Their Finest (2017)

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

It’s 1940, and Britain is in serious need of a morale boost. Food is scarce, cities are being blitzed, and the British Army has just been driven off the continent at Dunkirk. Life, to put it bluntly, is shit. So, to give their country the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, the government begins churning out propaganda films, and because all the young men are off fighting, they hire women to write the scripts. Enter Catrin Cole, a novice screenwriter whose been given the task of adapting a “true” story to the big screen. She’s new to the business, and as she goes about bringing this story to life, she encounters all the typical roadblocks a screenwriter does; truth not lending itself to a traditional dramatic structure; producers demanding last minute changes to the script; cast members being difficult on set, etc. And yet, as hard as her job is, as difficult as her colleagues can be, Catrin finds herself falling in love with the business, and discovers a freedom in her work that she never experienced beforehand. Will it last? Well, you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

Their Finest is a sweet, utterly charming movie. It’s funny, moving, beautifully-shot, and exceptionally well-acted. It is the total inverse of Dunkirk in every way. Dunkirk is a spectacle. Their Finest is a story. Dunkirk is about the war. Their Finest is about the home front. Dunkirk has no characters. Their Finest has several, very well-realized ones. But beyond simply providing a pleasant, alternate perspective on this period in British history, Their Finest is also just an all-around engaging film. You like these characters. You enjoy watching this picture get made. And because this is a movie about movie-making, the screenwriters are able to throw in some clever commentary on the tropes of the romance genre. Also, unlike many other films set during this era, Their Finest holds nothing back when it comes to portraying the devastating sexism that these women faced everyday. Yes, It’s difficult to watch, but it also makes you appreciate these ladies’ strength even more. And that’s always a good thing in my book.

That said, as charming as Their Finest is, it is still, ultimately, a romantic comedy, and comes with all the tropes and baggage that that entails. True, most of the cliches are addressed in the film within a film, and the screenwriters do come up with a clever way of not giving you the ending you expect. Still, there are several plot points in this movie that feel very familiar, like the main character starting off in an unhappy relationship, her meeting a new man, her significant other cheating on her, which makes it okay for her to be with the new guy, etc. But, like I said before, the film is well-written enough to recognize those cliches as cliches, and it does come up with interesting ways of subverting them. So it doesn’t bother me too much.

Guys, all I can say is this; Their Finest is a charming, well-written, well-acted little romance film, which does feature some cliches, but is also entertaining, and clever enough, to overcome them. I love it, and I think you’d love it too if you watched it. Please give it a look.

Dunkirk (2017)

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

The British Army has been driven back. All the way to the French coast. Now, if Britain is to survive the war, they must evacuate 400,000 men from the beaches at Dunkirk. And they must do so fast, because, every hour, the enemy draws closer. And every minute, another life is lost.

Dunkirk is a spectacle. It is the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster. It’s loud, intense, it puts you on edge; but , when its over, you don’t really feel like you’ve learned or gained anything. You just feel tired. Part of this has to do with the fact that this film has very little dialogue, and no real characters. Now when I say that, I don’t mean that there are no people in this movie. There are. We actually follow three different protagonists; an RAF pilot trying to shoot down enemy aircraft, a civilian mariner trying to rescue soldiers, and a private trying to get off the beaches. But we never learn who these people are. In fact, I’ve thought back, and I don’t think we ever hear their names. There’s never a moment where the soldiers tell each other about their lives back in England, or where we get any sense of what their interests, or political views, are. They don’t have clearly-defined arcs; where, say, they start off arrogant, and end humble, and the movie itself doesn’t even have a climax, since every moment is huge and dramatic. Dunkirk is basically just 2 hours of people you don’t know anything about reacting to explosions. And that’s it.

Now, in case it sounds like I didn’t like this movie, I did. Sort of. It’s entertaining, to be sure. I was never bored while I was watching it, and there were many points where I jumped. And the acting, as you expect from a Christopher Nolan movie, is quite good. Mark Rylance, whom plays the civilian mariner trying to save soldiers, is a particular bright spot, since he’s given the most dialogue, and you know the most about him. And the dogfights that Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot gets into are definitely gripping.

But when you strip all that away–all the dogfights, and explosions, and Mark Rylance–what you’re left with is a very hollow movie. I understand that the lack of characterization and character development was a deliberate choice, since, in the real world, you don’t take a break during a battle to tell people about your significant other back home, but realism doesn’t always work in drama. If movie dialogue was exactly like actual conversation, it would be duller than paint drying, since there’d be a lot of repetition, very little conflict, and every third word would be “uh,” or “um.” Similarly, having the audience of your movie not know anything about the characters they’re supposed to be following creates a disconnect between observer and observed. I didn’t know who any of the soldiers on the beaches were. Not just because I didn’t know their names, or anything about them, but because they were all pretty generic-looking white dudes with Brown hair. As such, I didn’t care what happened to them. Hell, there were a few points when I got confused, because I thought one of the characters I was watching had died earlier. Are we just supposed to sympathize with them because they’re British? Because, let me tell you, I knew exactly as much about the Germans as I did about them, and they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s not good. Some reviews I’ve read have praised this film for not being “sentimental,” and not “manipulating our emotions” with speeches and a touching score. But what’s wrong with that? Saving Private Ryan, one of the greatest war films ever made, has just as intense action as Dunkirk does, but it actually has scenes where we hear the characters talk, and we get to know them. Matt Damon’s speech about the last night he spent with his brothers is one of my favorite monologues in film. And why are we so opposed to sentimentality? What’s wrong with caring about the people we’re watching? It’s human to empathize. It’s natural to care. Why have we gotten to a point in our pop culture where being earnest in our emotions is a bad thing? It’s not. It’s actually quite a good thing. Ah well.

Guys, I can’t say that I liked Dunkirk, but I can’t say that I didn’t like it either. It’s definitely entertaining, and the acting is good. But the lack of dialogue, and discernible characters to latch onto, made it extremely difficult for me to care. Make of this what you will.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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

In 1986, Eric Wright is a drug dealer, Andre Young is an aspiring DJ, and Oshea Jackson is a wannabe rapper. They’re all poor, they’re all disillusioned, and they all have a long way to go before becoming Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. But they’re talented, and driven, and have a unique voice that they know will speak to millions. So they decide, “screw it,” and form their own record label, Ruthless Records, and start their own rap group, NWA. When the first song they put out, “Boyz N The Hood,” becomes a local hit, they are approached by an agent named Jerry, who offers to “make them legit,” if only they will make him their manager. They agree, and Jerry keeps his word, giving them greater exposure, and booking them in bigger venues. But rifts quickly form within the group over payment, and it’s not long before Ice Cube breaks off, and a vicious rivalry between him and his former band mates flares up.

Straight Outta Compton is a film I don’t feel fully qualified to judge. I didn’t grow up with NWA’s music, I’m not Black, and I wasn’t alive at the time this movie is set. So I don’t really feel I can comment on the picture’s historical accuracy, or on the way it portrays Rap culture. What I can comment on is the filmmaking itself–the writing, the acting, the production design–and that is very impressive. All the actors do terrific jobs, the camerawork is smooth, and the story is consistently entertaining. From a purely technical standpoint, I have but a few complaints, and those that I do have are relatively mild. The film is almost three hours long, and there are points where the pacing does drag. There are also some scenes that never get brought up again, like one on a bus where a gang member says “remember me” to a passenger, and another one in a hotel room involving a guy looking for his girlfriend. And the film doesn’t do much in the way of female representation, with most of the women in the picture being groupies, and the others being worried moms, or supportive girlfriends. But, again, I’m not a part of that culture, so I can’t comment on the misogyny that might very well have been a huge part of that time period, and that scene.

All in all, though, I quite enjoyed Straight Outta Compton, and would recommend it to you. If your a fan of NWA, or are just looking for a good biopic, check this film out. I’m quite certain you won’t regret doing so.

Lust, Caution (2007)

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

In 1938, a radical Chinese theater troupe decide to put on their most daring performance; the seduction, and assassination, of a high-ranking Japanese collaborator. The first thing they do is find their leading lady, a naive college student named Wang Chia-Chi. Next, they find their stage, a mansion in Hong Kong where Wang is to catch her prey. And, finally, they introduce her to her main opponent in this great drama, Mr. Yee, the collaborator they intend to kill. The stage is set. The pieces are in place. All that’s necessary is for someone to make the first move. But, just as in an old Greek Tragedy, nothing about their scheme goes according to plan.

Lust, Caution is a movie I’d been wanting to see for years. Not only was it directed by Ang Lee, the man responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–my favorite film of all time–but the picture’s story also checked all my interest boxes. World War 2 in Asia? Check. Espionage? Check. Stories about artists and creative types saving the world? Check. On paper, it seems like the perfect movie for me. Having finally seen it now, well, I’m a little less starry-eyed. Is this a terrible movie? Not at all. Is it bad? Not in the slightest. But will I ever want to see it again? Absolutely not. Lust, Caution is a film with what I have decided to refer to as, “La La Land Syndrome,” in that it’s a well-shot, well acted movie with high production values that I didn’t enjoy because I didn’t feel invested in the story.

When you watch the film, you can tell that it was made by people with talent. The music, the cinematography, and the costumes and sets are all superb. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about those last two, because they are absolutely beautiful. Every outfit that Tang Wei, the lead actress, wears in this movie is exquisite, and the props, vehicles and buildings that were used all bring 1930s China to life. And the acting, as you might expect from an Ang Lee movie, is top notch, with the one possible exception being Wang Leehom, whom plays the leader of the main theater troupe, and whose American accent while speaking Mandarin was noticeable even to me. But, really, that’s a minor detail. Technically, this film is perfect.

It’s just that, when it comes to story, the movie isn’t nearly at the same level. The film is about three hours long, and I swear I’m not making this up, it’s not until we’re an hour and a half in that anything interesting happens. For the first 90 minutes, we’re forced to endure an endless series of Mahjong games, drawing room conversations, and walks through the park. And virtually none of what gets said in these conversations comes into play later on, so they just come off as pointless padding. I understand the slow pacing and extra dialogue were added to flesh out the characters–the film is based on a forty page short story where not much background is given–but they’re just a slog to get through. There were several points in this movie where I seriously considered stopping. I didn’t feel invested in the characters, and the story was taking too long. Now, before any of you accuse me of being a brain dead millennial with the attention span of a squirrel, just know that some of my favorite films of all time–Gandhi, Lawrence Of Arabia, Dances With Wolves–are well over the three hour mark. It’s not the length of the movie that bothers me. It’s the slow pacing, and the fact that nothing of substance happens until we’re more than half way through it that get me. This script was in serious need of a trim.

Something else that I wanted to touch on in this review are the sex scenes. When Lust, Caution was released back in 2007, it was banned in several countries, and given an NC-17 rating in the US because of its “graphic content.” Now, hearing that, you probably think that this film is overflowing with sex–that there’s hardly a frame where breasts or genitals aren’t on display. Not so. I counted, and it’s not until the two hour mark, on the dot, that we get any kind of sex or nudity. And, the truth is, you don’t actually see anything when Wang and Mr. Yee are doing the deed. All that’s visible are breasts, and you can see those in any R-rated movie. Can someone please explain to me why this film, and not any of the other raunchy comedies out there, deserved to get an NC-17 rating? Now, it’s possible that the version of Lust, Caution I saw was edited, and that the original cut featured far more graphic stuff, but that still doesn’t change the fact that for a movie that advertises itself as an erotic thriller, nothing remotely erotic happens until two thirds of the way through. And the sex itself isn’t even that interesting. It’s all done in one, long, static wide shot, the lighting is low, and the whole thing kind of comes off as cold and unfeeling. If you’re looking for titilation, you won’t find it here.

As I said before, this movie is beautifully crafted, well-acted, and the premise is very interesting. For those reasons, I feel like I should recommend it to you. At the same time, however, I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the movie is very long, very slow, and that the sex scenes which its famous for don’t come until about two hours in, and that they aren’t even that interesting. Make of that what you will.

Changeling (2009)

 

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

On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins came home from work, and found that her son, Walter, was not in the house. She looked in every room, scoured the entire neighborhood, but it was all to no avail. Walter had vanished. For five agonizing months, Christine waited for the authorities to find something, anything, that would indicate where her boy had gone. Then, finally, the police claimed that they’d located him, but when she was presented with the child in question, she realized that it wasn’t Walter. The boy was three inches shorter than her son, circumcised, and lacked certain knowledge that Walter would just instinctively have, like what his teacher’s name was, or which desk he’d sat at in school. But when Christine pointed this out to the police, and urged them to keep looking for her son, they refused, insisting she was mistaken. They hired doctors to explain away the physical discrepancies between Walter and this new boy, and got reporters to write articles smearing her as an incompetent, neglectful mother. Then, when all this failed, they locked her away in an insane asylum, claiming she was hysterical, and that she needed to be restrained, “for her own good.” It wasn’t until a detective, working on a completely unrelated case, uncovered a connection between her boy and the crimes of a serial killer that Christine got released, and people started listening to her.

This horrifying true story forms the basis of Changeling, a 2008 drama film, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Angelina Jolie. I’d never heard of it, or the events that inspired it, until I watched the movie this weekend, and now, with hindsight, I think that’s a shame. This is a well-made film, and it tells an incredible story from our past, which has far more relevance to the present than we might like to admit. The fact that a woman who spoke out against an authority figure was written off as hysterical, and even institutionalized, just so that she couldn’t threaten their position, is both terrifying, and not at all hard to believe. To this day, women around the world face huge amounts of backlash whenever they “rock the boat” by discussing mistreatment or abuse. That’s why so many rape cases go untried, the victims are too scared to speak out. For this reason, I highly urge everyone out there to watch Changeling. Because even though its set 89 years ago, what happens in it is still happening now. And if we want a better world, we need to learn from our past.

Now I realize that that statement will be enough to turn some of you off this film. After all, movies that are “important” aren’t always entertaining, or even well-crafted. I appreciate Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dear White People for their messages, not because I’m gripped by their stories or performances. Likewise, Schindler’s List, City of Life and Death and 12 Years A Slave are so painful to watch, in spite of their craftsmanship, that most of us can’t bear to see them again. Changeling is neither of those things. It’s not so heavy handed that you can’t get invested in the story, and its not so painful that you feel tempted to look away. The movie is 2 and a half hours long, and I was never once bored while I was watching it. The acting in it is also very good, and, as with all Clint Eastwood films, it looks very nice, with the costumes and sets being downright exquisite. So if you’re afraid that Changeling will be a boring, or excessively brutal issue movie, don’t worry. This film does get you to think, but not without entertaining you all the while.

Pawn Sacrifice

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu is the Name, And views Are My Game.

Hey kids, did you know that, once upon a time, people actually cared about chess? No, I’m not shitting you! Back in the 1970s, when America was determined to beat the Soviets at everything, there was a real surge in chess’s popularity. That was because a young man named Bobby Fischer managed to beat the Russian Grand Master, Boris Spassky, and, in so doing, gave the American people something to brag about. The story of how he did this, as well as how he coped with his inner demons, is what is told in Pawn Sacrifice, the latest film from director Edward Zwick, and star Tobey Maguire.

And it’s terrible. Yeah. I wish I could be more subtle, more nuanced, but that’s the fact of the matter. It’s terrible.

Now, before any of you say anything, I want to be clear that there are aspects of this film that work. The costumes, sets, and especially the fake news broadcasts, are all beautiful, and help to bring the film’s time period to life. The news broadcasts are actually what I loved most about this movie. They give you a real sense for how big a deal this match was, as well as what technology was like back then. On top of this, Tobey Maguire is truly hypnotic as the unhinged chess champ, Bobby Fischer.

But, alas, none of this is enough to save this film from its weak script. To put it bluntly, this movie just isn’t interesting. And it’s not because it’s about people playing chess. The End Of The Tour and The Social Network are movies about writers and website designers, neither of whom are the most exciting groups in the world. And yet, these films still managed to be critical and commercial successes. Why? Because they had fleshed out characters and engaging narratives. Pawn Sacrifice has an interesting premise, but completely flat characters. Every line of dialogue they speak is either exposition, or stuff that will move the plot forward. We’re never given a scene where someone simply sits down, and talks to someone else about food, or art, or anything unrelated to politics and chess. Because of this, they never feel like real people, and we never feel any urge to care about them. Seriously! About 40 minutes into this movie, I completely tuned out. I pulled out my i-pad, and watched the music video for Rania’s “Dr Feel Good.” I was more concerned with why a K-pop girl group was wearing dominatrix outfits than I was with the movie I was watching. That’s not good. Movies, first and foremost, are supposed to entertain you. They’re supposed to suck you in. Pawn Sacrifice does neither of those things. It fails to do the very thing that it was created for. On top of this, as much as I like the news broadcasts, they also kind of take something away from the narrative. They tell us how we’re supposed to think and feel. They tell us how big a deal the Cold War is. They tell us how people in the world are responding to Bobby Fischer. We never actually see people living in fear of nuclear annihilation, or espionage. Because of this, we’re kept at a perpetual distance from the story and its characters. They’re not real to us, because we’re never allowed to see or feel what they feel, only hear it. A good film will SHOW you the climate and environment of its story. A perfect example of this is the first few minutes of the movie Hunger. Set during the Troubles in Ireland, the film’s opening scenes have absolutely no dialogue, and yet, we learn so much from them. We see a man looking under his car, and over his shoulder. We see the cuts and bruises on his knuckles when he goes to take a smoke. We gather from this that he lives in a world of constant and unpredictable danger, and that his daily routine is fraught with violence. It’s so obvious to us, and yet, we’re not told a single word. That kind of subtlety doesn’t exist in Pawn Sacrifice, and the movie really suffers as a result.

Guys, I’m not going to waste any more of your time. Pawn Sacrifice is a boring, poorly written, overly obvious piece of junk. 5 out of 10. Don’t watch it.

Superman: Red Son (Comic Review)

Written by: Mark Millar.

Penciled by: Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett.

Inked by: Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong.

We all know the basic origins of Superman–in the dying moments of a distant world, a lone space craft carrying a baby is sent off into the void. This ship ends up crashing on Earth, where the boy, re-named Clark by his adopted parents, slowly discovers that he has extraordinary powers, including flight, super strength, near invulnerability, and heat vision. Deciding he is morally obligated to use his powers for good, Clark embarks on a life of crime fighting, and adopts the alter-ego of Superman. All this is more or less common knowledge to most people. But what if, instead of crashing in Kansas and being raised on Mid-Western values, Superman landed in the Soviet Union, and was raised to be a champion of Communism? This is the question that Mark Millar seeks to answer in Superman: Red Son.

Set at the height of the Cold War, the graphic novel begins with Stalin unveiling a new weapon to the World; Superman, a being with near god-like powers. Realizing that nuclear weapons are more or less obsolete when compared to a guy who can fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, and pick up buildings, the US government asks Doctor Lex Luther, a scientist of impossible brilliance, to develop a means of combating Superman. Over the next several years, the two engage in various battles, with Lex eventually becoming President of the United States, and Superman becoming supreme dictator of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. Luther devises several strategies for defeating the latter, including making a deformed clone of Superman, and using a Green Lantern ring recovered from a crashed alien space craft, but all to no avail. Superman, for his part, uses his powers to bring the rest of the world under Communist control, and, with the help of the alien robot Brainiac, ensures equality and good living for everyone.

Eventually deciding that America, too, must be perfected, Superman launches a full-scale invasion of the continental United States, only to be stopped by a simple piece of paper that Luther’s wife, Lois Lane, holds out to him. On it is written the simple question, “Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?” This query destroys him, as he now sees that he is no different from Brainiac. Both of them are just aliens bullying less-developed species. Neither one was born on Earth, and neither one has the right to interfere with the affairs of creatures they don’t know or understand. Realizing that he must leave for good, Superman destroys Brainiac and vanishes. Many centuries pass, and Luther’s descendent, Jor-El, discovering that the sun is about to explode, sends his son, Kal-El, back in time, where his pod crash-lands in Kansas, starting the whole saga anew.

There’s a lot to admire with this comic. The story is compelling, the artwork is, for the most part, brilliant, and I personally love it when writers are able to re-imagine classic characters in new settings. Something that this book does very well–and that a LOT of other re-imaginings don’t seem to understand–is the fact that, even though the characters are occupying different positions than the ones they have in ordinary continuity, they are still very much the same people. They have the same personalities, the same interests, and the same goals. Superman in this book is still an overgrown boy scout who wants nothing more than to do the right thing. This universe’s Luther is still a narcissistic asshole with nothing more on his mind than destroying the man of steel. By keeping the characters and their choices consistent, Millar is able to make the story, as a whole, more believable, and the re-interpretation of the material more acceptable to die-hard readers, like myself. There’s never a point in it where I put the comic down and say, “Oh, bullshit! Superman would never do that!” Which is always a good sign. I also like the fact that you get to see the fictional characters interacting with real historical figures, like JFK and Stalin. I don’t know why, but whenever I see real people walking around in a work of fiction, I feel happy. I guess it’s because it gives a whole new level of depth and texture to the narrative. But perhaps the greatest strength of this work is its setting, the Cold War. I thought it was absolutely brilliant of Millar to have the conflict between Luther and Superman be emblematic of the real-life conflict between the United States and Soviet Union. It’s impossible for most people to understand the complex social, historical and economic factors that drive countries to fight one another, but we can understand fights between individuals. And in the case of Luther and Superman, that conflict does mirror the one that actually took place. Luther in the book, like the United States following World War 2, wants to show off his intelligence and strength, and eliminate anyone whom he views as a threat to maintaining authority. Similarly, Superman’s naive desire to foist prosperity and equality on everyone without their consent mirrors the doctrine of Global revolution practiced by the USSR and other Communist states. I thought it was a clever metaphor, and an effective means of educating the readers about how, very often, it is people wanting to do the same thing, just in different ways, that causes conflict. Wonderful stuff! Wonderful stuff!

Now, with all that said, the graphic novel does still have problems. First of all, as much as I praised the artwork earlier, there are certain places where I don’t think it looks all that good. The design for Batman, for instance–yes, Batman is also in this story–is kind of odd-looking. He has this weird little Ushanka–that’s the flappy, fur-lined hat you see Soviet officers wearing in old photographs–on at all times that looks a little silly. I mean, he’s supposed to be dark and menacing. He’s supposed to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies. Having him wear big wooly hat just makes him look cold, and I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot less scared when I see my assailant shivering in the breeze. The second major problem with the graphic novel is the inclusion of other superheroes, like Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Each of them is only featured for a brief amount of time, and none of them really has any bearing on the plot, so I don’t think their appearances were necessary. Not only this, but if the whole idea here is that Superman’s existence is enough to change the course of the Cold War, doesn’t the presence of other super-powered people lower the stakes? I mean, if America has access to individuals with the same level strength and speed as Superman, why get scared? Why talk to Lex Luther? The theory of mutually assured destruction still stands. In my humble opinion, the story would have been stronger if it had just included characters from Superman’s mythology, like Luther, Lois, Brainiac and Jimmy Olson, and nothing else. But, for me, the absolute biggest problem with the book is the ending. I mean…really? If you’re going to go through all the trouble of writing a story that re-imagines the Superman mythos and creates new rules, why throw it all away at the end just to give the readers stuff that they already know? Doesn’t that make everything you just did pointless? I don’t know. For me, the ending just felt tacked on. It felt like Mark Millar was trying to be clever. The book would have been perfect if it just ended with Superman leaving Earth for good after realizing how horrible he had become.

But, all these flaws aside, I do still think the book is a strong piece of work, and would highly recommend it to you comic readers out there. It’s smart. It’s well-written. It’s a re-imagining that truly understands the mythology that it’s adapting. It’s an 8 out of 10. If you love the man of steel, or re-imaginings of classic stories, give this comic a look.