It’s that time once again, when I look through the long list of intriguing or recommended films I’ve been putting off watching and select twelve for the year ahead. My seventh year of this Blindspot series may be starting a little late, but I am determined this time to finish all of these movies before 2023 is over. It helps that I don’t have a trilogy like last year.
As with every Blindspot selection, I’ve tried to combine a mixture of various years and genres. I can blame my own project of writing a musical for why I’ve included three musical films on the list, but they all promise to be quite different. (Believe me, I was tempted to include more.) In addition, we have an old Italian classic, sci-fi both absurdist and epic, a horror favorite, a romantic sports comedy, a star-studded ensemble piece, and one of the last Studio Ghibli films I have yet to see. Time will tell if any of these movies end up being new favorites, but I can’t wait to find out.
In alphabetical order, my Blindspot picks for 2023 are:
I’m thrilled to have finally finished my sixth year of this Blindspot series, even if this collection of cinema ended up spilling over into 2023. Overall, I think it was a largely positive year, with all twelve films being worth the watch and the top two being new entries for my Top 365 List. Going in, I never would have guessed this worst-to-best ranking, so it’s proof that a good Blindspot list should always have surprises. Now to pick out a new list for 2023…
For every moment of suffering, For every moment of joy, For every up or down you face, Another’s felt it in your place. Another’s felt that same heartache, That grateful twinge, that give and take, And you can trust you’re not alone In every feeling you can’t shake.
Perhaps they’re a hemisphere distant, Perhaps they are right down the street, Perhaps you’ve met and couldn’t tell How similar the parallel Between the feelings that you share, The craving dream, the silent prayer. Perhaps you both look nothing alike, But what you share is always there. _________________________
MPA rating: R (mainly for language and brief nudity)
One of fellow blogger MovieRob’s favorite films (thanks for the recommendation), Grand Canyon is the kind of film I usually like, a wide-reaching glimpse into the lives of diverse people and how their individual stories intersect. This sort of ensemble picture can have varying levels of prestige, from the holiday charm of Love Actually to the sober drama of Yi Yi, but it can also go wildly wrong if too many of the stories themselves are uninteresting or off-putting, as with last year’s disappointing Blindspot Short Cuts. Thankfully, Grand Canyon is on the positive side of that spectrum, though there’s a distinct feeling that it’s trying too hard to hammer home its themes.
Advertised as a spiritual successor to writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (one of my VC’s favorite movies), the film’s main dynamic is sparked when lawyer Mack (Kevin Kline) narrowly escapes being mugged thanks to the cool-headed tow truck driver Simon (Danny Glover), after which Mack goes out of his way to befriend Simon and help him and his family. Alongside this plot are parallel threads about Mack’s wife (Mary McDonnell) wanting to adopt an abandoned baby she finds and his movie producer friend Davis (Steve Martin) second-guessing the violent content of his films after he is injured in a shooting. Add in the likes of Alfre Woodard, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeremy Sisto, and you have an outstanding ensemble cast on hand.
On a purely narrative level, Grand Canyon deals with how people react to unexpected changes in their life – a near-death experience, a mid-life crisis, a change in scenery, the blossoming or ending of a love affair. In these aspects, the film excels in its realistic portrayal of different responses. Mack’s scare causes him to reach out and look further in the strata of Los Angeles society than he has before, even if he can’t shake some cluelessness of how his actions affect others. On the other hand, Davis’s change in perspective is short-lived, merely informing his decision to keep up his old habits. The film doesn’t end up giving complete closure to all these disparate threads (the storylines of Parker’s adulterous secretary and Simon’s gang-influenced nephew are dropped without a final resolution), but it is only a snapshot of these turning points, one that captures their dreams and anxieties in a world just as chaotic as it is thirty-two years later.
One can tell the effort that went into Kasdan’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, which is replete with insightful discussions about control and meaning and miracles and existence. And while these are laudable topics, I couldn’t help but think that normal people don’t talk about these universal concepts as casually as they do in this movie. While I appreciated the existential concerns raised (albeit without any religious dimension), the eloquence of it also kept reminding me that this is a script being delivered, quite well of course but not convincingly enough to completely connect with these characters. That could be my own personal gripe that wouldn’t bother other viewers, but it keeps Grand Canyon from being a new favorite ensemble flick. Still, as thoughtful all-star dramas go, it’s a well-made and perceptive piece that uses its particular time and place to ask timeless questions.
Best line: (Davis, to Mack) “That’s part of your problem, you know, you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”
If ghosts are really dead and well And haunting us instead of hell Or heaven, then it’s fair to ponder What they’re up to when they wander.
Could it be their lifeless heads Are in our bathrooms, in our beds, Next to us when we’re alone To judge us and what’s on our phone?
Could it be they find their fun In terrifying everyone? Just float a chair or whisper “boo,” And while you scream, they laugh at you.
Or maybe they just do their schtick Because the dead resent the quick And all the things they can’t enjoy And so endeavor to annoy?
Or maybe phantoms leave a trail Of fear to flout the coffin nail, To prove to us as well as them That they exist by their mayhem.
It must be hard to be a ghoul. To be invisible is cruel. So next time you are all alone, Turn to the ghost you might have known And dare to share a friendly word, Perhaps their first since being interred. And if they don’t scare you away, Just know you might have made their day. _______________________
MPA rating: R (for violence, mostly PG-13-level except for one scene)
Yep, I’m still here catching up on my 2022 Blindspots, but I have officially seen them all! So now it’s just getting the reviews out. Though I had intended it for last Halloween, next up is a little horror film with some unlikely bedfellows in director Peter Jackson before he hit the big time with Lord of the Rings and Michael J. Fox in his last starring role, shortly before announcing his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Between Jackson’s penchant for horror comedy (much toned down here) and Fox’s natural charisma, the two proved to be a good mix, finding both humor and pathos in a tale of a con artist who can see dead people and must battle a murderous phantom only he can see.
Fox plays Frank Bannister, a self-proclaimed banisher of ghosts, who gets help in faking the hauntings in a small American town (actually Jackson’s native New Zealand) from his spectral collaborators (Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, and John Astin). He alone can see ghosts ever since a near-death experience, and after a run-in with a boorish jock (Peter Dobson) and his kinder wife (Trini Alvarado), Frank endeavors to stop a series of sudden random deaths that seem to be caused by the Grim Reaper.
After he’d earned a name through several strictly Kiwi projects of varying taste, The Frighteners was Jackson’s first Hollywood movie, and its mishmash of genres adds to it feeling like a turning-point film, the work of someone still perfecting their talent for mainstream audiences. Despite the twisty plot and colorful performances, it seemed to me that the real intended star was the special effects provided by Weta Digital (now Weta FX) to bring the ghosts to life, particularly the villain whose shape is often seen moving underneath solid surfaces like walls. By today’s standards, those all-CGI moments now have an inescapably dated and unreal look to them, but I can imagine they were a wonder in the mid-1990s.
While Fox’s natural likeability overshadows that of his character, he nails the dramatic moments and the interactions with characters that are not actually there, since all the ghost scenes were shot twice, with and without the ghosts present. As for the antagonists, while the shadowy reaper is a formidable threat, Jeffrey Combs is a scene-stealer as Miles Dammers, the intense FBI agent trying to tie Frank to the killings. Combs was clearly channeling a neurotic Jim Carrey and is a primary source of the film’s humor, which can be hit-and-miss.
Most of the film’s mixed reviews seem to consider it “tonally uneven,” which is true, never going for full-on belly laughs or deep-seated horror. The ending especially forgoes any of the light-hearted campiness in order to make events feel as hopeless as possible for the heroes while also overdoing explanatory flashbacks. Other issues include the rather shallow romance and the fact that the harrowing opening scene doesn’t make much sense in retrospect.
I don’t mean to sound overly negative; I very much enjoyed The Frighteners and actually watched it twice. It’s not high art nor an outright dud, so it’s hard to figure out in which bucket of appreciation to place it. But it’s an entertaining amalgam of influences that deserves its cult following, and I’m grateful that it served as a stepping stone for Jackson and Weta toward The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Besides, you can’t go wrong ending a movie with “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.”
Best line: (Frank) “You are SUCH an a**hole.” (Dammers, unhinged) “Yes, I am. I’m an a**hole… with an Uzi.”
I grew up in a jungle, Where the canopies were dense, Where I could play the warrior To whom imagined foes defer, Where time was slow yet fleeting, A parade of precedents.
I moved then to a jungle, Not of leaves but weathered stone. I learned the world was wide and far And much more fun than parents are. And every story led me toward A story of my own.
My mind became a jungle As the years were filled with noise. Though grief was vying for the lead, A stronger love became my creed, The kind that builds on fate fulfilled And makes men out of boys. ____________________
MPA rating: Not Rated (nothing really objectionable, though at least PG for the serious subject matter)
So I didn’t fit in all my 2022 Blindspots into last year. It happens, and I’ll just have to aim for better this year. First, though, it’s time to wrap up the old ones, starting with a pick that was perhaps overly ambitious for my slow viewing schedule. Instead of just one film, I made one of my picks a trilogy so that I could introduce myself to the work of acclaimed Indian director Satyajit Ray. Based upon the novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and boasting a score by Ravi Shankar, the Apu Trilogy is made up of three black-and-white films following the life of a poor Bengali boy named Apu: Pather Panchali (or Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (or The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (or The World of Apu). All three are considered landmark films in Indian cinema, earning international esteem and influencing many filmmakers in the decades since.
First up is 1955’s Pather Panchali, Ray’s debut film focusing on Apu’s childhood in the rural forests of Bengal in the 1910s. More than any of the sequels, the first film is focused on the visuals, with an unhurried pace to allow viewers to consider the episodic life of the Roy family, a poor life of sweeping dirt floors and brushing their teeth with a finger but not without its moments of joy and wonder. A more commercial film would have provided some kind of narration, with Apu (Subir Banerjee) reminiscing about his harried mother (Karuna Banerjee), traveling father (Kanu Banerjee), and impish sister Durga (Runki Banerjee and later Uma Dasgupta; no actual relation between the four Banerjees, by the way). Instead, the movie shows rather than tells, reflecting the fact that it was filmed based on storyboards rather than a script, and it boasts several striking images in its picture of agrarian poverty, from the reflection of shadows in a pond as Apu and Durga follow a sweets peddler or the appearance of a train chugging through windswept fields of tall grass, the only sign that this story is set in a modern era.
Despite a behind-the-scenes featurette’s assertion that Pather Panchali is Durga’s film in the trilogy, I thought it belonged more to the mother Sarbajaya. While she doesn’t always come off as likable, even nagging an elderly houseguest until the old woman leaves, Sarbajaya bears the heaviest burden of the family. She deals with the objections over Durga’s stealing from neighbors, the loneliness when her husband is away earning money as a Brahmin priest, and the financial worries when he disappears for months at a time. Her actress has especially expressive eyes that do wonders with the mostly minimalist dialogue. Still, the rambling pacing of Pather Panchali is admittedly tedious at times and ultimately telling a sparse and sad story of poverty. Yet, even if it was meant as a standalone film, I see it as necessary groundwork for the story to come.
The second film is 1956’s Aparajito, which I enjoyed more than the first simply because more happened, but somehow I think it’s my favorite of the three. After the heartache of the first film, young Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) and his family have moved to the city of Benares (now Varanasi), leaving behind bamboo forests and sweeping dirt floors in favor of crowded riverside ghats and sweeping stone floors. While Apu’s father finds more work in the city, it doesn’t take long for more tragedy to strike, forcing another move to stay with a rural relative. There, Apu finally has the opportunity to attend school and awakens a love of learning that eventually sends him off to college in Kolkata, stepping into a more modern world of books and electricity.
Whereas Pather Panchali seemed largely observational, Aparajito felt like a more personal film, particularly focusing on the relationship between Apu and his mother. Apu didn’t have much agency before since he was a wide-eyed child, but comes into his own as a character once he makes the choice to attend school, thanks to the support of the long-suffering Sarbajaya. Like so many adolescents growing up, the older Apu (Smaran Ghosal) is drawn toward the bustling college life instead of his provincial past, and even his moments of sweetness with his mother have a tinge of disinterest on his part. I’m a sucker for a sacrificial mom story, and this is the kind of regretful tale that made me want to hug mine.
Rounding out the trilogy is 1959’s Apur Sansar, focusing on Apu as an adult (Soumitra Chatterjee). Now on his own, he’s a starving artist working on a novel and tutoring on the side, too overqualified for manual labor. When he is invited to a country wedding, a trick of fate and odd local customs result in him marrying the bride, which is a shock to both him and the lovely Aparna (Sharmila Tagore, who somehow looks and acts older than her mere fourteen years). Despite being strangers, a sweet romance gradually blossoms between the two, and Apu must come to terms with his role as husband and then father, as well as the trail of tragedy and grief that has followed him throughout his life.
It seems that most critics consider Apur Sansar the most complete and professional work in the trilogy, and it does feel like the most self-contained, as well as the most satisfying. Ray (or perhaps the author of the source material) is actually quite ruthless with his characters, so by the end, it’s gratifying whenever Apu has a bit of happiness. It helps too that Chatterjee is an outstanding actor, able to evoke his thoughts with only a look, such as a moment in bed where he seems struck by the fact that he is really married. (May he rest in peace, since he died just a couple years ago due to COVID.) I also liked how Apu and Aparna go out to the movies at one point to watch a rather hokey mythological epic, which both recalled a similar play Apu saw in the first film and highlighted how different Ray’s more grounded films were from what came before.
There actually isn’t much continuity between the three films, and any of them could be watched in isolation. Yet they do build upon each other in subtle ways, as when the Apu in Aparajito excels in class due to the home lessons his father gave him in Pather Panchali, or the chuckle-worthy scene in Apur Sansar where Apu’s friend describes the rural lifestyle of his cousins that so closely mirrors Apu’s own upbringing. There are a wealth of more subtle details and creative choices that a non-critic like me may not catch, so I found it even more rewarding to watch behind-the-scenes features about Ray’s artistry, such as the symbolic use of trains as harbingers of death throughout the films.
Now that I’ve watched these certified classics, I can see why they are so well-respected, and I now view Satyajit Ray as an Indian counterpart to Akira Kurosawa in Japan, telling detailed, culturally authentic stories that resonate beyond their specific country or setting. At the same time, I’ll be honest and say these are definitely what I call “critic movies”; perhaps in decades past, they might have had popular appeal, especially in India, but they are designed more to tell a slow and personal story rather than entertain. They are not the kind of movies one watches casually and thus probably not ones I’ll ever see again.
But as works of cinematic art representing the highs and lows of Apu’s life, they do live up to their reputation, provided one has the patience for them. Considering both Chatterjee and Tagore had long and successful careers after Apur Sansar, I’m now curious to see more of their work, not to mention that of director Ray. And I am very grateful for the Criterion Collection’s dedication to preserving all three films, the originals of which were burned in a fire and required great pains to restore. These are nuanced and significant entries in the history of international cinema, and even if they seem mundane by modern standards, I’m glad to have seen them.
Best lines: (schoolmaster, to Apu in Aparajito) “If you don’t read books like these, you can’t broaden your mind. We may live in a remote corner of Bengal, but that doesn’t mean that our outlook should be narrow.”
(Apu in Apur Sansar, commenting on Aparna going to her parents for a while) “But I will get some work done on my novel. I haven’t written a line since we were married.” (Aparna) “Is that my fault?” (Apu) “It’s to your credit. You know how much my novel means to me. You mean much more.”
The mind has many corners in its many-wrinkled maze, To hide from heavy burdens that it cannot hope to raise. The layers of its labyrinth stretch to depths we cannot guess, And how deeply we flee depends upon our yesterdays.
While most of us can cope with just the top tiers meant for stress, The world at its most wicked makes us seek a dark recess. And if we lose our way, the dark that darkness drove us to May keep us from escaping our escaping in excess. ________________________
MPA rating: R (for violence, language, and brief nudity)
A Merry belated Christmas to all! I may have given up on reviewing all my 2022 Blindspots before the end of the year, but I think I can at least watch them all before year’s end. The reviews will catch up in good time. To be honest, I haven’t seen many Martin Scorsese movies, so I figured I should address that by starting with the one that seemed to have the most intrigue to it. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, Shutter Island is a psychological thriller that thrives on its foreboding atmosphere and strong performances, even if it ends up feeling like a mid-tier M. Night Shyamalan plot.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an intense performance as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who arrives with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to the titular island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane to investigate a recently escaped prisoner/patient. Despite requesting their help, the hospital’s head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hesitant to divulge certain information to the marshals, even as a hurricane moves in to wreak havoc on the island. As Daniels becomes more and more haunted by his own past traumas, he begins to question reality and what kind of conspiracy he has come to confront.
It’s a bit surprising that, despite its acclaimed director and star, Shutter Island failed to generate any awards nominations, aside from a National Board of Review nod. Whether you connect with the story or not, there’s no denying the skill with which it was made: the dingy lighting, the ominous cinematography, the subtle performances. Inception was easily DiCaprio’s better puzzle-box film that year, but it’s still interesting that this film couldn’t snag a single nomination.
I was rather shocked while admiring an especially poignant portion of the musical score as I realized that I had heard it before in another film: “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter added the same emotional gut punch to the ending of Arrival (far more effectively, in my opinion) and other films and TV shows besides. I didn’t realize till afterward that this track was not original to either film or that the entire soundtrack of Shutter Island comprised pre-released classical music.
Perhaps it didn’t help that I had some idea of what the film’s key twist would be. I credit the screenplay for still keeping me guessing and wondering if I was right or not, but yes, I was right. Not to say the film’s reveal wasn’t still effective and heartbreaking, but it didn’t have the same punch as something completely unforeseen. Overall, Shutter Island reminded me a bit of Nightmare Alley in its masterfully composed story and dark setting that I appreciated without being truly drawn into, probably because of its ending clearly designed to foster thoughtfulness in the audience rather than satisfaction. But it’s still an excellent genre piece ripe for theorizing that will no doubt reward further rewatches, which could perhaps raise my opinion of it even more.
Best lines: (Rachel Solando) “People tell the world you’re crazy, and all your protests to the contrary just confirm what they’re saying.” (Teddy) “I’m not following you, I’m sorry.” (Rachel) “Once you’re declared insane, then anything you do is called part of that insanity. Reasonable protests are denial, valid fears paranoia…” (Teddy) “Survival instincts are defense mechanisms.” (Rachel) “You’re smarter than you look, Marshal. That’s probably not a good thing.”
When someone’s suspiciously murdered (which happens all the time According to TV and film and cozy books on crime), We normal people just freak out, too shocked to even try, But sleuths will quickly get to work deducing who and why.
What makes a sleuth is hard to say. They’re curious and bold, Perceptive often to a fault, and don’t do as they’re told. They let the wheels of logic turn before they chance a guess, And where the experts fail with more, they find success with less.
These traits are hardly out of reach, quite feasible in truth, So average folks like you and me could well become a sleuth. But sleuths depend on one external factor to arise: They need the luck to be nearby when someone up and dies. _____________________________
MPA rating: PG
Even though good ones like Knives Out and See How They Run are still being made, the murder mystery formula is old hat nowadays, and Murder by Death shows it was old hat back in 1976 too. Yet well-worn genres are ripe for parody, especially when writer Neil Simon and a star-studded cast join forces to poke fun at the most recognizable archetypes.
Having seen Glass Onion recently (review pending), I was struck by how similar the setup of that film is to this one’s premise. All the characters are invited to the home of wealthy eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote in a rare acting role that earned him a Golden Globe nomination) and challenged to solve a murder. All of the main guests are acclaimed crime solvers and represent famous fictional detectives, including stand-ins for Hercule Poirot (James Coco), Sam Spade (Peter Falk), Nick and Nora Charles (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Miss Marple (Elsa Lanchester), and Charlie Chan (Peter Sellers in a yellowface role that would definitely not fly nowadays). Beyond those stars, the cast also features Sir Alec Guinness as a blind butler (which is as ridiculous as it sounds) who makes an amusing pair with a new deaf-mute cook (Nancy Walker), as well as Eileen Brennan, Estelle Winwood, and the very first role for James Cromwell.
On the scale of parody, I’d place Murder by Death somewhere around the silliness level of Mel Brooks’ lesser offerings. For most of the film, it plays as a legitimate mystery with injections of zany absurdity and dubious plot twists, and it’s a unique pleasure to have these familiar-ish detectives bounce off each other and trade one-liners, from the preening Coco to the snobby Niven to the hard-boiled Falk. Unfortunately, Sellers’ very presence with his big teeth and broken English is the picture of retroactive racism, furthered by Falk’s prejudiced interactions with him, but he still does a decent job in representing the analytical wisdom of his inspiration, still played for laughs of course. (On another note, I kind of wish there was a Charlie Chan adaptation with an actual Asian actor, modernized the way Shang-Chi was to avoid stereotypes, maybe even about his real-life inspiration Chang Apana.)
Not everyone has enough to do, with Lanchester’s character standing out the least, but Simon’s clever dialogue keeps things entertaining throughout. As an almost chamber piece, it could have made a good stage play as well. By the end, it leans more on screwball parody with a flurry of plot twists that don’t make any sense for the whodunnit but are certainly worth a chuckle, if not the laugh-out-loud experience the film was marketed to be. Likable and dated in equal measure, Murder by Death can’t compare with the recent renaissance of murder mysteries, but it’s a fun ride for those wanting to poke fun at the genre. I think I preferred Clue, though.
Best line: (Sam Diamond, played by Falk) “Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is.”
If life were like a recipe, We’d follow every step and see If what we’ve done or tried to do Produced the proper cake or stew Or coq au vin or cordon bleu Or tonkatsu or what-have-you.
We’d quickly know where we went wrong, Like where the salt’s a bit too strong Or where the spice got out of hand, Where fresh is favored over canned Or where the flavor grew too bland. It would be simpler if pre-planned.
But life’s not like a recipe. More often, it’s a mess, and we Must guess on times and quantities, Ingredients and potencies. And sometimes we pair fish with cheese And wish we had more expertise.
But trial and error bear their fruits (Ideally fending off lawsuits), And soon the recipe is clear In retrospect, without veneer. Sometimes it takes a whole career To be the chef who cooks by ear. _________________________
MPA rating: R (solely for language)
As December progresses, I feel like I’m in a race to see if I can cram the rest of this year’s Blindspots into the weeks remaining. Writer’s block doesn’t help, but a good movie certainly does. Chef has long been in my backlog as a widely lauded film that I just never got around to watching until now. Trained and co-produced by food truck chef Roy Choi, director Jon Favreau also plays Carl Casper, the head chef of a distinguished restaurant in L.A. that is sorely in need of a positive review from a critical blogger (Oliver Platt). Yet when Carl runs afoul of his employer (Dustin Hoffman) and makes a highly public mistake, he is forced to revamp his career by trying something new, namely opening a Cuban food truck that might just bring him closer to his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) along the way.
Chef definitely seems like a film tailored for me. Not only has my family long been faithful Food Network viewers, but I even owned and operated my own food cart business, selling hot dogs for a grand total of three months. I’ve probably told this story on the blog before, but it’s one that I often look back on as a huge mistake. So I had mixed feelings watching Favreau’s Carl find almost immediate success with his venture; there is vicarious satisfaction at seeing someone else succeed, mixed with a tinge of bitter jealousy whispering “It wouldn’t have been that easy. He would have needed more permits.” But I digress. The satisfaction was louder anyway.
As a food lover, I was delighted by the delectable dishes throughout the film, from a sumptuous pasta Carl concocts as a sort-of date night to a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich that Carl’s son doesn’t fully appreciate. The love of food infuses much of the story, especially as Carl tries to instill his own passion into his son, telling him of the joys of New Orleans beignets or urging him to never grow complacent in serving anything but the best. Plus, despite my earlier complaint, there’s a likable genuineness to the script as well, such as the waggish kitchen banter with Carl and his sous chefs (John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale). That also extends to the relationships; Percy craves the attention of his dad, yet Carl is far from an absentee father, just constantly distracted, so it’s easy to see how he might think he’s doing enough as a dad. Their mutual bonding over food and the work that goes into it is a joy to watch.
Chef does have its flaws, taking a little too long with the set-up before the food truck idea gains steam, and, beyond some awkward scenes played for laughs, it’s a prime example of a film that doesn’t need its abundance of F-bombs, since it would make a solid family film without them. It was nice seeing cameos from the likes of Amy Sedaris and Favreau’s Iron Man co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, though it was odd seeing him flirt with the latter. Happy Hogan and Black Widow? I can’t see it. Despite all this, Chef has all the culinary love of a passion project and boasts an all-around feel-good ending that is likely to leave any viewer smiling. It’s yet another Blindspot I’m glad to finally have seen, if only for that grilled cheese recipe I’m totally going to try.
Best line: (Chef Carl Casper, to his son) “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do, and I want to share this with you.”
We think of scars as plain to see, Disfigurements of normalcy, And never could we guess the pain Of people who do not complain.
While many bare and air their hurts, Both recluses and extroverts, With time they tend to hide regret And cover what they can’t forget.
Both the mount and molehill end, And yet the tolls they take depend On what we each have faced before And whether we can take much more.
The world is not known for its heart; The people in it must do that part, To take the scars concealed so well And show the heaven beyond the hell. __________________________
MPA rating: R (for much language and some sexual references)
The end of the year is fast approaching, but I haven’t yet given up on finishing my Blindspot series. Short Term 12 earned a place on the list mainly because I was curious to see so many now-famous stars in what I might call an “incubator film.” I would compare it to 1983’s The Outsiders, which was a vehicle for multiple big-name actors before they were famous, such as Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, and Rob Lowe. Short Term 12 likewise highlighted the skills of Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield, and Rami Malek years before they were Oscar contenders, not to mention writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.
Expanding Cretton’s own short film and based on his experiences working at a group home for troubled teens, the film is a masterwork of empathetic storytelling. A story of kids overcoming trauma could so easily have become maudlin or trite or else devolved into soul-crushing despair, but somehow the script tows the line between realism and hope. Larson plays Grace Howard, a line worker at the titular group shelter whose responsibility, as she tells new recruit Nate (Malek), is to only give the kids there a safe place, not to be their therapist or friend. Yet for teenagers struggling with distrust, abuse, and anxiety, that safe place and the act of listening and caring are worth more than any amount of formal therapy. However, when a sullen girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, Grace is reminded of her own past trauma that threatens to overwhelm her.
Short Term 12 would be an interesting watch just for its cast alone. Look, Brie Larson before Room and Captain Marvel! Look, Lakeith Stanfield before Get Out and Judas and the Black Messiah! Rami Malek before Bohemian Rhapsody, John Gallagher, Jr. of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Kaitlyn Dever of Last Man Standing, Stephanie Beatriz of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Encanto. And they all do phenomenal work, with Larson, Stanfield, and Dever especially giving Oscar-worthy performances. Yet the script is the real star, filled with brilliant individual scenes that give so much nuance to the characters and their struggles, whether it be a resentful rap delivered by Stanfield’s Marcus, a grateful toast from Gallagher’s Mason to his foster parents, or a children’s story by Jayden that has the same simplicity and achingly sad truth of The Giving Tree. Foul-mouthed outbursts are contrasted with moments of genuine compassion, and somehow none of it comes off as overly scripted or artificial.
The most meaningful theme I got from Short Term 12 was the sense that, for every terrible ordeal or wave of panic, “this too shall pass.” In the case of the kids lashing out, the adults have to literally hold them down to prevent them from hurting themselves or others, and it’s awful in the moment but ultimately a sign of caring once the intense emotions fade. Likewise, Grace’s apparent happiness is shattered by a succession of bad news, bringing her to the brink of despondency and regrettable life choices. Yet there is catharsis for everything, whether we see it or not, often making us better able to understand the pain of others and help them through it as well.
Short Term 12 is a hard watch at times, putting an unvarnished spotlight on teen distress that is so often kept out of sight, but it’s a highly rewarding one. I have always held up Amy Adams in Arrival being ignored for Best Actress as a notorious Oscar snub, and now I can add this film to the mix, since it was entirely and criminally passed over by the Academy. While Larson got her due two years later for Room, Cretton’s screenplay absolutely deserved a nomination, if not a win. I never would have guessed he would go on to Shang-Chi and the upcoming Avengers films, but it’s satisfying to see the humble beginnings of him and his up-and-coming stars. (We can thank this film for Stanfield’s whole acting career, since Cretton cast him in the original short and later tracked him down to get him to return for the film.) With its perceptive direction, star-making performances, and encouraging pro-life sentiment, it’s a film that shows that the best in people can outshine the worst.
Best line: (part of Marcus’s rap) “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”
There once was a castle perverse. Its owner was evil and worse, He’d break into song While his friends sang along Without any time to rehearse.
All visitors finding his lair Were likely to join the nightmare, And goody-two-shoes Who had morals to lose Would leave, having had an affair.
Beware then the castle debased, If you’d choose being chaste over chased, Unless you’re the type Who exults in the hype Of intentional absence of taste. __________________________
MPA rating: R
I know this review is a little late for Halloween (and for only my fourth Blindspot), but I’ve been struggling to figure out how to review The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When a film is this iconic in its cult status, is it basically above criticism? To be clear, I did not enjoy this sex-crazed salute to campy horror, but I can see why others might. It’s the kind of over-the-top cheesefest that knows exactly what it wants to be and is so committed to it that it doesn’t matter whether I like it or not. It is what it is, and I guess it proves that a film can be both classic and atrocious at the same time.
The paper-thin story, narrated periodically by a genteel criminologist (Charles Gray), sees newly engaged couple Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) being stranded when their car breaks down on a dark and stormy night, leading them to the castle of the eccentric transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter (a scenery-chewing Tim Curry). The straight-laced couple are soon drawn into a free-for-all of seduction, murder, and musical numbers, complete with a creepy butler named Riff Raff (Richard O’Brian, who also wrote the film and the original stage show), a newly created muscle man named Rocky (Peter Hinwood), and a machine that turns people into statues.
Objectively, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a mess, as reflected by its poor reception by critics upon initial release. Characters come and go randomly, notably Meatloaf as a half-brained motorcyclist who shows up for one chaotic song and is abruptly killed for no reason. And a big stage number near the end is a fever dream of trashy costume glitz that makes zero sense, followed by a swimming pool championing wish fulfillment. In short, once Brad and Janet entered the castle, I just alternated between appreciating the music, feeling uncomfortable, and wondering what the heck I was watching, which I suspect was the intent of the filmmakers all along.
Speaking of the music, the movie does have some catchy songs to its credit (all written by O’Brien), energetic bops like “The Time Warp” and “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” to match its tongue-in-cheek silliness. I generally love musicals, and, while I would consider this one of the exceptions, I will grant that the music is pretty much the only thing that makes it watchable, some chuckle-worthy jokes notwithstanding. Perhaps I’d buy into the film’s bizarre brand of fun more if I attended one of the midnight showings known for audience participation, and I’m tempted to. If only I had a better baseline opinion of it….
I’m well aware that The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t my kind of movie. I’m not a fan of watching two clean-cut kids be corrupted by an alien missionary of the sexual revolution and his motley array of perversions, even if it’s someone as charismatic as Tim Curry. I suppose that makes me a prude, but so be it; I prefer my musicals less hypersexualized. I do find it funny that my first exposure to both Curry and O’Brien was in kid-friendly cartoons where they played likable dads: Curry in The Wild Thornberrys and O’Brien in Phineas and Ferb, which were a far cry from their raucous younger days. I’m glad I’ve seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show at least once, if only to understand its iconic cult reputation, but it’s a cult I’d prefer to avoid.
Best line: (Dr. Frank-N-Furter) “It’s not easy having a good time.”