Collateral (2004)

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

Max is a cab driver, saving up to start his own company. He knows LA like the back of his hand, and even though his job is fairly thankless, he takes pride in his work. One night, he picks up a gray-haired man named Vincent, who tells him, “I’ve got five stops to make. You get me to all of them on time, I’ll pay you $600.” Max agrees, and brings Vincent to his first stop. Everything seems fine, until a dead body falls on the cab, smashing the windshield to bits. Things get worse when Vincent returns, and reveals that not only did he kill the man, but he’s an assassin who’s been hired to take out 4 more targets. Now, if Max wants to survive, he’ll have to help Vincent evade capture, and finish his jobs, which means contributing to the deaths of four more people. Can he do it? Will he make it through the night? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out

Collateral is the definition of a well-made thriller. It’s suspenseful, superbly -acted (seriously, Jamie Foxx earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Max) and very well-written. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about the writing, because it is really, really good. Not only does every character have a distinct voice and backstory, the dialogue is really witty, and oddly thought-provoking. There are so many exchanges in this film that are funny, frightening and philosophical all at the same time that I’m honestly kind of surprised that Stuart Beattie, whom penned the script, didn’t get an Oscar nod. Like, in the scene right after Max learns that Vincent is a hit man, he’s freaking out, and Vincent starts talking about Rwanda. He tells Max how more people were killed at once there than in the past 50 years, and yet, he, Max, didn’t get upset when he heard about the genocide. He didn’t join the peace corps. He didn’t contribute to any charities. But now, when one fat guy dies in front of him, he turns into a bleeding heart? How hypocritical. That’s a brilliant exchange right there. It not only shows us how Vincent views morality, but it also gets us, the spectators, to think. It calls us out on our own hypocrisies, like how we care about some lives, but not about others. And the movie is full of awesome moments like that, where characters are talking about their pasts, or their morals, and it’s super engaging and funny. In one scene, Max asks Vincent, “You killed him?” to which Vincent responds, “No. I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” And in another scene, Vincent has a gun pressed up against Max’s head, and forces him to tell his boss to “shove this yellow cab up your fat ass.” It’s wonderful.

If I have one complaint about Collateral, it’s the camerawork. It’s almost all hand-held, so the images are very shaky, and the shots are super noisy. If you don’t know what that last part means, “noise” is a film term for elements in cinematography that ruin an image, like lens flares, blurry lines, or pixels. Collateral’s director, Michael Mann, is infamous for not minding “noise” in his films. As such, a lot of his movies, even if they’re big-budget period pieces, like Public Enemies, feel like they’re shot on home video. Now, as annoying as I find shaky cam and lens flares, both actually kind of work for this movie. You’re telling a story that’s very gritty and real, and the sloppy-looking camerawork does kind of contribute to a sense of realism. Kind of. But in case you can’t get over the cinematography, the film’s gorgeous color palette more than makes up for it. Every image is black, contrasted with neon blues, greens or pinks; i.e. the color of LA at night. If, like me, you love films with saturated color schemes, which help create mood and atmosphere, you’re gonna love this movie. It is a feast for the eyes.

Guys, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Collateral is a fast-paced, superbly acted, brilliantly-written thriller. I love it, and I’m sure you would to if you saw it. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

LA Confidential (1997)

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

In 1950s Los Angeles, Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes are three police officers with drastically different lives. Exley, the son of a famous detective, is a no-nonsense, by-the-book politician, hoping to climb the LAPD’s ranks. White, a heavy drinker, is a violent, plainclothes officer with a pension for punishing wife beaters. And Vincennes; oh Vincennes. Vincennes is a celebrity cop, who acts as a consultant on a popular TV Show, and who makes extra cash by feeding tips to a gossip mag. These men have nothing in common, and would never even dream of working together. But when White’s partner, whom Exley had a hand in firing, winds up dead, and an item that Vincennes found on one of his raids is discovered at the crime scene, they wind up doing just that. And the more they dig, the more they realize how deep the conspiracy goes.

On paper, LA Confidential is the perfect movie for me. It’s a fast-paced thriller, with high production values, and a strong cast. It’s even a period piece. All my interest boxes are ticked. So why am I not crazy about it? Well, the simple answer is that every single aspect feels extremely familiar. All the main characters and plot points have been used before, in other, older noir films. In fact, if you took out the more explicit violence and language, and made it black and white, LA Confidential would be indistinguishable from those earlier movies. Now, as I’ve always said, there is nothing inherently wrong with a story being unoriginal. Every narrative in existence takes ideas from works that have proceeded it. But the best stories are the ones that are able to take those ideas, and make them their own. They change the setting, alter the tone, or break the rules by not giving you the ending you expect. Or, as in the case of movies like Deadpool and Their Finest, they openly acknowledge how cliched their narratives are, and so make fun of them. LA Confidential does none of those things. It is not parodying, drawing from, or even deconstructing the noir genre. It is just a noir film. It is a mystery, set in the 50s, in LA, involving corruption, murder, a flawed protagonist, or protagonists, in this case, and a femme fatale. That’s it. It doesn’t shock you with its ending, like Seven or Mother. It doesn’t have witty dialogue, like The Big Lebowski or The Nice Guys. It’s story, its cinematography, its score and its costumes are all very standard for the noir genre. And because everything about it is so familiar, you find yourself not caring as much.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I don’t think this is a bad film. The acting is superb, the costumes and sets are period accurate, and the tight pacing never allows for a dull moment. I whole-heartedly acknowledge that this is a competently crafted movie. But I’m also quite convinced that the reason it was so acclaimed when it first came out back in 97 was nostalgia. Critics who grew up with classic noir were most likely just happy to see something that reminded them of when they were young, and so declared the film to be better than it was. But, like I said, it’s not terrible. Just unoriginal. So if that doesn’t bother you, give it a look. You’ll probably like it.

Animal Kingdom (2010)

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

When his mother dies of a heroin overdose, 17-year-old J goes to live with his estranged Grandmother and Uncles, a family of petty criminals in Melbourne, Australia. There’s his Grandma, Smurf, who seems loving and doting. There’s his volatile Uncle Craig, who deals drugs to get by. There’s his other Uncle, Darren, who’s just a few years older than him. And, finally, there’s Pope, the oldest brother, who is in hiding from the police. The film is set during a period in Australian history when bank robbery is out of control, as is the police force, who will kill criminal’s at the drop of a hat. And that, essentially, is what this film is about; waiting for that hat to drop. Because, on the surface, everyone is nice, and everything is going just fine. But there’s always an undercurrent of menace and tension. And when something inevitably goes wrong, the family comes apart, and, as the title suggests, the animals start eating each other.

Animal Kingdom is a very unusual film. It’s a crime thriller with very little violence–except for a few, highly effective, moments–a slow pace, and a greater emphasis on character. It’s the sort of movie that if it was made in America, where pictures tend to move faster and have more bloodshed, probably wouldn’t be as good or interesting. And that’d be a shame, because if there are two words that can aptly summarize Animal Kingdom, they are “good” and “interesting.”

This is a taught, well-acted, well-written family drama,with some fascinating characters, and some very disturbing moments. What it honestly reminded me of was the works of Harold Pinter. If you’ve never heard of him, he was a British playwright, known for penning so-called “comedies of menace.” These were stories set in mundane locations, like a suburban living room, or a dinner party where everyone’s acting nice, but you’re always uneasy, because you suspect that something bad is about to happen. And, most of the time, something bad does happen. Animal Kingdom has that same feel, because there are several points where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to like the main family or not. On the surface, they seem nice and normal. They eat dinner together. They take care of each other. In one scene, J’s uncle chastises him for not washing his hands. And yet, in a heartbeat, they’ll pull a gun on someone, or ask J to do something violent and illegal. And that is what keeps you invested; the uncertainty; the not knowing whether or not you can trust these people. For this reason, and the stellar performances, particularly from Ben Mendelsohn, whom plays Pope, and Jackie Weaver, whom plays Smurf, I would highly recommend Animal Kingdom to you all. It is a well-written, well-acted crime drama with great tension, and I think you all would enjoy it if you saw it.

Seven (1995)

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

Somerset is an apathetic detective, a week away from retirement. Mills is his idealistic partner, and brand new in town. They’ve got nothing in common, and they don’t particularly like each other. But for one week, Somerset’s last week on the job, they must work together. And it’s going to be the longest week of their lives, because there’s a killer on the loose, committing murders based on the Seven Deadly Sins, and he’s got his eye trained on them.

Seven is a film I’ve heard about for literally my entire life. It came out in 1995, the same year I was born, and in the two decades since then, it’s basically become a shorthand for anything super messed up and gross. And yet, as notorious as its reputation is, Seven is also considered to be quite a good flick. It’s strong performances, atmospheric cinematography, well-constructed story, and especially its ending, have all been lauded by critics over the years. This one film resurrected its director, David Fincher’s, career, and helped to cement the reputation of its stars, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. For this reason, and the fact that I’ll take a well-made thriller over an Oscar-winning drama any day, I decided to give Seven a look. And good lord!

Let me start off by saying that Seven is unquestionably a well-made movie. Everything about it, from the mirky cinematography, to the eerie soundtrack, to the believable performances, shows great talent and professionalism. This is a prime example of genre filmmaking at its best. On top of this, the story is considerably better written than most other thrillers, with there being a greater emphasis on character development, and lots of smaller, quiet moments. I also liked the fact that, even though the movie is about a serial killer who murders people in ultra gruesome ways, there’s very little onscreen violence. All the scares, all the suspense, come about through the power of suggestion. Which is good. This has got to be one of the few times where I’m actually glad a thriller was made in Hollywood, and not South Korea. Because even though I think that Korea produces much better thrillers overall, the films they make tend to be extremely violent. All we see in Seven are dead bodies. We don’t have to watch anyone get tortured or mutilated.

All that said, this is a hard movie to watch. If you have a weak constitution, or like stories to have happy endings, avoid this film like the plague. Even I, a person who loves books with unhappy endings, like Shanghai Girls and 19 Minutes, found this film hard to get through. And not just because of the subject matter. Seven is a movie that you can really only watch once. A large part of what keeps you engaged is the uncertainty; the fear that comes from not knowing what will happen in the next scene. Once you’ve seen this film, however, and you know everything that’s in store, the movie loses some of its power, and the story as a whole becomes a little bit of a slog to get through. Some mystery films, like Mother, Zodiac, and Broken Flowers, end ambiguously, and you can watch them over and over again to try to find clues. Seven isn’t like that. It ends quite definitively, and once you see that ending, you’re kind of numb to the rest of the story. The movie also has a weird opening credits sequence, which didn’t sit with me very well. It felt a little too much like something from television, and made the movie feel less like a gripping 2 hour thriller, and more like a 40 minute episode of Law & Order.

Nevertheless, Seven‘s smart script, strong performances, and brilliant atmosphere more than make up for its flaws, and cement its status as one of the all-time great thriller films. Watch it when you can.

 

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.

Mother (2009)

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

When a young girl winds up dead, and a golf ball with a disabled man’s name written on it is discovered at the crime scene, the police think they’ve solved the case. But the suspect’s mother, a herb shop owner whose name we never learn, is unconvinced. Her boy couldn’t possibly have done it. So she tries to prove his innocence; by hiring a lawyer, handing out pamphlets, and, when those things inevitably fail to work, investigating on her own. In so doing, she uncovers a great many things; about the police, the victim, her son, and even herself. Specifically, the lengths she’ll go to to get him home.

Mother is an off-beat, idiosyncratic, always entertaining mystery. The film that Bong Joon-Ho made between The Host and Snowpiercer, it benefits from his dark sense of humor, keen attention to detail, and pension for telling stories with ambiguous endings. That, and some extraordinary performances by Kim Hye-Ja, whom plays the titular character, and Won Bin, whom plays her mentally-challenged son. Miss Kim, especially, deserves praise, since the film really rests on her shoulders. You see her go through so many emotional states, and you feel all the anxiety, frustration, fear and sorrow that she does. The editing of this picture is also something to behold. There’s one scene towards the beginning where she’s watching her son while cutting herbs, and it keeps moving back and forth between her face, her son, and the knife, and everything about it–the shot progression, the sound design, the acting– is perfect. For these reasons alone, along with the fact that it has some genuinely unexpected twists, I would recommend you all watch it. It is the best mystery I’ve seen in years.

That said, this is not my favorite Bong Joon-Ho film. Which is weird, because, even though I think it’s a better-crafted picture than Okja, overall, I like Okja more. Part of this has to do with some of the odder, sex-related content. For instance, Mother features some very disturbing implications about the titular character and her son, particularly about how they sleep in the same bed together, and it will definitely make some viewers uncomfortable. There’s also a sex scene between a 30-year-old man and his teenage girlfriend about halfway through that made me feel funny. No, he didn’t rape her. The dialogue makes it clear this was a consensual encounter. And no, the actress in the scene wasn’t underage. I checked, and found that she was 22 at the time the movie was shot. Still, she looks really young, her character is supposed to be 15, and the guy she’s having sex with looks a lot older than her. All this makes it kind of hard to watch. But by far the biggest problem I had with the movie is the way it portrays mental disability. As a person who is legally blind, and whose best friend is on the autism spectrum, I’m always somewhat skeptical of onscreen portrayals of disability. Even when the writers and actors go in with good intentions, and a fair amount of research, their portrayals tend to be very over-the-top and caricatured, usually relying on tired cliches. One of those cliches is that mentally challenged people are dangerous, and don’t know when they’re hurting others. This is a trope that dates back to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and that is featured prominently in Mother, with the son character being violent, and oftentimes being unaware that he’s doing anything wrong. This trope is not only tired, it’s dangerous. It leads to discrimination against mentally disabled people. And it ignores the fact that, in the real world, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. I was frankly disappointed to see a talented filmmaker like Bong Joon-Ho use these kinds of stereotypes in his work. I thought he was better than that. But, ah well.

Nevertheless, Mother’s strong performances, interesting story, and stellar editing make it an all-around engrossing mystery. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I do think it’s worth watching.

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

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

A stuntman, struggling to provide for his family. A cop, grappling with corruption in his unit. A teenager, haunted by the death of his father. These men are flawed, but they all want to do the right thing. And each, in his own way, is trapped in the town of Schenectady, or The Place Beyond The Pines.

The best way to describe this movie is “artsy.” And when I say that, I mean it in both the best, and worst, ways possible. It’s artsy in a good way because it’s narrative and scenes are uniquely structured, with whole sequences being done in single, unbroken takes, and the storyline unfolding in a non-Aristotelian manner. The acting is also very subdued ad naturalistic, as it tends to be in lower budget indie films. It’s artsy in a bad way in that the pacing is very slow, the naturalistic acting sometimes comes off as garbled and incomprehensible, and the unconventional camerawork sometimes drains tension from scenes. For instance, the storyline involving Ryan Gosling’s stuntman character features many chases, and these scenes are almost all done in long, unbroken takes. Now, on the one hand, being able to see everything in your action scene is great. Too many action films rely on quick cutting and shaky cam to cover up the fact that the actors can’t pull off stunts and fight scenes. But when every scene in your movie is edited in the same, slow, ponderous manner, regardless of what the scene actually is, that’s a bad thing. You don’t want to shoot a chase the same way that you shoot a conversation in a diner. And Place Beyond The Pines does that. There are many points where quick cutting could have been used to great effect, such as to cut down extraneous seconds of footage, to show how anxious and jumpy a character is feeling, or simply to keep the audience engaged. The reason why we have cutting in films, particularly in dialogue scenes, is to keep the audience’s eyes moving. If everything is happening at the same speed, in the same frame, we get bored. Place Beyond The Pines has action a plenty, but that action is shot and edited in such a way that our eyes stop moving, and we lose interest. Combine this with the movie’s length, it’s about 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and you’ve got a film that’s not for everyone.

Nevertheless,Place Beyond the Pine’s unique narrative structure, strong performances, and surprisingly star-studded cast–including Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali and Dane DeHaan–do make it worth watching. If you don’t like slow pacing, and long run times, maybe watch something else. But if you’re okay with that, give it a look. You’ll probably like it.