Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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In a galaxy far, far away, I’ve been told,
There are stories that fit in an orthodox mold
Of Death Stars and daring
And Jedi preparing
To free all from some evil emperor’s hold.

There are stories as well that are harder to tell,
That leave our hopes answered or dashed where they fell.
The many may mourn
With rebuttals of scorn,
For isn’t it always correct to rebel?

But stories in galaxies distant and near
Can hold fans and fault-finders equally dear.
Some waver and jeer;
Some stand up and cheer.
Does it matter who’s right when we’re both so sincere?
____________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Despite desperately avoiding spoilers, I quickly realized that The Last Jedi was to be a divisive entry in the Star Wars canon. Everything I did hear has been the critics lauding it and my fellow movie bloggers and “regular people” coming away with mixed feelings, thinking it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack and certainly below The Force Awakens. There’s even a petition to have it struck from the Star Wars canon. Now that I’ve seen it, I just don’t get the backlash because I LOVED IT! That’s right; for every divisive movie, you’re bound to get the full spectrum of audience reactions, and to balance out all the half-hearted ones, I’m here for a fully positive, non-spoiler review. My tastes probably differ from the majority. After all, I’m the guy who still loves La La Land, but personally I think The Last Jedi is head-and-shoulders above Force Awakens.

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Let me explain that perhaps shocking claim. I liked The Force Awakens and liked it even better upon a rewatch, but I’ll always consider it “the one where they killed Han Solo.” I remember walking out of the theater with my whole family shell-shocked, not high from a rousing film as it sounds like most people did. Not to mention, it’s too similar to the original movies. I now joke that, if it was a drinking game to take a swig every time there’s some parallel to the originals, you’d be drunk by the halfway point. Thus, I’ve come to value originality, which might be why I enjoyed Rogue One more than most as well. And The Last Jedi has originality to spare. There are still clear echoes of its forerunners (Jedi training in solitude, escaping from a besieged base), but those are broad strokes in a film that is far from a retread of what came before.

Last Jedi follows several plotlines that converge by the end: the Resistance trying to escape the overwhelming attacks of the First Order, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) taking matters into his own hands for the sake of their survival, Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) endeavoring to shut down an enemy tracking device, and of course Rey (Daisy Ridley) training and trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to return to the fight while also finding a connection with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). I didn’t find any of these plotlines to be boring, though it’s true that Finn’s role is fairly inconsequential by the end, and the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been in a Star Wars movie. In fact, one of my concerns is the sheer number of casualties on both sides. Still, hope is one of the key themes, as it has been since the beginning of the franchise, and despite how dark things get, it never failed to be entertaining, helped by a good dose of humor. (Again, I welcomed the levity that others have criticized. My mom still talks about how the entire theater was erupting with laughter during Episode IV’s theatrical run, so I don’t see what’s wrong with the humor here or how it’s not Star Wars-y enough. Again, maybe I’m just different, considering I’ve never hated the Ewoks or even Jar Jar Binks.)

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The originality I mentioned is explicitly acknowledged by Luke’s warning that “This is not going to go the way you think.” Whenever you think you know how something will play out, it veers in another direction. Granted, that sometimes makes certain actions meaningless, but it also keeps things continually fresh and unpredictable, spicing up what could easily have been a paint-by-numbers sequel. A key thematic struggle is what the best course of action is, not in a morally gray sense, but as far as whether to fight or flee and whether to obey orders, sort of tapping into the same fearful desperation as Dunkirk.

The new cast continues to be engaging, with the advancement of Rey, Kylo, and Poe’s characters especially, and unexpected callbacks to the original trilogy deepen the emotion of several scenes. There were new characters I liked, like Rose, and new characters I didn’t hate, like Benicio Del Toro’s codebreaker named DJ, but all the performances were excellent. Luke and Leia have plenty to do as well, and each has their standout scenes. (Unfortunately, one of Leia’s is also the most eye-rolling moment of the film.)

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Yes, there are disappointments, particularly for the much-theorized questions about Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Rey’s origins, but those didn’t detract too much for me, especially because I’m not convinced they’re entirely settled. Remember that Luke and Leia being siblings wasn’t revealed until the third film. Plus, the vacuum of space doesn’t seem to be as deadly as it is in real life, something I’ve also noticed in Guardians of the Galaxy, for example. Perhaps the biggest disappointment that none of these more recent films can escape is the fact that Luke and Leia and Han didn’t get the happy ending we assumed after Return of the Jedi. That’s inherent to any continuation, but given the story established in Force Awakens of Luke becoming discouraged by yet another rebellious apprentice, The Last Jedi builds the plot admirably and respectfully, just perhaps not as die-hard fans might wish. One potentially problematic flashback is made more understandable when viewed as a moment of weakness and a misunderstanding, and I found the ending open enough to expect great things from Episode IX. And I’m sorry, there’s nothing here nearly as traumatic as Han Solo’s death at the hands of his own son. Why weren’t people rallying petitions to undo that?!

One aspect the prequel trilogy always excelled at was the action sequences, and The Last Jedi did not disappoint, especially since the whole movie is practically one long space battle. Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo gets one of the film’s most epic sequences, while Mark Hamill gets the scene of the year, in my opinion. Even Rose and Finn’s jaunt on a casino planet was a fun diversion from the life-and-death struggle of the main plot. John Williams’ still-iconic score, the visual effects, and the odd creatures (don’t hate on the Porgs) were every bit as Star Wars-y as Force Awakens, in my opinion, and the light saber duels are as awesome as we’ve come to expect from this series.

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I guess I do understand some of the gripes people have had, such as the out-of-left-field new aspects of the Force or how wasted Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is, but for the larger uncertainty, I’d like to cite The Empire Strikes Back. Everyone hails it as the best of the franchise (I disagree), but think of how many questions were left at the end of that film. Was Lando Calrissian any better developed at that point than some of the new characters here? I mention this because my mom remembers how disheartened she was back in 1980 and how she would poke holes of her own, complaining that she couldn’t understand Yoda and the whole training part was boring and it was disappointing that the hyperdrive kept failing. Middle movies are often trickier than beginnings and finales, and based on my own initial enjoyment and how much happens in The Last Jedi, I do think that people will come to appreciate it more with time. So don’t overreact.

Unlike The Force Awakens, I did walk out of The Last Jedi beaming at the thrill of a great movie, and I compliment Rian Johnson’s divisive direction. In fact, it might be my favorite film of the year. My one big complaint is how long it is and how desperate I was for a bathroom by the end. I have no idea where Episode IX will take this tale, and that’s a good thing, to my mind, though I do hope it ends on a high note. While I was nervous going in, The Last Jedi had me guessing, laughing, sweating, and silently cheering from start to finish, and while I’m sorry for those who had less positive experiences, the controversies didn’t diminish my enjoyment one bit.

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Best line: (Rose) “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”

 

Rank: Top 100-Worthy

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
523 Followers and Counting

 

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Serendipity (2001)

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The incidence of miracles is far too low these days.
Coincidence is cited now, when “accidents” amaze,
But when it seems that chance is too unlikely an excuse,
We start to dream of destiny and what it might produce.

Call it what you will, my friends: coincidence or fate,
Or more precisely, Providence that makes our courses straight.
Though some may call it all a crock, a universe of chance,
When once you glimpse the grand design, ‘tis more than happenstance.
____________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

Around Christmas, I tend to watch traditional movies I’ve seen a million times (It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express, etc.), so I wasn’t sure at first what would be best for the season. Then, I remembered that Serendipity begins and ends at Christmastime, making it a good fit for a Christmas Eve post. Somehow, I thought that most rom coms since the ‘90s just weren’t worth my time, but Serendipity surprised me as a wholly charming and enjoyable member of a genre that deserves a better reputation.

It begins with a classic meet-cute for Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale), both Christmas shoppers after a pair of gloves at Bloomingdale’s. Despite already having partners, there’s an instant connection as they have dessert together at a restaurant called Serendipity 3, and while Jonathan is quick to acknowledge it, Sara is more hesitant and unconvinced that they were “destined” to meet. Using a dollar bill, a book, and an elevator, she decides to test fate a bit too far, and the two potential lovebirds go their separate ways. Fast forward a few years, and both of their relationships have progressed to engagement. Yet, there’s also a gnawing sense of what-could-have-been, and they both decide to search out what might be destiny.

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No romantic comedy can be successful without two appealing leads, and Cusack and Beckinsale have marvelous chemistry together, that hard-to-define bond that simply either works or doesn’t. It definitely works here, and I could see how their short time together at the beginning could give them pause on whether this stranger might be “the one.” Beckinsale is lovely as always, though for some reason, even with his sweetly obsessive role in Say Anything, neither I nor my VC thought of Cusack as a romantic lead, yet he affably fills the kind of role that could have gone to Tom Hanks a few years earlier.

The dialogue may not be on the level of Nora Ephron’s, but there’s a good number of chuckles along the way as Jonathan and Kate go on a scavenger hunt for clues as to where their mystery lover might be. Eugene Levy puts in an amusingly offbeat side role, while Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon are perfect companions in trying to keep the two star-crossed lovers relatively grounded. The themes of fate vs. coincidence are nicely laced throughout as well, sometimes for comedy (“Maybe the absence of signs is a sign!”) but also in more thoughtful ways, especially how the audience gets to see connections and near-misses that the characters don’t.

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I wasn’t sure exactly how much I liked Serendipity at first. One minorly major complaint was in how Jonathan and Sara’s other love interests are treated. Usually, this kind of movie shows that the initial relationship is doomed from the start, making the breakup inevitable, but while that is the case with Sara and her weird fluting boyfriend, Jonathan’s alternative girl is a little too viable a match, making me feel sorry for her by the end. I thought that might be a deal-breaker for me in deciding Serendipity’s ranking, but after seeing it a second time with my VC (who also enjoyed it), it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise satisfying romance. Predictable but very watchable, it falls a bit short of my absolute favorite rom coms, but I’ve come to value any movie that leaves me smiling by the end.

Best line: (Jonathan’s friend Dean) “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

 

Ranking: List-Worthy

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
522 Followers and Counting

 

A Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

My Top Twelve La La La Songs

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I hope no one mistakes this post as a countdown of La La Land songs because there aren’t even twelve to pick from. No, this long overdue list is a follow-up to my old Top Twelve list of Na Na Na Songs, which still gets a good number of views to this day. I love how na nas can so easily take the place of actual lyrics, but la las are even more common, to the point that some songs just use them in place of a chorus. Not that I’m complaining, since it’s easier to learn that way.

After much exhaustive research, I have compiled a very long list of songs featuring the “La La La” and picked out my absolute favorites. There are so many that this kind of list is truly a matter of opinion. If you like hard rock, you might include “Dead!” by My Chemical Romance. If you’re into reggae, you might pick “Sweat (A La La La La Long)” by Inner Circle. And don’t get me started on how many are titled simply “La La La,” sometimes with commas or hyphens to tell them apart. So this list is strictly my personal preference, but I tried to include a good mix of genres and styles. Thus, here are my Top Twelve La La La Songs!

  1. “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin

To start things off, let’s go back to 1968, when Mary Hopkin repopularized a Russian folk tune as a chart-topping ballad with more than a few la las in the chorus. I first heard this song at the grocery store recently, and it quickly got stuck in my head, as la las tend to do. Since I always incorporate movie references in my lists, I must mention that the tune was used in the score for the anime drama Giovanni’s Island, giving it a wistful Russian flavor.

  1. “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder’s 1969 hit definitely features one of the more iconic la la sections out there, which I hear all the time at work. Right from the beginning, the Motown legend lets the la las bookend his R&B favorite. It’s an easy song to sing along to, isn’t it?

  1. “Sleep When We’re Dead” by ItaloBrothers (Nightcore)

When it comes to club music, the German ItaloBrothers may be mainly known in Europe, but they’ve got some good stuff, such as this electronic jammer from 2015. The original is a little too slow for me, so I prefer the sped-up nightcore version, which makes it more of a head-banger and still retains the la las that earn “Sleep When We’re Dead” a place on the list.

  1. “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

You could say I’m getting the older songs out of the way early, but I had to include this classic from 1967. “Brown-Eyed Girl” was a breakout hit for Van Morrison and remains popular as an often-covered golden oldie of rock. Oh, and it’s been in several movies, such as Sleeping with the Enemy.

  1. “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John

A retrospective on the days of classic rock, “Crocodile Rock” was a huge 1972 hit for Elton John and his first #1 single in the United States. John’s falsetto la las in the chorus especially stick out, and a cover was used prominently in the film Gnomeo and Juliet.

  1. “Y Brawd Houdini” by Meic Stevens

Unless you’re from Wales, you’ve probably never heard of this song or Meic Stevens, but neither had I till in my research I stumbled upon this earworm, which would be a perfect drinking song if I had any idea what the man was saying. Luckily, there are plenty of la las to sing along to as you clap and sway to this hidden gem.

  1. “Deck the Halls”

I went back and forth about whether to include this perennial Christmas favorite since it seems like it’s in a separate category than these other songs, but no list of la la la songs would be complete without “Deck the Halls.” It’s the main reason I’m doing this list so close to Christmas, and who hasn’t sung along to “fa la la la la, la la la la”? Here’s the new version from Pentatonix:

  1. “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop

This is another song I only discovered while researching this list, but how am I just now hearing this awesome 1977 tune, which has supposedly been used in several movies? Maybe I just never paid much attention to Iggy Pop, but “The Passenger” is a brilliantly catchy single that, like #7, is a song that had me swaying along with the la las.

  1. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult

Blue Oyster Cult’s biggest hit may not have as many la las as its competition, but I’ve always loved this rock classic from 1976. The la las still stand out to complement the memorably haunting guitar riff, and the song has appeared in the film Scream and the miniseries The Stand.

  1. “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid

Now for the only song here to appear solely in a movie. “Kiss the Girl” doesn’t get as much attention as the more show-stopping tunes delivered by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, but it’s oh so romantic for Ariel and Eric’s near-kiss. The “sha la la” part just adds to the mood set by Sebastian and his singing menagerie.

 

  1. Around the World (La La La La La)” by ATC / “Pesenka” by Ruki Vverh! / “Magic Melody” by beFour

Time for the song with more la las than any other in the top twelve. (I’m just guessing.) I don’t get how, but this song’s indelible melody has been recycled numerous times. It was originally a 1998 song called “Pesenka” by Russian band Ruki Vverh!, then became more famous internationally in 2000 as “Around the World” by Eurodance band ATC (or A Touch of Class). Yet my favorite iteration is probably 2007’s “Magic Melody” by German group beFour, and it’s not just because the two female members are gorgeous. There are many many others, as you can see here. The words may change, but this is one la-la-filled song that seems designed to get stuck in your head.

  1. “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” by Simple Minds

It’s been really hard ranking these songs, but I knew what #1 would be from the very beginning. The Breakfast Club made this 1985 chart-topper iconic, which is acknowledged in Pitch Perfect as well. Simple Minds is an often overlooked ‘80s band, but this is one hit that will live on for as long as brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals watch movies.

And here is the ENORMOUS list of runners-up, or rather every la la song I could find, listed alphabetically by artist. I know it’s far from complete, so feel free to suggest any I missed. I’ve added a double star after the songs I actually like enough to consider true runners-up.

“If It Means a Lot to You” by A Day to Remember

“Pyramania” by The Alan Parsons Project**

“Potential Breakup Song” by Aly and AJ

“A Horse with No Name” by America**

“This Is My Time” by Amy Stroup**

“La, La, La” by Auburn (feat. Iyaz)

“La La La La” by Baby Rasta y Gringo

“I Can Walk on Water, I Can Fly” by Basshunter**

“I Care” by Beyonce

“The Man in Me” by Bob Dylan**

“Lala Song” by Bob Sinclar and Sugarhill Gang**

“If U Seek Amy” by Britney Spears

“Sing La La La” by Carolina Marquez (feat. Flo Rida and Dale Saunders)

“La La La” by Chris Webby

“You Make Me Feel…” by Cobra Starship & Sabi**

“Dreams” by Cranberries**

“Little Lies” by Dave Barnes**

“Hot Summer Night” by David Tavare

“I’m Leavin’” by Elvis Presley

“Ooh La La” by The Faces

“L.A. Love (La La)” by Fergie

“Killing Me Softly with His Song” (the Fugees version)

“Ooh La La” by Goldfrapp

“Paris (Ooh La La)” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals**

“La La La I Love You” by Gummibär

“Venus in Flares” by Half Man Half Biscuit

“Carolina” by Harry Styles**

“All We Ever Knew” by The Head and the Heart**

“Tonight Tonight” by Hot Chelle Rae**

“Sweat (A La La La La Long)” by Inner Circle

“La La Love” by Ivi Adamou**

“That’s Entertainment,” “Going Underground,” “The Man in the Corner Shop” by The Jam**

“La-La-La” by Jay-Z (from Bad Boys II)

“On the Floor” by Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull

“Sing” by Joe Raposo **

“Fa La La” by Justin Bieber

“Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue

“La La La” by Lil Wayne

“Children” by Listenbee, feat. Cosmos & Creature

“La La La” by LMFAO

“Share My World” by Mary J. Blige

“He Gives Me Love (La La La)” by Massiel

“Teddy Bear” by Melanie Martinez

“Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton

“Dead!” and “Boy Division” (barely) by My Chemical Romance

“Kind & Generous” by Natalie Merchant**

“La La La” by Naughty Boy**

“I Drive Myself Crazy” by N’Sync**

“Mountain Sound” by Of Monsters and Men**

“Freedom” by Pharrell Williams**

“Russian Roulette” by Red Velvet**

“Only Girl (In the World)” by Rihanna

“La La La” by Shakira

“The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel (sort of)

“Sheila Take a Bow” by The Smiths

“Spice Up Your Life” by Spice Girls

“Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks**

“La La-La” by Sukshinder Shinda

“Head over Heels” by Tears for Fears**

“Ooh La La La” by Teena Marie**

“Freedom” by Tyrone Wells**

“Shalala Lala” by Vengaboys

“Himmelblau” by Wolfgang Riechmann

Wow, that was tiring! What could I do next? A list of “da da da” songs or maybe “whoo” or “oh oh oh”? That would probably take even longer so not for a while. As one last movie inclusion, I’ll end this list with the opening credits to The Big Lebowski, with Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” And a Merry Christmas to everyone who got this far. Thanks for reading (and listening)!

45 Years (2015)

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A tree that grows as decades fly
Has proved its will to live.
And most may think a tree so high
Will yield all it can give.

Indeed it may, as many do,
Its strength confirmed by age,
But age can also rot it through,
A cancer hard to gauge.

We cannot know its fortitude
Until the tempest blows,
And if its weakened roots protrude,
Then everybody knows.
_______________

MPAA rating: R (for language and a bedroom scene)

I can usually admire what I call Triple A movies, those that are All About the Acting, but even the best actors need a worthwhile story to tell. I had hoped 45 Years would have the right combination, but not so. This golden-years pairing of Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling has a pretty simple concept and doesn’t expand too much on it, filling the performances with subtlety but leaving the plot an unsatisfying bore.

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Norfolk retirees Kate (Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Courtenay) are approaching their 45th anniversary, only to have their bucolic married bliss disturbed by a letter informing Geoff that the body of his former sweetheart in the ‘60s has been found frozen in a Swiss glacier. Geoff had told Kate about how he had lost his girlfriend Katya in an accident, so this isn’t too much of a surprise, but the flood of memories from this news overcomes Geoff and makes him obsess over his days with Katya. This sets off a chain of false fronts and hidden distress as Geoff says he’s all right but won’t let Katya and Switzerland go, while Kate insists it doesn’t bother her even though she’s clearly troubled.

The two stars carry off this slow escalation of emotion with expert nuance, and I can see why they were both nominated for several awards, with Rampling winning far more than Courtenay. Yet, as Kate’s irritation comes to a head, her deep-seated insecurity seems rather overblown considering that the whole film takes place over the course of a single week. If Geoff were to continue his preoccupation with Katya for weeks or months, I could better understand Kate’s objections, but shouldn’t she give him a chance to grieve when his buried sorrow is unearthed? I realize she loses some trust at his half-truths, but she takes it all much too personally. I mean, does she really expect to lose her husband of 45 years to a dead woman? By the end, it doesn’t matter how sincere Geoff’s professions of love seem; she’s let her unquieted doubts ruin her 45th anniversary, probably for nothing.

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Perhaps that’s the point (or should be) of this well-made and melancholy film, the danger of letting little troubles eat away at your inner peace, as when Kate sloughs off a potential source of agitation but adds on the word “Still….” That’s a worthwhile moral, but the film doesn’t pull it off as well as it could have. Looking back at it, the news Geoff got was only a big deal because their lives were so boring and uneventful. With 97% approval, Rotten Tomatoes describes 45 Years as a gem “for fans of adult cinema,” so perhaps I’m not adult enough to overlook the flimsy reason for this story to even be worth telling.

Best line: (Geoff) “What? You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?”   (Kate) “No. I think I was enough for you, I’m just not sure you do.”

 

Rank:  Dishonorable Mention

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
520 Followers and Counting

 

Creed (2015)

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When all the world is calling you
A mere mistake, appalling you
And casting cruel and galling new
Abuse upon your back,

Perhaps you want to rage and hit
Or simply disengage and quit
Or seek out wars to wage a bit
Till no one’s left to smack,

But if you see through all the slights
And find the wherewithal that writes
A bigger man for taller fights,
You’ll scoff at their attack.
________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

The Rocky franchise has certainly had its ups and downs over the years, and despite some positive aspects, 2006’s Rocky Balboa was a downer for me, which is why it took me this long to give its 2015 follow-up Creed a chance. Here, Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character is now a secondary player in the story of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of his old friend and rival Apollo. Adonis chooses the family business of boxing, much to the chagrin of his adopted mother/Apollo’s wife (Phylicia Rashad), and Rocky grudgingly becomes the trainer of this hotheaded rising star as he seeks to make a name for himself separate from that of his famous father.

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I’ll say up front that Creed is probably the best directed of all the Rocky movies, with Ryan Coogler proving himself as a highly proficient talent behind the camera, giving me high expectations for the upcoming Black Panther. He changes the aesthetic of the series a bit to reflect his black protagonist, but also adds impressive tracking shots and an elegance to the camera movements and shot composition, which I suppose are also credited to cinematographer Maryse Alberti. The actual boxing scenes are just a fraction of the film’s rather long runtime, but they pack a “punch.” I’d say they’re some of the finest boxing scenes on film, particularly Adonis’s first official fight, which is marvelously captured as one continuous shot from start to finish.

Likewise, the performances measure up to the production quality, with Jordan and Stallone making the most of their conflicted characters. Jordan isn’t as luggishly lovable as Stallone was in his first outing, but his connection with the Italian Stallion, whom he fittingly calls “Unc,” is still engaging, as is his journey of finding a balance between distancing himself from and embracing the name of the father he never knew. Oscar-nominated again, Stallone steps easily into the trainer role Burgess Meredith played so well in the original, amusingly old-fashioned in the modern world but preserving some of the classic training methods that served him well. The script’s best parallel between the two comes when Rocky’s health takes an inevitable downturn, and Adonis encourages Rock to fight just like the young boxer he’s training. Because of that theme and despite Rocky’s being older and wearier here than in Rocky Balboa, Creed manages to be somehow far less depressing than that movie.

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(I don’t know if it’s worth a spoiler warning for films that came out thirty-plus years ago, but spoilers in this paragraph.) The Rocky sequels can easily be accused of just killing off characters for the sake of some drama, starting with Mickey in Rocky III and followed by Apollo in Rocky IV, but Creed successfully deepens the tragedy of Apollo’s death in the fourth film. It meant he wasn’t there for his kids and that, even if he died a legend, he could have lived as a father. His shadow hangs over Adonis’s budding career, and the way it shapes him in the end makes for an inspiring conclusion to rival any of the previous Rocky films.

All that said, Creed doesn’t measure up in one big way, the music. For a series that gave us iconic montages to outstanding theme songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and “No Easy Way Out,” there’s nothing even remotely that good in the musical department. Adonis’s girlfriend (Tessa Thompson from Thor: Ragnarok) is even a musician, but the hip hop and rap are pale modern shadows of those good ole ‘80s tunes.

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Thus, Creed isn’t my favorite of the Rocky series, but its superior quality tells me it should be high. Despite some differences in tone and style, it has all the familiar underdog elements of a Rocky movie and even ends pretty comparably to the first. You know what? I’m done trying to separate these in my Top 365 List, which I usually only do for series where the quality varies widely between installments. Rocky IV may not be on the same technical level as this or the Oscar-winning original, but I still enjoy it. Therefore, I’m just going to group Creed with the other “good” Rocky movies, which I consider to be Rocky through Rocky IV. Creed succeeds where Rocky V and Rocky Balboa failed, and I personally hope the saga ends here. Stallone had planned to direct another sequel, but after his being caught up in the recent Hollywood accusation scandals, that may not happen, which I think is for the best. Leave both the new and the old Rocky on a high note.

Best line: (Rocky, pointing to Adonis’s reflection in the mirror) “That’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to have to face.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
520 Followers and Counting

 

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (2010)

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The world can vex,
Annoy, perplex,
Explicitly and in subtext,
Till one objects
“Life’s too complex!
Just pain in our collective necks.”

Yet when life’s skewed
And comes unglued
And changes unforeseen intrude,
One’s sour mood
And attitude
Can be renewed by gratitude.
___________________

MPAA rating: Not Rated (should be PG-13)

Setting aside the multitude of stand-alone anime films, like those from Studio Ghibli, there are just as many movies based on anime series, which tend to fall into certain categories. There are those that essentially provide a recap for the series, such as the first two films based on Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Then there are those that tie into a series but can stand apart and be enjoyed with or without prior knowledge of the franchise, such as Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. But more often than not, a film designed to follow up the events of a TV series relies on previous knowledge of said series, which is hard to get just right. Sometimes it’s difficult to capture the same magic the show had or the spin-off just falls flat; as much as I loved the time travel story of Steins;Gate, for example, its reasonably good film continuation didn’t feel necessary. (By the way, I highly recommend all these shows I’m namedropping.) Yet if any movie proves that it’s possible to revive a series and deepen everything that came before, it’s The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya.

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For those who don’t know, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a 2006 anime adaptation of a light novel series, which quickly grew in popularity, and its title character is one of the more recognizable anime icons. The main character, though, is Kyon (in the middle above), a high school student who falls into the orbit of the lovely, pushy, and highly capricious Haruhi (with the headband), involuntarily becoming a member of her new fun-seeking club dubbed the SOS Brigade. The other three club members Haruhi recruits turn out to be less-than-normal students and inform Kyon that Haruhi has godlike powers to reshape reality, which she doesn’t and mustn’t know about. Thus, the 2-season series follows their everyday adventures with the robot-like alien observer Yuki Nagato (the girl with purple hair), the time-traveling pushover Mikuru Asahina (girl with orange hair), and the good-natured but mysterious esper/psychic and king of exposition Itsuki Koizumi (the boy on the far left).

All of that information is much easier to digest in the series, which is light-hearted and charming for the most part. Haruhi tends to be obnoxiously bossy, such as exploiting poor Miss Asahina for sex appeal, but her craziness is nicely contrasted by Kyon’s straight man, who always complains and offers some perfectly amusing deadpan commentary. It’s a series that periodically incorporates science fiction into its prosaic high school setting and can be both fantastically complex and aggressively mundane, such as one episode with a four-minute stretch of nothing but Nagato silently reading or the infamous Endless Eight, in which eight consecutive episodes replayed the same events because the characters were stuck in a time loop. (The show gets a lot of heat and accusations of laziness for the Endless Eight, but it’s actually pretty impressive that the animators found eight different ways to present the same events and redrew each one.)

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If you’re not sure if all this sounds worth watching, it is, and not just because there’s a murder mystery and a talking cat and a giant alien cricket. It’s not because Melancholy itself is particularly amazing or great, though it is pretty entertaining. It’s because the show allows you to fully enjoy The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, the 2010 movie that supposedly drew plot from season 2 and forced the showrunners to fill time with the Endless Eight. It’s quite a feat that the movie makes the show worth watching, rather than the other way around. I honestly can’t think of another series-based movie that can say the same.

I’ve heard all kinds of praise for Disappearance, with fans naming it their favorite anime movie or claiming it ought to place in iMDB’s Top 250 (it’s currently #42 on iMDB’s animation list). And now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say I disagree. It’s an outstanding piece of animation that surpassed my expectations in every way. As the title indicates, Haruhi suddenly vanishes on December 18 (yes, I waited till today to post this review), the world apparently rewritten so that no one remembers her, except for Kyon, who is understandably perplexed at this inexplicable change. All the supernatural characters seem to be ordinary people now, and Kyon must figure out how to return the world to “normal” and perhaps even question which world is better.

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One of the more notable aspects of Disappearance is that it’s 163 minutes long, making it the second longest animated film of all time. It’s basically the equivalent of eight episodes of the series, yet despite its length, I was never bored. It’s hard to explain how unusual that is because the film is by no means action-packed. In contrast to the humor of the series, its tone is slow, serious, and melancholy. Unlike most anime films, there are no sweeping vistas or high-flying adventure; instead, it’s mostly winter cityscapes and interior scenes. How is it then that it held my attention from start to finish?

Well, aside from the fact that I’ve grown very fond of these characters, the plot manages to maintain interest in both the story and characters with some truly incredible pacing. Even with such a long runtime, there’s a lot of plot to cover, and the increased time allows characters’ motivations and the significance of their actions to sink in and add so much to their development. I don’t usually like to watch long movies, but this is one case where its length is carried largely by narrative and dialogue alone, and I’m glad nothing was cut, though I suppose Kyon’s awkward disorientation over his changed life could have been shortened.

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Whenever the pace threatens to lag, something significant is revealed and the moving orchestral score kicks in, making for some memorable scenes that feel like momentous turning points (the kind of scenes that would probably end an episode if this were broken up as part of the series). For example, the reappearance of one murderous character who should be dead is filled with the same looming menace as the coming of Jaws. In addition, despite the restraint compared with more fantastical anime, the animation is exceptional and quite detailed, with special attention paid to very expressive faces and the clouds of smoke that are breathed out in the cold Christmastime weather.

As much as I wish I could say to everyone “go watch this movie” with no strings attached, I must admit that the series is a prerequisite for understanding who everyone is. Even though seventeen minutes are spent establishing the status quo before Haruhi’s disappearance, almost every episode of the show is referenced at some point, which is great for those who’ve seen it, less so for those who haven’t. To cut some corners, I’d say you’d only really have to watch the first six episodes of season 1, the first episode of season 2, and the last entry in the Endless Eight. The rest aren’t as necessary, though you may not understand little things like Kyon trying to talk to a cat. I especially loved when time travel entered the equation of the film, and we got to revisit past scenes with a Back to the Future-style altered perspective, again something new viewers could just roll with but nostalgic viewers will understand better.

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Despite its potentially burdensome length, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a brilliant conclusion to a good series, transforming the show’s bright charm into subtle emotion and atmosphere. Hyperactive Haruhi herself can be irritating in large doses, so her absence for part of the film actually helps it and allows for some strong development for Kyon and especially Nagato, whose typically robotic face and voice finally get to reveal emotion in this alternate world. I also must point out, as others have before, that the English dub is one of the best out there. As the most significant voice actor, Crispin Freeman as Kyon provides some extensive and superb dialogue, such as an 8-minute soliloquy justifying a fateful decision, one which manages to engender both sympathy for him and regret for how it impacts another character. I’ve seen people refer to this speech as one of the greatest interior monologues of all time and with good reason, as it’s a key validation of his character.

I can usually tell how I feel about an animated film by whether I want to immediately watch it again after it’s over, and yes, all 163 minutes of Disappearance did just that. No, it’s not my new favorite anime film, but to those hesitant to watch a series just to see an overlong movie, I’ll just say you’re missing out.

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Best line: (Haruhi, to Kyon about Christmas) “You have to believe in a dream if you want to have one in the first place. If you don’t believe, even the dreams that can come true won’t.”

 

Rank: List-worthy

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
519 Followers and Counting

 

 

Congo (1995)

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The boldest and most daring men
Have braved the jungle’s many threats:
Conquerors with no regrets,
Explorers seeking new assets,
Missionaries and cadets,
Who often stormed the devil’s den
And rarely came back out again.
Ha! What chance do you have then?
__________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

Sometimes you can just tell how hard a film is trying to be good, desperately striving to exceed its own mediocrity, and usually it doesn’t get there. I wouldn’t say Congo does either, but it sort of works its way around to so-bad-it’s-good status, which is more than some movies can say.

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As an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel, I admire what Congo tries to be, an adventure story in the classic mold of King Solomon’s Mines or the Indiana Jones movies.  A research team for communications corporation Travicom goes missing in the jungles of Africa, and a collection of colorful characters converge to investigate the dangerous area for different reasons. Laura Linney’s Karen goes in search of the team; Tim Curry’s brilliantly smarmy Herkermer Homolka has shady designs on an ancient diamond legend; and Dylan Walsh’s Dr. Peter Elliot wants to return to the wild a gorilla he taught to speak with sign language and a robotic translator. Best of all is Ernie Hudson as their mercenary guide, whose cultured expertise proves invaluable, giving Hudson a role he clearly enjoyed.

There’s some great potential for this adventure as the team deal with unfriendly militias and a mystery jungle creature. To be honest, recalling it so soon after Kong: Skull Island, I couldn’t help but see a few similarities as the unsuspecting explorers are picked off in the jungle, though the killers are far smaller here. One scene with automatic sentry guns also brought to mind Aliens and Predator as the trespassers are besieged by simian beasts. By the time we get a lost city, a random volcano explosion, and an anti-ape laser, it’s obvious that this is more escapist silliness than anything.See the source imageWhile its adventure elements keep trying to spice up the absurd clichés, the growing daftness of the plot is hard to escape. It wouldn’t be so bad if one of the key characters wasn’t an animatronic gorilla with a hand-controlled robotic voice. I can’t say no movie can get away with signing apes since Rise of the Planet of the Apes did, but at least Caesar didn’t have a computerized translator. The rest almost works, but it’s hard to get past the talking, martini-drinking gorilla. Thus, despite its multiple Razzie nominations, Congo may not be an objectively “good” movie, but it’s not altogether bad either. Roger Ebert liked it; it’s a favorite of one of my coworkers; and I too found its cheesiness strangely watchable and entertaining.

Best line (or at least the most ridiculous): (Dr. Elliot) “Oh, no! The bad apes have the crystal lasers!”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
519 Followers and Counting

 

 

Déjà Vu (2006)

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It’s hard to run from déjà vu.
It always straggles up on you,
And when you least expect to feel
This creeping sense of the surreal,
It seems you’ve done this all before,
Now back for some half-known encore.

You tell yourself it’s nothing, but
Deep down you have to wonder what
This inkling is: mere happenstance
Or time’s stab at a second chance?
It’s hard to run from déjà vu.
Didn’t I just say that too?
_______________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

Now that I’m finally done with this semester’s finals, I can now get back into review mode. Last year, I did a review a day throughout December, and while that may not be feasible, I’m planning to post a little more often through the end of the year.

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I guess all I need to do to discover a new favorite is to find a sci-fi movie that received middling reviews, and chances are that I’ll enjoy it far more than the critics did. I’ve noticed that trend with the likes of Surrogates, In Time, and Cloud Atlas, and now Déjà Vu joins the list. I’ve always been partial to time travel stories, and this one played to everything I love about the genre—intricate plotting, cool gadgetry, twists both expected and unexpected—making me wonder why the critics found it so lackluster.

Denzel Washington is good as always as ATF agent Douglas Carlin (pronounced car-LIN), who proves his experience and investigative talent after a crowded New Orleans ferry is destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb. Recruited by an FBI agent (Val Kilmer), Carlin is pulled into a secret government program with access to a temporal window into the past, allowing investigators a comprehensive look at the scene four days prior. However, time flows at the same speed through this window, so they have one go-round to figure out the bomber’s identity and his connection to a separate murder victim (Paula Patton). But let’s just say things are less than transparent, and there’s more to this technology than meets the eye, as Carlin discovers firsthand.

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I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Déjà Vu based on Tony Scott’s directing style: bright, kinetic, and reminiscent of his later film Unstoppable, though with less zooming of the camera. Yet it kind of works in the film’s favor, particularly for the time window that allows the FBI to buzz around from any angle in the past. The fast pacing also adds to the thrill of the action scenes, like a just plain cool car chase in which Carlin pursues the killer (Jim Caviezel) in the past, trying to drive through past and present-day traffic.  There’s plenty of technobabble from the FBI scientists, including that pencil-through-paper wormhole explanation also used in Event Horizon and Interstellar, but Carlin’s grounded approach keeps the device’s practical uses from getting too confusing.

Time travel movies are often judged on how well they avoid the pitfalls of the genre.  Plot holes can often spoil such films for some people, from Kate and Leopold to The Lake House to About Time (though I still loved that one), while careful attention to the paradoxes involved can elevate a story to classic status. Déjà Vu falls somewhere in between. I believe it does follow the proper mechanics of time travel but simply doesn’t explain it as clearly as it could, mainly at the end. There’s a lot of careful setup, as when Carlin investigates crime scenes only for us to later see how everything got that way, and watching such attention to continuity always gives me an odd satisfaction as the full story is revealed. One idea mentioned is parallel timelines being created by significant enough changes to the past, a concept that reminded me a lot of the anime Steins;Gate, and this is the key to explaining what appears to be the most glaring plot hole of the climax. Now that I think about it, though, there’s one character who shouldn’t remember…. Oh, I don’t care; the rest of the movie is good enough that a little plot hole at the end can be easily forgiven.

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Déjà Vu has all the right ingredients for a great time travel thriller, and while I can recognize what others would consider drawbacks (minor plot holes, slightly disappointing villain, a victim who can’t seem to stay fully clothed in her own apartment), the whole package was still splendidly entertaining. I like my mind teased every now and then, so finding this unexplored member of the time travel genre made my day.

Best line: (Carlin) “For all of my career, I’ve been trying to catch people after they do something horrible. For once in my life, I’d like to catch somebody before they do something horrible, all right? Can you understand that?”

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
519 Followers and Counting

 

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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We laud and admire explorers who dare
To venture to regions unknown,
Who journey to jungles with risk in the air
Where most men would heed all the signs to beware,
But not they who roam to the eye of nowhere
And cherish each uncharted zone.

Yet one thing to note of these men who beseech
The thrill of what’s hidden ahead:
Although they may find every mountain and beach
And give all the teachers more titles to teach
And seek out the truths that lie just out of reach,
Most of them do end up dead.
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MPAA rating: PG-13 (some of the violence is rather strong, though)

If you thought the world didn’t need another remake of King Kong, you’d be right, but that’s not about to stop Hollywood. Following 2014’s Godzilla and paving the way for 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong prize fight of the so-called MonsterVerse, Kong: Skull Island isn’t the same story in past films featuring the giant ape. There’s no film crew, no screaming damsel in distress, no Empire State Building, so it might seem that Kong: Skull Island simply features a different (and much larger) version of the character and isn’t an actual remake. But it is, just a remake of the first half of the original King Kong tale, that being the story of ill-fated visitors to Kong’s home of giant critters. As much as the film tries to make a whole out of this half-story, it doesn’t quite work.

Those ill-fated visitors include a team of surveyors, a military escort fresh from Vietnam, and a few scientists from Monarch (the secret monster-studying organization from Godzilla), all led by the shady desire of Bill Randa (John Goodman) to explore the newly discovered Skull Island. There are plenty of big names here, from Goodman to Tom Hiddleston’s manly tracker to Brie Larson’s intrepid photojournalist to Samuel L. Jackson’s overly devoted army commander, boasting plenty of Jacksonian intensity. In addition, the Vietnam War-era setting warrants a great soundtrack of 1970s rock staples that make the team assembly of the first half quite enjoyable and promising. And when we actually see Kong himself, skyscraper-sized and none too happy about the unwanted guests and their explosives, it’s an action-packed debut that reminds us how frightening a giant gorilla can be.

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Yet as the film wears on, and the dangers of Skull Island make themselves known, it becomes clear that this is less of an adventure movie and more of a CGI-laden horror film. Oversized creatures take out redshirt after redshirt, often in gruesome ways, until the only source of mystery is who’s going to be on the menu next. By the time one unsuspecting fellow was carried off by lizard birds and torn apart in silhouette, my VC had had enough of the carnage and didn’t want to keep watching. It might help if the characters had some meat to them (literal or otherwise), but they’re really only there as potential beast fodder, even Hiddleston and Larson whose roles are clearly main character material yet don’t really go anywhere. It was also annoying that the military immediately makes the stupid decision in these films of “shoot the giant monster” instead of retreating, like any sensible person would in that situation.

There are bright spots. John C. Reilly livens up the cast significantly as a castaway stranded on the island since World War II, offering some good heart and humor and exposition for the island’s inhabitants, including a tribe of natives much more sympathetically depicted than in past versions. The big battles with Kong are also CGI wonders, perhaps not on par with Peter Jackson’s triple T. Rex fight but still marvelous to watch.

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Despite the relatively positive reviews for both Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, I’m still not sold on this MonsterVerse franchise. The monsters created are well visualized with properly awesome action, but the human characters are thin as paper. It’s not a good sign when the scene played during the end credits has more human interest than the whole rest of the film. And I have other questions, like “How are Kong and Godzilla supposed to battle when Godzilla is still much bigger?” or “Will it turn out the same as the 1962 Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla?” or “Will none of the surviving characters from Skull Island return, considering they will have aged between the ‘70s and the modern-day time frame of Godzilla?” Basically, Kong: Skull Island is about a bunch of people who go to an island, and a lot of them die. There has to be more than that for me to care.

Best (and most ironic) line: (Randa, as hippies in D.C. protest the war) “Mark my words. There’ll never be a more screwed up time in Washington.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2017 S.G. Liput
518 Followers and Counting

 

Opinion Battles Round 23 Favourite Post-Apocalypse Film

Don’t forget to vote for your favorite post-apocalyptic film in Round 23 of Opinion Battles! Ah, the apocalypse…. It never ends well, does it? There are so many different ways the world could go wrong, but I had to pick Pixar’s WALL-E, whose trash-covered future manages to be depressing, charming, and hopeful by the end. What’s your favorite?

Movie Reviews 101

Opinion Battles Round 23

Favourite Post-Apocalypse Film

The end of the world is here, well it is at least in these films, we have seen many different ideas of the potential end of the world but just what is the most popular?

If you want to join the next round of Opinion Battles we will be take on What is your Favourite Thanksgiving Film, to enter email your choice to moviereviews101@yahoo.co.ukby Saturday 25th November 2017.

Darren – Movie Reviews 101

Children of Men

The idea that humans can no longer going to be able to have children and people are giving up hope, the population is starting to stave and people are getting desperate, what more could you want from characters who are put in a world like this. We follow the first pregnant woman in 21 odd years needing to become safe to have her child.

 

Milo…

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