Lust, Caution (2007)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is the name, And Views Are My Game.

In 1938, a radical Chinese theater troupe decide to put on their most daring performance; the seduction, and assassination, of a high-ranking Japanese collaborator. The first thing they do is find their leading lady, a naive college student named Wang Chia-Chi. Next, they find their stage, a mansion in Hong Kong where Wang is to catch her prey. And, finally, they introduce her to her main opponent in this great drama, Mr. Yee, the collaborator they intend to kill. The stage is set. The pieces are in place. All that’s necessary is for someone to make the first move. But, just as in an old Greek Tragedy, nothing about their scheme goes according to plan.

Lust, Caution is a movie I’d been wanting to see for years. Not only was it directed by Ang Lee, the man responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–my favorite film of all time–but the picture’s story also checked all my interest boxes. World War 2 in Asia? Check. Espionage? Check. Stories about artists and creative types saving the world? Check. On paper, it seems like the perfect movie for me. Having finally seen it now, well, I’m a little less starry-eyed. Is this a terrible movie? Not at all. Is it bad? Not in the slightest. But will I ever want to see it again? Absolutely not. Lust, Caution is a film with what I have decided to refer to as, “La La Land Syndrome,” in that it’s a well-shot, well acted movie with high production values that I didn’t enjoy because I didn’t feel invested in the story.

When you watch the film, you can tell that it was made by people with talent. The music, the cinematography, and the costumes and sets are all superb. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about those last two, because they are absolutely beautiful. Every outfit that Tang Wei, the lead actress, wears in this movie is exquisite, and the props, vehicles and buildings that were used all bring 1930s China to life. And the acting, as you might expect from an Ang Lee movie, is top notch, with the one possible exception being Wang Leehom, whom plays the leader of the main theater troupe, and whose American accent while speaking Mandarin was noticeable even to me. But, really, that’s a minor detail. Technically, this film is perfect.

It’s just that, when it comes to story, the movie isn’t nearly at the same level. The film is about three hours long, and I swear I’m not making this up, it’s not until we’re an hour and a half in that anything interesting happens. For the first 90 minutes, we’re forced to endure an endless series of Mahjong games, drawing room conversations, and walks through the park. And virtually none of what gets said in these conversations comes into play later on, so they just come off as pointless padding. I understand the slow pacing and extra dialogue were added to flesh out the characters–the film is based on a forty page short story where not much background is given–but they’re just a slog to get through. There were several points in this movie where I seriously considered stopping. I didn’t feel invested in the characters, and the story was taking too long. Now, before any of you accuse me of being a brain dead millennial with the attention span of a squirrel, just know that some of my favorite films of all time–Gandhi, Lawrence Of Arabia, Dances With Wolves–are well over the three hour mark. It’s not the length of the movie that bothers me. It’s the slow pacing, and the fact that nothing of substance happens until we’re more than half way through it that get me. This script was in serious need of a trim.

Something else that I wanted to touch on in this review are the sex scenes. When Lust, Caution was released back in 2007, it was banned in several countries, and given an NC-17 rating in the US because of its “graphic content.” Now, hearing that, you probably think that this film is overflowing with sex–that there’s hardly a frame where breasts or genitals aren’t on display. Not so. I counted, and it’s not until the two hour mark, on the dot, that we get any kind of sex or nudity. And, the truth is, you don’t actually see anything when Wang and Mr. Yee are doing the deed. All that’s visible are breasts, and you can see those in any R-rated movie. Can someone please explain to me why this film, and not any of the other raunchy comedies out there, deserved to get an NC-17 rating? Now, it’s possible that the version of Lust, Caution I saw was edited, and that the original cut featured far more graphic stuff, but that still doesn’t change the fact that for a movie that advertises itself as an erotic thriller, nothing remotely erotic happens until two thirds of the way through. And the sex itself isn’t even that interesting. It’s all done in one, long, static wide shot, the lighting is low, and the whole thing kind of comes off as cold and unfeeling. If you’re looking for titilation, you won’t find it here.

As I said before, this movie is beautifully crafted, well-acted, and the premise is very interesting. For those reasons, I feel like I should recommend it to you. At the same time, however, I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the movie is very long, very slow, and that the sex scenes which its famous for don’t come until about two hours in, and that they aren’t even that interesting. Make of that what you will.

Get Out (2017)

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

Chris and Rose are in love. They’ve been going out for close to five months, and they’re about to make one of the biggest steps in their relationship, meeting each other’s parents. This, of course, is nerve-wracking for everyone, but the situation is made doubly awkward by the fact that Rose’s family, who are White, don’t know that Chris is Black. Chris informs Rose of his concerns, and she tells him that there’s nothing to worry about. Her family are nice. They’ll love him. Chris isn’t convinced, having spent a lifetime facing micro aggressions from “nice” people, but he goes along anyway. And, at first, everything is fine. Rose’s family are nice, micro aggressions not withstanding. They do seem to like him. But, as time goes by, Chris starts to notice some things that aren’t quite right. The family’s Black servants, Georgina and Walter, are inhumanly polite and docile, almost as though they’ve had their personalities drained. And Rose’s mother, Missy, a psychiatrist, is strangely adamant about submitting Chris to hypnosis. Tension builds as the family’s friends, each one whiter and more oblivious than the last, show up for an annual get together, and submit Chris to a tidal wave of awkward statements and pho compliments. Finally, Chris decides he can take it no more, and tells Rose that they need to leave, but, much to his horror, finds that he can’t.

Get Out is a movie that I really didn’t know what to expect with. The premise seemed interesting, and I liked the actors I recognized in the trailer, like Skins’ Daniel Kaluuya, and Being John Malkovich’s Catherine Keener. At the same time, though, I was worried that the film’s social commentary would wind up being too heavy-handed, and I didn’t know how successful a comedian, Jordan Peele, would be at directing a horror movie. Amazingly successful, as it turns out, because this movie is AWESOME! It’s well-acted, well-written, ripe with tension, and manages to deftly ride the line between humorous and horrifying, and all while subtly making its viewers aware of their own innate prejudices. I’m not joking when I say that at no less than four points in this movie, me and everyone else in my theater cheered with delight at something that just happened. It’s rare for a film to impact me on such a visceral level, and I’ve got to give it up to Jordan Peele, the cast, and everyone involved for making a film that got to me the way this one did. But by far the best part of this entire movie was Lil Rel Howery, whom plays Chris’s best friend, Rod. I’m not joking when I say that he stole EVERy scene he was in. There wasn’t a moment he was on screen where I wasn’t laughing my butt off. He NEEDS to be in more stuff, because he is AWESOME. Something else I want to give Get Out credit for is the fact that I legitimately had no idea where it was going. When I finally learned what was happening beneath the surface, I actually turned to my girlfriend and said “Shit! I did not see that coming.” And she actually said to me afterwards, “You need to write stories like that; stories where you can’t guess what’s going on.”

Guys, what else can I say? Get Out is awesome. It’s smart, funny, scary, and an amazing directorial debut from Jordan Peele. Give it a look!

Quiz Show (1994)

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

It’s 1958. Twenty One is ABC’s most popular quiz show, and Herb Stempel, a volatile nerd, is the reigning champion. Realizing that Herb’s popularity has plateaued, and that Charles Van Doren, a handsome young college professor, would bring in far more viewers, Producer Dan Enright rigs the show by feeding Van Doren the answers, and forcing Stempel to flub an easy question. Outraged, Stempel goes on the war path, suing Enright and ABC in federal court. His litigation catches the attention of Dick Goodwin, special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the House Of Representatives (a position absolutely as boring as it sounds), and the two embark on a quest to expose the fraudulent nature of both Twenty One, and all game shows. And now we have a big courtroom drama, directed by Robert Redford, and starring John Turturro.

Quiz Show is a film I’d never heard of before. I only became aware of its existence after I stumbled upon it while idly scrolling through the “period pieces” section on Netflix. I was shocked, to say the least. I mean, a big budget movie, made by a famous director, with top tier talent, that got good reviews, which I’d never heard of before? Impossible. Surely there was a mistake. Surely this film, which currently holds a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was some sort of unsung masterpiece; a diamond in the rough, if you will. I simply had to watch it. I had to spread the word; to make others aware of its brilliance. Well, having just sat down and watched Quiz Show, I can understand why no one remembers it, and why it bombed at the box office when it first came out.

IT’S SO BORING! I’m talking grass growing, paint drying, doing your taxes level dull. It’s about two and a half hours long, and a good chunk of it consists of scenes that add nothing to the overall narrative. Scenes like Dick Goodwin going to buy a car, Dick Goodwin having sex with his wife, Charles van Doren running into his father at a restaurant, and Charles Van Doren throwing his father a birthday party. I suppose they’re meant to build character, but they really, really don’t. They just come off as pointless padding, and they leave you scratching your head, and checking your watch. And just as with La la Land, you never feel invested in the story because there are no stakes. What the movie boils down to is a bitter man, Stempel, trying to prove that TV game shows are rigged. Who cares? Who cares if game shows are rigged? I just assumed everyone knew that going in. Next thing you know you’ll be telling me professional wrestling and reality television are staged. Besides, rigging a game show to make it more dramatic isn’t, technically speaking, illegal. And even if it was, the movie makes Stempel out to be such an unlikable character that you don’t want to see him prevail. You don’t want him to pull back the curtain. You don’t want the world to find out that game shows are fake. Also, I have to ask, who the hell watches game shows anymore? I understand this is a period piece, but Redford was making this film for modern audiences. He had to have known that people probably didn’t care about quiz shows anymore. Combine this–the slow pacing, pointless scenes, and very low stakes–with lackluster dialogue and some questionable acting–I’m referring, of course, to Rob Morrow’s awful Boston accent–and you’ve got a dull, pointless, and ultimately forgettable movie. I totally understand why no one went to go see this when it came out, and why history has largely forgotten it. It’s terrible. Don’t watch it.

Logan (2017)

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

The X-men are gone. The mutant race has all but vanished. And Earth’s greatest hero, Wolverine, is now a depressed alcoholic, eking out a meager living as a chauffeur. Every day is a battle for him; a battle to pay rent; to get Professor X his drugs before he has another psychic episode. And every night, he finds himself staring at a special, adamantium bullet, asking the dreaded question, “Should I do it?” But before he can find an answer, a woman and a little girl with remarkably similar powers to him show up on his doorstep, begging for help. A ruthless government agency is hot on their trail, and they mean to kill them both. Realizing he can’t let this girl die, Logan grabs his keys, and his friend Charles Xavier, and embarks on a major, cross country journey, both to get everyone to safety, and to provide himself with some overdue redemption.

Just as Christopher Reeve was the quintessential Superman for my parents’ generation, Hugh Jackman has been the quintessential Wolverine for me and everyone my age. So when I heard that Logan, the tenth film in the X-men franchise, was going to be his final outing as the character, I knew I had to watch it. I had to see what kind of closure the filmmakers would give the character, and whether Jackman’s run would go out with a bang, or end on a whimper. And, having just seen the movie, I can tell you, this is the best possible send off you could hope for. Logan is a fantastic picture, both as a piece of superhero escapism, and mature, emotional drama. I highly recommend you all watch it, and I’m tempted to see it again myself.

Something that sets this movie apart from all the other films in the X-men franchise, and most other superheor movies as well, is how grounded it is. It feels like real life, as absurd as that sounds. Characters say the F word in this picture. They get dirty. They bleed. There are real steaks in this film, because the heroes have gotten frail, and death is a very real possibility for them. And unlike some other movie franchises–cough, cough, the MCU, cough, cough–which don’t try to explore dark, adult subject matter, like death, survivor’s guilt, parenthood and responsibility, this movie jumps head first into those topics, giving us a refreshingly mature picture, which transcends the comic book genre.

But before any of you action lovers feel the urge to look away, know that Logan has some of the best, most imaginative superhero fight sequences I’ve ever seen. Two in particular, one in a Casino where Professor X is having a psychic seizure, and one on a mountain side where Wolverine is going full berserker, are imprinted on my brain, they’re that brutal and inventive. This film is rated R, and unlike some movies that probably shouldn’t have had that classification, Logan really earns that title. This is a brutal, exceedingly bloody movie. And like I said, there is no limit to foul language in this picture. And yet it never crosses the threshold into exploitation territory. This isn’t like the works of Mark Millar or Garth Ennis, which pretend to be mature by including gratuitous amounts of violence and profanity. This is a thoughtful, emotionally resonant drama, which has brutal, hard-hitting violence in it, because the world it creates is a dark and ugly one. And yet, you never reach that point where the film gets so bleak that you feel like looking away. You’re never turned off by the morbid subject matter. Rather, you’re engrossed in it. You’re captivated by it. And I am so happy about that.

Guys, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I really don’t have any complaints with Logan. It’s mature, emotionally resonant, and a really fun superhero movie as well. It’s the perfect send off to an actor and a character, and I really think you all should go see it.