2 10 2016

goatSundance Film Festival

“The pledges have to go through hell, or what’s the f—ing point?” It’s a question posed toward the end of Andrew Neel’s “Goat” by cruel fraternity pledgemaster Dixon (Jake Picking), and the film provides no easy answer.

We live in isolating, estranging times that can often leave young people separated from their very essence. The pressures for college-aged men today, at a time when centuries of male hegemony are being upended by gender equality, can often take on a dark tenor that drives reckless behavior. The Greek system is meant to provide belonging, community and brotherhood. Its current practice frequently perverts these ideals into violence, sadism and outright cruelty.

When Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) enters Phi Sigma Mu, it’s due in large part to the presence of his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) already being a brother. But there’s more than just family loyalty behind the decision to rush – Brad is still recovering from a mugging incident that left bruises on his body and pride. The fraternity becomes a space in which he can reclaim the masculinity he feels those brutes took from him that fateful night.

The Phi Sigma Mu residence, in particular the basement where so much hazing takes place, houses many distinct personalities with their own issues they look to the organization to solve. Some are looking for validation of their future prospects. Others are trying to resolve their sexual frustrations with women, even going as far as engaging in acts with homoerotic undertones that replace the contact they miss. All taken together, the brothers create and perpetuate a system in which violence and humiliation only begets further violence and humiliation. Their credo states “All My Strength Is In My Union,” but the initiation rituals only sew discord and mistrust.

The target of Neel’s rage is not the fraternity system. It’s toxic masculinity. “Goat” offers little in the way of pointers as to how this can be overcome. But we do get a little bit of hope in observing the progressing relationship dynamics between the blood brothers Brad and Brett. The elder feels no need to help his younger sibling upon entering rush; in fact, he probably goes harder on him to avoid accusations of favoritism. Yet the more that hazing breaks Brad’s spirits, the more Brett begins to realize that so little about Phi Sigma Mu actually matters. Through Brett’s genuine compassion, they take strides toward making peace with the fraternity. That empathy provides a nice twinge of hope after being party to some misguided acts of true brutality. B+3stars

REVIEW: Snowden

14 09 2016

At 69 years old, Oliver Stone isn’t likely to change his filmmaking style, but a little bit of uncommon subtlety might have behooved his latest work, “Snowden.” So often is the director determined to write the first rough draft of cinematic history on a current event – Vietnam, the Bush administration, the 2008 recession – that he sacrifices insight for topicality.

His take on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden doubles as a discussion about the trade-offs between privacy and security in the digital age. When he’s not blaring the themes through dialogue in lines such as “terrorism is the excuse; it’s about economic and social control,” the talking heads trade lines that sound excerpted from TED Talks. Moreover, the dust is still settling here. Why remake Laura Poitras’ perfectly good documentary “Citizenfour” with flashbacks when the story is still unfolding?

The film’s background information on Edward Snowden, largely left out of news media discussion, does provide some intriguing context to his giant revelation. His participation in questionably legal CIA operations, bipartisan disenchantment and operational disillusionment all played a big role in leading Snowden to rendezvous with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in June 2013. To Stone’s credit, he lets these events slowly form the character’s resolve to leak information; no one moment seems to snap him.

As Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a turn that belongs on the Wikipedia page for “uncanny valley.” He channels the familiar real-life figure in many surprising ways: a deeper voice, a less frenetic pace, a quiet resolve. The only thing that stands in his way is the repository of ideas we have about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which he automatically taps into by appearing on screen.

Between “Snowden,” “The Walk” and even going back to “Looper,” Gordon-Levitt has amassed an impressive body of work where he selflessly attempts to bring himself closer to the character, rather than the other way around. He’s busting his hump to ensure we see the role he plays as someone distinct from himself, not just some costume he puts on to slightly mask his own persona. Frequently, Gordon-Levitt’s reckoning with the character of Snowden feels more fascinating than the character himself. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Warcraft

8 06 2016

A few years ago, I spent some weeks studying abroad in Argentina. I knew enough Spanish to converse and survive, though not nearly enough to where I could fully understand Spanish-language programming. On occasion, however, I would watch shows on television with my host mom that had no English subtitles.

Those shows made more sense than Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft.”

The film begins with an ominous prologue, foregrounding the conflict ahead by pointing to a period in time where humans and orcs became enemies. Then, speed ahead to the present day in “Warcraft,” and it feels like being dropped in part four of a series. Familiar scenes, discernible settings and recognizable powers abound, but none of them come with any kind of context or explanation.

In many ways, “Warcraft” is the antithesis of Jones’ last film, “Source Code” – a work of that disappearing breed of mid-range budgeted original sci-fi. That 2011 film derives from a high concept, and once again, he chooses to dole out precious little exposition to explain the world. Yet viewers could catch on because it was rooted in humanity and character. There was something intrinsic to pull us in.

“Warcraft” comes with no such hook, instead leaving in the cold those without an extensive knowledge of the MMORPG.  At least it kicked me off early, leaving me to watch a fast-moving carousel coming unhinged by the second. (Seriously, this makes M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” look like a paragon of narrative cohesion.) The film feels less like a movie and more like a YouTube playlist shuffling through deleted scenes of “Avatar,” “John Carter” and “The Hobbit.” While the effects – particularly motion-capture – look impressive, they mean jack squat with internal logic entirely absent.

All the money and technical wizardry on display is quite literally in service of nothing. Why spend $160 million on a spectacle of a fantasy film when production value is all that separates it from a direct-to-Redbox “Lord of the Rings” knockoff? The filmmaking team might as well have just pretended “Warcraft” took place in Middle Earth since they can never satisfactorily explain the tribes and the conflicts of this world.

Truly, the only people who can eke out a small victory from the film are the live-action performers such as Travis Fimmel, Ben Schnetzre, Dominic Cooper and Paula Patton. At least Universal’s marketing focused on the computer-generated creatures. They might be able to escape “Warcraft” relatively unscathed by what would otherwise by a substantial blemish on their careers. Everyone else, likely (and sadly) including Jones, is probably not so lucky. D-1star