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.

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LA Confidential (1997)

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

In 1950s Los Angeles, Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes are three police officers with drastically different lives. Exley, the son of a famous detective, is a no-nonsense, by-the-book politician, hoping to climb the LAPD’s ranks. White, a heavy drinker, is a violent, plainclothes officer with a pension for punishing wife beaters. And Vincennes; oh Vincennes. Vincennes is a celebrity cop, who acts as a consultant on a popular TV Show, and who makes extra cash by feeding tips to a gossip mag. These men have nothing in common, and would never even dream of working together. But when White’s partner, whom Exley had a hand in firing, winds up dead, and an item that Vincennes found on one of his raids is discovered at the crime scene, they wind up doing just that. And the more they dig, the more they realize how deep the conspiracy goes.

On paper, LA Confidential is the perfect movie for me. It’s a fast-paced thriller, with high production values, and a strong cast. It’s even a period piece. All my interest boxes are ticked. So why am I not crazy about it? Well, the simple answer is that every single aspect feels extremely familiar. All the main characters and plot points have been used before, in other, older noir films. In fact, if you took out the more explicit violence and language, and made it black and white, LA Confidential would be indistinguishable from those earlier movies. Now, as I’ve always said, there is nothing inherently wrong with a story being unoriginal. Every narrative in existence takes ideas from works that have proceeded it. But the best stories are the ones that are able to take those ideas, and make them their own. They change the setting, alter the tone, or break the rules by not giving you the ending you expect. Or, as in the case of movies like Deadpool and Their Finest, they openly acknowledge how cliched their narratives are, and so make fun of them. LA Confidential does none of those things. It is not parodying, drawing from, or even deconstructing the noir genre. It is just a noir film. It is a mystery, set in the 50s, in LA, involving corruption, murder, a flawed protagonist, or protagonists, in this case, and a femme fatale. That’s it. It doesn’t shock you with its ending, like Seven or Mother. It doesn’t have witty dialogue, like The Big Lebowski or The Nice Guys. It’s story, its cinematography, its score and its costumes are all very standard for the noir genre. And because everything about it is so familiar, you find yourself not caring as much.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I don’t think this is a bad film. The acting is superb, the costumes and sets are period accurate, and the tight pacing never allows for a dull moment. I whole-heartedly acknowledge that this is a competently crafted movie. But I’m also quite convinced that the reason it was so acclaimed when it first came out back in 97 was nostalgia. Critics who grew up with classic noir were most likely just happy to see something that reminded them of when they were young, and so declared the film to be better than it was. But, like I said, it’s not terrible. Just unoriginal. So if that doesn’t bother you, give it a look. You’ll probably like it.

Seven (1995)

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

Somerset is an apathetic detective, a week away from retirement. Mills is his idealistic partner, and brand new in town. They’ve got nothing in common, and they don’t particularly like each other. But for one week, Somerset’s last week on the job, they must work together. And it’s going to be the longest week of their lives, because there’s a killer on the loose, committing murders based on the Seven Deadly Sins, and he’s got his eye trained on them.

Seven is a film I’ve heard about for literally my entire life. It came out in 1995, the same year I was born, and in the two decades since then, it’s basically become a shorthand for anything super messed up and gross. And yet, as notorious as its reputation is, Seven is also considered to be quite a good flick. It’s strong performances, atmospheric cinematography, well-constructed story, and especially its ending, have all been lauded by critics over the years. This one film resurrected its director, David Fincher’s, career, and helped to cement the reputation of its stars, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. For this reason, and the fact that I’ll take a well-made thriller over an Oscar-winning drama any day, I decided to give Seven a look. And good lord!

Let me start off by saying that Seven is unquestionably a well-made movie. Everything about it, from the mirky cinematography, to the eerie soundtrack, to the believable performances, shows great talent and professionalism. This is a prime example of genre filmmaking at its best. On top of this, the story is considerably better written than most other thrillers, with there being a greater emphasis on character development, and lots of smaller, quiet moments. I also liked the fact that, even though the movie is about a serial killer who murders people in ultra gruesome ways, there’s very little onscreen violence. All the scares, all the suspense, come about through the power of suggestion. Which is good. This has got to be one of the few times where I’m actually glad a thriller was made in Hollywood, and not South Korea. Because even though I think that Korea produces much better thrillers overall, the films they make tend to be extremely violent. All we see in Seven are dead bodies. We don’t have to watch anyone get tortured or mutilated.

All that said, this is a hard movie to watch. If you have a weak constitution, or like stories to have happy endings, avoid this film like the plague. Even I, a person who loves books with unhappy endings, like Shanghai Girls and 19 Minutes, found this film hard to get through. And not just because of the subject matter. Seven is a movie that you can really only watch once. A large part of what keeps you engaged is the uncertainty; the fear that comes from not knowing what will happen in the next scene. Once you’ve seen this film, however, and you know everything that’s in store, the movie loses some of its power, and the story as a whole becomes a little bit of a slog to get through. Some mystery films, like Mother, Zodiac, and Broken Flowers, end ambiguously, and you can watch them over and over again to try to find clues. Seven isn’t like that. It ends quite definitively, and once you see that ending, you’re kind of numb to the rest of the story. The movie also has a weird opening credits sequence, which didn’t sit with me very well. It felt a little too much like something from television, and made the movie feel less like a gripping 2 hour thriller, and more like a 40 minute episode of Law & Order.

Nevertheless, Seven‘s smart script, strong performances, and brilliant atmosphere more than make up for its flaws, and cement its status as one of the all-time great thriller films. Watch it when you can.

 

The Constant Gardener (2005)

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

While serving at the British embassy in Kenya, soft-spoken Justin begins to suspect his wife, Tessa, is having an affair. She’s always going off with her African colleague, Dr. Blum, and she and Justin have been somewhat estranged since their child was stillborn. When Tessa winds up dead, and Blum, the man she was supposed to be with, is nowhere to be found, all of Justin’s fears seem confirmed. But when he looks through her belongings, and discovers some incriminating documents hidden away, he realizes that Tessa was working on something big, and that her death might not have been an accident.

The Constant Gardener is a slow-paced, by-the-numbers thriller, whose strong performances, African setting, and sharp social commentary help elevate it above the many other conspiracy stories out there. Adapted from the novel by John Le Carre, the writer behind such espionage books as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the film offers up simple, undemanding entertainment. It’s highly predictable, and its politics are beyond blatant, but that never gets in the way of the story. For the two hours and ten minutes I watched it, I was never bored, which is always a good thing. And like all of Le Carre’s works, there is a great emphasis on character development here. See, he’s never been interested in gun fights, explosions, or any of the heightened, fantastical things that one might find in the works of other spy writers, like Ian Fleming. Instead, his stories are highly grounded, with the violence being minimal, and most of the stories focusing on the personal lives of the spies. That’s pretty much the case here too. The first 40 minutes are almost all character development, and there’s very little actual onscreen violence. Instead, the spies in this picture act like real spies. They’re subtle. They cover their tracks. They get things done through indirect networks of people. And that was quite refreshing to see.

It was also, in many ways, the film’s greatest weakness. For while it was nice to see these characters be thoroughly fleshed out, there was a point during the first 40 minutes where I asked myself, “Okay, are we ever going to get back to the murder mystery?” And the mystery itself, like I said before, is highly predictable. I could tell, straight off the bat, who the villains were, and there were at least three points in the film where it stopped and reminded us “hey, these are the bad guys,” as if we’d somehow forgotten. That kind of bugged me, as did the camerawork. It was almost all handheld, and there were a TON of extreme close ups where all we could see were people’s faces. Anytime I saw one, I thought to myself, “Come on, guys. You’re in an incredible location. Use it!” Sigh.

But, overall, The Constant Gardener’s fine acting, sharp commentary, and rich character development do balance out its flaws, and make it worth watching. Give it a look when you’ve got the time.

Mother (2009)

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

When a young girl winds up dead, and a golf ball with a disabled man’s name written on it is discovered at the crime scene, the police think they’ve solved the case. But the suspect’s mother, a herb shop owner whose name we never learn, is unconvinced. Her boy couldn’t possibly have done it. So she tries to prove his innocence; by hiring a lawyer, handing out pamphlets, and, when those things inevitably fail to work, investigating on her own. In so doing, she uncovers a great many things; about the police, the victim, her son, and even herself. Specifically, the lengths she’ll go to to get him home.

Mother is an off-beat, idiosyncratic, always entertaining mystery. The film that Bong Joon-Ho made between The Host and Snowpiercer, it benefits from his dark sense of humor, keen attention to detail, and pension for telling stories with ambiguous endings. That, and some extraordinary performances by Kim Hye-Ja, whom plays the titular character, and Won Bin, whom plays her mentally-challenged son. Miss Kim, especially, deserves praise, since the film really rests on her shoulders. You see her go through so many emotional states, and you feel all the anxiety, frustration, fear and sorrow that she does. The editing of this picture is also something to behold. There’s one scene towards the beginning where she’s watching her son while cutting herbs, and it keeps moving back and forth between her face, her son, and the knife, and everything about it–the shot progression, the sound design, the acting– is perfect. For these reasons alone, along with the fact that it has some genuinely unexpected twists, I would recommend you all watch it. It is the best mystery I’ve seen in years.

That said, this is not my favorite Bong Joon-Ho film. Which is weird, because, even though I think it’s a better-crafted picture than Okja, overall, I like Okja more. Part of this has to do with some of the odder, sex-related content. For instance, Mother features some very disturbing implications about the titular character and her son, particularly about how they sleep in the same bed together, and it will definitely make some viewers uncomfortable. There’s also a sex scene between a 30-year-old man and his teenage girlfriend about halfway through that made me feel funny. No, he didn’t rape her. The dialogue makes it clear this was a consensual encounter. And no, the actress in the scene wasn’t underage. I checked, and found that she was 22 at the time the movie was shot. Still, she looks really young, her character is supposed to be 15, and the guy she’s having sex with looks a lot older than her. All this makes it kind of hard to watch. But by far the biggest problem I had with the movie is the way it portrays mental disability. As a person who is legally blind, and whose best friend is on the autism spectrum, I’m always somewhat skeptical of onscreen portrayals of disability. Even when the writers and actors go in with good intentions, and a fair amount of research, their portrayals tend to be very over-the-top and caricatured, usually relying on tired cliches. One of those cliches is that mentally challenged people are dangerous, and don’t know when they’re hurting others. This is a trope that dates back to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and that is featured prominently in Mother, with the son character being violent, and oftentimes being unaware that he’s doing anything wrong. This trope is not only tired, it’s dangerous. It leads to discrimination against mentally disabled people. And it ignores the fact that, in the real world, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. I was frankly disappointed to see a talented filmmaker like Bong Joon-Ho use these kinds of stereotypes in his work. I thought he was better than that. But, ah well.

Nevertheless, Mother’s strong performances, interesting story, and stellar editing make it an all-around engrossing mystery. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I do think it’s worth watching.

A Hard Day (2014)

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

While driving to his mother’s funeral, corrupt Detective Geon-Soo Ko accidentally kills a man when the latter stumbles out into the road. Fearing murder charges on top of an Internal Affairs investigation, Ko disposes of the body by stuffing the corpse in his mother’s coffin. But when he starts getting threatening phone calls from a man who claims he knows what he did, Ko finds himself pulled into a much bigger, much weirder conspiracy.

A Hard Day is what I like to refer to as a situation movie. What I mean by that is, it’s a film where it’s the situation that keeps you engaged, even though the characters and dialogue aren’t that interesting. You don’t really know much about Ko. You know that he’s a corrupt cop, you know that he’s got a daughter, a sister and a brother, and you know that he likes to smoke. But what his personality is, what his taste in food, movies and music are; these are things that you’re never shown or told. As such, you don’t really care about him. He’s not what’s keeping you engaged. What is keeping you engaged are the absurd lengths that he goes to in order to not get caught, and how big and weird the situation he’s in turns out to be. Throw in some quirky humor, and some surprisingly intense action, and you’ve got a perfectly fun thriller.

As I said in my reviews for films like Man From Nowhere, Train To Busan, and The Chaser, South Korea is my go-to country when I want good thrillers. There’s something about the way they make crime and mystery films that just elevates them above the fray. The stories are always engaging, the production is top notch, and they have a very specific tone–at once gruesome and comedic–that is almost impossible to duplicate in the West. And unless you think I’m exaggerating, look at the American remakes of OldBoy and A Tale Of Two Sisters, and tell me that something didn’t get lost in translation. A Hard Day is another well-made Korean thriller. It’s not as unique as films like OldBoy or The Wailing, and it’s not as intense as films like The Chaser or I Saw The Devil. It’s a lot more straight forward, and considerably more comedic. And, overall, I would say it’s a step below those other movies. Still, it’s got a lot of the things I like in Korean thrillers–an interesting story, some off-kilter humor, a unique tone–and I don’t regret watching it. And, in a way, I would actually recommend it to you all. No, it’s not as good as the films I just mentioned. But if you want to get into Korean thrillers, and aren’t quite ready for some of the more disturbing aspects of films like OldBoy or I Saw The Devil, give this movie a look. It’s a perfectly fine entry point, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

The Chaser

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

If you like stories about kind, good-hearted people, you’ll probably want to avoid The Chaser. Because this film has exactly none of those in it. The story of a pimp trying to find his missing prostitutes, and thereby uncovering the crimes of a serial killer, the film is absolutely disgusting. And completely amazing.

This movie is INCREDIBLE! It’s riveting, well-acted, and actually has a very compelling story and characters. You see the pimp grow. You see him change and become more compassionate. You care about him. You care about Mi-Jin, the prostitute he’s so desperate to find. You care about Mi-Jin’s daughter, Eun-Ji, whom the pimp befriends and becomes a surrogate father to. This film takes a disgusting premise, and despicable characters, and gives them both weight and pathos. You’ve got to commend the director, Na Hong-Jin, and especially the screenwriter, Shino Lee, for being able to do that. And, wouldn’t you know it, this film got great reviews and made a crap ton of money when it came out, precisely because of its ability to do those things. It was so successful that Hollywood has already bought the remake rights, and is thinking of doing an American version with Leonardo DiCaprio starring, and Martin Scorses directing. If that’s not an indicator of this film’s quality, I don’t know what is.

I actually have a very personal connection to this film, since the man who wrote it, Shinho Lee, was my screenwriting professor at NYU. He’s a very kind, very insightful man, who told me some fascinating stories about this film’s production. Like how he had to write the script in less than three weeks, like how this story was based off the actions of a real serial killer, Yoo Young-Chul, like how the real pimp who caught the serial killer sued the producers of the movie, and how the director, Na Hong-Jin, is kind of crazy. I’m not even kidding with that last one. Shinho told me that the heads of the studio that funded Na’s most recent film, The Wailing, forced him to go to counseling after shooting wrapped, because of his violent and erratic behavior on set. If that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is. Still, it was super cool to hear these things, these little backstage secrets, from a working professional who’d written a film as successful as The Chaser. It gave me a good idea of what to expect in the film industry, as well as the kinds of characters I’ll be encountering there.

Now before anyone accuses me of grading this film on a curve because I know the guy who wrote it, I do have some problems with it. For starters, I’m not a fan of the camera work. It’s almost all hand-held, and very shaky. I understand that this is a gritty, realistic movie, and that the handheld technique was used to enhance the realism of the story, but it gets really distracting after a while. Every time we get a close up on a character’s face, the image is super wobbly. There’s also a lot of cutting in this picture. In one scene, for instance, the pimp is talking on the phone, and we get four different shots of his face from various angles in a row. I understand that frequent cutting is used to keep audience’s engaged, but there just wasn’t any reason for them to include so many there. He’s only on the phone for about 5 seconds. I’m assuming we can look at a single image for that long. Also, there’s a lot of misogynistic violence and language in this film, which, while it may be realistic, is something I never like to see or hear. Shinho actually said that he was nervous people would brand the film as hateful towards women, given its content, and the fact that it was written, directed and produced by men. But, trust me, if you’ve ever met Shinho, you know that he is anything but a misogynist. Most of his other films, like My Mighty Princess, have female protagonists, and he was always adamant in writing class that we should include deeper, more varied roles for women in our scripts. “Don’t just have them be girlfriends, wives, or mothers,” he’d say, “Let them be characters with interests and jobs.” So, yeah. The film has misogynistic content, which I don’t like, but its necessary to the story, and the guy who wrote it doesn’t hate women. But I’m getting off track. The final problem I have with The Chaster is that there’s a point in the middle of the film, after the serial killer has been caught, and the pimp is trying to find Mi-Jin, where I got kind of bored. Nothing super exciting happens during this period, we just see him going around and trying to find clues, and it kind of slows the rest of the movie down. But its not very long, and as soon as its over, the film kicks right back into high gear with a super intense, super suspenseful sequence in a convenience store.

So, in the end, if you want to watch a gritty, well-acted, super suspenseful thriller with a great arc and an engaging narrative, give The Chaser a look. It is definitely worth your time.