Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


If you don’t know the true story behind Foxcatcher, then I suggest you avoid reading anything about the movie — apart from this spoiler-free review, of course — and anything about its real-life characters, American Olympic wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, as well as multimillionaire philanthropist John du Pont.

I know I say that about every movie, but in this case it’s really for your own good. Foxcatcher is one of those slow, contemplative films so doused in melancholy that you know it will either end up turning around into something inspirational or that something tragic is going to happen. Not knowing what will transpire, however, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the film’s emotional payoff after sitting through more than two hours of anticipation.

That’s not to say Foxcatcher doesn’t deliver the goods if you know the background, for it’s a story so remarkable — with characters so conducive to psychological drama — that you’ll tend to forget it’s all based on true events.

There’s the young wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who has low self-worth — despite being an Olympic gold medalist — from living in his older brother’s shadow and a lack of financial stability. There’s Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), the more confident and savvy of the siblings whose career is tied down by his commitment to his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. And then there’s John du Pont (Steve Carell), the old, mysterious loner with mommy issues who wants to use his incredible wealth and power to build a patriotic national wrestling team with the Schultz brothers as his headliners.

Together, they form a tense triangle of power politics driven by money, loyalty, manipulation and control, all of which takes place before a backdrop of the competitive and often cutthroat world of amateur wrestling.

That description may make Foxcatcher sound like some kind of exciting thriller, though the pace is actually deliberately snail-like at times, full of solitary moments of silence, contemplation and self-reflection. Even the wrestling scenes are intentionally muted so that you don’t get any of that manufactured adrenaline that typically comes with Hollywood spots movies. But the emotions are undoubtedly there, and they actually feel more genuine and amplified. Those who have seen director Bennett Miller’s other acclaimed films Capote and Moneyball, will have an idea of the style I am referring to.

The three main actors have received critical acclaim for their performances, especially Carell and Ruffalo, who received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. To be honest, I actually liked Tatum’s performance the most. Far from just a beefcake, he was terrific at projecting Mark’s obvious lack of self-esteem and desire for approval. Ruffalo was very good too, though he’s always at that level, while I would have been fine had Carell missed out on he nomination in favour of Selma‘s David Oyelowo. Not to say Carell wasn’t great in this, but he still reminded me of Steve Carell behind all the makeup.

Interestingly, after watching the film, I went online to check out what their real-life counterparts looked like. I was surprised to discover that none of them really had much of a resemblance, except for maybe Tatum, though it’s a stretch to call him a lookalike of Mark Schultz.

One of the things about the film that I liked — but recognise others might be frustrated by — is how the relationships, motives and states of mind of the characters are left ambiguous and open to interpretation. Was it mentor and student, coach and wrestler, father and son, brother and brother, or all of the above? And was I imagining things or was there even something sexual lurking beneath the surface? I have a feeling Miller wanted to let the audience decide for themselves so they can try to make sense of why things turned out the way they did in the end.

That said, Mark Schultz and some other wrestlers have already confirmed that Foxcatcher more or less made up the dynamics of the relationships and the character traits of the central trio. For the record, however, Schultz eventually recanted some of his criticisms of the film and against Bennett (who is up for Best Director), saying that he “loved” the film.

I personally found Du Pont to be by far the most fascinating character, and was naturally disappointed that his psyche was not explored in as much depth as it probably ought to have been. That said, such an endeavour would have added more time to a movie that was already feeling a little on the long side, and in any case I understand that the screenplay was based on Mark Schultz’s book and thus from his perspective.

Flaws and creative licenses aside, Foxcatcher works as a compelling yet disturbing drama powered by three excellent performances and the direction of a master storyteller. I have a feeling it will go down as one of the more memorable films of 2014.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Good People (2014)

January 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Good People New Poster

Interesting premise, but that’s unfortunately the only genuinely good thing I can say about Good People, a violent thriller starring James Franco and Kate Hudson as an American couple in London who of discover a bag of dirty money.

The film, the feature debut of Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz, starts off relatively well, with a robbery-gone-wrong scenario that leaves a bunch of ruthless criminals desperate to get their hands on money they think they deserve. Enter Tom (Franco) and Anna (Hudson) Wright, a couple who relocated to the UK for a new start after the financial crisis. Things aren’t much better for them in London, but that hasn’t stopped Anna pining for a baby.

Things supposedly make a turn for the better when the couple discover the robbery money, which can make a lot of their financial problems go away. But of course, it also brings along with it a whole bunch of new problems. It’s one of those “What would you do in the same situation?” ideas, and for the first half of the movie or so I understood where they were going with it.

But as the film progressed it started falling into the trap of a typical crappy Hollywood thriller, where things start getting more and more ridiculous and idiotic. There’s a lot of stuff here that fails the smell test of basic logic and common sense, and before long the whole thing crumbles into an expected bloodbath with a predictable and utterly unrealistic ending. Making the couple American while setting the story in the London also didn’t add anything.

Genz’s style is dark and somber, which matches the tone of the film well. He’s also pretty adept at creating tension through visceral violence, which worked to the film’s advantage in the first half until it became a little too much to swallow. There’s just nothing particularly exciting or fresh with his approach though.

As for the performances…I’m not much of a fan of either lead, and they haven’t exactly won me over after watching this movie. Franco was a little better — you can tell he’s trying to put on a serious face — but Hudson was just plain weird. Some of the blame has to go to the script, which made her inconsistent and unlikable. And that’s one of the main problems of the film — you’re not actually rooting for the protagonists to make it out alive because they don’t really deserve to. Tom Wilkinson plays a detective who gets caught up in the mess and he’s just a completely unbelievable character.

In the end, Good People turned out to be a forgettable disappointment. I didn’t have high expectations to begin with, but this was at best a pedestrian DVD rental or late-night cable movie you stumble upon, not a film worthy of a cinematic release.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

November 9, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

August 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


Sequels to thrillers — even ones that aren’t very good — are never as good as the original. Or at least that was what I thought before I watched The Purge: Anarchy.

The Purge (review here) was a promising film released last year that failed to live up to expectations. It revolved around the concept of a yearly Purge, where all citizens are free to do whatever they want — steal, rape, kill — without any legal repercussions whatsoever. It’s supposed to cleanse the soul, or something like that, so that they won’t feel the urge to do it on the 364 other days of the year. Apparently, it works, as violent crime has become almost nonexistent.

Notwithstanding an all star cast including Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones queen Lena Headey, The Purge missed a great opportunity to create something thought-provoking and original, instead opting for a typical home invasion thriller involving creepy, deranged, mask-wearing intruders. It had its moments, though the experience ultimately felt hollow.

On its face, The Purge: Anarchy seems like one of those B-grade, straight to DVD type sequels. No returning actors or characters (I believe with the exception of one), no big names, and noticeably less marketing. And yet, somehow, it ended up being a more rewarding experience than the original by taking a approach that better utilizes its unique premise.

Instead of focusing on a single family in their home on the yearly Purge night, Anarchy splits the attention between three groups of people with different motivations and socioeconomic backgrounds — a Hispanic mother and daughter pair (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) caught up in the carnage when their apartment is attacked; a white couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) trying to get to safety after their car broke down; and a police sergeant (Frank Grillo) hell-bent on seeking revenge against people who he believes ruined his life.

In contrast to The Purge’s creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere, Anarchy is more of a direct action thriller with a typical narrative thread in which a group of people must come together for a common cause: survival.

By taking this approach, Anarchy is able to explore the concept of the Purge with more depth and from more perspectives than its predecessor. It tackles the question of why the Purge was implemented in the first place and ponders the social, political and economic fallout from such a decision. Who does the Purge benefit most? Which people are most vulnerable? Are the underlying justifications more sinister than we realize?

This is not to say Anarchy is a great film. The film had a budget of just 9 million, and sometimes it showed, from the distinct lack of star power To the largely unimpressive action scenes. There is nothing special about the acting, and the stock standard characters were often annoying in their stereotypical reactions to situations. I also expected more originality and creativity in some of the deranged discoveries you would come across in a world like this, but they ended up being rather uninspiring and predictable.

Having said that, Anarchy does do better than its predecessor in making the most of the premise, resulting in a more complete and satisfying film. Given that the Purge happens every year, this is one of those franchises that can roll out a new film every summer. And apparently the wheels are already in motion for a third film, a prequel that well look at the events surrounding the very first Purge. Maybe it can continue to iron out the kinks and become one of those film series that can keep improving as it expands on the world it has built.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Cybercrime in the Greater China Region’ by Lennon Yao-chung Chang

July 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews


Hey look, this is not the type of book I would usually read out of interest, but since I reviewed it for a trade publication a couple of months ago and found it pretty interesting I thought I would share my thoughts.

The full title of this 2012 book is Cybercrime in the Greater China Region: Regulatory Responses and Crime Prevention Across the Taiwan Strait. It is the PhD thesis of Taiwan-born Lennon Yao-chung Chang at Australia National University. It might sound kinda boring — and there are stretches that remind you very clearly that this is an academic paper — but there are plenty of interesting ideas here because of the fascinating political dynamics at work between Taiwan and China, both of which rank near or at the top in terms of malicious internet activity (in terms of perpetrators and victims).

As this is a relatively untapped area of research, the paper does suffer from limited access to data, especially in China, where every question from a Taiwanese academic would naturally be met with scepticism. The majority of information is therefore accumulated through empirical data and interviews with internet professionals in the private and public sectors and law enforcement on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Taiwan-China relations, cybercrime laws or internet terminology, because those are the things Chang addresses first in the book. He combs through the political situation between the two countries and the official lines of “reunification” and “independence”, and how this would pose difficulties in co-operative cybercrime investigation, prosecution, enforcement, and the concept of dual criminality. He also discusses at some length the legislative provisions from both countries — some of which, particularly in Taiwan, were not developed until only a few years ago (to my surprise, given Taiwan’s reputation as a technology leader).

Chang also explains what are malware, torjans, viruses and bots, which can turn computers effectively into “zombies” that can then be controlled to attack others. The problem with these cybercrime tools is that they adhere well to criminal theory — low cost, low risk and high reward, lots of opportunities and targets, and the lack of a proper reporting system.

The leading legal document tackling international cybercrime is the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, but it happens to be relatively useless to both China and Taiwan. The problem with China is that they are just not that interested in the convention because its laws are too different, and more importantly, the Chinese government wants (or arguable needs) to maintain more control over its internet channels at the expense of the privacy and free speech of its citizens. On the other hand, Taiwan would love to be involved, but it’s not recognised as a country by signatories and is not part of the United Nations.

While the China and Taiwan have in place a number of cooperation agreements between non-governmental organizations that could potentially cover cybercrime, laws still cannot be enforced without government assistance. There are, of course, no official bilateral agreements between the two countries on cybercrime.

The discussions about these diplomatic difficulties and contradictions are where the book gets most interesting. China is really only willing to co-operate with Taiwan if it is also a victim of the same crime, and even then, there are the complexities of the Chinese concepts of guan-xi (personal relationships) and ren-qing (favours) which could prove to be huge stumbling blocks in any joint effort. Even the latest debacle involving Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on US internet and phone surveillance, shows just how hard it is to get anything done when Beijing is involved.

The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the painfully hilarious interviews with Taiwanese experts and officials on cybercrime issues. The problem with Taiwan’s cybercrime enforcement can be summed up as follows: the people who understand the law don’t understand the technology; the people who understand the technology don’t understand the law; the people who want to change the law don’t have the power; and the people who have the power don’t want to change the law. On top of that, all cybercrime investigation teams in the country are pitifully small and often can’t be bothered chasing cybercriminals because of the low success rate.

My favourite quote from the whole book comes from a Taiwanese cybercrime professional. The quote, sadly, would be less funny if it weren’t so true:

Even if the laws are adequate, our…judges and prosecutors are all IDIOTS in the area of technology. This is what I feel ashamed of…We have advanced laws, retarded law enforcement officers, and an insufficient law enforcement system…Almost all the law enforcement officers, around 99% of them are idiots, what can we do? That is nothing to do with laws. Brains need to be changed. What I am always emphasizing is that courts need to be professional. If judges are not professional, then how can we persuade others that our courts are professional?

So how does Chang suggest we can change the situation? Well, the last portion of the book is dedicated to his recommendation, which is to develop a “wiki” approach to cybercrime that embraces an information-sharing platform with a gatekeeper and very specific protocols. The voluntary Aviation Safety Reporting System is noted as a possible blueprint.

Chang also calls on the media, especially in Taiwan, to not sensationalise cybercrime and to change the “image” of the victims, who often do not report out of fears of losing face and being audited. He compared the victims of cybercrime to the victims of sexual assault and infectious diseases in the sense that there is a stigma attached to them — this has to be changed in order for cybercrime enforcement to take the next step, he says.

Giving this kind of book a rating is difficult because as an academic paper it lacks of proper narrative thread and has many dry patches that could put anyone not using the book for research (and probably them too) to sleep. The fact that English is not Chang’s first language often sticks out like a sore thumb, notwithstanding the best efforts of his editors. The lack of data and cooperation from China was also frustrating at times. But I suppose for an academic paper it does have some very interesting sections and even a few that I found quite funny. Given the dearth of information available about this topic for now, the book is also possibly the most authoritative piece of research on it, so extra brownie points for that.

But let’s not pretend anyone would read it unless they had to.


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