Maniac (2018 Miniseries)

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

In an oddball future, a future where you can avoid paying for things by listening to a certain number of ads, and where tiny robots patrol the streets, looking for poop to scoop, two broken people enter an experimental drug trial. One, Owen, is the neglected, schizophrenic son of a wealthy Manhattan family, who’s being forced to lie under oath to prevent his brother from going to jail. Another, Annie, is a selfish, mean-spirited drug addict, who still feels guilt over having contributed to her sister’s death. Owen is there for the money. Annie is there for the drugs. But regardless of why they came, the head of the program, Dr. James Mantleray and his partner, Dr. Azumi Fujita, are confident that their drugs will solve ALL, yes, all, of their patients’ personal problems. But what happens when the computer administering the trial develops emotions, and begins messing with the process? James and Azumi will be forced to bring in the former’s awful mother, whom the computer is modeled off of, while the patients will have to contend with a series of strange visions and increasingly surreal simulations.

Maniac is a TV show I never would have heard of were it not for my friend, the supremely talented actress and dancer Momoko Judy Abe. Earlier this year, she told me she had a supporting role on a Netflix show that Cary Fukunaga was directing, and that Emma Stone and Jonah Hill were starring in, but didn’t say anything else. (Not allowed to). Then, a few months later, I saw an ad for Maniac, which mentioned that it was from Cary Fukunaga, and showed Stone and Hill as the leads, and I realized that this was what Momoko was referring to. So as soon as it hit the streaming platform, I cued it up. I figured, even if it’s bad, I can at least say I know someone who was involved with it. And, I’ll be honest; it was a lot of fun seeing Momoko onscreen. She doesn’t have many lines, but she’s featured in all but one episode, standing behind Sonoya Mizuno, aka Dr. Fujita, as one of her assistants. Hopefully, this role will allow her to be in bigger projects, where she can show off her immense range, and fantastic dance skills. But I realize that I haven’t actually said anything about the show. That’s because my feelings on it are pretty mixed.

As a work of art, it’s definitely not without merit. The cinematography, the music, and especially the production design, are superb, working together to create a strange, but oddly believable vision of the future. There are so many weird little details in it, I already mentioned the ads, and poop scoop drones, that make this show’s reality feel off kilter and unique. There are services that offer “friends for hire,” you can play chess with mechanical koala bears, and everything in the labs looks like it was pulled straight out of an 80s anime. The drug trial setup also serves as a framing device to a series of vignettes, each of which acts as a parody or send-up of a particular genre. In one episode, for instance, while under the influence of anesthesia, Stone and Hill hallucinate that their in an 80s sitcom, trying to steal a monkey from some gangsters. In another, they dream that they’re in a fantasy movie, complete with elves, wizards and dragons. And as distracting and disjointed as some of these vignettes are, they’re all staged with such love and craft that they’re definitely enjoyable in their own right. All this, coupled with some fun, quirky performances from Justin Theroux as the sex-addicted Dr. Mantleray, and Sonoya Mizuno as the chain-smoking, hard-talking, Velma Dinkley-looking Dr. Fujita, do make Maniac an interesting, if not always enjoyable watch. I say “not always enjoyable” because, like some of its characters, the show doesn’t seem confident enough in its own story to stay focused on one thing for very long.

As I mentioned earlier, the whole drug trial setup is just a framing device for the filmmakers to make a bunch of parodies of other movies and TV shows. Several episodes take place within the patients’ fantasies, and have their own, entirely insular stories, so that, when the show does cut back to the real world of the drug trial, it’s jarring. And sometimes, within those various vignettes, the rules get broken. In the fantasy episode, for instance, Emma Stone’s character, who, for the first half, was doing a British accent, and behaving like an Elf, suddenly starts talking like an American and commenting on how “none of this is real.” I understand that, in the context of the episode, it’s meant to represent her character realizing that something is wrong with the trial, but it honestly comes off more like a cheap meta-textual joke that the writer’s threw in to prove how clever they were. Which raises the question, if you’re not confident in your recreation enough to stick with it, why do it at all? It honestly feels like, these days, writers are scared to commit to a single tone or idea, for fear that they’ll be labeled as “cheesy.” So, instead, they constantly disrupt their own stories to let us audience members know, “hey, it’s cool, we get that this is silly. No need to make fun of us. Look, we’re doing it already.” And speaking of disrupting the narrative, there are several instances where the filmmakers will throw in things that are meant to be jokes, but which just come off as awkward and painful. In one scene, for instance, Justin Theroux is using a VR device to have sex with a weird, CGI fish-lady, and it feels so out of place and made me so uncomfortable that I almost stopped watching. That’s this show in a nutshell; put off the main story for as long as possible with weird genre parodies and awkward humor. And, sadly, I can kind of understand why the filmmakers did that. Neither Stone nor Hill’s primary characters, Annie and Owen, are that appealing. Stone is just a mean, selfish junkie, and Hill is just a sad, pathetic mess, and the latter’s performance as Owen consists almost entirely of vacant stares and monotone whispers. Yes, I’m aware that he has schizophrenia, but the filmmakers never attempt to give him a personality beyond that. It’s as if they’re hoping that, by saying he’s disabled, we’ll instantly sympathize with him, but they never once tell us his interests, or hobbies, or anything that makes him worth following as a character. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Hollywood often uses disabled characters as cheap, pity props, and very rarely bothers to show them as anything other than their condition. Maniac does as well, and you can tell that they don’t know how to give Owen any real humanity by how quickly they replace him with his simulation counterparts, who aren’t disabled, and who instantly have more discernible personalities than he does. So when you take all this into account, the unlikable lead characters, the disjointed tone, and the fact that the writers spend far more time on parodies and side quests than the main story, you’re left with a visually interesting, occasionally engaging mess of a miniseries. Does it have strong elements? Sure. And I’m hoping my friend Momoko gets a career boost off of this. But, on its own terms, I can’t really recommend the show.

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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.

Rango (2011)

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

When his terrarium is dropped in the mojave desert, pet chameleon and wannabe actor Rango is left stranded. Upon the advice of a wise Armadillo named Roadkill, Rango makes his way to the Old-West town of Dirt, where, through his quick wit and “superior acting method,” he is able to convince them that he is a tough, gunslinging drifter. This impresses the town’s Mayor so much that he appoints Rango the new sheriff. This delights the latter, and, for a time, he lives in the lap of luxury, feeding off the adulation of the townsfolk. But then, as it always does, reality sinks in. Dirt’s water supply is running low, and, one night, Rango unintentionally helps some thieves steal the reserves. So now, if the town is to survive, he must stop talking the talk, and start walking the walk. Can he, though? Is he up to the task? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Rango is a frenetic, imaginative, and immensely entertaining movie. Not only is the animation amazing–with the tiniest details, like the dust particles floating in a ray of light, looking thoroughly realistic–but the story is creative and original as well. Yes, it borrows heavily from other, older Westerns, particularly the films of Sergio Leone, but it ends up doing something that is wholly its own. And unlike a lot of other animated kids movies, it’s not afraid to make smart, literary references, like to the works of Hunter S Thompson, and, perhaps more impressively, to get weird. And I don’t mean weird in the mild, animals are talking, sense. I mean, peyote-induced, cactus turning into rattlesnake tails, acid-trip weird. If you go into this thinking it’s another Pixar or Disney-style film, you’ll be in for a shock. Because this picture has got some odd, oftentimes unexplained stuff in it. In one scene, for instance, the characters are walking through a cave, and the wall their standing next to opens, revealing itself to be a giant eye. They never explain where it came from, what kind of animal its supposed to be a part of, and it never gets brought up again. And there’s a lot of stuff in this movie like that.

WHich, in a way, is the film’s biggest flaw. I say “in a way” because it doesn’t really bother me. This movie’s quick pace, distinct look, and odd, oftentimes macabre humor are just trademarks of the director, Gore Verbinski’s, style. In case you’ve never heard of him, he directed the first, and best, Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, and the American remake of The Ring. He likes telling odd, off-kilter stories, usually with heavy doses of gruesome black humor. And when I say gruesome, I mean gruesome. Many of the jokes in Rango involve dismemberment, or bodily mutilation. An armadillo sliced in half by a car. A gila monster’s face, burned to a crisp. No, it’s not gory. This is still a kid’s movie. But the humor is a bit more edgy, and certainly more physical, than in your average pixar film. And, like I said before, a lot of the references in this film are ones that young children won’t get. So if you’re thinking of watching an innocent, talking-critter flick with your five year old, maybe pick something else. ‘Cuz you’ll probably end up liking this movie more than him or her.

But even that, at the end of the day, is a compliment, and a deserved one. Because Rango is a smart, creative, immensely-watchable movie. I love it, and would highly recommend you all see it. Rent it when you’ve got the chance.

Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3)

Greetings loved ones. Liu is the name, and views are my game.

What if you could build a man, based on his social media posts? What if you could watch memories, like movies, on a screen? What if a signal was sent out that turned half the world into passive spectators, and the other half into murderous hunters ? These questions, and more, are what get asked and explored in Black Mirror, a British anthology series that’s streaming on Netflix. Each episode features a different cast, a different story, and a different reality. But all feature the recurrent motif of technology, and a dry, nihilistic sense of humor. The series might best be described as half science fiction, half satire.

In many respects, Black Mirror is the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, the classic sci-fi anthology series that ran for five seasons back in the 50s. Both feature episodes with different casts and story-lines. Both ask moral and philosophical questions, usually through a scientific or magical plot device. Both feature macabre twist endings, and both gave actors who would eventually become super famous their first big break. Seriously. Black Mirror has got way more famous British actors in it than I would have thought. You’ve got Domhnall Gleason, from The Force Awakens, The Revenant and Ex Machina. You’ve got Hayley Atwell, or as you may know her, agent Peggy carter from the MCU. You’ve got Tuppence Middleton from Sense8. You’ve got Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out. You’ve got Toby Kebbell, who’s starred in every major big budget flop that’s come out in the last four years. You’ve got Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Belle, Beauty and the Beast, and Beyond the Lights. And, of course, you’ve got Benedict Wong, from Marco Polo, Doctor Strange, and The Martian. So much talent. And it was all before they were famous. But I’m getting sidetracked.

Black Mirror is a very smart, very well-written series. Even in its weaker episodes, the show is consistently entertaining. The acting is always top notch, as is the production design. And I really want to emphasize this, its original. Every single episode features a unique; thought provoking concept. And none of them are remakes of older stories, adaptations of preexisting material, or spin offs of other stuff. Do you realize how rare that is? Do you realize how virtually nothing that gets made these days is not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin off? For that reason, I have to recommend you all watch this. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, you’ll appreciate the show for it’s emotional depth and it’s originality. Especially the latter.

But before you get the wrong idea, the series isn’t perfect. Where the show falters the most is its cynicism. Virtually all the episodes end in an extremely bleak manner, and, very often, those endings fly in the face of the world and the characters that have been established. I understand tragedy is seen as the highest, most respectable form of dramatic art, but forced tragedy is awkward and unrealistic. And it doesn’t hit you as hard when you know that the story shouldn’t have ended that way, not because you didn’t want it to, but because the ending was easily avoidable. And example of this “false tragedy” I’m talking about is the episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” In it, we see Daniel Kaluuya raging against the numb, media obsessed dystopia that he’s living in. He spends the entire episode telling us how much he hates it and how much he hates the people who have turned the world into thoughtless zombies. And yet, by the end of the episode, he joins the big media company and becomes part of the system he despises. And it comes out of nowhere. It’s not like the show builds up to this by throwing us little hints that maybe he actually likes the system. He hates it, and then, out of nowhere, when he’s given the chance to join it, he does. Why? It doesn’t make sense. And because of that, I don’t feel devastated. I just feel confused. And even in episodes that don’t include sci-fi elements, like the first episode of the series, “the national anthem,” the show’s harsh, mean-spirited tone is off-putting. In that episode, a royal princess gets kidnapped, and the only way to save her is if the prime minister fucks a pig. And we have to watch him do it. Why? What possible good can come from forcing us to watch an old man get pressured into committing bestiality. What does that say, other than that you hate politicians? I hate Donald trump, but I would never want to have to watch him fuck a gorilla. That’s just cruel and mean. And it doesn’t teach us anything. The only episode that has a happy ending is San Junipero, a sweet little love story about two women finally being able to be with each other in an artificial construct. And there, it comes as an all too welcome relief.

All I can say is that Black Mirror is a brilliantly-written, highly original, but deeply mean spirited and nihilistic show. I want to recommend it, but I feel I can’t do so without warning you of its content. Make of this what you will.

Hot Fuzz

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

Explosions, quips, and buckets upon buckets of blood, these are just a few of the things found in Hot Fuzz, a satirical cop film directed by Edgar Wright. The story of Nick Angel, a London Police Officer way too good at his job, the film chronicles his reassignment to a remote village in the British countryside, his interactions with the local community, and his attempts to solve the mystery surrounding a number of suspicious deaths. This is a movie that I’ve heard about for years. Everyone I’ve ever talked to ever has stated that this is one of the greatest cop spoofs ever made. And now, having seen it, I can kind of understand why. Kind of.

See, the movie is funny, and it does do a great job of sending up old buddy cop films from the 80s and 90s, but there are points where it gets excessive. And I don’t mean it gets excessive in that it takes its jokes too far, or becomes mean-spirited. What I mean is that, the filmmaking itself–the editing, the cinematography–is just plain over-the-top, and gets kind of annoying after a while. There are numerous points in this film where the director will try to make something mundane, like Nick doing paperwork, look awesome. He’ll include lots of cuts, a booming baseline, and crazy, over-the-top lighting to make it seem more dramatic. The thing is, all the constant cutting, coupled with the flashing lights and loud music, actually makes these scenes kind of hard to watch. There were moments where I actually had to close my eyes because of how much it hurt to look at the screen. On top of this, the movie is only a minute over the two hour mark, but you really feel that minute. The final fight scene in this movie is almost 30 minutes long, and it just gets exhausting to watch after a while. There are so many points where you think it’s ended, but, oh no, the filmmakers had to throw in one more joke, one more homage. By the time it’s all over, you’re breathing a sigh of relief. Which is sad, because the first half of this movie was really awesome. The jokes were constant, and really funny. There were lots of cameos by British actors I love, like Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman and Underworld’s Bill Nighy. And, as you might expect from the likes of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the dialogue and writing were both very strong. I just think the film went too far in the third act, and that kind of diminished my enjoyment of the picture as a whole.
So, in the end, I do think Hot Fuzz is a funny, clever send-up of old buddy cop action movies. However, it does go a little overboard towards the end, and that could act as a deterrent for some. Still, I have to applaud the number of times it made me laugh, as well as the homages and cameos. So, in the end, I’d say Hot Fuzz is a solid 7 out of 10. Not the best, but still quite good.