The Host (2006)

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

When a huge amount of formaldehyde is dumped down the drain, strange things start happening in Seoul’s Han River. First, all the fish in the area mysteriously die off. Next, pedestrians start noticing something big, and creepy, skulking below the surface. Then, after four years of waiting, a giant monster bursts from the water, eager to eat, and kidnap, humans. One of those taken is Park Hyun-Seo, the daughter of a neglectful Snack Shop Owner, who, with the help of his aging father, alcoholic brother, and athlete sister, sets out to bring her home. But things get complicated when the American military, the group responsible for creating the monster, block off the river, and release a poison, Agent Yellow, into the air. WIll the Parks save their daughter in time? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

When it came out back in 2006, The Host was a smash hit. Not only did it become the highest grossing Korean film of all time, it also garnered glowing reviews, and launched its director, Bong Joon-Ho, from a popular local filmmaker to a global talent that Hollywood was eager to work with. Because of this, and the upcoming release of Okja, Bong’s newest film, I decided to give The Host, and a few of his other movies, a look. See, It’s very rare for Asian directors to become big in Hollywood. There are exceptions, like Ang Lee and John Woo, but, for the most part, Asian filmmakers are relegated to the periphery of the popular conscience. So what about The Host is so special? Why does Hollywood know this film, and its director, and not others? Simple; its entertaining and well-made.

The Host takes a very basic premise–family tries to save daughter from monster–and tells it with just enough skill, and heart, to keep you engaged. And unlike many foreign films, which feature jokes that really only make sense in the original language, The Host is completely universal in its characterization and humor. I don’t speak a word of Korean, and the first time I watched this movie, it was without subtitles. And yet, I still knew what was going on, and who everyone was. That’s because Bong did a brilliant job of using costumes, hair styles, and other bits of visual shorthand to establish who the characters were. The film also looks amazing. Seriously! Anyone hoping to direct great monster movies should give this flick a look. It is a masterclass in how to shoot a blockbuster. Now, with regards to complaints, I do have a few. I think that the film, which is over two hours long, could have been shortened. I also couldn’t get over the fact that the Monster kidnapped Hyun-Seo, and didn’t just kill her. I understand that she needs to stay alive, because otherwise the story won’t happen, but, still. That seemed like a logical error. Granted, most people probably won’t care, and, even for me, its a nitpick. Beyond that, though, I have no comments. The Host is an entertaining, well-crafted monster movie, which transcends linguistic barriers to deliver high thrills and huge laughs. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (2017)

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

Years have past in the Pirates of the Caribbean universe. Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry, has grown up, and is now looking for a way to lift his father’s curse. Captain Barbosa has become the world’s wealthiest pirate, commanding a massive fleet, and wearing fine silks and jewelry. And Captain Jack Sparrow? Oh, Captain Jack Sparrow. Captain Jack Sparrow has become a washed up parody of his former self, unable to walk straight, let alone raid, pillage and plunder. But things aren’t over for any of them just yet, as a young astronomer, Karina, appears, claiming to know where Poseidon’s Trident is hidden. And if that weren’t enough to keep everyone on their toes, an evil ghost, Captain Salazar, emerges from the Devil’s Triangle, looking to exact vengeance on a certain dreadlocked buffoon. (Gee, I wonder which one).

The best way for me to describe Pirates of The Caribbean 5 is like this; it’s not groundbreaking, but it is enjoyable, and I don’t regret going to see it. Like Alien: Covenant, Pirates 5 sticks to its franchise’s formula–young lover’s on a quest, aided by Captain Jack, hunted by some supernatural monster–and boasts some cool sets, some impressive effects, and some super fun action. Neither one pushes the envelope that hard, or possesses very original, or fleshed out, characters. But unlike Alien: Covenant, which is considerably darker, and doesn’t have much humor in it, Pirates has a much lighter tone, and features a lot more jokes. Granted, some of those jokes don’t land. But, for the most part, the lighter tone and greater emphasis on slapstick won me over. Like I said, I don’t regret having taken a few hours out of my day to see this movie, and I kind of do with Alien: Covenant. That says something.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I don’t think this picture is flawless. The jokes don’t always land, there are way too many side characters, and I don’t like the way the script portrayed Captain Jack. In the first few films, he behaved like an idiot, but you kind of got the sense he was putting on an act. It was almost like he was trying to convince everyone he was a fool, so that they wouldn’t expect it when he pulled off an impossible escape, or beat fifty guys in a sword fight. In this movie, though, he really does come off as an idiot, and whenever he does something, it honestly feels like he just got lucky. That’s sad. Captain Jack was one of my favorite movie heroes growing up, and I don’t like seeing him neutered like this. At least Wolverine got to go out with a bang.

Guys, all I can say is this; Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is harmless fun. Its got some good humor, and some very creative action scenes. You probably won’t remember it, but I don’t think you’ll regret going to see it either.

Sense8 (Season 2, 2017)

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

Will and Riley are on the run. So is Nomi and her girlfriend, Neets. Lito has been publicly outed after confronting a friend’s abusive ex. Kala has gone ahead and married her fiancé, Rajan. Capheus, having done the unthinkable by standing up to a local warlord, is now hailed as a hero. Wolfgang is reunited with his best friend, Felix. And Sun, poor Sun, is still trapped in solitary confinement. But not for long. Because things are moving, and faster than you might think.

Sense8 is a show I really enjoyed when it first came out. I liked the concept of people becoming psychically linked. I liked the international cast and setting. I liked the fact that it touched upon relevant social issues, such as gender, sexuality, and identity. But, as much as I liked it, I was more than willing to admit it had problems. Hokey dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, illogical character choices; these were just a few of the bigger flaws I noticed. And yet, I still recommended the first season to everyone, and was excited to see what the creators, Lily and Lana Wachowski, would do with the second. Well, season 2 is finally here, and this is what I have to say about it.

A lot of the problems from season 1, such as on-the-nose dialogue and stupid character choices, carry over. So does the show’s reliance on racial and national stereotypes. And yet, the funny thing is, when you’re watching the show, you don’t really care. Seriously. Maybe its because the dialogue is less hokey than before, or because the stereotypes–like the idea of the white savior and Asian martial artist–are actually addressed this time around. But, honestly, I think its because the show has so much heart, and so many great character moments, that you forgive its weaker aspects. There are so many great beats in the first episode alone –like when Sun is reassuring kala that sex is something to enjoy, and not be afraid of, or when Lito’s boyfriend, Hernando, gets outed during a lecture, and handles it with grace and dignity–that I have to recommend you all see it.

To put it bluntly, Sense8, season 2 is silly, but its the best kind of silly. Its fun, its inoffensive, and it leaves you feeling warm inside. You really love these characters, and you love following them on their journey. Does that journey make sense, or follow any kind of narrative logic? No. But who cares. The show is still beautiful, and I still think you should give it a look.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

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

While en route to a new world, a group of interstellar colonists receive a transmission from a nearby planet. After analyzing the signal, they realize that its human in origin, and that the planet its coming from might have ideal living conditions. Deciding that this is too good an opportunity to pass up, the Captain sends down a small group to investigate. At first, everything goes just fine; the source of the transmission, a crashed space ship, is discovered without incident, and the world itself is rather hospitable. Things quickly devolve, however, when a member of the team is infected by a bizarre black fungus, which causes him to birth an aggressive alien monster. And if that’s not bad enough, the crew are found by a survivor of the crashed ship, who may, or may not, want to do them harm.

Alien: Covenant is not a movie I planned on seeing. It’s not that I dislike the Alien franchise; quite the opposite. I think 1979’s Alien is one of the most important movies ever made, and mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to make sci-fi. But I, and most other people, agree that each of its sequels fell in terms of quality, and that there are way, way too many remakes and spin-offs coming out these days. I’d much rather go support original films, like Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, which comes out in June, and Max Landis’s Bright, which comes out in December. But after my girlfriend told me she wanted to see it, I decided, “what the hell? It’s an Alien movie. It can’t be that bad.” Oh, how wrong I was.

Now, just to be clear, this is not a terrible movie. The acting is good, and the production design and visual effects are very impressive, as you expect from a film with this big a budget. But when it comes to story and characterization, its got nothing new to bring to the table. Not only does it hit all the same beats as 1979’s Alien–crew receives transmission, investigates, gets chased by a monster–but it lacks what made the first film so special; interesting characters and an original premise. We’d never seen alien’s bursting from people’s chests before Alien. We’d never seen people being hunted by a monster in a spaceship before Alien. Now, though, in 2017, we have seen that. A lot. So the concept alone isn’t enough to get us invested. And while it’s absolutely true that no story, or characters, are ever truly original, good filmmakers are at least able to make them interesting by giving them quirks, interests, or engaging arcs. Not in Alien: Covenant. I didn’t care about anyone in the movie. I couldn’t even remember their names. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I learned more about these characters from the ad campaign, which featured fake video blogs, wherein they told us a little bit about themselves. That’s not good. And as is always the case with horror movie sequels, less emphasis is placed on tension and suspense than on body count and gore. But what really drove the nail in the coffin for me on this picture was how boring it was. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either, but, at several points in the film, I was yawning. A movie about parasitic extraterrestrials that burst from people’s chests should NOT be boring. That premise is inherently interesting. But, somehow, the filmmakers managed to make it dull, and for that reason, I cannot recommend this movie to you all.

Tag (2015)

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

Mitsuko has a problem. Everywhere she goes, someone, or something, inevitably winds up trying to kill her. First it’s a gust of wind, which slices all her classmates in half. Then it’s one of her teachers, who inexplicably opens fire on her students. And if that’s not bad enough, every time Mitsuko escapes one ordeal, she finds herself transported to a different reality; she starts off as a school girl in class, then changes to a bride on her wedding day, and ends as a runner in a marathon. Things come to a head when Mitsuko realizes that everything, all her existences, are just a video game being played by someone in another dimension, and that, if she wants to save herself and her friends, she’s going to have to do something unthinkable. Will she do it? Well, you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

Tag is a movie I watched purely on a whim. I was browsing through the “Asian Horror” section of Netflix, and since films in that genre tend to be far more creative than your typical American slasher, I thought I’d give it a look. And while the picture certainly is innovative and out there, I was not prepared for the nightmarish insanity that is this movie. Perhaps if I’d been familiar with the writer/director, Sion Sono, before watching this, I’d have been less surprised. As it is, I was left both shaken and perplexed.

Now, in case you’ve never heard of him, Sion Sono is a Japanese director who is, in many respects, the brainy twin of Takashi Miike. Like Miike, Sono churns out tons of films, most of them violent, exploitative B movies. Also like Miike, most of Sono’s work is adapted from books and manga. And, finally, like Miike, Sono has gained a cult following outside Japan, particularly among fans of extreme cinema. But whereas Miike has made films in a variety of genres, including kid’s movies, musicals and period pieces, Sono tends to stay with the sick and bizarre. And unlike Miike, who tries to keep messages and politics out of his work, Sono always has something to say about Japanese society, or the relationship between men and women, in his films. His movies Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table both act as commentaries on social alienation, the gap between generations, and the influence of the internet. His most famous film, Love Exposure, tackles themes like religion, lust and family. And Strange Circus… No. No, that has no broader political message. It’s just fucked up. The point is, Sono likes to make statements with his films, and Tag is no exception. It has a lot to say about the way men view women, the way men treat women, and the way men portray women in media. And that’s all good. It’s just, well…

The film wants to be feminist. And, in concept, it is. It’s about a woman trapped in a world designed by men, standing up and saying, “fuck you! I’m not going to be your play thing anymore.” That idea is feminist, through and through. It’s just that, in terms of how that concept is executed, its slightly less “girl power,” and slightly more “girls gone wild.” There are several up skirt shots of the main characters’ panties. There are more than a few scenes where we watch her and her friends get undressed for no reason. The film does pass the bechdel test, with the girls talking about subjects other than men, but the subjects they do talk about–pillow fights, ice cream, sex–are so cliched, and so clearly the product of male imagination, that you can’t help but roll your eyes in certain moments. Also, for a movie that professes to empower and support women, it does seem to relish killing them in extremely gruesome, and sexual, ways. There’s one scene where a girl gets butchered by a crocodile, which jumps out of the water and bites through her vagina. And that’s one of the milder deaths. Now, maybe this is all deliberate. Maybe all the sexual violence, fan service cinematography, and stereotypical “girly” dialogue are there to let us know that we’re in a man’s fantasy of what women are like. Maybe. And maybe Sion Sono, no matter how hard he tries, has fucked up fetishes that he can’t help but inject into his films. That might sound harsh, but when you consider how much of his filmography–Strange Circus, Love Exposure, Guilty Of Romance–involves rape, murder, torture and pedophilia, you start to question whether a man like him is capable of feminist thinking. For that reason, I can’t recommend this movie to you all.

Now, on the off chance that you don’t care about sexism, and just want to know if this is an enjoyable, well-made film, I have to say no. The special effects are extremely cheap looking. The acting is over the top. And because the main character keeps switching realities, you never get a true sense for her, or any of her other identities. You’re too busy trying to make sense of watts’ going on. Now, that being said, the film has potential. The concept of a video game character realizing that he or she is stuck in a destructive reality he or she has no control over, and deciding to fight back, is both fascinating and original. The fact that the movie wants to talk about the way men treat and portray women is to be admired. And, as cheap as some of the effects are, the film does, on the whole, look good, with there being some nice cinematography, and cool visual metaphors. Still, I don’t think any of this is enough to warrant a recommendation. If you want to watch the grind house pretend to be the art house, go ahead. Me; I’m not interested.

Master Of None (Season 2, 2017)

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

After spending six months in Italy, mastering the art of pasta making, Dev returns to New York, where he reunites with his friends, and has wacky misadventures involving love, technology, race, and, of course, food. Lots and lots of food.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, you know that I absolutely adored the first season of Master of None. I thought it was very funny, and a lot of what it had to say about modern technology, the immigrant experience, and the limited roles available for Asian actors really spoke to me. And, for the most part, Master Of None, season 2 maintains a lot of what made that first season so great. The series regulars are awesome, there’s some biting social commentary, and, of course, it’s funny. Very funny. In fact, I laughed a lot more at this season than I did at the first one. I still like the first season better, but that’s mostly because I like what it has to say. But, if you don’t care about commentary, and just want to laugh, I would recommend this season to you. And, in general, I would recommend the season to everyone. It’s a fine example of modern television.

That being said, I do have problems with it. The biggest, for me, is the season long romantic arc between Dev and the show’s new female lead, Francesca. I… hated it. Seriously. I hated it. I hated Francesca’s character. She’s a bland, uninteresting bore. I hated how Dev’s constant complaining about how he likes her, but can’t be with her, ground the comedy to a halt. This whole scenario, liking someone who’s already in a relationship, was dealt with beautifully in one, 20 minute episode in the first season. We don’t need a four episode arc to tell this story. Another thing that works against this season is all the cutaways to food. Yes, food is a huge part of Dev’s character, and the first season did feature it, but there it was kept to a gracious minimum. It never got in the way of the story. Here, the cutaways override the story. There were many moments while I was watching where I was certain that the only reason they were showing this was that Aziz Ansari wanted to eat something, and he told the crew, “film it.” And, finally, part of what made the first season special was how it thoughtfully dealt with social issues. The second season does have a few episodes, like “Religion,” “Thanksgiving,” and the finale, “Buona Notte,” which deal with faith, coming out to one’s parents, and sexual harassment in the workplace, but, for the most part, food and mother of all bores, Francesca, take center stage here.

Still, I did like the season overall, and I would recommend it to you. It is funny, and it does have a lot of what made season 1 great. Just go in with tempered expectations.

Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)

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

Toshiro Mifune; if you know anything about Japanese cinema, or cinema in general, really, you’ve heard that name before. Not only was he Japan’s biggest movie star in the 50s and 60s, but his films went on to inspire the likes of George Lucas, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese. To quote this documentary, “Without Mifune, there wouldn’t be a Magnificent Seven, Clint Eastwood wouldn’t have a Fist Full Of Dollars, and Darth Vader wouldn’t be a samurai.” And that’s true. Many of Mifune’s most popular films–Seven Samurai, Yojimbo–were remade in the States as Westerns. George Lucas openly admits that the original Star Wars was modeled after Mifune’s Hidden Fortress. And Darth Vader’s outfit is, indeed, highly reminiscent of a samurai’s armor. But who was he in real life? What was he like behind closed doors? Those are the questions that this documentary seeks to, and, in my opinion, manages, to answer. Because this is a highly engaging, deeply entertaining film.

I learned so much from this picture, not simply about Mifune, the man, but also about the Japanese film industry, and the impact that his work has had on the world. There were so many things that I found out about him that I never would have suspected. For instance, did you know that he was actually born and raised in Qingdao, China? Yeah, until he was 20 years old, he never set foot on Japanese soil. Not only that, he was also Christian. His parents were Methodist missionaries, and that’s why they were living in China to begin with. And as if that’s not crazy enough, he was originally supposed to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars, but he turned it down because his agent thought the movie would be a flop. This documentary is full of fascinating little tidbits like that, and with interviews from his children, actors and stuntmen who worked with him, and filmmakers who were inspired by him, including the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese, you get a real well-rounded portrait of the man. You see his strengths, like his charisma, strong work ethic, and loyalty to friends and colleagues, and his flaws, like his pride, drinking, and pension for womanizing. And the film, in a shockingly short runtime–just about 80 minutes–manages to paint a thoroughly detailed picture of what japan was like at the time he came on the scene.

If you like movies, if you like history, if you like to learn and be entertained in general, give this film a look. I guarantee that you will enjoy yourself. Because I did. And unlike other documentaries I’ve seen, such as The Act Of Killing and The Last Days, I actually do want to watch this again. And that says something.