A Star Is Born (2018)

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When tragedies have run their course,
Demanding pity and remorse,
It’s easy wondering if they
Could end up any other way,
The fruit of foolishness and force.

Yet tragedies are not complete
Without some happiness’ retreat.
Contentment grief could not erase,
However brief, once offered grace
To take the bitter with the sweet.

The stars will fall one mournful night,
But only once they shed their light.
Those basking in it aren’t aware
Of pain that stars refuse to share,
Yet when they shine, oh, what a sight!
______________________

MPAA rating: R (for very frequent language and brief nudity)

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to write or review much recently, not only because of Thanksgiving but because of the increasing demands of school. That will probably only get worse over the next two months (sorry!), but I wanted to make time for the latest version of A Star Is Born. Nearly two years ago, I did a Version Variations post comparing the three former incarnations of A Star Is Born the 1937 original, the 1954 Judy Garland musical, and the 1976 Barbra Streisand musical and I couldn’t help but notice the huge surge in views that post got when Bradley Cooper’s latest film hit theaters. Back then, I made a fleeting reference to another version in the works, and at last here it is, a heavy-hitting Oscar contender that deserves the same appraisal as its forerunners.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have been rightly lauded for this modern retelling of a decades-old story. It’s likely familiar to many: A big star discovers a budding talent, falls in love, and helps her own ascent to the top while crashing pitifully into drunken disgrace. In addition to producing and directing, Cooper plays Jackson Maine, the big name in country rock who is taken with an unknown singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) and whisks her into the limelight.

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Cooper is almost unrecognizable next to previous roles like Silver Linings Playbook, bearded, singing admirably, and boasting a much deeper voice than usual, one that still doesn’t quite match that of Sam Elliott as his older brother/manager. By the time Ally reaches stardom, it’s easy to see why Cooper insisted on Lady Gaga’s casting, but she delivers more than just her distinctive voice, nailing the dramatic moments just as well as more established actresses. Stripped of her famously absurd costumes and style, it’s easier to see why she’s such a star, and it’s an interesting reversal that Ally balks at the prospect of being forced into changing her hair and adding background dancers, lest she lose herself in celebrity.

One of my coworkers wasn’t a fan of the characterization of the two leads, but I think most view the acting as close to beyond reproach, which is why Cooper and Gaga are both Oscar favorites at the moment, not unlike the main stars of the 1937 and 1954 versions. Likewise, the soundtrack is outstanding, with a blend of rockabilly and pop, headbangers and heartfelt elegies, that made me wonder which one might nab Best Original Song, since I could see most of them being worthy. (I will say that I think the 1976 film still has a more memorable soundtrack, but that might be due to my personal preferences.)

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How then does this 2018 version compare with what came before? The story at its heart and conclusion is still the same, but this incarnation might have the least in common with its predecessors. The other versions (especially the 1954 one) had some scenes that were directly plucked from the one before, while the one constant that carries over into the latest version is the awards embarrassment, where Maine’s flaws are made painfully public at the Grammys. I suppose its rock ‘n’ roll context and final scene are closest in spirit to the 1976 Streisand version, but Cooper did a fine job at making this story his own.

That being said, it’s not above criticism. I personally think that the “meet-cute” between Jackson and Ally, which happens in a drag bar before they head out to a grocery store parking lot, is the weakest of the four. There’s clearly chemistry, but when Ally starts singing an impromptu song supposedly on the fly, I didn’t really buy it.

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Luckily, the plot improves as it goes, putting some of the strongest scenes of any version in the second half. Jackson himself amid his addiction is especially portrayed well, particularly a heart-wrenching scene where he genuinely apologizes to Ally for embarrassing her. The 1976 version left me uncertain whether Kris Kristofferson’s character really loved Streisand’s, especially since it’s still the only version where he cheats on her; Cooper fixes that problem, painting Maine more clearly as a tragic failure of good intentions corrupted by substance abuse. The other versions were certainly sad, but Cooper’s truly embraces the story’s potential as a tearjerker.

As to be expected from an R-rated Oscar contender, the biggest problem I had with A Star Is Born is the nearly constant profanity. I know the F-word is getting more pervasive in today’s culture by the day, but when the script includes over a hundred of them, it just feels like a lazy placeholder word, ultimately without meaning. To be honest, it’s more annoying than offensive, especially when it’s hard to imagine how it could ever be cut enough to be shown on normal TV.

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After much deliberation, I think I would rank this A Star Is Born second among the four, and not just because of the language complaint. The 1937 version remains the best in my opinion, thanks to its insightful script. (Plus, I love that Grandma Lettie!) Cooper’s version proves that there is still life in this story, especially when delivered with nuance and brilliant performances. It also disproves the law of diminishing returns with this tale being remade every few decades, making me wonder what the next remake thirty years from now might look like.

Best line: (Bobby,  Jackson’s half-brother) “Jack talked about how music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes, and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes. That’s it. He loved how you see them.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
594 Followers and Counting

 

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2018 Blindspot Pick #10: Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light (2011)

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When the forest’s green carpet was dappled with light,
The trees standing stolid in blithe oversight,
I cried, a mere child, alone on my knees,
And lost with no help from the untroubled trees.

I don’t know how long I stayed, venting vain tears,
For he found me, as when a rainbow appears,
And though I perhaps should have harbored unease,
I beamed at the man, standing masked among trees.

I tried to embrace him, but he dodged the act
And said he would vanish from human contact,
For spirits like him are too fragile to squeeze,
And so we stood separate, surrounded by trees.

I doubted his words, yet I welcomed his care,
As he led us back homeward, a curious pair.
And though he said not to, tomorrow the breeze
Will lead me back to him, a ghost among trees.
______________________

MPAA rating: Not Rated (easily a G as far as content)

Blindspot picks are supposed to be films that one has been meaning to see for a long time and hasn’t gotten around to it. Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light (or Hotarubi no Mori e) certainly fits that definition for me. It has long been included in other people’s lists of favorite anime, typically alongside Studio Ghibli films, and I couldn’t put it off anymore. I was even proud that I had been able to avoid spoiling the ending, and now that I’ve seen it… I don’t want to say I’m disappointed, just that I thought there would be more to it.

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I should have known not to expect too much, based on positive reviews noting its simplicity, and indeed that simplicity is one of its key strengths. The story follows the relationship of a girl named Hotaru who, while lost in a forest at six years old, meets a young man in a mask. Though he insists that no human should touch him, lest he disappear forever, she continues to visit him, and the two become close friends. Despite the invisible barrier of physical contact, they even begin to love each other, as the girl grows older, returning to the spirit forest year after year.

That’s as much as I knew going in, and while there’s a bittersweet payoff that admittedly does hit the emotions hard, that’s pretty much the whole story. There aren’t any subplots and not many extra characters, and frankly the tale didn’t need them. As seen in Makoto Shinkai’s works, such as The Garden of Words, anime films don’t necessarily have to be of feature length to realize their intended effect, and 44 minutes was just right for this one.

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I will say that it could have been very easy for the story to come off as creepy by nature. After all, a lost little girl meets a masked man in the woods, who hits her with a stick (when she tries to touch him). It might have been a hard sell just describing the plot like that, but instead it’s a sweet friendship/romance that might leave many a viewer brushing away tears. Perhaps its length kept it from hitting me hard enough for that, or perhaps I was just expecting too much, but Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light still worked well as a mini-tearjerker with some lovely animation from the studio Brain’s Base, albeit nothing exceptional. With a few traces of Ghibli-esque whimsy, it’s a touching little fantasy for those looking for a tug on the ol’ heartstrings.

Best line: (Hotaru) “Time might separate us some day. But, even still, until then, let’s stay together.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
594 Followers and Counting

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

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When deadly traps and finger snaps can bring the universe to dust,
And most heroics boil down to saving life itself or bust,
It’s effortless becoming numb to world-annihilating threats
And yawning while you wait until the pall of doom and gloom resets.

And that is why you sometimes want some slightly more light-hearted fun,
Reminding you not every story has to be a cosmic one.
A chase, a smile, a smaller trial, when carried out with proper style,
Has enough unique appeal to satisfy this cinephile.
____________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

It’s simply a coincidence that I planned to review a Marvel movie the day after the great Stan Lee’s death. While I’m still deeply saddened at the loss of a comic book icon, I’m also grateful for his cultural contributions, which have not only taken over the 21st-century box office but have provided countless hours of entertainment, a prime example of which is Ant-Man and the Wasp.  The first Ant-Man was an unlikely success that surprised more than a few skeptical viewers, and I’m just as surprised that its follow-up is even better.

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A light-hearted caper like Ant-Man and the Wasp was bound to leave one of two impressions, coming on the heels of a huge, stuffed, sobering juggernaut like Avengers: Infinity War. Either it would be seen as fluff filler that felt out of place after Infinity War’s cliffhanger, or it would be a refreshingly light change of pace from the end-of-the-world exploits we’ve come to expect from the MCU, not unlike the first Ant-Man. Though some critics have voiced the former view, I favor the latter. While Marvel excels at balancing its doom and gloom with humor, sometimes you need a superhero movie where the stakes stay relatably small, and what better vehicle for those “small” stakes than Ant-Man himself?

Of course, the key to ensuring that such a small-stakes story still matters is letting the stakes matter to the characters. After the public debacle in Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is nearing the end of his house arrest and remains a lovably earnest father to his daughter Cassie. Meanwhile, original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) are on the run from the government while seeking Hank’s long-lost wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) somewhere in the infinitesimal Quantum Realm. Chasing both clues and tech to make that possible, they recruit Scott into their risky size-altering mission.

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Ant-Man was a heist film at its core, and while Ant-Man and the Wasp retains a lot of its predecessor’s style, it transmogrifies it into a twisty nonstop chase, freewheeling from one fight or set piece to the next with gleeful abandon. It’s essentially a MacGuffin hunt, with the MacGuffin usually being Pym’s tech-filled lab shrunk to the size of a breadbox. (The way it’s tossed around, he must have everything in the building bolted down!) Of course, Pym and Hope need it to save the original Wasp, but it’s also desired by a greedy small-time gangster (Walton Goggins) and by the semi-intangible Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), whose intentions are more sympathetic than most Marvel antagonists.

Rudd and Lilly continue to strengthen their tag team chemistry, and while it’s significant that Lilly’s Wasp is the first title superheroine of the MCU (and the last of the original Avengers roster from the comics to join), she owns the role in a way that makes a kick-butt female with wings seem only natural as Ant-Man’s partner. (By the way, can she use the wings when she’s normal-sized or just when shrunk? I know I’d be using them all the time.) Also returning is Michael Peña’s Luis, who is still possibly the best comic relief sidekick of the MCU, and Randall Park makes a fun appearance as Scott’s parole officer trying to catch him in the act of breaking his house arrest.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp may not have the star power or all-around epicness of Infinity War, but I can honestly say that I enjoyed it just as much for different reasons (and minus the soul-crushing deaths). It’s a smaller affair than others of its MCU brethren, but it’s purely fun entertainment with no shortage of thrills and laughs. Plus, it’s probably the most family-friendly Marvel film yet and feels nicely self-contained, with a conclusion that’s more heartwarming than usual while leaving enough room for future stories. One of my older coworkers saw it with her grandkids and loved it, even though she’d never even seen the first Ant-Man. You’d think that Marvel would be showing signs of fatigue after twenty films, but I certainly can’t tell based on #20.

Best line: (Hank, speaking of his wife Janet and Scott’s brief time in the quantum realm) “We think when you went down there, you may have entangled with her.”   (Scott) “Hank, I would never do that. I respect you too much.”   (Hank) “Quantum entanglement, Scott.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy (joining Ant-Man)

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
594 Followers and Counting

 

VC Pick: Nighthawks (1981)

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There once was a cop in a dress
Who left criminals in a mess.
One terrorist came
With destruction his aim.
Who won? Well, I think you can guess.
___________________

MPAA rating: R (mainly for language and some violence)

I waited too long to review one of my VC’s movies last time, so I thought I’d squeeze a little one in before another month went by.  Nighthawks happens to be one of her favorite Sylvester Stallone films, and while that mainly has to do with Stallone’s rugged beard and mustache, it really is a well-made urban thriller with a great villain played by Rutger Hauer in his American debut.

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I wasn’t entirely surprised when I read that Nighthawks was originally intended for Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle but ultimately retooled for Stallone. His character of NYPD Detective Deke DaSilva is similarly gruff and uncompromising toward criminals, though he’s more reluctant to kill and more eager to dress in drag. (Where else are you going to see Stallone in a dress while beating up thieves?) He’s less than thrilled to be pulled from active duty to join a counter-terrorism unit, but he finds a worthy adversary when international terrorist Wulfgar (Hauer, in stellar psychotic killer mode) arrives to make his mark on New York City.

It’s interesting to note that Nighthawks’ focus on the ruthlessness of terrorism was a bit ahead of its time. The U.S. wasn’t used to the idea of terrorist attacks on American soil in 1981, so the plot was seen as vaguely implausible, though certainly not so now. Wulfgar’s motivations aren’t particularly specific, but he makes for a coldly calculating monster, especially in how Hauer manages to feign normal nice-guy behavior at times.

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Nighthawks isn’t the most memorable thriller, even among those from the ‘80s, but Hauer’s villainy and Stallone’s beard do help distinguish it. Due to aggressive editing, subplots like DaSilva’s estranged ex-wife fall by the wayside, but the plot still retains focus; and the ending boasts one of the great “gotcha” moments of the genre. The title may sound like one of those totally undescriptive names that was picked to sound cool (it’s actually a nickname for nighttime patrol cops), but I can see why my VC is fond of Nighthawks.

Best line:  (Pam, a woman Wulfgar is seducing) “Yes. What do you do for a living?”   (Wulfgar, sarcastically) “I’m an international terrorist wanted by the police in half the countries in Europe. And I am currently laying low for the moment.”   (Pam) “Oh, sure!”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
592 Followers and Counting

 

2018 Blindspot Pick #9: Hush (2016)

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I can see you through the window.
I can see you through the door.
I could speak and mark my presence
As I’ve often done before,
Yet you’d heedlessly ignore.

I could detail all the lurid
Games I plan to play with you,
But my words would all be wasted
While you never had a clue,
While I linger out of view.

I could hover right behind you,
So amused you cannot hear,
But if I proceed too quickly,
It would be a waste of fear.
Never do I waste, my dear.

So enjoy your ignorance,
The bliss of danger still concealed.
Soon I’ll get to see it shatter
When my secret is revealed.
Then you’ll know your fate is sealed.
_________________________

MPAA rating:  R (for violence and brief language)

I haven’t been able to watch many movies specifically for Halloween this year, but I always intended this Blindspot for October. Among my Blindspots, Hush represents not only the horror genre but a subgenre I’ve intentionally avoided for the most part: the slasher. I’m honestly not sure if I’ve ever seen a true slasher film. (I’m not counting something like Alien or The Terminator, which might technically fit some of the requirements but have additional science fiction elements that set them apart). Actually, I might take that back, since I just thought of Psycho and Audrey Hepburn’s Wait Until Dark, though I’m not sure those fully qualify. Yet, just as Wait Until Dark was unique in pitting its killers against a blind woman, Hush does the same in making the target a deaf woman and using that important detail to its advantage.

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Hush has a brilliance of economy to it, with a minimum of dialogue and only five speaking roles. Kate Siegel (the wife of the director Mike Flanagan) plays Maddie Young, a reclusive novelist in true Stephen King fashion (one of King’s books can be spotted early on), and her attempts at cooking provide a brief glimpse into what it’s like in a world with no sound. While it feels odd to not hear a frying pan sizzling, it’s much more alarming to not hear a masked psycho outside your window. Before this killer (John Gallagher, Jr.) makes his presence known, his stalking is utterly creepy considering how oblivious Maddie is, but the tension still remains high even after she becomes aware of the threat.

Hush is very much a game of cat and mouse, with Maddie testing how best to escape while the killer cuts off every chance with only his sadism keeping him from simply breaking into the house. He intentionally toys with her, boasting every advantage, including sound, and it was a genuine thrill to see how she turns the tables on him while never veering into unrealistic territory. What I most appreciated was how well the plot played out visually. Since Maddie is deaf and mute, most of her confrontations with the killer are wordless, made more intense by the absence of screaming you’d expect from a horror movie.

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Unfortunately, Hush was rather bloodier than I typically like, with one little twisty shock and several bloody injuries being exchanged, but it was an enjoyable horror-thriller, even if it may adhere to some typical slasher conventions, as far as I know them. There were no hateful characters (aside from the killer) or annoyingly dumb decisions, and the acting was strong and entirely believable. Though he doesn’t wear it that long, even the killer’s mask is effective, resembling Michael Myers’ visage but with a slight smile that reflects the playful malevolence of the psycho behind it.

Since I’m not counting Psycho, it probably doesn’t mean much to say this is the best true slasher film I’ve seen (#1 of 1!), but it’s a good Halloween find all the same. Aside from disliking the gruesomeness, I suppose I’ve avoided the genre due to how many bad movies it seems to churn out, but I’m glad my first sampling was a high-quality breath-catcher like Hush. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us have to stay silent and hide from those trick-or-treaters lurking outside.

Best line:  (Maddie) “….”

(I love how that’s actually listed as a quote on iMDB!)

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
592 Followers and Counting

 

2018 Blindspot Pick #8: Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

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A normal day, no thought of death—
Till one call makes me catch my breath,
And all at once, the world I knew
Is marred by news that can’t be true.

It seems just yesterday we spoke,
And just this morning both awoke,
And now before the day’s complete,
It’s only one whose heart can beat.

“Why?” is foremost in my mind,
Which can’t be answered by mankind.
We only know one evildoer
Dared to make good people fewer.

Once anger, blame, and heartache fade,
And all my searchings have been prayed,
My memories of you remain,
And love of them must keep me sane.
_______________________

MPAA Rating:  Not Rated (a few F words, but most of the content is PG-13 level)

I haven’t had much time for anything other than school lately, but I don’t want to forget about my Blindspot picks this year. Some of them, and quite a few others I’ve seen since starting this blog, I owe to MovieRob. His seemingly non-stop movie-watching/reviewing has introduced me to plenty of hidden gems (many of which I’ve still yet to see), but when he ranked a documentary called Dear Zachary among his favorite films of all time, I knew I had to check it out. Plus, I loved director Kurt Kuenne’s time-hopping Shuffle, another MovieRob recommendation and my favorite Blindspot from last year, so I was curious to explore his previous work.

As some may know, I’m not the biggest fan of documentaries in general, since they’re often well-executed and informative but never have as much entertainment value as a normal movie. Even if it was the best doco ever made, I’d pick a feature film every time if I had the choice (which is why I grade them as a simple “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down”). That being said, Dear Zachary is probably the best documentary I’ve seen, simply because of how engaging it is. This is not a true-life story to watch casually, vaguely absorbing facts as they’re doled out. No, this film strikes deeper because of what a personal project it was for its director and how its focus evolved during filming.

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Handling everything from music to editing, Kurt Kuenne originally wanted to memorialize his lifelong friend Andrew Bagby, who was murdered after breaking up with the clearly unstable Shirley Turner. Once in custody, Turner announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s son Zachary. To eventually introduce Zachary to the father he’d never know, Kuenne traveled the country to gather interviews with Andrew’s friends and extended family, all of whom attest to what a special and loving man he was. If the story had ended there, it might never have been released to the public, probably remaining a personal collection of bittersweet video recollections.

Yet, as I said, the film’s focus deftly shifts from Andrew to Zachary to Andrew’s long-suffering parents, who face a lengthy legal battle with Shirley, the details of which I won’t spoil. Through it all, Kuenne’s narration manages to be both objective in stating the facts and deeply impassioned about the loss of his friend. His editing sometimes borders on too frantic, spitting out details a bit too fast to keep up, but it imbues the account with an urgency that never lets the viewer’s attention lag. Between his commentary and the heartbreaking interviews with Andrew’s parents, it’s easy to share their heartache at how things turned out and their anger at the miscarriages of justice they endured.

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Watching Kuenne’s meticulous recap of this tragedy, I couldn’t help but admire his devotion to his departed friend, who I felt I knew well by the end. If I were to suffer the same fate as Andrew Bagby, I’m not sure there would be the same outpouring of grief from friends and relatives, close and distant, but Andrew clearly left behind a legacy that Kuenne captured beautifully. Yet Dear Zachary is as much a love letter to Andrew’s parents as to Andrew himself, representing their Job-like patience and resolve with clear affection. Between the drama of the unfolding crime story and the profoundly personal heartache it leaves, I certainly see why MovieRob is so fond of it. It’s criminal that the Academy didn’t even deign to give it a nomination for Best Documentary. Even if documentaries aren’t my preferred cup of tea, this one is too good to miss.

 

Rank: Thumbs Way Up

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
592 Followers and Counting

 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

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There once was a spy on the front
Who could save the whole world with a stunt.
He often was hunted
But did as he wanted,
For no one could match Ethan Hunt.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

At this point, I’m not surprised that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is yet another great addition to this series. What distinguishes it, though, is how it finally recognizes the value of continuity, something I put great value on in both TV show and film franchise. From the very first scene, we get Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) bantering with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) in three different locations, only for all three to be dumbfounded at Tom Cruise/Ethan Hunt’s latest death-defying stunt to save the day. It’s a perfect combination of this series’ strengths, and for once, the audience already knows everyone involved, like catching up with old friends.

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That only continues when Brandt is called by the FBI director (Alec Baldwin) to answer for the IMF’s riskier plays in Ghost Protocol, followed by Ethan being ambushed by the mysterious organization known as the Syndicate (namedropped at the end of the previous movie). Beyond the refreshing continuity, it’s also nice to make new friends, and the film quickly charts its own course with the introduction of Rebecca Ferguson as a mysterious agent undercover in the Syndicate. With Ethan wanted by both the Syndicate and the FBI, he must rely on his usual daring and teamwork to outsmart the Syndicate’s Moriarty-like mastermind (Sean Harris).

Rogue Nation really shines through its stars. Cruise is as cleverly fearless as ever, while Ferguson maintains an arm’s-length chemistry with him as her allegiances constantly seem to shift. Meanwhile, Pegg, Rhames, and Renner are ideal companions for Cruise, particularly Renner’s second guessing of one of Cruise’s risky decisions (which seemed ripped right out of the second National Treasure, by the way). When they cite their loyalty and friendship, it means something since we’ve gotten to see it develop over two-plus movies, and Christopher McQuarrie’s script and direction highlight how well they all work together.

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My VC liked Rogue Nation better than Ghost Protocol, placing it just shy of the third film, while I tend to view the last three movies as tied, just for different reasons. The third film had the best villain and the most emotional stakes, the fourth film had the best plot and some of the coolest action scenes, and Rogue Nation has the best mixture of everything this series does well and possibly the best script, including some outstanding “gotcha” moments that felt so good.

That being said, I do feel that this one is just a little more generic than the others. The best and most original action scene is Tom Cruise’s minutes-long foray into an underwater data tank, but much of the rest consists of foot chases, car chases, motorcycle chases, and fistfights, which are all executed masterfully but can’t quite escape that feeling of déjà vu. Likewise, a tense scene in an opera kept me guessing all the way through, but also reminded me of a similar scene in Quantum of Solace.  Writing this review a couple weeks after watching it, I already feel like this will be the entry that remains in my memory the least.

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I hate to sound so negative, because Rogue Nation is still a great movie. It’s just that, with three great entries in a row now, I’m starting to have to nitpick to figure out where they rank in this series. I’m happy to group it in with its two predecessors, and I’m more excited than ever to finally see Fallout, now that I’ve completed my catch-up marathon of prior films. I’m especially glad to see that the villain’s open ending in Rogue Nation will get a continuation in Fallout, but I’m also rather disappointed that Jeremy Renner is nowhere to be found in the cast list. Based on its glowing reviews, though, I still hope that Fallout will be the finale to this marathon for which I’ve been hoping.

Best line: (Benji, sarcastically) “Join the IMF! See the world! On a monitor. In a closet.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy (joining the previous two)

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
591 Followers and Counting

 

Next Gen (2018)

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The world’s an easy place to hate,
For it hates all too frequently.
And anger tends to escalate
The more it’s met with enmity.

One pain of heart
Can sow and start
A seed of hate
To germinate
And grow until
There’s no goodwill
For world or friend.
They all offend!
Life’s all about
The lashing out,
For no one cares
Or answers prayers;
Of that, they do not have a doubt.

But wait…
And hesitate to hate,
Just long enough to listen clear.
The world itself is quite the weight,
But others bearing it stand near
To show you how to persevere.
___________________

MPAA rating:  PG

It might be easy to write off a film that borrows plot elements from other stories as freely as Next Gen does, but this Chinese-American cartoon based on a graphic novel and delivered by Netflix manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Set in a futuristic world where personable robots are a ubiquitous household accessory, young robot-hating loner Mai (Charlyne Yi) becomes unlikely friends with an experimental droid called 7723 (John Krasinski) that might be able to save both her from herself and the world from a robot takeover. That description alone will probably conjure memories of The Iron Giant, Big Hero 6, and I, Robot, and Next Gen wears those similarities on its sleeve. Yet there’s more to appreciate beyond the familiar “boy and his robot” storyline (or “girl and her robot,” in this case).

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As I said, Next Gen’s biggest touchstone would have to be Big Hero 6, not only with its big friendly robot mascot but also its urban setting of Asian-Western fusion, with Chinese characters instead of Japanese. But this Netflix film has some intriguing differences as well. One of them is the extent of robot normalization, which goes beyond that of I, Robot. Almost every device in this world is semi-sentient, and while a lot of potential questions surrounding that aren’t even broached, it’s an intriguing setup. Mai’s mother (Constance Wu) is obsessed with her Q-Bot companions and their developer, the Steve Jobs-esque Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis), and it’s not a coincidence that the robot fascination mirrors the distraction of smartphone use. It’s also worth noting that Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics apparently don’t apply, specifically the one about robots not harming humans, since a group of bullies order their robots to beat up on Mai for them.

Beyond the setting, there are some deeper than normal themes at play as well. Mai is resentful of her father’s abandonment of her and the way her mother uses robots to cope, and when she meets 7723, it’s only his weapons and the destruction they create that catch her interest. She’s quite angry and cynical for a cartoon protagonist, and interestingly, it’s 7723 that has to remind her to not lose her humanity when lashing out at the world.  7723 also has a struggle of his own; he values every minute spent with Mai, yet his memory cache is limited, forcing him to choose which memory files and systems to delete and make room for more. It’s not every cartoon that tackles existential questions reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so Next Gen’s themes are definitely a step above the usual “follow your heart” storyline we’ve seen all too often.

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On top of that, it’s a quality production, with fluid animation and some pretty awesome action sequences. One explosive scene in particular is one continuous tracking shot with no cuts. I already love those kinds of scenes in live-action, and, although it probably doesn’t require quite as much effort to pull off, I like that the technique is being used more and more in animation. (I could also cite the opening scene of The Secret Life of Pets or Diamond’s big fight scene in the anime Land of the Lustrous.)

As self-aware as it often is, it’s a shame that Next Gen feels obligated to conform to a few clichés, like the bully inevitably deciding “Hey, sorry I beat you up. Let’s be friends.” Likewise, Mai’s mother is pushed into a “you were right, I was wrong” confession that is so fast, it felt like the screenwriter checking off a plot requirement.

I will also say that Next Gen is probably better for older kids, and not just because of its deeper themes or a sudden death scene. There’s a funny running joke where 7723 can translate the barks of Mai’s excitable dog (Michael Pena), bleeping out his more profane words. I guess it’s on the level of any number of reality shows these days, but I don’t exactly welcome it when a kids’ cartoon features even the mouthing of the F-bomb.

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Next Gen isn’t perfect, but it comes closer to Big Hero 6 than I would have thought possible from a Chinese production company I’d never heard of. There’s a lot to love about it and how it addresses moving beyond tragedy and anger while remaining a fun and sweet adventure, and I certainly hope that this and other animation houses outside the mainstream can continue the high quality displayed here.

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
590 Followers and Counting

 

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

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Doing the impossible
(Repeatedly, if possible)
Is so much easier to pull
When backs are braced and funds are full,
For then a hero dutiful
Can fight for right as usual
And put up with a villain’s bull.

It’s harder when support is gone,
Blindsided, chased, and set upon,
A dangerous phenomenon,
For then the evildoers spawn
While tempting good to stay withdrawn.
It’s then that heroes’ brains and brawn
Are specially depended on.
_______________________

MPAA rating:  PG-13

I’m so glad I finally decided to catch up on this series. The Mission: Impossible films may have gotten off to a rocky start, but J.J. Abrams’ third installment breathed new life into the franchise, which Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol builds on even further. Every review I’ve seen has proclaimed Ghost Protocol the best installment of the series, but I think it’s more of a tie with its predecessor, though for different reasons (and of course I withhold judgment until I see the next two as well).

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Ghost Protocol may have seemed like an odd choice for Brad Bird’s first foray into live-action, but he did nail the super-spy vibe in The Incredibles and does the same here. Delivering a similar brilliant eye for action, he puts Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Mission Force through the ringer as they endeavor to stop a Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist) from initiating a nuclear war. From infiltrations gone wrong to the extended foot chases from which Tom Cruise must get most of his exercise, the fast-paced thrills are as good as they’ve ever been, with the crown jewel being that famous high-hanging sequence with Cruise actually clinging to the outside of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper. The whole caper surrounding that scene is the film’s “high” point (see what I did there?), but other sequences also impress, like the spies employing some fascinating new toys or the high-stakes struggle for a briefcase in one of the coolest parking garages I’ve ever seen.

My VC thought Ghost Protocol had more lulls than its immediate predecessor, and perhaps that’s true, especially with some early undercover scenes and elements that require patience to be explained, but that’s minor quibble. What Ghost Protocol has over any of its brethren is the team it assembled. Ving Rhames may be sadly missing for most of the runtime, but never has Ethan had such strong supporting players.  As a new field agent promoted from his tech job in M:i:III, Simon Pegg is more than welcome in a larger comic relief role, while Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner deliver actual motivation and personality as circumstances fling them onto Ethan’s team, offering more than just the competence of the interchangeable teammates in the past (Maggie Q, John Polson, etc.; you might be asking “Who were they again?”). It was nice seeing Josh Holloway as well (Lost alert!), even if it was a disappointingly brief appearance.

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So, while I’m not raving as much as some critics, I still found Ghost Protocol to be a darn entertaining entry in the series. (And it came out in 2011? How am I just now getting to this?) The villain wasn’t as memorable as Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it didn’t quite nail the satisfying conclusion of the third film, its ever-increasing stakes being not as personal as Ethan’s struggle for his wife, but Ghost Protocol matched or exceeded it in just about every other respect. The plot had plenty of the twists I’ve come to expect from these films, and the way gadgets repeatedly malfunctioned or were unavailable kept the IMF team guessing and the suspense high. It’s not often that the fourth film in a series can still leave viewers eager for the next installment, but now I’m looking forward to Rogue Nation even more.

Best line: (Benji Dunn, complaining about their code names) “Why am I Pluto? It’s not even a planet anymore!”   (William Brandt) “Well, Uranus is still available.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy (joining Mission: Impossible III)

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
589 Followers and Counting

 

VC Pick: Running on Empty (1988)

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I did nothing wrong, and yet
Here I bear another’s debt.
I flee because they feel they must,
And I must follow, share their sweat,
And leave my future in their dust.

Still I love them dearly. How
Can I think to leave them now?
I’ll stay as long as they may need me,
Wait until our lives allow
Dreams my patience guaranteed me.
________________________

MPAA rating: PG-13 (mainly for a few F-bombs)

Since my schoolwork and home life haven’t given me an abundance of time for watching movies of my own choice (or reviewing them), that limitation has also applied to my dear Viewing Companion (VC), who hasn’t gotten to choose a movie for well over a month now. In trying to fix that, she introduced me to Running on Empty, the kind of former Oscar contender that you only discover either by accident or from some obscure recommendation. It’s a surprisingly effective drama in all respects, especially highlighting the squandered potential of young star River Phoenix, who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy five years before his death.

Phoenix plays a teenage boy named Danny who can never be known as Danny. With his younger brother, he lives a life on the run, following his parents Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti), a pair of former revolutionaries fleeing the FBI for an anti-war bombing back in 1971 (based on real-life radicals Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn). He’s earnest and well-meaning, the kind of kid who may come off as a punk based on how little he says but becomes more endearing the longer you spend with him. Taking on his latest persona of “Michael,” he clearly loves his parents but is torn between wanting to protect and help them and desiring a life of his own, including a promising musical career and young love (with an acerbic Martha Plimpton of The Goonies). Likewise, his parents are conflicted as well, his father insistent on staying ahead of the law and his mother wondering when and how to let her son move on from their mistakes.

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Directed by Sidney Lumet, Running on Empty has no shortage of strong acting, and though Phoenix got most of the praise at the time, Lahti’s Golden Globe-nominated role plays the heartstrings even more. The film doesn’t offer any easy answers. Danny wants to be free of the burden of his parents’ crimes, but doing so would mean either exposing them or never seeing them again after their next move. His mother is willing to turn herself in for his sake, but that would mean leaving her other young son parentless if she and Arthur are jailed. Everyone in this sweet and tight-knit family wishes for normalcy, but there’s no simple way to reach it. Add in the danger of Annie and Arthur being lumped in with other Communists who have not mellowed their violence as the Popes have, and it’s clear that no resolution will satisfy everyone.

The performances are what really distinguish Running on Empty as an engaging and realistic drama, and for some reason, its empathy and sincerity made me think of Dominick and Eugene, another Oscar-worthy film from 1988 that is oft-overlooked. However, while my VC loves it and is no doubt irked by my reservations, Running on Empty doesn’t quite make my list. Perhaps it’s simply my underlying annoyance at Arthur and Annie’s actions, claiming that they’ve accepted the consequences of their actions when they really haven’t. True, they’ve suffered by constantly running, but accepting jail time would have freed their children from that kind of life as well. Then again, Danny would have grown up without his parents, but maybe the Popes should have thought of that before carrying out bombings while he was two years old!

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See what I mean? The moral questions at play here are hard to answer. And while I can be irritated by the Popes’ mistakes, those mistakes were made, and the ongoing fallout from them makes for a unique ethical quandary that remains surprisingly relatable and somehow manages a satisfying conclusion. Running on Empty may be a footnote in someone’s forgotten ‘80s collection, but it’s a hidden gem worth revisiting, as much for the reminder of River Phoenix’s talent as for the poignant questions of conscience.

Best line: (Lorna, Danny/Michael’s girlfriend) “Why do you have to carry the burden of someone else’s life?”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput
589 Followers and Counting