Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The name, And Views Are My game.

It’s 1968, and a group of Marine recruits are being prepped for Vietnam. They are led by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, who ruthlessly pushes them to be the “best killers” possible. One of these recruits, Leonard Lawrence, nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” by Hartman, cannot keep up with the others, and is repeatedly punished and hazed. This leads to him losing his sanity, and to some rather tragic events on the night of their graduation. But this is only the beginning, as the rest of the Marines, including Sergeant’s Joker and Cowboy, are shipped off to South Vietnam, where they find the horrors of war waiting for them.

Full Metal Jacket is widely considered a classic, and contains some of the most recognizable lines in film history. If you’ve ever wondered where “me love you long time” comes from, here’s your answer. And yet, for all the hype, for all the praise people like to heap on it, I’d never actually seen the movie until today, and most people my age I’ve talked to haven’t either. Part of this is due to the fact that we live in a world of review aggregators, where we accept that something is a classic because a bunch of people online tell us that it is. For this reason, I decided to give Full Metal Jacket a look, and find out for myself if it was actually any good.

Well, having actually seen Full Metal Jacket, I can safely say that it’s reputation isn’t wholly without merit. There are some absolutely gorgeous shots in this film, and the production design is amazing. This, coupled with a stand out performance by R Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, make the first half of this film extremely watchable. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the second, and much longer, half isn’t nearly as good. Whereas the first half follows traditional dramatic structure, with characters changing, and scenes and stakes building up to a climax, the second half meanders about without much purpose. We get a bunch of pointless scenes that never get brought up again, like the soldiers talking to reporters, bidding on a prostitute, and mocking a dead VC. And whereas the first half is very clearly anti-war, the second half is much more ideologically muddled, with the protagonist, Joker, actually saying that he is “happy,” after killing a child. And even though I know that this film was made back in the 80s, and there was a lot of racism in the Vietnam War, I was truly put off by how many times the words “gook” and “zipperhead” were used in this movie. I don’t think the characters in this film ever referred to Vietnamese people as Vietnamese. It was always one of the two aforementioned racial slurs. And while the film doesn’t shy away from mocking other races, with many of the black characters getting called the n word, the latter group are at least given names, and dialogue that isn’t in broken English. The Vietnamese are completely dehumanized in this picture, and it really made me, an Asian American viewer, uncomfortable.

So, overall, I think that the first half of Full Metal Jacket is very well crafted, but that the second half is uneven, and tonally inconsistent. If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably should, just because it’s an iconic movie. But go in knowing that the second half meanders, and that there are a LOT of racial slurs used throughout.

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.

Wonder Woman (2017)

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

Born from clay, and raised on an island of only women, Princess Diana has long dreamt of war and adventure. Her mother, Hippolyte, tells her to put such matters out of her mind; that bloodshed is cruel and pointless, that their lives are much better without the influence of men, and the war god, Ares, but Diana doesn’t listen. She trains with her Aunt, Antiope, becoming the most skilled warrior on the island, until, one day, a plane with a man, Captain Steve Trevor, crashes in the ocean. Rescuing him from the water, Diana learns that there is a massive conflict, World War 1, raging outside the island, and that millions have already perished. Believing that this is the work of Ares, and that if she kills him, the world will be at peace, Diana dons armor, picks up a sword and shield, and sets off for London. But when she gets to the World of Men, she realizes that things aren’t as simple as she thought.

Wonder Woman is a movie I was very excited to see. Not only is it the first big budget superhero film starring a woman, directed by a woman, but the reviews I’d read had been extremely positive. On top of that, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Wonder Woman character. See, Superman might be my favorite costumed hero of all time, but Wonder Woman is the first superhero whose comics I ever read. Seriously. When I was a kid, my parents got me a collection of Gold and Silver age comics, one of which was the original origin of Wonder Woman. So, from an early age, I’ve been exposed to her mythos and adventures, and I was very interested to see what the filmmakers would do with it. What would they change? What would they keep? But, most important of all, would the movie be any good? Would the dialogue sound natural? Would their be character development? Would the action be exciting, and would the performances be good?

Well, having just seen Wonder Woman, I can happily say that I was very, very satisfied with the picture. This is an extremely well-made movie. It’s exciting, there’s a lot of great humor in it, the acting is superb, with the chemistry between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor deserving an extra special mention, and there’s great character development. Diana starts off very naive and optimistic, believing that she can end a global conflict by stabbing a dude in the face, and ends more mature and measured, understanding that life’s a bit more complicated than that. I also love the team that she and Steve assemble to help them fight the Germans. See, people have made comparisons between this film and Captain America: The First Avenger, where a superhero gathers up a team to fight in World War 2, but I don’t think that’s fair. The team in that movie isn’t given nearly as much screen time, or personality, as the team here, and they just aren’t as interesting. In Wonder Woman, by contrast, you’ve got three really cool guys to work with; Samir, an Arab con artist who speaks several languages, Charlie, a Scottish sniper with a knack for singing, and the Chief, a native American smuggler who uses the war as a way to avoid racism back home. And, finally, I actually really loved the fact that they changed the film’s setting. See, in the comics, Wonder Woman leaves her home to fight the Nazis in World War 2, and when I saw that they’d changed the time period, I was a little skeptical. Were they just doing it to avoid comparisons with Captain America? Having seen the film, though, I actually think that was a smart choice. See, Diana is very naive. She’s never seen a conflict like this before, and she believes that she can end it by killing a single man. That’s actually quite similar to the way soldiers and politicians viewed the First World War. They’d never seen a conflict of this scale, or with these kinds of weapons before, and they applied their outdated Victorian principles and battle tactics to it, resulting in catastrophic losses of life. The setting is a perfect mirror for Diana’s transformation as a character. Plus, there really aren’t enough movies made about World War 1. There are a few great ones, like Lawrence of Arabia and War Horse, but, for the most part, filmmakers don’t talk about it, which is sad, when you consider how devastating it was, and how important it is, historically. But I’m getting side tracked.

With regards to complaints, I really only have one. The first few minutes are very exposition heavy, with there being a lot of voice over, and Hippolyte telling young Diana stories that will factor in later. Because of that, the dialogue there feels a little bit stiff. But, really, that’s about it, because as soon as Steve Trevor crashes on the island, the movie kicks into high gear, and, trust me, it doesn’t let you go.

Guys, I had a ton of fun with this movie. It was exciting, it was funny, I loved the characters, and I honestly want to see it again. Go ahead and give it a look.

Snowpiercer (2013)

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

The world is a frozen wasteland. The last remnants of humanity are confined to a giant train, and forced into castes based on what car they live in. Those in the front lie in the lap of luxury, whilst those in the tail dwell in total squalor. Twice before, the inhabitants of the tail staged uprisings, only to be beaten back into submission. Now, though, the tail Enders are smarter. They’re better organized. They’ve got a charismatic leader in the form of Curtis Everett, and, this time, they’re going all the way to the front. They’re going to take control of the engine, and, by extension, the world. Will they succeed? Watch it, and find out.

Snowpiercer is a special film, for multiple reasons. Not only was it the most expensive Korean movie ever made, with a budget of about $40 million, it was also director Bong Joon-Ho’s English language debut, and cemented his status as a cinematic superstar. Because even though films like Memories of Murder earned him critical praise, and The Host, which I reviewed here recently, put him on Hollywood’s radar, Snowpiercer’s massive critical and commercial success guaranteed he would continue to be given high profile projects.

But why was the movie such a huge hit? Well, like The Host, it all comes down to superior craftsmanship. And I don’t just mean the acting or the script, both of which are excellent. I mean the way the movie looks, how its edited, the sound design. It’s all top notch. This really feels like a fully-fleshed out world, with each of the train’s cars having a distinct look and design. My favorite one, easily, is the sea food and aquatic life car. It is, to put it simply, gorgeous! The movie is also extremely exciting. There are two really great action scenes; one in the dark where the tail Enders are being attacked by guys with night vision goggles, and one involving a sniper, who’s trying to shoot the heroes from across the cars. If nothing else, you never feel bored while watching this movie. And that alone is enough to warrant a recommendation.

That being said, Snowpiercer does have flaws. The biggest, by far, is the fact that it doesn’t have much replay value. See, a lot of the movie rests on certain twists that get revealed towards the end, and when you uncover them, you can’t really look at the movie in the same way anymore. And unlike other films with twist endings, like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, which demand that you watch them again, so you can see the clues, there really isn’t any such demand with Snowpiercer. Those earlier films are puzzles. You need to watch them multiple times to solve them. You really don’t have to with Snowpiercer. I watched it once, I got everything I needed to know, and have never seen it again. Even so, the film’s strong performances, unique premise, tight plot and impressive effects do make it worth watching. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

The Host (2006)

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

When a huge amount of formaldehyde is dumped down the drain, strange things start happening in Seoul’s Han River. First, all the fish in the area mysteriously die off. Next, pedestrians start noticing something big, and creepy, skulking below the surface. Then, after four years of waiting, a giant monster bursts from the water, eager to eat, and kidnap, humans. One of those taken is Park Hyun-Seo, the daughter of a neglectful Snack Shop Owner, who, with the help of his aging father, alcoholic brother, and athlete sister, sets out to bring her home. But things get complicated when the American military, the group responsible for creating the monster, block off the river, and release a poison, Agent Yellow, into the air. WIll the Parks save their daughter in time? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

When it came out back in 2006, The Host was a smash hit. Not only did it become the highest grossing Korean film of all time, it also garnered glowing reviews, and launched its director, Bong Joon-Ho, from a popular local filmmaker to a global talent that Hollywood was eager to work with. Because of this, and the upcoming release of Okja, Bong’s newest film, I decided to give The Host, and a few of his other movies, a look. See, It’s very rare for Asian directors to become big in Hollywood. There are exceptions, like Ang Lee and John Woo, but, for the most part, Asian filmmakers are relegated to the periphery of the popular conscience. So what about The Host is so special? Why does Hollywood know this film, and its director, and not others? Simple; its entertaining and well-made.

The Host takes a very basic premise–family tries to save daughter from monster–and tells it with just enough skill, and heart, to keep you engaged. And unlike many foreign films, which feature jokes that really only make sense in the original language, The Host is completely universal in its characterization and humor. I don’t speak a word of Korean, and the first time I watched this movie, it was without subtitles. And yet, I still knew what was going on, and who everyone was. That’s because Bong did a brilliant job of using costumes, hair styles, and other bits of visual shorthand to establish who the characters were. The film also looks amazing. Seriously! Anyone hoping to direct great monster movies should give this flick a look. It is a masterclass in how to shoot a blockbuster. Now, with regards to complaints, I do have a few. I think that the film, which is over two hours long, could have been shortened. I also couldn’t get over the fact that the Monster kidnapped Hyun-Seo, and didn’t just kill her. I understand that she needs to stay alive, because otherwise the story won’t happen, but, still. That seemed like a logical error. Granted, most people probably won’t care, and, even for me, its a nitpick. Beyond that, though, I have no comments. The Host is an entertaining, well-crafted monster movie, which transcends linguistic barriers to deliver high thrills and huge laughs. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

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

While en route to a new world, a group of interstellar colonists receive a transmission from a nearby planet. After analyzing the signal, they realize that its human in origin, and that the planet its coming from might have ideal living conditions. Deciding that this is too good an opportunity to pass up, the Captain sends down a small group to investigate. At first, everything goes just fine; the source of the transmission, a crashed space ship, is discovered without incident, and the world itself is rather hospitable. Things quickly devolve, however, when a member of the team is infected by a bizarre black fungus, which causes him to birth an aggressive alien monster. And if that’s not bad enough, the crew are found by a survivor of the crashed ship, who may, or may not, want to do them harm.

Alien: Covenant is not a movie I planned on seeing. It’s not that I dislike the Alien franchise; quite the opposite. I think 1979’s Alien is one of the most important movies ever made, and mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to make sci-fi. But I, and most other people, agree that each of its sequels fell in terms of quality, and that there are way, way too many remakes and spin-offs coming out these days. I’d much rather go support original films, like Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, which comes out in June, and Max Landis’s Bright, which comes out in December. But after my girlfriend told me she wanted to see it, I decided, “what the hell? It’s an Alien movie. It can’t be that bad.” Oh, how wrong I was.

Now, just to be clear, this is not a terrible movie. The acting is good, and the production design and visual effects are very impressive, as you expect from a film with this big a budget. But when it comes to story and characterization, its got nothing new to bring to the table. Not only does it hit all the same beats as 1979’s Alien–crew receives transmission, investigates, gets chased by a monster–but it lacks what made the first film so special; interesting characters and an original premise. We’d never seen alien’s bursting from people’s chests before Alien. We’d never seen people being hunted by a monster in a spaceship before Alien. Now, though, in 2017, we have seen that. A lot. So the concept alone isn’t enough to get us invested. And while it’s absolutely true that no story, or characters, are ever truly original, good filmmakers are at least able to make them interesting by giving them quirks, interests, or engaging arcs. Not in Alien: Covenant. I didn’t care about anyone in the movie. I couldn’t even remember their names. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I learned more about these characters from the ad campaign, which featured fake video blogs, wherein they told us a little bit about themselves. That’s not good. And as is always the case with horror movie sequels, less emphasis is placed on tension and suspense than on body count and gore. But what really drove the nail in the coffin for me on this picture was how boring it was. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either, but, at several points in the film, I was yawning. A movie about parasitic extraterrestrials that burst from people’s chests should NOT be boring. That premise is inherently interesting. But, somehow, the filmmakers managed to make it dull, and for that reason, I cannot recommend this movie to you all.

Dear White People (Season 1, 2017)

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

After an ill-conceived blackface party reignites lingering racial tensions, the students of the fictional Winchester University air their grievances in specific, unique ways. Some, like local provocateur Sam, do so by protesting major events, and shouting obscenities over the radio. Others, like shy journalism student Lionel, do so by investigating the causes of the party, and writing stories for the college paper. There are those who try to work with the administration. There are those who try to manipulate it to their own advantage. And, in the end, they all come together in this 10 episode adaptation of the acclaimed drama film from 2014.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, then you know that I wasn’t actually a big fan of the original Dear White People. I thought that it had trouble balancing its tone, and that the overly quirky aesthetic–perfectly symmetrical shots, pastel colored backgrounds, whip pans–was jarring when set against the serious subject matter. Well, someone must have read my review, and shown it to the director, because Dear White People the series is simply spectacular. I enjoyed it immensely, and consider it vastly superior to its feature length predecessor. Certain elements from the original film that didn’t add anything–the Reality TV Crew, Troy’s relationship with a White girl–got cut, while other elements–the back stories of Sam and Coco, Lionel’s struggle with his sexuality–got considerably more fleshed out. And all the stuff from the original film that was good–the witty dialogue, the strong performances–carried over. It was the best of both worlds, and I’m very happy about that. Part of what I think helps this series stand above the film its based off of is the fact that the creators have 10 episodes to tell their story, as opposed to just two hours. As such, they have a lot more time to go back and develop various characters and plot threads. Like I said, Coco and Sam, who, in the original film, just didn’t like each other because the latter was taking attention away from the former, get a much more nuanced, and fairly tragic, history with one another in the series. Characters who weren’t that important in the original movie, like Sam’s radical friend Reggie, get whole episodes devoted to them. Hell, his episode, which, incidentally, was directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, was probably my favorite one in the entire show.

Put simply, Dear White People the series is a masterclass in adaptation. It omits weaker elements from the source material. It expands upon aspects that need to be expanded upon. It maintains the best aspects of its predecessor, and manages to be highly entertaining all the while. If you want to laugh, cry, and, best of all, think, give this show a look.