Fences


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

(2016) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone, Jason Silvis, Toussaint Raphael Abessolo, Benjamin Donlow, John W. Iwononkiw, Cecily Lewis, Tra’Waan Coles, Theresa Cook, Cara Clark, Connie Kincer, Teri Middleton, Kelly L. Moran. Directed by Denzel Washington

 

“Some folks build fences to keep people out,” muses a character in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Other folks build fences to keep people in.” There’s truth to that but Fences actually posits a third option; some people build fences to barricade themselves against a life that has done nothing but disappoint them.

Troy Maxson (Washington) was once upon a time a great baseball player. Unfortunately for him, he was a great baseball player during a time when only white men were allowed to play in the major league. By the time Jackie Robinson opened that door, Troy was already forty years old and that ship had sailed. Now in his fifties, he lives in Pittsburgh working for the sanitation department, riding on the back of a garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Henderson). The truck drivers are all white and Troy is trying to become a sort of Jackie Robinson of garbage truck drivers, although truth be told he never thought much of ol’ Jackie.

He does have a home of his own, a castle with a tiny yard around which he’s fixing to build a fence. His wife Rose (Davis) is a heroic partner; she manages to smooth her husband’s rough edges and endures his petty rage with the patience of a saint. Much of his rage is directed at their son Cory (Adepo) who is a fine athlete in his own right, attracting attention of college football coaches for his prowess on the gridiron.

This does not sit well at all with Troy, no sir. He creates obstacles for his son to keep him from finding that success in sports that he himself was denied. Rose tries to keep the peace between the two men but the tensions are escalating. Troy’s musician son Lyons (Hornsby) from a different mother – back before Rose and Troy were a thing – also has Troy’s scorn, but Lyons has managed to get away. It seems that Troy’s tender side is reserved only for his wife, Bono and Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Williamson) who fought in the war and ended up with brain damage.

Troy can be a charming storyteller but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade. We discover things about Troy that are less than savory, things even Troy won’t talk about and Troy often talks about his days as a young criminal going down the wrong path until Rose straightened him out. Rose endures everything, all the stories, all the tantrums, all the frustration but there comes a time when Troy does something that Rose cannot endure and all of a sudden those fences seem much taller and insurmountable than they ever have before.

The late playwright August Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, the sixth in his ten-play Pittsburgh cycle. Wilson had ambitions of taking the play to Hollywood and in fact wrote a screenplay based on his own work but unfortunately passed away before it made it to the big screen. Once Washington got the rights to film this, he utilized the script (with a touch-up from producer Tony Kushner) which stays fairly faithful to Wilson’s original work.

That’s a double-edged sword. Some of the monologues don’t sound like real people speaking and give the movie a kind of stage-like feel. The claustrophobic feel of the yard and the house are functions of the pressing frustrations of Troy’s life but they also contribute to that feeling of watching a stage play rather than a movie. Really though that’s the film’s only flaw.

The movie is well-acted from top to bottom with Oscar-level performances by Washington and Davis, both of whom are almost shoo-ins to get nominations when they are announced tomorrow morning (as of this writing). Washington’s Troy is cocky, angry, sexy, engaging and equal parts bully and provider. He has given up some of his less savory ways but not all of them and he ends up threatening everything he built for himself because of it.

As good as Washington is, Davis is even better. Her performance has been called a supporting role and I suppose in some ways it is, but if we’re going to be honest Rose is one third of the focus here and in that sense she is part of an ensemble. There’s a confrontation between Rose and Troy, some of which is seen in the trailer, that is as riveting a scene as you’ll see this year or any other. Her frustrations of enduring her husband’s endless posturing, his anger and his refusal to take any accountability for his own shortcomings boils over and her anger is so palpable she is literally shaking as tears stream down her face.

It should be mentioned that Williamson’s performance here is very reminiscent of his work in Forrest Gump and may be even better. Gabriel is a damaged soul but child-like. Troy is his protector and Gabriel looks up to him with faith that is touching if misplaced. Williamson should get at least some consideration for a Supporting Actor Oscar although that might not happen in a very strong field in that category this year.

This is easily one of the best-acted films of the year. The source material is extremely powerful, examining family dynamics, rivalry between father and son and the frustrations of a life that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. The setting brings racial inequality into the story but it is more of a background issue; this is about a family that is relatable to any who had a stern taskmaster for a father, or a mother who held things together. Those kinds of archetypes are very common in the African American community but they are also universal. My own father had some of Troy’s characteristics; a frustration that the life he envisioned for himself didn’t happen and there was a rivalry between us that at times made me believe that he would rather see me fail so that his own failures were somehow less painful. The thing that separated my father from Troy Maxson however was that he very clearly loved his children and would do anything for them, including work himself to death for them, and he was also able to express that love although perhaps not in ways that would be found acceptable today. He did the best he could in the times and culture he lived in and sometimes that’s all we are really able to get. The fences that keep the demons out are also the fences that can keep families together…or tear them apart. This is one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Washington and Davis are electrifying. A middle class African-American family of the 1950s is nicely captured. Wilson justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this; it is a play/film that truly makes you think.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit stage-y.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language, some domestic violence, a little bit of suggestive sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The five adult actors from the 2010 revival of the August Wilson play reprise their roles here; it went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Strad Style

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New Releases for the Week of December 23, 2016


SingSING

(Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton. Directed by Garth Jennings

A once-grand theater is dying and the owner, one Buster Moon, has an idea to save it; hold a massive American Idol-like singing contest. True to his predictions, the contest captures the imagination of the whole town as ordinary people with extraordinary dreams compete for fame, fortune and opportunity.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened Wednesday)

Rating: PG (for some rude humor and mild peril)

Assassin’s Creed

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson. Based on the hit videogame, a convicted criminal is executed…and brought back to life for the sole purpose of utilizing his genetic memories. Sent back as part of the Assassin’s Guild (to which his family has belonged for generations), he and the Assassin’s fight the mysterious and malevolent Templars in both the past and present.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Action/Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release (opened Wednesday)

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language)

Dangal

(UTV) Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra. The true story of wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, a champion Indian wrestler. He was unable to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and vowed that since he failed, his son would do what he could not. The universe having a perverse sense of humor delivers four children to Mahavir – all daughters. At first devastated, he observes that two of them have the tools to become champions themselves – and he swallows his pride and trains them.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Fences

(Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson. Directed by Washington and based on the play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson who also penned the screenplay, this is the story of a proud African-American man trying to raise his family in the 1950s. Bitterly disappointed by life, he turns his back on his son who wants nothing more than to please him while the father seethes, knowing that his son could go much farther in life than he ever did.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens on Sunday)

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material)

Lion

(Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman. A young boy found wandering in the streets of Kolkata is adopted by a kindly Australian couple. Years later as a grown man he begins to experience some childhood memories and knows he must return to India to find his mother and siblings. However, all he knows is that he somehow was mistakenly put on a train and left on it for two days; his home and family could be nearly anywhere in the country. Undeterred, he sets out to find his past so he can help define his future.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sensuality)

Passengers

(Columbia) Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Sheen. On a spaceship headed on a 120-year voyage to colonize a planet outside the solar system, the colonists are in pods that keep them asleep for most of the journey. When a man and a woman find themselves awake 90 years too early with no way to get back to sleep, they are devastated at first but soon they discover that their early wake-up call was the beginning of even more catastrophic malfunctions aboard the ship.

See the trailer, clips and premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Wednesday)

Rating: PG-13 (for sexuality, nudity and action/peril)

Why Him?

(20th Century Fox) Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mulally.  Stephanie is a great young woman and the apple of her daddy’s eye. Her new boyfriend could be the one, but when mom and dad meet him, it turns out that he’s a Silicon Valley tech billionaire. Quite the catch, no? No. He’s socially awkward but tech-savvy in ways dear old dad could never be. The two enter a one-upmanship contest – advantage, boyfriend – and soon Dad realizes that he could lose his daughter forever…to someone who has no filter whatsoever.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Wednesday)

Rating: R (for strong language and sexual material throughout)

Suicide Squad


Wanna come out and play?

Wanna come out and play?

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Kenneth Choi, Alain Chanoine, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Common, Jim Parrack, David Harbour, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon. Directed by David Ayer

 

There are those who maintain that a hero is nothing without a memorable villain to oppose him. That’s largely true; what would James Bond be without Blofeld, Holmes without Moriarty or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? We usually see things from the hero’s point of view but rarely do we get a glimpse into the world of the super villain.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the American government is extremely nervous. What would happen, posits Amanda Waller (Davis) who works for a shadowy intelligence agency, if Superman had instead of saving the world decided to destroy it? Who would stop him? Waller has an idea, one that is magnificent in its simplicity and alarming at its utter amorality.

She “recruits” (i.e. forces) several super villains locked up in the Belle Reve black ops prison in the swamps of Louisiana to form up a team to take on certain situations which are essentially hopeless. Situations in which the superheroes that are out in public (which are essentially Batman (Affleck) and the Flash (Miller) at this point) shouldn’t be risked as they aren’t exactly expendable. These guys are exactly that. Waller knows that and at the same time, she knows they have nothing to lose by running. She has a solution that recalls The Running Man to a certain extent but absolutely doesn’t say anything particularly nice about the woman.

And who are these guys? For one, there’s Deadshot (Smith), an assassin for hire who never misses with any firearm you give him. Then there’s Harley Quinn (Robbie), the deranged ex-psychiatrist who is now the Joker’s (Leto) girlfriend but who is a formidable opponent of her own. Then there’s Diablo (Hernandez), a gang banger who can shoot flames in any direction but when his powers caused the death of his wife and son, is attempting to reform and has vowed to never use his powers again.

=Add to that list Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a horribly mutated man who is half man, half crocodile and eats people when he gets the chance. Then there’s Enchantress, a demonic spirit that has possessed archaeologist June Moon (Delevingne) and possesses incredible magic powers, Captain Boomerang (Courtney), an Aussie thief whose weapon of choice is a boomerang that he is absolutely deadly accurate with. Finally there’s Slipknot (Beach), whose ability to climb any surface makes him a useful scout.

Overseeing these representatives of the lunatic fringe is Captain Rick Flagg (Kinnaman), a Navy SEAL who just happens to be Professor Moon’s boyfriend – and who is himself tough as nails. Having his back is Katana (Fukuhara), a Japanese martial artist with an enchanted sword that captures the souls of its victims – which include her husband among their number. Katana is able to communicate with the spirits in the blade, including her late hubby.

They are battling a mystical opponent who wants to essentially open a rift in the dimension that will end civilization as we know it. The problem is that the Suicide Squad as they have come to be known as don’t really give a rat’s tush about civilization. If they can stop fighting amongst themselves, though, they might just come through of it alive. The odds are not good for either however.

Let’s be blunt to start out; the DC Extended Universe (what they call their cinematic division) has not had the kind of success that Marvel has and the critics have absolutely excoriated this movie. Now, I will be the first to say that DC’s cinematic path hasn’t caught on for a reason; in trying to duplicate the tone of the very successful Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan. You’ll notice that the Marvel cinematic universe is anything but.

But is this movie really that bad? I don’t think so…for one thing it’s entertaining as all get out. Ayers is a director who has a very fine eye and a well-developed story-telling sense. He also knows how important it is for there to be fun in the equation, and there’s lots of great by-play between the characters and a lot of humor injected into the script.

He also has a helluva cast. Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, has rarely been better than he is here. Yes, his Deadshot is one of the more developed characters in the film, but Smith gets to play a villain who has some human qualities as well (he’s absolutely devoted to his daughter, played by Pierre-Dixon for one). He also shows the kind of leadership skills shown by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers in the Marvel Universe. The DC Universe sorely needs that.

Robbie has almost as much time in the movie as Smith and her Harley Quinn took a different path to the silver screen; Harley Quinn didn’t initially come from the comic books but from the television animated shows. She went from there to the comic books which she became something of an icon, particularly to female comic book fangirls. Robbie fills the role well; while some have groused that the character has been overly sexualized here (including Robbie herself), she turns in an intense performance, particularly since she has to go up against Oscar winner Jared Leto as her boyfriend/abuser the Joker.

Leto has been very vocal in his disappointment about what the role turned out to be, and in all fairness the Joker was never supposed to be a central character here. However, it stands to reason that you can’t really have Harley Quinn with Mr. J; it doesn’t work. His take on the Joker is a lot different than that of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger or even Cesar Romero. Not better, not worse, just different. I liked Leto’s Joker just fine; he’s supposed to be unpredictable and Leto certainly makes him that. He isn’t nearly as menacing as Ledger’s Joker, nor as twisted as Nicholson’s. However, this Joker is wilder, more untamed than either. It is a good interpretation.

There are a lot of special effects, particularly involving the mystical vortex thingy that the Big Bads are creating. There are an awful lot of trans-dimensional vortices in superhero movies as of late and as those sorts of things go, this one is no worse nor any better than most. It just isn’t all that impressive; neither are most of the practical effects. Also, there are moments when the plot gets a little bit, ahh, thick. I found it a touch confusing at times and perhaps more casual comic book fans might feel the same.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the heck out of the movie. These really aren’t the A-list of DC villains (although the Joker is present) but some of the mid-level guys. Quinn and Deadshot both look like slam-dunks coming back for more cinematic superhero goodness. And all things considered, this didn’t do the DC Extended Universe better; it might well be the best of the three that have appeared so far, at least in my book. However, it still isn’t slam dunk enough to really elevate the franchise into a place where I’m actually excited about it. Maybe Wonder Woman will bring that to the game.

REASONS TO GO: There is excellent interaction between an excellent cast. Smith is at his very best here. Brings some of DC’s lesser villains to light.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are unimpressive. The story is occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, plenty of violence and superhero action, some sexually suggestive material and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harley Quinn’s baseball bat was given to Kevin Smith to thank him for hosting the TV special Dawn of the Justice League shortly before this film came out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gleason

New Releases for the Week of August 5, 2016


Suicide SquadSUICIDE SQUAD

(Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne. Directed by David Ayer

There are some jobs that a superhero just can’t do. They are far too valuable to risk. That’s when you send in the other guys, or in this case, a government-selected group of super-villains who have nothing to lose and are completely expendable. Given no option but to succeed or die, will they take on an impossible task and perhaps save the world, or bicker among themselves and go down in flames along with the rest of us?

See the trailer, a clip, a promo, a featurette and a video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language)

Bazodee

(Serafini) Staz Nair, Kabir Bedi, Natalie Perera, Valmike Rampersad. The daughter of an Indian businessman agrees to marry a wealthy man in order to get her father out of the crushing debt he’s under. However, at her engagement party she meets an intriguing reggae musician with whom she develops a complicated friendship…which leads to forbidden feelings that catch the eye of the protective brother of her fiance who sets out to ruin everything and everyone involved.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and brief language)

Nine Lives

(EuropaCorp/Relativity) Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Robbie Amell, Christopher Walken. A workaholic Dad on the eve of his biggest career triumph ever is on the way home to his daughter’s 11th birthday with the gift she’s always wanted – a cat. He hates cats, but had to scramble to find a gift and this is what he came up with. After a terrible car accident, he awakens with his consciousness inside the cat. He begins to get an entirely new outlook about his family through the eyes of the cat and begins to understand what he could potentially lose. It will take an extreme effort on his part to earn back his humanity and rejoin the family he’d taken for granted for so long.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, language and some rude humor)

Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains

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

New Releases for the Week of January 16, 2015


The Wedding RingerTHE WEDDING RINGER

(Screen Gems) Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Jenifer Lewis, Olivia Thirlby, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Cloris Leachman, Mimi Rogers, Ken Howard. Directed by Jeremy Garelick

When a socially awkward young man finds the girl of his dreams and she agrees to marry him, it’s a time for the support of his friends in getting him to and through the big day. However, this particular socially awkward young man doesn’t have any friends. With his bride-to-be expecting seven groomsmen and a best man, he needs to do the impossible but fortunately there’s help – Best Man, Incorporated whose charismatic CEO is willing to be a best man for hire. The groomsmen may be not all what they could be, but the socially awkward young man is gearing up for the time of his life.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette, premiere footage and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, language throughout, some drug use and brief graphic nudity)

American Sniper

(Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Kyle Gallner, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes. Chris Kyle went to Iraq as a Navy SEAL and a sharpshooter and became the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. This is the story behind the numbers, told as only Clint Eastwood can tell it.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: War
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references)

blackhat

(Universal/Legendary) Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, William Mapother. Ruthless cyberterrorists are proving more elusive and deadly than conventional authorities can handle. Using the adage that it takes a thief to catch a thief, law enforcement turns to a convicted hacker who may be the only one who can stop the hackers from plunging the world into literal chaos.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Action Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for violence and some language)

I

(Aascar) Chiyaan Vikram, Amy Jackson, Suresh Gopi, Upen Patel. A deformed hunchback, an internationally recognized male model and a champion bodybuilder – all played by the same actor – whose interactions with a beautiful supermodel form the basis of events here which are told in a non-linear fashion.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace & Regal Oviedo Marketplace
Rating: NR

Listen Up, Philip

(Tribeca) Jason Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter. An arrogant writer feeling alienated as his second book is about to be published sees his relationships disintegrating. When his literary idol offers his summer retreat as a refuge, he takes it so that he can focus on himself – his favorite subject. Instead, though, he begins to feel the absence of his connection with the city and those he spent time with in it.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Paddington

(Dimension) Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman, Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins. A family returning home one evening discover a talking bear from Peru alone in a railway station with a tag around his neck “Please look after this bear.” Naming the creature Paddington, they bring him home out of the kindness of their hearts and get thrown into all manner of mischief and chaos but their resolve will be tested when a museum taxidermist takes a particular interest in the talking bear.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide release
Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)

Spare Parts

(Lionsgate/Pantelion) George Lopez, Marisa Tomei, Esai Morales, Jamie Lee Curtis. Four Hispanic students in an economically challenged high school form a robotics club under the leadership of a charismatic science teacher. With $800, some used car parts and zero experience, they enter a national competition where they will face teams that have enormous budgets, state-of-the-art facilities and loads of experience, led by national champion MIT. These odds don’t deter them; they go in with the expectation that they will make something more of what they have.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal The Loop
Rating: PG-13 (for some language and violence)