Movie Review: Blackhat (2015)

April 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I’ve been waiting for a cyber-terrorism movie to hit our cinemas, and Michael Mann answered the call with Blackhat, a brooding mystery-thriller film that forces Chinese and American authorities to join forces following an attack on a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong.

The film polarised viewers for different reasons, and I’m afraid I fall in the less complimentary camp. Michael Mann is no doubt a great director, having made the likes of classics such as Manhunter and Heat as well as strong films like Collateral and The Insider. But even his stylish, atmospheric approach, a considerable US$70 million budget, and the sexy power of Chris Hemsworth and Asian stars Wang Leehom and Tang Wei, can’t save Blackhat from being a failure.

The thing is, Blackhat is not poorly made. Based on the trailer and some word-of-mouth criticism, I had expected a hackneyed effort; a pedestrian plot, poor performances and an overall B-grade feel. That wasn’t the case; the film actually had solid production value, a sophisticated plot, and perfectly fine performances all around. The problem, sadly, is that Blackhat is just plain boring.

With the exception of the action scenes, the pace is decidedly slow, though the bigger issue is that it’s largely flat and plodding until the final act. For a 132-minute film, that’s a lot of typing on computers and chatting about hacking to sit through.

Like many others before him, Mann hasn’t quite figured out how to make typing on computers exciting. He uses special effects to show us how all the little circuits inside operate at microscopic levels, but that’s more aesthetics as opposed to something that genuinely elevates the tension. It also doesn’t help that the storyline is made to be a lot more convoluted than it had to be, sometimes making me forget what the heck the protagonists were trying to achieve.

Speaking of the protagonists, Chris Hemsworth’s character is designed against the hacker stereotype. He’s built like a brick house, can beat up three or four guys in close combat, and he’s even pretty handy with knives and guns. Not to say world class hackers like that can’t possibly exist, but it does stretch the believability factor, especially when we know very little about his background other than that he went to MIT and was put in prison for computer crimes.

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The Chinese characters, on the other hand, were fleshed out better than expected. Apart from the 1980s hairdo, Wang Leehom’s US-educated People’s Liberation Army cybercrime hotshot is well-rounded and backed by a solid performance. Tang Wei, whom I have seen in anything since Lust, Caution, plays his sister, and she impresses with a fluency in English I had not expected. It’s unfortunate that her character is more or less an obligatory and arbitrary love interest for Hemsworth (you can tell this about two seconds after their eyes meet). The only other female character, an FBI agent played by Viola Davis, gets almost nothing to do except move the plot along.

The culmination of all these factors makes Blackhat a film that’s difficult to get excited about. Apparently, audiences thought the same, as Blackhat ended up having one of the worst debuts if all time, earning less than US$4 million in its opening weekend in the States despite playing on more than 2,500 screens.

There’s not enough action — at least not action that feels fresh — to appeal to people looking for a thrill ride. The grounded approach to cybercrime is not cool enough for the tech crowd. And neither the drama nor the characters are executed well enough for those looking for a more sophisticated experience. It deserves more than its appalling box office numbers, but it’s not shocking that Blackhat has underperformed for both audiences and critics alike.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

April 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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For a couple of months in mid-2013, my daily reporting work revolved around Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the unfathomable level of US surveillance on its own citizens and people around the world. The story was first broken by The Guardian after Snowden contacted journalists Gleen Greenwald and MacASkill, but what few people knew at the time was that there was a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, hanging around throughout the entire scandal.

Citizenfour is the product of all those hours Poitras, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for it in February, spent on the Snowden affair. Poitras was there when Snowden was hiding away at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and captured large amounts of footage that was condensed down into some captivating interviews and conversations for the purposes of the film.

To be fair, the project pretty much fell into her lap because it was Snowden who first contacted her back in January 2013, in an exchange that formed the opening scenes of the film. She had already been working on a doco about post-9/11 government surveillance, and Snowden felt she would be the perfect candidate to record the political atomic bomb he was about to drop.

The Snowden affair has polarised the public. There are those who hail him as a hero for uncovering unconscionable conduct on the part of the US government, while others call him a traitor and want him punished for treason. Putting aside personal beliefs on what he did was right or wrong or 50 shades of grey (I have mixed emotions about it myself), Citizenfour has also polarised the public. There are those who found it absolutely compelling, while others were bored out of their minds.

I can see where both sides are coming from. I think this is a film where the viewer needs to have some level of interest in the subject, be passionate about the ideas behind it, and perhaps even know the background enough to realise how remarkable the footage is they’re seeing on screen. Those exclusive up-close-and-personal interviews and footage of Snowden are gold, and Poitras knows it. She obviously has an agenda, or else she wouldn’t have been making a doco about government surveillance, though she does a good job of letting the footage speak for itself rather than ram a political message down the audiences’ throats. By crafting the story chronologically, the narrative unveils almost like a political thriller, and the explanations are simple enough, for the most part, that viewers should be able to understand, or at least have a basic grasp of, the surveillance concepts described throughout the film.

On the other hand, if you don’t really know about the story or if government surveillance doesn’t bother you one way or another, Citizenfour could come across as a bit of a drag. There are typed conversations re-enacted on computer screens, which rarely works in fictional movies, and long conversations about technical things and legal ramifications. Even if they recognise that it is a well-made film about an important topic, audiences could find sitting through all the court hearings toward the end too much to handle.

For me, the interest came less from the topic and more about the subject, Snowden himself. From the moment his identity became public, Snowden has been written about ad nauseam, but this film offers the first real opportunity for people to decide for themselves what kind of person he is. And honestly, I think the film confirms my suspicions that there’s just something off about the guy. He’s clearly intelligent and articulate, and I don’t doubt he believes what he is doing is right, though Snowden does come across as someone with a messiah complex that’s not too far off from the vibe of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. You just have to wonder about his motivations when you know he had the foresight to contact a documentary filmmaker months before he knew the whole thing would blow up.

Having said that, I like him a lot more now after having watched John Oliver’s recent interview of him in Moscow (the Snowden section begins from about the 13:40 mark).

Anyway, Citizenfour is a film everyone should see because of what it is about, but Poitras has not made it a film for everyone. While I acknowledge its importance, the skilful filmmaking, and marvel at the footage of Snowden the film managed to capture, Citizenfour was a relative disappointment for me, especially given all the critical accolades and the fact that it was regarded by the Academy as the best doco of 2014. I never found it boring like some others have, but the film was not quite as fascinating or as thrilling as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps the Oliver Stone dramatization currently in the works, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Melissa Leo as Poitras, will be able to bridge the shortfalls.

3.5 stars out of 5

Trésors de la Mer (Taipei)

April 29, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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I’m not much of a seafood guy, to be honest — too much trouble getting all that shell off, sorting through bones and putting up with potential skin allergies — so I had never heard of Addiction Aquatic Development, basically a fish market joint owned by the Japanese cuisine juggernaut Mitsui Group.

The website can explain the place better than I can, but essentially they offer many different types of ways you can eat fresh seafood. There’s a supermarket with a lot of sashimi, sushi and bento; a stand-around sushi bar where they make the stuff fresh; a hotpot area; a grill/BBQ section; and a proper restaurant — Trésors de la Mer .

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The view from the second floor of Trésors de la Mer

The restaurant also serves fresh seafood, which you can choose yourself from the tanks and iced section outside the front door.

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They have set specials (in Chinese only) that range from NT$1,280 to NT$2,280 per person (minimum 6 per table), but as I am quite picky with my seafood we decided to order a la carte.

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The seafood is REALLY fresh

The upstairs dining area is spread out but comfortable, and also surprisingly child-friendly.

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It’s all about the food, of course, so let’s check out what we got.

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First up, salmon sashimi. We only got salmon because that’s what we like, but we got half belly and half “normal.” Served on a bed of ice and with fresh lemon pieces, this was an absolute delight.

If you noticed that it is missing wasabi, it is because we have to grind it fresh ourselves.

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You get this plate with trapping holes in it and you have to grind a stick of Japanese horseradish to create the wasabi, which you then scrape to the edges with this wooden brush. It’s a lot of work, but totally worth it, because fresh wasabi is totally different to that processed stuff you mostly get and it’s fabulous.

If you order sushi, they will roll around a sushi cart and make it for you on the spot.

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I ordered a tuna one and it was just OK. Not enough tuna for the amount of rice you get and for the size of the dried seaweed sheet.

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One of the highlights was the prawns, seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and served with a side of salad drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing. The prawns were just so fresh and succulent and makes you realise that freshness really makes a huge difference.

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To ensure we would we full, we ordered a stir-fry seafood and chicken udon. Also very good, with a thick but light sauce but not too starchy. The seafood again was fresh and the chicken was surprisingly succulent.

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I love scallops, so we got a couple of skewers of grilled scallops. It was fresh and flavoursome, though in hindsight seared might have been better because scallops are more awesome when they are raw.

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The biggest surprise of the meal was the fish. It looked small and dry, but boy was it marvellous. With just a dash of salt and lemon, the natural flavours were allowed to shine through, and despite being grilled it was so fresh it almost melts in your mouth with a natural moistness.

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Lastly, you get a plate of fresh fruit — in this case sweet pineapple, bell fruit and guava.

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After sampling the meal at Trésors de la Mer I can definitely understand why Addiction Aquatic is such a popular destination for tourists, especially those from Hong Kong and Japan. If you love seafood, there’s probably no better place to visit in Taipei.

8.5/10

Details

Trésors de la Mer

Website: http://www.addiction.com.tw/lamer/

Address: Level 2, No.20, Aly. 2, Ln. 410, Minzu E. Rd., Zhongshan Dist., Taipei City

Hours: 11:00-24:00 (Addiction Aquatic open 6:00-24:00)

Phone: +886-2-2508-1268

Movie Review: Furious 7 (2015)

April 20, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Fast & Furious franchise has more or less perfected the craft — a team of familiar characters and stars, suped-up cars, scantily clad women, stylised violence, over-the-top action sequences and a truckload of cheesy one-liners. It’s a formula that has worked wonders for the last few entries, and Furious 7 takes it up yet another notch notwithstanding a major director change from Justin Lin to James Wan. Though Wan is known as a master of horror (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), the Aussie legend doesn’t miss a beat.

As I’m not a car fanatic and can’t stop thinking of Mini-me on steroids whenever I see Vin Diesel’s face, I’ve always been somewhat “meh” about the Fast & Furious franchise. This time, however, I stopped hoping for something I knew I was never going to get and just went along for the ride. As a result, I had a blast. If you’re after the ultimate popcorn movie, look no further — this is it.

The film takes place after the events of Fast 6 and around the time of Tokyo Drift (the third film in the franchise), which unfortunately means we are missing the cool Asian guy (Han) and is hot Israeli girlfriend (Gisele), with Sung Kang and Gal Gadot relegated to brief flashbacks, though Tokyo’s new drift king, Lucas Black, does make a triumphant return in a cameo, looking about 10 years older for some strange reason (racing with Mini-me must have taken a lot out of him).

On the bright side, the loss of Han and Gisele ensures more time for the other characters and offers enough room for the addition of Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays a hacker Kurt Russell wants Mini-me’s gang to track down so the US government can get their hands back on a super surveillance device called God’s Eye. The trade-off is that if Mini-me can get it for Russell he’ll be able to use it to track down supervillain Jason Statham, who plays the big brother of the baddie from the last movie (Luke Evans).

This premise allows the film to do several things. It still gets to do the whole heist thing that has worked well for the franchise the last few times, while also setting up epic set pieces to showcase the talents of the characters and cast. Apart from crazy car stunts, the film is highlighted by several brutal one-on-one confrontations. The Rock, Mini-me, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez all have their own well-choreographed fight scenes, but the best ones of course involve Statham, who absolutely shines in this role with his slick moves and brooding charisma, and elevates the movie several levels above what it should have been. He’s the perfect addition and the most memorable villain in the franchise — by far.

Two other new characters to steal a couple of scenes are MMA queen Ronda Rousey and Thai martial arts expert Tony Jaa, each of whom get to show off their stuff by squaring off against members of Mini-me’s gang. The only guy who doesn’t get to do much is Djimon Hounsou, a bland secondary villain who pales in comparison to Statham.

So just when you thought the batshit insanity of the last two films the franchise could not be topped, here comes this masterclass in how to depict over-the-top action, car chases and violence on the big screen. Cars and bodies are constantly being tossed, crashed into and mangled throughout, in ways that would be laughable had everyone involved not embraced the absurdity with so much genuine enthusiasm and confidence. Everyone’s pretty much indestructible unless they need to die.

This is the type of movie that The Expendables wants to be and what Michael Bay has been trying to make every time he sits in the director’s chair. What sets Furious 7 apart is the creativity and the overall sense of fun. It’s not just big, loud explosions all the time and obnoxious characters shooting things with massive guns. Furious 7 has likable characters who take on their tasks with just the right amount of cheesiness, and they’re put in situations we might not have necessarily seen before. You can complain about the cliches and the bad dialogue and the stupidity of it all, or you can embrace it like I finally am.

Of course, everyone will remember this one as Paul Walker’s last film after the actor died tragically in a car crash before the film was completed. Furious 7 does a great job of finishing off his scenes with his brothers as stand-ins coupled with CGI effects, and more importantly it provides him with a moving tribute by offering his character a fitting send-off. He’ll be missed, but with The Rock and Jason Statham likely becoming franchise regulars, there should be some life left in this series yet.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Tracers (2015)

April 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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A strange thing has happened to the perception that starring in popular film series ruin the careers of young actors. Ever since the world bestowed upon us the Twilight Saga, Kristen Stewart has been in a bunch of movies. Robert Pattinson has been in a bunch of movies. Most of them have been fairly high-profile, well-received movies too. That leaves Taylor Lautner, the third angle in the love triangle, who hasn’t been tearing up the screens since he stopped tearing up his shirt in Twilight for no apparent reason.

Apart from the poorly conceived star vehicle Abduction from 2011, Lautner hasn’t been a top biller for a film since the third Twilight film, and it now appears that his career is heading in the wrong direction with Tracers, a niche-market film about a bunch of young Parkour enthusiasts caught up in a crime ring.

Parkour is exciting to watch, which is why there have been a few movies made about the phenomenon in recent years. I never watched Brick Mansions or the French film it was based on, District 13, though I did catch a little-known film called Run (review here) last year. Tracers is basically a better and more expensive version of Run, mixed with that Joseph Gordon Levitt bike messenger movie Premium Rush.

In fact, Lautner (Cam) actually plays a struggling bike messenger who starts using his athleticism and well-proportioned body for parkour so he can get to know a pretty girl played by the up-and-coming Marie Avgeropoulos. But the girl and her brother are in a gang headed by a criminal who uses parkour to evade police capture, and Cam must find a way out by taking advantage of both his skills and smarts. And yes, Lautner does take off his shirt in this film, but the dim lighting could disappoint those looking for clear shots of his abs.

Tracers is a small film made for just US$11 million, and it shows. It’s a fairly pedestrian script with the familiar dialogue and attempts and character development, and you can pretty much guess what is going to happen next as the story predictably hits the designated checkpoints. The greyish tints and dilapidated settings also mean that the film is not pretty to look at, though to the credit of Daniel Benmayor the parkour scenes are at least done stylishly and with flair. I don’t know how realistic they are, but the running and climbing and jumping all over the place is undeniably thrilling. But that’s about all there is, unless you count the obligatory romance between Lautner and Avgeropoulos which I’m sure his fans are itching to see.

At the end of the day, Tracers is what it is — a low-budget, formulaic action film riding on the popularity of parkour that would have been straight-to-DVD without Lautner’s name attached to it. While it has its moments, you could probably get the same excitement from watching parkour highlights on YouTube.

2.25 stars out of 5