(For Day 28 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for an index-like poem, so I chose the word “door” as my index word for a pair of haikus, since doors are so prominent in this film.)
Opens and closes; Keep in or keep out; slam it; Lock it; lose the key.
Don’t dare to open; Outside the gates; slipping through; Miss the other side. ____________________
MPA rating: PG
In the same way cinephiles look forward to the next Christoper Nolan or Quentin Tarantino movie, anime fans eagerly await the advent of the next Makoto Shinkai film. I was excited to finally see his latest called Suzume in the theater, months after its Japanese premiere, and it had everything Shinkai does well: pouring rain, desperate running, eye-popping cataclysms, poignant reunions, all rendered in some of the most gorgeous animation this side of KyoAni. Yet it’s hard to forget that everything he creates will inevitably be compared to Your Name, the record-breaking blockbuster that put Shinkai on the international map. It’s a tough comparison, but Suzume still excels at the same kind of emotion-backed fantasy.
Suzume (Nanoka Hara), the title character, is a rural high school girl who directs an attractive visitor named Sota (Hokuto Matsumura) to some nearby ruins for which he is searching. When she follows out of curiosity, she discovers that a long-dormant evil has started breaking into our world to cause disasters, using doorways in abandoned areas as gateways that must be closed. When Sota is inexplicably cursed and transformed into… ahem, a chair, Suzume runs away from home to help him complete his mission, further complicated by a mischievous talking cat. (I loved a brief reference to Whisper of the Heart when the cat is spotted on a train.)
I’ll admit the chair part is a little hard to take seriously at first, especially since it forever labels this movie as “the one where a girl falls in love with a chair.” But if you roll with it, the object does take on greater meaning as a precious heirloom for Suzume, and there’s fun to be had with the absurdity of it. As the plot becomes a buddy road trip across Japan (a “meet-‘em-and-move-on” as I call them), it’s a little hard to believe how many people seem fine with supporting a runaway girl and letting her continue on her way. Yet it’s also an opportunity to take a peek into various lives she passes, which I always enjoy.
It’s interesting that two anime in the same year (this film and Drifting Home) both put a focus on the large number of abandoned areas throughout Japan, including a ferris wheel specifically, places that were once full of life and now have only echoes of what was. True to Shinkai form, the emotions grow with time, and even if Suzume and Sota ultimately just met, the bond and distress born from their relationship are highly affecting at the film’s emotional high points.
Even if I recognize the film’s faults, like the rather thin story fueled by contrivance, Shinkai just has a captivating style that is easy to get sucked into, aided by striking visuals and iconic music by the band Radwimps, his frequent collaborator. If Suzume had come out before Your Name and Weathering with You, I think I would love it more without the comparison, but I can’t quite say it’s better than them while sharing the same DNA. It did surpass Weathering with You to become the fourth highest-grossing Japanese film ever (right behind Your Name), so Shinkai still has enormous box office draw. It would be nice if he can step a little further out from under his own shadow, but I’m still very much a fan.
(For Day 25 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for a love poem with a flower, a parenthetical statement, and unusual line breaks, a la e. e. cummings.)
That face is a face the world should see, Plastered on billboards, Far and wide. Let them come and sing your Praise, brag they saw you (or At least tried), throw their roses and carnations At your feet, as I would mine, And banish any doubt that you are anything but Meant to shine.
In a perfect world, such laud would be yours, Yet here you are, With me Instead. An imperfect world your grace endures, And yet perfection Still You spread To me. __________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
Growing up, I was introduced more to the Nora Ephron side of ‘90s romantic comedies, like Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail, and I love them dearly. But I do wonder if I had grown up with their British equivalents if they would be as dear to my heart. Notting Hill is a prime example of a rom com I saw only recently yet seems to have a prominent place in the genre. Featuring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in their prime, the film plays like a fairy tale reversal of Pretty Woman, with Roberts as the wealthy elite falling for a down-on-their-luck commoner.
William Thacker (Grant), owner of a struggling travel bookshop in the titular London neighborhood, is surprised when famous actress Anna Scott (Roberts) wanders into his store. Through happenstance and curiosity, the two connect, yet they are chagrined by the aggressive paparazzi and the growing doubt that their different stations in life could support a relationship. The film is an excellent example of writer Richard Curtis’s strengths, like quirky but relatable side characters and an earnest romantic climax, though thankfully with less of the intermittent crudeness of Love Actually.
Both leads are excellent and share an effortless chemistry, Roberts with her million-dollar smile and Grant with his self-deprecating air and diffident line delivery that heighten his everyman role. Rhys Ifans is also a stand-out as William’s ribald roommate Spike, who meanders around their flat as walking comic relief. While the film’s romantic development and sense of humor are rather low-key, making it not quite as memorable as others in the genre, it does have some brilliant moments, like a masterful tracking shot/time lapse where William walks through all four seasons while Notting Hill bustles around him. With its nostalgic soundtrack and feel-good boy-meets-girl romance, Notting Hill makes me want to explore other rom coms of the era that might also be favorites-in-the-making.
Best line: (William) “I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are; my mother has trouble remembering my name.” (Anna) “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”
(I had a rough day yesterday and missed Day 21 of NaPoWriMo, but I thought I’d try doubling up this weekend instead. Yesterday’s prompt was for a poem describing an abstract noun, using short lines and a made-up word. I chose Strength.)
I am strong Because I cannot afford To be weak.
The weight of My people’s hopes, The yoke Of all my foes, The burden of Love to defend Have tempered Me Like steel.
But still I only wish To wake to laughter In the aftermorn, To kiss with No farewell, To let my power Be still.
Strength I bear That I may not Bear it forever. __________________________
MPA rating: Not Rated (should be R for violence, which is fitting, right?)
After recently watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, which marked a turning point in Indian cinema back in the 1950s, it was mind-blowing to see how far the country’s filmmaking has come with 2022’s RRR. I know Bollywood has a reputation for over-the-top spectacle, but this was my first introduction to the modern wow factor that Indian films have to offer. (Considering its wide distribution on Netflix, I doubt I’m alone there.) RRR follows two real-life Indian freedom fighters in the 1920s, telling a completely fictitious what-if story about them meeting and teaming up against the evil British empire. In American Revolution terms, I like to describe it as the Indian equivalent of “What if Ethan Allen and Francis Marion became bros and singlehandedly decimated the redcoats?”
Standing for Rise Roar Revolt (in English at least), RRR is the kind of epic that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore, if it ever did, boasting an everything-goes narrative that makes it hard to classify. It’s heavy on the action but also has room to be a romance, a historical drama, a buddy film, and a musical. The supremely handsome Ram Charan plays A. Rama Raju, a member of the Delhi imperial police force trying to rise through the ranks. N.T. Rama Rao Jr. plays Komaram Bheem, a protector of the Gond tribe who goes undercover in Delhi after the British governor (Ray Stevenson) and his cruel wife (Alison Doody) abduct a young girl named Malli. Thus, the two initially meet and become good friends, not knowing they are on opposite sides, Bheem seeking to rescue Malli while Raju aims to capture him to earn favor with the British.
RRR is a lot. Boasting superhero-level stunts and CGI animals to rival Hollywood, the film looks amazing, albeit replete with slow-motion interludes to highlight the emotion or absurdity of the action. In that vein, it is also anything but subtle. The villainous Brits are cartoonishly evil without any nuance at all, save for the kind Jenny (Olivia Morris) who somehow becomes a love interest for Bheem despite neither of them understanding the other’s language. The film relishes in its own excess, from the rippling muscles of its often shirtless leads to the extravagant and lengthy action scenes that include one man taking on an entire angry mob and a free-for-all battle with tigers and deer invading a posh banquet. Honestly, some of the coolest moments almost feel like parody with how outrageous they are.
Yet there’s something refreshing about how RRR wears its cinematic heart on its sleeve, like the montage of Raju and Bheem bonding over their shared buffness, which brought to mind the ancient brotherhood of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. That kind of epic clash of good and evil with a cast of thousands was much more common in old Hollywood when epics were a common genre, so it’s interesting to see such large-scale heroics from a foreign perspective. And the film often uses its excess quite effectively, especially in the instantly iconic dance-off to the song “Naatu Naatu,” which won a deserved Oscar for Best Original Song and was one of the best movie moments of last year.
Aside from some brutal violence, the worst thing about RRR is its length. I was able to convince my VC to watch it (and she liked it), but only by breaking it up into three parts. At a little over three hours, it can feel more like a miniseries than a movie, so I would recommend that; basically, take a break whenever someone is caught by the British. RRR is epic in every sense of the word, and its mainstream success will likely open the door for more Americans, me included, to explore further what Indian cinema has to offer.
Best line: (Raju’s father) “He [the governor] said that an Indian’s life is not worth a bullet. So how will this bullet earn its value? When it comes out of your gun and pierces an Englishman’s heart.”
(For this Easter Sunday of NaPoWriMo, the Day 9 prompt was for a straightforward sonnet about love, which has plenty of room for exploration. I decided to explore one of the weightier themes from this superhero film with “Love” in the name.)
From modern film to Jesus on the cross, ‘Tis clear that sacrifice is love most plain, For those who benefit feel more than loss But flattered gratitude to ease the pain. While many lovers may well entertain A chance to prove their love to that extreme, They must feel all their efforts are in vain When death creeps in with no intent or scheme, No bullet to prevent, no dark regime, No clear and present danger to oppose. What can one do when bladder, brain, bloodstream Wreak sabotage where no mere hero goes? Sometimes only our presence soothes the hour When sacrifice is not within our power. ___________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
I am very forgiving when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I would defend the likes of Thor: The Dark World or Eternals when people badmouth them, and while Marvel’s overall quality does vary, I consider the brand remarkably consistent in entertainment value. Perhaps my natural affection for the MCU delayed my actual feelings for Thor: Love and Thunder, because I remember calling it a good movie when walking out of the theater last year. Yet the more I thought of it and especially after watching it again, I have to admit it: Thor: Love and Thunder is the first Marvel film I outright dislike. That’s not an especially unusual opinion, considering its generally poor fan reception, but it’s the first time I’ve agreed with the criticisms to this extent.
There’s nothing wrong with the basic plot of the film, which aimed to reunite Chris Hemsworth’s Thor with his old girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) after her nearly decade-long absence from the franchise. Jane is suffering from stage four cancer and seeks out the broken pieces of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, which grants her the powers of Thor (as “Mighty Thor”) and heals her when in her superpowered state. The two Thors must then rescue Asgardian kids from Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), a deity-hating menace plotting to eliminate all gods.
There are traces of good ideas, notably in the action scenes with Gorr, one of which is a moon-wide slugfest with eldritch creatures all rendered in black and white. Bale is unrecognizable and downright creepy in the villainous role, yet he emotes all the grief and rage of a character whose faith was shattered beyond saving. Likewise, Portman handles her emotional moments well, even if it’s ultimately sad that her character was brought back just to deepen Thor’s sense of loss.
Those few positive points indicate the issue: the film is at its best in the serious moments, which are too much of a contrast with its otherwise silly atmosphere. Considering how many films and heartaches Thor has been through, writer-director Taika Waititi seems intent on keeping him a goofball, which worked well in Ragnarok, but the constant comedy isn’t as easily sustained here (though admittedly I chuckled at the screaming goats every time). From Thor’s first big scene “saving” an alien shrine by destroying it, he doesn’t act like the veteran hero he should be by this point. That’s just one example of the film’s lack of consistency, which also affects Jane’s story, as when Mjolnir, meant to help Jane fight off the cancer, somehow ends up hurting her instead. Plus, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is barely of use, while the role of stony sidekick Korg (Waititi himself) has been over-promoted to narrator status.
The film’s biggest misstep for me is the second-act visit to Omnipotence City, a realm of gods from across cultures and planets. Considering the first Thor was careful to clarify that Thor and the Asgardians were not actual gods but just wielders of alien powers and advanced technologies, this film muddies the waters enormously and begs the question “What is a god in the MCU?” We see the cowardly Zeus (a meh Russell Crowe), future threat Hercules (Brett Goldstein), and various other deities of all shapes and sizes, so it seems that all “gods” exist in this world except the one God of the Bible, the one that Captain America invoked in The Avengers. Then there’s the fight scene with Zeus’s guards, who leak an excessive amount of gold blood as Thor’s crew battle them. It would be a distressingly gory scene if the blood were red, but does that mean gold blood is a sign of a god? Thor and other Asgardians have shed red blood before, so are they somehow not gods like the others? The whole sequence adds little to the plot, sort of confirms Gorr’s negative opinion of gods in general, and irked me deeply with the questions it raises with no intention of answering them.
Thor: Love and Thunder is a decent superhero film on its own, so I’d probably watch it again, but it’s a glaring failure as a would-be conclusion to at least part of Thor’s story. Many revisions might have buffed out some of the plot flaws, improved the discordant tone, and found better uses for the characters, like the Guardians of the Galaxy who essentially are given a glorified cameo at the beginning, again contrasting with what the end of Endgame seemed to promise. I hope Hemsworth will return as Thor again with a tighter and more serious story, treating this as just a speedbump to something more satisfying. Even if I appreciate what they were going for with this film’s ending, Thor deserves better.
Best line: [Who am I kidding? Of course, it’s the screaming goats.]
(For Day 2 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to write surrealist answers/examples for various words and string them together into a poem. While my answers might be more flowery than surreal, I used the words thunder, mercurial, longing, ghost, miracle, and elusive for the lines below, while also including ties to this rather surreal film.)
A god that sobs when left behind. A wedding ring in a drawer, unworn. A king-size bed, half-cold at night. A margin note for readers unborn. An artifact forgotten yet found. A smile in the eyes to match the mouth. _____________________
MPA rating: R (for violence, sex, and nudity, not constant but rather blatant)
When I saw the trailer for Three Thousand Years of Longing, it was bizarre and bombastic, seemingly in keeping with the director of Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller himself, and I thought that Everything Everywhere All at Once might have a worthy competitor for weirdest film of the year. Yet one must remember that Miller also wrote and produced Babe, so he’s clearly a filmmaker with range. Based on the short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A. S. Byatt, Three Thousand Years of Longing is indeed an odd film, spanning the millennia of a genie’s life, yet it’s far more pensive and wistful even than the trailer might indicate. Yes, there is a scene where a man’s head drips off his body and turns into a giant fly, but that’s more of the exception rather than the rule when it comes to this film’s brand of fantastical.
The framing story belongs to British scholar Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a lonely soul who sees only metaphor in the tales of ancient myth and magic and so is surprised when a huge, wispy figure emerges from a bottle she bought in a Turkish bazaar. It is a Djinn (Idris Elba), and while he desires to grant Alithea the expected three wishes, she is more cautious than most. Instead, she listens to the Djinn’s stories of what brought him to his present bottle, anecdotes of repeated tragic romance, cruel kings, twists of fate, and unwise wishes, all of it leading to the shared bond of their overlapping stories and a wish of her own.
It’s hard to say whether Three Thousand Years of Longing is my kind of movie. This kind of weaving of episodic threads together into universal themes of love and loneliness certainly appeals to me, and Swinton and Elba are a brilliant unlikely pair as they evoke their quiet mutual longing for what seems unreachable. Yet the film also relishes in short bursts of excess, which contrast more with the main plot than the Doof Warrior’s flaming guitar did in Fury Road, and they feel more unnecessary as the plot takes some uncomfortable turns, like a brief section dedicated to a prince’s fetish for an obese harem.
George Miller deserves his label from the trailer as a “mad genius.” The film looks amazing with its stylized flashbacks and lavish production, and yet below all the indulgence, it retains a genuinely emotional core, like the subtle comparison drawn between the Djinn’s centuries of self-soothing trapped in his bottle and Alithea trying to convince herself she’s content being alone. And I was admittedly impressed to learn how much actual Turkish history was incorporated into the narrative. Yes, even the prince with the fat harem (look up Ibrahim the Mad). From its fantastical mixing of history and mythology to its surprisingly tender denouement, Three Thousand Years of Longing may lack cohesion, but it has style and originality to spare, which is becoming increasingly rare these days.
Best line: (Alithea) “Love is a gift. It’s a gift of oneself given freely. It’s not something one can ever ask for.”
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.”
I lost my girl, I lost my job, I lost my status to a mob, So now I’ll simply sit and sob The tears that only I shed.
‘Tis better for me to decease. I guess I won’t renew my lease. I’m done with living; rest in peace. I know I’m better off dead.
I’ll tell myself that no one cares. They shouldn’t be caught unawares When my life’s clearly worse than theirs. I bet they’ll party instead.
I see the headlines: “Loser Gone!” Not much, of course, to write upon. I’m lucky if I’ll get a yawn, Assuming it even is read.
Wait, who’s that girl I just now saw? She smiled at me! I withdraw My claiming of the final straw. I may not be better off dead. ___________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
What have I been up to? Because it certainly hasn’t been movie reviews. While I regret the delay, let’s just say I’m trying to expand my skills from poet to lyricist. 😉 Still, it’s past time for me to return to my Blindspot series. Considering I had never heard of it till fairly recently, Better Off Dead clearly doesn’t have the nostalgic reputation that ‘80s films like Ferris Buelleror Say Anything have, but I dare say it deserves to. This droll John Cusack vehicle has a lot to love, just perhaps a bit rough around the edges.
California high schooler Lane Myer (Cusack) is obsessively in love with his popular girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss), so he doesn’t take it well when she leaves him for a pompous skiing jock (Aaron Dozier). A proven loser with little reason to live, he makes several attempts to end his heartache permanently, though they thankfully always go absurdly wrong. It isn’t until a French exchange student living across the street (Diane Franklin) encourages him that he starts seeking a way to prove himself as more than a suicidal slacker.
In many ways, this movie is like the anti-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with Lane Myer being the perpetual loser in contrast to Matthew Broderick’s born-lucky protagonist, more akin to Ferris’s mopey friend Cameron. Some of the same gags are even inverted, as when an entire math class, minus Lane, eagerly volunteer to answer questions with a comical passion for dull math concepts spouted by the teacher (Vincent Schiavelli). The end of the credits even bears a message saying “the film’s over… you can go now.” Of course, Better Off Dead came out a year before Ferris Bueller, but I doubt there was any actual influence from either, probably.
While the title and description seem to focus on Lane’s suicidal mishaps, that dark humor is actually not as prevalent as you might expect. There are plenty of other recurring gags surrounding his stoner friend (Curtis Armstrong), his ridiculously talented little brother who can follow instructions to accomplish just about anything, the neighborhood’s disturbingly relentless paper boy, and the awkward romantic efforts of the mama’s boy across the street (Dan Schneider), all of which add up into a patchwork of absurdity that gets funnier with time. (Okay, maybe the paper boy gets old after a while.) Not to mention, the most memorable sequences involve surreal injections of animation, as when Lane argues with a drawing of his ex-girlfriend or when he fantasizes about bringing to life a hamburger that sings suspiciously like Eddie Van Halen.
Better Off Dead isn’t always as funny as it tries to be and often lacks cohesion, making it feel like a series of unrelated comedy skits, at least until a plot emerges from the silliness. Still, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it could easily have been a staple in my house if only it would be shown on TV as often as Ferris Bueller was. While critics and Cusack himself were disappointed with the finished film, I admired its game cast (including Kim Darby and an accentless David Ogden Stiers as Lane’s quirky parents) and a sweet ‘80s soundtrack with the likes of Neil Sedaka and Hall and Oates. And by the end, it delivers a surprisingly encouraging romance and message out of the grim premise, making it an uneven but wholly likable teen comedy.
Best line: (Lane) “Gee, I’m real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.”
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.”
What is it about being part of a group That makes one more likely to hate those outside it, To play in one’s mind their offenses on loop, And bask in contempt with no effort to hide it? The more they feel threatened by some other troop, The more they seek violence, and thus justified it.
It’s easy to fall into “us versus them,” To see every slight as a reason for hate, But history’s splattered with vengeful mayhem From tomfools preferring force over debate. Perhaps we can’t grow too far from such a stem, But “love wins,” they say. I suppose I will wait. _____________________________
MPA rating for 1961 film: Approved/PG MPA rating for 2021 film: PG-13
I didn’t expect the strain of NaPoWriMo to result in nearly a month off from blogging, but I’ve had my inspiration focused elsewhere. I’m back on the horse, though, and resurrecting a long-dormant feature: my Version Variations, where I review and compare two different cinematic versions of the same story. Whether it’s the original 1961 film adaptation from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins or Steven Spielberg’s recent remake, West Side Story is a beloved and socially relevant musical that certainly supports multiple tellings.
As much as I pride myself on loving musicals, it may seem odd that I never reviewed the original West Side Story, which is nowhere to be found on my Top 365 list. The simple truth is that I’ve never considered it one of my favorites. Before a recent rewatch for this comparison, I saw it many years ago and mainly remembered that “America” was the best number and the ending was depressing. Of course, it’s based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so of course it would have a sad ending, but that really is the main drawback for me. Intentionally tragic or not, I just don’t enjoy watching a tale that leaves me unsatisfied the way West Side Story does, though that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what comes before said ending.
The original West Side Story won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Picture, back when musicals were prime award material. It was a rather innovative move reimagining the family feud of Romeo and Juliet as a gang war between whites and Puerto Ricans in NYC’s Upper West Side, not to mention Jerome Robbins’ balletic choreography performed by these street punks. Despite not actually being Hispanic, Natalie Wood is a radiant Maria, who falls quickly in love with former Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer), much to the consternation of her brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris, who is also not Hispanic and actually played Riff on the London stage).
I was surprised that I enjoyed the 1961 film a lot more than I remembered. Right from the opening number where the Jets and Sharks trade intimidations, the dance numbers are iconic with their jazzy, avant-garde sensibility. As I recalled, Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning turn as Anita and her iconic song “America” is the highlight of the whole show. As someone who aspires to be a lyricist myself, I have immense respect for Stephen Sondheim and his words, whether it be “America”’s spirited debate on the nation’s virtues and vices or the fun but insightful social commentary of “Gee, Officer Krupke.” There’s so much to appreciate about the film’s romance, story, and musical production, yet it sadly feels fruitless by the tragic end, settling as a commentary for hatred matching hatred, which is worthwhile but far from a satisfying watch. Clearly, a sad ending hasn’t dampened West Side Story’s popularity or legacy, but it does keep it from ranking among my personal favorites.
Unfortunately, that goes for Spielberg’s 2021 remake, which is a shame since I consider it even better than the original in most respects. As good as the 1961 film is, it can’t help but feel dated, while last year’s version boasts a shiny makeover replete with graceful cinematography, colorful costumes, and greater cultural authenticity. Rachel Zegler makes an exceptional debut as Maria, while Ansel Elgort, despite some hate and reviews calling him wooden, is quite likable as Tony, and both flex their acting chops at the right moments. Ariana DeBose followed in Moreno’s footsteps, winning a deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, though I don’t know why her castmates were passed over for similar awards nominations, such as Mike Faist as Riff. Among the many small plot changes made by screenwriter Tony Kushner, I especially liked the addition of Rita Moreno as the widow of Doc (the soda shop owner in the original); she not only brings gravitas and a trace of the original film, but her marriage also serves as a sort of example for Tony of what he and Maria could have if they can overcome the conflict around them.
My VC was skeptical of the few plot changes and rearrangements and still prefers the original, but I think Kushner’s additions make the story even better. The discussion of Tony’s jailtime and his guilt over letting his temper go too far adds to his character and makes his eventual dip into violence less out of character, although his subsequent reunion with Maria is marred by the absence of an actual explanation before she forgives him. Likewise, I appreciated that Tony and Maria are actually able to go on a date to a nearby museum, giving their romance a little more room to grow instead of fifteen minutes in a dress shop in the 1961 film. Likewise, the number “Cool” is after the Rumble in the original and feels rather extraneous, but the 2021 version uses it as a confrontation between Tony and Riff as Tony attempts to prevent the Rumble, which seems like he tried harder than just showing up in the middle of it.
My main beef with the creative choices made was Spielberg’s explicit decision to not subtitle the Spanish dialogue, despite including far more Spanish than its predecessor. He stated this was to avoid “giving English the power over the Spanish.” He may have wanted “to respect the language enough not to subtitle it,” but he should have recognized that much of his audience may not know Spanish, which was frustrating for my VC. Some scenes coast on context and didn’t need subtitles, but others have entire conversations in Spanish that withhold full understanding from English-only viewers. Luckily, I know enough Spanish to keep up, and I don’t mind more of it for authenticity, so long as it doesn’t become a language barrier; I just think it was a poor and politically correct choice on Spielberg’s part.
Still, my criticisms of the newer film are minor objections when I look at how well it renewed a sixty-year-old classic. Last year was honestly a dream for lovers of movie musicals (like me), and it breaks my heart that In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story were all regarded as flops, since their performance might discourage future musical adaptations. Hopefully, Hollywood will just blame COVID and keep up this musical resurgence. There are still upcoming musical adaptations of The Color Purple, Mean Girls, and a two-part Wicked, so there’s hope.
While West Side Story feels like it deserves a place on my List, the ending is strangely a deal breaker for me. I don’t know why this tragic end is worse than sad endings like Grave of the Fireflies or Doctor Zhivago, but I’m just left unsatisfied with the lesson of “hatred breeds more hatred.” I can still appreciate both versions of this classic story and admire them for their obvious strengths. In deciding which is better, most will likely opt for the original, but I’d personally give the remake the edge. From Shakespeare’s time to 1961 to 2021, this story is clearly timeless and a well-deserved musical touchstone.
Best line from 1961 film: (Doc, to the Jets) “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!” (Action) “We didn’t make it, Doc.” Best line from 2021 film: (Riff, in a perfect summation of radicalization) “You know, I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like, and they don’t like me, and you know what’s left out of all of that? The Jets.”
Rank for 1961 film: List Runner-Up Rank for 2021 film: List Runner-Up (darn close to List-Worthy, though)
(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem balancing the gifts you were born with and some kind of curse. I started out with that goal, but I’m not sure the result quite matches the prompt today. Still, in going more general, I think I tapped into why I’m an optimist.)
It’s tempting to wish for a different life, To notice how easy another’s would be. If I were not stuck With such miserable luck… As if the potential were some guarantee.
Yet when I feel like that, beguiled by grief, Envisioning tragedy somehow undone, I catch such a muse, So intent to abuse, And show it each smile from trials I’ve won.
The good that I’ve seen and at least tried to do Could likewise be gone, both the sorrow and gifts. Life’s not simplified Looking on the bright side, But I’ll take what’s true over trading in ifs. ______________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
I can’t seem to find much agreement on whether The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is better or worse than its predecessor. I’ve read reviews that acclaim Andrew Garfield’s charisma when wearing his Spidey suit, and it certainly does have more personality than the somewhat bland first film. Yet I’ve also seen certain scenes mercilessly mocked, like the unresolved ending with Paul Giamatti as a hammy Russian Rhino. Personally, I think the second film does improve on the first, at least in answering some of the lingering questions, and it certainly took guts to put to film one of the most famous and gut-wrenching twists from the comics.
Garfield may still be the third best Peter Parker (sorry!), but he’s still quite a good one, especially alongside Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. Haunted by the dying words of Gwen’s father (Denis Leary), he still fears for her safety, and with good reason as numerous supervillains threaten the city. Like many other nerds-turned-villains, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) starts out idolizing Spider-Man before an accident and a misunderstanding turn him into the vengeful Electro, while Peter’s old pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan as a pale stand-in for James Franco) is spurred by a terminal illness into Green Goblin-hood.
There’s much to enjoy in Garfield’s second outing, from several outstanding action set pieces to the continued winsome chemistry between Peter and Gwen. While the backstory about Peter’s father isn’t the most interesting aspect, it does supply a logical answer to an unspoken question. I like to say that the freak accidents in these movies, like a radioactive spider bite or falling into a tank of electric eels, either kill you or give you superpowers, and there’s a pretty good reason why it was the latter for Peter specifically. The plot is rather long and busy with all the villains and laying the groundwork for future sequels that never materialized (Felicity Jones never gets to do much as Felicia Hardy), but I can appreciate how much this film tries since the first seemed content to be underwhelming.
It’s notable how both Garfield’s series and Tobey Maguire’s run as Spider-Man both ended on rather dour notes. Neither Spider-Man 3 nor Amazing Spider-Man 2 end very happily, so it’s all the better that No Way Home managed to provide some much-needed closure for some of its predecessors’ loose or less-than-satisfying ends. I’m still hoping for more, though, and with the renewed appreciation that No Way Home inspired for Spider-Men past, perhaps we’ll see even more of Garfield’s Peter Parker.
Best line: (Gwen Stacy’s valedictorian speech) “It’s easy to feel hopeful on a beautiful day like today, but there will be dark days ahead of us too. There will be days where you feel all alone, and that’s when hope is needed most. No matter how buried it gets, or how lost you feel, you must promise me that you will hold on to hope. Keep it alive. We have to be greater than what we suffer. My wish for you is to become hope; people need that. And even if we fail, what better way is there to live? As we look around here today, at all of the people who helped make us who we are, I know it feels like we’re saying goodbye, but we will carry a piece of each other into everything that we do next, to remind us of who we are, and of who we’re meant to be.”