August 2015 Media Round-up (Movies, Pt. 1)


Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Not super substantial, but more or less enjoyable. Solid acting, good costumes, beautiful scenery, etc., as you would expect from this sort of movie.

I think my major issue with the movie may be that it did not convey the passage of time very well, which robbed the relationships of the emotional weight they should have had. We already know which suitor Bathsheba will end up with from the first 10 minutes—because of the genre and our Last In, First Out theory of period romance—or possibly even just from the movie poster, but we’re still following the plot to see how that main relationship develops and is earned and how each of the alternate suitors highlight the suitability of the first suitor through their own unsuitability. And while the movie still mostly succeeds at that, it would be even better if we had a sense of how long it’s been since Bathsheba and Gabriel’s first meeting, since Gabriel’s initial proposal, since…basically every major event in the movie. Is this story taking place over months? Years? A decade? Fanny’s pregnancy lets us know that Bathsheba and Frank’s courtship and marriage takes place over the course of nine months or less (assuming that he fakes his drowning immediately after finding Fanny’s body and not another ambiguous period of time later), but that’s basically the only marker of time that we get, and even that feels off, given how much shit happens in those 9 months or less.

Blackhat (2015)

Basic premise so that we can talk about it in detail: Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is an officer in China’s cyber warfare unit. Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is currently in prison for some sort of hacking-related crime, but was Chen’s roommate at MIT, where they wrote some code together that was just used by some unknown entity to hack into a Hong Kong nuclear plant and the Mercantile Trade Exchange. Chen gets the FBI to temporarily release Hathaway from prison to help find the person behind the attacks. Chen also enlists his sister, Lien (Tang Wei), a networking engineer, and obviously, she and Hathaway become a thing. There is a bunch of other plot stuff, but I think this is probably all we need for the following discussion.

It’s weird—this movie was both a box office bomb and a critical failure (34% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I really liked it and not even in a so bad, it’s good way. I wonder if it’s stylistically distinct enough to become a cult hit, or if it’s just going to go in the surprisingly decent but ultimately forgettable pile. Because, yeah, the main thriller plot is not the most compelling and I kind of don’t even remember what the villainous plan turned out to be, but it had enough other things going for it that I’m not sure it matters?

  1. Coolness. Oh my god, this movie was so fucking cool. Like every shot felt like it was specifically composed (so much neon! so many sunglasses!) to maximize the characters’ coolness and yet not in the sort of expected macho GUNS-BOOBS-EXPLOSIONS sense. From what few Michael Mann movies I’ve seen and what I’ve read about him as a director, it seems fair to say that he fetishizes competence. And so these characters aren’t just beautiful badasses in sunglasses, they’ve, like, worked hard to become very good at very specific things. It’s not really about showing Chris Hemsworth exploding in manliness and it’s not about Tang Wei oozing sexiness; you see these shots of them, and somehow the wardrobe/cinematography/acting/etc. comes together to make you think, “damn, these people are hot and awesome and really fucking competent.” And it’s not even just the characters; all of the shots of architecture and scenery and whatever are just, again, so fucking cool.
  2. Refreshing character dynamics. I liked that Hathaway and Chen were college roommates who just…got along. They weren’t, you know, homoerotically close, but they liked and respected each other; I feel like, in general, you expect these sorts of relationships to end in a secret betrayal or for there to be a big mid-movie fight over some long-standing past resentment and/or a woman before they make up for the greater good and/or because of the death of a supporting character (probably the woman they were fighting over). And that never happened! Hathaway sleeps with Chen’s sister, and they…have a mature discussion about that and what it means given Hathaway still technically being a convict and notably don’t get all gross and territorial about Lien’s honor or whatever.
    And the relationship between Hathaway and Lien is pretty solid as well; I mean, there’s not much more romantic build-up to it than “look, these are two hot people in a tense and adrenaline-filled situation, of course they’re going to bang,” but I kind of like the idea (and this is purely speculation on my part) that Lien saw pictures of Hathaway when he and Chen were roommates (because social media, right?) and was like, “Dude, your roommate is hot. Maybe I’ll come visit and hook up with him” and Chen was like, “Ugh, can you please not?” but then Hathaway got into that bar fight and initial 18-month imprisonment that led him to his life of crime and much longer imprisonment so she never got the chance. Not that she’s been pining after him all this time, mind you, but it’s probably been at the back of her mind as a missed opportunity. Until now. Anyway, I was very relieved to find out that Tang Wei is actually about 4 years older than Chris Hemsworth in real life, because I kind of assumed she was at least a decade younger and I was Not Into That. And I liked the scene where Hathaway and Chen are both making plans for her safety in front of her and she’s like, “What? Do I not get a say in any of this?” and SHUTS IT DOWN.
  3. Subverting expectations. Right, so as we’ve said, the main plot is perhaps not that interesting. But at the same time, it rarely feels like “oh, of course that happened” and it doesn’t seem to rely on deus ex machina shit. People’s actions have realistic consequences and everything isn’t just neatly tied up by the end. A lot of characters get killed, but surprisingly, Lien isn’t one of them. Hathaway stops the antagonist in the end, but he doesn’t even get a traditionally happy ending; the NSA hack he executes partway through the film means that his deal to get pardoned is off, and while a dumber movie would probably have been like, “oh, never mind, the US government is totally cool with you breaking the law because it helped you catch the baddie,” Blackhat actually follows through on the ramifications of that choice. We end the movie knowing that Hathaway and Lien are now just going to have to live off the grid forever, because the alternative is going back to jail with some added treason charges, and, well, was it even worth it?

A lot of the negative comments seem to revolve around the hacking being unrealistic and, more specifically, Chris Hemsworth being unrealistic casting for a hacker. As to the former, um…who cares? I majored in computer science, so I should perhaps be invested in that sort of thing (although it is so not my area of CS), but do we not understand that if all occupations were portrayed realistically in fiction, most fiction would be SUPER BORING? And the Chris Hemsworth casting might be objectionable if this were supposed to be a representative portrayal of the average hacker1, but no: Hathaway is one specific dude. One specific dude who hospitalized a guy in a bar fight at age 21 and just spent some number of years in prison, training his body and mind. Given that backstory, would it really make sense for him to look like one of the guys from Silicon Valley?

The Commitments (1991)

Basic premise, from Wikipedia: “a story of working class Dubliners who form a soul band.”

The music was good, the main dude was hot, and the stakes were interesting—the band breaks up at the end without ever achieving any real success because the members just couldn’t really deal with each other. Usually one expects something more sordid and dramatic from the genre, I think—you know, band achieves fame but then the lead singer becomes a heroin addict or something like that—rather than like “eh, we didn’t really like each other and this wasn’t our Big Dream so we just called it off and pursued other things.”

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

I was curious about this because I had seen some good GIFs from it on tumblr and action-comedy is a solid genre, but man…mediocre, at best. Some pretty tired marriage humor, which is one of my least favorite brands of comedy.

To: Movies, Part 2; Movies, Part 3

[1] And even then, not all programmers look like basement nerds. I mean, a lot of them do. But not all! I’m sure there are some hot CS majors at MIT.  ^


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