Empire of the Sun (1987)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem about the middle of something, so I applied that theme to another film about sudden and distressing circumstances.)

 

The peace we always took for granted vanishes, no warning paid,
And thoughts and fears and new frontiers take precedence as comforts fade.
This change of fortunes must be fleeting, say the victims who pretend.

Keep the faith, a little longer, don’t give up, our angels cheer;
Those who dare say, “Halfway there,” but that just means to persevere,
For how are we to know the middle when we cannot see the end?

Some are born to dream in darkness; some are born to bear its weight;
Some are born, it seems, to mourn with equal chance to hope or hate.
They all survive on how they face experiences no one should.

The start of hardship can unsettle, and its end can overwhelm,
What one endures between assures the rest of us who’s at the helm.
The middle of a tragedy reveals the evil and the good.
__________________

MPAA rating: PG (should be PG-13)

Empire of the Sun has never had the same reputation as Steven Spielberg’s other films. No one I know quotes famous lines or references famous scenes from it, but even Spielberg’s less prominent films confirm him as a consummate filmmaker, whether he’s directing fun actioners or serious historical narratives like this one. Little attention is usually paid to China during World War II, much less the foreigners living there at the time, but Empire of the Sun takes inspiration from J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, tracing one British boy’s survival story through the hardships of war.

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While the cinematography, score, and direction are awe-inspiring in their epic scope, this film belongs to Christian Bale, whose first major performance as the teenage Jamie Graham has to rank among the finest child actor performances ever. He runs the full gamut of emotions, from his spoiled brat ways as a well-to-do schoolboy in Shanghai to his ever more desperate attempts at clinging to normalcy in the wake of being separated from his parents and forced to survive in an uncaring land. He nails the euphoria and admiration of a boy obsessed with the glory of war planes (“Cadillac of the sky!”), as well as the shock and sorrow of witnessing the loss of everything he held dear. A lesser performance couldn’t have supported such a long movie, but Bale distinguished himself early as a strong and versatile performer.

The always great John Malkovich also pops up intermittently as Basie, an American whose experience and leadership cause Jamie to latch onto him as an anchor amidst the chaos, even if he doesn’t recognize Basie’s repeated selfishness. Joe Pantoliano, Nigel Havers, and Miranda Richardson also do good work in supporting roles along Jamie’s journey, and apparently Ben Stiller was in it too, though I don’t remember seeing him.

Spielberg provides sharp contrast between Jamie’s privileged upbringing and the native squalor surrounding it—an early scene has a convoy of Britishers headed to a costume party besieged by the destitute masses—and the fall from status of Jamie and his fellow moneyed class is hard-felt as they are soon reduced to fighting over a potato or else starving to death. Jamie, or Jim as Basie calls him, displays surprising adaptability in the face of all the desperation, but the casualties of war eventually overcome him in tragic fashion, claiming his innocence as one of their number. In many ways, it reminded me of Grave of the Fireflies from the following year by putting a struggling boy through a wartime hell no child should have to endure.

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Empire of the Sun is an epic with a pitying eye on the civilian cost of war and boasts a singular star performance to deliver both the hope and the heartbreak of its story. Its 2½-hour length is a bit of a bear at times, accentuating the duration of Jamie’s trials but testing the audience’s patience as well. It’s really the only fault I can point to to justify it not being List-Worthy, and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture or Director that year. It’s not as watchable as most of Spielberg’s filmography, but it’s one of his grander, more illustrious works.

Best line: (Basie, in the Japanese internment camp) “It’s at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it’s like a country club.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

2017 S.G. Liput
470 Followers and Counting

 

12 Years a Slave (2013)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a humorous four-line clerihew about a famous person, but in light of today being Good Friday, I went more of a serious route and reviewed a film with suffering as a major theme.)

 

Solomon Northup
Would not give his worth up.
At dignity’s theft,
He survived with what was left.
_______________

MPAA rating: R

When 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture back in 2013, I was struck by one critic’s statement that it was the first major film focusing on American slavery. I found that hard to believe, but the more I tried to think of a previous example, the more I realized he was right. Roots opened the eyes of television audiences back in 1977, but cinematic slavery seems always to have been in the background (Gone with the Wind, for example), centering more on white characters. There have been so many films about the struggles of African Americans during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Era that their pre-Civil War history has surprisingly been overlooked, at least in the movies.

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Directed by Steve McQueen (the director, not the actor), 12 Years a Slave is all the more potent due to its historical source, the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Overnight, Solomon goes from a respected member of the community to a piece of property labeled “Platt,” and his agonizing journey represents a comprehensive survey of the slave experience, ranging from the humiliation of the auction house to plantation masters both kind and cruel. His first master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) treats his slaves fairly yet does not recognize the moral dissonance between his Christian beliefs and slave-dependent lifestyle, epitomized by the delivery of his Sunday sermon competing with the wails of a grieving mother. Still, Ford is a saint next to Solomon’s next owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a hard-hearted brute who takes pleasure in raping his favorite and most productive slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, who deservingly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar).

For years, films have grieved hearts and minds with Civil Rights-Era racism, behavior that is still seen as a holdover from the days of slavery, but it’s even more shocking to see the real thing, the undiluted cruelty and unrestricted control over human lives that were an unquestioned institution in the South before the Civil War. Multiple scenes are carefully crafted gut-punches that intentionally drag on to heighten their inhumanity: as punishment for fighting back on one occasion, Solomon is trussed up by the neck with his feet barely touching the ground, while his fellow slaves filter outside, too fearful to help him. In one astounding and brutal shot filmed without cuts, Epps forces him to repeatedly whip Patsey over a mere bar of soap. Through all this, Ejiofor delivers the performance of a lifetime, and even if the timing of what happens when during the twelve years is not documented, the years are felt in Solomon’s troubled gazes of ever-increasing despair and desperation.

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For me, 12 Years a Slave is somewhat similar to The Passion of the Christ, mainly in its depiction of heartless savagery (including a prominent whipping) that makes it a film to appreciate as significant but by no means something to enjoy watching. All the performances are outstanding, though I would have thought Ejiofor deserved an Oscar even more than Nyong’o (who would have believed he’d lose to Matthew McConaughey?), and Fassbender’s wholly detestable role as Epps nearly threatened to destroy my personal regard for the actor. (It was cool, as well, to see Ejiofor alongside Cumberbatch three years before their pairing in Doctor Strange.) While some scenes are reminiscent of Roots, 12 Years a Slave is more mature and intense in its depiction of violence and rape, and the sense of misery and loss is constant, even after the emotional release toward the end. The portrayal of Christianity is also less than positive, illustrating how it was often used to justify slavery, but such representations are somewhat mitigated by the more sympathetic faith of a visiting abolitionist (Brad Pitt). While I’m not entirely convinced that all the powerfully poignant scenes add up to a masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave is an important piece of historical cinema and a long overdue look at a subject many might want to forget.

Best line:  (Epps, debating with the abolitionist) “I bought ’em. I paid for ’em.”
(Bass) “Well, of course you did, and the law says you have the right to hold a n*****. But begging the law’s pardon, it lies. Suppose they pass a law taking away your liberty, making you a slave. Suppose.”
(Epps) “That ain’t a supposable case.”
(Bass) “Laws change, Epps. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, a plain and simple fact, that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

2017 S.G. Liput
469 Followers and Counting

 

They Were Eleven (1986)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a ghazal, an Arab poem form of couplets with repeated last lines, into which I tried to incorporate this interesting title.)

 

They thought they knew what to expect, until they were eleven.
The number of chosen elect jumped from ten to eleven.

This wasn’t the plan; they were told there were ten in the test,
Until it began to unfold, and they counted eleven.

Though tempted to end it because of the unwanted guest,
This crucial attempt at advancing meant all to eleven.

No danger, no drawback would ruin their chance to be best;
Game-changers, they saw, could distinguish the ten or eleven.

The challenge was simple: survive as a team coalesced,
But must the plans alter when ten are progressed to eleven?
___________________

MPAA rating: Not Rated (should be PG, due to a little brief nudity)

In seeking out hidden gems among anime, one need not focus on current releases, since there are plenty of older films worthy of greater recognition. Based on a 1975 manga, They Were Eleven feels very much like a classic, not just classic anime but classic science fiction, the kind of story that feels like an influence on sci-fi to come. Ten finalists of what is basically Starfleet Academy have one final test to gain entrance:  a team exercise where they must survive together on a derelict ship for 53 days. The only hitch is that once the random candidates gather on the ship, they discover there’s an eleventh member, and no one knows who the extra is or what their intentions are.

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With a plot that recalls Star Trek: The Next Generation and Ender’s Game and may or may not have inspired elements of them, the film does an excellent job balancing its diverse cast. This kind of ensemble in animation is rare, but the varied character designs help to differentiate the cadets on board, who include a king, a cyborg, two alien species, an apparent girl named Frol who insists she’s a man, and a young psychic named Tada, who serves as the main protagonist. All of them have different reasons for wanting to attend the academy, and their personalities often clash as they encounter obstacles, dangers, paranoia, and sabotage.

Except for a few explosive scenes, there’s nothing particularly special about the animation; it’s solid, and serves the story well enough, as does the English dub, which only feels notable because it features Steve Blum and Wendee Lee before they were paired again in the excellent Cowboy Bebop dub. They Were Eleven is a consistently interesting mystery, and while the ending isn’t exactly a big shock, it explores its sci-fi themes with intelligence, particularly Frol’s side plot that manages to both challenge and embrace traditional gender roles. It may not be well-known, but They Were Eleven deserves to be.

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

2017 S.G. Liput
468 Followers and Counting

 

Big Eyes (2014)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem featuring alliteration, one of my favorite poetic tools, which I employed with abandon.)

“She stares her sadness through my soul,”
The mother in the market said.
“This youth is yearning to be whole,”
The art collector commented.

“This portrait proves the painter’s skill,”
The masses mused with untrained eye.
“This artless amateur’s a shill,”
The critics coughed to clarify.

Like Mona Lisa’s murky mien,
Those sightly saucers still entreat,
With varied views from clerk or queen,
Depending on the eyes they meet.
________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

I’m not the biggest fan of Tim Burton and his penchant for macabre weirdness. In fact, James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are the only films of his that I can say I really like, and even then with reservations (Big Fish and Batman were all right too). He’s still a talented enough director that a step away from his comfort zone of weirdness could produce something to my liking, and Big Eyes is just that. It’s a Tim Burton film that proves that his style need not be synonymous with grotesque.

While they’re not as prevalent nowadays, most people have probably seen those paintings of big-eyed waifs staring mournfully ahead, but I wasn’t aware of the story of fraud behind them. Amy Adams plays Margaret Keane, who after divorcing and moving to San Francisco with her daughter, meets the incredibly charismatic Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). After bonding a bit on their mutual love for painting, they marry, only for Walter’s promotion of Margaret’s work to reveal his looseness with the truth. While the idea of him technically “stealing” her work and claiming to be the artist seems hard to believe, it happens gradually and credibly, the result of Walter’s charm and Margaret’s timidity. It’s a lie that quickly grows out of control, with Margaret churning out new works from a secret studio and Walter becoming ever more passionate in protecting the lie. The way it plays out in the end is a testament to the truth always coming to light, and how it does is made more satisfying by the fact that it actually happened that way.

While Big Eyes is unlikely to be counted among the best films “based on a true story,” it’s solid all the way around, particularly in the casting of its two leads. Amy Adams excels in the role of a diffident artist struggling to work up her nerve, while Waltz brings the same gregarious magnetism that won him two Oscars, making Walter an amiable if unctuous fellow from the start who gets nastier with time. The mix of their two personalities makes the tale believable, and the film does give credit to Walter for his brilliant marketing strategies in disseminating the paintings. Burton presents it all in a pleasantly eccentric but straightforward style, only veering into odd territory a couple times with a hallucination had by an over-stressed Margaret. Burton obviously prefers his beloved macabre subjects, but for those like me who view them with more appreciation than enjoyment, a film like Big Eyes is a welcome change.

Best line: (Ruben, an art dealer) “Why are their eyes so big?”  (Walter) “Eyes are the windows to the soul!”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
467 Followers and Counting

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for an African-American sonnet variant called a Bop, with a particular line arrangement and repetition. Mine focuses on the themes of hope and despair found in a very strangely titled film.)

 

I fear life was always regret for the sad misanthropes:
A flurry of chances, a cavalcade of open doors,
A sunrise of rapt opportunities youth had distilled,
Until an incurious world put an end to their hopes,
Disbanded the chances and slammed likely doors by the scores
And made them to watch the sun set on a day unfulfilled.

For life, pain and all, is a terrible thing to resent.

They laugh, or belittle if laughter is too much to ask,
At promising youths with their sunrises yet to unveil.
They fancy they know, because they were not up to the task,
That all of mankind has the similar fortune to fail.
Perhaps it’s a comfort to slander the world as a whole,
Reminding themselves they’re but some of its victimized brood,
But how they do rage at success that was always their goal,
Reminded that all do not share their embittering mood.

For life, pain and all, is a terrible thing to resent.

A crack in the concrete will leave the slab broken enough,
But when a seed forces its shoot through the cleft to the sun,
The stone may object to the flower that rose from its pain.
But stones will be stones, their priorities wretched and rough;
The flower, however, can see from the vantage it’s won
A world so much brighter than any the stone could attain.

For life, pain and all, is a terrible thing to resent.
____________________

MPAA rating: PG (for occasional profanity)

Yes, that is the actual name of this movie. And no, it’s not some cheesy B-movie, but rather a layered look at a dysfunctional family, an extremely bitter mother (Joanne Woodward), her older daughter Ruth (Roberta Wallach, daughter of Eli Wallach), and the younger Matilda (Nell Potts). The title even makes surprising sense, deriving from the meaningful science project Matilda performs throughout the film, but it’s still quite a mouthful.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Marigolds was the third film directed by Paul Newman, who cast his wife Woodward and their daughter (Nell Potts) opposite each other. Newman himself actually said that he considered this to be his wife’s best performance, and I can see why. The role of Beatrice Hunsdorfer is not one to enjoy as much as endure. As a widow and single mother beset by poverty she can’t escape, she’s intensely resentful toward everyone and everything and isn’t afraid to complain at every opportunity, even calling in to a radio show to complain when no one else is around to hear her. She’s a sour and broken woman with every reaction being the worst possible kind, and even her attempts at being pleasant or comforting come off as obnoxious and insincere.

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As prominent as she is in the story, it’s not so much about Beatrice as much as what kind of children such a person can raise. Ruth is spiteful and petulant, not unlike her mother, while young Matilda is quiet and intelligent, caught in the middle of an unhappy family atmosphere. While the acting is tremendous throughout, except maybe for a few of Woodward’s more strained moments, Nell Potts is the one worth connecting with, a compelling eye of sympathy in the middle of a storm of indignation. What she goes through is liable to break your heart, especially with how she responds to it.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds may have one of those “what-were-they-thinking” titles, but there’s something profound to be gleaned from how its noxious mother-daughter relationship shapes Ruth and Matilda in different ways. Woodward plays a wholly unlikable character but still a complex one, a mother who can show concern for her daughter’s wellbeing while letting her own insecurities wreck that goal. The realism and not-entirely-tragic message make this film more than just an eccentric title.

Best line: (Beatrice, to Matilda) “Science, huh? Well, you tell Mr. Goodman there’s a lot of work to be done around here, so he’d better not count on you spending your days with half-life. Tell him if he wants to find out about half-life, he can come and ask me; I’m the original half-life. I’ve got one daughter with half a mind, the other who’s half a test tube, a house half-full of rabbit crap and half a corpse. That’s a half-life, all right.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
466 Followers and Counting

 

Love and Mercy (2014)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a personal portrait of someone special, like someone who is a picture of unselfish love.)

 

Some people are draining and take what they can
Till you’re not sure how your acquaintance began,
But some, if you’re lucky, replace what you’ve lost
And give and love further, not counting the cost.

She’s one of those people, those angels on earth,
Who don’t get the credit or gold that they’re worth.
Where others step back in repulsion or fear,
She’ll take two steps forward, concerned and sincere.

When I was convinced I was flawed to my core,
She gave me the hope that I still could be more.
When I came to learn happiness can’t be bought,
She showed me that lonely need not be my lot.

Such lessons are simple, but we the unwise,
With no one to teach us, are quick to trust lies.
If all were like her, by such love overrun,
The clouds of this world could be scattered to sun.
__________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

It’s become something of a cliché for musical biopics to portray the rise and fall of their subjects, often lessening our opinions of them in the process, but Love and Mercy is just as concerned about its star rising again as it is about the initial fall. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is played by two different actors, Paul Dano as Wilson in the mid-1960s and John Cusack as his older 1980s self. Instead of depicting the two time periods one after the other, they alternate in advancing their stories of a man whose talent and success weren’t enough to conquer his demons on his own.

Both actors and storylines have their strengths. Dano does an outstanding job at representing Wilson at his most creative, tired of his usual surf music and eager to experiment on his personal pet project, which becomes 1966’s Pet Sounds. Here we get a rare look at a musician’s creative process that goes beyond just thinking up lyrics; the laborious spontaneity of the recording studio and a personal piano brainstorm of “Good Vibrations” capture the spirit of Wilson’s musical genius, which was challenged by his family and sadly marred by drugs and a wrongly diagnosed mental disorder.

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Beyond the artistic insights of Dano’s parts, the film’s emotional core lies in the relationship between Cusack’s older Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who meet while Wilson is under the controlling care of Dr. Eugene Landy (domineering Paul Giamatti). My VC had trouble understanding why Melinda would have any interest in Wilson, who is presented as acting strange and unstable from Landy’s overmedication. Yet that is what makes Banks and the real-life Melinda so admirable: she wasn’t a gold-digger or an opportunist like Landy. She had every reason and right to leave Wilson to his fate, but she instead became his way out and transformed his life for the better through her love and perseverance, laudably brought to life by Banks. She’s the kind of patient, positive influence that we wish for all troubled souls to find, even if they rarely do. Taking a line from Wilson himself, God only knows what he’d be without her.

Love and Mercy is marred somewhat by the psychedelic miasma of the drug scenes, which is compounded at times by the nonlinear storyline and both Brians’ odd behavior. It isn’t how I’d want all biopics to be told, but for something unique in an all-too-familiar genre, Love and Mercy harnesses the talents of its subject and its actors for an ultimately inspiring tale of professional and personal salvation.

Best line: (1980s Brian, to Melinda) “I want you to leave, but I don’t want you to leave me.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
466 Followers and Counting

 

Deathtrap (1982)

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(For Day 9 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt suggested a nine-line poem, so I followed a Hungarian poetic form called the Balassi Stanza with a particular rhyme scheme and meter.)

 

What dark prospect it brings
To think on morbid things
In fantasy or in play.
‘Tis but a bit of fun
To execute someone
In thoughts you’d never obey.
Though violence can and will
Not make its viewers kill,
Were not all black hearts first gray?
_______________

MPAA rating: PG (PG-13 might be better)

Forget Batman v. Superman. With the pairing of Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, Deathtrap is Alfred v. Superman! Based on Ira Levin’s hit stage thriller that produced this film adaptation at the end of its original four-year run on Broadway, this five-character shocker has enough twists and turns to satisfy any mystery lover.

Caine is the once-great playwright Sidney Bruhl, whom after despairing at his latest flop, complains to his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) about a young up-and-comer with a killer script for a play called Deathtrap. After commenting half-jokingly that he’s tempted to kill the author and claim Deathtrap as his own, Sidney’s wife is rightfully nervous when he invites the young man (Reeve) into his beautiful, weapon-decorated home for a supposed collaboration and…stuff happens. You didn’t really think I was going to reveal anything, did you? Maybe in the callow early days of this blog but not anymore.

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Both Caine and Reeve are excellent here, playing off each other with a gripping unpredictability and a surprising subtext that wasn’t exactly well-received in 1982. Dyan Cannon aids the early uncertainty with her anxiety over Sidney’s intentions, though she goes overboard in one frantic scene and was nominated for a Golden Raspberry accordingly. After the first major plot twist, I didn’t know what to anticipate, and even toward the end, I was half-expecting an even wilder conclusion than what happened.

Deathtrap’s main flaw for me was the ending, not in its substance but in its execution. Like North By Northwest, it jumps wildly from the height of tension to the closing credits within one rushed scene, and the effect is sudden and jarring. (I believe the proper literary term is peripeteia. Put that in your vocabulary and smoke it!) Despite the imperfect final scenes, Deathtrap easily kept me guessing with its unstable characters, clever and menacing dialogue, and self-referential nods to murder tale conventions. Just don’t read about it beforehand!

Best line: (Myra, about the play Deathtrap) “Is it really that good?”   (Sidney) “I’ll tell you how good it is. Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
466 Followers and Counting

 

Con Air (1997)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem utilizing repetition, so I applied this technique and maybe a little symbolism to a ‘90s action movie. Because why not?)

 

Upon the air, the vessel soared
To transport evil in its bowels.
Upon the air, the mongrel horde
Attacked where predator never prowls.

Upon the air, they broke their bonds,
And took control upon the air,
Upon the air where hawk absconds
With spoils telling all beware.

Upon the air, the vessel soared
With wickedness its newest norm.
The few good people left on board
Were but a candle in the storm.

Upon the air, some good endured,
And at the crash of evil’s lair,
Whose survival was assured?
‘Twas not the princedom of the air.
________________

MPAA rating: R

Few films sum themselves up as explicitly as Con Air, when Nicolas Cage’s soon-to-be-freed convict Cameron Poe states, “They somehow managed to get every creep and freak in the universe onto this one plane. And then somehow managed to let them take it over. And then somehow managed to stick us right smack in the middle.” That about sums it up. A classic ‘90s action movie based on the Die Hard formula of bad guys taking over the “fill-in-the-blank,” Con Air is a thoroughly enjoyable actioner that revels in its own testosterone.

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Imprisoned for accidental manslaughter and on his way to release after serving his sentence, Cameron Poe is simply on the wrong plane at the wrong time when Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich) and all manner of murderous convicts seize their air transport to escape. Being the upright guy with a phony Southern accent that he is, he plays along and stays to help the few decent people on board (Mykelti Williamson, Rachel Ticotin) while dealing with all the nutcases that have taken over the airborne asylum. The sheer number of recognizable faces is impressive by itself; aside from Cage and Malkovich, there are Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, and Danny Trejo as criminals; John Cusack and Star Trek’s Colm Meaney as bickering lawmen trying to ground the flight; M.C. Gainey as the convicts’ pilot (warranting a Lost alert for playing Mr. Smiley in my favorite show); and Steve Buscemi, who channels his inner psychopath as the flight’s own Hannibal Lecter wannabe.

Con Air isn’t anything revolutionary or high-minded; it’s simply a fun action movie, lone good guy against multiple bad guys, and it certainly excels in the action department. The explosions and mayhem are spectacular, if not entirely realistic, and you know you’re watching a ‘90s boom-fest when Nicolas Cage is running in slow motion from a blazing inferno. The various baddies provide different flavors of vileness to despise, and it’s a strange irony that the one psycho who seems like the worst actually doesn’t do anything bad onscreen and is thusly not punished.

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I’ve often seen Con Air considered a guilty pleasure, equally ripe for entertainment or mockery (note John Cusack’s disappearing/reappearing pimple over a couple scenes), but what’s there to feel guilty about enjoying, aside from the rampant violence and language that comes with the genre? (I prefer the cut version myself.) On a side note, has anyone else noticed that Cameron Poe’s name might have inspired the name of Oscar Isaac’s character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron? Food for thought…. All in all, Con Air is first-rate punch-and-bullet action with a hero worth rooting for and plenty of villains worth hating.

Best line: (Buscemi’s Garland Greene, as the cons celebrate to “Sweet Home Alabama”) “Define irony. Bunch of idiots dancing on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

2017 S.G. Liput
465 Followers and Counting

 

The Lego Movie (2014)

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(The prompt for Day 7 of NaPoWriMo was to write a poem centered around luck or fortuitousness, such as finding something you didn’t know you’d lost.)

 

I found a lonely Lego head
That rolled out when I moved the bed,
A static smile on its face
And of his body not a trace.
What toys I’d played with in his stead—
He did not care, his smile said.

Where he was from, I could not say,
Nor what I’d used him for that day—
What worlds and exploits I’d created
Before he was decapitated,
Perhaps a knight as dragon prey
Or zombie falling to decay.

Though gone was every fellow piece,
His smile never seemed to cease.
Alone no more on outcast ground,
His hopes were met, and he was found.
His smile chides my lack of peace.
I wait, as well, for my release.
________________

MPAA rating: PG

When The Lego Movie burst on the scene in February of 2014, it’s safe to say that it surpassed expectations. Many smaller and lamer Lego animations had preceded it on television, and mediocrity seemed to be its destiny. Then lo and behold, the reviews came back positive, and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, also behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, proved they could breathe hilarious life into the most unlikely subjects. I can’t wait to see what they do with the upcoming Han Solo spinoff.

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The Lego Movie is hard to sum up because it’s a lot of things at once. At one level, it’s an ultra-fast-paced adventure about a normal nobody named Emmett (Chris Pratt), drawn into a larger world of Master Builders to thwart the evil plans of a tyrant (Will Ferrell). You know, typical hero journey stuff. Yet, at the same time, it’s an ironically self-aware multiverse of franchise crossovers, a stimulating commentary on specialness and self-invention, a critique of the extremes of both conformity and anarchy, a cornucopia of parody opportunities, and even a transcendently sweet example of the value of playtime. You know, not so typical animated stuff.

With its constantly frenetic pace designed for short attention spans, it’s not always easy to keep up, but there’s literally something for everyone to enjoy and laugh at. The characters are as diverse as they come: you’ve got instruction-following everyman Emmett, who discovers the Piece of Resistance and is suddenly labeled “the Special”; love interest Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who’s an obvious imitator of Trinity from The Matrix; Batman himself (Will Arnett), whose eccentricities are raised to jerk levels; the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), whose prophecies are true because they rhyme; and ever-joyful Unikitty (Alison Brie) from Cloud Cuckooland, who for some reason is my favorite of the bunch. Not to mention the enormous supporting cast of foes and friends from franchises only a Lego movie could mash together.

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Overall, The Lego Movie is a good amount of fun with some surprising depth for those looking past the vibrant colors and manic action. It’s not quite as funny as it tries to be or as sensational as its biggest fans treat it, but the sheer number of jokes and themes on display manage to hit more than they miss. The computer animation is unique in how it appears as stop motion, and this visual distinction heightens the sense of watching Lego creations that could actually be built if they moved with the imagination-directed smoothness of those microbots in Big Hero 6. The film’s hyperactivity would be harder to watch in larger doses (which is why my VC didn’t care for it), but the sharp social satire and brilliant cacophony of spoofs distinguish The Lego Movie as “special” among modern animated films.

Best line: (Emmett, upon being told of the villain and his evil corporation) “President Business is going to end the world? But he’s such a good guy! And Octan, they make good stuff: music, dairy products, coffee, TV shows, surveillance systems, all history books, voting machines… wait a minute!”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
464 Followers and Counting

 

The Visit (2015)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem that looks at something from different viewpoints, such as how differently children view their grandparents.)

 

A visit with grandparents can be generous and merry;
Depending on the child, though, reactions often vary.

I.

Eager meeting, cheers of greeting,
Warm embraces, tender faces,
Cookies, pies, and counsel wise,
And cash they share for being there.
The rarity of reprimand
Will make you wish all parents were grand.

II.

Cheeky pinching, optic squinching,
Cling embraces, wrinkled faces,
Jell-O, prunes, and no cartoons,
And elder smells from creams and gels.
You wipe off lipstick with your sleeve
And count the minutes till you leave.

III.

Basements dreary, habits eerie,
Laughs as cackles, rules as shackles;
Attempts at cheer inspire fear,
An aged nightmare to keep you there.
Although dread comes with every visit,
I’m sure it’s nothing to fear, or is it?
_________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

After a string of films that ranged from poor to terrible (The Last Airbender being the absolute worst), M. Night Shyamalan gave his fans hope of a comeback with The Visit, a small but effective found-footage horror for everyone who was ever afraid of their grandparents. (Not me, of course.) Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) finally get to meet their grandparents, who reach out to their estranged daughter (Kathryn Hahn) and propose a five-day visit. While Mom is off on a cruise, the kids enjoy quality time with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), a week that slowly takes a turn for the weird.

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I’ve never been a fan of the shaky-cam found-footage style, except for Lunopolis, but The Visit finds a decent reason for everything to be caught on tape, namely Becca’s attempt to help her mom and grandparents reconcile through her recordings and interviews. Plus, she’s an aspiring filmmaker, and she and her brother apparently enjoy filming everything. At first, they record the quaint pleasures of meeting new family members and good-natured sibling bickering, but soon Pop Pop and especially Nana begin showing signs of bizarre behavior, particularly after dark. The first-person perspective does lend itself to some genuinely creepy moments, from an intense game of tag in the house’s crawlspace to slow reveals as the camera-holder approaches something eerie. In true horror fashion, Shyamalan imbues tension into seemingly ordinary things, like cleaning the oven, and in true Shyamalan fashion, there are clues dropped that don’t make total sense until a certain twist.

The one thing that I can’t quite reconcile is the description of The Visit as a horror comedy. I suppose it’s laughable that the kids and their mother at first blame the grandparents’ abnormalities on just being old, but there’s little here that I would consider funny, unless you’re amused by intense weirdness. In addition, the final explanation for everything has some shock value at first, but how it plays out is rather conventional, detracting from all the buildup. I did admire the fine performances and some subtle themes of forgiveness and letting go of resentment, especially at the end, but, even if it’s a step in the right direction, The Visit is still a far cry from Shyamalan’s early successes.

Best line: (Becca, explaining away a midnight snack) “I can’t sleep. I need Nana’s cookies. I’m gonna turn a personal addiction into a positive cinematic moment.”

 

Rank:  Honorable Mention

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
463 Followers and Counting