First Man (2018)

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

Most of the time when I write a review, I start off with a synopsis of the work I’m discussing. But since the film I’m critiquing, First Man, is about the Apollo 11 Moon landing, an event that literally everyone on Earth knows about, I figured it’d be better to just save myself some time and launch into my thoughts on the filmmaking. Because, trust me, I have quite a few.

So, getting right into it, what makes First Man unique, in my opinion, is how subjective it is. What I mean by that is, most films about space travel, or anything really, are shot in a way that feels objective, like an omniscient third party is viewing the events. Lots of wide shots from a distance usually mounted on tripods or cranes. If there is camera movement at all, it’s typically done to track the characters through the scene. This gives the audience a sense of detached safety, a visual reassurance that we are spectators to an event that can’t harm us. First Man isn’t like that. All of the spaceship scenes are done in the cockpit, with very little cutting to the outside world. There are tons of close ups, be they on the actor’s eyes, or the controls, and the camerawork is very, very shaky. This puts us in the same position that the characters are, and removes the subconscious sense of safety that shooting things in a more objective manner might do. As a result, the spaceship sequences feel utterly terrifying. The opening scene of the movie, where we witness Neil Armstrong failing to re-enter the atmosphere, really hooks you, precisely because of how it’s shot; inside the cockpit, and with very little cutting to his surroundings. I’ve heard some critics describe this film as “detached,” and while I would agree that the storytelling is, the filmmaking most certainly isn’t. It 100% wants you, the viewer, to feel what the characters are feeling, with things like close ups, POV shots, and shaky cam. And, in the action scenes at least, it succeeds.

It’s on the human, story level, however, that First Man isn’t as adept at engaging spectators. Which is ironic, because something that the marketing, and the director, have gone out of their way to emphasize is that this is not a film about the moon landing. It’s a film about Neil Armstrong. And, to be fair, it kind of is. Most of the film takes place on Earth, and focuses on Armstrong with his family. You see him mourn the death of his daughter, him and his wife move to a new place, make friends in the space program, and even lose some along the way. All of that lends to compelling drama. But the film, like it’s stoic protagonist, never leans into that drama. For instance, you see Armstrong lose his daughter in the second scene, literally right after he manages to re-enter the atmosphere. At this point in the film, you don’t know her name; you don’t know what she likes, or what her relationship with her father is. Hell, prior to this scene, you didn’t even know she existed. You just get a shot of him hugging her, and then, a few seconds later, a shot of him lowering her casket into the ground. And then the film just keeps going. And this cycle of dramatic event followed instantly by business as usual happens continuously throughout the story. Time and again, things happen in this film that, in other movies, would cause some major change, or, at the very least, catalyze a major scene, but, in this film, are just brushed aside in favor of getting back to the mission. As a result, those parts of the movie that aren’t the flying sequences feel like a montage, like a series of events told to us as quickly as possible so we can get back to the good stuff. This is made worse by the editing, which greatly condenses the passage of time. In one scene, for instance, Armstrong’s wife is not pregnant. In the very next scene, just a few seconds of film later, however, she is. And in the scene right after that, just ten seconds later, she’s given birth to a son. Now we, as rational human beings, know that, in real life, several months have passed in between these scenes. But it doesn’t feel like that in the film. As such, her having a child doesn’t carry the emotional weight it probably should. Another thing that contributes to the non-space stuff in the movie feeling like a montage is the fact that almost no conversation lasts longer than 30 seconds. There aren’t really scenes, meaning confrontations between two people with differing goals that end with some kind of significant character, or story, change. There’s one towards the end, where Armstrong’s wife tells him that he needs to sit their sons down and tell them that he may not come back alive, but that’s about it. For the rest of the movie, major character beats are just rushed through in favor of returning to NASA. Now, in fairness, some of this is clearly deliberate. Armstrong, both in real life and the film, is a very stoic man who doesn’t want to show his emotions. But when you watch the movie, it feels more like the filmmakers just don’t care about the family dynamic enough to dwell on it. So, in the end, some excellent, subjective filmmaking and strong performances make you feel what the characters are feeling, but then absolutely nothing else in the flick does. Which is confusing. Did I regret watching this movie? No. But will I ever see it again? Probably not. Make of this what you will.

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Maniac (2018 Miniseries)

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

In an oddball future, a future where you can avoid paying for things by listening to a certain number of ads, and where tiny robots patrol the streets, looking for poop to scoop, two broken people enter an experimental drug trial. One, Owen, is the neglected, schizophrenic son of a wealthy Manhattan family, who’s being forced to lie under oath to prevent his brother from going to jail. Another, Annie, is a selfish, mean-spirited drug addict, who still feels guilt over having contributed to her sister’s death. Owen is there for the money. Annie is there for the drugs. But regardless of why they came, the head of the program, Dr. James Mantleray and his partner, Dr. Azumi Fujita, are confident that their drugs will solve ALL, yes, all, of their patients’ personal problems. But what happens when the computer administering the trial develops emotions, and begins messing with the process? James and Azumi will be forced to bring in the former’s awful mother, whom the computer is modeled off of, while the patients will have to contend with a series of strange visions and increasingly surreal simulations.

Maniac is a TV show I never would have heard of were it not for my friend, the supremely talented actress and dancer Momoko Judy Abe. Earlier this year, she told me she had a supporting role on a Netflix show that Cary Fukunaga was directing, and that Emma Stone and Jonah Hill were starring in, but didn’t say anything else. (Not allowed to). Then, a few months later, I saw an ad for Maniac, which mentioned that it was from Cary Fukunaga, and showed Stone and Hill as the leads, and I realized that this was what Momoko was referring to. So as soon as it hit the streaming platform, I cued it up. I figured, even if it’s bad, I can at least say I know someone who was involved with it. And, I’ll be honest; it was a lot of fun seeing Momoko onscreen. She doesn’t have many lines, but she’s featured in all but one episode, standing behind Sonoya Mizuno, aka Dr. Fujita, as one of her assistants. Hopefully, this role will allow her to be in bigger projects, where she can show off her immense range, and fantastic dance skills. But I realize that I haven’t actually said anything about the show. That’s because my feelings on it are pretty mixed.

As a work of art, it’s definitely not without merit. The cinematography, the music, and especially the production design, are superb, working together to create a strange, but oddly believable vision of the future. There are so many weird little details in it, I already mentioned the ads, and poop scoop drones, that make this show’s reality feel off kilter and unique. There are services that offer “friends for hire,” you can play chess with mechanical koala bears, and everything in the labs looks like it was pulled straight out of an 80s anime. The drug trial setup also serves as a framing device to a series of vignettes, each of which acts as a parody or send-up of a particular genre. In one episode, for instance, while under the influence of anesthesia, Stone and Hill hallucinate that their in an 80s sitcom, trying to steal a monkey from some gangsters. In another, they dream that they’re in a fantasy movie, complete with elves, wizards and dragons. And as distracting and disjointed as some of these vignettes are, they’re all staged with such love and craft that they’re definitely enjoyable in their own right. All this, coupled with some fun, quirky performances from Justin Theroux as the sex-addicted Dr. Mantleray, and Sonoya Mizuno as the chain-smoking, hard-talking, Velma Dinkley-looking Dr. Fujita, do make Maniac an interesting, if not always enjoyable watch. I say “not always enjoyable” because, like some of its characters, the show doesn’t seem confident enough in its own story to stay focused on one thing for very long.

As I mentioned earlier, the whole drug trial setup is just a framing device for the filmmakers to make a bunch of parodies of other movies and TV shows. Several episodes take place within the patients’ fantasies, and have their own, entirely insular stories, so that, when the show does cut back to the real world of the drug trial, it’s jarring. And sometimes, within those various vignettes, the rules get broken. In the fantasy episode, for instance, Emma Stone’s character, who, for the first half, was doing a British accent, and behaving like an Elf, suddenly starts talking like an American and commenting on how “none of this is real.” I understand that, in the context of the episode, it’s meant to represent her character realizing that something is wrong with the trial, but it honestly comes off more like a cheap meta-textual joke that the writer’s threw in to prove how clever they were. Which raises the question, if you’re not confident in your recreation enough to stick with it, why do it at all? It honestly feels like, these days, writers are scared to commit to a single tone or idea, for fear that they’ll be labeled as “cheesy.” So, instead, they constantly disrupt their own stories to let us audience members know, “hey, it’s cool, we get that this is silly. No need to make fun of us. Look, we’re doing it already.” And speaking of disrupting the narrative, there are several instances where the filmmakers will throw in things that are meant to be jokes, but which just come off as awkward and painful. In one scene, for instance, Justin Theroux is using a VR device to have sex with a weird, CGI fish-lady, and it feels so out of place and made me so uncomfortable that I almost stopped watching. That’s this show in a nutshell; put off the main story for as long as possible with weird genre parodies and awkward humor. And, sadly, I can kind of understand why the filmmakers did that. Neither Stone nor Hill’s primary characters, Annie and Owen, are that appealing. Stone is just a mean, selfish junkie, and Hill is just a sad, pathetic mess, and the latter’s performance as Owen consists almost entirely of vacant stares and monotone whispers. Yes, I’m aware that he has schizophrenia, but the filmmakers never attempt to give him a personality beyond that. It’s as if they’re hoping that, by saying he’s disabled, we’ll instantly sympathize with him, but they never once tell us his interests, or hobbies, or anything that makes him worth following as a character. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Hollywood often uses disabled characters as cheap, pity props, and very rarely bothers to show them as anything other than their condition. Maniac does as well, and you can tell that they don’t know how to give Owen any real humanity by how quickly they replace him with his simulation counterparts, who aren’t disabled, and who instantly have more discernible personalities than he does. So when you take all this into account, the unlikable lead characters, the disjointed tone, and the fact that the writers spend far more time on parodies and side quests than the main story, you’re left with a visually interesting, occasionally engaging mess of a miniseries. Does it have strong elements? Sure. And I’m hoping my friend Momoko gets a career boost off of this. But, on its own terms, I can’t really recommend the show.

Hold The Dark (2018)

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

In the remote town of Keelut, Alaska, children are being taken. Not by humans, but by wolves. Two Yupik youngsters have already gone missing. And now, it seems, a little White boy has as well. As such, his mother, Riley Keough, summons Jeffrey Wright, an expert on the animals, to come and find the pack that killed her son. When Wright gets there, however, he finds that all is not as it seems to be. For starters, Keough seems slightly crazy. (In one scene, she climbs into bed with him, and tries to get him to strangle her). And when Wright looks in the basement, he finds that wolves didn’t eat the boy. Keough, his own mother, killed him. This revelation, coupled with Keough’s disappearance, sends her husband, Alexander Skarsgård, an unhinged Iraq War vet, on a killing spree to find her, and leaves Wright, and local sheriff James Badge Dale, completely in the dark as to what the hell’s happening. Or maybe that’s just the audience.

Guys, I like weird movies. If you’ve read my blog, particularly my analyses of Gozu, Only God Forgives, and Valhalla Rising, you know that. But that doesn’t mean I like all weird movies. I like weird movies where its clear that the filmmakers had intentions, and chose to convey those intentions visually, or with metaphor, as opposed to just telling us. As violent and surreal as Only God Forgives is, its meaning of “this is a man who feels guilty about past sins, and wants to be forgiven” is clear when you look at the imagery. The frequent shots of hands, for instance, particularly the shot of Gosling hallucinating blood on them, relates to his guilt over having killed his father with “his own hands,” as his mother explains. And him getting his hands chopped off at the end by Chang, who represents God, conveys him receiving forgiveness from a higher power. All the imagery is consistent, and supports a theme. This is as opposed to Hold The Dark, where there is surreal imagery, and strange, violent things occur, but none of it is consistent, or coherent enough, to suggest any kind of deeper meaning. And that’s frustrating, because this movie is directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the man behind Green Room, one of the best, most intense thrillers I’ve ever seen. I was hoping this movie would be great. But I realize I’m not making sense. Let me explain.

As I said, Hold The Dark has a lot of interesting imagery and motifs, which suggest a deeper meaning, but are used so inconsistently that whatever meaning Saulmier might have wanted to impart just vanishes. For instance, the film makes frequent reference to wolves. Wright is a wolf expert, Keough claims her son was taken by wolves, and both she and Skarsgård wear a traditional Yupik wolf mask when they’re going crazy. What this would seem to suggest is that wolves are malevolent entities, which have, somehow, infected this couple. A Yupik character claims that they’re possessed, Wright notes how Keough’s killing of her own son is like the wolf practice of “savaging,” wherein a pack will eat its young to survive, and Keough stops Skarsgård from killing her at the end by removing the mask, and seemingly ending the curse. But this theory of “the wolves have infected this town” falls apart when you go back and realize that most of the murders in this film occur when the characters aren’t wearing the mask, and the movie explicitly states that Skarsgård was always violent. In a flashback to his time in Iraq, we see him shooting a car full of insurgents, well past the point of them being dead, and in another flashback, we see him telling his son that killing isn’t wrong. So he was always crazy, which makes Keogh’s removal of the wolf mask at the end feel like a cop out, and also makes his actions throughout the rest of the movie feel random and inconsistent. See, he kills a lot of people to get to her. He kills the cops who were trying to find her for him, the Yupik neighbor woman, his friend, and basically everyone he comes across. Initially, the filmmakers give the justification that he wants to take revenge on Keough for killing their child, but if that were true, why would her taking off his mask stop that? He’d still want to kill her, regardless of what he has on his face. So the only explanation left is that he’s possessed, and that her removing the mask breaks the curse. But, again, the movie contradicts this theory by showing us that he was always a violent asshole. And none of this, none of it, explains why so many other, random ideas are tossed in.

In addition to wanting to be a supernatural mystery, Hold The Dark also strives, and fails, to say things about American society, particularly the American police force and military. In Skarsgård’s Iraq flashback, we see him kill a fellow soldier who’s raping an Iraqi woman. Does this ever factor into the narrative? Nope. It never gets mentioned, and when Skarsgård arrives in Alaska, he doesn’t seem to be bothered by it at all. So, other than to show us something horrible, and potentially comment on how savage the American military is, there’s absolutely no reason to include this scene at all. I, being someone who never, ever, ever likes seeing rape in movies, think that anyway, but even if you don’t mind seeing it, the scene has nothing to do with the overall story, and could easily be removed. Something else that the movie tries to comment on is how cops in the US care more about crimes committed against White people. Keough mentions that two other Yupik children have already gone missing, and Cheeon, her neighbor, and Skarsgård’s best friend, chastises James Badge Dale for not doing anything to help him when his child went missing. This is an idea that could be interesting, but it’s mentioned, in passing, so rarely that it doesn’t register. I literally forgot that other children had gone missing until I read the Wikipedia synopsis, which reminded me of that fact. That’s bad. And speaking of bad things, a lot of people get killed in this movie, seemingly for no reason. At one point, Cheeon, again, seemingly out of nowhere, whips out a machine gun and starts mowing down police officers in an excessively long, if well-staged, shootout. As I mentioned earlier, Skarsgård kills a lot of people, supposedly to stop them from getting in the way of him taking revenge on Keogh, but in the end, he doesn’t do that, making their deaths totally pointless. I’m not saying that there should never be violence in movies. What I’m saying is, violence should serve a purpose. It should convey character, reiterate themes, or, at the very least, be built up to. None of that can be found in this movie.

Guys, I realize this review has gone on for a long time, and that I probably haven’t left you with the best impression of this film, but, the truth is, as frustrating as this picture is, I can’t unequivocally call it bad. I was never, ever bored while watching it, and it’s too well directed from an audio and visual standpoint. There are some shots in here, particularly of Wright walking across the tundra, that are breathtaking, and the use of negative space is superb. The performances, particularly from Wright and Badge Dale, are great. There is enjoyment to be found in this flick, and it’s available on Netflix. So, in a weird way, I am recommending you go see it. But do so knowing that it doesn’t make sense, and that it will frustrate and disappoint you.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)

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

Lara Jean Covey is a sweet, but shy girl, whose never been able to tell anyone that she likes them. Instead, she writes them love letters, and hides the notes in a box, praying to God that no one will ever find them. Especially if the boy in question is involved with someone close to her, like her sister Margot. Unfortunately for Lara, someone steals her love letters, and sends them to her crushes, including the aforementioned boyfriend. So to convince everyone she’s not trying to steal her sister’s man, she convinces another one of the boys she wrote a letter to, Peter, to pretend to be in a relationship with her. Of course, things don’t go according to plan, as she and Peter wind up developing actual feelings for each other, and Josh, Margot’s boyfriend, ends up becoming a wee bit jealous.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is a teen rom-com in the vein of 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls, and basically anything written by John Hughes. If you’re a fan of those types of movies, you’ll love it. If not, there’s nothing in this that’ll likely win you over. There’s nothing particularly deconstructive or subversive about it. A lot of the tropes people have criticized the genre for–such as the plot only being able to progress because of misunderstandings and characters refusing to speak in full sentences–are present here. So, again, if you don’t like the genre, this film isn’t for you. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie.

For all its clichés, the flick manages to be both charming and enjoyable, and a huge part of this is due to the performances. This is a perfectly cast movie. Lana Condor shines as Lara Jean, and Noah Centineo, whom plays Peter, is terrific. Their chemistry is effortless, and I could easily see this making them both big stars. I especially hope this happens for Lana Condor, since roles for Asian women like her are sadly still very scarce. And, you know what? I do think this movie could change things for her. This is 2018. Social media has amplified the calls for inclusivity in entertainment, and there’s a lot more outlets, like Youtube, Vineo and Netflix, for people to create diverse content. Plus, it’s hard not to fall in love with her when you watch the movie. Something else I liked about this film is its look. The cinematography is very reminiscent of Wes Anderson, with there being lots of perfectly symmetrical shots, and whip pans, which didn’t bother me here, because the movie is quirky, and the look matches it. The characters are also quite likable. This is something I was honestly kind of shocked by, because, on paper, everyone in this movie is an archetype. You’ve got the sassy little sister, the gay best friend, the dumb, but well-meaning dad, etc. And yet, when you watch the movie, they don’t feel like tokens. A large part of this has to do with the fact that the movie is surprisingly understated. Yes, you’ve got heightened situations, but it never gets to the point of impossibility. Unlike in other teen movies, like Mean Girls, where bullies, and everyone else, are written to be so over the top that it becomes kind of silly, here, everything is downplayed, which I found refreshing. This actually brings me to the thing I liked the most about this movie, the fact that it has an Asian American lead character, and that’s not a big deal. Lara Jean’s race is only touched upon twice, in passing, in a scene where her dad tries to make Korean food, and another where she and Peter watch 16 Candles, and she comments on how racist the film is. Other than those tiny moments, she could literally be any ethnicity under the sun. Which, in a weird way, is revolutionary. See, for a long time, if a Hollywood movie had a disabled person, or a person of color as the lead, there had to be some sort of justification for it. It had to be a movie about disability, or abut race. They couldn’t just be characters that happened to be Asian, or disabled. This thinking still holds up in some circles, as my writing professor’s at NYU regularly criticized me for making my characters Asian. “Unless it’s a story where that matters, don’t mention a characters race,” they’d say. Well, in both the book that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is based on, and the film, Lara Jean is half Korean, and that impacts the plot in no way whosoever. And that’s kind of what makes this story great. It normalizes being Asian. It doesn’t paint our lives as tragic dramas wherein we’re constantly running away from our heritage, embodied by our parents, who came from far away lands where something horrible happened, or any of the other stereotypes that things like The Joy Luck Club have perpetuated. Lara Jean is just a teenage girl who likes boys, and has friends. That’s it. And that, coupled with the good performances, and more realistic characters, makes this movie kind of special.

So if you like teen rom-coms, or are looking for a good date movie, snuggle up with someone you love, and give it a watch. It’s definitely worth your time.

Christopher Robin (2018)

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

Deep in the hundred acre woods, where Christopher Robin plays, you’ll find the enchanted neighborhood of Christopher’s childhood days. A donkey named Eeyore is his friend, and Kanga, and little Roo. There’s Rabbit, and Piglet, and there’s Owl, but most of all, Winnie The Pooh. But soft, it seems that all is not right, for Christopher’s now grown up. He’s married, a father, and works all night, with scarcely a beat to look up. And so, without their friend to play, the toys have vanished into the blue. Someone must find dear Christopher Robin, and that someone is Winnie the Pooh.

Guys, I love Winnie the Pooh. I LOVE him. I had the toys when I was a kid, I watched the show that was on in the 90s, and, at one point or another, I’ve owned every single film in the franchise. Yes, including The Tigger Movie, and The Search For Christopher Robin. So I’m not exaggerating when I say that when I found out they were making a live action movie where Pooh and company must enter the real world and save a grown-up Christopher Robin, I squealed with delight. It was like someone had read my eight year old mind and made what I’d always wanted into reality. So yeah, I watched it when it came out. And yeah, I liked it. A LOT! This is a sweet, beautifully acted, very well-directed movie. I especially want to emphasize that last point. Marc Forster, who helmed this picture, did an incredible job here. The costumes, the sets, the music, and the use of color are all fantastic. There’s one sequence where Pooh and Christopher are wandering through the Hundred Acre Wood, which has grown gloomy and grey in the latter’s absence, and the use of light and fog was extremely effective, and suspenseful. It almost felt like a horror movie. So, again, I’ve got to give props to the direction. But easily the best thing about this movie are the characters. They’re sweet, funny, and so, so lovable. All the humor with Pooh is perfect. Literally perfect. Something else that I really appreciated with this movie is the fact that Disney didn’t try to modernize the material here. See, in the past, they’ve taken characters from their other animated franchises, like Timon and Pumba, Donald Duck, or Goofy, and attempted to make them more “hip” by throwing in tons of modern music and pop culture references. But with Winnie The Pooh, they’ve wisely chosen to avoid that. Virtually every incarnation of the character has existed in more or less the same setting, a mid-20th century English countryside, and the stories have remained consistent; Pooh gets stuck in a hole, someone misreads a word, which leads to them getting scared, and going on an adventure, etc. And that’s good. That’s how it should be. Winnie The Pooh’s charm lies in the fact that it is simple, it is quaint and gentile. It’s about a boy using his imagination to play with his toys. That doesn’t happen in this day and age, where kids have cell phones. So it wouldn’t work in a modern context. Also, there’s something to be said for the fact that all incarnations of the source material, even the classic, animated ones, have a bittersweet tinge to them. They all end with Christopher Robin needing to leave, both literally and figuratively. They are always about having to grow up, and put childish things away, and how maybe that’s not always a good thing. This film captures that sentiment to a T, with there being one montage in the beginning where we watch Christopher grow up, and forget about his friends in the hundred acre wood, that had me weeping. Seriously, if you grew up with Winnie The pooh, and don’t cry a little bit during this movie, something’s wrong with you.

Now, as you can probably tell, I have deep nostalgia for the source material. So it’s hard for me to assess this film objectively. But I’ll do my best, because, believe it or not, there are some things I didn’t like about it. For starters, it’s very slow. There was a point about 20 minutes in where I actually began to wonder when Pooh and company would show up. I don’t think this is a film that young kids will enjoy, simply because it takes its time. That and the fact that the humor is a bit more sophisticated.  In my theater, it was the parents, and not the kids, laughing at all the jokes, and going “aw” at all the sweet moments. And, finally, as much as I love the idea of seeing a grown up Christopher Robin having to learn the value of child-like imagination again, it is still a very standard Disney storyline. So if you go to see this movie, do so knowing that you’ve seen it before.

Other than that, I have no complaints whatsoever. This movie is exactly what I wanted it to be, an, in my opinion, is far better made than perhaps it had any right to be, with the acting, production design, effects and direction all being top notch. Please, please, please go see this movie. I guarantee that you’ll love it.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

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

When a deal goes wrong, a terrorist organization get their hands on three cases of weapons-grade plutonium, putting the entire world at risk. So to stop the technology from falling into the wrong hands, Ethan Hunt and the rest of IMF go undercover to find the plutonium, save the world, and, of course, run, ride motorcycles, and hang from things.

Mission Impossible: Fallout is not a film I was planning on seeing. I’d never actually watched any films in the franchise before, so I didn’t think it made sense to jump in on the sixth movie. Plus, I’ve been getting real tired of blockbuster sequels recently. It’s why I haven’t reviewed Infinity War, Ant-Man & The Wasp, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ocean’s 8, or any of the other big movies that are in theaters right now. I want to see something original for a change. And before you accuse me of being a cinephile snob, I don’t mean “original” in the sense of impenetrable, art house fare. I mean, genre films that aren’t adapted from things, or part of some preexisting franchise. Back in the 80s and 90s, you could make original, mid-budget action movies, like Point Break, Speed or Predator, that were just that; original. Now, everything’s got to be part of some ongoing series, a remake of something that was big a few years ago, or adapted from a comic, TV show, or book. But, I’m getting side-tracked. The point I’m trying to make is, I wasn’t planning on watching the film, but my roommate bought two tickets, and I’ll always accept an offer to go to the movies. So I watched it, and it was fun. That’s literally all I can say about it. It’s a fast-paced, competently-crafted action movie with big car chases, explosions, and 56-year-old Tom Cruise running, jumping, and hanging off of things, be they buildings, helicopters, or cliff-sides. If you’re a fan of the series, of Tom Cruise, or just like watching action set-pieces that look like they were dreamt up by a 12-year-old boy mid sugar rush, which I, for one, do, give this flick a look. No matter what I say, it’ll do well. So, keeping that in mind, here are some problems I had with the flick.

The plot is extremely convoluted. Actually, let me re-phrase that. The overall plot, meaning Tom Cruise and his team trying to get the plutonium back, is very simple. But the minutia of the plot, meaning individual scenes and side-quests, gets very muddled. They’ve got to spring this guy out of prison, then evade the CIA, then stop a big bomb from going off, because it’ll melt a glacier and this will lead to global famine, etc. And all the while this is happening, there’s about five or six double-crosses, last-minute reveals, and people trying to convince other people that they can’t be trusted, and so on. Yes, I’m aware that putting on disguises and fooling people is a staple of the franchise, but it honestly got to the point where it happened so often that, whenever a new reveal occurred, I started laughing. On top of this, the villains are all pretty generic. The main  one, John Lark, is just a run-of-the-mill evil guy who wants to blow up the world, and you can very easily predict what his true identity is. And as for the other two villains, an arms dealer called The White Widow, and a CIA person played by Angela Bassett, they really don’t serve much purpose beyond padding out the runtime by sending Cruise on little side-quests. As soon as they’re not needed, the film drops them without much ceremony, which leads me to wonder why they were included in the first place. But my biggest complaint with the film is that the whole thing feels run-of-the-mill. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote and directed the picture, as well as the last Mission Impossible movie, doesn’t have much personality as a filmmaker. He shoots everything in a very standard, wide-lens format, which is good, in the sense that you can see what’s happening very clearly. But nothing about the film stands out, artistically. He doesn’t use color, music, or camera angles uniquely. There’s no imaginative set design, or noticeable editing choices to make this feel like anything other than a sleek, but standard, action movie. Say what you like about John Woo, who directed the second film, at least his movie felt different. I may not have been in love with Baby Driver, since I thought it’s story was bland, but Edgar Wright’s bright color palette, quirky camerawork, and heavy use of music made the film feel like its own thing. Fallout is crafted with skill, but it feels like it could have been made by anyone. And for a franchise that prides itself on having new, different voices put their quirks on display in each movie, that’s kind of disappointing.

LIke I said, though, the movie is fun. And no matter what I say, it’ll do well. So it’s maybe not even worth me writing about it at all. Ah well.

The Descent (2005)

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

One year after her husband and daughter are killed, extreme sports enthusiast Sarah reunites with some old friends for a weekend of spelunking in the Appalachians. When they get down into the cave, however, the tunnel collapses behind them, and, to make matters worse, the woman who suggested these caves, Juno, admits that she lied about where they were. They’re in an uncharted system, and no one knows where to find them. And as if being trapped underground with limited water, light and oxygen weren’t bad enough, it turns out that the women aren’t alone in these caves. There’s something else with them. Something… hungry.

The Descent is a primary example of the old saying, “it’s not the idea that counts, it’s how you tell it.” On paper, there’s nothing special about this movie. A group of people are trapped in a confined space, and there’s something supernatural coming after them. We’ve seen that premise done a thousand times before. But we haven’t seen it be done in caves, and with only women. Throw in some top-notch direction, and some nail-biting, pants-pissing tension, and you’ve got yourself a sleeper hit on your hands. I’m not lying when I say that, as soon as the characters enter the caves, the movie gets a hundred times better. You feel so claustrophobic while they’re down there that it’s not even funny. There’s one sequence in particular, where the characters have to get across this big gap, and are hanging from the ceiling, that had me holding my breath, it was that intense. As someone who’s gone spelunking, and swore to himself afterwards that he would never do so again, this film captures the feeling of being hundreds of feet underground, and unable to move, exceptionally well. If you want to watch an intense, visceral horror movie that has you on the edge of your seat, from the fifteen minute mark, basically to the end, give this flick a look.

That said, The Descent isn’t perfect. A large part of this has to do with the script. The characters just aren’t very interesting, or well-written. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the only way I was able to distinguish them from each other was their accents. And the writer/director, Neil Marshall, knows this. He’s stated in interviews that the reason he got such an international cast together–there are women in here from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and the Netherlands–was so that the audience would be able to tell them apart. In that respect, he succeeded, but the characters these women are playing really aren’t that well-defined. They’re all tough, sporty and take no shit. Which is refreshing in a horror film, since none of them are helpless victims, but not great if you’re trying to get to know them as people. We don’t know enough about these women to distinguish them from one another beyond their most superficial feature; their accents. We don’t know if they have jobs, if they’re married, have kids, significant others, or are into certain styles of music or cinema. As such, it becomes harder to care about them when they die. On top of this, some of the acting is a little bit shaky. The woman who plays Juno, Australian actress Natalie Mendoza, really can’t hold an American accent. There are points where she’s talking that she just goes full-blown Aussie, and it gets very distracting. In short, The Descent suffers from many of the flaws that other horror films have; poor acting and a weak script. But I’m not lying when I say that the film’s direction, it’s production design and all-around craftsmanship make up for that. It’s intense, engaging, and very well-made. If you’re a horror fan, don’t hesitate to give it a look.