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A few reviews

TM2YC

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^ I'm glad it's got it's fans.   I watched Chris Stuckman's 2016 review (who is big anime fan) and he seemed to be similarly underwhelmed.


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The Bling Ring (2013)
Emma Watson (who gives a spot on performance) stars as one of a real life gang of LA school kids who easily committed a spree of thefts totalling millions on celebrity houses after simply ascertaining their whereabouts on social media. It doesn't just blur the line between these vacuous, criminal wannabee-celebrities and their celebrity victims, it positively obscures it.  The film highlights that some of the celebrities they target were also guilty of the same sorts of crimes they were committing, theft, hard drug possession and repeatedly driving under the influence and had done jail time for it.  So it's surprising how many of the celebs Director/writer/producer Sofia Coppola convinced to appear as themselves.  Part of why the thieves could get away with robbing the same mansions repeatedly was because the owners had so many valuables and so much cash stuffed everywhere they were unable to recognise any of it was missing.  Then like the lifestyle of those they were leeching off, the gang are shown openly posting all their activities on social media for clicks, then converting the notoriety into their own celebrity.  Coppola mostly avoids demonising the kids (and sometimes shows them being kind), she simply puts their behaviour out there, shows you the context and leaves you to think on it.  Although some details have dated this to 2010-2013, the social media decent of the last decade has made this feel more relevant now.  Oh and some of the satire is very funny too, especially Watson's character's airy-fairy mum.



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The Dig (2021)
Netflix's 'The Dig' is all impeccably acted and beautifully directed by Simon Stone but I didn't care for the way the story was told.  It recreates the 1939 discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial mound, a game-changing archaeological event.  While some of the runtime is devoted to archaeologist Basil Brown's work (played with great subtlety by Ralph Fiennes), too little of the actual dig is shown and we see mere glimpses of one or two artefacts.  Instead the movie prefers to depict this little known event called "World War Two" (because that's never been show in a British film before!) and a fictional romance between the two fictionalised young and attractive characters, rather than the boring old real archaeologist who is only changing known history.  Stefan Gregory's overbearing soundtrack underlines this misjudgement from the start, scoring a simple opening sequence of a bike ride like it was a space-opera action scene.  He's constantly trying to tell the viewer how exciting archaeology is because I don't believe the film-makers trusted the viewer to think it was.


There are plenty of documentaries to augment the film, so you can watch one of those and just enjoy the performances in 'The Dig' I suppose.

 

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TM2YC said:
Apollo 13 (1995)

220px-Apollo_thirteen_movie.jpg


I've been wanting to re-watch this movie since I saw Damien Chazelle's similarly Apollo-Mission centered 'First Man' last year and happily it popped up on Netflix. This manages a much better balance between the Astronauts in jeopardy and the anguish of their families (we need to see they are worried but not devote half the movie to it). If I had to criticise 'Apollo 13', I think it's almost too well crafted, too expertly formulated and is too successful at manipulating our emotions. Beyond that, it's difficult to fault a movie with an all-star cast of this caliber (Ed Harris has never been better), a rousing score by the late James Horner and a real-life story that could hardly be more dramatic.

Picked this Blu up for $3 (with digital copy!) at Amoeba Music, for my first watch since theaters. It was definitely pretty good, though just a tad on the generic side, in directorial and music terms. The real-life zero-g effects of course totally hold up, and once the story gets going (and it takes a while), it's undeniably gripping, with one problem after another. I was a bit worried about the PG rating, but, happily, there's plenty of mild swearing throughout, so it didn't feel at all sanitized. In terms of Ron Howard vessel-based survival movies, I personally prefer In the Heart of the Sea, but there's no denying this, too, is an amazing story, to which the film very much does justice.

Grade: B+

As for the First Man comparison, I think I prefer First Man, too; it's got a bit more drama, and the lunar payoff is incredible. (Grade: A-) But I'm glad that Apollo 13 took such a straightforward, meat-and-potatoes approach, so Chazelle's later film, which is a prequel of sorts, could be a bit more poetic.
 

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Porco Rosso (1992)
I had high expectations when I first rented 'Porco Rosso' in the late 90s, expecting an Indiana Jones/Biggles type classic "boy's own" adventure but was left underwhelmed.  It is partly in that genre but there is a more serious 'Casablanca' style tone and historical grounding, which I felt was at odds with the addition of the hero being a magically cursed pig man, despite there being no other fantastical elements.  Revisiting it years later, without those misplaced expectations, I very nearly loved it.  I still think the central character would fit better into the film if he was just a man, who is a loner for reasons other than being enchanted but he's an endearing character none the less.  Fio Piccolo his plucky young female mechanic sidekick is a lot of fun.  The seaplane designs are very cool and Porco's plane looks like a real Ferrari of the air, with a few Millennium Falcon flaws.  The amusing sea-pirate gang reminded me a lot of the hapless pirates from Asterix.  The Italian-Fascist backdrop to the drama felt underdeveloped and Porco didn't really go anywhere character wise, he simply gets into a fix over money and gets out of it again using his skills, wit and help from his friends.  Despite those flaws, the romantic atmosphere and airborne heroism is captivating.


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Over the Moon (2020)
As this was a US/Chinese co-production from Netlfix set in China, I took the opportunity of the multiple available audio tracks to switch from the default English to the Cantonese audio (Mandarin is also available), giving the songs a pleasing Cantopop vibe and making the dialogue sound more authentic to the setting (and less annoying).  Years after 14-year old Fei Fei's mother dies, her father intends to marry another woman, who is perfectly nice but Fei Fei resents this "pretender" and her new younger step-brother.  She decides to escape to the moon and meet the goddess Chang'e, by building her own rocket.  The emotional underpinning works beautifully but 'Over the Moon' gets a bit bogged down in random nonsense, pointless action and big bright colours for most of the middle section once Fei Fei gets to the moon.  The quality of the animation easily competes with Pixar, with the benefit of it also being a Disney-style musical.  The Eurovision-esque song and dance number 'Ultraluminary' was my favourite.  I was left really wanting to try some Mooncakes and all the other delicious looking dishes that the family are pictured eating.



They've recorded the film in over 30 languages, as this neat compilation demonstrates, so pick the one you prefer:

 

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TM2YC said:
Porco Rosso (1992)

I like it, it's a long way off my top 5, but it puts Howl' Moving Castle and Ponyo to shame. Solid narrative great aesthetic. I agree it's fantastical elements could very easily be removed and I would probably enjoy it more if they had been.
 

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TM2YC said:
Porco Rosso (1992)
I had high expectations when I first rented 'Porco Rosso' in the late 90s, expecting an Indiana Jones/Biggles type classic "boy's own" adventure but was left underwhelmed.  It is partly in that genre but there is a more serious 'Casablanca' style tone and historical grounding, which I felt was at odds with the addition of the hero being a magically cursed pig man, despite there being no other fantastical elements.  Revisiting it years later, without those misplaced expectations, I very nearly loved it.  I still think the central character would fit better into the film if he was just a man, who is a loner for reasons other than being enchanted but he's an endearing character none the less.  Fio Piccolo his plucky young female mechanic sidekick is a lot of fun.  The seaplane designs are very cool and Porco's plane looks like a real Ferrari of the air, with a few Millennium Falcon flaws.  The amusing sea-pirate gang reminded me a lot of the hapless pirates from Asterix.  The Italian-Fascist backdrop to the drama felt underdeveloped and Porco didn't really go anywhere character wise, he simply gets into a fix over money and gets out of it again using his skills, wit and help from his friends.  Despite those flaws, the romantic atmosphere and airborne heroism is captivating.

I'm loving you going through these older Ghibli films for the first time! You're pretty right about the fantasy elements here... I assume that at that point, Ghibli thought there would be no audience for the film unless it either went fantastical or swung hard to the violence/action direction. This was probably Miyazaki's way to sneak a straight film through to the Japanese audience, but honestly what he really wanted to make was The Wind Rises. I don't think that film would've played the same back in '92. 

When I watched The Wind Rises (which I believe you've already seen?) I couldn't help but think how much of Porco Rosso was in it. Miyazaki clearly is more interested in just portraying the mechanisms of the planes, the various designs, the beauty of flight and the thrill it gives. He presents it here in younger man's way, more thrilling, but later in a more philosophical, almost spiritual way. I don't think he finds a great throughline for the narrative here, whereas he found it later in The Wind Rises, partly by leaning into the war aspect more.

In both, he still seems to divorce himself from the personal responsibility of any Japanese or Italians in the war, instead focusing on what their personal passions and loves are apart from any of the innocent people they may have killed. At least later in The Wind Rises, he didn't outright make an arrogant American antagonist. Making Curtis "good-looking" but an immoral womanizer probably played great in the Bubble Economy of '90s Japan. Like watching post-1997 Chinese films though, it's hard for me not to see political sympathies jumping out as I watch. I'm sure that for kids or anyone politically dis-involved, it's not obvious enough to prevent enjoying the story, though.
 

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^ Yes I have watched The Wind Rises, it's probably my favourite Miyazaki.  Your comparison of the two aviation movies is spot on.  With Porco Rosso re-watched, that's all his films reviewed, viewed or revisited, so I've done a ranked Letterboxd list:

https://letterboxd.com/tm2yc/list/hayao-miyazaki-filmography-ranked/

Although, the order doesn't matter too much because I loved them all and will rewatch them for a 2nd or 3rd time, except Lupin which I probably won't bother revisiting.

Top 5:
1.The Wind Rises 2013
2.Howl’s Moving Castle 2004
3.Kiki’s Delivery Service 1989
4.Castle in the Sky 1986
5.Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind 1984
 

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The Life Ahead (2020)
Edoardo Ponti directs his mother Sophia Loren (her first starring movie in about a decade) as Madame Rosa, an elderly former prostitute and holocaust survivor, who provides childcare for other prostitutes.  A troubled Senegalese street orphan Momo arrives in her home and they form a family bond together with kind hearted transgender prostitute Lola.  Loren is great obviously but I was bowled over by child actor Ibrahima Gueye, who caries most of the film with minimal dialogue and Abril Zamora is delightful as Lola.  I thought 'The Life Ahead' had a Céline Sciamma / 'Tomboy' vibe, which is high praise.  I loved the unexpected euphoric little moments when Momo briefly forgets his pain and distrust by listening to music on his headphones.


The soundtrack has some great Italian rap/rock cuts I hadn't heard before:



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Sputnik (2020)
A terrific little Russian Sci-Fi Horror set in foreboding Soviet era 1983.  A cosmonaut survives a crash landing, bringing an alien lifeform back with him.  Tatyana is a neurophysiologist brought to a clandestine military facility to study the man and the creature.  Oksana Akinshina portrays a wonderfully grave and strong-willed main character.  She's got an anti-authoritarian streak, which perhaps isn't best suited to working in an authoritarian regime.  Considering the tiny budget, the CGI creature FX are first class and genuinely creepy and physically threatening.  Oleg Karpachev's electronic score fills the movie with dread and menace, as do the bleak visuals from Director Egor Abramenko.  There's a nicely done emotional twist at the end, which I didn't see coming, despite clues that were there in your face.


This soundtrack suite is worth a listen:

 

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Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Netflix's 'Pieces of a Woman' is undoubtedly powerfully acted (by Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn) and searing in it's emotional honesty but I wasn't too sure about the way the story was told.  It follows the fallout after a home birth goes terribly wrong, with particular attention on Kirby's character trying to deal with her grief.  It more or less opens with a 24-minute one-shot birth sequence.  Apparently this unedited approach was intended to not influence the viewer's opinion before the trial scenes.  However, since the camera roams around and goes in for many close-ups on faces at key moments, it's almost indistinguishable from a fully edited sequence.  It seems like they wanted to do it in one-take, just so they could say they had.  That showiness is reflected in the choice to start the film with it, when that structurally deprives the viewer of the sense of who these people were before the biggest crisis of their lives tears them apart.  Then the actual trial is over in 2-minutes at the end and I do like a big long courtroom drama.


Babyteeth (2020)
This is the debut feature from Australian Director Shannon Murphy, on the basis of 'Babyteeth' she's an exhilarating new voice in cinema.  Eliza Scanlen (from 'Little Women') stars as Milla, a gravely ill 16-year old, middle-class, schoolgirl with cancer, who forms a strong bond with a chaotic, older, free-spirited, drug addict called Moses.  It's like she knows the next day might be her last, so she wants to spend them with a person who can only care about today.  Milla can't face death until the people in her life have started facing life again.  The way her parents react to Moses and his relationship with their daughter is one of the most fascinating parts, plus it's revealed they have out of control but hidden problems of their own.  They're played with real depth by Essie Davis from 'The Babadook' and the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn.  The humour is wickedly black and the film has an irreverent attitude towards life, death and sentimentality.  The soundtrack is perfect, so is the acting, the direction, everything, one of the best films of the year.


A few of the soundtrack highlights (some new to me). The Sudan Archives track is insanely good:




and this string quartet cover of 'Golden Brown':

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZTjWk8Iqy8[/video]
 

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A double-bill of 2020 Netflix films about ageing bearded men setting off on perilous journeys across a wilderness with a semi-mute young girl...

News of the World (2020)
Director Paul Greengrass takes a left turn from his usual frenetic action thrillers for a sombre Western.  Tom Hanks plays Cpt. Kidd, a predictably noble man who travels the land reading news to paying crowds, when he encounters Johanna, a traumatised orphan girl, after her German/American parents were killed (presumably) by a Native American raiding party and they've raised her.  So Kidd determines to take Johanna home to her relatives and try and communicate with her using a smattering of English, German and Kiowa.   Their journey is mostly slow, gentle and contemplative but with episodes of action and danger that feel put in there to periodically spice it up a bit, although they also serve to make our two heroes form a bond in the face of adversity.  It's obvious from the premise how the story has to end, so the slowness of the final act to get round to that inevitable conclusion is a little frustrating.  However, it's still very heart-warming after you've spent an hour or two on the road with these two damaged souls.  12-year old German actor Helena Zengel's performance has an otherworldly maturity.


The Midnight Sky (2020)
Some of the last humans alive, a scientist in the arctic and a craft returning from Jupiter struggle to make contact.  If you get the feeling "Wait, did I miss something?" because you don't know what the disaster that has befallen Earth is, or what George Clooney's character's terminal illness is, or how Jupiter suddenly has a new 100% habitable/breathable moon, you didn't, they never get explained.  The tone and pacing of the movie is way off, shifting from contemplations of oblivion and perilous EVA dangers, to a sudden jolly sing-along and then back again.  The two plot lines, Clooney on earth and the crew in space get increasingly out of step, 'til Clooney disappears from the movie for a good while.  Although, the vision of fairly believable/grounded, near-future space tech is absorbing, particularly the organic lines of the spaceship interior and the zero-g blood scene is something unique, tragic yet beautiful.  Also the familial interplay between the ship's crew felt authentic.

 

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The Boys in the Band (1970)
I was a bit horrified when I put the blu-ray on and instantly recognised that director William Friedkin had applied the same godawful blurred desaturated digital process to this, that he had to 'The French Connection's much derided 2009 transfer.  Unlike that other famous movie which was fixed in 2012 after an outcry from cinephiles, this more obscure movie still looks like sh*t in 2021.  It looks so bad I was tempted to shut it off and find an old DVD copy but the performances and writing are strong enough that I got absorbed in the film despite the presentation.  It helped to remove my glasses so I couldn't see it in too much detail! :D

'The Boys in the Band' is an adaptation of Mart Crowley's 1968 off-Broadway play, he serves as producer and scriptwriter.  Unusually, all the cast from the original play were cast in the film version as well.  It takes place almost entirely inside the Manhattan apartment of Michael, who is hosting a birthday party for Harold and all their gay friends.  The party goes off the rails when Michael's former college room-mate Alan arrives, who is presumably straight, doesn't know Michael is gay but who perhaps is in the closet himself.  His presence reveals fault lines between the outrageously camp Emory and the smooth, pipe-smoking "passes for straight" Hank and exposes relationship problems between the couples and repressed feelings of self-hatred.  Another source of drama is a telephone party-game that Michael insists on, where they all have to ring the person they truly love.  With it being set in one place it can't help but feel like a play but Friedkin puts so much energy into the editing and direction, shooting from every conceivable angle and keeping the characters moving. The dialogue is fast paced, overlapping, theatrical and full of witty word play and acidic put downs.  So much so that you probably miss half of it.  Apparently it's thought to be the first mainstream American film to say "c*nt"... and many, many times.  I was most impressed by the subtle Hank performance but it wasn't until he has his big monologue towards the end when I realised it was a young Laurence Luckinbill, Sybok from 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier'.



The Boys in the Band (2020)
This 2nd adaptation of the 1968 play is quite similar, in that it sticks fairly closely to the same text but is the faintest shade inferior.  It looks a lot glossier lighting wise and has a vignette placed over almost the whole film which was distracting and artificial.  The cast are all excellent (again reprising their roles from the play), some slightly better than the original 1970 cast, some not quite.  The pace of the dialogue is much less frenetic at the start, so I actually caught some important foreshadowing and forewarning lines which I'd missed in the 1970 version.  The voluminous camp of Emory is toned way down and so is some of the racial language he uses with Bernard, both of which I thought took some of the sting out of his role in driving the plot.  The decision to feature short very literal flashbacks (and a coda) showing what is already described in the dialogue was a mistake, as it dissipates some of claustrophobic tension of this one-room play.  I'm nitpicking really because there isn't that much too choose quality wise between the 1970 and 2020 versions.  If like me, you'd rather watch a genuine period piece go for the first adaptation but if you want something more slick and tailored for a modern audience, opt for this Netflix version.  Oh and this version also features a Star Trek actor, another Vulcan, Zachary Quinto.


The Boys in the Band: Something Personal (2020)
A companion doc for the 2020 version of 'The Boys in the Band'.  It touches on the reation of the original play, the people who inspired it, the creator Mart Crowley, the new play and of course the film version of it.  There is also some interesting reflection on how the world has changed (or not) in the 50-years since the play came out (pun intended).  This would make a great primer before watching the film, if you're unfamiliar with the historical context.

 

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Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
The 26% on Rotten Tomatoes which this new Netflix movie has received seems harsh.  It's all round well acted, particularly the understated main actor Gabriel Basso (who is new to me) and I usually like a movie with a flashback structure.  It's based on the memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance, who we meet in the film having to drive back to his roots in rural Kentucky, from his course at Yale, when is mother ODs on heroin.  The places and people of his childhood trigger memories happy and sad.  The ending doesn't really work because J. D. just ends up reaffirming a decision he's implicitly already made years before we join the story.  This seems to have been criticised for being Hollywood looking down on "hicks" but I thought it felt like an authentic portrayal, unlike another recent Netflix movie 'The Prom', which really does have a sneering view of small-town folk.  'Hillbilly Elegy' definitely is "Oscar bait" as they say but it's better than most examples.



The Prom (2020)
I reluctantly watched this one for awards season completeness only.  I took a dislike to Netflix's musical 'The Prom' almost immediately, some of the upbeat songs began winning me back round towards the end but it was too late.  It's supposed to be a musical satire of a bunch of deluded celebrities talking down to small-town America but it comes off as exactly that in reality, without any self-awareness.  The "yokels" are of course into monster trucks, universal homophobia and think an Applebee's is fine-dining.  The setup involves the fallout when a lesbian couple simply want to go to their own school prom but every other member of their community (the school principle being the only exception) is fanatically opposed to the idea, to the point of organising a cruel trick of pure evil... but not so opposed that they can't all have their minds changed instantly for a happy ending!  As you'd expect, James Corden is annoying and Meryl Streep acts her socks off but the only real highlight for me was 'The Boys in the Band's Andrew Rannells, he can act, sing, dance, he's just an all-round charismatic, talented guy.  His big number 'Love Thy Neighbor' is a concise but wonderfully well argued statement on religious (in)tolerance, although it's a bit naive to think you can change the minds of hypocritical nasty characters with simple logic.  I hated Kerry Washington's selfish character far more than the level of hate you were supposed to feel for her.  It was very odd that there is one character who is standing in a lot of scenes with no lines, like they were all cut?  Ryan Murphy throws as much colour at you as he can to cover for his generally bland direction.  This leads to the visual and story mismatch of portraying a supposedly backwater town, like it was glitzy Las Vegas.  I'll admit the finale is heart-warming, positive and uplifting if you go with it, even if some of the forgiveness isn't properly earned.


The most successful song in the movie:

 

mnkykungfu

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TM2YC said:
The "yokels" are of course into monster trucks, universal homophobia and think an Applebee's is fine-dining.

Ouch, I feel attacked. lol Seriously, you just described the majority of my hometown, sadly.

People put WAY too much stock in Rotten Tomatoes. I think it's widely misunderstood by most people (not saying by you). The percentages only indicate what percent of critics liked it more than not, but gives no indication about how MUCH they liked it. Technically, a film could have a 100% Fresh rating.... and mean that all of the critics were lukewarm on it. Honestly, even IMDB's scores tell you more about how much people liked or movie or not, but I'd prefer Metacritic until something better comes along. Oh, and also critical reviews are mostly BS. So there's that.
 

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mnkykungfu said:
TM2YC said:
The "yokels" are of course into monster trucks, universal homophobia and think an Applebee's is fine-dining.

Ouch, I feel attacked. lol Seriously, you just described the majority of my hometown, sadly.

To be clear, I was describing what the movie's attitude was, not my own. I'm from a somewhat provincial place but I only went to one monster truck show growing up! :D

mnkykungfu said:
People put WAY too much stock in Rotten Tomatoes.

As long as you know what it means, it can be a good indicator. e.g. most critics thought it was below average, which I think is harsh but that most critics agreed on that, tells you something about the general meh-ness of the movie.
 

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Rocky II (1979)
'Rocky II''s only major problem is it having the same 2-hour length as the first.  For what feels like a natural extension of the first story, which introduces no new characters, it should have aimed for 90-minutes like the rest of the sequels.  The scene where Rocky runs with 800 school kids does feel uplifting and joyous as intended but it's an early hint that maybe director/writer Sylvester Stallone doesn't know where the line of credibility is with this franchise.  Plus Stallone looks in noticeably less good shape, he still looks tough but not chiselled enough standing next to competitor Carl Weathers.  Those flaws aside, this recaptured the spirit of the first, aided by Bill Conti's stirring music.  Rocky is such an adorable childlike doofus.  I loved the line when he's advised to invest in Condominiums and he shyly replies "Er... ah... I don't use 'em".  If you're one of those people that complains about "overpowered" characters then Rocky is your man.  He's not the brightest and like in the first movie, he's not even presented as a particularly exceptional boxer, he's just a bottomless well of pigheaded determination.  Him trying to learn how to read before his son is born was so endearing.  With characters as rich as Rocky and his friends, you don't even need the boxing, their struggles were dramatic enough.


Rocky III (1982)
'Rocky III' begins by using his own training montage against him, intercutting Rocky getting softer and more pampered by celebrity life, against hungry newcomer Clubber Lang (Mr. T) getting tougher.  In opposition to that premise, Sylvester Stallone's muscles once again look absolutely cut.  The music for the montage is Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger' which really gets the heart pumping.  The Hulk Hogan match at the start was a bit silly and unnecessary.  Talia Shire is sadly relegated to almost a background character.  The scene where she and Rocky shout at each other on the beach was badly directed by Stallone.  They both start at a 10, so end up raising the volume of their argument to a ludicrous extreme by the end.  Rocky is beginning to be more of a standard heroic champion, that mumbling, motor mouthed, nervousness I liked is not there.  One consistent character is uncle Paulie, he's just as much of a bigoted, skeezy, slob as before.  The beach running scene is unintentionally and comically homoerotic.  What? You can't have a slowmo scene of two grown men, stripped down to their glistening muscles and cut-off t-shirts, frolicking and embracing in the ocean spray?  Seriously though, Rocky and Apollo's new found friendship and respect for each other is well played and Mickey's death is genuinely emotional.  Despite some issues, this sequel is very entertaining.

 

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Can I mention again how hyped I am to see someone going back and rewatching the franchise?  :D
Rocky II is actually my favorite of the series. Name another sequel that doesn't feel the need to introduce new villains or magnify stakes but instead just digs deeper into the original's characters and extant drama.... I'm hard-pressed to think of one. I love this video where a pro-boxer talks about the realism in Rocky (and the series):
He discusses exactly what you said where Rocky in every single film is at a disadvantage compared to his opponent. He doesn't have the best of any particular thing, except that he's got the most guts and determination and heart. He's a guy that you'd literally have to kill standing in the ring, which is what Adrian is afraid of. It might seem like a trope, but pro-boxers talk all the time about how important that drive is, and it's the great strength of Rocky II.

Rocky III on the other hand is my least favorite. It's like 80% montages and while it has the best (cheesiest) music and is the funniest, it is also the most ridiculous and cringiest. Carl Weathers had become too nice and respectable and so the film really leans into Black Threat and black panic in some unfortunate ways with Clubber Lang.
It buys into that old stereotype of black men being a sexual menace to white men's wives/girlfriends, and the way he talks is meant to showcase him as the "scary black man" to Weathers' passe Muhammed Ali-character. Even in the 90s, I felt it didn't date well (though the relationship developments in the film are definitely a high point.)
 

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A 2020 Spike Lee double bill...

Da 5 Bloods (2020)
The Vietnam war movie genre has such a pedigree and the gold standard was set by 'Apocalypse Now' in which Francis Coppola was basically directing his own private army.  Yeah that had 2 or 3 times the budget of 'Da 5 Bloods' but even so, why does it look so cheap? When adjusted for inflation, Lee had two-thirds of the budget of the epic scale 'The Deer Hunter' and over double the budget of 'Platoon' (both 'Best Picture' winners), 5 times the budget of John Woo's insane Vietnam movie 'Bullet in the Head' and 6 times the budget of one of my favourite nam films 'Bat*21', which all feature real helicopters, planes, tanks, explosions, actual weaponry, massive napalm drops, blood squibs everywhere and zero visFX.  Where as the muzzle flashes and digital blood sprays in 'Da 5 Bloods' look like amateur plug-in FX.  The one time Spike Lee goes with practical FX was unintentionally and hilariously bad.  A character steps on a mine (which you can see coming a mile off) and ends up looking like Mr.Creosote from Monty Python after one too many "wafer thin mints".  I'm glad I didn't see this in a cinema because I spontaneous burst out laughing and if others were finding it horrific and tragic (as intended by the film-makers) it would've been quite awkward.  Like in 'BlacKkKlansman', Lee fails to make the political points he wants in the script, so falls back on news footage to make them instead but it's not just confined to a tacked-on ending this time, here he also cuts to newsreels and still photos at any and every opportunity mid-scene.  In a few places the script doesn't even bother to stick to it's own internal logic, e.g. the whole premise was partly about bringing a soldier's body home but they leave a different soldier's body on the battlefield anyway.

The messing around with aspect ratios was irritating and the score by the usually excellent Terence Blanchard was overbearing and felt disconnected from the action on screen.  I did love the interweaving of several tracks from Marvin Gaye's classic album 'What's Going On', perfectly in tune with mood and story.  The decision to have the old actors play themselves as younger men in the flashbacks was an odd one.  Sometimes it works when it's a dream or a nightmare but when it's just "previously on..." it looks distracting.  Not going down the digitally de-aged route is perhaps understandable given how bad the single de-aged frame looks at the end of the film.  Delroy Lindo gives the standout performance as the most psychologically tortured of the squad, although Lee's decision to have him talk straight to camera in some later scenes was overplayed.  The reason for Lindo's trauma was obvious from the start because an important part of the backstory is always avoided until the "surprise twist".  Hearing Isiah Whitlock Jr. say "Shiiiiiiiiiiiiit" again was worth the watch alone.  Like many Spike Lee films, 'Da 5 Bloods' tries to make a lot of points and has a lot of ideas but only half of them really connect. Plus at 2.5 hours it feels very long.



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David Byrne's American Utopia (2020)
I was counting down the days 'til this came out on blu-ray and it did not disappoint. Spike Lee does an amazing job of capturing David Byrne's 'American Utopia' live show (I wish I'd seen it).  He shoots from every angle in a way that (almost) always feels perfectly in sympathy with what Byrne and co are doing.  Byrne merges music, performance art, politics and avant-garde dance into one beautiful expression.  Byrne has always done those things but never in such a seamless union.  All the performers work barefoot, with no wires.  It's supposed to look simplistic and unadorned, which hides the amount of effort they are really going into.  They've got little beads on their shoulders to track the lighting and the sweat patches on their suits at the end betray how hard they are working through those serene smiles.  The way the lyrics to all the songs coalesce and echo each other is clever considering they're drawn from all stages of Byrne's career.  As good as the songs are, Byrne's witty spoken observations on life and modern America which bridge the music are the best bits.  The empty stage is a box, a house, a TV screen and the simple chain backdrop is a curtain, a waterfall, static and a sky of stars.  If I had to find one fault, it seemed obvious to me the couple of times Spike Lee had inserted his own ideas into Byrne's performance.  They have a one dimensional and confrontational bluntness that the rest of the subtle, celebratory and thoughtful show did not.  Of course I might be wrong and they were all Byrne's ideas?  I can't imagine anybody not falling in love with this film, it might be my favourite of the last 12-months.  Thanks Spike Lee for capturing this show for all of us to watch forever!  I liked it so much that I literally rewatched it the instant it finished, then I ripped the blu-ray stereo audio track and made my own soundtrack so I could listen to it when I didn't have a TV to hand!

 

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^Interesting to hear a somewhat contrarian opinion on 'Da 5 Bloods'... it initially looked like a Pass to me because "'Da 5 Bloods' tries to make a lot of points and has a lot of ideas but only half of them really connect. Plus...it feels very long." perfectly describes every Spike Lee movie I've seen so far. Even his short films feel long when I watch them. Yet this film has been on nearly every best-of list this year. I feel like critics have guilt for Lee doing things they want to like for so long and getting relatively few awards.
 

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The Imagineering Story (2019, Disney+)

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The Imagineering Story is a six-part documentary series on the Disney Imagineers, yes, but also the business and societal histories of the Disney theme parks as a whole. As such, it's inevitably kind to the company, and especially the legend of benevolent Uncle Walt, but there's also a healthy amount of balance and self-reflection, especially in the middle two episodes focusing on Michael Eisner's financially succesful but artistically mixed tenure. And even when the happy talk threatens to become suffocating, there's always another bit of vivid file footage, animated blueprint, or amusing anecdote on hand. (Perhaps my favorite is how they built air conditioned outdoor rocks in Florida's zoo-park to encourage the lions to lounge on a particularly picturesque spot from the visitors' perspectives.)

Alas, the final two episodes shift to current CEO Bob Iger's tenure, and become much more blandly anodyne, especially when waxing rhapsodically about how wonderful it is that Disney and Xi Jinping's government were able to get along for their Shanghai venture. So, that last third is strictly optional, but the first two-thirds are fantastic. If you've got a Disney+ subscription, by all means give it a try.

Episodes 1-4: A-
Episode 5: B-
Episode 6: C+
Series grade overall: B+
 

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Only Yesterday (1991)
Isao Takahata's 2nd Studio Ghibli entry follows 27-year old Tokyo resident Taeko on a trip to a rural village to help with their harvest.  On the sleeper train journey she begins to recall herself and her family when she was 10, some memories are warm and nostalgic, some are painful.  As the film goes on she processes these memories and thinks how they have shaped the adult she has become.  I loved the way the backgrounds in the flashbacks were done in feint watercolours, with the edges disappearing into a white vignette, it was hazy and dreamlike. I was only half engaged with the low-key story but it ends very strongly with a montage set to a Japanese language cover of the title track from the 1979 film 'The Rose' (originally by Bette Midler).


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Pom Poko (1994)
At first I thought this was going to simply be a Studio Ghibli 'Watership Down' but it's more strange than that.  The original title is 'Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko' which translates as "Heisei-era Raccoon-Dog War Ponpoko".  The Heisei-era being 1989-2019 but specifically the rapid economic growth of the then present day 90s, Tanuki being Japanese raccoon dogs (not to be confused with the North American Raccoon) and Pom Poko/Ponpoko being the sound they are reputed to make by drumming on their bellies, according to Japanese folklore.  They are also supposed to have shapeshifting abilities, which is the main focus of the story, as a group of Tanuki train their young warriors in the art of shapeshifting, to fight a resistance terror war against the humans who are destroying their habitat.  Their campaign ranges from playful tricks like creating doppelgangers and fake ghosts to scare the humans away, to actually killing them.  The successes and failures of this campaign are chronicled in a very serious sounding, history documentary style voice-over.  The group aren't all of one mind, some factions are extremists and some are pragmatists.  The Tanuki are animated in 3 distinct styles, depending on their behaviour, as totally realistic animals silently observing the humans, as mischievous anthropomorphic two-legged, talking creatures and as highly stylised childlike cartoons.  After seeing western animation, it's a bit distracting to see all the animals drawn with boobs and balls (which is accurate to the folklore deceptions).  The latter of which, they have the power to enlarge and stretch out to use as weapons, or even to make ships out of.  I spent most of the 2-hours trying to understand what I was seeing, so I was certainly fascinated with the film but it's difficult to say how much I enjoyed it.

 

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^Isn't Pom Poko balls-out crazy!? I kinda love it for how obtuse it is. At the time it was being made, the Tama City development which is actually name-checked in the film was a legit thing that some people were concerned about. Japanese people actually don't think very deeply about environmental issues though (despite the Western stereotype), and this was Ghibli's call-to-action to realize the impact that such development has on animals. The tanuki (raccoon dogs) were chosen as sympathetic protagonists because they're borderline sacred animals in Japan, and much loved as guardian spirits of fertility, good times, and business (<--- they prevent fires, a huge risk in Japanese wooden architecture... they are renowned for flying through the air on their inflatable ball sacks, and then pissing on fires to put them out!!) I think the animation style changes were a deliberate choice to make the audience not dissociate and just think these are cute characters, but to remember these are actual animals they could see out their windows. Sadly, Pom Poko was only a middling hit and didn't have the desired cultural impact. The Tama development became huuuuge and has actually expanded to become a tri-city mini-megalopolis in outer Tokyo.
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That ending to Only Yesterday is pretty remarkable, isn't it? I remember watching thinking "I wish there'd been more of this within the film!" I wasn't crazy about the story, tbh...but it's the kind of story that a section of a humble, introverted Japanese audience says "YES...somebody is finally telling my story!" To me, the art is a bridge between Takahata's earlier My Neighbors The Yamadas (which I can't stand) and his later The Tale of Princess Kaguya. That film is a complicated one that I tried to unpack on Letterboxd, but overall this watercolor art style doesn't do much for me. There are brief flashes of brilliance in Kaguya which hints that he was starting to figure out how to incorporate it into an emotional narrative... but sadly we'll never see the film he would've made where he finally got it firing on all cylinders.
 
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