Stranger Things

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

And if ever there was a work of art that could only be described as “nostalgia porn,” it would have to be the new Netflix original series, Stranger Things. Set during the 80s, in a fictional town in Indiana, the show follows an ensemble cast as they deal with the disappearance of a young boy, and a number of strange and horrifying events at night. It features a ton of 80s music, pop culture references, and nods to the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. It’s basically just the show runners’, Matt and Ross Duffer’s, big love letter to the Reagan era. Which is fine for two men going through a mid-life crisis, but does it make for good television?
Well, with such a lackluster title, and unoriginal premise, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t enthusiastic about watching this series at all. Now, however, having actually sat down and binged the entire show, I can tell you, I was 100% wrong about Stranger Things. This is one of the best shows on Netflix, and that’s saying a lot, when you consider that the likes of Breaking Bad, Master Of None, Orange Is The New Black, Lost, and Broadchurch are also available on the streaming service.
But what makes this show so good, you ask? The writing. Hands down, it’s the best part of this series. Every character is so fleshed out and well-rounded, that you can’t help but fall in love with them. And that’s saying a lot, when you consider that, on the surface, most of these characters are archetypes. You’ve got the drunken police chief with a troubled past, the strong, but struggling single mother, the rebellious teenage daughter, the bland boy protagonist and his two token friends, token fat kid and token black kid, and many others. And yet, the filmmakers were able to give these characters enough good dialogue, enough personality traits, and enough scenes where they grow and develop that you can’t help but love them. And the acting, especially of the four main kids–Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Eleven–is very impressive. Their performances are easily the best part of this series. Caleb McLaughlin, whom plays Lucas, especially impressed me. I could easily see him going on to become a big star, and play main roles like that of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Seriously. His character is the cynical loner of the group. he’s got lots of gadgets and gizmos. He gets into lots of arguments with his friends about being “naive” and “overly optimistic.” He really is the Batman of this world’s mini Justice League, and I’d love it if he went on to play the Dark Knight in the real JLA. Now, of course, no one can say for certain whether he will, or even whether he’ll continue to act after this series ends, but the bottom line is, he’s great, and I loved watching him.
Now, of course, no work of art is without its flaws, and Stranger Things certainly has a few. One is Winona Ryder. She plays the mother of the boy who’s gone missing, and is the one who gets top billing on all the advertisements. She’s also the most annoying character in the whole show. I understand that her son has gone missing, and that she’s under a lot of psychological stress, but there’s barely a scene in this series where she’s not crying, or speaking in a really shaky voice. And that really starts to grate on your nerves after a while. On top of this, the show fails the Bechdel test. Hard. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a game you play when watching a movie or TV show. It consists of you asking three questions; 1) is there more than one female character? 2) Do these female characters talk to each other? And 3) About something other than a man? If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” then the movie is progressive and unique in its portrayal of women. If not, well, you get what most Hollywood productions are. And, sadly, Stranger Things, as good as it is, doesn’t allow it’s female characters to talk about topics other than men, so, no new ground being broken there. And that brings me to my last gripe with the series, it’s damn near fetishization of the past. See, every few years, a movie or TV show will come out that really romanticizes a certain time period. For years, the era that everyone seemed determined to drool over was the 1950s. Back To The Future, Diner, Stand By Me, these are just a few of the movies that basically serve as love letters to this decade. And while each of these films is great, and the people who worked on them are all very talented, the pictures themselves very often neglect to portray the negative aspects of that time period. The 1950s were when Jim Crow segregation was at its strongest. They were the decade before the women’s liberation movement. They were an era when people lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, and when “the red scare” led to thousands of innocent, or simply liberal-minded, people losing their jobs and getting blacklisted. So, yeah. The 50s were a simpler time, provided that you were a straight, white, heterosexual Christian male, with an Anglo-Saxon last name, and a near blinding level of patriotism coursing through your veins. Nowadays, we recognize this fact, and so we have decided to fetishize another era; the 1980s. Tons of YouTube personalities, like the Nostalgia Critic, the Angry Video Game Nerd, and Linkara, have made videos tributing the films and pop culture of this era. Stranger Things does this as well. But what they all fail to recognize is that the 80s weren’t perfect either. Homophobia was at a record high due to fear of AIDS and HIV. Crack cocaine was everywhere. And let’s not forget a little group in Afghanistan called the Mujahideen (aka the Taliban) that America felt the need to support in their fight against the Soviets. Yes, it’s cool to see a work of art reference things like Risky Business, and John Carpenter’s The THing. But it should at least acknowledge that the time period in which those movies and songs came out was imperfect.
Still, with all that said, I did really enjoy Stranger Things, and have decided to give it an 8 out of 10. Please, please watch it! I promise you, it will be worth your time.

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Pawn Sacrifice

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu is the Name, And views Are My Game.

Hey kids, did you know that, once upon a time, people actually cared about chess? No, I’m not shitting you! Back in the 1970s, when America was determined to beat the Soviets at everything, there was a real surge in chess’s popularity. That was because a young man named Bobby Fischer managed to beat the Russian Grand Master, Boris Spassky, and, in so doing, gave the American people something to brag about. The story of how he did this, as well as how he coped with his inner demons, is what is told in Pawn Sacrifice, the latest film from director Edward Zwick, and star Tobey Maguire.

And it’s terrible. Yeah. I wish I could be more subtle, more nuanced, but that’s the fact of the matter. It’s terrible.

Now, before any of you say anything, I want to be clear that there are aspects of this film that work. The costumes, sets, and especially the fake news broadcasts, are all beautiful, and help to bring the film’s time period to life. The news broadcasts are actually what I loved most about this movie. They give you a real sense for how big a deal this match was, as well as what technology was like back then. On top of this, Tobey Maguire is truly hypnotic as the unhinged chess champ, Bobby Fischer.

But, alas, none of this is enough to save this film from its weak script. To put it bluntly, this movie just isn’t interesting. And it’s not because it’s about people playing chess. The End Of The Tour and The Social Network are movies about writers and website designers, neither of whom are the most exciting groups in the world. And yet, these films still managed to be critical and commercial successes. Why? Because they had fleshed out characters and engaging narratives. Pawn Sacrifice has an interesting premise, but completely flat characters. Every line of dialogue they speak is either exposition, or stuff that will move the plot forward. We’re never given a scene where someone simply sits down, and talks to someone else about food, or art, or anything unrelated to politics and chess. Because of this, they never feel like real people, and we never feel any urge to care about them. Seriously! About 40 minutes into this movie, I completely tuned out. I pulled out my i-pad, and watched the music video for Rania’s “Dr Feel Good.” I was more concerned with why a K-pop girl group was wearing dominatrix outfits than I was with the movie I was watching. That’s not good. Movies, first and foremost, are supposed to entertain you. They’re supposed to suck you in. Pawn Sacrifice does neither of those things. It fails to do the very thing that it was created for. On top of this, as much as I like the news broadcasts, they also kind of take something away from the narrative. They tell us how we’re supposed to think and feel. They tell us how big a deal the Cold War is. They tell us how people in the world are responding to Bobby Fischer. We never actually see people living in fear of nuclear annihilation, or espionage. Because of this, we’re kept at a perpetual distance from the story and its characters. They’re not real to us, because we’re never allowed to see or feel what they feel, only hear it. A good film will SHOW you the climate and environment of its story. A perfect example of this is the first few minutes of the movie Hunger. Set during the Troubles in Ireland, the film’s opening scenes have absolutely no dialogue, and yet, we learn so much from them. We see a man looking under his car, and over his shoulder. We see the cuts and bruises on his knuckles when he goes to take a smoke. We gather from this that he lives in a world of constant and unpredictable danger, and that his daily routine is fraught with violence. It’s so obvious to us, and yet, we’re not told a single word. That kind of subtlety doesn’t exist in Pawn Sacrifice, and the movie really suffers as a result.

Guys, I’m not going to waste any more of your time. Pawn Sacrifice is a boring, poorly written, overly obvious piece of junk. 5 out of 10. Don’t watch it.

Hot Fuzz

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Explosions, quips, and buckets upon buckets of blood, these are just a few of the things found in Hot Fuzz, a satirical cop film directed by Edgar Wright. The story of Nick Angel, a London Police Officer way too good at his job, the film chronicles his reassignment to a remote village in the British countryside, his interactions with the local community, and his attempts to solve the mystery surrounding a number of suspicious deaths. This is a movie that I’ve heard about for years. Everyone I’ve ever talked to ever has stated that this is one of the greatest cop spoofs ever made. And now, having seen it, I can kind of understand why. Kind of.

See, the movie is funny, and it does do a great job of sending up old buddy cop films from the 80s and 90s, but there are points where it gets excessive. And I don’t mean it gets excessive in that it takes its jokes too far, or becomes mean-spirited. What I mean is that, the filmmaking itself–the editing, the cinematography–is just plain over-the-top, and gets kind of annoying after a while. There are numerous points in this film where the director will try to make something mundane, like Nick doing paperwork, look awesome. He’ll include lots of cuts, a booming baseline, and crazy, over-the-top lighting to make it seem more dramatic. The thing is, all the constant cutting, coupled with the flashing lights and loud music, actually makes these scenes kind of hard to watch. There were moments where I actually had to close my eyes because of how much it hurt to look at the screen. On top of this, the movie is only a minute over the two hour mark, but you really feel that minute. The final fight scene in this movie is almost 30 minutes long, and it just gets exhausting to watch after a while. There are so many points where you think it’s ended, but, oh no, the filmmakers had to throw in one more joke, one more homage. By the time it’s all over, you’re breathing a sigh of relief. Which is sad, because the first half of this movie was really awesome. The jokes were constant, and really funny. There were lots of cameos by British actors I love, like Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman and Underworld’s Bill Nighy. And, as you might expect from the likes of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the dialogue and writing were both very strong. I just think the film went too far in the third act, and that kind of diminished my enjoyment of the picture as a whole.
So, in the end, I do think Hot Fuzz is a funny, clever send-up of old buddy cop action movies. However, it does go a little overboard towards the end, and that could act as a deterrent for some. Still, I have to applaud the number of times it made me laugh, as well as the homages and cameos. So, in the end, I’d say Hot Fuzz is a solid 7 out of 10. Not the best, but still quite good.

Empire Of Passion

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu is the Name, And Views Are My Game.

What would you do for someone you loved? Would you fight? Would you die? Would you kill? These are a few of the questions that director Nagisa Oshima attempts to answer in his erotic horror film, Empire Of Passion.

The story of a married woman, Seki, and her much younger lover, Toyoji, murdering her husband, and subsequently getting haunted by his ghost, the movie is at once glorious, and completely awful. The eerie soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography, and exquisite use of light and fog make it a feast for the eyes, and a truly unnerving audio-visual experience. There are no jump scares, there’s absolutely no gore, and yet, I found this film considerably more frightening than half the horror movies that get made today. Seriously. There’s one scene in here where a rickshaw wheel starts spinning for no reason, and I swear, it sent shivers up and down my spine. So, from a purely technical standpoint, this movie is perfect. From an acting and story standpoint, well, not so much.

As I said before, writer/director Nagisa Oshima attempts to explore the psychology of tormented and homicidal love in this film, but does not succeed. The characters tell us that they’re in love. They tell us that they’ll do anything for each other. But we don’t buy it. Their relationship is based solely on sex, and even that is a little bit sketchy. What I mean by that is, we see Seki and Toyoji innocently flirting at the start of the film, but then, 20 minutes later, we see Toyoji more or less rape her in front of her infant son. Seriously! We clearly hear her say the words “no,” “don’t,” and “stop” multiple times, so it’s obviously not a consensual encounter. We also see shots of the baby crying, and reaching out for his mother while this is happening, which is just plain messed up. And yet, rather than be traumatized by this attack, or want to kill Toyoji, Seki says that she loves him afterwards, and that she’s willing to murder for him. The hell, man? Oh, and speaking of the murder, the reason that they end up doing that is beyond bizarre. In one scene, and I swear I’m not making this up, Toyoji is going down on Seki, and says “I’m going to shave you.” He does so, and then, after their done, he says, “Yeah, you’re husband is going to notice the difference, so we need to kill him.” Are you kidding me? Why the hell would you do that, then? Or was your whole plan to do something that would force Seki to agree to kill her husband? Either way, they end up strangling the husband, and dumping him into a well, and the rest of the film devolves into a series of repeating scenes. What I mean by that is, the same four scenes, Seki getting scared by the ghost of her husband, Seki crying to Toyoji, only to have him be an asshole to her, Seki and Toyoji sleeping together, and subsequently saying that one should leave before it’s too late, and Seiki and Toyoji’s neighbors gossiping about them, happen over and over again. And, trust me, they get really old, really fast. I can understand having these scenes happen once, to get the point across, but don’t do it over and over again. That’s just repetitive and annoying.

So, in the end, I don’t know what kind of grade to give this movie. It’s a well-shot, truly unnerving atmospheric horror film with some great scares. But, at the same time, the characters are either dumb or unlikable, the plot gets extremely repetitive after a while, and the acting is bad. Seriously. The woman who plays Seki seems to believe that if you cry and scream at the top of your lungs, that somehow makes a great character. I don’t know if I can recommend this to you all, but If you like Japanese movies, erotic horror films, or the works of Nagisa Oshima, maybe you’ll enjoy this.

The Hateful Eight

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu is the Name, And Views Are My Game.

Have you ever been to a murder mystery party before? In case you haven’t, it’s when you and your friends get together, and are given a scenario; “We are these people, at the so and so mansion, for this reason.” Each person is assigned a character, and then gets told that there’s a killer in their midst. You spend the rest of the game trying to figure out who said killer is, hopefully before he or she gets to you. It’s silly, but very fun, and gives people the chance to get creative and show off their improv chops. Plus, who doesn’t love hanging out with their friends?

Now, imagine that you’re at a murder mystery party, but things are a little different. You don’t know anyone there, and when you do get to know them, you realize that they’re all bigots, rapists, and murderers. There’s no fun involved with the discovery of the killer, only necessity and petty jealousy. On top of that, certain people keep repeating the same lines over and over again, and it’s really starting to grate on your nerves. If you can imagine what that party would be like, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect with The Hateful Eight, the latest film from writer-director Quentin Tarantino.

The story of two bounty hunters, Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russel, trying to bring a woman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, into hang, The Hateful Eight is a straightforward, contained thriller. 90% of the film takes place inside a single room, and, as with most Tarantino pictures, it synthesizes long, drawn-out scenes of dialogue with occasional outbursts of intense violence. Oh, and racial slurs. Lots and lots of racial slurs. I actually took the liberty of counting, and the n word is used 59 times in this movie. Yeah. 59 times. Look, I realize that Tarantino always uses that word in his films, and that his justification is that there was a lot of racism back in the 1800s, but, I’m sorry, there were other words in the English language back then. You don’t have to use it to such excess, Quentin. You’re not being edgy or provocative when you do so. You’re just coming off as an annoying little kid, screaming for attention.

But, I digress. Concerning the movie itself, I’m going to come right out and say that I didn’t like it. And before anyone says anything, it’s not because Tarantino directed it. I actually do like some of his films. I’ve seen Pulp Fiction many times, and I think Jackie Brown is enjoyable. However, ever since Kill Bill, his works have consistently managed to either enrage, or simply baffle me. And I think I can confidently say that The Hateful Eight is his worst film yet. For starters, certain things that you just expect to be good in a Quentin Tarantino movie, like the dialogue and the acting, aren’t good here. There are numerous scenes where characters will repeat themselves, like one where Kurt Russell says “You really only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang,” and another where Walton Goggins asks Samuel Jackson three times in a row, “You have a letter from Abraham Lincoln?” There’s absolutely no reason to repeat the same lines over and over again. It just gets annoying. We heard you the first time, Quentin. Move on. And as for the acting, Tim Roth gives an atrociously over-the-top performance in this movie. Every now and then, like in the scene where he says, “the n***er in the stable has a letter from Abraham Lincoln?” his voice will get super high and cartoonish sounding. And while I’m aware that he actually is British in real life, there are points in this film where he sounds more like Nicolas Cage doing a parody of a British person.

So, the acting and the dialogue aren’t much to write home about. But what about the filmmaking? The cinematography? The music? Well, when promoting this film, Tarantino kept bringing up the fact that he was using ultra-wide, 70 mm lens cameras, like the ones they used on Lawrence of Arabia. Problem is, those lenses are more or less wasted in this picture, because, as I said before, 90% of the movie takes place inside a tiny room. Lawrence Of Arabia took place outside, in a gorgeous, rugged landscape, where the huge lenses helped capture the full scope and beauty of the environment. The Hateful Eight takes place in a cramped, dimly lit room. There’s absolutely no reason to be using these big, and expensive, lenses if all you’re going to do is stay inside one location. It honestly just comes off to me as Quentin Tarantino wanting to stroke his own ego by saying “hey! I’m just as great a filmmaker as Cecil B DeMille or David Lean! My shitty little western is on par with The Ten Commandments and Lawrence Of Arabia.” And lest you think I exaggerate with that statement, Tarantino also had the movie be over three hours long, decided to include an overture, and an intermission. That stuff hasn’t been used in movies since the 1960s. If that isn’t self-indulgent, I don’t know what is.

But by far the biggest problem I had with this movie were the characters. It’s not that they weren’t well-rounded or fleshed out. It’s just that they were all such complete and utter assholes, that I really didn’t care if they lived or died. I know that Tarantino likes to write about morally ambiguous, or even downright evil people, but, usually, he tries to give them some redeeming qualities. Samuel L Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction becomes a kinder, less violent person by the end of the movie, and Bruce Willis’s character, as selfish and proud as he is, does go back to save Ving Rhames. None of the characters in The Hateful Eight have redeeming qualities. Kurt Russell is a misogynist who repeatedly hits Jennifer Jason-Leigh, who is a racist and a murderer. Samuel L Jackson is a rapist, and a murderer. Bruce Dern is a genocidal bigot and, well, you get the idea. No one is worth caring about in this movie, and that’s sad. Why have we become so determined to not write kind, decent, or generous characters anymore? Why do we hate seeing good people in our entertainment? Hell, even Superman, the quintessential boy scout, has gotten turned into an asshole in recent years. Why, I ask you? Why?

But, yeah, as you can probably tell, I wasn’t a big fan of The Hateful Eight. It’s got everything you’d expect from a Quentin Tarantino joint, just not done very well. It’s a 5 out of 10, in my opinion. If you’re a fan of his, whatever. You’ll probably love this anyway. But if you want good quality entertainment, avoid this picture.