Their Finest (2017)

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

It’s 1940, and Britain is in serious need of a morale boost. Food is scarce, cities are being blitzed, and the British Army has just been driven off the continent at Dunkirk. Life, to put it bluntly, is shit. So, to give their country the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, the government begins churning out propaganda films, and because all the young men are off fighting, they hire women to write the scripts. Enter Catrin Cole, a novice screenwriter whose been given the task of adapting a “true” story to the big screen. She’s new to the business, and as she goes about bringing this story to life, she encounters all the typical roadblocks a screenwriter does; truth not lending itself to a traditional dramatic structure; producers demanding last minute changes to the script; cast members being difficult on set, etc. And yet, as hard as her job is, as difficult as her colleagues can be, Catrin finds herself falling in love with the business, and discovers a freedom in her work that she never experienced beforehand. Will it last? Well, you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

Their Finest is a sweet, utterly charming movie. It’s funny, moving, beautifully-shot, and exceptionally well-acted. It is the total inverse of Dunkirk in every way. Dunkirk is a spectacle. Their Finest is a story. Dunkirk is about the war. Their Finest is about the home front. Dunkirk has no characters. Their Finest has several, very well-realized ones. But beyond simply providing a pleasant, alternate perspective on this period in British history, Their Finest is also just an all-around engaging film. You like these characters. You enjoy watching this picture get made. And because this is a movie about movie-making, the screenwriters are able to throw in some clever commentary on the tropes of the romance genre. Also, unlike many other films set during this era, Their Finest holds nothing back when it comes to portraying the devastating sexism that these women faced everyday. Yes, It’s difficult to watch, but it also makes you appreciate these ladies’ strength even more. And that’s always a good thing in my book.

That said, as charming as Their Finest is, it is still, ultimately, a romantic comedy, and comes with all the tropes and baggage that that entails. True, most of the cliches are addressed in the film within a film, and the screenwriters do come up with a clever way of not giving you the ending you expect. Still, there are several plot points in this movie that feel very familiar, like the main character starting off in an unhappy relationship, her meeting a new man, her significant other cheating on her, which makes it okay for her to be with the new guy, etc. But, like I said before, the film is well-written enough to recognize those cliches as cliches, and it does come up with interesting ways of subverting them. So it doesn’t bother me too much.

Guys, all I can say is this; Their Finest is a charming, well-written, well-acted little romance film, which does feature some cliches, but is also entertaining, and clever enough, to overcome them. I love it, and I think you’d love it too if you watched it. Please give it a look.

Dunkirk (2017)

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

The British Army has been driven back. All the way to the French coast. Now, if Britain is to survive the war, they must evacuate 400,000 men from the beaches at Dunkirk. And they must do so fast, because, every hour, the enemy draws closer. And every minute, another life is lost.

Dunkirk is a spectacle. It is the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster. It’s loud, intense, it puts you on edge; but , when its over, you don’t really feel like you’ve learned or gained anything. You just feel tired. Part of this has to do with the fact that this film has very little dialogue, and no real characters. Now when I say that, I don’t mean that there are no people in this movie. There are. We actually follow three different protagonists; an RAF pilot trying to shoot down enemy aircraft, a civilian mariner trying to rescue soldiers, and a private trying to get off the beaches. But we never learn who these people are. In fact, I’ve thought back, and I don’t think we ever hear their names. There’s never a moment where the soldiers tell each other about their lives back in England, or where we get any sense of what their interests, or political views, are. They don’t have clearly-defined arcs; where, say, they start off arrogant, and end humble, and the movie itself doesn’t even have a climax, since every moment is huge and dramatic. Dunkirk is basically just 2 hours of people you don’t know anything about reacting to explosions. And that’s it.

Now, in case it sounds like I didn’t like this movie, I did. Sort of. It’s entertaining, to be sure. I was never bored while I was watching it, and there were many points where I jumped. And the acting, as you expect from a Christopher Nolan movie, is quite good. Mark Rylance, whom plays the civilian mariner trying to save soldiers, is a particular bright spot, since he’s given the most dialogue, and you know the most about him. And the dogfights that Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot gets into are definitely gripping.

But when you strip all that away–all the dogfights, and explosions, and Mark Rylance–what you’re left with is a very hollow movie. I understand that the lack of characterization and character development was a deliberate choice, since, in the real world, you don’t take a break during a battle to tell people about your significant other back home, but realism doesn’t always work in drama. If movie dialogue was exactly like actual conversation, it would be duller than paint drying, since there’d be a lot of repetition, very little conflict, and every third word would be “uh,” or “um.” Similarly, having the audience of your movie not know anything about the characters they’re supposed to be following creates a disconnect between observer and observed. I didn’t know who any of the soldiers on the beaches were. Not just because I didn’t know their names, or anything about them, but because they were all pretty generic-looking white dudes with Brown hair. As such, I didn’t care what happened to them. Hell, there were a few points when I got confused, because I thought one of the characters I was watching had died earlier. Are we just supposed to sympathize with them because they’re British? Because, let me tell you, I knew exactly as much about the Germans as I did about them, and they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s not good. Some reviews I’ve read have praised this film for not being “sentimental,” and not “manipulating our emotions” with speeches and a touching score. But what’s wrong with that? Saving Private Ryan, one of the greatest war films ever made, has just as intense action as Dunkirk does, but it actually has scenes where we hear the characters talk, and we get to know them. Matt Damon’s speech about the last night he spent with his brothers is one of my favorite monologues in film. And why are we so opposed to sentimentality? What’s wrong with caring about the people we’re watching? It’s human to empathize. It’s natural to care. Why have we gotten to a point in our pop culture where being earnest in our emotions is a bad thing? It’s not. It’s actually quite a good thing. Ah well.

Guys, I can’t say that I liked Dunkirk, but I can’t say that I didn’t like it either. It’s definitely entertaining, and the acting is good. But the lack of dialogue, and discernible characters to latch onto, made it extremely difficult for me to care. Make of this what you will.

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.

Why “Inglorious Bastards” Is Inglorious To The End

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

Upon its release in 2009, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards was met with critical acclaim and box office boom. The film–which tells the story of two plots to assassinate Hitler, one made by a young French Jewish cinema proprietor, the other by a team of Jewish-American soldiers—was nominated for numerous awards, and made an Oscar winner and international star out of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz.

At the time of its release, my parents and I were just getting settled in our new home after spending five years in Germany. I had loved every minute of my time overseas, and I was eager to share my experiences with anyone who would listen. Unfortunately, these dreams never came to fruition. Instead of showing interest, or even curiosity, at the fact that I grew up in another country and spoke another language, other children mocked and harassed me–particularly of the accent that I’d acquired over the years. They called me horrible names like Nazi and Jew-Killer, and claimed that the Holocaust was my fault. Just a few problems with that theory; one, I’m about seventy years too young to have been there; two, I’m not even German: and three, I have a grandfather and a great uncle who both fought for the Allies.  Of course, when I pointed these facts out to my tormentors, it did nothing to stop them. If anything, it just made things worse.

My anguish reached an all time high when Inglorious Bastards hit the theaters. Now, whenever children called me Nazi, they did it with Brad Pitt’s absurdly strong Southern accent, and they threatened to call upon Donny “The Bear Jew” Donnowitz to “take his big bat” and “beat my ass to death with it.” Needless to say, I had no desire to see the movie after that. In fact, I promised myself right then and there that I would never watch it.

Fast forward four years–I’m eighteen, slightly more mature, and have decided to break my own oath. I figure now I’m old enough to get through the film without getting too upset. I tell myself that, even if I don’t like it, at least now I can use details from the picture to support my dislike.

Well, I’ve seen Inglorious Bastards, and what I have to say about the movie is this. It’s certainly not the worst thing to have ever hit the big screen. As an action film, it’s entertaining and reasonably well acted. It’s also shot primarily in French and German–a fact that I, as a die-hard fan of foreign-language films, was pleased to discover. Better yet is the fact that Daniel Brühl, one of my favorite actors from my years in Germany, is featured in it.

Beyond these small positive features, however, the film still flops. The first issue I had with this film is that it is gratuitously violent. Now, I bet some of you are thinking, “Well, it’s a war movie. What do you expect?” But you see, unlike other violent war films, like Glory and Saving Private Ryan, this violence has no greater purpose. Inglorious Bastards is violent simply for the sake of being violent. Within this nearly three hour picture, several people are scalped, some have swastikas carved on their foreheads, one gentleman gets his brains bashed out, and another gets his balls shot off at point blank. Unless you have a strong stomach, I doubt you can take the carnage that unfolds before the camera.

The second thing I didn’t like about this picture was that, for a movie, which claims to be a Jew-empowering revenge fantasy, it is incredibly lacking in Jewish content. Other Holocaust and World War 2 films include at least a minimal exploration of the beautiful religion that was persecuted by the Nazis, but not this one. You’ll find no recitations in Hebrew, references to the Talmud, or descriptions of traditions observed on the High Holidays in this picture. Instead, the film’s Jewish characters–many of who are portrayed by Christian actors–are shown as sadistic psychopaths dealing out horrendous punishments to their German prisoners, many of who don’t even express anti-Semitic views. The one positive aspect of this lack of attention to Jewish culture is the fact that Jewish stereotypes and racial epithets are largely avoided.

The third issue I had with the movie is that the plot is too absurd to take seriously. A truly great film is one that is able to make a fictional world seem real, so, Inglorious Bastards is anything but a great film. It contradicts history in so many ways, and is populated by so many two dimensional characters that, eventually, you’re forced to throw up your hands and say “What the hell?”

Let me give you an example. The movie revolves around a group of Jewish-American soldiers who have been given orders to collect 100 Nazi scalps each. Their leader, Lieutenant Aldo Reine (Brad Pitt) claims that all Germans are “the foot-soldiers of a Jew-hating, masse-murdering maniac who need to be destroyed.” First of all, that statement just isn’t true. Many Germans only joined the Nazi Party because they had no choice, and many more did everything in their power to undermine Hitler’s anti-Semitic regime. If you don’t believe me, look up the heroic actions of such Germans as Oskar Schindler, Wilm Hosenfeld, Claus Von Stauffenberg and Heinz Drossel. Secondly, this film is set in 1943, two whole years before any of the Allied Powers knew about the Death Camps, so how exactly would Reine know that Hitler was “mass-murdering?” Besides, all historical evidence indicates that, even if the Allies had known about the Fuehrer’s “final solution,” they probably wouldn’t have taken any steps to stop it. Many people in Britain, France, Russia and the United States shared the Nazi’s anti-Semitic views. In the years before the war, they largely ignored the stories of destruction and pogrom that reached them. A perfect example of their indifference to the plight of the Jews is the 1939 voyage of the Saint Louis, where President Roosevelt denied a German ship filled with Jewish refugees entrance to the United States. In the real world, the Allies didn’t care enough about the well being of the Jews to organize an elite unit of soldiers to avenge them.

Another example of the film’s lack of attention to reality is the ease with which the protagonists bring down the entire German government. They do this by having all the Nazi high command gather in a movie theater in Paris to watch a propaganda film, and then burn them to a crisp and riddle them with machine-gun fire. First of all, never, and I mean never, would every high-ranking member of the German government, Military, Gestapo, SS, and Ministry of Propaganda decide to meet at one place and one time. Anyone with common sense can see that coming together in a big group and having little to no security is just plain stupid. Say what you like about the Nazis, but they definitely weren’t THAT stupid. Also, why would these Bigwigs go all the way to France just to watch a movie? If ever all these higher-ups were to meet in one place (which they never would) a far more likely place would be Berlin. Another thing–why would the film’s protagonists decide to kill off EVERY member of the German government? In the movie, they make it out as though doing this will bring about an immediate end to the war. I hate to disappoint any audience member who might have believed this but, in the real world, doing that would have had the exact opposite effect. When we toppled Saddam Hussein in the early 2000s, we also dissolved the Ba’ath Party and the pre-existing Iraqi government. This created a power vacuum and generated extreme instability in the region. If, as the film portrays it, the entire Nazi government had been executed in one fell swoop, there would have been no one left to order the remaining German troops to surrender, no one left to negotiate with the Allies, and no one left to discontinue the Concentration camps. This just goes to show you that, despite everything that movies like this try to tell you, violence really isn’t the answer. Anyway, it is instances like this, instances in which there is a blatant lack of attention to reality in the film, that seriously decreased my enjoyment of it.

The fourth and final reason that this film failed in my opinion is the fact that it lacks any likable characters. I can only enjoy a movie where there are people in it that are relatable, and Inglorious Bastards lacks any such people. In Inglorious Bastards, the “good-guys” are redneck American soldiers who scalp people for fun, and the “bad-guys” are Nazis. Who am I supposed to side with? In fact, the only remotely likable character in the entire picture is a German Sergeant named Wilhelm, and he’s only featured in one scene where, you guessed it, he gets killed. I don’t know about you, but I can’t endure an ultra-violent, three-hour war movie without having at least one character to sympathize with.

On average I would give this movie a rating of 5 out of 10. It’s action-packed and well acted, but it’s also emotionally flat and too unrealistic to take seriously. Unless you’ve got a thing for historically inaccurate war flicks that feature 70s style soundtracks, I wouldn’t recommend it. But, hey, that’s just me. If you actually enjoyed the film, and would like to engage me in a debate, by all means, do so. All right! That’s’ all for today. See you!

Nathan Liu