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: Joe

11 09 2014

JoeDavid Gordon Green’s “Joe” gets off to a slow start, prompting me to initially wonder if it was going to be a complete non-starter like his prior directing effort “Prince Avalanche.”  He takes his time giving us the lay of the land and introducing us to the characters, a lax unraveling that teeters close to tedious.

It also doesn’t help that the premise feel quite similar to that of Green’s film school buddy Jeff Nichols’ recent success “Mud.”   A troubled man played by an actor looking to show off a more serious facet of his talent befriending a rough-hewn yet good-hearted teenager played by Tye Sheridan?  “Joe” feels like the younger brother of “Mud,” although perhaps only little due to the order in which it was released.

By all accounts, though, “Joe” is the better realized film.  It’s more emotionally charged and features more dynamic, complex characters.  Once Green kicked the film into gear around the 40-minute mark, I couldn’t take my eyes off the action.

After winning an Oscar, Nicolas Cage shouldn’t technically have to prove anything, so perhaps it’s best to say he reminds us that he is so much more than a meme.  As the eponymous ex-con Joe, he bares the bruises of his past with startling vulnerability.  While some might chuckle at the possibility of the same actor from the infamous “The Wicker Man” screaming video conveying a convincing paternal aura, Cage embodies and exudes a worn-down wisdom that feels completely authentic.

And Tye Sheridan as teenaged Gary, desperately in need of someone to look up to instead of his abusive alcoholic father, forges an entirely believable connection with Cage’s Joe.  Once again, Sheridan completely nails all the frustrations of adolescence.  He’s always remarkably in the moment on screen, which comes in handy when Green needs to communicate the urgency of the story.

We really feel the dire need for Gary to save his family before his father ruins it for good (credit the late Gary Poulter in an unhinged performance as the frighteningly destructive Wade).  Moreover, we see the need for Joe, flaws and all, to save the day.  It might take some time to reach that point, but “Joe” is worth watching for its gripping back half that leads up to an extremely intense conclusion.  B2halfstars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 13, 2010)

13 08 2010

Much like Christopher Nolan, whose brains have been the recipient of much praise this summer, Charlie Kaufman knows how to write some intelligent movies.  His third film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” was a wildly engaging mystery and won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  I think one thing Kaufman has over Nolan is an ability to keep us spellbound while we are perplexed, not scratching our heads.

But before he was Academy Award winner Charlie Kaufman, he wrote a movie called “Adaptation,” which may just be the best movie about writing I’ve ever seen.  It’s been pushed down the calendar to run in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column all summer, but that doesn’t mean it is worse than any of the movies I’ve featured for the past three months.  This is easily the brainiest, most complex movie of the bunch.  And don’t think that it isn’t funny because it’s brainy; it’s brilliantly hilarious.

The movie, directed by Spike Jonze, tells the tale of Charlie Kaufman (played here by Nicolas Cage) as he struggles with writers block after “Being John Malkovich.”  His task is to adapt “The Orchid Thief,” a non-fictional book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) about orchid poachers in Florida.  There’s just always some element he can’t get quite right, and it causes him anguish so painful we can feel it on the other side of the screen.

Add into the mix an equally neurotic twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) who’s obsessed with writing a script for the next blockbuster.  He has moved into Charlie’s home to mooch off him while also constantly asking advice on how to improve his screenplay.  Charlie constantly belittles his brother, refusing to acknowledge that he could actually have any talent.  Yet after seeing a screenwriting guru (Brian Cox), Charlie discovers that he needs his brother’s help to finish “The Orchid Thief.”  What results is the wildly self-referential “Adaptation,” a feast for the writer in all of us.

All three marquee names received Academy Award nominations for their performances – and deservedly so.   Chris Cooper, the so-called orchid thief of Orlean’s book, is a powerful force as a conman with uncanny intelligence.  Meryl Streep lets loose like seldom before (save perhaps her baked moment in “It’s Complicated), and it’s such fun to watch her do something a little different.  Cage doesn’t play two characters so much as he masters them, making them similar yet distinct.  He makes all the idiosyncrasies of the characters read well and milks them for some good humor.  Cage is so good, in fact, that you’ll surely scratch your head wondering why he’s strayed so far from these roles.





REVIEW: Kick-Ass

2 08 2010

I can’t think of many titles that describe their movies so aptly as this one. “Kick-Ass,” the R-rated superhero movie that indirectly spoofs “Watchmen,” hits us with a one-two punch of comedy and action. The punch is pretty much a knockout.

It’s devilish fun when the action is as outrageous as the comedy. The movie follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a teenaged New York geek who unleashes his inner fanboy in a way that would make everyone at the comic book store pee themselves with envy. He decides to rise above the common crowd and become a superhero, despite having no actual powers and few confrontational skills. Still, he holds onto the hope that a fancy scuba suit and a cool name, Kick-Ass, will scare off his opponents. But at first, as one of his rivals points out, he should be called “Ass-Kicked” because that’s the only thing that really happens to him.

As entertaining as the adventures of Kick-Ass can be, it’s the other heroes who steal the show. They should really call the movie “Hit Girl” because we’re always waiting for that precocious child vigilante with a foul mouth and impressive combat ability to return to the screen. It’s hard to tell where most of her allure comes from: actress Chloe Moretz or the script. Moretz has shown skill playing adult characters written for kids to play in “(500) Days of Summer,” and she really seems to get how to make them read. The sheer absurdity of hearing the words come out of her mouth is a comedic masterstroke.

“Kick-Ass” also marks a semi-comeback for Nicolas Cage, at least in my book, who has been getting a bad rep for all the abysmal action and horror movies he has been doing recently. When you have an Oscar, it’s OK to branch out and try other genres, but Cage has strayed far from the nest. One more flop and he could have been a laughing stock. “Kick-Ass,” however, was an excellent choice for the actor. It’s a crowd-pleaser, sure, but it requires him to act. He took a supporting role as Big Daddy, father and shaper of Hit Girl, and it shows off the crossover appeal Cage has. The part allows him to be funny as well as an action star, and there’s even room for him to deal with little bit of real human drama.

Matthew Vaughn does a great job directing the riot that is “Kick-Ass,” never taking himself or the material too seriously. One can only wonder how he will handle the “X-Men” franchise, which has an entirely different tone and involves people with real powers. Hopefully he can bring the same fun he brought to this movie, just leaving the farcical stuff on the side.  He directs a superb movie, but the fact that it devolves into “The Chloe Moretz Show” so easily might raise a tiny red flag in your mind.  A flag so tiny, in fact, that you might forget to realize it’s there while you’re laughing so hard.  B+ /





What To Look Forward To in … July 2010

10 06 2010

People are already calling summer 2010 one of the worst seasons in history.  Ouch.  Does July hold anything in store to turn the tide late in the game?  Let’s take a look.

July 2

M. Night Shyamalan give us his most mainstream movie yet with “The Last Airbender.”  Due to James Cameron’s mildly successful film “Avatar,” the Nickelodeon series opted to use only the last part of its name to avoid confusion (although you could make some good money from dumb moviegoers under the impression they’re seeing “Avatar 2”).  It got the quickie 3D conversion slapped on in the past months, which means I’m sticking to 2D here if I even see it at all. I’m worried that some backlash against the conversion could wind up really hurting this movie. But even before I knew about the added dimension, I couldn’t get myself too excited. No matter how extravagant and enormous they make it look, it’s still a Nickelodeon series. I have mixed feelings for Shyamalan; the only movie of his I actually liked was “The Sixth Sense.” I don’t know anyone in the cast save for Dev Patel, better known as Jamal Malik from “Slumdog Millionaire,” and he may end up being what draws me in to see it.

Sometimes I don’t catch everything when it is initially released, particularly indies.  I want to give them their fair shake, so I’m going to feature movies when they open in my hometown if I missed them before.  The first of these movies is “Solitary Man” starring Michael Douglas and thank heavens it’s not Michael Cera (that’s code for Jesse Eisenberg).  In her glowing review of the movie, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly called this, not “Wall Street 2,” Douglas’ best shot for Oscar glory.  The story seems friendly enough and the character seems an Oscar type.  Rounding out the ensemble are Jenna Fischer (“The Office”), Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, and Mary-Louise Parker, so it seems pretty audience friendly too.

July 9

I’ll get to the mainstream fare later.  First, I must cover the indie comedy hit of the summer, “The Kids Are All Right.”  More to come later in an “Oscar Moment,” but expect it to make a splash a la “Little Miss Sunshine” and “(500) Days of Summer.”

Adrien Brody steps back into the horror arena after … let’s just say, going places in “Splice.”  This time, he’s rebooting the “Predator” franchise along with Laurence Fishburne and Topher Grace.  “Predators” proudly flashes the name of producer Robert Rodriguez.  But here’s what I want to know – will sequel/reboot/remake fatigue catch up with moviegoers by July and kill this movie?

I’m so excited for the release of “Despicable Me.”  Not because I want to see it, but because I’m so tired of seeing the stupid trailers with every movie I have seen for the past year.  My guess is families will still be choosing “Toy Story 3” over this.  Not even Julie Andrews can save a movie that proudly boasts the participation of an executive producer from the “Ice Age” series as if they had Steven Spielberg.

If you are looking for some shaky-cam horror, “[Rec] 2” comes out.  Strangely enough, I must have missed “[Rec]” 1.  But I did know about the predecessor to “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the big indie of 2010 so far, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Opening in Houston on July 9 is “Restrepo,” the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for documentary features.  It takes a look at the grittiest and most intense location of fighting in Iraq and its effect on the soldiers who fight there.

July 14/16

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Meanwhile, opening two days earlier to get out the way is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest blockbuster.  It starts Nicolas Cage as the sorcerer and Jay Baruchel as his apprentice.  I’ve been saying for quite a while now that Baruchel needs a big breakout; maybe he will get it with this once people match his face to the voice in “How to Train Your Dragon.”  On the Nicolas Cage front, the role seems kind of kooky.  Perhaps this is his Jack Sparrow?  I may end up seeing this solely for villain Alfred Molina, who rocked Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2.”

Officially released on June 18 but not hitting Houston until July 16 is “The Killer Inside Me,” starring Casey Affleck and Kate Hudson.  Apparently it’s based on one of the most brutally violent and disturbing stories ever.  I’ll trust Kubrick here.

July 23

I’m hoping “Salt” becomes this summer’s “Wanted.”  Just an enjoyable, action-packed movie that doesn’t try to wow you, only entertain you.  Angelina Jolie makes one BA action heroine … or villain, depending on what happens in this movie.

Kiddie fare comes for the third straight weekend with “Ramona and Beezus,” starring Disney Channel sweetheart Selena Gomez.  This could do well because it’s an adaptation of the beloved series that has been around for decades, and it has an impressive adult cast including Sandra Oh, Bridget Moynahan, John Corbett, and Josh Duhamel.  Then again, it could also just fade into the mist of the other kids movies.

Opening on the indie side of things is “Life During Wartime” starring Allison Janney.

July 30

I’m honestly scared of “Dinner for Schmucks.”  I love both Paul Rudd and Steve Carell to death, and the plot here just reeks of a bomb.  My worst fear is that this and “The Other Guys” become the “Land of the Lost”/”Year One” comedy flop combo of 2010.  Maybe Zach Galifianakis can save it…

But what reeks of a stinker even more is “Cats and Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore,” a sequel that no one really wants.  And “Charlie St. Cloud” reeks of Zac Efron.

Meanwhile, there’s some good indie drama with “Get Low,” starring Robert Duvall.  See my Oscar Moment for further commentary.

Can July save the summer?  Will “Inception” rule the roost?  What will be the BEST movie of the month?  Let me know by taking the poll … DEADLINE IS JUNE 25.





What To Look Forward To in … March 2010

12 02 2010

There’s more to March than just the Oscars.  Finally, March arrives and we can stop dwelling on 2009.  In my opinion, March is usually a pretty decent movie month.  This year’s crop looks especially promising with new movies from Tim Burton, Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”).

March 5

After almost 3 months, “Avatar” will have to cede those illustrious 3-D and IMAX screens to Tim Burton’s twist on “Alice in Wonderland.”  The titular character is played by relative newcomer Mia Wasikowsa, who will look quite a bit older than the Alice you remember from Disney’s 1951 animated classic.  If that’s not a big enough draw for you, surely Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter (who will hopefully channel more of his glorious Jack Sparrow than his Jacko-esque Willy Wonka) will suffice.  No?  How about Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts?  Or Anne Hathaway as the White Queen?  Perhaps Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar?  No doubt about it, this is one exciting cast, and I’m sure Tim Burton won’t have any problem distinguishing himself from the numerous “Alice in Wonderland” rip-offs that have sprouted over the past few years.

“Brooklyn’s Finest” is directed by Antoine Fuqua, helmer of “Training Day,” which was enough to get me interested.  However, it really looks to be little more than a mash-up of every cop movie ever made.  But hey, that may be your thing, which would make this your potpourri.

March 12

I’m excited for “Green Zone,” which looks to be a smart political thriller. See my previous post at the release of the trailer for more info.

On the indie side of things, Noah Baumbach looks to return to Oscar form after “Margot at the Wedding” underwhelmed with “Greenberg.”  The movie stars Ben Stiller as Greenberg, the grouchy misanthrope who finds a reason to be pessimistic about everything.  However, a special woman comes along and begins to melt his heart.  I’m looking forward to a double-edged performance from Stiller, one that can show off his dramatic chops but also give us plenty of hearty laughs.

Seth Rogen’s four roommates in “Knocked Up” were equally as funny as he was. Each of them have slowly gotten their “moment”: Jonah Hill in “Superbad,” Jason Segel in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Now, it could be Jay Baruchel’s turn. “She’s Out of My League” pits him similar situation: the uncomely guy getting the smoking hot babe. Hopefully Paramount gives this the push it deserves, maybe making Baruchel a breakout comedic star of 2010.

Could “Remember Me” get Robert Pattinson the Razzie for Worst Actor? After narrowly missing the cut for his two performances as Edward Cullen, this could finally be the one to get him the kind of awards attention he deserves.

Forest Whitaker is an Academy Award winning actor. What on earth is he doing in “Our Family Wedding?” For that matter, America Ferrera has won SAG and Golden Globe awards, and Carlos Mencia was once actually funny! This looks not only insufferable but almost racist. Plus, didn’t I see this movie in 2005 when it was called “Guess Who?”

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Random Factoid #12

9 08 2009

I have 2 movie posters hanging in my room.  The first is for “Gone in 60 Seconds,” a movie which I am not too particularly fond of, but it is signed by Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie.  The second is for “We Are Marshall,” and you can understand why I want that one hanging, although often times I wonder why on earth I want to walk into my room and look into the face of Matthew McConaughey.

I also pick up smaller posters on giveaway tables at movie theaters and hang them on my bulletin board.  Right now, the only thing hanging is “(500) Days of Summer.”