Moonlight (2016)

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

Chiron has a hard life. His dad is dead, his mom is a drug addict, the kids at school don’t like him, and he realizes when he’s young that he just might be gay. Which, in his neighborhood, is the equivalent of painting a bright red target on your back. His only friends are a drug dealer named Juan, Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, and a boy named Kevin, whom Chiron is attracted to, and who just might have feelings for him as well. Will they wind up together? Will Chiron find some peace in life? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Moonlight is a very unusual film; not simply for being one of the few movies to openly address the Black gay experience, but also in terms of how its structured. It’s broken up into three distinct acts, each of which tackles a different stage in Chiron’s life. The first act discusses his time as a little boy. The second act explores his teenage years. And the third act chronicles his life as an adult. There’s not really an overarching plot. There isn’t really a climax. Most of the key events in his life happen off screen, in the years between scenes. In many respects, Moonlight mirrors the works of Wong Kar-Wai, in that its a colorful, atmospheric mood piece, with not much plot, and a huge emphasis on sorrow, longing, and love. And, indeed, Moonlight’s director, Barry Jenkins, has openly admitted that Wong was a huge influence on him. So that right there should give you a good idea of what to expect with this movie. You might not like it, but you’ll at least know what to expect.

For my part, I found Moonlight to be beautiful. Everything about it, from its performances, to its blue-tinted cinematography, to its actors, are gorgeous. And I found the ending, wherein Chiron and Kevin are reunited, to be deeply touching. I wholeheartedly believe that people should watch this movie, if not for the performances and the camerawork, than for the simple fact that it tells a story that is not often told; the story of a gay Black man in America.

And yet, even as I say this, I know that not everyone will share my opinions on this movie. There will be people who’ll watch this film and be frustrated, some for reasons that are understandable, and some for reasons that aren’t. For starters, the movie is very slow, there are whole sequences without dialogue, and, as I said before, there isn’t really an overarching plot. I can totally understand why some people might be bored by this movie. Mood pieces that break the rules of dramatic structure are all well and good, but most people grew up with plot-driven films with lots of dialogue, and, for the most part, they prefer those. Unfortunately, though, that won’t be the only reason why some people won’t like this movie. The other, and perhaps bigger, reason is the fact that it is about a gay Black man. In an ideal world, his story, and the stories of people like him, would be universally embraced. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where a racist, misogynist internet troll with no political or military experience can get elected President, where Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately the victims of police brutality, and where homophobia and transphobia can lead to people being thrown in jail, or even killed, just for being who they are. So if you are one of those narrow-minded idiots who can’t stand to see a person of a different race or sexuality onscreen, avoid this film like the plague. If, on the other hand, you are someone with a soul, and you don’t mind slower, more atmospheric films, give Moonlight a look. It will definitely pull on your heartstrings.

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.

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.

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.

Dunkirk (2017)

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

The British Army has been driven back. All the way to the French coast. Now, if Britain is to survive the war, they must evacuate 400,000 men from the beaches at Dunkirk. And they must do so fast, because, every hour, the enemy draws closer. And every minute, another life is lost.

Dunkirk is a spectacle. It is the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster. It’s loud, intense, it puts you on edge; but , when its over, you don’t really feel like you’ve learned or gained anything. You just feel tired. Part of this has to do with the fact that this film has very little dialogue, and no real characters. Now when I say that, I don’t mean that there are no people in this movie. There are. We actually follow three different protagonists; an RAF pilot trying to shoot down enemy aircraft, a civilian mariner trying to rescue soldiers, and a private trying to get off the beaches. But we never learn who these people are. In fact, I’ve thought back, and I don’t think we ever hear their names. There’s never a moment where the soldiers tell each other about their lives back in England, or where we get any sense of what their interests, or political views, are. They don’t have clearly-defined arcs; where, say, they start off arrogant, and end humble, and the movie itself doesn’t even have a climax, since every moment is huge and dramatic. Dunkirk is basically just 2 hours of people you don’t know anything about reacting to explosions. And that’s it.

Now, in case it sounds like I didn’t like this movie, I did. Sort of. It’s entertaining, to be sure. I was never bored while I was watching it, and there were many points where I jumped. And the acting, as you expect from a Christopher Nolan movie, is quite good. Mark Rylance, whom plays the civilian mariner trying to save soldiers, is a particular bright spot, since he’s given the most dialogue, and you know the most about him. And the dogfights that Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot gets into are definitely gripping.

But when you strip all that away–all the dogfights, and explosions, and Mark Rylance–what you’re left with is a very hollow movie. I understand that the lack of characterization and character development was a deliberate choice, since, in the real world, you don’t take a break during a battle to tell people about your significant other back home, but realism doesn’t always work in drama. If movie dialogue was exactly like actual conversation, it would be duller than paint drying, since there’d be a lot of repetition, very little conflict, and every third word would be “uh,” or “um.” Similarly, having the audience of your movie not know anything about the characters they’re supposed to be following creates a disconnect between observer and observed. I didn’t know who any of the soldiers on the beaches were. Not just because I didn’t know their names, or anything about them, but because they were all pretty generic-looking white dudes with Brown hair. As such, I didn’t care what happened to them. Hell, there were a few points when I got confused, because I thought one of the characters I was watching had died earlier. Are we just supposed to sympathize with them because they’re British? Because, let me tell you, I knew exactly as much about the Germans as I did about them, and they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s not good. Some reviews I’ve read have praised this film for not being “sentimental,” and not “manipulating our emotions” with speeches and a touching score. But what’s wrong with that? Saving Private Ryan, one of the greatest war films ever made, has just as intense action as Dunkirk does, but it actually has scenes where we hear the characters talk, and we get to know them. Matt Damon’s speech about the last night he spent with his brothers is one of my favorite monologues in film. And why are we so opposed to sentimentality? What’s wrong with caring about the people we’re watching? It’s human to empathize. It’s natural to care. Why have we gotten to a point in our pop culture where being earnest in our emotions is a bad thing? It’s not. It’s actually quite a good thing. Ah well.

Guys, I can’t say that I liked Dunkirk, but I can’t say that I didn’t like it either. It’s definitely entertaining, and the acting is good. But the lack of dialogue, and discernible characters to latch onto, made it extremely difficult for me to care. Make of this what you will.

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.