Tag Archives: Entertainment

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

Hamilton: Is it Really That Good?

After three years of waiting, I finally saw Hamilton this month. It was a touring production, sure, but that didn’t matter. It’s the pinnacle of the American musical art-form.

But it’s only been out for three years, you say? Perhaps it won’t age well, you predict? Can it really be that good?

Not all art ages well. The number of forgettable films that have won Oscars are the foremost example. Musical theater isn’t like that, however. A show has to be good enough to get on Broadway and stay there in order to get any accolades whatsoever. In other words, a musical has to be great already to stay in the conversation for more than a season.

That’s not to say some musicals don’t lose their luster over time. Tastes change and topics are no longer as relevant. While Rent seemed urgent in the 90’s and Oklahoma! was groundbreaking in the 40’s, the perception of those shows has changed over time.

Even so, to prove my point if you told a room full of musical theater scholars that Rent and Oklahoma! are two of the top ten musicals ever, few would disagree. Even musicals which lose their urgency or innovative feel with age don’t lose those aspects all that much.

Many the innovations of Hamilton might be so widely adapted that they disappear into commonplace like Oklahoma!, but its subject matter is practically evergreen. As long as there is an America, there will always be interest in the American Revolution.

That said, three years is more than enough time to assess Hamilton as one of the greatest musicals. But could it be the greatest? To assess that, you have to compare it to its fellow “greatest musicals.”

Before Oklahoma!, musicals didn’t exactly tell very robust stories. For example, Showboat is a series of vignettes, and Anything Goes! is a comic farce. Porgy and Bess is usually thought of as an opera. In any event the epic scale of Hamilton places it in a different category than early Broadway shows.

Most mid-century shows just aren’t as innovative as Hamilton, and many of the popular late-20th Century shows just don’t have its cultural impact. The 2000’s have been cluttered with jukebox musicals and adaptations of existing popular culture.

To cut to the chase, there are only a few shows with the scope, innovation, urgency, and quality of Hamilton: Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Les Miserables, and Rent.

We can eliminate Oklahoma! first. It is an important show with great songs. But let’s face it, it is a cheesy story.

Rent can be eliminated next. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rent, but it’s very much a creature of its time and place. Also the second act is kind of a mess.

It’s hard to rank Hamilton ahead of the last two, but they aren’t insurmountable obstacles. As great as West Side Story is, it suffers some of the same drawbacks as Rent. It isn’t as topical, but it is definitely a creature of the 1950’s in the same way that Rent is a creature of the 1990’s.

Les Miserables is based on what might be the greatest novel in the world, and that’s its greatest strength. How innovative is Les Mis, really, though? Its greatest innovative aspect is its success as an adaptation. Structurally and musically, it isn’t that distinguishable from other top musicals of its day, it’s just a better story. Besides, “One Day More” is basically “Tonight” from West Side Story.

Hamilton has a story anchored in history with staying power. It has great music, but also innovative music in how it blends new genres into the musical theater artform to tackle the scope of that story. Hip hop uses a lot of words, and you need those words to tell a story like Alexander Hamilton’s. Finally, it compares favorably with the other contenders for greatest musical.

So yes, Hamilton really is that good.

(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

Why I’m Done with “The Handmaid’s Tale”

With only so many hours in the week to devote to television, certain shows just get the axe. The latest show in that category for me in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Sure, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel started out great in season one. The roles were well cast, the script was top notch, and the world-building conveyed a sense of dystopian dread. What’s more, Season Two has those elements too. The problem isn’t in the execution, the problem is that the show just doesn’t reward continued viewing.

I want to be clear, I don’t mean “reward” as in happy endings. Here is what I mean:

1. The main character has no agency

With due respect to Elisabeth Moss, who does great work on the show, June is not a compelling protagonist. If conflict is the essence of good storytelling, there has to be potential resolution to the conflict. The person “versus” themselves, another person, society, or nature needs to engage the conflict. Win or lose, the conflict needs the potential to end.

June, on the other hand is trapped. Season two has doubled down on this, teasing the audience with potential resolution before snapping back. She’s a mouse stuck in a maze. It’s an elaborately constructed maze, but even so, after watching for a while, you just feel bad for the mouse.

2. The antagonists aren’t compelling

There’s a scene in season two where Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) literally twirls his mustache. That about sums up how deep the antagonists’ motivations run. We get it: they’re monsters. Maybe that’s good enough for a two hour horror movie or even one season, but that just isn’t good enough for a multi season story.

The antagonists are played by fine actors, and the characters can be interesting. Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia seems to revel in torture at times, but care about her charges at other times. Still, that’s about as deep as it goes. One character contradiction does not make the character an interesting villain.

3. The antagonists always win

The triumph of the antagonist is not a flaw by itself. It is, however, a flaw when the antagonists are bulletproof. Even a hurricane lets up eventually.

Now, I heard the antagonists were set back in a recent episode that I didn’t watch, but I’m not convinced that the show is capable of setting them so far back that it undoes their invulnerability up until this point. In fact, undoing Gilead too hastily would be almost as bad as making it nearly invincible.

4. It’s the human misery hour

What’s the worst outcome you can imagine? That’s what happened on The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s not an inherent flaw: The Wire was often bleak and so is Game of Thrones. The problem is that it’s the same story over and over.

Men are murdered. Women are enslaved or murdered. Sometimes there’s torture. Rinse and repeat. It’s too repetitive, and repetitive misery borders on misery for misery’s sake.

In conclusion, if I want to watch a dark series, I’d rather rewatch The Wire or Breaking Bad than continue with The Handmaid’s Tale. So I’m done with it. So long, Gilead, you horrible monstrosity.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

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

New Girl: The Complete Series

Wanted: a new fun show to watch. Must be loaded with silly jokes and funny actors creating memorable characters. High drama and misanthropy need not apply.

In 2011, Fox answered this ad, although they didn’t realize it at first. When they landed a show starring Zooey Deschanel, they figured they were getting some version of the role she had been typecast in for most of her career (“adorkable”). What they didn’t bargain for was that Deschanel would become one of the best comedic “straight-men/women” in television. She would be a new Mary Tyler Moore, but instead of a newsroom in Minneapolis, she would have a loft in Los Angeles.

In a era where even television comedies got serious, New Girl stood apart. It wasn’t quite a Seinfeld-esque show about nothing, but it certainly wasn’t a show with deep themes or innovative storytelling. It was simply a show about a group of misfits slowly growing enough in confidence in themselves to evolve into adults.

New Girl was mostly about the jokes, but the jokes were sustained by the growth of the characters. Jess, Nick, Schmidt, Winston, and Cece shed insecurities, but none of them lost the silly quirks that made them fun to hang out with every Tuesday.

Television comedies often find success with misanthropy and sarcasm (Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) or satire (The Simpsons, 30 Rock). It seems rarer that a successful television comedy is centered on character growth and being fun to spend time with. New Girl rightfully joined shows like Parks and Recreation in this latter category.

Now, we must never forget, there is but one rule. Floor is lava.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe