While most of us were waiting for a whimper or a bang, The world we knew withdrew instead of ending. We thought that we would certainly bounce back or boomerang, And still we watch and wait, uncomprehending.
No more are teens or children even deemed a demographic, For all are grown with none to take their place. No crying babies anymore, no more school zone traffic, And no descendants for a dying race.
It’s funny how the future’s so dependent on the youth Who’ll live it out and screw it up anew. Without them, it’s the present that becomes the only truth, No benefit of retrospect for you. _____________________________
MPA rating: R (for violence, language, and a childbirth scene)
At long last, we are here at the end of last year’s Blindspots! It’s been like pulling teeth for some reason getting to these overdue reviews, but hopefully I can pick up the pace with new material for the year. Luckily, I ended this 2022 series with a winner. Based on the P.D. James novel, Children of Men is the scariest kind of dystopia, one that feels all too possible within its speculative what-if scenario. Even aspects that may have seemed less immediate in 2006 have taken on an uncomfortable prescience now, from the chaos of illegal immigration to government-sanctioned self-euthanasia.
Instead of some distant nuclear war or technological breakthrough, this world’s disaster is the slow and quiet death of infertility. Since 2009, women can no longer get pregnant, and now in 2027, children are a thing of the past, with hope being further corroded by England’s brutally suppressed influx of refugees. Bureaucrat Theo Faron (Clive Owen) sees little he can do in the face of the crisis until he is drawn into the effort of his activist ex-wife (Julianne Moore) to get a somehow pregnant refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to safety.
Director Alfonso Cuaron outdid himself in making Children of Men a gripping and visceral experience. I was bordering on bored during the first twenty minutes, as the extreme despair of Theo’s London is presented, a world fumbling through a tunnel with no light at the end. Yet once the main quest of the plot is established, ferrying Kee out of England to a mysterious organization called the Human Project, it becomes a breathless chase as Theo and his allies must outmaneuver insurgents and government obstacles. Even the less bombastic moments have a suspenseful edge to them, like a “car chase” in which a stalling car rolls downhill with runners in close pursuit. (That actually sounds strangely comical written down, but it’s thrilling in context.) While it was nice seeing the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine, the performances don’t stand out as much as the technical excellence around them, but they build on the plot’s subtext as a modern Nativity story, with Owen’s everyman helping Ashitey’s Marian figure through dangers on all sides.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m a sucker for long scenes with no (or hidden) cuts, which happen to be Cuaron’s specialty. I was familiar with a scene in which a car is assailed by an armed mob, which required an impressive camera rig to swing around the inside of a car with five people in it, but even more impressive was an over-six-minute shot in which Theo weaves through an urban warzone, into and out of a building under heavy fire. It’s hard for anything to top the feature length of 1917, but the sheer audacity of staging and shooting such a sequence has my immense respect and admiration.
Of course, I would have preferred it without the cursing and two brief scenes of nudity, but Children of Men deserves its critical acclaim. I’m honestly surprised that it wasn’t deemed worthy of Oscar nominations for Best Picture or Best Director (it did get a nod for Cinematography and Adapted Screenplay), but it’s not the first time the Academy snubbed a deserving film. I read that the film’s ending was intentionally left open-ended to allow for hope or despair depending on the viewer, and I’m rather glad that I found it hopeful, if bittersweet. It’s not always easy finding that light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s there.
Best line: (Michael Caine’s Jasper) “Everything is a mythical, cosmic battle between faith and chance.”
For every moment of suffering, For every moment of joy, For every up or down you face, Another’s felt it in your place. Another’s felt that same heartache, That grateful twinge, that give and take, And you can trust you’re not alone In every feeling you can’t shake.
Perhaps they’re a hemisphere distant, Perhaps they are right down the street, Perhaps you’ve met and couldn’t tell How similar the parallel Between the feelings that you share, The craving dream, the silent prayer. Perhaps you both look nothing alike, But what you share is always there. _________________________
MPA rating: R (mainly for language and brief nudity)
One of fellow blogger MovieRob’s favorite films (thanks for the recommendation), Grand Canyon is the kind of film I usually like, a wide-reaching glimpse into the lives of diverse people and how their individual stories intersect. This sort of ensemble picture can have varying levels of prestige, from the holiday charm of Love Actually to the sober drama of Yi Yi, but it can also go wildly wrong if too many of the stories themselves are uninteresting or off-putting, as with last year’s disappointing Blindspot Short Cuts. Thankfully, Grand Canyon is on the positive side of that spectrum, though there’s a distinct feeling that it’s trying too hard to hammer home its themes.
Advertised as a spiritual successor to writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (one of my VC’s favorite movies), the film’s main dynamic is sparked when lawyer Mack (Kevin Kline) narrowly escapes being mugged thanks to the cool-headed tow truck driver Simon (Danny Glover), after which Mack goes out of his way to befriend Simon and help him and his family. Alongside this plot are parallel threads about Mack’s wife (Mary McDonnell) wanting to adopt an abandoned baby she finds and his movie producer friend Davis (Steve Martin) second-guessing the violent content of his films after he is injured in a shooting. Add in the likes of Alfre Woodard, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeremy Sisto, and you have an outstanding ensemble cast on hand.
On a purely narrative level, Grand Canyon deals with how people react to unexpected changes in their life – a near-death experience, a mid-life crisis, a change in scenery, the blossoming or ending of a love affair. In these aspects, the film excels in its realistic portrayal of different responses. Mack’s scare causes him to reach out and look further in the strata of Los Angeles society than he has before, even if he can’t shake some cluelessness of how his actions affect others. On the other hand, Davis’s change in perspective is short-lived, merely informing his decision to keep up his old habits. The film doesn’t end up giving complete closure to all these disparate threads (the storylines of Parker’s adulterous secretary and Simon’s gang-influenced nephew are dropped without a final resolution), but it is only a snapshot of these turning points, one that captures their dreams and anxieties in a world just as chaotic as it is thirty-two years later.
One can tell the effort that went into Kasdan’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, which is replete with insightful discussions about control and meaning and miracles and existence. And while these are laudable topics, I couldn’t help but think that normal people don’t talk about these universal concepts as casually as they do in this movie. While I appreciated the existential concerns raised (albeit without any religious dimension), the eloquence of it also kept reminding me that this is a script being delivered, quite well of course but not convincingly enough to completely connect with these characters. That could be my own personal gripe that wouldn’t bother other viewers, but it keeps Grand Canyon from being a new favorite ensemble flick. Still, as thoughtful all-star dramas go, it’s a well-made and perceptive piece that uses its particular time and place to ask timeless questions.
Best line: (Davis, to Mack) “That’s part of your problem, you know, you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”
I grew up in a jungle, Where the canopies were dense, Where I could play the warrior To whom imagined foes defer, Where time was slow yet fleeting, A parade of precedents.
I moved then to a jungle, Not of leaves but weathered stone. I learned the world was wide and far And much more fun than parents are. And every story led me toward A story of my own.
My mind became a jungle As the years were filled with noise. Though grief was vying for the lead, A stronger love became my creed, The kind that builds on fate fulfilled And makes men out of boys. ____________________
MPA rating: Not Rated (nothing really objectionable, though at least PG for the serious subject matter)
So I didn’t fit in all my 2022 Blindspots into last year. It happens, and I’ll just have to aim for better this year. First, though, it’s time to wrap up the old ones, starting with a pick that was perhaps overly ambitious for my slow viewing schedule. Instead of just one film, I made one of my picks a trilogy so that I could introduce myself to the work of acclaimed Indian director Satyajit Ray. Based upon the novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and boasting a score by Ravi Shankar, the Apu Trilogy is made up of three black-and-white films following the life of a poor Bengali boy named Apu: Pather Panchali (or Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (or The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (or The World of Apu). All three are considered landmark films in Indian cinema, earning international esteem and influencing many filmmakers in the decades since.
First up is 1955’s Pather Panchali, Ray’s debut film focusing on Apu’s childhood in the rural forests of Bengal in the 1910s. More than any of the sequels, the first film is focused on the visuals, with an unhurried pace to allow viewers to consider the episodic life of the Roy family, a poor life of sweeping dirt floors and brushing their teeth with a finger but not without its moments of joy and wonder. A more commercial film would have provided some kind of narration, with Apu (Subir Banerjee) reminiscing about his harried mother (Karuna Banerjee), traveling father (Kanu Banerjee), and impish sister Durga (Runki Banerjee and later Uma Dasgupta; no actual relation between the four Banerjees, by the way). Instead, the movie shows rather than tells, reflecting the fact that it was filmed based on storyboards rather than a script, and it boasts several striking images in its picture of agrarian poverty, from the reflection of shadows in a pond as Apu and Durga follow a sweets peddler or the appearance of a train chugging through windswept fields of tall grass, the only sign that this story is set in a modern era.
Despite a behind-the-scenes featurette’s assertion that Pather Panchali is Durga’s film in the trilogy, I thought it belonged more to the mother Sarbajaya. While she doesn’t always come off as likable, even nagging an elderly houseguest until the old woman leaves, Sarbajaya bears the heaviest burden of the family. She deals with the objections over Durga’s stealing from neighbors, the loneliness when her husband is away earning money as a Brahmin priest, and the financial worries when he disappears for months at a time. Her actress has especially expressive eyes that do wonders with the mostly minimalist dialogue. Still, the rambling pacing of Pather Panchali is admittedly tedious at times and ultimately telling a sparse and sad story of poverty. Yet, even if it was meant as a standalone film, I see it as necessary groundwork for the story to come.
The second film is 1956’s Aparajito, which I enjoyed more than the first simply because more happened, but somehow I think it’s my favorite of the three. After the heartache of the first film, young Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) and his family have moved to the city of Benares (now Varanasi), leaving behind bamboo forests and sweeping dirt floors in favor of crowded riverside ghats and sweeping stone floors. While Apu’s father finds more work in the city, it doesn’t take long for more tragedy to strike, forcing another move to stay with a rural relative. There, Apu finally has the opportunity to attend school and awakens a love of learning that eventually sends him off to college in Kolkata, stepping into a more modern world of books and electricity.
Whereas Pather Panchali seemed largely observational, Aparajito felt like a more personal film, particularly focusing on the relationship between Apu and his mother. Apu didn’t have much agency before since he was a wide-eyed child, but comes into his own as a character once he makes the choice to attend school, thanks to the support of the long-suffering Sarbajaya. Like so many adolescents growing up, the older Apu (Smaran Ghosal) is drawn toward the bustling college life instead of his provincial past, and even his moments of sweetness with his mother have a tinge of disinterest on his part. I’m a sucker for a sacrificial mom story, and this is the kind of regretful tale that made me want to hug mine.
Rounding out the trilogy is 1959’s Apur Sansar, focusing on Apu as an adult (Soumitra Chatterjee). Now on his own, he’s a starving artist working on a novel and tutoring on the side, too overqualified for manual labor. When he is invited to a country wedding, a trick of fate and odd local customs result in him marrying the bride, which is a shock to both him and the lovely Aparna (Sharmila Tagore, who somehow looks and acts older than her mere fourteen years). Despite being strangers, a sweet romance gradually blossoms between the two, and Apu must come to terms with his role as husband and then father, as well as the trail of tragedy and grief that has followed him throughout his life.
It seems that most critics consider Apur Sansar the most complete and professional work in the trilogy, and it does feel like the most self-contained, as well as the most satisfying. Ray (or perhaps the author of the source material) is actually quite ruthless with his characters, so by the end, it’s gratifying whenever Apu has a bit of happiness. It helps too that Chatterjee is an outstanding actor, able to evoke his thoughts with only a look, such as a moment in bed where he seems struck by the fact that he is really married. (May he rest in peace, since he died just a couple years ago due to COVID.) I also liked how Apu and Aparna go out to the movies at one point to watch a rather hokey mythological epic, which both recalled a similar play Apu saw in the first film and highlighted how different Ray’s more grounded films were from what came before.
There actually isn’t much continuity between the three films, and any of them could be watched in isolation. Yet they do build upon each other in subtle ways, as when the Apu in Aparajito excels in class due to the home lessons his father gave him in Pather Panchali, or the chuckle-worthy scene in Apur Sansar where Apu’s friend describes the rural lifestyle of his cousins that so closely mirrors Apu’s own upbringing. There are a wealth of more subtle details and creative choices that a non-critic like me may not catch, so I found it even more rewarding to watch behind-the-scenes features about Ray’s artistry, such as the symbolic use of trains as harbingers of death throughout the films.
Now that I’ve watched these certified classics, I can see why they are so well-respected, and I now view Satyajit Ray as an Indian counterpart to Akira Kurosawa in Japan, telling detailed, culturally authentic stories that resonate beyond their specific country or setting. At the same time, I’ll be honest and say these are definitely what I call “critic movies”; perhaps in decades past, they might have had popular appeal, especially in India, but they are designed more to tell a slow and personal story rather than entertain. They are not the kind of movies one watches casually and thus probably not ones I’ll ever see again.
But as works of cinematic art representing the highs and lows of Apu’s life, they do live up to their reputation, provided one has the patience for them. Considering both Chatterjee and Tagore had long and successful careers after Apur Sansar, I’m now curious to see more of their work, not to mention that of director Ray. And I am very grateful for the Criterion Collection’s dedication to preserving all three films, the originals of which were burned in a fire and required great pains to restore. These are nuanced and significant entries in the history of international cinema, and even if they seem mundane by modern standards, I’m glad to have seen them.
Best lines: (schoolmaster, to Apu in Aparajito) “If you don’t read books like these, you can’t broaden your mind. We may live in a remote corner of Bengal, but that doesn’t mean that our outlook should be narrow.”
(Apu in Apur Sansar, commenting on Aparna going to her parents for a while) “But I will get some work done on my novel. I haven’t written a line since we were married.” (Aparna) “Is that my fault?” (Apu) “It’s to your credit. You know how much my novel means to me. You mean much more.”
The mind has many corners in its many-wrinkled maze, To hide from heavy burdens that it cannot hope to raise. The layers of its labyrinth stretch to depths we cannot guess, And how deeply we flee depends upon our yesterdays.
While most of us can cope with just the top tiers meant for stress, The world at its most wicked makes us seek a dark recess. And if we lose our way, the dark that darkness drove us to May keep us from escaping our escaping in excess. ________________________
MPA rating: R (for violence, language, and brief nudity)
A Merry belated Christmas to all! I may have given up on reviewing all my 2022 Blindspots before the end of the year, but I think I can at least watch them all before year’s end. The reviews will catch up in good time. To be honest, I haven’t seen many Martin Scorsese movies, so I figured I should address that by starting with the one that seemed to have the most intrigue to it. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, Shutter Island is a psychological thriller that thrives on its foreboding atmosphere and strong performances, even if it ends up feeling like a mid-tier M. Night Shyamalan plot.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an intense performance as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who arrives with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to the titular island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane to investigate a recently escaped prisoner/patient. Despite requesting their help, the hospital’s head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hesitant to divulge certain information to the marshals, even as a hurricane moves in to wreak havoc on the island. As Daniels becomes more and more haunted by his own past traumas, he begins to question reality and what kind of conspiracy he has come to confront.
It’s a bit surprising that, despite its acclaimed director and star, Shutter Island failed to generate any awards nominations, aside from a National Board of Review nod. Whether you connect with the story or not, there’s no denying the skill with which it was made: the dingy lighting, the ominous cinematography, the subtle performances. Inception was easily DiCaprio’s better puzzle-box film that year, but it’s still interesting that this film couldn’t snag a single nomination.
I was rather shocked while admiring an especially poignant portion of the musical score as I realized that I had heard it before in another film: “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter added the same emotional gut punch to the ending of Arrival (far more effectively, in my opinion) and other films and TV shows besides. I didn’t realize till afterward that this track was not original to either film or that the entire soundtrack of Shutter Island comprised pre-released classical music.
Perhaps it didn’t help that I had some idea of what the film’s key twist would be. I credit the screenplay for still keeping me guessing and wondering if I was right or not, but yes, I was right. Not to say the film’s reveal wasn’t still effective and heartbreaking, but it didn’t have the same punch as something completely unforeseen. Overall, Shutter Island reminded me a bit of Nightmare Alley in its masterfully composed story and dark setting that I appreciated without being truly drawn into, probably because of its ending clearly designed to foster thoughtfulness in the audience rather than satisfaction. But it’s still an excellent genre piece ripe for theorizing that will no doubt reward further rewatches, which could perhaps raise my opinion of it even more.
Best lines: (Rachel Solando) “People tell the world you’re crazy, and all your protests to the contrary just confirm what they’re saying.” (Teddy) “I’m not following you, I’m sorry.” (Rachel) “Once you’re declared insane, then anything you do is called part of that insanity. Reasonable protests are denial, valid fears paranoia…” (Teddy) “Survival instincts are defense mechanisms.” (Rachel) “You’re smarter than you look, Marshal. That’s probably not a good thing.”
If life were like a recipe, We’d follow every step and see If what we’ve done or tried to do Produced the proper cake or stew Or coq au vin or cordon bleu Or tonkatsu or what-have-you.
We’d quickly know where we went wrong, Like where the salt’s a bit too strong Or where the spice got out of hand, Where fresh is favored over canned Or where the flavor grew too bland. It would be simpler if pre-planned.
But life’s not like a recipe. More often, it’s a mess, and we Must guess on times and quantities, Ingredients and potencies. And sometimes we pair fish with cheese And wish we had more expertise.
But trial and error bear their fruits (Ideally fending off lawsuits), And soon the recipe is clear In retrospect, without veneer. Sometimes it takes a whole career To be the chef who cooks by ear. _________________________
MPA rating: R (solely for language)
As December progresses, I feel like I’m in a race to see if I can cram the rest of this year’s Blindspots into the weeks remaining. Writer’s block doesn’t help, but a good movie certainly does. Chef has long been in my backlog as a widely lauded film that I just never got around to watching until now. Trained and co-produced by food truck chef Roy Choi, director Jon Favreau also plays Carl Casper, the head chef of a distinguished restaurant in L.A. that is sorely in need of a positive review from a critical blogger (Oliver Platt). Yet when Carl runs afoul of his employer (Dustin Hoffman) and makes a highly public mistake, he is forced to revamp his career by trying something new, namely opening a Cuban food truck that might just bring him closer to his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) along the way.
Chef definitely seems like a film tailored for me. Not only has my family long been faithful Food Network viewers, but I even owned and operated my own food cart business, selling hot dogs for a grand total of three months. I’ve probably told this story on the blog before, but it’s one that I often look back on as a huge mistake. So I had mixed feelings watching Favreau’s Carl find almost immediate success with his venture; there is vicarious satisfaction at seeing someone else succeed, mixed with a tinge of bitter jealousy whispering “It wouldn’t have been that easy. He would have needed more permits.” But I digress. The satisfaction was louder anyway.
As a food lover, I was delighted by the delectable dishes throughout the film, from a sumptuous pasta Carl concocts as a sort-of date night to a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich that Carl’s son doesn’t fully appreciate. The love of food infuses much of the story, especially as Carl tries to instill his own passion into his son, telling him of the joys of New Orleans beignets or urging him to never grow complacent in serving anything but the best. Plus, despite my earlier complaint, there’s a likable genuineness to the script as well, such as the waggish kitchen banter with Carl and his sous chefs (John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale). That also extends to the relationships; Percy craves the attention of his dad, yet Carl is far from an absentee father, just constantly distracted, so it’s easy to see how he might think he’s doing enough as a dad. Their mutual bonding over food and the work that goes into it is a joy to watch.
Chef does have its flaws, taking a little too long with the set-up before the food truck idea gains steam, and, beyond some awkward scenes played for laughs, it’s a prime example of a film that doesn’t need its abundance of F-bombs, since it would make a solid family film without them. It was nice seeing cameos from the likes of Amy Sedaris and Favreau’s Iron Man co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, though it was odd seeing him flirt with the latter. Happy Hogan and Black Widow? I can’t see it. Despite all this, Chef has all the culinary love of a passion project and boasts an all-around feel-good ending that is likely to leave any viewer smiling. It’s yet another Blindspot I’m glad to finally have seen, if only for that grilled cheese recipe I’m totally going to try.
Best line: (Chef Carl Casper, to his son) “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do, and I want to share this with you.”
We think of scars as plain to see, Disfigurements of normalcy, And never could we guess the pain Of people who do not complain.
While many bare and air their hurts, Both recluses and extroverts, With time they tend to hide regret And cover what they can’t forget.
Both the mount and molehill end, And yet the tolls they take depend On what we each have faced before And whether we can take much more.
The world is not known for its heart; The people in it must do that part, To take the scars concealed so well And show the heaven beyond the hell. __________________________
MPA rating: R (for much language and some sexual references)
The end of the year is fast approaching, but I haven’t yet given up on finishing my Blindspot series. Short Term 12 earned a place on the list mainly because I was curious to see so many now-famous stars in what I might call an “incubator film.” I would compare it to 1983’s The Outsiders, which was a vehicle for multiple big-name actors before they were famous, such as Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, and Rob Lowe. Short Term 12 likewise highlighted the skills of Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield, and Rami Malek years before they were Oscar contenders, not to mention writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.
Expanding Cretton’s own short film and based on his experiences working at a group home for troubled teens, the film is a masterwork of empathetic storytelling. A story of kids overcoming trauma could so easily have become maudlin or trite or else devolved into soul-crushing despair, but somehow the script tows the line between realism and hope. Larson plays Grace Howard, a line worker at the titular group shelter whose responsibility, as she tells new recruit Nate (Malek), is to only give the kids there a safe place, not to be their therapist or friend. Yet for teenagers struggling with distrust, abuse, and anxiety, that safe place and the act of listening and caring are worth more than any amount of formal therapy. However, when a sullen girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, Grace is reminded of her own past trauma that threatens to overwhelm her.
Short Term 12 would be an interesting watch just for its cast alone. Look, Brie Larson before Room and Captain Marvel! Look, Lakeith Stanfield before Get Out and Judas and the Black Messiah! Rami Malek before Bohemian Rhapsody, John Gallagher, Jr. of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Kaitlyn Dever of Last Man Standing, Stephanie Beatriz of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Encanto. And they all do phenomenal work, with Larson, Stanfield, and Dever especially giving Oscar-worthy performances. Yet the script is the real star, filled with brilliant individual scenes that give so much nuance to the characters and their struggles, whether it be a resentful rap delivered by Stanfield’s Marcus, a grateful toast from Gallagher’s Mason to his foster parents, or a children’s story by Jayden that has the same simplicity and achingly sad truth of The Giving Tree. Foul-mouthed outbursts are contrasted with moments of genuine compassion, and somehow none of it comes off as overly scripted or artificial.
The most meaningful theme I got from Short Term 12 was the sense that, for every terrible ordeal or wave of panic, “this too shall pass.” In the case of the kids lashing out, the adults have to literally hold them down to prevent them from hurting themselves or others, and it’s awful in the moment but ultimately a sign of caring once the intense emotions fade. Likewise, Grace’s apparent happiness is shattered by a succession of bad news, bringing her to the brink of despondency and regrettable life choices. Yet there is catharsis for everything, whether we see it or not, often making us better able to understand the pain of others and help them through it as well.
Short Term 12 is a hard watch at times, putting an unvarnished spotlight on teen distress that is so often kept out of sight, but it’s a highly rewarding one. I have always held up Amy Adams in Arrival being ignored for Best Actress as a notorious Oscar snub, and now I can add this film to the mix, since it was entirely and criminally passed over by the Academy. While Larson got her due two years later for Room, Cretton’s screenplay absolutely deserved a nomination, if not a win. I never would have guessed he would go on to Shang-Chi and the upcoming Avengers films, but it’s satisfying to see the humble beginnings of him and his up-and-coming stars. (We can thank this film for Stanfield’s whole acting career, since Cretton cast him in the original short and later tracked him down to get him to return for the film.) With its perceptive direction, star-making performances, and encouraging pro-life sentiment, it’s a film that shows that the best in people can outshine the worst.
Best line: (part of Marcus’s rap) “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”
Would a sane human being Be intrigued by ever seeing Odd phenomena beyond the knowledge of us mortal men, Like a chair moved by air Or a voice that bids beware Or strange forces eating horses as first courses now and then?
Blood that drips down walls Or peculiar moving dolls – Who would choose to chase the clues of deadly mysteries and such? We ought to run away, But we’re curious and stay. Curiosity, insanity – the difference isn’t much. ______________________
MPA rating: R (mainly for language)
If there was any doubt about Jordan Peele’s skill as a horror director (or director in general), Nope should dispel it. Get Out was an electrifying debut with its potent social commentary, and Us boasted highly impactful scares, even if its underlying mythology made zero sense. Yet I think I prefer Nope over either of them, an entertaining genre mish-mash that recalls Close Encounters of the Third Kind, if the UFOs were not secretly friendly. From the enigmatic trailers, it seemed that Peele wanted to make aliens scary again, and he did, while also subverting a few expectations to great effect.
Reteaming with Peele after Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya plays O.J. Haywood, a horse trainer for film projects, who struggles to maintain his family’s historic business after the bizarre death of his father (Keith David). His sister Em (Keke Palmer) is more interested in schmoozing talent seekers than saving the ranch, but they are both disturbed by the behavior and disappearance of their horses, eventually realizing something in the sky is preying on them. Soon the siblings are collaborating to get certified photographic proof of the dangerous UFO, which is easier said than done, even with the help of jaded electronics employee Angel (Brandon Perea) and grizzled filmmaker Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).
Nope continues Peele’s winning blend of understated comedy and legit horror, injecting doses of humor among the growing anxiety, most notably the title response when situations are too risky to engage. Unlike so many horror films, the characters largely respond realistically to the strange events they face, though it’s notable that some of them lose that sense of self-preservation in pursuit of fame, strengthening the film’s theme of destructive celebrity. Considering how straight-faced and quiet he is throughout, Kaluuya once more proves his acting talent and is never wooden, while Palmer’s surplus of personality makes her a great familial foil for him. Both Steven Yeun as Jupe Park, the owner of a nearby Western theme park, and Perea as an everyman techie are also standouts, while Wincott’s character adds gravitas but also ends up a little underdeveloped.
Through most of the film, I couldn’t help but feel like the subplot with Yeun seemed out of place, a story of him as a child actor witnessing a violent episode involving a crazed chimp. Indeed, it doesn’t have much to do with the main UFO narrative. In retrospect, it does complement the motifs of spectacle and animal danger, and, going beyond survivor guilt, the idea of survivor confidence explains Park’s unwise actions later on. It’s ultimately another sign that Peele puts a good deal of thought into his film’s themes, down to the final scene, and that he’s interested in more than cheap scares. Of course, there are some expert moments of tension and shock as well (I especially liked how the flying saucer is kept out of view at first, darting between clouds and deadening electronics with the distant menace of the fin in Jaws), but it felt unique that the climax happens in broad daylight.
While Us showed that Peele is not above story missteps, Nope is an ambitious step forward that I look forward to watching again. It’s a creature feature that knows how to balance its looming terror with human foibles and a crowd-pleasing climax, complete with an Akira reference. Us was scarier and Get Out had more to say, but Nope is easily the most entertaining entry in Peele’s filmography so far.
Best line: (Holst) “This dream you’re chasing, where you end up at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you… it’s the dream you never wake up from.”
Most humans have the comfort of not knowing of too much, Of doors we should not open and loose threads we ought not touch, Of dogs we dare not waken and of lines we should not cross, Lest brutal, futile knowledge should become our albatross.
The warning of “forbidden” has eroded over years, Decided as the product of unreasonable fears. For nothing is anathema, forbidden, or taboo, And so we delve too deeply into things we can’t undo.
When doors not meant to open are instead extended wide, And fears begin to slither in where had been only pride, And darkness once attractive starts exacting its dread cost, You’ll recognize what isn’t wise when certain lines are crossed. __________________________________
MPA rating: PG-13 (honestly, some of the violence leans toward R)
I never used to wait this long before reviewing Marvel blockbusters, but my mind hasn’t been in movie review mode lately. Still, it’s about time I got to it. Anyway, I’m an MCU fanboy, so anything they release I am likely to enjoy to varying levels. Even some that gave me initial mixed reactions like Thor: The Dark World or Eternals, I’ve grown to appreciate more with time and reflection. It’s rare then that time and reflection ends up lowering my opinion of a Marvel film, but such is the case with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I still liked it overall, but there are elements I can’t help but view with disappointment.
This second Doctor Strange film marks a milestone for the MCU; it’s the first time that a Marvel film has continued a storyline from one of the Disney+ TV series, specifically WandaVision, released about a year before. I’ve decided to skip reviewing TV shows (for now) and won’t go into detail on WandaVision, but it essentially dealt with the messy grieving process of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) after losing her beloved Vision (Paul Bettany) in Infinity War. It was the first time Wanda was referred to by her comics name of Scarlet Witch and introduced the potential children she might have had with Vision, as well as a cursed book called the Darkhold, all of which play a role in this film.
As for Stephen Strange himself (Benedict Cumberbatch), he has settled into the self-sacrificing superhero life of losing his own love Christine (Rachel McAdams) yet trying to convince himself he’s happy anyway. When a multiverse-hopping girl named America Chavez (a bit one-note but likable Xochitl Gomez) arrives in New York, chased by otherworldly creatures, Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) take on the duty of protecting her across universes.
Between Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the multiverse has already been cracked open for most viewers, but Doctor Strange in the MoM goes beyond variations of one character. Many would argue that it still doesn’t do enough with the concept to warrant a name like Multiverse of Madness, but my VC actually liked that the number of universes involved were limited, finding it easier to follow. The use of the multiverse is where my complaints begin (and the spoilers). One of the biggest set pieces of the film involves a multiversal team getting slaughtered mercilessly, which felt like a jarring contrast to the way that even villains were treated in No Way Home, a spectacle mistaking cruel for cool. It gave me concern that the multiverse could be used to just provide an endless supply of fan service cannon fodder because if one character dies, hey, there’s plenty of others out there for next time, right?
Beyond that, the film’s treatment of Wanda is also a mixed bag. While Olsen delivers an outstanding performance stepping into the rare role of a hero-turned-villain and showing just how powerful she is, it ends up undermining the emotional progress she seemed to experience in WandaVision (and totally ignoring the fact that Vision in some form is out there somewhere). Her motivations are sympathetic, but it was shocking just how far she goes, her behavior easily blamed on the corrupting power of the Darkhold but hard to forgive nonetheless. And then there’s Strange’s diving into the dark art of necromancy in the climax, which is both a gleeful reminder of director Sam Raimi’s horror specialty and also a problematic strategy that calls into question whether Strange can just walk away from any supposedly forbidden behavior without consequence. We’ll see if the sequels shed any light on that.
And speaking of sequels, it also felt like there should have been a different Doctor Strange 2 between the original and this one. Despite the brief presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo in a different universe, his setup as a villain in the first film’s after-credits scene was essentially dropped, waved away in a single line indicating he and Strange had already clashed before. Am I the only one who would have liked to see that?
So yes, I have mixed feelings about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, right down to its abrupt ending, yet I can’t outright dislike it either. It still has all the ingredients for an entertaining Marvel adventure, mixed with the sometimes creepy, somewhat goofy, and more violent style of Sam Raimi, complete with a prime Bruce Campbell cameo. I liked the more human element of Strange’s character arc, and Olsen’s scenery-chewing wrath is both memorable and cleverly resolved by the end. It can’t be easy writing these Marvel films in a way that continues prior plotlines, delivers its own story, and sets up future possibilities, but they’ve been doing it splendidly for a decade now. While it has its good points, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the first stumble for me.
Best line: (Wanda, with a good point) “You break the rules and become a hero. I do it, and I become the enemy. That doesn’t seem fair.”
On foreign roads, I may be led, No guarantees of food or bed; I might be kept, a bitter pill, By duty or against my will; I may delay on land or foam, But still I’ll know the way back home.
On dying hopes I may depend, But they’ll be with me to the end. For be it distance, sickness, wars That separates my heart from yours, I know no matter where I roam, Our love remains my road back home. ___________________________
MPA rating: G
I would never have even heard of The Road Home if it hadn’t been suggested to me by fellow movie-loving blogger Chris of Movies and songs 365. Sorry it took years to finally put it on my Blindspot list as incentive, but a big thanks for the recommendation! With the exception of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonand Yi Yi, Chinese cinema is unexplored territory for me, and while action and wuxia are more likely to make a splash with western moviegoers, it’s nice to be reminded of low-key romantic dramas like The Road Home, which can be easily overlooked.
After his father dies, a young man (Sun Honglei) returns home to his rural village and widowed mother, who insists on a traditional on-foot procession to bring her husband’s body back home, since he died in a nearby city. While weighing whether to honor her logistically difficult request, the man reminisces about his parents’ well-known love story and how his mother Zhai Di (Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger fame, in her first major role) first met his schoolteacher father Luo (Zheng Hao). In a creative choice also used in The Phantom of the Opera, the modern time period is presented in black-and-white while the flashbacks to 1950s China shift to bright color, showing how much more vivid Di’s memories are compared with her present-day grief.
The Road Home thrives on its simplicity and the nostalgia of young hearts fluttering after each other. Ziyi is luminous as the young Di, who longs for the village’s new schoolteacher and subtly finds ways to make her affection known. I would say there’s a bit too much of that distant flirting, with far too many repetitive shots of Di staring googly-eyed at her love, which eventually feel like padding for the already short runtime. Still, the performances are excellent, shifting from sentimentality to devoted worry when Luo is taken away by the Chinese government. The film’s real power comes at the end, though, when the impact of one rural schoolteacher on the community is made evident in a show of caring that would make Mr. Holland’s Opus proud.
The Road Home is perhaps too simple a tale to get much notice in a cinematic landscape crowded by superheroes and CGI space battles, but it’s a refreshingly human account of young love. As mentioned, some of the longing looks could have been edited out, and I rather wish we had gotten to see at least a little bit of the happy life that Di and Luo had together, instead of just its preface and epilogue. What we do see, though, is a warm and sweet reminder that our parents or grandparents loved deeply long before we came along.
Best line: (older Di, to her son) “Your father’s gone. He used to worry about you. Our children must leave home. We can’t keep you here forever. As parents, we let you go, but we never stopped worrying. Your father missed you so.” (Yusheng, the son) “Please don’t cry.” (Di) “With your father gone, it’s hard not to feel lonely.” (Yusheng) “I know.” (Di) “You must work hard and make a good life.”
Expectations are the weight That drags us to a win or loss. And either way, we learn to hate The expectation albatross.
For whether it is you alone Or one you’re trying to impress, The chance of failure’s one millstone That only comes off with success.
A flaw offends, a stumble spreads, And those who saw it coming quit, Shaking their collective heads. They knew you couldn’t handle it.
But then, you might have full support Yet build up such a stress within, That nothing but the highest court Could name you worthy of a win.
Still yet, we live for moments grand When fear is met by answered prayer, When what occurs is what was planned, Even if that may feel rare.
These expectations doom or drive Our efforts to achieve our best. Just know as long as you’re alive That nothing is a futile quest. ________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
I don’t know if anyone remembers, but I rewatched the original Top Gun back in 2020 so I could review it before the sequel came out later that year. Of course, a certain pandemic got in the way of that, repeatedly pushing the release of Top Gun: Maverick to a point where it would have the best chance of thriving in theaters rather than settling for a limited or streaming release. And thrived it has, racking up over a billion dollars and outperforming what I think most people expected from yet another resurrected 1980s franchise. I appreciate the first Top Gun on a purely superficial level but would never consider it a favorite movie, so I was genuinely surprised that Maverick actually managed to deliver on the hype that had grown around it.
Set over thirty years after the original, Top Gun: Maverick sees the return of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), whose penchant for risks and disobeying orders has kept him from rising above the rank of captain. With his career near its end, he is called by his old rival and friend Iceman (Val Kilmer, whose inclusion was a nice treat considering his health struggles) to return to Top Gun (a.k.a. the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) and train the most skilled graduates for a daring mission to destroy a uranium enrichment plant. Among them is “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s deceased partner Goose, and the two must work through their shared history to make the mission a success.
I can absolutely see a version of this movie with the same description I gave above that feels like a zombie retread of the first film, resurrected for the sake of cashing in on audience nostalgia. While that’s likely how the film’s development started, a laudable amount of effort and care went into making this a worthy successor that honestly surpasses the first film in every way. Knowing that the real actors and planes were involved in the aerial action adds much to the experience as a sharp contrast to the overabundance of CGI, and the high-flying direction feels brisk and immediate while not losing track of which plane is which. Plus, the soundtrack is a knockout, featuring not just the return of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” but also welcome additions from The Who, OneRepublic, and Lady Gaga.
It’s rather amazing that Maverick has all of the same ingredients as the first film – hot shot pilots, including a cocky rival (Glen Powell); surly superiors (Jon Hamm, Ed Harris); a simmering romance centered in a bar (now with Jennifer Connolly in place of Kelly McGillis); a shirtless volleyball game; and a climactic face-off with an unnamed enemy – and yet it deepens them and makes them mean more than in the original Top Gun. The writing and story are clearly improved and give the performances of Cruise and Teller especially much more dramatic weight as the loss of Goose continues to weigh on them both. And the whole climax set among snowy mountains is a tense thrill ride, not a sudden “crisis” that pops up like in the first film, but an extended mission that the whole film builds up to, with high stakes and an ever-present chance that someone might not make it home.
The distinction may only make sense to me, but I consider Top Gun an entertaining movie, while Top Gun: Maverick is an entertaining film. Both may be summer blockbusters, but the sequel lives in another category of quality, and I really would like to see it perhaps snag a Best Picture nod at the Oscars. Even with my half-hearted appreciation of the first film, the second was moving, patriotic, and immensely satisfying in its own right while also building on the nostalgia. It sets a new standard for these long-delayed ‘80s sequels, one that will be hard for any other to top.
Best line: (Admiral “Cyclone” Simpson) “Your reputation precedes you.” (Maverick) “Thank you, Sir.” (Adm. Simpson) “It wasn’t a compliment.”