Moonlight (2016)

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

Chiron has a hard life. His dad is dead, his mom is a drug addict, the kids at school don’t like him, and he realizes when he’s young that he just might be gay. Which, in his neighborhood, is the equivalent of painting a bright red target on your back. His only friends are a drug dealer named Juan, Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, and a boy named Kevin, whom Chiron is attracted to, and who just might have feelings for him as well. Will they wind up together? Will Chiron find some peace in life? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Moonlight is a very unusual film; not simply for being one of the few movies to openly address the Black gay experience, but also in terms of how its structured. It’s broken up into three distinct acts, each of which tackles a different stage in Chiron’s life. The first act discusses his time as a little boy. The second act explores his teenage years. And the third act chronicles his life as an adult. There’s not really an overarching plot. There isn’t really a climax. Most of the key events in his life happen off screen, in the years between scenes. In many respects, Moonlight mirrors the works of Wong Kar-Wai, in that its a colorful, atmospheric mood piece, with not much plot, and a huge emphasis on sorrow, longing, and love. And, indeed, Moonlight’s director, Barry Jenkins, has openly admitted that Wong was a huge influence on him. So that right there should give you a good idea of what to expect with this movie. You might not like it, but you’ll at least know what to expect.

For my part, I found Moonlight to be beautiful. Everything about it, from its performances, to its blue-tinted cinematography, to its actors, are gorgeous. And I found the ending, wherein Chiron and Kevin are reunited, to be deeply touching. I wholeheartedly believe that people should watch this movie, if not for the performances and the camerawork, than for the simple fact that it tells a story that is not often told; the story of a gay Black man in America.

And yet, even as I say this, I know that not everyone will share my opinions on this movie. There will be people who’ll watch this film and be frustrated, some for reasons that are understandable, and some for reasons that aren’t. For starters, the movie is very slow, there are whole sequences without dialogue, and, as I said before, there isn’t really an overarching plot. I can totally understand why some people might be bored by this movie. Mood pieces that break the rules of dramatic structure are all well and good, but most people grew up with plot-driven films with lots of dialogue, and, for the most part, they prefer those. Unfortunately, though, that won’t be the only reason why some people won’t like this movie. The other, and perhaps bigger, reason is the fact that it is about a gay Black man. In an ideal world, his story, and the stories of people like him, would be universally embraced. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where a racist, misogynist internet troll with no political or military experience can get elected President, where Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately the victims of police brutality, and where homophobia and transphobia can lead to people being thrown in jail, or even killed, just for being who they are. So if you are one of those narrow-minded idiots who can’t stand to see a person of a different race or sexuality onscreen, avoid this film like the plague. If, on the other hand, you are someone with a soul, and you don’t mind slower, more atmospheric films, give Moonlight a look. It will definitely pull on your heartstrings.

Collateral (2004)

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Max is a cab driver, saving up to start his own company. He knows LA like the back of his hand, and even though his job is fairly thankless, he takes pride in his work. One night, he picks up a gray-haired man named Vincent, who tells him, “I’ve got five stops to make. You get me to all of them on time, I’ll pay you $600.” Max agrees, and brings Vincent to his first stop. Everything seems fine, until a dead body falls on the cab, smashing the windshield to bits. Things get worse when Vincent returns, and reveals that not only did he kill the man, but he’s an assassin who’s been hired to take out 4 more targets. Now, if Max wants to survive, he’ll have to help Vincent evade capture, and finish his jobs, which means contributing to the deaths of four more people. Can he do it? Will he make it through the night? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out

Collateral is the definition of a well-made thriller. It’s suspenseful, superbly -acted (seriously, Jamie Foxx earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Max) and very well-written. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about the writing, because it is really, really good. Not only does every character have a distinct voice and backstory, the dialogue is really witty, and oddly thought-provoking. There are so many exchanges in this film that are funny, frightening and philosophical all at the same time that I’m honestly kind of surprised that Stuart Beattie, whom penned the script, didn’t get an Oscar nod. Like, in the scene right after Max learns that Vincent is a hit man, he’s freaking out, and Vincent starts talking about Rwanda. He tells Max how more people were killed at once there than in the past 50 years, and yet, he, Max, didn’t get upset when he heard about the genocide. He didn’t join the peace corps. He didn’t contribute to any charities. But now, when one fat guy dies in front of him, he turns into a bleeding heart? How hypocritical. That’s a brilliant exchange right there. It not only shows us how Vincent views morality, but it also gets us, the spectators, to think. It calls us out on our own hypocrisies, like how we care about some lives, but not about others. And the movie is full of awesome moments like that, where characters are talking about their pasts, or their morals, and it’s super engaging and funny. In one scene, Max asks Vincent, “You killed him?” to which Vincent responds, “No. I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” And in another scene, Vincent has a gun pressed up against Max’s head, and forces him to tell his boss to “shove this yellow cab up your fat ass.” It’s wonderful.

If I have one complaint about Collateral, it’s the camerawork. It’s almost all hand-held, so the images are very shaky, and the shots are super noisy. If you don’t know what that last part means, “noise” is a film term for elements in cinematography that ruin an image, like lens flares, blurry lines, or pixels. Collateral’s director, Michael Mann, is infamous for not minding “noise” in his films. As such, a lot of his movies, even if they’re big-budget period pieces, like Public Enemies, feel like they’re shot on home video. Now, as annoying as I find shaky cam and lens flares, both actually kind of work for this movie. You’re telling a story that’s very gritty and real, and the sloppy-looking camerawork does kind of contribute to a sense of realism. Kind of. But in case you can’t get over the cinematography, the film’s gorgeous color palette more than makes up for it. Every image is black, contrasted with neon blues, greens or pinks; i.e. the color of LA at night. If, like me, you love films with saturated color schemes, which help create mood and atmosphere, you’re gonna love this movie. It is a feast for the eyes.

Guys, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Collateral is a fast-paced, superbly acted, brilliantly-written thriller. I love it, and I’m sure you would to if you saw it. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

They Live (1988)

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When the cops destroy his shantytown, drifter John Nada decides to get out of LA. So he packs up his bindle, dons a pair of sunglasses he found, and sets off. As he walks, however, he starts to realize that something is wrong. Whenever he has the glasses on, he is able to see the world differently. Billboard advertisements become blank slates with simple commands like “obey” and “consume” written on them. And more disturbing than that, some people no longer look like people. They look like hideous alien monsters. Realizing that the Earth has been infiltrated, and that no one will believe him, Nada does what any sane, rational person would do; steal a shot gun and go on a killing spree. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with his alien overlords, who send hordes of minions after him. Can Nada evade them? Can he help others see the truth? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

They Live is a goofy, didactic mess, with huge plot holes, and some questionable acting. And I kind of love it. Not in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. In a, “this is original, stylish and funny” sort of way. When I first watched it, I really didn’t know what to think. I certainly appreciated its creativity, and anti-consumerist message. But I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The acting is subdued, the pace is slow, and the world the movie creates feels grounded and believable. And yet, there are tons of moments where characters will say ridiculous, campy lines, and the violence will get so over the top that you can’t help but laugh. But, after a while, even that odd dichotomy develops a certain charm, and it gets to a point where you just start thinking, “wow! This is nothing like I’ve ever seen before.” The movie is also really exciting. It’s got some great shootouts in it, like the final one in a TV studio, where Nada and Keith David are trying to disrupt the alien’s signal. This scene actually reminded me of another film; John Woo’s Hard Boiled. In that flick, Tony Leung and Chow Yun-Fat are trapped in a hospital, and they have to fight their way out. And so they just forge ahead, mowing down wave after wave of bad guys. They Live’s climax is almost identical in terms of its staging and cinematography, and the fact that it involves two guys moving between levels of a building. I wonder if Hard-Boiled, which was made four years after They Live came out, was in any way influenced by the latter. Either way, both films are awesome, and definitely worth watching.

That said, I whole-heartedly acknowledge that They Live has flaws. Some of the acting, particularly of the female lead, is wooden, and there are quite a few plot holes, also with regards to her character. She undergoes several, unexplained changes in-between scenes, and the movie never tries to justify how or why she shows up at convenient times. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, looking to learn how to write good dialogue, and create stories that make sense, maybe go watch something else. But if you want to watch something campy, creative and politically subversive, give this flick a look. I guarantee you’ll have a good time.

Animal Kingdom (2010)

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

When his mother dies of a heroin overdose, 17-year-old J goes to live with his estranged Grandmother and Uncles, a family of petty criminals in Melbourne, Australia. There’s his Grandma, Smurf, who seems loving and doting. There’s his volatile Uncle Craig, who deals drugs to get by. There’s his other Uncle, Darren, who’s just a few years older than him. And, finally, there’s Pope, the oldest brother, who is in hiding from the police. The film is set during a period in Australian history when bank robbery is out of control, as is the police force, who will kill criminal’s at the drop of a hat. And that, essentially, is what this film is about; waiting for that hat to drop. Because, on the surface, everyone is nice, and everything is going just fine. But there’s always an undercurrent of menace and tension. And when something inevitably goes wrong, the family comes apart, and, as the title suggests, the animals start eating each other.

Animal Kingdom is a very unusual film. It’s a crime thriller with very little violence–except for a few, highly effective, moments–a slow pace, and a greater emphasis on character. It’s the sort of movie that if it was made in America, where pictures tend to move faster and have more bloodshed, probably wouldn’t be as good or interesting. And that’d be a shame, because if there are two words that can aptly summarize Animal Kingdom, they are “good” and “interesting.”

This is a taught, well-acted, well-written family drama,with some fascinating characters, and some very disturbing moments. What it honestly reminded me of was the works of Harold Pinter. If you’ve never heard of him, he was a British playwright, known for penning so-called “comedies of menace.” These were stories set in mundane locations, like a suburban living room, or a dinner party where everyone’s acting nice, but you’re always uneasy, because you suspect that something bad is about to happen. And, most of the time, something bad does happen. Animal Kingdom has that same feel, because there are several points where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to like the main family or not. On the surface, they seem nice and normal. They eat dinner together. They take care of each other. In one scene, J’s uncle chastises him for not washing his hands. And yet, in a heartbeat, they’ll pull a gun on someone, or ask J to do something violent and illegal. And that is what keeps you invested; the uncertainty; the not knowing whether or not you can trust these people. For this reason, and the stellar performances, particularly from Ben Mendelsohn, whom plays Pope, and Jackie Weaver, whom plays Smurf, I would highly recommend Animal Kingdom to you all. It is a well-written, well-acted crime drama with great tension, and I think you all would enjoy it if you saw it.

Their Finest (2017)

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

It’s 1940, and Britain is in serious need of a morale boost. Food is scarce, cities are being blitzed, and the British Army has just been driven off the continent at Dunkirk. Life, to put it bluntly, is shit. So, to give their country the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, the government begins churning out propaganda films, and because all the young men are off fighting, they hire women to write the scripts. Enter Catrin Cole, a novice screenwriter whose been given the task of adapting a “true” story to the big screen. She’s new to the business, and as she goes about bringing this story to life, she encounters all the typical roadblocks a screenwriter does; truth not lending itself to a traditional dramatic structure; producers demanding last minute changes to the script; cast members being difficult on set, etc. And yet, as hard as her job is, as difficult as her colleagues can be, Catrin finds herself falling in love with the business, and discovers a freedom in her work that she never experienced beforehand. Will it last? Well, you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

Their Finest is a sweet, utterly charming movie. It’s funny, moving, beautifully-shot, and exceptionally well-acted. It is the total inverse of Dunkirk in every way. Dunkirk is a spectacle. Their Finest is a story. Dunkirk is about the war. Their Finest is about the home front. Dunkirk has no characters. Their Finest has several, very well-realized ones. But beyond simply providing a pleasant, alternate perspective on this period in British history, Their Finest is also just an all-around engaging film. You like these characters. You enjoy watching this picture get made. And because this is a movie about movie-making, the screenwriters are able to throw in some clever commentary on the tropes of the romance genre. Also, unlike many other films set during this era, Their Finest holds nothing back when it comes to portraying the devastating sexism that these women faced everyday. Yes, It’s difficult to watch, but it also makes you appreciate these ladies’ strength even more. And that’s always a good thing in my book.

That said, as charming as Their Finest is, it is still, ultimately, a romantic comedy, and comes with all the tropes and baggage that that entails. True, most of the cliches are addressed in the film within a film, and the screenwriters do come up with a clever way of not giving you the ending you expect. Still, there are several plot points in this movie that feel very familiar, like the main character starting off in an unhappy relationship, her meeting a new man, her significant other cheating on her, which makes it okay for her to be with the new guy, etc. But, like I said before, the film is well-written enough to recognize those cliches as cliches, and it does come up with interesting ways of subverting them. So it doesn’t bother me too much.

Guys, all I can say is this; Their Finest is a charming, well-written, well-acted little romance film, which does feature some cliches, but is also entertaining, and clever enough, to overcome them. I love it, and I think you’d love it too if you watched it. Please give it a look.

Seven (1995)

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

Somerset is an apathetic detective, a week away from retirement. Mills is his idealistic partner, and brand new in town. They’ve got nothing in common, and they don’t particularly like each other. But for one week, Somerset’s last week on the job, they must work together. And it’s going to be the longest week of their lives, because there’s a killer on the loose, committing murders based on the Seven Deadly Sins, and he’s got his eye trained on them.

Seven is a film I’ve heard about for literally my entire life. It came out in 1995, the same year I was born, and in the two decades since then, it’s basically become a shorthand for anything super messed up and gross. And yet, as notorious as its reputation is, Seven is also considered to be quite a good flick. It’s strong performances, atmospheric cinematography, well-constructed story, and especially its ending, have all been lauded by critics over the years. This one film resurrected its director, David Fincher’s, career, and helped to cement the reputation of its stars, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. For this reason, and the fact that I’ll take a well-made thriller over an Oscar-winning drama any day, I decided to give Seven a look. And good lord!

Let me start off by saying that Seven is unquestionably a well-made movie. Everything about it, from the mirky cinematography, to the eerie soundtrack, to the believable performances, shows great talent and professionalism. This is a prime example of genre filmmaking at its best. On top of this, the story is considerably better written than most other thrillers, with there being a greater emphasis on character development, and lots of smaller, quiet moments. I also liked the fact that, even though the movie is about a serial killer who murders people in ultra gruesome ways, there’s very little onscreen violence. All the scares, all the suspense, come about through the power of suggestion. Which is good. This has got to be one of the few times where I’m actually glad a thriller was made in Hollywood, and not South Korea. Because even though I think that Korea produces much better thrillers overall, the films they make tend to be extremely violent. All we see in Seven are dead bodies. We don’t have to watch anyone get tortured or mutilated.

All that said, this is a hard movie to watch. If you have a weak constitution, or like stories to have happy endings, avoid this film like the plague. Even I, a person who loves books with unhappy endings, like Shanghai Girls and 19 Minutes, found this film hard to get through. And not just because of the subject matter. Seven is a movie that you can really only watch once. A large part of what keeps you engaged is the uncertainty; the fear that comes from not knowing what will happen in the next scene. Once you’ve seen this film, however, and you know everything that’s in store, the movie loses some of its power, and the story as a whole becomes a little bit of a slog to get through. Some mystery films, like Mother, Zodiac, and Broken Flowers, end ambiguously, and you can watch them over and over again to try to find clues. Seven isn’t like that. It ends quite definitively, and once you see that ending, you’re kind of numb to the rest of the story. The movie also has a weird opening credits sequence, which didn’t sit with me very well. It felt a little too much like something from television, and made the movie feel less like a gripping 2 hour thriller, and more like a 40 minute episode of Law & Order.

Nevertheless, Seven‘s smart script, strong performances, and brilliant atmosphere more than make up for its flaws, and cement its status as one of the all-time great thriller films. Watch it when you can.

 

Chronicle (2012)

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When an accident grants them telekinetic powers, three Seattle teens–bullied Andrew, slacker Matt, and popular Steve–find themselves drawn together. Initially, they use their abilities for harmless pranks, like moving people’s cars without them realizing, or levitating teddy bears to frighten little girls. But when Andrew, whose abusive home life has left him mentally scarred, begins exhibiting increasingly aggressive behavior, Matt and Steve realize that they might have to take him down.

Chronicle is well-written, well-acted, and visually-stunning. It’s got to be one of the best superhero films I’ve ever seen, and having grown up with franchises like The Dark Knight Trilogy and the MCU, that’s really saying something. Part of this is due to the fact that Chronicle does a superb job of creating that sense of awe that you should feel when you see characters doing incredible things. We’ve seen a man fly. But filmmakers have stopped showing us how cool–how utterly liberating and joyful–that is for him. Chronicle reminds us of how truly awesome it’d be to have superpowers; of all the incredible, and fun, things you could do with them. By far the best scenes in this movie are the ones where Steve, Matt and Andrew are just hanging out, and fooling around with their powers. Not only do these moments show off creative ways to use telekinesis, but they also give us a real sense for who these characters are, and make us like them as people. Andrew does some truly heinous things in this film, and yet, because the screenwriter tok the time to develop him, I never once lost faith. That, right there, is a sign of good writing.

Something else Chronicle does a really good job of is overcoming its genre and budget limitations. Shot in the “found footage” style on roughly $12 million, Chronicle offers up as many, if not more, thrills as big budget blockbusters. They’re able to do this by coming up with some really creative ways to get in complex, moving shots, like having the characters use their telekinesis to fly the camera around. Yes, there are moments where you notice some of the cheap-looking effects, but they are usually drowned out by how awesome what you’re seeing is. The “found footage” gimmick also works to the film’s advantage because, since this is ostensibly being shot by one person on a cheap camera, you feel like you’re actually witnessing a real thing that a real person is experiencing. And that makes all the incredible superhero stuff more plausible.

Guys, I really don’t have anything bad to say about this movie. It’s a low budget, “found-footage” film, which occasionally suffers from that genre’s limitations. But the strong performances, smart script, and excellent direction more than make up for those flaws, and deliver an original, visually-stunning, highly innovative superhero film. Give it a look as soon as you can.