Bumblebee (2018)

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

When his home is torn apart by war, the transforming robot B-127 must find refuge elsewhere. He leaves, and lands on a distant world, a world he hopes will remain untouched by his planet’s conflict; Earth circa 1987. There, after getting his vocal chords damaged, he takes the shape of a Volkswagen Beetle, and hides in a junk yard, hoping no one will notice him. Much to his surprise, Charlie, a teenage gear head mourning the death of her father, purchases him, hoping to escape her mundane life. It doesn’t take long, however, for her to discover his true identity, and for the two to become close friends, with her even giving him the nickname “Bumblebee.” But their joy is short-lived, as the American military, as well as the alien war criminals hoping to hunt Bumblebee down, are hot on his trail. Will they survive? Watch the movie and find out.

Bumblebee is, hands down, the best Transformers film ever made. Now, admittedly, that isn’t a very high bar to clear, but this film isn’t an example of something being the best simply by being the least terrible. It’s legitimately good. It’s got a very personal, very focused narrative, with it all revolving around the relationship between bumblebee and Charlie, the arcs are clear, the humor is on point, and the acting is terrific. Hailee Steinfeld, whom plays Charlie, and who recently starred in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, shines in this flick. She has to carry the entire film, and do so while primarily interacting with a CG effect that isn’t really there. Only a few actors, like Suraj Sharma in Life Of Pi, have ever been able to do that, and, my god, she owns this movie. Something else that sets this film apart from the other entries in the Transformers franchise is it’s distinct lack of childish, scatological humor, and it’s distinct inclusion of comprehensible action. Travis Knight, a man primarily known for his work in animation, directed this film, and he did a fantastic job. But what I really loved were the small, character beats, like when Charlie and Bumblebee are on a beach, and she’s teaching him how to hide from people, or when she’s repairing his radio, and they’re listening to different styles of music. These moments don’t really advance the plot, and they could probably have been cut, but they give us a sense for these character’s personalities, and that’s always good. It’s also cool to know that the script was written by Christina Hodson, an Asian woman. (Way to represent, sister). But, in all seriousness, I liked this movie, and I think you’d like it to.

If I have any complains, it’s that the film’s story–an alien lands on Earth, and becomes friends with a young person–has been done many times before, most notably in E.T. and The Iron Giant, and this flick follows those other movies’ narratives to a T. It’s also got some kind of pointless subplots, like Charlie’s spat with this one bully, which do feel pretty cliche. But, again, this film’s humor, acting, clear direction and, above all, its heart, make it worth watching. Make of this what you will.

Advertisements

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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

Three strangers, riding a coach to damnation. A grizzled prospector, mining for gold. A sad young woman, traveling to Oregon. An incompetent bandit, avoiding hanging once, only to be executed elsewhere. A disabled man, forced to read Shakespeare for money. A singing cowboy, laughing as he guns down his foes. What do these people have in common? Nothing, apart from the fact that they populate The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, a new Netflix anthology film, and the latest flick from the Coen Brothers. Is it a rip-roaring good time? Well…

I’m a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen, though I feel I should put an asterisk next to that statement. While it’s undeniable that The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite films of all time, and No Country For Old Men and True Grit are two of the 21st Centuries greatest Westerns, the Coens have always felt like Hollywood directors who have no interest in making Hollywood movies. What I mean by that is, they’ve enjoyed mainstream success with traditional, three-act flicks, like Fargo, No Country and True Grit. These are films with characters who have clear goals, pursue them throughout the story, and ultimately succeed or fail based on flaws they have. They’re straightforward, and appealing to mass audiences. But these movies are the exception, rather than the rule, in the Coens’ filmography. Most of the time, the Coens will start their films off with straightforward set-ups, like a studio head needing to find a kidnapped actor, or a screenwriter needing to finish a script, but then they’ll get bored with these premises, and go off on idiosyncratic, unrelated tangents. And that’s not me spouting a conspiracy theory. The Coens have said in various interviews, particularly those concerning their comedies, that they don’t often have an end goal in mind, and will just create new scenes depending on how they feel, regardless of whether or not that scene fits in the overarching narrative, because, to use their own words, “it doesn’t really matter.”As a result, many of their films don’t feel like they were made for anyone but the Coens themselves. So I’m always somewhat nervous whenever they have a new film coming out. Will it be a film I can enjoy, or will it just be a two hour inside joke that I’m not privy to?

Well, having sat down and watched Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, I can say this; it’s better than their last flick, Hail, Caesar. Since it’s an anthology film, the stories are short and self-contained, so you don’t need to worry about them going on too long, or understanding how they connect to each other. The acting is good, the costumes and sets are immaculate, and the humor, as you expect from the Coens, is quirky and fun. There’s also some familiar faces onscreen, like Tim Blake Nelson, who plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Unfortunately, because it’s an anthology, the quality of the stories is very uneven. There are some shorts that are just better paced, better told, or, hell, better thought-out, than others. My least favorite is probably the second, the story of the inept bandit who avoids hanging once, only to be executed moments later. That’s really all there is to it. We don’t know the bandits name. There’s no arc. There’s no goal. He barely says anything. This truly felt like a story that the Coens started, then got bored with and tossed aside. And there are other entries in this anthology that feel the same way. Not all, though. My favorite, easily, is the third, which tells the story of a smarmy Irish showman, played by Liam Neeson, who parades a disabled boy, well-versed in Shakespeare, around the Old West. It is so tragic, and you learn so much about these characters without them ever saying a word to each other. It’s a great acting showcase for Neeson and Harry Melling, who plays the young man, and it’s just a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” storytelling. It still haunts me, that’s how good it is.

So, in the end, Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is an uneven, but ultimately enjoyable, watch. It’s six short stories that don’t have to be seen in any particular order. If you don’t like one, you can always go to another.  Sure, some of the narratives are half-baked, and the cinematography isn’t as good as in some of the Coens’ other flicks, since this one wasn’t lensed by Roger Deakins, but there’s ultimately enough good to recommend it for a casual weekend watch. Make of this what you will.

Burning (2018)

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

On the most basic, literal level, Burning is the story of a layabout, wannabe writer reconnecting with a girl from his childhood. They catch up, sleep together, and then, after she goes on a trip to Africa, she returns home with a new boyfriend. This frustrates our restless protagonist, who doesn’t think highly of his would-be girlfriend’s new fling. And when the girl goes missing, leaving no trace of where she went or why, he begins to suspect that the new guy is a serial killer. He’s so convinced of this that he actually murders the man in cold blood, and burns all evidence of the crime. Now that may seem like a spoiler, but, trust me, you don’t watch a film like this for the plot.

Burning is adapted from a novel by Haruki Murakami. Who’s Haruki Murakami? Just modern Japan’s most celebrated author. I myself am a huge fan of his work, having read several of his novels, including The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Norwegian Wood, and 1Q84. His books are long and rambling, and very often don’t make any logical sense. They’ll start off mundane, like with a man trying to find his cat, or with a dude rewriting a book for someone, but then they’ll often go down winding, convoluted roads, full of unexplained, magical twists, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. Much greater emphasis is placed on the quirks of the various, highly idiosyncratic characters, such as the music they listen to, the food they eat, and the vaguely philosophical conversations they have pre, mid, and post coitus. As a result, his works wind up pulling you in, not so much with their narratives, but with their weird, offbeat atmosphere, and with their highly specific, oddball characters. Now, much as I admire Murakami’s writing, I’ve often wondered how, or even if, they could be put to film. After all, his books tend to be thousands of pages long, and they lack clear, three-act narratives, all of which is bad for a medium that instinctively has a time limit, built around the three-act structure. But having watched Burning, I’m convinced nothing is impossible. This movie captures the tone and the feel of Murakami to a T. All the elements you associate with his writings, a lazy male protagonist, strange twists, a quirky, sexually liberated young woman, cats, wells, are on display here. As a fan of Murakami, I love this. And as a fan of cinema, I’m quite satisfied as well. The acting is superb, with Jeon Jong-seo, whom plays the female lead, and The Walking Dead’s Steve Yeun, whom plays the suspicious new boyfriend, deserving extra special mention. The camerawork is exquisite, with one long shot of the main girl dancing in the sunset taking my breath away, and the music helping build up suspense. In short, it’s a good movie. But it is an acquired taste.

People who like Murakami, with all his strange quirks, will like Burning. But for people who like films to move quick, for the stories to make sense, and for there not to be gratuitous sex, nudity and masturbation, it’ll probably rub them the wrong way. The film’s also 2 & a half hours long. So make of this what you will.

Sorry For Your Loss (Season 1, 2018)

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

Four months ago, Leigh’s husband, Matt, went for a walk; a walk that he never came back from. And ever since then, she, her sister Jules, her mother Amy, and Matt’s brother, Danny, have struggled to cope with his death. Some, like Amy, have put on a brave face, and acted as emotional support to others. Others, like Jules, have used this event as the catalyst to do things that they’ve always been meaning to; in her case, getting sober. And others, like Leigh and Danny, have resorted to lashing out, at friends, at family, and especially each other, for not knowing how to explain, or process, Matt’s loss. No matter how they do it, though, one thing is for certain; the road to recovery will be a long and hard one.

Sorry For Your Loss is probably the first work of art I’ve ever seen, be it in film, television or literature, that shows the grieving process realistically. It shows how slow it is. It shows the anger, the confusion, and the denial that all come from losing someone, or something, important to you. It highlights how little things, like donuts at a grief support group, can make all the difference. It portrays how some people use the grieving process to get attention, and how others use it to cut themselves off from the world. And unlike a lot of other films about grief, which tend to dramatize emotions with bold, symbolic visuals and over-the-top scenarios, it never once veers into histrionics. What I mean by that is, many artists, like Lars Von Trier (Antichrist), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) have used fantastical elements, like monsters, to convey things like anger and grief, but Sorry For Your Loss never once veers into surreal or expressionistic territory. This show is set 100% in the real world, with the acting, dialogue, and cinematography all being plain and naturalistic. At no point does the series try to cram in quests, arcs, or artificial conflict. Instead, each episode focuses on a very small, but very real aspect of grieving, such as not being able to go back into your house, not knowing what to do with your loved one’s possessions, and being unable to attend parties, for fear that others will look at you as “that” person.

Now you might be thinking, “okay, the show portrays grief realistically. Fine. Is it any good?” Yes! Yes, it is. Not only does Sorry For Your Loss tackle the messy, complex topic of grief with both grace and care, but it’s really good, and very funny. That last part is key. As much as this show is about sadness, it’s also very humorous, and not in a way that feels forced, or like it’s trying to undercut the seriousness of the situation. A substantial portion of this humor comes from the character Jules, played by someone who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses, Kelly Marie Tran. She’s got great dialogue, and she brings the same energy and joy to this role as she did to Rose in The Last Jedi. But she’s not the only one in this show to get some great lines. Matt, who is seen entirely through flashback, has one exchange with Leigh that was so good I had to write it down. Matt: I just wanna bury my feelings. Like White people. Leigh: Oh? Tell me more about White people. Matt: White people spread smallpox through blankets, and take improv classes. The show is full of moments like that, moments of humor that help elevate what would ordinarily be painful to get through. And when you combine that with the realistic portrayal of grief, some absolutely stellar performances from Elizabeth Olsen, Kelly Marie Tran and Jovan Adepo, and a very quick runtime (the whole first season is 10, 30-minute episodes) you’ve got yourself a winner. I seriously think this might be my favorite new show. I urge you all to give it a look. It’s on the “watch” section of Facebook, it’s completely free, and It’s a breeze to get through. Please, please, please give it a chance.

Searching (2018)

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

When his teenage daughter, Margot, fails to come home, widowed father David Kim becomes worried. He calls her piano teacher, only to find out that she quit taking lessons months ago. He asks her friends if they’ve seen her, only to discover that they either didn’t know her very well, or hadn’t spoken to her in years. Things only get worse when the police get involved, and he is forced to break into her laptop to provide them with useful information. In so doing, he learns that she had a whole life he didn’t know about, a life where she was depressed, and possibly didn’t even want to live anymore.

Guys, I’ll be honest; I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie. I mean, I like John Cho, and the reviews were decent. But, come on. How interesting can a film told entirely from the perspective of someone’s laptop really be? As it turns out, very, very interesting. I loved this movie! It’s exciting, well written, and terrifically acted. John Cho proves, once again, that he’s a fantastic leading man, and that Hollywood should definitely cast him in more stuff. There’s a reason why the #starringjohncho movement got started; he’s great, and there really is no excuse not to use him. But, setting that aside, something else that I was surprised by was how the “from a person’s laptop” gimmick really worked in this film’s favor. I really cared about David Kim and Margot, and a large part of this had to do with the fact that their back-story was told to me through social media; i.e. from watching home videos and photos they’d posted online. That’s how most people present themselves these days, and, when done right, It’s very effective in getting you to care about them. This film recognizes that, and uses it to its advantage. Something else that the gimmick did well was conveying character. See, when we’re online, we’ll maybe type things, then think better of it, and delete what we were about to say. This film has David doing that, and the things that he types, or, rather, doesn’t type, speak volumes about his character. They even highlight his emotional arc.

The last thing I really appreciated about this film was how, like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, it normalizes the Asian American experience. With one exception, a scene where David and his brother are talking about a Korean recipe, the Kim’s could be any race imaginable. And that’s great. As I said before, the philosophy in Hollywood, for so long, was, if you’re going to cast people of color, it has to be because the story is about race. And because most people don’t really want to spend their money on depressing films about social issues, films with non-White, specifically Asian, leads are unprofitable. Well, this movie says otherwise. It says, “yes, you can have a mainstream, entertaining thriller, with an Asian lead, that doesn’t have to be about race, and it can do very well.” I’m just hoping that Hollywood looks at the films that have come out in the last two months–Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, This–and recognize that there is a market for these kinds of stories, and continues to produce them. Only time will tell, but, even if they don’t, I still think you should watch this movie. It’s great.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (2018)

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

When a car crash leaves him paralyzed from the waist down, alcoholic John Callahan decides to make a change in his life. He begins physical therapy, joins AA, and tries to find a new, more healthy, means of dealing with his various anxieties, including graphic illustration. This leads to him meeting the love of his life, finding a community that supports and understands him, and even getting a job as a cartoonist. Can he keep it together, though? Well, watch the movie and find out.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is  a movie I was excited to see. On top of having an absolutely stellar cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Jack Black, it’s directed by Gus Van Sant, the man behind some of my favorite films. Yes, he’s made a few flops, what director hasn’t, but one thing you can always say about his movies is that they’re terrifically acted, and considerably more sensitive than most hollywood fare. He’s made pictures about murderers, drug addicts and pimps, and somehow found a way to give them all humanity. So I was excited to see what he would do with this source material. And, having finally sat down and watched the movie, I’m happy to say that it’s very satisfying. It’s superbly acted, extremely sensitive in terms of how it deals with addiction, and surprisingly understated. What I mean by that is, movies like this–movies that are based on true stories about people overcoming adversity–are often very sappy and made for the sole purpose of winning actors Oscars. This movie isn’t like that. There isn’t a scene where Joaquin Phoenix mugs for the camera, or gives a big emotional speech. Everything is played very quietly, and very authentically. The best moments are the ones where he’s in group therapy. Everyone in these scenes is so down-to-Earth, unglamorous, and, for lack of a better word, real, that you forget you’re looking at actors. That’s terrific.  The movie’s also a lot funnier than you might think. The filmmakers find ways of infusing humor, particularly regarding his cartoons, into the story, and it really works. My audience was laughing their butts off. So between the rock-solid performances, sensitive storytelling and heartfelt humor, I think you’ve got more than enough reasons to go see this movie.

If I have any complaints at all, it’s the fact that the film, in its attempt to be unconventional, and not fall into the OScar-bait trap, is a bit uneven in terms of how it’s structured. It’s told out of order, with certain key details getting revealed perhaps a bit later than they should be, and certain characters who you think will be important, like Jack Black and Rooney Mara, not really showing up as much as you’d think. Rooney Mara, in particular, doesn’t have much personality, or purpose, in this film beyond being Joaquin’s girlfriend, which, coincidentally, she is in real life. But none of this detracts from this movie’s strong qualities. It’s acting, it’s humor and sensitive treatment of addiction are all rock-solid. So don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Sorry To Bother You (2018)

Image

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

In an alternate reality Oakland, Cash Green is a regular dude, struggling to get by. With no money, and few prospects, he takes a job in telemarketing, where he quickly learns that he’s far more likely to sell products if he uses his “white voice.” Doing so allows him to climb the corporate ladder, eventually getting promoted to the position of “power caller,” meaning he gets to sell weapons of mass destruction to dictators. All this success puts him into conflict with his girlfriend, Detroit, and co-workers, Sal and Squeeze, who want the telemarketers to unionize, and fear that Cash is selling out. Things only get worse when the head of WorryFree, a company that turns people into slaves by forcing them to sign life-long contracts, comes to Cash’s door with a frightening proposal.

Sorry To Bother You is a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing ever since the first trailers dropped. I love the cast–Tessa Thompson, LaKeith Stanfield and Steve Yeun are always fun to watch–and thhe premise seemed interesting–a Network-style satire about workers of color needing to adjust their behavior in order to get ahead in the world of telemarketing. Then the first reviews came out, and I just knew I had to see it. So when I sat down in the theater this week, I was super excited. And now, having actually watched the flick, I’m… something else.

Now, to just get this out of the way, this is actually a well-made movie. So don’t worry about that. The cast is superb, the pace never drags, and there’s some really good humor in here. There’s one moment in particular, where Cash and Sal are super mad at each other, but, rather than throw insults, they start trading fake compliments, like, “You smell great.” “You smell better.” “You wanna get drinks?” “Sure. It’s on me.” And something that I appreciate about this movie is the fact that it is truly original. I’ve never seen a film like this before, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that you have no idea where the story’s going. So, for all these reasons, I do think Sorry To Bother You is worth watching.

That said, the film isn’t perfect, and a large part of this has to do with the fact that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The trailers make you think it’ll be a satire of racism in the workplace, but that’s not really what it’s about. Oh, those elements are in the film, to be sure–there’s one uncomfortable scene where Cash’s boss forces him to rap, and talk about the “gansta” lifestyle–but the movie has at least 12 more things to say besides that. It wants to talk about worker’s rights. It wants to comment on arms dealing. It wants to satirize the power of social media to turn random people into celebrities, and make a statement about how we’re so used to seeing shocking things that we don’t even care anymore. And on top of that, it wants to be a dystopian sci-fi parable. Yeah. I’m not joking at all when I say that this movie is science fiction. A major twist that gets revealed about halfway through involves a company using advanced technology to create… things. I’ll just leave it at that. And while that twist is genuinely shocking, and took me off guard, I can definitely see it alienating a lot of people. There were members of my audience who got mad at the direction the film took. And, finally, the movie introduces a lot of elements that you think will be important, like Cash using a “white voice,’ and this radical leftist group called “The Left Eye,” which more or less get abandoned after that twist I was talking about. So if you’re expecting a light-hearted farce, which follows a clear narrative, go watch something else, because you won’t find that here.

In the end, though, I do think the film’s humor, it’s strong performances, and unabashed originality do make it worth watching. Just go in with tempered expectations.