2019 Blindspot Pick #10: Mr. Nobody (2009)

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This poem is a couplet, a two-liner rhyme,
For readers and poets who haven’t much time.

Or rather it could have been, if I’d decided,
But maybe I’ll make it a villanelle instead.
Which bears repetition by which it is guided.

You ask who would make such a change? Answer: I did.
So this is a villanelle now, as you’ve read,
Or rather it could have been, if I’d decided.

Let’s not be verbose.
A haiku might be better
To save syllables.

But then again, a sonnet I’d allow.
For fourteen lines in length would be provided
If only I would end this poem right now.

So what kind of poem was this one?
All four that I’ve named, or else none?
You can only decide
Once you’ve finished and tried
Looking backward when all’s said and done.
________________________

MPAA rating: R (mostly for sensuality and 2 F-words, seemed closer to a PG-13)

Well, this movie was a trip. I’ve been curious about Mr. Nobody for a while now, based on what I’d read about its unusual nonlinear story, and I can confirm it’s certainly unique. On one level, it’s a mind-bending, provocative tale of the potential directions life can take, which is exactly the kind of story I love, but it also is a bit too abstract for its own good.

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The title character is Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a man born in 1975 who ends up living till 2094 as the oldest and last mortal in a world that has achieved quasi-immortality through science. Plagued by memory loss, he is interviewed on his deathbed by a tattooed psychiatrist (Allan Corduner) and a journalist (Daniel Mays), both of whom are perplexed by the unusually disparate histories he recounts, lives that split at major crossroads in his life, particularly a train station when he had to choose which divorcing parent to stay with at the age of nine.

To call Mr. Nobody peculiar is an understatement; it’s a full-blown experimental film. It’s amazing to me that such a film was made at all, and even more amazing that it was made three years before Cloud Atlas, which is the closest film I can compare it to in terms of cosmic ambition and madcap editing. Due to Nemo’s ability to see possible futures, it swings back and forth between Nemo’s potential lives: the three women he could marry, the jobs he could have taken, the mistakes and accidents he endures or avoids. Also interspersed are more fantastical detours, such as a future journey to Mars that doubles as a story written by a teenage Nemo and a surreal argyle-themed dream world that may or may not be part of Nemo’s subconscious.

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Sometimes, these various storylines seem designed to confuse: The beginning shows bits and pieces of all the timelines in quick succession, like a sneak peek that leads to moments of revelation but is bewildering in the moment. In other cases, it gives a particular story more time to develop emotions, such as a romance between a teenage Nemo (Toby Regbo) and his stepsister Anna (Juno Temple; Diane Kruger as an adult) or the mental illness of one of Nemo’s other wives (Sarah Polley). Most of these timelines end in tragedy, yet others retain a sense of hope that one of Nemo’s decisions could lead to happiness.

At a certain point, the journalist interviewing the 118-year-old Nemo asks what the truth is, since not all of these lives could have happened, and Mr. Nobody’s answer extols the endlessness of possibility without providing a real answer. In that vein, one of Nemo’s professions is as the host of a TV science show, which allows him to ask big cosmic what-if questions that some might consider deep but ultimately boil down to “No one knows,” to the point that they’re almost meaningless, which may excite philosophers but can be frustrating to viewers who desire concrete answers. Plus, there’s uncertainty about whether some timelines are “real” at all, like the Mars mission that doesn’t always seem like something Nemo made up. Likewise, the ending is a strange mix of long-awaited satisfaction, pseudo-science that I at least didn’t fully understand, and a sweet conclusion undercut by a lack of context.

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So, while Mr. Nobody frustrated me more, I suppose my final opinion is the same as for Cloud Atlas: a magnificent mess that individual viewers must decide whether it’s a masterpiece or a trainwreck. It certainly never fails to enchant visually, particularly several sequences that depict the butterfly effect (reminding me of similar scenes in Ink and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and the special effects, cinematography, and Pierre Van Dormael’s score are exceptional. At times, it seems to borrow individual motifs from the likes of Forrest Gump, When Harry Met Sally…, and Harold and Maude, yet all of the ingredients come together to form something wholly distinctive and idiosyncratic, for good or ill. It’s a film like no other, featuring Jared Leto’s best performance I’ve seen and individual scenes I loved, and, though its complexity and length will not be for everyone, it’s an experiment worth experiencing.

Best line: (Nemo Nobody) “At my age the candles cost more than the cake. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid I haven’t been alive enough. It should be written on every school room blackboard: Life is a playground… or nothing.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
652 Followers and Counting

 

Glass (2019)

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We live in a world in which evil and good
Are warring in hopes that each be understood.

The good share a dream in which righteousness reigns,
Dispelling all ignorance, chaos, and chains,
And could be considered one-note or naïve
In hoping for changes no man can achieve.

But evil, for lack of a worthier word,
Is interesting in how it seeks to be heard.
It pleads its own case, it redirects blame,
It covers its face, it covets more fame,
It craves vindication, it bristles at scorn,
It scatters temptation, it toots its own horn,
It seeks self-redemption and curses regrets,
It wants an exemption that no one else gets.

It does entertain, but does it satisfy?
The good know the answer, and Goodness knows why.
_____________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

I feel like Unbreakable has grown in reputation over the years. Its unconventional take on the superhero genre predated the majority of big-budget comic book films, and the decline in M. Night Shyamalan’s output quality afterward made its excellence stand out even more. Naturally, it was a surprise when 2017’s Split made a post-credits revelation that it was set in the same universe, prompting speculation on what the inevitable third film would do to bring the characters together. Now that Glass has finally answered that question, I doubt I’m the only one thinking that we might have been better off not knowing.

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Now nineteen years after the events of Unbreakable and three weeks after the events of Split, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has become an experienced vigilante called the Overseer with the help of his son (Spencer Treat Clark) and sets his sights on Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), whose murderous Horde personalities are running amok. However, both David and Kevin are soon captured and imprisoned in a mental hospital, alongside Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), where psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) seeks to convince them their superhero/villain abilities are merely figments of their imagination.

I wanted to like Glass, and in some ways, I did. Like Unbreakable, it’s a rare slow-burn superhero film, where the action is infrequent but scrappy, and the psychological questions raised are given just as much time (or more) than the plot. I certainly can’t fault the performances, particularly Jackson and McAvoy. The former lets Mr. Glass’s cunning bubble under the surface for most of the film and later revels in his mastermind status, while the latter continues the bravura flurry of performances that made Split such a showcase of acting skill. Paulson also does well in making her psychiatrist a seemingly sympathetic mystery, with intentions you can’t help but suspect.

Some might complain that Glass takes too long to get to the showdown to which it is clearly building up, but that’s not the extent of the film’s problems, which also include the outcome of said showdown. Of course, Shyamalan has to pull out a last-minute twist to subvert expectations, but, despite some intriguing implications, it’s far from a satisfying one. Bruce Willis may have the least charismatic character, but his David Dunn, in particular, deserved so much better than this film. With time to think about the ending, I’ve come to appreciate its attempt at refocusing the narrative on side characters, but it still left a bitter taste in my mouth.

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So, I suppose you could say that Shyamalan strikes again. It’s neither his best nor his worst movie, but it’s the least of this comic-themed trilogy and had so much potential to be more. It’s still very well-produced and directed and worth watching for Jackson and McAvoy’s performances, but it only works as a where-are-they-now story (I liked the continuity of Shyamalan’s cameos), not so much as a conclusion. The next time I watch Unbreakable and Split, I might just pretend they’re stand-alone films.

Best line: (Glass) “There are unknown forces that don’t want us to realize what we are truly capable of. They don’t want us to know the things we suspect are extraordinary about ourselves are real. I believe that if everyone sees what just a few people become when they wholly embrace their gifts, others will awaken. Belief in oneself is contagious. We give each other permission to be superheroes.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention (on the edge of Dishonorable)

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
652 Followers and Counting

 

My Top Twelve Movie Villains of the 21st Century

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During the early 2000s, I loved the 100 Years… series of movie lists released by the American Film Institute, counting down film’s top Laughs, Thrills, Passions, and such. They served as a great introduction to the cinematic highs of various genres, some of which I knew and others I got to experience vicariously for the first time. It’s really a shame that they stopped after 2008; I would have at least liked another ten-year update of the Top 100 Movies list.

Yet one list seemed like it could particularly use an update. In 2003, the AFI counted down the top 50 heroes and top 50 villains, and I couldn’t help but notice that the only villain from the 21st century was Denzel Washington’s crooked cop in Training Day at #50. Over the last 19 years, though, there have been plenty of other villainous characters that I think could have earned placement on that villain list. Therefore, I thought I’d do my own updated villain countdown for the current century, leaving heroes for another time.

I’m not necessarily in favor of celebrating evil, but a memorable villain can make a good movie great and a bad movie watchable. One villain I do think should be on the list is Mr. Smith from The Matrix series, but he’s technically ineligible since the first film was released in 1999. And sidenote: I’m ignoring TV, as much as I’d like to include Ben from Lost, Bill Cipher from Gravity Falls, or Kyubey from Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Thus, with consideration for how iconic each has become, here are my own picks for the top villains of the 21st century:

 

  1. Mr. Glass from Unbreakable/Glass

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Unbreakable was an unconventional superhero movie, and true to M. Night Shyamalan form, its villain proved to be a surprise. Samuel L. Jackson’s brittle-boned antagonist seemed so harmless at first, yet his role as a mastermind and the unhealthiness of his comic book fascination became clear by the end. I laughed during a recent rewatch of Parks and Recreation where they ask what Mr. Glass is up to and “Why no sequel?” Of course, we did get one this past year, with mixed results, but the “strength” of the character remains.

 

  1. President Snow from The Hunger Games series

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A mere vaguely threatening presence in the first Hunger Games film, President Snow proved just how ruthless and dastardly he was in the next three. From blackmailing Katniss to ordering the deaths of countless citizens, he became an increasingly dangerous mastermind, and Donald Sutherland played him with an icy pragmatism right up to the very end.

 

  1. Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2

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I think it’s telling that of the original Spider-Man trilogy villains, only Doc Ock hasn’t had some kind of “reboot” in the Spider-Man films since. (Well, at least in live-action; Into the Spider-Verse went a little different with its version.) I think that’s because of how perfectly Alfred Molina became the character, brought to life with an awesome mix of CGI and puppetry. Uniquely sympathetic due to his Jekyll-and-Hyde complex with his robotic arms, he remains one of the franchise’s best villains.

 

  1. The Babadook from The Babadook

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Few horror films have genuinely scared me like The Babadook, thanks largely to its titular creature. This Australian scarefest features a picture book that described the top-hatted terror in detail, letting people’s fear and suspicion make it real and inescapable. As movie monsters go, it’s definitely up there with the most chilling, even more so due to what it represents psychologically.

 

  1. Voldemort from the Harry Potter series

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Granted, I haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter films, but the reputation of Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort precedes him. The very name of He Who Must Not Be Named has become synonymous with villainy, so even if I only know him by cultural presence, the significance of that presence deserves placement on any list of cinematic villains.

 

  1. Captain Barbossa from The Pirates of the Caribbean series

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I had considered putting Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones on the list, but in the end, Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa won out. With his smarmy dealing and sneering delivery, he’s just the perfect pirate antagonist, whether as a skeleton or less-than-trustworthy ally, and Rush always looks like he’s having a blast. Plus, he’s got one of the best surprise entrances in movie history.

 

  1. Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds

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Another film I haven’t actually seen all of, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds nonetheless delivered a villain for the ages in Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Hans Landa, the wicked Nazi “Jew Hunter.” Able to shift easily from casual courtesy to racist murder, he’s a true psychopath, and his opening scene alone was enough to convince me of his placement here.

 

  1. Magneto from the X-Men franchise

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As far as which version of the character, take your pick. Whether played by Ian McKellen or Michael Fassbender, Magneto is the ideal archrival to Charles Xavier, bitter enough about his traumatic past to hate all non-mutants. He’s suffered so much that you can’t help but sympathize with him, even as he uses his power over metal to cause havoc. Plus, he’s not too different from Charles in his end goals; he’s just far more ruthless in his means of achieving them.

 

  1. Pennywise from It and It Chapter Two

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I still haven’t gotten around to watching the latest version of Stephen King’s It, but I must give props to Bill Skarsgård for helping this incarnation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown rival the great Tim Curry’s. His frightening painted face has become an instant icon of scary clowns (just look at the Halloween costumes), so that makes him the most recent entry on the list.

 

  1. Joker from The Dark Knight

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“Why so serious?” Speaking of clowns, we mustn’t forget the other Oscar-winning villain role on this list. You’re welcome to include Joaquin Phoenix’s most recent version of the Joker here, but I have Heath Ledger in mind. I can’t help but wonder if the darkness required to personify the Joker contributed to his death, but he certainly made the role his own and, in effect, his legacy. Edgy and grimy to match the underworld of Gotham, his Joker is a compulsive liar and a true criminal mastermind, a man whose goal is simply, in the words of Michael Caine’s Alfred, “to watch the world burn.”

 

  1. Sauron – The Lord of the Rings films

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Few villainous images are as iconic as the Eye of Sauron. Watching from atop the tower of Barad-dûr, it’s an all-watching representation of evil, especially the evil of the One Ring, the source and reason for Frodo’s quest across Middle-earth. I could easily have sided with Saruman, the Ringwraiths, or Gollum as well, but Sauron is the big bad to end all fantasy big bads.

 

  1. Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame

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Yet when it comes to big bads, who can question Thanos, the final boss of 20+ films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? No other villain has achieved his goals as successfully as did Thanos in Infinity War, and it has to be a new height in villainy to wipe out half of all life in the universe. Marvel has often been criticized for its weak villains, but Thanos blew them all away (literally) and may well be the best villain of the new millennium.

 

And here are some other contenders that could deserve placement on a list of 21st-century villains, a list of nefarious runners-up, so to speak:

 

Loki – Thor, The Avengers, etc.

Red Skull – Captain America: The First Avenger

Ultron – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Killmonger – Black Panther

Severus Snape – Harry Potter series

Syndrome – The Incredibles

Davy Jones – The Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3

The White Witch – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

No-Face – Spirited Away

The Green Goblin – Spider-Man

Other Mother – Coraline

Eris – Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

Kylo Ren – Star Wars: Episodes VII-IX

The Armitage Family – Get Out

Daniel Plainview – There Will Be Blood

Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) – Star Trek into Darkness

Raoul Silva – Skyfall

Owen Davian – Mission: Impossible III

Solomon Lane – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Fallout

Bane – The Dark Knight Rises

Smaug – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Immortan Joe – Mad Max: Fury Road

Annabelle / The Nun – The Conjuring franchise

David – Prometheus and Alien: Covenant

Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men

Patrick Bateman – American Psycho

Jigsaw – Saw franchise

Kevin Wendell Crumb – Split and Glass

Wilson Fisk/Kingpin – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

 

So do you agree? What cinematic villains would you suggest are worthy of such a list? I’d love to know what you think!

 

Under the Shadow (2016)

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The night is black,
A bleak throwback
To when the world was without shape.
A shadow shifts,
The darkness drifts
And snares your eye with no escape.

You crane your neck
To merely check
That all is well outside your bed.
And pray no face
Or graver case
Will give you reason for your dread.
________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

I’m not really into horror generally, but it’s become something of a tradition for me to watch a scary movie alone at night, just to review it for Halloween. Like The Conjuring, The Babadook, and Lights Out in years past, I decided to check out an acclaimed creepfest that focuses more on atmospheric tension rather than gross-out gore. This time, though, I went outside the English-speaking world to watch Under the Shadow, a Persian-language horror (with a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes) set in 1980s Tehran.

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Of course, 1980s Tehran wasn’t the best place to be, especially during the increasingly frequent bombings of the Iran-Iraq War. It’s already a tense setting, as the inhabitants of an apartment building must head downstairs into the basement at the sound of bomb sirens, much to the chagrin of mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Disgruntled by her country’s rigid decrees keeping her from becoming a doctor, Shideh is further unsettled when her husband is sent off to war, and as strange events start to occur late at night, she wonders if there is indeed something haunting her family.

In many ways, Under the Shadow is exactly the kind of horror movie I like, with a creeping dread serving as the main source of fear, knowing that something could happen at any moment and jumping out of your skin when it occasionally does. There’s zero blood on display, and it doesn’t need it. While it taps into the mythology of malevolent air spirits or djinns, it’s surprising how well the frights work when they stem from what is essentially the most minimalist ghost, a floating sheet (technically a chador, a Persian women’s cloak). The uncanny fear conjured by its sudden appearances is potent stuff.

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However, there’s nothing especially notable about the story itself, aside from its unique cultural setting, which is itself a danger, since Shideh can be punished for even fleeing her home without a head covering. Yet the plot isn’t too far from that of The Amityville Horror, and the mother/child dynamic, while showing growth, has been done with better closure elsewhere. Even so, Under the Shadow provided exactly what I look for in a scary movie, while excluding what I avoid in the genre. Well-acted with a slow-burn anxiety, it’s an excellent addition to my Halloween reserve, even if it’s made me look over my shoulder more often than before.

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
652 Followers and Counting

 

VC Pick: Terms of Endearment (1983)

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You love her so dearly,
And not insincerely,
Your mother, your mom whom you know loves you, clearly,
And yet you resent
Her distinct discontent
That causes her love to be dealt so austerely.

Your choices, your bearing,
The clothes that you’re wearing
Are always subject to her stare and found erring.
All that you’d withstand,
Every vague reprimand,
For the knowledge or hope that behind it is caring.
____________________

MPAA rating: PG (should be PG-13)

I know I haven’t posted in a while, being busy with a college class, but I’m back now and thought it was about time to review something chosen by my dear VC (Viewing Companion, for the uninitiated). I saw Terms of Endearment years ago and never gave it much of a thought since. I recalled it being good and sad by the end, and, sure, it won Best Picture in 1983 alongside several other Oscars, but for some reason, it never really stuck with me. At my VC’s urging, I finally got around to it again, and found to my surprise that I remembered a lot more than I thought I did. Even so, it was helpful to remind myself of a lot of the context that inevitably slips through the memory cracks, which further convinced me that it’s a great movie that’s just not one of my favorites.

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The film’s greatest strength is its actors, particularly the dueling mother/daughter portrayals of Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger, as Aurora and Emma Greenway, respectively. MacLaine is the quintessential disapproving parent, distant by default, content to let love be implied, and rarely allowing her emotions to show themselves. Winger as her daughter is hungry for that love and emotion and constantly trying to balance her love for her mother with their mutual exasperation. It’s a dynamic that my VC had with her own mother, so I can completely understand why it hit close to home for her, particularly a line about how the fighting between them doesn’t always feel mutual but simply a facet of their relationship. And the part about Aurora always being the first to let go of a hug certainly imitated life. I, on the other hand, have a largely warm and loving relationship with my own mom, making the emotional constipation onscreen less relatable for me but no less frustrating.

Supporting the main two women are Jeff Daniels as Emma’s less-than-faithful professor husband, John Lithgow as her own secret lover, and Oscar-winning Jack Nicholson as Aurora’s self-absorbed astronaut boyfriend, who is honestly insufferable half the time but skates by with that Nicholson swagger. The drama can get heavy, what with strained parental bonds, failed romances, and familial loss, but the accomplished actors do an expert job balancing the dramatic material with its comedic flourishes. With both MacLaine and Nicholson winning Oscars, though, I rather wish Debra Winger had garnered the same acclaim, since this is easily one of her best roles.

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It’s no surprise that Terms of Endearment was an Oscar magnet, including its engaging script, based on a 1975 novel by Larry McMurtry. It’s an unabashed tearjerker about the messiness of family life, and while it does touch the heart, it will undoubtedly touch some more than others. I suppose it depends how much you see yourself or your parent in this classic mother-daughter relationship.

Best line: (Aurora Greenway) “I just don’t want to fight anymore.”
(Emma) “What do you mean? When do we fight?”
(Aurora) “When do we fight? I always think of us as fighting!”
(Emma) “That’s because you’re never satisfied with me.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
652 Followers and Counting

 

Mr. Church (2016)

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A life lived in service is seen as disgrace,
For service is wholly ignoble and lowly,
A shame to escape and oppose.
For so many saints, though, this wasn’t the case;
To serve was a method to mimic the Holy,
A sacrifice God only knows.

A life lived in service is never a waste;
A volunteer’s spirit’s congratulatory,
And oh, that all servants could know!
Such angels of earth are not easily replaced,
For not all bear burdens as badges of glory
And not all saints lived long ago.
_________________

MPAA rating:  PG-13 (for limited profanity)

Mr. Church has been in my Netflix queue for so long that I was considering making it one of next year’s Blindspots just to finally get myself to watch it. The film was written by Susan McMartin, who based it off her own short story “The Cook Who Came To Live With Us,” drawing from her own life. I was curious to see a rare serious role for Eddie Murphy after four years of inactivity, and lo and behold, it turned out to be one of his best films, though you wouldn’t know it based on critical reviews or its scathing box office (less than a million dollars on an $8 million budget).

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Murphy plays the titular mister, a cook in 1965 assigned to single mother Marie Brooks (Natascha McElhone) by the dying wish of his employer/Marie’s former lover. Tasked with caring for Marie through her treatment for breast cancer, he expects to only stay for six months, much to the chagrin of her daughter Charlie (played by Natalie Coughlin, and later by Britt Robertson), but, as Marie outlives her diagnosis, Mr. Church becomes a mainstay of the home and their family.

There’s something about this kind of movie that just gets me, an irresistible sweetness that stays in my heart when the credits roll. Mr. Church’s presence spans decades as Charlie grows from a callow girl to a young woman with a daughter of her own, and he imparts to her things that are near and dear to my own heart: a love of cooking, classic literature, music. And like Forrest Gump, Charlie’s poetic narration fits perfectly with this kind of nostalgic, generational story.

Robertson and McElhone excel in their emotional roles, but the surprise is a much-subdued Murphy, who instills Church with evident depth at arm’s length, making Charlie and the audience want to know more about him even as he self-effacingly insists on retaining his privacy. Critics have complained that, despite the film bearing his name, he is too much of a one-note character, there merely to serve his white “family,” and while that argument might have some merit, I fear they miss the point. It may not check the “woke” boxes of what critics expect in a black character these days, but that shouldn’t detract from the sweetness of the relationship forged between Charlie and Mr. Church, one of shared interests and quiet service, which becomes mutual over time.

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Professional reviewers may decry it as sappy and sentimental, but Mr. Church deserves so much better than a 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. Many compared it to a Hallmark movie, but that shouldn’t be an insult by default, since such films can be deeply affecting when done well. I was disappointed that Mr. Church was such a box-office failure, since that likely makes Hollywood less likely to make these kinds of movies. If they’re as poignant as this one, I wish they’d make more.

Best line: (Charlie) “People act strange around death. There are those who talk about everything but the person who died. Those who talk about only the person who died. Those who try to cheer you up. And those who can’t help but make you cry. And then there are those who say nothing at all, because they don’t have to.”

 

Rank:  List-Worthy

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
651 Followers and Counting

 

2019 Blindspot Pick #9: Vertigo (1958)

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The birds in flight
May love their height
And laugh at bounded, grounded man,
But gravity
Can guarantee
That staying low’s a better plan.

Some love the thrill,
The view, the will
To see a limit and defy,
Yet none deny
That when you’re high,
It’s so much easier to die.
_____________________

MPAA rating: PG

Vertigo has to be the most critically lauded among my Blindspots this year, and I was quite curious to see whether it would match its reputation, since so many Hitchcock movies have fallen short, for me at least. Vertigo lands somewhere in the middle, confirming my opinion that Hitchcock mostly excelled in creating tension in individual scenes rather than whole movies.

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The fourth and last collaboration between Hitchcock and star Jimmy Stewart, Vertigo is a tale of obsession that toys with the possibility of the supernatural. Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a cop who retired after a deadly experience with heights but is commissioned by wealthy friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to investigate Elster’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and her sudden strange behavior. As he learns more about her connection to a suicidal ancestor and develops a relationship with her, he encounters secrets and mysteries that shake him to his core.

As a fan of film, I can say that I am definitively glad to have finally seen this classic of cinema, an oversight that represents exactly what this Blindspot series is meant to solve. Yet it doesn’t hold the same fascination for me that it apparently does for so many. Perhaps it’s because the film’s intrigue was such a rollercoaster. It starts out interesting enough with Stewart as his ever-likable self, but the story really drags during his investigation, which consists of far too much of him wordlessly following Madeleine by car. Maybe it’s just me, but the picture below doesn’t do much for me in the way of tension.

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Then comes a famous scene in a bell tower, which is indeed one of Hitchcock’s best for buildup and shock value. Not too much longer, and the reveal of the mystery left my brain working overtime, surprised at the unanticipated twist and giving me a new appreciation for the storyline. Yet what follows becomes a somewhat uncomfortable exercise in obsessive grief (including a weirdly unnecessary psychedelic dream), played out through what would be a deeply unhealthy relationship if not for the audience’s knowledge of its psychological underpinnings. How it ends, while effective, is also anything but satisfying, so abrupt that it made me recall how much I despise the final scenes in North by Northwest and An American Werewolf in London. I know Hitchcock knew how to end a movie, but I wouldn’t know it based on this one.

I certainly can’t fault the actors. Stewart is always good, always, and Kim Novak might be one of my favorites of Hitchcock’s blonde leading ladies. Barbara Bel Geddes is also great as Scottie’s casual friend/former crush, who is short-changed by the ending’s lack of closure. I also liked a cameo by Ellen Corby, who also appeared with Stewart briefly in It’s a Wonderful Life (“Could I have $17.50?”) Likewise, Bernard Herrmann’s hypnotic score is an outstanding accompaniment, and, like the score of Psycho, adds so much to the film’s atmosphere.

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All in all, Vertigo is the second best one-word Hitchcock film that ends with an O, as well as the second best Hitchcock film that begins with an injured Jimmy Stewart. Sorry if that doesn’t sound like high praise, though I do appreciate its cinematic contribution of that vertigo effect above. I can see why film enthusiasts like it and why its filming locations around San Francisco have become iconic, and I have half a mind to see it again just to pick up on the hints to the twist that I might have missed the first time. Yet, considering it’s been ranked both 1st and 9th on lists of the best films ever made, I feel like its reputation is somewhat overblown. Psycho is still Hitchcock’s masterpiece as far as I’m concerned.

Best line: (Madeleine) “Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere. ”

Rank: Honorable Mention

© 2019 S.G. Liput
649 Followers and Counting

Circle (2015)

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Someone must die one minute from now.
You lack any power on why, when, and how.
But someone must die, and it could be you,
Unless you choose somebody else.
But who?

You don’t know a soul as you look all around.
They’re nothing but strangers, their eyes on the ground,
For they have the same choice, deciding who dies,
And may well have voted for your own demise.

So who will you pick, knowing death is no joke?
The seediest? Noisiest? Least of the woke?
Will you choose at random, no malice or spite?
And if you survive, then does that make it right?

Ten seconds to lose,
So judge them and choose.
_____________________

MPAA rating:  Not Rated (should be R for plentiful language)

This is my contribution to MovieRob’s Genre Grandeur for September, which focused on Ensemble Films.

If an ensemble means that the entire cast are on equal footing with no clear main characters, then few films match that description as closely as Circle, a sci-fi chamber piece currently available on Netflix. I have MovieRob to thank for even alerting me to this low-profile film’s existence, and it’s a fine example of a simple premise expertly executed.

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Partially inspired by 12 Angry Men, the plot can be summed up in one sentence: a group of fifty people wake up standing in a circle, unable to move or touch each other else they die, and they discover they collectively decide who dies every two minutes. That is practically the whole movie, people standing in a circle debating who should be the next to die. Yet that simple, disturbing idea turns out to be something intense and thought-provoking from start to finish, buoyed by a talented cast of totally unfamiliar actors who give no clue as to who will survive.

After the disorientation of coming to grips with what’s happening, assumed to be an alien experiment of some kind, the deliberation among the “survivors” illustrates how easily people judge each other, delving into such a diversity of social debates, from race to gender to religion. While some of the stressed characters seem to act rash and stupid at times, the film lets the characters’ words and actions speak for themselves, not judging them but allowing them (and the audience) to judge each other. As the bodies keep dropping, a major split concerns the presence of a young girl and a pregnant woman, half the group believing one of them deserves to be the last one standing while others see them as obstacles to their own chance at survival. The film asks, without a clear answer, how evil is the desire to live?

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While laden with far too much profanity for my liking, Circle is nonetheless a fascinating study into human nature. The deaths, carried out by a lightning strike, have shock value, always unpredictable in their selection, yet are mercifully bloodless. Some of the logistics aren’t 100% clear, such as how people make their choice with an implant in their hand. And while I would have liked some last-minute twist (or rather a different twist), its final scene is more about sparking conversation, theory, and ethical soul-searching than providing a satisfying end. Compelling in its moral grayness, Circle is an ensemble thriller that asks uncomfortable questions through an alarming, improbable situation as only science fiction can.

 

Rank:  List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
648 Followers and Counting

 

2019 Blindspot Pick #8: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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How green was my valley
So many years back!
No paychecks to tally,
No perils to track,
When people seemed good
And the future seemed bright,
Before my childhood
Had receded from sight.

How green was my valley,
How grand the coal mine,
How buoyant my sally
Beneath the sun’s shine!
Now I view the same scene,
As every man does,
Wishing it were as green
As I know it once was.
___________________

MPAA rating:  G

Time again for one of my Blindspots, this time going back to the Best Picture of 1941, which I chose in all honesty because Alex Trebek has said several times on Jeopardy! that it’s his favorite film. Based off a popular book at the time, How Green Was My Valley has never been on my radar for some reason, despite its status as an all-time classic and the fact that it beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture that year. And despite a somewhat excessive length, it’s a moving opus that deserves its accolades.

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What How Green Was My Valley most reminded me of was The Waltons, the classic ‘70s show about a Depression-era family in Virginia. Just as The Waltons had periodic narration detailing the poetic remembrances of Earl Hamner, Jr., the narrator of this film (voiced by Irving Pichel) fondly recalls his large family and town life in a 19th-century Welsh mining village. That narrator is Huw Morgan (played by a very young Roddy McDowall), who as a child watches the changes in his town: the labor strike when the miners rebel against lowered wages, much to the chagrin of his traditional father Gwilym (Donald Crisp); the romantic yearnings of his sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) and the new preacher (Walter Pidgeon); the dangers of mining accidents and the unforgiving elements; the religious hymns sung as the miners return home; and the indelible memories and scars all these events leave.

While melodramatic at times and honest about the unsatisfying turns life can take, How Green Was My Valley has an undeniable sweetness to it, both from the familial love among the Morgans and the frequent camaraderie of the townspeople. Individual vignettes stand out, such as a local boxer flippantly defending Huw against a cruel schoolteacher or the village rallying at the recovery of one of their sick members. Of course, there is also small-minded meanness to contend with, suitably denounced by a brilliant speech by Pidgeon’s Mr. Gruffudd, but what remains beyond the heartache are the sweet moments, made bittersweet by the film’s end.

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I’m glad to check this film off of my Blindspot list, another classic I probably should have seen long ago. While John Ford’s composition and the cinematography (both Oscar-winning) is stunning, my VC and I agreed that we really wished it had been shot in color (you know, so we could see how green was the valley), especially a scene with a daffodil field, but shooting in black-and-white was a logistical sacrifice since World War II prevented actually shooting in Wales. California works as a colorless substitute, though, and it certainly feels authentic otherwise; oddly enough, the village itself reminded me of the one in Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which isn’t too surprising since the animators based its architecture off of a Welsh mining town. While I think I appreciate Citizen Kane a touch more, How Green Was My Valley deserved its win too.  I’ve heard that, whereas Citizen Kane represented the head, this film represented the cinematic heart of that year. I like that comparison and might have been persuaded to vote the same way back in 1941; classic is classic, after all.

Best line: (Mr. Gruffudd, pre-dating the similar sentiment of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben) “But remember, with strength goes responsibility, to others and to yourselves. For you cannot conquer injustice with more injustice, only with justice and the help of God.”

 

Rank:  List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
648 Followers and Counting

 

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

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Evil is as evil does,
And such it is and ever was,
But when an evil worse than most
Endangers all on every coast,
Perhaps what once was evil might
Defend the day against the night.
___________________

MPAA rating:  PG-13

I watched Pitch Black for the first time earlier this year, curious about Richard B. Riddick’s reputation as an anti-hero and the cult classic status of the series, and I liked it for the most part. Vin Diesel radiated cool danger as the shiny-eyed criminal, and it echoed Aliens while being just different enough. The Chronicles of Riddick distances itself from the Aliens comparisons, widening its scope perhaps too far but still preserving the coolness that made Riddick memorable.

Whereas Pitch Black was confined to a single alien-infested planet, The Chronicles of Riddick opens up a wealth of previously unknown sci-fi lore: a fanatical force of Necromongers under the supernaturally powered Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), a prophecy about the Lord Marshal’s downfall, a race of Furians thought to have been wiped out. It sometimes comes off as ridiculous and I couldn’t help but wonder what Karl Urban or Dame Judi Dench thought of their careers as they were delivering certain lines, but it’s just as often camp-tinged fun with enough fast-paced action, imaginative set and costume design, and genuinely awesome set pieces to forgive its faults. The effects sometimes belie their low budget, yet that somehow just adds to their appeal.

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For some reason, writer-director David Twohy chose to target a PG-13 rating for this sequel, and I was grateful for it. I stand by my conviction that extreme gore and profanity are largely unnecessary, and The Chronicles of Riddick still delivers plenty of sometimes brutal badassery without them. (I mean, Riddick kills a guy with a tea cup, for Pete’s sake!) I’ve been shown to be very forgiving with science fiction movies, but once again I think this film’s mere 29% on Rotten Tomatoes is far too low and personally found it more watchable than Pitch Black, though my VC disagrees.

Of course, I recognize its faults as well, from occasional histrionics, a lackluster script, and meh villains. (The main villain’s past motives are basically the same as the peacock in Kung Fu Panda 2.) Yet I think the film’s worst aspect is its insistence on Riddick alone being the one character worth keeping around. I was disappointed with how Pitch Black ended by killing off the main character worth rooting for, but at least it had thematic significance at the time. The sequel continues that trend by showing that anyone who’s not Riddick is just there to be either an enemy or a sacrifice, which I think hurts the film as part of a series.

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Despite this drawback and an admittedly dumb final scene, The Chronicles of Riddick was still great fun for this sci-fi fan, an underrated entry that replaced the first film’s horror with a partially successful stab at space epic. Now two films in, there’s just one left to watch in the series, 2013’s Riddick (which incidentally returned to an R rating), and I’m curious to see how the series ends. Unless Twohy and Diesel decide to keep it going, which I wouldn’t mind at all.

Best line: (Aereon, in the intro monologue) “In normal times, evil would be fought by good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.”

 

Rank:  List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
646 Followers and Counting