blackhat


Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

(2014) Thriller (Universal/Legendary) Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehorn Wang, Holt McCallany, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Tyson Chak, Brandon Molale, Danny Burstein, Archie Kao, Abhi Sinha, Jason Butler Harner, Manny Montana, Spencer Garrett, Shi Liang, Kan Mok, Sophia Santi Directed by Michael Mann

Cyber crime isn’t just science fiction anymore; it’s a fact of daily life. Between the hacking of Sony and Target, our private information is at risk nearly every hour of every day. So too is the private information of corporations – and governments. And all of it can be manipulated for the benefit of a greedy soul with a computer and an idea.

When a hacker causes a Chinese nuclear facility to explode, it’s a tragedy. When the same hacker infiltrates the Chicago commodities market, them’s fighting words as far as the U.S. is concerned. A joint task force is convened with Chinese military officer Chen Dawai (Wang) and FBI agent Carol Burnett…err, Barrett (Davis). When the code used to hack both institutions turns out to be familiar to Dawai, he recommends that the man who co-authored the software with Dawai himself – one Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) who was Dawai’s college roommate at Stanford – be released from jail for the cybercrimes he’s committed.

Hathaway realizes quickly that the guy they’re chasing is basically using his own software to get into very difficult hacks; the software that the hacker has authored is like a blunt force trauma, whereas Hathaway’s is more like a rapier wound. However, the hacker (van Wageningen) who is one Hawaiian shirt away from living in his mom’s basement, has hired a vicious terrorist named Kassar (Coster) to kill anyone who is in the way or no longer of use. And the point of all of this? Let’s just say that the Tin Man would be thrilled.

Michael Mann has always been a director who has exemplified style over substance and sometimes when that style is cool enough, he can get away with treating the substance as an afterthought. What would seem to be a fairly crucial movie about the effect of hackers and cybercrime on all of us and how vulnerable we are as nations to hackers is almost non-existent here.

Hemsworth who is a pretty great action hero is wasted in this role. It’s not that he can’t play smart; it’s just that he’s playing a guy who can pick up a gun as easily as program a computer virus…or hack into an NSA super-decryption program, which he does at one point – because the NSA won’t allow a convicted hacker to access it, particularly with Chinese military officers in tow. Of course, the knowledge that the guy they’re chasing has already caused one nuclear plant to meltdown might at least give them pause to work with the FBI agent, no? Maybe not.

And therein lies one of the main problems with the movie – the script. There are so many lapses in logic it’s hard to know where to begin. For example, why would anyone parole a hacker who has already shown a lack of respect for authority to chase down another hacker, particularly when the NSA has plenty of computer geniuses available at a moment’s notice? Sure, he co-wrote the code of the software that was used, but still, other than for dramatic purposes there is simply no reason to use a blackhat in this situation. Maybe the Bad Hacker has a personal score to settle with Hathaway, in which case by all means, use that as a selling point, but don’t pee on your audience and tell them it’s raining. Besides, it staggers the imagination that the guy is apparently an unstoppable killing machine in addition to being a computer genius. Are there any computer experts you know who spend time on the firing range, or in hand-to-hand combat training?

And when they get to cities they don’t know – like Jakarta or Shanghai – Hathaway is able to navigate through labyrinthine city streets to get to exactly where he needs to go without fail. Or does he have a GPS chip in his head?

The film has been cast with some fairly well-known Chinese actors in an effort to appeal to Chinese audiences who are quickly becoming a very large slice of the box office pie. However, Wei Tang – who is absolutely stunning and a terrific actress – is essentially shoehorned in so that Hathaway has someone to bed. The relationship at no time feels authentic, it’s just a con who hasn’t seen a woman in awhile getting lucky and for her part, she seems much smarter than to fall into a relationship with someone who is likely going back to prison. And to make her the sister of his ex-roommate and close friends – awk-ward.

A word about the score; it’s annoying, a kind of electronic noodling that reminds you that there’s someone trying to be sophisticated at the synthesizer. It’s so bad that one of the composers credited to the movie, Harry Gregson-Williams, has gone so far to post on his Facebook page that almost none of the score was his. I would have done the same thing, if I were him.

Like all Michael Mann movies, blackhat looks terrific. Lots of beautifully shot cityscapes, plenty of shots of Hathaway staring thoughtfully into the distance past urban wastelands and other thought-provoking vistas. But like a lot of his more recent movies, the style only goes so far and can’t hide the sorry fact that there’s nothing of substance here. While you get the sense that Mann and the writers did their homework when it comes to the computer hacking aspect, they could have used a remedial course in storytelling. Even the presence of Viola Davis, one of the finest actresses in Hollywood at the moment (and who does a yeoman job of trying her best) can’t save this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Typically cool cinematography for a Mann film. Seems fairly authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and often hard to follow. Large gaps in logic. Moviemaking by committee. Annoying score.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language throughout with occasional bouts of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 3,000 extras were used for the movie’s climactic scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Net
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Wedding Ringer

Transformers: Age of Extinction


Never mess with Mark Wahlberg's car.

Never mess with Mark Wahlberg’s car.

(2014) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon, Charles Parnell, Erika Fong, Mike Collins, Geng Han, Zou Shiming, Richard Riehle, Peter Cullen (voice), Patrick Bristow, Cleo King, Jessica Gomes, Melanie Specht, Abigail Klein. Directed by Michael Bay

After the Transformers trilogy had come to an end, the thought was that the series would continue with an all-new cast and a new director. Well, only half of that equation turned out to come true – but could Bay sustain the same popcorn momentum he had delivered with the first trilogy?

Five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon devastated Chicago, the CIA has a special task force led by the overly macho James Savoy (Welliver) hunting down what Decepticons are left. Except there are none left and now he is hunting Autobots, with the full blessing of his CIA liaison Harold Attinger (Grammer). Seems a pretty harsh way to treat the guys who basically saved our bacon in Chicago.

Meanwhile, out in Texas, would-be inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is basically at the end of his financial rope. Eking out a living repairing electronic devices, most of his inventions are a circuit shy of a load. With his hottie daughter Tessa (Peltz) ready to go to college and in need of pants that aren’t Daisy Dukes (who wears short shorts? Tessa do!) not to mention in a date-free state until she graduates from high school, Cade is fending off real estate agents who are ready to sell his home out from under him and pretty much behind on every bill he can be behind in. Oddly enough for a Texan, he doesn’t seem to be blaming Obama for his situation.

While a movie theater owner has him repairing some vintage projectors, he discovers an old beat-up truck – not a pick-up but a semi – he gleefully figures he can scrap the thing for parts and make enough to get his daughter a down payment on her college tuition, but as he and his buddy Lucas (Miller) find out, this is not an ordinary truck. Being that this is a Transformers movie, you know what it is. In fact, it’s not even just any Autobot – it’s Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself.

Once the government figures out that this is Optimus himself, Attinger sends out Savoy with his strike team’s secret weapon – a mechanical creature named Lockdown who is a bounty hunter with a particular yen to capture Optimus Prime and bring him back to the Creators of the Autobots and Decepticons to become slave labor for them once again. And the rest of the Autobots will be broken down and melted, their metal – called Transformium – some of which remains on Earth in small amounts – used to create a new mechanical race that is under human control, specifically under the control of billionaire industrialist Joshua Joyce (Tucci).

This pits the few remaining Autobots – including Bumblebee, Hound, Drift and Ratchet – against the might of the American government, the new automaton named Galvatron who turns out to have the mechanical DNA of a familiar foe, and the might of Lockdown with his advanced weapons and his space ship. However, they will find new allies from the distant past in an ancient place.

The movie rips across Texas, Chicago, Beijing and Hong Kong and levels a lot of real estate in the process which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to this franchise. As the second half of the movie ensues, the human actors are less participants than dodgers of falling masonry and their dialogue is mostly cries of “OPTIMUS!” and “Look out!” or things along those lines. Other than the voices of Optimus and Galvatron, not one actor returns from the previous trilogy. This has been characterized as a reboot but it isn’t really but a continuation along the same road with different actors.

Wahlberg is the movie’s secret weapon; he makes a much better hero than Shia LaBeouf did as the neurotic Sam Witwicky. My complaint is that they make Wahlberg something of a clownish inventor and then once they get out of Texas, there’s almost none of his skills utilized as an inventor. He may as well have been a car mechanic or an X-ray technician or a data entry clerk. We spend a good deal of time in the first third of the movie establishing Cade as a hapless inventor whose inventions generally don’t work and then they do nothing with it the rest of the way. It’s a waste of the filmmakers time as well as the audience. I call it “wasted exposition.”

The action sequences, particularly the robot CGI are the best yet. We see much more detail on the Autobots and their foes, and they look banged up like ‘bots that have been in a good deal of battle. Those, like my son, who are all about robots battling will be very happy because there is a lot of that here. And yes, there are Dinobots as well – which is bound to put old fans of the original series in a happy place.

The movie is nearly three hours long and feels it. Some movies go that long and you barely notice and are sad when the movie finally ends; this one has you checking your watch at the two hour mark. Easily a good 45 minutes of the movie could have been trimmed without hurting the movie overly much. Plus there is a kind of sameness here – if you’ve seen the first three movies, nothing here should be overly surprising to you. Nothing really surpasses the battle of Chicago from Dark of the Moon either.

So while this still remains a summer popcorn movie, it isn’t as good as the last one in the series to my mind. I was pretty numb by the end of the movie rather than exhilarated. This is said to be the first of a new trilogy with Wahlberg in the lead but frankly, I’d be just as happy if the franchise called it a day after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty nifty action sequences. Wahlberg an improvement over Shia LaBeouf.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long – like waaaaay overly long. Lacks energy. Story not particularly much of a change from other installments in the series.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, occasionally foul language (but not too foul) and some sexual innuendo,

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bay was originally planning to pass on the franchise to another director and remain on in only a producer’s capacity. After visiting the Transformers attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood however, after seeing the enthusiastic long lines for the attraction he came to the realization that he wasn’t quite done with the series yet and elected to remain on for the fourth film with an entirely new cast.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Empire of Silver (Baiyin diguo)


Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman - stereotypes anyone?

Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman – stereotypes anyone?

(2009) Drama (NeoClassic) Aaron Kwok, Tie Lin Zhang, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Lan Tian Chang, Zhi Cheng Ding, Jonathan Kos-Read, Zhen Yu Lei, Zhong Lu, John Paisley, Shih Chieh King, Niu Tien, Deshun Wang. Directed by Christina Yao

Offshoring

 

Money is a great corrupter. As China entered the 20th century and looked to enter the world as well after centuries of isolationism, the Shangxi province became a financial center since there was no central currency at the time. Merchants in Shangxi and banks, hoarding silver, became the economic power in China.

Third Master (Kwok) has distanced himself from his family. His father (Zhang) is aging and wants to hand off his banking empire to one of his sons, but his two other sons are clearly unsuitable. Third Master is the brightest and most promising of the lot, but he has had a huge rift with his father since dear old dad married the love of his life – that is the love of Third Master’s life.

He still has feelings for Madame Kang (Lei) which she secretly returns. She has developed a close friendship – a kind of sisterhood in fact – with Mrs. Landdeck (Tilly), the wife of the pastor (Kos-Read) who has a similarly troubled marriage.

As Third Master prepares to take the reins of his father’s bank, he has to fight off the wolves of China’s Wall Street as well as actual wolves. If China is ever to become a world power, it must first enter the world century and the feudalistic culture both politically and economically isn’t disposed towards the radical changes necessary. Something has to give.

Yao is a first-time director who has a visionary eye. She also has a sprawling, epic story to tell and while there are elements of Wall Street as well as Hero in it, there are times that I get the sense that she isn’t sure exactly what kind of film she intends to make. My best guess is that she’s trying to do something unique which is bloody ambitious for a first time out.

Kwok, not terribly well-known in the US although he’s a big pop star and actor in China, is a compelling lead. Brooding and grave at times, you get the sense of Third Master’s inner conflict even if you don’t understand the language. There’s some impressive acting and screen presence going on here.

Considering the world’s economic problems and China’s own position in the world these days, this is one of those rare occasions where a period piece is timely viewing. I can forgive the script’s occasional forays into confusion particularly since the images we’re shown are so compelling. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth millions.

WHY RENT THIS: Kwok is a terrific lead. Explores a lot of different elements. Gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit plot-wise. May be trying to do too much.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, brief nudity and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the historical novel Valley of Silver by Cheng Yi, who is himself descended from actual Shangxi merchants as seen in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,036 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: House of Flying Daggers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Offshoring


OffshoringTraditionally as April turns into May and after the Florida Film Festival has turned out the lights for the year, Cinema365 likes to do what we like to describe as a mini-festival. We call it Offshoring and it is all about movies that come from places other than the good old U.S. of A.

This year we have two films that screened at the Florida Film Festival as we continue our coverage of that event as well as films from a variety of nations; this year our five films will cover Thailand, China, Australia, France and Poland. They range from action films to dramas to comedies and cover a variety of styles. Not all of them will be easy to find (although you may be able to catch a couple of them on cable or through Netflix or other streaming services) but all will have something worthwhile about their point of view that may cause you to re-examine yours.

Hear at Cinema365 World Domination HQ we’ve always considered foreign films a means of travelling without leaving, ways of peaking in on other cultures and hopefully learning something about them in the process. Hopefully you’ll do the same when you view these films we have lined up for you. The festival begins tomorrow and runs for five days before we return to our regularly scheduled programming, which will include reviews of theatrical releases like Bears, Transcendence, The Zero Theorem and The Railway Man among others. We’ll also be publishing our Summer Preview in the next few days as well as our monthly Four-Warned with a more detailed look at what’s coming out in May in theaters across the country as well as in some cases on VOD or in limited or local release.

It’s gonna be a great summer at the movies and before we get started with that, let’s take a little vacation around the world. Hope you’ll join us.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)


Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty

Premium Rush


Premium Rush

Just because there’s a cab behind you doesn’t mean you’re on the right road.

(2012) Action (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung, Sean Kennedy, Wole Parks, Aasif Mandvi, Kymberly Perfetto, Christopher Place, Brian Koppelman, Boyce Wong, Jimmy P. Wong, Darlene Violette. Directed by David Koepp

 

Some movies have a great deal of depth. They require thought, concentration and a bit of contemplation to truly appreciate properly. Then there are movies like this one; the cinematic equivalent of a double shot of espresso with a Red Bull chaser.

Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) – whose name is pronounced like the ACME-using coyote from the Looney Tunes cartoons – is a New York City bike courier who delivers packages all over Manhattan on a lightweight modified bike with no brakes. He’s cocky, fearless and lives for the adrenaline high that his job delivers. He’s smart too – he actually passed the bar exam but you won’t find him in a corporate cubicle. Oh no. Wilee is no mere office drone. He has a better life in mind for himself.

Which apparently includes a girlfriend named Vanessa (Ramirez) although she’s not so sure. In fact, Wilee’s rival courier Manny (Parks) thinks that she’d be better off with him. He apparently really has some sort of need to prove his superiority over Wilee, always up for a race with his rival. Wilee, being the free spirit that he is, has no time for this.

In fact, he’s too busy picking up a package from his alma mater from Nima (Chung) who also happens to be Vanessa’s roommate coincidentally – for a premium rush job, which the customer is paying extra dollars to get to its destination just a little bit quicker. However, there’s a creepy guy named Bobby Monday (Shannon) who wants the package and will do anything to get it. In fact, he needs to steal it in order to pay off a substantial gambling debt. The only reason Monday isn’t already dead is that he is a New York City cop. Monday takes off after Wilee in the streets of New York on a high-speed chase that both men are desperate to win.

And that’s all the plot you need to know. Anything else doesn’t really matter – in fact most of the plot I mentioned above doesn’t matter either, other than the last sentence starting with “Monday takes off.” This is all about adrenaline-fueled hard-charging bike stunts in the streets of New York. It’s like the X-Games urban war that you’ve always wanted to see. If they could have gotten Tony Hawk to do some tricks off of the parked cars they would have had it made.

The pacing is hyperkinetic with the story jumping back and forth through flashbacks. Graphics show the routes taken through the city by the couriers, and graphics and flash forwards show the choices available to Wilee at various intersections and the potentially lethal consequences of some of his options. Those are some of the most fun scenes in the movie.

Gordon-Levitt is an appealing actor who is moving up the ranks from indie darling into legitimate star. He has been busy in a wide variety of movies and looks to be making the movie into the top tier of Hollywood stardom. It doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty buff looking here which is sure to make him a few new fans among the ladies.

Shannon is a versatile character actor who often has a dark streak in his characters. Here he is darker than most of the roles I’ve seen him in, a quite impressive villain who is out of control, and believes his badge renders him invulnerable to justice. Monday is the worst kind of bad cop and Shannon keeps him from becoming too much of a cartoon.

This is almost all action and no exposition. New Yorkers will find this a little bit more fun because of the locations, and men are going to like the non-stop action. There isn’t a lot here for those looking for relationships, character development or romance. It’s mostly about bicyclists taking insane chances. The lead character is well-named – he’s fearless and maybe too clever for his own good. I might have rated this higher had an anvil been dropped on his head.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty action sequences and a clever use of graphics. Gordon-Levitt is engaging and Shannon makes a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: Very New York-centric. A little too much testosterone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some disturbing imagery. There are plenty of foul words though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the scenes set at Columbia Law School were filmed at Lerner Hall, the student center for the University.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The movie got decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Next Day Air

FORREST J. ACKERMAN LOVERS: Detective Monday uses the name of the legendary science fiction fan/author/literary agent/historian as an alias.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Of Gods and Men

Offshoring


Starting tomorrow, we’re going to begin a new series here at Cinema365; it’s called Offshoring and is devoted to cinema from around the world. In our kickoff edition we’ll be examining films from Israel, Norway, China, France and India. This is only a sampling of the regions that Cinema365 has encountered in our two plus years of existence.  Just off the top of my head we’ve reviewed films from England, Italy, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, Sweden, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Russia and Argentina, to name a few. We are committed to continuing to reviewing movies from anywhere and everywhere to your attention; hopefully in addition to the big Hollywood movies you will find one or two that you weren’t aware of that might intrigue you enough to checking it out. It’s a big, bold cinematic world out there and new and different points of view can only enrich us. At least, that’s the philosophy of this website.

While we celebrate the films from around the world, that doesn’t mean that we intend to ignore the contributions of American cinema. Over the Independence Day holiday in July, Cinema365 will be proud to present The American Experience, movies that reflect what America is and what American life is all about. Those films will hopefully show why despite all our economic and political woes, we still are proud of what our country has accomplished and who we are as a people.

Until then, we hope you enjoy our little mini-festival of reviews looking at the quality and diversity of great (and near-great) films from our little blue rock that we call home. As always, feel free to comment on any or all of our reviews. For those waiting for the summer preview, it will be out shortly – a few last finishing touches remain to be made and it will be followed shortly thereafter by our regular May preview Four-Warned. Thanks as always for reading!

Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan

Dark Matter


Dark Matter

Ye Liu examines Meryl Streep's face for unsightly blemishes.

(2007) Drama (First Independent) Meryl Streep, Ye Liu, Peng Chi, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, Yonggui Wang, Lei Tsao, Jing Shan, He Yu, Bo Yi, Boris McGiver, Bill Irwin, Taylor Schilling. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

We struggle to understand the complex workings of the universe. Mostly the discoveries we make serve to illustrate that we are painfully ignorant and that the universe is a far more wondrous place than we could ever imagine. However, there is a dark side to the universe, one that resides in the matter that not only binds the universe together but touches the dark places in the human heart.

Liu Xeng (Liu) is a Chinese student studying for his doctorate at an unnamed Southwestern U.S. university. He is admonished by his family as he leaves for the great unknown that is America to make his family proud and bring no disgrace to the family name. No pressure, right?

He is brought into a world of academic politics, woefully unprepared. Brilliant in the science of cosmology (the study of the workings and origins of the universe), he is interned to Dr. Reiser (Quinn), one of the most respected scientists in the United States. At first, they get along very well – Xeng is brilliant which reflects positively on Dr. Reiser.

Xeng joins a number of other Chinese students sharing a house in the university community. Mostly, they like to hang out, drink beer, talk about chicks – and particle physics. Those wacky college students! Xeng even develops a crush on a comely barista (Schilling), although that turns out to be unrequited. He’s living the American dream, college nerd style.

The Chinese students stay in America is being facilitated by Joanna Silver (Streep), a wealthy patron with a keen interest in Chinese culture. She takes a special liking to the young Xeng, whose brilliance and shy sweetness intrigue her. Then one day, Xeng has a breakthrough – a theory about dark matter that might change the way we see the universe.

But the wheels start to fall off. His theory comes into direct conflict with Dr. Reiser’s own – which the arrogant and egocentric Reiser can’t allow. Reiser works behind the scenes to discredit Xeng, who loses an important prize to one of his roommates who has been making a point of kissing Dr. Reiser’s ass. Xeng is unable to land a job following his graduation and is forced to sell skin care products door to door to make ends meet. His mental state fractures and shatters, leading to tragedy.

This is loosely based on events at the University of Iowa in 1991 when a graduate student named Gang Lu opened fire on several professors and students, killing five before turning his gun on himself. The academic world depicted here is not necessarily the one that was encountered by Lu in his downward spiral, but it is pretty accurate as to some of the down side – dark side – of modern American universities. It is sadly true that politics usually trump performance when it comes to human endeavor.

The culture clash between the Chinese students and their American hosts is one of the most compelling things about the movie. The students are astonished to discover that Americans send their elderly to separate facilities; in China, caring for the elderly is part of a family’s responsibility and to not do so would be a serious loss of honor.

There are a lot of scientific ideas that are put across here that are necessary for the advancement of the plot. They could easily be dry and confusing to the audience, but Shi-Zheng manages to make them at least reasonably understandable with a liberal use of computer graphics to aid him.

Getting Streep was amazing; I don’t know how they convinced her to do this movie but she is typically wonderful, performing in a way that is effortless and authentic. She doesn’t exactly steal the movie but she is the most prominent reason to see the film. Liu as Xeng does a credible job, but his mental deterioration doesn’t feel authentic; he goes from frustrated to homicidal almost without any sort of transition. It’s a little bit jarring, even if you do know it’s coming.

The middle third drags a little bit, but the first and last parts of the movie are exceptionally paced. The feeling of impending tragedy hangs throughout the movie. Shi-Zheng has divided the film into five chapters, each pertaining to a specific element. He utilizes a Chinese children’s chorus singing standard American songs as a kind of linking device that foreshadows and forebodes.

I like many of the elements of the movie; it just doesn’t generate a movie that is a cohesive whole. The conceit of Dark Matter as an allegory for petty human emotions under the surface is a nice one, but a bit obscure. That may wind up losing some audience; still, anything with Meryl Streep is going to be worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Meryl Streep elevates the movie with yet another unforced performance. Shi-Zheng manages to present complex scientific ideas without sailing completely over the heads of the audience. The cultural clash between the students and their hosts are the best element of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third drags a bit and Liu Xeng’s mental breakdown doesn’t feel authentic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of intense violence, some sexual content and a modicum of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Chen Shi-Zheng is best known in China for directing Chinese opera productions; this is his feature film directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $66,375 on an unreported production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With

The Painted Veil


The Painted Veil

An idyllic moment amidst disease, chaos, mistrust, infidelity and death - just another day at the office.

(2006) Period Drama Based on Literature (Warner Independent) Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, Catherine An, Anthony Wong, Bin Li, Marie-Laure Descoureaux, Juliet Howland, Sally Hawkins, Maggie Steed. Directed by John Curran

Based on the Somerset Maugham novel, this is a story about betrayal and redemption set against the magnificent backdrop of a China in flux. It is also a pretty damn good movie.

Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who finds working with microbes far easier than dealing with human beings. He is closed-off, a little bit cold and awkward. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t passionate. The first time he sees Kitty (Watts), he falls head over heels.

Unfortunately, Kitty doesn’t feel the same way. Still, she’s feeling increasingly trapped in her jazz-age London home, with stifling parents, particularly an overbearing mother (Steed) who has absolutely no confidence in her. Once the impulsive Fane proposes, Kitty is inclined to say no but an overheard conversation prompts Kitty to change her mind, if no other reason than to escape her mother.

Fane can offer that to her. After all, he works for the British government at their laboratory in Shanghai. It is an exotic posting, one with a good deal to distinguish it. Kitty doesn’t see it that way, however. For her, it’s merely trading one hell for another. Walter tries to indulge her in her gossip and games, but he clearly isn’t interested. Kitty quickly becomes bored and lonely.

She meets vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Schreiber), a passionate man who is everything Walter is not – impulsive, sexy, outgoing and charming. The two quickly become involved in a torrid affair. However, Walter finds out about it. While he doesn’t go berserk, he is infuriated and humiliated. Determined to inflict his own pain on his wife, he gives her an ultimatum. She may either accept a divorce, or accompany her husband to a small village in China’s interior that has been stricken by a cholera epidemic, which Walter has volunteered to go in and assist. He does give her a way out – if Charlie agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty, Walter will accept a quiet divorce to allow the lovers to be together. However, Walter knows – and Kitty ultimately has her naiveté shattered – that Charlie will do no such thing.

It takes nearly two weeks for the Fanes to arrive in the village, and the situation there is grim. The populace is dropping like flies, the French Catholic orphanage is filled with orphaned children – as well as children dying from the same disease – and already distrustful of foreigners, the people of the village are a powderkeg ready to blow. They are met by a somewhat rumpled civil servant named Waddington (Jones) who proves to be a sympathetic ear for Kitty, while the orphanage’s Mother Superior (Rigg) is something of a mother figure for her. Soon, she begins to see her husband in a whole new light, provoking changes in herself. Will Walter be able to forgive her and see how she has changed, or will the disease or the angry Nationalists cut them down before there’s time?

This is a beautifully shot movie, utilizing gorgeous Chinese backdrops nicely. You really get a terrific sense of the British foreign service in the 1920s, with all the arrogance and tunnel-vision that was present in the day. Director Curran makes what is a fairly dry and dusty novel live and breathe on the screen – Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay also helps see to that.

Norton, who hasn’t had a sub-par performance in a very long time, delivers another noteworthy job as Walter. He is stiff and reserved, his body language reflecting it every step of the way. While his British accent is a little dicey, he nonetheless inhabits the role well, making Walter a bit more sympathetic than he was in the novel, where he came off much more viciously.

Watts was a little overwhelmed by the part, I think. She’s not a bad actress, but I was less entranced with her Kitty. Kitty needs to be a very spoiled, extremely immature young girl who behaves impulsively and rashly, the very antithesis of Walter. Norton and Watts also deliver very little chemistry, which is perhaps the most glaring negative in the movie. They are supposed to come together by the end of the movie, but I don’t get that sense. They seem to merely accept each other more than embrace each other. That makes the final scenes a bit less powerful than they might have been otherwise.

Still, there is a magnificent epic quality to the film that makes me wish I’d seen it on the big screen, but it frankly didn’t get a lot of buzz when it came out and it got lost amongst all the holiday movies and Oscar contenders that were released at around the same time. Still, this is definitely worth seeing. Norton is wonderful, the script and cinematography are breathtaking and the movie captures the period well. If you use movies to transport you to another place and time, one you could not ordinarily be able to get to on your own, then your magic carpet awaits you.

REASONS TO RENT: Another fine Edward Norton performance. Gorgeous cinematography. An intelligent script based on a classic Somerset Maugham novel.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Naomi Watts doesn’t quite nail her role. Chemistry between leads is lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of a village ravaged by disease and civil war, as well as partial nudity and depictions of drug use. Parents might want to think twice about letting their younger children see this, although for older teens it might make a fine introduction to the works of Maugham as well as to colonial-era China.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During filming, Norton injured his back when his horse threw him onto some rocks. He didn’t seek proper medical treatment until shooting concluded and he returned to Hong Kong. It turned out that he had fracutred three vertebrae in his back.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an unreported production budget. Since the filmmakers received financial assistance from a Chinese production company, it is likely that the studio made money on this venture.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Love and Other Drugs