Blackhat (2015)

2016 #46
Michael Mann | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Mandarin & Spanish | 15 / R

BlackhatHow the mighty have fallen. The great Michael Mann, who once helmed genre-defining crime movies with expertly-directed sequences, here delivers a movie that looks like an amateur cheapie by a film student who’s watched too many Paul Greengrass movies without learning anything meaningful from them.

it plays like a Hong Kong action-thriller, but let down by flabby storytelling, including obvious restructuring in post. Praised for depicting hacking more accurately than normal, that’s undercut by the rest being so clichéd. And its horrible romance includes a scene where the girl’s lover and her brother discuss what’s best for her!

Oh, Mann.

2 out of 5

Prisoners (2013)

2016 #22
Denis Villeneuve | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yesterday I wrote about Predestination, a twisty sci-fi thriller in which I guessed all the twists long before the end, but it didn’t matter because the film had more to offer. Today I find myself in the same situation: Prisoners is a thriller (though not of the sci-fi variety) centred around some mysteries that lead to big twists, all of which I guessed with complete accuracy about one-third of the way through.* I don’t say this to boast — well, I do a little — but my other point is this: while it proved a bit of a distraction, occasionally feeling like I was sitting through aimless red herrings as I waited to be proved right, there’s more to Prisoners than just OMG moments.

We set our scene on Thanksgiving in the small, slightly rundown Pennsylvania city of Conyers, where the Dover and Birch families gather for the traditional lunch at the latter’s house. As things transpire, they can’t find their two little girls, and a suspicious RV parked down the street has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they call the police, who track down the RV and its driver, an adult with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. The girls are nowhere to be found. He’s the obvious suspect, but he couldn’t’ve taken them… could he? As Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues an increasingly complex investigation, unsatisfied Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) thinks he might need to take matters into his own hands…

There’s a lot going on in Prisoners. While the basic format is straightforward, it’s realised in the form of a multi-stranded narrative full of well-drawn characters with complications of their own. Jackman and Gyllenhaal may be top billed and on the poster (well, an air-brushed waxwork vague approximation of Jackman was on the poster), but there’s actually a powerful ensemble cast here, and it’s their performances that help the film to stand out from the thriller crowd — as well as to overcome the fact I guessed all the twists.

So we have: Maria Bello as Grace Dover, who begins to crack under the mental pressure of her daughter’s disappearance. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch, who, based on their houses, is clearly in a better financial situation than Keller, but is he man enough to help Keller do what he feels needs doing? His wife, Nancy, played by Viola Davis, may at first suggest a fragility to match Grace’s, but it soon becomes clear she wears the trousers in this marriage. As mentally stunted suspect Alex Jones, Paul Dano gives a well-managed dialogue-light performance, not straying into caricature. The aunt who raised him, Holly, played by Melissa Leo, is protective, but also doesn’t seem all that shocked by the accusations levelled against him.

Then we do have our two leads. I think Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki may be supposed to come across as a first-rate cop — he’s certainly so good that he can tear his Captain a new one about not doing stuff properly and not get a dressing-down for it — but he struck me as a little less than ideal. I mean, he’s effectively a small-town cop suddenly stuck in a child-kidnapping (and possibly murder) case — of course he should be out of his depth. He’s not a bad detective, just not the usual genius-level investigator you normally find in thrillers, and at times you feel he’s muddling his way through the investigation as best he can. Aside from giving Loki the slightly-affected tic of blinking too much, Gyllenhaal offers a reasonably restrained performance. (I’d love to know what the blinking was in aid of, but the film is woefully understocked with special features.)

Jackman gets a showier turn as Keller Dover, the dad who prides himself on being a strong, capable, prepared-for-anything kinda guy. This is partly a value his father instilled in him, he tells his son, but you have to think there’s an element of it being a response to the emasculation of not being able to fully provide for his family — there’s not much work around, he mentions, and their home environment clearly isn’t as well-appointed as the Birches’. He does have a basement full of survivalist gear, though, and we first meet him coaxing his son into shooting his first deer. This is a man ready to do what he feels is necessary, and what he feels is necessary takes him — and, by association, several of the other characters, and indeed the whole film — to some dark places.

Not that the film needs any help accessing dark places. The truth behind what’s happened to the girls is very dark indeed… though that would be spoiler territory. I thought it was a good solution, even if I did guess it so early on, but I’ve seen others suggest it’s too neat. I dunno, but I think it’s come to something when a film answering all its questions and explaining all its threads is seen as a bad thing.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction gives the sense of a non-Hollywood background with the occasional arty shot choice or composition, though not to a distracting extent. He’s aided by serial Oscar loser Roger Deakins on DP duty, who once again demonstrates why he shouldn’t have a golden man already, he should have a cupboard full. The photography here doesn’t flaunt itself with hyper-grading or endless visual trickery, but is consistently rich and varied. Deakins may also be the best action cinematographer working — pair what he brought to Skyfall with a climactic car dash here and you have a more impressive action demo reel than you’d expect from the kind of guy who has multiple Oscar nominations to his name.

In the end, I find it a little hard to succinctly assess Prisoners. We have a film of complex characters brought to life with vivid performances, though the latter are not adverse to an element of grandstanding, and some of their actions slip into genre familiarity. So too the narrative, which for all its twists and turns isn’t a world away from any number of airport-bookstore doorstop thrillers — and that length is certainly mirrored in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. The fact that I was waiting for my predictions to be confirmed also colours my perception somewhat, because while I don’t think the film completely leans on its twists, it was a bit of a distraction. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the quality of the moviemaking, particularly Villeneuve’s sweeping direction and Deakins’ rich cinematography.

As a thriller that is also a drama about people caught up in those events, and the lengths to which some of them may be prepared to go, Prisoners is a must-see for anyone with the stomach for some dark material (though don’t let me overemphasise that point — it’s not as bleak as, say, Se7en). Is it a classic in its own right, though? Not sure. But it is very, very good.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Prisoners is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* For those playing along at home: the precise moment I got it (explained in non-spoilery terms) was when Det. Loki visits an old lady and watches a VHS. ^

Ender’s Game (2013)

2015 #146
Gavin Hood | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Adapted from the classic young adult sci-fi novel by Orson Scott “bigoted idiot” Card, Ender’s Game is the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who displays uncommon aptitude in a military programme to train children to fight against an alien race that attacked Earth decades earlier. Sent to a training centre in space, Ender must battle his fellow candidates to prove their worth to their hardened commander, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), ready for the real battle to come.

Ender’s Game endured a pretty mixed reception a couple of years ago (not helped by the media exposure given to Card’s less-than-savoury personal views), and it’s quite a mixed film: for every positive, a negative follows close behind. It’s not helped by its first act, where the film seems to struggle with its own setup. After that, however, it’s a fairly well structured story, in which you can actually believe Ender is learning to be a better leader. Normally when a movie features “an excellent military strategist” we’re told that and never shown it, but here we see how Ender’s skills as a strategist develop and are exhibited.

The rest of writer-director Gavin Hood’s screenplay is, again, a mixed bag. The dialogue is frequently clunky, particularly struggling with exposition — there are utterly dead scenes where characters just explain the plot to each other — but, while it is at no point strong, it’s often serviceable. There are strong themes, however, several of which have relevance to our modern world. Unfortunately, none feel fully developed or explored. It tips its hat to things like drone warfare, child soldiers, and understanding our enemy, but that’s all it does: acknowledge those parallels exist, then refuse to explore them. Conversely, the music is too heavy-handed, taking on the burden of providing emotion that’s lacking from the screenplay.

Most of the cast are very good. Asa Butterfield well conveys a moderately complex character, though I can believe others’ comments that Ender is more fully developed in the book. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin offer able support; Harrison Ford proves he’s still awesome; Ben Kingsley battles what turns out to be a New Zealand accent (I’d assumed it was South African) in a cameo-sized turn; Viola Davis is ludicrously underused — she does basically nothing, then walks into Ford’s office and essentially declares, “I am no longer needed by the plot, I quit.”

At least there are solid action/sci-fi thrills on offer. The inter-student practice fights in the Danger Room (or whatever it was called) are really good — suitably exciting and fun, with impressive effects work. There are many good visuals in the film, but then strong CGI is par for the course these days. That’s why the space station stuff is best: the alien race and their planet are well-realised but also feel like nothing new; and the space station’s corridors, offices, and bunk room sets are well done, though as derived from familiar real-life and/or near-future styles as much as many other SF movies; but the station’s giant glass-walled zero-G training arena is stunning.

Sadly, after all that training fun, once the cadets jet off to the other side of the galaxy for a rushed third act, interest evaporates speedily. It even has to work hard to sell its own twist as a twist! (Spoilers follow in this paragraph.) In a simulation for a war, Ender does what he’d do to win that war. Then he’s told it wasn’t a simulation, it was the actual war… and he’s all cross. I mean, okay, the fella kinda has a point when he gets angry afterwards: they’ve lied to him, and maybe he would’ve behaved differently if he’d known. But the point of the training was to teach them what they needed to do to win, and it taught them that, and he did it. Maybe this twist works in the book, but in the film it felt somehow unearned.

Ender’s Game is not all it could be, but as a straightforward young-adult sci-fi action-adventure, I really rather enjoyed the majority of it.

4 out of 5