Big Fish & Begonia (2016)

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

It’s long been said that heaven is in the sky, somewhere far above the clouds. In reality, however, it is deep beneath the sea, in a place where fish can fly, and ocean waves float above mountains. The inhabitants of this place, the Others, as they call themselves, have special abilities, controlling wind, fire, plant life and so on. And when they turn sixteen, they must undergo a rite of passage, wherein they live in the human world for seven days as a fish. Chun is one of these Others and, come time for her rite of passage, she goes out into the human world as a red dolphin. While exploring, however, she gets caught in a net, and is  saved by a human boy, who drowns in the process. Full of guilt, Chun returns to her world, and begs the keeper of souls to resurrect the boy. The Keeper agrees, but only if Chun gives up half her life-span. Chun does so, and is given the boy’s soul, which, in this realm, is a little baby fish, which she must nurture until it is grown enough to fly back up to the human world. Unfortunately for her, the boy’s presence in her realm throws everything out of order, and, soon, all the Others come after her and the little fish.

Big Fish & Begonia is a film that I never would have heard of, were it not for my girlfriend. And I am so glad she told me about it, because, this movie is INSANE. Seriously! The creativity with which this world is drawn cannot be compared. Imagine if, instead of letting M Night Shyamalan do his garbage live-action adaptation, the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender had made a big-budget, feature length animated movie. That’s the general look and feel of this film. The landscapes are breathtaking, the character movements are fluid, and the way that magic looks in this world is superb. This film was a huge hit when it came out in China back in 2016, and I can understand why. If movies are all about escapism, about taking you to another plane, this film does that in spades. It’ll be getting a North American release in April, so, if you want to watch something creative and beautiful, give this flick a look.

But go in with tempered expectations. As pretty as this film is, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. And it all comes down to poor, and I mean poor, storytelling. Characters who you think will be important get introduced, only to disappear halfway through, the rules of magic drastically change from scene to scene,  and the main protagonist, Chun, not only doesn’t grow, but is kind of unlikable. What I mean by that is, she constantly makes drastic, highly risky decisions, like giving up half her lifespan to save a boy she doesn’t know, or forcing her grandfather to use his last bit of magic to save another boy (yeah, she gets another kid killed), and even keeping the fish in her home after she realizes that his presence there is actively destroying her world. Throughout the story, she constantly puts other people in danger because of her selfish need to not feel guilty, and she never really faces any consequences for that. That’s not good. And, like I said, the rules of magic constantly change throughout this story. First, Chun needs to raise the soul fish until it is big enough to return to the human world. Then, for some reason, the fish can’t return to the human world, because, if it does, she will die. But then, oh no, the fish does need to return to the human world, because its presence in the magical realm is actively destroying it. Ugh! The inconsistency of the mythology is truly mind-boggling. This is almost like an animated version of House Of Flying Daggers, where it’s a story that only makes sense to the eye. Speaking of House Of Flying Daggers, this film also has a love-triangle in it. Fortunately, neither of the male leads try to rape Chun (thank god), but, the love-triangle aspect is also highly frustrating. See, Chun loves the fish boy, whom she names Kun, but another boy, Qiu, loves Chun. And, throughout the story, Qiu does everything in his power to help her. I mean he bends over backwards for her. And, in the end, not only does he not get to be with Chun, he winds up dying in the process of helping them escape. And when Chun and Kun return to the human world, there’s no mention of Qiu or his sacrifice at all. The hell, man? Why include that subplot if you’re not even going to acknowledge it? Sigh.

But, like I said before, this film is truly visionary with regards to its animation. And the fact that it is a big budget Chinese animated film, which you don’t see very often, makes it extra special. So, go ahead and watch it for the visuals, but don’t expect much else.


Coco (2017)

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

Miguel Rivera is a young Mexican boy, descended from a long line of shoemakers. Many years ago, his great, great grandfather left his wife and child to pursue a career in music, a betrayal which lead to all vocal and instrumental sounds being banned in the Rivera household. Miguel, however, yearns to become a Mariachi, idolizing the now-dead musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. So, to prove to his family that he is a talented guitar player, and that he should be allowed to pursue music, Miguel signs up for the day of the dead talent show. Problem is, he doesn’t have a guitar, and no one will lend one to him. So he decides, “screw trying to buy one. I’m gonna go rob a tomb.” And that’s precisely what he does; breaking in to Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum, and taking the dead man’s guitar. However, as soon as he touches the instrument, he finds himself transported to the realm of the dead. Now, if he wants to get home, he must find his ancestors, and receive their blessing. Problem is, they want him to go back under the agreement that he will never play music again, and Miguel isn’t willing to accept this. So he decides to track down the ghost of Ernesto de la Cruz, whom he has convinced himself is, in fact, the great, great grandfather who abandoned his family all those years ago, and receive his blessing instead. Will he do so? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

If you’ve read my review for Finding Dory, you know that I love Pixar movies. I’ve loved them literally my entire life. And yet, despite that, I didn’t really plan on seeing Coco. Pixar’s movies, while all fairly high in quality, do vacillate between emotionally devastating all-ages entertainment, like Toy Story, Up and Inside Out, and more simplistic, kid-friendly fare, such as Cars, Monsters Inc, and The Good Dinosaur. After watching the trailers, it seemed clear to me that Coco was more of the latter than the former. And yet, I went to go see it anyway, and, I’ll say this, it was a lot better than I thought it would be. In terms of pure craftsmanship, animation, music, voice acting, the film is superb. The creativity with which the land of the dead is drawn is simply incredible. There’s one sequence in particular, where Miguel is walking through this terminal for the dead that legitimately made my jaw drop, partly because of how beautiful it was, and partly because of how much it reminded me of the Post Office in Mexico City, a historic building that you all should definitely visit. And there was a sequence towards the end where I really did tear up. So if you want to watch a gorgeous movie, which does have a heart, Coco is worth a look.

That said, it’s not one of Pixar’s best, probably because it doesn’t really feel like a Pixar movie. Most Pixar projects begin with a short film, which relates in tone and style to the main story. This one doesn’t. It also takes a while to get going, with me not really caring about the plot or the characters until they enter the realm of the dead. Then I was hooked, but that’s not until about 15 minutes in. And, finally, the film is kind of hard to buy into. What I mean by that is, certain things happen in it that don’t get explained, or just don’t jive with the rules that have been established for this world. For instance, Miguel spends the first few minutes telling you how music is banned in his household, and how if anything even remotely close to a musical note is heard, it is shut down. And yet, we see Miguel being an adept guitar player, and the movie never explains how he was able to learn to play the instrument, or how he was able to hide his skills for so long. Likewise, the film tells us that the only time ghosts can visit the land of the living is on Day Of The Dead, and yet, we see an animal, I won’t say which one, crossing over between the two realms on multiple occasions. That kind of bugged me. Now you might be thinking, “Nathan, you’re thinking way too hard about this,” and you’re probably right. But I’ve made it my career to write stories, and I can’t ignore it when a story’s narrative logic doesn’t add up. Did this error seriously hurt my viewing experience? Not really. But it did bug me, and I thought you all should know before you go see it, which I do still think you should.

What’s Better: Quality Or Memorability?

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

Here’s a question for you all; what’s more important in art, quality or memorability?

Now you might be thinking, “well, that’s obvious. Quality. It’s always better to make good work than bad.” And, for the most part, I agree with you. If you’re painting, acting, writing, dancing, or whatever medium it is that you express yourself through, is bad, people will be less inclined to pay you for it, and you’ll die drunk and penniless. (Not really, but still).

At the same time, however, quality is a very difficult thing to measure art by. First of all, quality is completely subjective. What one person likes, another person might hate. And just because something was liked or disliked upon its initial release doesn’t mean that people won’t change their minds on it over time. Blade Runner, The Shining, Fight Club and John Carpenter’s The Thing were all critically despised when they first came out, but now, all these years later, are hailed as some of the best movies ever made. Meanwhile, films like Juno, Forrest Gump, and The Last Samurai, which were all critically-acclaimed when they first hit theaters, have faced considerable backlash due to their problematic subject matter. And even if a work has managed to maintain its acclaim, that doesn’t mean people will necessarily respond to it. Let me give you an example. Last year’s The Post is a film that, by all technical standards–acting, editing, music, cinematography–is quite good, but audiences have not taken to, and, as a result, the film has struggled at the box office. Why, though? In terms of quality, it’s very good. Why aren’t people flocking to it? Could it be the fact that, despite all its technical achievements, the film isn’t memorable? Maybe.

See, we might not think about it, but memorability is a very powerful thing. It’s what enables works of art to survive after their creators have passed on. It’s what allowed Starry Night, the product of a penniless Dutch painter who never made a cent off of art in his lifetime, to become one of the most beloved works in human history. And it’s what enabled The Room, a film that everyone agrees is one of the worst, if not the worst, movies ever made, to become an immensely popular, global phenomenon. I’d actually like to talk about The Room. It came out in 2003, and in the 15 years since then, it’s had books written about it, films made detailing its creation, and God only knows how many midnight screenings of it. You know what other films came out in 2003? Open Range, American Splendor, Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World, and a live-action version of Peter Pan. Now despite the fact that, by all objective standards–acting, writing, production design–each of these films is better than The Room, not a one of them has had a book written about them, a film made documenting their creation, or a fan revival/midnight screening. Hell, you all probably didn’t even remember that they were films. Why, though? Why does one bad film have so much more staying power than four other, considerably better ones? Memorability, that’s why. In art, memorability is key.

Now, before I go on, I would just like to clarify that I don’t think memorability is all that matters in art. If it were, quality wouldn’t be taken into consideration at all, and people would just make whatever sick, shocking thing they thought would get them attention. Fortunately, we, as humans, have some sense of taste, and we know not to instantly gravitate towards the weirdest, grossest thing we see. Usually. But still, memorability does matter. It’s what gets artists noticed, and, very often, what gives them a career. For what is an artistic style, really, other than an artist creating a memorable look or feel? Countless filmmakers, like John Woo, Edgar Wright, Michael Mann and Wes Anderson have become successful, precisely because they have memorable, distinct styles. But it would be wrong to say that their style is the only thing that made them popular. Yes, their work is beloved because of its distinct look, sound and feel, but also because it is of relatively high quality. The acting in their films, particularly in those of Mann and Wright, tends to be better. The writing as well. So is the cinematography, editing, music and production design. These people are competent craftsman, who also have distinct, stylistic quirks that separate them from the fray.

So, in the end, I don’t think one is more important than the other. Artists should always strive to make high quality work, but, at the same time, to try to distinguish themselves with unique looks, sounds, and tones. Sometimes quality wins out over memorability. Sometimes memorability overtakes quality. Either way, you need them both, and, in certain cases, they come together to make stuff that is truly special.

Downsizing (2017)

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

To fight global warming, scientists develop the means to shrink humans down. The idea is that, if people are smaller, they’ll produce less waste, use less energy, and, overall, leave a smaller footprint on the environment. It doesn’t take long, however, for people to catch on that there are other benefits to being little, like the fact that money is worth a lot more in shrunken communities. One individual hoping to escape financial woes by “downsizing” is Paul Safranek, a physical therapist drowning in debt. He and his wife visit “Leisure Land,” the most prosperous shrunken community, and decide, “screw it! Let’s get small.” Unfortunately for Paul, however, his wife gets cold feet at the last minute, and leaves him just as he’s undergoing the procedure. And seeing as downsizing is irreversible, he’s pretty much left to fend for himself in this new, miniature world. Will he survive? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Downsizing is a quintessential “idea” movie. What I mean by that is, there are some films that get made solely because of the uniqueness of their central premise, as opposed to how tight their plot is, or how developed their characters are. Probably the most famous example of a film like this is M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, where the whole concept is that there is an isolated community in the woods, where the elders teach their children that it is the 1800s, when it’s actually modern times. It’s a fun idea, with a lot of potential, but the film itself doesn’t really have a lot to offer when it comes to story or character development. That’s pretty much the case with Downsizing. The premise of people shrinking down, and forming new, miniature communities, is fascinating, and original. But when you watch the movie, you can tell that Alexander Payne, the writer/director, didn’t really have a story to go along with this idea. Because after Paul shrinks down, there is a long, long stretch where nothing really happens. He gets a job, starts seeing a woman, only to have her dump him, and goes to a party. None of these things matter in the end, so they’re really just there to pad out the runtime. There’s also a ton of characters who get introduced in the start of the movie, like Paul’s wife, his mother, his wife’s father, and his friend, all of whom just kind of vanish by the end. As a result, you’re left feeling like you’ve just been told a very long, very convoluted joke with no punch line.

Now, all that said, I didn’t hate this movie. In fact, I kind of liked it. It definitely has things to admire. The central idea, as I said, is very original. The design of these new, small communities is very creative. The characters are  well-defined, and the acting is good. The stand-out, easily, is Hong Chau, whom plays Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident who befriends Paul, and pulls him out of his depression. She has the funniest dialogue, she’s likable, and her performance is great. Seriously. Hong Chau has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in this film, and I can understand why. She feels very real, which is odd for me to say because, when I saw the trailers, I thought to myself, “Oh god. Here’s another Asian woman in an American movie speaking broken English, and pining after a White dude.” But the movie is actually a lot more sophisticated and sensitive than that when it comes to her character. Her religious fervor, determination to keep going, even when she’s exhausted and in pain, and her brutal honesty really reminded me of Asian immigrants I know, like my grandfather, and my mother’s friend, Mihua. And I’ve got to give the movie props for that.

So, between her performance, the beautiful production values, and a very interesting premise, Downsizing actually has some good things to offer. Yeah, it’s a little bit boring in places, and you can tell the writer didn’t really have a full plot thought out when they started shooting. But, if you don’t mind that, give this flick a look. You’re bound to be engaged on some level.

Bright (2017)

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

In an alternate reality where Humans, Orcs and Elves all live side by side, the LAPD, hoping to appear more diverse, hires it’s first Orcish police officer, Nick Jacobi. Jacobi is paired with veteran beat cop Scott Ward, who dislikes Nick because he’s an Orc, and because he didn’t protect him when somebody shot at them. This leads to Ward taking a deal with the Feds, wherein he’ll wear a wire, and get Jacobi to confess that he’s more loyal to his race than to the law. But all that takes a back seat when the two find a young Elf, Tikka, who possesses a magic wand. Wands, as you might imagine, are super, super powerful, and a lot of people, including a gang leader, an Elf cult, and a couple of corrupt cops, want this particular wand very, very badly. So much so that they’ll kill to get it. So it’s up to Ward and Jacobi to protect the wand, avoid the people coming after them, and, of course, save the world in so doing.

Guys, I won’t lie, when I saw the first trailers earlier this year, I was intrigued. I thought the idea of melding a police procedural with high fantasy was both original and inventive, and the make up and effects I saw looked genuinely cool. But, even so, I was weary. The trailers stressed that this flick was being directed by David Ayer, the man behind Suicide Squad, Fury, and End Of Watch. And while those latter two flicks are good, and I did initially enjoy Suicide Squad, until I realized how stupid it was, the fact that Ayer was involved made me nervous. As I’ve said before, he’s a writer/director known for making gritty, hard-hitting crime films, full of profanity, macho man posturing, violence, and racial stereotypes. Seriously, his directorial debut, Street Kings, begins with a scene where Keanu Reeves insults two Korean gangsters with every single Asian racial slur under the sun. And, to be honest, even his good films, like Training Day and End Of Watch, are full of cliched non-white characters, like Latino men who call each other “homes” and Black men who call each other “dog.” So when Bright finally hit Netflix, I was weary, but hopeful. And now, having seen it, I can safely say, yeah, it’s bad.

Now, I do want to be fair, so I’ll start off by saying that there are elements of this film that I liked. I liked the world that this flick created. I liked the creature designs for the Orcs, Elves, and Fairies. There’s some good action in here, even if it is a bit choppily edited, and I liked the fact that this was an original story. It’s not an adaptation, spin-off, or sequel to anything, which is always a plus in my book. And, again, the lore of this world is genuinely cool. I hope someone out there decides to explore this world further, maybe by going to different cities, or countries, and examining how they treat magical creatures, because it has potential. But, beyond that, this movie is pretty much awful.

Every single negative Ayer-ism you can think of–the choppy editing, the stupid, tough guy stand offs, the racial stereotypes–is on full display in this movie. And unlike his best flicks, where you can overlook those things because the characters are interesting and the dialogue is funny, this film’s protagonists are unappealing and underdeveloped, and the dialogue is terrible. Seriously! It’s awful. Here are some actual lines spoken in this movie: “It’s bullshit.” “No, human shit.” “If you’re gonna play stupid games, you’re gonna win stupid prizes.” “If you act like my enemy, you become my enemy.” What the hell, man? The lines in this movie feel like Place-Holder Dialogue, stuff you write in a first draft to give readers the feel of what the characters are talking about, but abandon and polish when you go back and revise. And, like I said, the characters are terrible. If you asked, I couldn’t tell you one thing about them. That’s because the movie never bothers to set up their personalities. In the best buddy cop films, Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, you get opening scenes where you’re able to watch the characters live their lives, and get a sense for who they are. And then, after you’ve gotten to know them, you get to watch them meet. In this movie, you don’t get either of those things. You don’t get to see their lives beforehand. You don’t get to watch them meet each other. Ward and Jacobi are already partners at the start of the flick, and everything about them is told to us in painfully awkward, exposition-heavy exchanges. It’s really, really bad.

Guys, don’t watch Bright. Or if you do, go in knowing that it’s not very good. It’s got a cool premise, and I would love it if other, better artists would explore its world on their own, but, by itself, this film is not worth your time.

Happy Death Day (2017)

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

Tree Gelbman is a sorority girl, and an all-around terrible person. She’s petty, shallow, condescending and dismissive. And she sleeps with her professors to pass her courses. On the evening of her birthday, she is murdered by an assailant dressed like her school’s mascot, only to wake up the next morning, and realize that she’s in a time loop. At the behest of a classmate, who reasons that she’s basically got unlimited lives, Tree sets about trying to find her killer, resulting in her dying several more times. Sometimes in hilariously over-the-top fashion. With each death, however, she gets closer to uncovering the truth, and with each loop, she learns a little bit more about herself, and how horrible she’s become. Will she solve her own murder? Will she live to see tomorrow? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Happy Death Day is a crowd-pleaser. That’s the best way for me to describe it. It’s fun, light-hearted and, for the most part, inoffensive. It doesn’t ask any difficult, or profound questions, but it’s well-acted, and well-shot, and it moves at a quick pace, so you’re never bored. It’s also a lot funnier than I thought it would be. What I mean is, when I saw the trailers, I thought this was a straight-forward horror film. But, having watched it, I wasn’t scared at all. It’s really more of a comedy. So much of this film, even the kills, are played for laughs, that you can’t really take it seriously. For instance, there’s a whole montage, set to Demi Lovato’s “Confident” wherein we see Tree getting murdered over and over and over again. And while violence against women is never something I like to see in movies, it’s all shot in such a comedic manner, with the music being so jarringly happy, that I couldn’t help but chuckle while watching it. So, yeah. If you’re worried that this will be a gory, terrifying fright fest, never fear. This movie is PG-13, and more of a comedy than anything else.

If I have any complaints, they’re the opening scenes, where we’re introduced to Tre’s daily routine, and the final reveal of the killer, and his/her motivation. Tree is so obnoxious in those first few scenes, with her making some very off-color remarks about disabled and large people, that you’re really rooting for her to get killed. And as for the ending, when you do realize who the killer is, and why he/she is doing what he/she is doing, you wind up rolling your eyes and going “Really? That’s the dumbest motivation I’ve ever heard.” Fortunately, the film is smart enough to recognize said motivation as dumb, and they do make a joke out of the final reveal.

So, overall, I do think Happy Death Day is worth watching. It’s funny, well-acted, and entertaining enough to keep you invested. Just don’t expect too much depth.

Collateral (2004)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views AreMyGame.

Max is a cab driver, saving up to start his own company. He knows LA like the back of his hand, and even though his job is fairly thankless, he takes pride in his work. One night, he picks up a gray-haired man named Vincent, who tells him, “I’ve got five stops to make. You get me to all of them on time, I’ll pay you $600.” Max agrees, and brings Vincent to his first stop. Everything seems fine, until a dead body falls on the cab, smashing the windshield to bits. Things get worse when Vincent returns, and reveals that not only did he kill the man, but he’s an assassin who’s been hired to take out 4 more targets. Now, if Max wants to survive, he’ll have to help Vincent evade capture, and finish his jobs, which means contributing to the deaths of four more people. Can he do it? Will he make it through the night? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out

Collateral is the definition of a well-made thriller. It’s suspenseful, superbly -acted (seriously, Jamie Foxx earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Max) and very well-written. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about the writing, because it is really, really good. Not only does every character have a distinct voice and backstory, the dialogue is really witty, and oddly thought-provoking. There are so many exchanges in this film that are funny, frightening and philosophical all at the same time that I’m honestly kind of surprised that Stuart Beattie, whom penned the script, didn’t get an Oscar nod. Like, in the scene right after Max learns that Vincent is a hit man, he’s freaking out, and Vincent starts talking about Rwanda. He tells Max how more people were killed at once there than in the past 50 years, and yet, he, Max, didn’t get upset when he heard about the genocide. He didn’t join the peace corps. He didn’t contribute to any charities. But now, when one fat guy dies in front of him, he turns into a bleeding heart? How hypocritical. That’s a brilliant exchange right there. It not only shows us how Vincent views morality, but it also gets us, the spectators, to think. It calls us out on our own hypocrisies, like how we care about some lives, but not about others. And the movie is full of awesome moments like that, where characters are talking about their pasts, or their morals, and it’s super engaging and funny. In one scene, Max asks Vincent, “You killed him?” to which Vincent responds, “No. I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” And in another scene, Vincent has a gun pressed up against Max’s head, and forces him to tell his boss to “shove this yellow cab up your fat ass.” It’s wonderful.

If I have one complaint about Collateral, it’s the camerawork. It’s almost all hand-held, so the images are very shaky, and the shots are super noisy. If you don’t know what that last part means, “noise” is a film term for elements in cinematography that ruin an image, like lens flares, blurry lines, or pixels. Collateral’s director, Michael Mann, is infamous for not minding “noise” in his films. As such, a lot of his movies, even if they’re big-budget period pieces, like Public Enemies, feel like they’re shot on home video. Now, as annoying as I find shaky cam and lens flares, both actually kind of work for this movie. You’re telling a story that’s very gritty and real, and the sloppy-looking camerawork does kind of contribute to a sense of realism. Kind of. But in case you can’t get over the cinematography, the film’s gorgeous color palette more than makes up for it. Every image is black, contrasted with neon blues, greens or pinks; i.e. the color of LA at night. If, like me, you love films with saturated color schemes, which help create mood and atmosphere, you’re gonna love this movie. It is a feast for the eyes.

Guys, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Collateral is a fast-paced, superbly acted, brilliantly-written thriller. I love it, and I’m sure you would to if you saw it. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.