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: The Invitation

25 06 2016

The InvitationKaryn Kusama’s “The Invitation” always feels like a well-executed genre flick, but which genre exactly? That question seems wide open. Over the course of its runtime, the film can resemble a claustrophobic domestic psychodrama, a tense thriller and a dramatic examination of guilt. The whole cult aspect of the plot is practically the most normal thing about it.

“The Invitation” unfolds as secluded couple David and Eden (Michiel Huisman and Tammy Blanchard) formally invite over some friends for a dinner party. The guest list is a multicultural melting pot, though two guests really stand out – Eden’s ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). The unspoken consequences of a past some would rather forget loom large over the proceedings, as much as they try to pretend no elephant has parked its carcass in the room.

As they raise a glass to new beginnings, it might also be the end for some of the unsuspecting visitors. David and Eden proudly yet quietly herald their new membership in a fledgling religious group. Like many such fringe groups, the leaders seem to have preyed on their vulnerable states to induce loyalty and faithfulness. And now, they proselytize with surprising normalcy.

Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi keep details about the cult scant in their script, instead focusing on the effects it has on the characters who have accepted or scoffed at it. While a jarring tonal shift in the final act somewhat belies the normalcy they so carefully establish, “The Invitation” still provides a chilling, exciting twist on a wide variety of stories. B2halfstars