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Any movie year that kicks off with a choice Michael Mann thriller can't be all bad. And the fact that this cyber-thriller is essentially ripped from the headlines amidst major hacking incidents and spying warfare is icing on the cake. At its core though, it's still a good guys vs bad guys caper, but in the hands of Mann, as director, producer and co-screenwriter, you're in for some high-style, electrifying gamesmanship. This isn't one for the short attention span crowd.
Blackhat stars Chris Hemsworth as the sexiest computer genius ever. However, Mann takes his sweet time letting us even see Hemsworth. First there's that sensational opening shot that follows a RAT. That'd be Remote Access Tool, a computer worm much like the device that attacked an Iranian nuclear facility back in 2010. This time the RAT is infiltrating a Hong Kong computer network in control of a reactor. As always, the whole world is at risk unless the blackhat is taken out.
Wang Leehom is Capt. Chen Dawai, an MIT-trained Chinese military hotshot tasked with bringing down the cyber-terrorist, but he can't do it alone. That's where Thor comes in. Hemsworth, that is. Hemsworth's hacker, Hathaway, happens to be the captain's college roomie, whose hacking exploits have put him in a federal prison for 15 years. After the Chinese government makes a deal with the FBI, represented by a wonderful Viola Davis, Hathaway is released so the good guys can solve the case. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has already been taken down, and the next hit could be even worse.
There's plot. A lot of plot, and unnecessary sexual sparks between Hemsworth and a hottie network engineer (Tang Wei) who is also the captain's sister.
There's acting, but it isn't really the point here. Mann and cinematographer extraordinaire Stuart Dryburgh are more concerned with keep the action bubbling in crisp locations that include the neon dazzle of Hong Kong and the sizzling exoticism of Jakarta.
The best pleasure comes in watching Mann delight in using his skills to take on the face of 21st-centiry warfare. Mann sees parallels between coders and filmmakers. In Mann's classic crime stories, from Manhunter and Thief to Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice, he utilizes light, color, design, editing and music and camera skills to track real people and find the humanity in monsters and heroes, and does his best to do the same for this faceless enemy. It's timely, urgent, provocative and fun. Who better than Mann to take on the challenge.
Even I wasn't expecting for a big screen version of Paddington to be, well, good. Paddington is a family movie, but it's also for everyone, which means neither kids or the adults will hate on it. Taken from a series of book begun in 1958 by author Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, the movie likewise tells the story of a Peruvian bear, clad in duffel coat and floppy red hat, adopted by a family from London. It's pure pleasure that the big-screen Paddington is so irresistibly charming and springs sweet surprises.
Credit that to writer-director Paul king and Harry Potter producer David Heyman who bring to the screen this sweet fable that is thankfully light on the special effects overkill and sentimental goop. Paddingtona himself, voiced wonderfully by Ben Whishaw, is first seen living it up in the rainforest. Then, bam, earthquake hits and Paddington is suddenly on a cargo ship to London where he arrives at Paddington Station and is quickly adopted, temporarily, by the Brown family; dad Henry (Hugh Bonneville of tv's Downton Abbey), sweet wife Mary (the always lovely Sally Hawkins) and their two scrappy children Judy and Jonathan. It's not long before Paddington is speaking in British tones.
Enter Nicole Kidman, channeling her inner Cruella De Vil as Millicent Clyde, a taxidermist who's looking to add Paddington to her stuffed collection. All of that serves as impetus for chase scenes and physical comedy that are almost Wes Anderson-like in their tone. The human actors interact convincingly with the computer-generated bear. There are even subtle references to subject like immigration. And even though Paddington does fly over London, he has no super powers, just innocent charms. It's drolly dazzling. 'Please Look After This Bear' read the words on a tag around Paddington's neck. Good advice.
This movie blows. If you believe the hype, this is where it all ends. Honestly it should have ended halfway through Taken 2, but instead we get Taken 3 in order to cap off a franchise that reinvigorated the career of Liam Neeson as CIA black-ops dude Bryan Mills, a middle-aged action hero apparently impervious to bullets and knives and just about everything else.
At 62, Neeson can still open a can of whoop ass like nobody's business, and he's the only thing in Taken 3 that makes any damn sense. In the very first Taken, from way back in 2008, Neeson's CIA killer slaughtered every creep in Paris to rescue his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), from Albanian slave traders. Then, in 2012's, those pissed-off Albanians kidnapped Mills and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) while on vacation in Istanbul. You'd think after that they'd learn to stay their asses home. With Mills now retired there's just no way Hollywood would still try and milk this golden goose for all it's worth based on all the goodwill generated by the first movie, which is, admittedly, a nice guilty pleasure.
Well, you don't know Hollywood. Taken 3 is all cynical exploitation. The newest script from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, has nothing in it resembling ideas, or fun or a reason for being. This time, Mills is home in L.A. trying to rekindle things with Lenore, now unhappily married to a stiff suit (Dougray Scott). The love triangle ends in murder, and Mills is framed for the murder. From there, it's just a lot of running around with director Olivier Megaton (yes, I guess thats a real name) frantically edits so as to make it look as if something is actually happening. All that's get taken this time is everyone foolish enough to pay for this crap.
Sometimes you get that one film that is a perfect testament to the very worst of humanity, and the very best. That's the Oscar-nominated Virunga, a devastating, incendiary documentary that will knock you for a loop. Set in the magnificent Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the world's last living mountain gorillas and an essential part to the region's economic stability. In a country roiling in turmoil and strife, hope became an even more distant horizon in 2010 when oil was discovered beneath Lake Edward, prompting the arrival of a British petroleum company and a powerful rebel group. The film was originally planned as a showcase for the dangerous work of the park's 400 rangers, but then became an impromptu chronicle of a literal war between conservation and exploitation. Making skillful use of hidden cameras and the assistance of French journalist Melanie Gouby, director Orlando von Einsiedel blends powerful footage of rebel tanks with lush scenery. Villains are everywhere you look, but it's the heroes of the film that will long staty with you, they being gentle ranger Andre Bauma, Belgian warden Emmanuel de Merode and more. One ranger at one point insists 'I am not special.' You will not agree with him at all after seeing this film.
Another Oscar nominee for Foreign Language Feature, Abderrahmane Sissako's visually astonishing and morally devastating Timbuktu is set in only the most recent past, but it's definitely of the moment. The setting is of course the sub-Saharan village in Mali, where Islamic fundamentalists took control in 2012 in an attempt to impose Sharia Law. The exotic locale, littered with mud huts and sand dunes, seems like a whole different planet, and the villagers who'd raised cattle and fished there for generations had to have felt like aliens were invading. Wielding machine guns and bullhorns with vicious directives mostly aimed at women, the jihadists are shown to be hypocrites and thugs. The brutality is unspeakable. An unmarried couple is buried up to their necks and stoned; a women is sentence to 40 lashes for the crime of playing music, a sentence she endures with singing as she cries in pain. Sissako, who hails from neighboring Mauritania, is looking to show not only the repressive face of Islam, but also the delicate culture that is being lost. The most powerful plot in the film centers on a cattle owner named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino), who lives quietly with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, but whose own sense of justice and anger come to light and result in tragic consequences. But there is a moment in which Kidane sits and simply strums a guitar with his family as they sit under the stars, and we get a glimpse of the harmony about to be decimated. It's haunting, terrific filmmaking.