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.

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Ghost Stories (2018)

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

Phillip Goodman has spent his life investigating the paranormal; all in the hopes of proving that there is nothing to this world beyond what we can see, hear and feel. But, one day, he is contacted by a mentor, and fellow skeptic, Dr. Cameron, who claims that he has come across three cases that cannot be explained through science, and is starting to doubt his life’s work. He begs Goodman to prove him wrong, to find evidence that the cases are all hoaxes, and Goodman agrees, setting out to investigate the three alleged incidents. These include a Night Watchman who was haunted by a girl in an abandoned asylum, a teenager who was attacked by a monster out in the woods, and a financier who was visited by both a poltergeist and the ghost of his dead wife. Goodman is confident that all three cases can be explained through science. As the investigation progresses, however, he becomes less and less sure of this, and more and more skeptical of his own sanity.

Guys, when it comes to movies, I’m a jaded person. I’ve seen, read, and listened to so much about cinema that, most of the time, when I go in to see a movie, I know exactly how it’s going to pan out. Nowhere is this more true than with horror films. The tropes, tricks and trademarks are so well-documented, and have been so thoroughly satirized, that its really hard for me to get scared by them anymore. Even with good horror movies, like Get Out and It Follows, I find myself more engaged by these films than frightened by them. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t scare easily, and when a film comes around that really and truly chills me, it’s special. It’s amazing.  And this film, Ghost Stories, is both of those things. This is the first film I’ve seen, in a very long time, that really and truly frightened me. Everything about it, from the moody cinematography, to the use of music and sound effects, is unnerving. Watching this movie reminded me of those nights when I was a kid, alone in my parent’s house, and even the slightest peep would terrify me. The Asylum sequence, especially, gave me the willies. If you love horror movies, if you’re jaded, and want to watch something truly unsettling, give this flick a look. It is absolutely worth your time.

Now, that said, this movie is still a movie, and therefore suffers from flaws, as all movies do. The biggest one, easily, is the ending. I won’t spoil it, but, I’m not exaggerating when I say that it almost ruined the whole experience for me. It’s barely built up to, completely changes the tone of the rest of the film, and more or less betrays what the picture has been saying so far; that there are some things in life that can’t be explained. And unlike most films that start off well, but have bad conclusions, you can’t just say, “well, the ending sucked, but I can just enjoy the first half by itself,” because this ending completely changes that first half. Still, the acting, cinematography, editing and genuinely frightening tone of this film definitely make it worth a watch. Just go in expecting a stupid ending.

The Death Of Stalin (2018)

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

It’s 1953, and Joseph Stalin is supreme leader of the Soviet union. His rule is so absolute, so terrifying, that everyone lives in constant fear that they may be killed. It’s gotten to the point where people can’t even answer the door, or pick up the phone, without bidding their loved ones goodbye. Then one day, out of nowhere, Stalin dies, and everything is thrown into turmoil. Who’ll take his place? Who’ll be executed? What reforms should be implemented? Should reforms be implemented? All of this depends on which member of Stalin’s inner circle, the dim-witted Georgy Malenkov, the crafty Nikita Khrushchev, or the ruthless Lavrentiy Beria, will assume power. And, the truth is, whichever one of them does win, everyone else still loses.

The Death Of Stalin is the type of comedy that will only appeal to a very specific breed of audience member. If you are a deeply cynical person, who fancies yourself something of an academic, you’ll probably like this movie, because it’s got some very clever wordplay, and some truly repugnant characters. If, however, you go into comedies to laugh, and feel good about the world, avoid this film like the plague. Because, as witty as some of the dialogue is, it’s not really laugh-out-loud funny, and the characters in this movie, as I said, are awful. Granted, the people that they’re based off of really were that bad, but it’s hard to get invested in any one person in this movie when they’re all, objectively, terrible. Literally every single one of them is a murderer, rapist, liar, and bigot. As such, when you watch the film, it’s not because you want any one character to succeed. Rather, it’s more because you can get a smug sense of satisfaction out of watching these mean-spirited morons backstab each other. But, the truth is, that can only carry you for so long. Sooner or later, you need something, someone, to latch onto. And this film doesn’t really have that.

Now, on the one hand, I would argue that personal preference should be kept out of film criticism, because the purpose of criticism is to objectively assess the craftsmanship on display in a work of art. (Someone who instinctively has an aversion to horror films, because they don’t like to be scared, probably shouldn’t review a horror movie.) At the same time, however, certain genres of film truly are subjective. Comedy is one of them. They are meant, first and foremost, to make you laugh, and what people find funny varies from person to person. So, again, if you like mean-spirited, cynical humor, which paints a bleak portrait of humanity, you’ll love this film. If you don’t, you won’t. Taste really is the deciding factor in this movie, because, as with most modern comedies, the humor in this film doesn’t derive from sight gags, silly sound-effects, or funny camerawork. It derives from dialogue. Most scenes are done in long, hand-held wide shots, and just consists of people yelling at each other. This is not a visually dynamic film. All your potential entertainment comes from the dialogue, and if you’re not a fan of the humor, you won’t be a fan of this movie. So, in the end, I don’t know if I can recommend this movie to you all. If you’re a cynic, maybe check it out. If not, don’t bother with it.

Early Man (2018)

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

Millions of years ago, when mankind rode wooly mammoths and hunted dinosaurs, a meteor fell to Earth. And when they saw it, these early humans decided to use it, not for tools or technology, but as a ball. That’s right. A ball. And through their various experimentations with it, the game of football (soccer, for all us Americans) was born. Now, many centuries later, the descendants of the first footballers dwell in a valley, and eek out a living hunting rabbits. But when they are driven out by a group of bronze users because of the ore underneath their village, these plucky Cro Magnons devise a scheme to get rid of the invaders. If they can beat them in a game of football, the bronze people will have to leave their valley for good. So now it’s time for them to train, get into shape, and reconnect with their ball kicking roots.

Early Man is a primary example of the old saying, “it’s not the idea that counts; it’s the execution.” On paper, Early Man is just a generic sports movie. You’ve got a group of underdogs challenging the rich people to a competition, wherein the fate of their home/community center/business will be determined. That’s the exact plot of Step Up, Honey, Silver Linings Playbook, The Bad News Bears, and a million other terrible movies like them. What makes Early Man unique is the fact that it’s claymation, and the fact that it’s got an interesting setting; the stone age. Apart from that, it is identical to all those other movies. Is that a bad thing? Well…

The animation is genuinely impressive. This is the latest film from Nick Park, the creator of Wallace & Gromit, and this film continues his track record of entertaining, well-directed family fare. The character movements are fluid, the world feels real, and there is a ton of great visual comedy in this picture. As a matter of fact, the humor is probably this movie’s greatest asset. Without it, this film would be generic and dull. With it, however, it becomes something very witty and charming. For that reason, I do think the movie is worth a watch. IF you’ve got kids, or are just a fan of Nick Park, you won’t regret going to see this movie. That said, it isn’t nearly as good as some of his earlier work. Part of this has to do with the fact that the plot, and the characters, are so stock. If you take away the animation and the humor, it’s nothing special at all. And the filmmakers seem to know this. If you watch the trailers for this movie, there is no mention whatsoever of sports or football, which is ironic when you consider that that’s literally what the entire picture is about. It’s almost as though they realize that if they sold this as what it is, a generic sports movie, no one would go see it. That says something.

Even so, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t like this movie. Is it original? No. But it’s sweet, funny, and well-animated. And, for most people, that’ll be enough.

The Foreigner (2017)

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

When his daughter is killed in a terror attack, Chinese immigrant Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan) sets out to find the culprits. His search leads him to the doorstep of Liam Hennesey (Pierce Brosnan), a British politician and former IRA member. Quan asks Hennesey to tell him the names of the bombers, but Hennesey claims not to know who’s behind the attack. Quan, correctly, assumes that this is bullshit, and begins tormenting Hennesey, blowing up his bathroom, attacking his staff, and more or less making his life a living hell. This, naturally, places a great deal of stress on the former terrorist, who decides to do some research on Quan, and discovers some disturbing facts about him. What are those facts? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Guys, I’m not lying when I say that The Foreigner was one of my most anticipated movies of this year; right up there with Logan and Wonder Woman. I’ve loved Jackie Chan literally my whole life, and the idea of seeing him in a darker, more dramatic role was beyond appealing. I also thought it’d be fun to finally hear Pierce Brosnan, an Irishman from County Louth, use his native accent in a film. So i’m not lying when I say that, when I sat down in the theater last night, I was pumped. I was ready to be blown away. And now, having seen the movie, I can safely say, it’s not as good as I thought it would be, but it’s still a damn fine film.

Starting off with the positives; the performances are all superb. Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan are both given the chance to play against type here, with Brosnan playing a smarmy, cowardly weasel, and Chan playing a subdued, slightly unhinged man, and both of them really deliver. But I would be remiss if I overlooked the supporting cast, all of whom do terrific jobs. Even people who are only in one or two scenes, like Chan’s daughter, played by Cho Chang herself, Katie Leung, really shine here. So if you’re looking for one reason to see this movie, you’ve got the performances. Another reason to watch this film is the action. It’s brutal, visceral, and beautifully shot. There’s one sequence in the woods, where Chan is attacking Brosnan’s guards, that had the audience in my theater wincing, and going “ooh!” It’s really impressive that, even now, in his 60s, Chan can still punch, kick, and flip with the best of them. Another thing I liked about the movie were the characters. They were well-rounded, believable, and, for the most part, I could understand where they were coming from. I didn’t necessarily condone their actions, but I could understand. Each of them, even those characters who, in other movies, would just be throwaway victims or henchmen, like Brosnan’s wife and nephew, were given a bit more depth and backstory. And I really appreciated that, since it made the whole thing feel more realistic. So, from a technical standpoint–the acting, the cinematography, the sound design–the film is expertly crafted. Why then am I not totally in love with it?

Well, it all comes down to the fact that, for a movie that advertises itself as a Jackie Chan revenge flick, The Foreigner doesn’t actually have that much Jackie Chan. Oh, he’s in it, and he does do a fair bit of stuff. But a great deal more screen time is devoted to Pierce Brosnan’s love life, and IRA infighting. I’m not joking when I say that there’s a good 20 minutes, about halfway through, where Chan just disappears. Which is disappointing. Jackie Chan is the main reason I went to go see this movie, and I’m certain it’s why most other people will as well. Now, granted, when we do see Jackie kicking ass and blowing stuff up, it’s very satisfying. But, the truth is, we have to wade through a ton of baggage to get there. This movie has an extremely convoluted storyline, with so many subplots, from Pierce Brosnan’s affair with a younger woman, to his wife’s affair with his nephew, to how and why the IRA did this attack,that it gets a little boring at times. Now, as I said before, whenever the film does get boring, something usually happens to get you invested again, like Jackie Chan strapping on a bomb, or digging a bullet out of his chest with a knife. But still. A film with this basic of a premise shouldn’t be so complicated. We don’t need to see all this backdoor stuff with the IRA. We don’t care who masterminded the attack. What we do care about is whether or not Jackie Chan will get revenge for his daughter’s death. That’s it. I honestly think that if Martin Campbell, the director, had cut out all the political stuff, and just made this a straight forward revenge film, the movie would have been tighter, cleaner, and considerably more enjoyable. But, then again, Campbell got his big break directing Edge Of Darkness, a 6-hour-long BBC Miniseries about political corruption and conspiracy, so, what do you expect?

Guys, all I can say about The Foreigner is this. If you’re looking for a darker, more serious Jackie Chan, you will get that in this movie. And you’ll probably enjoy the film as a whole. But go in knowing that there’s a lot of added baggage. And sometimes the pacing can get a bit slow.

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.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

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

While serving at the British embassy in Kenya, soft-spoken Justin begins to suspect his wife, Tessa, is having an affair. She’s always going off with her African colleague, Dr. Blum, and she and Justin have been somewhat estranged since their child was stillborn. When Tessa winds up dead, and Blum, the man she was supposed to be with, is nowhere to be found, all of Justin’s fears seem confirmed. But when he looks through her belongings, and discovers some incriminating documents hidden away, he realizes that Tessa was working on something big, and that her death might not have been an accident.

The Constant Gardener is a slow-paced, by-the-numbers thriller, whose strong performances, African setting, and sharp social commentary help elevate it above the many other conspiracy stories out there. Adapted from the novel by John Le Carre, the writer behind such espionage books as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the film offers up simple, undemanding entertainment. It’s highly predictable, and its politics are beyond blatant, but that never gets in the way of the story. For the two hours and ten minutes I watched it, I was never bored, which is always a good thing. And like all of Le Carre’s works, there is a great emphasis on character development here. See, he’s never been interested in gun fights, explosions, or any of the heightened, fantastical things that one might find in the works of other spy writers, like Ian Fleming. Instead, his stories are highly grounded, with the violence being minimal, and most of the stories focusing on the personal lives of the spies. That’s pretty much the case here too. The first 40 minutes are almost all character development, and there’s very little actual onscreen violence. Instead, the spies in this picture act like real spies. They’re subtle. They cover their tracks. They get things done through indirect networks of people. And that was quite refreshing to see.

It was also, in many ways, the film’s greatest weakness. For while it was nice to see these characters be thoroughly fleshed out, there was a point during the first 40 minutes where I asked myself, “Okay, are we ever going to get back to the murder mystery?” And the mystery itself, like I said before, is highly predictable. I could tell, straight off the bat, who the villains were, and there were at least three points in the film where it stopped and reminded us “hey, these are the bad guys,” as if we’d somehow forgotten. That kind of bugged me, as did the camerawork. It was almost all handheld, and there were a TON of extreme close ups where all we could see were people’s faces. Anytime I saw one, I thought to myself, “Come on, guys. You’re in an incredible location. Use it!” Sigh.

But, overall, The Constant Gardener’s fine acting, sharp commentary, and rich character development do balance out its flaws, and make it worth watching. Give it a look when you’ve got the time.