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Out in Theaters: ‘FENCES’

As purely a thespian venture, the Denzel Washington starring and directed Fences is an applaudable homer. Performed with true fire in the belly, this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1983 Tony and Pulitzer Prize Award winning play of the same name unfurls a harrowing American experience of familial tension between patriarch Troy Maxson, his wife Rose, mentally impaired brother Gabriel and sons Lyons and Cory. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘SUICIDE SQUAD’

The corpses have barely cooled from Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman and we’re already assessing the damage and constructing solutions to the issue superhumans bring to human society. A task force is formed by a no-nonsense Government agent, Dr. Waller, (Viola Davis) to gather the world’s most notorious villains (Smith, Robbie, Courteny, Hernandez, Akinnouye-Agbaje) to tackle any upcoming issues the new generation of metahumans may cause to life in America. Almost immediately after the formation of this league of disposable heroes – this Squadron Of Suicide – an ancient witch (Delevingne) awakens her demigod brother from his three-thousand year nap and the two descend upon Midway City to transform the citizenry into an army of monsters dedicated to usurping the earth. Read More

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Out in Theaters: LILA & EVE

Lila & Eve has the typical makings of a Lifetime Films production: sudden, out of context tragedy, crappy justice systems, female vigilantism, and unlikely friendships forged by way of grief. Starring Viola Davis as Lila, a mother who has lost her son in a seemingly accidental drive-by shooting, Lila & Eve is a film that can’t quite grasp a perspective and stick to it. Directed by Charles Stone III, most notably known for Drumline, his latest summer release falls short of being a thriller, yet has plenty of mind-numbing, shoot-’em-up action. Read More

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Out in Theaters: BLACKHAT

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The only way to make sense of Blackhat is to imagine Hansel (of the Zoolander variety, not he of the breadcrumbs) taking an online computer science class, changing his name to Michael Mann and setting out to wow the world by going “inside the computer.” The result is 135 minutes of excruciating, unequivocal gobbledegook led by the most frigid onscreen couple since Joel Schumacher‘s Mr. Freeze squabbled with Poison Ivy.  To call it bad is a lie by degree; it’s impossibly poor. For over two simply unbearable hours, join Mann as he sullies his good name with a film so awesomely abhorrent you’ll be doubting that he (he of international critical acclaim and assorted Oscar nominations) ever stepped foot on set.

Unfortunately, Mann’s fingerprints are undeniably all over Blackhat. His signature wide-lens nocturnal cityscapes are too crisp to be the work of even a dedicated understudy. If we’re digging deep to give Mann points (something we really shouldn’t be doing for a movie this embarrassingly bad), at least those fleeting heli-shots of x or y city at night provides temporary respite from the narrative implosion happening all around it. With force, Mann throws down the gauntlet for a movie where the establishing shots are incontestably better than the actual goings on of the film.

The plot (if you’re generous enough to refer to this “RAT after cheese” hunt as a plot) consists of a rogue hacker con (Chris Hemsworth) furloughed by the FBI in an attempt to hunt down those responsible for bringing a Chinese nuclear reactor to the brink of a meltdown, old MIT buddies reunited under the most improbable of circumstances, a kid sister sidekick with eyes for the hunky Hemsworth and one ESL-lesson shy of a TOEFL-degree and evil hackers who lounge around with their pale bellies protruding. Blackhat pivots on the oh-so-exciting prospects of coding, stock manipulation and the DOW value of soy. And eventually tin. If only 1995 Michael Mann could hear how tinny it sounds.

Hemsworth isn’t to blame for the bed-shitting puddle of yuck that is Blackhat (though he could have tried a touch less humorlessness), nor is seasoned compatriot Viola Davis (though I’d like to have a word with her heavy-handed makeup artist). The other leads though – those of the Asian persuasion – seem culled from the international recycling bin. As the female lead, Wei Tang has less restraint than a local weatherman and her consistent jumbling of volume and cadence leads to some wonky audio issues that a finished, wide-release film should never encounter. The conversations are loud, then inexplicably quiet and then overbearingly tremble-y. Like someone sat on the audio control board and no one cared enough to fix it.

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But Blackhat is filled with those brush-it-off-the-shoulder moments, as it succumbs steadily to a tide of directionless, thoughtless bunk. The perceived mounting suspense-by-laptop is as exciting as waiting two hours to discover a broken roller coaster at the end of the queue. Or watching a friend play a video game. As in watching only them, without being privy to what’s happening on the screen. For two hours.

The second time that Mann dips into the computer circuits to spider around for an improbable amount of time, you know you’re in trouble. When the leads lunge at each other like caged rabbits, holding back hearty howls is as impossible as enjoying the film. It’s all the worst habits of bad filmmaking puked onto the screen and shown over and over again. If The Fifth Estate is a golden boy for laughable hacker drama gone wrong, Blackhat dares to one-up it.
 
When affairs get gun-fighty, you breathe a sigh of relief. “Well at least Mann knows how to shoot the hell out of a gun fight. We’re all set here guys. Right?” Wrong. One couldn’t predict how horribly clunky and straight-to-video the transpiring blaze of gunfire is if they had a crystal ball. It’s almost unreasonable to be expected to come to terms with the fact that the same Michael Mann who directed the infamously taut bank shootout of Heat filmed what is quite reasonably the worst wide-release gunfight of the 21st century. Hang your head heavy Mr. Mann, feel the shame waft over you. Either that or your captors should feel rather guilty (“Where is the real Michael Mann and what have you done with him?!”)

The hacker thriller is a tough cookie to crack and has led to more certifiably misfires than any other action subgenre I can summon (yes, even more so than the geri-action sort). The closest anyone’s ever gotten to a great hacker thriller is The Matrix, and I use the comparison softly because calling it a hacker thriller is me admittedly bending the lines. Michael Mann’s film doesn’t come close to great. It’s not even within the realm of good. It couldn’t see the periphery of good with 400x binoculars. To have his name attached to it is to bear a Scarlet Letter from this point hence. Insufferable and tacitly overlong, his shameful film is an early contender for being crowned worst film of the year. Play at being Neo for a day: dodge a bullet and skip Blackhat.

F

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Out in Theaters: ENDER'S GAME

“Ender’s Game”
Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Moises Arias, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
114 Mins
PG-13
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Ender, a natural born strategist, waxes philosophy like he’s Sun Tzu. Taking “The Art of War” to its next logical step, Ender believes it’s not enough to understand his enemy. For him, truly understanding your enemy comes hand-in-hand with loving them. When you know someone well enough to predict their moves militarily, you glimpse into their soul. All at once, this zen of inter-connectivity gives Ender an upper hand in battle but also puts him in a constantly state of moral dread. He knows he can be a mighty conqueror the likes of Caesar but doesn’t know if he should be.  

Based on the popular young adult novels by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game is built on a foundation of tough philosophical questions like these. Tackling ethical issues that date back to the dawn of fighting with sticks and stone and span to our current climate of piloted drone warfare, moral quandaries are given precedence in the film, but often come across as heavy-handed and poorly thought through.

For a movie entirely about tactics, it’s lacking in tactical approach to philosophy as process. Socrates, famous for breaking down prejudices in order to reach universal truths championed the dissection of established beliefs through reasoning alone. To discover truth, he used critical analysis to better understand the world around him and the many false beliefs that dominated society at large. Here, Ender’s Game is philosophy as a means to an end, an “I told you so” of childish rashness rather than a contemplative, almost meditative, study. Rather than a thought process, here philosophy is a bat. Like Bonzo, you’ll want to be sure to cover your head from the beat downs to come.

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Philosophical dissection of Ender’s Game aside, the film floats by on the freckled charm of Asa Butterfield (Hugo). Unlike his peers, Ender has a preternatural tact for foreseeing the consequences, good and bad, of his physical actions and a pension for using violence to prevent future violence. Butterfield does a fine job at conveying the dueling nature of Ender’s innocence and incessant scheming. At once aggressive and acutely aware of his dangerous aggression, Ender is a morally complex character – a suiting trait for the morally complex world he inhabits.

On Earth, 50 years have passed since a devastating alien attack almost wiped out the planet’s population. Like a post-9/11 America, tapestries hang in offices and homes alike, wallpapering sentiments of “Never Forget.” At the hands of the bug-like Formics, Earthlings faced their demise but managed a narrow victory in a play of much-celebrated battlefield bravado. One man, we are told, single-handedly chased the enemy off and ever since, Earth has awaited the return of their ruthless enemy, all the while training legions of child soldiers.

Picked as the last hope for humanity, children are utilized for their fast processing skills, unfaltering obedience, and gullible code of honor. Ender is chosen to lead not because of his tendency towards violence but because of his thought process within said violence. Never the one to start a fight but always the one to finish it, he’s not a sadist, but a tactician. For these qualities, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees Ender as the ideal candidate to lead Earth’s troops into the final battle with the Formic.
   
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Joining Butterfield is a legion of youth actors that act little more than their age. Moises Arias as Bonzo and Hailee Steinfeld as Petra both do caricatures of the seething bully and flirty love interest but Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine is really the most reined in of these child performers. Her character is harmony, her performance refined, a nice counterpoint to the violent lifestyle that Ender’s profession has surrounded him by. She and bullying older brother Peter are the fulcrum points around which Ender measures himself. As Colonel Graff says, he needs to fall somewhere between them. He must harness both violence and peace – he must become a cocktail of serenity and rage.

As Ender trains to become a commander, he must undergo physical challenges that hone his motor skills and mental games meant to whet his battlefield acuity. In a turn of revamped Quidditch – except without brooms, magic, or gravity – the “launchies” spent most of their days training in an arena-based game of space dodge-bullet, where they earn points for blasting each other with stunners. Like Quidditch, the game can be won, regardless of points accumulated, if one team member passes through their opponents’ gate unscathed. Unlike Quidditch, this tournament has bearing outside the arena as the victor will go on to lead Earth’s army against the evil bug aliens. Perhaps this convoluted plot point is more an issue with the source material than the movie, but I’ve never heard of a Superbowl winning team captain going on to lead an army.

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Why the young launchies must spend so much time pushing their bodies to the limit when all eventual warfare is exclusively done through drone command is never addressed. Nor is the fact that regardless of the grueling training, none of the launchies – all of whom are on one side or the other of the scrawny-to-chubby spectrum – seem to put on any bulk or shed any pounds. They’re all in the same physical shape as day one. Surely this has to do with the fact that the film employs underage performers, and you can’t quite push a 12-year old to shed pounds like Christian Bale, but oversights like this are noticeable throughout and work to diminish the sense of reality director Gavin Hood is working so hard to create.

As the film pushes towards a close, the inevitable last act twist is somewhat foreseeable but nevertheless cements the relative worth of the film. Barking out commands with the crackly voice of a teen in metamorphosis, Ender leads his troops to video-simulated victory after victory until a crushing reality is revealed: maybe it’s not a game after all.

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In blurring the lines between video game violence and real world violence, Hood explores the hefty moral consequences of drone warfare, even when he’s being too clunky for his own good. While I admit to not having read the book, the ending comes out of left field, begging for a sequel and an impending franchise. There’s a delicate art to franchise building that used to revolve around worth but nowadays is left at the behest of the filmmaker. It’s as if a “what comes next?” cliffhanger is a necessity for any movie that costs over $100 million dollars. The question is: if you build it, will they come?

While the communist undertones, expressed here as the “hive mentality,” may be outdated now, many of the issues seen in Ender’s Game are even more relevant today than they were when it was written (i.e. drone warfare, bullying, surveillance, video game violence, child soldiers, etc.) However, Hood can’t help himself but to let them fly in your face, like the drilling of drones in the film’s finale, never really developing the ever-important why? behind it all.

C

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