Movie Review ~ Decision to Leave

The Facts:

Synopsis: A businessman plummets to his death from a mountain peak in South Korea. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife, Seo-rae, may know more than she initially lets on.
Stars: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Director: Park Chan-wook
Rated: R
Running Length: 138 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  While I take my role as a critic seriously, I pride myself on not being too much of a creaky contrarian who deliberately goes against the majority vote. I’ll let you in on another little secret of this inner world of reviewing movies: it can make for a chilly time on the playground if you are a voice of dissent for a film that’s soared to popularity among the masses. While writing this blog, I’ve experienced that frost a few times, but I’m usually the one who likes the movies everyone wants to toss in the bin, so it’s not so bad. As we make our way to the end of 2022, there’s a much-lauded title I’ve put off discussing that needs to be addressed so I can close the book on it. 

The film is the South Korean mystery Decision to Leave by celebrated director Park Chan-wook, who will forever be linked to the brutal brilliance of Oldboy and, more recently, the striking beauty of The Handmaiden. Decision to Leave won the directing prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is already favored as the frontrunner for Best International Feature at the Oscars, with Park Chan-wook also high on the list to receive his first nomination for Best Director. With all that buzz coming out of Cannes and many good reviews laid down as a golden carpet, why wouldn’t I sit down to this expecting it to knock my socks off?

The thing is, it didn’t. And it’s not just due to overhype or ‘festival fever’ that can affect movies seen by a limited number of reviewers that get their hooks into one film and proclaim it the next big thing. No, for me, Decision to Leave was a miss in the narrative storytelling Park Chan-wook has excelled at in the past. Never known for completely linear storytelling, the director employs some of those same time jolts here. Still, it’s to the detriment and forward motion of his overly serpentine mystery and characters that should be far more intriguing than they ever are. The moment they start to show subterfuge, Park Chan-wook jostles us again somehow, and the snow globe-fragile structure of the piece has to find time to settle.

Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is stretched thin between commuting to work and rarely seeing his wife due to their competing schedules. Any time they get to work on their relationship is put to the side when Hae-joon takes on a case of suspicious death where the wife of a retired immigration officer becomes the main suspect. The man is found dead at the bottom of a mountain, which could be a mere accident, but as Hae-joon and his partner Soo-Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) dig deeper under the surface, they discover widow Seo Rae (Tang Wei) may have committed the perfect crime. How to prove it, though? And did the deceased have it coming to him?

The basic outline I’m giving you is a tiny tip of an iceberg plot that viewers will crash into repeatedly before the film lumbers to its conclusion after nearly two and a half hours. Admittedly, the plot developments have a Hitchcock flair, but they come at a hefty price: time. Hitchcock knew how to keep the viewer engaged, and I kept getting further detached from every character the filmmakers wanted us to be more interested in. Despite some inarguably breathtaking work by Tang Wei as a possible femme fatale that houses a multitude of oceanic currents under her calm demeanor, I struggled to find a reason to care much about anything.

In many ways, the same negatives that weighed down Christopher Nolan’s 2020 Tenet sank Decision to Leave. Both arrive from directors that have delivered some unforgettable films in the past but have let their love of the process overtake their understanding of the viewer’s experience. I didn’t just find Decision to Leave slack. I found it hard to track. No, I don’t need my hand held, but I need to understand what I’m supposed to be looking for in the first place. 

Movie Review ~ Blackhat

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A furloughed convict and his American and Chinese partners hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom

Director: Michael Mann

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Director Michael Mann hasn’t released a film since Public Enemies came and went back in 2009.  Though the 71 year old director tried his hand at the ill-fated HBO series Luck, it seemed like Mann was taking his sweet time on deciding on his next project.  Now, if Blackhat had been the kind of return to form Mann fans had been waiting for, I’d say that the wait would have been worth it…but it’s not and it isn’t.

Originally titled Cyber (wait, are you snoring yet?), Black hat refers to someone violating computer or Internet security maliciously or for illegal personal gain.  A globe-hopping crime drama involving a team of computer experts and government agents tracking down a cyber-villain that hatches a plot straight out of a failed James Bond film, Mann’s film is a cold as steel chrome-plated stumble.

Moody to the point of needing an anti-depressant, the film opens with an inside look at a computer virus attacking a Chinese nuclear reactor.  (This sequence looks like it was drafted the same time Matthew Broderick was playing his WarGames.)  When a stock market upset happens shortly after, federal agents (involving a bored looking and sounding Viola Davis, Beautiful Creatures) partner with a Chinese official (Leehom Wang) to identify the criminal.

Enter Chris Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods) as a jailed cybercriminal that happens to be the ex-college classmate of the Chinese agent.  Sprung from prison so his talents may be further exploited, he leads everyone on a chase over the Western part of the globe as each new destination provides a clue to the whereabouts and endgame of our terrorist.  Oh, and Hemsworth falls in love with the sister of the Chinese agent…just so there’s a reason to feature Hemsworth frequently sans shirt.

While the movie has the typical Mann touches of gorgeous aerial shots and breathless action sequences that put you right into the action, it’s also chock full of concerning missteps that wouldn’t seem out of place for a newbie filmmaker.  The film is far too long and in need of a editor willing to stand up for several subplots to be excised and the love story between Hemsworth and Wei Tang is hardly steamy and with Tang’s heavy accent hard to make much sense of.  Let’s not mention some of the worst dubbing in a mainstream film you’ll ever see.

A final showdown finds Hemsworth hunting down our bad guy and his cronies in the midst of a parade.  Things understandably get out of control pretty fast and the revelers laughably keep moving like nothing’s wrong amidst gunfire, stabbings, and other bloodletting.  Perhaps this sequence would have been better on the written page as the ending for some spy novel you’d pick up in an airport kiosk.

With his impressive body of work, Blackhat won’t be the final word on Mann’s career but it may be his most disappointing footnote.  While I found myself engaged when the film started deciphering its central mystery, I drifted away when the plot became a convoluted mess.  With a running time of over 2 hours, Blackhat is one that is easily skippable in theaters and possibly worth a look when it arrives for home consumption…that way you can rewind it if you fall asleep.

The Silver Bullet ~ Blackhat

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Synopsis: A man is released from prison to help American and Chinese authorities pursue a mysterious cyber criminal. The dangerous search leads them from Chicago to Hong Kong.

Release Date: January 16, 2015

Thoughts: Not that Michael Mann has ever been a director that turns out work on a regular basis, but it’s been nearly six years since Mann’s Public Enemies rolled out into theaters. Returning with the cyber action adventure Blackhat, the first look here is classic Mann with lots of shots of grandly styled action sequences sure to be interspersed with a flawlessly perfect (but icy cold) production design. Starring Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods) and Viola Davis (Prisoners), Blackhat will be unveiled mid-January of 2015, when audiences will be weary on award-ready dramas and in the mood for the type of skilled cinematic craftsmanship Mann has perfected over the years.