Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3)

Greetings loved ones. Liu is the name, and views are my game.

What if you could build a man, based on his social media posts? What if you could watch memories, like movies, on a screen? What if a signal was sent out that turned half the world into passive spectators, and the other half into murderous hunters ? These questions, and more, are what get asked and explored in Black Mirror, a British anthology series that’s streaming on Netflix. Each episode features a different cast, a different story, and a different reality. But all feature the recurrent motif of technology, and a dry, nihilistic sense of humor. The series might best be described as half science fiction, half satire.

In many respects, Black Mirror is the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, the classic sci-fi anthology series that ran for five seasons back in the 50s. Both feature episodes with different casts and story-lines. Both ask moral and philosophical questions, usually through a scientific or magical plot device. Both feature macabre twist endings, and both gave actors who would eventually become super famous their first big break. Seriously. Black Mirror has got way more famous British actors in it than I would have thought. You’ve got Domhnall Gleason, from The Force Awakens, The Revenant and Ex Machina. You’ve got Hayley Atwell, or as you may know her, agent Peggy carter from the MCU. You’ve got Tuppence Middleton from Sense8. You’ve got Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out. You’ve got Toby Kebbell, who’s starred in every major big budget flop that’s come out in the last four years. You’ve got Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Belle, Beauty and the Beast, and Beyond the Lights. And, of course, you’ve got Benedict Wong, from Marco Polo, Doctor Strange, and The Martian. So much talent. And it was all before they were famous. But I’m getting sidetracked.

Black Mirror is a very smart, very well-written series. Even in its weaker episodes, the show is consistently entertaining. The acting is always top notch, as is the production design. And I really want to emphasize this, its original. Every single episode features a unique; thought provoking concept. And none of them are remakes of older stories, adaptations of preexisting material, or spin offs of other stuff. Do you realize how rare that is? Do you realize how virtually nothing that gets made these days is not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin off? For that reason, I have to recommend you all watch this. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, you’ll appreciate the show for it’s emotional depth and it’s originality. Especially the latter.

But before you get the wrong idea, the series isn’t perfect. Where the show falters the most is its cynicism. Virtually all the episodes end in an extremely bleak manner, and, very often, those endings fly in the face of the world and the characters that have been established. I understand tragedy is seen as the highest, most respectable form of dramatic art, but forced tragedy is awkward and unrealistic. And it doesn’t hit you as hard when you know that the story shouldn’t have ended that way, not because you didn’t want it to, but because the ending was easily avoidable. And example of this “false tragedy” I’m talking about is the episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” In it, we see Daniel Kaluuya raging against the numb, media obsessed dystopia that he’s living in. He spends the entire episode telling us how much he hates it and how much he hates the people who have turned the world into thoughtless zombies. And yet, by the end of the episode, he joins the big media company and becomes part of the system he despises. And it comes out of nowhere. It’s not like the show builds up to this by throwing us little hints that maybe he actually likes the system. He hates it, and then, out of nowhere, when he’s given the chance to join it, he does. Why? It doesn’t make sense. And because of that, I don’t feel devastated. I just feel confused. And even in episodes that don’t include sci-fi elements, like the first episode of the series, “the national anthem,” the show’s harsh, mean-spirited tone is off-putting. In that episode, a royal princess gets kidnapped, and the only way to save her is if the prime minister fucks a pig. And we have to watch him do it. Why? What possible good can come from forcing us to watch an old man get pressured into committing bestiality. What does that say, other than that you hate politicians? I hate Donald trump, but I would never want to have to watch him fuck a gorilla. That’s just cruel and mean. And it doesn’t teach us anything. The only episode that has a happy ending is San Junipero, a sweet little love story about two women finally being able to be with each other in an artificial construct. And there, it comes as an all too welcome relief.

All I can say is that Black Mirror is a brilliantly-written, highly original, but deeply mean spirited and nihilistic show. I want to recommend it, but I feel I can’t do so without warning you of its content. Make of this what you will.

Tag (2015)

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

Mitsuko has a problem. Everywhere she goes, someone, or something, inevitably winds up trying to kill her. First it’s a gust of wind, which slices all her classmates in half. Then it’s one of her teachers, who inexplicably opens fire on her students. And if that’s not bad enough, every time Mitsuko escapes one ordeal, she finds herself transported to a different reality; she starts off as a school girl in class, then changes to a bride on her wedding day, and ends as a runner in a marathon. Things come to a head when Mitsuko realizes that everything, all her existences, are just a video game being played by someone in another dimension, and that, if she wants to save herself and her friends, she’s going to have to do something unthinkable. Will she do it? Well, you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

Tag is a movie I watched purely on a whim. I was browsing through the “Asian Horror” section of Netflix, and since films in that genre tend to be far more creative than your typical American slasher, I thought I’d give it a look. And while the picture certainly is innovative and out there, I was not prepared for the nightmarish insanity that is this movie. Perhaps if I’d been familiar with the writer/director, Sion Sono, before watching this, I’d have been less surprised. As it is, I was left both shaken and perplexed.

Now, in case you’ve never heard of him, Sion Sono is a Japanese director who is, in many respects, the brainy twin of Takashi Miike. Like Miike, Sono churns out tons of films, most of them violent, exploitative B movies. Also like Miike, most of Sono’s work is adapted from books and manga. And, finally, like Miike, Sono has gained a cult following outside Japan, particularly among fans of extreme cinema. But whereas Miike has made films in a variety of genres, including kid’s movies, musicals and period pieces, Sono tends to stay with the sick and bizarre. And unlike Miike, who tries to keep messages and politics out of his work, Sono always has something to say about Japanese society, or the relationship between men and women, in his films. His movies Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table both act as commentaries on social alienation, the gap between generations, and the influence of the internet. His most famous film, Love Exposure, tackles themes like religion, lust and family. And Strange Circus… No. No, that has no broader political message. It’s just fucked up. The point is, Sono likes to make statements with his films, and Tag is no exception. It has a lot to say about the way men view women, the way men treat women, and the way men portray women in media. And that’s all good. It’s just, well…

The film wants to be feminist. And, in concept, it is. It’s about a woman trapped in a world designed by men, standing up and saying, “fuck you! I’m not going to be your play thing anymore.” That idea is feminist, through and through. It’s just that, in terms of how that concept is executed, its slightly less “girl power,” and slightly more “girls gone wild.” There are several up skirt shots of the main characters’ panties. There are more than a few scenes where we watch her and her friends get undressed for no reason. The film does pass the bechdel test, with the girls talking about subjects other than men, but the subjects they do talk about–pillow fights, ice cream, sex–are so cliched, and so clearly the product of male imagination, that you can’t help but roll your eyes in certain moments. Also, for a movie that professes to empower and support women, it does seem to relish killing them in extremely gruesome, and sexual, ways. There’s one scene where a girl gets butchered by a crocodile, which jumps out of the water and bites through her vagina. And that’s one of the milder deaths. Now, maybe this is all deliberate. Maybe all the sexual violence, fan service cinematography, and stereotypical “girly” dialogue are there to let us know that we’re in a man’s fantasy of what women are like. Maybe. And maybe Sion Sono, no matter how hard he tries, has fucked up fetishes that he can’t help but inject into his films. That might sound harsh, but when you consider how much of his filmography–Strange Circus, Love Exposure, Guilty Of Romance–involves rape, murder, torture and pedophilia, you start to question whether a man like him is capable of feminist thinking. For that reason, I can’t recommend this movie to you all.

Now, on the off chance that you don’t care about sexism, and just want to know if this is an enjoyable, well-made film, I have to say no. The special effects are extremely cheap looking. The acting is over the top. And because the main character keeps switching realities, you never get a true sense for her, or any of her other identities. You’re too busy trying to make sense of watts’ going on. Now, that being said, the film has potential. The concept of a video game character realizing that he or she is stuck in a destructive reality he or she has no control over, and deciding to fight back, is both fascinating and original. The fact that the movie wants to talk about the way men treat and portray women is to be admired. And, as cheap as some of the effects are, the film does, on the whole, look good, with there being some nice cinematography, and cool visual metaphors. Still, I don’t think any of this is enough to warrant a recommendation. If you want to watch the grind house pretend to be the art house, go ahead. Me; I’m not interested.

Get Out (2017)

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

Chris and Rose are in love. They’ve been going out for close to five months, and they’re about to make one of the biggest steps in their relationship, meeting each other’s parents. This, of course, is nerve-wracking for everyone, but the situation is made doubly awkward by the fact that Rose’s family, who are White, don’t know that Chris is Black. Chris informs Rose of his concerns, and she tells him that there’s nothing to worry about. Her family are nice. They’ll love him. Chris isn’t convinced, having spent a lifetime facing micro aggressions from “nice” people, but he goes along anyway. And, at first, everything is fine. Rose’s family are nice, micro aggressions not withstanding. They do seem to like him. But, as time goes by, Chris starts to notice some things that aren’t quite right. The family’s Black servants, Georgina and Walter, are inhumanly polite and docile, almost as though they’ve had their personalities drained. And Rose’s mother, Missy, a psychiatrist, is strangely adamant about submitting Chris to hypnosis. Tension builds as the family’s friends, each one whiter and more oblivious than the last, show up for an annual get together, and submit Chris to a tidal wave of awkward statements and pho compliments. Finally, Chris decides he can take it no more, and tells Rose that they need to leave, but, much to his horror, finds that he can’t.

Get Out is a movie that I really didn’t know what to expect with. The premise seemed interesting, and I liked the actors I recognized in the trailer, like Skins’ Daniel Kaluuya, and Being John Malkovich’s Catherine Keener. At the same time, though, I was worried that the film’s social commentary would wind up being too heavy-handed, and I didn’t know how successful a comedian, Jordan Peele, would be at directing a horror movie. Amazingly successful, as it turns out, because this movie is AWESOME! It’s well-acted, well-written, ripe with tension, and manages to deftly ride the line between humorous and horrifying, and all while subtly making its viewers aware of their own innate prejudices. I’m not joking when I say that at no less than four points in this movie, me and everyone else in my theater cheered with delight at something that just happened. It’s rare for a film to impact me on such a visceral level, and I’ve got to give it up to Jordan Peele, the cast, and everyone involved for making a film that got to me the way this one did. But by far the best part of this entire movie was Lil Rel Howery, whom plays Chris’s best friend, Rod. I’m not joking when I say that he stole EVERy scene he was in. There wasn’t a moment he was on screen where I wasn’t laughing my butt off. He NEEDS to be in more stuff, because he is AWESOME. Something else I want to give Get Out credit for is the fact that I legitimately had no idea where it was going. When I finally learned what was happening beneath the surface, I actually turned to my girlfriend and said “Shit! I did not see that coming.” And she actually said to me afterwards, “You need to write stories like that; stories where you can’t guess what’s going on.”

Guys, what else can I say? Get Out is awesome. It’s smart, funny, scary, and an amazing directorial debut from Jordan Peele. Give it a look!

Split (2016)

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

What if someone kidnapped you? That’d be scary, right? Well, what if the person who kidnapped you also had Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID, meaning every time you spoke to them, you were talking to someone different? That’d be downright terrifying, wouldn’t it? M Night Shyamalan certainly thought so, and thus made the subject of today’s review, Split.

A contained thriller revolving around three young women, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula, who get kidnapped by a man with DID, James McAvoy, Split is a movie I’ve heard nothing but good things about. People have told me it’s Shyamalan’s best work in years; that it is one of James McAvoy’s greatest performances ever. And, having seen it for myself, I can tell you that those claims aren’t wholly without substance.

The film is definitely effective in everything it wants to do. When it wants to be scary, its scary. When it wants to be funny, its funny. And much of the movie’s success is due to some very well-constructed scenes, and an absolutely astounding performance by James McAvoy. He has to play so many different characters in this movie, and he really pulls it off. Even though his face looks exactly the same every time he switches personalities, everything else about him, his posture, his mannerisms, his speech patterns, change. You really feel like you’re watching a different person, and that’s impressive. I think it’s a shame he didn’t get nominated this year, but, ah well. Can’t have everything.

But as effective and well-acted as the picture might be, I did still have problems with it. For starters, the dialogue is terrible. Shyamalan, who penned the screenplay, has been lampooned in the past for writing wooden, on-the-nose exchanges, which just don’t sound interesting or natural. Nowhere is this sentiment more true, and obvious, than in Split. Yes, the acting is good, but there were points in this film where I literally winced at how awkward sounding some of the sentences were. On top of this, the movie doesn’t really go out of its way to get you to care about the girls. Yes, you feel sorry that they’re in this bad situation. But you don’t really get to know their personalities or interests. As such, you don’t really feel attached to them. This is especially apparent with Jessica Sula’s character, who’s given the least amount to say. I knew nothing about who she was, or what she liked. I didn’t even know her name. I literally just thought of her as “the third girl,” and needed to look up who she was after the fact. That’s not good. As a filmmaker, you need to get the audience to care about your characters, and this film didn’t do that.

Still, I did enjoy Split overall, and would recommend it to you. If you’re a fan of Shyamalan, McAvoy, or contained thrillers, you’ll probably be engaged for the entire runtime.

Hush

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

Imagine you’re out in the woods, miles away from any kind of help. Someone’s nearby, and that someone means to kill you. Now imagine that this killer, this boogieman in the dark, can’t be heard. Because you can’t hear. And the killer knows this. And he’s gonna use this to his advantage. If you can picture all this, then you’ll have a good idea of what to expect with Hush, the subject of today’s review.

A contained thriller set in an isolated cabin, Hush follows Maddie, a deaf author, as she gets stalked and taunted by a killer who likes to play with his food before he eats it. While hardly boasting an original premise, the film does move at a brisk pace, and offers up some very effective scares. I’ve always said I’ll take a well-crafted thriller over an “artistic,” “award-winning” movie any day, and this film is precisely the kind of thriller I’m talking about when I say that. The acting is good, the characters are given just the right amount of backstory for you to care about them, the cinematography is appropriately creepy, and the sound design is superb. This film doesn’t try to be anything but suspenseful and entertaining, and, by god, it manages to be both in every scene. The opening shot alone, which is accompanied by this loud boom, instantly sets you on edge, and keeps you weary for the rest of the picture. The film also does a really good job of visually conveying information to the audience. For instance, we learn that Maddie is deaf, not through someone telling us that she is, but by watching her cook. We hear her chopping vegetables, boiling water, and so on. But then the camera pans over to her ear, and, suddenly, there’s no more chopping, boiling, hissing or sizzling to be heard. It’s a clever and effective way to get out necessary information without needing a huge exposition dump.

I was also pretty impressed with the way the filmmakers represented this disabled character. So often in movies, people like me are shown as weak, childlike, or helpless. Usually, we’re just portrayed as pitiful objects you should feel sorry for. Here, though, Maddie is shown as being intelligent, self-sufficient, funny and social. Her disability doesn’t prevent her from living by herself, and that’s great, because its true. Most, if not all, disabled people are capable of living on their own. I just wish the movies would show that every once in a while. The only thing I would say about the representation of deafness in this film is that the actress playing Maddie never makes a sound. She keeps her mouth shut the entire movie, and signs everything. The truth is, that’s not really how it works. Most of my deaf friends do make noise when they sign, it just doesn’t sound like words. The reason is, they still have vocal chords, and even if they can’t hear the noises their making, they’re still capable of making them. And they do. They cry if they get hurt, they laugh if they think something’s funny, and so on. These are just natural human reactions to things, and people make them, whether they can hear them or not. Think of it this way, I can’t see my own facial expressions because I have poor eyesight, but I still know how to smile and frown, because those are just things that human beings instinctively do. This isn’t so much a criticism of the filmmakers, because, like I said, they did a good job of making this deaf character sympathetic and self-sufficient, it’s just something misleading I wanted to point out.

So, in conclusion, Hush is a well-paced, well acted, well-shot thriller, with some good scares, and good representation. If you want to be engaged and entertained for about 80 minutes, give this film a look.

The Wailing

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

2016 was, if nothing else, a magnificent year for Korean cinema. Train To Busan, The Handmaiden, Age Of Shadows, these were FANTASTIC thrillers that made HUGE splashes on the festival circuit, and drew attention to an area of the world often overlooked. The subject of today’s review, The Wailing, was another popular Korean export, with many critics placing it on their top 10 lists, and it currently holding a 99% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t place much stock in critical reviews, or Rotten Tomatoes, since I think giving a film a numerical score creates a majority opinion, and prevents people from making their own decisions, and what critics like and audience’s enjoy don’t often overlap. In this case, however, I decided to give the critics the benefit of the doubt, and The Wailing a look, and holy crap!

The story of a small town detective trying to solve the mystery surrounding a series of bizarre deaths, all of which seem connected to this weird Japanese hermit, the film mixes a lot of different genres and tones. At once a mystery, police procedural, supernatural horror film, and comedy, the picture shifts from silly to gruesome on an almost scene to scene basis. In one moment, the protagonist’s daughter will catch him and his wife banging in their car, and in another, a deranged man in a hospital will be shown disemboweling himself. It’s an odd dichotomy, to be sure. There’s also a lot of inconsistency with the characterization here. What I mean by that is, in one scene, the protagonist will be shown as doubting there’s any supernatural cause for the deaths, then, in the next scene, he’ll be more than happy to let a clearly crazy woman walk through an active crime scene and tell him stories about satanic rituals, and then, immediately afterwards, he’ll be acting all skeptical again. It’s weird, to say the least. And yet, for all the inconsistency with characterization and tone, for all the idiotic choices the protagonist makes, for all the blending of genres and motifs, I was consistently riveted by The Wailing, and would honestly recommend it to you all.

This is one of those rare films that breaks so many rules, and shifts its genre and tone so many times, that it actually kind of works. And when I say that, I’m not trying to paint this as a “so bad it’s good” type picture. The gorgeous cinematography, stellar acting, and eerie, atmospheric lighting make it clear that this film was made by people with talent. No, what I mean when I say that is, this film plays with various genre conventions–it knows that the audience is expecting certain things when they see this type of movie–and it inverts them. It gives you something new, something unexpected. The writer/director, Na Hong-Jin, stated in an interview with The Playlist that he believes there are three types of audience members, those who make random guesses, those who absorb the plot, and those who just can’t catch up. This film, he explained, was meant to appeal to all three groups, and by god, it does.

So if you’re looking for something unique, something out of the ordinary and interesting, give The Wailing a look. It won’t disappoint.

The Midnight After

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

What can I say about The Midnight After? Well, It’s directed by a guy named “Fruit,” and written by a guy named “Pizza.” As bizarre as that statement sounds, its both completely true, and the best, and only way, to describe the rich insanity that is this motion picture.

The story of seventeen people boarding a bus, and emerging from a tunnel to find themselves completely alone, the movie boasts an interesting premise, and absolutely nothing else. It’s marketed as a satirical horror-comedy, but it isn’t scary. Or funny. Now, admittedly, my limited knowledge of Cantonese might be why I don’t get most of the humor. After all, certain jokes only make sense in certain languages. And perhaps there are certain things that I, as an American, don’t get that would be obvious to Hong Kongers. But none of that excuses poor storytelling, and this film is rife with it. Various plot threads, like one dude’s supposed disappearance for six years, the importance of David Bowie’s Space Odity, and the inexplicable appearance of Japanese men wearing gas masks, get introduced, only to be dropped without ever being explored. And while the cardinal rule of screenwriting is “show, don’t tell,” it’s never a good idea to “show without telling.” That’s what this film does. It shows quirky characters in an odd situation. But the situation itself is never explained, and much of these character’s arcs remain incomplete. And as if that weren’t bad enough, this movie is boring. I’m talking DULL! About 20 minutes in, I checked out completely. Never has a movie lost me so early.

But beyond its narrative shortcomings, the movie also fails from a technical standpoint. What I mean by that is, there’s some weird editing in this picture. There are several points in the film where characters will flashback to scenes which have already happened, but, in these flashbacks, we’re shown the characters doing things we didn’t see them do the first time. And it’s not like in Oceans Eleven, where things look different because the characters were deceiving us. These flashbacks have them doing stuff that just didn’t happen before. It makes no sense, and comes off as sloppy and out of place.

Guys, all I can say is, DON’T WATCH THIS MOVIE. It’s dull. It’s pretentious. It’s a 5 out of 10.