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.

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.

A Most Wanted Man

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

 
Months after his untimely death in February of this year, the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to capture the imaginations and hearts of moviegoers. This is clear from his first moments on screen in A Most Wanted Man, the latest film adaptation of a John Le Carré espionage thriller. Set in post 9-11 Germany, it trades militant Islamism for Communism in a neo Cold War combat between the West and The Rest. Hoffmann is Günther Bachmann, a German operative in a dark force functioning in deep cover. He must unravel and counteract a potential threat posed by a Muslim Chechen torture victim who is seeking to connect with an articulate intellectual interlocutor. This interlocutor may or may not be financially implicated in money laundering ventures bankrolling arms purchases for nefarious purposes. Given the contemporary geopolitical situation, little about the plot is surprising. It is predictable, with righteously motivated quasi-simpatico villains and flawed would-be heroes, Le Carre’s formula. What holds viewer attention are the ways in which characters interact in what can seem yet another cynically played high stakes game of chess with the ‘Free World’ as its prize.

Consistent with Le Carrés vision, we are frequently left wondering who is free, if anyone. The entities arrayed in A Most Wanted Man, are local, national and global. They are caught in ceaseless competition between separate security services ostensibly engaged in a common purpose. But they are unrelentingly as ruthless in their internal rivalries with one another as with their state and non-state adversaries. The story inevitably involves finance capital and its role in making all things possible in this case a means for Willem Dafoe to showcase his penchant for moral ambiguity. Homayun Ershadi of Kite Runner fame is a puzzling presence. Robin Wright exemplifies American assurance and is almost as arresting as Hoffmann in her appearances as the face of a still very strong superpower projecting itself.

Le Carré is especially good at complicating characters by conferring upon them crises of conscience. Much like Tinker Tailor’s George Smiley, Bachmann recognizes that the other side has legitimate grievances and never loses sight of this fact while doing his duty. He does not think himself or his job virtuous, only nastily necessary and is all too aware of his own flaws and foibles, reminding himself of his failings whenever others are not ensuring that they do not escape his or their consciousness.

Bachmann has many enemies: His own doubts, his opponents’ capacities to make mayhem, and the sinister certitude of crusading colleagues and compatriots. This quality of self-questioning keeps our attention and moves the film along even when talk overrides action sequences. A Most Wanted Man is not so much a whodunit as a how to deal with it. Even so, it must be read carefully. What is being communicated when a central character whose function is to counsel interfaith tolerance and dialogue is exposed as an agent fueling hostilities? What does that say about those sincerely pursuing peace through communication?

Bachmann is the foil for the spy who understands himself and others to be going through the motions of saving the world when there are no winners or losers, but we who watch may draw different conclusions. The film runs the real risk of reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as inscrutable “others” who are implacable foes of non-Muslims. Le Carré succeeds at humanizing his protagonists and antagonists, but we as viewers owe it to ourselves and them to demystify his ordinary every day subjects, not as rogues in sleeper cells waiting to awaken and pounce upon innocents in subways, markets or shopping malls, but as regular people, a minority of whom may well at times resort to extreme measures in response to perceived provocations. After all most people are just trying to live their lives.

Finding Vivian Maier

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

http://www.vivianmaier.com/

Finding Vivian Maier – a film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

At one time or another many of us may ask ourselves if we possess hidden talents. But what about those who deliberately choose to hide their gifts? In 2009, at a Chicago auction house seeking material for a book, photographer John Maloof serendipitously came upon just such an unacknowledged, purposefully obscure talent, an ostensibly forgettable, recently deceased nanny named Vivian Maier, who left behind a horde of photographs, negatives and motion picture film that convinced him to investigate who she was.

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