[Movie] Blackhat

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IMDb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2717822/

The year is 2010. In Natanz nuclear facility located in Iran, centrifuges ran amok, spinning at abnormal rates, eventually resulting in an incident in which one-fifth of the centrifuges are destroyed.

This, by the way, is a real-life incident. A quick science lesson. To make Uranium-based nuclear bombs, you obviously need Uranium. But not just any Uranium, as Uranium commonly comes in 2 forms. To extract the Uranium suitable for weaponizing, you need a process called Uranium enrichment. And this, is where centrifuges are used.

Now, what has this incident got to do with the Blackhat movie. Guess what, centrifuges are controlled by PLC, or Programmable Logic Controller. Although never admitted publicly, the Natanz disaster was widely believed to be caused by a highly sophisticated computer worm, named Stuxnet, that targets the specific PLC model. This is what inspired movie producer Michael Mann to make Blackhat. The triggering mechanism in the opening scene is obviously a tribute to this incident.

This, and other realistic accounts of hacking, is what makes Blackhat the greatest hacking movie ever – at least according to Wired. As someone who has a background in cyber-security, I totally enjoyed those parts of the movie. Like when a NSA director clicked on a PDF file and got infected by possibly a zero-day attack. Or the social engineering involved in getting a replacement for a coffee-stained printout – leading to a USB-based infection. Even the terminal commands used are proper Unix commands!

Unfortunately, realism alone does not make a good movie. The rest of the elements are nowhere was good. One gets the feeling that the chosen plot location and actors used (Wang Leehom, Tang Wei) are purely for appealing to the Chinese-speaking markets. There’s an absolute lack of on-screen chemistry between Chris Helmsworth, Tang Wei. The action sequences are a joke. The dialogue? Cringeworthy. Oh, and don’t get me started on the plot. Stuffed magazines and sharpened screwdrivers against trained gunmans? Really?

There’s no better way to say this: this movie is a disaster. One gets the feeling that the movie can’t decide what it wants to be, and so tries to be everything and ended up succeeding in none.

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Rating: 1.5/5

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[Movie] Transcendence

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IMdb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2209764/

***Spoilers ahead***

In the not too distant future, where advances in machine intelligence is threatening to approach Singularity, a Sarah Connor-like leader emerges and forms a rebel group in an attempt to stop it from happening.

By the way, Singularity is a real concept in AI that is loosely defined as the point in human evolution where machine intelligence exceeds that of human intelligence. Some has even predicted the exact year in which it will happen – 2045. The prevailing notion in science is that Singularity can be a threat to humanity alongside global warming and asteroid impact, as no one can predict what will happen when machines become capable of real intelligence.

This is not a new concept in film – the moment in Terminator when SkyNet “wakes up” can be defined as Singularity. The slight difference in this movie is that the source of this intelligence originates from a human and is transferred to machine – hence transcending the human body. This is unlike Terminator where the machine spontaneously achieves awareness by itself.

In essence Transcendence is exploring 2 concepts – transferrence of ‘self’ or consciousness, and that of Singularity. The first is a subject matter that has deep philosophical roots and which has been explored in depth in both theology as well as science. There are very deep questions such as what gets transferred – assuming it is possible at all – what is consciousness, in fact what is the concept of self. Personally I find this to be a fascinating subject matter and was hoping that this movie will give some insightful treatment into this. Sadly, none of these gets explored in detail in this movie. Instead what we get is a dramatization that is standard hollywood treatment – fancyful effects, stuff getting blown up, final showdown between man and machine, in which of course man wins.

Also I’m not sure how many people understood the concept of nano dust. Supposedly with advances in miniaturization, we will eventually be able to reduce and control micro machines as small as a dust particle. Extrapolate this in hollywood land and you get nano dust working in concert to become an invisible hand that comes alive. Build structures out of thin air? Check. Multiply and spread via the atmostphere? No problem. Resurrect people from the dead? Done. It seems nothing is impossible – the magical medical pod in Elysium is child’s play compared to this.

The ultimate solution to end this ultra intelligent machine/being is franking a tat disappointing. Surely the smartest machine would have figured out the possible attack vectors and make defences against it. Well, I guess that wouldn’t fit into a Hollywood ending.

Overall rating: 3/5

[Movie] Robocop (2014)

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IMDb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1234721/

This 2014 remake of Robocop approaches the story from an interesting angle. We get to have a glimpse of the law-making process in the US and how mega corps manipulates their way into passing bills that benefits their bottom line – exploiting the media, using manipulative language (robophobic, ha!), bribes, clever marketing to swing public opinions and outright lies. This is the real drama. The other parts are pretty standard sci-fi – nothing groundbreaking. The casting didn’t really work for me here.

Overall rating: 3/5 stars

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[Movie] The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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IMdb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1392170/

Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a continuation of the earlier story. For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a summary from Wikipedia:

In the novel The Hunger Games, at an unspecified time in the future, the nation of “Panem” has risen from the ashes of a post-apocalyptic North America. Panem’s seat of power is a utopian city, called “The Capitol,” located in the Rocky Mountains. Outside of the Capitol, the nation is divided into twelve districts under the hegemony of an authoritarian, totalitarian dictatorship, headed by the tyrannical and cruel dictator President Coriolanus Snow.

The Capitol developed the Hunger Games as an annual event to punish the citizens of Panem for their rebellion and to remind citizens of consequences for rebelling against the absolute power of the Capitol.

The survivors of the last story, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, are now back to their home district but Katniss suffers from nightmares from the Games. In their victory tour to other districts, Katniss and Peeta quickly realized how their actions may inadvertently bring harm to those who around them. In spite of that, there is a stirring amongst the community as people started to riot in small scales, inspired by both of them in their resolve to act against The Capitol’s wishes.

Meanwhile, President Snow and the Head Gamemaster hatches a plot to get rid of Katniss before she becomes a symbol of rebellion. They organized a quarter quell for the 75th Hunger Games, sort of like Survivor: All-Stars, where previous winners are invited back to take part. They rigged the selection so that both Katniss and Peeta are automatically included. Will both of them survive the Games this time? The answer is obvious but the ending may surprise you.

Personally I like the visual style of the movie. Not too futuristic and not quite steampunk, just the right amount of post-modern touches. Katniss’ fiery dresses from the earlier movie also got a nice upgrade this round. Also kudos to the author for coming up with different interesting attacks in the Game while not degenerating into a Final-Destination-style mess. Ultimately the best part of the movie is in the refreshing plot and strong character performance. Jennifer Lawrence continues her convincing performance as the main character Katniss. And Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the cunning head Gamemaster is really good.

Will be eagerly awaiting for the final installment of the movie next year.

A side trivial: do you know that Liam Hemsworth who acted as Gale is Chris Helmsworth’s (Thor) brother? Good genes run in the family apparently.

Overall ratings: 4/5

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[Movie] Ilo Ilo

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IMdb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2901736/

This is one of the better locally produced movies in recent memory. The backdrop of the story is in the 90s, where dual working parents are becoming a norm and foreign domestic helpers are being brought in to help take care of kids and the household. While it may seem like an ideal arrangement – parents get help while domestic helper gets employment – it is far from problem free. This movie seeks to explore the issues that arise in a typical household with domestic helper, while economic downturn hits the region.

The 4 main characters (husband, wife, maid, child) are given roughly equal screentime, which helps the viewer time to connect and emphathize with them. Both female leads delivered strong performances in their respective roles as wife, working-mum and maid, caregiver. Jiale (his real name) and Chen Tian Wen also put in commendable performances as the latchkey child and a down-and-out husband.

Ultimately, there’s no fairy-tale ending – and I applaud the director for not copping out like some Jack Neo movies. I like this show for its realistic portrayal and unpretentious storytelling. The occassional humour also helps to lift the mood amidst the seriousness. All in all, a very good effort and a well deserved Camera d’Or win.

Overall ratings: 4.5/5

[Movie] Elysium

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IMDb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1535108/
Date/venue: 24 Aug 2013 @ 112 Katong

Elysium has an interesting premise – one in which overpopulation becomes so severe on Earth that the very rich has gone on to build themselves a paradise away from Earth in the form of an orbiting space station. Short of a widespread disaster like war or epidemic, overpopulation does look to be one of the imminent outcome as humans live longer and mortality rate falls. So it’s interesting to examine the issues of such a scenario.

Matt Damon’s character, Max, is a child who grew up in such a dystopian world, and he aspires to be able to bring his childhood love to Elysium one day. Unfortunately he encounters an accident at work and is fatally contaminated with radiation. His only chance of survival is to somehow find a way into Elysium and use the medical pod to cure himself. The audience has to suspend disbelief here as the medical pod is almost magical in what it can do, but it’s a necessary plot device in order to advance the story.

Matt Damon and Jodie Foster gave their usual strong performances here. The story is interesting, the action is there, the sets are suitably well-designed, but somehow something feels lacking. It may be too much to ask, but perhaps given the director’s fame and stellar cast one hopes for something more.

Overall rating: 3.5/5

[Movie] That Girl in Pinafore

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IMDb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2341874/

This is a coming of age story, best summarized as Glee meets 那些年,我们一起追过的女孩. Expect heavy doses of nostalgia as the backdrop of the story is set in the 80s, where a group of friends experience the typical issues of school and growing up. In a way you can also call it a Xinyao musical, as the movie feature a number of highly popular Xinyao songs from the era. Some Xinyao insider jokes will elicit a smile among those in the know – eg. the coconut reference in 你的倒影.

Most of the characters are fresh faces, except for the 2 leads (Darren Tan is a singer and Julie Tan has acted in 96 degree C). I suppose they are chosen for their singing rather than acting ability, ‘cos the overall performance is rather uneven throughout the show. The only strong performance comes from May’s mother, in her portrayal of the estranged mother/daughter relationship. Other veteran actors are unfortunately underused, with most of them appearing as cameos or in minor parts.

The release of the movie is obviously well-timed to take advantage of nationalistic fervour during the National Day period. The marketing team also did a good job in creating awareness for the movie by publicizing about the unbanning of a Xinyao song after 23 years. No doubt it’s a decent piece of work that will be enjoyed by Xinyao lovers and folks from our generation. Like comfort food, it’s uncomplicated and familiar, but to me it falls short of the X-factor that 那些年 has.

Overall rating: 3.5/5

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