2018: A Noisy Year, and Time for Changes

I’ve been writing the same, tired “Year in Review” article for a few years now. With the exception of one particularly creative dive into Boethius, admittedly a deep track reference if there ever was one, these write ups have been unremarkable and, I confess, lazy.

I’ve been doing this blog for almost seven years now. I don’t think our pop culture discourse has ever been noisier. It also, has never been less creative.

I read the same article about the same movie probably four or five times, every time. The assessment of film has become of an inescapable groupthink, which more often than not settles on analysis that is an inch deep and a mile wide. This problem isn’t unique to film, it’s in writing about television, sports, politics, basically all of journalism. We’re drawn to the hot take, the short article, the snarky humor, the bland repetitive analysis.

So what does this have to do with the state of popular culture in 2018? After all, 2018 was the year that brought us the best superhero movie (Black Panther), the best series finale of a television show (The Americans), Spike Lee’s return to form (Blackkklansman), and Steven Spielberg’s return to blockbusters (Ready Player One). The year’s biggest movie, globally, was the culmination of a massive series of films the likes of which we haven’t seen before (Avengers: Infinity War). These are real achievements, but something about them feels hollow. That isn’t right.

Film is about images. Roger Ebert understood this and repeated it often. What is lacking from the conversation is how those images make us feel. What they mean. In the moment, and more importantly, in the next moment.

Everything isn’t meant to be compared to everything else before it. With so many legacy movies, series, and filmmakers out there, we’ve been obsessed with just that – legacy. Legacy before the ink of history is even dry. This constant comparison makes art disposable. The art isn’t appreciated for what it is, but for how it measures up to other art. This, in case I’m not being clear, is a bad thing.

You could write about Blackkklansman and compare it to Lee’s earlier work, or you can talk about how Lee uses the film as a sledgehammer to shake the audience out of complacency. You could knock Spielberg as overly nostalgic, or you could point out how he uses nostalgia as a tool to reveal the humanity of an artificial world in Ready Player One. Black Panther is many things to many people, but instead of writing about what everyone is talking about, you can look deeper and see how and why Ryan Coogler’s best shot is when Killmonger walks into the throne-room. Ignore the noise – what does art mean to YOU? That is what I’m to endeavor to answer in the future.

That brings me to what’s changing on this page going forward:

1) I’m not writing traditional reviews anymore. See a movie or show, or don’t. I’m going to be writing about my impressions beyond simply answering whether art is good or bad.

2) Historical context needs time to develop. A new rule: a film or series needs to be at least five years old to have its influence discussed, ten to be understood, thirty to be fully appreciated.

3) I’m changing up the format a bit and working on a few other changes. It’s time.

4) I’ll still do Game of Thrones and maybe other Power Rankings, but I’ll be more thoughtful about a character or group’s story in the broader context.

5) I’m going to write about more random topics. I like to do that.

Thanks for sticking with this experiment that I started in 2012. I’ll do my best to continue making it worthwhile.

D.G. McCabe

December 21, 2018

(C) 2018

Birdman

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, US, 2014

“What do you mean, Phib?” asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw – not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain.”

– Charles Dickens, from “Nicholas Nickleby”

When an actor looks into the mirror, what pleasant image does he see staring back?  Is the image larger than life? Capable of success in all artforms? Or do they not see the pleasant reflection?  What if they only see that which they hate the most?

We spend most of Birdman inside the crowded backstage of a small theater, but we spend the most time inside the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up superhero actor.  Keaton is fantastic in the role, and contrary to the most logical hypothesis, this is not because Keaton=Thomson. The only thing he and Thomson have in common is that their best known role is playing an iconic superhero (Thomson played the titular, fictitious Birdman).  Keaton, after all, has a filmography so long that it places him in the top percentile of working actors since Batman Returns (1992) and Thomson has nothing beyond his superhero role.

The film is isolating – mostly shot in small spaces and using a generous helping of tracking shots to limit perspective.  Iñárritu shows us that fame is isolating, but also addictive (a lesser director would merely tell us).  Thomson hates Birdman, but Thomson needs Birdman too.

When the film leaves Thomson’s perspective, it casts an examining eye on theater and its dysfunctional relationship with film.  Theater people hate movie people, but then they become movie people.  Then they try to become theater people again.  Then the theater people hate them even more, until they don’t.

Neither artform comes off well in Birdman.  Theater is shown as pompous and arrogant, film is shown as obsessed with violence and mayhem.  Yet somehow by criticizing the art, we reach an understanding of the people who make the art.

You might like Birdman if: You want to explore the mind of the artist and the conflict between “art” and “popular culture.”

You might not like Birdman if: Trippy movies disagree with you.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder, 2013, US

By D.G. McCabe

My kingdom for a decent Superman movie.

When I last checked Rotten Tomatoes, Man of Steel was sitting at 56%.  I don’t know what movie those 56% percent of critics were watching, because it certainly wasn’t the same one I saw this evening.  It’s bad.  How bad you say?

It starts off promisingly enough.  With Christopher Nolan working on the screenplay and production, you get a little bit of Batman Begins…oh wait, Superman isn’t Batman.  Superman doesn’t walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.  There is enough complexity in the character already without having to turn him into Bruce f’ing Banner already, and a lot of that complexity is hereto unexplored in film.

Still, I could get behind a reluctant, nomadic Superman if the director, Zack Snyder, would have followed through on that concept.  It’s too bad he doesn’t.  And after two hours that feel like five, you realize that Snyder should stick with ridiculously stylized movies about shirtless, ancient Greek meatheads.

The second half of the movie consists of nothing but smash smash, boom boom.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve defended smash smash, boom boom at times, but usually I expect that crap from Michael Bay films not a Superman movie.  There’s a difference between “all I want to see is giant robots fighting each other” and “I’m looking at my watch to see how long this never ending action sequence is.”

And the dialogue.  Maybe this crap was fine on TV’s Lois and Clark, oh wait, that show is bloody Shakespeare compared to this crap.  Now, Nolan’s scripts sometimes hit you over the head with exposition a bit too much (“That’s why the military invented dream sharing” from Inception for example), but I expected more of him.  After plenty of mustache-twirling villain exposition and lots of “release this against Superman” or “unleash that against Superman” I started laughing like I was watching friggin’ Anchorman.

Apparently, Nolan and Snyder decided to farm out the second half of their screenplay to an eleven year old who got into the coffee again.  So Superman fights the bad guys and smashed up the town, then they move to the city and then he’s gotta fly to the other side of the world and fight this other thing and then he’s gotta go back to the city and fight Zod in the big climax and boom!  Boooooooooom!

After sitting through this BS, it made me want to do to this movie what a completely out of character Superman does at the end of it.  Apparently there are two sequels on the way from these clowns, let’s hope they learn from their mistakes instead of doubling down on crappy dialogue, complete lack of romantic chemistry, and stupid jokes like Star Wars Episode II did.

You might like Man of Steel if: You have no interest in the Superman character, or wish that he was Batman, or you have completely merged video games and movies in your mind.

You might not like Man of Steel if: You have any knowledge at all about the character of Superman or you just don’t have the endurance to sit through a ninety minute action sequence that doesn’t even look all that great and never f’ing ends.

(c) 2013 D. G. McCabe

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Joss Whedon, US, 2013

“Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No! The world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

– William Shakespeare, from “Much Ado About Nothing,” Act II, Scene III

When most people think of romance in Shakespeare, they think of “Romeo and Juliet.”  Enough ink has been spilled over the years arguing that the best example of real romance in the Bard’s work is instead in the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”  Indeed, thousands of college essays have been written that point out that the romance between Claudio and Hero in Much Ado is a send-up of Romeo and Juliet.  Of course, it is not Claudio and Hero, who mostly vehicles of plot and satire, that we remember from Much Ado, but rather Beatrice and Benedict.

The 1993 Kenneth Branagh version of the play is truer to Shakespeare’s vision, since it is set in the same time period as the play.  That does not make it a better film that Whedon’s version, however, especially since it is always easier to do Shakespeare as period-piece than set it in the present day. As 2000’s “Hamlet” (the one set in New York), 2001’s “O,” 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, and 1995’s Richard III demonstrate, this concept has had decidedly mixed results.

Much Ado’s snappy dialogue, however, lends itself better to a modern setting than the aforementioned tragedies and history plays.  It helps when the newer version is directed by the modern king of snappy dialogue and ensemble casts – Joss Whedon.

After remembering that it takes a scene or two for the mind to adjust to Shakespeare’s English, I thoroughly enjoyed Whedon’s adaptation.  Amy Acker and Alexis Denisoff are great as Beatrice and Benedict, a younger casting for the duo than the Branagh version which is probably more attuned with what Shakespeare had in mind (you can’t really ask him, he’s been dead for almost 400 years).

You might like Much Ado About Nothing if: You like the original play, the 1993 Kenneth Branagh adaptation, or romantic comedies in general.

You might not like Much Ado About Nothing if: You don’t like Shakespeare, but even if you don’t, you might still want to give this one a chance before leaving the Bard completely behind.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Argo (2012)

Argo

Directed by Ben Affleck, US, 2012

With its recent win at the Golden Globes as motivation, I saw Argo this past weekend.  I had originally thought that I would watch the movie later on HBO or Amazon.  I’m glad that I didn’t wait that long – this is a film that is worth your $8.

There is a high bar of difficulty when re-telling a true story.  After all, the audience already knows the outcome most of the time.  Although Argo isn’t based on a particularly well known story, movie critics, usually the guardians of spoiler protection, have no qualms telling the prospective audience about the movie’s outcome.  After all, you should have known ahead of time, right?

In any event it should be noted that Argo masterfully overcomes this difficulty by providing the audience with a fast paced, well constructed thriller.  I am always skeptical about directors who act in their own movies, although some (Welles, Chaplin, Olivier), have been exceptional at both acting and directing.  In this case, Ben Affleck, who was written off as washed up in Hollywood less than a decade ago, constructs the film beautifully by emotionally investing the audience in the characters and their situation.  He also does a fantastic job in the lead role of the picture, showing maturing acting skills.

The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, with every actor succeeding at what their roles were supposed to accomplish.  That, I think, is another feather in Affleck’s hat for this film, since managing actors may be one of the most overlooked aspects of directing.

It should be noted that Argo presents only a sliver of the story of the Iranian Revolution, its motivations, and its impact.  While the introduction of Argo (a storyboard montage that appears to pay homage to Kevin Smith, who provided Affleck’s first break in show-business) touches on the historical backstory, that is not the purpose or focus of Affleck’s film.  That’s not to say that Argo lacks intellectual heft.  While it is not overly epic, it does demonstrate the power of the Hollywood myth, the consequences of intelligence failures, and the problem of institutional inertia.

Anyone looking for a film that tells the story through the Iranian perspective or details the hostage crisis should look elsewhere, as Argo is neither of these things.   Instead, it is a well constructed, thoughtful, and entertaining thriller about a small part of a large event.

You might like Argo if: you enjoy well constructed, thoughtful, and entertaining thrillers.

You might not like Argo if: you insist that every historical film dwell on the historically over-story or reject the American point of view of those stories as played out.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

The Essentials

Sometimes I get asked for movie recommendations.  I like to take that one step further – in my opinion there are ten films that are essential to understanding the development of the modern movie, from Oscars contenders to summer blockbusters to independent and foreign films.  In order of date, here goes:

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Russia, Director: Sergei Eisenstein)

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Battleship Potemkin was consistently ranked in surveys as the “greatest film of all time.”  It wasn’t the first propaganda film or the first film to use montages to tell its story.  But it was the first combine these techniques effectively to influence audiences.  It is an important film to see because if you understand its elements and its techniques you will know when the filmmaker is trying to manipulate you.

Metropolis (1927, Germany, Director: Fritz Lang)

It was difficult to imagine how Metropolis’ reputation could be enhanced until a nearly complete reel of the film was discovered a few years ago.  The nearly complete version, once thought lost forever, cements Metropolis as not only the first great science fiction film but also the first film to resemble modern Hollywood blockbusters.  It is debatable, but with Metropolis the first era of film-making may have reached its full potential.

Citizen Kane (1941, US, Director: Orson Welles)

While viewing the Venus de Milo in Paris, I learned that it isn’t considered a masterpiece merely because of its form and detail, but because it was sculpted hundreds of years before those techniques were thought to be invented.  Citizen Kane is similar in that it is the first film to embrace the sense of realism that we take for granted in every film we see today, and it was not widely seen until years after it was first released.  The list of innovations that Orson Welles introduced in the film is summarized by Roger Ebert in a 2004 article entitled “A Viewer’s Companion to Citizen Kane” ((c) 2004 rogerebert.com).

Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Director: Vittorio De Sica)

Italian Neorealism is possibly the most influential movement in the history of cinema.  Simply put, films such as Bicycle Thieves present fictional stories in a way that makes them feel like documentaries.  De Sica’s masterpiece was the first film of the movement to earn widespread international acclaim, and it went on to influence dozens of realism movements in other countries.

Rashomon (1950, Japan, Director: Akira Kurosawa)

“They say that even the demon who dwelt here at Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.”  Rashomon was the first of Kurosawa’s films to become popular outside of his native Japan.  It is most notable for Kurosawa’s fragmented, unresolved story and his use of natural effects to establish mood and move the story along.  While almost any Kurosawa film could be considered essential viewing, Rashomon is one of his shorter films and a good place to start exploring his catalog.

Pather Panchali (1955, India, Director: Satyajit Ray)

In the first film of Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Ray takes realism to its logical conclusion.  There is very little “plot” in Pather Panchali, instead the viewer is pulled along by authentic emotion and unforgettable images.  Its importance stems from the fact that it was one of the first films to come out of the developing world that rose to international acclaim, and by doing so inspired filmmakers across the world.

Psycho (1960, US, Director: Alfred Hitchcock)

The more movies people see, the more they think they know what to expect.  The brilliance of Psycho comes from its defying of audience expectations in a visceral and horrifying manner.  While it could be said that Hitchcock wrote many of the rules for plot development in Hollywood films, Psycho broke through those conventions so completely that it changed our perception of what movies could get away with.

Breathless (1960, France, Director: Jean Luc Godard)

Much has been written about the French New Wave and the film regarded by some as “the French Citizen Kane.”  After all, the conventional film had been done so well, and with such compelling back-story with 1945’s Children of Paradise that its young filmmakers were left with really no place to go except to invent an entirely new style of film.  Simply put, the French New Wave is why shots are shorter and movies are faster paced than they used to be, and Breathless is the film that started it all.

Persona (1966, Sweden, Director: Ingmar Bergman)

Bergman once said that he put all of his skills as a filmmaker to work in Persona, and the result is one of the most powerful and thought provoking films ever made.  If you describe what Persona is about based on the plot alone, it may be difficult to get someone interested in seeing the film.  After all, there are only two characters in most of the film, one of which barely speaks.  However, the film isn’t about these characters, but the dark recesses of our own minds.  Persona isn’t a film so much as it a mirror.

The Godfather (1972, US, Director: Francis Ford Coppola)

While Citizen Kane is the most important American film, The Godfather is the best constructed.  The writing, acting, production, cinematography, directing, and every other element of the film is so well done that only the most nit-picky of critics can find weaknesses.   This is what a film looks like when all of its elements are firing on all cylinders, and it is a good a place as any to bring our list to a close.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

United States, 1958, Color, 128 minutes

“Alright I’ll do it.  I don’t care anymore about me.”

– Judy Barton

Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980) best films, Vertigo examines a man who ignores the real world in favor of what is portrayed as a fantasy world.  Hitchcock often vindicates the protagonist’s obsession, or at least explains it as being the result of mental illness.  What is most unsettling about Vertigo is that there is no such justification for the disturbing behavior of the protagonist, and we’re actually made to sympathize with him.

To begin, Hitchcock introduces us to John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), a retired detective who suffers from a crippling fear of heights. Ferguson has been hired by his friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) around San Francisco.  Elster suspects that his wife has been possessed by a dead woman, or at least she believes that she has, and he needs Ferguson to help him confirm those suspicions.  As he follows Madeline, Ferguson grows increasingly obsessed with her.

Ferguson appears to be the typical, everyman protagonist that Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) played in many of his earlier films.  Stewart’s performance forces the audience to sympathize with Ferguson, even as his obsessive behavior becomes increasingly dangerous in the second half of the film.  While Stewart is convincing the audience to trust Ferguson, Hitchcock is busy using every tool available to him to try to convince the audience that Ferguson is descending into madness.  As I watched, I couldn’t decide whether Ferguson was an obsessive maniac or a brilliant detective until the very last scene.

If Vertigo has a weakness, it is the somewhat stilted performances of its supporting cast.  I find it hard to hold this against the actors themselves.  Hitchcock’s minor characters are often little more than devices he uses to push his plots forward.

Still, Hitchcock was not attempting to create a richly layered world of interesting characters in Vertigo. Instead he was examining one question: how far will we go in pursuit of our fantasies?  I don’t think I like the answer.

Rating:

You may like Vertigo if: you’ve ever enjoyed a thriller in your life.

You may not like Vertigo if: you demand complex secondary characters from every movie you see, or you just don’t like movies.

(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe