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Movies

Something Rotten in the State of Criticism

“Tis hard to say if greater want of skill,

Appear in writing or judging ill,

But of the two, less dangerous is the offense,

To tire our patience than mislead our sense.”

– Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1711

I’ve spent countless hours reading lazy, shallow, repetitive criticism of film and television online. For the last week, I purposefully avoided all critics in anticipation of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” I deleted social media apps from my phone, blocked popular culture websites, avoided aggregators like burning sulfur.

I saw Episode IX. I quite enjoyed Episode IX. Then, having no need to avoid the critical “conversation,” I ended my embargo and found a “conversation” that I had no interest in joining. It was the same conversation that praised David Simon’s dumpster fire “The Deuce” and awarded the three worst seasons of Game of Thrones with the Emmy for best drama series. The same conversation that told fans that hated Star Wars: The Last Jedi that their opinions were wrong, and the critics knew best. It’s the same conversation that recognizes movies as “films of the decade” that weren’t well reviewed or widely seen at the time.

The state of film and television criticism has descended into a culture of mindless aggregators, shallow hot takes, and a devaluation of successful storytelling tropes in favor of what’s new and shiny. However, I outlined three very different points of contention above, so I’m going to give each one its space.

1. Against Aggregators

Aggregators offer quick, ultimately meaningless data points for whether or not a movie is “good” or whether the intended audience will actually enjoy the film.

For example, the Rotten Tomatoes score for the classic, original Anchorman (66%) is lower than its pointless sequel Anchorman 2 (75%). Star Trek: Into Darkness (84%) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (87%) have similar scores, even though the former is a far inferior remake of the latter. The viewer scores for Star Wars Episodes 8 (43%) and 9 (86%) are the opposite of the critical scores (91% and 57% respectively), demonstrating an extreme disconnect between reviewers and audiences. Did I cherry-pick these examples? Of course. Are they the only examples? Hardly.

An aggregation of reviews diminishes the value each individual review, while providing an ultimately useless number that may or may not reflect the actual quality of the film. Aggregators give the appearance of advice, while, in fact, providing very little useful information.

2. Against Recapping

I admit, I used to love episode by episode recaps. About ten years ago, this format greatly contributed to the conception of a “golden age” of television. I’m not disputing that. What I take issue with is not what recapping was, but what recapping has become.

In a rush to be the quickest to publish, episode recaps have become sloppily written, and at worst, lazy descriptions of what went on in the episode that add nothing of value.

Recaps can also mislead about the quality of a show. Take for example HBO’s “The Deuce.” The Deuce was an unfocused endeavor that spent too much time on too many boring characters. David Simon and George Pelacanos intricately recreated a setting no one wanted to revisit, to tell a story no one asked for. However, if you didn’t actually watch the show and just read the episode by episode recaps, you’d think it was phenomenal. In a rush to publish, it was faster and easier to simply praise a show created by previously successful producers than to question the show’s quality.

3. Against Challenging Successful Tropes Just for the Sake of Challenging Successful Tropes

On the one hand, I get it. We can’t forever keep calling back to the same properties that were popular in the 1980’s, can we? There certainly have been lazy, unnecessary remakes. I argue, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to give fans of a property something they’d enjoy or calling back to an earlier film that worked well.

I enjoy Star Wars, The Last Jedi, and so did critics. The latter mainly did so because the film challenged established Star Wars tropes and answered the questions posed by Episode 7 in unique ways. I’m always captivated by the film’s images while I’m watching it, but I admit that its story is a house of cards.

Many, many people did not enjoy The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson challenged established Star Wars tropes, but never asked whether those tropes needed challenging.

Successful tropes are successful for a reason, and this is nothing unique to Star Wars. After all, one of the main sources of Star Wars is Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” which is entirely about the common themes that exist between popular myths throughout human history. Sometimes challenging those tropes in popular media is simply unnecessary.

As for nostalgia – the greatest advantage of film as an art-form is its ability to create an emotional response in the audience. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. There is nothing inherently wrong with using it to tell a story.

Conclusion

I’m done with aggregators and re-caps. I’m also done with this idea that using nostalgia and fan service are automatically negative things. More on Star Wars, Episode 9 later.

(C) D.G. McCabe

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Complete Series Reviews

Game of Thrones: The Complete Series

 

What makes a “great” television drama?  “Great” is a largely meaningless term.  There are dramas that are well written, but not particularly influential.  There are dramas that are influential, but not particularly well written.  Then there is the cream of the crop, the dramas that are both well written and influential.  While it is impossible to assess how influential a show will be two days after its series finale, I’m confident that Game of Thrones will fit squarely in the category of influential, but not particularly well written.

Was it well-written at times?  Absolutely – especially when it stuck closely to its source material, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  There were many times the writing was bad during the last two seasons, and there were times that the writing was as bad, if not worse, throughout the series.  Examples include Daenerys’ visit to Qarth, anything involving Ramsey Snow, violence against women that did not happen in the source material, the mustache-twirling villains of Craster’s Keep, Arya’s layover in Braavos, and Jaime’s misadventures in Dorne.  Theon Greyjoy, for instance, spent most of the series in a poorly written subplot, so his demise in the final season does not deeply resonate despite the fact that Alfie Allen has been in the main credits since the very first episode.

The rushed and sloppily written final two seasons may be the show’s most obvious writing failure at the moment, but let’s not forget that the show constantly underwhelmed in its depiction of one of the most compelling characters in the source material, Jon Snow.  While Kit Harrington’s portrayal of Snow has proven popular, the book version of Jon Snow is one of the smartest and emotionally complex characters in the entire series.  The show, on the other hand, often portrayed Snow as well-meaning, but dull and not very bright.

So yeah, Game of Thrones is flawed.  But it is also pushed the technical boundaries of the medium of television drama further than any series that came before. Game of Thrones has given us hundreds of unforgettable images, from the birth of the dragons to the knighting of Brienne of Tarth.  When I think of Game of Thrones, I won’t always think about how Daenerys’ heel turn at the end was sloppily written, but I will remember images, such as the one of Jon and Ygritte looking out from the top of The Wall.

I can reasonably predict that Game of Thrones will be more influential as a technical achievement than anything else.  The way it handled a sprawling story that took place over a decade, over two massive continents, with hundreds of characters will be a text that creators will look at when designing their own equally ambitious television series.  Game of Thrones proved that no series is “unfilmable,” and that may be its most important legacy.

I can’t quite “rank” Game of Thrones yet, but as of right now I would not put it in the same league as The Wire or Mad Men because of its inconsistent, and sometimes outright bad, writing.  A better comparison would be The West Wing.  The West Wing pushed the boundaries of technical achievement in television, not with dragons and white walkers, but by demonstrating a cinematic, “lived-in” feel that still resonates in the industry.  Like Game of Thrones, The West Wing is a rewarding show on the second or third viewing.  Also, like Game of Thrones, The West Wing suffered from poor writing, especially during its final seasons, which resulted in an ending that felt disappointing and failed to resonate as deeply as it could have.

In conclusion, Game of Thrones gets an A+ for technical achievement, but a C+ for writing.  That said, here are some of my favorite moments from Game of Thrones:

  • The Battle of Hardhome: A scene loaded with unforgettable images, not just the iconic “Night King raises the dead” scene.
  • Jon and Ygritte climb The Wall: One of the few times the show did justice to a Jon Snow plotline from the books.
  • Daenerys burns Astapor: This reads differently in retrospect – not so much a moment of triumph as an ominous harbinger of things to come.
  • The Hound eats your chicken: Game of Thrones could be really funny at times, especially when it partnered interesting characters together, like Arya and the Hound.
  • Arya reunites with Nymeria: the last two seasons were flawed, but Arya’s moment of clarity when reuniting with her lost direwolf was a highlight.
  • Tyrion’s “trial by combat” at the Vale: with great dialogue and our introduction to the Bronn/Tyrion friendship, this was an early highlight.
  • Oberyn Martell’s introduction: sometimes Game of Thrones brought in new characters slowly, sometimes it introduced them by showing you exactly who they were and what they were about.
  • “No true king ever needs to say, I am the king:” man, Charles Dance was great as Tywin Lannister, wasn’t he?
  • Battle at the Wall tracking shot: you know which one I’m talking about.
  • “And you will know the debt is paid:” anytime Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey shared a scene it was pure gold.

That’s a wrap on the final season of Game of Thrones!  Thanks for reading!

© 2019 D.G. McCabe

Categories
Complete Series Reviews

Boardwalk Empire – The Complete Series

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Was there ever a moment in Boardwalk Empire when Nucky was as successful or powerful as he was in the pilot?  At that time he had wealth, political power, respect, admirers, and an entire city under his command.  At his convenience he could summon leaders both legitimate and criminal, and he lived a life of luxury.

Boardwalk Empire is a story about decay – moral, physical, and economic.  In the end, the only characters who are in a better position than they were in the pilot episode are Margaret and Luciano.

Margaret only prospers after she breaks away from Nucky.  This is why his attempts at reconciliation during the final season rang hollow.  What, after all, did she need him for?  She made out well in the Mayflower deal, and gained the trust of the powerful, and more importantly legitimate, businessman Joseph Kennedy all on her own.  The fact that Nucky probably left her the lion’s share of his fortune upon his death is just gravy – here is a character who has broken free of her dependance on anyone.

Luciano is a different animal.  From their very first meeting in the pilot episode, Luciano despised Nucky.  We never really got to know Charlie as intimately as we got to know some of his historical counterparts, Al Capone in particular. We did, however, learn that his defining characteristics were patience and a hatred of the old authorities.  He was always one step ahead of his enemies, chose his friends wisely, and in the end became the force that undid everything those old authorities built.  His empire won’t last forever, but we won’t get to see his later imprisonment, deportation, and death.

Nucky mostly stopped caring long before Luciano made his final move, and cares about nothing afterwards.  His brother tried to kill him two or three times, but he goes to see him.  Gillian is in a mental hospital, and has always been dangerous and unpredictable, but he goes to see her.  He even needlessly gathers his effects from Atlantic City – how could he trust Luciano not to finish him off?  He has his Mayflower money – but it might as well be worthless newspaper.  It feels like a relief when Tommy takes care of him.

The saddest part about Nucky’s life is that one decision could have changed everything.  What if had quit the Commodore forever, and he and Mabel had taken Gillian in?  They might have left Atlantic City and found a peaceful, happy existence somewhere.

This other option, so clear to the audience, was shrouded to Nucky.  He was forever reacting to moves made by more skillful players, and never really in control.  He was incapable of taking, or even seeing, a different path.

At the end, Nucky Thompson was a soulless chimera.  He began to die the moment he gave Gillian to the Commodore, and no amount of wealth or power could stop the inner decay.

This fate wasn’t unique to Nucky.  Jimmy, Chalky, Capone, Gyp Rossetti, Rothstein, and Narcisse built  empires themselves, which are ground into dust by end of the series.  As powerful as Luciano’s empire seemed in 1931, it was ultimately doomed as well.  Even Richard Harrow – who lost everything trying to save Tommy, ultimately failed in the end.

So what does one make of Boardwalk Empire?  It was an uneven series at times.  At its best, it played like high tragedy, at its worst, it played like a dull historical reenactment.  But perhaps no show on television has so viscerally dealt with the consequences of empires built by crime, violence, and moral decay.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe