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: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Olympus Has Fallen

3 03 2015

Lest we forget, the sight of the White House, the very icon of the American Presidency, in flames could have been a non-fiction tale (or a Paul Greengrass film). On September 11, 2001, United Flight 93 was likely headed to Washington, D.C. to take out the beloved building. So given that history, a modicum of respect – not even Christopher Nolan levels of seriousness – and reverence seems due for the landmark.

None of this registered with the makers of “Olympus Has Fallen,” however. Director Antoine Fuqua seeks to inspire anger by focusing on the sight of the edifice under siege, yet the film just feels too cartoonish in its destruction for any real emotions to register. (This is a movie where someone gets killed by trauma to the head inflicted by a bust of Abraham Lincoln, after all.)

Furthermore, the trigger-happy festival of gore devalues innocent lives taken by terrorists – NOT a smart move when trying to invoke the legacy of 9/11. As Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning seeks to rescue the prisoners of the North Korean attackers who take over the White House, the stakes feel rather low. In terms of hostage movies, this feels about on the level of a bank robbery.

“Olympus Has Fallen” will not even leave you chanting “USA! USA!” And, keep in mind, this is a movie that stars Morgan Freeman. What a squandered opportunity. C2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 12, 2014)

12 09 2014

True Adolescents

Though the world of a great movie may feel hermetically sealed while you watch it, all sorts of factors outside of it have decided the manner in which you get to experience it.  I’ve made the argument before that the 2008 financial collapse has infiltrated the content of films, yet it probably exerted an even greater influence by limiting our access to a whole world of independently created cinema.

Back in 2009, a small dramedy by Craig Johnson called “True Adolescents” played the SXSW Film Festival.  It was well-received and went on to play some smaller local festivals, but it sat around for three years waiting for theatrical distribution.  Before the economic malaise (or even now in our platform-agnostic present day), this is the kind of film that would be a no-brainer for a company like Fox Searchlight to pick up.  Due to the unfortunate timing of its release, however, it wound up getting a minuscule release thanks to Cinedigm.

Perhaps with “The Skeleton Twins,” Johnson’s second feature which is getting a much wider rollout courtesy of Roadside Attractions, people will begin to discover the joy of which they were robbed years ago.  While the production is small-scale, the film pays off big with its richly observed script and properly defined characters.

The man-child is getting a little tired thanks to brute repetition by Seth Rogen and friends, but it feels good as new in “True Adolescents” thanks to a very authentic incarnation by Mark Duplass.  His Sam has clearly blown past the twentysomething mark and is well into his thirties, hapless and essentially hopeless.

Hoping for some easy sympathy, he goes to crash with his aunt (played by a pre-Oscar win Melissa Leo) and winds up being forced to work for her charity.  Sam gets the distinct pleasure of taking his teenage cousin Oliver and his friend Jake on a camping trip.  I’m not too far removed from that adolescent mindset to know that it takes a special kind of person to handle boys of that age; suffice to say, Sam lacks the requisite saintliness.

As with any narrative centering around a journey in the great outdoors, an inner journey takes place in the characters.  But that’s pretty much where “True Adolescents” stops falling in line with what you expect it to do.  Writer/director Craig Johnson provides a surprising amount of depth within the familiar framework, opting to explore deeper into the complex characters at every turn where melodrama or clichés would be easier.  It’s a real treat to watch him embrace the true in the title of his film rather than the latter word.





SAVE YOURSELF from “Red State”

17 01 2013

Red State

Two years ago, one of the hottest properties at Sundance was Kevin Smith’s “Red State.”  The narrative unfolded as usual: high-profile premiere, studios deliberate buying it, bidding war commences.  Afterwards, however, Smith sold the movie to himself … for $20 causing a big hubbub and quite a few eye-rolls and head-shakes.

It was an attempt to make a statement on how backwards the studios’ distribution systems really are and how hard it is for filmmakers to tell the story they want.  But honestly, could there have been a worse movie for anyone to make that claim with?  If the studios keep all movies like “Red State” from getting made or distributed, you might not be too upset about that after actually watching the film itself.

It’s an absolutely dreadful movie that has no class or restraint.  Smith critiques the Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious anti-gay protestors led by Fred Phelps, as a bunch of backwards ignoramuses – as if the rest of the world didn’t already know that.  Perhaps a parody or a spoof would have been the more appropriate vehicle.  Though I’ve never seen “Clerks” or any of Smith’s other films, I’ve heard he’s quite the humorist.

This is the kind of unintentional humor that usually plagues bad movies such as these.  I’m sure some of it might have been planned, in which case Smith proved himself to be a poor imitator of Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comedic talents.  I think he probably wishes “Red State” was something like “Inglourious Basterds” with gratuitous violence aplenty dealt out to the hated villains.

And I suppose it’s a fairly vile turn from Michael Parks as the Fred Phelps surrogate, but it’s not like I got any satisfaction out of seeing all the massive bloodshed done to him and his lunatic disciples.  Mainly, I just wanted to see the conclusion of the horror story at the core of “Red State,” featuring Michael Angarano and his two buds following a sex ad but leading them to the Five Points Trinity Church. But by the time ATF shows up, all narrative and story are thrown out the window to let the bullets fly.  Oh, and there’s also some criticism of the corrupt government at the end that just feels totally out of place given the rest of the film.

When the dust settles, all that’s left are a lot of corpses and a lingering disappointment in the air.  Nothing to cheer about there.  And for the record, I don’t think I’d buy this movie for 20¢.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 11, 2013)

11 01 2013

Melquiades Estrada

Most people recognize Tommy Lee Jones’ calling as an actor.  The Academy sure does, giving him one Oscar in 1993 for “The Fugitive” and a chance at another one in 2012 for “Lincoln.”  But what few people know is that if Jones gave up his day job and took up directing full-time, he would be incredibly successful.

Just take a look at his debut feature, “The Three Burials of Meliquiades Estrada,” and tell me the man does not have serious talent.  While I was watching it, I kept thinking about all the reasons why I shouldn’t like it or that it shouldn’t be working.  But it did, and for that very reason, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Jones’ film is based in a strong script from Guillermo Arriaga, one full of tenderness and deliberation.  And perhaps the best sign of a good director is to let the story shine brightly and take precedence.  Though maybe Jones’ style isn’t flashy, the appropriately ambling pace and quaintness of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” feels like just the right fit.

Jones also lends his acting talents to the film, bringing the movie an undeniable sense of Texas gallantry and steadfastness.  As Pete Perkins, a noble ranch hand, he goes to whatever means necessary to ensure that his friend Melquiades Estrada gets a proper burial.  It takes him across the border, crosses his paths with various interesting people, and entangles complicated alliances.  But he will keep his word to Melquiades at all costs.

He also manages to get fine performances out of his cast, which includes a very physically committed Barry Pepper along with January Jones and Melissa Leo well before they were mainstream names.  But the real triumph of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is, well, Tommy Lee Jones himself.  He makes the film feel so natural and easygoing, almost as if every other movie is a NASCAR racer and his is a horse clipping along.  It’s that kind of brilliant direction where you almost think the film is directing itself.  Pretty impressive for a first film.





REVIEW: Flight

24 11 2012

Denzel Washington has wowed audiences by playing both sides of the hero-villain spectrum.  Just look at the two performances that earned him Oscars.  1989’s “Glory” saw him as an almost angelic soldier fighting in the first all-black company in the United States Army, while 2001’s “Training Day” had him as a cop so devious and corrupt you wanted to jump through the screen and put a bullet through his head.

In “Flight,” Washington plays in the shades of grey of Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who becomes a hero after steering his malfunctioning plane to safety with his unconventional wisdom.  The catch is that Whitaker was high on cocaine and drunk as a skunk when he did so.  Of course, the public blindly adores him in a way reminiscent of Sully, the pilot who landed his vessel in the Hudson River and had a memoir in Barnes & Noble faster than you could say “American Airlines.”  But Whitaker has plenty of baggage that he can’t come to grips with and can’t compress into one of the overhead bins.  (Sorry, the puns with “Flight” are just endless.)

Because it’s a Denzel Washington performance, it’s fascinating to watch.  He owns the screen with a commanding presence rivaled by few in cinema these days.  But because Washington has such well-known and well-defined extremes, it’s fairly easy to tell what he thinks of Whitaker.

While he may have the moments of tough, firm leadership that Coach Herman Boone exhibits, Whitaker is clearly more in the model of a Frank Lucas or an Alonzo Harris.  It’s impressive that Washington can convey meaning through the mere iconography of his stature; however, in a movie like “Flight” that depends on our shifting judgements of the protagonist, that strength becomes a liability.

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