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.

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.

American Crime: Season 2

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

If there’s anything I’ve learned after 21 years on this Earth, it’s that having expectations is never a good idea. All you’re doing is setting yourself up for disappointment. I bring this up because, I went into the second season of American Crime, a show that I reviewed on here, and really loved, with expectations, and wound up being highly disappointed. Now, I’m not trying to say that the second season was terrible, it just wasn’t quite to the same level that the first one was. And I wanted to tell anyone who might have been looking to watch it, be warned. It might not be what you expected, or hoped for.

For those of you who don’t know, American Crime is an anthology series, meaning each season revolves around a different plot and characters, created by John Ridley, the man who wrote 12 Years A Slave.  The first season centers around a murder in Modesto, California, and deals with themes like race and xenophobia. The second season revolves around a rape in Indianapolis, and seeks to examine homophobia and the stigma of sexual assault. Except it doesn’t. It starts out with you thinking that its going to be about those things, but quickly shoots off into a number of sub-plots, each dealing with a different issue. You’ve got one plot thread involving the principal of a public school, and tensions between Black and Latino communities. You’ve got another one focusing on a wealthy Black businesswoman, and her seeming dislike of other Black people. You’ve got the conflict between public and private schools, and how unfairly favored the wealthy are in terms of treatment. And there are a ton of other topics, like mental illness, cyber-security, teen drug dealing, divorce, child molestation, and even school shootings, which don’t get brought up until the last three episodes, and which honestly feel like they were just thrown in. Now, I do believe that each of those subjects deserves to be written about, and that the writers of American Crime did provide some interesting perspectives on them, but the series as a whole feels over-stuffed and scatter-brained. If they had just limited the show to the rape case, and all the issues that accompany that topic, I feel the season would have been more cohesive and thematically focused. As it stands, though, the season felt overwrought, and I feel like there were too many disparate elements that had nothing to do with each other.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “well, fine. It’s got a lot of story lines and topics. So what? Is it at least enjoyable?” Yes, and no. As with the first season, the acting is good, the dialogue is great, and there are a lot of gut-wrenching scenes and moments. At the same time, however, the fact that the show kept shifting perspective, and didn’t seem able to decide which issue it wanted to focus on, all made it harder for me to latch on to any one character. Because the show didn’t do that. People who you think you’re going to follow and care about, like the young man who says he got raped, end up becoming either secondary, or despicable. In his case, we find out pretty early on that it “wasn’t rape,” because he “wanted it,” a sentiment I find highly offensive to victims of sexual assault, and the show actually spends more time trying to get you to care about the kid who beat him. There are also a number of other characters, like this random hacker who just shows up in the eighth episode of this ten episode season, who are thrown in at the last possible second, and who suddenly become major players. This season honestly reminds me of films like Spider-Man 3, or The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which had an overabundance of plot threads and characters, and disappointed at the box office and with critics as a result. Now, granted, American Crime, Season 2 got much better reviews than those films when it came out. Still, there were points when I was watching it that I didn’t think I could go on, and that’s never a good sign for a TV series.

So, if you were a fan of the first season, maybe you’ll enjoy this. As for me, I don’t feel any need to watch it again.

Sicario

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

Someone once said that Sicario was a beautifully crafted movie with little to no replay value. Having seen it for myself, I can understand why they’d think that. The film’s brilliant acting, gorgeous cinematography, and eerie soundtrack all work together to make it a truly suspenseful thriller. And at the same time, the painfully slow pacing, simultaneously bleak and conventional storyline, and odd sound design make it a slog to get through, and leaves you feeling kind of empty inside.

The story of an FBI hostage retriever, Emily Blunt, getting called on board a joint DOD-CIA task force to bring down a drug cartel responsible for a horrific bombing, the film offers very little in the way of hope or redemption. Child murder, torture, opening fire in crowds filled with civilians, these are but a sampling of the horrific things that happen in this movie. Now I suppose that the film’s bleaker tone and lurid subject matter make it a more realistic look at the drug war, but still. The last 20 minutes are guaranteed to leave you feeling completely hollow. On top of that, the picture moves at a snails pace, with there being several long, unbroken shots of landscapes and cars, which, honestly, just feel like filler. Now I recognize that in a suspense film, you need to build up the tension, to make the audience wait for the bomb to go off, but I honestly lost interest in this film after a while because of how slow everything was moving. In addition to this, the sound design is really weird. In most films, they use special microphones to blot out background noises so that all you can hear are the actors. But in this film, you can often hear background noises, like people talking, phones ringing, radio static, or the echoes from the walls. I suppose this was done to make the story feel more grounded and real , but it was honestly kind of distracting for me.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t care for this movie, but I do recognize the skill and precision with which it was made. And I know that some people will admire the story for its darker tone and bleaker ending. So for that reason, I do think people should watch it. I just don’t think I will ever again.

American Crime: Season 1

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

And boy do I love being wrong! What? That doesn’t make sense? well, allow me to explain. I just finished watching the first season of American Crime, yet another anthology series looking to “examine race in our modern society.” And yet, despite its well-worn premise, and lackluster title, I ended up loving the show. It’s truly a fantastic piece of art. I highly recommend it to you all.

The story of a murder in Modesto, California, American Crime stars an ensemble cast, and examines how each of the people connected to the crime react to it. First, there are the people who were directly involved. There’s Antonio “Tony” Gutierez, a teenage boy who works at his father’s auto repair shop. There’s Hector Tontz, a drug dealer and illegal immigrant who rents cars from Tony. There’s Carter Nix, a meth head whom Hector drives around sometimes. And, finally, there’s Aubrey Taylor, Carter’s girlfriend, and accomplice. One night, something goes wrong, and a guy named Matt Skokie winds up dead, and his wife, Gwen, gets put in the hospital. By the end of the show, we’re not entirely sure what happened, or who’s really to blame, but, one thing we do know is that, somehow, Tony, Hector, Carter and Aubrey were involved, and they each get arrested as a result. Their family members then get called in, including Tony’s father, Alonzo, a strict disciplinarian who wants to keep his son on the straight and narrow, Carter’s sister, Aliya, a convert to Islam determined to get her brother off free, Matt Skokie’s divorced parents, Barb and Russ, and Gwen’s parents, Tom and Eve. Each of these people has serious issues, and they only get more messed up as the sordid details of the case come to light. Barb, a delusional racist, doesn’t want to accept that her son was selling drugs. Tom, an old-fashioned Christian, can’t stand the idea that Gwen, his little girl, was sleeping around. And Eve, well, she’s just trying to keep her sanity in check as everything crumbles around her. Needless to say, a great deal of drama unfolds over the course of this 11 episode series, and, if you want to find out what happens, you should give it a look.

As I stated earlier, I really enjoyed this show. As far as writing and acting are concerned, I have no complaints. Every character has depth and backstory. Every character changes over the course of the series. Seriously. I started off the show hating Barb and hector, and, by the end, they’d grown and changed so much that I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for them. And the casting could not have been better. See, very often when you watch a movie or a show, there’ll be that one person who, even if they were fine, just wasn’t up to the same level as the rest of the cast. Those of you who’ve read my review for Suicide Squad (HELL YEAH!) might remember that I praised all the actors, except Jared Leto, whom I believed was really hamming it up. I don’t have that problem here. There’s no single actor in this series who stands out as “bad,” or “just okay.” Everyone is great, and I appreciate that. And, for a show dealing with race and racism, the series does largely manage to avoid racist stereotypes. What I mean by that is, very often, movies that try to comment on racism will make their characters extremely stereotypical so as to make a point. Films like Do The Right Thing, Falling Down, and Crash are populated by individuals that feel more like cartoons than real people. These movies are especially bad when it comes to representing Asians and Asian Americans. See, race movies mostly tend to focus on the relationships between Black people, White people, and Latin people. If Asian people are brought up at all, they’re either a background element, or someone that the other characters can mock. Most of the time, they’re shown as being incompetent , rude, and, no matter what, incapable of speaking the most basic English. That’s not the case with American Crime. Yes, none of the main cast is Asian, but, Barb and Russ’s living son, Mark, is getting married to a woman named Richelle, who is Asian American, and is actually fairly non stereotypical. She speaks perfect English, is from Oklahoma, and is in the Army. It’s rare to see a character like her get written, especially in a show that’s directly addressing racism, and I was very impressed. Wish more writers would create characters like her. So, yeah, good writing, good acting, and good representation. Well done, American Crime.
With regards to filmmaking, though, I do have some comments. They’re not necessarily complaints, just observations. One is the fact that, this show is shot in a very odd way. What I mean by that is, most of the time, directors will shoot a conversation between characters as a series of close ups on the various speakers faces, or with a wide shot, where you can see both actors at the same time. American Crime doesn’t do that. Very often, whenever a conversation is being had, the camera will only focus on one person’s face, and either the other speaker will be off screen, or will be blurred out so that you can’t see them. What this does is make the conversations feel less like conversations, and more like long showcases of how particular characters are feeling. Which is fine, and maybe was the filmmaker’s intent, but, still, it’s hard to look at one person’s face, non-stop, for an entire seven minute conversation. The other comment I have with regards to filmmaking is that, while the musical score does its job just fine, accenting particular moments with proper amounts of pathos, it’s not particularly memorable. I honestly couldn’t hum it back to you if you asked me. And that’s fine, not every score needs to be as catchy as John William’s Superman theme, but, still. It’s better if your musical score can stand out.

All in all, though, I think American Crime is a very well done series, with strong writing, and strong performances. I highly recommend it, and have decided to give it a 9 out of 10. Give it a look.