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Movies

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

Categories
Movies

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

Categories
Complete Series Reviews

The Americans: The Complete Series

“When a person is born, he can embark on only one of three roads of life. If you go right, the wolves will eat you. If you go left, you will eat the wolves. If you go straight, you will eat yourself.”

-Anton Chekhov, 1878

We’ve become accustomed to television series that end in ultimate victory, ultimate defeat, or some combination.   Most of the time, this takes the form of tying up loose ends in a clearly defined and satisfying manner.  The Americans does not end neatly.  It was never about tying up loose ends.  It was about the lies the characters tell themselves and each other.

The Americans has one of the strongest pilots and series finales of any great television drama. The pilot works because it sets up everything that the show will become best known for: suspense, car chases, 80’s musical cues, and tensions within and without the Jennings household. The pilot sets up a world and makes the viewer want to keep visiting it.

Right now, its last episode feels like the best conclusion of all time, although I’m sure some of that luster will fade as time goes by.  Or maybe not.  Philip and Elizabeth escape, but lose their children, and part of their souls, in the process.  We, the viewers, might seek justice for all of the horrible things these two have done in the name of Mother Russia, but dishing out cosmic punishment was never The Americans’ game.  No, the real enemy was never the KGB or the FBI.  The real enemy was always the enemy within.

Elizabeth was ever the zealot, and at times, purely evil.  She may have done one good thing by icing Tatiana, but does that make up for everything else she has done?  There is a brief dream sequence in the finale that serves the purpose of showing that, in the end, Elizabeth has given up on and destroyed herself in service of a lost cause. She ends the series alive, but filled with regret.

Philip was never as committed to the spy game as Elizabeth.  He seemed to fall into the life by inertia – it gave him an outlet for his violent anger and an excuse to leave a bleak future in Russia.   He experiences more character growth, and with it growing guilt, than any other character on the show. The guilt may come crashing down on Elizabeth in the very last episodes of the series, for for Philip, there hasn’t been anything else for a long time.

Stan is a more sympathetic character, but far from perfect.  After all, he killed a Russian agent in cold blood back in the first season amd destroyed the lives of both Nina and Oleg.  In the end, he’s left with the guilt of not finding out about the Jenningses sooner, and suspicion that his wife might not be who she says she is.

The Jennings children fare better in the end, especially Henry, who by all accounts will be able to move on with his life if he chooses to do so.  Paige may have a harder time, but there’s not proof that she knows much of anything or that she was training to be a spy herself.  All Stan knows is that she knows, he doesn’t know the extent of her actions.

The Americans wasn’t a perfect series. Like most dramas, it had its weak points. Season five was a let down, although it certainly wasn’t bad. Indeed, almost every great drama has a weak season or two, oftentimes the second to last one.

Still, by dwelling in the dark corners and avoiding spy versus spy clichés, The Americans started and finished better than arguably any other show. The show had its share of climaxes and showdowns, but not at the end of the day. No, in the end The Americans wasn’t about the wolves eating or being eaten. It was about the wolves eating themselves.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe