Glorious, Buffalo Trail & Silver City (Book Review)

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The Post (2017)

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

It’s the early 70s. Richard Nixon is in office, and the Vietnam War is in full swing. For years, the American people have been told, “Don’t worry. We’re winning. It’ll be over in no time.” But, as it turns out, that was a lie. No less than three presidents knew that the war was un-winnable, but decided to keep it going, solely because they didn’t want to say they lost. Dan Ellsberg, an analyst for the RAND Corporation, decides he can’t live with this, and so leaks several thousand classified documents detailing these lies, the Pentagon Papers, to the press. The New York TImes snatches them up straight away, but the ink has barely dried before the White House shuts them down with a restraining order. So it’s up to the Washington Post, a small, privately-owned DC paper, to pick up the slack, get the word out to the American people, and hold the government accountable for their lies. Will they be able to? Well, you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg, scored by John Williams, and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Do I really need to tell you it’s good? Because it is.  It’s well-acted, well-shot, well-directed, and the story is compelling. Which is surprising. I mean, if you step back and look at it, it’s a talky drama about a newspaper leaking government documents. That’s a pretty dry premise. There’s no sex. There’s no drugs. There’s no action, though there is a brief, highly effective war scene at the start of the movie. This is a film that relies entirely on its dialogue and its actors to carry it along, and by God, both of those do so in spades. I was never bored once, and even though I knew where the story was going, since I’d learned about the Pentagon Papers in history class, I felt the pressure that these characters were experiencing. And any time a picture about events that happened over 40 years ago can make you feel invested in those events, it’s done something right.

That said, I do have a few complaints. The film is a bit slow in the first half, which is not to say it’s dull. It’s just, when The Post finally does get the papers, the movie becomes so much more vigorous and lively. So you’re left wondering why the first half couldn’t be as energetic. On top of this, the film does definitely play it safe. This is very much an Oscar-bait movie, trying to make a statement, while also not wanting to ruffle too many feathers. Granted, unlike other films like this, such as last year’s Battle Of The Sexes, which tried to talk about sexism while simultaneously making its sexist characters as likable as possible, this movie does at least pull no punches in the portrayal department. Still, it is an awards flick, and I know that some people will avoid it just because it’s that.

Nevertheless, The Post’s fine performances, tight script, and strong direction do make it worth watching. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

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.