Love, Simon (2018)

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

Simon is an average, upper-middle-class White High School kid. He’s got friends, a family who loves him, and, you know, a nice house, good clothing, his own car, and all the other things that come with being an upper-middle-class White kid. Anyway, his life seems perfect, except for one thing. Simon’s actually gay, and he doesn’t know how to tell anybody. One night, he learns from an anonymous social media post that there’s another closeted kid at his school, “Blue,” and he decides to reach out to him using the alias “Jacques.” The two exchange messages, with Simon doing his best to find out Blue’s true identity, but things get complicated when Martin, an annoying classmate who likes one of Simon’s friends, discovers their communications, and blackmails Simon into getting him into his friend’s good graces.

Love, SImon is a movie I was really looking forward to seeing. It’s the directorial debut of Greg Berlanti, the creator of such shows as Arrow and The Flash, both of which I’m a fan of, and it’s really cool to see a big budget studio comedy be about a gay teen. It really shows how far we’ve come as a society that films like this not only get made, but are widely distributed, and even critically-acclaimed. And, having seen the movie, I can tell you, it’s pretty darn good. This is a sweet, well-written, well-acted coming-of-age story with some good dialogue, and a good message. If you’re a fan of Berlanti, or mysteries, or teen films, or, really, just sweet stories in general, you should like this movie. It may be about one person’s very specific struggle, but it’s actually very universal in terms of its themes of not feeling comfortable with who you are, or not being able to get what you want. And in a time where whole sub-sections of the American population are being told, “you’re not welcome in our country, or in certain bathrooms, or in certain businesses because of who you are,” to have a film like this, which ends happily, and features a gay teen whose parents are actually supportive, is pretty refreshing. So, for that reason, I say, go give it a look.

That said, this flick isn’t perfect. As you could probably tell from my first paragraph, Simon’s constant claim throughout the film that he’s just like everyone else is somewhat undercut by the fact that he comes from a place of extreme privilege. That’s not a problem, per se, I grew up in a privileged household, but if the whole point of this movie is to make a gay teen’s struggle more universal, maybe don’t constantly remind us that you don’t speak for everyone. But that’s just personal preference. It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual filmmaking, which does actually have flaws in it. One of the biggest being two, surprisingly annoying side characters, a vice principal, and Martin, the guy who blackmails SImon. The Vice Principal is one of those middle-aged men who tries to act cool by using modern slang and acting like he’s friends with the students, and there were points where I was dreading seeing him again. And martin is just obnoxious. I understand that he’s supposed to be, since he’s the film’s primary antagonist, but it does get to a point where he goes from being just annoying to downright cruel. Seriously, he does something towards the end that goes beyond just bothering Simon, and enters the territory of “you could ruin someone’s life if you did that in reality.” But, in the end, neither of those things is enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the picture. Yes, there are some annoying characters, but they don’t take away this film’s funny dialogue, good performances, and sweet tone. So, keeping that n mind, I still recommend you go see it.

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Annihilation (2018)

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

Natalie Portman is a biologist, and former soldier. Exactly one year ago, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, went into a mysterious, mutated area called “the shimmer” and disappeared. Everyone thinks he’s dead, until, one day, out of nowhere, he shows up on Portman’s door, deeply ill. She learns from a psychologist, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, that he was part of a reconnaissance mission sent into “the shimmer” to find out just what it is, and that, to date, he is the only person to return. Upon hearing that there will be a new team sent into the area, Portman volunteers, for some reason, and she and the group venture forth into “the shimmer” where they encounter all kinds of crazy shit, including mutated plants, mutated crocodiles, and even mutated bears.

Annihilation is a film that, on paper, I should love. It’s a sci-fi movie, with an all-female cast, and some very interesting visuals. In practice, however, I found the film to be boring, pretentious, and surprisingly hollow. Then again, this film is written and directed by Alex Garland, the man behind Ex Machina, a movie that, if you’ve read my blog, you know I REALLY didn’t care for. Luckily, this picture doesn’t have nearly as much unintentional racism as that movie. It’s still not good, though, and a lot of it has to do with the way Garland helms the film. He directs all his actors to say every line in as slow and serious a manner as possible, and there’s barely a moment in this movie where anyone smiles, or acts like a human. This is especially true with Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s character, who, to the best of my recollection, never shows the slightest trace of emotion in anything she says. Granted, her character is supposed to be very repressed and mysterious, but there’s a way to convey those things in a manner that is interesting. As it is, she just comes off as dull and lifeless.  On top of that, the character’s make serious, life or death decisions in this movie that don’t really make sense. Portman, for instance, decides to go into “the shimmer” because, according to her, she owes her husband. Owes him what? A cure? A life? An answer? The film tries to explain this away by showing how she had an affair, but, the truth is, if she was really sad, and just wanted to kill herself, why go through all the headache of an expedition. Why not just take some sleeping pills? Oh wait, I know. Because we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise. And, finally, the characters just aren’t very interesting. You know next to nothing about them, and they are all so bland that none of them sticks out. Well, that’s not true. Gina Rodriguez stands out, because, in addition to having the funniest dialogue, she shows some actual emotion. I guess Garland couldn’t dampen her spirit. On top of that, she’s the only one who reacts like a normal person when all the crazy shit starts happening. She’s the one who says, “hey, maybe we should leave.” But everyone else just looks at her with their dead, monotone eyes, and says, “No, we have to stay. For science.” I’m not joking when I say that after Gina died, I lost all interest in the movie.

Guys, don’t go watch Annihilation. Yes, it has admirable qualities, like an all-female cast and some truly impressive visuals. And, yes, it is a bit smarter, or, at least, it thinks it is, than your average horror movie. But the characters are uninteresting, the acting, with the exception of Gina Rodriguez,  is wooden, and the pace is SLOW. You want my advice, treat yourself to something more exciting, like Black Panther, or funny, like Game Night. This flick ain’t worth your time.

Game Night (2018)

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

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are an incredibly competitive couple. They met in college, where they bonded over the fact that they had to win at just about everything. And they still do. Every week, they invite all their friends over for a game night, where they play pictionary, charades, and other such party favorites. And, as you might imagine, they take it way too seriously. Bateman, especially, as he’s incredibly jealous of his brother, Kyle Chandler, a wealthy Wall Street broker who joins them from time to time. One night, Chandler decides to spice things up a notch, and so hires a group of actors to “kidnap” one of the guests as part of a murder-mystery scenario. Unbeknownst to Bateman and company, however, the guys who come in and take Chandler away aren’t actors, and the danger they find themselves in is real. Now, if they want to make it through the night, they’re going to have to find Chandler, and unravel the mystery of what’s really going on.

Game Night is a perfectly fun, perfectly competent bit of escapism. It’s well-shot, the leads have a good rapport with one another, and, unlike a lot of other comedies that come out these days, it is genuinely funny. I saw it in a theater full of people, and they were having the time of their lives. I didn’t laugh much, but that’s more because I’m a person who doesn’t really laugh at films, even if they’re funny. The only movie I ever really laughed at in a theater was Get Out, but that’s another story. Game Night is funny, and if you want to just go to the theater and laugh, you’ll probably be satisfied. And I wasn’t lying when I said the movie was well-shot. The cinematography in this film is actually quite impressive. There’s one sequence in a house where Bateman and McAdams are being chased through all these rooms that’s done in one, continuous shot, and when I saw it, I thought to myself, “wow, that’s good filmmaking right there.” This picture is written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the writing duo responsible for Spiderman: Homecoming, and the upcoming Flashpoint, and watching this flick gave me hope for the latter. So, yeah. Game Night is fun.

But it’s not perfect. I did have problems with the movie. Probably the biggest one I had is Bateman and McAdams themselves. It’s not that they weren’t funny. They were. It’s the fact that that’s pretty much all they were. There really wasn’t anything else to their characters than “competitive couple who make quips.” Yes, there’s a subplot involving her wanting to have kids, and him not being ready, but that’s such a common detail for these kinds of films that it almost doesn’t count. They also do this thing where, no matter what situation they’re in, they act like it’s no big deal. And I understand that that’s kind of the underlying joke, the fact that they don’t understand the danger they’re in, but, after a certain point, they can’t keep doing that. They need to acknowledge the gravity of their situation, and take things seriously. But they never really do. There are several points in this movie where they know that they’re in real danger, and yet, they still make jokes and act like it’s all a game. In one scene, for instance, McAdams literally has to dig a bullet out of Bateman’s arm, and the two are acting like it’s nothing. Why? Why are they so calm? For me to properly express what I’m talking about, I have to compare this to another movie; Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carell. In that film, they play a married couple who, hoping to reignite the passion that’s been lost in their relationship, go to a fancy restaurant in the city, get mistaken for some criminals, and get pulled into a crazy, action-crime caper. As funny as they both are, there are moments where they show genuine emotion, crying, being scared, and even being tender with one another. There’s a scene in a car where they really let out their feelings, and, to this day, it still gives me chills. Every time I watch it I think, “wow, that was a lot deeper, and considerably better acted, than I would have expected from this kind of a comedy.” There’s no scene like that in Game Night. There are scenes that are like that here, but, either because of the writing, or the fact that McAdams and Bateman just aren’t as good actors as Fey and Carell, don’t carry nearly as much pathos. There are also some annoying secondary characters, like this dumb guy who brings an Irish woman to the party, and who has an obsession with Fight Club, who just got on my nerves. I was dreading whenever he would appear, and I couldn’t wait for the film to cut away from him. That’s not good.

In the end, however, I do think the good in Game Night outweighs the bad. No, it’s not deep or profound, and, no, it’s not particularly memorable. But the cast are funny, and it’s well-made enough to keep you invested for the whole thing. For that reason, I say, give it a look.

Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)

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

Two years after the caper in Bangkok, young Qin Feng is reunited with his uncle in New York. The two have been summoned, along with the rest of the world’s greatest detectives, to solve a series of Feng Shui themed murders that have been taking place in Chinatown. If they find the killer, they win $5 million, and will be listed as the Earth’s greatest sleuths on the International Detective App. (Because that’s a thing, apparently). So, with the stakes in place, the genius/dumb-ass duo set out to solve the murders, make some cash, and, hopefully, find love along the way.

Detective Chinatown 2 is not a movie I was planning on seeing. I never watched the first film, and the trailers didn’t really pique my interest. But my girlfriend, who liked the original, suggested we watch it, and I decided, “hey, why not?” So I saw it, and, well…

I’m just gonna say it, this movie’s not for everyone. It’s an over-the-top, highly cartoonish comedy, whose plot doesn’t really make sense. In terms of style and tone, it’s very similar to the works of Stephen Chow and Baz Luhrmann. Nothing about it is even remotely realistic, and, to be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of that sort of thing. I do, however, recognize that there are people who like exaggerated humor, and that, regardless of what I say, this movie will make a lot of money. Even so, I didn’t care for it. Like, at all. The acting is terrible–Wang Baoqiang, who plays the Uncle, seems to think that if you say every line as loud and high-pitched as possible, the funnier it will be–there are scenes that go absolutely nowhere, and for a film marketed as a family-friendly comedy, there’s a lot of shockingly dark stuff in it. A dude slits his throat open with a switch blade, a woman gets her heart removed, and there are more than a few racist gags that truly made me uncomfortable. In one scene, for instance, a guy is teaching Chinese to a classroom full of black people, and then, when someone comes in and starts giving him shit, they all pull out guns. Seriously. The portrayal of non-Chinese in this film is kind of disturbing. Granted, I don’t suppose it’s any worse than how Americans have traditionally shown the Chinese in our cinema, but, still. It made me feel weird.

Now I don’t want to give you the impression that I hated this film. I didn’t.  There were some bits where I legitimately laughed. In one scene, for instance, a dude gets kicked in the balls while “Billie Jean” is playing in the background, and the way he hops around looks like Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. That got a genuine chuckle out of me. And even though I didn’t like Wang Baoqiang, Michael Pitt, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, or any of the other actors’, work in this film, I did enjoy seeing them onscreen. It made me want to go back and watch their other flicks, particularly Wang’s A World Without Thieves, an action movie that I would highly recommend to you all. As for this film, though, it’s not my cup of tea. If you liked the first Detective Chinatown, or are a fan of ridiculous, cartoonish comedies, maybe you’ll enjoy it. If not, maybe try to avoid this. It’s up to you.

Horsemen (2008)

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

Estranged from his children after the death of their mother, hardened homicide detective Aiden Breslin (Dennis Quaid) is called in to investigate a series of ritualistic murders. His search brings him into contact with Kristen Spitz (Zhang Ziyi) the daughter of one of the victims. She pleads with him to find the killers, but then, five minutes later, reveals herself to be one. She explains that she is part of a group who model themselves after the four horsemen of the apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence and Death), and that there will be more murders. And, well, shit gets crazy from there.

The best way for me to describe Horsemen is as “Seven for Dummies.” Like Seven, this film is a mystery involving brutal, religiously themed murders. But unlike Seven, where there is very little onscreen violence, this movie has several torture scenes in it. And whereas Seven’s characters were compelling and well-defined, the characters in Horsemen are one-note, and even kind of annoying. In other words, they’re the kind of characters you expect to see in a Michael Bay production, which, unfortunately, is what this is. But before I delve into my many criticisms, I do want to list some things I liked about the movie. First of all, it looks great. The cinematography is beautiful, and the use of color is very effective. Second, the film moves at a quick pace, so I was never bored while watching it. And third, the acting, for the most part, is solid. So, in terms of pure craftsmanship–acting, cinematography, sound design–this movie is perfectly competent.

It’s a shame, therefore, that the script is not. As I mentioned earlier, the characters are not well-defined. All you really know about them is their type–neglectful father, angry son, etc–and their motivations don’t make sense. Well, that’s not entirely true. Zhang Ziyi’s motivation does make sense. She was sexually-abused by her parents, and wanted revenge. That I can understand. But for some of the other people, like Cory, aka Death, the reasoning behind their actions makes no sense at all. And even though I understand why Zhang Ziyi wants revenge, I have no idea why she just decides to give herself up. She doesn’t feel guilty about the murder, and the police aren’t making any progress when she does confess, so there’s no reason for her to. Well, that’s not true. If she didn’t come forward, the plot wouldn’t be able to advance, because the police in this film are beyond inept. Seriously. Every time Quaid finds out something in this movie, it’s because someone tells him. He never deduces anything on his own. Ugh.

Guys, all I can say about Horseman is this. It’s a competently-crafted, but poorly-written murder mystery. It’s got some good cinematography, and some solid leads. But unless you’re already a fan of the actors, or this particular brand of thriller, you probably shouldn’t watch it. It’s not worth your time.

The Commuter (2018)

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

Michael McCauley is a former cop, struggling to get by. He’s got a wife, a son about to start college, two mortgages, and a less than well-paying job as an insurance salesman. Everyday, he commutes to the city, getting to know the passengers and conductors who ride with him. One day, however, after being unceremoniously fired from his job, a mysterious woman called Joanna sits down across from him, and starts up a conversation. She claims to be a psychoanalyst, studying how different people react to different circumstances. She gives Michael the chance to prove what kind of a man he is by posing him a question. If he were told that there was $25,000 hidden on the train, and that, if he found a passenger who didn’t belong, a passenger who’d stolen something, he’d get that money, what would he do? Michael is skeptical, until he finds the aforementioned money in the bathroom, and realizes that he’s just gotten pulled into something much bigger, and more dangerous, than previously thought.

The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between Liam Neeson and Spanish director Juame Collet-Serra, who previously teamed up on Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night. Now, if you’ve seen any of those movies, or perhaps the directors other flicks, like The Shallows, you know what to expect here. You can expect good acting, good camerawork, and enough visceral thrills to keep you invested, despite a preposterous, and, in many cases, predictable, storyline. In other words, you can expect a good, but somewhat forgettable, time at the movies. And that’s what I had with The Commuter; a good time.

It’s thoroughly predictable, with me being able to guess who the mystery passenger and the main bad guy were about halfway through, and the dialogue is very on the nose. There’s a conversation between Liam Neeson and his former partner, played by Patrick Wilson, in a bar, where they literally just spell out each other’s backstories to the audience. And yet, the cast, which includes so many amazing character actors, like Jonathan Banks, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Neil,  is so good, the camerawork is so slick, and the pace is so quick that you wind up not caring. This is genre filmmaking at it’s best. The plot is by-the-numbers, and the characters are stock, but the actors playing them are all so talented, the action sequences are so gripping, and the overall production values are so good, that you can just sit back, and enjoy the ride. I certainly did. Will I remember this flick in a few weeks? Probably not. But, for a movie that’s just trying to tell a fun, fast-paced story, with good actors, it more than delivers. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

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

It’s 1934, and Hercule Poirot is the greatest detective in the world. No detail escapes his eye, and he’s almost compulsively devoted to justice. As you can imagine, both of these things make him a sought-after commodity. So much so that he barely has any time for himself. But not anymore. He’s just solved a major case in Jerusalem, and he’s setting off from Istabmul for some much-needed R and R. But, what’s this? One of the train’s passengers has been murdered, and no one knows who did it? Well, it looks like that R and R will have to wait, because there’s a mystery that needs solving, and there’s only one man to solve it.

I’ve been a fan of Kenneth Branagh for years; ever since I saw him as Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets. Then, when I got older, and I watched his directorial efforts, particularly his Shakespeare adaptations, my respect for him grew ten-fold. So when I heard that he was directing a period-mystery-thriller, I knew I’d have to give it a look. And, last night, I did just that. How was it, you ask? Well…

On the positive side, the movie looks amazing. And I don’t just mean the costumes and sets. The cinematography in this film is gorgeous. There are so many beautiful tracking shots, wherein the camera just glides down the train, pausing every once in a while to linger on a particular person or thing, that it makes you want to drool. And the acting, as you expect from a Branagh-helmed film, is superb. Everyone, even people who are only in a few scenes, does a terrific job. And that’s because every single character is played by a world-class actor. And lastly, and most importantly, the film is never boring. The pace is quick, and there are more than enough twists to keep you invested. So, if you’re just looking to watch a well-made mystery, you won’t be disappointed. This film definitely delivers on that front.

That said, I left the theater feeling somewhat let down. Not because of any technical shortcomings, mind you. The story just felt, for lack of a better word, silly. When you learn what’s actually going on, and how stupidly and conveniently connected everything is, you find yourself rolling your eyes. What? This person was actually faking his accent, because he’s really banging this person, who’s actually the ill-legitimate daughter of that person? That’s the kind of silly, overly convoluted nonsense this picture throws at you. If you’ve ever seen Clue, or, better yet, Murder By Death, which directly parodies Hercule Poirot, you know the kind of exaggerated, one-note characters that exist in this film. But unlike those movies, which are comedies, this film plays all the silliness straight, and, in so doing, kind of shoots itself in the foot. Yes, this movie is based off of a book written in the 1930s. But, the thing is, we don’t live in the 1930s. I think that perhaps they should have updated the story a bit; maybe omitted a few of the sillier twists.

Still, I’d be lying if I told you that this was a bad film, or that I wasn’t consistently engaged by it. So, for that reason, I would recommend you all go see it. I put it in the same category as films like The Foreigner; good premise, good production values, but less than stellar execution. Make of this what you will.