Coco (2017)

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

Miguel Rivera is a young Mexican boy, descended from a long line of shoemakers. Many years ago, his great, great grandfather left his wife and child to pursue a career in music, a betrayal which lead to all vocal and instrumental sounds being banned in the Rivera household. Miguel, however, yearns to become a Mariachi, idolizing the now-dead musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. So, to prove to his family that he is a talented guitar player, and that he should be allowed to pursue music, Miguel signs up for the day of the dead talent show. Problem is, he doesn’t have a guitar, and no one will lend one to him. So he decides, “screw trying to buy one. I’m gonna go rob a tomb.” And that’s precisely what he does; breaking in to Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum, and taking the dead man’s guitar. However, as soon as he touches the instrument, he finds himself transported to the realm of the dead. Now, if he wants to get home, he must find his ancestors, and receive their blessing. Problem is, they want him to go back under the agreement that he will never play music again, and Miguel isn’t willing to accept this. So he decides to track down the ghost of Ernesto de la Cruz, whom he has convinced himself is, in fact, the great, great grandfather who abandoned his family all those years ago, and receive his blessing instead. Will he do so? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

If you’ve read my review for Finding Dory, you know that I love Pixar movies. I’ve loved them literally my entire life. And yet, despite that, I didn’t really plan on seeing Coco. Pixar’s movies, while all fairly high in quality, do vacillate between emotionally devastating all-ages entertainment, like Toy Story, Up and Inside Out, and more simplistic, kid-friendly fare, such as Cars, Monsters Inc, and The Good Dinosaur. After watching the trailers, it seemed clear to me that Coco was more of the latter than the former. And yet, I went to go see it anyway, and, I’ll say this, it was a lot better than I thought it would be. In terms of pure craftsmanship, animation, music, voice acting, the film is superb. The creativity with which the land of the dead is drawn is simply incredible. There’s one sequence in particular, where Miguel is walking through this terminal for the dead that legitimately made my jaw drop, partly because of how beautiful it was, and partly because of how much it reminded me of the Post Office in Mexico City, a historic building that you all should definitely visit. And there was a sequence towards the end where I really did tear up. So if you want to watch a gorgeous movie, which does have a heart, Coco is worth a look.

That said, it’s not one of Pixar’s best, probably because it doesn’t really feel like a Pixar movie. Most Pixar projects begin with a short film, which relates in tone and style to the main story. This one doesn’t. It also takes a while to get going, with me not really caring about the plot or the characters until they enter the realm of the dead. Then I was hooked, but that’s not until about 15 minutes in. And, finally, the film is kind of hard to buy into. What I mean by that is, certain things happen in it that don’t get explained, or just don’t jive with the rules that have been established for this world. For instance, Miguel spends the first few minutes telling you how music is banned in his household, and how if anything even remotely close to a musical note is heard, it is shut down. And yet, we see Miguel being an adept guitar player, and the movie never explains how he was able to learn to play the instrument, or how he was able to hide his skills for so long. Likewise, the film tells us that the only time ghosts can visit the land of the living is on Day Of The Dead, and yet, we see an animal, I won’t say which one, crossing over between the two realms on multiple occasions. That kind of bugged me. Now you might be thinking, “Nathan, you’re thinking way too hard about this,” and you’re probably right. But I’ve made it my career to write stories, and I can’t ignore it when a story’s narrative logic doesn’t add up. Did this error seriously hurt my viewing experience? Not really. But it did bug me, and I thought you all should know before you go see it, which I do still think you should.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

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

While waiting for the holidays to end, young Mary follows a Black Cat into the woods, where she discovers some mysterious blue flowers. And being a child in a fantasy film, she, of course, touches them. As soon as she does so, she finds herself transported to a fantastic new world, full of magic, amazing technology, and bizarre creatures. And, much to her chagrin, she can now fly, turn invisible, and do all sorts of amazing things. But not all is as it seems to be, as Mary quickly discovers that she can only do magic while in possession of the flower, and, more importantly, that some in this new world may want it for nefarious reasons.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is pure visual joy. It’s beautifully-animated, superbly scored, and the sheer imagination with which its world is drawn cannot be compared. On the basis of its creativity and originality alone, I say, go out and see it. At the same time, however, I would be remiss if I told you that I liked this film. Did I hate it? No. But I certainly didn’t love it either. And a lot of it comes down to poor storytelling.

There are a great many things that get introduced in this flick that either never get brought up again, or just don’t get the attention they deserve. Things like Mary’s parents being away, or her friend, Peter’s, troubled home life, are some of the details that get introduced, only to never be brought up again, while a fantastical school for witches, and Mary’s family’s mysterious past, are just a few interesting aspects that are touched upon, but never fully explored. Which is a real shame. When you see the school that Mary visits, how truly imaginative it is, and realize that it’s not going to be a big part of the film, you find yourself going, “Aw. But I liked where that was headed.” There are also some technical details that bugged me in this picture, like how the English dub was kind of wooden, and how it never really matched with the characters’ mouths’ movements. But by far the biggest complaint I have about this film is the hero, and the villains. In a good film, you’ll have a character who is flawed, but likable, and, by the end of the story, after undergoing many hardships, he or she will emerge a better person. Mary doesn’t really undergo any kind of change. They set it up like she’s going to have this big arc, with her being very clumsy, and not being able to help anyone, despite her best efforts. But, by the end of the film, she’s pretty much exactly the same person as before. I’m not even joking when I tell you that her hair has a bigger arc in this movie than she does. And that’s not even getting into the villains. Good villains have clear goals, and, if written properly, understandable intentions. Mary and the Witch’s Flower has half of that, since you understand what the villains are trying to do, but you don’t really understand why. Which is super frustrating. If you have bad guys who are doing bad things, seemingly just for the heck of it, you can’t get invested in their conflict with the heroes, and just wind up zoning out. Which is never good, since the goal of all film is to entertain.

So, in the end, I don’t really know how to rate Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In terms of visuals, music, and pure originality, it can’t be compared. So, on that level, I say, watch it. At the same time, however, the underdeveloped villains, uninteresting hero, and plethora of abandoned plot threads make it hard to get into it on anything deeper than a visual level. Make of this what you will.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)

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

While stuck in detention, four high schoolers, nerd Spencer, jock Fridge, antisocial Martha, and phone-addicted Bethany, discover a mysterious video game called Jumanji. Figuring, “hey, we’ve got nothing better to do,” the four decide to play the game, and choose avatars. When they do so, however, they find themselves transported to the jungle world of Jumanji, and the bodies of their respective characters. Now, if they want to make it home alive, they’ll have to win the game, and avoid all the danger getting thrown their way.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is a film I had absolutely no expectations for. I wasn’t even planning on seeing it, until my girlfriend suggested we give it a watch. And I am so happy she did, because this is a really fun movie. Seriously. This is probably the most fun I’ve had in a theater in almost two years. Which is weird, because, 2017 saw the release of a ton of great blockbusters–Logan, Wonder Woman, The Last Jedi, etc. But, the truth is, with each of those films, there was always something that held me back from just having a good time with them. With The Last Jedi, for instance, it was the knowledge that this was a Star Wars movie, and that there’d inevitably be angry fanboy backlash. With Wonder Woman, it was the knowledge that this was a female-led tentpole film with a lot riding on it, so please, please, please let it be good. And so on, and so forth. With Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, however, I had no expectations. There was no baggage. As such, I could just sit back and enjoy the ride. And did I ever!

What works in this film is the humor, the chemistry between the leads, some very inventive action set-pieces, and the fact that these are actually very likable characters. Which is surprising. When I hear that the protagonists of a movie are going to be a nerd, a jock, a prissy girl, and a misanthrope, I instantly think, “Oh god, I know exactly how this’ll go down. The’ll be insufferable.” But they really weren’t. Each of them had distinct voices, personalities, interests, and each, in their own way, was very funny. I liked them as teenagers. I liked them as characters in a video game. And the actors playing them were perfectly cast. Jack Black steals the show as Bethany’s avatar in the game. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are comedy gold when they’re on screen. And Karen Gillan manages to be  fierce, sexy, and adorably awkward all at the same time. I laughed out loud at several points in this movie, and there were moments of action where I was legitimately on the edge of my seat. For this reason, I’d say, give Jumanji a look. It is a fun, fast-paced time at the movies. Is it deep? No. Is it groundbreaking? Not really. But the characters are likable. The action is exciting. The humor hits 90% of the time, and it’s just a great ride to be on.

Bright (2017)

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

In an alternate reality where Humans, Orcs and Elves all live side by side, the LAPD, hoping to appear more diverse, hires it’s first Orcish police officer, Nick Jacobi. Jacobi is paired with veteran beat cop Scott Ward, who dislikes Nick because he’s an Orc, and because he didn’t protect him when somebody shot at them. This leads to Ward taking a deal with the Feds, wherein he’ll wear a wire, and get Jacobi to confess that he’s more loyal to his race than to the law. But all that takes a back seat when the two find a young Elf, Tikka, who possesses a magic wand. Wands, as you might imagine, are super, super powerful, and a lot of people, including a gang leader, an Elf cult, and a couple of corrupt cops, want this particular wand very, very badly. So much so that they’ll kill to get it. So it’s up to Ward and Jacobi to protect the wand, avoid the people coming after them, and, of course, save the world in so doing.

Guys, I won’t lie, when I saw the first trailers earlier this year, I was intrigued. I thought the idea of melding a police procedural with high fantasy was both original and inventive, and the make up and effects I saw looked genuinely cool. But, even so, I was weary. The trailers stressed that this flick was being directed by David Ayer, the man behind Suicide Squad, Fury, and End Of Watch. And while those latter two flicks are good, and I did initially enjoy Suicide Squad, until I realized how stupid it was, the fact that Ayer was involved made me nervous. As I’ve said before, he’s a writer/director known for making gritty, hard-hitting crime films, full of profanity, macho man posturing, violence, and racial stereotypes. Seriously, his directorial debut, Street Kings, begins with a scene where Keanu Reeves insults two Korean gangsters with every single Asian racial slur under the sun. And, to be honest, even his good films, like Training Day and End Of Watch, are full of cliched non-white characters, like Latino men who call each other “homes” and Black men who call each other “dog.” So when Bright finally hit Netflix, I was weary, but hopeful. And now, having seen it, I can safely say, yeah, it’s bad.

Now, I do want to be fair, so I’ll start off by saying that there are elements of this film that I liked. I liked the world that this flick created. I liked the creature designs for the Orcs, Elves, and Fairies. There’s some good action in here, even if it is a bit choppily edited, and I liked the fact that this was an original story. It’s not an adaptation, spin-off, or sequel to anything, which is always a plus in my book. And, again, the lore of this world is genuinely cool. I hope someone out there decides to explore this world further, maybe by going to different cities, or countries, and examining how they treat magical creatures, because it has potential. But, beyond that, this movie is pretty much awful.

Every single negative Ayer-ism you can think of–the choppy editing, the stupid, tough guy stand offs, the racial stereotypes–is on full display in this movie. And unlike his best flicks, where you can overlook those things because the characters are interesting and the dialogue is funny, this film’s protagonists are unappealing and underdeveloped, and the dialogue is terrible. Seriously! It’s awful. Here are some actual lines spoken in this movie: “It’s bullshit.” “No, human shit.” “If you’re gonna play stupid games, you’re gonna win stupid prizes.” “If you act like my enemy, you become my enemy.” What the hell, man? The lines in this movie feel like Place-Holder Dialogue, stuff you write in a first draft to give readers the feel of what the characters are talking about, but abandon and polish when you go back and revise. And, like I said, the characters are terrible. If you asked, I couldn’t tell you one thing about them. That’s because the movie never bothers to set up their personalities. In the best buddy cop films, Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, you get opening scenes where you’re able to watch the characters live their lives, and get a sense for who they are. And then, after you’ve gotten to know them, you get to watch them meet. In this movie, you don’t get either of those things. You don’t get to see their lives beforehand. You don’t get to watch them meet each other. Ward and Jacobi are already partners at the start of the flick, and everything about them is told to us in painfully awkward, exposition-heavy exchanges. It’s really, really bad.

Guys, don’t watch Bright. Or if you do, go in knowing that it’s not very good. It’s got a cool premise, and I would love it if other, better artists would explore its world on their own, but, by itself, this film is not worth your time.

The Shape Of Water (2017)

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

It’s 1962, and Elisa Esposito is a janitor at a high-tech lab. A mute, Elisa spends her days watching old movies, taking care of her roommate, Giles, and listening to her colleague, Zelda’s, marital woes. Her world is thrown into turmoil when a special asset, a humanoid Fish Creature, is brought to the facility. She becomes obsessed with it, visiting it when no one is around, playing it music, and, eventually, breaking it out, and bringing it to her apartment. This incurs the wrath of Strickland, the lab’s racist, sadistic director, as well as the Soviets, who want the creature for themselves. Will Elisa be able to outsmart them? Will she find a way to free her fish-faced love? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

The Shape Of Water is a well-acted, beautiful looking, richly-textured fairy tale. And I’m not sure how to feel about it. It’s not that I think it’s bad, per se. As a matter of fact, while I was watching it, I realized that it is, in many ways, the exact type of movie I love to write. A period piece, with a sci-fi or supernatural element, that also serves as a commentary on prejudice and disability? I’ve written about five scripts like that. And, again, on a technical level, this movie is perfect. It’s also not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin-off, which is always a plus in my book.

That said, there are certain things you should probably know going in. They’re not complaints, per se; just some things to temper your expectations. For starters, the film is very slow. The first 20 minutes, which have almost no dialogue, just show us Elisa’s daily routine. Nothing important happens in them. And while they do give us a well-rounded portrait of her character, they do leave you wondering when the actual plot is going to kick in. On top of that, you don’t actually see Elisa and the Fish Man much. A lot more screen time is devoted to side characters, like her roommate, Giles, her colleague, Zelda, and even Strickland, the main villain. Yes, neither she nor the Creature can talk. But it’s never a good sign when your film’s leads are the least interesting part of the movie. And, finally, the romance in this story is not at all sugar-coated. What I mean by that is, in most romance films, particularly ones that involve a human and a supernatural creature, like King Kong or Beauty and the Beast, the filmmakers tend to keep sex out of it. Not here. There are several scenes where we watch Elisa and the Fish Monster banging. And, I’ll be honest, it made me uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the sheer beauty, and originality, of The Shape Of Water make it worth watching. Is it slow? Yes. Are the two leads a little underdeveloped? Sure. But neither of those are enough to dampen the charm of this sweet, magical, and original fairy tale. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Death Note (2017)

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

While doing other people’s homework, angry nerd Light Turner stumbles across a mysterious book with the words “Death Note” written on it. And by “stumbled,” I mean it falls from the sky, and hits him on the head. Anyway, when he opens it, a strange, spiky-faced demon named Ryuk appears before him, and explains that if Light writes a person’s name in the book, and pictures their face while doing so, he’ll be able to kill the unlucky soul. Realizing that this gives him virtually unlimited power, Light uses the book to kill off bullies, murderers and terrorists, eventually creating a god-like persona for himself called Kira. Some people love him, since he’s basically ridding the world of evil. Others hate him, since he’s essentially deciding who is worthy of life and who isn’t. Either way, the police, led by an eccentric detective called L, are brought in, and begin investigating Kira’s identity. This puts the pressure on Light, and his bloodthirsty girlfriend, Mia, who start to realize that, shock of all shocks, maybe killing people off indiscriminately is bad.

The best thing I can say about Death Note is that it has an interesting concept. If you did have the power to decide who lived and who died, what would you do with it? Would you just settle personal scores? Or would you try to make the World a better place? And, perhaps more important than that, how would you know who to kill? Because, the truth is, “good” and “evil” are highly subjective terms. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. People can change for the better, even after they’ve made horrible choices. And in our social media dominated world, how do you know if the stories you’ve heard about someone are true? A guy you read about online could be a murderer, or he could just be a dude that someone didn’t like, and so they decided to ruin his life by spreading false rumors. The film’s premise opens up so many interesting questions, and, to it’s credit, the script does touch upon all of them briefly. But just about everything else is laughably bad. And I do mean laughably.

There are so many moments in this film that are unintentionally hilarious, like when Light is screaming at the top of his lungs, or when he and Mia are saying “I love you” to each other on a collapsing ferris wheel, that you can’t really take the movie seriously. This accidental comedy is due, in large part, to some weird stylistic choices the filmmakers made, like using a ton of 80s soft pop during dramatic or gruesome scenes. It’s extremely distracting, and really detracts from whatever serious tone the director might have been going for. There are also some weird hold-overs from the anime this film is based off of, (an anime I have not seen, by the way), that make it extremely hard to take the movie seriously. Like, why is he named Light? Who the hell names their kid Light? If you wanted to Americanize the property, you should have called him Luke, or Liam, or anything that a normal person would be named. And if, somehow, none of that bothers you, then the lackluster acting and gaping plot holes should get the job done, because this movie has plenty of both. The guy who plays Light seems to think that the way to convince a girl that you love her is to open your eyes really wide, and smile in as creepy a manner as possible. And L, as interesting and quirky as he is, makes some huge deductions based on virtually no evidence. And I do mean no evidence. Somehow, some way, he is  able to conclude that Light is in Seattle, and that he needs to see his victim’s faces, and know their names, in order to kill them. Yes, he’s right. But you don’t buy that he’s able to deduce this. And the fact that you don’t buy it is a plot hole.

Guys, I really don’t think you should watch Death Note (2017). I can’t  say whether or not it did the anime justice, but I can say that it’s questionable acting, gaping plot holes, and strange music choices work together to create a silly, unintentionally hilarious motion picture. So unless your in the mood for something campy and dumb, don’t waste your time with it.

The Mermaid (2016)

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

When playboy businessman Liu Xuan purchases the Green Gulf Wildlife Reserve, he uses a sonar device to clear the area of fish. Unbeknownst to him, the Gulf is actually home to a small community of mer people, many of whom have been made sick by his company’s activities. To save themselves, the mer people send one of their own, Shan, a mermaid who can walk on her fins, to assassinate him. But, as is always the case with such stories, Shan ends up falling in love with Liu, and things get complicated from there.

The Mermaid is a very weird film, with very many aspects to it. It’s got romance. It’s got fantasy. It’s got cartoonish, slapstick comedy. It’s got very blatant environmental messages, and its got surprisingly horrific violence. When I first saw it back in 2016, I really didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, I appreciated what the filmmakers were going for, as far as messages were concerned, and I liked the fact that a Chinese picture had become a global hit, with it actually out-grossing Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men: Apocalypse and Batman V Superman. On the other hand, I wasn’t a fan of the over-the-top acting, cartoonish slapstick comedy, and surprisingly gory climax. When I expressed my confusion to Chinese friends, they told me that all these things–the clashing tones, big acting, broad comedy–were just part of the director, Stephen Chow’s, style. Maybe so, but that didn’t help me make up my mind.

Well, having thought about it for a few months now, I think I can safely say that I didn’t enjoy The Mermaid. I didn’t like how silly and unrealistic the comedy got, with one character literally spending an entire scene whizzing around a room on a jet pack, and I was really turned off by the climax, which involves the gruesome murder of an entire family. And as broad as the humor might be, there are some jokes in it that really only make sense if you speak Chinese, or are well-versed in Chinese pop culture. Some movies, like In Bruges and Trainspotting, can deftly ride the line between humorous and horrifying, and even hit you with pathos when they’re done. The Mermaid is not one of those movies. It’s heavy-handed when it comes to conveying messages, and it never manages to make the transition between silly and sorrowful seem natural.

And yet, with all that said, I would, in a weird way, recommend this movie to you all. As I mentioned earlier, it was one of the highest grossing films of 2016, so, clearly, there’s enjoyment to be had in it. And I know for a fact that there are many people, like the fans of Baz Luhrman and the Tom & Jerry shorts, who like extremely cartoonish acting and humor. So, if you’re one of those people, or are a fan of Stephen Chow’s other works, give this film a look. You’ll probably have fun.