Friday, January 16, 2015

Blackhat

blackhat

** SPOILERS **

The trailer for Blackhat is a snowjob, promising a frightening depiction of how vulnerable we are to hackers in the way we live our lives, devices always in hand, information sharing freely. The generic dialogue in the trailer like "You are not in control!" and "This is only the beginning!" are nowhere to be found in the actual movie. Though centering on the terrorist crimes of a mysterious "Blackhat" who hacked into a Chinese nuclear plant to cause a meltdown and then drove soy futures up so he could embezzle $75-million, Blackhat isn't purely about hacking as much as it is a cold, relentless, ultra-violent cyber thriller in the alluring, pulse-pounding Michael Mann style. This is Michael Mann back in action, guns blazing, hard men at work perpetrating global crime and law enforcement rallying to catch up.

To catch this blackhat hacker, a Chinese-American task force recruits Chris Hemsworth, himself an imprisoned blackhat hacker who wrote the code in college the mystery man used to perpetrate his attacks. The multinational cast includes Leehom Wang as Hemsworth's former college roommate at MIT who's running the op from the Chinese end and Viola Davis as the American agent trying to keep Hemsworth in line. Also on board is Wang's stunning, sullen sister Wei Tang, herself a skilled hacker and wouldn't you know it, she falls for Hemsworth instantly. They all immediately accept this plot inevitability and move on. Mann shoots Hemsworth, Wang, and Tei in profiles as they ride in speedboats, soar in planes, or look grimly off in the distance, each framed against colorful, eye-popping nighttime cityscapes. Hemsworth and his friends also find time to eat; there's food porn in Blackhat. Whether it's Korean BBQ in LA or shumai in Hong Kong, Blackhat occasionally feels a bit like Anthony Bourdain's show, just with a lot more violent killing.

Hemsworth and his team travel from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta chasing their nefarious enemy Blackhat, finding themselves engaging in several explosive, bloody firefights against hired mercenaries. One wonders what qualifies Hemsworth and Wang to don hazmat suits and enter the damaged nuclear plant in China looking for clues, but whatever. When Hemsworth discovers their target's identity (and it turns out to be the man who raped Rooney Mara in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -- the seedy and fantastically cast Yorick Van Wageningen), he mounts a gambit to steal his millions and bring him to light to kill him that's as audacious as it is questionable. Mann -- bringing his A game from Heat and Miami Vice -- is in peak form during the shocking and visceral action scenes, a virtuoso at making sure his handheld cameras are as close as possible to capture bullets ripping through human flesh. Mann's sound designer deserves an Oscar nomination just for the sound of a screwdriver being driven into a human chest repeatedly. Blackhat is as ruthless as a Hollywood action film can be; the body count claims 3/4s of the cast including some of the marquee names.

Following the plot of Blackhat requires effort and concentration. Blackhat hurtles along, unconcerned with proper character introductions or whether the audience can follow what's happening. Information is doled out on a need to know basis. The hacking and mechanics of events seems to be labyrinthine but the gist of it is gradually explained by Hemsworth, just when one imagines Denzel Washington in Philadelphia demanding things be explained to him like he's a six year old. It really all boils down to "following the money," and when Hemsworth susses out what's actually happening, Blackhat turns out to not be about an assault on our freedoms or a message against the dangers of our inter-connected world, but an elaborate get rich quick scheme by a guy willing to kill a lot of people and upset the global economy to do it. Hemsworth is a handsome, dogged leading man, more believable smashing faces in fights but sufficiently engaging at a keyboard writing authentic code. Like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice, Hemsworth falls for a beautiful Chinese woman. Unlike Farrell, who allowed drug trafficker Bai Ling to escape to Cuba, Hemsworth gets to keep the girl; two sexy fugitives from justice with millions of stolen dollars and the whole world at their fingertips. It's a hacker's dream.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THRONE OF ATLANTIS

** SPOILERS **

The Justice League meets Game of Thrones in Justice League: Throne of Atlantis and it isn't all wet. Following up last year's Justice League: War, which introduced a younger, rawer The New 52 Animated Universe version of the World's Greatest Superheroes, this time Superman (voiced by Jerry O'Connell), Batman (Jason O'Mara), Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson), and their super friends encounter a challenge from beneath the deep blue seas. Throne of Atlantis plunges us into the origin of Aquaman (Matt Lanter), a boozing, orphaned, superpowered lighthouse keeper who has no idea he is destined to become the King of the Seven Seas. Aquaman finds out in rapid-fire fashion who he is and how he came to be heir to the throne of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis when he and the League are swept up in the nefarious schemes of Aquaman's ruthless, pure-blooded half brother Orm (Sam Witwer), the self-styled Ocean Master, who wants to rule Atlantis and destroy the surface world. 

Adapted from the comic series penned by Geoff Johns and also incorporating elements from Johns' "Aquaman" comic series, Throne of Atlantis reveals that Aquaman is the "son of two worlds." He was born to Atlanna (Sirena Irwin), the princess of Atlantis, who came to Mercy Reef, Maine when "she was very young," and fell in love with Thomas Curry, a guy who owned a lighthouse. After their son Arthur was born, Atlanna bailed on her surface family to take her place as Queen of Atlantis and speak all of her dialogue in loud, haughty royal exposition. Arthur never seemed to realize he has gills and can breathe underwater and didn't bother to find out why he has super strength and endurance until, as an adult, he started getting attacked by armored soldiers from the sea and humanoid fish monsters from "the Trench." Arthur also never questioned why his best friend was a lobster whom he could communicate with. Yes, Aquaman can talk to and command fish, and it's an awesome power, shut up. Aquaman is aided by his new hot redheaded Atlantean bodyguard Mera (Sumalee Montano), who is destined to be his bride, and boy, did those two not waste any time seeking that destiny.

Meanwhile, the Justice League is a team in name only, not having officially assembled since they repelled the invasion by Darkseid in the previous movie. Superman and Wonder Woman start to get romantic, commiserating as only two lonely demigods can, going on dates in Greek diners while incognito wearing glasses. ("I can't believe this works!" Wonder Woman gasps. Neither can logic.) Cyborg (Shemar Moore) also has sparks flying with his STAR Labs assistant. The more juvenile members of the League like Shazam (Sean Astin) and Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) find all this mushy stuff kinda icky pants. There's a retread of one of the most unwelcome aspects of Justice League: War where Green Lantern again makes an ass out of himself interfering in one of Batman's Gotham investigations, but it is kept to a minimum this time around. The Flash (Christopher Gorham) is in this movie too, by the way, but he doesn't contribute much to this mission besides some cool super speed action. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen also get in some screen time and for some extra fan service, there's a cameo by John Henry Irons, setting up his inspiration to becoming the armored, sledgehammer swinging Steel. Superman and Batman also set aside some time to do a team up detective side mission where Superman bristles at Batman's condescension. "I am an investigative reporter, you know," Superman reminds Batman, who bizarrely retorts, "Journalism's dead."

When the Justice League does hit the water with Aquaman, they find themselves immersed in Game of Thrones-lite Atlantean family politics, complete with the alien, the space cop, the robot, the boy who says the magic word, etc. scoffing at how "impossible" it is Atlantis exists. Orm, with help from armored pirate Black Manta (Harry Lennix), who somehow is assumed to have the ability to open diplomatic negotiations -- with the Justice League, mind you, not with any government or the UN -- decides to stab his mother in the back, literally, and take the throne of Atlantis for himself. Orm immediately leads an invasion of the surface world, Metropolis, specifically. (The invasion is considerably scaled down from how multiple cities, including Metropolis, Gotham, and Boston were attacked by Atlantis in the comics, and the mighty tidal wave Orm raises is purely for show. Orm hardly brings a massive army with him either; just a few dozen soldiers and some vehicles.) What ultimately drowns Orm's short, eventful reign as king of Atlantis is his big blabber mouth. Cyborg recorded him bragging about killing his mother and seeing that footage is enough to make the Atlantean forces lay down their arms and turn on their new king. What's utterly bizarre is Aquaman's speech about how they should all accept him as their king, because he's their "beacon of hope." Mind you, these Atlanteans had no idea who Aquaman was or that he even existed before that moment. Plus Aquaman immediately starts making out with Mera in front of the troops. But sure, he's the king, now, whatever, let's go home. No punishment for attacking Metropolis!

And yet, Throne of Atlantis marks an improvement over the previous Justice League installment. The superhero action is entertaining and at its best can be summed up in five words: Superman. Fights. Giant. Sea. Monster. When unleashed against the cannibalistic creatures from the Trench, the Justice League gives no quarter, not even Batman, whose "no killing" rule apparently doesn't apply to sea monsters, judging from how he explodes them with missiles from his Batplane. While Wonder Woman and Mera engage in sword-to-trident combat with the Atlantean soldiers, Green Lantern uses his Power Ring to whip up a nifty giant robot to vacuum up those pesky fish folk. Cyborg's famed white noise cannon works wonders against Atlanteans, but if one has questions about just how much white noise would affect the equilibrium of people who are aquatic -- move along, there's more punching to be done. The single best moment of Throne of Atlantis validates how great Aquaman's power to talk to fish is via how he uses it to end Black Manta (Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea can relate.) The infuriating characterizations and interplay between the Leaguers is toned down; all of the superheroes come off as reasonably more competent and less insufferable than they did in Justice League: War. In the end, Aquaman is both installed as King of Atlantis and joins the Justice League, as he must. He certainly boasts the necessary trapezius muscles to be in this Justice League. The heroes decide to make being the world's greatest super team a more permanent thing, and for the best reasons possible, because they - and we - don't want to miss "whatever weird thing" happens next.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Taken 3

TAKEN 3

** SPOILERS **

In the formula-eschewing Taken 3, the glum latest entry from the annual, reliable Liam Neeson Action Thriller Factory and the inevitable finale of the Taken Trilogy, this time Liam Neeson finds himself framed for the murder of his beloved ex-wife Famke Janssen. Prior to this tragedy, Neeson had moved past his ruthless exploits slaughtering every sex-slaving gangster in Albania to be a doting father to Maggie Grace, now a college girl with a live-in boyfriend and a secret bun in the oven. (She never did become a pop star, even after Neeson introduced her to Holly Valance at the end of the original Taken.) Neeson also clearly pines to reunite with Janssen and rekindle their marriage, but he is too honorable to cuckold her slimy current husband Dougray Scott (recast as apparently the same character Xander Berkley played in the original.) This delicate, peaceful balance in his life Neeson has achieved is chucked out the window when Janssen is murdered, at which point Neeson chucks himself out of his own window and goes on the lam in LA, with the cops, lead by detective Forest Whitaker (who eats the warm bagels Neeson eats in the movie so as best to understand his prey), in hot pursuit.

Liam Neeson spends an inordinate amount of time hiding in uncomfortable places in Taken 3. Stalking around Los Angeles undetected, Neeson attempts to investigate who really murdered Janssen by squeezing his six-foot-four-inch frame into the trunks of cars and cramped sewers. To communicate with Grace and see his baby girl, he elaborately poisons her favorite yogurt drink knowing that she will leave class to tend to her diarrhea. At which point, Neeson, who has been hiding in the women's lavatory in her college for God knows how long, meets her in the stall and administers an antidote. (Grace is repeatedly mentioned to be "predictable," but how does Neeson know Grace always goes to the biggest and last stall in the girls lav?) Grace doesn't find any of this weird, but after being Taken and sold into sex slavery, her definition of normal isn't like yours or mine. Neeson also knows the secret underground entry into the city morgue, because why wouldn't the Los Angeles city morgue have a secret underground entry? Neeson's old gang of ex-CIA misfits and golf buddies also get involved in the action this time. It's nice that Neeson has his own set of Expendables. Neeson himself moves a lot slower in Taken 3. You might say he's Taken his time. You might also say he's getting too old for this shit.

What does all of this have to do with a slew of Russian gangsters and Dougray Scott, who's obviously sending signals he's really the villain? Well, Dougray Scott is obviously the villain, having Janssen murdered for her $12-million life insurance to pay back the Russian gangsters he owes money to. And he framed Neeson, knowing Neeson would go on a bloody rampage to kill those responsible. It's actually a pretty decent plan and shows Scott paid attention to the prior Taken movies. (Aside: Dougray Scott was once going to play Wolverine before Hugh Jackman got the role. Can you imagine a world where that happened?) Neeson figures it all out a little too late, only after killing all of the Russian gangsters, including their leader Oleg Malankov, who decided to battle Neeson wearing nothing but a robe and a speedo while sporting a giant erection. Those who attended Taken 3 hoping for the abject thrills of Neeson wontonly engaging in entertaining wholesale slaughter stumble from the theater a bit disappointed; Neeson only massacres a handful of Russians and is careful not to murder any of the LAPD on his tail. Repeated counts of assault on the cops, sure. But no killing. This restraint is noted by Whitaker, who amusingly threatens to arrest Neeson for wire tapping. "That's illegal." So's everything else Neeson does, but hey.

Taken 3 is a rote, mechanical slog, short on giddy thrills and heavy on sorrowful beats of Maggie Grace mourning her mother in their million-dollar mansion. There is nothing as absurdly memorable in Taken 3 as the sight of Grace exploding grenades across the rooftops of Istanbul as a means to give Neeson a GPS fix on her position in Taken 2. The most batshit crazy thing Neeson does in Taken 3 is race a Porsche at 150 MPH and slamming it into the landing gear of Dougray Scott's airplane to prevent him from escaping with Grace as his hostage. What Taken 3 sorely needed was a good laugh. Like, say, when Grace is Taken hostage by Scott, she should have asked where he's taking her. And he could have replied, "I'm selling you to sex slavery in Albania -- like you should have been all along!" It's a pity the screenplay for Taken 3 was Taken 4 granted.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Wild

WILD

** SPOILERS **

There's a moment in Wild when Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) decides to set out on her fateful course and hike the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican to the Canadian border. "I'm gonna walk my myself back to the woman my mother raised me to be." Her friend Gaby Hoffman replies really the only reply one can make when hearing something like that: "What?" Why would anyone spend over three months walking over a thousand miles alone through the desert, mountains, forest, and snow?  Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and produced by Witherspoon based upon the best-selling memoir by Strayed, straps us along Witherspoon's back on a stunning, remarkable journey.

In a courageous and raw performance, Witherspoon is sensational as Cheryl Strayed, a divorced, aimless woman (don't call her a hobo, as we learn in Wild's most hilarious scene) who lost her mother (Laura Dern) to cancer. "She was the love of my life," Strayed confesses, and the death of her mother sent Strayed into a spiral of heroin and promiscuous sex that ruined her marriage to her husband Paul (played by Thomas Sadowski). Strayed sets out on a soul-searching journey across California, Oregon, and Washington State, hefting a backpack of camping and wilderness supplies so enormous, the petite Witherspoon herself could fit inside it. She encounters stunning natural beauty, rugged terrain, a few kind souls, some potentially dangerous men who thankfully don't attack her as she fears, and most importantly, Strayed finds herself and the solace she sought.

The emotional journey of Strayed as well as her physical, laborious trek are intertwined by provocative directing and masterful editing, working from a delicate yet sharp screenplay adaptation by Nick Hornby. Though it all, Witherspoon effusively anchors Wild, appearing in every scene, calling upon all of her Oscar-caliber talents to portray Strayed as a confused, lost, hurting, hopeful, triumphant person. Wild is one of the best films of 2014; it is bravura filmmaking and its trail will hopefully end at some deserved Academy Awards. Or at the very least, everyone involved in Wild should benefit from a lifetime supply of REI camping equipment as thanks for all of the brilliant advertising.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Foxcatcher

FOXCATCHER

** SPOILERS **

Foxcatcher is the "In Cold Blood" of amateur wrestling movies, fitting since director Bennett Miller also helmed the film Capote based on the novel "In Cold Blood." A sordid, deeply disturbing tragedy and cautionary example of sorts, Foxcatcher depicts the events leading up to the murder of 1984 Olympic gold medalist wrestler David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) by one of the richest men in America, John E. du Pont (Steve Carell). David Schultz is lured into the web of du Pont's Foxcatcher Farms estate in Pennsylvania after his aimless, disenfranchised brother Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), also an Olympic gold medalist wrestler, is recruited by du Pont to captain his burgeoning wrestling squad. As Foxcatcher tells the tale, du Pont and Mark experience early success until they have a falling out. Du Pont then recruits Mark's older brother David to coach his wrestling team, after which Mark quits Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont, apparently suffering from paranoid insanity, shot David dead in his driveway, was arrested, and died in prison.

Foxcatcher plays fast and loose with facts and the real life events; the entire film takes place in the 1980s and centers around the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but the murder of David Schultz happened in 1996 and other facts are rearranged to suit the film's seedy narrative. The real Mark Schultz, a supporter of the film until recently, now vehemently opposes and denies events depicted in the film, especially where Foxcatcher implies one of the reasons du Pont and he had a falling out was because they grew... closer... as shown in a scene of du Pont and Mark "wrestling" late at night. Foxcatcher is never less than damning of John E. du Pont, by accounts a sick, disturbed individual with delusions of grandeur. (The film leaves open to mockery his self-proclaimed nickname "the Golden Eagle of America" and his repeated declarations that his wrestling squad is giving "hope" to a faltering America.)

Mesmerizing, incredible performances by Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo bouy Foxcatcher. Ruffalo is fantastic as David, an amiable, good-hearted, positive force who loved and supported his brother, choosing to ignore all of the warning signs in Foxcatcher Farms. Tatum gives a career-best performance as Mark, a thick-headed, tightly-wound powder keg of unresolved issues.  Carell, aided by wig and prosthetics, shockingly transforms himself into John du Pont, resembling one of the predatory birds (du Pont was an accomplished ornithologist in real life) he loved so much. Carell is never less than creepy and repellant; his slow words preceded by silence and his real thoughts kept a secret from all. Carell's du Pont is, if anything, overwhelming proof that he should follow Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito as the next actor to portray the Penguin in a future Batman movie.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Unbroken

UNBROKEN

** SPOILERS **

If You Can Take It, You Can Make It

About midway through Unbroken, Louie Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), an American bombardier imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp, is offered a deal. Zamperini, a former Olympic runner who competed in the Berlin games (Adolph Hitler wanted to meet him, a fact not depicted in the film), is allowed to broadcast on Japanese radio and speak to his parents, refuting the American media's announcement that he was killed in action. Afterwards, the Japanese ask him to continue broadcasting on the radio, if he'd only read some prepared statements denouncing the United States and its Allies. He could ride out the rest of the war as a "guest" of Japan, eating sushi and drinking sake in comfort like a few other Allied POWs opted to. Or else, he could return to the hellish prison camp he came from and endure savage beatings and abuse. It's a sweetheart deal. Who wouldn't take a deal like that? Louie Zamperini, that's who.

Based on the true story as told in the bestseller written by Laura Hillenbrand, Angelina Jolie's earnest and harrowing Unbroken aspires to inspire us with the life and and hardships endured by Louie Zamperini. An Italian-American who overcame juvenile delinquency to become an Olympic athlete and a decorated war hero, Zamperini fought in the Pacific Theater of World War II. His plane was shot down over the ocean; Zamperini was one of three survivors who spent 47 days on a life raft. Somehow, Zamperini survived exposure, shark attacks, and even bullets from a strafing enemy aircraft, living off of raw fish and shark meat, before he is rescued by, unfortunately, the Japanese Navy. Zamperini was imprisoned in three POW camps, the latter two commanded by the sadistic young corporal Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), nicknamed "the Bird." Something about Zamperini ignited Watanabe's ire from the moment they met; multiple beatings via the Bird's ever-present bamboo stick would ensue. To teach Zamperini respect, Watanabe forces the dozens of other Allied prisoners to each punch Zamperini in the face. This is how the Bird treats his "friends." With friends like him...

"I'm gonna kill him," Zamperini vows to his fellow prisoner Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund, looking an awful lot like Burt Lancaster). Fitzgerald talks him out of it. Surviving to the end of the war and not letting themselves be broken is the surest way to beat Watanabe and the Japanese. Not flinching away from depicting blood, beatings, and brutality, as if Jolie took copious notes from repeat viewings of her husband's classic Fight Club, Unbroken ultimately celebrates the power of the human spirit to endure and overcome unimaginable hardships. Indeed, Louis Zamperini becomes a literal Atlas, forced to hoist and hold a heavy metal beam over his head for an untold amount of time until Watanabe is overcome with shame at his own cruelty and inadequacy. There's no question the late Zamperini, who sadly passed away before he could see the film about his life he reportedly always wanted to see, was a hero. "If you can take it, you can make it," was Zamperini's lifelong motto. Jolie and the filmmakers behind Unbroken do right by Louis Zamperini and give his life, his spirit, and his humanity the honors he's earned. 

Although... Is this it? Just one movie? Peter Jackson could have made three films out of the book "Unbroken." It's only Angelina Jolie's second film and she's good, very good. But she has a lot to learn. Jolie can be proud, however, that her Unbroken is 2014's second finest film of a World War II veteran triumphing over impossible odds, right behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The Interview

THE INTERVIEW

** SPOILERS **

Do You Ever Feel Like A Plastic Bag?

This is the movie that caused all that ruckus? North Korea must really hate parodies of Frost/Nixon crossed with The Hangover. In The Interview, a ribald, forehead-slapping fantasy of espionage and stupidity, dunderheaded talk show host Dave Skylar (James Franco) and his slightly more competent but still idiotic producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) are granted the interview of a lifetime with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park). The CIA, represented by the fetching Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), a real honeypot, coerce Rogen and Franco into assassinating Kim. What transpires is shamelessly racist and insulting to both the United States and North Korea, were it not also peppered with some big and genuine gross-out laughs and unbelievable yet admirable nerve from Rogen, Franco, and director Evan Goldberg (This Is The End is their previous collaboration).

The Interview takes what little the Western world "knows" about North Korea's secret totalitarian dictatorship (the people are starving, they have nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un claims he's a god who doesn't urinate or defecate) and crafts the obvious go-for-broke jokes about it all. Rogen and Goldberg also wink wink with having Franco describe how the movie will end and then follow through with that exact series of events beat for beat. They also draw laughs from skewering some of the most famous stars in America: Rob Lowe's "secret baldness" and Eminem's "true" sexuality are in on the joke, but the vaginas of Nicki Minaj ("brown sugar") and Miley Cyrus ("moose knuckle") are trampled on for cheap yuks. Franco emerges from the fracas relatively unscathed, though Rogen suffers multiple indignities including having to shove a metal missile up his ass and losing a couple of fingers in a bloody shoot out. But no one gets it worse than Kim Jong-un.

The best moments in The Interview are when Franco and Kim Jong-un bond over margaritas, women, booze, and ride around in a tank blowing up trees. (The tank was given to the Kim family by Stalin, which Franco insists is pronounced "Stallone.") The gullible Franco still manages to root into the secret pain Kim harbors over his late father Kim Jong-Il. But is Kim really a misunderstood, okay guy or is he an insane liar all along? Is he really just honey dicking Franco? The Interview has it both ways and gets away with it, and it also gets away with a ludicrously violent comeuppance and end to Kim Jong-un. Frankly, if Jennifer Lawrence singing "The Hanging Tree" in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 can become a radio hit, so should James Franco singing Katy Perry's "Firework." In the end, Katy Perry comes off as the biggest winner of all in The Interview. If only Franco, Rogen and Perry were around during World War II. They'd have taken out Hitler and spared millions of lives. Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Katy Perry would have been the Greatest Generation. But maybe they already are.

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