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.

Seven (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Age Of Shadows (2016)

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

When the Japanese learn that a resistance group is smuggling explosives into Seoul, they send Officer Lee Jung-Chool to stop them. An ethnic Korean with a history of selling out his countrymen, Lee is initially eager to bring the rebels down. But when one of the insurgents he has a hand in killing turns out to be his old classmate, he starts to have second thoughts about the whole affair.

The Age Of Shadows is a brilliantly-shot, beautifully-acted, solidly entertaining spy film. It’s got period-accurate sets, gorgeous costumes, and a nice-sounding score. And unlike Lust, Caution, which is set during the same era, and deals with similar themes of espionage, Age Of Shadows doesn’t put you to sleep. It’s got some great chases, and some spectacular scenes of suspense. Two sequences in particular, one in the beginning where a group of police officers are chasing a man across some rooftops, and one on a train where the Japanese are trying to find rebels, really stick out. They help elevate this film beyond a predictable, patriotic thriller, to something more exciting, and more universally appealing.

That said, I have no desire to watch this movie again. The biggest reason is the runtime. This movie is about 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and there are points where the pacing really does drag. Granted, those moments are quickly replaced with exciting sequences, like the ones I just mentioned, but, still, those slow bits definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. On top of that, as good as the acting in this movie is, there is little to no characterization. You get to know Officer Lee and the chief rebel a bit, since they’re given the most screen time, and have the most to say. But everything we know about everyone else is told to us in voice over, and we’re never really shown who these people are. We’re never given a scene where they all sit down, talk, and act like regular people. And that was a little disappointing.

Still, at the end of the day, I don’t regret having watched this movie, and would even recommend it to you all. If you’re a fan of spy films, Korean movies, or the director, Kim Jee-Woon, give this flick a look. You’ll probably wind up enjoying yourself.

Mother (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Day (2014)

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

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

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

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

Lust, Caution (2007)

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

In 1938, a radical Chinese theater troupe decide to put on their most daring performance; the seduction, and assassination, of a high-ranking Japanese collaborator. The first thing they do is find their leading lady, a naive college student named Wang Chia-Chi. Next, they find their stage, a mansion in Hong Kong where Wang is to catch her prey. And, finally, they introduce her to her main opponent in this great drama, Mr. Yee, the collaborator they intend to kill. The stage is set. The pieces are in place. All that’s necessary is for someone to make the first move. But, just as in an old Greek Tragedy, nothing about their scheme goes according to plan.

Lust, Caution is a movie I’d been wanting to see for years. Not only was it directed by Ang Lee, the man responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–my favorite film of all time–but the picture’s story also checked all my interest boxes. World War 2 in Asia? Check. Espionage? Check. Stories about artists and creative types saving the world? Check. On paper, it seems like the perfect movie for me. Having finally seen it now, well, I’m a little less starry-eyed. Is this a terrible movie? Not at all. Is it bad? Not in the slightest. But will I ever want to see it again? Absolutely not. Lust, Caution is a film with what I have decided to refer to as, “La La Land Syndrome,” in that it’s a well-shot, well acted movie with high production values that I didn’t enjoy because I didn’t feel invested in the story.

When you watch the film, you can tell that it was made by people with talent. The music, the cinematography, and the costumes and sets are all superb. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about those last two, because they are absolutely beautiful. Every outfit that Tang Wei, the lead actress, wears in this movie is exquisite, and the props, vehicles and buildings that were used all bring 1930s China to life. And the acting, as you might expect from an Ang Lee movie, is top notch, with the one possible exception being Wang Leehom, whom plays the leader of the main theater troupe, and whose American accent while speaking Mandarin was noticeable even to me. But, really, that’s a minor detail. Technically, this film is perfect.

It’s just that, when it comes to story, the movie isn’t nearly at the same level. The film is about three hours long, and I swear I’m not making this up, it’s not until we’re an hour and a half in that anything interesting happens. For the first 90 minutes, we’re forced to endure an endless series of Mahjong games, drawing room conversations, and walks through the park. And virtually none of what gets said in these conversations comes into play later on, so they just come off as pointless padding. I understand the slow pacing and extra dialogue were added to flesh out the characters–the film is based on a forty page short story where not much background is given–but they’re just a slog to get through. There were several points in this movie where I seriously considered stopping. I didn’t feel invested in the characters, and the story was taking too long. Now, before any of you accuse me of being a brain dead millennial with the attention span of a squirrel, just know that some of my favorite films of all time–Gandhi, Lawrence Of Arabia, Dances With Wolves–are well over the three hour mark. It’s not the length of the movie that bothers me. It’s the slow pacing, and the fact that nothing of substance happens until we’re more than half way through it that get me. This script was in serious need of a trim.

Something else that I wanted to touch on in this review are the sex scenes. When Lust, Caution was released back in 2007, it was banned in several countries, and given an NC-17 rating in the US because of its “graphic content.” Now, hearing that, you probably think that this film is overflowing with sex–that there’s hardly a frame where breasts or genitals aren’t on display. Not so. I counted, and it’s not until the two hour mark, on the dot, that we get any kind of sex or nudity. And, the truth is, you don’t actually see anything when Wang and Mr. Yee are doing the deed. All that’s visible are breasts, and you can see those in any R-rated movie. Can someone please explain to me why this film, and not any of the other raunchy comedies out there, deserved to get an NC-17 rating? Now, it’s possible that the version of Lust, Caution I saw was edited, and that the original cut featured far more graphic stuff, but that still doesn’t change the fact that for a movie that advertises itself as an erotic thriller, nothing remotely erotic happens until two thirds of the way through. And the sex itself isn’t even that interesting. It’s all done in one, long, static wide shot, the lighting is low, and the whole thing kind of comes off as cold and unfeeling. If you’re looking for titilation, you won’t find it here.

As I said before, this movie is beautifully crafted, well-acted, and the premise is very interesting. For those reasons, I feel like I should recommend it to you. At the same time, however, I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the movie is very long, very slow, and that the sex scenes which its famous for don’t come until about two hours in, and that they aren’t even that interesting. Make of that what you will.

Split (2016)

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

What if someone kidnapped you? That’d be scary, right? Well, what if the person who kidnapped you also had Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID, meaning every time you spoke to them, you were talking to someone different? That’d be downright terrifying, wouldn’t it? M Night Shyamalan certainly thought so, and thus made the subject of today’s review, Split.

A contained thriller revolving around three young women, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula, who get kidnapped by a man with DID, James McAvoy, Split is a movie I’ve heard nothing but good things about. People have told me it’s Shyamalan’s best work in years; that it is one of James McAvoy’s greatest performances ever. And, having seen it for myself, I can tell you that those claims aren’t wholly without substance.

The film is definitely effective in everything it wants to do. When it wants to be scary, its scary. When it wants to be funny, its funny. And much of the movie’s success is due to some very well-constructed scenes, and an absolutely astounding performance by James McAvoy. He has to play so many different characters in this movie, and he really pulls it off. Even though his face looks exactly the same every time he switches personalities, everything else about him, his posture, his mannerisms, his speech patterns, change. You really feel like you’re watching a different person, and that’s impressive. I think it’s a shame he didn’t get nominated this year, but, ah well. Can’t have everything.

But as effective and well-acted as the picture might be, I did still have problems with it. For starters, the dialogue is terrible. Shyamalan, who penned the screenplay, has been lampooned in the past for writing wooden, on-the-nose exchanges, which just don’t sound interesting or natural. Nowhere is this sentiment more true, and obvious, than in Split. Yes, the acting is good, but there were points in this film where I literally winced at how awkward sounding some of the sentences were. On top of this, the movie doesn’t really go out of its way to get you to care about the girls. Yes, you feel sorry that they’re in this bad situation. But you don’t really get to know their personalities or interests. As such, you don’t really feel attached to them. This is especially apparent with Jessica Sula’s character, who’s given the least amount to say. I knew nothing about who she was, or what she liked. I didn’t even know her name. I literally just thought of her as “the third girl,” and needed to look up who she was after the fact. That’s not good. As a filmmaker, you need to get the audience to care about your characters, and this film didn’t do that.

Still, I did enjoy Split overall, and would recommend it to you. If you’re a fan of Shyamalan, McAvoy, or contained thrillers, you’ll probably be engaged for the entire runtime.