One Cut Of The Dead (2018)

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

Film shoots can just be hell. They’re long, they’re tiring, and, take it from me, something always winds up going wrong. Maybe one of the actors pulls out at the last minute, or maybe one of the key props breaks. Or maybe, while shooting a low-budget zombie movie, actual zombies appear on set, and start eating the crew. At least, that’s what happens in the first part of this movie. Yes, for the first 37 minutes of One Cut Of The Dead, an absolutely charming Japanese comedy,  we see the crew of a low budget zombie film get terrorized by White Walkers. And then, when we’ve seemingly reached the end of the story, with the final girl having killed her last assailant, the filmmakers pull the curtain back, and reveal that this film was just, well, a film. It was a movie commissioned by a Japanese TV station, and the rest of the runtime is dedicated to watching the director, Higurashi, and his small, inexperienced crew, which includes his wife, Nao, and daughter, Mao, try to throw this thing together. And, good lord, what fun it is!

The words “heartwarming” and “zombie flick” don’t typically go well together. There are exceptions, such as the 2013 romantic zombie film Warm Bodies,  but, for the most part, motion pictures concerning the undead don’t leave you feeling upbeat or excited. And that’s precisely what One Cut Of The Dead does. I saw this movie last week at the New York Asian FIlm Festival, and was just blown away by it. It’s funny, original, inspirational, and just well put together. The directorial debut of Shinichiro Ueda, One Cut is that rare movie that just comes out of nowhere and surprises you. That’s why I’d urge you all, wherever you may be, to go out and try to see it. If it’s playing at any festivals near you, or perhaps available to stream on video on demand, give it a watch. I promise, you won’t regret it. It’s hilarious, and sweet.

Now, if I have any complaints at all, it’s the fact that the transition between the two halves of the movie, from zombie flick to heart-warming family comedy, is a bit clunky. The first part has end credits, and even a final fade. A lot of people in my theater got up and started to leave before they realized that, “oh no, there’s still about an hour of movie left.” Also, if you’re expecting a scary horror movie, this is not that. Like, at all. It has far more in common with Cool Runnings than 28 Days Later. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that this movie is great. I’m not lying when I say that the people in my audience were laughing their asses off. The last section, where we see the film within a film get shot, is comedy gold. And the central story really does make you feel warm inside. Watching this family collaborate on this project, with so many things going wrong along the way, and having it, and them, come together in the end, is really heart-warming. What can I say, I love this movie. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

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Sorry To Bother You (2018)

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

In an alternate reality Oakland, Cash Green is a regular dude, struggling to get by. With no money, and few prospects, he takes a job in telemarketing, where he quickly learns that he’s far more likely to sell products if he uses his “white voice.” Doing so allows him to climb the corporate ladder, eventually getting promoted to the position of “power caller,” meaning he gets to sell weapons of mass destruction to dictators. All this success puts him into conflict with his girlfriend, Detroit, and co-workers, Sal and Squeeze, who want the telemarketers to unionize, and fear that Cash is selling out. Things only get worse when the head of WorryFree, a company that turns people into slaves by forcing them to sign life-long contracts, comes to Cash’s door with a frightening proposal.

Sorry To Bother You is a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing ever since the first trailers dropped. I love the cast–Tessa Thompson, LaKeith Stanfield and Steve Yeun are always fun to watch–and thhe premise seemed interesting–a Network-style satire about workers of color needing to adjust their behavior in order to get ahead in the world of telemarketing. Then the first reviews came out, and I just knew I had to see it. So when I sat down in the theater this week, I was super excited. And now, having actually watched the flick, I’m… something else.

Now, to just get this out of the way, this is actually a well-made movie. So don’t worry about that. The cast is superb, the pace never drags, and there’s some really good humor in here. There’s one moment in particular, where Cash and Sal are super mad at each other, but, rather than throw insults, they start trading fake compliments, like, “You smell great.” “You smell better.” “You wanna get drinks?” “Sure. It’s on me.” And something that I appreciate about this movie is the fact that it is truly original. I’ve never seen a film like this before, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that you have no idea where the story’s going. So, for all these reasons, I do think Sorry To Bother You is worth watching.

That said, the film isn’t perfect, and a large part of this has to do with the fact that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The trailers make you think it’ll be a satire of racism in the workplace, but that’s not really what it’s about. Oh, those elements are in the film, to be sure–there’s one uncomfortable scene where Cash’s boss forces him to rap, and talk about the “gansta” lifestyle–but the movie has at least 12 more things to say besides that. It wants to talk about worker’s rights. It wants to comment on arms dealing. It wants to satirize the power of social media to turn random people into celebrities, and make a statement about how we’re so used to seeing shocking things that we don’t even care anymore. And on top of that, it wants to be a dystopian sci-fi parable. Yeah. I’m not joking at all when I say that this movie is science fiction. A major twist that gets revealed about halfway through involves a company using advanced technology to create… things. I’ll just leave it at that. And while that twist is genuinely shocking, and took me off guard, I can definitely see it alienating a lot of people. There were members of my audience who got mad at the direction the film took. And, finally, the movie introduces a lot of elements that you think will be important, like Cash using a “white voice,’ and this radical leftist group called “The Left Eye,” which more or less get abandoned after that twist I was talking about. So if you’re expecting a light-hearted farce, which follows a clear narrative, go watch something else, because you won’t find that here.

In the end, though, I do think the film’s humor, it’s strong performances, and unabashed originality do make it worth watching. Just go in with tempered expectations.

The Descent (2005)

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

One year after her husband and daughter are killed, extreme sports enthusiast Sarah reunites with some old friends for a weekend of spelunking in the Appalachians. When they get down into the cave, however, the tunnel collapses behind them, and, to make matters worse, the woman who suggested these caves, Juno, admits that she lied about where they were. They’re in an uncharted system, and no one knows where to find them. And as if being trapped underground with limited water, light and oxygen weren’t bad enough, it turns out that the women aren’t alone in these caves. There’s something else with them. Something… hungry.

The Descent is a primary example of the old saying, “it’s not the idea that counts, it’s how you tell it.” On paper, there’s nothing special about this movie. A group of people are trapped in a confined space, and there’s something supernatural coming after them. We’ve seen that premise done a thousand times before. But we haven’t seen it be done in caves, and with only women. Throw in some top-notch direction, and some nail-biting, pants-pissing tension, and you’ve got yourself a sleeper hit on your hands. I’m not lying when I say that, as soon as the characters enter the caves, the movie gets a hundred times better. You feel so claustrophobic while they’re down there that it’s not even funny. There’s one sequence in particular, where the characters have to get across this big gap, and are hanging from the ceiling, that had me holding my breath, it was that intense. As someone who’s gone spelunking, and swore to himself afterwards that he would never do so again, this film captures the feeling of being hundreds of feet underground, and unable to move, exceptionally well. If you want to watch an intense, visceral horror movie that has you on the edge of your seat, from the fifteen minute mark, basically to the end, give this flick a look.

That said, The Descent isn’t perfect. A large part of this has to do with the script. The characters just aren’t very interesting, or well-written. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the only way I was able to distinguish them from each other was their accents. And the writer/director, Neil Marshall, knows this. He’s stated in interviews that the reason he got such an international cast together–there are women in here from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and the Netherlands–was so that the audience would be able to tell them apart. In that respect, he succeeded, but the characters these women are playing really aren’t that well-defined. They’re all tough, sporty and take no shit. Which is refreshing in a horror film, since none of them are helpless victims, but not great if you’re trying to get to know them as people. We don’t know enough about these women to distinguish them from one another beyond their most superficial feature; their accents. We don’t know if they have jobs, if they’re married, have kids, significant others, or are into certain styles of music or cinema. As such, it becomes harder to care about them when they die. On top of this, some of the acting is a little bit shaky. The woman who plays Juno, Australian actress Natalie Mendoza, really can’t hold an American accent. There are points where she’s talking that she just goes full-blown Aussie, and it gets very distracting. In short, The Descent suffers from many of the flaws that other horror films have; poor acting and a weak script. But I’m not lying when I say that the film’s direction, it’s production design and all-around craftsmanship make up for that. It’s intense, engaging, and very well-made. If you’re a horror fan, don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Damsel (2018)

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

Parson Henry isn’t a real preacher. He isn’t even a man of God. He’s just a sad widower, looking for a fresh start, who was given a preacher’s clothes while journeying out West. How unfortunate for Henry when young Samuel, thinking that he is a real parson, recruits him to go out into the wild and wed him and his fiancé, Penelope, whom he claims was kidnapped. Henry is reluctant, but, seeing as he’s got nowhere else to go, and Samuel has offered to pay, agrees. When they reach Penelope’s cabin, however, and shoot her supposed kidnapper, Henry realizes that not all is as it seems to be, and things spiral out of control from there, with the line between good and evil, sanity and insanity, getting blurred.

Damsel is not a film I was planning on seeing. At least, I wasn’t at first. I went to the theater to watch Hearts Beat Loud, the new Nick Offerman movie, found out it wasn’t playing, and decided to give this a try. And I am so happy I did, because this is an original, subversive, darkly-comedic gem that I’m praying more people will go see. What is it, exactly? Well, that’s actually kind of hard to say. Is it a comedy? Is it a Western? Is it a thriller? Is it all of them at once? You spend the first 30 minutes or so being led to believe that this is going to be a sweet, old-fashioned Western with a comedic twist, but then, out of nowhere, things get super dark, and super violent. And the best part is, it feels earned. The transition doesn’t feel abrupt, or out of place. See, there are some films, Audition, Psycho, that switch their genre about halfway through, and it feels appropriate. Part of that has to do with how they set up tone. In Damsel, the filmmakers do a great job of making the world around Henry seem strange and menacing, so that when we find out that Samuel lied about Penelope getting kidnapped, it feels in keeping with what we’ve seen so far. Something else that I love about this movie is the fact that it truly is subversive with regards to how it presents the Western. See, many, many films have tried to approach the Western from a deconstructive or revisionist stance, but ultimately wind up becoming the very thing they were trying to satirize. Unforgiven is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. It spends the first two-thirds telling you that the heroic Western is a myth, that gunslingers were selfish, violent, disgusting men without conscience or honor. And yet, it ends with the main character avenging his friends death, and freeing a town from the clutches of a ruthless, tyrannical sheriff. It basically becomes the very thing it spend the first half of the story telling you didn’t exist. Damsel doesn’t do that. It starts off by giving you a Western you’d expect, a heroic man and his bumbling sidekick going to save a woman, but then pulls the rug out from under you by having it get revealed that the “hero” in question is a delusional stalker who murdered a man for no reason. And far from being a damsel in distress, Penelope is easily the most active, most competent and most aggressive character in this movie. I’m actually kind of sad that she wasn’t the main character the whole way through, but,  you can’t always get what you want.

Now, if I have any complaints at all, it’s the fact that the movie is very slow. It spends a long time setting up the world, and showing Henry and Samuel journeying through the wilderness together. I understand why those scenes were there, to give us a false sense of security and familiarity, so that, when the reveal happens later on, it’s more shocking, but I can definitely see some people being bored by them. On top of this, the film’s humor is very eccentric. A lot of it derives from the characters meeting people, or seeing things, that are just super weird, like a fat man, dressed in a barrel, who never stops laughing. I found it endearing, but, again, I can see people being put off by it. Still, none of those things take away from the fact that this movie is original, funny, subversive, and very well-acted. It’s an eccentric gem that stands out in the midst of all the franchise mayhem we get this time of year, and I think you’d all like it if you gave it a chance.

Set It Up (2018)

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

Charlie and Harper are too over-worked assistants. Harper works for a former Sports Reporter named Kirsten, and Charlie works for a guy named Rick, who does… something. Whatever the case, they meet one night while desperately trying to procure food for their bosses, and commiserate over the fact that neither of them has time for a social life. Deciding that the only way to improve their existences is to get their superiors laid, and, in so doing, off their backs, Charlie and Harper devise a scheme wherein they’ll manipulate Rick and Kirsten into falling for each other. Things don’t go  quite according to plan, however, as  the two realize that it takes more then serendipity to keep a couple together.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that the Western has become something of a lost genre. With hindsight, I’d say the romantic-comedy has as well. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, rom-coms were everywhere, with films like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle and Pretty Woman absolutely killing it at the box office. Directors like Richard Curtis, and actors like Hugh Grant, were able to build tremendous careers off the strength of this one genre alone. And rom-coms didn’t just make money. They were critically respected as well. In 1977, Annie Hall, a film that has since become a quintessential rom-com, won Best Picture at the Oscars. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that rom-coms were a big deal. But as time wore on, they started to lose their charm. People became acutely aware of the tropes, and more and more feminist critics started to question the genre’s portrayal, and treatment, of women. As such, rom-coms stopped becoming a reliable box-office draw. Oh, studios never stopped making them. There were plenty of rom-coms made in the new millennium, The Notebook, 500 Days Of Summer, that did well financially, but they were either critically-derided, as with the former, or were intended to be deconstructions of the genre, as with the latter. My point is, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a traditional, true-blue rom-com do well on the big screen. Perhaps that’s why Set It Up, which absolutely falls into that category, was released straight to Netflix, a place now regarded as a dumping ground for films no one wants. And that’s a damn shame, because this movie is really, really charming.

I watched Set It Up on a whim. I saw that Lucy Liu was in it, and I always want to support Asian-American actors, so I decided to give it a chance. And when I finished watching this movie, I had a huge smile on my face. This is a movie that doesn’t just work as a rom-com, it works as a genuinely-entertaining film. It’s well-acted, well-paced, well-shot, and, above all, funny. Really, really funny. There’s so many great moments of awkward humor in here, like when Harper hears that Rick only dates women who get waxed, and she awkwardly tries to convince Kirsten to “lose the bush,” that had me in stitches. The actors who play Charlie and Harper, Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch, are so likable, and have absolutely amazing chemistry. And the film is actually a lot better written than I expected. One of my favorite films of last year was Their Finest, a period romance that acted as a meta-commentary on rom-coms. Now, as much as I enjoyed the flick, I was annoyed by how closely it adhered to certain romantic comedy tropes, such as the lead starting out in a relationship, meeting someone new, and then their initial love-interest cheating on them so its okay for them to be with the new person. Set It Up starts out in a similar manner, with the character of Charlie being in a relationship before he meets Harper, but the film isn’t so lazy as to have his first girlfriend cheat on him, or have Charlie sleep with Harper behind her back. He just realizes that him and the girl don’t have anything in common, and they split up, like actual people do. There’s also a minor character, Becca, who you think is going to be a bitchy best friend that Harper can feel envious of because she’s getting married, but the film doesn’t go that route. Becca actually winds up being super awesome and supportive, like real friends are. But by far my favorite thing about this movie is the scene where Charlie, in true rom-com fashion, rushes to the airport. Except a few things are different here. One, he’s not rushing to talk to his love interest, Harper. He’s there to see her boss, Kirsten. And two, the filmmakers manage to poke fun at the cliche by having him get there four hours before the plane is supposed to take off, and be really bored by all the waiting. My point is, Set It Up is an utterly charming film that I’m kind of sad didn’t get a wide release. Critics really like this movie, it currently has a 90% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and I genuinely think it could’ve done well, had the studio given it a chance. As things are, though, all I can say is that, if you have Netflix, and are in the mood for something sweet and charming, give this a look. It’s definitely worth your time.

The Incredibles 2 (2018)

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

Picking up precisely where the last film left off, The Incredibles 2 follows the Parr family as they continue to struggle with the government, homework, boys, and pretty much all the same problems they had before. Except, this time, there may be a solution to their woes. See, even though superheroes are illegal in this world, there are people, powerful people, who want to bring them back into the sunlight. One of them approaches the Parrs, and offers to let them stay in his mansion, and get superheroes legalized again, if they come and work for him. Specifically, if Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl, comes to work for him. See, of all the classic superheroes in this world, she had the best track record when it came to not causing collateral damage, so if they want to convince people supers should be legal, they need to show that they can stop crime without blowing stuff up. So it’s up to Bob, aka Mr. Incredible, to watch the kids. Will he be able to manage? Will Elastigirl help make supers legit again? Well, watch the movie, and find out.

The Incredibles is a very important movie to me. Not only did I love it when it first came out, but I’ve actually grown to appreciate it much more as I’ve gotten older. Because, believe it or not, there is a ton of stuff in it that is super mature, and that simply did not register with my 8-year-old brain. I didn’t know what lawsuits were, or what attempted suicide was. I had no concept of mid-life crises, or adultery. I also didn’t pick up that the movie was a giant homage to 60s spy films. So much stuff in that first flick only became clear to me after I grew up, and, honestly, I think the movie’s become a lot more relevant in recent years. The Incredibles was made before the big superhero boom that started in 2008, and yet, it feels like a response to the MCU. It points out so many cliches and tropes in superhero cinema, and it’s villain, Syndrome, is, in many respects, the perfect analogue for the entitled, mean-spirited fanboys that have become so vocal and prevalent in recent years. What I’m trying to say with all this is, The Incredibles is fantastic, and whenever you have a sequel to a successful film come out 14 years after the original, there’s a strong likelihood that it’s going to be bad. Fortunately, The Incredibles 2 isn’t bad. In fact, it’s quite fun. The animation is superb, far better than the original’s (though that’s just a byproduct of technology improving over time). The music is as jazzy as before. It’s great to see Elastigirl get the chance to shine in the lead role. The believable family dynamics are still there, And the action scenes are amazing. They’re easily the best part of the movie. Basically, this is a fun, exciting movie with a whole lot of what you liked about the first Incredibles. And, odds are, you’ll walk out the theater satisfied.

That said, it’s not as good as the original. And I know that that’s a cliche, to say that a sequel isn’t as good as the original, but there is a reason I say that here. Part of what made the first Incredibles so good was the fact that it was a fresh perspective on the superhero genre. Now, though, after 14 years, we’ve seen every conceivable incarnation of the superhero–from the dark and gritty, to the lighthearted and comedic–and this film doesn’t really have anything new to bring to the discussion. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t really have anything to say about the genre, which is kind of disappointing. On top of this, the film picks up precisely where the last one left off, and yet, characters behave as though they didn’t undergo the arcs they had in the previous flick. Elastigirl still wants her kids to suppress their powers. Mr. Incredible still would rather go off and punch people than spend time with his family. Violet is still insecure around boys, and Dash is still bad at homework. And as if this weren’t bad enough, certain characters, like Dash and Frozone, really don’t get anything to do in this movie. The identity of the villain is also pretty easy to predict, and his/her motivation isn’t nearly as compelling as Syndrome’s from the original. FInally, the movie does a lot of stuff with Jack Jack, the baby of the Parr family who, in the previous flick, was revealed to have multiple powers, and it kind of got on my nerves after a while. They make a big joke out of saying “Oh, he also has this power, and this power, and this power” but it does get to a point where he feels too powerful, and he more or less acts as a deus ex machina. There’s also one scene where he fights a raccoon that totally took me out of the movie. It was so silly, and so inconsistent with the tone that the film had established up to that point that it kind of ruined the movie for me. Now look, I’m probably a minority on this point, since a lot of reviews I’ve read found Jack Jack’s bits to be funny, but I kind of hated them, and they brought the film down for me.  Even so, they aren’t enough for me to tell you to not go see this movie. It’s fun, exciting and the heart is still there. It’s the best Incredibles sequel we could have hoped for after all this time. And, I have to say, I absolutely adored the short film, “Bao” that came before the main movie. If you’re Chinese, or of Chinese descent, like me, you are going to love, and empathize with it, so, so much. It’s great.

First Reformed (2018)

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

Ethan Hawke is the pastor of a small, upstate New York Church. He’s a veteran, a recovering alcoholic, and a man slowly dying of cancer. One day, he is asked by one of his parishioners, Amanda Seyfried, to counsel her husband, a radical environmental activist. The man is depressed, and she believes talking to a pastor would be good for him. Hawke agrees to do so, but finds himself unable to console the man, who believes that humanity’s damage to the Earth is irreversible, and that it’s not worth bringing life into an existence this shitty. Things only get worse when the man kills himself, and Hawke finds a suicide bomber’s vest in the former’s garage. Hawke slowly unravels from there, becoming radicalized into the dead man’s cause, and even planning to blow himself up and kill every member of his congregation in the process. Will he do so? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

First Reformed is a film I hadn’t heard of until my roommate mentioned it to me. Then, when I learned that it was written and directed by Paul Schrader, the writer of such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, I knew I had to go see it. And, having seen it, I can tell you that this is a beautifully-acted, meticulously crafted, haunting, unnerving movie. Now, let me be clear, It’s not the kind of film that you watch to enjoy and feel good about yourself. It’s the kind of film that’s designed to provoke you, to make you uneasy. Which is no surprise, given that many of Schrader’s other movies, Taxi Driver, Last Temptation Of Christ, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, were controversial at the time of their releases. And if you’re a person who doesn’t like the idea of watching a man of God suffer, act violently, and mentally and physically deteriorate, I can totally see why you’d hate this movie. As for me, I found the whole thing strangely hypnotic. It’s a very quiet movie–literally, there’s no score for most of the film–and there are several scenes of Hawke just living his life, and talking to the various members of his congregation. All of this makes both him, and the other characters in the movie, feel more real, and makes you empathize with him, even after he starts to deteriorate. The camerawork is also very interesting. Movement is used very effectively to emphasize both shifts in character, and key plot points. In the first half of the movie, shots are static, wide, and scenes play out in single, unbroken takes. As Hawke unravels, however, the camera begins to move, and not in the sense that it starts shaking, but in the sense that it’ll glide away from him, as if to mirror his sanity slowly leaving his body. All of this, coupled with truly excellent performances from Hawke, and all the supporting cast, definitely make First Reformed worth watching, regardless of its provocative subject matter.

Now, if I have any critiques of the film, apart from the fact that it will no doubt offend many people, it’s that it very much feels like a Paul Schrader joint. Almost all his films, Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, tell the stories of people falling from grace. In many cases, the characters will plan to murder others, as part of some grand political statement, only to chicken out at the last minute, and turn the gun (Taxi Driver) or knife (Mishima) on themselves. This film follows that formula to a T, with it even lifting shots from Schrader’s other movies. At one point , Hawke looks down into his glass as the liquid inside sloshes about (if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, you know what I’m getting at). Now, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with a writer having certain quirks and recurring themes–mine include having the main character be Asian, and telling a story set in the past–but it does get to be a problem when the writer in question just recycles those quirks without trying to do anything new. And, the thing is, for the first half of the movie, it did feel like Schrader was trying to do something new. He was making a quiet drama about a pastor helping others, a refreshing change of pace from the dark and gritty crime-dramas he’s known for. But then, the second half rolls around, and I realized, “oh no. Schrader’s just doing what he always does.” And, because of that, I almost feel like some of the things that the film has to say about God, and the Environment, and the commercialization of spirituality, don’t really resonate anymore, because this is just another story about a crazy person who wants to kill people. And the thing is, the movie even knows this. When Hawke finds the suicide vest in the dead man’s garage, he tells Amanda Seyfried to not let anyone know about this, because, to use his own words, “His cause was just. Best not to sully it with disrepute.” It was like Schrader was trying to remind himself that if he went ahead and told the kind of stories he usually does, all the points he’s making would be rendered moot. Alas, he went ahead and told that story anyway.

But, if I’m being honest with myself, I still think this is a good movie. It’s very well-acted, and very well-crafted with regards to it’s cinematography and sound design. For that reason, I would recommend you all go see it. If it’s in your area, give it a look.