Short Takes: A Most Violent Year, Blackhat & The Imitation Game

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A Most Violent Year – After a somewhat intriguing debut with 2011’s Margin Call,  J.C. Chandor has made two miserably dull follow-up features, All Is Lost and his latest, A Most Violent Year.  That year is 1981, and Chandor’s crime drama chronicles an up-and-coming oil supplier (Oscar Isaac) trying to make it big in New York City without caving in to (too many) illegitimate business practices.

Isaac resembles young Al Pacino in the first two Godfather films in both look and manner here, a high compliment to be sure.  There is a clear spark between him and Jessica Chastain, whose scenery-chewing performance as his wife balances well with his restrained, slow-burning intensity. However, the movie itself drowns in its own austere predictability.  The production design is excellent and absorbing and Bradford Young’s cinematography gives New York an amber, menacing glow, but the movie still never comes alive.  The script is full of vague, uninsightful musings on American life imbued with tired machismo, but it isn’t interested in showing anyone really living. Grade: D+

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Blackhat – Is Chris Hemsworth believable as a ridiculously sexy MIT hacker pulled out of prison to help government agents hunt down another cyber criminal?  Absolutely not, and it doesn’t help that some of the dialogue in Blackhat’s script is incredibly overdone. (“I’m doing the time, the time’s not doing me,” he says at one point.)  That being said, Michael Mann’s first feature since 2009’s Public Enemies is an energetic and engaging thriller, and I don’t know why anyone would expect anything less than that from him at this point.

Blackhat begins by tracing a cyber-attack on a nuclear facility in China by following the invasion through circuitry and showing the disastrous real-world consequences.  For much of the movie it’s unclear who the cyber antagonist actually is.  Hathaway (Hemsworth) and a group of American and Chinese government investigators hop from country to country tracing their trail and encountering bursts of violent resistance.  It’s a visually seductive and smart thriller about modern technology’s capacity for blurring geopolitical lines.  Grade: B-

THE IMITATION GAME

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a well-crafted if safe World War II movie that, sadly, feels like another cog in the Harvey Weinstein Oscar machine. The movie does a good job at connecting its group of mathematicians working to crack the Nazi transmission code with the horrifying time crunch of war, and that urgency is the movie’s greatest asset.  It falls short in its depiction of the lead mathematician Alan Turing, a man who was tormented by British society his entire life for being gay and having an unspecified neurodevelopmental disorder similar to Asperger syndrome.

Benedict Cumberbatch is quite good in the role, but the movie is too timid, reducing his gayness to something that’s mentioned only in passing and not portrayed genuinely on screen.  It shows the relentless bullying he endured but shies away from almost everything else, which is why the movie works much better as a war procedural than when it’s quietly patting itself on the back for mentioning his identity.  The dynamic between Turing and his fellow code crackers shifts from one of fierce competition to necessary camaraderie as he invents a bulky computer that will allow them to translate Nazi messages before their code changes. Grade: C+ 

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