All posts by Joe Baker

writer and film enthusiast living and working in the Dallas-Fort Worth area

Review: ‘Blackhat’

Chris Hemsworth in Michael Mann's 'Blackhat'
Chris Hemsworth in Michael Mann’s ‘Blackhat’

In the opening scene of Michael Mann’s ‘cybertech’ thriller, Blackhat, the CGI enabled camera sweeps inside the wires, cables and ports of a nuclear power plant supercomputer. Blips and beeps of data are soon overcome by something else, feeding itself through the virtual membranes of the computer and taking control.

We’ve just witnessed a cyber attack in all its coded glory. Films used to penetrate our psychosis by playing on fears of bodily infection, sickness and viral contamination. Today, the new global horror is hacking and its rapid, anonymous repercussions. It’s a bold, prescient way to start a film, but one that doesn’t sustain itself over the course of two hours.

After this initial attack on a Chinese nuclear facility, the local government enlists Captain Dawai (Leehom Wang) to study the cyber attack and find its originator. With the help of the United States Justice Department and headstrong operative Carol Barret (Viola Davis), Dawai pushes for the release of heavy computer hacker Mark Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), currently serving an 18 year sentence in a Supermax prison for his own online dalliances with cyber terrorism. Intelligent, driven and built like Thor, Hemsworth negotiates his temporary furlough into a permanent vacation if and when he catches the big villain.

Also along for the ride — which turns into a massive globetrotter from Hong Kong to Malaysia then Indonesia — is Dawai’s tech-savvy private sector little sister, Lien (Wei Tang) and the agent (Holt McCallany) responsible for Hathaway’s reigns.

Directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Mann (best known for masterpieces Heat and The Insider), the characteristics of his style are all over Blackhat. Fully integrated into using Hi Def digital equipment now, the images have a crisp, fluorescent edge to them. The way he stages certain scenes, with the night-time sky perched magnificently behind his characters, is terrific to behold. There are three action set pieces where the two opposing forces of law and disorder meet in a unique landscape and bullets fly. No director emphasizes the sound and propulsive feel of automatic weapons quite like Mann, and he again displays that mastery here.

Yet despite the visual flourishes, Blackhat fails to reach a cohesive whole. As the strong tough guy, Hemsworth embodies another handsome lone wolf in the extensive universe of Michael Mann protagonists. Sharply dressed, deadly and one who speaks without using contractions; think Tom Cruise in Collateral, Robert DeNiro in Heat and Johnny Depp in Public Enemies. Bad guys to say the least, but fully formed anti-heroes we almost begin to root for. Hemsworth displays none of that charisma in a single-note performance.

Handled even more clumsily is the relationship that forms between Hathaway and fellow techie Lien, portrayed by the beautiful Wei Tang. Included to add gravity to the consequences of their situation, neither one infuses enough chemistry or interest to make their quick bonding effective.

Even more astounding is the fact that any law enforcement agency would allow these two to be front and center during all tactical missions involving SWAT teams and heavy armory. It’s a narrative blunder that immediately destroys any credibility established, especially after Blackhat relies on some quite intelligent methods to connect the dots from one plot device to the next.

Eerily ripped from the headlines of current events, Blackhat succinctly translates just how frightening and real the next 50 years may be when any institution or supposed “secure” site can be ripped and used against itself for ominous reasons. If only the living and breathing inhabitants within this film were as real.

The film opens wide in theaters across Dallas today.

Retro Scene: ‘The Long Goodbye’ at the Alamo Drafthouse

Elliott Gould in Robert Altman's 'The Long Goodbye'
Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’

The paradigm of the film noir private investigator is tossed violently out the window in Robert Altman’s 1973 classic The Long Goodbye. Needless to say, this film would make for a dizzying double bill with Paul Thomas Anderson’s newly released Inherent Vice.

Starring Elliott Gould as the classic Philip Marlowe character, that’s the only familiar trait of Altman’s neo modernist whodunit. The film establishes a mystery to be solved — namely, the disappearance of his best friend — then spends the rest of its running time creating a unique, rambling series of interactions between naked hippie neighbors, a cantankerous writer (Sterling Hayden), his beautiful wife (Nina van Pallandt), a persistent psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) and a hungry cat. Just how it all connects is part of the joy.

Saturated in Altman’s typical style including a roving camera and his predilection for overlapping dialogue, The Long Goodbye is a stalwart of the revisionist cinema of the 70’s, completely entertaining and truly deserving of the term “classic.”

The Long Goodbye screens Sunday January 18th, 12 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson. (Click the poster to see it in all its glorious, detailed beauty.)

Review: ‘Mr. Turner’

Timothy Spall in 'Mr. Turner' (Dallas Film Now)
Timothy Spall in ‘Mr. Turner’ (Dallas Film Now)

One of the methods filmmakers use to convey the tactile world of a painter is to blend the emotions of the original canvases onto the screen itself.

In Mr. Turner, British artist J.M.W Turner’s luminous works are viewed often, both in the creation stage and the finished end product as they hang for inspection in various darkrooms, museums and in the mind’s eye of the artist himself. We absorb them, become familiar with their ‘messy’ brushstrokes, and recoil at the process of their creation, involving a mixture of homemade oil coloring, pencil shavings and the artist’s own spit.

And since we’re so accustomed to the images on the canvas, director Mike Leigh continually amazes as his camera often captures the indelibility of these works. A close up of one painting’s white and blue oils innately leads into the next cut of the side of a mountain, observed now in real life, but almost unrecognizable to the viewer whether we’re seeing landscape art or reality. For an artist like Turner, this becomes an apt metaphor as he struggles for acceptance in the evolving nineteenth century art world and his own nonchalance for life outside his work.

Instead of a sweeping life long biopic, Mr. Turner wisely focuses on a small portion of his life as an already well established and respected artist in London. Living a fairly closed off life, we meet Turner (Timothy Spall) as he lives with his father (Paul Jesson), acting as the ultimate manservant for his son. Not only does he fetch supplies and chop wood, but he assumes the role of business manager when a group stops by their home to view or buy a painting.

Also in this hermetic world is Ms. Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the lowly house servant, who also serves a dual role in a utilitarian mode and a sexual outlet for Turner when he finds the mood right. Atkinson gives a humbly moving performance in the way she quietly shuttles about the house, her facial expressions, oftentimes, being the rudder of reality in the face of pompous art talk or Turner’s melancholy moods.

Part of Turner’s Impressionistic inspiration lies in various trips he makes to the seaside town of Margate, where he meets and eventually falls in love with a landlady, named Ms. Booth (Marion Bailey). Shuffling back and forth between his duties to fellow artists and critics in London — who become increasingly cannibalistic as the film goes on — and his respites with Ms. Booth soon becomes the crux of the film.

Director Mike Leigh, known for his working class depictions of British life since the early 1970’s, initially seems like an odd choice for this Masterpiece Theater-type affair. Within minutes, those pre-conceived notions are obliterated as Spall embodies Turner as a wheezing figure, full of grunts and groans that emanate somewhere deep inside his stomach, serving as his all-encompassing response to most questions. It’s the slightest change of tone that spells affirmative or negative. He’s also a terrible father and ex-husband to his family, barely giving them the time of day when they visit to show off his new granddaughter. Like David Thewlis in Leigh’s groundbreaking film Naked (1991), Turner is a flawed, malignant presence to most people, saved only by his art.

Running at almost two and a half hours, Mr. Turner feels a bit long and redundant in certain sections, but its cumulative effect is undeniable. In one scene, Turner scoffs at the more realistic paintings now being hung for observation instead of his Impressionistic ones, and we sort of scoff alongside him. Old pioneers are being left behind, and as the film slowly reveals, that’s a lost art in itself.

The film is now playing at Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano.

Review: ‘Inherent Vice’

Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Inherent Vice' (Warner Bros.)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’ (Warner Bros.)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is sure to polarize and challenge the expectations from a film noir. It’s a woozy tapestry of gung-ho cops, mysterious drug lords, disaffected Flower Children, fringe political anarchists and lots of marijuana use by its lead private investigator, which only casts a wider sense of paranoia and murkiness around the whole affair.

It’s also about the tenuous moment in time when sunny California, as the template for America at large, changed from the Summer of Love into something decidedly more sinister. Now, full admission. I worship P.T. Anderson’s films, so take the rest of this with a cinematic grain of salt. Two of his most divisive films, Magnolia (1999) and The Master (2012), I consider as two of the best films of their respective decades.

Like those ambitious efforts, Inherent Vice doesn’t play by the rules. The dialogue and voice-over (by indie singer Joanna Newsom) evoke the guttural poetry of a Hunter S. Thompson novel. Scenes between characters run on for minutes at a time, often in a slow zoom single take, allowing the words and their hidden meanings to take shape before our eyes. The actual case taken on by “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn’t congeal into an easily explainable finale, often raising more questions than it answers. Inherent Vice isn’t a disposable Friday night date film. It requires patience, a bit of personal interaction and the desire to lose oneself in the convoluted universe Anderson and novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose book the film is based upon, have created. It’s a tall order but one that delivers on its majestic intent.

Taking place in the fictionalized ocean side town of Gordita Beach, California, in 1970, private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) has his nightly “decompression” time interrupted by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) asking for help. She’s involved with some bad people who want to capitalize on the fortunes of her current boyfriend, wealthy land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). He accepts the assignment and, before long, finds himself in a cascading tunnel of police investigations, shady characters and loose ends, all the while continuing to smoke pot which most assuredly obfuscates his own thinking on the case.

In addition to all that, other people begin seeking him out for the resolution of their own missing people. A distraught housewife (Jean Malone) wants “Doc” to find her missing jazz saxophonist husband (Owen Wilson). A Black Panther member (Michael K. Williams) enlists “Doc” to investigate an old cellmate with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood. His visit to a massage parlor and its kinky employee (Hong Chau) exposes “Doc” to the Golden Fang — which could either be a nondescript boat or the corporate name for a vertical drug smuggling operation responsible for pummeling the West Coast with heroin.

Somehow, all these leads inadvertently careen back to Wolfmann. Even the help of “Doc’s” supposed allies, including his lawyer buddy (Benecio del Toro), Deputy District Attorney/old girlfriend Penny (Reese Witherspoon), and overbearing Detective Bigfoot Bjornson (Josh Brolin), lead him further down the rabbit hole of suspicion, confusion and alienation.

Inherent Vice features so many red herrings, unusually zany cameos (Martin Short, incredible!) and diversions from the truth it soon becomes almost a parody of film noir. Fasten your seat belts. This isn’t your father’s Sam Spade.

In Anderson’s sophomore epic film on the travails of the porn industry, Boogie Nights (1997), the central set-piece involved a New Year’s Eve party on December 31, 1979, where emotions boil to the surface and a violent outburst shatters the good times. Nothing’s the same after that. The 1980s arrived and video cassette effectively curtailed that industry’s heyday. Within that 20-minute set-piece, Anderson effectively conveyed the end of an era.

With Inherent Vice he stretches the collision of the old 1960s free love with the harsher realities of the 70s over two and a half hours. The Sharon Tate murders are mentioned. The horrible, degenerative effect of heroin on the body are alluded to several times. As Shasta Fay, actress Waterston is given a long monologue that succinctly delineates her feelings on the state of modern relationships.

Effectively, Inherent Vice is a very sad film behind its very comedic heart. Its narrative may not always make complete sense, but the mood it resonates makes all the sense in the world. It’s one of the very best films of the year.

Review: ‘American Sniper’

Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood's 'American Sniper'
Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’

Actor turned director Clint Eastwood is the closest thing modern Hollywood has to the craftsmen of the 1940s studio system. Effortlessly shifting between genres (a musical with Jersey Boys earlier this year, now a war movie) and producing work at a pace more prolific than filmmakers half his age, American Sniper is his latest entry in a series of character studies that examine the shifting psychosis of America and its War On Terror.

Starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, whose memoir the film is based upon and written by Jason Hall, American Sniper charts his four tours of duty in Iraq after September 11th where he became the most deadly sniper in military history. While the film shows his evolution from young boy in a strict Bible belt household to Navy SEAL to celebrated, almost mythic, status among his brothers-in-arms, we also observe the seething tensions that develop below the surface when he’s not in a war zone.

Juxtaposed against the scenes of battle in Iraq are those of his wife, portrayed by Sienna Miller, who endures psychological duress at home, endlessly worrying about her soldier husband when he’s in the line of fire and equally distressed at his blockaded persona when he’s out. It’s in these quiet, reflective moments that American Sniper shines. Though the war scenes are deftly handled- especially a climactic fire fight on the fringes of an enveloping sandstorm that harrowingly exemplifies the helpless chaos of war – American Sniper is really about the singular fight. At first, full of good ol’ boy patriotic swagger, Cooper shifts into the pangs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and conveys a world of confusion, tension and unrealized aggression convincingly. He gives a tremendously interior performance.

Less successful, though, are the scenes between Cooper and Miller. Eastwood often works in simplistic brushstrokes, emanating a clear-eyed vision of core values. In American Sniper those messages are a bit too simple, reducing their marriage to a series of over dramatic conversations and well-trodden ideas concerning the emotional conflict of duty versus family. Their relationship, meant to heighten the stakes for Kyle in Iraq, end up serving as cliché checkpoints in the canon of distraught military marriages.

It’s an especially disappointing side of American Sniper when every other facet feels acutely honest and incisive. Each sniper mission depicted is expertly framed and edited, half inside the rifle scope and half outside to reveal the larger dynamics of a war torn landscape. Overall, <b>American Sniper</b> suffers from this same bifurcation, unable to blend the aspects of home and abroad into a completely compelling portrait.
American Sniper is currently playing in limited release and opens wide on January 16.

-Joe Baker

Retro Scene: ‘The Beyond’ at Texas Theatre

Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond' at the Texas Theatre
Lucio Fulci’s ‘The Beyond’ at the Texas Theatre

Eternally perched between low-class, weirdo schlock – think Manhattan Baby (1982) or Sodoma’s Ghost (1988)- and gloriously macabre thrillers, at the very least, Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci is never boring. The Beyond, beginning a repertory run at the Texas Theater this weekend, is one of his best.

Originally released in 1981, the film concerns a portal to hell in the basement of a Louisiana hotel that unleashes some particularly gruesome events on its modern inhabitants. True to Fulci’s hallucinatory vision, gross-out theatrics and ‘video nasty’ vibe, The Beyond was rescued from obscurity a few years back via Grindhouse and Rolling Pictures and now its excess can be viewed on the big screen. Starring Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck.

Presented in 35MM at the Texas Theater Friday January 9th and Saturday January 10th. Check theater for exact show times.

-Joe Baker