I lost my girl, I lost my job, I lost my status to a mob, So now I’ll simply sit and sob The tears that only I shed.
‘Tis better for me to decease. I guess I won’t renew my lease. I’m done with living; rest in peace. I know I’m better off dead.
I’ll tell myself that no one cares. They shouldn’t be caught unawares When my life’s clearly worse than theirs. I bet they’ll party instead.
I see the headlines: “Loser Gone!” Not much, of course, to write upon. I’m lucky if I’ll get a yawn, Assuming it even is read.
Wait, who’s that girl I just now saw? She smiled at me! I withdraw My claiming of the final straw. I may not be better off dead. ___________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
What have I been up to? Because it certainly hasn’t been movie reviews. While I regret the delay, let’s just say I’m trying to expand my skills from poet to lyricist. 😉 Still, it’s past time for me to return to my Blindspot series. Considering I had never heard of it till fairly recently, Better Off Dead clearly doesn’t have the nostalgic reputation that ‘80s films like Ferris Buelleror Say Anything have, but I dare say it deserves to. This droll John Cusack vehicle has a lot to love, just perhaps a bit rough around the edges.
California high schooler Lane Myer (Cusack) is obsessively in love with his popular girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss), so he doesn’t take it well when she leaves him for a pompous skiing jock (Aaron Dozier). A proven loser with little reason to live, he makes several attempts to end his heartache permanently, though they thankfully always go absurdly wrong. It isn’t until a French exchange student living across the street (Diane Franklin) encourages him that he starts seeking a way to prove himself as more than a suicidal slacker.
In many ways, this movie is like the anti-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with Lane Myer being the perpetual loser in contrast to Matthew Broderick’s born-lucky protagonist, more akin to Ferris’s mopey friend Cameron. Some of the same gags are even inverted, as when an entire math class, minus Lane, eagerly volunteer to answer questions with a comical passion for dull math concepts spouted by the teacher (Vincent Schiavelli). The end of the credits even bears a message saying “the film’s over… you can go now.” Of course, Better Off Dead came out a year before Ferris Bueller, but I doubt there was any actual influence from either, probably.
While the title and description seem to focus on Lane’s suicidal mishaps, that dark humor is actually not as prevalent as you might expect. There are plenty of other recurring gags surrounding his stoner friend (Curtis Armstrong), his ridiculously talented little brother who can follow instructions to accomplish just about anything, the neighborhood’s disturbingly relentless paper boy, and the awkward romantic efforts of the mama’s boy across the street (Dan Schneider), all of which add up into a patchwork of absurdity that gets funnier with time. (Okay, maybe the paper boy gets old after a while.) Not to mention, the most memorable sequences involve surreal injections of animation, as when Lane argues with a drawing of his ex-girlfriend or when he fantasizes about bringing to life a hamburger that sings suspiciously like Eddie Van Halen.
Better Off Dead isn’t always as funny as it tries to be and often lacks cohesion, making it feel like a series of unrelated comedy skits, at least until a plot emerges from the silliness. Still, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it could easily have been a staple in my house if only it would be shown on TV as often as Ferris Bueller was. While critics and Cusack himself were disappointed with the finished film, I admired its game cast (including Kim Darby and an accentless David Ogden Stiers as Lane’s quirky parents) and a sweet ‘80s soundtrack with the likes of Neil Sedaka and Hall and Oates. And by the end, it delivers a surprisingly encouraging romance and message out of the grim premise, making it an uneven but wholly likable teen comedy.
Best line: (Lane) “Gee, I’m real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.”
Yes, this Top Twelve song list for 2021 is certainly overdue, but it’s still earlier than the list for 2020 last year, so it’s not that bad. Maybe I can actually get 2022’s posted in January, when I typically have in the past. My top movie lists are still pending, but I like summing up the previous year with a song list, sort of the soundtrack of the latest snippet of my life. While 2020 and 2021 were awful years in so many ways, they delivered top-tier music to keep us dancing and tapping our feet through the tears, so to speak. Many creatives used the pandemic shutdowns to dedicate time to their next projects, and they gifted us with so many outstanding songs that I struggled greatly trying to pare down the field to a mere twelve.
I’ve stated this before, but every year for me seems to stand out in retrospect based on a particular artist or artists that I discovered for the first time, one of those “where-have-you-been-all-my-life” moments as I binge their whole discography at once. Here’s my running list since I first started these music countdowns:
2016 – Florence and the Machine 2017 – Kygo 2018 – Aurora, Chvrches, RUFUS DU SOL, and Tom Odell 2019 – Saint Motel, TWRP, Kensington, Sigma, Kaiser Chiefs, etc. 2020 – Mika, Sparks, and The Orion Experience
The number of “discoveries” has grown as I’ve become more exploratory in my music listening. And 2021 was no different as I found an intense admiration for Marina (and the Diamonds), Orangestar, Autoheart, and The Birthday Massacre, all of whom released new music last year, much to my delight. While a few of my Top Twelve below made it on the charts, they once again don’t seem to match the mainstream musical tastes of the rest of the world (not much rap, you might notice). I don’t mind that, but I do wish these awesome songs and artists would get the acclaim and attention they deserve.
So it’s time to dive into the list (and the usual overabundance of runners-up). Please let me know what you think and feel free to recommend other songs I might have missed. There are usually a few I discover too late and wish could have made it on here, so I’m always on the lookout. Now to bring on the music!
12. “Snake Oil Baptism” – Diablo Swing Orchestra
I may have been going through an experimental phase when I discovered Diablo Swing Orchestra, an avant-garde metal band from Sweden (where so many of my favorite artists seem to originate). While not the weirdest song on the album Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole, “Snake Oil Baptism” leaves the biggest impression with its huge rock choir and shifting rhythms, including a definite Led Zeppelin influence. It feels like it should be in the soundtrack of a movie’s most awesome scene. Special mention for “The Sound of an Unconditional Surrender” and “Out Came the Hummingbirds.”
11. “Dreams of You” – The Birthday Massacre
I wouldn’t have expected myself to become a fan of a dark wave gothic rock band from Canada called The Birthday Massacre, but here we are. While some of their songs go a little too hard for me, most have an enchantingly dreamy quality that I love, like headbanging in the star-kissed twilight. An early release from their 2022 album Fascination, “Dreams of You” fits that atmospheric mold perfectly, with synths and drums creating a magical soundscape. And between you and me, it’s likely another song from Fascination will make it on the 2022 list.
10. “Wild Hearts” – Keith Urban
The video may be from 2022, but Keith Urban’s “Wild Hearts” was a high point for 2021’s country scene. Granted, I’m not a huge country fan, but this infectiously catchy, feel-good anthem hits all the right inspirational notes. Definitely perfect road-trip music.
9. “Highly Emotional People” – Marina
Now to swing from hard rock to tender pop. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land isn’t my favorite Marina album, but “Highly Emotional People” is an achingly beautiful meditation on the human need to express emotions, ranking among her most heartfelt songs. “Flowers” and “Goodbye” are similarly gorgeous entries that outshine the more bombastic singles.
8. “Butter” – BTS
It feels odd that I was never that impressed by BTS when they were growing into a Korean phenom, but their English-language songs have been genuine slam dunks breaking into American radio. “Dynamite” made it onto my 2020 list, and now “Butter” has done the same, both of them dance-worthy summer jams that are hard to resist. Special mention for “Permission to Dance” as well.
7. “One Night in Tokyo” – Beast in Black
Scandinavia, you’ve done it again. A Finnish heavy metal band called Beast in Black is also not what I would expect to be a favorite of mine, but boy, do they deliver the jams. Yannis Papadopoulos’ vocals are second to none, and the instrumental section at the two-minute mark is peak head-banging music for me. I assumed “Moonlight Rendezvous” would make it on the list when I first heard it, but “One Night in Tokyo” blew all others away.
6. “Can You Handle My Love??” – Walk the Moon
And a hearty welcome back to Walk the Moon, who placed #2 on my 2017 list and #8 on the 2019 list. I don’t know how they do it, but they always manage to come up with tunes that refuse to let me sit still. “Can You Handle My Love??” is a toe-tapping banger that should have been all over the radio, and I love how the heavy piano is complemented by the drums. Incidentally, this would be my VC’s #1 song. Special mention for “Win Anyway.”
5. “Surges” – Orangestar
There is something special about this short, fast-paced Japanese song that I can’t quite pin down. I’ve already mentioned how I love a heavy-handed piano, but beyond that, it just packs such energy and optimism into such a small runtime that I find it spectacular. After discovering this song, I must have listened to it a hundred times in the following week and never grew tired of it (I am not exaggerating). Despite being a Calorie Mate commercial, the accompanying animated “music video” is also brilliant and rather cathartic after all the COVID lockdowns.
Am I cheating here by including both a tie and a second appearance of BTS? Probably but I’ll allow it. 😉 Although Coldplay is one of my favorite bands, this is the first time they’ve appeared on my yearly song list (though they did get their own list), and they went full sci-fi with the latest album Music of the Spheres. The spacy grandeur of “Coloratura” or the digitized Latin chant of “Infinity Sign” affirm why Coldplay is amazing, but I have to go with the singles. “Higher Power” has a steadily growing energy that never disappoints, while “My Universe” is simply their best song in years, buoyed further by the cross-cultural message shared with BTS. As Chris Martin sings, “I’m happy I’m alive at the same time as you.”
3. “Feel Good” – Saint Motel
And a warm welcome back to Saint Motel, who placed at #6 in the 2020 list and #5 in 2019. They are a prime example of a band that should be HUGE, but I’m glad to be among their devoted fans. Although the full Original Motion Picture Soundtrack album was released last year, it was eclipsed for me by “Feel Good,” a stand-alone single written for the Netflix film Yes Day. Infectiously upbeat, it lives up to its name in all the best ways. Special mention for “It’s All Happening.”
2. “Into the Woods” – Autoheart
Autoheart is the musical discovery from last year that gladdens my heart the most. This British group became an instant favorite as I listened to their past piano-heavy masterpieces, sometimes haunting, sometimes quirky, and the Hellbent album was my favorite of last year. “Into the Woods” has a poignant, immersive melody, with its repeated insistence of “I feel fine” evoking a relatable denial and desperation. “I’m hopeful, I’m certain / I won’t be always hurting” – just gorgeous. Special mentions for “Older”, “Time Machine”, and “I Know That He Loves Me.”
1. “Heat Above” – Greta Van Fleet
It takes something special to outrank the previous few songs on this list, and “Heat Above” is special. Considering how often Greta Van Fleet is compared with Led Zeppelin in style and vocals, I would consider this their “Stairway to Heaven.” It feels BIG, like the kind of song that will (or should) become a rock staple in years to come. Josh Kiszka’s voice once again nails the Robert Plant-esque screams while the synth organ and timpani lend it the sound of a rock opera high point. Simply marvelous! Special mention for “Age of the Machine” and “My Way, Soon.”
There you have it, my favorite songs of 2021, however unconventional they may be. Obviously, this list is based on my own personal tastes, but hopefully there are some out there who might agree that these songs are awesome. Whether you do or not, let me know what your list would look like. The year 2021 may have continued the rather terrible trend that 2020 started, but at least we had some outstanding music to lift our spirits. As always, below is my long list of runners-up, continuing the countdown in order (#13, #14, etc.), so hopefully you’ll find some new favorites among my list as well.
“Next to Me”, “I Don’t Wanna Leave”, and “See You Again” – RUFUS DU SOL
“Follow the Light” and “Breakdown” – Dirty Loops & Cory Wong
“Night Eyes” and “Cosmicandy Girl” – The Orion Experience
“Run” and “Sunshine” – OneRepublic
“Summerland”, “What’s Wrong”, and “Hot Tea” – half alive
“Hate Myself” – Dodie
“Get Better” and “U&ME” – alt-J
“Mirror” – Sigrid
“Quiet Town” and “West Hills” – The Killers
“Christmas Truce” and “Steel Commanders” – Sabaton
“One Last Kiss” – Hikaru Utada
“Love Dies Young”, “Waiting on a War”, “Cloudspotter”, and “Holding Poison” – Foo Fighters
“Avid” – Hiroyuki Sawano (closing song for the anime 86 Eighty-Six)
“Heathens” and “Cure for Me” – Aurora
“Bitter Taste” – Billy Idol
“Stop Making This Hurt” – Bleachers
“I NEED YOU” – Jon Batiste
“Worry No More” – Amos Lee
“Be Bold!” and “Ai wo, Ima” – BRADIO
“Loretta” and “Juban District” – Ginger Root
“One Mississippi” – Kane Brown
“Easy on Me” and “I Drink Wine” – Adele
“Typhoons”, “Trouble’s Coming”, and “Oblivion” – Royal Blood
“See You Again”, “Lovers”, and “Easy Way Out” – Roosevelt
“Lose Your Head” and “Call Your Friends” – London Grammar
“Blossoms” and “Secret Worlds” – The Amazing Devil
“Back to Oz” and “Cimmerian Shade” – Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
“Airplane Song” and “Being Alone” – DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ
“Back from the Dead” and “RATA-TATA” – Royal Republic
“Beautiful Mistakes” – Maroon 5
“Last Dance” – Stefania (Greece’s Eurovision entry)
“Visiting Hours”, “Bad Habits”, and “Shivers” – Ed Sheeran
“My Poor Heart” and “Numbers” – Andrew Belle
“Maps” – Lesley Roy (Ireland’s Eurovision entry)
“He Said She Said”, “Killer”, and “How Not to Drown” – CHVRCHES
“Diamond Ring” – Jonah Nilsson, feat. Steve Vai
“Ghost of My Past”, feat. Emily Falvey, and “Elevate” – Vicetone
“Army of One” and “Behind Your Walls” – The Offspring
“Good 4 You” – Olivia Rodrigo
“End of Me” – Billy Talent, feat. Rivers Cuomo
“South Side”, feat. Foster the People, and “R U High”, feat. Mallrat – The Knocks
“Wake Me Up” – FOALS
“Searching for My Love” – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
“Put on a Smile” and “Skate” – Silk Sonic
“Don’t Say That” – iamnotshane
“Bright Blue Sky” and “Polygon” – TWRP
“Don’t Shut Me Down” and “I Still Believe in You” – ABBA
“Ghost” and “Bit of Good (Bit of Bad)” – Star-Lord Band
“Out of Time” – Diviners, BUNT., Tom Bailey
“Voices” – Tusse (Sweden’s Eurovision entry)
“Good in Red” – The Midnight
“The Maze”, feat. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, and “Raising Hell”, feat. Ben Harper – Tom Morello
“Tout l’Univers” – Gjon’s Tears (Switzerland’s Eurovision entry)
“Cornflower Blue” – Flower Face
“Destroyer” and “Phantom” – Of Monsters and Men
“Lose You Again” and “Tears That Never Dry” – Tom Odell
“Stronger” – Sam Feldt, feat. Kesha
“Musician” – Porter Robinson
“Home” – Walk Off the Earth (from the soundtrack of Blade Runner: Black Lotus)
“Superhuman” – Tritonal & Codeko
“Do Better” – Feint
“Embers” – James Newman (UK’s Eurovision entry)
“How High” – The Record Company
“The Tipping Point” – Tears for Fears
“Billy Goodbye” – Franz Ferdinand
“Cool Enough” – Almost Monday
“Discoteque” – The Roop (Lithuania’s Eurovision entry)
“Friendless” – Nathan Wagner
“Killing Me” – Chung Ha
“Hold No Grudge”, “Helen of Troy”, and “Solar Power” – Lorde
“The Ride” – RAFAL (Poland’s Eurovision entry)
And like I usually do with these music posts, I’ll end with a short tribute to the many musical artists we lost in 2021, including Phil Spector, Jimmie Rodgers, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, Bunny Wailer, DMX, Joe Long of The Four Seasons, Lloyd Price, Samuel E. Wright, Robby Steinhardt of Kansas, Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, Dennis Thomas of Kool & the Gang, Don Everly of The Everly Brothers, Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud, Jane Powell, Leslie Bricusse, Jay Black of Jay and the Americans, Graeme Edge of The Moody Blues, Stephen Sondheim, Steve Bronski of Bronski Beat, and Michael Nesmith of The Monkees. May they all rest in peace and never be forgotten. I’ve been deep into Broadway lyrics lately, so it seems right to feature the best version of one of Sondheim’s most celebrated songs.
Most humans have the comfort of not knowing of too much, Of doors we should not open and loose threads we ought not touch, Of dogs we dare not waken and of lines we should not cross, Lest brutal, futile knowledge should become our albatross.
The warning of “forbidden” has eroded over years, Decided as the product of unreasonable fears. For nothing is anathema, forbidden, or taboo, And so we delve too deeply into things we can’t undo.
When doors not meant to open are instead extended wide, And fears begin to slither in where had been only pride, And darkness once attractive starts exacting its dread cost, You’ll recognize what isn’t wise when certain lines are crossed. __________________________________
MPA rating: PG-13 (honestly, some of the violence leans toward R)
I never used to wait this long before reviewing Marvel blockbusters, but my mind hasn’t been in movie review mode lately. Still, it’s about time I got to it. Anyway, I’m an MCU fanboy, so anything they release I am likely to enjoy to varying levels. Even some that gave me initial mixed reactions like Thor: The Dark World or Eternals, I’ve grown to appreciate more with time and reflection. It’s rare then that time and reflection ends up lowering my opinion of a Marvel film, but such is the case with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I still liked it overall, but there are elements I can’t help but view with disappointment.
This second Doctor Strange film marks a milestone for the MCU; it’s the first time that a Marvel film has continued a storyline from one of the Disney+ TV series, specifically WandaVision, released about a year before. I’ve decided to skip reviewing TV shows (for now) and won’t go into detail on WandaVision, but it essentially dealt with the messy grieving process of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) after losing her beloved Vision (Paul Bettany) in Infinity War. It was the first time Wanda was referred to by her comics name of Scarlet Witch and introduced the potential children she might have had with Vision, as well as a cursed book called the Darkhold, all of which play a role in this film.
As for Stephen Strange himself (Benedict Cumberbatch), he has settled into the self-sacrificing superhero life of losing his own love Christine (Rachel McAdams) yet trying to convince himself he’s happy anyway. When a multiverse-hopping girl named America Chavez (a bit one-note but likable Xochitl Gomez) arrives in New York, chased by otherworldly creatures, Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) take on the duty of protecting her across universes.
Between Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the multiverse has already been cracked open for most viewers, but Doctor Strange in the MoM goes beyond variations of one character. Many would argue that it still doesn’t do enough with the concept to warrant a name like Multiverse of Madness, but my VC actually liked that the number of universes involved were limited, finding it easier to follow. The use of the multiverse is where my complaints begin (and the spoilers). One of the biggest set pieces of the film involves a multiversal team getting slaughtered mercilessly, which felt like a jarring contrast to the way that even villains were treated in No Way Home, a spectacle mistaking cruel for cool. It gave me concern that the multiverse could be used to just provide an endless supply of fan service cannon fodder because if one character dies, hey, there’s plenty of others out there for next time, right?
Beyond that, the film’s treatment of Wanda is also a mixed bag. While Olsen delivers an outstanding performance stepping into the rare role of a hero-turned-villain and showing just how powerful she is, it ends up undermining the emotional progress she seemed to experience in WandaVision (and totally ignoring the fact that Vision in some form is out there somewhere). Her motivations are sympathetic, but it was shocking just how far she goes, her behavior easily blamed on the corrupting power of the Darkhold but hard to forgive nonetheless. And then there’s Strange’s diving into the dark art of necromancy in the climax, which is both a gleeful reminder of director Sam Raimi’s horror specialty and also a problematic strategy that calls into question whether Strange can just walk away from any supposedly forbidden behavior without consequence. We’ll see if the sequels shed any light on that.
And speaking of sequels, it also felt like there should have been a different Doctor Strange 2 between the original and this one. Despite the brief presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo in a different universe, his setup as a villain in the first film’s after-credits scene was essentially dropped, waved away in a single line indicating he and Strange had already clashed before. Am I the only one who would have liked to see that?
So yes, I have mixed feelings about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, right down to its abrupt ending, yet I can’t outright dislike it either. It still has all the ingredients for an entertaining Marvel adventure, mixed with the sometimes creepy, somewhat goofy, and more violent style of Sam Raimi, complete with a prime Bruce Campbell cameo. I liked the more human element of Strange’s character arc, and Olsen’s scenery-chewing wrath is both memorable and cleverly resolved by the end. It can’t be easy writing these Marvel films in a way that continues prior plotlines, delivers its own story, and sets up future possibilities, but they’ve been doing it splendidly for a decade now. While it has its good points, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the first stumble for me.
Best line: (Wanda, with a good point) “You break the rules and become a hero. I do it, and I become the enemy. That doesn’t seem fair.”
On foreign roads, I may be led, No guarantees of food or bed; I might be kept, a bitter pill, By duty or against my will; I may delay on land or foam, But still I’ll know the way back home.
On dying hopes I may depend, But they’ll be with me to the end. For be it distance, sickness, wars That separates my heart from yours, I know no matter where I roam, Our love remains my road back home. ___________________________
MPA rating: G
I would never have even heard of The Road Home if it hadn’t been suggested to me by fellow movie-loving blogger Chris of Movies and songs 365. Sorry it took years to finally put it on my Blindspot list as incentive, but a big thanks for the recommendation! With the exception of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonand Yi Yi, Chinese cinema is unexplored territory for me, and while action and wuxia are more likely to make a splash with western moviegoers, it’s nice to be reminded of low-key romantic dramas like The Road Home, which can be easily overlooked.
After his father dies, a young man (Sun Honglei) returns home to his rural village and widowed mother, who insists on a traditional on-foot procession to bring her husband’s body back home, since he died in a nearby city. While weighing whether to honor her logistically difficult request, the man reminisces about his parents’ well-known love story and how his mother Zhai Di (Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger fame, in her first major role) first met his schoolteacher father Luo (Zheng Hao). In a creative choice also used in The Phantom of the Opera, the modern time period is presented in black-and-white while the flashbacks to 1950s China shift to bright color, showing how much more vivid Di’s memories are compared with her present-day grief.
The Road Home thrives on its simplicity and the nostalgia of young hearts fluttering after each other. Ziyi is luminous as the young Di, who longs for the village’s new schoolteacher and subtly finds ways to make her affection known. I would say there’s a bit too much of that distant flirting, with far too many repetitive shots of Di staring googly-eyed at her love, which eventually feel like padding for the already short runtime. Still, the performances are excellent, shifting from sentimentality to devoted worry when Luo is taken away by the Chinese government. The film’s real power comes at the end, though, when the impact of one rural schoolteacher on the community is made evident in a show of caring that would make Mr. Holland’s Opus proud.
The Road Home is perhaps too simple a tale to get much notice in a cinematic landscape crowded by superheroes and CGI space battles, but it’s a refreshingly human account of young love. As mentioned, some of the longing looks could have been edited out, and I rather wish we had gotten to see at least a little bit of the happy life that Di and Luo had together, instead of just its preface and epilogue. What we do see, though, is a warm and sweet reminder that our parents or grandparents loved deeply long before we came along.
Best line: (older Di, to her son) “Your father’s gone. He used to worry about you. Our children must leave home. We can’t keep you here forever. As parents, we let you go, but we never stopped worrying. Your father missed you so.” (Yusheng, the son) “Please don’t cry.” (Di) “With your father gone, it’s hard not to feel lonely.” (Yusheng) “I know.” (Di) “You must work hard and make a good life.”
Expectations are the weight That drags us to a win or loss. And either way, we learn to hate The expectation albatross.
For whether it is you alone Or one you’re trying to impress, The chance of failure’s one millstone That only comes off with success.
A flaw offends, a stumble spreads, And those who saw it coming quit, Shaking their collective heads. They knew you couldn’t handle it.
But then, you might have full support Yet build up such a stress within, That nothing but the highest court Could name you worthy of a win.
Still yet, we live for moments grand When fear is met by answered prayer, When what occurs is what was planned, Even if that may feel rare.
These expectations doom or drive Our efforts to achieve our best. Just know as long as you’re alive That nothing is a futile quest. ________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
I don’t know if anyone remembers, but I rewatched the original Top Gun back in 2020 so I could review it before the sequel came out later that year. Of course, a certain pandemic got in the way of that, repeatedly pushing the release of Top Gun: Maverick to a point where it would have the best chance of thriving in theaters rather than settling for a limited or streaming release. And thrived it has, racking up over a billion dollars and outperforming what I think most people expected from yet another resurrected 1980s franchise. I appreciate the first Top Gun on a purely superficial level but would never consider it a favorite movie, so I was genuinely surprised that Maverick actually managed to deliver on the hype that had grown around it.
Set over thirty years after the original, Top Gun: Maverick sees the return of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), whose penchant for risks and disobeying orders has kept him from rising above the rank of captain. With his career near its end, he is called by his old rival and friend Iceman (Val Kilmer, whose inclusion was a nice treat considering his health struggles) to return to Top Gun (a.k.a. the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) and train the most skilled graduates for a daring mission to destroy a uranium enrichment plant. Among them is “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s deceased partner Goose, and the two must work through their shared history to make the mission a success.
I can absolutely see a version of this movie with the same description I gave above that feels like a zombie retread of the first film, resurrected for the sake of cashing in on audience nostalgia. While that’s likely how the film’s development started, a laudable amount of effort and care went into making this a worthy successor that honestly surpasses the first film in every way. Knowing that the real actors and planes were involved in the aerial action adds much to the experience as a sharp contrast to the overabundance of CGI, and the high-flying direction feels brisk and immediate while not losing track of which plane is which. Plus, the soundtrack is a knockout, featuring not just the return of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” but also welcome additions from The Who, OneRepublic, and Lady Gaga.
It’s rather amazing that Maverick has all of the same ingredients as the first film – hot shot pilots, including a cocky rival (Glen Powell); surly superiors (Jon Hamm, Ed Harris); a simmering romance centered in a bar (now with Jennifer Connolly in place of Kelly McGillis); a shirtless volleyball game; and a climactic face-off with an unnamed enemy – and yet it deepens them and makes them mean more than in the original Top Gun. The writing and story are clearly improved and give the performances of Cruise and Teller especially much more dramatic weight as the loss of Goose continues to weigh on them both. And the whole climax set among snowy mountains is a tense thrill ride, not a sudden “crisis” that pops up like in the first film, but an extended mission that the whole film builds up to, with high stakes and an ever-present chance that someone might not make it home.
The distinction may only make sense to me, but I consider Top Gun an entertaining movie, while Top Gun: Maverick is an entertaining film. Both may be summer blockbusters, but the sequel lives in another category of quality, and I really would like to see it perhaps snag a Best Picture nod at the Oscars. Even with my half-hearted appreciation of the first film, the second was moving, patriotic, and immensely satisfying in its own right while also building on the nostalgia. It sets a new standard for these long-delayed ‘80s sequels, one that will be hard for any other to top.
Best line: (Admiral “Cyclone” Simpson) “Your reputation precedes you.” (Maverick) “Thank you, Sir.” (Adm. Simpson) “It wasn’t a compliment.”
Diamonds in the rough, by definition, Are diamonds no one ever thought to see, So hidden snugly in the earth That none would know or guess their worth, No fanfare for their forceful birth, No choice but anonymity.
But diamonds in the rough possess ambition, Convinced they have a chance at gems-to-be. Potential needs but one ally To see its wings before they fly, To know what others would deny: The diamond’s there for those who see. ________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
It’s still unclear what the long-term effects will be of the infamous slap that Will Smith gave Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars ceremony, not long before Smith then took the stage to accept his award for Best Actor. I’ve loved many of Smith’s films and still think he was robbed of an Oscar for The Pursuit of Happyness, so I was genuinely glad for him to finally get that gold statue, even if there was an inescapable distaste over what preceded it. Still, I try to watch films divorced from the personalities of the actors in them, and regardless of how egregious or overhyped some may consider Smith’s slap, you have to admit that he does a fantastic job as the controversial father of future tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.
King Richard would normally be a star-making role, but it seems right in line with Will Smith’s talents, even as he sports a pair of white shorts and a slight lisp. As he explains while pitching his daughters’ talents to various tennis instructors, Richard Williams had a plan for Venus and Serena from the start, and he and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) went to great lengths to give them plenty of practice on the public court in Compton. Once Richard actually gets the attention of some coaches (Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal), he proves to be an uncompromising negotiator on his daughters’ behalf, never doubting that they are destined to be stars.
Richard Williams was never on my radar, since Venus and Serena were already lauded pros by the time I paid any attention to tennis. (Plus, my mom usually only watches men’s tennis anyway. When are they going to make a Roger Federer movie?) The film certainly gets across Williams’ prickly, opinionated side that rubbed many the wrong way, whether it be his indignation over presumed microaggressions or his controlling attitude about his daughters’ futures. While it acknowledges some of his failings, the movie doesn’t dwell on them or even mention his and Oracene’s eventual divorce, and it can seem at times that the film agrees with him that Richard Williams knew best at all times. Luckily, Aunjanue Ellis does an outstanding and necessary job to match his passion for their success and offset his stubborn domineering, like when he goes too far trying to discourage his girls from bragging after a victory. While Ariana DeBose was great in West Side Story, Ellis honestly would have been just as deserving of the Supporting Actress Oscar.
Based on their status as executive producers, it’s clear that Venus and Serena Williams support this deeply fond portrayal of their father, so even if it smooths over some of his rough edges, I like to think it’s a picture of how they saw him, their first coach and cheerleader who valued their childhoods as well as their budding talents. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as the teenaged Venus and Serena, respectively, succeed at standing out despite Richard’s shadow, and it’s easy to root for them as the underdog in what was then even more of a predominantly white sport, examples for “every little black girl on earth,” as their father says. I sometimes got the girls mixed up, partially because Richard kept using nicknames I wasn’t aware of (“Junior” for Venus and “Meka” for Serena), but it became clear by the end, as Venus becomes the first to go pro with Serena waiting in the wings for her chance.
King Richard is a comfortable fit for the usual aspirational sports movie mold, but it’s a moving and above-average rendition of an American success story. I never really had an opinion of the Williams sisters (some people I know have said they seemed arrogant, contrasting with Richard’s lessons on humility in the film), but my admiration for their talent and triumphs has certainly grown, especially in the film’s depiction of success being found even in apparent loss. Richard Williams and Will Smith may both be controversy magnets in their own way, but King Richard showcases their shared love of family, the kind of stubborn love that, despite its flaws, can still inspire.
Best line: (Richard Williams, to his daughters) “The most strongest, the most powerful, the most dangerous creature on this whole earth is a woman who know how to think. Ain’t nothing she can’t do.”
What is it about being part of a group That makes one more likely to hate those outside it, To play in one’s mind their offenses on loop, And bask in contempt with no effort to hide it? The more they feel threatened by some other troop, The more they seek violence, and thus justified it.
It’s easy to fall into “us versus them,” To see every slight as a reason for hate, But history’s splattered with vengeful mayhem From tomfools preferring force over debate. Perhaps we can’t grow too far from such a stem, But “love wins,” they say. I suppose I will wait. _____________________________
MPA rating for 1961 film: Approved/PG MPA rating for 2021 film: PG-13
I didn’t expect the strain of NaPoWriMo to result in nearly a month off from blogging, but I’ve had my inspiration focused elsewhere. I’m back on the horse, though, and resurrecting a long-dormant feature: my Version Variations, where I review and compare two different cinematic versions of the same story. Whether it’s the original 1961 film adaptation from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins or Steven Spielberg’s recent remake, West Side Story is a beloved and socially relevant musical that certainly supports multiple tellings.
As much as I pride myself on loving musicals, it may seem odd that I never reviewed the original West Side Story, which is nowhere to be found on my Top 365 list. The simple truth is that I’ve never considered it one of my favorites. Before a recent rewatch for this comparison, I saw it many years ago and mainly remembered that “America” was the best number and the ending was depressing. Of course, it’s based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so of course it would have a sad ending, but that really is the main drawback for me. Intentionally tragic or not, I just don’t enjoy watching a tale that leaves me unsatisfied the way West Side Story does, though that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what comes before said ending.
The original West Side Story won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Picture, back when musicals were prime award material. It was a rather innovative move reimagining the family feud of Romeo and Juliet as a gang war between whites and Puerto Ricans in NYC’s Upper West Side, not to mention Jerome Robbins’ balletic choreography performed by these street punks. Despite not actually being Hispanic, Natalie Wood is a radiant Maria, who falls quickly in love with former Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer), much to the consternation of her brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris, who is also not Hispanic and actually played Riff on the London stage).
I was surprised that I enjoyed the 1961 film a lot more than I remembered. Right from the opening number where the Jets and Sharks trade intimidations, the dance numbers are iconic with their jazzy, avant-garde sensibility. As I recalled, Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning turn as Anita and her iconic song “America” is the highlight of the whole show. As someone who aspires to be a lyricist myself, I have immense respect for Stephen Sondheim and his words, whether it be “America”’s spirited debate on the nation’s virtues and vices or the fun but insightful social commentary of “Gee, Officer Krupke.” There’s so much to appreciate about the film’s romance, story, and musical production, yet it sadly feels fruitless by the tragic end, settling as a commentary for hatred matching hatred, which is worthwhile but far from a satisfying watch. Clearly, a sad ending hasn’t dampened West Side Story’s popularity or legacy, but it does keep it from ranking among my personal favorites.
Unfortunately, that goes for Spielberg’s 2021 remake, which is a shame since I consider it even better than the original in most respects. As good as the 1961 film is, it can’t help but feel dated, while last year’s version boasts a shiny makeover replete with graceful cinematography, colorful costumes, and greater cultural authenticity. Rachel Zegler makes an exceptional debut as Maria, while Ansel Elgort, despite some hate and reviews calling him wooden, is quite likable as Tony, and both flex their acting chops at the right moments. Ariana DeBose followed in Moreno’s footsteps, winning a deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, though I don’t know why her castmates were passed over for similar awards nominations, such as Mike Faist as Riff. Among the many small plot changes made by screenwriter Tony Kushner, I especially liked the addition of Rita Moreno as the widow of Doc (the soda shop owner in the original); she not only brings gravitas and a trace of the original film, but her marriage also serves as a sort of example for Tony of what he and Maria could have if they can overcome the conflict around them.
My VC was skeptical of the few plot changes and rearrangements and still prefers the original, but I think Kushner’s additions make the story even better. The discussion of Tony’s jailtime and his guilt over letting his temper go too far adds to his character and makes his eventual dip into violence less out of character, although his subsequent reunion with Maria is marred by the absence of an actual explanation before she forgives him. Likewise, I appreciated that Tony and Maria are actually able to go on a date to a nearby museum, giving their romance a little more room to grow instead of fifteen minutes in a dress shop in the 1961 film. Likewise, the number “Cool” is after the Rumble in the original and feels rather extraneous, but the 2021 version uses it as a confrontation between Tony and Riff as Tony attempts to prevent the Rumble, which seems like he tried harder than just showing up in the middle of it.
My main beef with the creative choices made was Spielberg’s explicit decision to not subtitle the Spanish dialogue, despite including far more Spanish than its predecessor. He stated this was to avoid “giving English the power over the Spanish.” He may have wanted “to respect the language enough not to subtitle it,” but he should have recognized that much of his audience may not know Spanish, which was frustrating for my VC. Some scenes coast on context and didn’t need subtitles, but others have entire conversations in Spanish that withhold full understanding from English-only viewers. Luckily, I know enough Spanish to keep up, and I don’t mind more of it for authenticity, so long as it doesn’t become a language barrier; I just think it was a poor and politically correct choice on Spielberg’s part.
Still, my criticisms of the newer film are minor objections when I look at how well it renewed a sixty-year-old classic. Last year was honestly a dream for lovers of movie musicals (like me), and it breaks my heart that In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story were all regarded as flops, since their performance might discourage future musical adaptations. Hopefully, Hollywood will just blame COVID and keep up this musical resurgence. There are still upcoming musical adaptations of The Color Purple, Mean Girls, and a two-part Wicked, so there’s hope.
While West Side Story feels like it deserves a place on my List, the ending is strangely a deal breaker for me. I don’t know why this tragic end is worse than sad endings like Grave of the Fireflies or Doctor Zhivago, but I’m just left unsatisfied with the lesson of “hatred breeds more hatred.” I can still appreciate both versions of this classic story and admire them for their obvious strengths. In deciding which is better, most will likely opt for the original, but I’d personally give the remake the edge. From Shakespeare’s time to 1961 to 2021, this story is clearly timeless and a well-deserved musical touchstone.
Best line from 1961 film: (Doc, to the Jets) “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!” (Action) “We didn’t make it, Doc.” Best line from 2021 film: (Riff, in a perfect summation of radicalization) “You know, I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like, and they don’t like me, and you know what’s left out of all of that? The Jets.”
Rank for 1961 film: List Runner-Up Rank for 2021 film: List Runner-Up (darn close to List-Worthy, though)
Once again, National Poetry Writing Month has come to an end. Looking back at all the poems and films I covered in April, it’s amazing how every post feels like I wrote it just yesterday, yet here I am with 28 behind me, thankfully clearing much of my backlog of watched movies that I might not have ever gotten to review otherwise. True, I unfortunately missed a couple days, just like last year, but I’m still very pleased with how well I was able to keep up. (While I was finally free of school this year, I didn’t have any reviews pre-written before April started, which has helped me in the past, so it felt like the daily posts took up more time than usual.) And I had the special thrill of being featured on the NaPoWriMo website, which hasn’t happened since 2016!
I’m actually relieved to be on the other side of April and free to work on another writing project that’s been on semi-hold for the last month. Still, it’s always satisfying to stretch my poetic muscles alongside a slew of other poets here in cyberspace. Big thanks to the NaPoWriMo website for all the prompts and to everyone who wrote, read, liked, followed, and commented throughout the month! And here’s a recap of all the films/poems covered in NaPoWriMo 2022:
(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a cento, a tricky form made up of lines borrowed from other poems. I probably spent more time on this hodgepodge of feminism than anything else this month. I only changed some punctuation here, and I’ve included annotations for where I found each line at the bottom of this post.)
I have not stood long on the strand of life, And I’m learning (though it sometimes really hurts me) The irresponsibility of the male. Everything was theirs because they thought so; ’Tis paid with sighs a plenty, And you just know he knows he knows The woman to be nobler than the man. Meekly we let ourselves be diverted, And woman in a bitter world must do the best she can.
Mere women, personal and passionate, Somewhere ages and ages hence: ‘Thou shalt not live by dreams alone. Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store Of blue midsummer loveliness, Of love’s austere and lonely offices, Of lads that wore their honors out, Of lusting, laughter, passion, pain.’
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come. Why do you show only the dark side?” It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard. For men may come and men may go, But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— I might as well be glad! I shall not pass this way again. ________________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
While playing Eleven in Stranger Things made an instant star out of Millie Bobby Brown, Enola Holmes let her put that star power to use as not only the titular character but also a producer for this adaptation of Nancy Springer’s YA book series, one of Brown’s favorites as a child. As the previously unknown sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes (here played by Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin, respectively), Enola shares their natural precociousness, thanks in large part to the unconventional homeschooling of her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). When Eudoria suddenly disappears, leaving only vague clues behind, Enola flees the expectations of her brothers to become a conforming Victorian lady and runs off to London in search of her mum while also stumbling into a murder plot involving a young marquess (Louis Partridge).
Despite some menace and light violence, the film is a light-hearted affair through and through, and I’m glad to see that clean, tween-friendly adventures of this quality are still being made. Brown shows far more charisma than in the role of Eleven and uses it to playful effect as she breaks the fourth wall, conversing freely with the audience like a first-person narrator. Some Sherlock Holmes fans might be disappointed (I understand many were) with Cavill’s restrained and less-than-omniscient portrayal of the famous detective, but he’s more of a side character here and still employs his famed deductive ability on occasion. Claflin’s Mycroft is more of an antagonist, acting as the aggressively traditional authority figure trying to crush Enola’s spirited individuality with corsets and boarding school, which by now have become clichéd forms of Victorian oppression.
The period costumes and locations are top-notch, and Enola’s puzzle-solving and gentle subversions keep the plot engaging, despite it feeling overly complex at times. One element that felt odd was Enola’s mother, who is shown to be her hero and dearest inspiration for thinking outside the box yet also is implied to be involved in some kind of feminist terrorist plot. That storyline is never resolved, and her final scene doesn’t really compensate for how she abandoned her daughter without explanation, leaving her character in a strange position of semi-sympathy. Hopefully, the sequel due later this year will address that further and give Brown another opportunity to bring her appealing character to life.
Best line: (Sherlock, giving sleuthing advice) “Look for what’s there, not what you want to be there.”
‘I have not stood long on the strand of life, (Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning) And I’m learning (though it sometimes really hurts me) (“Learning” by Judith Viorst) The irresponsibility of the male (“Parturition” by Mina Loy) Everything was theirs because they thought so. (“The Last One” by W. S. Merwin) ’Tis paid with sighs a plenty (“When I Was One-and-Twenty” by A.E. Housman) And you just know he knows he knows. (“The Sloth” by Theodore Roethke) The woman to be nobler than the man, (Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning) Meekly we let ourselves be diverted (“Great Infirmities” by Charles Simic) And woman in a bitter world must do the best she can. (“The Harpy” by Robert Service)
Mere women, personal and passionate, (Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning) Somewhere ages and ages hence: (“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost) ‘Thou shalt not live by dreams alone (“Religious Instruction” by Mina Loy) Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store (“The Rights of Women” by Anna Laetitia Barbald) Of blue midsummer loveliness, (“A Summer Morning” by Rachel Field) of love’s austere and lonely offices? (“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden) Of lads that wore their honors out (“To an Athlete Dying Young” by A.E. Housman) Of lusting, laughter, passion, pain, (“Prelude” from Ballads of a Bohemian by Robert Service)
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come; (“The Author to Her Book” by Anne Bradstreet) Why do you show only the dark side?” (“Käthe Kollwitz” by Muriel Rukeyser) It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard. (“The Quitter” by Robert Service) For men may come and men may go (“The Brook” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson) But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— (“First Fig” by Edna St. Vincent Millay) I might as well be glad!” (“The Penitent” by Edna St. Vincent Millay) I shall not pass this way again. (“I Shall Not Pass This Way Again” by Anonymous)
(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem balancing the gifts you were born with and some kind of curse. I started out with that goal, but I’m not sure the result quite matches the prompt today. Still, in going more general, I think I tapped into why I’m an optimist.)
It’s tempting to wish for a different life, To notice how easy another’s would be. If I were not stuck With such miserable luck… As if the potential were some guarantee.
Yet when I feel like that, beguiled by grief, Envisioning tragedy somehow undone, I catch such a muse, So intent to abuse, And show it each smile from trials I’ve won.
The good that I’ve seen and at least tried to do Could likewise be gone, both the sorrow and gifts. Life’s not simplified Looking on the bright side, But I’ll take what’s true over trading in ifs. ______________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
I can’t seem to find much agreement on whether The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is better or worse than its predecessor. I’ve read reviews that acclaim Andrew Garfield’s charisma when wearing his Spidey suit, and it certainly does have more personality than the somewhat bland first film. Yet I’ve also seen certain scenes mercilessly mocked, like the unresolved ending with Paul Giamatti as a hammy Russian Rhino. Personally, I think the second film does improve on the first, at least in answering some of the lingering questions, and it certainly took guts to put to film one of the most famous and gut-wrenching twists from the comics.
Garfield may still be the third best Peter Parker (sorry!), but he’s still quite a good one, especially alongside Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. Haunted by the dying words of Gwen’s father (Denis Leary), he still fears for her safety, and with good reason as numerous supervillains threaten the city. Like many other nerds-turned-villains, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) starts out idolizing Spider-Man before an accident and a misunderstanding turn him into the vengeful Electro, while Peter’s old pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan as a pale stand-in for James Franco) is spurred by a terminal illness into Green Goblin-hood.
There’s much to enjoy in Garfield’s second outing, from several outstanding action set pieces to the continued winsome chemistry between Peter and Gwen. While the backstory about Peter’s father isn’t the most interesting aspect, it does supply a logical answer to an unspoken question. I like to say that the freak accidents in these movies, like a radioactive spider bite or falling into a tank of electric eels, either kill you or give you superpowers, and there’s a pretty good reason why it was the latter for Peter specifically. The plot is rather long and busy with all the villains and laying the groundwork for future sequels that never materialized (Felicity Jones never gets to do much as Felicia Hardy), but I can appreciate how much this film tries since the first seemed content to be underwhelming.
It’s notable how both Garfield’s series and Tobey Maguire’s run as Spider-Man both ended on rather dour notes. Neither Spider-Man 3 nor Amazing Spider-Man 2 end very happily, so it’s all the better that No Way Home managed to provide some much-needed closure for some of its predecessors’ loose or less-than-satisfying ends. I’m still hoping for more, though, and with the renewed appreciation that No Way Home inspired for Spider-Men past, perhaps we’ll see even more of Garfield’s Peter Parker.
Best line: (Gwen Stacy’s valedictorian speech) “It’s easy to feel hopeful on a beautiful day like today, but there will be dark days ahead of us too. There will be days where you feel all alone, and that’s when hope is needed most. No matter how buried it gets, or how lost you feel, you must promise me that you will hold on to hope. Keep it alive. We have to be greater than what we suffer. My wish for you is to become hope; people need that. And even if we fail, what better way is there to live? As we look around here today, at all of the people who helped make us who we are, I know it feels like we’re saying goodbye, but we will carry a piece of each other into everything that we do next, to remind us of who we are, and of who we’re meant to be.”