First Reformed (2018)

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

Ethan Hawke is the pastor of a small, upstate New York Church. He’s a veteran, a recovering alcoholic, and a man slowly dying of cancer. One day, he is asked by one of his parishioners, Amanda Seyfried, to counsel her husband, a radical environmental activist. The man is depressed, and she believes talking to a pastor would be good for him. Hawke agrees to do so, but finds himself unable to console the man, who believes that humanity’s damage to the Earth is irreversible, and that it’s not worth bringing life into an existence this shitty. Things only get worse when the man kills himself, and Hawke finds a suicide bomber’s vest in the former’s garage. Hawke slowly unravels from there, becoming radicalized into the dead man’s cause, and even planning to blow himself up and kill every member of his congregation in the process. Will he do so? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

First Reformed is a film I hadn’t heard of until my roommate mentioned it to me. Then, when I learned that it was written and directed by Paul Schrader, the writer of such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, I knew I had to go see it. And, having seen it, I can tell you that this is a beautifully-acted, meticulously crafted, haunting, unnerving movie. Now, let me be clear, It’s not the kind of film that you watch to enjoy and feel good about yourself. It’s the kind of film that’s designed to provoke you, to make you uneasy. Which is no surprise, given that many of Schrader’s other movies, Taxi Driver, Last Temptation Of Christ, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, were controversial at the time of their releases. And if you’re a person who doesn’t like the idea of watching a man of God suffer, act violently, and mentally and physically deteriorate, I can totally see why you’d hate this movie. As for me, I found the whole thing strangely hypnotic. It’s a very quiet movie–literally, there’s no score for most of the film–and there are several scenes of Hawke just living his life, and talking to the various members of his congregation. All of this makes both him, and the other characters in the movie, feel more real, and makes you empathize with him, even after he starts to deteriorate. The camerawork is also very interesting. Movement is used very effectively to emphasize both shifts in character, and key plot points. In the first half of the movie, shots are static, wide, and scenes play out in single, unbroken takes. As Hawke unravels, however, the camera begins to move, and not in the sense that it starts shaking, but in the sense that it’ll glide away from him, as if to mirror his sanity slowly leaving his body. All of this, coupled with truly excellent performances from Hawke, and all the supporting cast, definitely make First Reformed worth watching, regardless of its provocative subject matter.

Now, if I have any critiques of the film, apart from the fact that it will no doubt offend many people, it’s that it very much feels like a Paul Schrader joint. Almost all his films, Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, tell the stories of people falling from grace. In many cases, the characters will plan to murder others, as part of some grand political statement, only to chicken out at the last minute, and turn the gun (Taxi Driver) or knife (Mishima) on themselves. This film follows that formula to a T, with it even lifting shots from Schrader’s other movies. At one point , Hawke looks down into his glass as the liquid inside sloshes about (if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, you know what I’m getting at). Now, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with a writer having certain quirks and recurring themes–mine include having the main character be Asian, and telling a story set in the past–but it does get to be a problem when the writer in question just recycles those quirks without trying to do anything new. And, the thing is, for the first half of the movie, it did feel like Schrader was trying to do something new. He was making a quiet drama about a pastor helping others, a refreshing change of pace from the dark and gritty crime-dramas he’s known for. But then, the second half rolls around, and I realized, “oh no. Schrader’s just doing what he always does.” And, because of that, I almost feel like some of the things that the film has to say about God, and the Environment, and the commercialization of spirituality, don’t really resonate anymore, because this is just another story about a crazy person who wants to kill people. And the thing is, the movie even knows this. When Hawke finds the suicide vest in the dead man’s garage, he tells Amanda Seyfried to not let anyone know about this, because, to use his own words, “His cause was just. Best not to sully it with disrepute.” It was like Schrader was trying to remind himself that if he went ahead and told the kind of stories he usually does, all the points he’s making would be rendered moot. Alas, he went ahead and told that story anyway.

But, if I’m being honest with myself, I still think this is a good movie. It’s very well-acted, and very well-crafted with regards to it’s cinematography and sound design. For that reason, I would recommend you all go see it. If it’s in your area, give it a look.

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The Rider (2018)

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

Brady is a Native American cowboy from South Dakota. He’s got a father with a gambling problem, and a sister with some, unspecified mental disability. Riding and training horses are all that he or his friends know. It is literally what they live for. So when Brady is injured in a riding accident at the beginning of the story, and is unable to compete in the rodeo, he finds himself at an existential crossroads. Should he quit riding, and find a job, or should he just keep going, regardless of consequence?

The Rider is a film I want to love. It’s a drama about contemporary native American life, made by a female, Chinese director, who just so happens to have gone to the same film school as me. And yet, despite all that, I found myself bored out of my mind by The Rider. That’s because this film has no plot, no arc, and no real reason to care. There are moments where you think the film will be going in a certain direction, like when Brady’s landlord shows up, demanding rent, or when Brady’s father sells Brady’s horse, but then it never does anything with those elements. What the film does have a lot of is Brady just living his life; drinking beer with friends, watching rodeo videos on his phone, riding horses, etc. And this gets very tiring after a while. Now before anyone accuses me of just disliking this picture because it doesn’t have a plot, and I can’t appreciate art house cinema, I would remind you all that one of my favorite filmmakers is Wong Kar-Wai, whose pictures are notorious for not being “narratively-driven.” On top of this, I saw the rider with a friend of mine, who loves “slice of life” films, and the work of directors like Richard Linklater, and she hated this movie, calling it “pretentious” and “pointless.” So, yeah. I don’t dislike the movie because it’s an art house feature. I dislike it because it’s dull.

Now, to be fair, there are admirable qualities to the picture. The cinematography is gorgeous. Chloe Zhao, the director, employs a hand-held, wide-lens camera, and really captures the barren beauty of the South Dakota landscape, particularly at sunset. It’s nice to see a story about contemporary Native American life, and it’s kind of cool to know that the actors playing Brady’s father and sister are his actual father and sister. But even these admirable qualities have drawbacks. The cinematography is beautiful, but there are so many times in the film where Zhao will hold on shots that have no significance to the plot whatsoever, and I’m certain it’s because she just wanted to show that she’d captured a pretty image. The same friend who criticized the film for being pretentious noted how Zhao’s camerawork was eerily reminiscent of first-year Tisch students, who haven’t figured out the kinks of storytelling yet, and are just interested in showing off how good-looking their films are. Ouch. As a Tisch student, that really hurts.

So, in the end, I can’t really recommend The Rider. If you want to support a female filmmaker, or see more stories about Native Americans, maybe. But if you want to be entertained in any way, you won’t find that here.

A Quiet Place (2018)

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

The world has been overrun by monsters. The creatures are blind, but have incredibly sensitive hearing. If you make any sound at all, they will find you, and kill you. Now, a little over a year into the invasion, a family survives by living a completely sound-free lifestyle. They communicate through sign language, use their hands when eating, and cover the footpaths around their house with sand. A year back, their youngest son was killed when he played with an electronic rocket toy. Now, they mourn his loss, and do their best to survive. And… that’s about it.

A Quiet Place is a movie I was very excited to see. First of all, it’s got a great concept; monsters that track you through sound, so you can’t ever make any noise. So much tension can be wrung out of that premise alone. On top of this, I was glad to see another comedian, John Krasinski, getting the chance to direct a horror movie. Jordan Peele did that last year with Get Out, and it totally worked. It was also cool to see Krasinski and his actual wife, Emily Blunt, playing a couple in a movie together. And, having watched the picture, I can tell you, they are easily the best part of the film. They’re the most experienced performers, and their chemistry is effortless. The child actors who play their kids are also very good, and definitely deserve credit for their work. And, technically, this film is competently crafted, with the editing, sound design and cinematography all working fine. So why, then, did I walk out of the theater not loving this film?

It all comes down to the fact that this movie is not a movie. It’s an idea. In my review for Downsizing, I talked about how some films get made just because their central concept is super original, even if the filmmakers don’t have a complete story mapped out when they start shooting. A Quiet Place has an interesting idea, a world where everyone needs to be silent because if they make noise, they’ll die, but not much else. You don’t really know anything about the main family, I don’t even think we learned their names, and they don’t really want anything concrete. They’re just kind of surviving. Yes, in real life, people don’t constantly pursue solid, tangible things, like lost arks, or the meaning of the word rosebud, and just kind of mosey along, but this is a movie. Characters need solid, tangible things to achieve, otherwise we’re just kind of watching them shuffle along, aimlessly, for two hours. And that’s a large part of this movie; watching this family just live their lives, but without sound. Now, granted, every now and then, someone will drop something, or something will break, and then the creatures will show up, and it’ll be super intense. Those sequences are awesome. It’s just, the rest of the time, not much is happening, and, honestly, the main family is kind of boring. As I said, we know next to nothing about them.  They don’t really have personalities. And while you could make the argument that thats’ the point, they’re meant to be a broad stand-in for every family in peril, you can have characters in monster movies with distinct quirks. Case and point; Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host. All the various members of the Park family are extremely unique, and distinct from one another. The Aunt, Doona Bae, is a super-competitive olympic archer, the Father, Song Kang-Ho, is a lazy, neglectful pothead, the Uncle, Park Hae-Il, is an alcoholic, disillusioned former student radical, etc. They have personalities. You can tell them apart. I couldn’t tell you anything about the family in A Quiet Place, other than that the daughter is deaf.  That’s not good.

Still, the film’s interesting central premise, strong performances, and intense scenes of suspense do elevate it, slightly, above other “idea” movies. Did I love it? No. Will I ever go to see it again? Probably not. But if you want to go to the theaters, and watch some intense, well-staged suspense scenes, maybe give it a look. As for me, I’ll never think about it again.

Isle Of Dogs (2018)

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

The Japanese archipelago, 20 years in the future. Canine saturation has reached an all-time high, and an outbreak of dog flu has created mass hysteria within the city of Megasaki. To quell the panic, Mayor Kobayashi signs an executive order deporting all dogs, including his family’s pet, Spots, to nearby trash island; the newly christened “isle of dogs.” Unbeknownst to the public, however, the cat-loving Kobayashi actually created the virus to stir up anti-dog hysteria, and is actively repressing the fact that it can easily be cured. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the mayor’s nephew and ward, Atari, has stolen a plane, and flown over to the island to find his beloved Spots. WIll Atari find his dog? Will the truth about the Mayor get out to the public? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Isle Of Dogs is written and directed by Wes Anderson. That fact alone makes this movie very hard to review, because, regardless of how flawed it might be, Anderson has an extremely loyal fan base, who will watch, and love, his films no matter what. For my part, I have mixed feelings on him. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, and hated others, liked The Darjeeling Limited. And while I admire filmmakers who have very distinct visual, auditory and tonal styles, Anderson’s pension for bland, deadpan acting, overly hip soundtracks, and tendency to include, and barely use, recognizable stars, gets on my nerves. The fact that almost all his films have the same story, or deal with similar themes, also makes them very repetitive, and somewhat tedious, to get through. So, the question you have to ask yourself before you buy a ticket is, do I want to see another Wes Anderson movie? If not, avoid this film like the plague, because it is exactly like all his other movies. Every single Anderson-ism you could think of, symmetrical shots, pastel colored sets, deadpan acting, hipster music, sudden, and violent, scuffles, is on display here. Ed Norton, BIll Murray, Harvey Keitel, and Jeff Goldblum are all in this movie, as you’d expect. The flick even recycles plot elements from Anderson’s other films, particularly Moonrise Kingdom, which is also about an orphan running away from home and going on an adventure. Don’t let the fact that it’s animated, set in Japan, and about talking dogs fool you. You’ve seen this movie before. Many times.

Now before any Wes Anderson fans get up in arms about my review, there are aspects of this movie that I liked. The animation is beautiful, the story, while derivative of Anderson’s other work, is original, and there is a sweet relationship at the heart of this film. Over the course of the movie, Atari becomes close friends with Chief, a stray who initially doesn’t like him, and watching them grow to love each other is genuinely enjoyable. There are also some very cool nods to the works of Akira Kurosawa in this film. The soundtrack to Seven Samurai is played at several points in this movie, and there are some shots, including one of our heroes burying somebody, that are lifted directly from that film.

Unfortunately, that brings me to one of my biggest criticisms of the movie; the fact that its portrayal of Japan is beyond stereotypical. You can tell, just by looking at how the Japanese characters are designed, talk and move, that this was made by an outsider. There are several, extremely long scenes, which have nothing to do with the plot, where we watch stuff like sumo wrestling, kabuki theater, sushi preparation and taiko drumming, where you can tell that the director has never actually been to Japan, and is just pulling random things that he associates with the country out of his hat. And I’m not the only one who thinks this. Justin Chang of the LA Times, Steve Rose of The Guardian, Allison Willmore of BuzzFeed, and Angie Han of Mashable have all made note of how Anderson’s Japan consists almost exclusively of tourist cliches. And that even extends to the Japanese characters themselves. None of them speak English. Most of the time, when they talk, there are no subtitles. And a good portion of this film’s humor consists of the filmmaker going “Ha ha. These Asian characters can’t speak English. Look how funny they are when they try to communicate.” There’s also an American exchange student character, played by Greta Gerwig, who is the quintessential White savior. She comes to Japan, suspects Mayor Kobayashi of wrong-doing, and literally slaps her Asian colleagues into action. It’s kind of incredible that nobody seems to care about this. Now I do want to be fair and say that the stereotyping in this film doesn’t seem malicious. Anderson doesn’t appear to be saying, “the Japanese are lesser than us.” He just seems to have a very limited perception of them, and his portrayal of them is, likewise, very narrow. I didn’t find it offensive. More obnoxious. Like, “really? We’re actually doing this cliche? Ah well.”

But, as I said at the start of this review, the fact that this movie is made by Wes Anderson means that it will have an audience, no matter what. If, however, you aren’t a die-hard fanboy, and some of what I have said turned you off going to see this movie, good. Save your money, and watch something else.

Love, Simon (2018)

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

Simon is an average, upper-middle-class White High School kid. He’s got friends, a family who loves him, and, you know, a nice house, good clothing, his own car, and all the other things that come with being an upper-middle-class White kid. Anyway, his life seems perfect, except for one thing. Simon’s actually gay, and he doesn’t know how to tell anybody. One night, he learns from an anonymous social media post that there’s another closeted kid at his school, “Blue,” and he decides to reach out to him using the alias “Jacques.” The two exchange messages, with Simon doing his best to find out Blue’s true identity, but things get complicated when Martin, an annoying classmate who likes one of Simon’s friends, discovers their communications, and blackmails Simon into getting him into his friend’s good graces.

Love, SImon is a movie I was really looking forward to seeing. It’s the directorial debut of Greg Berlanti, the creator of such shows as Arrow and The Flash, both of which I’m a fan of, and it’s really cool to see a big budget studio comedy be about a gay teen. It really shows how far we’ve come as a society that films like this not only get made, but are widely distributed, and even critically-acclaimed. And, having seen the movie, I can tell you, it’s pretty darn good. This is a sweet, well-written, well-acted coming-of-age story with some good dialogue, and a good message. If you’re a fan of Berlanti, or mysteries, or teen films, or, really, just sweet stories in general, you should like this movie. It may be about one person’s very specific struggle, but it’s actually very universal in terms of its themes of not feeling comfortable with who you are, or not being able to get what you want. And in a time where whole sub-sections of the American population are being told, “you’re not welcome in our country, or in certain bathrooms, or in certain businesses because of who you are,” to have a film like this, which ends happily, and features a gay teen whose parents are actually supportive, is pretty refreshing. So, for that reason, I say, go give it a look.

That said, this flick isn’t perfect. As you could probably tell from my first paragraph, Simon’s constant claim throughout the film that he’s just like everyone else is somewhat undercut by the fact that he comes from a place of extreme privilege. That’s not a problem, per se, I grew up in a privileged household, but if the whole point of this movie is to make a gay teen’s struggle more universal, maybe don’t constantly remind us that you don’t speak for everyone. But that’s just personal preference. It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual filmmaking, which does actually have flaws in it. One of the biggest being two, surprisingly annoying side characters, a vice principal, and Martin, the guy who blackmails SImon. The Vice Principal is one of those middle-aged men who tries to act cool by using modern slang and acting like he’s friends with the students, and there were points where I was dreading seeing him again. And martin is just obnoxious. I understand that he’s supposed to be, since he’s the film’s primary antagonist, but it does get to a point where he goes from being just annoying to downright cruel. Seriously, he does something towards the end that goes beyond just bothering Simon, and enters the territory of “you could ruin someone’s life if you did that in reality.” But, in the end, neither of those things is enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the picture. Yes, there are some annoying characters, but they don’t take away this film’s funny dialogue, good performances, and sweet tone. So, keeping that n mind, I still recommend you go see it.

Annihilation (2018)

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

Natalie Portman is a biologist, and former soldier. Exactly one year ago, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, went into a mysterious, mutated area called “the shimmer” and disappeared. Everyone thinks he’s dead, until, one day, out of nowhere, he shows up on Portman’s door, deeply ill. She learns from a psychologist, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, that he was part of a reconnaissance mission sent into “the shimmer” to find out just what it is, and that, to date, he is the only person to return. Upon hearing that there will be a new team sent into the area, Portman volunteers, for some reason, and she and the group venture forth into “the shimmer” where they encounter all kinds of crazy shit, including mutated plants, mutated crocodiles, and even mutated bears.

Annihilation is a film that, on paper, I should love. It’s a sci-fi movie, with an all-female cast, and some very interesting visuals. In practice, however, I found the film to be boring, pretentious, and surprisingly hollow. Then again, this film is written and directed by Alex Garland, the man behind Ex Machina, a movie that, if you’ve read my blog, you know I REALLY didn’t care for. Luckily, this picture doesn’t have nearly as much unintentional racism as that movie. It’s still not good, though, and a lot of it has to do with the way Garland helms the film. He directs all his actors to say every line in as slow and serious a manner as possible, and there’s barely a moment in this movie where anyone smiles, or acts like a human. This is especially true with Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s character, who, to the best of my recollection, never shows the slightest trace of emotion in anything she says. Granted, her character is supposed to be very repressed and mysterious, but there’s a way to convey those things in a manner that is interesting. As it is, she just comes off as dull and lifeless.  On top of that, the character’s make serious, life or death decisions in this movie that don’t really make sense. Portman, for instance, decides to go into “the shimmer” because, according to her, she owes her husband. Owes him what? A cure? A life? An answer? The film tries to explain this away by showing how she had an affair, but, the truth is, if she was really sad, and just wanted to kill herself, why go through all the headache of an expedition. Why not just take some sleeping pills? Oh wait, I know. Because we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise. And, finally, the characters just aren’t very interesting. You know next to nothing about them, and they are all so bland that none of them sticks out. Well, that’s not true. Gina Rodriguez stands out, because, in addition to having the funniest dialogue, she shows some actual emotion. I guess Garland couldn’t dampen her spirit. On top of that, she’s the only one who reacts like a normal person when all the crazy shit starts happening. She’s the one who says, “hey, maybe we should leave.” But everyone else just looks at her with their dead, monotone eyes, and says, “No, we have to stay. For science.” I’m not joking when I say that after Gina died, I lost all interest in the movie.

Guys, don’t go watch Annihilation. Yes, it has admirable qualities, like an all-female cast and some truly impressive visuals. And, yes, it is a bit smarter, or, at least, it thinks it is, than your average horror movie. But the characters are uninteresting, the acting, with the exception of Gina Rodriguez,  is wooden, and the pace is SLOW. You want my advice, treat yourself to something more exciting, like Black Panther, or funny, like Game Night. This flick ain’t worth your time.

In The Mood For Love (2000)

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

And Happy Valentine’s Day! Hope you all are with people you love. So to celebrate  the most romantic day of the year, I’ve decided to review one of my all-time favorite romance films, Wong Kar-Wai’s magnum opus, In The Mood For Love.

In 1962, Mr. Chow moves into an apartment right next door to Mrs. Chan, and, straight away, the two of them hit it off. And for good reason. They’re young, attractive, intelligent, and most importantly, often without their spouses. Both Mr. Chow’s wife and Mrs. Chan’s husband are frequently away on business, and it doesn’t take long for our heroes to realize that their spouses are cheating with each other. Devastated, the two become close, spending time re-enacting how their spouses might have met, and debating whether or not they should leave. As they do so, however, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan find themselves falling for each other, but must resist the urge, not simply to prove that they are better than their spouses, but because of the social norms of the time.

In The Mood For Love is pure, unadulterated emotion. There is little to no plot, and 90% of the run-time is just two people sharing a conversation. And yet, it is riveting. You feel so deeply for these characters. You like them. You care about them. You feel their pain. And by the end of the movie, you find yourself longing for them to be together, almost as much as the characters themselves. It is beautiful, on so many different levels. Not only is Christopher Doyle’s cinematography gorgeous, with the use of light and color evoking every ounce of emotion imaginable, but the costumes, particularly the qipaos that Maggie Cheung wears, are exquisite, and the music by Shigeru Umebayashi still gives me chills. And, as if this needs saying, the acting is superb. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung have amazing chemistry, and you really do believe that they care for each other. And for a movie like this, that is vital. I’d actually like to talk about Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung for a minute. They deserve all the credit in the world for this movie, and I’ll tell you why. When they started shooting, the director, Wong Kar-Wai, didn’t have a finished script, and, very often, he’d come up with new scenes on the spot, or just have Maggie and Tony improvise with each other. If they hadn’t been the actors that they are, this film would have made no sense, the characters wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting, and you wouldn’t have cared half as much. In my opinion, they deserve a writing credit on this picture, seeing as how so much of the film is just the two of them playing off each other.

Now, as much as I love this movie, I can understand why some people might not like it. As I said before, there’s almost no plot, and 90% of it is just the two leads talking, and being sad. That could rub people the wrong way. Similarly, there are certain characters, like Mr. Chow’s co-worker who owes money to a prostitute, that get introduced, but never really come back into play. And, finally, for a romance film, there’s basically no romance in this movie at all. What I mean by that is, in most Western romance films, you’ll have characters kiss, and have sex.  Not here. There’s no sex, no kissing, and the most intimate act that gets performed on screen is Mr. Chow giving Mrs. Chan a hug. I personally love this, because, to me, it illustrates a fundamental difference between how “romance” is perceived in China and the West, but I can also understand why Western viewers might feel cheated by this film. Then again, that’s kind of the point. You are supposed to feel cheated, because the characters have been cheated. they’ve been cheated out of their marriages, and cheated out of true love by society’s expectations and taboos. You’re supposed to want more, and not get it. Because the characters didn’t get it either.

Guys, what can I say? In The Mood For Love is one of my favorite romance movies, and an all-around masterpiece. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.