Friday, May 12, 2017

Seen in… April 

From War Games - NORAD wishes it were this cool

April was all about American crime stories. Traditionally, Hollywood likes showing bandits with guns as a sort of Robin Hood with a Smith & Wesson (try Smith & Wesson’s “Gun Finder” to find a weapon right for you and you will be shocked by the number of options). Yet these movies are more than that and run the gambit from serial killers, to fugitives in love, to a good man who makes a bad decision. To be honest, I’m surprised I saw anything at all. Several weekends I realized I hadn’t even turned on the television from Friday night to Sunday night. I wasn’t nobly reading poetry under an oak tree, or improving my 10-km run time but was more likely shackled to a computer working on one thing or another.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos. Image via

Charlize Theron won her Oscar by getting fat (movie fat) and ugly (movie ugly) and sympathetically playing the murderous Aileen Wuornos. Wuornos was a drifter who made ends meet by turning tricks on Florida’s highways until she started killing her johns. The film does a fine job of portraying Aileen as a damaged victim of sexual abuse who, the jury will agree, happened to be a sociopath. Theron is great in detailing every chilling yet sympathetic aspect of her character. After reading some disturbing accounts of her abusive childhood which weren’t a part of the film, it seems that this woman wasn’t just uneducated but may have also lacked the intelligence or self-awareness of your average person. Perhaps if she had grown up in a healthier environment she would have simply been an annoying co-worker or bothersome neighbour, but I guess we’ll never know. Her delusion of hope and of being misunderstood was the heartbreak that Theron conveys so convincingly.

Matthew McConaughey, up in tree… k-i-l-l-i-n-g. Not really, but you get it. Image via

On a lazy but ominous Mississippi river two teens, Ellis and Neckbone, have discovered an abandoned boat, marooned high in a tree on a small island after floodwaters have receded. They aim to claim it as their own. Unfortunately, it has already been claimed by a fugitive named Mud, played by Matthew McConaughhey. This common discovery leads to an unusual arrangement between Mud and the boys that, of course, has serious implications. This story has a straight up “fugitive from the law” narrative but it is more than that. Mud’s motives are in the name of love for a woman who he should probably give up on. Ellis thinks naively that he understands Mud’s motives, yet fails to understand his own parents who have seemingly run out of love for each other. All of this is set to the backdrop of the changing way of life for folks who live and work on the river as their barely legal riverboat homes are being requisitioned by local authorities. The presence of guns, everywhere, toted by everyone only adds a mysterious menace to the movie. A private posse of gun-carrying thugs is far more dangerous to Mud than the police, and even the compact the boys and Mud keep is sealed by the promise of Mud gifting his pistol to Neckbone. No judgement is made nor eyebrows raised by the ubiquity of the armoury of everyday people and it certainly doesn’t seem to be a topic of the film, rather just part of the backdrop of the American landscape.

The excellent Ben Foster and Chris Pine as brothers in Hell or High Water. Image via

Hell or High Water
Just two good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm… stop me if you’ve heard this one. To describe this movie as two brothers who start robbing banks to save the family farm while a sheriff who is about to retire is hot on their trail, doesn’t do it justice. The brothers’ motives are complex and their solution feels uniquely American. How better to buy out your mortgage from a bank about to foreclose on you than to rob that very same bank? This film, with a different cast or director might have just been an action movie but great performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges raise the stakes. I’m not sure all the characters’ decisions make sense or seem realistic (Ben Foster seems particularly nihilistic) but nonetheless the emotional truth still resonates.

Sausage Party
This raunchy foul-mouthed animated comedy from Seth Rogen and friends about anthropomorphized food items realizing their fate is to be consumed is as stupid as it sounds. It is also very funny. The film has a self-awareness few movies have and that meta quality only adds to the fun. You may not want to admit you enjoyed the juvenile humour, but it’s hard not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the end-of-times all out grocery store orgy. You’ll never look at a food mascot the same way.

Of course, hunky Chris Hemsworth is completely believable as one of the world’s most dangerous computer hackers who, while part way through a 15-year prison sentence has maintained both a great complexion and gorgeous head of hair. For those who aren’t aware, “Blackhat” refers to computer hackers who try to crack institutions or personal online accounts with malicious intent while “Whitehat” refers to a computer hacker who looks for weakness in systems in order to report and strengthen those shortcomings. This film oscillates between surprisingly believable and unbelievably stupid all the while looking great and remaining up tempo. Those latter two things are typical of a Michael Mann film. It is after all, a stylish, complicated thriller. Hemsworth’s hacker has been furloughed from prison long enough to help both the CIA and Chinese secret service partner up to find who was behind a cyber attack that has triggered a near nuclear meltdown at a Chinese reactor. The plot moves from credible to incredible at the back third of the movie and has one of those typically goofy animations of information hurtling through wires to visualize a cyber attack. For the most part they avoid a lot of dumb hacker clichés. Firewalls are breached via clever phishing schemes and encrypted files remain hopelessly uncrackable (and can’t be hacked by guessing someone’s password) but I think what directors like Mann don’t understand is that a) cyber attacks don’t look like anything so don’t make it look like lightning travelling over a wire to a microchip and b) they don’t trust the viewer to get it. Yet for the most part we don’t need to see that nonsense. War Games didn’t have to do it 30 years ago, so why do it now? Maybe it’s a failure of screenwriting or of visual thinking that these cheesy ways to show something “digital” seem so hokey. You can show us that something unseen is happening without all the electric sparks moving over a wire like a 30s era warning about the danger of toasters.

In the 80s, boys with computers never met girls as cute as Ally Sheedy, War Games. Image via

War Games
I don’t know what curation gods were at work that allowed me to see the classic 80s hacker film War Games right after a contemporary hacker film Blackhat but I’m glad it happened. Matthew Broderick plays David, a technically precocious teen on the cutting edge of the Internet who accidentally triggers a countdown to a global thermo-nuclear war when he thinks he’s discovered a online game. In fact, it’s a war simulation that relentlessly continues running the simulation as part of a learning algorithm. Once David realizes what’s happening he’s in a race against the clock to find the creator of the algorithm to stop the computer from completing its mission. There’s very little to complain about when watching this fun, tightly run movie. It never feels anything other than genuine and honest and very contemporary as we increasingly use AI “bots” that have replaced such jobs as financial traders, customer service reps and even some legal positions. I might also have a sweet spot for any film with vintage “girl-next-door” sweetheart Ally Sheedy as David’s side-kick. Sheedy’s role isn’t just a love interest for David, but the all important part of helping the audience parse the technical aspects of the film to real world implications. Really the only way we know what’s happening inside the computer is for Sheedy to ask the questions while Broderick’s character explains. No hokey animation required (psst, that comment is for you, Mr. Mann).

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