Category Archives: Movies

A Summer of Movies, and New Name Too!

Hello again everyone!  I took an extended break after the final season of Game of Thrones, but I have returned to Cinema Grandcanyonscope!  Oh wait, I got rid of that name six years ago because of its wordiness, among other things.  Anyway, I’m bringing back a modified version of it.  Welcome back to Cinema Canyonscope!

Now that I have gotten that particular piece of business out of the way, the summer movie season wraps up in, well, it has wrapped.  An odd thing: we now have a “summer” movie season that really begins in the middle of spring and, for all intents and purposes, ends the first weekend of August.  If we loosely define summer as the period between the  summer solstice and autumnal equinox…oh no, I’m losing you, aren’t I?  Absolutely nobody cares that the summer movie season starts around Easter now, do they?  Well, this is no way to welcome you all back, is it?

Here are some highlights from Summer 2019 in movies. By “highlights,” I mean the movies I actually saw in a theater.

Avengers: Endgame

Is anyone else concerned that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has run out of steam, or at the very least, is currently running on fumes?  Old Endgame, lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing!  That’s the wrong Endgame – or is it?

I enjoyed Endgame, but the film had a disposable quality that I can’t shake.  Part of that comes from too much familiarity with the main characters, and by that I mean decades of comic book backstory.  

The comics weave complex tales filled to the brim with alternate histories, resurrections, and some of the most gonzo storytelling this side of a Phish concert.  The key point here is that decades of comic book lore written and drawn by wildly creative individuals developed dozens of complex and interesting versions of the Marvel characters.

In contrast, the folks behind the MCU have cherry-picked the elements of these characters that work best for a wide audience. This makes the Avengers movies wildly successful, so from a business standpoint, it’s absolutely the right move.

However, as a comic book fan reared on the wild comics of the 80’s and 90’s, I can’t connect the main characters in the MCU because I already feel more connected to different, more complex versions of the same characters.

Spiderman: Far From Home

Case in point: I like the 90’s, thirty-something, broke, tired Spiderman a lot more than I enjoy Tom Holland’s portrayal of the character.  Holland acts well considering what he’s given, and, after all, a young actor like Holland just does what he is told to do, so it’s nothing against him.  The Spiderman I grew up reading about had an edge to him, and that, to me, made him much more relatable than a Spiderman who, let’s face it, is more Dick Grayson than Peter Parker.

Like Grayson, MCU Parker has a wealthy, somewhat misanthropic benefactor with tons of gadgets.  That alone ruins the central and defining aspect of the character.  Parker is supposed to be an everyman superhero.  I mean, c’mon, in every iteration of Parker except for the MCU version, he actively avoids fighting with the Avengers, or any group really.  Who are his closest hero allies?  Certainly not Iron Man or Captain America, but other grinders like Daredevil.

I have read countless hot takes on how refreshing the MCU Spiderman movies are for not killing off Uncle Ben.  While we certainly don’t need to see the gruesome murder of family members in every iteration of the character, the fact that it’s not even mentioned causes problems.  MCU Parker does not feel the same weight on his shoulders, he does not fully understand the great responsibility that goes with great power, and the attempt to ret-con that into his character in Far From Home does not work for me.

That said, it was a fun movie to watch.  See, I’m not all negative about it!

Rocketman

Which one of these is not like the other ones…let’s see…superhero movie….superhero movie….superhero movie…aw man!  Actually, never mind, in Rocketman, the hero is real!

The world knows present-day Sir Elton John as a pillar of his London community, a philanthropist, a family man, a model citizen in every respect.  The man has a “Sir” in front of his name and scored a Disney movie (well technically two Disney movies, but let’s not get into that)!  But it wasn’t always this way, it wasn’t always this way at all.

I’m not saying that Rocketman is a classic of modern cinema by any means. However, the true, if not entirely factual, story of Sir Elton’s triumph over addiction inspired me to revisit Sir Elton’s music. Watching the Avengers triumph over Thanos or watching Spiderman triumph over Mysterio inspired me to do absolutely nothing.

Overall, I enjoyed all three movies I saw in theaters this summer while I was watching them. Afterwards, the Marvel movies just didn’t resonate with me. I can’t blame super-hero fatigue entirely, although I am concerned for the MCU’s future. After all, as I mentioned above, isn’t Elton John a real-life superhero?

As Aristotle once wrote, spectacle ranks as the least important element of drama. With few exceptions (Iron Man (2008), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Black Panther (2018)), the MCU emphasizes special effects over character development. As the MCU moves on from characters in the “popular among comic fans but not well known to the general public” category to the “obscure even to comic book fans” category, character development will become more important than ever before.

In the meantime, to paraphrase Sir Elton’s best friend and go-to lyricist Bernie Taupin, you can’t keep me in your special effects penthouse, I’m going back to my character development plough.

(C) 2019 D.G. McCabe

The Lion King, Star Wars, and Adaptation Fatigue

 

This teaser looks great right? I mean, it’s one of the most viewed movie trailers of all-time, and the film it promotes, this summer’s “live action” remake of The Lion King (1994) is going to make over a billion dollars.  Who wouldn’t be excited for it?

Me, for one.  It looks like a shot for shot remake of a perfectly good, existing film.  Check that, it looks like a shot for shot remake of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, animated films of all-time.  Disney says it isn’t, but they’re awfully cagey about it.

It’s one thing to re-imagine Dumbo (1941) or The Jungle Book (1967)  to better appeal to modern sensibilities.  I’m not 100% on board with that either, but at least there’s some redeeming artistic value in updating those stories.  Other than “Mickey needs money” (he doesn’t, by the way), I’m at a loss for the purpose of re-making a great movie just because there is new technology to play around with.

Yes, yes, perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions, and I shouldn’t be criticizing a movie that I haven’t seen.  Perhaps Jon Favreau has found a valuable new perspective on a classic film, and this summer’s remake will win multiple Oscars and be hailed as the second coming of Citizen Kane (1940).  I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s certainly possible.

That said, the problem I’m pointing out isn’t a new one – it’s a feature of all adaptations.  I mean, the Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet, which itself is mash-up of Scandinavian and Roman legendary histories and perhaps even a lost play known to scholars as “Ur-Hamlet.”  Successful adaptations tell a stories from new perspectives, comment on previous versions, or re-imagine the stories to appeal to modern audiences.

That’s the difference between Maleficent (2014) and Beauty and the Beast (2017).  While Maleficent is not a great film, it at least tells the story of Sleeping Beauty (1959) from a new perspective.  Beauty and the Beast made a ton of money, but at the end of the day it’s little more than an inferior remake of the 1991 animated version.

While less true than it used to be, motion pictures are expensive to make.  Movies, to some extent, remain our most commercial art-form.  There are no university presses, community theater labs, or hobbyists – film studios have to make money in order to create more films.  One can’t blame Disney, therefore, for mining its existing catalogue for old material that can be repackaged using new technology in an ultimately lucrative endeavor.  Disney doesn’t exist to maintain the artistic integrity of the motion picture, it exists to make profit.  Beauty and the Beast (2017) made $1.2 billion, after all.

I’m picking on Disney, but re-boots, remakes, prequels, are way too abundant in modern Hollywood.  The commercial proposition is an easy one to understand – it’s lower risk to take an existing property and do something slightly different with it than it is to make something new popular.  At the same time, pumping out the same material over and over again has to have diminishing returns at some point for the audience.

Maybe this could be a “problem” that solves itself.  Take Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), for example.  Ron Howard may have performed a minor miracle turning a dumpster fire of a production into a fine movie, but a fine movie it remains.  Other than the Clone Wars animated movie and the Ewok movies, it’s also the lowest grossing Star Wars film by a wide margin.  After decades of Extended Universe stories and the Sequel Trilogy, there just wasn’t an appetite for yet another tale about Han Solo, even a competently crafted one.

On the other hand, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy also serves as the best example of why creating something new from an existing story is playing with fire.  The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017) both made a ton of money and were lauded by critics and fans alike – well, most fans.  There was an extremely vocal group that absolutely hated one film, the other, or both for very different reasons.  The merits of Episodes 7 and 8 (of which there are many, by the way) aside, the Sequel Trilogy’s biggest flaw so far is that it is trying to continue the story from Return of the Jedi (1983) AND tell and entirely new story at the same time, which leaves both stories somewhat watered down.

I’m going all over the place in this article, but my central point remains that certain stories can’t really bear the weight of being adapted in a repetitive or overstretched manner.  What is there to do?  I would recommend telling new stories within the framework of the old stories, rather than overstretching existing plots and characters.  The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy partially succeeds at this so far, but Episode 9 has some heavy lifting to do in order to really stick the landing.

For the Lion King (2019)?  The success of the animated children’s series “The Lion Guard,” shows that there is interest in using the framework of the Lion King to tell new stories, so there are promising directions for Disney to go.  After all, Disney can only do a “live action” shot for shot remake once, right?

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

 

Us (2019)

Us (USA, 2019)

Directed by Jordan Peele

After I saw Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In” (2008), I would joke that the message of the film was that the real vampire was the vampire within.  That particular joke played not only upon the movie’s content, but on the type of Scandavian existential dread often found in the films of Ingmar Bergman.  Due respect to Mr. Bergman’s vision of God as a hideous spider in “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961) or Mr. Alfredson’s star crossed vampire, there is a new existential nightmare in the cinema canon, the “tethered” in Jordan Peele’s “Us.”

Many great horror movies lull the audience into a sense of comfort.  Peele certainly did that in 2017’s “Get Out.”  Us isn’t one of those films.  From the first frame, Peele brings the audience into a nightmare that doesn’t let up.  There are lulls in the action, but nothing long enough to give anyone the type of familiarity or comfort that one might feel when watching Psycho (1960) for the first time.  The viewer is allowed to catch their breath, but can never let go of that awful feeling that nothing is ever quite right.

To give away too many plot details of a suspense/thriller/horror film can inadvertently ruin the film.  I won’t do that in a short, initial review.  I can tell you that the cast is perfect, particularly, if Lupita Nyong’o isn’t a shoe-in for a Best Actress nod they should just cancel the Oscars next year.  The score is one of the best I’ve heard, up there with Metropolis (1927), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Fargo (1996).  Michael Abels creates the perfect complimentary sound to Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography – eerie when it needs to be and epic when it needs to be.  

After “Get Out” and its biting commentary on race relations in America, it wouldn’t be surprising if Peele created a companion piece.  “Get Out” is a great film in its own right, but in some ways the two films couldn’t be more different.   There are certain stylistic similarities, but “Get Out” satires monstrous elements of society, and overall, is a much funnier movie.  “Us” has its moments of humor, but it is a nightmarish meditation on the nature of evil in general.  In short, the monsters in”Get Out” were concrete, the monsters in “Us” are the wind.  

Which one is more horrifying?  It depends on your fears, and to some extent on your experience.  I’m going to watch “Get Out” again this weekend and think about how to answer that myself.

(C) 2019 D.G. McCabe  

2019 Oscar Preview: Everything Else

I’m glad I previewed Best Picture first, yikes. The time I have to write movie articles grows short. Anyway, here’s the rest of the categories that I typically preview.

Best Actor

It depends which biopic transformation that the Academy likes better – Christian Bale’s or Rami Malek’s. I’m leaning towards Malek. Vice got savaged by critics, failed to connect with audiences, and Bale already has an Oscar. I think Bohemian Rhapsody’s box office success will compel the Academy to honor it in some way, and honoring Malek is the most reasonable way to do so.

Best Actress

The other nominees did great work, but Glenn Close has been a fixture for a long time without an Oscar. The Academy loves nothing more than to give legendary performers awards late in their careers, and Close will be the latest beneficiary of this sentiment.

Supporting Actor

I’m torn on this one. Green Book is losing all momentum, so I don’t see Mahershala Ali winning. Otherwise, I’ll pick Adam Driver, but I wouldn’t put money on it.

Supporting Actress

Emma Stone and Rachel Weiss will cancel each other out here, so I’m going to go with Regina King. If Beale Street Could Talk was a great film that got snubbed in too many categories. It should win at least one Oscar.

Animated Feature

I think this one goes to Spider-Man. I think the Disney movies cancel each other out, and the other two nominees just aren’t getting enough buzz.

Best Director

I really, really hope Spike Lee wins, but pragmatically speaking, I think it goes to Alfonso Cuarón. Roma is probably Cuarón’s best film, and that’s saying something. Plus I don’t think Roma wins Best Picture, so the Academy might split the difference.

Visual Effects

The Avengers will win this. Hollywood is getting nervous about awarding popular movies, and giving at least one Oscar to the biggest movie of the year globally (along with Best Picture to the biggest movie of the year domestically) should quiet things down.

Oscars on Sunday!

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

2019 Oscar Preview: Best Picture

Award season is almost at a close, and we’re only two weeks out from the 2019 Oscars.

Let’s start our preview with Best Picture.

Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

The conventional wisdom was that Black Panther would get a nomination, but nothing else.  Hollywood would pat itself on the back for honoring a tentpole superhero flick, and then promptly return to awarding films about fish “love.”  That was, of course, before Black Panther took top honors at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.  The SAG awards are the best predictive award show for the Oscars for a reason – the actors are by far the largest voting block in the Academy.  Additionally, the abandoned proposal for a “popular film” category means that the Academy is getting nervous about the lack of awards for true blockbusters over the last few years (Best Picture hasn’t gone to a move that’s made over $100 million domestically since 2012).  Conclusion: Black Panther is a contender.

Blackkklansman (Directed by Spike Lee)

The late career makeup award is a time-honored Oscar tradition.  Just think about Al Pacino winning Best Actor for 1992’s lackluster Scent of Woman instead of any role he had in the 1970’s.  Great directors are more likely to be snubbed than great actors, with heavyweights like Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley Kubrick never winning Best Director honors.  Blackkklansman is Spike Lee’s most commercially successful movie in a few years, and it has the added bonus of being some of his best work.  It feels like Lee could finally get that Best Director Oscar, but given the competition, Best Picture might be a stretch.  Conclusion: Blackkklansman is a borderline contender.

Bohemian Rhapsody (Directed by Bryan Singer, so says the credit)

An entertaining, yet ultimately paint-by-numbers rock and roll biopic, I’m surprised this one got nominated. The Golden Globes were overly generous to it, but the Globes mean exactly squat when predicting the Oscars. It’s simply not an Oscar caliber movie, and this is coming from someone who gave it a positive write up. Conclusion: Bohemian Rhapsody is a pretender.

The Favourite (Directed by Yorgos Lathimos)

This feels like the “actor’s movie” of the Best Picture selections. I mostly say that because it’s a period piece, and because it’s been winning a lot of individual acting hardware. That said, it didn’t win best ensemble at the SAG Awards, so I question whether it has enough umph to win the top prize. Besides, the Academy is rarely kind to comedies.  In the last fifty years, only six comedies have taken top honors (The Sting (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Forrest Gump (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Artist (2011), and Birdman (2014)).  Conclusion: The Favourite is a borderline contender.

Green Book (Directed by Peter Farrelly)

Green Book was an early favorite and checks most of the Oscar boxes. It’s a period piece, it has a strong cast, and it contains themes dealing with race relations in America. It’s also been a lightning rod for controversy. That, and it didn’t really resonate with critics or audiences. I think the voters end up putting the green book back on the shelf. Conclusion: Green Book is a pretender.

Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Roma is a heavyweight. Cuarón has created a neo-realist film that is comparable to the films of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Fredrico Fellini.  It’s beautifully shot, achingly sad, and not entirely without humor. Cuarón has been honored by the Academy for Best Director for Gravity (2013), a film that would have won Best Picture in almost any other year it was nominated.   All that being said, the Academy has never, not once, given Best Picture to a foreign language film.  Then again, there’s a first time for everything.  Conclusion: Roma is a contender.

A Star is Born (Directed by Bradley Cooper)

A Star is Born got a lot of early buzz, but that buzz has faded.  For award show purposes, A Star is Born is Bradley Cooper’s character.  The other nominees are Lady Gaga’s character.  I just don’t see this movie turning things around, and it’s telling that Cooper wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  A Star is Born was well received by critics and audiences, but not by award show voters.  Conclusion: A Star is Born is a pretender.

Vice (Directed by Adam McKay)

Critics didn’t like Vice, and neither did audiences.  That said, the movie is getting some love for Christian Bale’s transformation into Dick Cheney.  However, every year there’s a movie nominated for Best Picture on the strength of the lead actor’s performance and not much else.  A good example of this phenomenon is Phantom Thread (2017), from last year’s show.  Daniel Day-Lewis was great in it, but the movie was kind of dumb.  Vice is this year’s Phantom Thread.  Conclusion: Vice is a pretender.

Conclusion & Prediction

There you have it.  If this were back when only five movies could be nominated for Best Picture, you would have Black Panther, Blackkklansman, the Favourite, Roma, and probably A Star is Born.  I think it’s going to come down to Roma or Black Panther.

So, what is Hollywood more nervous about?  The Oscars losing value because of too many fish “love” movies winning, or not giving foreign language films enough support over the years?  All the gold in Fort Knox couldn’t rectify decades of awards for Hollywood movies over superior foreign films, especially during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s when the some of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema were coming out of France, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.  I don’t think this is a big concern for the folks in Hollywood.  Remember, with the exception of a dozen or so British movies and The Artist (2011), the Best Picture Oscar is best understood as the award for best American film as viewed with a short term evaluation.

Therefore, I predict that Black Panther will win Best Picture.  Wakanda Forever!

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Home Alone (1990)

Some movies you watch every year, or almost every year. Most of the time, these are holiday movies. Let’s face it, get yourself a successful holiday song or movie, and you’ll be rolling royalties until the cows come home. That’s all by way of saying that there are movies that I love – love – that I don’t watch once a year. These include classics like the Seventh Seal and blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet I find myself watching some movies once a year, every year. It makes we wonder if these movies are worth my time. One of the easier ones to answer that question for is Home Alone.

Home Alone is a great movie. It is not particularly influential. You won’t generally find it discussed among film students or academics. It isn’t made by a great director (although Chris Columbus is by no means a bad director), and it boasts no legendary movie stars. Macaulay Culkin may have been the most bankable child star since Shirley Temple, but he’s not exactly Robert Redford.

Then, is it a bold statement to say a film is a great one if it does not measure up to traditional great movie metrics? Look closer. Home Alone is a tightly shot and plotted film. The story connects with the audience, despite how absurd it seems to modern eyes. It’s not just holiday nostalgia either – I’m watching A Christmas Story as I type this. Talk about your meandering, nonsense film. People love it, but at some level, we all have to agree it’s a silly movie. We like silly movies, and that’s okay, by the way.

So if Home Alone isn’t a silly movie or a nostalgic movie, that’s fine. Sure. But a great movie? That’s a stretch, right? It’s like the time that I tried to convince a film buff that The Empire Strikes Back is a superior film to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. I mean, it is a superior film, but a film buff will never admit that – and neither, by the way, did the one I spoke to. By the way, the greatest science fiction/fantasy (i.e. speculative fiction) movie of all time is the Seventh Seal.

I digress. Greatly. Let’s talk about the holiday classic you came here to talk about. What’s great about Home Alone, first of all, is how it re-creates the insane family dynamics of the Holidays in the first act without making the movie “about that.” It sets the stage with very few interactions between the family characters, and does not leave Kevin’s point of view, for the most part. This centers the story on Kevin’s experience, but also believably creates a madhouse family reminiscent of Holiday classics like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The film doesn’t let up either. There are no wasted scenes – everything builds up to the next or develops the characters. The jokes are funny, the touching scenes are touching (e.g. the church scene), and the famous slapstick scenes in the third act live up to their reputation. It’s an efficient and effective movie. If that isn’t a great film, what is?

By the way, I partially take back what I said about A Christmas Story. That scene where Ralphie beats the living daylights out of that bully is pure gold.

D.G. McCabe; December 24, 2018

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