The Shape Of Water (2017)

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

It’s 1962, and Elisa Esposito is a janitor at a high-tech lab. A mute, Elisa spends her days watching old movies, taking care of her roommate, Giles, and listening to her colleague, Zelda’s, marital woes. Her world is thrown into turmoil when a special asset, a humanoid Fish Creature, is brought to the facility. She becomes obsessed with it, visiting it when no one is around, playing it music, and, eventually, breaking it out, and bringing it to her apartment. This incurs the wrath of Strickland, the lab’s racist, sadistic director, as well as the Soviets, who want the creature for themselves. Will Elisa be able to outsmart them? Will she find a way to free her fish-faced love? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

The Shape Of Water is a well-acted, beautiful looking, richly-textured fairy tale. And I’m not sure how to feel about it. It’s not that I think it’s bad, per se. As a matter of fact, while I was watching it, I realized that it is, in many ways, the exact type of movie I love to write. A period piece, with a sci-fi or supernatural element, that also serves as a commentary on prejudice and disability? I’ve written about five scripts like that. And, again, on a technical level, this movie is perfect. It’s also not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin-off, which is always a plus in my book.

That said, there are certain things you should probably know going in. They’re not complaints, per se; just some things to temper your expectations. For starters, the film is very slow. The first 20 minutes, which have almost no dialogue, just show us Elisa’s daily routine. Nothing important happens in them. And while they do give us a well-rounded portrait of her character, they do leave you wondering when the actual plot is going to kick in. On top of that, you don’t actually see Elisa and the Fish Man much. A lot more screen time is devoted to side characters, like her roommate, Giles, her colleague, Zelda, and even Strickland, the main villain. Yes, neither she nor the Creature can talk. But it’s never a good sign when your film’s leads are the least interesting part of the movie. And, finally, the romance in this story is not at all sugar-coated. What I mean by that is, in most romance films, particularly ones that involve a human and a supernatural creature, like King Kong or Beauty and the Beast, the filmmakers tend to keep sex out of it. Not here. There are several scenes where we watch Elisa and the Fish Monster banging. And, I’ll be honest, it made me uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the sheer beauty, and originality, of The Shape Of Water make it worth watching. Is it slow? Yes. Are the two leads a little underdeveloped? Sure. But neither of those are enough to dampen the charm of this sweet, magical, and original fairy tale. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

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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.

Blade Of The Immortal (2017)

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

When her parents are slaughtered by a ruthless group of swordsmen, teenaged Rin seeks out a ronin named Manji, who, rumor has it, cannot be killed. This gossip turns out to be true, as we see Manji being able to recover from what should be fatal injuries, including several instances where he re-attaches severed limbs to his body. Manji is reluctant to help her at first, knowing, all too well, what the price of vengeance is, but eventually agrees, seeing in Rin a shot at redemption. So the two set out in search of the wicked swordsmen, and what follows is 151 minutes of spraying blood and flashing steel.

Anyone who’s read my blog knows that I’m a huge fan of Takashi Miike, a highly prolific and controversial Japanese filmmaker. For while he’s sickened many people, including myself, with perverse and bizarre films like Ichi The Killer, I’ve always been a fan of his ability to switch between genres, and his uncanny knack for churning out relatively high quality flicks in a very short amount of time. Between 2001 and 2002 alone, he directed no less than 15 features. And this movie, Blade Of The Immortal, is his 100th motion picture. I was honestly astonished when I saw this in the movie’s tagline, and I knew, right away, that I just had to see it. And lucky for me, a theater close by where I live just happened to be playing it. So, hey. I had no choice.

But how, you ask, is the flick itself? Well, as far as simple filmmaking is concerned–acting, cinematography, costumes, music–I have no complaints. This is a gorgeous looking, and sounding, movie. And everyone in the film, even people who are only in one or two scenes, give good performances. Something Miike is known for is cramming his films with tons of A-list actors and pop stars, none of whom usually get enough screen time, and this flick is no exception. Another thing I liked about this movie were the battle sequences. Every character has a very distinct look and fighting style, and when you see them tearing into each other, it’s a ton of fun. If you’re a fan of Miike, samurai cinema, or are just looking for a break from the bland Hollywood fare that comes out around this time of year, give this flick a look. You won’t be disappointed. But if you’re the sort of person who can’t stand a ton of violence, or prefers your films to have well-written scripts, this might not be for you. Blade Of The Immortal is extremely bloody, and highly episodic in structure, with most of the film being Rin and Manji finding one of the swordsman, fighting him, and then moving on. And while the action is cool, every battle is so big and frenetic that, after a certain point,  they all start to feel the same. Still, the movie is well-made, and refreshingly off-kilter when compared to all the other films I’ve seen over the past two months. So, for that reason, I think you all should go see it. Treat yourself to something different.

American Made (2017)

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

It’s 1978, and Barry Seal is a pilot for TWA. He’s good at his job. Great at it, actually. Which is probably why he’s so agonizingly bored. Anyway, when a CIA agent approaches him in a hotel bar, and offers him the chance to fly over South America and take pictures of Communist Insurgents, he, of course, says “yes.” But it doesn’t take long for his knew life to get derailed. While flying over Colombia, he is approached by none other than Pablo Escobar, who offers to pay him a crap ton of money if only he’ll fly cocaine into the US. Seal, again, says “yes,” not seeming to know, or care, about the consequences. These consequences being too much money to possibly spend or hide, Nicaraguan rebels trying to kill you, and every single law enforcement agent in the country coming after your ass. Will he survive? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

American Made has a strong cast, a big budget, and a fascinating, fact-based story. All the ingredients for a great film are here. So why did I spend most of the film in a state of boredom? Well, part of it could be the fact that I saw this movie at a very late showing, and was extremely tired at the time. It’s certainly possible that that had an effect on my opinion. But what I really think caused my boredom, what I truly believe held this movie back, were its light-hearted tone, and bad characterization.

What I mean by this is, American Made is a comedy. Yes, it’s a story about drug dealers and CIA agents. Yes, it has violence and scenes of suspense in it. But, for the most part, all the high-stakes antics are played for laughs. We’re meant to find all the dangerous, ridiculous situations that Seal gets into as just that; ridiculous. In this way, it is similar to another, fact-based film, I Love You, Phillip Morris, which tells the true story of a con-man who managed to escape prison several times. In that film, the writers knew that if they tried to play the absurd things the character did straight, the audience wouldn’t buy it. So they made it a comedy. The filmmakers do that in American Made too, but what they don’t seem to realize is that their story is much, much darker than the one in I Love You, Phillip Morris. This is a story about Nicaraguan death squads, and drug dealers who kidnapped and murdered people’s families. And yet, despite all that, we’ve got brightly-colored cartoon exposition scenes, and a protagonist who cracks jokes, even when someone has knocked his teeth out, and is pointing a machine gun in his face. The fact that he, and by extension, the filmmakers, don’t take any of what’s happening seriously leads us, the audience, to not take it seriously either. Even with stuff that we should. It gets to the point where someone gets killed by a car bomb, and we’re meant to find it comical. The characters in this film are also kind of weak. Oh sure, they have personalities and voices. But we don’t know much about them. We don’t know anything about Seal’s wife, other than that she used to work at KFC. For that matter, we don’t really know anything about Seal, other than that he’s a gifted pilot. He’s also an extremely passive protagonist. Everything he does in this film is because someone else tells him to, unlike the real Barry Seal, who, in several cases, initiated the illegal acts he took part in. The best protagonists are the ones who are active; who drive the plot forward with their choices. American Made’s protagonist does make choices, but, for the most part, the choices get made for him, and you wind up caring about him less overall as a result.

Guys, if it sounds like I hated this film, I didn’t. I liked the story, and the cast, and I think it had a lot of potential. But the super silly tone held me back from taking it seriously, and the thin characterization kept me from caring. If you like Tom Cruise, maybe you should give it a watch. As for me, I have no desire to see it again.

Battle Of The Sexes (2017)

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

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King is the reigning champ of women’s tennis. But she’s not just interested in titles. No, sir. She also wants to change the way the tennis federation treats women. So when she learns that the female winners of a particular tournament will be paid 8 times less than their male counterparts, she decides, “Screw it! I’m making my own all-women’s tennis league.” And that’s exactly what she does. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a washed up former tennis champ, upset at how uppity King has gotten, challenges her to an exclusive, one-on-one match; a “battle of the sexes,” if you will. He even offers her a lot of money if she wins. King is reluctant at first, but, realizing that the league can only survive if it has the funds to do so, she agrees, and begins training for the big, end-all, be-all match. Will she win? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie, or read a history book, to find out.

Battle Of The Sexes is a well-acted, decently directed comedy, with a good message, and that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Which, in a way, is kind of a problem. We’ve seen these kind of social issue movies before. Hell, they crop up every year around Oscar season. Some, like Blood Diamond, Dallas Buyers Club, and 12 Years A Slave, are great, and able to transcend their well-meaning, if predictable, formulas. Others, like Stonewall, Golden Gate, and J Edgar, are bad, precisely because of their refusal to take risks with their storytelling. Battle Of The Sexes isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but, for a movie that’s seeking to tackle the gross sexism that Billie Jean King had to come up against, and that sadly is still present to this day, it all seems kind of safe. Say what you like about GLOW’s dark humor, at least it went places it needed to go to. It wasn’t afraid to offend people when it came to making us understand that women did, and do, face a lot of terrible shit. Yes, sometimes it went over-the-top, but it at least made its point. In Battle Of The Sexes, the misogyny is oddly tame. Yes, it’s still terrible seeing men objectify women, pay them less, and talk down to them. But the language they use isn’t that provocative. And the film even goes out of its way to make the sexist guys, particularly Riggs, kind of likable. We see him playing with his kid, cracking jokes,and generally enjoying life. Yes, it’s better to employ an even-handed approach when it comes to portraying heroes and villains, but, in this case, I believe it would have been better if Riggs had been slightly less lovable. See, very often in fiction, sexism in male characters is shown as an annoying, but forgivable, quirk. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Big Bang Theory, Revenge Of The Nerds, and even Their Finest, a film I really admired. In each of these works, other people scoff and roll their eyes when the male characters say or do sexist things, but they never try to change their minds, or punish them for their behavior. In fact, we’re meant to sympathize with these men. Deep down, they’re not bad guys. They’re just misunderstood. And whatever misogynistic behavior they might display, it’s more than made up for by their positive qualities. This trend in media has seriously normalized misogyny in many people’s minds. And I’m quite convinced that it at least played a part in the election of Donald Trump. Even after the infamous Access Hollywood tape, people voted for him, and they did so because, to them, his sexism is just a harmless part of who he is. If Battle Of The Sexes really wanted to comment on sexism, it should have made Riggs as ugly and disgusting a character as possible. He shouldn’t have had any redeeming qualities, and the reason he shouldn’t have is to show audiences that men who act like this lose, and are pathetic, worthless human beings.

But if, somehow, you don’t care about making a strong enough statement against sexism–though, really, why would you go to see this movie if you didn’t–the film isn’t all that good. It’s not bad, mind you. It’s just not memorably great. THe dialogue is fine. The cinematography is fine, though they do tend to use way too many close ups. And the acting, as I said, is fine. No one really stands out as superb. Everyone is just serviceably good. So when you combine all this together–the serviceable production values, and rather safe tone–what you’re left with is a well-meaning, but honestly kind of forgettable biopic. Should you go see it? Well, that’s up to you. As for me, I have no desire to watch it again.

IT (2017)

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

Something is rotten in the town of Derry, Maine. Every 27 years, people go missing, or die horrible, gruesome deaths. And whenever that happens, a mysterious, demonic clown can be seen lurking in the shadows. Now, in 1988, a young boy, Georgie Denbrough, has vanished, and his brother, Bill, is determined to get him back. So he assembles a group of other “losers”–including hypochondriac Eddie, trash mouth Richie, abused Beverly, Jewish Stan, Fat Ben, and Black Mike–to find, and kill, Pennywise, the dancing clown. And I know that it’s demeaning to describe characters by their size, their religion, or their race, but the film honestly doesn’t give them many other traits beyond these things. Anyway, will our young heroes succeed? Will they vanquish Pennywise? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

By itself, IT is a perfectly-entertaining retro-horror film. And as an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, which I have read, by the way, the movie is also very watchable. The young cast all do a superb job, there’s plenty of funny dialogue, and there’s a ton of creatively creepy imagery. I think it’d be wrong to describe this film as scary–I never once felt horrified, though that could be due to the fact that I can’t see very well–but it is definitely suspenseful, and definitely engaging. So, for those reasons, I would recommend you go see it. It’s fun, undemanding, and, for the most part, inoffensive.

That said, I don’t know if I necessarily like the movie. Most of it has to do with the changes the filmmakers made when adapting the source material. Most are fine, and could even be viewed as improvements on the original, like the screenwriters’ decision to omit a certain, rather bizarre sex scene. And yet, the film feels considerably shallower than the original text. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the novel IT is over 1000 pages long, and the movie is only 2 hours and 15 minutes. In 1000 pages, you can really delve deep into character’s backstories, personalities, and fears. In a 2 hour and 15 minute movie, however, with no less than 7 main characters, some things inevitably get cut, and some characters inevitably get the shaft. And in the case of this movie, the characters who are given the least amount of personality are, unfortunately, the only ones who represent any kind of diversity in this group. Details from the book, like Stan’s love of birds, and Mike’s love of history, are absent in the movie, and, without anything else to identify them by, you are left thinking of them as “the Jew” and “the Black kid.” Which is sad. No one should be reduced to a token minority. I was also somewhat disappointed with the way they portrayed Pennywise. Bill Skarsgard, whom plays the titular clown, does this really annoying, high-pitched voice, which I’m sure is supposed to be frightening, but I found kind of funny. He sounded like a dog owner telling his or her puppy “You’re such a good boy!”  And whereas in the book the kids defeat Pennywise in a psychic game of wits, where they win through their teamwork, and love for one another, in the film, they just kick and stab him a few times, and he falls into a hole. And that’s probably my biggest gripe with the movie; the fact that it is much more action-heavy than the book. See, in the novel, the horror is very psychological. Pennywise torments these kids by showing them what their most afraid of. He never attacks them in broad daylight, and weapons don’t really hurt him, so they have to use other means, like hope, and courage, and the things that make each of them unique. In the movie, by contrast, he attacks them in the daytime, all the time, and he bleeds the same as they do, which is why they kick him so much. As a result, he becomes a little less frightening. Which is sad. Because Pennywise is one of my favorite villainous characters, right up there with The Joker, Captain Hook, and Chigurh. I was disappointed with how silly they made him. But, ah well.

Guys, if it sounds like I hated this movie, I didn’t. I actually quite enjoyed it. I thought the cast did a great job, the dialogue was funny, and the plot was consistently entertaining. If you want to go to the movies and have a good time, this is the film for you. I’m just nitpicking because I read the book. But if you haven’t, or you just don’t care about differences between source material and adaptation, you probably won’t have any problems with it. So, yeah. Go ahead and give this movie a look.

GLOW (Season 1, 2017)

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

It’s 1985, and Ruth Wilder is a struggling actress in Los Angeles. Desperate for money, she answers an ad for “unconventional women,” and finds herself at a gym with several other, equally-confused ladies. Two guys, B-movie director Sam Sylvia and pampered rich boy Sebastian Howard, then come out, and explain that they are looking to put together an all-female wrestling show, GLOW, or the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. Ruth, like everyone else, is shocked to hear this, but decides she’s willing to give it a try. Unfortunately, Sam doesn’t “like your ass. Or your face, and dismisses her straight off the bat. Ruth, however, isn’t taking no for an answer, and after putting on an elaborate show, including an unscripted fight with a friend who’s husband she’s been sleeping with, lands the job. And, from that point on, the story just gets bigger and more ridiculous.

GLOW has a lot of things going for it. It’s got good acting, a premise with a lot of comedic potential, and some nice period decor. I also really like the fact that it features an almost entirely female cast, and that it passes the Bechdel Test. And yet, despite all this, I can’t really say if I like GLOW or not.

A lot of it comes down to personal taste. First off, I’m not a big fan of the 80s. The poofy hair styles, the huge shoulder pads, the annoying synthesizer music; it all gets on my nerves. I also don’t like how casually racist and homophobic movies and TV shows from that era are, and how, nowadays, when we fetishize the Reagan years, we neglect to mention the negative aspects of the time. If you read my review of Stranger Things, a show that I really loved, you saw that I didn’t like how it failed to touch on the darker facets of 80s culture. This show does a slightly better job at highlighting the racism and sexism of the time, but, still. The period in which this show is set kind of annoys me, so maybe I went in somewhat biased. On top of this, I didn’t grow up with wrestling, so the series doesn’t hold any nostalgic charm. Literally the only two things I know about professional wrestling are the scene from the original Spider-Man film, where Toby Maguire has to fight Macho Man Randy Savage,  and the VH1 reality show, Hogan Knows Best, which was on when I was a kid. So, yeah.

But by far the biggest thing I had a problem with was the writing; specifically, the humor. It’s very, very dark. If you are easily offended, then don’t watch this show. Because they go places I wasn’t expecting them to. Every taboo topic you can think of–racism, incest,dead babies–gets touched upon. There’s a whole episode devoted to making miscarriages funny, and the season finale includes a substantial father-daughter incest subplot. It’s really kind of creepy. Now, look, I don’t want to sound like I think gallows humor can never work. I think In Bruges is one of the most underrated films of all time, and it features tons of offensive jokes. But there, the tone was a whole lot darker. Here, the show is pretty light-hearted and upbeat. But then, out of nowhere, it’ll throw in these very macabre bits of humor that, one, aren’t funny, and, two, don’t feel as earned. Another aspect of the writing I didn’t think worked were the characters. Oh sure, the four main people–Ruth, her friend, the director, the trainer–are all pretty fleshed out and interesting. But everyone else kind of just fades into the background. Yes, that’s to be expected in an ensemble piece, but here, it’s very noticeable. Two characters in particular, an Indian-American wrestler played by Sunita Mani, and a Cambodian-American wrestler played by Scott Pilgrim vs The World‘s own Ellen Wong, get the shaft when it comes to background and personality. We know next to nothing about them–Sunita’s grandma likes wrestling, Ellen likes birthday parties–and they are treated the worst when it comes to stereotypes. The wrestling personas they are given are, and I swear I’m not making this up, Beirut the MadBomber, and Fortune Cookie. Yes, Fortune Cookie. And the racist jokes don’t stop there. At every single opportunity, the writers throw in a “Asians can’t speak English” jab, or an “Asians know Kung Fu” barb. And, yes, they have characters comment on how offensive these  stereotypes are, but most of the time, someone else in the scene will say “shut up” or “get over it.” This is actually a very old writing technique, referred to as “ironic lamp shading,” where a character in a work of fiction will point out how stupid, illogical, or offensive something is, but then go right ahead and do it anyway. It’s meant to keep us, the audience, from questioning the tropes we’re seeing, but I’m not taking the bait here. Just because you know something is offensive doesn’t excuse you from doing it. If anything, that makes it worse. It shows us that you lack moral fiber, since you know something is wrong, but chose to go ahead and do it anyway. If you want to comment on racism or sexism, have there be negative repercussions for all the bigotry. Or, and here’s a novel idea, don’t write racist jokes, or characters who are racial cliches. Just a thought.

Guys, I really don’t know what to say. There’s enough good in GLOW to keep you invested, I finished all 10 episodes, but the dark humor, offensive characterization, and inconsistent tone are also quite off-putting. I don’t know if I can recommend this to you all. But if anything in the review spoke to you, maybe go and give it a look. You might find something in it that I didn’t.