Snowden

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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.

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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.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Fault in Our Stars

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Release: Friday, June 6, 2014

[Theater]

For every hundred or so saccharine romances that Hollywood will churn out in a year, probability suggests there will be the odd exception or two that comes along and says “enough is enough.”

The cinematic adaptation of John Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, is at once a beautiful and heartbreaking celebration of life and love, a journey fraught with emotional highs and lows and enriched by some of the most endearing characters to ever fall head-over-heels in love on the big screen. Jack and Rose may have “I’ll never let go” trademarked, but the main characters presented here prove equally hard to part ways with.

What this particular adaptation has that many romances often lack — I’ll refrain from comparisons to the book as I have not yet had the opportunity to read it — is a keen awareness of cliché. Director Josh Boone bucks convention wherever he can, despite not being able to flush them out completely. Predictability fails to lessen the blow of what is to come in this case, though.

The Fault in Our Stars is intensely likable, maybe even hauntingly so. In fact it takes a perverse pleasure in constructing a beautiful reality before shattering it into pieces — a hammer into a fabergé egg. Newcomers to the story are introduced to Shailene Woodley’s latest character, while the majority of the audience who have already been following along finally get to see the beautiful Hazel Grace Lancaster reincarnated in visual form.

Hazel, your otherwise typical teenager were it not for the thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs (hence her portable oxygen tank), insists she is not depressed about her situation. Her parents (Sam Trammell and Laura Dern) likewise insist she attend a cancer support group. Surely that’ll be healthy for her, although Hazel can’t help but scoff at the irony. Fortunately for her, there’s an incentive to keep attending after she meets the handsome and hilarious Gus (Ansel Elgort) whose own cynicism seems to mirror the one she quietly harbors. Immediately sparks fly.

(Meanwhile, Nicholas Sparks is sitting in the back of the theater, furiously taking notes.)

This is, after all, the kind of conviction about a feeling as complex as love that doesn’t come around too often, let alone in a mainstream Hollywood production. As well, the film isn’t just about a couple falling in love. It deals with an extremely weighty concept such as facing mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars tracks the two lovesick youngsters as they embark on a physical and emotional journey that perhaps neither were expecting to experience prior to meeting one another. Gus’ powers of observation — he takes an interest in reading Hazel’s favorite book, written by American author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) — are responsible for transforming Hazel’s presumably very limited days into a series of extraordinary adventures that simultaneously captivate and devastate.

In addition to extracting mesmerizing performances from it’s young leads, the film accomplishes something else that further separates it from other romances. As the time with Hazel and Gus dwindles, the film feels ever more precious. There’s a very pressing sense of urgency in the film’s closing moments, a desperation for knowing what will become of not only these wonderful characters, but of us in the end. What’s it going to be like? And in these moments the film feels the heaviest, and in effect the most rewarding.

Optimism is neither a word nor a concept The Fault in Our Stars is comfortable with dwelling on. And by the same token, neither is pessimism. The characters aren’t so much fatalists as they are brave. Focus falls on realism and honesty, rather than despair and misery. Yet, there is no escape nor any hiding from fate. A script from Scott Neustadter provides little in the way of shelter from harm, and the result is a story that becomes mightily weighty as it progresses. Though not bereft of comedy completely, it’s fair to say romantic-comedy is a term that does not apply here.

The fault isn’t in the stars, nor is it in the genre of romance. Rather, it’s in Hollywood itself and a general fear of owning up to the truth so readily as John Green and his wonderful characters clearly are.

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4-0Recommendation: Hard to imagine this being anything but a must-see for those who have read the New York Times Best-seller. However, the adaptation proves to be an incredibly potent drama that deserves to be viewed by a much greater and more diverse audience. Anyone with a sensitivity for believable love stories and memorable personalities be prepared to bring tissues.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Spectacular Now

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Release: Friday, August 2, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Miles Teller had but one chance left to impress before I completely wrote him off as an actor who may have talent, but is perpetually doomed to recycling poor role choices. Even though his resumé may be limited, there’s enough to notice the pattern of him being typecast as the boisterous, most extroverted alpha male in the room. Never one to take anything seriously, the 26-year-old Teller in drunken fiascos like 21 & Over and Project X has been highly unlikable and the movies themselves never led me to believe the kid could really act. Fortunately, that opinion needs to be amended, now that I’ve seen his work in The Spectacular Now, an unusually refined story that shows a young couple falling in love and dealing with the complicated realities of being on the cusp of adulthood. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story, but not one you’ve seen before.

Teller takes on a more civilized version of his once-and-future frat boy persona. Where he was once trying much too hard to channel his inner John Belushi circa Animal House with his high-spirited debauchery and general disregard for anyone around him (including his friends), his Sutter Keely is dressed in a decorum which really goes the extra mile in this new film from James Ponsoldt. While he’s still not my favorite element to the film (that recognition goes to Shailene Woodley’s stellar performance) this guy is a much more likable person and is one that is easy to get behind and root for. Finally.

Sutter’s that kid who refuses to think about the future. He lives very much in the moment, which is typically a healthy practice, but for him it’s become a mindset that has eroded more of his potential than fulfilled it since he seems content to just drift by in school, at his job and even in his relationships, all while embracing being king of high school — even if that is a clock that is set to expire pretty soon. Of course, he knows that, so isn’t that even more reason to remain in the here-and-now?

After a fall-out with his ex, Sutter goes on an inexplicable drinking spree (how does anyone get away with serving this kid when they know he’s underage?), gets tanked and drives home, which results in him laying in someone’s front yard, and being discovered by a concerned passer-by early the next morning. Thanks to his reputation, the girl immediately recognizes him, but he can’t quite put a name to this pretty face. She introduces herself as Aimee Finecky (Woodley). Call the rest history.

The film tumbles into a fierce love story between the two young stars that is intensely captivating. At a certain point, the performances and direction work so seamlessly that the script seems to be relegated to more of a guideline-type role and the real human element, the gut instinct, takes over. Being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, facing real-world problems suddenly with secrets being revealed about one another’s own families and their histories, there’s no doubt that in particular Sutter and Aimee’s transitional year from high school to. . . . . whatever comes next. . . is particularly turbulent. Well, more like explosive, and Ponsoldt was adept in capturing as many sparks as he could. The fact remains that while teenagers do “have it made” more or less, there’s a lot to figure out about one’s self this early on. This film utilizes that time period to explore some deeply personal and complex emotions and head spaces.

In the end, it’s the details that really arrest. From discovering certain underlying reasons as to why Sutter drinks just so damn much; to him convincing Aimee that she needs to quit doing the paper route for her mom (“Mom, get off my motherf**king back!” being one of the movie’s more memorable lines); to what happens on the side of a road one fateful night. The film is a complete tour-de-force as far as the emotional spectrum is concerned. It’s almost a little bi-polar — but that term doesn’t sound good, so we’ll just go with extremely moody. At the same time, it’s a complete package. The ups are terrific and moving, while the low points almost break you to pieces. The last thing I thought I would be doing would be nearly coming to tears concerning Teller’s character at one point.

At the end of the day, with me being completely nonplussed by Teller’s previous output and then being blown away by his performance here — that’s saying something. However, it should also be mentioned that he’s got plenty of great material surrounding him, but it’s obvious he has stepped up his game for this role. He’s really quite likable and to me that was one of the largest payoffs. With that said, the rest of the cast is simply wonderful as well and the movie benefits tremendously from top-notch work turned in by all.

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4-0Recommendation: This is an emotional rollercoaster and if this had a massively long queue lined up for it, it’s surely worth that wait. The cast bring career-defining performances (although for Woodley, she started off on an equally impressive foot with her work in The Descendants) and the events that go down here are all but guaranteed to affect everyone in attendance substantially. If not, then those are some pretty cold-hearted moviegoers. And I pity the fool(s).

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “What do you mean? Everybody’s got a story.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com