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: Anonymous

28 04 2013

I know I’m always calling for directors to expand their horizons and try different kinds of movies to see if any surprising realizations result.  So I really hope this doesn’t come off as hypocritical, but Roland Emmerich should really just stick to apocalyptic disaster movies like “Independence Day” and “2012.”

I applaud the director for trying a conspiracy theory flick that actually plays like – gasp – drama, something that would appear to be totally out of his wheelhouse.  It’s far bolder a choice than, say, Michael Bay, whose “Pain and Gain” literally just appears to be a micro version of “Transformers” without those pesky anthropomorphic robots.  But now that we’ve found out that Emmerich is not capable of meeting the demands of something this serious, he should just go back to blowing up culturally iconic landmarks with his regular gusto.

Anonymous,” an exploration of the not-so-hotly debated question of Shakespeare’s authorship of his famous plays is pretty much a failure from the get-go.  I couldn’t keep up with any of the characters, which is a problem in a movie with many of them.  The relationships were fuzzy, and on top of that, alliances and allegiances were never clear.  For a movie on a human scale, these are basic necessities that need to be established.

Sometimes I zone out when watching movies but can pick up enough context to still follow the basic plot and direction of the film.  Such was not the case with “Anonymous,” surprising in a cast that included Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, and Oscar-winner Vanessa Redgrave.

I just thought it was a big, fat messy ink blot of a movie.  However, I bear no animosity for Roland Emmerich attempting to do something out of the ordinary.  There are many things “Anonymous” is not, although perhaps the only positive thing on that list is that the movie bears little to no resemblance to “2012.”  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Pirate Radio

21 01 2013

Musical theatre thrives on the creative sparks of others.  Not to diminish the many accomplishments of that art form, but in recent years, just about everything has been an adaptation.  (Except “The Book of Mormon” – you go Trey Parker and Matt Stone!)  Many have been taken from books, but recently, the trend has become to adapt films onto the stage.

One of the greatest advances has been the invention of the “jukebox musical,” where a story forms around immediately recognizable music, whether a fictional tale like “Mamma Mia!” or a biographical one such as “Jersey Boys.”  (It also gave us “Rock of Ages,” but we can pretend it didn’t.)

Before you ask, no, “Pirate Radio” is not an adaptation of a Broadway or a West End musical.  There’s plenty of music, but the record player does all the singing.  However, I felt that while watching Richard Curtis’ film, it was practically BEGGING to be staged as piece of musical theatre.  The music is phenomenal, and there’s so much capability for it to define a generation – because it does.

The story of the film isn’t all that interesting: banned from playing rock and roll on normal British airwaves, a group of rebels broadcast it in international waters.  The gang is full of eclectic types, ranging from characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy to then unknown Chris O’Dowd (the cop from “Bridesmaids“).  There’s little character or story development, and when the boat finds itself in peril, I could have cared less what happened to whom.  Not to mention that it feels interminable even at 20 minutes shorter runtime from its British release under the name “The Boat That Rocked.”

But with some slight tweaking of the story – a little bit less of the people on the boat, a little bit more of the people on land, the same amount of the government censors led by an uptight Kenneth Branagh – “Pirate Radio” could actually play quite well on stage given the caliber of music.  Think about it … and I’d like to request royalties if it happens because of this review.  C2stars





LISTFUL THINKING: 2012 Superlatives

1 01 2013

New Year’s Day always marks a very interesting balancing act, reflecting on the old while also ringing in the new.  So while people are still thinking about 2012, let me offer up the first annual Superlatives post for the films of 2012.  I’ve already weighed in with the best and worst 10 of 2012, but what about the other 80 movies of the year?  What about the performances?  What about all sorts of other things?  This is the post where I get all sorts of stuff floating in my mind out there.

For the sake of review, I’ll go ahead and re-list my 10 best and worst of 2012.

Top 10 of 2012

10 Best of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Argo,” “Hitchcock,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Looper,” “Bernie,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Master,” “The Queen of Versailles

Prometheus

Honorable Mentions: “Rust and Bone,” “Prometheus,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “End of Watch,” “Holy Motors

Worst 10 of 2012

10 Worst of 2012: “The Grey,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “John Carter,” “Gone,” “The Vow,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Watch,” “Casa De Mi Padre

pitchperfect2

Honorable Mentions: “Pitch Perfect,” “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “First Position,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Being Flynn

10 More 2012 Releases I Still Need to See: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Impossible,” “Promised Land,” “The Intouchables,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Not Fade Away,” “Smashed,” “The House I Live In,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vanellope

5 Most Surprising Movies of 2012: “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Bernie,” “End of Watch,” “Hitchcock,” “21 Jump Street

Denzel Washington in Flight

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2012: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Bourne Legacy

Bachelorette

10 Most Forgettable Movies of 2012 (in alphabetical order): “Bachelorette,” “Hysteria,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Lola Versus,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Men in Black III,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Take This Waltz,” “Trouble with the Curve

Silver Linings Playbook

5 Most Rewatchable Movies of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Argo,” “Ted

Lincoln

5 Movies of 2012 I’m Glad I Saw But Will Never Watch Again: “Lincoln,” “Amour,” “The Invisible War,” “Compliance,” “ReGeneration

Killing Them Softly

5 Most Underrated Movies of 2012: “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Prometheus,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “End of Watch

The Avengers

5 Most Overrated Movies of 2012: “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi,” “The Avengers

PSH

5 Movies That Got Better with Distance and Time: “Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Prometheus

Brave

5 Movies That Got Worse with Distance and Time: “Brave,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Dark Knight Rises

Argo

5 Movies That Felt Shorter Than Their Runtime: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Argo,” “Django Unchained

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

5 Movies That Felt Longer Than Their Runtime: “Lincoln,” “Anna Karenina,” “This Is 40,” “Damsels in Distress,” The Five-Year Engagement

BOTSW

Breakout Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables,” Ezra Miller in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Garrett Hedlund in “On the Road,” Scoot McNairy in “Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Breakthrough Performances: Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street,” Elizabeth Banks in “People Like Us

Best Exotic

Breakdown Performances: Anna Kendrick in “Pitch Perfect,” Salma Hayek in “Savages,” Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” Emile Hirsch in “Killer Joe,” Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

frame 01021605R

Best Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Les Misérables,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook

The Deep Blue Sea

Worst Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Rachel Weisz in “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter” and “Savages

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Best Heroes: Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers,” Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables

John Carter

Worst Heroes: Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter,” Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in “The Bourne Legacy

Catwoman

Best Villains: Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Misérables,” Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained

Skyfall

Worst Villains: Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Javier Bardem as Silva in “Skyfall,” Rhys Ifans as Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man

Joaquin

Best Possessed Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master

The Paperboy

Worst Possessed Performance: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy

Bernie

Best Comedic Performance: (tie) Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street

The Watch

Worst Comedic Performance: The cast of “The Watch

Uggie

Best Cameo: Uggie in “The Campaign

Ryan Reynolds

Worst Cameo: Ryan Reynolds in “Ted

Eddie Redmayne

Best Singing: Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables

Alec

Worst Singing: Alec Baldwin in “Rock of Ages

That’s about all I can come up with for now … may add to this later!  Happy 2013, everyone!





REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man

29 12 2012

The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies have sure taken a dip in public opinion in the last five years, no doubt due in large part to the ill-received “Spider-Man 3.”  I’ll grant that the 2007 series entry had far too many villains, and the black suit of revenge came off a little creepier than intended.

Yet I’d still rank Raimi’s three films as the finest superhero movies of the new millenium after Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.  Their thematic depth is impressive given that the series was far more prone to let fancy CGI or long action sequences rule the day.  Revenge, responsibility, and duty were all explored to very great effect by Raimi, who did a great job in advancing what a comic book movie could be.  Unfortunately, his legacy has become leaving the franchise on a bit of a sour note with the public.

Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” rather than reversing that decline merely accelerates it.  Like fellow summer action flick “The Bourne Legacy,” it fails to make a clean enough break with its predecessors and thus gets forced to live with its specter looming overhead.  James Vanderbilt’s story, adapted with the help of “Harry Potter” screenwriter Steve Kloves and original trilogy architect Alvin Sargent, feels like only a minor variation on the 2002 “Spider-Man” origins tale.

Perhaps I’m a little sensitive because the Raimi “Spider-Man” movies were some of the highlights of my middle school years, but a mere decade seems like far too short a window to reboot a series.  Especially given that the last “Spider-Man” film was released just five years before “The Amazing Spider-Man,” people have not had nearly enough time to forget the particulars of the series.  It’s that very painful awareness that dooms Webb’s update from the beginning.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Greenberg

17 01 2011

Noah Baumbach set the bar sky-high with his incredibly personal and deeply moving 2005 movie “The Squid and the Whale,” a very funny but very serious look at divorce from the perspective of the affected children.  Ever since then, he’s struggled to raise that bar.  It’s hard to live up to expectations when they are so big, and because comparison is inevitable, every Baumbach movie to follow his Oscar-nominated effort will have to live in its shadow.

Greenberg” isn’t terrible, but it’s a confused mixture of comedy and drama that strikes strange and unpleasant chords one too many times.  The movie emulates the mayhem of the mid-life crisis as 40-year-old Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) pathetically wanders through life without aim.  His brother tries to get him on track by letting Roger housesit while his family relocates to Vietnam to open a hotel, and the escapades that follow boil down to the misanthtropic Roger running in circles around his own neuroses.

He tries to make peace with his past, particularly an old love (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the movie).  He tries experimenting with a relationship again, and it’s thankfully with someone off-color enough to tolerate his antics (Greta Gerwig in a charming breakout role).  He stupidly indulges in his own self-pity and self-centeredness.

Roger Greenberg is an unpredictable and volatile character that Ben Stiller plays with a fair amount of pathos and humor.  Yet there’s little development of the character and an even smaller arc, which could be the point.  Even with Stiller trying his best, he can’t keep “Greenberg” from being a barely likable movie about unlikable people.  Try again, Noah Baumbach.  C+