Red Sparrow (2018)

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

Jennifer Lawrence is a Russian ballerina, working to support her mother. When her career is cut short by an apparent accident, her uncle, a member of a KGB-esque spy organization, recruits her to help seduce a particular government official. Things go wrong, however, when the operation, which Lawrence was told would be a simple phone swap, turns out to be an assassination; an assassination that there aren’t supposed to be any witnesses to. So she is given a choice, die, or join an organization of “sparrows,” special operatives who are trained to use their bodies to seduce and gain intel. After a long, arduous training regimen, which includes several humiliating, degrading sex acts with strangers, Lawrence is sent to Hungary to find a mole. There, she encounters an American CIA operative, played by Joel Edgerton, who is also looking for the mole. Seeing in him an opportunity to find her target, Lawrence begins to seduce him. As the two get closer, however, she realizes that things may be a bit more complicated than previously thought.

You wouldn’t think it would be possible for a film to be both shockingly lurid, and ass-numbingly boring at the same time. But, by god, Francis Lawrence, the director of this movie, found a way to do just that. Because, at it’s heart, Red Sparrow is a Cold-War thriller about trying to find a mole. That’s it. It’s just a story about two spies trying to find someone.  That’s about as run-of-the-mill a narrative as you can get for these types of movies. The only thing that sets this flick apart from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and a million other movies about trying to find moles is the explicit sexuality. And the insane thing is, for all the time we spend in the beginning, watching Lawrence get used and abused, and hardened into a sexual weapon, that element really doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot. When she finds out who the mole is, it isn’t through her training. The person in question just comes up and tells her. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if you took the very long, very uncomfortable first half out of the movie, the main plot, the quest to find the mole, would be effected in no way whatsoever. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that the first half, wherein we see Lawrence training, is brutal. People in my theater actually got up and left after certain sequences. I did as well after the second, yes, second, rape scene. It’s very, very hard to watch. And seeing as how it has almost nothing to do with the main story, it just comes off as needlessly cruel and exploitative.

Now I do want to be fair and list some of this film’s positive qualities. The music, composed by James Newton Howard, is beautiful, and it really helps elevate certain moments that would otherwise just be kind of dull. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the costumes and sets are very, very impressive. In many ways, this film is similar to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which I reviewed here on this blog. That film was also an erotic spy thriller with good acting, good camerawork, good costumes and good sets, but a less than compelling narrative, and some very uncomfortable sex scenes. The biggest difference between this film and that one, though, is the fact that Lust, Caution actually took the time to develop it’s characters before it dove into the sex. You saw these peoples lives before the main plot, and you saw them struggling with inner turmoil. As I said in my review for that film, it’s not until about 2 hours in that we get any sex at all. In this picture, not only is the narrative uninspired, and the sexual politics questionable, but you don’t really know anything about the main character. The film almost builds a wall around her identity, with her motivations in certain sequences being rather unclear. And even when her motivations are clear, there aren’t always repercussions for the things she does as a result of those motives. In one scene, for instance, she finds out that her old dance partner was sleeping with her replacement, and that the two of them might have been the cause of her accident. So, in a blind rage, she goes an attacks them, seemingly beating them to death. Now, you’d think this would be a major event in her life, since it’s before she gets recruited by the government, and, as far as we can tell, she’s never hurt anyone like that, but no. It never comes back into play at all. And when you realize that, you begin to wonder why it was in the movie. And the film is littered with moments like that, moments where logic is just thrown out the window.

So, in the end, I can’t really recommend this movie to you all. If you’re a fan of Jennifer Lawrence, or Cold War Thrillers, which I’m not even sure this is, since characters in the film say “the Cold war is over” and they use technology that wouldn’t have existed back then, maybe you’ll like it. If, on the other hand, you can’t stand to see rape in movies, want plots that are a little more inspired, and Russian accents that actually sound convincing , maybe look elsewhere.


Horsemen (2008)

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

Estranged from his children after the death of their mother, hardened homicide detective Aiden Breslin (Dennis Quaid) is called in to investigate a series of ritualistic murders. His search brings him into contact with Kristen Spitz (Zhang Ziyi) the daughter of one of the victims. She pleads with him to find the killers, but then, five minutes later, reveals herself to be one. She explains that she is part of a group who model themselves after the four horsemen of the apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence and Death), and that there will be more murders. And, well, shit gets crazy from there.

The best way for me to describe Horsemen is as “Seven for Dummies.” Like Seven, this film is a mystery involving brutal, religiously themed murders. But unlike Seven, where there is very little onscreen violence, this movie has several torture scenes in it. And whereas Seven’s characters were compelling and well-defined, the characters in Horsemen are one-note, and even kind of annoying. In other words, they’re the kind of characters you expect to see in a Michael Bay production, which, unfortunately, is what this is. But before I delve into my many criticisms, I do want to list some things I liked about the movie. First of all, it looks great. The cinematography is beautiful, and the use of color is very effective. Second, the film moves at a quick pace, so I was never bored while watching it. And third, the acting, for the most part, is solid. So, in terms of pure craftsmanship–acting, cinematography, sound design–this movie is perfectly competent.

It’s a shame, therefore, that the script is not. As I mentioned earlier, the characters are not well-defined. All you really know about them is their type–neglectful father, angry son, etc–and their motivations don’t make sense. Well, that’s not entirely true. Zhang Ziyi’s motivation does make sense. She was sexually-abused by her parents, and wanted revenge. That I can understand. But for some of the other people, like Cory, aka Death, the reasoning behind their actions makes no sense at all. And even though I understand why Zhang Ziyi wants revenge, I have no idea why she just decides to give herself up. She doesn’t feel guilty about the murder, and the police aren’t making any progress when she does confess, so there’s no reason for her to. Well, that’s not true. If she didn’t come forward, the plot wouldn’t be able to advance, because the police in this film are beyond inept. Seriously. Every time Quaid finds out something in this movie, it’s because someone tells him. He never deduces anything on his own. Ugh.

Guys, all I can say about Horseman is this. It’s a competently-crafted, but poorly-written murder mystery. It’s got some good cinematography, and some solid leads. But unless you’re already a fan of the actors, or this particular brand of thriller, you probably shouldn’t watch it. It’s not worth your time.

House Of Flying Daggers (2004)

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

The Tang Dynasty is in shambles. The government is both corrupt and weak, and, every day, it loses more ground to the House of Flying Daggers, a popular rebel group. So, in a desperate ploy to bring the insurgents down, the Tang give two detectives, Leo and Jin, ten days to find and kill the head of the cell. Believing that Mei, a blind dancer at a local brothel, might have connections to the rebels, they arrest and interrogate her. But when Leo decides that they might be able to use Mei to lead them to the group, Jin springs her out of jail, pretending to be sympathetic to the insurgent’s cause. As they travel north, towards the Daggers encampment, however, Jin finds himself growing closer to Mei. So much so that, when they finally find the Daggers, he might not want to bring them down after all.

House Of Flying Daggers is beautifully-shot, and superbly acted. And it’s the sort of film that only makes sense to the eye. What I mean by that is, many things happen in it that work as pure eye candy, or visual representations of character’s psyches–like a scene suddenly shifting from summer to winter. But when you actually stop and think about it, none of the movie makes sense. And I mean none of it. If you consider this movie’s plot or characters even slightly, the whole thing comes flying apart. This all stems from a veritable marathon of twists that get revealed within the last 20 minutes of this 2 hour movie. First, you find out that Mei isn’t actually blind. Next, you find out that the Madam of the brothel where she worked is actually the head of the Flying Daggers. Except, as you learn just a few minutes later, she’s not really. Then you learn that Leo, who’d been using Jin and Mei to track the Daggers, was actually a member of the Daggers the whole time, and in love with Mei. None of these twists are built up to in any manner, and when you stop and think about them, none of them make sense. First, why would Mei pretend to be blind? How does that help her? There are several points in this movie where characters trick her, or sneak up on her, because they know she can only hear them. Except, as it turns out, that’s not true. She can see them. So how would they be able to sneak up on her? Why would she let them sneak up on her? Next, why were she and the leader of the Flying Daggers in a brothel?  What was their goal in doing so? To seduce people? To gather intel? Was it even a brothel to begin with? How did they infiltrate it? Third, if Leo was a member of the Flying Daggers the whole time, why would he arrest Mei? Why would he use her to find the Daggers? Doesn’t he, as a member, already know where they are? These are just a few of the many, many, many questions you find yourself asking when you start to think about this movie and it’s twists. And that’s not good.  A film’s narrative logic should be air tight.

But, you know what? I can forgive logical errors. Those mistakes happen in filmmaking, and, oftentimes, you don’t spot them until you’re done shooting. What I can’t forgive is rape, and this film has no less than three attempted rape scenes in it. Mei’s character is molested by both her male love interests, on multiple occasions. No, they never fully rape her. But they do grope her without consent, and tear off her clothes. Thankfully, each time they do so, someone intervenes. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that this movie has the balls to show her getting molested, on multiple occasions, and then have her fall in love with the assholes who groped her. I find this crude, misogynistic sentiment to be utterly revolting, and I think it’s long past time we stopped using it in our art. No one asks to be raped. No one enjoys being raped. No victim of rape ever falls in love with their rapist. Why, filmmakers, can’t you accept that?

Guys, if it seems like I’m angry, it’s only because I expected so much more from this movie. You’ve got one of the most talented directors in the world, Zhang Yimou, behind the camera, and one of the most talented actresses of all time, Zhang Ziyi, in front of it. And to be fair, they both do their part. The cinematography, costumes and color palate are all exquisite, as you expect from a Zhang Yimou picture. And Zhang Ziyi gives a believable, heartbreaking performance as Mei, also as you’d expect. But the script just isn’t up to the same level that they are. It relies too much on twists that are never built up to, and it’s sexual politics are beyond disgusting. For that reason, I can’t recommend you all see this. Maybe watch some of the fight scenes on YouTube, but definitely don’t buy or rent the whole movie.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

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

While waiting for the holidays to end, young Mary follows a Black Cat into the woods, where she discovers some mysterious blue flowers. And being a child in a fantasy film, she, of course, touches them. As soon as she does so, she finds herself transported to a fantastic new world, full of magic, amazing technology, and bizarre creatures. And, much to her chagrin, she can now fly, turn invisible, and do all sorts of amazing things. But not all is as it seems to be, as Mary quickly discovers that she can only do magic while in possession of the flower, and, more importantly, that some in this new world may want it for nefarious reasons.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is pure visual joy. It’s beautifully-animated, superbly scored, and the sheer imagination with which its world is drawn cannot be compared. On the basis of its creativity and originality alone, I say, go out and see it. At the same time, however, I would be remiss if I told you that I liked this film. Did I hate it? No. But I certainly didn’t love it either. And a lot of it comes down to poor storytelling.

There are a great many things that get introduced in this flick that either never get brought up again, or just don’t get the attention they deserve. Things like Mary’s parents being away, or her friend, Peter’s, troubled home life, are some of the details that get introduced, only to never be brought up again, while a fantastical school for witches, and Mary’s family’s mysterious past, are just a few interesting aspects that are touched upon, but never fully explored. Which is a real shame. When you see the school that Mary visits, how truly imaginative it is, and realize that it’s not going to be a big part of the film, you find yourself going, “Aw. But I liked where that was headed.” There are also some technical details that bugged me in this picture, like how the English dub was kind of wooden, and how it never really matched with the characters’ mouths’ movements. But by far the biggest complaint I have about this film is the hero, and the villains. In a good film, you’ll have a character who is flawed, but likable, and, by the end of the story, after undergoing many hardships, he or she will emerge a better person. Mary doesn’t really undergo any kind of change. They set it up like she’s going to have this big arc, with her being very clumsy, and not being able to help anyone, despite her best efforts. But, by the end of the film, she’s pretty much exactly the same person as before. I’m not even joking when I tell you that her hair has a bigger arc in this movie than she does. And that’s not even getting into the villains. Good villains have clear goals, and, if written properly, understandable intentions. Mary and the Witch’s Flower has half of that, since you understand what the villains are trying to do, but you don’t really understand why. Which is super frustrating. If you have bad guys who are doing bad things, seemingly just for the heck of it, you can’t get invested in their conflict with the heroes, and just wind up zoning out. Which is never good, since the goal of all film is to entertain.

So, in the end, I don’t really know how to rate Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In terms of visuals, music, and pure originality, it can’t be compared. So, on that level, I say, watch it. At the same time, however, the underdeveloped villains, uninteresting hero, and plethora of abandoned plot threads make it hard to get into it on anything deeper than a visual level. Make of this what you will.

Pawn Sacrifice

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu is the Name, And views Are My Game.

Hey kids, did you know that, once upon a time, people actually cared about chess? No, I’m not shitting you! Back in the 1970s, when America was determined to beat the Soviets at everything, there was a real surge in chess’s popularity. That was because a young man named Bobby Fischer managed to beat the Russian Grand Master, Boris Spassky, and, in so doing, gave the American people something to brag about. The story of how he did this, as well as how he coped with his inner demons, is what is told in Pawn Sacrifice, the latest film from director Edward Zwick, and star Tobey Maguire.

And it’s terrible. Yeah. I wish I could be more subtle, more nuanced, but that’s the fact of the matter. It’s terrible.

Now, before any of you say anything, I want to be clear that there are aspects of this film that work. The costumes, sets, and especially the fake news broadcasts, are all beautiful, and help to bring the film’s time period to life. The news broadcasts are actually what I loved most about this movie. They give you a real sense for how big a deal this match was, as well as what technology was like back then. On top of this, Tobey Maguire is truly hypnotic as the unhinged chess champ, Bobby Fischer.

But, alas, none of this is enough to save this film from its weak script. To put it bluntly, this movie just isn’t interesting. And it’s not because it’s about people playing chess. The End Of The Tour and The Social Network are movies about writers and website designers, neither of whom are the most exciting groups in the world. And yet, these films still managed to be critical and commercial successes. Why? Because they had fleshed out characters and engaging narratives. Pawn Sacrifice has an interesting premise, but completely flat characters. Every line of dialogue they speak is either exposition, or stuff that will move the plot forward. We’re never given a scene where someone simply sits down, and talks to someone else about food, or art, or anything unrelated to politics and chess. Because of this, they never feel like real people, and we never feel any urge to care about them. Seriously! About 40 minutes into this movie, I completely tuned out. I pulled out my i-pad, and watched the music video for Rania’s “Dr Feel Good.” I was more concerned with why a K-pop girl group was wearing dominatrix outfits than I was with the movie I was watching. That’s not good. Movies, first and foremost, are supposed to entertain you. They’re supposed to suck you in. Pawn Sacrifice does neither of those things. It fails to do the very thing that it was created for. On top of this, as much as I like the news broadcasts, they also kind of take something away from the narrative. They tell us how we’re supposed to think and feel. They tell us how big a deal the Cold War is. They tell us how people in the world are responding to Bobby Fischer. We never actually see people living in fear of nuclear annihilation, or espionage. Because of this, we’re kept at a perpetual distance from the story and its characters. They’re not real to us, because we’re never allowed to see or feel what they feel, only hear it. A good film will SHOW you the climate and environment of its story. A perfect example of this is the first few minutes of the movie Hunger. Set during the Troubles in Ireland, the film’s opening scenes have absolutely no dialogue, and yet, we learn so much from them. We see a man looking under his car, and over his shoulder. We see the cuts and bruises on his knuckles when he goes to take a smoke. We gather from this that he lives in a world of constant and unpredictable danger, and that his daily routine is fraught with violence. It’s so obvious to us, and yet, we’re not told a single word. That kind of subtlety doesn’t exist in Pawn Sacrifice, and the movie really suffers as a result.

Guys, I’m not going to waste any more of your time. Pawn Sacrifice is a boring, poorly written, overly obvious piece of junk. 5 out of 10. Don’t watch it.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

How often do you come across people who say “I want to be wrong?” Not very, I’ll bet. And yet, that was exactly what I kept saying to myself as soon as I heard that Netflix and The Weinstein Company were making a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. See, I might not have mentioned it here before but, Crouching Tiger , Hidden Dragon is my favorite film of all time. It’s not only the first movie I ever saw, but it’s also the movie that inspired me to want to make films. Seriously! As soon as I saw it, I went out and made a short movie “Crouching Lion, Hidden Eagle” with my parent’s cam quarter. And, keep in mind, I was only six at the time I did this. Any movie that can inspire a six year old to want to go out and make movies, when he doesn’t even know what a camera is yet, is fucking amazing! And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge critical and commercial success at the time of its release, taking home four Academy Awards, and, to this day, remains the highest grossing foreign language film in American history. Everything about it, from its direction, to its screenplay, to its cinematography and its score, were lauded. This was the film that made an international superstar out of Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, who went on to star in such acclaimed movies as Hero, House Of Flying Daggers, 2046, and Memoirs Of A Geisha. This was the picture that cemented director Ang Lee’s status as one of the all-time great filmmakers, and proved to Hollywood executives that, yes, non-English movies can make money, and are, in fact, worth producing.

This sequel, however–this sickening piece of filth that dares to carry the same name as the original, beloved masterpiece–is nothing but garbage. It is the total antithesis of everything the first film was, or stood for. Just to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here, the original film was over three hours long, shot entirely in Mandarin, and was primarily a drama, but with fight scenes scattered throughout. The sequel, by contrast, is barely over an hour and a half long, shot entirely in English, and is just a series of fight sequences strung together by the loosest of plots. The original Crouching Tiger took its time before jumping into the action, with the first 20 minutes being devoted to character development and dialogue. The sequel barely waits 2 minutes before shoving us into one of many pointless, poorly shot, poorly edited fight scenes. The first film was done entirely in-camera, with actual people performing the stunts and choreography. The sequel has A LOT of CGI in it, and, half the time when you’re watching the movie, you can tell that those aren’t real people, backgrounds, or objects. I could go on forever, but I think you get the idea.

Now, to be fair, this sequel was doomed from the start. The original Crouching Tiger ended with all but one of the main characters dying. This, by itself, makes it very difficult for anyone to make a sequel without there being a huge shift in tone and style. Add to this the fact that the studios waited over 15 years to make the sequel, and you’ve got a project just begging to fail. Now, by itself, a delayed production and drastic shift in tone aren’t enough to doom a film. Aliens came out in 1986, a whole seven years after the release of Alien, and was an action film as opposed to a horror movie, and yet, it turned out to be great. But in that circumstance, you had a really talented group of filmmakers–James Cameron, Walter Hill–working behind the camera to make the movie the best that it could be. The sequel to Crouching Tiger, by contrast, lacks any such talented individuals on its crew. Just to give you an idea, the film’s director, Yuen Woo-Ping, isn’t even a director. He’s a fight choreographer. He gave us all the combat in The Matrix, Kill Bill, and the original Crouching Tiger, so we know that he’s good at getting people to punch, kick and strangle each other in an entertaining manner. But can he tell a good story? Can he create characters who are well-rounded, and that you want to see prevail? No, and no. Ang lee, the man behind the original Crouching Tiger, has one two Academy Awards for Best Director. He knows how to get good performances out of actors, and to build up worlds with subtlety and nuance. Yuen Woo-Ping is about as subtle as a bat to the head. Add to this the fact that the sequel was written by John Fusco–who penned such films as Thunderheart, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Spirit: Mustang Of The Cimarron–and you’ve got everything you need to know.

Guys, I’m going to make this very simple by stating that the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is absolute garbage. I award it a 0 out of 10! That’s right. I hate it more than Inglorious Bastards, the remake of Point Break, and 50 Shades Of Grey combined. DON’T WATCH IT!