Monday, January 26, 2015

Blackhat

Year: 2015
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom, Viola Davis


Plot: A team of American and Chinese law enforcement officers seek the help of an imprisoned hacker to help them catch another hacker who is committing cyber crimes across the globe.


Review: The last time Michael Mann made a good movie, it was Collateral, and that was 11 years ago. It seems to me that Blackhat isn't going to be one of those movies from Mann that we'll remember.

The story is as follows: a hacker infiltrates a nuclear power plant in China, causing it to explode. Then he hacks into the stock market in Chicago and raises the soy prices up. Chinese officer Chen Dawai recognizes the code the hacker used as one he had written back in MIT, and persuades the FBI to seek help from his former roommate Hathaway, who is now serving time in prison, since he co-wrote the same code.

I'll try to state what I liked about it first. The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that Blackhat was filmed in my home country, and our tin industry was mentioned. I like this because Malaysia is rarely referenced by Hollywood, and it's nice to see one film get it right. Mann also has a knack for filming realistic shootout sequences, especially in relation to the violence and gore. There are only about three of these in Blackhat, but it was well done.

Unfortunately, Blackhat is boring outside of these shootouts. Mann may have got the shootouts right, but the camerawork isn't so great elsewhere, especially during a foot chase in Hong Kong. The shaky cam style just doesn't work anymore. The script is also full of technical jargon, and writer Morgan Davis Foehl doesn't try hard enough to make it understandable for the layman. To make matters worse, there are moments when the film simply meanders around with no real tension, and everyone on screen doesn't have any motivation to act urgently. I guess it's because when we finally figure out why the hacker is doing all this, it seems rather disappointing, but still, the lead up to that should have been better.

Of the cast, only Wang Leehom seems like he was the right person for the role he got, and did an equally good job too. He plays Chen Dawai well enough to make us believe he knows what he's talking about. Chris Hemsworth tries hard, but the problem is he's rather miscast as Hathaway. Any other actor on the Avengers movie could play a hacker, but Hemsworth is too tall and bulky to look the part. Tang Wei is all right as Dawai's sister Lien, but literally does nothing except being in Hathaway's bed and look hot. Ritchie Coster and Yorick van Wageningen are okay as the villains, but don't get enough screen time to matter. Viola Davis is also miscast as FBI agent Barrett, with a 9/11 history briefly shoved in to generate sympathy, but done too deliberately to be convincing.

In the end, Blackhat is an ambitious effort but much too messy overall to be memorable. Mann has a lot of work to do to regain his ability to entertain movie audiences. (5/10)


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tracks

Year: 2014
Director: John Curran
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver


Plot: Based on the true story of Robyn Davidson, a woman who walked across 1700 miles of the Australian desert in 1977 with four camels and her dog.


Review: This time of the year i.e. awards season sees plenty of true stories being screened in cinemas, and here's another one. 

Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson, a woman who successfully crossed the harsh Australian desert from Alice Springs to the west coast, all the way to the Indian Ocean. The movie shows us how she learned to work with camels, prepare for her journey, trek for miles while meeting some aborigines along the way, and her friendship with photographer Rick Smolan, who is tasked to document her trip. 

Director John Curran not only presents Davidson's arduous journey, but also gives the viewer some minor insights into her personality and state of mind, not unlike Into The Wild. In Curran's story, Davidson is shown as someone who seeks calmness and simplicity, an escape from the humdrum of having to listen to other people. While her decision to go on this journey isn't well received by her family and friends, she goes anyway, with her beloved camels and faithful dog Diggity. Overall, Curran doesn't exactly fully explain all the reasons behind why Davidson would go on this trip, but one could say that it is up to the viewer to interpret it for themselves.

Curran, along with cinematographer Mandy Walker and production designer Melinda Doring deserve plenty of credit for successfully showing the harsh and barren desert Davidson walks through. Wasikowska of course gets the lion's share of praise for taking on the lead role here. While she didn't actually take the whole journey, one can see the good amount of work she put in to look the part, which includes training with the camels. She comes across as someone who isn't always understood, but mostly likable. Adam Driver plays Rick Smolan with a sense of awkwardness, as in he admires her immensely but can't really get along with her at times, partially because Davidson hates having her picture taken too often.

Admittedly, this isn't an easy film to sit through, as the overwhelming shots of Davidson walking on the desert gets monotonous, especially in the second half. The story may also have trouble connecting to viewers who are expecting something extra, considering how basic and simple it is overall.

Tracks isn't exactly the best biography there is out there, but it is intriguing in its own way. If you ever wondered if it were possible to walk across near endless miles of desert, or if you've heard of Davidson's trek, or if you love journeys of any kind, give this film a try. (7/10)


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Big Eyes

Year: 2015
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman


Plot: Based on the true story of Margaret Keane, a painter who struggled to claim credit for her own work when her husband stole the credit during the 1960s.


Review: With Big Eyes, Tim Burton is finally taking a break from working with his usual muses Johnny Depp and former wife Helena Bonham Carter, and it turned out to be a wise decision. While this film may be based on a true story, it is told as a comedy, and much less of the usual Burton quirks, which actually works in its favour.

Big Eyes focuses on Margaret, a painter who is known for drawing and painting children with huge eyes. As she struggles to make ends meet and look after her daughter, she meets Walter Keane, a painter who takes interest in her work. They hit it off quickly and get hitched just as fast. When Walter is unable to sell his own paintings, he passes off Margaret's work as his own and makes a fortune selling them. At first she dislikes the idea, but goes along with it to keep her future stable. Then slowly but surely, Walter's obsession with continuing the charade takes its toll and she has to make a decision to save herself.

Burton's decision to make this a comedy (although it has its fair share of drama) was a good one, as it keeps the story interesting and flowing smoothly. The comedy part of this story comes mostly from Christoph Waltz, who plays Walter with a enormous dose of charm and gregariousness, making him very likable even as he's playing the bad guy here. As we've seen before, Waltz is a master at this balancing act. Other supporting characters played by Krysten Ritter (as Margaret's best friend), Jason Schwartzman (as an art gallery owner) and Jon Polito (as a club owner) also bring in some measure of laughs. The drama part is brought in by Amy Adams, who gives Margaret the right amount of vulnerability and eventual strength. You may not always understand her motives for continuing to become a victim, but you'll root for her nonetheless. Danny Huston and Terence Stamp also do well in grounding the film, the former as a reporter and the film's narrator, and the latter as an art critic.

Burton also deserves credit for making his film very pretty, visual and audio wise. Working with long time collaborators Colleen Atwood (costume) and Danny Elfman (music) certainly paid off here. As mentioned, with as little quirkiness as possible, Burton has made this film more accessible than his previous work. In other words, there's more to like here by most audiences, even those who aren't Burton fans.

The film could use a bit of editing here and there, especially in showing the audience how bad a situation Margaret is in. It almost feels like forever before she finally does the right thing, but at the very least, the pay off is satisfying enough.

Big Eyes is a solid return to form for Tim Burton, and I recommend this film to everyone, even if you know little about art. (8/10)  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Most Violent Year

Year: 2015
Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Alessandro Nivola


Plot: In 1981 New York, Abel Morales, an oil merchant, struggles to keep his business going as it gets hit financially, physically and legally.


Review: This film is basically about an immigrant's pursuit of the American dream during 1981 in New York, when crime is at a high rate and times are tough. The immigrant is Abel Morales, who at the start of this story, is already doing well as his oil business is starting to boom.

However, he finds himself being attacked on many fronts. Thugs have been robbing his oil trucks during transit. The D.A.'s office is bringing charges of fraud against his company due to his suspiciously high profits. All this makes Abel's bank nervous and he may very well lose the financial support he requires to purchase a key piece of property by the river for his company.

Director J.C. Chandor tells this story as simple as he can, so even if you know nothing about the oil business, you can follow it. It's 1981 during winter, and Chandor does well in authentically presenting the time period, from the vehicles to the clothing they wore, and he also films mostly in dim lighting, but not too dark. This successfully creates the mood he wants to convey to the audience. The music score by Alex Ebert is very good too, very fitting of the times.

The weight of the film falls on Oscar Isaac's shoulders as Abel Morales is in nearly every scene, and Isaac delivers tremendously. He plays Abel as an honest man trying to make an honest living, despite what most people think of him. He may be married to a mobster's daughter (played by Jessica Chastain) but it doesn't change the fact that he does everything by the book, even when his wife wants to take the by-any-means-necessary approach. Despite his desperate situation, Abel uses good manners and excellent negotiation skills to weather the storm, and throughout the film Isaac delivers in spades how all this happens. 

Chastain plays his wife Anna with terrific ferocity, wanting so bad to break the rules to solve their problems, but still supports him and any decision he makes. It's a double edged character and she pulls it off well. David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks also do well in their supporting roles here, but make no mistake: this is Isaac's film.

The film may not appeal to those who don't like a heavy dialogue story, which is what this essentially is, though there is always tension in the air so I was riveted for the most part. I do feel that the way Chandor ties up the last loose end involving one of Abel's drivers didn't make very much sense, but it's a small complaint. 

A Most Violent Year turned out to be better than I thought it would be. It may not be the kind of film everyone will enjoy with similar degree, but I say try seeing it for yourself. (8/10)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Theory Of Everything

Year: 2015
Director: James Marsh
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis


Plot: The story of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his wife Jane Hawking.


Review: Everyone's heard of the iconic Stephen Hawking, but not many really know him. This film, based on Jane Hawking's book Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen, attempts to let us get to know him a bit better.

At the helm is James Marsh, who is mostly known for directing documentaries, but here he does a fine job showing us Stephen's life story, from being a student at Cambridge to becoming one of the most brilliant men in the world, and in between, how he met Jane Wilde, and how his eventual suffering of motor neuron disease affects the both of them. It's more of a biography than a character study, so it's more like The Lady and less like The Iron Lady, if you can recall which film is which.

The best parts of the story are when Stephen continues to be the great mind that he is, despite continuously deteriorating from his condition. At first, like any person in his condition, he withdraws from everyone, including Jane, but it is her love for him that pulls him through, and that is the heart of the story. To this end, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deserve all the credit in the world for bringing the couple to life on screen.

Redmayne reportedly went through such trouble to portray Stephen physically that he altered the alignment of his spine in the process. It was truly worth it as I can't think of anyone who can play the man so well, and it's to his advantage that he made himself resemble Stephen so much. But it's not just the physical aspect where he succeeds, he even manages to make the man fascinating and charming, despite having trouble walking, speaking or making normal human contact. Redmayne is excellent, no doubt about it.

In contrast to that, Jones plays the emotional center of the relationship. Jane made plenty of sacrifices to accommodate the required changes and support her husband, and Jones solidly brings out her strength and vulnerability in carrying on through the surmounting odds, never faltering until towards the end.

If there is any downside to this film, it's the focus heavily leaning on Jane's point of view, especially in the second half. Since she wrote the book this film is based on, it's no surprise. But still, it would be nice to view the relationship from Stephen's side just a little more. Perhaps in this matter, the man was rather private, but nonetheless, a more even look at their relationship would make this story just a bit more satisfying.

All in all, The Theory Of Everything is a great film on the life of Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. Whether you know him or not, or like him or not, it's something you ought to check out. (8/10)


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