Tag Archives: Film Review

Film Review: Blackhat (2015, dir. Michael Mann)

Blackhat_posterReview by Jay Clarke 

Blackhat is Michael Mann’s latest and I won’t bury the lede here—it’s just not very good. It’s the kind of not very good that keeps Mann apologists like myself awake at night. The 71-year-old director is a master technician and mood setter, a great builder of tension and a genius at hiding large, existential thorns within the soft, chewy center of a genre flick. All the cogs and uh, “Mannerisms” are there for Blackhat to be a success. What went wrong?

The movie stars Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway, a talented computer hacker furloughed from prison to help hunt a master cyber-attacker (our titular “blackhat”) who seems to have no political or financial motivation. Hathaway is sprung by old friend, and current Chinese official, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) because Hathaway is the “only man” who can stop this baddie who is suddenly blowing up Chinese nuclear sites and inflating stock prices in Chicago with a couple keystrokes and a trusty Dell.

Hemsworth is capable enough. He smolders, runs, shoots, stabs, tosses one-liners and beds his friend’s sister (Wei Tang) mere days after jumping the big house like any great antihero would. Alas, he’s no match for a script that sets him up as a static, muscle-bound post-grad without a compelling past. I wanted James Caan to jump out of nowhere, push Thor aside to furiously type code on one of the movie’s many keyboards. All this while drinking a pretty damn good Scotch and telling Tuesday Weld everything was going to work out. No such luck. 

If you’re wondering where the authorities are in this multi-national crime spree, Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) of the FBI is along for the sky miles-inflating ride. Davis’ talents are wildly underserved here, though moments before her demise we learn her husband died during 9/11. If that seems like a loaded detail, then you should write screenplays. Does this slapdash delivered fact motivate her to stop bad guys? Does she see these cyber-attacks as a new kind of terrorism? Is she at all concerned that Hathaway, despite having some sort of shady tactical training in the past, is still a civilian unequipped to pull of this kind of operation? The bullets come a-flyin’ and we’ll never know.

Mann is anything if not a master of the final act—for a Hollywood that top-loads with concept but can’t deliver the goods, that’s no small shakes. Go back and re-watch Heat’s denouement on the tarmac, Thief’s shootout in the suburbs of Chicago, Manhunter’s frantic crash through a kitchen window. These are brilliantly staged, logical and fated climaxes. In its own way, Blackhat is no different. The too-many moving parts and clunky dialogue of the film’s first two-thirds suddenly slough off after a shocking car-bomb blast. From there, we are left with only four principles (give or take a few thugs) some magazines and a sharpened screwdriver. Interestingly, the pace during the last section in Jakarta actually slows and Blackhat becomes more tidy, forceful and focused than it’s been up to that point. It almost made up for the flabby script and my wildly stretched suspension of disbelief. Almost.

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Review: A Most Violent Year (2014, dir. J.C. Chandor)

A-Most-Violent-Year-02Review by Robert Ham

Though it opens with a sequence that culminates in a moment of intense brutality, J.C. Chandor’s third feature isn’t particularly violent, despite what the title may say. Outside of a few moments of white knuckle intensity, the bloodshed is taking place offscreen, in news reports heard in the background of scenes or referred to in the abstract. The real violence is psychological or emotional, between rival owners of heating oil companies and in the lavish household of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his mob-connected wife (Jessica Chastain).

But by placing the word “violent” in the film’s title, the spectre of potential bloodshed or fisticuffs lingers over every scene. As the temperature rises in heated conversations or even something as simple as Abel jogging down the street, you’re bracing yourself for a slap to land or a bullet to get fired. Don’t be surprised if you spend the entire running time with your back and shoulders taut and tense.

In that sense, Chandor puts you right into Abel’s shoes. As the film begins, he is putting together the deal to purchase a huge storage facility that sits right on a New York estuary, all the better to expand his business. Just as he starts moving forward though, not only do some of his delivery trucks start getting hijacked, but he learns that the District Attorney’s office is getting ready to investigate his business for potentially practices. If that weren’t enough, with that legal trouble in play, Abel’s bank decides not to float him the money to finalize his big real estate purchase.

What Isaac brings out so perfectly in his performance is Abel’s pure desperation. The idea of protecting his wife and young daughters is on his mind but his chief concern is protecting his financial security. He earned his modernist manse and he’s not going to give it up for anybody. Isaac brings all this to bear through his hunched over shoulders, clipped speech patterns, and furrowed brow. You feel for him as he moves around seeking either financial assistance or answers from his business rivals. And, again, you keep expecting him to, at some point, snap and start throwing punches.

Even better than Isaac is Chastain. In a role that could have been a mess of tear-stained histrionics, the veteran actress plays it with the reserve and the barely masked menace that you would expect from a woman who grew up in a Mafia family. Her threats to bring in daddy for help and her confrontation of the DA outside of the house feel as cold and dangerous as a sharpened icicle.

The real star of this show is Chandor. He has already proven adept at bringing America’s financial crisis into stark relief and put modern masculinity into question through a feature-length metaphor starring Robert Redford with his first two films Margin Call and All Is Lost. Here, his sharp script and direction call into question the American dream as a whole. It’s no mistake that Abel is an immigrant who has been slowly and assuredly climbing the capitalist ladder. This is the bill of goods that have been sold to millions of people who have emigrated here for the past 200 years. But what the director reminds us all is just how fucking ugly it can get trying to make that dream a reality, whether it’s through the people who would seek to knock you off your pedestal or a larger system of corruption that you’re forced to navigate. The path from Point A to Point B is rarely a straight one, and Chandor has no problem taking us along every circuitous and dangerous step.

Film Review: Inherent Vice (2014, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

309431id1h_InherentVice_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet_6C.inddReview by Jay Clarke 

Inherent Vice, the film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel from director Paul Thomas Anderson, follows the bunglings and accidental revelations of one Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a 1970’s burnout PI on the hunt for his missing ex-girlfriend. To sketch any more of the labyrinthine plot would be like digging deep into the personality and motivations of Optimus Prime—it’s not the point, man. Let’s say the movie starts with the arrival of Doc’s “old lady,” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), and from there it spins out to lesbian massage parlors, Nazi biker gangs, dubious real estate moguls, wannabe actor cops, muscle-bound spiritual gurus, cult surf bands (cult in membership, not underground fandom), heroin casualties and what may or may not be a massive international crime cartel in league with the CIA. All of this churns in a tone that is equal parts Altman and Zucker, Up in Smoke and The Parallax View. In short, a slice of Los Angeles circa 1970.

Pynchon is a maximalist nonpareil and Anderson understands that in the author’s jokey, encyclopedic world, some details are pointless, some details mean everything. It depends on how you look at it. Up close, the movie feels like one long elbow in the ribs by the smartest kid in the back row of class. Wide angled and you’re watching an incredible social mix of post-Manson Los Angeles (and by extension, post-Manson America), where the freedom and hope of ’60s activism and culture has given way to sadness, paranoia, confusion, absurdity and an impossible web of conflicting groups hellbent on keeping their corner of the world alive. Or, at the very least, hellbent on scoring some primo weed.

Anderson does two things right here: his filmmaking stays out of the way of Pynchon’s pyrotechnics (Anderson’s Altman is in ascendancy, Kubrick in decline) and he casts the movie with actors who embrace this odd balance of farce and fear. Waterston is in many ways the heart of the movie. She certainly is the sexual and emotional center, a sort of sunset Aphrodite in bikini bottoms, melancholy but unable to make any changes for the better. Phoenix is his usual mumbling bumbling self; elastic and stoned silly one minute and clear-eyed savior the next. You realize as an actor just how spot-on his facial and physical control really is. There is not a moment when he breaks from being an absolute buffoon hedonist with a heart of gold.

As for the rest of the giant cast, there are moments when the parade of new faces becomes distracting and then there are scenes when specific characters elevate the film entirely. I’m thinking of expert turns by Martin Short as a drug snorting dentist on the make and Josh Brolin as Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornson, a part-time actor and cop, full time 1950s American male manqué and certainly Doc’s foil, if not his great love. Without Bigfoot, no Doc and vice versa. This odd pair is Pynchon’s and Anderson’s point in microcosm—conflicting forces (Doc and Bigfoot, ’50s order and ’60s chaos, laughter and fear, paranoia and safety, beauty and disgust) were the tenor of the times. These very times might be the Big Bang for our current cycle of fear that seeks distraction, distraction that becomes disquiet. It’s all how you look at it.

I’m not sure what the lasting influence of Inherent Vice will be. I noticed the same seat shuffling and half chuckling when I saw Vice’s gumshoe antecedent, The Big Lebowski. That movie is considered a milestone by most and a masterpiece by many. Vice is a different beast. To his credit, Anderson is dealing with one of the great American tropes here—the detective thriller—and bringing something unique and odd to the table. In the middle of an utter morass of character and event is an individual trying to parse through what seems to be acres of bullshit, but bullshit on a much wider scale than the mere corrupt police forces and crime syndicates of the past. We’re talking bullshit on a national, even international, scale here. Ask any conspiracy theorist you know—the corridors of power are secretive and vast.

Ultimately, the point of the movie isn’t that knotty and elusive. “We is Doc,” the movie seems to say. If you’re confused by the world while still trying to do the right thing, in love but not totally sure all the time where your love lies, if you’re terrified of what your country has become but you’re unable to do anything substantial about it and because of your confusion and self-doubt you ultimately settle on just wanting to get by without getting you or your loved ones killed, well then yes, you and I are in fact Doc.

Film Review: Men, Women & Children (2014, dir. Jason Reitman)

hr_Men,_Women___Children_5Review by Robert Ham [originally published at Tiny Mix Tapes]

Buried deep within the morass of emotional manipulation and technophobic weirdness of Men, Women, & Children is the kernel of a good idea. There probably a very interesting and thoughtful movie to be made about how smartphones, tablets, TVs, and online communication are having a detrimental effect on our real life relationships. This is not that movie.

What we are given instead is a prettied up melodrama that aims to shame people for the poor decisions they make and blaming the Internet for facilitating said missteps. Oh, and it contrasts that with a lot of shots of the Voyager spacecraft floating through space to let us know that, gosh, technology used to be so cool and now it’s being used for porn and to facilitate affairs and for people to pay these silly games on.

The chief instigators of the bad deeds are the film’s precious children, a gaggle of beautiful teens all played by relative unknowns. There’s the 15-year-old who can’t get it up via traditional pornography anymore because the access to the hard stuff online has ruined him (which as a former 15-year-old boy, I must call bullshit on). There’s the sensitive boy who quits the football team because of a Carl Sagan YouTube clip and his favorite online RPG. There’s the cheerleader who keeps a website of scandalous pictures going in hopes of being noticed by a talent scout. And there’s the geeky girl who posts her own risqué snapshots, but under a Tumblr pseudonym lest her overbearing mother find out.

The only teen who actually comes across as realistic is the young girl who has starved herself thin in hopes of being noticed by her dream boy. But director Jason Reitman belabors this point by decorating her room with thousands of pictures of stick figure fashion models, as apparent inspiration.

In a nod to Ice Storm-like plotting, the parents of these kids are, of course, just as bad. They are either using the web to arrange random hookups because their marriage is on the rocks, or in the case of Judy Greer’s character, playing majordomo to her daughter’s sleazy online presence. Reitman and co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson attempt to offer up balance in the form of an overbearing mom played by Jennifer Garner who watches her daughter’s every online interaction like the NSA. That’s not even mentioning Emma Thompson’s omniscient narrator who pointlessly hovers over the whole film lest viewers miss some Very Important Point.

What is never made clear is what Reitman hopes to gain from this whole mess. Is he trying to facilitate discussions about the potential dangers of online addiction? It’s a real concern, I know, but the only people whose ears are going to perk up in response to these dull archetypes and very extreme examples are Fox News contributors and 700 Club subscribers who are going to use this film as teaching material for the next generation of young parents. I even question the use of poor Dennis Haysbert as the naughty man who sleeps with Rosemarie DeWitt’s unsatisfied housewife, stoking further unnecessary fears of dark-skinned men coming to steal nice white women from their goodly husbands. No attempt to try to even the scales by having the character’s husband (Adam Sandler) engage in his own misdeeds is enough to wipe that idea away.

My biggest fear about this film is this: that, like Crash before it, certain folks in Hollywood are going to hold Men, Women, & Children as a jewel of Important Cinema, and make a push for it to win multiple Academy Awards. It’s up to us to make sure that that doesn’t happen. Your first step on this mission: avoid this movie at all costs.

Film Review: The Drop (2014, dir. Michaël Roskam)

The_Drop_PosterDennis Lehane’s hard-boiled, finely-rendered crime and suspense novels have never gotten a great film adaptation. Something about the translation of SHUTTER ISLAND, GONE BABY GONE, and even the much-vaunted MYSTIC RIVER – all fine movies, to be sure – seemed a little askew, and a pale imitation of his tense, hard-bitten prose. After sitting through THE DROP, I’m wont to believe that the issue was simply that Lehane didn’t have a hand in the scriptwriting.

Outside of some unnecessary voiceover, Lehane puts together a nearly-perfect script that feels like a striptease happening in front of you. Each layer of the plot is carefully and tantalizingly peeled away until the naked truth is standing in front of you 100 minutes later. And it is damn hot.

The other key distinction between THE DROP and the other Lehane adaptations is that this film has a surprisingly warm heart beating amid the shocking acts of violence and the grit of Brooklyn. This tenderness comes in the guise of Bob, a Terry Maloy-like barkeep with working class roots trailing behind him for miles. Played to perfection by the always welcome Tom Hardy, you’re never quite sure through the majority of the film just who this quiet, shuffling gent is. His calm and reserve, and unflinching understanding of right and wrong, paints him as someone with a developmental disability. But to watch him take on otherwise gruesome tasks like disposing of a person’s severed arm with precision hints that much more is going on behind his quiet demeanor and somewhat blank expression.

The arm belonged at one point to a stick up man, who one cold evening holds up Cousin Marvin’s Bar, the dive where Bob is employed. The establishment is the titular drop point, a kind of way station for the various arms of an organized crime family to hold on to ill-gotten gains. The robbery ends up being planned by the bar’s namesake, a gruff figure who used to command respect and fear in the neighborhood, but has since fallen on hard times and lost his watering hole to a batch of Chechen gangsters.

In the form of James Gandolfini (in what turned out to be unfortunately his final film role), Marvin becomes a tragic figure of Mamet-esque proportions, all wheezing breath and unrestrained contempt at the world. He has a back story involving trying to help keep his beloved father in a top flight nursing home, but really his motivation for the theft is just to try to gain back some of the ground he lost. That he never seems to get any purchase on the people whose thumb he is under only adds to the desperation.

For Bob, this runs secondary to his biggest concern: a beaten and scared pitbull puppy he rescues from a neighbor’s garbage can. The dog – and his burgeoning relationship with Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the woman whose trash he had to upend to save the pup – gives him, at long last, a sense of purpose. A man apparently without a family to speak of, Bob now feels connected to some deeper emotions than he likely thought possible. So when a sketchy outsider wanders into the scene and threatens the safety of these battered creatures, he uses every means at his disposal to protect them.

What never leaves this film is a sense of dread, that feeling that you know bad things are around the corner for everyone who plays a part in this melodrama. Lehane and director Michaël Roskam do an amazing job of keeping you guessing as to when that other shoe will fall. Add to it the dark, almost seamy picture of Brooklyn painted by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis who bathes everything in dull greys and off-white, shot through with strange blasts of color, and the film is perfectly immersive and reverberates through the senses for hours afterward.