Snowden

snowden-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Oliver Stone; Kieran Fitzgerald

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone tackles one of the most elusive and polarizing figures of the 21st Century in his Edward Snowden biopic, a match made in cinematic heaven given Stone’s penchant for courting controversy with the material he works with. So why doesn’t it work?

Snowden is kind of a snooze when it should have been a gripping, poignant drama. The character is portrayed confidently by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no spoiler alert there, but the movie that surrounds him feels more like a college lecture on national security rather than a dramatization that could have shown us specifically what made the ideologue’s pursuit of government secrets — namely, the NSA’s tracking and collecting of mass amounts of user data by tapping into cell phones — so disturbing. Or,  interpreted another, more liberal way — so important. Stone has never been one to keep politics out of the equation, and he’d be a fool to do so this time.

Indeed, Snowden sits pretty far out there on the left wing but that’s not one of the film’s weaknesses unless you consider yourself a fastidious conservative. What’s more problematic is how insipid the study of a life less ordinary really is. I shouldn’t be using such words to describe anything related to Edward Snowden, and combined with the almost purely expository nature of the narrative I’m having déjà vu here: wasn’t this the same thing that plagued the Julian Assange picture? Stone’s new film concerns the period between 2004 and 2013 in which Edward Snowden rose meteorically from computer geek to national security asset (and later, threat). It also chronicles his romantic affair with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and suggests an alternative life for him, one that never quite eventuates.

We begin in the present tense, where a documentary crew is rendezvousing with Snowden in the upscale hotel The Mira Hong Kong. Over the next several days director Laura Poitras (here portrayed by Melissa Leo but whose work can be seen in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour), along with journalists from The Guardian — Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — are given unprecedented access to what Snowden knows. But before all that good stuff can happen we must first go back to where it all began.

Clunky transitions (“here’s what I did back in this time”) jettison us back to the early 2000s where we get the skinny on Snowden’s young adult life: his brief time in the military, two stints with the CIA and one with the NSA — an impressive résumé if there ever were one. A lack of backstory in terms of what his upbringing was like and who his parents were leaves us with the impression that Snowden was a lone wolf long before he truly became one. We gain access inside top-secret facilities as he makes an immediate impression on fictional CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a relationship that eventually sours as Snowden’s awareness of shady government activity increases. There are more innocuous exchanges as well, like the friendship he strikes up with the jaded Hank Forrester (a much calmer, more effective Nicolas Cage) who has been with the agency for too long and an NSA employee played by Ben Schnetzer.

Snowden is another prestige biopic that tentatively skirts around the fraying edge of sanity. Snowden’s romantic life manifests as the framework within which we can compare his  particular stresses to those we mere mortals go through on a daily basis — Lindsay is a free-spirited girl with a flair for photography who understandably tires of his weird work hours, amongst other things. The drama just comes across as obligatory and unearned, a perfectly good performance from Woodley gone to waste thanks to a sloppy, contrived and manipulative storyline. Stone also shoehorns in a sex scene that feels totally out of place. We have all come to the movie to see how well Snowden performs in bed, right?

The intimacy is not necessarily gratuitous but it’s symptomatic of the film’s major issue. It’s perfunctory and sex in and of itself isn’t the best way to add depth to your human characters. It’s a good way to add sex. Snowden owed it to the subject (and to us, natch) to ask tougher questions and to deliver more passion. There should be more outrage, more urgency. Where’s the intrigue here? And what are we getting in this film that we can’t find out on Wikipedia? The answer is absolutely nothing.

snowden

Recommendation: I can’t say this frustratingly routine, safe docudrama is something you have to see unless you can’t be bothered to skim a Wikipedia page on the guy. Or unless you are a diehard Oliver Stone fan. Personally, I’m disappointed with the way this came out even with no particular expectations coming in to it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” 

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Free State of Jones

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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Eye in the Sky

'Eye in the Sky' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Guy Hibbert

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Eye in the Sky presents an intriguing, if not familiar moral conundrum as a British Army Colonel weighs the pros and cons of pulling the trigger on a drone missile strike that could eliminate top terrorist targets sheltered in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. In the end the results aren’t entirely surprising, so why such a rewarding experience when all is said and done?

Even though it’s Helen Mirren’s intense stare that threatens to burn a hole in the official release poster, Peter Travers is so right: this is one hell of a way for the late Alan Rickman to bow out. Not that Mirren isn’t worth mentioning (she definitely is), but Rickman’s last on-screen performance is so stoic it’s uncanny. It’s almost as if he was trying to make this one count. His Lt. General Frank Benson isn’t the focal point of Gavin Hood’s seventh feature film but the images I’ve taken home with me are those of his face, twisted into a look of total disgust as he awaits critical decisions to be made at higher levels — the whole bureaucratic chess game he finds himself caught in while precious time ticks away taking an obvious toll.

It’s like he’s waging his own private battle with his female co-star to see who can emote more intensely, evoking all of the anguish perhaps a real-life general or colonel might not necessarily publicize in the interest of keeping their underlings as calm, cool and collected as possible. Still, Eye in the Sky‘s script is incredibly stressful and part of the reason the film is so brilliant is we understand precisely why our leaders become so exasperated at times.

The mission in question is to take out three terrorist suspects who rank #3, #4 and #5 on the British government’s list of most valuable assets, and Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) hasn’t been this close to capturing them in six years. They have a vantage point from 20,000 feet, a drone plane piloted by relative veteran Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and newbie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), both stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. They also have ground control in the form of Barkhad Abdi‘s Jama Farah, who is put into a particularly precarious position remote-controlling a camera built to resemble an insect. He is to infiltrate the house and verify the identities of those inside. The footage he is able to get is chilling: the suspects appear to be donning vests rigged with explosive devices and it also appears that they will attempt to detonate the bombs in a public setting.

Making matters worse is a child who appears on the scene hoping to sell bread for her family. It’s the same child we happen to be introduced to from the outset, a sweet girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) who is being privately educated by her parents and learning to hula-hoop in her backyard, out of sight of the patrolling ISIS guardsmen who have been imposing Sharia Law upon the land. In Colonel Powell’s eyes the mission status, which has changed from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’ since the new intel provided by the bug camera, cannot be aborted simply because of one potential collateral damage concern. While a high-ranking American government official agrees via Skype, others don’t see it the same way.

What makes Eye in the Sky such gripping viewing manifests as a truly collaborative effort between writer and director. Guy Hibbert’s script is provocative, emotional and convincing, but it would mean little without Hood’s ability to attract a diverse cast of international talent and to play to each of his actor’s strengths. There’s no one perspective that dominates; an impressive mix of strong roles and comparable screen time given to each lends the film a relatively comprehensive bird’s eye view rather than attempting to encourage controversy. How are governments able to justify civilian casualties as a byproduct of eliminating terrorist suspects, or, more broadly (and hence less novel an idea): is losing one life worth the price of many? When actions are taken the judgment is left up to us; this was never going to be a win-win situation, but ultimately was the right call made?

Dame Hellen Mirren is front-and-center when it comes to asking that question: is it worth it? As the commanding, intense Colonel Powell Mirren might never have been better. She exudes strength as a woman put into a hell of a position on this day. But support comes from unexpected places, such as Paul’s emotionally conflicted pilot who at one point feels it is in his best interest to challenge his superior when it comes to reevaluating the situation once the girl sets up on this street corner. Consider Steve Watts his finest hour as a performer as he frequently shoulders the emotional burden of having a finger on the trigger. It’s his vulnerability that’s just as frequently in the cross hairs.

Then, of course, is Rickman, seated in the situation room somewhere in London, far removed from the dangers themselves but visibly perturbed by the action — or lack thereof — taken in assuring the British armed forces are legally OK to pull that trigger. On his plate are the repercussions of British-American relations, given that one of the targets is an American who radicalized years ago. That’s to go along with the aforementioned unwanted publicity following a potential killing of an innocent youth. Things become messy alarmingly quickly; the grimace he bears suggesting much about the limits of his own considerable power.

Eye in the Sky works as a taut political thriller as well as a compelling ethics debate. Again, and generally speaking, this isn’t a debate we’re having for the first time but it suits the times we live in, particularly as technology plays a larger role in the armed forces and how nations perceive the character of others as they decide to fire (or not fire, in some cases) on their targets. I may never have been taken by surprise by how things played out, but that doesn’t mean the film failed to earn my empathy. This is a smart, engaging and intense drama whose incisive commentary on the matter is provided by a cast and crew that remind us why they’re getting paid to do what they do.

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Recommendation: A strong cast and a strong(er) script make Eye in the Sky a worthwhile drama seeing unfold on the big screen. I recommend most strongly to fans of Dame Helen Mirren, or those wanting to see Alan Rickman in his final performance — either or works. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

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Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

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