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: Divergent

20 11 2014

Roger Ebert once wrote, “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.”  Keeping that in mind, I approached “Divergent,” the latest in a series of hit YA series adapted for the screen, less as a reviewer and more as a phenomenologist.  What exactly is it that this movie is tapping into?  What function is it fulfilling for viewers?

This was actually a great way to watch the film because otherwise, it provided very little entertainment or enjoyment.  “The Hunger Games” somehow manages to maintain a vague sense of artistic integrity; the assembly of “Divergent,” meanwhile, seems the result of focus groups and marketing executives.  Everything from its color-by-numbers plot to its Top 40-friendly soundtrack feels calculated and inauthentic.

But a deeper look into the heart of Veronica Roth’s story (as adapted for the screen by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor) actually reveals some intriguing thematic strands.  “Divergent” follows Shailene Woodley’s Tris, a teenager in a dystopian Chicago, as she attempts to find her place amongst the rigidly divided factions in her society.  Struggles with belonging and discovering one’s developing identity?  Sounds a lot like high school…

“Divergent” stands out in my mind as being the most directly applicable YA series for its target audience in everything from the frightfulness of not fitting completely into a single neat box or having to earn your place in anything.  Unlike “The Hunger Games,” which casts teenagers in very adult situations, this story speaks directly to teenage concerns.  Regrettably, however, it clouds these messages by involving stereotypical oppressive authoritarian entities like Kate Winslet’s Jeanine.

As “Divergent” moves from the personal from the political in its second half, any momentum it had built up dissipates rather quickly.  The bloated length of 140 minutes certainly does not help matters, quickly converting excitement into boredom.  I remain unsure as to whether or not I will bother to see any of the sequels to the film.  I seem to at least have some understanding of its appeal now, and I feel pretty content with just that.  C2stars





REVIEW: White Bird in a Blizzard

27 09 2014

White Bird in a BlizzardGregg Araki’s “White Bird in a Blizzard” begins with the interesting premise of hybridizing two familiar generic forms, the missing person thriller and the adolescent sexual flowering drama.  The body of Eva Green’s Eve Connor disappears mysteriously while her 17-year-old daughter Kat (Shailene Woodley) “was becoming nothing but [her] body.”

Though the blend starts off curiously, it eventually just feels blandly noncommittal.  The film lacks a clear, purposeful narrative through-line to propel it forward.  It progresses largely on the basis of “here are scenes of things that happen to Kat,” an assuredly unsatisfying way to watch a film.

The wishy-washy, always vacillating plot of “White Bird in a Blizzard” is certainly not helped by the fact the leading actress has already explored its central issues.  We’ve seen Woodley deal with family trouble ensuing from an absent mother in “The Descendants,” and we’ve watched her carnal awakenings in both “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Spectacular Now.”

Woodley still has intermittent flashes of inspired breakthrough, which is a testament to just how talented of a performer she truly is.  Making a put-out teen watchable on its fourth reheat is certainly an achievement.  But “White Bird in a Blizzard” could mark the moment where she started to find brick walls where she once found niches in her archetypical adolescent.  I fear that the film’s lasting legacy will not be that Woodley revealed intimate parts of her soul but rather that she bared intimate parts of her body.

If that’s what Shailene Woodley needs to grow into an adult performer, then the film is certainly not a waste.  But I can’t help but think “White Bird in a Blizzard” does not serve anyone else particularly well, especially not its screenwriter and director Gregg Araki.  His work as a pioneer of New Queer Cinema broke boundaries; yet here, turning in a much more mainstream product, Araki seems lost and leaves a rather indistinct stamp as an artist.  C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars

5 06 2014

Quite often nowadays, I carry a small notepad with me when I go to see movies.  Unfortunately, I often find myself writing my review mentally as I watch the film, and I hate letting the perfect phrase slip out of my mind to never be recovered again.  I usually jot down enough phrases to fill a small page and can usually tease out the basic structure of my review.

With “The Fault in Our Stars,” however, I found that I had only written one small observation.  It was not some particularly insightful comment but merely a note of a particularly well-employed song by M83  (click to listen, but I won’t spoil the name for those yet to see the film) with the word “YES” written in all caps next to it.  I could say the same word, more or less, for the whole movie.

Those who found themselves moved by John Green’s poignant novel about a romance between two teenagers that want to be identified by something other than their cancer diagnoses will be pleased by this adaptation.  The script, nimbly adapted by the writers behind “(500) Days of Summer,” keeps the feel of the story and characters carefully in tact while also streamlining them to better suit the medium of film.  In some ways, the movie is actually an improved narrative as it excises any moment that doesn’t directly advance the relationship between the two main characters.

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REVIEW: The Spectacular Now

16 08 2013

I really did like the first act of “The Spectacular Now” because it felt honest and real. Miles Teller’s Sutter Keeley felt like someone I would have known in high school, a burgeoning alcoholic with a big unchecked ego. And Shailene Woodley’s Aimee Finicke reminded me quite a bit of myself, someone bookish but a bit insecure and completely unable to picture anyone having romantic feelings about them.

I was so looking forward to the direction that the film was heading … and then Sutter and Aimee share the moment we saw coming a mile away, their first kiss. From there on out, “The Spectacular Now” heads south as the authenticity of the story and the believability of the characters flies out the window. The script, penned by “(500) Days of Summer” scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, descends into a mire of archetypes and cliches.

It’s a little more understandable for Sutter to become a flat character as his personality is so based on living up to a cultural ideal of care-free ignorance. But it’s disappointing to watch Aimee just a flip a switch and become a totally different person. Before the kiss, she was so refreshingly independent and derived her sense of self-worth from within, not from others. Afterwards, Aimee becomes little more than an accessory to Sutter, fawning over him at all times and constantly caressing him.

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REVIEW: The Descendants

14 03 2012

Mixing comedy and drama is a perilous task, but Alexander Payne makes it look like he could do it in his sleep in his remarkable new film “The Descendants.”  An absolute triumph of writing and directing, he finds the humor in the tragic situations and gravity in the funniest moments.  His pathos is unconventional and unexpected, leaving his words and messages lingering in your head for days.

Just like some of Payne’s previous films like “Election” and “About Schmidt,” he chooses to tell the story through the eyes of a prickly protagonist.  In “The Descendants,” it’s Matt King (George Clooney), the owner of a massive Hawaiian land inheritance.  After his unfaithful wife lapses into a coma after a freak boating accident, Matt must come to terms that he has been absent as the head of his family.  His role as the “understudy” comes to bite him in the butt as he is forced to assume both parenting roles actively on short notice.

Payne’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) begins its narrations through voice-overs from Matt that illuminate his thoughts.  We get a chance to fully grasp his frustrations, his anxieties, and his fears before we really get down in the mud with him during these trying times.  The narration slowly disappears as the movie progresses, but that hardly means we lose our connection to Matt.  Instead, Payne wisely trusts leading man George Clooney to take over control of communicating his character to the audience.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2011 Predictions!

23 01 2012

Well, folks … guesswork is almost over.  In a little over 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will announce their nominations for the best of the best of 2011.  We’ve had plenty of nominations and winners to give us an idea of what’s to come tomorrow morning.  I’ve done plenty of analyzing the categories, but I think now I just have to go with a mix of gut and knowledge.

Best Picture

  1. The Artist
  2. The Descendants
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  7. War Horse
  8. The Tree of Life
  9. Moneyball
  10. Bridesmaids

I’m feeling only six Best Picture nominees this year.  (For those who don’t know about the new rules and regulations of the category, the Best Picture field is now an elastic number of nominees between five and ten.  In order to be nominated for Best Picture, a movie needs to receive at least five percent of the number one votes.)  The top five are very obvious.

I would say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” takes the sixth spot because it’s the only other plausible nominee with enough guild support (sorry “Bridesmaids”).  If we learned anything from 2010, it was that the guilds still win out in the end.  “War Horse” has been far too silent on the guild front and hasn’t made nearly enough money to be a smashing success.  Plus, there’s an opportunity – and a likelihood – that they can give him another Oscar win in the Best Animated Feature category for “The Adventures of Tintin.” “The Tree of Life” has the critical support, but I don’t think that’s enough to break it into this race.  Oscar voters aren’t critics.

Best Director

  1. Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  2. Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
  3. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
  4. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
  5. David Fincher, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

The top three are rock solid locks.  Woody Allen seems very inevitable given the widespread love for his movie and that the directors have nominated him six times before.  The last slot could go any number of ways – Fincher like the DGA picked, Malick like every critic proclaimed from the rooftop, Spielberg if “War Horse” actually makes a strong showing, or maybe even Tate Taylor if they really love “The Help.”

Looking at history, the lone director slot comes when there’s a particularly unknown director for a well-liked movie: Joe Wright missing for “Atonement,” Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris missing for “Little Miss Sunshine,” Marc Forster missing for “Finding Neverland,” and Gary Ross for “Seabiscuit.”  So I think it’s safe to say that the vulnerable director of a leading movie is Tate Taylor.  But who gets the slot?

I would say look to the DGA, but looking over their nominees, they do a better job of picking the Best Picture five than they do picking Best Director.  So thus I glean from their slate that “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has the strength to crack the Best Picture field, but Fincher might not necessarily show up here again.  My brain says go with Malick since lone director nominees usually represent far-out, well-directed artsy films.  But my gut says Fincher gets it, if for no other reason that Hollywood seems to have found its new anointed golden director and just wants to shower him with awards for everything.

Best Actor

  1. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
  2. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
  3. Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
  4. Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”

Best Actor is, on the whole, a very conservative category.  Save the occasional Tommy Lee Jones for “In the Valley of Elah” or Javier Bardem for “Biutiful,” it almost always unfolds according to plan – no matter how boring that plan may be.  So yes, I still pick Michael Fassbender for “Shame” even though there has been some skepticism raised recently.  And yes, I will even defend Leonardo DiCaprio who stars in what will surely be one of the most maligned movies of 2011 to receive an Oscar nomination.  This year, he accumulated the three most important precursor nominations.  And he managed to get nominated in 2006 even when he had two performances in play.  They like him, and I think that (unfortunately) they’ll probably reward him with another nomination.

Best Actress

  1. Viola Davis, “The Help”
  2. Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
  3. Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
  5. Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Yes, even though she missed with the BFCA and SAG, I have confidence that the late surge of support for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” can net a nomination for Rooney Mara over Glenn Close.  I don’t think “Albert Nobbs” has much buzz about it anymore, and even though they like Glenn Close, there are a lot of quotients that Mara would fill.  She’s under 30 and hasn’t been nominated before; you have to go back to 1994 to find a year where the Best Actress category was all prior nominees.  Thus, I rest my case and cross my fingers.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Albert Brooks, “Drive”
  3. Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Armie Hammer, “J. Edgar”

I only feel sure of the top pick Plummer; the next three are fairly vulnerable; the fifth spot could go any number of ways.  I still can’t predict Nolte for “Warrior,” and maybe it’s because I can’t separate my dislike of the movie from the nomination process.  I just don’t think the performance was good, and I’m hopeful that the Academy will validate my opinion.  It could be Brad Pitt as a double nominee for “The Tree of Life;” it could be Ben Kingsley sneaking in for “Hugo;” it could be SAG nominee Armie Hammer for “J. Edgar.”  When in doubt, go with SAG, I guess.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
  2. Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
  3. Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
  4. Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
  5. Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

Someone else suggested the Woodley comparison to Andrew Garfield’s snub for “The Social Network,” and I’m dreading that it might be the case.  But I really have a hard time picking Melissa McCarthy for a nomination, even if she was a SAG nominee.  I just don’t see it happening.  I don’t think the performance is enough of a stand-out to break the funny woman barrier at the Oscars.  The nomination could be a symbolic vote, but I think traditional performances win the day.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. The Artist
  3. Bridesmaids
  4. Win Win
  5. Beginners

This category always has some surprises up its sleeve for nomination morning, so I don’t know how confident I feel picking so close to the WGA nominations.  I think “Bridesmaids” will see the prize for its remarkable awards run here, and I think “Win Win” has built up enough steam to get in too.  “50/50” has the WGA nom but not much else going for it.  Some say “A Separation” takes its enormous buzz and makes a showing here, but I think the drama of choice will be “Beginners.”  Just another gut feeling.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. The Descendants
  2. Moneyball
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Four Best Picture nominees will be adapted, so I feel like those will make it in over some arguably “better written” or “more loved” work.  And “Moneyball” has too much acclaim and steam to ignore; it could win even if it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination.

So that’s what I think!  What about you?  Anything you are hoping for?  Rooting against?