American Made (2017)

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

It’s 1978, and Barry Seal is a pilot for TWA. He’s good at his job. Great at it, actually. Which is probably why he’s so agonizingly bored. Anyway, when a CIA agent approaches him in a hotel bar, and offers him the chance to fly over South America and take pictures of Communist Insurgents, he, of course, says “yes.” But it doesn’t take long for his knew life to get derailed. While flying over Colombia, he is approached by none other than Pablo Escobar, who offers to pay him a crap ton of money if only he’ll fly cocaine into the US. Seal, again, says “yes,” not seeming to know, or care, about the consequences. These consequences being too much money to possibly spend or hide, Nicaraguan rebels trying to kill you, and every single law enforcement agent in the country coming after your ass. Will he survive? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

American Made has a strong cast, a big budget, and a fascinating, fact-based story. All the ingredients for a great film are here. So why did I spend most of the film in a state of boredom? Well, part of it could be the fact that I saw this movie at a very late showing, and was extremely tired at the time. It’s certainly possible that that had an effect on my opinion. But what I really think caused my boredom, what I truly believe held this movie back, were its light-hearted tone, and bad characterization.

What I mean by this is, American Made is a comedy. Yes, it’s a story about drug dealers and CIA agents. Yes, it has violence and scenes of suspense in it. But, for the most part, all the high-stakes antics are played for laughs. We’re meant to find all the dangerous, ridiculous situations that Seal gets into as just that; ridiculous. In this way, it is similar to another, fact-based film, I Love You, Phillip Morris, which tells the true story of a con-man who managed to escape prison several times. In that film, the writers knew that if they tried to play the absurd things the character did straight, the audience wouldn’t buy it. So they made it a comedy. The filmmakers do that in American Made too, but what they don’t seem to realize is that their story is much, much darker than the one in I Love You, Phillip Morris. This is a story about Nicaraguan death squads, and drug dealers who kidnapped and murdered people’s families. And yet, despite all that, we’ve got brightly-colored cartoon exposition scenes, and a protagonist who cracks jokes, even when someone has knocked his teeth out, and is pointing a machine gun in his face. The fact that he, and by extension, the filmmakers, don’t take any of what’s happening seriously leads us, the audience, to not take it seriously either. Even with stuff that we should. It gets to the point where someone gets killed by a car bomb, and we’re meant to find it comical. The characters in this film are also kind of weak. Oh sure, they have personalities and voices. But we don’t know much about them. We don’t know anything about Seal’s wife, other than that she used to work at KFC. For that matter, we don’t really know anything about Seal, other than that he’s a gifted pilot. He’s also an extremely passive protagonist. Everything he does in this film is because someone else tells him to, unlike the real Barry Seal, who, in several cases, initiated the illegal acts he took part in. The best protagonists are the ones who are active; who drive the plot forward with their choices. American Made’s protagonist does make choices, but, for the most part, the choices get made for him, and you wind up caring about him less overall as a result.

Guys, if it sounds like I hated this film, I didn’t. I liked the story, and the cast, and I think it had a lot of potential. But the super silly tone held me back from taking it seriously, and the thin characterization kept me from caring. If you like Tom Cruise, maybe you should give it a watch. As for me, I have no desire to see it again.

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Battle Of The Sexes (2017)

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

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King is the reigning champ of women’s tennis. But she’s not just interested in titles. No, sir. She also wants to change the way the tennis federation treats women. So when she learns that the female winners of a particular tournament will be paid 8 times less than their male counterparts, she decides, “Screw it! I’m making my own all-women’s tennis league.” And that’s exactly what she does. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a washed up former tennis champ, upset at how uppity King has gotten, challenges her to an exclusive, one-on-one match; a “battle of the sexes,” if you will. He even offers her a lot of money if she wins. King is reluctant at first, but, realizing that the league can only survive if it has the funds to do so, she agrees, and begins training for the big, end-all, be-all match. Will she win? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie, or read a history book, to find out.

Battle Of The Sexes is a well-acted, decently directed comedy, with a good message, and that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Which, in a way, is kind of a problem. We’ve seen these kind of social issue movies before. Hell, they crop up every year around Oscar season. Some, like Blood Diamond, Dallas Buyers Club, and 12 Years A Slave, are great, and able to transcend their well-meaning, if predictable, formulas. Others, like Stonewall, Golden Gate, and J Edgar, are bad, precisely because of their refusal to take risks with their storytelling. Battle Of The Sexes isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but, for a movie that’s seeking to tackle the gross sexism that Billie Jean King had to come up against, and that sadly is still present to this day, it all seems kind of safe. Say what you like about GLOW’s dark humor, at least it went places it needed to go to. It wasn’t afraid to offend people when it came to making us understand that women did, and do, face a lot of terrible shit. Yes, sometimes it went over-the-top, but it at least made its point. In Battle Of The Sexes, the misogyny is oddly tame. Yes, it’s still terrible seeing men objectify women, pay them less, and talk down to them. But the language they use isn’t that provocative. And the film even goes out of its way to make the sexist guys, particularly Riggs, kind of likable. We see him playing with his kid, cracking jokes,and generally enjoying life. Yes, it’s better to employ an even-handed approach when it comes to portraying heroes and villains, but, in this case, I believe it would have been better if Riggs had been slightly less lovable. See, very often in fiction, sexism in male characters is shown as an annoying, but forgivable, quirk. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Big Bang Theory, Revenge Of The Nerds, and even Their Finest, a film I really admired. In each of these works, other people scoff and roll their eyes when the male characters say or do sexist things, but they never try to change their minds, or punish them for their behavior. In fact, we’re meant to sympathize with these men. Deep down, they’re not bad guys. They’re just misunderstood. And whatever misogynistic behavior they might display, it’s more than made up for by their positive qualities. This trend in media has seriously normalized misogyny in many people’s minds. And I’m quite convinced that it at least played a part in the election of Donald Trump. Even after the infamous Access Hollywood tape, people voted for him, and they did so because, to them, his sexism is just a harmless part of who he is. If Battle Of The Sexes really wanted to comment on sexism, it should have made Riggs as ugly and disgusting a character as possible. He shouldn’t have had any redeeming qualities, and the reason he shouldn’t have is to show audiences that men who act like this lose, and are pathetic, worthless human beings.

But if, somehow, you don’t care about making a strong enough statement against sexism–though, really, why would you go to see this movie if you didn’t–the film isn’t all that good. It’s not bad, mind you. It’s just not memorably great. THe dialogue is fine. The cinematography is fine, though they do tend to use way too many close ups. And the acting, as I said, is fine. No one really stands out as superb. Everyone is just serviceably good. So when you combine all this together–the serviceable production values, and rather safe tone–what you’re left with is a well-meaning, but honestly kind of forgettable biopic. Should you go see it? Well, that’s up to you. As for me, I have no desire to watch it again.

Logan Lucky (2017)

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When he’s laid off for liability reasons, West Virginia coal miner Jimmy Logan decides, “screw looking for a new job and getting my life back on track, I’m gonna rob NASCAR.” So he assembles a motley crew of other hillbillies and hicks, including his brother, Clyde, his sister, Mellie, explosives expert Joe Bang, and a bunch of other people whose names I can’t remember. Together, they plan a huge, ridiculous heist, which hinges upon several things going exactly right (don’t they always), and set things in motion on the biggest race of the year. Will they pull it off? Well, if you actually care, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Logan Lucky is well-acted, well-shot, and reasonably well-written. And it’s kind of a bore. Seriously. There were several points in this movie where I checked my watch, and even asked the screen, “come on! What are you waiting for?” And that’s sad, because this is a movie that has the potential to be great. It’s got a super-talented director, Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike, Ocean’s 11) behind the camera, and an equally talented cast in front of it. And yet the film feels about 20 minutes too long, and isn’t sufficiently funny, or exciting enough, to make up for that.

Part of this is due to Soderbergh’s direction. He’s a filmmaker known for taking pretty mainstream ideas–an FBI agent hunting a crook, a group of guys trying to rob a casino–and making them artsy with things like drawn out scenes of dialogue, stylistic photography, and nonlinear editing. Here, he takes a very basic premise–hillbillies trying to rob NASCAR–and injects unnecessary side characters and subplots, like a child’s beauty pageant, or someone learning to drive stick, which just hurt the pace. Seriously, if you took Seth McFarlane and Sebastian Stan’s characters out of the movie, it’d be about 15 minutes shorter, and the plot would be effected in no way whatsoever. I was also kind of confused by why they decided to rob NASCAR. Oh sure, they give an explanation for why they chose that particular target, but what I was left wondering was why they just jumped straight into stealing. Wasn’t any consideration given to finding real jobs? Do they need the money now? Every character seems financially stable. It’s not like they risk losing their homes if they don’t pay a certain amount by a certain date. As such, it just kind of feels like they’re doing this on a whim. Which doesn’t work for a movie. Characters’ choices have to be motivated in fiction. And the characters in this movie just seemed like they were doing stuff for shits and giggles. Which is not good.

Guys, if it sounds like I hated this movie, I really didn’t. I’ve always said, the only question you should ask yourself after you watch a film is, “do I regret going to see that?” And I don’t regret going to see this. Is it great? No. Is it terrible? Not really. Its somewhere in the middle. Funny, but not that funny. Exciting, but not that entertaining. If you’re a fan of the director, the cast, or heist films in general, you might like this. But go in expecting a slower pace, and a little bit of boredom.

Atypical (Season 1, 2017)

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

Sam is 18, and he’s never had a girlfriend. This is due, in part, to the fact that he’s on the Autism spectrum, and has trouble reading social cues. Now, though, with only one year of High School left, and a newfound attraction to his therapist, Julia, he’s determined to get a “practice girlfriend,” so he can learn how to please a woman. This quest brings him into conflict with his mother, Elsa, whose whole life has been consumed by taking care of him, and whose confusion over not being able to micromanage his existence leads her to make some bold new choices of her own.

Atypical is funny, well-acted, and very well-written. Seriously. The dialogue alone should be enough to get you to watch this series. It’s sharp, witty, believable and specific to each individual character. And the characters themselves feel like real people. They have quirks, interests, show a wide range of emotions, and at times are lovable, and at other times, loathsome. From a pure story and dialogue perspective, I have no complaints about Atypical. It’s a well-written, well-acted sitcom, with only eight, half-hour episodes, so there’s no need to worry about it dragging. And if you’re like me, and want to see greater representation of Asian people in media, you’ll be happy to learn that several key supporting characters, such as Sam’s therapist, and unrequited love interest, Julia, and his best friend, Zahid, are Asian, and not at all stereotypical. They’re well-rounded, have personalities, arcs, and even some flaws. They’re some of the best aspects of the show, and its’ refreshing to see Asian characters like this in a mainstream series.

All that said, I do have some thoughts on Atypical. They’re not complaints, per se, just thoughts. First of all, I’m not sure how accurate the series is in it’s representation of Autism. As I’ve mentioned before, many films and TV shows exaggerate certain disabilities so as to make disabled characters more pitiful or sympathetic. As such, I’m always somewhat wary whenever a film or TV series comes out where the whole concept is that a character is mentally or physically challenged. And I’m sure that, to some people, Sam will come off as a stereotypical representation of Autism. Yes, he’s a likable, compelling character. And when you watch the show, you can tell that the writers did do research on the symptoms of Autism. But his condition is still somewhat exaggerated, and should not be seen as a be-all-end-all portrayal of the spectrum. In the show, Sam is extremely sensitive to bright light, and loud noises, and is virtually incapable of speaking about any topic other than Antarctica; his obsession. I’ll tell you right now, not all Autistic people are like that. My best friend has Aspergers, a high-functioning form of Autism, and he isn’t sensitive to light, or loud noises,  and he can talk for hours about virtually everything. Autism, as I’ve mentioned before, is a spectrum, with varying degrees of severity specific to each individual person. There probably are people like Sam out there. And they might be very happy to see themselves represented on the small screen. But for people who don’t have as severe a condition as he does, or who want to know what Autism is really like, this might not be the perfect portrayal to watch.

The second thought I have on Atypical is really more of a nitpick, but one that I think is worth bringing up. And that is the character of Paige. She joins the show about two episodes in, and ends up becoming Sam’s “practice girlfriend.” She’s sweet, understanding, sympathetic, and I don’t buy her character for a second. I don’t buy that, A, she would ever be attracted to Sam, and, B, that she would be able to put up with him when they start going out. For starters, she’s way too attractive. She’s the classic Hollywood beauty; tall, blonde, and thin. She legitimately looks like a model, and yet she’s chasing after a guy who looks like the love child of Michael Cera and Dobby the House Elf. And if that’s not ridiculous enough, her character is supposedly the smartest girl in school. Between her brains and her looks, she could have literally anyone she wanted. So why is she so determine to get with this kid who, initially, doesn’t even recognize that she likes him, and then, later on, acts like a total dick to her? And not in a “he doesn’t know any better” way, but in a legitimately mean-spirited, jerky kind of way. I would have believed her character more if she were also disabled, less attractive, or just less perfect in general. As it stands, though, she’s too nice and too pretty, and she just doesn’t feel like a real person. Maybe I’m being unfair here, and I do want to mention that the actress playing Paige does a great job, but I would like it if, for once, Hollywood cast, and forgive the pun here, atypical leading ladies. Older Women. Large Women. Disabled Women. Women Of Color. They’re all just as interesting, and capable of love, as blonde super models, and they exist in higher numbers than the latter group. I would like it if, in the future, female characters would be allowed to exist in all the shapes, sizes and colors that their real-life counterparts do.

But, in the end, those are both small nitpicks, and not any real harm to the show. Atypical is funny, well-acted, well-written, and the perfect length for a sitcom. If you’re looking for something fun and charming to watch, give this Netflix original a look. You will not regret it.

To The Bone (2017)

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

Ellen has an eating disorder. She doesn’t want to chew, let alone swallow, anything with calories. As a result, she’s lost a truly frightening amount of weight, and there is a very real chance she might die. So, as a last ditch effort to save her life, Ellen’s stepmom signs her up for a special,eating disorder treatment program. She’ll have to live in a house, with other anorexic kids, and partake in therapy sessions with Dr. Beckham, played by Keanu Reeves. If all goes well, she’ll be cured, and allowed to go home. If it doesn’t, she’ll die. Those are the only options, and with the way the film starts out, either outcome is entirely plausible.

To The Bone is a sympathetic, socially-conscious movie, with some fine performances, and some witty dialogue. I watched it purely on a whim, seeing it on Netflix, and hearing some good things about it second hand. And even though I don’t like how it ended, and I wish it could have given me a little bit more insight into why Ellen developed this eating disorder, I am glad I saw it. This is the kind of small-budget indie film that really relies on its script and its lead actors, and it really delivers on both fronts. Everyone in the cast does a superb job, and the script gives all the characters a distinct voice and some funny lines. Which surprised me. For a story that is as serious as it is, there is a lot of good humor in here. THere’s some risky humor too–for instance, they make Holocaust and dead baby jokes, and it doesn’t always work. But, for the most part, the jokes really land, and I could totally see myself going back and watching this movie again, just for the dialogue.

I was also very impressed with how deftly the filmmakers handled the topic of eating disorders. See, you all probably don’t know this about me, but, back in high school, I had an eating disorder. There was a period, in my junior year, when I didn’t want to eat anything, and when I lost a lot of weight, about 15 pounds, in a very short time span. I’m talking two to three weeks. Of course, I didn’t know it was an eating disorder at the time. I just thought I was being health conscious. When I watched the film, however, and I saw all the things that these anorexic characters were doing, like fretting about how many calories were in their food, skipping meals, doing exercise, even at times when it wasn’t appropriate, held a mirror up to my own behavior, and helped me realize that there really was something wrong with me. For that reason, and the fine performances and dialogue, I would recommend you watch this Netflix original. It’s not a perfect film, as I said, the humor doesn’t always land, and the ending gets very weird and hallucinogenic, but, for the most part, it’s solid. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy it if you see it.

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.

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.