Widows (2018)

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

When their husbands are killed in a botched robbery, and the gangster they stole from comes demanding reparations, a group of widows are forced to pull off an impossible heist to save both themselves, and their families. This involves them finding a getaway car, a driver, codes to a safe, and guns. Lots of guns. They don’t want to kill anyone, but when you’re backed into a corner, who knows what will happen?

Widows is a perfect encapsulation of the phrase, “a sum worth less than its parts.” When you break it down into individual ingredients, it’s got everything you’d need to make a hit. You’ve got the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen, a fascinating story with themes of race, class, gender and sexuality, and a fantastic, and I mean fantastic, cast. I really want to emphasize that last fact. Everyone delivers a terrific performance here. Even minor characters who are only in a couple scenes are played by world-class actors, giving it their all. Take Collin Farrell’s character, the man whom the widows eventually steal from. He’s got a racist dad, who appears onscreen for less than 10 minutes. Guess who plays the dad. Robert Duvall. Yeah. I could literally go through the entire cast, and tell you how good they all are, but then this review would never end. The point is, everyone, from Viola Davis as the leader of the widows, to Daniel Kaluuya as the psychotic brother of the gangster, is great. And the movie’s never boring. There are several, highly suspenseful sequences, from the opening job where the husbands are killed, to the final heist, that are perfectly shot, edited and scored. Hell, there’s one scene, shot outside of a car, where we’re just watching the landscape of Chicago shift, that made me go, “wow! That’s great filmmaking.” This is definitely a more crowd-pleasing flick than McQueen’s other efforts, and I could certainly see myself going back to it. So it’s terrifically acted, the central premise is great,  it’s never boring, and the directing is top notch. Why then was I somewhat disappointed by it?

It all comes down to the script. It just isn’t up to the same level as the rest of the film. The ending is extremely rushed, with there being several, very important questions–is Elizabeth Debicki still working as a prostitute, did the gangster get his money, will there be any repercussions for what happened to Daniel Kaluuya–that never get answered. Certain characters, like Cynthia Erivo, who joins the widows as their getaway driver, get introduced way too late into the story. And in her case, her decision to join this extremely dangerous heist kind of comes out of nowhere. We don’t see her acting as a getaway driver beforehand. Hell, we don’t even see her drive until the robbery. She’s also not directly connected to the crime–she didn’t lose her husband in the opening heist, she’s just one of the other widows babysitter–so she really has no reason to be there. As a result, her decision to join the group feels unmotivated. And, finally, there are certain things that get brought up which never come back into play. For instance, in one scene, Michelle Rodriguez, the first widow to join Viola Davis, goes to interview a guy, learns that he lost his wife recently too, breaks down, and kisses him. Now, this guy never comes back into the film. We never touch base with Michelle Rodriguez about how she feels about this, or why she did what she did. It’s just thrown in, and then quickly discarded. WHich is frustrating, because I wanted to see more of that. And there are lots of moments like that in this film. As a result, the movie feels somewhat disjointed and incomplete, despite its terrific cast, amazing premise and great direction. I think part of this has to do with the fact that the script was co-written by Gillian Flynn, the woman behind Gone Girl. Her work is very structured, and narratively driven, unlike McQueen’s films, which tend to be more expressionistic, like moving art installations. So maybe their voices just didn’t mesh.

In the end, though, I think that Widows is a flawed, but highly watchable film. It’s acting, cinematography and quick pace keep you from getting bored, and it’s lighter tone make it easier to revisit than McQueen’s other flicks. Make of this what you will.

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Black Panther (2018)

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

Thousands of years ago, a meteor containing the precious metal vibranium crash-landed in Africa, and, upon finding it, five tribes banded together to create the nation of Wakanda, and used their discovery to become the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth. But, rather than share their knowledge with the world, or help other African peoples when they were being colonized and enslaved, the Wakandans kept to themselves, and even went so far as to kill those who tried to cross their borders. For centuries, the Black Panthers, the rulers of Wakanda, have kept up this tradition. Now, though, the new Black Panther, T’Challa, must decide whether or not he will continue to uphold this practice, as their is an outsider, an American of Wakandan descent, who is challenging him for the throne, and who believes Wakanda should use its technology to help Black people across the globe rise up and take control.

Black Panther is a movie I was very excited for. Not only is it directed by one of my favorite new filmmakers, Ryan Coogler, it’s starring some of my favorite actors, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and its a genre film that touches upon social issues. You might not have noticed, but I’m kind of a sucker for those. So when I sat down in the theater today, I was pumped. I was there. And when I walked out, I was very satisfied. Black Panther is a lot of fun, and I do think you all should see it. In terms of pure craftsmanship, acting, cinematography, costumes, music, I have no complaints whatsoever. This is a gorgeous looking, and sounding, movie. And everyone in the film gives it their all. The stand-outs, for me, are Michael B Jordan as the ruthless, but highly sympathetic villain, Eric, and Danai Gurira as the Wakandan general Okoye. Both give highly memorable, highly charismatic performances. I also like the world this film created, with Wakanda looking absolutely stunning, and I really enjoyed the questions it raises. For all these reasons, I definitely think Black Panther is worth a watch.

That said, I do have problems with the movie. And I realize that, by saying that, I just earned the ire of a substantial portion of the internet. But I don’t care. I want to make movies, and the best way to do that is to learn from the flaws of others, and this film has a few. For starters, there is a long, long stretch where nothing of much import happens. There are a lot of scenes where we basically get told the history of Wakanda, and, while they are necessary to understanding the world, they don’t really advance the plot in any way. Hell, the main plot, Eric coming to Wakanda to claim the throne and begin a global revolution, doesn’t really materialize until about an hour in. That’s a pretty long wait. Now, I do want to be clear and say that that first hour isn’t boring, but, if you cut several subplots out, including a whole sequence in Korea where the heroes chase down Andy Serkis, the movie would be tighter, and more interesting. The conflict between Eric and T’Challa, between new and old, globalism and isolationism, is fascinating, and considerably more compelling than Andy Serkis wanting money. On top of this, T’Challa, the main character, is kind of bland. Part of this has to do with the fact that all of the supporting characters are so interesting, with his sister, Shuri, his general, Okoye, and mother, Ramanda, all being highly charismatic and fun, but it also has to do with the fact that he’s a very passive protagonist. What I mean by that is, in most films, a character actively tries to accomplish a real, tangible thing, like winning a contest, finding a killer, or finishing an art project. In so doing, they realize that they possess a certain flaw, and change. Now when I say they “actively” pursue the goal, I mean they make the first moves, as opposed to just reacting to things. It’s the difference between Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Indie chooses to go after the ark, and devises several of the strategies for getting it, and Superman: The Movie, where Clark Kent only decides to be a superhero after the ghost of his father tells him to. For a substantial portion of Black Panther, T’Challa doesn’t have a goal. He doesn’t want any one, tangible thing, like an arc, a grail, or the meaning of the word “rosebud.” He just walks around, and responds to what other people tell him. And then, when the main plot does kick in, he still remains highly reactive. Yes, he undergoes a change, realizing after fighting Eric that Wakanda needs to share its technology with the rest of the world, but he himself doesn’t really want anything. And, finally, as impressive as the film is in terms of its acting, cinematography  and music, there are moments here where the CGI is surprisingly bad. In one scene, for instance, Eric and T’Challa are fighting on a train track, and there were moments where they were flipping around that took me out of the picture because of how fake everything looked. And in another scene, T’Challa is gazing up at this cliffside where all these various Wakandan tribes are standing, and it looked like elements that were just copied and pasted onto the frame. Which is disappointing. This film had such a huge budget, and so many talented people working on it that I’m honestly kind of shocked it had such shoddy CGI.

All that said, the good in Black Panther far outweighs the bad. This is a well-acted, beautiful-looking, highly thought-provoking superhero film, which does what I don’t think any superhero film has done before, and that’s tell its story from a distinctly black, distinctly African perspective. For that reason, coupled with some superb performances, I say, go out and see this. You won’t regret it.

Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3)

Greetings loved ones. Liu is the name, and views are my game.

What if you could build a man, based on his social media posts? What if you could watch memories, like movies, on a screen? What if a signal was sent out that turned half the world into passive spectators, and the other half into murderous hunters ? These questions, and more, are what get asked and explored in Black Mirror, a British anthology series that’s streaming on Netflix. Each episode features a different cast, a different story, and a different reality. But all feature the recurrent motif of technology, and a dry, nihilistic sense of humor. The series might best be described as half science fiction, half satire.

In many respects, Black Mirror is the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, the classic sci-fi anthology series that ran for five seasons back in the 50s. Both feature episodes with different casts and story-lines. Both ask moral and philosophical questions, usually through a scientific or magical plot device. Both feature macabre twist endings, and both gave actors who would eventually become super famous their first big break. Seriously. Black Mirror has got way more famous British actors in it than I would have thought. You’ve got Domhnall Gleason, from The Force Awakens, The Revenant and Ex Machina. You’ve got Hayley Atwell, or as you may know her, agent Peggy carter from the MCU. You’ve got Tuppence Middleton from Sense8. You’ve got Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out. You’ve got Toby Kebbell, who’s starred in every major big budget flop that’s come out in the last four years. You’ve got Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Belle, Beauty and the Beast, and Beyond the Lights. And, of course, you’ve got Benedict Wong, from Marco Polo, Doctor Strange, and The Martian. So much talent. And it was all before they were famous. But I’m getting sidetracked.

Black Mirror is a very smart, very well-written series. Even in its weaker episodes, the show is consistently entertaining. The acting is always top notch, as is the production design. And I really want to emphasize this, its original. Every single episode features a unique; thought provoking concept. And none of them are remakes of older stories, adaptations of preexisting material, or spin offs of other stuff. Do you realize how rare that is? Do you realize how virtually nothing that gets made these days is not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin off? For that reason, I have to recommend you all watch this. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, you’ll appreciate the show for it’s emotional depth and it’s originality. Especially the latter.

But before you get the wrong idea, the series isn’t perfect. Where the show falters the most is its cynicism. Virtually all the episodes end in an extremely bleak manner, and, very often, those endings fly in the face of the world and the characters that have been established. I understand tragedy is seen as the highest, most respectable form of dramatic art, but forced tragedy is awkward and unrealistic. And it doesn’t hit you as hard when you know that the story shouldn’t have ended that way, not because you didn’t want it to, but because the ending was easily avoidable. And example of this “false tragedy” I’m talking about is the episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” In it, we see Daniel Kaluuya raging against the numb, media obsessed dystopia that he’s living in. He spends the entire episode telling us how much he hates it and how much he hates the people who have turned the world into thoughtless zombies. And yet, by the end of the episode, he joins the big media company and becomes part of the system he despises. And it comes out of nowhere. It’s not like the show builds up to this by throwing us little hints that maybe he actually likes the system. He hates it, and then, out of nowhere, when he’s given the chance to join it, he does. Why? It doesn’t make sense. And because of that, I don’t feel devastated. I just feel confused. And even in episodes that don’t include sci-fi elements, like the first episode of the series, “the national anthem,” the show’s harsh, mean-spirited tone is off-putting. In that episode, a royal princess gets kidnapped, and the only way to save her is if the prime minister fucks a pig. And we have to watch him do it. Why? What possible good can come from forcing us to watch an old man get pressured into committing bestiality. What does that say, other than that you hate politicians? I hate Donald trump, but I would never want to have to watch him fuck a gorilla. That’s just cruel and mean. And it doesn’t teach us anything. The only episode that has a happy ending is San Junipero, a sweet little love story about two women finally being able to be with each other in an artificial construct. And there, it comes as an all too welcome relief.

All I can say is that Black Mirror is a brilliantly-written, highly original, but deeply mean spirited and nihilistic show. I want to recommend it, but I feel I can’t do so without warning you of its content. Make of this what you will.