Version Variations: The Magnificent Seven (1960, 2016)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem dedicated to some other form of art, so I opted for the film Seven Samurai and its many incarnations.)

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In the land of Japan, after warring was done,
An epic and classic of film was begun
By one Kurosawa, director renowned,
Who left cinematic impressions profound.

This film Seven Samurai dazzled the critics
(And still holds a high spot in film analytics)
So Hollywood said, after only six years,
“We’ll do that in English for our Western ears.

“And speaking of western, we’ll re-set the plot
With cowboys and Mexicans. Now that’s a thought!”
So that’s what they did, and it turned out a winner
With quite the ensemble headlined by Yul Brynner.

They didn’t stop there; three more sequels ensued,
But even those westerns were just a prelude.
A Corman sci-fi set the story in space,
Hong Kong made a version with China the place,

And Italy even confused the translators
By making the samurai brave gladiators.
A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s cartoonish conversion,
Then back to Japan for an anime version.

And Hollywood remade the remake it made,
The most recent role that this formula’s played.
Imitation is flattery’s form at its highest,
But would Kurosawa, I wonder, be biased?
_________________________

MPAA rating for the 1960 version:  Approved (basically PG)
MPAA rating for the 2016 version:  PG-13 (pretty strong on the violence)

I haven’t done one of these Version Variation posts in a while, mainly because I haven’t watched an abundance of remakes lately. Yet I stumbled upon the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, and finding it to be an above average western, had to see how it compared to the more celebrated original (not to mention how it compared to the original original, 1954’s Seven Samurai).

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Of course, Akira Kurosawa started it all with Seven Samurai, the tale of seven disparate but skilled misfits recruited by desperate villagers to fend off invading bandits. The Magnificent Seven is very much the same tale, simply transplanted from feudal Japan to the mythic American West. Certain scenes and plot elements are common to every version, such as the duel that introduces the most deadly of the bunch or the number of the seven who are killed by the end (though which characters die seems to differ).

All three also feature extremely talented ensembles, led by an established movie star. In the case of The Magnificent Seven, that would be Yul Brynner (1960) and Denzel Washington (2016), both dressed all in black and oozing enough self-confidence to recruit six others with minimal effort. Watching the different versions, it was interesting to pick out the parallels between the other characters. Horst Buchholz (who went on to appear in Life Is Beautiful) plays a scrappy upstart in the 1960 version, clearly modeled after Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai, but there’s not really an equivalent character in the 2016 film. As the second recruit, Chris Pratt seems comparable to Steve McQueen’s drifter, while James Coburn’s knife-thrower is unmistakably akin to Lee Byung-hun in the remake. Other comparisons are a little harder, such as Ethan Hawke’s war-haunted Cajun in the remake having elements of both Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter’s characters in the original.

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One thing that is self-evident about the 2016 remake is its effort to be more inclusive in its representation. While all of the original seven were white, the new seven include three whites, one black, one Mexican, one Native American, and one South Korean (who I guess is supposed to represent the Chinese? I didn’t know there were Korean immigrants in the Old West).  Another difference is that the characters in the remake are given far more colorful names; after all, aren’t “Goodnight” Robicheaux and Billy Rocks cooler sobriquets than Britt or Chris or Lee?

While it makes the character comparisons a little harder, the racial changes aren’t unwelcome and don’t make much difference storywise, aside from a clash between the Native American member of the Seven (Martin Sensmeier) and his counterpart on the bad guy’s side (Jonathan Joss, who surprisingly also played Chief Hotate on Parks and Recreation). Speaking of bad guys, that’s another major change; whereas the original’s Eli Wallach played the leader of a Mexican outlaw band, the remake’s Peter Sarsgaard plays a ruthless businessman aiming to buy out the townsfolk for the nearby gold mine (which is notably not in the original, much to Brad Dexter’s chagrin).

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Perhaps it might have been different if I had watched the 1960 version first, as most cinephiles did, but I think I actually prefer the 2016 version. The 1960 film is a classic, no doubt about that, with Yul Brynner’s man in black standing up as one of the quintessential western heroes. Yet even though that film has its fair share of gunfights, the 2016 film plays out much more like an action movie, tossing out the love subplot and apparent defeat of the original in favor of bigger and more explosive battles. The body count is higher, but the thrills don’t disappoint, in contrast to the original film’s excessive length and occasional boring parts.

That being said, cheating though it may be, I don’t have any problem grouping the two together for ranking purposes, or even grouping both with Seven Samurai. Seven Samurai may be the most artistic and the 2016 film the most entertaining, but all three are worthwhile. (I’ll draw the line, though, at grouping them with A Bug’s Life, which is also basically the same story. I did like how Charles Bronson’s bond with some local kids was recycled for Francis the lady bug in Pixar’s film.) Many may scoff at the mere idea of remakes, often rightfully, but, like A Star Is Born, this is one story that has endured the test of time and excelled in multiple incarnations.

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Best line from the 1960 version: (Vin/Steve McQueen) “It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, ‘Why?’”   (Calvera/bad guy) “And?”   (Vin) “He said, ‘It seemed to be a good idea at the time.’”

Best line from the 2016 version: (Sam Chisholm/Denzel Washington) “What we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy (both grouped with Seven Samurai)

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

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Unplanned (2019)

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(Happy Easter to all! I decided to skip today’s NaPoWriMo prompt suggesting something weird and dreamlike, and instead tried tackling a more meaningful theme and an unpopular but timely issue.)

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At all of the periods known for their slaughter,
When man’s own injustice ran wild and unchecked,
There always were those who remained on the sidelines,
Discrete but complicit in every respect.

The neighbors of Nazis, Confederate kin –
We look back and wonder how foolish were they,
To live on ignoring how lives were deprived,
While humans were thought of as inhuman prey.

Each generation has evils like these.
Condemning the past has no sway on the present.
What biased offenses have we disregarded
Because owning them would be far too unpleasant?
_______________________

MPAA rating:  R (for a few disturbing scenes)

I wasn’t sure what to review for Easter, but Unplanned is the only faith-based film I’ve seen recently, so it made sense. Faith-based films are hard to get right; for every movingly authentic one like All Saints, there’s ten more like God’s Not Dead, which wasn’t terrible but was so aimed at preaching to the choir that it came off as overly self-righteous. It’s hard to say where Unplanned fits in; it’s certainly better than the vast majority of Christian films, both in production quality and execution, but its subject matter lends itself to an immediate taking of sides, depending on your political affiliation. Yet it’s a film I feel everyone should see, and certainly anyone with an opinion about abortion.

Unplanned is based on the same-titled memoir of Abby Johnson (played well by Ashley Bratcher) and tracks her path from being a nominally pro-life college student deciding to volunteer at Planned Parenthood to becoming the director of the same Texas Planned Parenthood branch. Despite undergoing two traumatic abortions of her own, she persuades herself under the banner of women’s reproductive rights, believing that she can help make abortion safe, legal, and rare in the process. It isn’t until she witnesses an abortion firsthand that her opinions are truly challenged.

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As you might have guessed, I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the legalized murder of innocents, and I pray fervently for the day it is finally banned. I will not condemn those on the other side of this issue, nor those who have had abortions; indeed, I personally know women who have undergone this procedure, who have told me they will regret it to their dying day. I simply and firmly believe that the pro-life movement will one day be on the right side of history. So surely I’m just promoting this film because it reinforces my own views, right? Perhaps, that’s true.

But it’s those who don’t share those views who I feel ought to see it, if only for that one early abortion scene. It’s not gruesome in a horror movie kind of way, but it is deeply disturbing, especially because it is realistic, representing what happens regularly every day in abortion clinics across the country and world. The doctor in the scene itself is played by an actual former abortionist, and whether the rest of the film convinces people or not, that one painfully true scene presents an appallingly inconvenient truth.

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Unplanned has become notable for how little exposure it’s received from mainstream media sources; the vast majority of TV and radio stations refused to air ads, and the few publications that deigned to review the film wrote it off as propaganda. The MPAA board even gave it an R rating, implicitly acknowledging the inherent violence of abortion. Except for a few harrowing scenes, though, it’s got to be one of the cleanest R-rated films out there, and I was pleased to hear its rating did little to affect its surprisingly large box-office draw, thanks to its Christian audience.

So back to my main question: is Unplanned just preaching to the choir or something others can appreciate? I think every viewer will have to decide that for themselves. It sometimes has that overly earnest Christian-movie kitsch, including a largely unnecessary voiceover, but more often it’s quite believable and even entertaining, especially when Kaiser Johnson shows up as a smooth-talking lawyer. Sometimes, it makes a point of portraying Abby’s coworkers at Planned Parenthood sympathetically, yet it also villainizes her Planned Parenthood superior Cheryl (Robia Scott) as shamelessly devious (though based on certain leaked videos, I’ve no doubt that such deceit really exists in the organization). The film is at least self-aware enough to call out the negative side of the pro-life movement too, asserting that compassion and empathy are far more effective than shouting and shaming.

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Unplanned didn’t just reaffirm my position; it clarified the horror of abortion and made me consider how little I’ve done to oppose it. Those who read this may think abortion is perfectly fine and roll their eyes at another Christian movie trying to promote its agenda, but I think too many people talk about abortion in abstract terms without knowing what it really looks like. It’s why abortion clinics discourage ultrasounds and putting a baby’s face on this issue. At the very least, this film offers a persuasive pro-life message for those whose opinions aren’t too inflexible, one that teenagers especially should see; whether people take it or leave it is up to them, but no controversial opinion should be formed based on one side alone. I wish Unplanned focused more on the alternative, namely adoption, but it’s an ultimately powerful testament to what can happen when the truth of abortion finally sinks in.

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem based on the way people normally talk, so I poked fun at the devolution of the English language. Best read with a valley girl/guy accent.)

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Have you ever, like, noticed how people, like, talk,
Contracting their verbs into mush?
It’s, you know, “I wanna,” “I’m gonna,” and stuff
That’d make Noah Webster, like, blush.

I don’t know how English, like, got to this point,
But I follow it to the letter.
It’s, you know, like, likely you like how you talk,
But other folks shoulda learned better.
_______________

MPAA rating: PG

It may have only taken two years for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to get a sequel, but it took me at least a decade to finally catch up with their Bogus Journey. There’s something about the first film that’s so absurdly entertaining, so I wanted to believe that that creative lightning would strike again with the sequel.

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The first film had a goal specified early on, gathering historical figures so Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) don’t flunk history and ruin the future in the process. In this one, the plot rambles even more, as an ambitious baddie in the future (Joss Ackland) sends evil Bill and Ted robots back in time to kill the good Bill and Ted and pave the way for their master’s reign. I’ll just ignore how absurd the plan is and how the bad guy doesn’t seem to understand how altering the past works. The film’s original title was Bill and Ted Go to Hell, a fitting option as the plot veers away from sci-fi and pits the dimwitted duo against the Grim Reaper (white-faced William Sadler, unrecognizable compared with his roles in Shawshank or The Green Mile).

Of course, it was fun revisiting Bill and Ted and their valley-guy nomenclature, with even a cameo from George Carlin, and Winter and Reeves fit these roles like two chuckleheaded gloves. I did get a kick out of the film’s reference to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and its game against Death (as well as the realization that this film surely inspired the cartoon series The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy). Yet for all its humor, I didn’t laugh very often, and the rampant silliness just didn’t quite match the “educated stupidity,” as I call it, of the first film.

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It’s telling when one film has “Excellent” in the title and the next one has “Bogus.” This sequel isn’t bad and even quite amusing with some quotable gems, but perhaps I need to see it a few more times before I can embrace its cult classic status. With the announcement of a long-awaited third film entitled Bill and Ted Face the Music, I’m hoping the next one will be better.

Best line: (Bill, after seeing hell) “We got totally lied to by our album covers, man.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for an abecedarian poem, where each line starts with a different letter of the alphabet. I took it one step further and increased the number of syllables with each successive line; the first as one syllable, and the last has twenty-six. I wish I could have made it rhyme more, but it was a fun exercise.)

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A
Better
Case of cruel
Death and dream-fueled
Effort you’ll rarely
Find than the flourishing,
God-led western growth from miles
Hence to the hard-fought backyards of
Impatient, heedless Americans.
Joy at the progress through storm and disease;
Key victories that confirmed our destinies
Like blood-sprayed signs pointing home that we only would
Make the effort to clean off once we had arrived there;
New frontiers made bitter with tears as roads were paved with loss;
Once-famed pathfinders and desperadoes yielding their roles to
Pioneers that now populate our history books or else lived
Quietly, blazed their trails, and fed the good earth in anonymity;
Royals and natives losing what they believed was theirs forevermore; and
Stubborn, sweet, semi-sane civilians of fortune and sacrificial service ―
These all made the struggle west what it was and the world what it would one day become.
Underneath the present-day complaints of destructive white expansion or the rosy
Visions of mythical men taming the wild as few Americans today ever could,
We must acknowledge that they were as human as we, as prone to sin and improbable grace,
Experiencing a world unknown, a battle against oceans, forests, mountains, prairies, and selves.
You may judge them as you may someday be judged; they lived for themselves, not for history books or for the
Zealous people who write them. Legends and monsters were once mere humans before hindsight made them less or more.
_____________________

MPAA rating: R (solely for violence)

The Coen brothers certainly know how to make a western. After pulling off the unlikely feat of a worthy remake of True Grit, they brought to life a diverse collection of short stories in this Netflix anthology film (which was apparently meant to be a series at first). Whether it be wagon-training on the Oregon Trail or discussing human nature in a potentially symbolic stagecoach, the Old West has rarely been so mythologized as it is here, painting a broad canvas of cheery gunfights, dark satire, and quiet desperation.

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Each of the six tales is unique and presented as installments of a short story collection; they feel authentic in that short story way, and indeed two of the segments are based off stories by Jack London and Stewart Edward White. Tim Blake Nelson is probably the most memorable character as the titular Buster Scruggs, who revels in his gun-slinging superiority while crooning tunes and conversing with the audience. The lightness of this first story is deceiving, though, and the film isn’t afraid to be downright depressing. In fact, of the six yarns, only one has what could be considered a happy ending, but even the film’s sadder moments are punctuated by insightful and poignant themes, such as the selfishness of man or the rugged unfairness of this place called the Old West.

Not all of the stories are equal, of course, the weakest being James Franco’s laconic bank robber tale, which seemed to exist solely for the sake of some last-minute, literal gallows humor. Everyone I’ve read seems to agree that the title of best (as well as longest) belongs to “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” an achingly realistic segment in which Zoe Kazan steps out of her usual roles and proves her skill as an actress.

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What I loved most about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was its script. The dialogue, antiquated, eloquent, and clean, was a joy to listen to, and it’s proof positive that you just don’t need strong profanity for an Oscar-worthy script. (Sadly, its screenplay was only nominated, along with Costume Design and the song “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.”) Unfortunately, it still earns its R-rating for the sometimes jarring gun violence (Buster Scruggs himself is the worst offender), but it’s still an uncommonly good member of a recently uncommon genre, full of gorgeous cinematography and seasoned thesps in all-too-brief roles, such as Nelson, Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, and Saul Rubinek. It’s a sign that the western genre is ripe for resurrection and that the Coens are perfect for the job.

Best lines: (Buster Scruggs) “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t low-down and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used-to-be.”

and

(The Englishman) “You know the story, but people can’t get enough of them, like little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Chicken with Plums (2011)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a mournful elegy about the physical rather than the abstract. Thus, I focused on the everyday grief that doesn’t always make itself visible.)

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I grieve every day but don’t show it.
None see it, of course, but I do.
No moistened eyelashes,
No sackcloth and ashes,
It’s deeper and yet no less true.

I grieve in the taste of the chicken
That never tastes quite like it did
When Mother would heighten
My senses and brighten
My day with the lift of a lid.

I grieve at the sound of the classics,
The ones that my father proclaimed
Were better by far
Than the modern songs are,
To which I agreed or was shamed.

I grieve at the touch of an afghan,
Hand-knitted with love in each thread.
Its knots and defects
Made the knitter perplexed,
But now they are precious instead.

I grieve where the world in its hurry
Has left things of value behind.
Don’t doubt I’m sincere
If I don’t shed a tear;
They moisten my heart and my mind.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

It was three years ago this very month that I reviewed Marjane Satrapi’s animated drama Persepolis as part of NaPoWriMo. That film was such a refreshingly unique experience that I knew I had to check out her next film, which, like Persepolis, was also based off her own graphic novel. Chicken with Plums may not be animated, but its similarity of style is equally praiseworthy, just on a far less consistent level than its predecessor.

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Told in French and set in 1950s Iran, Chicken with Plums is the story of a man who decides to die. After his critical wife (Maria de Medeiros) smashes his beloved violin, the famed concert pianist Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric) loses his will to live, lying in bed awaiting death and dreaming of the past and future. The narrative is far from linear, interspersed with subjective thoughts of how his children will grow up, memories of his success, and bizarre fantasies (hugging a giant pair of breasts, for example). It’s a weird mix as the tone swings wildly from obnoxious slapstick to pensive reminiscences, and not all of it works.

However, what does work is outstanding, at least on a visual level. The settings and overall aesthetic have the dated, magical aura of yesteryear, with a carefully crafted artistry that I could compare to that of Wes Anderson if he had half the idiosyncrasies. Satrapi’s vision of 1950s Iran oddly has the look and feel of Europe, reminding us how western-leaning the nation was before the Revolution, as detailed in Persepolis. And the acting is certainly on point, with Amalric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly fame once more proving his thespian skill.

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I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Chicken with Plums up until the ending, where the story takes a sublimely bittersweet turn that is crushing in its emotional resonance. It’s a rare and beautiful melancholy replete with the story’s themes of music, heartache, and loss; it may not quite fit with many parts of the film but still ended it on a high note of poignancy.

Best line:  (Nasser-Ali’s music teacher, speaking of his initial music) “Sounds come out. But it is empty. It is barren. It is nothing. Life is a breath; life is a sigh. It is this sigh that you must seize.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
626 Followers and Counting

 

I Am Dragon (2015)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to present “a scene from an unusual point of view.” Thus, I took the fairy tale terror of a dragon carrying off a young maiden and provided the dragon’s angle.)

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I am the dragon, the lizard of lore,
So hated and feared by mankind.
From the sky do I hunt,
And I take what I want
From the men who wince under my roar.
From the day that I hatched,
I’ve had power unmatched,
A monster by nature designed.

Now in my talons, I carry a girl,
Flown higher than humans would dare.
I made my attack
With the thought of a snack
And escaped with my prize in a whirl.
Her kin now must mourn,
For their cold-blooded thorn
Has taken her back to his lair.

Gladly, I’d deem her my prey to devour,
As dragons by nature must do,
And yet in her face
Is a vestige, a trace
Of a feeling confronting my power.
No man is my match,
But this woman I catch
Offers something I cannot subdue.
_______________________

MPAA rating: Not Rated (could be PG, maybe more PG-13)

It’s rare that a film feels like a fairy tale, not just a Hollywood version of one but an original fairy tale with its roots firmly planted in romance and the fantasy culture of a nation. In the case of I Am Dragon (or He’s a Dragon), that nation is Russia. Based on the Russian novel The Ritual, the result is a film that tows the line between epic and sappy but is beautifully mounted and appealingly dignified compared with what I imagine a Hollywood version might look like.

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A prologue explains how a dragon once terrorized a medieval village, carrying away the innocent maidens offered to him as sacrifices until the day a hero slew the beast. Fast forward then to the arranged wedding of free-spirited Princess Miroslava (Maria Poezzhaeva), or Mira, who is none too thrilled with her appointed husband. In a case of unwise history-rebranding, someone thought it would be a good idea to use the old dragon-summoning song during the ceremony, and everyone is shocked when the dragon reappears to carry Mira away. Mira soon awakens on the dragon’s remote island lair, where a handsome young man she names Arman (Matvey Lykov) proves to be a charming but conflicted host.

I won’t say any “spoilers” outright, but as you can probably surmise from my description, this is like a Russian version of Beauty and the Beast, with some very clear echoes to the Disney version of events. However, with a dragon taking the place of the Beast and an almost Game of Thrones-style aesthetic, it’s a successful variation of the familiar tale, which is also leagues better than Disney’s cringe-worthy live-action version.

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As for the romance, there’s certainly chemistry between Mira and Arman, the former headstrong and adventurous, the latter self-loathing and in need of love. The island setting, though, along with Arman’s perpetually shirtless self does make the romantic scenes feel like something out of a Harlequin novel, albeit one with surprisingly grand production values, atmospheric music, and impressive CGI. (I even included the above image from this film in the top right picture of my fantasy banner.)

It really depends on your capacity for potentially mawkish love stories, but for me, I Am Dragon had enough high fantasy to outweigh the few corny moments, and the romance was still engaging and carried weight while thankfully keeping things PG for the most part. I’m glad to have stumbled upon this admirable fantasy, which makes me think that little-known Russian cinema can hold its own against Hollywood’s more publicized output.

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
626 Followers and Counting

 

Game Night (2018)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a list lending a mystique to something ordinary, so I wrote my own riddle, which probably isn’t very hard considering the movie’s title.)

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I spark delight in every age,
Or else I trigger tantrum rage.

I’m thought by some to be mere fun,
But some obsess until I’m done.

I may use one, but two or three
Are often a necessity.

I may take skill, I may take chance;
I thrive on zeal and happenstance.

My many forms are source of mirth,
But some derive from me their worth.
_______________________

MPAA rating: R

Comedies have always been hit or miss, but modern comedy seems to have a lot more misses for me, partly because humor is subjective, but also because all the R-rated content usually gets in the way of the fun. Game Night isn’t immune to that, but its twisty plot and dark humor were engaging enough for me to look past its faults and thoroughly enjoy it.

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Maybe my own love of games is a reason; my family has a game night every Christmas Eve, so I know the appeal of a table-top competition. I’m not quite as competitive, though, as Jason Bateman’s Max or Rachel McAdams’ Annie, whose mutual love of games brings them together. Now as a married couple trying to conceive, they host regular game nights with their friends until Max’s shady brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, who sounds oddly like Michael Douglas in this movie) tries to spice things up with an elaborate role-playing mystery involving kidnapping and clues. But the players don’t realize soon enough that the threats and twists are actually real.

Game Night has its share of unnecessary language and crude jokes, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m not usually drawn to dark humor, but I loved the naïveté of Max, Annie, and their friends as they believe the danger to be a game. The laughs still come, though, once things get real, and their efforts to save Max’s brother are cleverly interspersed with a rollicking soundtrack, running gags, and more mundane debates like whether to start a family. And the plot will surely keep you guessing with its many barely credible twists and lively action, especially a cool one-take chase through a house. (I love how even less ambitious movies are using tracking shots more and more.)

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The cast is also great, with McAdams at her most effortlessly attractive and Bateman brimming with dry sarcasm; Jesse Plemons also makes an impression as their creepy policeman neighbor, who acts like a serial killer most of the time. Oh, and I got a real kick out of a couple jokes about Panera Bread, since I used to work there, and I can confirm that the membership card shown in the film is totally fake. While I wish it had been brought down to PG-13 level, Game Night is a great source of fun that is worth playing over and over.

Best line: (Brooks) “We can’t go to the cops. The Bulgarian’s got a ton of moles.”
(Annie) “On his face?”
(Brooks) “No, in the police department!”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2019 S.G. Liput
626 Followers and Counting

 

VC Pick: A Few Good Men (1992)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a dramatic monologue, so I took inspiration from a film chock full of dramatic monologues, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, and tried to rewrite one as a sonnet.)

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You think that you’re a match for all the threats
That deign to infiltrate the walls I guard,
But plenty live devoid of foreign frets
Because I have the nerve to keep them barred.
You think I’m cruel and callous to my core?
No, I’m the one who earns your daily chance
To vent your vapid views and blissfully ignore
The foes who’d shoot you dead at second glance!
My duty’s daily done, despite your blame,
And it does not include concern for you,
Who thinks of winning battles as a shame
Because it kills a citizen or two.
I’ve served my country thus for far too long
For you to come insinuate I’m wrong!
__________________________

MPAA rating: R (solely for a surfeit of language)

I saw A Few Good Men when I was much younger, and since then have only caught the last thirty minutes or so on TV a few times, which is the best part anyway. Over time, it’s stuck in my mind as a largely boring courtroom drama that ramps up to become truly great during those last thirty minutes. My dear Viewing Companion (VC) has tried to challenge that opinion, but only recently convinced me to watch the full movie again, and I’m glad she did.

Directed by Rob Reiner, A Few Good Men has a good case for being the greatest of military courtroom dramas. Scrappy but inexperienced Navy lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is chosen for a case that his superiors would like to forget: the court-martial of two Guantanamo Bay Marines (Wolfgang Bodison, James Marshall) who killed one of their fellow soldiers in what many suspect to have been a “Code Red,” an illegal punishment carried out within a unit. The higher-ups, including Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, insist the Code Red isn’t true, but Kaffee, with some prodding by a fellow officer (Demi Moore), takes a chance to prove the unprovable.

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Aaron Sorkin’s first foray into scriptwriting (based on his play from three years earlier) highlights what makes him such a great writer. The dialogue is often exchanged at such a rapid pace that you may or may not grasp everything said but you certainly appreciate the refreshing eloquence and intelligence behind it. It also helps to have it delivered by someone with the charisma of a young Tom Cruise or the intensity of a surly Jack Nicholson, who got a deserving Oscar nomination.

As I said, the last thirty minutes feature some exceptional performances along with the iconic lines and courtroom fireworks, but what comes before wasn’t as dry as I recalled. I do see why I thought that. I was a kid at the time, and most of the legal and military jargon, the chain of command and such, just flew over my head. I just needed to be older to fully appreciate them.

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I’m still conflicted on my ranking, though. The truth is that legal dramas just aren’t one of my favorite genres, even one as first-rate as this. Off-hand, I can’t think of one on my Top 365 List, with the exception of To Kill a Mockingbird. (Does Kramer vs. Kramer count?) However, revisiting A Few Good Men has given me enough pause to consider it List-Worthy, for now at least. It’s always nice and all too uncommon that a film is better than you remember.

Best line: (Colonel Jessup) “You can’t handle the truth!” [I count the whole subsequent monologue too, but I won’t put it all here. Go watch it instead.]

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
626 Followers and Counting

 

Isle of Dogs (2018)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem using homonyms or the confusion common to the English language, so, taking my cue from cleverly homophonic film title, I tried to apply it instead to the language of dogs.)

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The language of dogs is a curious tongue.
It cannot be written and cannot be sung.

A “ruff” isn’t “rough” or the variant “roof”;
It’s “Give me a biscuit! I’m not hunger-proof.”

A “bark” isn’t something that grows from a tree.
It’s “Take me outside or else give me a key.”

A “whine” isn’t alcohol people can pour;
It’s “Don’t look at me; it’s that cat from next door.”

A “yelp” doesn’t reference a restaurant review.
It’s “Help! I’ve run out of apparel to chew.”

And woof, yap, and yip have no clear homonym.
So when your dog says them, you’ll have to ask him.
____________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

A Wes Anderson expert I am not, but I could tell from the two films of his that I’d seen in full (Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox) that he’s an acquired taste I wasn’t sure I cared to acquire. It’s hard to compare the works of this king of quirk with more traditional cinematic style, but Isle of Dogs has an enjoyably straightforward plot couched among Anderson’s typical flashbacks, symmetrical designs, and camera-facing monologues.

First of all, I love the play on words with Isle of Dogs sounding like “I love dogs” (by the way, that’s the name of an actual district in London), and indeed a love of dogs plays a big part in the movie. In a near-future Japan, an outbreak of disease has led to all dogs of Megasaki City being quarantined on a nearby island. A young boy named Atari, the ward of the dog-hating mayor, goes there in search of his own dog and journeys with a colorful band of alpha dogs, with nation-changing results.

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One thing I can definitely say for Isle of Dogs and all of Anderson’s films is that they’re clearly labors of love. Stop-motion animation takes unparalleled patience and attention to detail, and the animation quality and fluidity rival that of Laika (the gold standard studio for stop-motion, see Kubo and the Two Strings, Coraline, etc.), with set design made even more laudable by its miniature size. On top of that, the storyline, broken into chapters like a storybook, is buoyed by the bond between Atari and man’s best friend, finding surprising sweetness alongside the not-too-distracting idiosyncrasies.

Something my VC didn’t care for was how the dogs speak English but the language of the Japanese characters is not rendered in English, though it often is translated through electronic or human means. I took it as simply a creative choice, which worked best with Atari’s interactions with the dogs, since we never know how much dogs actually understand our words. Because of this, the dogs get the bulk of the dialogue, and Anderson collected an outstanding voice cast, including Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, and even a cameo from Yoko Ono.

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Isle of Dogs is a little more mature than most animated films these days, with some darker-than-expected story elements, some of which are relieved by the droll humor and a clever twist or two. But for older kids, dog lovers, and fans of stop-motion, Isle of Dogs is an unconventional treat and certainly the best Wes Anderson film I’ve seen. Maybe next he’ll do a Christmas spin-off called Yule of Dogs.

Best line: (Nutmeg) “Will you help him, the little pilot?”
(Chief) “Why should I?”
(Nutmeg) “Because he’s a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
625 Followers and Counting

 

Annihilation (2018)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a spooky and mysterious poem. Of course, I could have used either of the movies from the last two days, but this one works too, with its theme of unchecked change hopefully providing the chill factor I was going for.)

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The world is changing before my eyes,
And what a surprise
To notice mutations that God never tried
That eons would normally cover and hide.

That tree over there was not always a tree.
Nor was that creature that lurks in its shade.
Should I be afraid?
For I know what they are,
But what kind of people did they use to be?

Betrayed by their cells, too minute to resist,
They changed and exchanged what had made them exist.
What monsters are born from a change so extreme,
A mutable dream
Where men were not always the beasts that they seem?

Are questions of sanity signs that you’re sane?
Just being here mixes unease in my brain.
For I’m not immune;
My own skin’s a cocoon.
When it hatches, how much of myself will remain?
____________________

MPAA Rating: R (for some language and gruesome violence)

From the trailers, Annihilation looked like the kind of movie to follow in the footsteps of Arrival with its slow-burn, high-concept science fiction. Or maybe that’s just what I wished it was. It’s actually closer in spirit to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while most critics considered that a point in Annihilation’s favor, it’s not for me.

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Natalie Portman plays a cellular biologist and ex-soldier named Lena, who recounts her story to a hazmat-suit-wearing Benedict Wong. After her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappears on a mission, he returns a year later changed and distant, and Lena soon learns where he has been: a forested region of Florida, where a shimmering, expanding wall has puzzled scientists and swallowed any team sent to investigate it. Along with a head psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and a geomorphologist (Tuva Novotny), Lena enters “the Shimmer” in an effort to unravel its mysteries.

I’ll admit writer-director Alex Garland’s Annihilation has the high acting and production standards that modern sci-fi deserves, and it’s a home run at least on a visual level. The set-up is superbly intriguing, and Lena’s journey into the Shimmer is buoyed by the allure of the unknown. Signals and light are unexplainably altered. Monsters and strange species lurk out of sight. The evidence they find of Kane’s mission challenges their sanity.

It’s Alien-level tension and uncertainty (or at least Prometheus-level), but all this mystery has to lead somewhere for it to be worthwhile, and Annihilation’s ending is just too ambiguous for its own good. That’s where the comparisons to 2001 ring true, with the largely wordless climax playing out like a fever dream of compelling but nebulous menace. In the end, though, its unanswered questions just left me puzzled by its enigmatic lack of resolution.

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It’s odd that this would be my gripe when I commended the ambiguity of The Endless just a couple days ago. I guess The Endless was open to interpretation in a way that suggested a complexity that was justifiably out of reach (and at least the main plot got some resolution), whereas Annihilation seemed more intentionally esoteric, like a puzzle where the writer was hiding pieces from you and chuckling at his own shrewdness. Maybe that makes no sense, and maybe others will enjoy the film’s mind-twisting, but Annihilation left me unsatisfied, just as my VC was left unsatisfied by the novel on which it was based (and by all the changes made by the filmmakers). I enjoyed the set-up, but not where it led. With its middling box office returns, they may or may not adapt the other books in the series, but either way, I’m not sure the resolution is worth caring about.

Best line: (Dr. Ventress) “Then, as a psychologist, I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke, we destabilize the good job… and a happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions, they’re… they’re impulses. In fact, you’re probably better equipped to explain this than I am.”
(Lena) “What does that mean?”
(Ventress) “You’re a biologist. Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?”

 

Rank: Dishonorable Mention

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
625 Followers and Counting