counting).  Third, it’s a movie about experiences that Academy voters can relate to pretty easily (living in Los Angeles, making it in showbiz).

How does “La La Land” lose?  Well, “Hidden Figures” won the SAG award for best ensemble so it has a chance.  Also “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” got slightly better reviews than “La La Land” so that’s worth taking into account.

What to Watch Out for

How do you know there are cracks in the “La La Land” wall?  Check out Original Song.  If Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana,” beats out either “La La Land” song, we might be in store for a surprising night.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

 

Live Action Remakes of Animated Classics – A Discussion

Recently there has been a push by Disney and others to remake classic animated films as live action films.  With the upcoming live action versions of Ghost in the Shell and Beauty and the Beast, now is the perfect time to discuss if this is a good or completely unnecessary thing.  I would posit that it can be good, but is often unnecessary.  Let’s examine a few examples in alphabetical order:

Animal Farm (Animated 1954; Live Action 1999)

The British, animated version of Animal Farm still haunts my nightmares.  The live action, made for TV version does not.   That isn’t to say that the animated version didn’t deserve a live action update, it kind of does, but the version that they came up with just doesn’t work for me.

Verdict: Not a bad idea.

Beauty and the Beast (Animated 1991; Live Action 2017)

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a front-runner for greatest animated film of all time.  It is responsible for the Disney Renaissance of the 1990’s, features great music, and stunning examples of the lost art of hand-drawn animation.

That isn’t to say a live action version is a bad idea.  This spring’s release is highly anticipated, solidly cast, and looks good on the trailers.  I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve actually seen it.

Verdict: Still an open question.

Charlotte’s Web (Animated 1973; Live Action 2006)

Charlotte’s Web is an undisputed classic of children’s literature.  With source material this good, movies were inevitable.  The first attempt was a 1973 Hanna/Barbera production notable for the fact that it is one of the few Hanna/Barbera projects based on a preexisting property.

The animated version remains a classic due to Debbie Reynolds’ voice-over work as Charlotte and a few catchy songs (some better than others).  It’s not a perfect film, but it certainly captures the joy and sadness of E.B. White’s iconic novel.

Meanwhile, the 2006 version has way too many celebrity voices and is kind of creepy.  It’s not a horrible film, just a waste of time given that the original, animated version still exists.

Verdict: Unnecessary.

Cinderella (Animated, 1950; Live Action 2015)

The original Cinderella is a classic of the Disney catalogue, so much so that its reputation at this point is beyond criticism.  Even so, the story of Cinderella isn’t so unique that it can’t do without an update or two.  Arguably, remaking Beauty and the Beast has a higher degree of difficulty because it came out more recently and has a more unique take on a classic tale.

The live action version is pretty good.  It’s not quite as good as the animated version but a solid film that stands on its own merits.

Verdict: There was no reason not to do this, and no reason to do this.

Ghost in the Shell (Animated 1995; Live Action 2017)

I’m tempted to reserve judgment on this one, but I’m not going to do that.  First of all, remaking Ghost in the Shell with an American actress in the lead role is obnoxious.  That should be enough to consider this a problem, but there’s actually another good reason why one shouldn’t remake this particular property.

While Ghost in the Shell is a landmark of anime, the original film suffers from some of the problems of anime – it’s somewhat opaque and has a lot of nudity and violence for the sake of there being nudity and violence.  However, whatever value a live action remake could have has been supplanted by an excellent television series. The Stand Alone Complex television series does a much better job with the characters already without as many anime-related problems.

Verdict: Pointless Hollywood cash-grab.

Lord of the Rings (Animated 1978, 1980; Live Action 2001, 2002, 2003)

Let’s see.  Mediocre animated adaptation versus one of the best films every made.  Hmmmm.

Verdict: An absolutely necessary and brilliant idea.

There’s a few other examples, like 101 Dalmatians, but I’ll stop there.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Movies are Unnecessary

It escapes me to name one movie based on a video game that hasn’t been critically panned.  Most have failed miserably at the box office to boot.  I haven’t seen the Assassin’s Creed movie yet, but judging by its current, very very “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its disappointing box office haul, I don’t foresee it breaking the cycle.

So what gives?  Hollywood has seemingly tried everything to make video game adaptations work.  Acclaimed directors like Duncan Jones and Mike Newell and acclaimed actors like Angelina Jolie and Michael Fassbender have given it the old college try.  There have even been some good innovations, like the animation style in 2001’s Final Fantasy movie.  But nothing, except the occasional cult classic like Mortal Kombat (1995) or Resident Evil (2002) seems to stick.

I propose that there are two reasons for this problem.  First, many great video games don’t have inherent stories.  Second, video games with inherent stories typically aren’t original or coherent enough to carry themselves when separated from the interactive experience.

1. Category One – Video Games without an Inherent Story

The video game to movie adaptation concept got off to a bad start.  Let’s face it, making a live action version of Super Mario Brothers is about as bad of an idea as remaking Ghost in the Shell (1995) as live action film with a blonde, American actress starring as the Major (coming soon in 2017!).  The Mario games are fun because of their easy to understand design, not because there’s anything particularly interesting about the backstory.  Especially not when the backstory is expanded to include some convoluted nonsense about dinosaurs and parallel universes.

Fighting games were next on the list.  Street Fighter (1994) might be one of the worst films ever made, starring a coked up Jean-Claude van Damme. At least the late Raul Julia did a good job as the villain, despite slowly dying of cancer during the entire course of principal photography.

Mortal Kombat (1995) came next. The worst thing one can say about it is that it’s a below average martial arts movie – which puts it in the running for best video game adaptation of all time.

There were a couple more attempts to shoehorn storyless video games into film format, like Doom (2005) and the Angry Birds Movie (2016).  The Angry Birds Movie made a few dollars at the Box Office, but so far I’ve seen it on quite a few year-end “worst of 2016” lists.

Doom is essentially the “Man with a Movie Camera (1929)” of video games.  It has no backstory, and that’s the point.  You’re told you’re something called a “space marine,” you’re dropped into a maze, and you shoot bad guys.  For this emphasis on game design and the introduction of multiplayer, it’s a legendary game.  I have no idea what they were thinking when they greenlit a movie version.  Oh wait, yes I do – Hollywood is lazy and thinks they can always make money on an existing property.

2. Category Two – Video Games with a Story

Then there are video games with rich backstories and cutscenes.  You’d think these would translate better to the screen than the tale of jumping on turtles and mushrooms, but you’d be wrong.  Let me use a few examples to explain why.

The Wing Commander series was one of the most popular PC game series of the 1990’s – World War II style fighter pilot war, but in space!  The games were able to attract legitimate Hollywood talent  (Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, Tom Wilson,  John Spencer) to video games, a feat previously unheard of.  So naturally, when they made a movie version in 1999, it stunk on ice.

Here’s the problem with Wing Commander – the story is only fun because you are in it.  When stripped of its interactive elements, it’s nothing but cheesy science fiction clichés.  A similar thing would happen if they ever made a Grand Theft Auto movie – the GTA series is fun because you’re in a clichéd gangster movie, but if you’re not in it, it would just be a clichéd gangster movie.

Assassin’s Creed has a similar issue.  Even though its worldbuilding is far more original and less derivative than GTA or Wing Commander, that doesn’t automatically make it good.  I find the “animus,” ancient Greek gods, and budget Dan Brown nonsense to be an unnecessary distraction from jumping off rooftops and stabbing bad guys, so much so that I’ve written about it before.

This is the same basic problem with adaptations of World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and about a half-dozen horror games.  These are great games because of the game design, not because they have compelling or original stories.  Removing the gameplay aspects from the story does nothing in these instances except reveal flaws in the story.

Even if there were a strong story to adapt aside from the gameplay aspects (think “The Last of Us”), the way the stories are adapted are often lacking.   Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) is a modern classic partially because it would work as a self-contained entity if the theme park ride did not exist.  Video game adaptations, however, never seem to forget that they are adapting a video game, and try to retain too many elements from the games, like boss fights.

Conclusion

All that being said, I think a good video game adaptation is possible.  First, a game must have a story worth adapting.  Second, that story needs to be good enough that it can stand on its own without interactive elements.  Finally, a strong adaptation would not include reminders of “hey everyone, we’re adapting a video game here.”  I guess all of that is easier said than done.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

2016 Year in Review

“When she [Philosophy] saw that the Muses of poetry were present by my couch giving words to my lamenting, she was stirred a while; her eyes flashed fiercely, and said she, “Who has suffered these seducing mummers to approach this sick man? Never do they support those in sorrow by any healing remedies, but rather do ever foster the sorrow by poisonous sweets. These are they who stifle the fruit-bearing harvest of reason with the barren briars of the passions: they free not the minds of men from disease, but accustom them thereto.””

– Boethius

What of 2016?  As the Roman philosopher Boethius wrote of his consolation by Lady Philosophy, we have a choice.  We can indulge in our lamentations, or we can, through our reason, find a way forward.  Perhaps we can let Lady Philosophy take it from here to guide us in this way.

I thought of many muses to guide me through this past year, when a woman came to me in classical robes.  She was at once as tall as a giant, yet comforting and approachable.  Then she began to speak.

“I see you, reading the various years in review of 2016 to draw inspiration for this annual post,” she began, “I see nothing but hot takes and articles dripping with lament or sarcasm.   Let me assure you, this 2016 had its positive aspects.”

2016 Was a Good Year to Be…

1) Animators

Lady Philosophy continued, “Behold my friend, for the medium of animation, that artform long taken for granted, had a very strong 2016.  Six of the twenty top grossing movies of the year were animated.  With each passing decade, animation continues to bring inspiration and joy without the limitations of live action film. 2016 was in many ways a landmark year in this regard.”

2) HBO

“I should also point out to you that a great year need not mean a consistently great one wire to wire.  If something is felled low by the failure of an ill-conceived vanity project about classic rock in the spring, it can rise again through the premiere for two excellent shows in the fall.  Westworld has broken HBO’s losing streak when it comes to new dramas, and Insecure has continued its success in popular comedies”

3) Broadway

“If it is further inspiration you seek, behold the resurgence of the Great White Way as a force in American popular culture.  Hamilton was the most popular musical in decades, and live broadcasts of musicals on network television are exceptionally popular.  Indeed, one of this year’s top Oscar contenders, “La-La Land,” is a Hollywood musical of the old style.”

2016 Was a Bad Year to Be

1) A Franchise from the 1980’s or 1990’s

Lady Philosophy continued.  “While there were failures in 2016, I would counsel to learn from them rather than merely list them in a vain and sarcastic manner.  Box Office disappointments from the Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Independence Day, and Zoolander sequels should not be seen as affecting those fine memories of past success, but rather stand as stark reminders that not everything deserves a reboot or a sequel.”

2) “A List” Hollywood Marriages

“I also prescribe an end to your consideration of the troubled Depp/Heard and Pitt/Jolie marriages.  As troubling as the allegations associated with these divorces are, it is important to remember that you don’t know these people.  You will never meet them.  Their relationships have no impact on your life whatsoever.”

3) Internet and Social Media

“At last, I see that you are troubled by what you read on the internet and on social media platforms.  It might feel as though you cannot escape the constant stream of opinion and information.  You might feel that this has damaged your interactions with your fellows beyond repair, or trapped you in a vicious cycle of anger and mistrust.  Let me assure you that the old ways are still alive.  You can read a book and discuss it with a friend.  You can watch a movie with your significant other and discuss it over snacks afterwards.  You might feel the need to broadcast your feelings to the masses, but I would counsel you to remember that your friends and family are much more receptive to your ideas than the faceless void of the internet will ever be.”

Best Movies

Lady Philosophy cautioned me against creating a list of best movies this year.  She said to me, “Indeed you have not seen enough movies to truly make an honest “best of” list.  But keep in mind that such lists are flawed.  They lack the distance truly needed to examine and appreciate film as an artform.  As much as you enjoyed “Captain America: Civil War,” can you say it is the best blockbuster of the year when you haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie yet?  As for artistic films, look at past years.  Does anyone really believe, with the proper distance, that “Crash,” “The English Patient,” or “The Greatest Show on Earth”  were worthy of Best Picture Oscars?  I would advise against indulging in such listicles.”

Dispatches from the Great Ale House in the Sky

This year, Lady Philosophy especially wanted to talk about the Great Ale House in the Sky.  She said, “I will prescribe the strongest medicine of all to help you acknowledge the many fine artists that left you this past year.  It is medicine that you, yourself, have often shared.

“Remember, it is the story that matters, not how long it lasts or how it ends.  Artists and inventors have the greatest stories of all, for their influence stays with us the longest and carries us all forward.  If it is useful for you to imagine these great artists together, I will partially indulge in this fantasy, but I will do so in a way that will help you, rather than a way that extends your sorrow.

“Perhaps this Ale House is in the form of a great music festival, where Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael and others come together.  You could find great joy in that fantasy.  But you need not – for the music is still there.

“Or maybe, you imagine that Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Florence Henderson, Abe Vigoda, Gene Wilder, Kenny Baker and others are still in talks for various roles.  These people may have never met in life, but it is fun to think about them doing so in your Great Ale House in the Sky.  I would advise an alternative – put on their films and television shows.  You can even do so with the fights of Muhammad Ali – which are readily available on the internet.”

And with that, Lady Philosophy left me in a better place.  The place that honors rather than mourns.  The place that learns from the mistakes of others.  The place that sees and emphasizes the positive.  There is great strength and great joy here.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

 

2016 Oscars – Day After Reactions

Here are my thoughts on last night’s show:

Hosting

Chris Rock did a fine job the last time he hosted the Oscars, but this time he turned in one of the better performances in recent memory.  After several straight years of disappointing hosts, it was great to see someone really nail it with the studio audience and the next-day critics alike.

Award Upsets

Spotlight winning over The Revenant was an upset, but the good kind of upset.  I can’t think of any way in which Spotlight shouldn’t be considered the better film.  I didn’t think it would happen, but I’m glad that it did.

Congrats to Mark Rylance for winning Best Supporting Actor over sentimental favorite Sly Stallone, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hardy, and Christian Bale.  Rylance is by far the least well known of this quintet, and he didn’t have much buzz coming in.  However, he was fantastic in Bridge of Spies, so this award is well-placed.

The other big upset of the night was in the Visual Effects category.  I didn’t think Star Wars was going to win (although I certainly hoped after it won the Visual Effects Society Award), but I was shocked that Mad Max didn’t take home this award, especially after it was winning every production award in sight.  I guess I’ll have to check out Ex Machina now.

Award Non-Upsets

Otherwise, the awards themselves went as predicted for the most part.  Mad Max swept most of the production awards, Inside Out won best animated feature, Alejandro González Iñárritu won Best Director, Brie Larson won Best Actress, and Leo won Best Actor for the fourth or fifth best performance of his career so far.  Even the writing awards tracked the Writers Guild Awards.

The Future

Here’s what I’m worried about.  I’m worried that Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Jamie Fox will be in something next year, get nominated, and the Academy will think everything is hunky-dory.  We need to continue the conversation about the representation of our increasingly diverse society in popular entertainment.  One or two nominations next year won’t fix this issue.

Aside from being the right thing to do, when people from different backgrounds and experiences make art, there are a wider variety of stories being told.  This is the only way to move the ball forward creatively.  Otherwise we’re going to be stuck in a kind of repeating time loop of comic book movies and historical “prestige” movies about Europeans forever.

There are only so many superheroes and interesting historical Europeans after all.  Which would you rather see?  The 100th adaptation of the story a British person who helped win World War II,  Superman 17: This Time It’ll be Good Again We Promise, or a film adaptation of a certain Lin-Manuel Miranda musical (written by Miranda himself preferably)?  I, for one, want to learn more about Alexander Hamilton.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe