Review: Blackhat

Blackhat Michael Mann’s latest international computer hacking adventure, Blackhat, pits Chris Hemsworth against an unknown enemy who doesn’t seem to be rooted in the traditional trappings of cyberterrorism. Teaming both Chinese and American investigative agencies, Mann takes us on an global ride using computer hacking as the backdrop for a modern day cat and mouse film. The film is shot in Michael Mann’s signature style that we have know so very well from such classics as The Insider, Collateral, and certainly Heat. However, there is nothing classic about Blackhat. The title references the term used for computer hackers who work outside the law for their own personal gain, conversely a whitehat would be a hacker who works within the law perhaps to secure a system against break-ins from blackhats. With this knowledge the film takes one very large assumption of the audience and it largely buries the film early on. Blackhat purports that watching people do actual hacking is somehow interesting; spoilers...its not. There use to be the complaint that computer interactions in movies was so outlandish compared to the real thing. However, this film is a textbook example of why there needs to be a middle ground.

The film begins with an explosion at a Chinese nuclear power plant. This catastrophe is orchestrated by our movie’s villain who remains unseen until the near end of the film. His motives for doing so are unclear at this point but he is certainly responsible. The lead investigator of the explosion, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), discovers that the detonation was triggered using a remote program and he is off to solve the crime. He also involves his sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang) who is working for the same Chinese investigative bureau. Together they head to the United States to work with the FBI to solve the mystery of this hacker. Their liaison is Carol Barrett (Viola Davis)  who is leery of working with the Chinese to begin with, so there is some early on tension there. However, it soon fades and everyone is friends; pointless contention. When Chen suggests, more so demands, that they get the help of imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) the story begins to take shape. Hathaway is brought aboard and the newly formed team begin their investigation. It is at this point the movie falls completely apart.

The first hour and half of this movie are completely boring. There is scene after scene of anticlimactic nonsense. Mann has a vision, but just can’t seem to make it engaging on any level. There are relationships formed that seem to just happen with no sort of run up. Our heroes run back and forth from country to country with nothing really driving the narrative forward. For a cat and mouse film, there is very little cat and the mouse is boring me to tears. Mann’s shooting style, which I normally love, is absolutely abysmal here. Slow and then fast panning just made everything look like mush on screen. He never kept the camera still for more than 30 seconds (high estimate). Over time, Mann’s films have begun to slip and this one slips and falls right off the edge.

There are a few action sequences that were representative of the Michael Mann of old and those looked great purely from a visual perspective. However, they made little to no sense in the way they were being executed. Normally, Mann goes for almost hyper-realism here. This time we had a large amount of one shot kills that was something closer to a comic book movie; it just felt off.

In the end, the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the heroes prevail. Chris Hemsworth’s Nicholas Hathaway ranged from incredibly bland to overly melodramatic. As a person who is suppose to be a hacker he is just not believable. He still looks largely like he stepped off the set of Thor. Wei Tang is fine as the investigator/love interest but her relationship with Hathaway was not flushed out and felt ham-fisted when it was shown. Their interaction was plastic and lacked any level of depth. As a movie that hit theaters just after the first of the year I should have known this was going to be the case, but Blackhat somehow managed to surpass my rather low expectations. I hope to see Michael Mann learn from this film, and get back to his roots.

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Review: Ender's Game

Ender's Game

Based on the famed story of young soldiers pushed to their limits to pursue an enemy that the don’t fully understand has been brought to life by director Gavin Hood. A story steeped in moral conundrums of what it means to fight for your government, and what that says about us as a society is a rather thought provoking premise. The film stars young Asa Butterfield as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin on his pursuit to answer questions that someone his age should never have to consider.

The film starts off with Ender being put through the ringer as a young kid in school by his peers. He seemingly has few friends and suffers at the wrath of a bully. Fighting back comes to Ender surprisingly naturally and he makes a choice to take on this bully for strategic reasons. This decision and many others are monitored and examined by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). Graff seems to have a bit of an obsession with Ender and for good reason. The Colonel sees Ender as the best hope for the possible future invasion of the Formics, an alien race that attacked the Earth in the past. The military has decided that child soldiers are their best bet due to their ability to absorb information. After his “strategic choice,” Wiggin is rushed off to the famous international battle school. This is where the story goes from rather run of the mill to a full scale sci-fi flick.

After a few sequences with getting acclimated to space and meeting his peers we watch Ender get promoted, develop as a formidable strategic genius, and become the leader he was always thought to be. Colonel Graff pushes Ender to the brink to mold him in the proper image. Their father and son dynamic is rather obvious but still endearing. As Ender goes about advancing his career he is met with similar hostile kids as he has dealt with in the past. Always a strategist first and a brute second, Ender is able to talk his way out of most things. Asa Butterfield does a great job in making you believe that Ender Wiggin is a full character.

While Asa Butterfield did moderately well here, lacking on some moments of needed emotion, that can not be said for some of his actor counterparts. Harrison Ford absolutely phoned in his performance here. Viola Davis, for her small role, was serviceable. She was able to ask the “why” questions that the audience could connect with. Frankly, an actress of Davis’ caliber was rather wasted here. Hailee Steinfeld who played Petra Arkanian, Ender’s teammate and slight romantic interest, had little to nothing to grab onto here. I would categorize her as a wasted talent here as well. One of the few stand outs was Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, a pilot who saved Earth from the Formics’ first invasion. While he was over the top in his performance to a degree he made the time memorable in a good way. The film is largely dull, Kingsley adds a spice the moment he is introduced. The stakes in this movie are meant to feel high, they don’t. As we build ever closer to the final battle with the Formics I just found myself not caring. There are very few moments of tension if at all. The robotic and calculating nature of Ender’s personality seems to permeate the entire cast. Everyone seems too busy secretly plotting that they forgot to emote. Pensive looks are simply not enough for a movie like this. One tremendous upside to the movie is the way its presented. The movie looks beautiful. The color palette and sweeping shots of space battles were very fun. Sadly this movie was not presented in 3D, which is a real shame because it would have greatly benefited from that treatment. At the end of the day, Ender’s Game is passable treatment to a famed story. Little to no stakes, decent acting performances, and great visuals but ultimately a hollow movie going experience.

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