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

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Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)


What could be more depressing about the state of humanity than a child with a gun?

What could be more depressing about the state of humanity than a child with a gun?

(2008) War Drama (Sony Classics) Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Raymond Thiry, Melody Klaver, Anneke Blok, Mees Piejnenburg, Jesse van Driel, Dan van Husen, Ad van Kempen, Tygo Gernandt, Ben Ramakers, Tibo Vandenborre, Jens Roth, Peter Eberst, Peter Post, Emile Jansen, Alja Hoeksema. Directed by Martin Koolhoven

That war is hell is a given. For youngsters however war is a special kind of hell, the kind that can render childhood terminated and sometimes life itself terminated as well.

Michiel (Lakemeier) lives in a small Dutch village in 1945 as the war is drawing to a close. His father Johan (Thiry), the mayor, is hoping that they can all ride out the German withdrawal from their village as safely as is possible. While they remain he does his best to keep the Germans happy as possible – not as a collaborator mind you but more of an appeaser.

His brother and Michiel’s uncle Ben (van Wageningen) is different. He’s a resistance fighter, combating the Nazis at every opportunity. To Michiel, his uncle Ben is a hero and his father, he increasingly suspects, is a coward.

This deteriorating situation within the family is thrown into chaos when a British RAF pilot named Jack (Bower) crashes near the village. His leg badly mangled, he is hidden by the resistance after killing a German soldier who had discovered the crash. When the resistance fighters protecting him are wiped out, it falls upon Michiel to protect the pilot. He brings in his sister Erika (Klaver) to help with Jack’s wounded leg – Erika’s a nurse. It doesn’t take long for Erika to fall in love with the dashing young pilot. Still, it is a cat and mouse game between the Nazis and Michiel whose family will be tested by Michiel’s actions. Not all of those closest to him will pass that test.

Based on a novel by Dutch writer/politician/scientist Jan Terlouw who in turn based the novel on his own experiences during the Second World War, Winter in Wartime is a bit rote when it comes to war movies. Films like Defiance, The Boy with the Striped Pajamas and Aftermath all explore the various aspects of the war explored here, from living in an occupied town to how children dealt with the experiences. The Dutch have turned to the war as a subject (or at least a backdrop) regularly in films like Soldier of Orange to Black Book.

Lakemeier does a very credible job as the 13-year-old Michiel. He is a child growing much more rapidly into a man than he should have to. By film’s end Michiel is certainly no longer a child and young Lakemeier makes that transformation believable. Van Wageningen does heroic quite well while Thiry keeps you guessing as to his character’s loyalties.

I can’t help but think that this could have used a bit less Hollywood and a bit more Amsterdam. This feels like a kind of rote studio film in many places and while the cinematography captures the beauty of snow-swept vistas and towns layered in the white powder, it still feels a bit predictable. It must also be said that Koolhoven does a fine job at maintaining the level of suspense, particularly in the latter half of the film.

This is basically a well-made movie and I can recommend it pretty much to everyone although with the caveat that you will have seen this before in many ways. Lakemeier’s performance however is something you haven’t seen and for that alone you can put this on your list of movies to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performance by Lakemeier. Suspenseful when it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language and a bit of wartime violence as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in Lithuania due to the absence of snow in the Netherlands during filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lore

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Grand Budapest Hotel

47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Lisabeth Salander has Mikael Blomkvist in stitches.

(2011) Thriller (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Geraldine James, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, Ulf Friberg, Julian Sands, Moa Garpendal, Embeth Davidtz. Directed by David Fincher

 

Sometimes a movie is so good when it is originally made that it seems virtually unthinkable that it be remade. Most of the time, those remakes fall far short of the mark. Once in awhile however, the remake comes out with a voice of its own that offers something to the original, enhances it even.

Purists were aghast when the hit Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was set for an American remake. There was some comfort in that Fincher, whose pedigree includes Se7en and Fight Club would be behind the camera but still there were shudders to think of what liberties and watering down Hollywood would do to the source material, the late Stieg Larsson’s novel (the first in a trilogy, all of which have been translated to film in Swede and all of them reviewed elsewhere on the site) which was grittier and more brutal than Hollywood tends to be.

Mikael Blomkvist (Craig), a crusading journalist and co-publisher of the left-leaning Millennium magazine has been convicted of libel against a wealthy Swedish venture capitalist named Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Friberg). The judgment against Blomkvist essentially empties out his savings and puts Millennium at risk of failing. His co-publisher and lover Erika Berger (Wright) confesses that the magazine may have three months of life left at best.

Wennerstrom isn’t the only one looking into Blomkvist. A security firm is hired by lawyer Dirch Frode (Berkoff) to investigate Blomkvist and the operative of the security firm, Lisbeth Salander (Mara) is asked to turn in her report in person, something that makes her uncomfortable. It turns out that her report is pretty thorough and the few things that are missing are best left that way.

Berkoff represents reclusive industrialist Henrik Vanger (Plummer) who wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece Harriet (Garpendal) whom he believes was murdered by a member of his family 40 years earlier. There are certainly plenty of suspects; ex-Nazis who may not be as ex as they might have you believe; bitter, jealous and greedy, grasping money-grubbers, torturers, rapists and pederasts. Makes for quite a Christmas list.

At first Blomkvist is met with hostility from nearly everyone other than Martin (Skarsgard), Harriet’s brother who is skeptical that Blomkvist will find out anything new. Martin is running the family business now and not running it with much success. The once-vast Vanger empire is shrinking; once a great steel and railway manufacturer, they make most of their profits from fertilizer these days. Considering all the BS that is fed to Blomkvist, I’m quite certain he must have thought that appropriate.

As Blomkvist discovers that his e-mail was hacked by Salander (whose identity he doesn’t yet know), he is infuriated but begrudgingly realizes he needs a research assistant as he is making a little bit of progress but needs someone who can help him dig things up from corporate records at Vanger Industries. He meets Salander who proves to be skittish but intrigued; she isn’t very fond of men in general, having been raped brutally by her state-appointed guardian Nils Bjurman (van Wageningen). She did get her revenge however and proved herself someone not to mess with in the process.

Blomkvist and Salander turn out to make a formidable team and the lies and prevarications of 40 years of silence begin to slip away and they discover Harriet’s disappearance may be the gateway into a much more hideous secret – and that Harriet may not be the only victim. Worse yet, the killer is fully aware of their discoveries and has them both firmly in their sights.

When I found out about this remake, I was like most fans of the books and the Swedish versions somewhat troubled. I couldn’t see Hollywood allowing a movie to include scenes of graphic rape and torture, all of which were at the heart of the previous versions. I fully expected something sanitized and vapid. Then I heard that it was Fincher directing, and to be honest my reaction was “He’s probably the only director in Hollywood who could pull it off,” but I thought he might have difficulty getting the studio to allow him free rein to make the movie he wanted.

Surprisingly he did and we might have The Social Network to thank for it. The runaway commercial and critical success of that film has given Fincher greater clout than he’s had previously and might have allowed him to shut down studio interference in the project. Certainly the rape sequence and the torture sequence late in the film are as disturbing as those in the Swedish film and the book.

Craig was only able to do this film because of the delay in filming the latest James Bond. Here he plays a man unused to action, one more cerebral than some of the heroes he’s played lately and quite frankly Craig is up to the task. It is as different a role from Bond as you can get but equally as heroic, and if this franchise is successful will really put up Craig among the elite stars working today.

Mara is the breakout star here. One had to worry if she could fill the shoes of Noomi Rapace, who was so very central to the success of the Swedish trilogy.  Not only does Mara fill those shoes, she may well surpass them and will herself into stardom; this is a star-making performance to say the least. Salander is a tortured soul and certainly Mara captures that, but she’s also no longer willing to be a victim and the inner strength that makes Salander one of the most interesting heroines of all time is very much evident here as well. She may wear outlandish hair styles, provocative t-shirts and smoke far too much but she is also brilliant as well.

The movie is a bit longer than three hours long which was nearly more than my poor bladder could take – theater sodas are so darn large these days! It also fleshes out the Swedish film quite nicely, although the Swedish version ends with the death of the killer more or less with a brief coda showing a television report that covers the denouement between Blomkvist and Wennerstrom. The American version plays that out a bit further which frankly was unnecessary for my taste.

Still, this is some terrific filmmaking buttressed by some great performances, particularly in the case of Mara (Plummer and Skarsgard, both veteran actors, also deliver solid performances). It may be too intense for some, a bit too long for its own good but by and large this is a really good movie that doesn’t disgrace its source material in the least; if anything, it enhances it nicely and makes for a worthy addition to Larsson’s legacy.

REASONS TO GO: Mara does a star-making turn here. Based on one of the best-written thrillers in recent years. Great cast and production values.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and sexuality can get very intense. Doesn’t measure up to the original in several critical areas. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very disturbing content here, including graphic rape and torture. There is also plenty of nudity and sexuality and a surfeit of naughty words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The piercings that Rooney Mara sports as Lisabeth Salander are real; none of them are cosmetically or digitally enhanced. Mara got them for the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the empty vistas of Northern Sweden seem best on the big screen but it might not be a bad thing to see this at home in front of a roaring fire on a cold night.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Artist