Collateral (2004)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views AreMyGame.

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)

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

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.

Chronicle (2012)

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

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.

The Age Of Shadows (2016)

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

When the Japanese learn that a resistance group is smuggling explosives into Seoul, they send Officer Lee Jung-Chool to stop them. An ethnic Korean with a history of selling out his countrymen, Lee is initially eager to bring the rebels down. But when one of the insurgents he has a hand in killing turns out to be his old classmate, he starts to have second thoughts about the whole affair.

The Age Of Shadows is a brilliantly-shot, beautifully-acted, solidly entertaining spy film. It’s got period-accurate sets, gorgeous costumes, and a nice-sounding score. And unlike Lust, Caution, which is set during the same era, and deals with similar themes of espionage, Age Of Shadows doesn’t put you to sleep. It’s got some great chases, and some spectacular scenes of suspense. Two sequences in particular, one in the beginning where a group of police officers are chasing a man across some rooftops, and one on a train where the Japanese are trying to find rebels, really stick out. They help elevate this film beyond a predictable, patriotic thriller, to something more exciting, and more universally appealing.

That said, I have no desire to watch this movie again. The biggest reason is the runtime. This movie is about 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and there are points where the pacing really does drag. Granted, those moments are quickly replaced with exciting sequences, like the ones I just mentioned, but, still, those slow bits definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. On top of that, as good as the acting in this movie is, there is little to no characterization. You get to know Officer Lee and the chief rebel a bit, since they’re given the most screen time, and have the most to say. But everything we know about everyone else is told to us in voice over, and we’re never really shown who these people are. We’re never given a scene where they all sit down, talk, and act like regular people. And that was a little disappointing.

Still, at the end of the day, I don’t regret having watched this movie, and would even recommend it to you all. If you’re a fan of spy films, Korean movies, or the director, Kim Jee-Woon, give this flick a look. You’ll probably wind up enjoying yourself.

Okja (2017)

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

To end world hunger, the Mirando corporation creates a new breed of genetically-enhanced super pigs. These animals, which look like a combination between hippos, dogs and elephants, eat less, have more meat, and produce fewer excretions. In short, they’re the ideal food source. As part of a PR campaign, Mirando sends several super pigs to farms across the globe, ostensibly to find out which is the best environment to raise them in. One of the super pigs, Okja, is sent to a farm in Korea, where she and her owner, 14-year-old Mija, become inseparable. So much so that, when Mirando tries to collect their property, and bring her back to a slaughterhouse, Mija follows them, and even busts Okja out in one of the most chaotic, destructive, and oddly funny sequences in film history. Throw in some eco terrorists, and an insane Steve Irwin rip off, and you’ve got yourself a movie.

Okja is funny, original, thought-provoking and entertaining. I’m not lying when I say that there was never a point in this movie where I felt bored, or that the pace was lagging. And unlike other summer blockbusters, it really tugs on your heart strings. There was a point about halfway through that I was crying over how Okja was being treated, and any time a movie can get you to care about a made-up, CGI animal, you know its done something right. For these reasons, and the fact that it isn’t a sequel, remake, spin-off or adaptation, I would urge you all to watch it. You won’t regret it if you do.

That being said, the movie does have problems. The biggest, by far, is Jake Gyllenhal. He plays one of the two main villains, and his performance is painfully over-the-top. His voice is distractingly high-pitched. And there’s hardly a moment where he’s not screaming at the top of his lungs. It got to the point that I was dreading whenever he’d reappear. I understand that this was deliberate–that the director, Bong Joon-ho, wanted to contrast the evil, over-the-top villains with the good, more down to earth Mija. But it’s still annoying, and it pulls you out of the movie. The second problem I have is the fact that you have to suspend a whole lot of disbelief to buy this premise. The character Mija does so many insanely dangerous, improbable things–like jumping through a wall of glass, landing on a moving truck, and holding on while it speeds through traffic–that you can’t help but shake your head and say, “that’s bullshit. There’s no way she wouldn’t die.” And finally, the film has a hard time balancing its tone. If you know Bong Joon-ho, you know that sudden shifts in tone are a trademark of his style. But here, the transitions between tones felt a bit less controlled, and a bit more jarring. Even though I liked Baby Driver less than this movie, it, at least, was more consistent with its tone. Here, you’ll go from sweet and innocent to horrifically violent in less than a minute. And I know that that will be off-putting to some people.

Nevertheless, Okja’s originality, quick-pacing, social commentary and emotional depth more than make up for whatever flaws it might have. I love it, and want to see it again. And I’m sure you’d all feel the same way if you saw it too.

Baby Driver (2017)

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

Baby is a getaway driver, working off a debt to the mob. A victim of tinnitus, he constantly blasts music in his ears, partly to help focus, and partly to drown out the ringing that’s been there since he was a kid. He’s never given any thought to what he might do after he’s paid his debt, but now, with the end in sight, and a potential love interest in the form of the waitress Deborah, he’s starting to get ideas. Unfortunately for him, his mob boss isn’t done, as he’s determined to have Baby help on their biggest, and most dangerous, heist. Baby is reluctant, as he’s eager to put that part of his life behind him. But when his colleagues threaten Deborah and his stepfather, Joe, he agrees, and finds himself pulled, once more, into the high-speed world of crime.

Baby Driver is stylish, quirky, well acted, and reasonably entertaining. And unlike half the other films coming out this summer, it’s not based on any pre-existing material. For those reasons alone, I think that you all should see it. I’m certain you won’t regret doing so.

That being said, I have no desire to watch it again. Not because I think it’s bad, but because this movie suffers from much of the same problems that plague all of its director, Edgar Wright’s, other films: like an overlong runtime, an unnecessarily bloated climax, and a general lack of emotional impact. The best way for me to describe Edgar Wright’s movies is as pieces of bubble gum. They pop. They’re flavorful. But they aren’t very nutritious. And they lose their taste very quickly. I felt that way about his movie Hot Fuzz, which I reviewed here, and that’s how I feel about Baby Driver. Both are fun. Both are perfectly watchable. But they’re both about 10 minutes longer than they should be, with their climaxes being unnecessarily bloated, and neither one left me feeling any wiser or more mature. They are pure escapist fantasy, with the fantasy aspect being very prevalent in Baby Driver. The romance between Baby and Deborah is so unrealistically cutesy, that of took me out of the picture. Most films show characters falling in love over time, with them either bonding over mutual interests, or circumstances forcing them together. You don’t get either of those here. Debora falls in love with Baby straight off the bat, without him even saying that much. He just comes into the diner where she works, and she’s instantly smitten with him. He barely says a word in their conversation. And yet , without even knowing his real name, she is willing to do incredibly dangerous, and illegal, things with him… because. This is not the sort of thing people do in real life. Yes, the world of the film is heightened, but I still couldn’t believe their relationship. And because that is the emotional heart of the picture, I was honestly left kind of bored in parts.

Guys, all I can say is this. Baby Driver is stylish, competently crafted, and original enough to keep you entertained if you watch it. I’m certain you won’t regret going to see it if you do. But if you want to watch a Heist-adventure film with a bit more depth and pathos, watch Okja, which is streaming on Netflix. It actually has a point of view, and it did hit me with the feels when it was done.

A Hard Day (2014)

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

While driving to his mother’s funeral, corrupt Detective Geon-Soo Ko accidentally kills a man when the latter stumbles out into the road. Fearing murder charges on top of an Internal Affairs investigation, Ko disposes of the body by stuffing the corpse in his mother’s coffin. But when he starts getting threatening phone calls from a man who claims he knows what he did, Ko finds himself pulled into a much bigger, much weirder conspiracy.

A Hard Day is what I like to refer to as a situation movie. What I mean by that is, it’s a film where it’s the situation that keeps you engaged, even though the characters and dialogue aren’t that interesting. You don’t really know much about Ko. You know that he’s a corrupt cop, you know that he’s got a daughter, a sister and a brother, and you know that he likes to smoke. But what his personality is, what his taste in food, movies and music are; these are things that you’re never shown or told. As such, you don’t really care about him. He’s not what’s keeping you engaged. What is keeping you engaged are the absurd lengths that he goes to in order to not get caught, and how big and weird the situation he’s in turns out to be. Throw in some quirky humor, and some surprisingly intense action, and you’ve got a perfectly fun thriller.

As I said in my reviews for films like Man From Nowhere, Train To Busan, and The Chaser, South Korea is my go-to country when I want good thrillers. There’s something about the way they make crime and mystery films that just elevates them above the fray. The stories are always engaging, the production is top notch, and they have a very specific tone–at once gruesome and comedic–that is almost impossible to duplicate in the West. And unless you think I’m exaggerating, look at the American remakes of OldBoy and A Tale Of Two Sisters, and tell me that something didn’t get lost in translation. A Hard Day is another well-made Korean thriller. It’s not as unique as films like OldBoy or The Wailing, and it’s not as intense as films like The Chaser or I Saw The Devil. It’s a lot more straight forward, and considerably more comedic. And, overall, I would say it’s a step below those other movies. Still, it’s got a lot of the things I like in Korean thrillers–an interesting story, some off-kilter humor, a unique tone–and I don’t regret watching it. And, in a way, I would actually recommend it to you all. No, it’s not as good as the films I just mentioned. But if you want to get into Korean thrillers, and aren’t quite ready for some of the more disturbing aspects of films like OldBoy or I Saw The Devil, give this movie a look. It’s a perfectly fine entry point, and I think you’ll enjoy it.