In This Corner of the World (2016)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a hopeful elegy, so I wrote mine about the mourning of a way of life.)

 

What’s almost as sad as a person’s death
Is the death of the way that they lived.

They once woke up, knowing what their day
Would likely hold,
And they’d watch unfold
A normal we’d say
Was strange and old,
But they took pride
And personified
A life that bloomed till the world went cold.

Disasters sudden or a cancer slow
Or new breakthroughs
Would cause them to lose
What was status quo.
They could not refuse,
For who can tell
A dead bloom, “Get well,”
When its winter’s come and it’s paid its dues?

But people live on, like roots that remain
For new blooms to rise
Once the former dies
And forgets the pain
Of its sad demise.
Our ways of life fade
Daily and are remade.
Remember that grief is short-lived for the wise.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

And the number of award-worthy animated films of 2016 just keeps on growing. When I heard that a crowdfunded project called In This Corner of the World had beaten out Your Name and A Silent Voice for Japan’s Best Animated Feature award, I rolled my eyes that anything could top those two emotional hits. I still would have preferred one of them to win, but I can now at least see why In This Corner of the World would deserve to win. (It’s also further proof that the American Academy can’t seem to recognize an award-worthy animation if it hails from another country.)

Set before, during, and after the Hiroshima bombing of August 6, 1945, this Japanese period drama has a slice-of-life charm and simplicity that endures the ever-looming shadow of death. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Grave of the Fireflies (a painful favorite of mine), yet while that film is essentially grief and desperation from start to finish, In This Corner of the World uses its long runtime to show the daily life of its characters and how the approaching war changed that way of life for the sake of survival.

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It begins with the childhood of Suzu Urano, an often absent-minded artist who grows up in an idyllic seaside town close to Hiroshima. After receiving an offer of marriage from a man she doesn’t know, she hesitantly leaves her own family to marry into the Hojo family in Kure, a Navy dockyard about an hour away by train. There is a wealth of humorous vignettes as Suzu adjusts to her new surrounding and family members, including a short-tempered sister-in-law and her daughter, and many aspects of their daily life are steeped in Japanese culture, from the fashioning of kimonos and later pants to the preparation of traditional field-to-table meals, which require resourcefulness once wartime rationing is implemented. From amusing asides and sweet romantic moments, the tone gets more and more serious and even dire as the war gets closer, the bombing raids become more frequent, and we the audience wait for the inevitable bomb to drop, wondering how it will affect Suzu and her loved ones.

The abrupt editing of all those vignettes does contribute to a sometimes unfocused storyline that puts certain details in doubt, and a few forays into Suzu’s imagination left me confused as to whether surrounding scenes were supposed to be real or not. Yet such negatives don’t detract too much from the humane power of the whole. Perceptive details and lovely snapshots abound, notably a post-war scene where the town’s lamps are uncovered (no longer in fear of air raids) and one by one shine into the night. The animation is not your typical anime style, with more of a gentle, hand-drawn impressionism that can be reminiscent of either a comic strip or a museum piece, depending on the tone of the scene. It’s surprisingly effective in its consistency depicting both Suzu’s carefree early life and the grief-stricken toll of war, and the filmmakers put great and laudable care into re-creating the pre-bomb city of Hiroshima accurately.

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Once again, I’m torn on how to rank what is clearly a great film, trying to judge my personal opinion of it. It’s absolutely worthy of Japan’s top animation prize, and I can see why they would opt for the more historically significant choice, even over the box-office juggernaut that was Your Name. Despite its winsome animation and gradually developed poignancy, it didn’t bring me close to tears like Your Name or A Silent Voice or Grave of the Fireflies, which matters to me as a way of measuring the emotional impact. Even so, I feel like I’m growing fonder of this film the more I think about it. Perhaps its ultimate ranking is a wait-and-see. It requires some patience, but I highly recommend In This Corner of the World for its touching civilian-level view of World War II.

Best line: (Suzu, comparing her current life to a dream) “I don’t want to wake up because I’m happy to be who I am today.”   (Shusaku, her husband) “I see. The past and the paths we did not choose, they’re like a dream.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up (for now)

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
564 Followers and Counting

 

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Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem based in sound, such as using a song lyric. So, thinking of this movie, I tried to incorporate a different song lyric, possibly altered, for each line or two and combine them together. It’s a little different, but hopefully it turned out okay.)

 

Am I part of the cure or am I part of the disease,
Or is that just how I feel? Am I wrong
For feeling so lonely, for feeling so blue?
It’s something to do.
All I know are sad songs.

There’s an old voice in my head that’s holding me back—
You said you loved me; you’re a liar.
There’s not much love to go around
Till I reach the highest ground.
We didn’t light the fire.

Some never pray, but tonight we’re on our knees;
Take my tears and that’s not nearly all.
There will be an answer, let it be;
One day, my father—he told me,
“A tiny rock can make a giant fall.”

(Songs used, in order: “Clocks” by Coldplay, “Am I Wrong” by Nico & Vinz, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mike Posner (two lines), “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men, “Grenade” by Bruno Mars, “Land of Confusion” by Genesis, “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder, “We Didn’t Light the Fire” by Billy Joel, “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, “Let it Be” by The Beatles, “The Nights” by Avicii, “Dream Small” by Josh Wilson)

___________________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

I wanted to hope that the Pitch Perfect series might avoid the slump that often comes with a third installment in a franchise, but Pitch Perfect 3 is what I would call a slump, not a total disaster but a slump nonetheless. I was in the minority in actually enjoying Pitch Perfect 2 more than the original, simply because I found it funnier, but Pitch Perfect 3 is undoubtedly the weakest of the three, though still fitfully entertaining.

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Things seemed to be looking up for the Barden Bellas at the end of the second movie, but in order to make another sequel, this third film saddles all of the now-graduated a cappella singers with dead-end jobs and unfulfilling lives, also jettisoning their boyfriends. That way, they eagerly reunite for a new tour/competition, this time entertaining troops in Europe with the USO and vocally sparring against bands with actual instruments for the opportunity to open for DJ Khaled (who is apparently a big deal, though I’d never heard of him before this). That plot sounds too simple of a cut-and-paste from its predecessors, so there’s also a kidnapping spy plot thrown in involving Fat Amy’s conniving father (John Lithgow).

I will say that my enjoyment of Pitch Perfect 2 helped me to bring a lot of good will to this follow-up, and it was nice to see all the Bellas together again for the last(?) time. The colorful personalities are much the same, from Fat Amy’s (Rebel Wilson) boorish self-confidence (why was she so mean to Hailee Steinfeld?) to Lilly’s (Hana Mae Lee) soft-spoken weirdness, which gets an unexpected explanation/punchline near the end. Brittany Snow is still the prettiest of the Bellas (in my humble opinion), and Beca (Anna Kendrick) is still figuring out what she really wants out of the music industry. In fact, one Bella’s absence from the tour (sex-obsessed Stacy, played by Alexis Knapp) due to her pregnancy is a sign that they’re all getting older and indeed need to find their place in the world.

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Aside from the characters, though, the plot is a bit of a mess, with the competition losing much of its weight by the end and Lithgow’s needless villain helming an over-the-top subplot that does feel like the franchise jumping the shark. As evidenced by the strained presence of Elizabeth Banks’ and John Michael Higgins’ aca-commentators, the jokes are also not as funny as in the other films, and the musical moments less memorable. Still, the ending felt like a fitting one for the series, even using one of my and my VC’s favorite songs (George Michael’s “Freedom”). It’s still amusing and I still liked Pitch Perfect 3, but unless they really bring new life to another reunion, I do hope it’s the last one.

Best line: (Calamity, introducing the members of the band Evermoist) “I’m Calamity. This is Serenity, Veracity, and Charity.”   (Fat Amy) “If I joined your group, I could be obesity.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
564 Followers and Counting

 

April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to write about how one of a list of impossible things could actually happen, so I thought of a certain highly imaginative film.)

 

“Pigs can’t fly,”
They said. “Of course,
And cats can’t join
The labor force.”

“Clocks can’t chime
Thirteen,” they vowed,
“Nor rewind time.
That’s not allowed.”

But some will hear
Such sober laws,
And ask with thought,
“Why not?” because

The present world
They recognize
Is changing more
Before their eyes.

If they dislike
Such rules, they dream
Worlds where clocks strike
Thirteen, where steam

Propels machines,
Where pigs can fly,
Where magic beans
Grow greens so high,

Where men can grow
Beyond their flaws.
Imagination
Knows no laws.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG

I love animation, and I love discovering hidden gems that remind me why I love animation. April and the Extraordinary World is a delightful case in point. At a time when the U.S. and Japan seem to rule the animation industry, it’s also an important reminder that Europe has no shortage of talent and is just as likely to churn out an instant classic for those willing to search for it.See the source imageA French-Belgian-Canadian co-production, April and the Extraordinary World is one of the most imaginative films I’ve seen in a while, broadly rewriting history to create a unique steampunk setting, one in which science and technology couldn’t develop beyond the Steam Age. Vegetation has been decimated by fuel needs, and the air is thick with industrial smoke, while the scientists that could improve things have vanished without a trace. After a fast-paced introduction in which everything is significant, we meet April Franklin (Marion Cotillard in the French version, Angela Galuppo in the English dub) and her brilliant family of fugitive scientists. Due to events best seen rather than described, April grows up alone with only her talking cat Darwin (a product of SCIENCE!), and her chemist’s quest for an immortality serum soon turns into a whirlwind adventure as the French government and a mysterious group with advanced technology vie for the scientific secrets of her family.

Animation allows its creators to fashion worlds limited only by their imagination, but most cartoons are content to imagine small. It’s usually Pixar or Ghibli that brings the medium to its full potential, but so does April and the Extraordinary World, which often feels like something one of those two powerhouses would have conceived. Where else are you going to see giant cable cars that run from Paris to Berlin or a helicopter plane escaping an underwater prison? The animation has the distinctive look of a European comic (apparently based on the work of French comic artist Jacques Tardi), and although it seems like it would take some getting used to, it actually flows quite nicely, with plenty of clever detail in the settings and backgrounds. It has strong characters to boot, from resourceful April herself to her quick-witted grandfather, though, as a cat lover, my favorite has to be the talking cat Darwin (Tony Hale in the dub, which also includes Paul Giamatti, J.K. Simmons, and Susan Sarandon).See the source imageWhile the imagination is impressive, I could still recognize prior influences for April, most notably 2004’s Steamboy, another steampunk adventure featuring a young protagonist caught in the middle of a scientific power struggle with a similarly explosive ending. Plus, it’s hard to avoid comparisons to Ghibli when there’s an actual house atop mechanized legs á la Howl’s Moving Castle or a polluted atmosphere contrasted with a clean underground biome á la Nausicaä. You might also pick up on traces of Atlas Shrugged and Tomorrowland, though the latter was released the same year as this film. Regardless, April and the Extraordinary World brings all these disparate elements together into a thrilling package that’s better than most of the films I just mentioned.

With a complex and fast-paced storyline and a number of off-screen deaths, it does feel more intelligent and mature than your typical American cartoon (not to mention the detail put into Darwin’s backside), but there’s nothing to make it un-kid-friendly either. By the surprisingly satisfying end, I was just happy to have stumbled upon such an underrated gem, one that no fan of animation should miss.

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
563 Followers and Counting

 

 

Ready Player One (2018)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem inspired by the myth of Narcissus, who loved his reflection so much that he turned into a flower. Ah, those crazy Greeks…. This is an example of what I love about NaPoWriMo, because an ordinary poem of mine for this movie would have been quite different.)

 

I am the mirror that captured Narcissus,
A pool that reduced him to frailty and pride.
I am the mirror that heard the queen’s hisses
When told that Snow White was the more glorified.

I am the mirror no longer a mirror,
Tranformed over time to expand my appeal.
The more I’m admired by people, the dearer
I am to their lives, making all else unreal.

A whole generation and those in their wake
I’ve snared in a world they create to comply,
A mirror to show the world them for their sake,
Allured and immured by the power of “i”.

I’m praised for convenience, for freedom, for fun,
A magnet for eyes lest their view be too wide.
It’s up to the viewer what evil I’ve done;
I’m merely the mirror for frailty and pride.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

There have been four movies I’ve seen so far in 2018 that I’ve genuinely loved, which, since it’s only April, is one a month (not bad). And it thrills me to no end that one of them is the film I declared my #1 movie that I hoped would be good. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One didn’t blow my expectations away, like Train to Busan or The Greatest Showman, but I went in wanting to love it and found plenty of reasons to do just that.

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As someone who enjoyed Ernest Cline’s novel immensely, I can confirm that the film diverges quite a bit from its source material. Yet, unlike other decent but disappointing adaptations (Eragon, Inkheart), Ready Player One the film still adheres to the spirit of its source, and the fact that Cline himself cowrote the screenplay assuages my concerns about the many plot aberrations. Even so, the core story is intact: a massive multiplayer scavenger hunt through the virtual world known as the OASIS, a world and hunt created by dead eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who plays his social anxiety a bit too wooden). The entire world is in search of Halliday’s hidden Easter egg, which grants ownership of the OASIS to the winner, but no progress is made until Halliday fan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) earns the first of three keys, making him a target for the evil, power-hungry IOI corporation (led by an accent-less Ben Mendelsohn).

All that is straight out of the book, but in the leap from page to screen, changes are inevitable. If you’ve read the book, your enjoyment of the movie just might depend on how much such changes bother you. My VC, for example, enjoyed the film but harbored reservations about the rampant alterations of its second half. (She said, if she hadn’t read it first, she’d outright love the movie.) Yet, I think many of the changes work in the film’s favor. True, the book is better, but there are many parts of it that wouldn’t transfer well to the screen, such as the months that go by between breakthroughs or the important plot advances that consist of beating literal arcade games. Turning one of these challenges into a demolition derby race, for example, makes it far more exciting cinematically, while changing Halliday’s much-studied journals into a gallery of virtual records makes Wade’s research more visual. Also, the replacement of certain pop culture references with others is likely the result of copyright compromises and the filmmakers’ desire to play with particular “toys.”

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And boy, do they lay on the pop culture references, 90% of which swirl by far too quickly to fully appreciate. Yet the recognition that comes in those moments is an unparalleled thrill for nerds like me. Where else are you going to see the time-traveling DeLorean race the bike from Akira or Overwatch’s Tracer charging into battle with the Iron Giant? The cameos also vary depending on the viewer’s personal tastes; a friend of mine recognized a Lancer weapon from Gears of War, I geeked out at the site of the roulette wheel space station from Cowboy Bebop, while my VC chuckled at an incantation from Excalibur, all references that one of us “got” and the others didn’t. Thanks to the CGI mastery on display, there were several (likely entirely animated) sequences where I just sat there with a goofy grin on my face in a little place called geek heaven.

Except for the idea of not liking any changes in general, I can understand many of the complaints I’ve heard about what is essentially an alternate version of the Ready Player One story readers knew. Some of the rules of the OASIS are glossed over, potentially leaving questions for unfamiliar viewers. The characters aren’t nearly as developed as their counterparts on paper, lacking defined character arcs, and there’s little attention paid to the problems of this dystopian world outside its virtual refuge. The romance might be too rushed and convenient, the avatar of Wade’s friend Aech looks nothing like I imagined from the book, the very long runtime is felt by the end, and they should have included WarGames, dang it! It’s true; Ready Player One is not a perfect film, but I’ve rarely been better entertained in true Spielberg blockbuster fashion.

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It’s really quite simple: I am Ready Player One’s target audience. I’m the nerd who revels in shared geekery, while appreciating half-realized lessons about the value of a life outside of technological obsession. I think that, drawing its inspiration from a great book, this Ready Player One is a great movie, boasting a visual awesomeness that puts most movie spectacles to shame.

Best line:  (Halliday, echoing Groucho Marx) “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I just didn’t know how to connect with people there. I was afraid for all my life, right up until the day I knew my life was ending. And that was when I realized that as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also… the only place that you can get a decent meal. Because, reality… is real.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
563 Followers and Counting

 

Darkest Hour (2017)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem featuring rebellion, so I took inspiration from Winston Churchill’s tenacity in resisting the German onslaught in World War II.)

 

An animal fights never so hard
As when its den, its nest, its yard,
Its hole or burrow, lair or hollow
Is assaulted, threatened, scarred.
It’s then they most are on their guard.

If they defend their home so well,
Then we as humans must rebel
Against invasion, no persuasion
To assuage our raising hell
To screen and shield our citadel.

The brightest day requires no grit
When we are free to relish it.
The darkest hour tests our power
And our backbone not to quit,
For rebel lairs dare not submit.
____________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

Were you expecting the 2011 alien invasion movie set in Russia? If so, psych! Get with the times because I already reviewed that two days ago (and it’s The Darkest Hour, by the way). No, this is last year’s Winston Churchill biopic, which is more likely the film people will associate with the words Darkest Hour (no The), not only because it’s more recent but because it’s a fantastic movie.

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While Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk depicted the famous rescue of the British army across the English Channel and Their Finest used it as propaganda back on the home front, Darkest Hour looks at the same events from the perspective of the leadership and politicians. An English political drama could very easily have made the proceedings eminently dry and boring, but that’s hardly the case when there’s an actor of Gary Oldman’s caliber in top form. His Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill is exceptional, one of those roles of a lifetime that he truly melts into, so that he’s hardly distinguishable from the real-life figure he plays, thanks also to the Oscar-winning makeup. From his droll habits and bearing to his brilliantly delivered speeches, it’s no wonder critics and audiences alike were saying, “Just give him the Oscar he so clearly deserves.”

Even the most acclaimed biopics so often leave me with a lessened opinion of their subjects, but Darkest Hour manages to show Churchill “warts and all,” so to speak, and still leave no doubt as to why he is considered such a great leader. In his very first scene, he’s at his worst, roaring at a fresh-faced, new secretary (Lily James) over minor annoyances, only to be calmed down by his loving and encouraging wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). The rest of the film serves to soften that intimidating figure we first see, as he buckles under the weight of the wartime decisions he faces and stands resolute in the face of overwhelming odds.

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It was interesting to see how naively Churchill’s fellow leaders believed they could sue for peace even while war and destruction were upon them, and I was surprised at how unpopular Churchill was among his own Conservative party. Did the way he was described as someone with one hundred ideas a day, four of them good and the rest dangerous, remind anyone else of Donald Trump? Honestly, there were several scenes where it was as if they were describing the sitting U.S. President. “One never knows what’s going to come out of your mouth next. Something that’ll flatter, something that’ll wound,” says King George VI, played by Ben Mendelsohn (since I suppose Colin Firth was busy). Considering Churchill’s dictation habits, I can’t help but wonder if a modern Churchill would be tweeting in the privy as well.

Beyond the outstanding acting, the rest of the production is equally praiseworthy, such as the realistic sets and the way the dates change onscreen to make clear that events are happening within mere days of each other. Joe Wright’s direction is elegant but straightforward, and the script intelligent and witty in equal measure, providing welcome humor to lighten various scenes while also stressing the desperation of Britain’s situation. There’s some disappointment when you realize a great scene or two was fabricated, such as a voice-of-the-people sequence in the London subway, but the high degree of historical accuracy is only part of Darkest Hour’s strength.

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It’s a testament to the power of oratory and a portrait of a great man under fire, not covering his whole life but the tension-filled days and weeks that helped define the course of his life and of the world. I’m tempted to rank it as a tie with The Iron Lady, another well-acted film about a great British prime minister that won its lead an Oscar, but I think Darkest Hour is a tad stronger overall and indeed one of the best films of 2017.

Best line (there are so many): (Churchill) “Those who never change their mind never change anything.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
562 Followers and Counting

 

Still Mine (2013)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to write a paragraph and create a poem from the words in it. Thus, I drew from the first two paragraphs of my review below, which I wrote first, and rearranged the words into a bit of free verse.)

 

Marriage can be a big deal
When young, focused on opportunities,
Strong and of the opinion that a relationship
Invariably
Leads to an empire declining.

But when the enduring,
The building, the well-acted long-suffering,
The stubborn not letting go is decades-long
(Not depressingly),
It is prized by the two that are one.

Even with health slowing,
Faithfulness deteriorates not.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language and a non-explicit bedroom scene)

The movie industry invariably favors the young, so strong roles for older actors and actresses are prized opportunities. One example that got awards attention was 2015’s 45 Years, which was well-acted but depressingly focused on how easily a decades-long marriage can fall apart. Still Mine is like the anti-45 Years, with James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold showing the long-suffering faithfulness of a moving and enduring relationship, yet it didn’t get much notice outside its native Canada, despite being a far better film in my opinion.

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Based on a true account, Cromwell plays Craig Morrison, the owner of several hundred acres in New Brunswick and a small farm empire that includes lumber, strawberries, and cattle. Now that he’s in his eighties, he’s slowing down and letting go of parts of his business, yet his wife Irene’s declining health leads him to start building a smaller house not far from their current one, which is now too big for the two of them. Decades before, that may have been no big deal, but it doesn’t take long for Craig to come into conflict with government bureaucrats, who insist that his unauthorized building (even on his own land) violates regulations. As Irene deteriorates into dementia, Craig must care for her and prove how stubborn he can be when he knows he’s in the right.

Cromwell gives an outstanding performance, the kind that makes you wonder why he’s never won an Oscar, though he did win the Canadian equivalent for this very role. He and Bujold share a tender warmth together, which swings from humorous reminiscences to extreme frustration yet remains unshakable. One conversation even reveals Irene’s jealousy over one of Craig’s past loves, and while that was the entire conflict of 45 Years, it’s a mere footnote in this love story. Craig’s interactions with his worried kids, nosy neighbors, and intractable bureaucrats confirm him as a willful but competent man whose decades of experience are not something to be underrated.See the source imageI’m torn on how to rank Still Mine. I feel like it could be List-Worthy, but there’s something keeping me from being sure, so I’ll err on the side of caution and name it a high Runner-Up. Cromwell is at his best here with a script that calls out the narrow demands of government overregulation while painting an affectionate picture of long-suffering love with both humor and pathos. It makes me think I ought to explore what other gems Canada has to offer.

Best line: (Craig, to one of his grandsons) “You mean to tell me you’re nine years old and no one’s told you who Babe Ruth is yet?”
(grandson) “No, how old are you?”
(Craig) “Eighty-seven.”
(grandson) “Do you know who Drake is?”
(Craig) “Who?”
(grandson) “Then we’re even.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up (a very high one)

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
561 Followers and Counting

 

The Darkest Hour (2011)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to write a poem in reverse based on another, but, going out of town today, I’m afraid I don’t have enough time to do that idea justice, so here’s an off-prompt one.)

 

We hope we’re alone in the universe,
We hope that, in case we are wrong,
The aliens out there are friendly
And might want to just get along.

But if it turns out we’re mistaken
And they have designs on the earth,
The way we respond may determine
How much we believe it is worth.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

Were you expecting last year’s Oscar-winning biopic about Winston Churchill? Psych! That would be Darkest Hour, while this post is for The Darkest Hour. Big difference. The Darkest Hour is instead an alien invasion flick from 2011, the kind of reasonably decent sci-fi you might find in the bargain bin of the supermarket, which is where I found it.

At its core, The Darkest Hour isn’t much different from War of the Worlds, but the trappings and circumstances are different enough that it doesn’t feel like a total copy. Instead of the usual American setting, we see the worldwide invasion from Moscow, where two American software developers (Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella) are stranded when aliens float down from the sky, wipe out all electronics, and start disintegrating every human in sight. Accompanied by another pair of American tourists (Olivia Thirlby, Rachael Taylor) and a Swedish jerk (Joel Kinnaman), they make their way through the city in search of a way out and a way to fight back.

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There’s really no depth whatsoever to the characters; they’re all simply thrown together during this apocalypse, trying to find the balance between survival and panic. Except for Kinnaman, though, the actors are all likable enough, even if the aliens are the real reason to watch. Owing to its limited budget, the aliens are invisible most of the time, which usually adds to the tension and allows for some clever hints to their presence, since they activate nearby light bulbs and electronics. Their effects for dispatching humans are also striking (though reminiscent of Jean Grey’s Phoenix powers in X-Men: The Last Stand), and the way they shred their victims is both shocking and bloodless for that PG-13 rating.

I don’t know: The Darkest Hour isn’t an especially good or unique film, yet I find it oddly watchable, like the kind of movie you can just leave on in the background and let your attention wander back and forth from it. It also managed to surprise me with who makes it and who doesn’t, since I guess I assumed all four of the main characters would make it. Maybe I just wasn’t thinking the first time, since it actually is a little obvious in retrospect. Either way, The Darkest Hour isn’t a complete waste of time and has some strong moments for those who love the alien invasion genre.

Best line: (Sean, in a bar) “No civilization is without religion or alcohol.”   (Ben) “That’s why I drink religiously.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
559 Followers and Counting

 

The Last Days (2013)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a memorable family anecdote. Instead of some specific story, I incorporated a few into a societal critique.)

There’s so much that we used to do
When we would go outside.

The sun would bake us at the beach
And leave us peeling for a week,
And kites would soar far out of reach
Until we practiced our technique.
We’d grumble as we walked the dog
And stumbled through the morning fog.
There’s so much we would take in stride
When we would go outside.

The mountain trails would call our name
And leave us awed and insect-bitten.
At the park, we’d choose our game,
Get stuck in trees we thought we’d fit in,
Find we’re lost beyond belief,
Then find our way with sighed relief.
There’s so much that we dared and tried
When we would go outside.

Interiors are now default,
The “Great Outdoors” a memory,
And from our comfort-ridden vault,
A screen eclipses earth and sea.
Although we know without a doubt,
We’re on the inside looking out.
There’s so much that we are denied
When we won’t go outside.
_____________________

MPAA rating: Unrated (should be R due to profanity in the subtitles, maybe PG-13 without that, though there’s still some brief violence and nudity)

When you see deserted city streets littered with abandoned cars and roaming animals, what explanation comes to mind first? These days, it’s probably a zombie apocalypse or maybe an alien invasion, right? The Last Days suggests a much simpler kind of apocalypse, though, one where people don’t dare go outside, but not because of some creature lurking out there; they simply die if they leave shelter.

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A Spanish thriller perhaps influenced by the surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, The Last Days (or Los Últimos Días) triggers its apocalypse gradually, with people suddenly contracting severe agoraphobia or fear of open spaces. Walking outside provokes a deadly seizure, so people end up stranded in whatever building they happen to be in at the time. Some viewers may have trouble taking such an epidemic seriously, but it’s revealed gradually through flashbacks and treated with dead seriousness and great realism. In the case of Marc (Quim Gutiérrez), he was at work when it hit and has spent the last three months trapped inside his Barcelona office building, taking turns with his coworkers to dig a tunnel to the subway. When they finally reach this chance to travel to other parts of the city, he sets out in search of his girlfriend Julia (Marta Etura), grudgingly aided by corporate firing specialist Enrique (José Coronado).

The Last Days works well on several levels: as a slow but compelling journey through end-of-the-world encounters, as a grim but endearing buddy movie, and as an outlet for subtle social themes. Of course, the apocalyptic settings are the biggest focus, but it felt unique to have the danger come not from some monster but from other people, some of whom band together to support each other while others compete violently for limited resources. The relationship between Marc and Enrique is an unlikely pairing based on where they started before the disaster, but I liked the way they both relate to each other’s goals and fears, helping each other along the way. The social message I mentioned may come off as obvious in some ways, with people’s fear of leaving their homes taken to an extreme, but there are other understated themes broached, such as the concern of bringing children into a world of doubt and uncertainty.

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I entertained ranking The Last Days as a List Runner-Up, but the ending really put it over the top. For a film with so much depressing atmosphere and tragedy, it ends on a surprisingly uplifting note that in some ways felt like the kind of ending Passengers should have had if it had tried harder. I was also impressed by the quality acting and production values and particularly by one long tracking shot through a scene of chaos. (Have I mentioned I love those kinds of scenes?) Don’t expect a lot of action, but if you can buy into its uniquely subdued form of disaster, The Last Days has much good to offer.

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
559 Followers and Counting

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem concerning play or a game, so a movie about a game seemed like a no-brainer, especially since I worked in a bit of rhyme from the film itself. It’s from the perspective of the game.)

Ha, ha! Here they come!
Someone’s found me at last!
I’m as bored as they look
And in need of a blast.
They pause at this chance
To play like in years past.

But though they may believe me lame,
An old, archaic parlor game,
They always play me all the same.

Ha, ha! Here they go!
Fun is not a hard sell.
Well, my fun at least,
Though they’ll have some as well.
It’s time now to play
And perhaps to raise hell.

So when you’re bored, keep me in mind,
“A game for those who seek to find
A way to leave their world behind.”
_______________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

When I first heard that there would be a sequel to Jumanji, a beloved childhood classic for me, I declared it sacrilege. When I saw the trailer for Welcome to the Jungle, I was suspicious but open to this new version of the cinematic game. And now that I’ve seen it, I’m actually surprised at how well it turned out. This is a rare example of a sequel/reboot done right, in that it doesn’t try to live up to its 22-year-old predecessor, instead charting a creative and modern course with the barest homage to the original.

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After doing who-knows-what to those French kids at the end of the first movie, the Jumanji game somehow ends up back in New Hampshire, but when faced with the competition of console video games, it transforms itself into a video game. It is later found by a quartet of high schoolers in detention, who are sucked into an actual jungle environment and transformed into highly contrasting avatar bodies: nerdy kid Spencer (Alex Wolff) into a hunky archaeologist (Dwayne Johnson), football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) as a diminutive lackey (Kevin Hart), shy misfit Martha (Morgan Turner) into a butt-kicking heroine (Karen Gillan), and self-absorbed brat Bethany (Madison Iseman) into a fat man (Jack Black).

It sounds complicated when you describe it in detail, but the premise is fairly straightforward as the no-longer-teenagers navigate the dangerous levels of the game in an effort to escape. Turning Jumanji itself into a video game was actually a brilliant idea, keeping it different from the original and updating the concept to our more virtual world. Plus, it allows for a great many jokes as it incorporates the conventions of video games into the very fabric of the plot, such as multiple lives and various abilities and weaknesses.

The main draw for humor, though, is the cast of charismatic stars playing against type…well, except Kevin Hart. He’s his usual rowdy self, but it’s great fun watching the Rock realize his own strength or Jack Black impersonate a teenage girl. Karen Gillan’s attempts to gain more confidence and learn the ways of flirting are particularly funny, and aside from some admittedly amusing penis jokes from Black, the PG-13 rating keeps things both tame and entertaining, even working in a bit of genuine emotion by the end.

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As much as I enjoyed the video game reworking of Jumanji, it couldn’t hope to match my fondness for the original, even if it’s infinitely better than I had expected a year ago. I’m glad too that they didn’t try to replace Robin Williams or anything like that, instead offering a subtle reference to confirm this as a respectable sequel. It now makes me wonder if this Jumanji will have the same sense of nostalgia around it twenty-two years from now.

Best line: (Spencer/Bravestone) “It’s a lot easier to be brave when you’ve got lives to spare. It’s a lot harder when you only have one life.”   (Fridge/Moose) “We always only have one life, man. That’s how it is.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
559 Followers and Counting

 

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to write of a villain made relatably human, so I focused on how Loki feels as his father’s second favorite.)

 

Here am I, Loki, a god of Asgard,
Who ought to be king just for trying so hard.

The unchosen heir, second fiddle since birth,
Locked up just for seeking to conquer the earth!

I’m here behind energy fields, and where’s Thor?
Out hogging the glory like so oft before.

Who cares about me, the black sheep of the court,
The outcast brought in to be cast out for sport?

I’m Odin’s chagrin and his family’s regret,
But he and his favorite have seen nothing yet.

One day, they’ll come crawling to me in this jail,
Not knowing how deeply I’ll savor betrayal.
______________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

My family and I have been rewatching all the Marvel movies recently in preparation for Infinity War and to remind us of everything that came before. In doing so, I realized that Thor: The Dark World is the only one I haven’t reviewed, and I couldn’t let that slide. Such an oversight sort of proves that The Dark World is one of the weaker Marvel entries, and, although Thor is one of my least favorite Avengers, it’s still actually quite a solid film in the series.

Picking up after Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returned the Tesseract and an imprisoned Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard in The Avengers, The Dark World introduces the universe-hating Dark Elves and their secret weapon called the Aether, later revealed to be one of the Infinity Stones. (Can you tell I’m a Marvel nerd yet?) Awakened from exile after Thor’s girlfriend Jane (Natalie Portman) discovers and absorbs the Aether, the Dark Elves seek vengeance on Asgard and, you know, try to destroy the universe.

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The Dark World’s biggest problem is its villain, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who remains the most forgettable of all of Marvel’s many disposable villains. Not even a Lost alert for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a Kursed henchman could make the bad guys anything but dull threats. There’s literally nothing to them except getting the Aether to destroy everything, and the exposition-heavy prologue about the Dark Elves’ history weighs things down in unmemorable mythology.

I suppose mythology could be considered both a strength and a weakness for the first two Thor movies, steeped in Norse lore and Shakespearean pageantry as they are. With the Middle-Earth-style costumes and old English dialogue, they’re rather unique and somewhat sophisticated next to the lighter Marvel movies, yet they can easily become an overly serious bore for those who aren’t interested in those things. That’s likely why Thor: Ragnarok went full-on sci-fi comedy as a contrast, which was both good and bad.

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Yet The Dark World’s strengths shouldn’t be forgotten either. Hemsworth and Portman are so admirable and sincere in their roles that they manage to sell their average romance, while Thor boasts outstanding chemistry with his double-crossing adopted brother Loki. Their rivalry is the biggest character highlight of the Thor series, which is probably why Loki has stayed around in all three movies.

The special effects are also as eye-popping and destructive as the rest of Marvel’s repertoire, especially the Dark Elves’ invasion of Asgard, while the scope and adventure of visiting different worlds make it a far grander ride than the first Thor. (Did anyone else notice that the giant rock guy Thor shatters near the beginning looks a lot like Korg from Ragnarok? They may be from the same race.) Plus, I think the orchestral score by Brian Tyler might be one of the best of any Marvel movie, except The Avengers, and a decent balance of gravity and humor keeps things entertaining without going off-the-wall like Ragnarok.

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I enjoyed The Dark World more than I remembered, proving that even the lesser Marvel movies have plenty to offer. In fact, despite being more of a Runner-Up, I think I’ll go ahead and make it List-Worthy. Ragnarok found its way onto my Top 365 List last year when the other two Thors didn’t because I thought it was so much better, but I’m going to follow my own rules and put all three together. Even if The Dark World suffers from a bland villain, it’s still a good superhero movie, and I don’t think we comic nerds should be too hard on it.

Best line: (Thor, summing up his relationship with Loki) “I wish I could trust you.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy (joining Thor: Ragnarok)

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
556 Followers and Counting