Blackhat

If I was writing a school report from this movie, I would probably write “Could do better…”. It is not a bad movie, but given who is involved, I was expecting more. Directed by Michael Mann (Public Enemies, 2009), I came away with the feeling the effort that should have been put in to the movie was not used. Despite the name this is simply a police procedural, thriller type movie with relatively little in the way of “techno-plot” indeed given some of the errors and continuity breaks I think those involved perhaps did not have the technical know-how to close out the movie from a plot perspective.

The movie opens with an excellent graphics sequence (possibly a highlight) showing code being sent to a computer which turns off a fan at a Chinese nuclear power station and causes a breach (they said meltdown at one stage, but if it was, there would not have been people running around the site in civilian clothes just days afterwards). Shortly after the commodities markets in New York are hacked and feedstuffs a spiked netting a $75m profit for our bad guy. While working on the nuclear a Captain, Chen Dawai, (Leehom Wang, My Lucky Star, 2013) in the PLA (a rising Princeling judging by his description) he recognises some old code he is responsible for, he along with his old room mate in college, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, Thor 2011), who just so happens to be doing a prison sentence for hacking some banks and costing them about $50m, depending on which part of the movie we refer to, he is either doing 13 or 15 years in prison for this.

Long story short, Hathaway is released on furlough after Captain Chen links with the FBI and his Network engineer sister ( Wei Tang, The Golden Era, 2014). Despite initial reservations the FBI lead investigator, Carol Barrett ( Viola Davis, The Help, 2011) sees their worth and backs them as they end up following clues around the Far-East.

Eventually Hathaway puts the clues together, not so much from his cyber skills as from his ability just to stand back and look at the complete picture.

If you ant to look at this movie with any sense of seriousness, you will be disappointed, if however if you like a movie with people running all over the place, shooting everybody and anybody while seemingly never getting in trouble, then you will love this.

There are a number of huger plot holes – if you are trying how to disable a pump PLC system , you don’t need to find one of the pumps at a nuclear power plant, which will raise headlines. Speaking of PLCs (Programmable Logic (not Launch) Controllers are a fairly basic piece of kit that even I was programming when in college a generation ago, so no big challenge there. There are also a number of continuity errors, in Tshirts changing colour, stains on suits suddenly disappearing etc.

Hathaway who is supposedly a SW genius does some funny stuff like use a browser/domain name to indicate an IP address (dodgy) and I’m not going to ask when he got in to an illegal server farm, how he managed to find the drive he needed and hack it.

As a chase-‘em, shoot ‘em up movie it works, but anybody with more than an ounce of engineering or coding skills is going to be entertained much. The closing scenes in Jakarta also strain the imagination, it is noteworthy how many people ignored gun & knife toting westerners as they possessed along the road with their torches. I also have a problem with the “little things”. After arriving in Malaysia (illegally) they seemed to have no shortage of ready cash and indeed in the closing scenes Hathaway actually takes €5000 out of his, supposedly secret Swiss bank account; two things in the few hours he was in Malaysia, how did he mange to get his bank card (there nothing to suggest he had this or other private belongings prior to the last arrival), oh and why use Euro when going to Switzerland, rather than Swiss Francs.

I started off giving this a *** rating but the more I think about it, and how unconvincing the movie was from both a characterisation and technology perspectives I have to revise down to **. This might be a little harsh, but like I said at the beginning “could do better”. A final comment is the effect of mixing the digital and 35mm camera work, hmm – small doses please, it was certainly over used and grated a few times.

Project Almanac

Director Dean Israelite’s first feature length movie works well for him. Opening with High-school kid, David Raskin (Jonny Weston, Insurgent 2015) making a video presentation to MIT for acceptance on one of their college programmes with the help of his two friends Quinn (Sam Lerner, Nobody Walks, 2014) and Adam (Allen Evangelista, Belas, 2013). The film is largely shot in POV (Point of view) format, that is always through a camcorder or such like always used by one of the kids. David’s sister Christina (Virginia Gardner, The Goldbergs. 2013) is the primary recorder. The POV format largely works, even if there are one or two sequences where it is not as successful.

Routing through some old belongings in the attic he comes across a video-camera once owned by his father who was killed in a car accident about 10 years ago. While looking at footage, David notices something, just a frame or two, but he notices it. Reviewing the home-movie in question it is clear David in in the movie as his 17year old self, with his 10yo self also there. Noticing that the David in the film was heading for the basement, they decide to check down there.

Now here is a significant weakness in the film, centred around a young technically gifted student, whose father was an engineer, he (David) only now goes down to the basement and “discovers” his father’s workshop and very quickly its secrets.

Pretty quickly they find the time machine, or at least the workings of it and all of the necessary blue-prints, and as any kids do, they decide to finish building it. With much chaos and experimenting they manage to move something back through time. Of course all of this has the added benefit of entangling one of David’s school mates; Jessie Pierce (Sofia Black D’elia, Born of War 2013), David has a crush on her and as with most young lads of his age, he is totally unable to act on it. A good section of the movie deals with the youngsters building and improving the time machine, often with mixed results.

First the five youngsters experiment with sending inanimate objects back and forth through time, but David is eager to move things on and after much tinkering and adaption, they have a time travel device which they can bring with them, which can transport them to when they want to go (within a limited window of a couple of weeks, but growing as they tinker)

As the movie progresses it starts to take on a slightly darker more sinister hue. After firstly starting off with small things, they decide to “surgically” (my words) interfere with the past, but very quickly learn that one event might have a knock-on effect on another even though the two may not seem linked. After making changes to the time line. On their first trip back they see how the lawas of nature actually kick-in to prevent them from meeting themselves in the past, if they do, bith are removed from nature, no longer existing.

These trips back in time start of light enough, with Quinn using the trips back to ace a pop-quiz in chemistry and then get more intense as they try to undo changes to the timelines brought about by their travel. These changes which seem like nothing much have implications which spread far and wide, the ripple effect being nicely expounded here.

This film is a lot more watchable than I thought it would be and indeed deals with some of the more fundamental aspects of time travel, concentrating on the effects (as thought) rather than on the pure science of the physics. Indeed this is where the film lets itself down slightly, but only slightly.

Without going into the physics of time travel the movie looks to the impacts and how the people involved try to deal with and correct what they have done. One could argue that there is not a whole lot original in the first half of the movie, when even the movie itself draws parallels with some of those time-travelling presentations which came before (even down to video shots of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989).

The second half is where the movie really kicks in and ups the tempo. This is an interesting look at the whole area of time travel and its consequences and might be compared to About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013). Much of the tension surround the undoing of the consequences of even the supposedly smallest actions when they went back in time. One of the issues with Time travel movies is the potential for the heroes to go anywhere, any when in time. Almanac carefully circumvents these issues by building in practical limitations to their device and so keeping the movie on a relatively (sorry for the pun) tight perspective and prevents it from tackling too many physics questions.

Over all it works, with perhaps just a little bit too much time spent on the concert in the baseball stadium, but then again there are implications for the event. It also manages to convey some of the science of time-travel without breaking into applied physics. The movie does have some convenient plot holes but nothing that takes away from the picture overall.

Fruitvale Station

This award winning movie is based on the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan, That Awkward Moment, 2014) , a young black man from the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area who despite all that is wrong in his life wants to do things better. Directed by Ryan Coogler, this was his first feature length motion picture.

Oscar is a small time criminal who has served time in the near distant past ( the film does not go in to details of why he served time, but that is a matter of public record). Although out of prison a while not, he is still struggling to do this right. Indeed our first scene with him is of he and his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz, A guide to Recognising Your Saints, 2006) discussing his having cheated on her with another women. We quickly get an insight into his life; His girlfriend is the mother of his child, but they do not all live together, instead staying with respective families.

Trying to convince Sophina, he is on the right track, he resolves to do things right. With this begins a journey that takes him through his day. I’m not going to recount the day, play-by-play. What we see is a young man trying to make things right and start over. This is at one and the same time the most importantant aspect of the movie and also perhaps in the weakest. Some watching this have thought that the first half of the film tended to paint Oscar in to some kind of Saint who has had his Damascus moment. This is not necessarily the case. At least two of the events in his day have no basis in fact and were added by the director to further build the character of Oscar.

Apart from his girlfriend, Sophina, Oscar also has two other powerful females in his life, his daughter Tatiana (Adriana Neal, Repentance, 2013) whom he adores and his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer, Snowpiercer, 2013) who plays the archetypal mother, strong and though when she needs to be and loving at the same time.

In many ways this movie could be a case of “What ifs” but it is not, it is a case of “this was”. The movie takes us through the day in what is essentially a well stitched together set of scenes which culminate with Oscar, Sophina and friends taking the BART to and from San Francisco to see the new Year’s Eve fireworks. Having previously decided to drive in , Wanda persuades Oscar to take the BART, on the thinking that it should be safer.

Events unfold on the train, having previously been the scene of good-natured cheers, things turn south very quickly and indeed end almost as quickly. Having stopped the train, BART transport police come on scene, led by Officer Carruso (Kevin Durand, Real steel, 2011). Coming in hard and heavy the situation is tense, Oscar and his friends, defend themselves and react to the police behaviour, vigorously but politely and non-aggressively.

Events unfold as they did and are presented in a tense atmosphere.   The movie, while perhaps trying to find its feet early on, builds up to a crescendo with the scenes at Fruitvale Station, which come to the audience quickly and hard once they come. There is no escaping the emotion of the events of that night and indeed the events of subsequent years elsewhere have pushed this movie in to a very exact focus.

This film has an agenda, to show the needless death of a young man. Whatever your views on these events, this movie shows a young man, trying to make something of his life, despite the challenges he faces, only to be cut down as he looked to start a new life for himself.

A firm 7/10 with some issues regarding the direction, but overall it brings us the viewer along and allows us to be caught in the emotion of the events of that day.

Chappie

Directed and co-written by Neill BlomKamp (District 9, 2009) Chappie is set in The Republic of South Africa in the near future, more specifically in Johannesburg. Faced with ever growing rates of lawlessness and violence the South African police purchase a series of android robots from a local company headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, aliens 1986), these robots are fully mobile AI’s with human interfaces to help control them. Initial trials and usage are going well. Crime rates in the city fall and criminals are genuinely fearful of them.

The opening sequences tell you straight away that you are in a BlomKamp movie with the by-now familiar camera styles. With his opening shots we see how law and order is being restored. In the middle of this we meet drone 22 (who will become known as Chappie), who is severely damaged in deployment and sent to the scrap heap. As this is going on Deon Wilson (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) the engineer behind the androids has been working on a full AI program for the androids and has finally cracked it. He is prevented from trying his latest work on any of the robots. As this happens he is facing competition from inside the company in the guise of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who has developed a remote controlled ground drone which is basically a walking tank, full to the gunnels with high grade armoury, however his program is cancelled because of the success of the drones.

If life was not hard enough, some of the local criminals, suffering from the effects of the drones decide to Kidnap Deon to force him to shut down the drones. As luck would have it they kidnap Deon when he has a van load of spare parts in the back of his van, while he is getting out of the Lab so he can build his own full AI unit with his new software installed. Once captured, it becomes clear he cannot help them, but it is discovered that he has the making of an android in his van. He agrees to help them build it so he can fit his own AI software in to the brain.

They agree reluctantly, the leader of the gang, Ninja (also called Ninja today) wants the android for a big hoist. His friend Yolandi ( Yo Landi Visser, Focus 2015) develops a soft spot for Chappie as he grows. After some struggles Chappie (played by Sharlto Copley, District 9, 2009) has his AI brain and begins to learn how to behave in the human world. Ninja feels no emotion for him and treats him like a weapon basically, trying to train him to be an effective killing machine, Yolandi on the other hand develops a maternal bond with the ‘droid.

All this happens against the gang trying to plan their biggest Hoist, Deon not trying to get caught, and Vincent Moore discovering what is really happening and then planning to kidnap/destroy Chappie. As the movie develops is grows into three strands; the relationship with Chappie as he develops essentially following the characteristics of a truculent teenager; the training of Chappie by the gang despite attempts by Yolandi and Deon to “humanise” him and keep him away from violence. The third strand is the rivalry within the company and the attempts by Moore to discredit the androids and have his system used.

This of course culminates is a disaster for the city of epic proportions which ends up with Moore and his robot battling Chappie and his gang. While this is going on Deon’s work on AI have sparked Chappie’s interest and he himself manages to progress it. Ultimately they develop the ability to transfer a human conscience in to an artificial brain, this might be able to help them in their fight to survive.

I am trying hard not to ruin the plot line. I watched this shortly after watching Ex Machina (see below) it is interesting to see the take on artificial intelligence and how we as a society are prepared to live with it. Whereas Ex Machina had science and suspense, Chappie has action and a reflection, despite all that is going on we begin to see Chappie in an almost “human” light.

On the negative side, there are one or two small issues with the film, despite being in South Africa, the majority of the cast is white, Dev Patel (English of Indian extraction), something which considering the film is shot in South Africa was noticeable. One other aspect is what I would consider a hole in the story “Security” aspect. The facility where the robots are made seems to be totally incapable of any type of security (which facilitates the storyline) but this causes a certain weakness in the film. I should also point out the film does nothing to advance Johannesburg’s reputation internationally, rather cementing it as the violent city it is often known for.

That said, the movie manages to capture the discussion on what constitutes “humanity” and the nature of being, having a soul and the next life. Are we humane just because we are human, is the soul the preserve of humans?

6/10 An entertaining movie with some excellent special effects, but still somehow managed to give the feel of a small budget production. Overall quite watchable with some rough edges round the corners, perhaps deliberately.

Ex Machina

At first blush this seems a highly original piece, however as you settle down to it one begins to see very firm shades of Frankenstein. From a cinema perspective, despite the technological bias I was brought back to the 1972 classic by Joseph Mankiewicz, Sleuth where Michael Caine and Laurance Olivier are in a house together and at least one of them has murder on his mind. Although the intention here is not to kill the tension is still there.

The film starts with a young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson ,About Time, 2013) who works for the world’s largest search engine “Bluebook” winning a week’s stay with the founder of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, a Most Violent Year, 2014). Caleb is flown up to near Nathan’s home (in deepest Alaska) but has to go the remaining way on foot, due to the helicopter pilot not being allowed to get any closer. After some very awkward first moments and the first greeting , the two eventually settle down to an all-be-it uneasy working relationship. It turns out Caleb was there for a reason.

Caleb is there to help Nathan with his latest creation. At the age of 13 Nathan developed the algorithms for a search Engine called “Blue Book”. Now a silicon valley billionaire he tells Caleb the secret of his success was that while others saw the search engines as a way of knowing what people were thinking about, he saw it as a way of knowing how people were thinking. It turns out Nathan has developed an AI and wants Caleb to conduct a Turing test on the AI to see if she can pass as human.

This of course cannot be a pure Turing test, and as such is the foundation for some very intense and possible disturbing discussions between Caleb and Nathan. When Caleb meets the android Ava (Alicia Vikander, Seventh Son 2014) he quickly realises there may be more to the week.

As Caleb learns more from Ava and gets to know her, he sees that both Ava and Nathan seem to have very different views on each other. As each day passes Caleb sinks deeper in to a rabbit hole which would have impressed Alice on her way to Wonderland. As with the original Frankenstein, Adam or in this case Ava needs to escape. Plans are hatched and the situation quickly descends in to one of survival.

Throughout you get a sense of being trapped in the bunker of house which Nathan has, indeed this is reflected in how even Caleb has access to the house. The person we see with Caleb is the real person, everybody else may not be what or who they seem. Isaac’s Nathan is a perfect example of characterisation; we were never meant to like him and as the movie progresses we are given no reason to actually start liking him.

It is a great tense thriller, the plot is generally tight, although some developments are fairly well sign-posted, if you manage to catch the clues. There are a couple of turns and twists; not all of which predicted.

The tension and edginess of this production make it work, it is dark and the more we learn of Nathan the more we begin to wonder if he shut himself off from the world or did the world discard him. Who will escape the confines of the house, how will the android survive the week by passing the test. Is the android the only person being tested?

The special effects are flawless and seamless, important given the nature of Eva’s android frame. If you are looking for stomach turning violence you will not find it here, but if what you seek is an intelligent piece of cinema, watch this one.

This movie is as much a modernisation of Frankenstein as a reflection on the modern world around us. Written and directed by Alex Garland, this is his directorial debut.

8/10

Mad Max: Fury Road

When George Miller first gave us Mad Max in 1976, I was too young to appreciate it, however as a kid growing up I was one of the many who managed to see them and love them, that said by the time it came to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome I felt (even at my then relatively tender age) as if the magic had worn off, while discussing the films recently, I recalled that it was actually a number of years before I watched the entirety of Thunder Dome.

Speed forward a generation and Miller has given us a new “episode” is the life of Max Rockatansky. I say episode as that is exactly how Miller described it when asked, it is not a prequel, sequel or other, but a new episode in the continuing adventures of Max

This time round Max is played by Tom Hardy (Peaky Blinders, 2014) who must be one of the busiest actors out there at the moment., He pretty soon runs into Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Mad Max, 1979 as “Toe Cutter”) and his band. Immortan controls the only source of fresh water in the district and together with two other local settlements; Gas Town, ruled by The People Eater (John Howard, All Saints 2001) and The Bullet Farm, run by the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter, the Great Gatsby, 2013) they control the district. Immortan has developed an almost cult based society with those who serve him directly and act as his foot soldiers being given the necessary food to survive, other clanging around outside are left to be thankful for any scraps. As with the previous offerings society is mechanical and post-apocalyptic.

While a prisoner of Immortan, Max is to be used as a “Blood bag” for the one of the War pups – these are the (usually dying from radiation poisoning) young people under Immortan’s rule. Immortan has developed a psuado-religion with his War pups/dogs willing to die for him and go to Valhalla. In Max’s case the War Pup in question in Nux (Nicholas Hult, warm bodies 2013). Life is complicated when Imperator Furiosa , (Charlize Thron, Prometheus, 2012) one of Immortan’s more senior people, escapes with one of his war wagons ( a large fortified petrol trailer -which seems to be broken in to containers carrying water and human milk- and tractor) and, most importantly his 5 wives, all of whom are fit and healthy and capable of producing children, with at least one of them currently pregnant. Alarms are raised, and the war pups/dogs are sent out to capture them, indeed the neighbouring settlements are brought in and together the three leaders and their mechanical armies hunt down Imperatur Furiosa, here war wagon and as they discover the hidden wives. Max is attached to one of the war pups as a blood transfusion supply, however undaunted, the war pup, Nux (Nicholas Holt, Warm Bodies, 2013) volunteers to join the chase.

And now the fun really starts. As the chase begins Immortan Joe brings his warriors together, in a fantastic display of post-apocalyptic engineering right down to the booming sound truck with its own rock guitarist hanging from cables as he riffs to the assembled wildness. What follows is a genuinely edge of seat sequence of set-piece stunts which come off brilliantly.

Eventually Max manages to not only free himself from Nux but also get to the war wagon, its water and fuel and along the way discover the real cargo. Furiosa is taking them to The Green Place an almost mythical land she remembers from growing up. To add to his troubles, Nux is not too pleased to have lost his blood supply and to have done so in such a public manner, seeking to gain Immortan Joe’s approval he volunteers to get on to the war wagon and rescue the situation, Immoratan Joe promises him Valhalla and the brainwashed pup goes to his death. However he does not die and actually contributes greatly to events, though not as Immortan would have liked.

The chase continues and of course many are killed along the way in fantastic displays of destruction and mayhem. Eventually they come to Furiosa’s homeland where they meet a group surviving women, one of whom, the Keeper of the Seeds (Mellissa Jaffa, Komodo, 1999) manages to nicely convey how much life has changed. I don’t know if it was intended but the spirit of the women of the Green Lands was reminiscent of the characters and their strength shown in the 1956 classic A Town Like Alice (Jack Lee).

Things of course don’t exactly go to plan, but as with any good story, things have a way of working out to everybody’s (mostly) pleasure.

This movie might be an “episode” but from the perspective of popularity, it is effectively a reboot bring the franchise to an entirely new generation. I’ve tried not to say too much, the movie is visually spectacular, with a great cast and some witty dialogue, enjoy it.

To those who say the role of max has been diluted and there is too much of a female lead, I would simply say; no, you’re wrong.

San Andreas

I went to this one with open views, having seen it get some fairly poor reviews, that said I came out of the cinema thinking some of the reviews were perhaps a bit harsh. Brad Peyton’s movie is quite entertaining and almost immediately manages to stand on its own without the 1974 classic earthquake (Mark Robson) looming over it. Like the “original” there are two central strands, the scientists and the hero. The film opens with the scientists in Cal Tech led by “Lawrence” (Paul Giamatti, sideways, 2004)discovering they may be able to predict earthquakes, events quickly over take them and as the movie progresses the team at Cal tech essentially becomes something of a conscience for the movie as well as the vehicle for explaining what is coming and what effect it will have, this sounds rather mundane but Giamatti and Co. deliver a good support plot.

The movie proper starts of by giving us a background of the hero, chief pilot Ray, who works with the LAFD and is separated from his wife and daughter – we learn later the reason for the separation, something which might just be reversible. We meet his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino, Watchmen, 2009), daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, 2013) and emma’s new beau, the billionaire property developer, Daniel Riddick, (Ioan Gruffud, The Fantastic 4, 2005) who happens to be building the biggest and strongest high-rise in San Francisco.   This extended family gathering ofcourse causes the usual tensions which play to the plot.

So the family safely in LA, now has daughter Blake and step dad off to San Francisco , while Emma stays in LA to have lunch with Richard’s ice-cold sister; Susan (Kylie Minogue, Holy Motors, 2012). Then of course all hell breaks lose. As it happens our hero is in his LAFD copter and first things first goes to rescue his wife (ex). This is where the action sequences start to quickly roll in. As it happens Emma was at a restaurant on the top floor of a sky-scraper when the first quake strikes. Through much survival against falling building, explosions and general mayhem, Emma survives and manages to be rescued by our hero.

Pretty quickly they learn that Blake is trapped in San Francisco, separated from Richard and trapped. Trapped she may be, but she is rescued by a young man, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Goddess 2013) and his little brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson, Dracula Untold, 2014).Through Blake’s smart thinking they manage to raise her father & mother in LA. What does dad do, only turn his copter around and flies directly in San Fran. Of course life is never easy and Father Ray’s copter runs out of fuel, the road is split in two, the tsunami is on the way and meanwhile there are the various shocks and after-shocks to deal with. Just as Ray and Emma struggle to get to their daughter, she and her two friends also struggle to survive. In a moment which reflect current movie trends, the boys decide to stick with Blake after young Ollie asks his big brother is he had any of the survival skills Blake has shown, No! they are staying with her.

Needless to say both parties eventually reunite and after much struggle manage to make it to safety. This is not a bad movie, but it is not a great one either. If is suffers in any area it is in editing. I felt watching it that it was rather episodic, moving from one scene/challenge in to another. As I mentioned at the time to a friend, I am not sure if Ray is the most unlucky person in the world or actually the luckiest on the basis everything he tried either ran out of fuel, broke, died, blew up or suffered another such fate and he manager to not only survive but reach his daughter and with the help of his wife (in a very Rambo moment) mange to actually rescue them.

I would give the movie a fair ***, not the greatest movie, but not the worst by any means. I’m not a great fan of Dwayne Johnson, mainly on the basis that nothing he has done has inspired me, although this is no Shakespeare, he does manage to act and deliver some good lines. The Stars of the show are however, the two leading women, Mother and daughter Emma and Blake.

Watch it and enjoy it, it does exactly what it does on the tin.