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: Suicide Squad

2 08 2016

At the time of this review’s publication, there are a whopping seven untitled DC Comics films with dates on the calendar but no titles announced. It seems likely that at least one, if not more, of those slots will be filled by a character from “Suicide Squad.” The latest ten-car-pileup from the comic book studio plays like an extended audition for a standalone film. Individual characters distinguish themselves, sure, but they do so by essentially acting in little regard to the plot and tone around them.

This is the most obvious with the film’s resident crazies, Jared Leto’s The Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The former, never quite fully breaking from the iconic Heath Ledger performance, feels like he waltzed his way out of a Miley Cyrus video. The latter, a rainbow bomb-pop comes to life, breaks free to some extent and makes for raucous fun. But most of Harley’s shining moments come in cutaways or disruptive asides. Robbie does not feed off the energy in the scene; she mostly just crushes the line she’s been given.

All the internal one-upmanship feels oddly fitting for a film whose sole purpose appears to be one-upping Marvel. “Suicide Squad” feels like the inevitable byproduct of a DC boardroom who decided to blend their favorite parts of unlikely smash hits “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool,” which they then serve in a neon-lit package. The film has smart-mouthed, villainous protagonists who form an unlikely coalition to save the world, and their romp is set to a Spotify playlist of frequently used trailer songs. (The fact that “Spirit in the Sky” made it onto the soundtrack is as plagiaristic as Melania Trump’s RNC speech.)

“Suicide Squad” is an emblematic film for the kind of products made by committees and algorithms as opposed to champions of artists. DC and Warner Bros. know what has worked for these types of films in the past, and they are not necessarily wrong to assume that audiences want something like it. Indeed, “Suicide Squad” works in fits and spurts where writer/director David Ayer’s dark comedic or war battle sensibilities can come through. But more often than not, he is forced to do too much in too little time. And a good chunk of that overextension does not make it the kind of movie that another corporate committee will try to emulate in a year or two. C+2stars