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 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.

Dear White People (Season 2, 2018)

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

One week after the climax of the first season, the Black students of Winchester University have a new problem to deal with. Actually, they’ve got several. Due to someone setting another dorm on fire, Armstrong Parker, the campus’s traditionally all-Black residence hall, has been integrated, and the locals don’t like their new White neighbors. On top of this, there’s an alt-right troll posting horrible things online about Sam, Coco, Troy, and pretty much all the other main characters. And as if this weren’t bad enough, each of our protagonists has personal demons to deal with. For Coco, it’s an unplanned pregnancy. For Sam, it’s her father’s ailing health. For Reggie, it’s PTSD from the time a cop pulled a gun on him for no reason. And for Troy, it’s a sense of listlessness after losing a clear direction in his life. How will they deal with these issues? Watch the season, and find out for yourself.

Dear White People, Season 2, is a rare achievement. It’s a follow-up to a hit series that maintains the quality of the original. The dialogue is sharp as ever, the performances are top notch, and the drama feels very real. I was honestly kind of amazed as I was watching it at how much emotional depth was being given to the characters. My two favorite episodes, easily, are a tense, 30-minute conversation between Sam and Gabe, where they air their grievances, and eventually fall back in love, and the one directly afterward, where Sam has to go home for personal, tragic reasons. These episodes were the ones where the characters felt the most like real people, and the more political aspects of the show were toned down in favor of telling more grounded, human stories. They’re great, and, honestly, I think you could watch them without having seen the rest of the show, and still appreciate them. This season also drops some weird plot threads from the first, like Troy’s affair with one of his professors, despite the fact that she’s married, and a lesbian, which I’m personally glad about, because that just raises far too many problematic questions to count. And, as if this needs saying, Lionel is an absolute gem. He’s the nicest, and certainly the most put-together of the main cast, having a pretty stable personal life, and just not being an asshole to people out of hand. Every episode with him as the primary focus is super fun, and I loved watching him and this one guy named Wesley fall for each other. In short, Dear White People, Season 2, is quite good, and you all should give it a look.

But do so knowing a few key things. For starters, there’s a lot from the first season that doesn’t carry over. I mentioned Troy’s affair with his professor, but there’s also some characters, such as Reggie’s friend Ikumi, whom I liked, and who were introduced in the first season, that never get brought up again. They might as well have not existed, that’s how little attention the show pays to them in this season. On top of this, there’s a multi-episode subplot, involving a secret society, that ends with the narrator, who, up till that point, was just a voice who explained stuff to the audience, actually becoming a person the protagonists can interact with. I thought it was kind of weird, and I’m not sure where the show will take it. Finally, there’s something that the writers do that, admittedly, I thought was pretty clever at first, but just got on my nerves after a while, and that’s having the characters acknowledge that they’re in a TV show. It’s not quite breaking the fourth wall, but it gets very close. Sometimes, it’ll be meta-textual jokes , like when Sam asks her roommate, Joelle, to go running with her, and the latter says, “what, like that thing White girls do in TV, so the show runners have a visually interesting means of getting out exposition?” Other times, it’ll be characters commenting on TV shows they’re watching, which themselves are parodies of real programs, like Scandal and Empire. It’s fine, at first, but they do it in almost every single episode, and it honestly gets kind of distracting after a while. Part of this is because the first season isn’t like this at all. It’s not like Deadpool, where the whole joke is the fact that this character knows he’s in a movie, and is making fun of the tropes we see in movies. Dear White People, at least initially, was all about addressing real issues of race, gender, sexuality and identity on college campuses that exist today. It wasn’t some big parody of the kinds of movies and shows that do that, and when the characters constantly reference that they’re in a TV show, it feels like they are making fun of the exact type of program they are.

Still, if I’m being honest with myself, none of these issues are enough for me to tell you all to not check the show out. It’s well-written, well-acted, and always entertaining. Go ahead and give it a watch.                                             

Deadpool 2 (2018)

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

Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool, has a problem. His girlfriend is dead, and, thanks to his healing factor, he can’t join her in heaven. Not until his heart is in the right place. But what does that mean? Well, Wade interprets that as a call to protect a young mutant boy, Russell, from the time-traveler Cable, who has journeyed back from the future to assassinate him. And if that sounds like the plot to a Terminator movie, never fear. Deadpool most certainly comments on that fact. So now, the race is on to assemble a new super team, X-Force, and save Russell before it’s too late. Will they do both in time? Well, you’ll just have to watch to find out.

Deadpool 2 is a movie I watched purely on a whim. I wasn’t a huge fan of the original. I mean, I liked it well enough, and I could certainly understand why people appreciated it, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. A little too much profanity, and childish humor, for my taste. Still, the reviews for this film came in, they were good, and I decided to sit down in a movie theater and give Deadpool 2 a try. And, having done so, I found myself walking out rather satisfied.

This movie is more or less exactly what the original was–lots of violence, profanity, and meta-textual humor–but with a bigger budget. A lot more explosions and car chases this time around. Like the last one, there are some jokes that really hit, and some jokes that don’t. Also like the last one, the acting, particularly from Ryan Reynolds, is quite good, though Reynolds does chew the scenery a bit too much for my taste. There’s one moment in particular, which parodies overlong, dramatic death scenes, that I found a bit grating. But, to be fair, that’s entirely a matter of personal taste. As I mentioned in my Death Of Stalin review, comedy is one of the few genres that is truly subjective. If you aren’t into a particular type of humor, you won’t like certain movies. So, for that reason, I can’t really knock Deadpool 2 down for not having jokes that I liked. What I can comment on is the filmmaking, which, for the most part, is solid. As I said, the acting is good, the action is well-staged, with everything being shot in clear, long takes, and the film moves at a brisk enough pace that you’re never bored. I also liked the introduction of new characters into the universe, particularly Domino, who has the power to be lucky, and Yukio, who is Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s girlfriend. That last fact is actually a pretty big deal, because Yukio and Negasonic are now officially the first openly queer couple in a mainstream blockbuster. That’s huge. I also really like the woman who plays Yukio, Australian actress Shiori Kutsuna, who, fun fact, was in a movie that one of my professors, Shinho Lee, wrote. It’s called While The Women Are Sleeping, and I think you all should check it, and her other work, particularly the Japanese remake of Unforgiven, out. Unfortunately, neither she nor Negasonic are really in the movie for that long. And even though it’s great to see an openly queer Asian woman in a mainstream blockbuster, she’s kind of a Japanese stereotype. She giggles, waves, and the only thing she really gets to say is “Hi Wade” and “bye Wade” throughout the movie. I just hope that in the next film, she gets a little more to do. But my biggest gripe, by far, is the fact that, as impressive as the action is, it’s all so big and frenetic that it gets exhausting after a while. It kind of reminds me of The Last Jedi. If you read my review for that film, you’d know that I liked the movie, but I found all the action in it so big and bombastic that no single beat felt more important or impactful than another. The same principle holds true with Deadpool 2. Virtually every action scene involves an explosion, ten cars flipping over each other, and at least 100 people getting killed. And those are supposed to be the smaller, warm-up beats leading to the big climax.

In the end, though, I do think Deadpool 2‘s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It’s got good acting, well-filmed action and a brisk pace. Maybe some of the humor doesn’t land, and maybe it could have given Yukio and Negasonic more to do, but those are both matters of personal taste. I do think it’s fun, and definitely worth a watch.

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.

Isle Of Dogs (2018)

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

The Japanese archipelago, 20 years in the future. Canine saturation has reached an all-time high, and an outbreak of dog flu has created mass hysteria within the city of Megasaki. To quell the panic, Mayor Kobayashi signs an executive order deporting all dogs, including his family’s pet, Spots, to nearby trash island; the newly christened “isle of dogs.” Unbeknownst to the public, however, the cat-loving Kobayashi actually created the virus to stir up anti-dog hysteria, and is actively repressing the fact that it can easily be cured. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the mayor’s nephew and ward, Atari, has stolen a plane, and flown over to the island to find his beloved Spots. WIll Atari find his dog? Will the truth about the Mayor get out to the public? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Isle Of Dogs is written and directed by Wes Anderson. That fact alone makes this movie very hard to review, because, regardless of how flawed it might be, Anderson has an extremely loyal fan base, who will watch, and love, his films no matter what. For my part, I have mixed feelings on him. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, and hated others, liked The Darjeeling Limited. And while I admire filmmakers who have very distinct visual, auditory and tonal styles, Anderson’s pension for bland, deadpan acting, overly hip soundtracks, and tendency to include, and barely use, recognizable stars, gets on my nerves. The fact that almost all his films have the same story, or deal with similar themes, also makes them very repetitive, and somewhat tedious, to get through. So, the question you have to ask yourself before you buy a ticket is, do I want to see another Wes Anderson movie? If not, avoid this film like the plague, because it is exactly like all his other movies. Every single Anderson-ism you could think of, symmetrical shots, pastel colored sets, deadpan acting, hipster music, sudden, and violent, scuffles, is on display here. Ed Norton, BIll Murray, Harvey Keitel, and Jeff Goldblum are all in this movie, as you’d expect. The flick even recycles plot elements from Anderson’s other films, particularly Moonrise Kingdom, which is also about an orphan running away from home and going on an adventure. Don’t let the fact that it’s animated, set in Japan, and about talking dogs fool you. You’ve seen this movie before. Many times.

Now before any Wes Anderson fans get up in arms about my review, there are aspects of this movie that I liked. The animation is beautiful, the story, while derivative of Anderson’s other work, is original, and there is a sweet relationship at the heart of this film. Over the course of the movie, Atari becomes close friends with Chief, a stray who initially doesn’t like him, and watching them grow to love each other is genuinely enjoyable. There are also some very cool nods to the works of Akira Kurosawa in this film. The soundtrack to Seven Samurai is played at several points in this movie, and there are some shots, including one of our heroes burying somebody, that are lifted directly from that film.

Unfortunately, that brings me to one of my biggest criticisms of the movie; the fact that its portrayal of Japan is beyond stereotypical. You can tell, just by looking at how the Japanese characters are designed, talk and move, that this was made by an outsider. There are several, extremely long scenes, which have nothing to do with the plot, where we watch stuff like sumo wrestling, kabuki theater, sushi preparation and taiko drumming, where you can tell that the director has never actually been to Japan, and is just pulling random things that he associates with the country out of his hat. And I’m not the only one who thinks this. Justin Chang of the LA Times, Steve Rose of The Guardian, Allison Willmore of BuzzFeed, and Angie Han of Mashable have all made note of how Anderson’s Japan consists almost exclusively of tourist cliches. And that even extends to the Japanese characters themselves. None of them speak English. Most of the time, when they talk, there are no subtitles. And a good portion of this film’s humor consists of the filmmaker going “Ha ha. These Asian characters can’t speak English. Look how funny they are when they try to communicate.” There’s also an American exchange student character, played by Greta Gerwig, who is the quintessential White savior. She comes to Japan, suspects Mayor Kobayashi of wrong-doing, and literally slaps her Asian colleagues into action. It’s kind of incredible that nobody seems to care about this. Now I do want to be fair and say that the stereotyping in this film doesn’t seem malicious. Anderson doesn’t appear to be saying, “the Japanese are lesser than us.” He just seems to have a very limited perception of them, and his portrayal of them is, likewise, very narrow. I didn’t find it offensive. More obnoxious. Like, “really? We’re actually doing this cliche? Ah well.”

But, as I said at the start of this review, the fact that this movie is made by Wes Anderson means that it will have an audience, no matter what. If, however, you aren’t a die-hard fanboy, and some of what I have said turned you off going to see this movie, good. Save your money, and watch something else.