REVIEW: Citizenfour

24 11 2014

Citizenfour“I love my country but fear my government” is the kind of trite maxim that mostly belongs on bumper stickers, yet it ought to express the reaction of any sane American to watching Laura Poitras’ exceptional documentary “Citizenfour.”  In her able balancing of both the conveyance of dense, important information with the telling of a personal, human narrative, she exemplifies all the best that cinema can offer as a platform for journalism.

“Citizenfour” does not merely provide an ex post facto documentation of the events; its production is deeply embedded in the unfolding of the events themselves.  Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, her print media colleague, were the first points of contact for the mysterious Citizenfour.  This mysterious whistleblower reached out to them in early 2013 through sporadic, encrypted communication.  He only hinted at a trove of explosive information in his possession, telling them little other than that the information would be worth their time.

When they traveled to Hong Kong to rendezvous with their informant, the duo had no idea that these documents would reveal massive illegal NSA domestic surveillance programs that were kept off the books.  After some careful maneuvering, they meet the source – Edward Snowden (who actually prefers to go by “Ed”).  His identity comes as no surprise, though his words and what they reveal about his personality and motivations provides a gripping, enlightening watch.

While Poitras is intimately involved with the events she portrays, her “Citizenfour” manages to keep a healthy distance away from the proceedings.  Even with her relative neutrality, the film both engrosses and enrages.  As she unspools the story behind the story, Poitras also manages to provide the most in-depth portrait of Snowden.  Clad in plained-colored T-shirts, he speaks of a convincing candor and conscience as he relays sophisticated technical knowledge into intelligible terms.

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REVIEW: Side Effects

21 08 2013

Steven Soderbergh may have saved the best for last with his supposed final theatrical release, the chillingly cerebral “Side Effects.”  A successful re-teaming with “Contagion” scribe Scott Z. Burns, the film recreates all the unnerving hysteria of the 2011 apocalyptic thriller on a much more micro scale.  Soderbergh, acting as his own editor and cinematographer (under false names), creates a cooly fluorescent-bulb lit environment in which a crazy tale of criminal insanity can realistically unfold.

In this setting, Burns’ cat-and-mouse tale takes on an eerie and haunting dimension. His script is full of unexpected twists and turns, rife with crossed alliances and false appearances, and topped off with plenty of intrigue from the fields of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals.  His “Side Effects” starts off thoroughly convincing us it’s one kind of movie … and then pulls the rug out from underneath us, ultimately leaving us with a surprisingly different end result.

The suspense is amplified by a finely-tuned cast of performers, led by a viciously versatile turn from Rooney Mara.  Her character, the moody Emily Taylor, is a character playing multiple games simultaneously.  She’s mad, moody, depressed, longing, conniving, and manipulative – often all at once.  Mara commands the screen with the same force as she did in her Oscar-nominated role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” although it’s a more quietly resolute performance that adds another layer of tension to an already taut film.

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REVIEW: Side by Side

18 12 2012

Side by SideIf you are a film buff, “Side by Side” is a documentary that is totally up your alley.

If you just enjoy watching movies for fun, “Side by Side” will easily raise you up to aficionado level on the craft of cinema.

If you don’t like movies at all, why would you consider watching a movie, especially one about movies, in the first place … and why would you have even made it this far into my review?

Christopher Kenneally’s doc about the Digital Revolution’s impact on how film is made and watched is insightful and captivating for anyone who cares about film at all.  If you don’t, again, I’m not sure how much this will work for you.  The film doesn’t preach to the converted, but rather to the convertible.  But it also manages to never feel like pandering to those with less knowledge.  I even thought I was very well-informed on the subject and found that I knew a whole lot less than I thought.

And right around the moment you might feel that “Side by Side” is playing to a level beneath you, the film geek inside will be tickled with excitement by seeing one of your favorite directors come on screen to opine on the matter.  From James Cameron to Christopher Nolan to David Fincher to Martin Scorsese, this movie has got some major talent to back up any claim it wants to make.

Then again, it also has bizarre appearances by Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig.  Not exactly authoritative figures on these issues, but they add some nice entertainment value.  As does producer and narrator Keanu Reeves, who makes his first meaningful contribution to the cinema since “The Matrix.”  (Side note: he’s seriously disappeared from the movies these days.)

There are so many changes occurring so rapidly in the film industry, and “Side by Side” does a great job at trying to hit on all of them.  I really enjoyed taking in the full scope of all the enormous adjustments having to be made, but I also wish I could have gotten to learn a few of them in more depth rather than getting a cursory overview on several more.  Perhaps this calls for a sequel?  What do you say, Keanu, how about “Side by Side Reloaded” and “Side by Side Revolutions?”  B+3stars





REVIEW: Haywire

4 12 2012

There was a decent chunk at the beginning of “Haywire” when I was totally drawn in not by anything in the script or the story … but by Steven Soderbergh’s unique visual sensibilities.  And all of a sudden, it actually begin to sink in that the director actually intends to retire from the craft of cinema and what a loss that could be to the film community.

Soderbergh’s canon of films ranges from the heist films of the “Oceans” series to the zany genre-bending intrigue tale of “The Informant!” to immensely moving biopics like “Erin Brockovich” to hyperlink cinema like “Traffic” to tense thrillers like “Contagion” and even into strange experimentation with whatever the heck “The Girlfriend Experience” was supposed to be.  (Oh, and he also oversaw some movie about magic where Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey showed their butts.)

In just this one sequence where the protagonist of “Haywire,” played to dull effect by MMA fighter  non-actress Gina Carano,” escapes from her captors, there are flashes of almost all of his different movies.  They share a similar rhythm and vibe, achieved in a perfect harmony of cinematography, editing, and sound.  It’s truly remarkable that across so many genres and types of filmmaking, something feels like it’s coming from a single mind.

Now just because he has unified conventions doesn’t mean that they always work or redeem an otherwise poor movie.  Such is the case for “Haywire,” an action thriller that does some clever presentation and narrative organizing to brush up a conventional narrative.  Perhaps the medium is the message for Soderbergh, and his mere repackaging of familiar elements is the point in and of itself.  But the film just always feels like an all-too familiar experience.

Soderbergh does succeed in making it slick (for the ladies, he did get the eye candy of Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum for brief scenes) and subversively political, though.  Yet these victories seem small while watching and seem even smaller in retrospect.  Watch some of Soderbergh’s elegant sequences that have the grace of a ballerina on YouTube some day and skip “Haywire.”  It doesn’t go fully, well, haywire … but there’s got to be some new cinematic voice or story you can use your 90 minutes to hear and see.  C+





REVIEW: Contagion

3 01 2012

While talking to a friend who was on the fence about seeing “Contagion,” I threw out the following selling point without really even thinking: “It’s a Steven Soderbergh movie.”  Then I recoiled for a second and actually thought about what that meant.  Granted, I haven’t seen his watershed indie “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” but when I look back at his filmography, I wouldn’t label many of them directorial triumphs.  “The Informant!” succeeds mostly because of Matt Damon, “Erin Brockovich” is 100% Julia Roberts, and the slickness of the “Ocean’s” series is what made them popular.  “Traffic” is, I suppose, although I don’t think I would recommend that.

So a Soderbergh movie with a cast of eight Oscar nominees (so many that two didn’t even make the poster) had no shot at being a director’s movie … or so I thought.  Surprisingly, this is a movie where Steven Soderbergh is the biggest and most brightly shining of all the stars.  He’s in total control of this vehicle, setting the mood from the first frame and then keeping it an even-keeled movie even when Scott Z. Burns’ script goes a little haywire.

In a time where hyperlink cinema has become a hackneyed plot device, Soderbergh, one of the pioneers of the style with “Traffic,” reminds us why it’s even around in the first place.  These stories can be linked across countries because technology and globalization has made us linked into a common destiny. Yet in the decade since “Traffic,” several events have linked us as well: 9/11 and various disease threats, such as SARS and the swine flu scare.  A thin thread of paranoia connects us all, and Soderbergh gently reveals to us that this link exists in the opening stages of the film.  And then he proceeds to vibrate that thread at pulse-pounding frequencies with his unflinching realism to then make sure we feel that uncomfortable pit in our stomach every single second of the film.

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REVIEW: The Girlfriend Experience

18 03 2010

I have a great deal of respect for Steven Soderbergh because in all of his directorial projects, he has never played it safe.  Even in his more conservative films, he is never afraid to take risks – for example, he gives “The Informant!” the double punch of a smart satire and a deliberate character study.

But whenever Soderbergh isn’t doing well-received studio movies, he makes a fair amount of experimental cinema.  And the thing about these movies is that they are incredibly polarizing – you either think it works or it fails; there’s not much of a middle ground.

With his latest experiment, “The Girlfriend Experience,” it doesn’t.

I’ve been taught the scientific method throughout my entire schooling career, so I can systematically dissect where the movie fell apart.  I admire Soderbergh’s hypothesis, or the general idea he had for the film.  He wanted to make a movie about how the failing economy affects everyone, even those who you wouldn’t expect.  You know, like call girls and personal trainers.  It’s a movie with ambition, and I would much rather spend my time watching a bad movie with ambition than a mediocre movie without it.

The error is in the execution.  Technically speaking, there’s nothing really wrong about the acting, even from Sasha Grey, whose only previous experience came from the adult genre.  But every performance lacks in urgency, and I felt no reason to care about the fate of any character in the slightest.

The writing also lacks, mainly because it fails to match the movie’s daring premise.  It’s too caught up in clichés and predictability, often the deciding factor of mediocrity nowadays.  We are still in the middle of this financial crisis, and maybe taking such a bold look at it is best served to wait until after it all subsides.  C- /





REVIEW: The Informant!

8 10 2009

You’ve seen plenty of movies about corporate scandals, a few about whistleblowers, and maybe some about informants. But you have never seen one like “The Informant!” The pervasive quirks of director Steven Soderbergh’s latest outing spread all the way to its exclamation point-laden title. Even if it doesn’t make you bust a gut, something in the movie is bound to make you grin from ear to ear, be it Matt Damon’s zany performance or Marvin Hamlisch’s retro score teeming with horns and whistles. Much to my surprise, the movie succeeds not because of Damon’s adept acting skills but rather because of Soderbergh’s expert handling of the eccentric script. His willingness to delve into the depths of the mind of Mark Whitacre (Damon) is nothing short of sensational.

“The Informant!” dares to explore Whitacre, a high-ranking executive at Archer Daniels Midland.  While the company is under close scrutiny by the FBI, Whitacre tips off them to a completely unexpected goldmine – ADM is part of one of the biggest price fixing scheme in history.  He reveals this not out of some sense of moral rectitude but rather due to the coerciveness of his concerned wife.  The FBI instantly puts Whitacre to use, placing him undercover in the heat of the fire.  Under conditions that agents are trained for years to cope with, the FBI’s most improbable informant manages to collect hundreds of hours of evidence relating to the criminal activity.  While on the surface everything looked perfect, the stress was inflaming a certain affliction of Whitacre.  Despite his bumbling demeanor, he is a very cunning man who may be not just a great informant but a informed threat the FBI.

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