One Cut Of The Dead (2018)

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

Film shoots can just be hell. They’re long, they’re tiring, and, take it from me, something always winds up going wrong. Maybe one of the actors pulls out at the last minute, or maybe one of the key props breaks. Or maybe, while shooting a low-budget zombie movie, actual zombies appear on set, and start eating the crew. At least, that’s what happens in the first part of this movie. Yes, for the first 37 minutes of One Cut Of The Dead, an absolutely charming Japanese comedy,  we see the crew of a low budget zombie film get terrorized by White Walkers. And then, when we’ve seemingly reached the end of the story, with the final girl having killed her last assailant, the filmmakers pull the curtain back, and reveal that this film was just, well, a film. It was a movie commissioned by a Japanese TV station, and the rest of the runtime is dedicated to watching the director, Higurashi, and his small, inexperienced crew, which includes his wife, Nao, and daughter, Mao, try to throw this thing together. And, good lord, what fun it is!

The words “heartwarming” and “zombie flick” don’t typically go well together. There are exceptions, such as the 2013 romantic zombie film Warm Bodies,  but, for the most part, motion pictures concerning the undead don’t leave you feeling upbeat or excited. And that’s precisely what One Cut Of The Dead does. I saw this movie last week at the New York Asian FIlm Festival, and was just blown away by it. It’s funny, original, inspirational, and just well put together. The directorial debut of Shinichiro Ueda, One Cut is that rare movie that just comes out of nowhere and surprises you. That’s why I’d urge you all, wherever you may be, to go out and try to see it. If it’s playing at any festivals near you, or perhaps available to stream on video on demand, give it a watch. I promise, you won’t regret it. It’s hilarious, and sweet.

Now, if I have any complaints at all, it’s the fact that the transition between the two halves of the movie, from zombie flick to heart-warming family comedy, is a bit clunky. The first part has end credits, and even a final fade. A lot of people in my theater got up and started to leave before they realized that, “oh no, there’s still about an hour of movie left.” Also, if you’re expecting a scary horror movie, this is not that. Like, at all. It has far more in common with Cool Runnings than 28 Days Later. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that this movie is great. I’m not lying when I say that the people in my audience were laughing their asses off. The last section, where we see the film within a film get shot, is comedy gold. And the central story really does make you feel warm inside. Watching this family collaborate on this project, with so many things going wrong along the way, and having it, and them, come together in the end, is really heart-warming. What can I say, I love this movie. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

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Sorry To Bother You (2018)

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

In an alternate reality Oakland, Cash Green is a regular dude, struggling to get by. With no money, and few prospects, he takes a job in telemarketing, where he quickly learns that he’s far more likely to sell products if he uses his “white voice.” Doing so allows him to climb the corporate ladder, eventually getting promoted to the position of “power caller,” meaning he gets to sell weapons of mass destruction to dictators. All this success puts him into conflict with his girlfriend, Detroit, and co-workers, Sal and Squeeze, who want the telemarketers to unionize, and fear that Cash is selling out. Things only get worse when the head of WorryFree, a company that turns people into slaves by forcing them to sign life-long contracts, comes to Cash’s door with a frightening proposal.

Sorry To Bother You is a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing ever since the first trailers dropped. I love the cast–Tessa Thompson, LaKeith Stanfield and Steve Yeun are always fun to watch–and thhe premise seemed interesting–a Network-style satire about workers of color needing to adjust their behavior in order to get ahead in the world of telemarketing. Then the first reviews came out, and I just knew I had to see it. So when I sat down in the theater this week, I was super excited. And now, having actually watched the flick, I’m… something else.

Now, to just get this out of the way, this is actually a well-made movie. So don’t worry about that. The cast is superb, the pace never drags, and there’s some really good humor in here. There’s one moment in particular, where Cash and Sal are super mad at each other, but, rather than throw insults, they start trading fake compliments, like, “You smell great.” “You smell better.” “You wanna get drinks?” “Sure. It’s on me.” And something that I appreciate about this movie is the fact that it is truly original. I’ve never seen a film like this before, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that you have no idea where the story’s going. So, for all these reasons, I do think Sorry To Bother You is worth watching.

That said, the film isn’t perfect, and a large part of this has to do with the fact that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The trailers make you think it’ll be a satire of racism in the workplace, but that’s not really what it’s about. Oh, those elements are in the film, to be sure–there’s one uncomfortable scene where Cash’s boss forces him to rap, and talk about the “gansta” lifestyle–but the movie has at least 12 more things to say besides that. It wants to talk about worker’s rights. It wants to comment on arms dealing. It wants to satirize the power of social media to turn random people into celebrities, and make a statement about how we’re so used to seeing shocking things that we don’t even care anymore. And on top of that, it wants to be a dystopian sci-fi parable. Yeah. I’m not joking at all when I say that this movie is science fiction. A major twist that gets revealed about halfway through involves a company using advanced technology to create… things. I’ll just leave it at that. And while that twist is genuinely shocking, and took me off guard, I can definitely see it alienating a lot of people. There were members of my audience who got mad at the direction the film took. And, finally, the movie introduces a lot of elements that you think will be important, like Cash using a “white voice,’ and this radical leftist group called “The Left Eye,” which more or less get abandoned after that twist I was talking about. So if you’re expecting a light-hearted farce, which follows a clear narrative, go watch something else, because you won’t find that here.

In the end, though, I do think the film’s humor, it’s strong performances, and unabashed originality do make it worth watching. Just go in with tempered expectations.

Damsel (2018)

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

Parson Henry isn’t a real preacher. He isn’t even a man of God. He’s just a sad widower, looking for a fresh start, who was given a preacher’s clothes while journeying out West. How unfortunate for Henry when young Samuel, thinking that he is a real parson, recruits him to go out into the wild and wed him and his fiancé, Penelope, whom he claims was kidnapped. Henry is reluctant, but, seeing as he’s got nowhere else to go, and Samuel has offered to pay, agrees. When they reach Penelope’s cabin, however, and shoot her supposed kidnapper, Henry realizes that not all is as it seems to be, and things spiral out of control from there, with the line between good and evil, sanity and insanity, getting blurred.

Damsel is not a film I was planning on seeing. At least, I wasn’t at first. I went to the theater to watch Hearts Beat Loud, the new Nick Offerman movie, found out it wasn’t playing, and decided to give this a try. And I am so happy I did, because this is an original, subversive, darkly-comedic gem that I’m praying more people will go see. What is it, exactly? Well, that’s actually kind of hard to say. Is it a comedy? Is it a Western? Is it a thriller? Is it all of them at once? You spend the first 30 minutes or so being led to believe that this is going to be a sweet, old-fashioned Western with a comedic twist, but then, out of nowhere, things get super dark, and super violent. And the best part is, it feels earned. The transition doesn’t feel abrupt, or out of place. See, there are some films, Audition, Psycho, that switch their genre about halfway through, and it feels appropriate. Part of that has to do with how they set up tone. In Damsel, the filmmakers do a great job of making the world around Henry seem strange and menacing, so that when we find out that Samuel lied about Penelope getting kidnapped, it feels in keeping with what we’ve seen so far. Something else that I love about this movie is the fact that it truly is subversive with regards to how it presents the Western. See, many, many films have tried to approach the Western from a deconstructive or revisionist stance, but ultimately wind up becoming the very thing they were trying to satirize. Unforgiven is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. It spends the first two-thirds telling you that the heroic Western is a myth, that gunslingers were selfish, violent, disgusting men without conscience or honor. And yet, it ends with the main character avenging his friends death, and freeing a town from the clutches of a ruthless, tyrannical sheriff. It basically becomes the very thing it spend the first half of the story telling you didn’t exist. Damsel doesn’t do that. It starts off by giving you a Western you’d expect, a heroic man and his bumbling sidekick going to save a woman, but then pulls the rug out from under you by having it get revealed that the “hero” in question is a delusional stalker who murdered a man for no reason. And far from being a damsel in distress, Penelope is easily the most active, most competent and most aggressive character in this movie. I’m actually kind of sad that she wasn’t the main character the whole way through, but,  you can’t always get what you want.

Now, if I have any complaints at all, it’s the fact that the movie is very slow. It spends a long time setting up the world, and showing Henry and Samuel journeying through the wilderness together. I understand why those scenes were there, to give us a false sense of security and familiarity, so that, when the reveal happens later on, it’s more shocking, but I can definitely see some people being bored by them. On top of this, the film’s humor is very eccentric. A lot of it derives from the characters meeting people, or seeing things, that are just super weird, like a fat man, dressed in a barrel, who never stops laughing. I found it endearing, but, again, I can see people being put off by it. Still, none of those things take away from the fact that this movie is original, funny, subversive, and very well-acted. It’s an eccentric gem that stands out in the midst of all the franchise mayhem we get this time of year, and I think you’d all like it if you gave it a chance.

A Quiet Place (2018)

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

The world has been overrun by monsters. The creatures are blind, but have incredibly sensitive hearing. If you make any sound at all, they will find you, and kill you. Now, a little over a year into the invasion, a family survives by living a completely sound-free lifestyle. They communicate through sign language, use their hands when eating, and cover the footpaths around their house with sand. A year back, their youngest son was killed when he played with an electronic rocket toy. Now, they mourn his loss, and do their best to survive. And… that’s about it.

A Quiet Place is a movie I was very excited to see. First of all, it’s got a great concept; monsters that track you through sound, so you can’t ever make any noise. So much tension can be wrung out of that premise alone. On top of this, I was glad to see another comedian, John Krasinski, getting the chance to direct a horror movie. Jordan Peele did that last year with Get Out, and it totally worked. It was also cool to see Krasinski and his actual wife, Emily Blunt, playing a couple in a movie together. And, having watched the picture, I can tell you, they are easily the best part of the film. They’re the most experienced performers, and their chemistry is effortless. The child actors who play their kids are also very good, and definitely deserve credit for their work. And, technically, this film is competently crafted, with the editing, sound design and cinematography all working fine. So why, then, did I walk out of the theater not loving this film?

It all comes down to the fact that this movie is not a movie. It’s an idea. In my review for Downsizing, I talked about how some films get made just because their central concept is super original, even if the filmmakers don’t have a complete story mapped out when they start shooting. A Quiet Place has an interesting idea, a world where everyone needs to be silent because if they make noise, they’ll die, but not much else. You don’t really know anything about the main family, I don’t even think we learned their names, and they don’t really want anything concrete. They’re just kind of surviving. Yes, in real life, people don’t constantly pursue solid, tangible things, like lost arks, or the meaning of the word rosebud, and just kind of mosey along, but this is a movie. Characters need solid, tangible things to achieve, otherwise we’re just kind of watching them shuffle along, aimlessly, for two hours. And that’s a large part of this movie; watching this family just live their lives, but without sound. Now, granted, every now and then, someone will drop something, or something will break, and then the creatures will show up, and it’ll be super intense. Those sequences are awesome. It’s just, the rest of the time, not much is happening, and, honestly, the main family is kind of boring. As I said, we know next to nothing about them.  They don’t really have personalities. And while you could make the argument that thats’ the point, they’re meant to be a broad stand-in for every family in peril, you can have characters in monster movies with distinct quirks. Case and point; Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host. All the various members of the Park family are extremely unique, and distinct from one another. The Aunt, Doona Bae, is a super-competitive olympic archer, the Father, Song Kang-Ho, is a lazy, neglectful pothead, the Uncle, Park Hae-Il, is an alcoholic, disillusioned former student radical, etc. They have personalities. You can tell them apart. I couldn’t tell you anything about the family in A Quiet Place, other than that the daughter is deaf.  That’s not good.

Still, the film’s interesting central premise, strong performances, and intense scenes of suspense do elevate it, slightly, above other “idea” movies. Did I love it? No. Will I ever go to see it again? Probably not. But if you want to go to the theaters, and watch some intense, well-staged suspense scenes, maybe give it a look. As for me, I’ll never think about it again.

Isle Of Dogs (2018)

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

The Japanese archipelago, 20 years in the future. Canine saturation has reached an all-time high, and an outbreak of dog flu has created mass hysteria within the city of Megasaki. To quell the panic, Mayor Kobayashi signs an executive order deporting all dogs, including his family’s pet, Spots, to nearby trash island; the newly christened “isle of dogs.” Unbeknownst to the public, however, the cat-loving Kobayashi actually created the virus to stir up anti-dog hysteria, and is actively repressing the fact that it can easily be cured. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the mayor’s nephew and ward, Atari, has stolen a plane, and flown over to the island to find his beloved Spots. WIll Atari find his dog? Will the truth about the Mayor get out to the public? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Isle Of Dogs is written and directed by Wes Anderson. That fact alone makes this movie very hard to review, because, regardless of how flawed it might be, Anderson has an extremely loyal fan base, who will watch, and love, his films no matter what. For my part, I have mixed feelings on him. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, and hated others, liked The Darjeeling Limited. And while I admire filmmakers who have very distinct visual, auditory and tonal styles, Anderson’s pension for bland, deadpan acting, overly hip soundtracks, and tendency to include, and barely use, recognizable stars, gets on my nerves. The fact that almost all his films have the same story, or deal with similar themes, also makes them very repetitive, and somewhat tedious, to get through. So, the question you have to ask yourself before you buy a ticket is, do I want to see another Wes Anderson movie? If not, avoid this film like the plague, because it is exactly like all his other movies. Every single Anderson-ism you could think of, symmetrical shots, pastel colored sets, deadpan acting, hipster music, sudden, and violent, scuffles, is on display here. Ed Norton, BIll Murray, Harvey Keitel, and Jeff Goldblum are all in this movie, as you’d expect. The flick even recycles plot elements from Anderson’s other films, particularly Moonrise Kingdom, which is also about an orphan running away from home and going on an adventure. Don’t let the fact that it’s animated, set in Japan, and about talking dogs fool you. You’ve seen this movie before. Many times.

Now before any Wes Anderson fans get up in arms about my review, there are aspects of this movie that I liked. The animation is beautiful, the story, while derivative of Anderson’s other work, is original, and there is a sweet relationship at the heart of this film. Over the course of the movie, Atari becomes close friends with Chief, a stray who initially doesn’t like him, and watching them grow to love each other is genuinely enjoyable. There are also some very cool nods to the works of Akira Kurosawa in this film. The soundtrack to Seven Samurai is played at several points in this movie, and there are some shots, including one of our heroes burying somebody, that are lifted directly from that film.

Unfortunately, that brings me to one of my biggest criticisms of the movie; the fact that its portrayal of Japan is beyond stereotypical. You can tell, just by looking at how the Japanese characters are designed, talk and move, that this was made by an outsider. There are several, extremely long scenes, which have nothing to do with the plot, where we watch stuff like sumo wrestling, kabuki theater, sushi preparation and taiko drumming, where you can tell that the director has never actually been to Japan, and is just pulling random things that he associates with the country out of his hat. And I’m not the only one who thinks this. Justin Chang of the LA Times, Steve Rose of The Guardian, Allison Willmore of BuzzFeed, and Angie Han of Mashable have all made note of how Anderson’s Japan consists almost exclusively of tourist cliches. And that even extends to the Japanese characters themselves. None of them speak English. Most of the time, when they talk, there are no subtitles. And a good portion of this film’s humor consists of the filmmaker going “Ha ha. These Asian characters can’t speak English. Look how funny they are when they try to communicate.” There’s also an American exchange student character, played by Greta Gerwig, who is the quintessential White savior. She comes to Japan, suspects Mayor Kobayashi of wrong-doing, and literally slaps her Asian colleagues into action. It’s kind of incredible that nobody seems to care about this. Now I do want to be fair and say that the stereotyping in this film doesn’t seem malicious. Anderson doesn’t appear to be saying, “the Japanese are lesser than us.” He just seems to have a very limited perception of them, and his portrayal of them is, likewise, very narrow. I didn’t find it offensive. More obnoxious. Like, “really? We’re actually doing this cliche? Ah well.”

But, as I said at the start of this review, the fact that this movie is made by Wes Anderson means that it will have an audience, no matter what. If, however, you aren’t a die-hard fanboy, and some of what I have said turned you off going to see this movie, good. Save your money, and watch something else.

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.