Blackhat

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DIR: Michael Mann  WRI: Morgan Davis Foehl • PRO: Thomas Tull, Michael Mann, Jon Jashni • DOP: Stuart Dryburgh  MUS: Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross • CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis

In 2002, moviegoers might have caught a glimpse of a trailer for Lucky Star, a Michael Mann film starring Benicio Del Toro, which featured all of the director’s visual hallmarks, including sleek cars, a nightscape of reflective surfaces, and a helicopter perspective of the city as a sea of blinking lights. Lucky Star seemed to centre on a globetrotting protagonist who was being pursued by powerful forces, both governmental and criminal, and a plot that somehow involved manipulating the market of tin-ore futures in Chicago and Hong Kong. In the end, there was no film, and this compendium of Mann-ish moments was really an advertisement for Mercedes. With Blackhat, Mann finally delivers a film on this very plot, featuring the very same ingredients and striking visual gloss. Its plot and characters, however, are as vapid as those of any 30-second commercial, but here are stretched to an unbearable 133 minutes.

Over his career, Mann has recycled the same material – single-minded, technically proficient cops/criminals pursuing a prize or target, and choosing professional accomplishment over the comforts of home and a conventional romantic life. This repetition has usually been at least to a thrilling end, sometimes to appealingly abstract effect, and occasionally even reached into the sublime. With Public Enemies, and now Blackhat, however, the same old ingredients are entirely sapped of any flavour.

Chris Hemsworth is Hathaway, a genius hacker serving a sentence in federal prison, who is furloughed to aid a joint U.S.-Chinese investigation of a mysterious hacker who has sabotaged a nuclear plant in Hong Kong and robbed millions in a manipulation of the futures market in Chicago. Hathaway is paired with his former roommate, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who is now a cyber-security agent for the Chinese military, and Dawai’s sister, Lien (Tang Wei). The relationships between these characters are flat and unaffecting. Though never awful, Hemsworth’s performance sometimes appears to be a wan tribute act riffing on performances in Mann’s previous films. Apart from a few momentary sparks of interest from Viola Davis, John Ortiz and less than a minute of the enjoyably unsettling William Mapother, there is no-one to engage our attention. The villain is kept so distant as to serve virtually no dramatic function. Some energy might be implied by the fact that the plot takes the characters from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, to Malaysia, and finally to Jakarta, but it is all very frenetic to no particular point. In the end, it feels as if we have been on a plane for the duration of the movie and each new location has all the charm and colour of a Ryanair boarding lounge.

It isn’t Mann’s fault that we now recognise that the real menace to our wired world isn’t rogue “blackhat” hackers, but rather the security agencies of the big powers and their near-universal eavesdropping. Even so, his film works hard to blow its own credibility at every turn and emphasises just how out of touch it is by presenting the cyber agencies of United States and China as lacking the capability, firepower and ruthlessness of a few moustache-twirling baddies. Don’t dare write it in an email, but we all know this is pure cobblers.

Tony McKiver

15A (See IFCO for details)
132 minutes

Blackhat is released 20th February 2015

Blackhat  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Best Man Holiday

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DIR/WRI: Malcolm D. Lee • PRO: Malcolm D. Lee, Sean Daniel, Spike Lee  DOP: Rogier Stoffers  ED: Paulk Millspaugh • MUS: Stanley Clarke •  CAST:  Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut

The unnaturally long gap between this uninspired sequel and 1999’s The Best Man is more head-scratchingly intriguing than anything in the plot of this tepid comedy/drama. Why was there such a long wait? It wasn’t as if The Best Man had carved its name into the annals of comedy history. Here we meet again the same upwardly mobile black couples 14 years later as their relationships are tested by old infidelities, money problems, and illness.

Most of the drama centres on the struggles of Harper (Taye Diggs), whose literary failures have cornered him into writing a biography of Lance (Morris Chestnut), a superstar athlete and Harper’s one-time best friend. The obvious forebear for this reunion-in-a-house scenario is The Big Chill, but this film doesn’t have either the focus or subtlety of Lawrence Kasdan’s classic. Ingredients are lobbed into the mix with abandon so we have the heart-tugging double whammy of a movie cancer death and a movie emergency birth in immediate succession.

The filmmakers are aiming for a lump in the throat, but the effect feels more like choking on a sugar lump. Nevertheless, there is some enjoyment to be had here, particularly from Terrence Howard, though his amusing supporting role is also a painful reminder that this is an actor who should be a star and deserves better material than this.

Tony McKiver

15A (See IFCO for details)

123 mins

The Best Man Holiday is released on 29th November 2013

 

 

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Cinema Review: Saving Mr Banks

SAVING MR. BANKS

 

DIR: John Lee Hancock  WRI: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith  PRO: Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer  DOP: John Schwartzman  ED: Mark Livolsi  MUS: Thomas Newman CAST: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell

Saving Mr Banks tells the story of how the very uptight author Mrs. P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was persuaded by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to allow him to adapt her most famous work, Mary Poppins, to the big screen. The film centres on the seemingly irreconcilable culture clash between the pernickety British-Australian author and the gosh-darnit informality and enthusiasm of her American wooer. Travers despises vulgarity, which, for her, might neatly be summed up as everything that Disney produces. As the insistently “Mrs.” Travers shoots down the reasonable suggestions of Disney’s long-suffering writer and composers, we discover that many of the details she cherishes in Mary Poppins resonate with her own experience growing up with her loving, but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) in Allora, a remote town in Australia. The Disney Machine circa 2013 gets under our skin and cranks up the lump-in-the-throat factor to show how 1960s Disney got beneath Travers’ hard exterior and cranked up the lump-in-the-throat factor to win her over. The seduction of Travers makes us conscious of how we too are being seduced. It is our inescapable awareness of the calculation behind this effort to win her—and us—over that robs the film of the poignancy it longs to evoke with its flashbacks to Travers’ childhood.

Thankfully the lighter aspects of the story win out, because the grittier aspects of reality on show—Farrell’s alcoholism and Travers’ loneliness—are so filtered through coats of movie gloss as to feel quite unreal. The film stays afloat on deft performances from Thompson, Giamatti and especially Hanks, whose avuncular Disney blots out some of the more recent and less pleasant revelations about the real man behind the House of Mouse.

It’s nice to see the official Disney logo on an original drama, but it’s a shame that its backwards-harking vision—nostalgically mining Disney’s own filmography—makes it a piece of Disney’s larger project of looking the past to come up with material to fuel its dream factory today. Whether it is the purchase of Lucasfilm, the sequel (and prequel)-isation of Pixar’s earliest and best work or the Disney Infinity “multi-platform experience,” the world’s most successful film studio is no longer venturing outward in search of material, but rather has turned entirely inward, and is fracking its own landscape of licenses to generate “content.” It would be sad if this nostalgic strategy were to someday throw up a Saving Mr Hanks and the serpent choked a little harder on its own tail.

Tony McKiver

PG (See IFCO for details)

125  mins

Saving Mr Banks is released on 29th November 2013

Saving Mr Banks  – Official Website

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Just “Like” Jesse James

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Tony McKiver takes aim at the quest to revive The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford .

A stag night might seem an unlikely catalyst for a successful film revival, but one man’s urge to celebrate his impending nuptials in unique style has spawned a blossoming online campaign to rerelease one of the most critically acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful films of the last ten years.

New York-based television editor Jamieson McGonigle first saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford when it was originally released in 2007 and, like much of the small film-going audience that saw the film then, he has found himself haunted by a western that is frequently described as “mesmerising” and “dreamlike.” Where others who valued the film might have manifested their appreciation by buying a copy of the film on DVD or Blu-ray, McGonigle took his devotion to another level by tracking down and purchasing a 35mm print of the film. When he was organising to have his upcoming wedding ceremony in New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, he decided to try to leverage this patronage to obtain permission to hold a screening of his print as a rather unorthodox bachelor party. However, such is the affection in which the film is held and the enthusiasm for seeing it once again on the big screen that his initiative has ballooned into a public screening on December 7, 2013, to be attended and addressed by the film’s director, Andrew Dominik. Tickets sold out within a few hours, and already a second screening has been organised alongside an online campaign, Jesse James Revival, that is using grass-roots activism and social media to persuade repertory cinemas around the world to screen Dominik’s film.

The demand for a revival is perhaps not so surprising given the fact that Dominik’s beautiful and languorous western is both one of the most critically praised films of this century and also one of the least seen. Upon its initial release, it was described by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw as “a tremendously stylish, intelligent retelling of western myth.” It received Oscar nominations for cinematographer Roger Deakins and Casey Affleck’s spellbinding performance as Bob Ford, a foolish young outlaw entranced by the celebrity of Jesse James. The marquee star was Brad Pitt, but the film repudiates his charisma, just as it strips away the lustre of the western legend: Pitt’s Jesse James is often a character literally out of focus, a quixotic misanthrope who both exults in and squirms from his own fame. This is not the rootin’-tootin’ outlaw hero from a previous generation of myth-making westerns.

Even before it was released, the film was treated as something of a nuisance by its own studio, with Warner Bros. fighting a protracted and ultimately unsuccessful battle with Dominik, who was backed by Pitt (one of the film’s producers), to reduce the film’s running time. The 160-minute film premiered in September 2007 and proceeded to sink like a stone. Despite the presence of Pitt, it made just $15 million worldwide against a production budget of $30 million. In an unusually strong year for cinema, it also missed out on even the token redemption offered by the Oscars as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood mopped up all the plaudits.

At every turn—from its unwieldy title, to its taxing length, to the fact that it doesn’t focus on Pitt’s character—the film might appear to deliberately repel viewers’ investment. By rejecting the expected, familiar techniques regularly used to secure audience interest, however, it comes up with its own novel form, one that is digressive, patient and deeply absorbing. It made a powerful impression on the lucky few who saw it during its initial release. By the time critics were compiling their “best of” lists to mark the end of the noughties, The Assassination of Jesse James was moving up near the top.

The campaign to revive the film has jumped continents. Besides bids to arrange screenings in Toronto, Seattle, Denver, Tucson, and Los Angeles, McGonigle has received requests from fans in London. There are also suggestions of a screening at Dublin’s Lighthouse, a cinema already famed for responding inventively to its audience’s tastes, exemplified by its regular dance-along screenings of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense!

The Assassination of Jesse James ends with a quiet, but stirring epiphany years after the killing mentioned in the title. We discover Bob Ford, physically unchanged but almost unrecognisably matured beyond his ridiculous boyish enthusiasms. He is reviled by people who did not know Jesse James at all, yet hold the outlaw up as a hero and Bob as a cowardly villain. Bob is quietly able to see past that official shame and to accept his own infamous deeds as the excusable acts of a child. There is something apt in reviving a film that itself celebrates a capacity to look back kindly and see beyond perceived failure and disgrace to discover something precious overlooked by official history. With a little luck, other overlooked films of recent years might benefit from this redemptive impulse.

 

Tony McKiver

 

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Cinema Review: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

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DIR: Jeff Tremaine  WRI: Jeff Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze PRO: Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine, Derek Freda, Spike Jonze  DOP: Lance Bangs, Dimitry Elyashkevich  CAST: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll

A privilege granted to artists and writers in this country is an exemption from income tax based on the “cultural or artistic merit” of their work, with the sharper legal definition that “its contemplation enhances the quality of individual or social life by virtue of that work’s intellectual, spiritual or aesthetic form and content” or “enhances or intensifies the aesthetic apprehension of those who experience or contemplate it.” The absurdity of such a sanctifying definition becomes blindingly obvious when you see something like Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. My life is not by any meaningful measure enhanced as a result of watching Johnny Knoxville struggle to remove his twanging latex dick from a Coke machine as innocent bystanders wince, laugh or simply try to ignore him. But I did laugh. Big stupid laughs from my big stupid head. Equally, I’m certain that society has not been enhanced by the intellectual, spiritual or aesthetic qualities of seeing Knoxville’s latex-disguise Grandpa shart fake shit onto the wall of a restaurant. Reader, I laughed at that one too.

These scenes of disgusting spectacle are weakly stitched into a unity by a gossamer thin narrative in which Knoxville’s Grandpa character drives cross-country to reunite his young grandson (Jackson Nicoll) with his irresponsible father. The plot is just an egg carton for a series of set-ups in which unsuspecting members of the public have to make shocked faces in reaction to a series of provocative stunts, including Knoxville gatecrashing a Ladies’ Night stripshow with a display of distended geriatric genitalia, or allowing his “grandson” to drink beer in public.

It’s hard to criticise something that resolutely refuses to rise to the bait of even pretending to be art. What I can say, however, is that not all of the stunts have the same ability draw laughs. Knoxville chats up women on the street, but the horny irascible Grandfather is a cliché as old as Zeus himself. As this sort of thing goes, Knoxville has neither the acting talent nor the balls (distended or otherwise) of Sacha Baron Cohen, whose commitment to his larger-than-life characters is both fearless and persuasive. Knoxville’s performance of aging goes about as deep as the latex appliances on his face and hands. This is not a great film, not even a middling one, but, then again, it never tries to be.

When it works it succeeds as forcefully and as ineffably as any work of art could hope to, with no respectable, ennobling means of accounting for its effect. At one point, Grandpa mounts one of those shopping-arcade toy vehicles designed to attract kids and torture parents and is summarily hurled through (what seems to be) a plate-glass window. The audience could see this gag coming a mile away. Nothing or nobody (apart from Knoxville!) was elevated or enhanced. As I laughed idiotically, in the very same row, the reviewer from The Irish Times laughed like he’d just been exempted from income tax.

Tony McKiver

16 (See IFCO for details)

90 mins
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa  is released on 25th October 2013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Very Extremely Dangerous

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DIR: Paul Duane PRO: Paul Duane, Robert Gordon ED: Colm O’Brien, Fiona Starogardzki

A prominent sub-genre of the wider musical-documentary field consists of a quest or travelogue in which the filmmakers rediscover and redeem some gifted musical talent omitted from the success-obsessed mainstream of musical history. Into this uplifting niche fall such films as Searching for Sugarman and The Buena Vista Social Club. It would be odd, however, if the filmmakers who set out on these journeys always came up with subjects who fitted neatly into this happy frame. By focusing on Jerry McGill, director Paul Duane has found a subject who cannot help but derail this intended upward arc. McGill was a contemporary and acquaintance of Elvis who enjoyed a hit record in 1959, but subjugated whatever musical talent he once possessed to drugs, thrill-seeking robberies and violence—while these may be the kinds of activities to be celebrated in song, they play havoc with the cultivation of a successful musical career. Despite being diagnosed with life-threatening lung cancer, having the attention of a documentary crew and the chance to record his music once again, the 70-year-old McGill reverts to the anarchic outlaw behaviour that ensured his career never took off in the first place, and pisses all over his chances of making his longed-for comeback.

Narrating the film, Duane recognises that the expected redemptive narrative will not be possible in this case, and the film shifts subtly so that it almost becomes a revelation of the romantic impulses and patterns that must operate in redemptive musical documentaries to repress, obscure and elide awkward realities like the subject’s fecklessness, ego and stupidity in order to come up with the pre-scripted happy ending. The wit, charisma and talent we charitably attribute to McGill at the outset are gradually chiselled away as he abuses trust, alienates his friends, threatens violence on his long-suffering girlfriend and indulges in absurd prima-donna preening. He betrays the same mix of sentiment and selfishness as some deluded crank auditioning for the X-Factor. Duane does a very good job of undercutting the overworked redemptive narrative, it is just a shame that that the very last scene grasps for a sense of uplift, by which time I was hoping that Jerry would return to the obscurity he had originally merited. In an earlier moment, the hopeless old peacock is seen purchasing some bling in preparation for a dismal comeback gag. He settles on a piece of jewellery that reads “2pac.” Ol’ dirty bastard would have been more fitting.

TonyMcKiver

85 mins
Very Extremely Dangerous is released on 16th October 2013

Very Extremely Dangerous – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Irish Pub

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DIR/PRO/DOP/ED: Alex Fegan MUSIC: Denis Clohessy

Exuding the warmth of the well-preserved pubs it showcases, The Irish Pub is very much the cinematic equivalent of those touristy posters of Old Irish Pub fronts, offering something that is eye-catching without ever providing any real depth or insight. There is obviously a sincere desire to assert the character of the pubs and the landlords and landladies featured, but, with their accumulations of trinkets, tales of family tradition and part-of-the-furniture clients, there is instead a feeling of homogeneity. Indeed, pubs are always discussed as places of character and characters, but, with one striking exception, the people we see in the different hostelries come across as somewhat homogeneous, perhaps as a result of the filmmaker trying to overlay a sense of connection across the very broad catch-all of “The Irish Pub.”

There are no signs of some of the less picturesque things we associate with pubs, the most glaring absence being any reference to drunkenness. We’re left with the sense that this is a rather airbrushed portrait aimed more at outsiders than real patrons. Very few traces of the lived quality of pub life penetrate the haze of gentle nostalgia. A chink appears during one of the film’s occasional scenes of music being performed in a pub, when we see two young men in the background unable to suppress mocking laughter as the rest of the bar solemnly listens to a folk singer intoning “She Moved Through the Fair”. This is one of the only indications of two vital aspects of pub life: getting pissed and taking the piss.

The whole film is lifted out of sanitising mediocrity by the episodic contributions of Cavan barman Paul Gartlan, who is front and centre on the film’s poster, and resembles nothing so much as a cross between Charles Laughton and cartoon dog Droopy. Gartlan is gifted with a distinctive appearance and comedic delivery that would be well worth their own film. Fittingly, he is given the last word in The Irish Pub.

Tony McKiver

PG (See IFCO for details)

75 mins
The Irish Pub is released on 4th October 2013

The Irish Pub – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Prisoners

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DIR: Dennis Villeneuve  WRI: Aaron Guzikowski  PRO: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner  DOP: Roger Deakins  ED: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach  CAST:  Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano

We are firmly in the same territory as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone in this story about the disappearance of two little girls and the desperate measures taken by one of the fathers (Hugh Jackman) to discover their whereabouts. The early scenes possess a sombre style and mood which are eventually suffocated by the increasingly thrillerish convolutions the plot takes. The film stokes our general fears concerning the vulnerability of children, but it feels as if this shared anxiety is merely burned up expediently to lend urgency to a thriller. Ultimately, the children are doubly absent, both from the characters in the story and the story’s deepest concerns, and this detracts from our ability to invest deeply in the film.

As ever, Hugh Jackman is committed and convincing as the distraught father who unwisely applies his aggressive, survivalist outlook to finding his daughter, turning on the only suspect in the disappearance: a young man with a low IQ played by Paul Dano. There are good actors throughout the cast, but one could have lived without Jake Gyllenhall’s ostentatiously actorly decision to play the lead detective with a pronounced involuntary blink that only draws attention to the self-consciousness of his performance and takes us out of the story. The last act drags and the good will earned by the composed opening has been squandered by the time the film gets through with its drawn-out finale and the screen abruptly cuts to black. There has been talk (probably generating from the studio marketing department) that this is an Oscar contender, but it never distinguishes itself as anything more than an effective genre piece, graced by the usual high-standard of work by cinematographer Roger Deakins and with particular appeal to those who enjoyed the above-mentioned (and overpraised) Dennis Lehane adaptations.

Tony McKiver

15A (See IFCO for details)

153 mins
Prisoners is released on 4th October 2013

Prisoners – Official Website

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