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

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REVIEW: Savages

1 08 2012

I’m not one to say that a movie HAS to be made a certain way or in a certain style. Having said that, movies about drug trafficking, drug cartels, and drug violence should really be done in a raw, gritty fashion.  That’s the standard, be it Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” or television’s “Breaking Bad.”  The style and the content really work in perfect harmony.

And it’s a standard for a reason.  Oliver Stone, ever the belligerent iconoclast, feels no need for such formalities.  He’s begging for attention as usual in his latest feature effort “Savages,” a film that’s about two drug growers in a ménage à trois with a girl who winds up being used as a pawn against them, although it’s really just about Oliver Stone.  His insistence on making curious directorial choices often makes the film feel like a tasteless, hair-brained Tarantino flick.

His insistence on savagely graphic violence aestheticizes slaughterings, tortures, and killings to the point where it seems to serve only Stone’s eye.  One particular scene goes way too far; it’s a disgusting sight to behold and really doesn’t have much to say about the morality of violence.  Scorsese-esque, this is not.

And if the violence doesn’t make “Savages” unwatchable for you, then maybe the acting will.  Blake Lively, taking a page from the Kristen Stewart playbook, grunts, moans, and brays her way through a juicy role that could have been memorable in the hands of someone like Elizabeth Olsen or Rooney Mara.  Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as leading men in a love triangle (that Stone presents with some homoerotic undertones) are passable, but Kitsch really should find a role where he can channel the emotional honesty he brought to Tim Riggins on television’s “Friday Night Lights.”

Stone also finds a way to turn Oscar nominees John Travolta and Salma Hayek and winner Benicio del Toro into caricatures, particularly Hayek, whose thick accent is played for comedy.  It’s a shame that “Savages” is hijacked by its director to flaunt the peculiarities of his own mind.  The story, a caper of duplicity and cannabis, is actually quite captivating.  But to Oliver Stone, it’s merely a canvas onto which he can make his “Bonnie & Clyde.”  In the hands of a director who respects the source material enough to subvert and subdue their own tendencies if they were not suited for the story, “Savages” could have easily been something very special.  C+





REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

16 01 2011

I have no problem with Hollywood approaching the 2008 financial collapse; look no further than my “A” for Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job.”  But it’s a slippery slope to walk on, and Oliver Stone’s slanted “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does a total face-plant as its blatantly pointed activism destroys any legitimacy the movie might have.  Compared to Ferguson’s fascinating investigation and research, Stone’s allegory is a cowardly and vicious attack on the system of greed that the original film highlighted in 1987.

There was no reason to resurrect Michael Douglas’ Oscar-winning character Gordon Gekko at all, and Stone’s haste to use him as an instrument in unleashing a tirade against Wall Street renders his transformation senseless.  In the first film, he was a slimy representation of greed and excess, and an antagonist meant to be deplored.  Yet in 2010, he has been conveniently reassigned to the voice of the writer and his liberal sensibilities.  No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this move just doesn’t work under the basic conventions of storytelling.

The movie’s main plot is mostly independent of Gekko, tying him in through a broken relationship with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).  She’s engaged to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a young upstart banker who gets caught up in the idea of creating something from nothing that he ultimately winds up without anything.  After the suicide of his mentor, he finds himself reeling and very lost.

Sure, it has its entertaining moments, but the whole movie just reeks of a misplaced sense of political vindication.  Stone doesn’t challenge, inform, or educate, and there’s nothing left for the audience to ponder.  The deranged manifesto that is “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is just a series of thinly veiled pot-shots on everyone involved in the financial meltdown, less based on the facts than on the opinions and convictions of its hardly neutral filmmakers.  C-





Oscar Moment: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”

11 09 2010

You absolutely have to love Michael Douglas now.  The man is in the fight of his life against Stage 4 throat cancer, and he’s talking about it openly to millions of Americans on late night television.  Now that’s courage.

Here’s what doctors have to say about Douglas’ future:

Doctors say the therapy is grueling. Many patients develop painful mouth sores that require morphine-like narcotic pain relievers, says Robert Haddad, an oncologist with the head and neck cancer program at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Radiation also can burn the throat, which makes it painful to swallow. About half of patients require a feeding tube, says Haddad, who has no personal knowledge of Douglas’ case.

Despite the side effects, Haddad says, Douglas’ long-term quality of life “should be excellent.”

Although the treatment is tough, it can cure 50% to 80% of patients, depending on the location and other details of the tumor, he says.

Douglas appears optimistic, and everyone in America will certainly be cheering when he beats cancer.  But will the Academy be cheering with everyone?

Will an unintended side effect of Douglas’ treatment be an Oscar nomination?  While we are expecting him to make it through, recovery is not 100% certain.  Just think of how many Oscar nominations have been given to people that we have been afraid are going to leave us – Hal Halbrook, Ruby Dee, and Christopher Plummer, just to name a few.

Douglas also has two horses in the stable for an Oscar run this year: the critically acclaimed indie “Solitary Man” and the sequel to the 1987 movie that won him an Oscar, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  Having a really good year is always a big plus for the Academy, who often like to reward several performances through one nomination.  Case in point: Kate Winslet in 2008 for “The Reader” but also for “Revolutionary Road” and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2006 for “Blood Diamond” but also for “The Departed.” (NOTE: One actor cannot receive two nominations in the same category.)

“Wall Street” represents his best chance seeing as “Solitary Man” was released by a very small company that can’t afford a big enough campaign.  Some have speculated that he will be in the Supporting Actor category for this effort, perhaps to run Shia LaBeouf for leading.  I can’t really see this happening; I think the most likely outcome will be a co-lead push for LaBeouf and Douglas.  He’s solid as always, early word says.  According to Variety‘s Justin Chang, “Older, grayer and perhaps a touch less snakelike, Douglas is still insinuatingly good, and his performance lays the groundwork for the film’s one spectacularly cynical twist.”  I’d say he has a great shot, and the somber spotlight (sadly) only helps.

A funny note, no one has ever won two competitive Oscars for the same role.  In 1946, Harold Russell, a World War II veteran, won Best Supporting Actor for his role in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and an honorary Oscar for inspiring hope.  And the role of Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” saga has given Oscars to two actors, Marlon Brando in 1972 and Robert DeNiro in 1974.

As for the rest of the movie’s chances, it gets pretty spotty.  Here’s Guy Lodge of In Contention after seeing the premiere at Cannes back in May, offering what I see as a pretty accurate representation of feelings toward the movie from across the board:

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is one of the more pleasantly surprising studio pictures of the year thus far, and a significant improvement on its po-faced (and, 23 years on, now fearsomely dated) predecessor. If the sequel could never have been deemed “necessary,” it’s certainly as handily timed as can be. As the original served as dumb but not ineffective allegory for the coke-fuelled iniquities of 1980s capitalism, the new film not only does the same for credit-crunch sobriety in the post-2000s, but allows Stone his “Toldja!” moment to boot.

Oliver Stone has two Oscars for Best Director already, so I say there’s no chance that he even gets nominated.  Best Picture is not entirely out of the question, although I wonder if “The Social Network” will fill the movie of the moment quota.  I can see an outside possibility for Shia LaBeouf, but odds are he’s too young and people haven’t forgotten that he’s been in the “Indiana Jones” and “Transformers” series.

Everyone loves Carey Mulligan, and like Douglas, she has two performances in play this year (the other coming from this week’s release “Never Let Me Go”).  They are much more likely to recognize her for the other movie, but if reception for that is tepid, she could sneak into Best Supporting Actress.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actor (Douglas)

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Mulligan)