Cartoon Comparisons: Alita: Battle Angel (2019) / Gunnm (1993)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem that meditates on a strong emotion, like disillusionment with the world at large.)

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The world is not the friendly place we once had promised to ourselves
When youthful optimism held some sway within our hearts.
We like to think that’s still the case, and yet the more a person delves,
The more this human-born machine reveals its sordid parts.

It’s tragedy that truly wakes our minds to darkness come to light,
That shows how cruel the world can be, with men its messengers.
We’re ignorant of risk and stakes, and enter honestly the fight,
Too late to learn the world was not designed for amateurs.
___________________

MPAA rating: PG-13 (comes close to R with the violence)

I’ve been looking forward to Alita: Battle Angel for well over a year, ever since I heard James Cameron was planning on bringing the long-running manga Battle Angel Alita (a.k.a. Gunnm) to Hollywood. This movie fascinates me not only for its visually awesome cyberpunk future, but also because it owes its existence to one man’s passion project, bringing an extremely niche franchise to a far wider audience than it otherwise would have enjoyed. It makes me wish something similar would happen with Steins;Gate or Cowboy Bebop.

Adaptations between manga/anime and live-action have historically been more miss than hit, but Alita is finally the hit that fans have been waiting for, faithful to its origins in the best way. I, for one, have not read the manga that so enthralled James Cameron, but I have watched the 1993 OVA (Original Video Animation), which is basically like a direct-to-video anime. At only 55 minutes long, it was an imaginative if brutal sci-fi that I definitely recognized had plenty of potential for the big screen. And now that it has, I’m thrilled that such potential was not wasted.

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The manga/anime/film tells the story of the cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar), a girl whose head is discovered in a trash heap by cybernetics expert Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz). Finding her human brain still active, he rebuilds her body and introduces the amnesiac girl to the cutthroat world of Iron City, a sprawling dystopia patrolled by cyborg bounty hunters and festering in the shadow of the floating city known as Zalem. Trying to regain her memories, Alita becomes a Hunter Warrior herself as she falls in love with young Hugo (Keean Johnson) and navigates the plotting of Ido’s rival Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), the villainous Vector (Mahershala Ali), and his killer henchmen.

As it is, Alita might bring to mind several other films, such as Elysium with its floating city of higher class exploitation or the cyberpunk aesthetic of Ghost in the Shell, but I can’t help but feel that, if Alita had come out twenty years ago, it would be blowing people’s minds left and right. Yet the manga predates most of what it seems to borrow from, though the sport of Motorball definitely seems inspired by Rollerball.

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I’m glad, though, that Cameron wasn’t able to make Alita when he first wanted to back in 2003 because the visuals wouldn’t have been this good. Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi action treat, with visual effects that have a good shot at an Oscar next year. Alita herself is stunningly realized, with Rosa Salazar providing a strong motion capture performance, augmented by the effects team with those anime-sized eyes that aren’t as hard to get used to as you might think. There are a few hiccups in the animation early on that threaten to be distracting, but by the time Alita starts kicking criminal butt, she’s seamlessly a part of this world.

The live-action Ghost in the Shell was distracting for me because it was a mish-mash of various plot points from the anime film and series; Alita, on the other hand, might be the most faithful adaptation I’ve come across. Nearly everything in the anime is also in the movie, sometimes even shot for shot (like Chiren squishing a bug while telling Ido she’ll claw her way back to Zalem), though the movie’s greater length allows it to expand on many plot elements, such that watching the anime is like a highlight reel of the film. Considering how anime adaptations have flopped so hard over the years, the film’s faithfulness to its source material is laudable and likely credited to the efforts of Cameron himself as a fan of the manga. Interestingly, I understand that some differences from the manga were actually borrowed from the anime; one villainous character is killed in both versions but apparently survives much longer in the manga.

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That’s not to say there aren’t other differences; the source of Alita’s name and body is given more emotional weight in the film, and Ido’s former relationship with Chiren is explicitly romantic where it wasn’t before. And the film throws in entire sections that I can only assume are drawn from the manga since they weren’t in the anime, like the deadly sport of Motorball and the glimpses of Alita’s forgotten past. For me, these additions only added to the epic dystopian world-building that I so admire.

One thing I was concerned about the adaptation was just how violent it would end up being, and I was relieved that it earned a PG-13 rating and the wider audience that that entails. Don’t get me wrong; Alita: Battle Angel definitely pushes the boundary for a PG-13 film with multiple heads and limbs sent flying, but the anime is certainly more violent and bloody. The movie may have its brutal moments, but I was glad it was largely bloodless, leaving out the anime’s brief nudity and leaving some cruel moments mercifully offscreen.

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While Alita was a pleasure to watch on the big screen, I find myself struggling with how to rank it. I’m still not a fan of the mostly bitter ending common to both the anime and film, but I’m excited for whatever may come in the (hopefully forthcoming) sequel, which is uncharted territory for me. My ranking could easily change with time, but I’ll err on the side of caution and make it a List Runner-Up. Nevertheless, for the most part, Alita: Battle Angel was pure effects-heavy coolness and as good as I’d hoped it would be, proving that Hollywood can make good films based on manga/anime. Perhaps it simply takes someone like James Cameron to steer them in the right direction.

Best line: (Alita) “I do not stand by in the presence of evil!”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
628 Followers and Counting

 

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Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a meta-poem, so instead of just a poem about poetry, I tackled the very idea of a work being self-aware or meta, paired with a highly meta movie.)

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A meta-poem? A meta-poem?
Sure, now they want a meta-poem,
The kind that references itself
And thinks itself a better poem.

I’m not against the whole idea,
And I’ll admit it has potential.
It’s a tricky trail, however,
Getting so self-referential.

Whether it’s for thoughtful musing
Or for entertaining snark,
How can people judge a thing
That knows its own creative spark?

I might look back some years from now
And wish I’d picked a different foot.
Iambic’s fine, and yet this poem
Is analyzing my output.

Should I have used pentameter?
I’ll never be the first to ask
Because this poem is self-aware
Enough to beat me to the task.

And that’s the case with film or verse
That lets its sentience supersede.
It might cause you to roll your eyes,
But still, it’s fun to watch and read.
__________________

MPAA rating:  PG

Can a good movie come from a bad show? That’s the question I asked myself when I heard Teen Titans GO! to the Movies was getting positive reviews. I grew up devotedly watching the Teen Titans animated series on Cartoon Network, and I loved its balance its unique anime-like style and balance between lighthearted comedy and dark, high-stakes drama. That’s why I’ve been so disappointed with the more recent Teen Titans Go!, which has jettisoned the drama for all-out silliness rivaling and often surpassing that of SpongeBob.

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So is the movie version more of the same? Well, yes, but I still managed to have fun with it, as is likely the case with anyone steeped in comic book culture. The Teen Titans, still voiced by the same voice actors from both TV series (Scott Menville as Robin, Hynden Walch as Starfire, Greg Cipes as Beast Boy, Khary Payton as Cyborg, and Tara Strong as Raven), think of themselves as real heroes yet are continually thought of as sidekicks and jokes by the Justice League. Robin, in particular, feels that they need their own movie to be taken seriously and endeavors to be worthy of having their own arch-nemesis in the form of the evil Slade (Will Arnett, more comedic but paling in comparison to Ron Perlman in the original series).

Indeed, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is admirably nerdy, poking fun at every level of the modern superhero genre. As a fan of superhero movies in general, I found plenty to laugh at, from digs at past DC films to a random time-travel detour to the writer’s obvious comics knowledge, throwing in obscure DC characters and a scene where Slade/Deathstroke is mistaken for Deadpool. (“Look into the camera, and say something inappropriate.”) Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to point out its own jokes, like casting Nicolas Cage as Superman (look it up, if you don’t get it). A few of its gags are even quite insightful, such as when everything about Batman is given its own movie; I couldn’t help but think of this film when I saw there’s an upcoming TV show about Alfred called Pennyworth.

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My ultimate beef with Teen Titans Go! still remains, namely that it’s sad how the characters are dumbed down to annoying levels for the sake of being kid-friendly. The first series proved that wasn’t necessary, but its successor is content to be all about the jokes. I guess that’s okay when the jokes are at least funny, which is the case here but not always on the show. Beyond the meta-humor, the film also benefits from committed voice actors, including Kristen Bell, and manages a few well-animated action scenes when it tries. If you can look past some weird moments and the juvenile stupidity of its characters, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies should earn more than a few laughs from superhero fans and is worth seeing if only for an incredibly meta cameo from Stan Lee, his only one in a DC movie.

Best line:  Probably the aforementioned line about Deadpool

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a remix of a Shakespearean sonnet, so I took some inspiration from the theme and first line of Sonnet 141, mixed in to fit a friendship theme of this film.)

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In faith, I do not love you with my eyes;
You’re not the most appealing sight, you know.
Your voice can grate; you’re anything but wise;
And every chance you get, you tend to blow.
I’m not your friend for mere appearance’ sake;
If so, I would have bolted long ago.
And yet you’re first in mind when I awake
And last to fade beneath my sleep’s shadow.
It’s true to most our pairing seems bizarre,
So different by the judgment of the crowd,
Yet you as friend are dearer still by far
Than what the world approves or not out loud.
I dread the day you tire of our bond,
For I can see no life for me beyond.
___________________

MPAA rating:  PG

It’s hard to believe that Disney has resisted sequelizing its own animated films for so long. Sure, they’ve churned out plenty of substandard sequels through their separate animation subsidiaries, but Ralph Breaks the Internet is the first sequel since Rescuers Down Under to be included among Disney Animation’s official canon. Of course, this year’s Frozen 2 suggests a continuation of the sequel trend, but I was glad to find that Ralph Breaks the Internet was a funny and worthwhile continuation of the first film.

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Some have called it a Toy Story rip-off, but I still think 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph had one of the most imaginative premises of any Disney film. Ralph’s quest to be a hero may have been basic motivation, but the inventiveness of the visuals and world-building was delightful. Not surprisingly, Ralph Breaks the Internet continues that visual innovation, taking Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his best friend, the semi-annoying cart-racing princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), outside their arcade home and into the wide and wondrous world of the Internet, visualized as a bustling cityscape of possibilities. The same voice actors thankfully return to deepen their character’s bonds, along with the welcome new voices of Gal Gadot, Bill Hader, and Taraji P. Henson.

While Wreck-It Ralph was certainly successful, it did have some detractors who didn’t entirely buy into the story, my VC among them. Yet one thing I noticed from some critical and blogger reviews was that those who didn’t care for the first film somehow liked the second one better. Sure enough, my VC enjoyed herself with it, and I’m still trying to puzzle out why this one and not the other. I suppose it’s partially that she has never been into gaming, while her familiarity with the Internet helped her understand and enjoy the sequel’s many jokes aimed at online culture, from the intrusion of pop-up ads to the absurd allure of YouTube stardom (or BuzzTube in the film). Oh, and let’s not forget the brilliant cameos of other Disney properties, most notably the Disney Princess lineup, all but three voiced by their original actresses. Sure, it smacks of Disney showing off everything they own, but it left me with a nerdy grin in the same way Ready Player One’s mashup of pop culture did.

Beyond the jokes and setting, Ralph Breaks the Internet is different from most other animated flicks of recent years, in that its conflict is much more internal and emotional than your basic defeat-the-villain climax. Ralph’s friendship with Vanellope is first and foremost, and his own insecurity provides fuel for the finale. It’s hard to say the resolution is subtle, when it’s taken to massive, ridiculously metaphorical heights, but it’s uniquely relatable to anyone who’s been reluctant to lose a friend.

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It’s hard to say how Ralph Breaks the Internet will age, with so many of its meme-y jokes and sub-themes based in current Internet culture, which seems to change on a weekly basis. Future generations may roll their eyes at its potential datedness, but for me here and now, it was a whimsical, stunningly animated delight just like the first film. I would have liked a bit more of Fix-It Felix and Calhoun, who are basically cameos, but Ralph and Vanellope provide a sweeter conclusion than I would have guessed from a film about video game characters. (By the way, it has possibly my favorite post-credits scene ever. I guess I’m a sucker for certain memes.)

 

Rank: List-Worthy (joining the first film)

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

VC Pick: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem featuring repetition, so I took inspiration from a form called the pantoum, wherein the second and fourth lines are reused as the first and third in the following stanza. I don’t think I’ve written one before, so it was fun trying it out.)

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There’s death at our feet now and guilt in the air.
We wince at the wrong the once righteous have done.
The taking of life is a fearful affair,
Not easily halted once it has begun.

We wince at the wrong the once righteous have done,
But justice is fast on the heels of the crime,
Not easily halted once it has begun
And knowing that truth is a matter of time.

Yes, justice is fast on the heels of the crime
And eager that evil be dragged from its lair.
We know that the truth is a matter of time.
There’s death at our feet now and guilt in the air.
__________________

MPAA rating:  PG-13

My VC has recently become enamored of all things murder mystery. She’s gobbled up mystery novels by the series, and is currently making her way through innocuous but likable Hallmark mysteries. So of course, we had to check out one of the most famous mysteries of them all, Mystery on the Orient Express, specifically Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of the acclaimed Agatha Christie novel.

I’ll admit up front that I did actually know whodunit (it’s a famous story, after all), but my VC didn’t. And even though I knew the ultimate answer to the mystery, I couldn’t recall all the details and motivations. This is also the only film version I’ve seen, and it delivered its eloquent twists admirably, with a stunningly crafted setting against a snowy mountainside.

Branagh is an excellent Hercule Poirot, even if his handlebar mustache and OCD tendencies are a bit over the top, and he’s joined by a laudable collection of worthy actors/suspects, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Lucy Boynton, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr. (of Hamilton fame), and Johnny Depp as the disreputable victim discovered murdered on the fateful 1930s train ride. I was also amused at the “coincidental” casting of Judi Dench alongside Olivia Colman, both of whom have Oscars for playing British queens, with Colman’s obviously coming after this movie.

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Beyond the who’s who of talent, the film is also sumptuously shot, merging the feel of a classic with the polished cinematography and inventive camerawork of a modern auteur. Its ultimate resolution doesn’t really lend itself to a satisfying end (at least my VC thought not), but it’s true to what I recall about the original story, with its final open-ended theme meant to leave the audience pondering right and wrong. While it’s not the Oscar contender I thought it might be before its release (though still much better than its 59% Rotten Tomatoes score indicates), Mystery on the Orient Express is well-mounted and well-acted enough to please most fans of a good murder mystery. I’m looking forward to its sequel based on Death on the Nile, which incidentally I know nothing about and plan to keep it that way until 2020.

Best line: (Poirot) “I am of an age where I know what I like and what I do not like. What I like, I enjoy enormously. What I dislike, I cannot abide.”

 

Rank:  List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem about a season, senses, and a rhetorical question, so I tackled the thrill of a summer drive.)

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How far would you drive in the summer?
How far would the summer drive you?
Every mile, every town,
Every window rolled down
Would herald the motored newcomer,
Before he then passed out of view.

You’re old enough not to be reckless,
But young enough not to pay heed.
So let the wind howl,
Let the slower folk scowl
While you hug the road’s skin like a necklace
And dazzle them all with your speed.

No Internet vies for your vision,
No buzz in your pocket distracts.
The only machine
That you currently preen
Is the engine defined by precision,
The one that leaves all in your tracks.

The smell of the asphalt is heady,
The heat of the sun is your charge,
The wind’s jaunty taste
Bids your wild side make haste.
The world may or may not be ready.
There’s a foolhardy driver at large!
_____________________

MPAA rating: PG (should definitely be PG-13 by today’s standards, for language)

In the wake of Burt Reynolds’ death, it seemed only right to check out the film that really solidified his popularity and brilliantly utilized his natural charisma. Smokey and the Bandit is lightweight and undemanding, but I doubt it could be any more entertaining.

As the titular “Bandit,” Reynolds is a mustachioed force to be reckoned with, cruising along Southern highways and backways in a now iconic Pontiac Trans Am. His Bo Darville accepts the offer of two deep-pocketed Texans (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams) to ferry a truckload of illegal Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours. Helped along by his friend “Snowman” (Jerry Reed, who also sings the awesome theme song “East Bound and Down”), Bandit takes on a passenger in a runaway bride (Sally Field) and makes an instant enemy out of tenacious, belligerent Sheriff Buford T. Justice, aka “Smokey” (Jackie Gleason in rare form).

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Smokey and the Bandit is undoubtedly a product of its time, released at the height of the CB radio craze, and it seems bizarre to me that Coors would be illegal east of Texas even decades after Prohibition. It apparently wasn’t sold in the East due to its lack of preservatives, but I’ve read that the illegality comes more from the amount (400 cases) being shipped illegally over state lines, rather than the brand. I remember my mom mentioning what a big deal it was when Coors was finally available on the east coast, only to discover she thought it tasted terrible.

Even so, the beer fuels the chase of the film, as Bandit uses every rubber-burning trick in his arsenal to elude the cops and keep Snowman off their radar. The film might have benefited from a better method of keeping track of the deadline, since there are moments when the tension of the time limit doesn’t seem all that important, yet it’s still a blast. Gleason, in particular, is a hoot as the quintessential exasperated lawman, made more memorable by his dimwitted son/deputy, a repeatedly mutilated car, and a colorful vocabulary.

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Smokey and the Bandit is largely unrealistic, and its script is an engaging mix of the clever and lowbrow, but it vrooms along under the sheer likability of Reynolds and Field. While I feel like it owes its classic status more to age/nostalgia than to anything else, it’s a truly fun and easily watchable summer blockbuster that only the ‘70s could have produced.

Best lines: (Big Enos) “You see, son, old legends never die. They just lose weight.”
and
(Sheriff Justice) “What we’re dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story (2019)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to take inspiration from some random pages of the dictionary, so I landed in the M’s and tried out a Japanese tanka, which is like an extended haiku.)

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Misfortune had made
A mahogany maiden
Misery’s magnet,
But one maternal mercy
Made flagging hope manifest.
__________________

Rating:  TV-14

Hallmark and Lifetime seem to be the most prolific producers of made-for-TV films, and I suppose I’ve always been under the impression that they focused more on quantity rather than quality. Surely, a worthy TV film will come from HBO, not Lifetime.  Yet that supposition was proved wrong by I’m Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story, a film I wish would get some Emmy or Golden Globe love come awards season.

Set in the 1970s and based on a true memoir, Regina Louise’s story could have ended in obscure tragedy but for the intervention of one woman. A thirteen-year-old black girl (played by Angela Fairley) abandoned by her preoccupied parents, she finds solace at a children’s shelter, where counselor Jeanne Kerr (Ginnifer Goodwin of Zootopia) offers her the love and support she’s always craved but never known. Yet the system separates them by force, partly to preserve Regina’s black identity from a white adoptive mother, and the antisocial girl must depend on what she learned from Miss Kerr to escape a downward spiral.

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I’ll go so far as to name I’m Somebody’s Child as one of my new favorite TV movies. It’s a film that will break your heart and warm it in equal measure. I can only imagine how many foster kids are out there dreaming for the kind of bond that Regina forms with Miss Kerr, and, as well-meaning powers that be spoil it, the plot’s turn into One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest territory only highlights how broken the system is, unable to recognize what an individual child really needs and deserves, namely love regardless of color.

Luckily, Regina Louise’s story is not the tragedy it could have been, ultimately redeemed to teary-eyed sweetness. It’s a beautifully acted true story, a testament to the power of adoption and the difference one person can make in the life of their unlikely someone.

Best line: (Miss Kerr) “I’m not the right race, but I am the right mother for her.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Pitch Black (2000)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem about animals, so I tried to be less literal and wrote of how man is the most dangerous animal of all.)

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Animals, animals!
What an insult
For mankind to level at one of his own!
An absence of conscience,
Deeds unprincipled –
For these, as an animal you will be known!

But animals do not
Take life for mere fun,
Nor yet do they harbor a conscience to lose.
No, those are unique
To the broken human,
The one so-called animal known to abuse.

It’s man that can foster the good and the just
Or evil that leaves animals in the dust.
_____________________

MPAA rating:  R

Science fiction has always been one of my favorite genres, so it was only a matter of time for me to catch up on Vin Diesel’s cult-classic Riddick series, which all started with Pitch Black. Oddly enough, Pitch Black is the highest rated of the trilogy on Rotten Tomatoes, yet still bears a 59% Rotten rating. Yet most films don’t garner a trilogy without doing something right, and Pitch Black does more right than wrong.

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You know what I considered Pitch Black both before I saw it and while I was watching it? A more R-rated version of Aliens. While its plot is undoubtedly inspired by Aliens, I didn’t realize till afterward that Aliens has more profanity and comparable violence. I guess I’m just so used to seeing it cut when it comes on TV that such things stood out more in Pitch Black. Regardless, though, I love Aliens, and I enjoyed Pitch Black for many of the same reasons.

It doesn’t start out as a monster movie. A shipful of passengers in cryostasis are rudely awakened by disaster (not unlike Alien: Covenant) and stranded on a planet of perpetual daylight. Among them is the now-famous Richard B. Riddick (Diesel), a dangerous and shiny-eyed prisoner freed in mid-transport. As the survivors seek a way off the planet, they learn that they’ve arrived just in time for a long eclipse and that deadly swarms of darkness-loving creatures live underground and will soon be free to hunt above it. Good thing Riddick can see in the dark, right?

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Like Aliens, Pitch Black thrives on the thrill of man vs. alien, with the aliens being either slithery, hammer-headed beasts or smaller pterodactyl-like swarms. Aside from Diesel’s hard-boiled convict, the human characters aren’t as memorable as some in this genre, but they fill their roles well, especially in how they are forced to balance survival with their general distrust of Riddick and the bounty hunter (Cole Hauser) gunning for him. Radha Mitchell even has a stirring character arc concerning the weighing of lives, and Keith David plays a travelling imam, highlighting how unusually diverse it is to see a Muslim in science fiction.

The creatures and visual effects work surprisingly well, considering they’re not as polished as most Hollywood features; in fact, the way writer-director David Twohy shot it sometimes gives scenes an odd TV movie quality. This belies its modest budget yet somehow works to the film’s advantage, keeping some of the more violent parts blurry and contributing to its cult classic status.

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In many respects, Pitch Black feels like someone wanted to give their own spin to the Aliens formula, but it has enough plot twists and unique action sequences to set it apart as more than a lazy copycat. There are still moments where characters act stupidly and don’t seem to realize that darkness = bad, but it’s also memorably tense, particularly a death scene involving a lighter that ought to be more famous simply for its chilling visual impact. Pitch Black may not rival Aliens for sci-fi horror and doesn’t exactly end as I would have liked, but it’s quite an entertaining member of the genre with perhaps the best antihero I’ve come across, one worthy of a cult classic status.

Best line: (Johns, the bounty hunter) “Battlefield doctors decide who lives and dies. It’s called ‘triage’.”   (Riddick) “They kept calling it ‘murder’ when I did it.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Version Variations: The Magnificent Seven (1960, 2016)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem dedicated to some other form of art, so I opted for the film Seven Samurai and its many incarnations.)

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In the land of Japan, after warring was done,
An epic and classic of film was begun
By one Kurosawa, director renowned,
Who left cinematic impressions profound.

This film Seven Samurai dazzled the critics
(And still holds a high spot in film analytics)
So Hollywood said, after only six years,
“We’ll do that in English for our Western ears.

“And speaking of western, we’ll re-set the plot
With cowboys and Mexicans. Now that’s a thought!”
So that’s what they did, and it turned out a winner
With quite the ensemble headlined by Yul Brynner.

They didn’t stop there; three more sequels ensued,
But even those westerns were just a prelude.
A Corman sci-fi set the story in space,
Hong Kong made a version with China the place,

And Italy even confused the translators
By making the samurai brave gladiators.
A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s cartoonish conversion,
Then back to Japan for an anime version.

And Hollywood remade the remake it made,
The most recent role that this formula’s played.
Imitation is flattery’s form at its highest,
But would Kurosawa, I wonder, be biased?
_________________________

MPAA rating for the 1960 version:  Approved (basically PG)
MPAA rating for the 2016 version:  PG-13 (pretty strong on the violence)

I haven’t done one of these Version Variation posts in a while, mainly because I haven’t watched an abundance of remakes lately. Yet I stumbled upon the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, and finding it to be an above average western, had to see how it compared to the more celebrated original (not to mention how it compared to the original original, 1954’s Seven Samurai).

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Of course, Akira Kurosawa started it all with Seven Samurai, the tale of seven disparate but skilled misfits recruited by desperate villagers to fend off invading bandits. The Magnificent Seven is very much the same tale, simply transplanted from feudal Japan to the mythic American West. Certain scenes and plot elements are common to every version, such as the duel that introduces the most deadly of the bunch or the number of the seven who are killed by the end (though which characters die seems to differ).

All three also feature extremely talented ensembles, led by an established movie star. In the case of The Magnificent Seven, that would be Yul Brynner (1960) and Denzel Washington (2016), both dressed all in black and oozing enough self-confidence to recruit six others with minimal effort. Watching the different versions, it was interesting to pick out the parallels between the other characters. Horst Buchholz (who went on to appear in Life Is Beautiful) plays a scrappy upstart in the 1960 version, clearly modeled after Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai, but there’s not really an equivalent character in the 2016 film. As the second recruit, Chris Pratt seems comparable to Steve McQueen’s drifter, while James Coburn’s knife-thrower is unmistakably akin to Lee Byung-hun in the remake. Other comparisons are a little harder, such as Ethan Hawke’s war-haunted Cajun in the remake having elements of both Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter’s characters in the original.

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One thing that is self-evident about the 2016 remake is its effort to be more inclusive in its representation. While all of the original seven were white, the new seven include three whites, one black, one Mexican, one Native American, and one South Korean (who I guess is supposed to represent the Chinese? I didn’t know there were Korean immigrants in the Old West).  Another difference is that the characters in the remake are given far more colorful names; after all, aren’t “Goodnight” Robicheaux and Billy Rocks cooler sobriquets than Britt or Chris or Lee?

While it makes the character comparisons a little harder, the racial changes aren’t unwelcome and don’t make much difference storywise, aside from a clash between the Native American member of the Seven (Martin Sensmeier) and his counterpart on the bad guy’s side (Jonathan Joss, who surprisingly also played Chief Hotate on Parks and Recreation). Speaking of bad guys, that’s another major change; whereas the original’s Eli Wallach played the leader of a Mexican outlaw band, the remake’s Peter Sarsgaard plays a ruthless businessman aiming to buy out the townsfolk for the nearby gold mine (which is notably not in the original, much to Brad Dexter’s chagrin).

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Perhaps it might have been different if I had watched the 1960 version first, as most cinephiles did, but I think I actually prefer the 2016 version. The 1960 film is a classic, no doubt about that, with Yul Brynner’s man in black standing up as one of the quintessential western heroes. Yet even though that film has its fair share of gunfights, the 2016 film plays out much more like an action movie, tossing out the love subplot and apparent defeat of the original in favor of bigger and more explosive battles. The body count is higher, but the thrills don’t disappoint, in contrast to the original film’s excessive length and occasional boring parts.

That being said, cheating though it may be, I don’t have any problem grouping the two together for ranking purposes, or even grouping both with Seven Samurai. Seven Samurai may be the most artistic and the 2016 film the most entertaining, but all three are worthwhile. (I’ll draw the line, though, at grouping them with A Bug’s Life, which is also basically the same story. I did like how Charles Bronson’s bond with some local kids was recycled for Francis the lady bug in Pixar’s film.) Many may scoff at the mere idea of remakes, often rightfully, but, like A Star Is Born, this is one story that has endured the test of time and excelled in multiple incarnations.

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Best line from the 1960 version: (Vin/Steve McQueen) “It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, ‘Why?’”   (Calvera/bad guy) “And?”   (Vin) “He said, ‘It seemed to be a good idea at the time.’”

Best line from the 2016 version: (Sam Chisholm/Denzel Washington) “What we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy (both grouped with Seven Samurai)

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Unplanned (2019)

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(Happy Easter to all! I decided to skip today’s NaPoWriMo prompt suggesting something weird and dreamlike, and instead tried tackling a more meaningful theme and an unpopular but timely issue.)

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At all of the periods known for their slaughter,
When man’s own injustice ran wild and unchecked,
There always were those who remained on the sidelines,
Discrete but complicit in every respect.

The neighbors of Nazis, Confederate kin –
We look back and wonder how foolish were they,
To live on ignoring how lives were deprived,
While humans were thought of as inhuman prey.

Each generation has evils like these.
Condemning the past has no sway on the present.
What biased offenses have we disregarded
Because owning them would be far too unpleasant?
_______________________

MPAA rating:  R (for a few disturbing scenes)

I wasn’t sure what to review for Easter, but Unplanned is the only faith-based film I’ve seen recently, so it made sense. Faith-based films are hard to get right; for every movingly authentic one like All Saints, there’s ten more like God’s Not Dead, which wasn’t terrible but was so aimed at preaching to the choir that it came off as overly self-righteous. It’s hard to say where Unplanned fits in; it’s certainly better than the vast majority of Christian films, both in production quality and execution, but its subject matter lends itself to an immediate taking of sides, depending on your political affiliation. Yet it’s a film I feel everyone should see, and certainly anyone with an opinion about abortion.

Unplanned is based on the same-titled memoir of Abby Johnson (played well by Ashley Bratcher) and tracks her path from being a nominally pro-life college student deciding to volunteer at Planned Parenthood to becoming the director of the same Texas Planned Parenthood branch. Despite undergoing two traumatic abortions of her own, she persuades herself under the banner of women’s reproductive rights, believing that she can help make abortion safe, legal, and rare in the process. It isn’t until she witnesses an abortion firsthand that her opinions are truly challenged.

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As you might have guessed, I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the legalized murder of innocents, and I pray fervently for the day it is finally banned. I will not condemn those on the other side of this issue, nor those who have had abortions; indeed, I personally know women who have undergone this procedure, who have told me they will regret it to their dying day. I simply and firmly believe that the pro-life movement will one day be on the right side of history. So surely I’m just promoting this film because it reinforces my own views, right? Perhaps, that’s true.

But it’s those who don’t share those views who I feel ought to see it, if only for that one early abortion scene. It’s not gruesome in a horror movie kind of way, but it is deeply disturbing, especially because it is realistic, representing what happens regularly every day in abortion clinics across the country and world. The doctor in the scene itself is played by an actual former abortionist, and whether the rest of the film convinces people or not, that one painfully true scene presents an appallingly inconvenient truth.

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Unplanned has become notable for how little exposure it’s received from mainstream media sources; the vast majority of TV and radio stations refused to air ads, and the few publications that deigned to review the film wrote it off as propaganda. The MPAA board even gave it an R rating, implicitly acknowledging the inherent violence of abortion. Except for a few harrowing scenes, though, it’s got to be one of the cleanest R-rated films out there, and I was pleased to hear its rating did little to affect its surprisingly large box-office draw, thanks to its Christian audience.

So back to my main question: is Unplanned just preaching to the choir or something others can appreciate? I think every viewer will have to decide that for themselves. It sometimes has that overly earnest Christian-movie kitsch, including a largely unnecessary voiceover, but more often it’s quite believable and even entertaining, especially when Kaiser Johnson shows up as a smooth-talking lawyer. Sometimes, it makes a point of portraying Abby’s coworkers at Planned Parenthood sympathetically, yet it also villainizes her Planned Parenthood superior Cheryl (Robia Scott) as shamelessly devious (though based on certain leaked videos, I’ve no doubt that such deceit really exists in the organization). The film is at least self-aware enough to call out the negative side of the pro-life movement too, asserting that compassion and empathy are far more effective than shouting and shaming.

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Unplanned didn’t just reaffirm my position; it clarified the horror of abortion and made me consider how little I’ve done to oppose it. Those who read this may think abortion is perfectly fine and roll their eyes at another Christian movie trying to promote its agenda, but I think too many people talk about abortion in abstract terms without knowing what it really looks like. It’s why abortion clinics discourage ultrasounds and putting a baby’s face on this issue. At the very least, this film offers a persuasive pro-life message for those whose opinions aren’t too inflexible, one that teenagers especially should see; whether people take it or leave it is up to them, but no controversial opinion should be formed based on one side alone. I wish Unplanned focused more on the alternative, namely adoption, but it’s an ultimately powerful testament to what can happen when the truth of abortion finally sinks in.

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting

 

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem based on the way people normally talk, so I poked fun at the devolution of the English language. Best read with a valley girl/guy accent.)

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Have you ever, like, noticed how people, like, talk,
Contracting their verbs into mush?
It’s, you know, “I wanna,” “I’m gonna,” and stuff
That’d make Noah Webster, like, blush.

I don’t know how English, like, got to this point,
But I follow it to the letter.
It’s, you know, like, likely you like how you talk,
But other folks shoulda learned better.
_______________

MPAA rating: PG

It may have only taken two years for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to get a sequel, but it took me at least a decade to finally catch up with their Bogus Journey. There’s something about the first film that’s so absurdly entertaining, so I wanted to believe that that creative lightning would strike again with the sequel.

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The first film had a goal specified early on, gathering historical figures so Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) don’t flunk history and ruin the future in the process. In this one, the plot rambles even more, as an ambitious baddie in the future (Joss Ackland) sends evil Bill and Ted robots back in time to kill the good Bill and Ted and pave the way for their master’s reign. I’ll just ignore how absurd the plan is and how the bad guy doesn’t seem to understand how altering the past works. The film’s original title was Bill and Ted Go to Hell, a fitting option as the plot veers away from sci-fi and pits the dimwitted duo against the Grim Reaper (white-faced William Sadler, unrecognizable compared with his roles in Shawshank or The Green Mile).

Of course, it was fun revisiting Bill and Ted and their valley-guy nomenclature, with even a cameo from George Carlin, and Winter and Reeves fit these roles like two chuckleheaded gloves. I did get a kick out of the film’s reference to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and its game against Death (as well as the realization that this film surely inspired the cartoon series The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy). Yet for all its humor, I didn’t laugh very often, and the rampant silliness just didn’t quite match the “educated stupidity,” as I call it, of the first film.

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It’s telling when one film has “Excellent” in the title and the next one has “Bogus.” This sequel isn’t bad and even quite amusing with some quotable gems, but perhaps I need to see it a few more times before I can embrace its cult classic status. With the announcement of a long-awaited third film entitled Bill and Ted Face the Music, I’m hoping the next one will be better.

Best line: (Bill, after seeing hell) “We got totally lied to by our album covers, man.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
627 Followers and Counting