The Film Gang

Blackhat

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.

At the outset, let me say that I rarely attempt to review thrillers. Part of the reason is that there aren’t many thrillers that I end up appreciating, and generally, I only write about films that I like. I do admit, though, that the genre is a guilty pleasure and that I occasionally scratch the itch.

Which brings me to Blackhat. I left the theatre realizing that I’d been ‘glued’, as they say, to the screen for the full two hours and thirteen minutes of its duration. Yes, I was thoroughly entranced, but I wasn’t at all sure why. So, I went back two more times to find out, and each time, I realized I liked it more and more.

Blackhat is a movie about cyber-crime, the folks who commit it, and the folks who attempt to apprehend those who commit it. Director and co-scriptwriter Michael

Mann engaged in meticulous research to create the covert world of ‘blackhats’, as the inhabitants of that arcane world are called. He spent a lot of time discussing the nuts and bolts, or rather, the ones and zeros, of cyber-crime with actual players. And the word is that the ‘actual players’ were much impressed with Mann’s scholarship.

The movie opens with a view of Earth from space. The camera draws closer and closer. A sprawling metropolis comes into focus. And then a few short shots of a curly haired fellow typing something into his computer. The camera shoots him from above.

We do not see his face. These shots are interspersed with close up shots of bits and bits of information, bits that are flowing through the innards of what we very soon realize is the computer command center of a nuclear reactor. And then… Pow! – the cooling facility of the reactor blows up. The reactor is located in Hong Kong.

A few short scenes later, a young People’s Liberation Army officer is conversing with his superiors. In the course of their conversation we learn that a simultaneous, albeit unsuccessful attack was launched against a nuke plant in the USA. The young officer is the resident expert on cyber-crime. He informs the top dogs that there is only one man who can help him ferret out the bad guys. And it turns out that this one and only guy is currently serving a long prison term in the USA – for, you guessed it – cyber-crime.

Perhaps the plot is beginning to sound ridiculous. Certainly, that’s the opinion of the preponderance of critics. But, as Director Mann discovered in his research, a not inconsiderable number of hackers who have been prosecuted for their illicit activity actually end up working in ‘cyber-defense’.

What I’ve revealed about Blackhat happens in the very early stages of the movie.
I’ll just add that the PLA officer gets his way. The American hacker is released from
prison and promised a full pardon if he can successfully flush out the monster who
attacked the two nuke plants. There are the obligatory shoot-outs, a bit of romance, and some ‘ah-hah’ moments. For me, they all worked. If I had the time, I’d happily see Blackhat at least a few more times.

Among its many features, I much appreciated the racially mixed cast. And also that the film ineluctably demonstrates that every country in the world is virtually connected in what the hackers like to call a potentially ‘kinetic’ way.

I think Michael Mann’s Blackhat is terrific. Forget the critics. Find out for yourself.

Selma

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Listen to David H. Anthony’s review above, and read it below.

While technically a 2014 product, the mid-January release of Ava DuVernay’s Selma coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
As well as chronicling it, the film has already made history as the first film directed by an African-American woman to become a serious contender for major awards.

Selma stars Nigerian-British David Oyelowo as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at a pivotal and extremely vulnerable time in his public and private life. While the Civil Rights Movement is struggling in the trenches to implement the halting gains achieved principally in the streets, and most recently to actualize the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Dr. King, its pre-eminent spokesperson is set to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Meanwhile, the stress and strain of the movement has invaded every part of the King household. Coretta Scott King, played by Nigerian-Scottish Carmen Ejogo confronts Dr. King about charges of infidelity leaked through FBI wiretaps. The drama, therefore, operates on multiple levels throughout Selma.

Externally, the Selma, Alabama, voting rights campaign is seen unfolding against the backdrop of an intransigent Gov. George C. Wallace, dead set against permitting African-Americans or Negroes or ‘Colored’ folk as they were known at the time from securing the franchise, thusly denying them the most tangible fruit of citizenship. In his corner are both local Selma authorities and State troopers ready willing and able to use violence to prevent black and allied marchers from pushing the envelope.

Dr. King is at the center of many of the conflicts that Selma explores, from the political struggles involving President Lyndon B Johnson and his reliance upon FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, to the local rivalry and tactical internecine feuding between the so-called Young Turks of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and an older guard represented by Dr. King and his cohorts of Black, mainly Baptist ministers in SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Volumes have been written about these days, months and years, and it was a vital part of the Eyes on the Prize PBS broadcasts and accompanying publications. But Selma represents a slice of the larger movement which DuVernay carefully, even meticulously dissects to demonstrate how intricately woven was this tapestry.

Different audiences will likely come away with differing interpretations of this achievement. Writing from the standpoint of an African-American living in a place constantly reminding me of my minority status and at times not seen at all, it was and is affirming to see this tale told, whether or not it gains awards as a film. It is its own reward for viewers of African Descent, even as it reminds us that the struggle continues.

Into the Woods

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.

I had neither seen nor heard of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into The Woods, before I watched the film version of it. And I wasn’t terribly keen on watching the film, either, but my companion cajoled me into it. I am so grateful she did, because I haven’t enjoyed myself at the movies this much in a long time, not withstanding an uncomfortable moment when Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf character envisions a deplorable act with Little Red Riding Hood.

Into The Woods combines three of my favorite arts: music, poetry, and, of course, the movies. And it does so with a magic touch. The film cleverly blends four well known fairy tales with a sprinkling of the ‘David and Goliath’ myth.

James Lapine’s script manages to shuffle and mingle the themes of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and, Jack and The Beanstalk. Sondheim’s music is a delight and his lyrics are a work of genius – pure poetry.

The film opens with a scene in a bakery. A child, who appears to be a year or so shy of puberty, is attempting to talk the baker out of a basketful of sweetbreads. She claims she’s been sent by her mother to get the goodies for her grandmother, who lives in the woods. The baker is skeptical.

His wife, however, is sympathetic to the child. The child, by the way, is dressed in a red cape. With the wife’s subtle encouragement, the child grabs what she can and dashes into the woods.

Then, before you can say ‘shazam’, a witch, who just happens to live next to the bakery, crashes, in a whirlwind, through the front door. It turns out that quite sometime ago the witch had placed a curse upon the baker and his wife. For an offense committed by the baker’s father, many years ago, his progeny would remain forever barren. However, as the witch explains, she would consent to remove the curse if the baker would gather for her four items – to wit: a red cape, a cow white as milk, a hank of hair as yellow as corn, and, a golden slipper.

Thus it is into the woods the baker and his missus must go. They’ve seen a red cape only moments ago. And surely, a white cow ought not be too difficult to find.

We get the idea. The remainder of the film will be variations on search and find, or find and lose and search again. A young boy named Jack will part with his pet cow and try to find a way to get her back. A nubile young woman named Cinderella will find herself in a pair of golden slippers, and a certain Ms Rapunzel will end up shorn. I won’t tell you about the giants and the magic beans, or the Prince and his infidelities.

At least half of these stories are sung. The lyrics are stunningly brilliant, and in spite of an untimely death here and there, most of the folks in these merged fairy tales seem headed for better days.

The performances are fine, some even endearing. I especially liked Lilla Crawford’s portrait of Little Red Riding Hood, a precocious and slightly selfish girl.

Into The Woods is on my shortlist of the year’s best movies. If, like me, you were inclined to pass this one by, I urge you to change your mind. I’m surely glad I did.

Top Five

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

As the holiday season closes another cinematic year, film producers, directors, stars, their agents, publicists and other movers and shakers jockey for position in advance of Oscars. Behind the image makers lie real human beings striving to live actual lives off stage, off script often fighting the same horrible demons as audiences seeing their screen personae.

The Top Five of the title references one’s musical favorites in order of importance and/or influence, chiefly in hiphop. Chris Rock’s latest work traces recent episodes in the career of Andre Allen, a black stand-up comic who transitioned to film farce and now wishes to recreate himself. Like Birdman, it tells a tale of the difficulty of transcending typecasting.

But Top Five is no burnished Birdman. It echoes an insistent cry from African-American artists in film, theater and other performing and creative arts to be seen and heard on their own terms and not merely in the sterile niches to which they may be consigned in popular imagination and by moneyed moguls who call the shots in film factories like Hollywood.

Top Five speaks directly to a particular demographic. Flowing from Chris Rock’s own experience it revolves around a world that may be reduced to the distance between New York and Los Angeles, centering on what it takes to achieve and retain star status. More to the point, it shows black and urban youth culture as the hiphop nation hits middle age.

Top Five is as black as it can be, starting with the effortless string of “n-word” epithets peppering the film’s first half. I lost count after what seemed a half a hundred, but also vividly recall a time growing up in New York when such speech was not foreign to me.
By contrast, there are references to a film within a film, a bold saga of Haitian rebellion.

Dre, as Andre is familiarly known, has made a film called Uprize! detailing the saga of Dutty Boukman, a Haitian slave who became a leader of the insurrection against France.
Making the film was a risky venture for Allen and it symbolizes the analogue of breaking free from the fetters firmly binding him as he seeks to recreate himself as a liberated man.

Rock is joined by Rosario Dawson, J. B. Smoove and a host of luminaries, predominantly albeit not exclusively African-American, whose faces will be instantly recognizable, from movies and television. Top Five may say much more than its cover story or its marketers. Finding this takes conscientious effort by viewers. Then the work can disclose its secrets.

Foxcatcher

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.

I’m not a fan of ignorance, but I must say, I’m glad I wasn’t familiar with the true story that Foxcatcher is based on. I’m glad also that the preview of the film managed to pique my interest without revealing any of the essential dramatic details.

Foxcatcher is a character study of three people: Mark Schultz, an Olympic gold medal wrestler, his brother Dave, also an Olympic gold medal wrestler, and John du Pont, scion of the du Pont Family and its vast fortune.

The movie opens with a series of old photographs and short film clips depicting preparation for the so called ‘sport’ of fox hunting. There are dozens of hounds being readied for the chase and a posse of formally attired hunters on horseback. And finally, a short clip of a lone fox running for its life across an open field.

These antiquated portraits of an actual fox hunt amount to a metaphor for the story that follows. But in this story, there are two foxes, and one of them doesn’t even know he’s being hunted.

Steve Carell plays John du Pont. He is magnificent in the role. Carell’s du Pont is a soft spoken megalomaniac. The one thing that his massive fortune can’t seem to buy is self respect and a genuine friendship. And du Pont is desperate for it. He is a man of many interests and not inconsiderable talents. One of the running jokes in Foxcatcher is a verbal repetition of a handful of the numerous ‘ists’ that du Pont is: author, ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist – author, ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.

In his feckless drive for self esteem, du Pont attempts to lure the Schultz brothers to Foxcatcher Farms, his grandiloquent estate in rural Pennsylvania, not far from Valley Forge. He succeeds in talking Mark, the younger brother, into joining him, ostensibly to train for the 88 Seoul Olympics. (Among other things, du Pont imagines himself to be a wrestling coach.) But Dave Schultz, happily married and with two children, turns down the offer.

Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz. Tatum’s Schultz is an insecure, closet masochist. At the time of du Pont’s offer, notwithstanding his recent 1984 Olympic gold medal, Mark is living in near poverty. He packs his few belongings and drives to Foxcatcher Farms, leaving, for the first time in his life, his brother Dave behind.

Eventually, Dave does decide to pack up his family and join his brother at Foxcatcher Farms. Dave’s job is to train and work-out with a team of aspiring Olympians. du Pont, to his dismay, discovers that Dave cannot be coerced into the kinds of self-destructive behaviors that he lured brother Mark into. What follows will likely shock you, if, like me, you are unfamiliar with the true life events that Foxcatcher is based on.

Mark Ruffalo is great as Dave Schultz. Channing Tatum is terrific as his brother Mark. And Steve Carell should get an Oscar nomination for his portrait of John du Pont.

Foxcatcher is one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it.

The Homesman

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Listen to the audio by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.

At first, The Homesman has the appearance of a western, but we learn pretty early in the movie that it would be more accurate to call it a ‘mid-western’, because most of the action occurs on the plains of The Nebraska Territory, probably in the mid 1800s. As the opening credits roll, we are treated to about three minutes of gorgeous vistas, devoid of humans, and, with the exception of two deer, it’s all flora, no fauna.

In retrospect, the camera’s panning of miles and miles of open prairie could be seen as a harbinger of the psychological trauma that infects so many of the characters in The Homesman. Emptiness breeds loneliness, and loneliness can lead to a myriad of less than attractive behaviors.

Hilary Swank plays an intelligent, articulate, talented, and resourceful woman named Mary Bee Cuddy. She lives by herself on a large spread miles from a very small town. We know she hails from upstate New York, but not why she chose to head west. We also know that she’s lonely and that there are very few potential mates. Early in the film she invites a fellow rancher to supper. He’s an uneducated boor, but Ms. Cuddy asks him to marry her. He is adamant in his refusal and tells her she is “too bossy and too damn plain”. She takes the refusal in stride, though it is evident that her feelings are hurt.

We soon learn that Ms. Cuddy’s problems pale in comparison with those of three other women. The psychic burden of the illnesses and deaths of family members have driven them past the coping point and into insanity. Medical care is non-existent. It is determined by the local clergyman, played by John Lithgow, that the only hope for these women is to be transported to Iowa, where another clergyman and his wife, played by Meryl Streep, might provide them with an opportunity to recover.

The perilous journey to Iowa in what amounts to a wooden paddy wagon pulled by mules is at the heart of the film. The reluctance or outright refusal of the ill women’s husbands to take responsibility for getting them to Iowa causes Ms. Cuddy to volunteer.

And at this point, Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a rogue who calls himself George Briggs, enters the scene. He’s a claim jumper, an army deserter, an alcoholic, and, when not besotted, or at death’s doorstep, a very quick witted and charming fellow. How he and Ms. Cuddy cross paths, and then join paths, and what they do on that path, is what The Homesman is all about.

The Homesman suggests that people can change their ways, and it also asks if they can change them enough, and in time. ‘In time for what’ is a question I leave for you to discover.
This is a film that defies romantic and narrative expectations. In other words, it surprises us with its twists and turns. We learn that practicality and naiveté can wear the same clothes, that incipient generosity and a penchant for mass murder can inhabit the same flesh.

Tommy Lee Jones not only shares the lead with Hilary Swank. He co-wrote the script, co-produced, and directed The Homesman. It’s a fine film.

The Theory of Everything

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

The life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking, as seen through the eyes of Jane Wilde, his first spouse, which formed the basis of her memoir Travelling to Infinity, My Life with Stephen, is the subject of the film The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh, with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based upon Wilde’s book.

Eddie Redmayne is Hawking, while Felicity Jones portrays Jane in a reconstruction of key events marking their coupling, marriage and ultimate uncoupling as Hawkings struggled with Jane’s help to cope with the crippling effects of motor neuron disease. The two great tales unfolding simultaneously and interdependently are of a love then marital relationship and Hawking’s meteoric rise to prominence as an innovative scientific theorist, starting with research into Black Holes as a route to determining whether time had a beginning to the quest for what the title suggests, a theory to explain existence.

The gift of the film is its ability to take on the heady stuff of physics and then balance it with romance, propelled by the electricity of the lead actors. Redmayne and Jones are assisted by David Thewlis as Hawking’s Cambridge mentor physicist Dennis Sciama and Simon McBurney and Emily Watson as Hawking’s mother and father. Special mention should go to Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a choirmaster and caretaker who played a decisive role in the lives of Stephen and especially Jane.

Redmayne’s transformations, first into Hawking, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, and then from ostensibly able-bodied to grievously afflicted patient then highly dependent man whose intellect is unfettered by the chains of infirmity is really remarkable. Redmayne is able to capture oceans of emotion in a knowing wink, sly smile or lascivious leer to remind us that however things may look, he is very much engaged in the here and now.

The film does not shy away from the hard questions posed by the circumstances in which Hawkings and Wilde find themselves. How does one create and sustain what can be considered a “normal” existence, in the face of such monumental challenges? Yet Jane and Stephen do raise progeny under extraordinarily trying conditions, and Hawkings continues to work, at great expense to everyone around him. While this unavoidably situates Hawkings the innovator in the pantheon of the great, it is clear that his stature could not have been reached without the support of Jane and others.

The Theory of Everything affords much food for thought. It will not leave viewers wanting.

Whiplash

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Listen above to the review by Dennis Morton, and read it below.

Whiplash is a film that raises lots of questions but leaves many of them unanswered. And if, at times, we viewers feel that we’ve been lashed with a whip, well, rhetorically speaking – we have.

The story is rather simple. Andrew, a young guy in his first year at a prestigious music academy in New York City, wants to become the best jazz drummer in the world. Terence Fletcher, on the faculty of the academy, is the school’s best instructor. Andrew’s nascent talent comes to Fletcher’s attention.

The problem for Andrew, and all the students under Fletcher’s purview, is that Fletcher is a mean and nasty guy. He brooks no deviation from his expectations. He is preposterously demanding and to say that he is verbally abusive is a massive understatement. His rants range from sexist to homophobic. He’ll pretend, for a moment, to be interested in the personal life of a student, but it’s just a gathering of ammunition to be fired at an opportune time.

Because there are several moments when Fletcher is, or appears to be, human and vulnerable, we wonder how he came to be the ugly man he seems to be. Writer / director Damien Chazelle does not provide us with the answer. Like his students, we, the viewers, must accept Fletcher as he is. And it is J.K. Simmons brilliant performance that makes it possible for us to do that.

Whiplash is a two person show. Miles Teller, who plays Andrew, is equally brilliant in his role. The big question regarding Andrew is: how much abuse can he tolerate from Fletcher. Ultimately, director Chazelle does provide that answer.

We do get a few brief hints about the events that have shaped Andrew’s life. These are provided at a family dinner. Present are Andrew’s ubiquitous father, his two cousins and presumably, his aunt and uncle. The cousins arrive a bit late. Just prior to that, Andrew is answering a question about how things are going at music school. His response is interrupted when the cousins show up. Immediately, all attention if focused on them. One has just scored a 93 yard touchdown. The other has just learned that he’s being considered for a Rhodes Scholarship. So much for Andrew, it would appear. But not so. Unexpectedly, in a one-sided bout of verbal fisticuffs, Andrew demolishes his cousins’ achievements. And we are left to wonder if, somewhere under the skin, there’s a bit of Fletcher lurking in Andrew.

There are a few scenes in Whiplash that strain credulity. On the way to a big band competition, an unlikely series of automotive mishaps threatens Andrew’s timely arrival. But perseverance prevails and a bloodied Andrew arrives in the nick of time.

Notwithstanding who prevails or who loses, and when – it’s J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller that make Whiplash a worthy investment of your movie going time. Their performances are simply magnificent.

‘Rotten Tomatoes’, a website that gathers movie reviews, reports that Whiplash is a huge success, among critics and viewers. An astonishing 96% of critics and 96% of viewers have given it positive ratings. Don’t miss Whiplash.

Rosewater

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony, above.

Force Majeure

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above / read it below.

‘Force majeure’ is a phrase I’d never heard of. So, I looked it up. In general, it’s a legal term – in contract law. It refers to a major event, unforeseen by the parties to an agreement. A ‘force majeure’ can render a contract void should one of the parties successfully claim it as a reason for not being able to fulfill the terms of an agreement.
It turns out to be a perfect title for Swedish director, Ruben Ostlund’s latest film.

Force Majeure is a study of human behavior in the aftermath of a perceived mortal threat. The idea for the film came from an incident in the lives of friends of the director – a married couple who were vacationing in Latin America. One day, from seemingly nowhere, gunmen appeared and began shooting. The husband bolted for cover, leaving his wife unprotected. They both survived, but when they returned to Sweden, if the wife had consumed a glass or two of wine, she told the story over and over, simply couldn’t get it out of her mind.

In Ostlund’s film, we closely observe five days in the life of a Swedish family on a skiing vacation in the French Alps. Ostensibly, the purpose of the vacation is to provide the father, a successful businessman named Tomas, some down time to spend with his family. The locale is a bit upscale and the mountain-scape exceedingly gorgeous. Tomas, his wife Ebba, and their preteen children, Vera and Harry, are more than passable skiers. Watching the family zig zag down the slopes is a minor, but enjoyable part of the film.

Day One goes fine. The family skis. The food is good. And Ebba meets an unnamed woman, about her own age, who is vacationing solo – having left her hubby and kids back home. Ebba is astonished to learn that her new acquaintance is an eager practitioner of free love. And, she is eloquent in defense of her life-style.

Day Two begins just as fine as Day One. After a morning on the slopes, the family has lunch on the balcony of their hotel, overlooking the unspeakable majesty of the snow covered mountains. Lunch is momentarily interrupted by the sound of an explosion. Tomas tells Ebba not to be concerned. The purpose of the explosion, he explains, is to precipitate a ‘controlled avalanche’, one that will prevent a spontaneous, and potentially dangerous, real avalanche. What happens next is at the core of the film, and I shall remain mum about it.

But the aftermath of the event consumes the emotional lives of every member of the family for the duration of their vacation. We are treated to ruminations about the psychological consequences of society’s expectation of heroism. Significant and articulate ponderings of gender roles, cowardice, and the intuition of children are explored. And, perhaps the biggest subject that director Ostlund takes on is the torturous path to forgiveness.

For me, one of the things that makes Force Majeure such an intelligent and powerful film is that it doesn’t really end after the credits have rolled. I left the theater wondering how I might react if confronted with a ‘force majeure’. And, it’s not that I want to find out, but, I haven’t stopped wondering. This film ‘has legs’, and it’s following me. I highly recommend it.