La-La Land (2016) (Review)

I recently watched La-La Land (2016), the favorite of this past year’s Award Season cycle.  The film ultimately lost to “Moonlight” (2016) for the Best Picture Oscar.  After seeing both movies, the result was warranted – Moonlight is an objectively better film that La-La Land.  But why?

La-La Land is a good movie.  It isn’t a great movie, but it could have been one.  The main issue I had with it was that it begins as an homage to better things.  Remember in The Return of the King (2003) Extended Edition when Saruman taunts Theoden King by calling him “the lesser son of greater sires?”  The first half of La-La Land made me remember that line, so much so that for the first forty-five minutes my main thought was “I’d rather be watching “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).”

La-La Land gets much better in the second half, when it gets out of its own way and becomes its own movie.  That isn’t nothing.  Homage films like “The Artist” (2011) never go beyond their initial tribute to the classics.  The question becomes, then, why did La-La Land have to start as such a blatant homage to begin with?

One could argue that La-La Land has to set itself up this way – it needs to build up the Old Hollywood musical in order to tear it down.  The problem is that it never builds up the concept of the Golden Age musical enough to really subvert it.  Part of this has to do with the skill sets of the actors.  Ryan Gosling, for example, puts in a yeoman’s effort, but he ultimately can’t dance or sing well enough to really sell his role as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly type.  The other part, and probably the more important, is that after the opening couple of numbers the movie abandons the nostalgia aspect pretty abruptly.  The homage to Old Hollywood feels more like an abandoned concept than a theme the film is trying to comment on.

In the end, La-La Land is a strange animal of a film.  It didn’t successfully explore the themes it wanted to explore, but that doesn’t make it a bad film either.  It is exceptionally well made and entertaining after all.  It just missed the mark a bit.

You might like La-La Land if: You’re looking for a well made, original musical film that isn’t based on a preexisting property.

You might not like La-La Land if: You think about it too much.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

Why is “The Phantom of the Opera” So Popular?

“The Phantom of the Opera” is the highest grossing musical of all time and the longest running show in Broadway history.  By those two metrics alone, we can call it the most popular musical of all time.  In fact, the only other musical that comes close based on box office receipts and length of run is “Les Miserables.”

The engine behind Les Miserables’ success is pretty straightforward – its source material.  Victor Hugo’s novel is one of the ten or so most important works of fiction in European literature, if not world literature.  If someone told a conference of literature professors that it is Hugo’s masterpiece and the greatest novel ever written, you’d get much disagreement, but no one would look at you like you were entirely wrong either.

Phantom on the other hand is based on a popular French horror novel by Gaston Leroux.  It’s a good book, but due respect for Monsieur Leroux, it’s not exactly a towering masterwork of world literature.  Additionally, aside from its cleanup at the 1988 Tony Awards, it’s safe to say that Phantom has never been a critical darling.

So why is it so popular?  Here are three attempts at an explanation:

Explanation #1: It’s the Vanilla Ice Cream of Musicals

The old adage is that vanilla ice cream is no one’s favorite flavor, but it’s everyone’s second favorite flavor. Phantom is like that too.  Few venture out to see Phantom anymore, but most people are okay with it as a backup plan.

Can’t get tickets to Hamilton or the other mega musical du jour? In New York for only a day and can only see one show on short notice?  Really want to see a second musical but can’t make up your mind?  Oh hey, there’s always Phantom.

And why not?  After all you’re guaranteed some top flight talent, familiar songs, and high production values.  Productions of Phantom are predictably above average to good – why take a chance on something else?  For casual theater goers, or even some not-so casual ones, Phantom is an attractive second option at all times.

Explanation #2: It’s the Gimmick with the Falling Chandelier

Spoiler alert!  Just kidding, everyone knows about the falling chandelier gimmick – it’s heavily advertised every time the show does a touring production after all.  It might be the one thing almost everyone knows about the musical, and the one thing people who saw it only as kids or teenagers, myself included, remember best about it.

That’s no small thing.  People love certain gimmicks and the falling chandelier is one they absolutely swoon for apparently.

Explanation #3: Maybe it Really is Just that Good

I first saw “The Phantom of the Opera” when I was thirteen years old at the Pantages Theatre (now called the Ed Mirvish Theatre) in Toronto over twenty years ago.  I remember that I wasn’t thrilled with it, but what I don’t remember is how honestly I felt that way.  Was I really disappointed, or was it just a jaded, gen-x type reaction, also known as, everything popular is lame somehow?

I’m seeing a touring production in Minneapolis in December, but I don’t have to wait that long to find out how I feel about the show.  I’ve been listening to the original cast recording, the one with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, all week.  While Andrew Lloyd Webber has been subject to his share of criticism over the years, the man knows how to put together a score of compelling music.

What of the story then?  Leroux’s novel might be dismissed as a mere “genre classic,” but no story stays popular for over a century without resonating with people.  The story, after all, has been adapted over fifty times in various formats, the second most famous being the Lon Chaney “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) which terrified silent movie audiences.

The story actually has a good deal of thematic complexity too.  For example, the unscrupulous owners of the Opera give a glimpse into the ever uneasy relationship between art and commerce.  But the real meat of the story is the number of layers in the Phantom’s character.  He’s an outcast because of his physical deformity and has the soul of a poet.  At the same time, he see Christine as his possession and reacts violently towards her when he can’t coerce her into loving him.  In one sense, he’s a sympathetic character, but in another, perhaps more visceral sense, he really is a monster.

Feel free to share your theories and stories below.  I’ve turned comments back on.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe





ESPN Layoffs and the Future of Sports Television 

It’s usually not big news when a cable network lays people off, but when a channel with the talent base and history of ESPN initiates triple digit job cuts after a couple years of other large layoffs, people notice. Here are my thoughts:

1) Live sports are not immune to trends affecting the television industry.  The idea of “appointment viewing” really only applies to a handful of events and to the viewing habits of hardcore fans. This means that decreased access to live sports isn’t usually a deterrent to cord cutting (people dropping expensive cable packages in favor of streaming services).

2) With the exception of NFL games, fans of other sports can largely access season-long packages through streaming services already. 

3) Fox Sports looks really dumb right now for consolidating some of their niche sports channels into FS1 and FS2.  This goes against industry trends of specialized local sports channels and league/sport specific channels.

4) Remember Sportcenter ten, twenty years ago, when they covered sports pretty evenly? Yeah, me too. Now a third tier NFL free agent signing leads Sportcenter during NBA and NHL playoffs.

5) Maybe we just don’t need Sportcenter as much anymore. I can watch highlights and read analysis on my phone. 

6) ESPN doesn’t even have that much live sports programming anymore. With the exception of 30 for 30, the rest of their lineup is doing nothing except filling dead air, usually with redundant NFL coverage.

7) A TV Industry insider once predicted to me that all sports will someday adopt a direct internet and/or pay per view model. Once leagues can make more money selling content directly to the consumer rather than relying on the networks, this will be the end of general sports channels as we know them. 

8) The last saving grace of the generalized sports channel may be convenience. A large part of why I personally still have a cable package is because it’s more reliable and convenient than cobbling together streaming services of varying technical quality. The day that changes, and that day is coming, I’ll probably drop the cable package.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe 

Dispatches from the Frozen Land: Prince and Making a Cultural Crossroads


One could make an argument that three of the top ten albums of the 1980’s are Prince records (1999, The Purple Rain Soundtrack, Sign o’ the Times).  No small feat.  Today, on the first anniversary of his death, much ink will be spilled (or pixels generated) on the impact of his life and music.  Interestingly enough, my thoughts today turn not to this legend of popular art, but to the city and state that he loved.

Minneapolis, and to a lesser extent the state of Minnesota as a whole, exists at a cultural crossroads.  For someone who’s understanding of this part of the country comes mostly from watching Fargo (1996), that might seem like an odd statement.  After all, we typically equate terms like “cultural crossroads” to more diverse, global cities like New York and London.  

Sure, the state of Minnesota is at once western, midwestern, and northern. That would be something, except the “we’re in three regions” argument falls flat when you consider that the same thing can be said of Texas and California.  The cultural cache of those states needs no long explanation: its engrained in the American psyche. 

So what am I talking about and what does this have to do with Prince? After all, can one artist make such an impact that we can change the entire categorization of a city or state in the cultural mindset of America? Why not?

The Coen Brothers once lovingly described The Twin Cities as “Siberia with family restaurants.” Due respect to Joel and Ethan, groundbreaking artists in their own right, maybe that describes the St. Louis Park of their childhood, but it doesn’t describe where I’ve lived for two years.  Here there are thriving theater, music, art, and brewery scenes, not just quirky folks with flappy hats.

I’ll admit, there is a tension here that shouldn’t be ignored. The old Minnesota is still with us, and sometimes it doesn’t really get along with the new Minnesota, Prince’s Minnesota. That’s a shame, since he was a figure that could unite the old and the new and bring out the best in both. 

The question remains, do we build on that legacy, or do we retreat into comfortable nostalgia? That’s up to us. But for today, let’s just listen to the music and see where it takes us.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe 

Author’s note: I’ve been toying with the idea of this column for a long time, but I don’t want to jinx it with my “first in a series” kiss of death. Still, I like the idea and will return to it from time to time.

Why Video Games Can be Addictive

There has always been a certain addictive quality to video games.  After all, the industry began as a scheme to get kids into arcades and empty their pockets.  Getting the high score in Pac-Man or Space Invaders was enough to sustain coin-operated games until home consoles and PC’s slowly made them obsolete, save for the occasional Dave and Buster’s.

Arcade games weren’t necessarily all that addictive.  Once you ran out of quarters you were kind of done with them.  It wasn’t like a slot machine at a casino, offering potential monetary rewards.  Instead, it was merely a way to pass the time until you ran out of money.

Once games moved from arcades into the living room, the “beat the high score” motivation became essentially meaningless.  Sure games like the Super Mario Brothers series still had “scores,” but no one cared because you weren’t playing against dozens of other opponents drawn from members of the public.  Instead it became about “beating” the game, or “beating” an opponent sitting next to you.

Early 8 or 16 bit games couldn’t handle a lot of complexity, so beating the game usually meant finishing a set of progressively difficult levels or puzzles.  Sports games employed “rubber-band AI,” which caused the computer to essentially cheat if you got too good against it.

This basic paradigm of gaming continued for quite some time.  The biggest problem was that if the game got too hard, a lot of players would simply give up on it.  I never beat the majority of my NES games because I just stopped trying.  If the top levels got too hard, it was frustrating to continue.

There were two exceptions to this – sports games and role-playing games.  Once NES games like Tecmo Super Bowl licensed the names and trademarks of real players and teams, the allure of sports games increased.  It no longer meant just playing against friends and siblings, it meant playing as the real players in a sort of fantasy world where you could win games 63-0 (at least until the rubber-band AI caught up to you).

Early RPG’s like The Legend of Zelda and Crystalis weren’t nearly as difficult as the average NES platformers.  However, the story and the ability to “level” up your character kept you engaged.  Often the two were intertwined.  For example, I would spend hours leveling up on Crystalis just to be able to get to the next part of the story.

That gives us five elements of an addictive game:

  1. Progressively difficult, but not insurmountable, obstacles.
  2. Fulfilling a common fantasy.
  3. Engaging with human players.
  4. A reward system, such as leveling up.
  5. A compelling story.

Not all addictive games have all of these elements, but all addictive games have at least one of them.  Arguably, MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft have all five elements.  Likewise, popular cell phone games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga may only have #1 and/or #4.  Therefore, a video game can become addictive if it has multiple elements, or if it masters one or two.

Anyway, the next time you wonder why you got sucked into a video game, that’s why.  Several decades of game evolution landed on some pretty straightforward rules to keep you playing.  Understanding those rules may help you pull yourself away.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe


Star Wars: The Last Jedi – First Trailer

First – YES!

Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what Luke’s words at the end of the trailer could mean:

  • The Jedi were becoming aloof and corrupt by the end of Episode 3 (as better chronicled by the Clone Wars cartoon series).  He’s saying that it might be time to jettison the order and start fresh.
  • Luke is acknowledging that he failed to create a new Jedi order and is feeling sorry for himself.
  • Luke now sees the old Jedi/Sith paradigm as a force-user arms race that can only end by ending both orders.

We’ll see – fun stuff so far though.

(c) 2017 D. G. McCabe

Big Little Lies (Review)

With certain exceptions involving dragons and killer robots, HBO has had a lot better luck with miniseries lately that full drama series.  Big Little Lies demonstrates why.  Sure, the limited run allows busy, A-List Hollywood talent to fit it into their schedules, but more importantly, it allows for story that tells what it needs to tell, no more, no less.

I have to admit, around the third episode I was almost ready to give up on Big Little Lies.  The first couple of episodes moved at a glacial pace.  For a show that promised murder and mayhem, the travails of the rich and richer were getting on my nerves.

Fortunately, the series rewarded patience.  Understanding the details of the relationship dynamics between the central characters was crucial to enjoying the last three, phenomenal episodes.  The series had already laid its groundwork in building up its characters in the first half, so it could focus on the plot/endgame during the second.

I, for one, am hoping that HBO does more series like this.  Not everything needs to be a multi-season epic like The Sopranos after all.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe




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