Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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

Seven months after her daughter is raped and murdered, Mildred Hayes, frustrated with the police department’s lack of results, rents out three billboards, on which she asks the question “raped while dying, and still no arrests, how come, Chief Willoughby?” This, naturally, upsets many of her neighbors, including the aforementioned Willoughby, who considers this an unfair attack on his character, seeing as how he’s dying of cancer. He and his racist, incompetent deputy, Dixon, demand that she take the posters down, but she refuses. This leads to them taking drastic actions, like arresting her co-workers, and threatening the man Mildred pays to rent the billboards. And, well, things get crazy, and I mean CRAZY, from there.

Have you ever watched a movie that was great for the first half, but then, somewhere along the way, it just lost you? Well, I have. And it’s exactly what I experienced with this picture. For the first 40 minutes or so, I was loving every second of it. The set-up was interesting, the performances were SUPERB, and the dialogue, as expected from writer-director Martin McDonagh, was sharp, interesting, and darkly comedic. There was even one point, where Mildred monologues to a Priest about the Crips and the Bloods, that I actually started thinking that this was his best film yet.

But then something happened, which I won’t say here, that totally changed the tone and direction of the movie. And while I was extremely shocked by it, I was still willing to give the picture the benefit of the doubt. Maybe McDonagh was experimenting. Maybe he was trying to take this story in a direction we’d never seen before. Then something else happened, something that I will say here, that caused me to completely tune out. At one point in this movie, Dixon, who is feeling sad about something, goes over to the office of the man Mildred rents the billboards from, beats him and his secretary to within an inch of their lives, and even throws the former out the window. At that point, I just stopped caring. I already hated Dixon, but when I saw him beating an innocent woman, and throwing a guy who was just doing his job out a window, and then stomping on his face, I lost all interest in his character. Which was bad for the movie, since it later does everything in its power to make him seem likable and sympathetic. I understand that it is very common in fiction to give characters arcs where they start off bad and become good, but there are times when you can take it too far, and the characters are shown as so unlikable that you don’t want to follow them. That is exactly what happened with this movie, and Dixon. But beyond simply going too far, this film also suffers from what I will refer to as “Full Metal Jacket Syndrome.” This is when a movie’s first half is tight, well-constructed, and building up to something, but then its second half is meandering and pointless. The first half of this movie, where Mildred and Willoughby are squaring off, is so damn good, that when the second half, which completely abandons that dynamic, rears its ugly head, you almost want to scream with frustration.

Guys, if it seems like I’m angry, it’s only because I loved the director, and the first half of this movie, so much. In Bruges is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s got some of the funniest, most mean-spirited, and thought-provoking dialogue I’ve ever heard. And this movie does too. But whereas In Bruges held back, never letting it’s dark humor become grating, here, McDonagh goes so far into making characters seem unlikable that you just don’t give a shit after a while. Yes, the acting is superb. Yes, the dialogue is great. Yes, the premise is interesting. But the characters are too despicable to follow, the violence is disturbing, and the second half loses a lot of narrative steam. If you’re a fan of McDonagh, maybe you’ll like it. Or maybe not. Either way, I won’t be watching this one again anytime soon.

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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.

Logan Lucky (2017)

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

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.

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.