NaPoWriMo 2023 Recap


It may have taken a while for me to announce it, but another National Poetry Writing Month has come to an end! This year was a little more stressful than years past, since I didn’t have many reviews already done ahead of time, leading to repeated instances of posting right around midnight. I hope I can plan better next year and just focus on the poems each day and be already done with the film reviews, which are an extra self-assigned obligation for the blog.

Nevertheless, I appreciated the opportunity to once again stretch my writing muscles with the daily poem prompts from the NaPoWriMo website. It was also a welcome opportunity to work through the backlog of movies I’ve seen in the last few years and just haven’t had the time or inspiration to review. I enjoy finding a movie that complements the prompt, which often results in poems I never would have come up with on my own. As a recap, here is a list of the posts from NaPoWriMo 2023:

April 1 – Vesper (2022) – List-Runner-Up

April 2 – Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) – List Runner-Up (tied for most likes, at 11)

April 3 – Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023) – Top 100-Worthy (tied for most likes, at 11, and my favorite film of the month)

April 4 – Old (2021) – Honorable Mention

April 5 – See How They Run (2022) – List Runner-Up

April 6 – The Mercy (2018) – Dishonorable Mention

April 7 – skipped

April 8 – Paint (2023) – List Runner-Up

April 9 – Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) – Honorable Mention (my favorite poem of the month)

April 10 – The Sea Beast (2022) – List Runner-Up

April 11 – Infinitum: Subject Unknown (2021) – Dishonorable Mention

April 12 – Nightbooks (2021) – List Runner-Up

April 13 – Shadow in the Cloud (2020) – List Runner-Up

April 14 – Moonfall (2022) – Honorable Mention

April 15 – Elvis (2022) – List Runner-Up

April 16 – The Bad Guys (2022) – List Runner-Up (tied for most likes, at 11)

April 17 – skipped

April 18 – Matilda the Musical (2022) – List Runner-Up

April 19 – Beast (2022) – Honorable Mention

April 20 – Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023) – List Runner-Up

April 21 – skipped

April 22 – RRR (2022) – List Runner-Up

April 23 – Drifting Home (2022) – List Runner-Up (my VC’s favorite poem of the month)

April 24 – Dear Evan Hansen (2021) – List Runner-Up

April 25 – Notting Hill (1999) – List Runner-Up

April 26 – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) – List-Worthy

April 27 – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022) – List-Worthy

April 28 – Suzume (2022) – List Runner-Up

April 29 – Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) – List Runner-Up

April 30 – Disenchanted (2022) – List Runner-Up

A big thank you to everyone who read, liked, and commented throughout April! I haven’t been as interactive as I’d like with my fellow NaPoWriMo participants, but I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to visit my little corner of the blogosphere. I’ll still be keeping up with my usual schedule of poems and reviews (which will hopefully be a little more frequent) until next year brings that same creative rush of NaPoWriMo. Happy writing in the meantime!

Disenchanted (2022)


, , , ,

(For Day 30, the last day of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to write a palinode, a poem that retracts a view from a previous poem or from earlier in the same poem. I sort of did that yesterday, but it seemed like a good way to reflect on both sequels and the temporary end of NaPoWriMo, until next year.)

When the villain is bested,
The henchmen arrested,
Then all of the heroes make merry.
When credits have rolled,
The story is told,
And endings are not temporary.

A glad ever after
Is sunshine and laughter;
What follows is better unsaid.
To many’s chagrin, you
Cannot just continue
When even the last page is read.

Just savor the story
That closed in its glory,
And you can imagine the rest.
Another adaptor
Might mar the next chapter.
It’s honestly probably best.

Although I’ll allow
That a “where are they now?”
Would probably earn some applause.
Finales are fleeting
And bear some repeating,
And endings are only a pause.

MPA rating: PG

While Avatar: The Way of Water got ribbed for the extended delay between movies, it took Disney two years longer to finally deliver a second Enchanted, dropped half-heartedly on Disney+ late last year. It’s a prime example of a sequel many wanted and wanted to like yet ultimately can’t compete with its predecessor. In retrospect, we didn’t really need to know the details of how “happily ever after” fails to satisfy.

The first Enchanted was a breath of fresh air, a reverse isekai before that was even a term, with doe-eyed Giselle banished from her animated fantasy world to the streets of New York and injecting some much-needed sincerity into the lives of widower Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). Years later, the family is seeking something more and moves out to the suburb of Monroeville, much to the chagrin of teenage Morgan (now played by Gabriella Baldacchino). After they struggle to integrate with the community, led by the imperious realtor Malvina Monroe (Maya Rudolph), Giselle uses a wish-granting wand to give them a more “fairy-tale” life, transforming the town into a literal magical land with all the delight and danger that entails.

Like the first film, the best thing about Disenchanted is Amy Adams, whose perky Giselle is progressively changed into an evil stepmother by her wish, since she is literally Morgan’s stepmother. She relishes playing with the caricature and trying to outdo Rudolph’s equally evil Malvina, even sharing a delightful song about their nasty rivalry called “Badder.” It’s a fun idea as the rest of the “real world” characters are brainwashed into fairy tale roles, complete with lavish costumes, but it can also run a bit thin, with Dempsey especially having very little to contribute. And the drama of the climax definitely feels forced, with the magic wand not being used effectively and the stroke of midnight somehow being delayed by jamming a clock tower’s gears.

Even if the plot falls short, it was admittedly nice seeing all the principal actors returning to these beloved characters, including James Marsden’s Edward and Idina Menzel’s Nancy. It was a crime that Menzel didn’t get a chance to sing in the original, and she does finally use her famous pipes with the anthemic “Love Power.” I was glad that Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz again teamed up for the sequel’s songs, though the lyrics can be lackluster and nothing comes close to the first film’s “That’s How You Know” dance number. Disenchanted does manage to capture at least part of the satirical charm and magic of the original, so it’s not a complete misfire, but it does show how special the first film was in balancing its real and fantastical elements. Even after so much time has passed, it’s still a tough act to follow.

Best line: (Morgan, in response to Edward and Nancy singing) “Does anyone in Andalasia ever just say stuff?”   (Giselle) “Not if we can help it!”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
785 Followers and Counting

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)


, ,

(For Day 29 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for a two-part poem focused on a food or meal, so I took the theme of sequels and wrote about that nagging desire for seconds.)

You’ve had a good helping and just about full
But still feeling slightly insatiable.
The first round was marvelous, hitting the spot,
But are you appeased? No, you’re not.

There’s room in that stomach, an empty place,
That ought to be filled, just in case.
You cannot leave hunger to scratch and bide
When it’s only partially satisfied.

“It’s lonely in here,” your firsts assert;
Indulging in seconds would hardly hurt.
They’re begging for more, I must obey
This gastrointestinal power play.

Another undoubtedly will exceed.
It’s less of a want and more a need.
Seconds is seconds away, all right?
Coming to curb that appetite.

Sure, I was hungry and now I’m not,
But did I desire the gut I’ve got?
I knew there was room and now it’s filled,
And now my duodenum’s less than thrilled.

I’m starting to wonder if I’m a slave
To all of the short-term whims I crave.
Some self-control could hardly hurt.
What’s that you say? Oh, boy… dessert!

MPA rating: PG-13

I have such mixed feelings about the Avatar franchise. James Cameron’s passion project seems to be widely acknowledged as an outlet for great visuals in service to a generic environmentalist story of alien natives versus colonizers, and it had become a joke to reference the extended delay between the 2009 original and its first of four sequels. Yet Cameron’s box office power remains undefeated, with The Way of Water silencing naysayers and skyrocketing to become the third highest-grossing film ever. I personally contributed to that revenue (I left for the theater saying “Time to go pay James Cameron’s salary”), mainly just to see the film’s admittedly impressive visuals on a big screen, something I skipped with the first one. And I’m glad I saw it, while also oddly feeling like I’m missing something to explain this series’ popularity.

Set sixteen years after the first film saw the victorious Na’vi send the encroaching humans packing, The Way of Water introduces audiences to another form of Na’vi culture, that of the ocean-dwelling Metkayina clan. When the humans return to colonize Pandora, not just plunder its resources, it also heralds the return of Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the dead colonel whose memories now reside in a new Avatar-like body, enabling him to seek revenge on the traitorous Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who has been busy raising a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Thus, Jake leads his family away from their forest home to seek refuge with the Metkayina, learn their ways, and employ their help if and when the big bad humans find them.

One point in this sequel’s favor is that it no longer feels like an outright rip-off of Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas. With his world and backstory already established, Cameron can play with more original ideas, like the mystery surrounding Kiri, the adopted daughter who was somehow born from the corpse of Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, who also plays Kiri via motion capture). Except that seems to be a greater concern for future installments, and the time is instead spent exploring marine environments and rescuing kidnapped children. While the dialogue is generally weak, I will give credit to the film’s theme of fatherhood, with Jake and Quaritch both struggling with their military and paternal duties, which is much more characterization than Quaritch got in the first film.

While the film’s story has a little more heart to it, owing to Jake’s shift from space marine to family man, it has many of the same strengths and faults as the first. There’s much to see and little to care about, but the spectacle manages to overcome the flaws. The underwater world so carefully designed is indeed a wonder to behold, full of vibrant coral reefs and giants both gentle and fierce, all rendered with the characters in that thoroughly immersive motion-capture animation it’s taken years to perfect. Like its predecessor, the climactic battle at the end is long and thrilling, taking some cues from Cameron’s Titanic past with its large-scale water warfare.

I enjoyed The Way of Water but would be hard-pressed to say whether it’s better or worse than the first Avatar, and I still think it’s a bit hard to swallow that both were nominated for Best Picture when Avengers: Endgame wasn’t. When this much effort and detail are poured into something over three hours long, I feel like I should like it more than I do, but I’m left with mild admiration for the visual triumph of the product so far rather than a sense of excitement for more sequels to come. Even so, there are promising seeds and conflicts sown here that could develop into something special, and, as this sequel proves more than anything, I wouldn’t bet against James Cameron.

Best line: (Quaritch) “Why so blue?”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
785 Followers and Counting

Suzume (2022)


, , , , ,

(For Day 28 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for an index-like poem, so I chose the word “door” as my index word for a pair of haikus, since doors are so prominent in this film.)

Opens and closes;
Keep in or keep out; slam it;
Lock it; lose the key.

Don’t dare to open;
Outside the gates; slipping through;
Miss the other side.

MPA rating: PG

In the same way cinephiles look forward to the next Christoper Nolan or Quentin Tarantino movie, anime fans eagerly await the advent of the next Makoto Shinkai film. I was excited to finally see his latest called Suzume in the theater, months after its Japanese premiere, and it had everything Shinkai does well: pouring rain, desperate running, eye-popping cataclysms, poignant reunions, all rendered in some of the most gorgeous animation this side of KyoAni. Yet it’s hard to forget that everything he creates will inevitably be compared to Your Name, the record-breaking blockbuster that put Shinkai on the international map. It’s a tough comparison, but Suzume still excels at the same kind of emotion-backed fantasy.

Suzume (Nanoka Hara), the title character, is a rural high school girl who directs an attractive visitor named Sota (Hokuto Matsumura) to some nearby ruins for which he is searching. When she follows out of curiosity, she discovers that a long-dormant evil has started breaking into our world to cause disasters, using doorways in abandoned areas as gateways that must be closed. When Sota is inexplicably cursed and transformed into… ahem, a chair, Suzume runs away from home to help him complete his mission, further complicated by a mischievous talking cat. (I loved a brief reference to Whisper of the Heart when the cat is spotted on a train.)

I’ll admit the chair part is a little hard to take seriously at first, especially since it forever labels this movie as “the one where a girl falls in love with a chair.” But if you roll with it, the object does take on greater meaning as a precious heirloom for Suzume, and there’s fun to be had with the absurdity of it. As the plot becomes a buddy road trip across Japan (a “meet-‘em-and-move-on” as I call them), it’s a little hard to believe how many people seem fine with supporting a runaway girl and letting her continue on her way. Yet it’s also an opportunity to take a peek into various lives she passes, which I always enjoy.

It’s interesting that two anime in the same year (this film and Drifting Home) both put a focus on the large number of abandoned areas throughout Japan, including a ferris wheel specifically, places that were once full of life and now have only echoes of what was. True to Shinkai form, the emotions grow with time, and even if Suzume and Sota ultimately just met, the bond and distress born from their relationship are highly affecting at the film’s emotional high points.

Even if I recognize the film’s faults, like the rather thin story fueled by contrivance, Shinkai just has a captivating style that is easy to get sucked into, aided by striking visuals and iconic music by the band Radwimps, his frequent collaborator. If Suzume had come out before Your Name and Weathering with You, I think I would love it more without the comparison, but I can’t quite say it’s better than them while sharing the same DNA. It did surpass Weathering with You to become the fourth highest-grossing Japanese film ever (right behind Your Name), so Shinkai still has enormous box office draw. It would be nice if he can step a little further out from under his own shadow, but I’m still very much a fan.

Rank: List Runner-Up (might go up with time)

© 2023 S.G. Liput
785 Followers and Counting

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)


, ,

(For Day 27 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for an emulative poem with a fancy simile and such, but I went off-prompt today. Subverting expectations, you might say.)

See what you want to see, it will be there.
Call it a masterpiece, people will stare.
Fancy it rotten and treat with disgust,
And what was a winner will soon be a bust.

Label it stable, and it shall be so.
Flag it as flaky, and look out below.
Brand it as brilliant, and all will believe,
While those who do not have some grievance to grieve.

What you intend will determine the end,
Or at least govern what you recommend.
See what you want to see, hoarding or growth,
Genius or charlatan, neither or both.

MPA rating:  PG-13

Considering I already included Glass Onion on my end-of-2022 favorites list, my feelings for it should not be a surprise. Also unsurprising for writer-director Rian Johnson, the reception for this follow-up to 2019’s Knives Out became rather polarized online, with disagreement on just how clever this latest mystery was, or was trying to be. But hey, I really enjoyed The Last Jedi, so I’m clearly not on board the Rian Johnson hate train. With no connection to Knives Out beyond its central detective Benoit Blanc (the ever-classy Daniel Craig), Glass Onion can easily be appraised on its own merits, and even if it doesn’t quite hit the highs of its predecessor, it’s still a deliriously well-crafted film full of twists, cameos, and an all-star ensemble.

Via a complex puzzle box, eccentric tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) invites his diverse group of “disruptor” friends to a murder mystery weekend on his private Greek island. Among them are an up-and-coming governor (Kathryn Hahn), a scientist working for Miles’ company (Leslie Odom Jr.), a gun-toting streamer (Dave Bautista), a controversy-magnet supermodel (Kate Hudson), and Miles’ own ex-business partner with a chip on her shoulder (Janelle Monáe). And also unexpectedly invited is Benoit Blanc, ready to jump into action if the fake murder mystery should take an actually deadly turn.

Johnson excels at subverting expectations, which is especially advantageous in the mystery genre. Even if you think you can guess the culprit from the start (and you may well be right), the story does its utmost to cast doubt on every character. As the investigation progresses, Blanc learns of every character having a reason to want Miles dead, yet not much later, reasons come to light for every character to want to keep him alive. And while there’s no connection to Knives Out, Glass Onion shares its structure, taking an abrupt shift at the halfway point to look at the plot from an entirely new perspective, practically guaranteeing a second watch to verify what might have been missed. A good mystery is about the journey, the clues, the twists, just as much as the big reveal, which might be disappointing to some but has a timely message about how much faith we put into reputations.

The cast is certainly game as well, especially Norton as the ingratiatingly extravagant host and Monáe as the wronged Andi Brand, showing more range than her stoic first appearance might indicate. The rest of the cast have their moments to chew the scenery as well, with Bautista and Hudson particularly satirizing the more toxic elements of celebrity. The scene of all of the partygoers arriving at a dock is alone a great showcase of subtle characterization, based just on how they wear their masks in the midst of the pandemic. (It was interesting and a bit odd that the film actually referenced the COVID pandemic, yet promptly side-stepped social distancing with a fake “cure.” Only in the movies….) And, of course, Craig is a perfect gentleman, offering the same perceptive Southern charm as his first appearance and effectively making me forget that he’s James Bond for two hours.

Admittedly, there are things that don’t work quite as well, like the explosive climax that tries to be a moment of empowering rebellion with a clever callback but also borders on cringeworthy and unrealistic. Plus, certain characters get more attention than others, with Odom Jr. sadly being little more than an extra. And while I liked the circuitous reveal, Johnson should take care in his next outing to avoid a potential pattern in his culprits, so as to not be predictable. Despite some self-indulgence, Glass Onion is as entertaining a mystery as any, boasting both layers of genius and a disarming simplicity to match its name. To be honest, I didn’t even know “Glass Onion” was the name of a Beatles song, so kudos on incorporating that as well. I’m definitely looking forward to the next Benoit Blanc adventure.

Best line: (Birdie Jay, the politically incorrect model) “Like Miles said, I’m a truth teller. Some people can’t handle it.”   (Blanc) “It’s a dangerous thing to mistake speaking without thought for speaking the truth. Don’t you think?”

Rank: List-Worthy (joining Knives Out)

© 2023 S.G. Liput
785 Followers and Counting

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

(For Day 26 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for a portrait poem focused on the meaning of someone’s name. I decided to write mine as a eulogy for the MCU’s Black Panther and, by extension, the late Chadwick Boseman, including the meaning of his character T’Challa’s name.)

The mighty Black Panther, both hero and king,
Was true to tradition but not to a fault.
He knew his position so many exalt,
And yet he was gracious,
His heart ever spacious,
Intent to be balm on the wider world’s sting.

Black was the Panther, like so many sheep,
Scattered and battered in nations far-flung.
He fought for his people, his country unsung,
But knew there were others,
His sisters and brothers,
With wounds he could help heal, no matter how deep.

A Panther he was, unassuming but fierce,
A predator set on avenging the wronged.
And “he who put the knife where it belonged”
Defined you by name:
T’Challa, who came
To sheathe where he could and know whom to pierce.

The mighty Black Panther is with us no more;
He died as he lived, without pity or fear.
We trust those who pass never quite disappear,
And if our hearts break,
It is for a king’s sake,
A legacy no one can ever ignore.

MPA rating: PG-13

I can imagine how hard it was for writer-director Ryan Coogler to develop a follow-up to the 2018 smash hit Black Panther without his star Chadwick Boseman, who died unexpectedly after a hidden battle with colon cancer. Yet deliver he did. After the unsatisfying horror of Dr. Strange 2 and the hammy humor of Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was a welcome return to gravitas, giving hope that 2022 wasn’t a total bust for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

After T’Challa dies off-screen from an unspecified illness in the opening scene, his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) are left to grieve and try to pick up the roles he left behind: monarch, leader, and superhero. While Wakanda was believed to be the only source of renowned super-metal vibranium, it is discovered that the secret underwater kingdom of Talokan also has it, as well as their own empowered defender in the mutant known as Namor, who will stop at nothing to maintain his nation’s secrecy.

It’s probably no surprise that Wakanda Forever doesn’t quite live up to the bar set by its predecessor. While the plot is overlong and sometimes bogged down by its dour tone and plot digressions, it manages to deliver some great performances and one of the MCU’s best character arcs. Shuri was a likable side character in the first film, but Letitia Wright really steps up here to pick up the Black Panther mantle, making her journey of grief and vengeance quite believable and poignant. Likewise, Angela Bassett has some powerful scenes as the matriarch of an increasingly broken family, and I do tend to agree she was robbed at the Oscars (though I could say the same for Stephanie Hsu, no offense to Jamie Lee Curtis). Tenoch Huerta is an outstanding addition to the MCU as Namor, offering a subtle ruthlessness that is somewhat justifiable from his mistrustful perspective.

While the film delves further into Namor’s backstory than needed, I see what they were going for in setting him and Talokan up as a dark mirror of Wakanda, taking their former xenophobia to a retaliatory extreme, not unlike Killmonger before. With so much subtext alongside the globe-hopping action and new characters (like Dominique Thorne’s Iron Man wannabe Riri Williams), the film can feel overstuffed and distinct from the more fun entries in the Marvel canon. Yet I found a lot to admire, particularly Shuri’s character progression and the deferential tribute to Boseman and T’Challa.

It took me longer than most to warm up to the first Black Panther, which I didn’t personally connect to, but this film helped me realize how highly I still regard these films, in contrast to the latest Thor movie. We’ll never know what a sequel with Boseman would have looked like, but, considering his absence, I consider Wakanda Forever a worthy successor.

Best line: (Namor) “Only the most broken people can be great leaders.”

Rank: List-Worthy (alongside the first, which has already replaced the Thor films on the List)

© 2023 S.G. Liput
785 Followers and Counting

Notting Hill (1999)



(For Day 25 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for a love poem with a flower, a parenthetical statement, and unusual line breaks, a la e. e. cummings.)

That face is a face the world should see,
Plastered on billboards,
Far and wide. Let them come and sing your
Praise, brag they saw you (or
At least tried), throw their roses and carnations
At your feet, as I would mine,
And banish any doubt that you are anything but
Meant to shine.

In a perfect world, such laud would be yours,
Yet here you are,
With me
An imperfect world your grace endures,
And yet perfection
You spread
To me.

MPA rating: PG-13

Growing up, I was introduced more to the Nora Ephron side of ‘90s romantic comedies, like Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail, and I love them dearly. But I do wonder if I had grown up with their British equivalents if they would be as dear to my heart. Notting Hill is a prime example of a rom com I saw only recently yet seems to have a prominent place in the genre. Featuring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in their prime, the film plays like a fairy tale reversal of Pretty Woman, with Roberts as the wealthy elite falling for a down-on-their-luck commoner.

William Thacker (Grant), owner of a struggling travel bookshop in the titular London neighborhood, is surprised when famous actress Anna Scott (Roberts) wanders into his store. Through happenstance and curiosity, the two connect, yet they are chagrined by the aggressive paparazzi and the growing doubt that their different stations in life could support a relationship. The film is an excellent example of writer Richard Curtis’s strengths, like quirky but relatable side characters and an earnest romantic climax, though thankfully with less of the intermittent crudeness of Love Actually.

Both leads are excellent and share an effortless chemistry, Roberts with her million-dollar smile and Grant with his self-deprecating air and diffident line delivery that heighten his everyman role. Rhys Ifans is also a stand-out as William’s ribald roommate Spike, who meanders around their flat as walking comic relief. While the film’s romantic development and sense of humor are rather low-key, making it not quite as memorable as others in the genre, it does have some brilliant moments, like a masterful tracking shot/time lapse where William walks through all four seasons while Notting Hill bustles around him. With its nostalgic soundtrack and feel-good boy-meets-girl romance, Notting Hill makes me want to explore other rom coms of the era that might also be favorites-in-the-making.

Best line: (William) “I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are; my mother has trouble remembering my name.”   (Anna) “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
785 Followers and Counting

Dear Evan Hansen (2021)



(For Day 24 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to write a poem reviewing something that is not normally reviewed, so I imagined someone’s spiraling falsehoods being rated by their own mind.)

You’re doing it, dude.
You’re making it sell.
A lie gets you high
If you’re telling it well.

And there goes another!
That’s some web you weave.
It’s quite the art form
When the experts deceive.

A nine out of ten,
If I’m giving a score.
Just hold your eye contact
A little bit more.

A quick feigned offense,
And she bought it again.
There’s no way she knows
It’s a ten out of ten!

You can’t pull out now
When you’ve lasted this long.
A lie can be right
If you don’t mind the wrong.

The greatest of lies
Are built from ideals,
Which obviously
Are the hardest reveals.

MPA rating: PG-13

I saw this movie musical in the theater a year and a half ago, and I just couldn’t quite bring myself to review it. Based on the Tony-winning musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of The Greatest Showman fame, Dear Evan Hansen was yet another movie musical adaptation to flop at the box office, without even the critical praise that In the Heights had. I’ve heard people rip this movie apart and complain about how it portrays mental illness or how star Ben Platt is too old to be playing a high school student, and I seem to be in the minority in not sharing those common objections. Yet the film is rather disappointing, even for a lover of movie musicals like me, just for reasons I can’t quite pin down.

I also had the privilege of seeing a touring production of the stage musical after seeing the film, so I have something to compare it to now. The plot is fairly faithful with anxious teenager Evan Hansen (Platt) barely navigating high school as he writes daily letters to himself, according to his therapist’s advice. One of these letters ends up in the possession of the volatile Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who commits suicide, leaving his parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) and sister (Kaitlyn Dever) to believe Connor wrote the note to Evan. Evan can’t bring himself to contradict the despondent family and instead plays into the narrative of him and Connor being close friends.

I recall wryly asking one of my friends if he wanted to go see “a depressing musical” when the film came out. Dear Evan Hansen is heavy stuff, dealing with mental illness, suicide, familial resentment, and desperate grief, which is part of what made it such a powerful and relatable hit on Broadway. Clearly, the themes that worked on stage didn’t quite translate as well to film, yet the weaknesses of the film were baked into the story, in my view. Platt is a fantastic actor and singer (whose age didn’t bother me a bit), but there’s something inherently unrealistic about his socially graceless character being able to convince this family of his untruth, even if Connor’s mother practically goads him into it. It leads to some extremely cringy moments where Evan’s awkwardness is too hard to overlook. The songs are meant to smooth that suspension of disbelief, but again there’s a disconnect between him belting out “For Forever” in the Murphys’ dining room as opposed to an open stage with a large audience.

Pasek and Paul’s pop-influenced music is the best thing about the film, and I’m personally glad that Platt was able to bring the character he helped create to the big screen. His performances of the inspirational “You Will Be Found” or the devastating “Words Fail” show his incredible vocal and emotional range, and, despite not typically being a singer, Julianne Moore as Evan’s mom Heidi excels with “So Big / So Small,” a deeply poignant expression of motherly love. Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever are likewise only used for one song, but both deliver strong acting performances, that feel both genuine and oddly unrealistic at times. Fans of the musical were naturally disappointed by the removal of songs like “Disappear” and “Anybody Have a Map?”, especially when the new addition “The Anonymous Ones” is serviceable at best. At least they kept “Sincerely, Me” to retain the one lighthearted song in the story.

Dear Evan Hansen isn’t a bad film and in fact has a number of very powerful moments and performances, as well as an outstanding soundtrack. Its story just feels half-baked when brought from the distance of a stage to the intimacy of a camera close-up. Some rewrites and testing screenings might have benefited it, but I can’t bring myself to dislike it as much as so many do. It’s far from the strongest musical of 2021, but it still gave me all the intended feels.

Best line: (Heidi, singing to Evan) “Your mom is staying right here. No matter what, I’ll be here when it all feels so big till it all feels so small.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
784 Followers and Counting

Drifting Home (2022)


, , , , ,

(For Day 23 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for a poem in numbered sections about a place I no longer visit as much. The best example I could think of was my old elementary school, so I imagined the various places abandoned and nostalgic.)

I remember they filed in one at a time,
Students alert to the school bell’s chime.
My classroom became their knowledge base,
And I kept them all safe in my walls’ embrace.
I was their path
To history, math,
The parts of the cell, and the subjective case.
Those who I held left smarter by far,
But now I do wonder where all of them are.

I remember they joined me at tables so long
That both ends could easily sing their own song.
They pulled out their lunches so lovingly packed
Or else I provided whatever they lacked.
I was their meal,
Their chance to be real,
To trade and upgrade and get caught in the act.
The hungry were happy and brought up to par,
But now I do wonder where all of them are.

I remember they ran with unparalleled glee
To climb on my monkey bars, wild and free.
My stretches of rubber mulch, bordered by sand,
Gave them their chances to fall and crash-land.
I was their play,
The peak of their day,
A time to recess from the teacher’s command.
I was the source of both smile and scar,
But now I do wonder where all of them are.

MPA rating: PG

While Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda are the biggest names in anime films, there are plenty of other studios in the mix, such as Studio Colorido, which has an ongoing partnership with Netflix. With films like A Whisker Away and Drifting Home, they bring some welcome Ghibli-esque fantasy to the streaming service. In Drifting Home, a group of children go exploring in the abandoned apartment building where Kosuke and his childhood friend Natsume used to live with Kosuke’s grandfather. After the two have an argument, the building somehow ends up floating in the middle of the ocean, forcing the kids to survive off what they can scavenge.

While the premise could have become mere escapism for the children, the story actually puts them in real danger, with limited resources and a crumbling structure as their only refuge from the sea. The characters themselves are not anything special and sometimes grating, though the conflict between Kosuke and Natsume carries weight as they both reacted differently to the death of Kosuke’s grandfather, a loss which haunts their relationship and perhaps the apartment itself.

Beyond the survival aspects and interpersonal drama, a prominent theme involves the inherent grief of buildings and structures that were once full of life and activity but have become abandoned over time. It’s an interesting concept of a place having its own form of sorrow and passing away. Drifting Home may not stand out as much as other anime films, but it’s a lovely smaller effort highlighting how we connect to the places we grow up.

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
784 Followers and Counting

RRR (2022)


, , , ,

(I had a rough day yesterday and missed Day 21 of NaPoWriMo, but I thought I’d try doubling up this weekend instead. Yesterday’s prompt was for a poem describing an abstract noun, using short lines and a made-up word. I chose Strength.)

I am strong
I cannot afford
To be weak.

The weight of
My people’s hopes,
The yoke
Of all my foes,
The burden of
Love to defend
Have tempered
Like steel.

But still
I only wish
To wake to laughter
In the aftermorn,
To kiss with
No farewell,
To let my power
Be still.

Strength I bear
That I may not
Bear it forever.

MPA rating:  Not Rated (should be R for violence, which is fitting, right?)

After recently watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, which marked a turning point in Indian cinema back in the 1950s, it was mind-blowing to see how far the country’s filmmaking has come with 2022’s RRR. I know Bollywood has a reputation for over-the-top spectacle, but this was my first introduction to the modern wow factor that Indian films have to offer. (Considering its wide distribution on Netflix, I doubt I’m alone there.) RRR follows two real-life Indian freedom fighters in the 1920s, telling a completely fictitious what-if story about them meeting and teaming up against the evil British empire. In American Revolution terms, I like to describe it as the Indian equivalent of “What if Ethan Allen and Francis Marion became bros and singlehandedly decimated the redcoats?”

Standing for Rise Roar Revolt (in English at least), RRR is the kind of epic that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore, if it ever did, boasting an everything-goes narrative that makes it hard to classify. It’s heavy on the action but also has room to be a romance, a historical drama, a buddy film, and a musical. The supremely handsome Ram Charan plays A. Rama Raju, a member of the Delhi imperial police force trying to rise through the ranks. N.T. Rama Rao Jr. plays Komaram Bheem, a protector of the Gond tribe who goes undercover in Delhi after the British governor (Ray Stevenson) and his cruel wife (Alison Doody) abduct a young girl named Malli. Thus, the two initially meet and become good friends, not knowing they are on opposite sides, Bheem seeking to rescue Malli while Raju aims to capture him to earn favor with the British.

RRR is a lot. Boasting superhero-level stunts and CGI animals to rival Hollywood, the film looks amazing, albeit replete with slow-motion interludes to highlight the emotion or absurdity of the action. In that vein, it is also anything but subtle. The villainous Brits are cartoonishly evil without any nuance at all, save for the kind Jenny (Olivia Morris) who somehow becomes a love interest for Bheem despite neither of them understanding the other’s language. The film relishes in its own excess, from the rippling muscles of its often shirtless leads to the extravagant and lengthy action scenes that include one man taking on an entire angry mob and a free-for-all battle with tigers and deer invading a posh banquet. Honestly, some of the coolest moments almost feel like parody with how outrageous they are.

Yet there’s something refreshing about how RRR wears its cinematic heart on its sleeve, like the montage of Raju and Bheem bonding over their shared buffness, which brought to mind the ancient brotherhood of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. That kind of epic clash of good and evil with a cast of thousands was much more common in old Hollywood when epics were a common genre, so it’s interesting to see such large-scale heroics from a foreign perspective. And the film often uses its excess quite effectively, especially in the instantly iconic dance-off to the song “Naatu Naatu,” which won a deserved Oscar for Best Original Song and was one of the best movie moments of last year.

Aside from some brutal violence, the worst thing about RRR is its length. I was able to convince my VC to watch it (and she liked it), but only by breaking it up into three parts. At a little over three hours, it can feel more like a miniseries than a movie, so I would recommend that; basically, take a break whenever someone is caught by the British. RRR is epic in every sense of the word, and its mainstream success will likely open the door for more Americans, me included, to explore further what Indian cinema has to offer.

Best line: (Raju’s father) “He [the governor] said that an Indian’s life is not worth a bullet. So how will this bullet earn its value? When it comes out of your gun and pierces an Englishman’s heart.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
784 Followers and Counting